How to grow a healthy garden

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of gardening advice in books and websites. So I thought I’d simplify things by sharing my top 10 tips for keeping a garden healthy. 

Start with your soil. Healthy soil grows healthy plants. So get a soil test to know what you have and need.  

Add compost or other organic matter regularly to enliven the soil and keep the soil community happy. This intricate web of beneficial microbes, fungi, bacteria, worms, and more is crucial to healthy plants. 

Well-adapted native plants such as this white penstemon naturally resist pests and disease. Photo: Kathy Vesely

Minimize soil disturbance. Every time you turn the soil, you bring up weed seeds and wreak havoc on the soil community. So dig and till minimally.

Keep the soil covered with plants, an organic mulch, or cover crops. Bare soil invites weeds, encourages soil-borne disease, and promotes erosion. 

Put the right plant in the right place. Choose plants that suit the site whether it’s sunny or shady, wet or dry. This matchmaking helps plants not only survive but thrive.

Use native plants. These tough, well-adapted plants need less water and fertilizer. Since they co-evolved with native wildlife, they support pollinators and other native species best. 

Encourage beneficial insects. These are the good bugs that help control bad bugs. Nine out of ten insects are beneficial, naturally controlling the few true pests. Put them to work for you. 

How? Reduce or eliminate chemical pesticides which kill both good and bad bugs. Use organic products instead and try other controls like hand-picking or floating row covers.

Further, encourage beneficial insects by planting a wide variety of plants to provide food and shelter. Add a rock to a birdbath so insects can sip. 

Wait to cut back perennials and grasses until spring to give beneficial insects a safe place to overwinter. Many tuck into hollow stems or leaf litter.

Check your plants often. When you’re strolling, be patrolling. Look for spots, yellowing, or other changes that might be clues to a problem. Early detection makes fixes easier.

If you live in Washington County, Maryland, e-mail or call me if you need help identifying an insect or disease. Just send me a photo or bring me a sample. If you live in another area of Maryland, contact your county or city Extension office, or send your questions to Ask Extension.

Many problems are preventable. Honest. About 80% have cultural or environmental causes and aren’t due to pests or diseases. So there’s much we can do to prevent problems.

Water wisely. Water in the morning and avoid overhead watering. Leaves that are wet overnight tend to have fungal problems.

Removed diseased plants. Add compost which naturally suppresses some diseases. Space plants so air circulates. Cover bare soil so rain doesn’t splash fungal spores up onto plants.

At the end of the growing season, thoroughly clean up vegetable plant debris which can harbor harmful overwintering insects and disease.

There you have it, my top 10 tips for a healthy garden. When you work with nature, not against it, you naturally limit pests and diseases, grow more resilient plants, and build a healthier garden and community.

That’s a very good feeling indeed.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

January is for garden planning

I spent the early days of January 2023 thinking about the vegetable garden I won’t be planting until March. I’ve ordered my seeds, and I’ve gone so far as considering drawing a map of what goes where. (I may not get beyond considering, though it would be smart if I did—see below—but planning in two dimensions is always hard for me, and I’m pretty good at knowing how much I can grow in my 400 square feet, just not necessarily where exactly it’s going to go.) There is absolutely no need to start all this quite so early, but I like knowing that the seeds I want won’t run out before I get to them, and I had the time and enthusiasm, so there we are.

Since I don’t have room to grow everything I might want to, I have to make some choices. When I was a newbie gardener, I always bought too many seeds, and… okay, I still buy too many seeds, but at least I have a method now! So I thought I’d share it in case it’s of help to anyone.

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Seed starting and soil testing: a Master Gardener outlines his spring gardening progress

In mid-February, I started my Gypsy, Monty, and Green Magic broccoli, Snow Crown cauliflower, Lacinato kale, several types of lettuce, and some Big Blue salvia.

Italian flat-leaf parsley was started in mid-January. Most of these transplants will be planted in the garden or containers in the first week of April after hardening off for at least a week in my cold frame. My pre-sprouted snap peas will be planted in late March. Planting dates for central Maryland can be found here on the Home and Garden Information Center website.

Kent's seedlings

In early March, I will be making a trip into Baltimore to get some other seeds for Sugar Ann snap peas, Jade string beans, and a couple of other things. In late March, I will be planting some seed potatoes in containers, just to see what the yield is. On March 27th, seven to eight weeks before the spring plant out date of mid-May, I will be planting Galine eggplant and several different types of peppers.

In previous years, I’ve planted tomatoes six weeks prior to my plant out date, but they have been leggy. This year, I’m planting them on April 10 for planting in the garden and containers on May 15.

