Grow great-tasting vegetables and bold, beautiful flowers the healthy way.
Gardening Naturally
Credit: Van Chaplin / Styling: Ellen Ruoff Riley

A stroll through Anna Schmidt's backyard touches all the senses. Colorful tomatoes and peppers commingle with pungent herbs, whose fragrances dance in the afternoon breeze. Insects buzz in and out, pollinating fruit and filling the air with their cacophonous hum.

To obtain this sensational garden, Anna uses only natural components. She creates a balanced garden ecosystem that allows plants to flourish and provide the highest possible yield. Anna reaps the benefit of her bountiful yard with nutrition-packed fresh vegetables. Follow these ideas for a healthy garden that actually becomes more productive over time.

Start With Soil
Plants need well-drained soil with plenty of nutrients. Follow these steps to make sure your soil drains well.

  • Limit use of the rototiller because it destroys soil structure. Instead, use a garden fork to break up the ground.
  • Mushroom compost from a garden center provides an affordable way to put organic matter back into the soil.
  • Rotate the plants you grow in your garden every season so that the same nutrients aren't depleted year after year. Follow a shallow-rooted plant, such as lettuce, with a deep-rooted plant, such as tomato, to help break up the soil.
  • Don't walk on the garden because it causes compaction, which breaks down soil structure and reduces its ability to drain.

A World of Bugs
When healthy plants grow in healthy soil, a diversity of insects follows. The key is to establish enough beneficial bugs to control the bad ones. It's actually very simple. To provide a habitat for beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, wasps, and spiders, keep flowering plants in the garden as long as possible. Don't spray insecticides that kill all bugs indiscriminately. Instead, monitor an outbreak of bad bugs, and use a spray made specifically for those.

Even More Options
Gardening naturally does not mean abandoning all chemicals and simply letting all those predators have free range and first taste of all your hard work. When necessary, use a host of naturally derived, perfectly safe chemicals to ensure the balance doesn't get out of whack. Here are some commonly available natural insecticides listed in order of their strength. Start with the mildest treatment to limit inadvertently damaging beneficial insects.

  • Neem oil--a naturally derived oil from the neem tree that controls a wide range of insects, including beetles, caterpillars, and thrips
  • Insecticidal soap--soapy water that suffocates insects
  • Diatomaceous earth--a natural powder that kills soft-skinned insects, such as caterpillars
  • Pyrethrums--strong, naturally derived pesticides that kill pests such as beetles, aphids, and caterpillars on contact

What About the Weeds?
If a "natural" garden breeds images of shoulder-high grass and spending your weekends battling the Bermuda, breathe deeply--there is hope. The best way to minimize how much effort you spend weeding is to prevent the weeds from having a chance to grow. Here are some easy tips to do just that.

  • Don't let weeds go to seed.
  • Cover exposed soil with straw mulch, or purchase some landscape fabric.
  • Water only the plants you are trying to grow. Water deeply and infrequently.
  • Plant your vegetables close enough together so they will create a "living mulch," with the mature plants' leaves touching one another. This also keeps the soil cool and prevents moisture evaporation.

Keys to a Successful Natural Garden
1. Use lots of compost to build up soil health.
2. Encourage a diversity of insects by having flowering plants in the garden all the time.
3. Select disease-resistant plants from reliable sources, and buy only healthy seedlings.
4. Don't leave soil exposed to eroding winds, rain, and passing weed seeds.

"Gardening Naturally" is from the June 2007 issue of Southern Living.