AKRON, Ohio - You might be working harder in the garden than you have to.
By taking cues from nature, you can cut down on insect damage, diseases and other problems that often plague food gardens. Add a little human ingenuity, and you can even extend the growing season and skip much of the weeding and watering that make gardening a chore.
Joe Kovach preached those methods as an expert in integrated pest management with the Ohio State University Extension, and he put them to work in research plots where he studied the best ways to grow food on urban land.
At the center of his strategy is polyculture, a growing method that imitates the plant diversity found in nature.
In a natural setting, plants of different sizes, genetic makeups and flowering and fruiting times all co-exist in the same area, Kovach explained. That natural variety creates a system of checks and balances, keeping diseases and insects from spreading out of control.
"No matter what garden system you have, it's an ecosystem," he said. "We want ecosystem stability."
Polyculture isn't a perfect system. As Kovach likes to say, "Nature bats last." But while it's impossible to eliminate problems entirely, an ecologically stable garden will be better able to fight off trouble and bounce back when it occurs, he said.
Here's what he recommends:
PLANT A VARIETY OF FOODS
Plants belong to different families, or groups that share a similar genetic makeup. Broccoli and cabbage belong to one plant family, for example; tomatoes and peppers belong to another.
Certain plant families are prone to certain pests, so mixing things up in the garden decreases the chance of one insect or disease wiping out your entire crop.
MIX UP PLANT HEIGHTS
Just as insects differ in what they like to eat, they also differ in where they prefer to hang out. Planting tall and short crops in close proximity creates different layers of habitat, resulting in a more inviting environment for a variety of beneficial insects.
And because bugs tend to stay put once they find plants they like, a spatially diverse habitat does a better job at confining pest damage, Kovach said. It makes it harder for undesirable insects to find other plants to feed on.
Kovach suggests varying plant height row by row.
He said you can also create plant height artificially by using vertical gardening - that is, planting in containers attached to fences or other upright structures.
PLANT AT DIFFERENT TIMES
Forget about planting your garden all at one time. Kovach recommends succession planting, or planting in stages so a crop matures at different times.
By doing that, you reduce the likelihood of an entire crop being wiped out by a disease or insect, he said. An insect that attacks your early beans, for example, might be gone by the time the next wave matures.
Besides, spreading out the harvest means you'll have things to eat over a longer period.
BE GENTLE ON THE SOIL
It used to be common practice to till a garden each year before planting and to continue tilling during the growing season to control weeds. But newer research shows excessive tilling disturbs the structure that allows air and water to move through soil, and it kills or disrupts the earthworms, insects, microorganisms and other beneficial beings that live in the soil and support plant life.
Kovach avoids the need to disrupt the soil by covering his planting rows with landscape cloth to prevent weed growth. He uses a propane torch to burn holes in it just large enough to plant through and accommodate the stems of the mature plants, but not so big that weed seeds can get in easily.
The landscape cloth needs to be swept periodically to remove weed seeds, so there's less chance they'll find their way into the openings, he said.
Not only does the landscape cloth virtually eliminate weeding, it also protects the plants from disease-causing organisms that can splash up from the soil when it rains.
He recommends buying good-quality landscaping cloth with a 15- to 20-year guarantee, so it will hold up over time.