My latest soil test, done in May of 2019, says to incorporate one pound of nitrogen (N) per 1,000 square feet. Only N is required since the beds contain the optimum amount of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) and are at the correct pH.

To determine what fertilizer needs to be added to my beds which are 32 or 40 square feet, I will have to convert this recommendation to determine the amount of urea (46-0-0) to apply to my beds. This is fairly simple to do, using the following equation. Amount of N/.46 (% of N in urea) x beds size/1000 square feet. This yields the following: 2.17 pounds of urea x 0.032 for a 32 square foot bed equals .069 pounds of urea or 1.1 ounces. I guess I’ll have to get out my kitchen scale.

Alternatively, the University of Delaware suggested 2.5 pounds per 1000 square feet or 2.5 x .032 = 1.28 ounces of urea. This calculation works for almost all recommendations from soil test labs. However, if in doubt, you can always Ask a Gardening Expert at HGIC.

By Kent Phillips, University of Maryland Extension, Howard County Master Gardener

Planning and budgeting for a new raised bed garden

snowy landscape scene

Even though it is snowing again today, I am dreaming of gardening season and I am working on a budget for a new raised bed garden that will be 8’ x 4’ x 12”. I have always grown vegetables in a traditional in-ground garden, which only requires some tools for preparing the soil, soil amendments, and a suitable location (full sun with good soil). However, I want the advantages of a raised bed:

  1. earlier soil warming; 
  2. more focused usage of growing space (through succession planting and square foot gardening techniques);
  3. less body bending to plant, maintain, and harvest; and
  4. getting to plant cole crops sooner (with my in-ground garden, I have to wait until late May for the ground to be unfrozen and dry enough to run the the tractor tiller).
garden with a fence
Raised bed made from grapevines and a plastic liner.

A lot of inspiration can be found on the internet for building materials, but think about materials that you may already have on hand or something you can find freely or cheaply. More information on raised beds can be found on the University of Maryland Extension website. 

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Natural materials (stones, logs, untreated lumber, cement blocks, sawmill slabs, bricks, etc.) are safe, affordable, and often can be scavenged/repurposed if you aren’t afraid to ask or do some physical labor. 
  2. What is your skill set? Maybe you can work out a trade with someone who can help you build the raised bed. 
  3. Any time you can buy items in bulk, you will save money.
garden sketch and seed catalogs

After doing some research, I plan to purchase new pine lumber from a local box store (easy to find and within my budget). Pine or softwood lumber should last anywhere from 3-5 years. Using commonly available sizes/dimensions, I will be spending approximately $80 (if it lasts 3 years, that’s $27 a year). Cedar boards would cost double the money but they could last closer to 15 years (cedar was out of stock in a lot of locations I checked).

Most stores that sell lumber will cut the lumber for no extra fee. It is sometimes cheaper to buy a longer board and have it cut into smaller pieces for transport. Be sure to plan ahead.

The most expensive part of creating this garden will be the topsoil, since I don’t have any extra in my landscape to use. The soil is an investment and will be a resource that I can use for many years to come to produce nutritious fruits and vegetables.   

raised bed vegetable garden

I used a free cubic feet calculator to figure out an estimate of how much soil I will have to purchase for my 8’ x 4’ x 12” garden. See the calculations below. 

cubic feet calculations

Soil is expensive and hard to transport and handle. I am prepared to do this step over the course of several days or have some people help me. Bagged topsoil usually isn’t the best quality and can add a lot of expense, but the source can be traced if any issue should arise, and also gives anyone with access to any vehicle type/transportation the ability to create a garden. Bulk topsoil and compost is usually sold by the ton or cubic yard, so the free calculators are helpful for figuring out amounts needed. Soil testing is recommended for raised bed gardens. 

            Soil Type         Price
Bagged Topsoil (43 bags of 0.75 cu foot)$110 
2/3 bagged topsoil, 1/3 bagged compost (45 bags)$145 
Bulk topsoil/compost$65   

The bottom line is that the raised bed could cost up to $225 depending on which option I use for soil. Using bagged soil/compost mixed ($145 + $80 lumber) is going to cost the most $225. If I use the bulk topsoil/compost option and use my own farm truck to haul it, it’s only $145. I’ve also budgeted an additional $40 for a 7ft deer fence and landscape fabric. For my family of 4, I am willing to count this raised bed garden as a worthwhile investment of time and money.

Have you used any interesting materials to create a raised bed garden? Do you have questions about a material that you can use to create a garden this season?  Ask your gardening questions here or share your story in the comments.

