The Natural Route to a Great Looking Yard
By Nancy Daley

In the past, gardens were havens from the wilderness, but today’s gardens need to be healthy places – free of toxins, poisons and pollutants. To maintain grounds in a natural way without relying on synthetic products, just think in terms of “nurture,” not “control.”

By over-fertilizing and frequent watering, we make lawns and garden plants dependent on chemicals for survival. When force-fed, plants develop soft, green-top growth, which attracts pests and invites disease. Given frequent shallow watering, plants send out weak roots along the surface that make them susceptible to drought conditions.

We can break this cycle by giving plants what they need: strong growth and deep root systems that enable them to fend off disease by themselves. Building a natural, healthy garden begins from the ground up

Prepare the soil. Cultivating a garden is like raising a child; a good foundation promotes the healthiest results. Dig deeply when you plant (even though your neighbors may look suspiciously at the craters) and refill the hole with equal amounts of organic material, such as compost or manure, and the existing soil. If your soil is heavy clay, add some coarse sand to this mixture. 

Once your plants begin to flourish, you’ll understand why manure is a gardener’s gold and a pile at the end of the driveway will become a comforting sight. Your hard work will pay off as plants thrive year after year.

Feed only when necessary. With appropriate soil preparation, there is less need to fertilize plants. Applying a slow-release organic fertilizer at planting, and once each spring, benefits most plants.

Water deeply, not often. Plants need deep soaking on a regular basis in order to establish strong root systems. Soak each section (and large specimen plants) for one to two hours at a time. For established plants, water deeply once or twice a week depending on the weather. Hand-held watering is not sufficient because it only wets the surface. New plantings, annuals, perennials and transplants may need to be watered more often, especially during heat waves

Choose your plants carefully. Grow plants that are suitable to our local climate and plant them in appropriate sites on your property. Dogwoods that favor the edges of woods should be nestled into boundary plantings, not placed in the middle of a lawn. Most annuals prefer the sun while ferns, hostas and oakleaf hydrangeas relish the north side of the yard.

Borrow from the natural landscape using hardy native plants that can take care of themselves. For example, plants like winterberry, viburnum and inkberry not only look beautiful in borders, they practically thrive on neglect. 

Buy disease-resistant or disease-tolerant varieties of plants that do not rely on spraying for survival.

Be realistic and flexible with your choice of plants. If you love roses but loathe their demanding culture, plant a Fairy Rose, a 3-foot-high polyanthus rose that flowers tirelessly with minimum care. If your lilies are being eaten by red lily beetles, substitute hardy daylilies.

Keeping Weeds to a Minimum

Mulch is a permeable covering that you can place on garden soil to smother existing weeds, prevent new ones from germinating and help retain the soil’s moisture.

Organic mulch includes natural materials, such as compost or shredded leaves, and continues to feed your soil and improve its structure. In the vegetable garden, you can use salt marsh hay, aged manure or even grass clippings that have been dried out. Or, try a “living mulch,” such as a cover crop of clover, that you can sow between rows of many vegetables and till under in the fall.

For aggressive weed problems, use synthetic coverings such as black plastic, landscape fabric or weed barrier matting. In large ornamental plantings, lay down landscape fabric or even newspapers and then cover with pine bark mulch. (Keep in mind that mulches, such as pine bark, are not a permanent solution to the weed problem because you must replenish them as they decompose.)

It’s the nature of plants to cover the ground and so should you. Use ground covers to fill in the bare area around trees and shrubs, for visual interest as well as weed control. You can choose one of the usual trio of ivy, myrtle or pachysandra or try something different such as low-bush blueberry or bearberry in sunny areas or sweet woodruff in the shade. You’ll have to mulch and weed until the plants are established, but eventually, you’ll break the tiresome weeding cycle and eliminate that temptation to spray pesky weeds with herbicide.

Building a Healthy Lawn

Grass is one of the handiest ground covers. It’s great for foot traffic and for children and dogs to roll around on. Healthy grass uses less water and has fewer pest problems than chemically-treated lawns, so practice these good lawn-care tips:

Avoid high-nitrogen products that deplete the soil and can be toxic to humans and pets. Instead, use a pesticide-free, organic fertilizer.

Don’t over-fertilize. Too much fertilizer forces excessive growth that begins a cycle of frequent mowings that stress the grass plants. As individual blades die, a thatch develops between soil and plants that inhibits growth. As the lawn thins out, opportunistic weeds take root.

Instead, use smaller amounts of fertilizer and apply twice in the growing season: once when the crocus bloom and again during the first two weeks of July. This approach cuts mowings in half and produces a healthier lawn that crowds out weeds as it thickens.

Make sure grass gets at least one inch of water per week, either from rainfall or soakings, and more in the searing heat of high summer.

Keep grass taller (2”-3”) and only trim the top third of the plants. Use a mulching mower that shreds and drops the grass as it cuts. This feeds the lawn and helps it retain moisture.

al; mso-pagination: none; tab-stops: .5in 2.0in 5.0in">Overseed the lawn every fall to replace plants that have died out. Combine compost and seed (fescue or perennial rye varieties) and spread over areas that have been raked

al; mso-pagination: none; tab-stops: .5in 2.0in 5.0in">Share the Grounds

al; mso-pagination: none; tab-stops: .5in 2.0in 5.0in">It’s hard to remember that you’re part of the larger community of nature when pesky critters and plant-devouring bugs enter your domain. Plant enough for you and them: plenty of high-bush blueberry plants so you and the birds can enjoy the first berries of the season and extra vegetables so you won’t miss a few taken by night raiders.

al; mso-pagination: none; tab-stops: .5in 2.0in 5.0in">Deter pests “naturally” by planting varieties they don’t like or sprinkling plant areas with liberal doses of red or black pepper. Scatter Cayenne pepper on beds of spring bulbs to deter voracious squirrels and apply bloodmeal around plants to scare off rabbits.

al; mso-pagination: none; tab-stops: .5in 2.0in 5.0in">Plant onions and garlic or strong smelling herbs (such as wormwood, rosemary and tansy) among your vegetables and ornamentals to repel many insect pests.

al; mso-pagination: none; tab-stops: .5in 2.0in 5.0in">Wash off insects immediately with the garden hose or spray them with a mixture of one tablespoon of liquid dishwashing soap to a gallon of water. Create homemade repellent sprays of onions, garlic or hot peppers (used individually or in combination) and water to ward off ants, cabbage worms and caterpillars. Just cut up three onions, three hot peppers and a bulb of garlic, cover with water and steep for several hours. Strain and add enough water to make one gallon of spray.

al; mso-pagination: none; tab-stops: .5in 2.0in 5.0in">Encourage natural predators. Spiders, one of the best insect predators, are attracted to grass mulches. By using your dried-out grass clippings in the vegetable garden as a mulch, you may reduce insect damage by as much as 70 percent.

Admit your limitations. If you just can’t keep the aphids off the brussels sprouts, give up and buy them instead.

After a few seasons of enriching your soil and cultivating your plants in a natural way, you won’t need chemicals except as a last resort for massive invasions of insects or disease. You’ll not only have a healthier yard, but more time to enjoy it.