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By Brenda H. Reed
Freelance Writer

Important steps of preparing your garden for any season include basic garden clean up. In Texas we experience sunscald of tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables, so as soon as the plants in the summer garden have become unusable, remove them from your garden. Dispose of or burn any diseased plants. Put the plants that do not appear to be diseased into your composter or compost heap. Pick up any tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers that have fallen onto the ground and use them or compost them as well. I use the last fruits I pick for saving seed for the next season. Keeping the garden clean and disposing of spent plants is very important in preventing diseases in the soil and for controlling insect problems.

Basic Composting
Making compost is a year-round activity. The secret to successful composting is to have a good mixture of material. If the heap or composter is kept too wet you will end up with a messy, stinking sludge; if kept too dry, composting will be very slow. When adding wet materials, such as grass clippings or kitchen scraps to the composter or heap, fork the materials in with a hay-fork. Add ingredients to compost any time you need to, just try to avoid adding thick layers of wet or dry materials. If you do add a thick layer of dry materials, water the dry ingredients. If adding a lot of wet materials to the composter, add some dry material such as newspapers that are printed with soy ink, old envelopes, old paper egg cartons, crumpled cardboard, etc.

You can use a homemade container, old garbage cans, make a compost heap on the ground or purchase a composter. No need to spend much money on one though; nature will do the work for you. I use a composter. My husband built one for me and we also make piles on the ground if I have a large amount of plants or grass clippings. I add rabbit manure, chicken house litter, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaves and pine needles to the composter. I have never made more compost than I use. It is excellent for the garden soil and I make potting soils of different types, depending upon what it will be used for. Potted flowers, vegetables, or herbs really love a side dressing of compost or to be fed compost tea. Finished compost is an invaluable source of nutrients for plants, whether potted or in the garden. Compost also improves soil structure and helps combat soil-borne diseases and pests. Composting is very important and necessary for organic gardening. It can be added to your garden anytime. I like to add compost to the garden during the spring and summer and after the summer's end cleanup in preparation for the fall garden, we add it and till it into the soil.

Benefits Of Organic Matter
The success or failure of the organic approach to gardening depends greatly upon how gardeners use and prepare organic matter. Organic matter prevents soil compaction and crusting, as well as improves soil tilth. It increases the water-holding capacity of the soil and provides a more favorable environment for earthworms and beneficial microorganisms. It slows erosion, and in later stages of decay, organic matter releases nitrogen and other nutrients to growing crops. Substances from decaying organic matter bring minerals of the soil into solution, making them available to growing plants. Without proper soil management and the addition of organic matter to the soil, soils may be ruined.

Sources Of Organic Matter
Barnyard manures are good sources of organic matter to add to the garden soil. Rabbit, cow and poultry manures are good. You can purchase these at a good garden supply center if you don't have them readily available at your place. I add cow manure to my garden, but not every year because the salt from the manure may cause salt build up in the soil, although salt can be washed away by rainfall and irrigation. I add the cow manure every few years. Fresh manure should not be placed directly on the plants in the garden or mixed into the soil immediately before seeds or plants are to be planted. Fresh manure produces ammonia as it decomposes. Plant roots can be damaged if in direct contact with ammonia. Manures not composted before putting into the garden can also introduce new weeds into your garden. Composted manures, along with your regular compost are a very good addition to the garden soil. Watch the source of your manures as some pasture herbicides are persistent and can damage sensitive plants such as tomatoes and beans even after passing through the cow.

Cover crops are often the most economical means for soil amendment. Plant a cover in early to mid-summer and turn it under at least a few weeks before you plant your fall vegetable garden.

Weed Control
Organic gardens aren't unkempt but they aren't free of all weeds because many weeds are useful. Thistles provide nectar and seeds for many birds, and butterflies breed in flowering grasses. Practicing organic gardening should bring balance to your gardens. If weeds in the garden are competing with your vegetables and flowers for nutrients, they should be controlled but not by using herbicides. Here are some other methods to use instead of herbicides:

  • Keep bare soil covered with cover crops or mulch to avoid weeds and their seeds. For ornamental areas use ground cover plants or mulch to smother weeds. Always mulch around vegetable plants with hay, straw or leaves.