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

How to plan a garden now — and challenge yourself to try something new

January in western Maryland is not what you would call “prime” gardening season; however, it is one of my favorite times to start thinking and planning for my upcoming gardens and gardening projects. I am lucky to have several season extension tools that get my fingers back in the soil sooner. My mom has a heated greenhouse and we have two high tunnels that allow us to gain several weeks on our short growing season.  

What is your favorite way to plan for the upcoming growing season? One of my favorite tools is the Home and Garden Information Center’s Vegetable Planting Calendar. It provides great guidelines for telling you when and if you should plant vegetables as seeds or seedlings. If you are starting your own seedlings you can use a traditional calendar and figure out what week you want to have plants ready to put in the garden and then use the information found on the back of seed packets to figure out when you want to sow the seeds (count backwards from your goal date). I often sit down in January and start writing dates on the calendar for when I should sow each plant.

calendar with planting dates

I love to grow hybrid spreading petunias and they are often the first seeds that we sow in the greenhouse because they grow incredibly slow. I purchased a seedling heat mat several years ago and it has been the best investment for getting better, faster germination rates.  

I try to challenge myself to try at least one new vegetable or flower each year so that I can expand my knowledge and get outside of my comfort zone. A few years ago, I tried globe artichokes, which were beautiful foliage plants as well as flowers, although, I have to admit, I didn’t actually eat any of them. 

artichoke flower and foliage

We found that aphids loved the foliage for some reason. You can see the sooty mold growing here on the aphid honeydew (waste). This is a sign that you have an aphid infestation hiding on the underside of the leaves. 

artichoke with sooty mold

Last year I tried eucalyptus! This is a eucalyptus plant growing with other vegetables in the high tunnel. It did well, but would have benefited from having more space. It was just recently harvested for fresh cut flowers in this picture.


I also tried companion planting by adding nasturtium and radishes to our cucumber hills in order to reduce cucumber beetle damage. I have to say, I think it helped, but it did look like a jungle.

nasturtiums and cucumbers

Did you have any gardening disappointments last year? Are there truly any failures with gardening though? Don’t we always learn something from the experience? If you had trouble with a plant disease, you can find a hybrid variety to help combat the problem. Cornell University has a good list of disease-resistant vegetable varieties. This year we are planning to try a hybrid disease-resistant variety of tomato called ‘Abigail’, as that is my oldest daughter’s name.

If you had an insect problem, look for a natural predator that you could attract. Is there a plant you can put in your garden that the bugs can eat or go to, that you don’t care about losing to insect damage? This is referred to as a trap crop or sacrificial crop.

Here are more photos of things I have tried recently.  

purple and green cauliflower
Colored cauliflower, self-blanching varieties. There is no need to tie the leaves up around the heads for blanching.

zinnias yarrow and sunflowers
Left: Mixed zinnias (annual) with yarrow (perennial). Right: Miniature sunflowers are a refuge for all kinds of beneficial insects.

As I look outside at the several inches of snow blanketing my garden, I cannot help but be excited for the upcoming growing season. Having a nice hot cup of tea and the latest seed catalog doesn’t hurt either.

I hope you are inspired to try something new this season. Remember that often we learn the most through our challenges and they often make us more passionate about gardening, so don’t be afraid to try something new in 2021!

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

Want to start a vegetable garden? Here’s how.

Leafy greens growing last spring at the Derwood Demo Garden (currently closed). Greens like these can be planted now.

[UPDATE: The situation with Covid-19 is changing rapidly in Maryland. Since this article was published, Maryland Governor Hogan issued a stay-at-home order for Maryland residents, effective March 30, 2020 at 8:00 p.m. This prohibits trips outside the home for non-essential items. We encourage you to follow current state guidance and use home delivery options for supplies.]

In this time of uncertainty, many of us are reaching for a trowel. But if you’re a beginning gardener, or have never grown your own food before, you probably have a lot of questions. Please make your first stop the Home and Garden Information Center – read the vegetable gardening information, and feel free to ask an expert.

You may be thinking about starting a garden because of worries that the food chain will be interrupted. Or because you have children at home, and planting seeds and watching them grow is a great lesson. Or because you need a distraction and some exercise. Whatever the reason, we encourage you to jump right in. But if you’re starting from scratch, here are a few caveats:

  • At this point, there’s no reason to worry that you’ll need to sustain yourself with a Victory Garden, and that’s a good thing, because it is difficult to produce a family’s needs from the garden you can start this year. Consider your home-raised produce a supplement.
  • You will most likely need to spend some money beyond simply buying seeds, unless you’ve already prepared your soil or filled some raised beds and containers.
  • You will probably need to make some trips outside your home, although delivery of materials may also be a possibility.
  • Remember that gardening does require regular maintenance; you need to keep up with weeding, watering, and harvesting.

