The Literary Gardener – May 2016

“If you really want to draw close to your garden, you must remember that you are dealing with a being that lives and dies, like the human body with its poor flesh, its illnesses at times repugnant. One must not always see it dressed up for a ball, manicured and immaculate.” ~Fernand Lequenne, My Friend the Garden, 1965

French botanist and author Fernand Lequenne reminds us that we are our garden’s caregivers. If we are observant, our plants will show us when they are in pain with feeble growth, diseased foliage, and infestations of insect pests. Such problems are distressing to every gardener; however, they are nature’s explicit way of telling us that our plants are distressed because something is off-balance in the environment we’ve created.

As garden caregivers, it’s our responsibility to determine reasons for the disturbances we encounter. Then, we must treat the “root” causes of our plants’ dis-eases, rather than taking the easy way out and reaching for the nearest bottle of pesticide, which is akin to giving our children aspirin without finding out what’s causing their frequent headaches. This simple, yet profound way of dealing with common “growing pains” in the garden is the heart of Integrated Pest Management, a key gardening strategy I learned from participating in the OSU Extension Service’s Master Gardener program.

“The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” This old adage is central to IPM because it means we should consistently monitor individual plants in the garden and take notes by recording the date, a description of the problem, and steps taken for treatment. Useful monitoring tools include a magnifying lens, a glass jar for collecting samples, and a camera for taking pictures. A flashlight is also useful for checking on plants at night, which is when many insects are active.

With notes and samples in hand, I’ve found the Pacific Northwest Pest Management Handbooks to be extremely useful in diagnosing and treating garden pains. Guides for plant diseases, insects, and weeds are available at: The OSU Extension Service also offers a free plant clinic at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Clinic hours and other information are available at:

“Location, location, location.” This oft-repeated real estate proverb is equally relevant when it comes to garden realty. In fact, experience has shown me, more than once, that the underlying causes of most plant failures stem from inadequate “property values” for the plants I’m trying to grow: improper amounts of soil fertility, sunlight, and/or moisture. Positioned in a place where they don’t receive these basic needs, plants weaken and then become targets for insects, diseases, and invasive weeds.

No amount of pesticide will overcome a poorly-located plant. Before choosing plants, have a specific place in mind to put them, (a diagram of your garden helps) and determine if the environmental conditions there are optimal for the particular plants you want to grow. Folks at the OSU Extension Service’s plant clinic can help in analyzing your soil. There are a few products on the market for measuring the amount of sunlight in your garden—SunSticks® and the SunCalc®, for example. Different types of soil moisture meters are also available, or try using a wooden dowel or chopstick, insert it into the soil 3-4 inches, and water if the stick comes out clean and dry, always keeping in mind the plant’s specific moisture needs. As Fernand Lequenne tells us, “A garden is a living thing that can bring joy and good health to the person who tends it.”