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In the Garden: Follow best practices to keep plants thriving

The most important cultural practice a gardener can follow is putting the right plant in the right place. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)
The most important cultural practice a gardener can follow is putting the right plant in the right place. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)

If you were to ask me what the secret is to growing a healthy garden, the simplest answer would be to keep your plants unstressed. No, I’m not referring to playing soothing New Age music for them, although that certainly couldn’t hurt.

By following good cultural practices – whether you’re growing flowers, shrubs, trees or edible crops – your garden will flourish and should have minimal problems.

Cultural practices are simple techniques we can use in our gardens that typically don’t cost a cent. Even though the following tips will sound like no-brainers, we gardeners often forget to follow them once we walk through the garden gate.

When I went through Master Gardener training in 2002, one of the first things I learned was the importance of putting the right plant in the right place. This involves looking at a plant’s light and soil requirements before putting it in the ground. For example, you wouldn’t want to place a sun-loving plant in the shadiest corner of your garden. Conversely, plants that prefer moist conditions will wilt and die a painful death if placed in a hot, dry location.

Looking at a plant’s growth habits falls under the “right place” mantra as well. Plant tags list their expected height and width. While we gardeners love to see beds packed with plants of all shapes and sizes, it’s important to space them appropriately. Crowded plants compete with each other for space, water and nutrients. Since you’ll likely have to resolve this problem down the road, why not get them off to the best possible start instead?

Meeting a plant’s water needs is crucial so do your best to match the plant to the most ideal area of your garden. Be responsive to changes in the weather: as temperatures heat up this summer, plants will require more water. Keep in mind that it’s stressful for plants to alternate between wilting and being overwatered to compensate for drying out.

If you need more convincing, consider this: when plants struggle, they send out a chemical signal that attracts insect pests. Why make things worse?

Another good cultural practice is monitoring your garden on a regular basis. This doesn’t require anything other than a pleasant stroll while looking to see how everything is growing. Oftentimes, you’ll spot a problem in the early stages and be able to correct it before troubles arise.

While most folks don’t care for weeding, keeping up with those pesky weeds is so important. They rob our plants of moisture and nutrients, and they always seem to come out on top if we give them the opportunity. Whenever you’re out in the garden, pull a weed or two to let them know who’s boss.

Don’t forget to rebuild your soil every year by adding a thin layer of compost to the surface of the soil in early spring and fall. There’s no need to work it in with a rototiller or shovel because the nutrients will filter down into the soil all by themselves.

The most important thing we can do is to foster a balance in the environment surrounding our homes by avoiding the use of pesticides. There are so many beneficial insects that are more than happy to be our allies by eating damaging insects. While it’s true that pesticides will kill the troublesome ones, they will kill the predatory insects, too. By working with nature, our gardens will grow beautifully.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at Watch this week’s “Everyone Can Grow a Garden” video on

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