Garden health evaluation – Part 1

Assess and record your gardening practices now for greater future success.

Daisies and phlox
The daises and phlox in this perennial flower garden could be cut back and thinned to allow the remaining plants more space for growth and remove disease organisms harbored in the current plants. Photo by Irene Donne, MSU Extension.

As the days cool and shorten and the end of the growing season draws closer, do not forget about your garden just yet. Now is a great time to reflect on the growing season. Record and evaluate your observations while the season is still fresh in your mind.

At Michigan State University Extension, we encourage the use of a systematic approach to maintaining the health of the plants in your landscape. This approach is called integrated pest management (IPM). This may sound like a complicated term, but just think of IPM as a helpful philosophy to ensure you consider multiple options for maintaining plant health. IPM encourages you to think about the biology and interactions of organisms within the garden system, how your actions might impact the surrounding environment, and practical economic considerations.

Garden health evaluation is one step in the IPM process. Thoughtfully reflect on what plant problems you have had and consider what problems you are likely to have in future years. Use that information to evaluate your management strategies each year.

When reflecting on this past garden season, consider the following:

  • What problems did you encounter?
  • Did you identify the likely cause(s) of the problems? Was it pests, disease, environmental conditions or something else?
  • What management strategies did you try, if any, and how would you rate their success?

It is important to remember what happened this year and to use your experience to plan for the next season, especially if you are new to gardening or if you have encountered a new issue. You may have noticed an issue too late to have effectively managed it this year, but you may be able to correct it next year.

First, consider cultural (non-chemical) ways to manage pest issues and to create a healthier growing environment next year. This can be especially helpful to control diseases and to promote overall plant vigor. Examples include:

  • Rotating crops: Record where you placed your annual plants, especially vegetables, so that you can rotate their location next year and avoid buildup of disease organisms in the soil.
  • Relocating plants: Think about moving plants to areas with a different amount of sunlight or soil moisture if they are not doing well in their current location.
  • Pruning: Consider pruning to remove damaged or diseased material and increase air circulation. Most trees and shrubs should be pruned in late winter or early spring before growth resumes. However, shrubs that flower in the spring (like lilac and forsythia) should be pruned right after flowering, or you will remove many of the flower buds.
  • Disposing of diseased plant debris: Remove diseased plant debris from the garden area and dispose of it in a way that will not let the disease organisms back into the garden, such as disposing in the municipal trash (if allowed), burning or burying.
  • Thinning and spacing: Thin plantings or increase spacing between plants when planting next year to allow each plant more room for nutrient uptake. Dense plantings encourage the formation and spread of disease because of poor air circulation, shading and close proximity to other plants.
  • Irrigating: Try to adjust your irrigation methods to reduce wetting leaves by changing the sprinkler type or placement, or installing drip irrigation or a soaker hose rather than using overhead watering. If that is not possible, time your watering for early in the day, allowing plenty of time for foliage to dry before evening. Foliage that is wet, especially at night when it takes much longer to dry, is a prime target for many fungal diseases. Also, does your system provide consistent and adequate moisture? Supplemental water is especially important during periods of drought, and for developing fruits, including tomatoes.
  • Building your soil: Consider adding organic matter in the form of finished, high quality compost or clean, organic mulch. Organic matter helps build a healthy soil that encourages plant growth.
  • Testing and fertilizing your soil: Are your plants getting the right nutrition to maintain growth and health? Consider getting a soil test to learn the pH of your soil and what nutrients are lacking. This will help you develop a plan for fertilizing your plants that provides all the nutrients they need but avoids adding unneeded nutrients that can be harmful to your plants, your pocketbook and the environment.
  • Selecting the right plants: Think about the plants and varieties you have. If you had disease problems with a certain type of plant, such as tomato or zucchini, can you find a disease-resistant variety for next year? Do you need an entirely different type of plant for something to succeed in the landscape conditions that you have? For example, you may need to choose a plant that can tolerate higher soil moisture or shade.

Decide whether chemical control methods are needed next season based on identified pest problems and the available options for managing those pests. You might need to treat early next season before pest symptoms are obvious. However, to be effective your response needs to be properly timed and tailored to the correct pest.

Evaluating and recording what you planted, what problems you encountered, and the success of your management interventions this year will help you improve your garden practices in future years. See "Garden health evaluation – Part 2" for some examples of identifying issues and timing appropriate treatments.

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