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 upon the growing season. Record and evaluate your observations while things are 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 is called integrated pest management or IPM. This may sound like a complicated term, but I would like to think it is just 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, as well as practical economic considerations.

Garden health evaluation should be one of the steps in the plant maintenance or IPM process. If you are going to manage pests thoughtfully, you should specifically consider what plant problems you have had or are likely to have. Use that information to evaluate your management strategies each year.

Considering this past garden season:

  • What problems did you encounter?
  • Did you identify the likely cause or causes of the issues?
  • What management strategies did you try, if any, and do you think they were successful?

It is important to remember what happened this year and use your experience to plan for the next season, especially if you are a beginning gardener or if a new issue is encountered. You may notice an issue too late in the season for it to be effectively managed that season, but you may be able to prevent it the following year.

First, consider cultural (non-chemical) ways that you can avoid pest issues or create a healthier growing environment next year. This can be especially helpful for disease control and overall plant vigor.

  • Crop rotation. Remember where you placed your annual plants, especially vegetables, so that you can rotate their location next year and avoid buildup of disease organisms.
  • Moving plants. Think about moving plants to areas with more or less sun or different soil moisture if they are not doing well in their current spot.
  • Consider pruning to remove damaged or diseased material and increase air circulation.
  • Dispose 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 at planting next year to allow each plant more room for nutrient uptake. Dense plantings encourage disease formation and spread due to poor air circulation, shading and short spreading distance for the disease organisms.
  • Irrigation Can you change your irrigation methods to reduce leaf wetness (which increases disease development) by changing the sprinkler type or placement, or installing drip irrigation or a soaker hose? Avoid overhead watering. Also, does your system provide consistent and adequate moisture? That is especially important during periods of drought.
  • Are your plants getting proper fertilization to maintain their strength? Consider getting a soil test.
  • Plant type and variety selection. 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 more shade.

Decide whether chemical control methods are needed next season based on identified pest problems and research into pest-specific materials. You might need to treat early next season before plant symptoms are obvious.

Remember, evaluate and record what you did this year to make beneficial changes in your garden practices next year. See "Garden health evaluation – Part 2" for examples of issue identification versus treatment timing.

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