  • Hoe weeds away as soon as they appear and put them into the compost bin.

  • Whenever possible, grow your own transplants. Some transplants will contain weeds or weed seeds in their soil. None of us need new weeds added to our gardens.

  • In difficult areas where there are lots of weeds to remove, use a cultivator. The small cultivators are great for weeding between rows.

Disease Prevention, Control
Plant diseases will kill or seriously stunt the growth of plants. The plants experience wilt, leaf spots, rust or a variety of other symptoms. Fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes may cause disease. The best disease control is prevention.

Purchase disease resistant varieties of plants if they are available. This is a great way to reduce disease problems. Look for words on the plant identification tags such as immune, resistant and tolerant. Disease immunity indicates that a plant won't get a disease even though the disease is present. Disease resistance implies that although the plant may occasionally come into contact with the disease, it is much less likely to get it, and if attacked, it may not be seriously affected. Tolerance to a disease implies that the plant usually contacts the disease but is able to survive in spite of being infected.

Practicing crop rotation each year prevents the buildup of organisms in one place, thus reducing some disease problems. Sanitation is important to disease control as well. Remove diseased plants immediately. Remove weeds and any other plants in the area where the disease occurred, as they may serve as over-wintering host plants. In some cases, careful selection of disease-free seed, propagating material, selection of new plants or cuttings helps to control diseases by avoiding introduction. Choose varieties of plants suitable for growing in your area.

Ways To Prevent Diseases

  • Select garden locations with good soil drainage, adequate sunlight, and good soil.

  • Use disease-free transplants and seeds from reputable suppliers. Do not plant more than you can take care of properly.

  • Control insect pests that may serve as disease carriers.

  • Pull up and destroy any plants showing signs of diseases, such as those caused by viruses. Pull off diseased leaves as soon as you notice them to help slow the spread of leaf spots and other fungal diseases.

  • Do not overcrowd plants. Overcrowding prevents good air circulation and exposure to adequate sunlight. High humidity and too much shade caused by these conditions can increase the development of some diseases.

Controlling Insects
Many common insects can be controlled with modern chemicals. In avoiding their use, you must be willing to work a little harder and accept some insect damage in your garden. Here are some techniques to help control insect attack and spread:

  • Since you will not be able to avoid all insect damage, plant more of a crop for adequate harvest. (When a few years have passed since you became an organic gardener, you will see much less insect damage, more of a balance of beneficial insects in your garden).

  • Check crops often and hand pick any insects present before they become too numerous.

  • Encourage natural insect predators, such as frogs and birds, whenever possible. Put pebbles in shallow containers and put water in the container. Place these around the garden for frogs to drink from. Also provide toad houses for them. Put a birdbath or two in your garden for the birds to drink from.

  • Companion planting (mixing several different types of plants and herbs together) helps to slow and confuse the insects that may be present.

  • Use biological and natural pesticides such as dormant oils, Bt, elemental sulphur, pyrethrins and rotenone. Use these carefully, according to directions by the manufacturer.

  • Fertilize, cultivate and water to promote vigorous plant growth. Healthy plants seem less attractive to insects, and those that are attacked are better able to survive and produce a crop.

  • Use transplants whenever possible. They develop more quickly than seeds and the faster you can grow and harvest a crop, the less chance of insect pests seriously damaging the plants.

  • Cultivate the garden for fall plantings. This buries deeply or exposes some insects and their eggs to birds or to desiccation during winter freezing and thawing.

Biological Control
The biological control of insect pests refers to the use of disease organisms, predacious or parasitic insects, insect-feeding birds and toads. Remember that when any kind of insect predator is released into the garden, the pests must already be present to serve for food. If insects are not present, the predators will move elsewhere looking for food.

Soap as an Insecticide
The most effective soap for an insecticide was the old-fashioned homemade soap made from waste lard, tallow, lye and water. Household soaps of today are not equally effective. Special insecticidal soaps are now available for control of certain insects.

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