For the lazy gardener: 3 things to know about fertilizer, plant diversity and bugs

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

I’m a lazy gardener. There . . . I said it for all to witness.

It’s not that I don’t like working in the garden. Weeding, watering, pruning and planting . . . they offer the chronic, monkey-brained person with a hint of what we often only dream of . . . a quiet and focused state of mind. The Zen of weeding is a thing. It’s an important thing. And it’s one of the things that keeps me working in the yard despite the mosquitoes, the rabbits, the deer and the heat.

But at the same time I absolutely loathe wasting precious time doing things that don’t make any sense. If I intentionally choose to spend 3 hours crouched down in my garden, pulling thousands of mulberry weed seedlings because I want the meditative benefit of the task, that’s great. But in general, work smarter not harder is a mantra we should all employ whenever possible.

So when it comes to pest control in the garden, there are a few general strategies I like to follow to make sure I’m not making unnecessary work for myself. I mean I do love my garden. But while it might come as a shock to some gardeners, there are other bits and pieces of life that are worth some time and attention as well.

So following are a few strategies I use to make the most of my garden efforts.

1) Ditch the Fertilizer

Ok, not entirely . . . All plants need a reasonable supply of mineral nutrients to support healthy growth. But think about it. If plants successfully colonized every corner of the planet and maintained their ubiquitous status for something near 700 million years before humans showed up, it seems to me the plants did just fine without us and our trusty, blue-tinted fertilizer water.

The other thing to remember is that those fertilizer recommendations on the back of the bag . . . you have to remember that those are written by the good folks who want to sell you more fertilizer. It’s a bit like asking your 6-year-old how many chocolate chip cookies should constitute a proper snack after dinner. Twelve is the proper answer, if you’re wondering.

There’s a general rule of thumb in the garden that goes like this – the faster they grow, the tastier they are (to insects and diseases, that is).

Heavy fertilization pushes lots and lots of new growth that is soft, tender and oh so attractive to all the nasties out there that want to do their worst to your precious garden plants. Lower fertility levels can maintain a healthy plant without ringing the dinner bell for every aphid, whitefly or scale on the planet.

I rarely fertilize woody plants with a bag or bottle of magic potions. A once-a-year top dress with a little well-rotted compost provides a low level of nutrition over a relatively long period of time and is usually plenty to maintain a healthy tree or shrub without overdoing it. Herbaceous perennials are a bit hungrier so I might supplement my annual compost top-dress with a shot of a low analysis, slow release fertilizer once in the spring, again, at about half the package recommendation.

When it comes to the big and bodacious tropicals that push tons of growth all summer long, I’ll start off with a half-strength slow release and supplement with shots of soluble fertilizer at monthly intervals through the season.

2) Don’t Freak Out Over a Couple of Bugs

We’re so programmed to think that every leaf needs to look like the Red Delicious apples in the grocery store, pristine. But the honest truth is that there’s a battle going on out there between the garden forces of good and evil.

Yes, there are insects out there that will eat your leaves, pierce the stems and extract precious liquid from your plants. And you don’t really want them getting out of hand. But there are scores of good guys out there also fighting the good fight. Parasitic wasps, lady beetles and the king of the hill – the praying mantis – all feed on those bad guys. If you kill off all the aphids, there’s nothing to keep the good guys fed.

The goal in a well-managed garden is balance. If you’re willing to entertain a few aphids, a leaf hopper here and there and a few occasional munching caterpillars, you’ll encourage a healthy population of those forces of good.

3) Sometimes, Low-Tech is Best

If you are out in the garden and see a big old wad of aphids sucking away on the stems of your favorite butterfly milkweed, don’t panic and rush right into the garage in search of the skull and crossbones. Sometimes a good hard blast from a hose can knock them down. Sometimes a simple snip of an isolated infestation can do the trick.

4) Diversity, Diversity, Diversity

If I had a neighbor with a cupboard full of really good dark chocolate, I’d be over there daily, “offering to help them with their garden.” If the cupboard had half dark and half milk chocolate, I might make my offer every other day or so. One third each of dark, milk and white chocolate (does white chocolate even qualify as chocolate?) my generosity with my time might slip to weekly or even monthly.

The point is, the more variety you have in your garden, the less of a dinner bell you ring for pests and the more diverse population of beneficial organisms you’ll support to help you in your battle.

Let’s here it for lazy gardeners!

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on May 23, 2023.

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