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When going organic, it helps to know your surroundings

Building up your soil’s fertility each year keeps plants healthy and productive.
Building up your soil’s fertility each year keeps plants healthy and productive.

I am committed to growing my vegetables and fruits organically. To accomplish this, I follow sound cultural practices in my garden to keep the plants healthy and I use organic products, rather than resorting to chemicals, when problems arise.

Here are some simple cultural practices everyone can do:

Understand your hardiness zone: In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revised their climate zone map. For years, the Inland Northwest was in zone 5, meaning our average minimum extreme temperature was between minus 10 and minus 20 degrees F. Now we’re in zone 6, with average minimums of zero to minus 10 degrees F. I don’t completely agree with this so I prefer to be cautious by selecting plants hardy to zone 5.

Whether or not you agree, knowing your hardiness zone is important because it helps you choose the right plants for your garden. That gives them the best chance to grow successfully.

Also remember that our gardening seasons are about 120 frost-free days long. Use this when choosing vegetable varieties to grow and to plant them at the right time. It makes a big difference in what you grow and how well it does.

Pick the right plant for the right place: When you’re at a nursery looking at ornamental plants, pay attention to the plant tag information. In addition to the hardiness zone, it tells you the mature height and width a plant will grow to, whether it needs sun or shade, how much water it requires and how to care for it.

By following this information, plants will flourish and stay healthy.

Monitor your garden regularly: Stroll through your garden on a regular basis to catch and resolve problems early. You’ll see how the plants are doing and determine if they’re receiving enough water. Stressed plants are less able to deal with diseases or insect attacks.

Space plants according to the information found on plant tags or seed packets to further reduce stress on them. Weed around them regularly so they’re not competing with weeds for moisture and nutrients.

Attract birds: Birds are enthusiastic insect-eaters. If you take steps to attract them to your garden, they’ll go to work for you in addition to making your garden a lively place. They need food, water, nesting sites and shelter from predators and extreme weather.

Many types of plants will bring in the birds as well. Choose berry-producing plants like viburnums, crabapples, serviceberries, hawthornes, mountain ash, snowberries and the like. In the fall, consider leaving the seedheads of some annuals or perennials in your beds to provide birds with a nutritious snack during the colder months.

Draw in beneficial insects: By growing nectar- and pollen-producing plants, you’ll attract good insects that prey on the bad guys. If you maintain a permanent flower bed that provides shelter and food for beneficials, they’ll work hard for you. They prefer plants like dill, fennel, yarrow, hyssop, parsley, catnip and rosemary.

Take good care of your soil: It can be easy to overlook the fertility of our soil but it’s the very foundation of our gardens. Each year, the plants we grow deplete different amounts of nutrients from it. If you add in organic soil amendments – compost, composted manure, shredded leaves or grass clippings from an untreated lawn, for example – on an annual basis, you will be amazed by how beautifully your plants will grow and produce.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at her blog at and Facebook page at for more gardening information.