If you’re new to gardening or new to this area, remember these rules for successful and healthful gardening:
1. We don’t receive abundant precipitation (ca. 12 inches per year), so conserve water using soaker hoses, drip irrigation and manual activation of lawn sprinkler system so you don’t water during a rare rainstorm. Mulch wherever possible with organic materials, to retain moisture in the soil and to bar weed seeds’ germination. You’ll avoid many plant diseases if you avoid splashing or sprinkling water on plant foliage, especially in the evening. Water early in the morning so that foliage can dry before the cool of evening.
2. Our soil is alkaline, so never put fireplace ashes or lime on it. Instead, incorporate as much organic matter as you can, remembering that it lasts in your soil longer if you let the macro- and micro-scopic creatures pull it from the surface (mulch) to the root area of plants. Organic matter will lower the pH (that is, acidify it) and hold moisture and nutrients in sandy soil, or break up claylike soil.
3. Do not attempt to control destructive insects without first determining whether the damage is more than you can tolerate. If it’s too pervasive, then learn all you can about the destructive insect and select the proper pesticide and time of application to control it. Must the pesticide touch the damaging insect or will it lie in wait for the damaging insect and kill beneficial insects too? Remember that most insects are beneficial, many of which will control your destructive insects as soon as there’s enough of them for the beneficial to consume or lay its own eggs in.
4. In our area we have subsurface hardpan; north of the river it’s clay, south generally it’s a calcium carbonate natural concrete, called caliche. Ask gardening neighbors how deep the hardpan lies if you haven’t already dug down and found it. If you’re to plant a taprooted tree and hardpan is less than 2 feet down, break it and remove it before planting your tree.
5. This area is dotted with microclimes. Some areas are naturally warmer and more sheltered than others. Talk to other gardeners (or yardeners) in your area about their experience growing frost-tender plants or those damaged by drying winds. USDA says we’re in their hardiness zone 7, but you’re safer to assume we’re in zone 6, expected low winter temperature between 0 and minus 10 degrees F.
6. When it comes to fertilizer, observe the rule that if a little is good, leave it at that. A lot will not be better. Pay attention to the contents of your fertilizer: will those substances enrich your soil and keep it productive (feeding the microherd underfoot) or will they exhaust your soil?
7. Protect your own and your family’s health by always using the least toxic control possible when it’s obvious you must control insect or disease. A strong spurt of water dislodges many insects that will die before they climb back up to dine on leaves, for instance. Watch for OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) on pesticide and fertilizer labels indicating organic approval.
8. If you suddenly begin to itch and notice bumpy skin where you brushed against a plant, get out of the sun. Sunlight intensifies topical allergic responses.
9. Consider your lawn, and whether its demerits outweight its attraction. It’s a water hog, and most lawn grasses require weekly mowing during the growing season. Dandelions? You’re far better off if you learn to love them. They bloom early, feed early-rising bees, and bring deep-lying nutrients to the surface. Control of dandelions is costly in terms of finances and health (2,4-D and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals). Mowing to leave grass 3 inches high prevents weed germination, since grass that height shades the soil. There are other greens that could replace lawns, but you’ll need a 15 foot swath for each floor level of your house (two stories should have a 30-foot lawn) for summer cooling.
10. Seriously consider no-till gardening. Tilling rips apart soil networks of fungi including mycorrhizae and colonies of microscopic creatures, as well as killing some earthworms and other macroscopic creatures. If you avoid compacting your soil by walking on it, do so. You can get into the garden when soil is wet without compacting soil by putting down boards and walking on them. Raised beds provide valuable plant habitat partly because the soil has not been compacted.
11. Many plants seem to wilt in the heat of the day. Don’t panic and water them if you notice that late in the day. Instead, check early in the morning. If those plants are still wilted, then water.
12. Enjoy your garden, where you are in control. Use bare hands to touch earth and smell its aroma. It’s healthful exercise and very good for your health.
Send garden questions to email@example.com or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.