Healthy Gardening


Winter is a good time to read and start planning for the upcoming garden year. Following are three books worth the time to read. The Lifelong Gardener by Toni Gattone ($20 Barnes & Noble) is about gardening with ease at any age, taking into consideration a person’s body, their garden and the tools they use. No two people or gardens are alike. She describes adaptive gardening that allows for gardening at all ages when a person may have limited range of motion, may want to reduce stress on joints, or may be wheelchair bound. Adaptive gardening techniques are a way to rethink easier gardening to ensure safety and comfort such as raised beds and using more containers.

Toni reminds her readers our bodies change as we age, so keep yourself safe and comfortable. Consider stretching before and after gardening, and change up the order of your tasks to avoid repetition. Listen to your body and know your limits when it’s time to take a break or get out of the heat. Consider ergonomic tools that make gardening easier for you. If you plan to be kneeling, have a plan for how you will get up or if you need assistance getting up. As hard as it may be, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need to lift a heavy object or if a task requires the use of a ladder. Keep yourself safe with gloves, sunscreen, a hat with a broad brim, avoid midday sun, consider tools with longer handles when needed, avoid tripping hazards, and keep your tools sharp. Gardening keeps us mentally active too. Toni says, “Old age is always 15 years older than I am.”

Iowa State University Extension also has a publication in the Therapeutic Gardening series, Gardening Tips for Older Adults (RG 107). This publication describes the benefits of gardening, warming up, being sun smart, using the right equipment, garden access, taking care of tools, watering, and enlisting helpers.

The Complete Guide to No-Dig Gardening by Charlie Nardozzi is another book worth purchasing ($25 from Amazon). The book provides a lot of information for growing vegetables, herbs and flowers without tilling the soil. The benefits of no-dig gardening take into consideration the health of the soil with no-dig concept variations, including containers. This style of gardening helps preserve soil life and the nutrients and organisms that support the soil’s health, and provides a more productive garden with less work. Garden beds are more resilient to weather changes such as drought or heavy rains. No-dig gardens eliminate a lot of hard work preparing soil for planting. Soil pH needs to be considered, along with drainage, adding compost and nutrients, and the location (sun/shade).

Layering a no-dig garden bed is like a compost pile —layer newspaper, add green materials, compost, brown materials and continue layering (also known as lasagna gardening). You may need to add materials as layers decompose and break down over time. The book includes recipes for composting and lasagna gardening and instructions for constructing a raised no-dig bed or adaptations depending on your site. The book also includes a plan and tips for converting an existing garden to a no-dig garden.

If your tilled garden is underproducing, a no-dig garden can improve your soil health for better productivity. A good way to utilize space is to inter-plant (inter-crop) and utilize succession planting. Inter-planting utilizes different plant growth rates and shapes of various edibles by pairing the right edibles together. The author also describes polyculture beds such as a three-sisters garden (corn, pole beans, squash)—the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, which is used by the corn, the beans grow up the corn stalks, and the trailing squash keeps the ground cool, which preserves moisture, and limits weed growth. No-dig gardening also includes containers, straw bale gardening, and a hügelkultur. I’m looking forward to seeing the results from the hügelkultur at the Demonstration Garden this coming summer. The book includes a recipe for organic potting soil, the selection of a variety of containers, and bringing containers indoors to extend your growing season.

Interestingly, I also subscribe to a free weekly email newsletter from The Creative Vegetable Gardner that is located in Madison, Wis. The topic of the newsletter on Feb. 26 was “Stop tilling for the best soil!” Successful gardening starts with healthy soil and a no-till garden builds healthier soil. Tilling the soil destroys the soil structure and brings weed seeds to the surface that you will regret. The top reasons not to till a garden, taken from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service website are tilling destroys a soil’s physical properties and the soil’s ability to function properly. Tillage destroys or depletes the soil’s stability, structure, pore space, water holding capacity, infiltration, permeability, gaseous exchange and nutrient storage ability. Garden soil holds bacteria, fungal filaments, protozoa and nematodes, all beneficial to keeping soil healthy, converting nitrogen into a form available to plants and helping plants access the nutrients and water in the soil. Tilling is like a tornado to the soil.

Another book by Charlie Nardozzi is Foodscaping (available at the Iowa City Public Library). The book describes innovative ways to create an edible landscape and replace ornamental plants with edibles, grow vegetables and herbs in with perennial and annual flowers. Choose the right plant for the right place (sun/shade, wet/dry, weather elements) to grow food. Consider the soil pH and drainage when considering where edibles will be located. Vegetables can be grown in groups, which can create an impactful visual effect, or they can be grown in borders and along walkways among flowers without sacrificing beauty. Edibles can be good fillers in flowerbeds and can add a pop of color too such as swiss chard, purple basil, and tricolor sage.

Some cool season vegetables can be grown in shade with shady perennials. Use raised beds, containers, and also consider growing vertically (trellis, chicken wire or fence). Grow herbs such as rosemary in with ornamental grasses in containers. Charlie provides a chapter on Foodscaping 101, describing edibles which can be used the same as in ornamental gardens. Get creative and consider replacing some perennials with edibles. Replace groundcovers with edibles like sweet potatoes or creeping thyme or mint for a scented ground cover. Include edible flowers such as bee balm, daylilies or nasturtiums. Some edibles may look good all season long, while others may need to be replaced or interplanted or utilize succession planting depending on how quickly or slow they grow. Maximize the use of space with quick-growing edibles and slower late-maturing edibles.

You may have fewer pests since edibles will be interspersed among ornamentals, making it harder for the pests to locate. In fact, some ornamentals may deter pests from edibles. I’ll be experimenting this summer by planting some of my vegetables and herbs in unexpected places among my flowers.