Troubleshoot Your Garden

My garden woes fall into two categories: poor soil and insect problems. I’m not alone; many California gardeners,
whether coastal or inland, struggle with depleted clay soils. Insect problems are a different story: some battle whitefly and aphids, others
struggle with tent caterpillars, still others carry on a never-ending war
against snails. The key, in all cases,
is to cultivate a balanced insect population rather than eliminate it


 But let’s
talk about soils first. No matter what
the present condition of your soil is, remember that it is an ecosystem, one
that consists of clay and sand particles, water, air, and tiny soil-dwelling
organisms, from the visible—earthworms, ants, spiders and beetles—to the
invisible: bacteria, fungi, and
protozoa. The best thing you can do for
your soil is to feed it plenty of organic matter to strengthen the complex
community of organisms underground. Many gardeners are turning away from intensive double-digging and
trying, instead, a layering method that is less disruptive to the soil

 If your
garden is already mature, the best thing you can do for it is to spread a good
thick layer of mulch in spring and fall. Look for free sources of mulch, such as grass clippings, fallen leaves,
and shredded bark or other yard waste. Landscaping and tree-trimming companies are often pleased to deliver a
load of “green waste” rather than haul it to the dump. Friends may have rabbit or livestock manure
to contribute (make sure it has been aged at least six months before you add it
to the garden).

If you do decide to purchase
compost, find out what the composted material is made from, ask if they’ve had
any problems with weeds sprouting from the compost, and ask how long it’s been
composted. Look for balanced, well-aged
compost that is weed-free.

If you plan to add new areas to
your garden, the newspaper-and-compost method that Linda describes is certainly
less work than digging a new bed and less disruptive to the soil
ecosystem. I use this method in my own
garden with great success.

Adding enough organic matter, in
spring and fall, will suppress weeds, keep roots damp and protected, and
encourage healthy plant growth. Over
time, you’ll spend less on fertilizers and your plants will even be better able
to withstand diseases and pest infestations.

Now—about those garden pests. Remember that a garden that is abundant in
insects is more interesting to birds in the first place. Encourage a diverse insect population by
choosing plants with small clusters of flowers: thyme, oregano, alyssum and feverfew, for instance. The tiny insects that feed on small-flowered
plants are often powerful predators as well. They’ll help keep aphids in check and add to the life of your
garden. Flowers with flat landing
surfaces—cosmos, zinnia, sunflower—are attractive to butterflies, and just
about anything that produces plenty of pollen will get bees interested. Think of insects not as a problem, but as an
important part of your garden, whose vitality and diversity should be

By helping the insect population
aboveground—and the soil ecosystem belowground—to flourish and grow, you’ll
find that you spend more time managing the health of your garden and less time
battling pests and diseases.