That said, let’s get started. First, as of the date of this blog post, garden centers, nurseries, and big box stores have been declared essential businesses and therefore can still be open in Maryland. However, a few have closed to the public and others may follow, so always call before you visit. This way you also find out about availability of items, changed hours, health protocols, and delivery options. If you live in a different state, please check current regulations.

Many online retailers are doing a booming business in gardening supplies right now. As long as stock doesn’t run out, most of what you need for gardening can be ordered online and delivered to your door, but prices may be higher, particularly for bulky items like soil and compost. Local is better for those materials.

Where to put your garden

Your garden should be sited in the sunniest space available (at least 6 hours a day of full sun) and close to a water source. Container gardens can be grown on a deck, balcony, patio, or any other space. Raised beds can be tucked in close to your house; in-ground gardens can be of any size. (More on garden planning here.)

In this region we have lots of animal friends who like to munch on your garden plants. If you don’t have a fence around your property already, you will likely need to fence your garden area. There are lots of fencing options, but if you’re in a hurry a quick fix of stakes and plastic or wire fencing is better than nothing.

Types of gardens

  • Container gardens. Plant pots can be purchased in stores or ordered online. If you decide to reuse buckets or other containers not intended for growing plants, make sure they are very clean and didn’t originally contain toxic materials. Containers need to be large enough for plants to thrive; for example, tomatoes need at least a 5-gallon or 14-inch wide pot, and bigger is better. Use a potting mix to fill the containers, not real soil.
  • Raised beds. You can buy pre-made raised beds online for a price. You can also make your own with purchased lumber (pressure-treated is safe) or even with non-toxic materials you may find around your yard, like cinderblocks, stones, or logs. If you have lumber but no construction skills or hardware, place the boards as you want them and drive pieces of rebar into the ground on the outside to hold them in place. Raised beds can be filled with a mix of soil and compost, or (in these challenging times) with just about any bagged mix labeled “garden soil” or “raised bed mix.” (Normally I might be fussy and pedantic about the contents of these mixes, but this is not the moment.)
  • In-ground gardens. Most of us don’t have good soil for growing vegetables without putting in some work. Whether your base is hard clay or loose sand, you will need to add some compost to get started. When starting a garden, put down a few inches of compost and dig or till it in; as you grow, continue to add compost on top and let the earthworms and your own planting help it penetrate to where it’s needed. Using mulches such as shredded leaves or straw (not hay, because of the seeds) will help add more organic material to your soil. That said, the first year’s harvest may be limited if your starting soil was very poor. It may be a good idea to begin with raised beds or containers, and prepare an in-ground garden for next year. Grow your soil first! Here is some more information about getting a garden bed ready, especially if you have turf to remove.

Some things you will need to get a garden started besides the above:

  • Seeds. It’s a good idea to plan the year’s garden now and purchase your seeds before they run out, but please pay attention to the calendar and don’t waste seeds by trying to grow heat-loving plants outside when the soil and air are too cold. If you’re interested, you can learn about indoor seed-starting and get your tomatoes and peppers going now. Otherwise you can buy those plants. Some seeds can be started in a garden now, such as lettuce, radishes, kale, and other cool-season plants (but don’t try to grow those when the weather warms up). Seeds can be bought at local stores or online; also consider asking on neighborhood email lists if anyone has seeds to trade. Maybe you can start a local gardening group with contact-free front porch exchanges.
  • Plants. Again, you can buy these locally or online (with shipping charges). You may be better off buying plants that would otherwise need to be started from seed indoors, like the above-mentioned tomatoes and peppers, or broccoli, cauliflower, and other cool-season plants that can go into the garden now. Many vegetables can be started directly from seed in the garden and are cheaper that way. Consult our crop profiles to find out about growing any particular plant.
  • Tools. Depending on the type of gardening you’re doing, you may need a shovel, a trowel, some pruners, a watering can, and maybe a hoe. Also, get a couple of pairs of gardening gloves that are washable. Don’t go crazy buying tools until you have settled on your own gardening style. A wheelbarrow or garden cart is great to have for larger gardens, but it’s a big investment. Start small.
  • Mulch. Mulch protects your soil, keeps weeds down, and helps you water less. Leaves, straw, compost, or other organic materials work well. You can also use bagged shredded mulch; just make sure it is not forming a solid mass that water can’t penetrate. Looser wood chips work better for wider areas, and you can sometimes get these free (if only in large quantities) from tree services. If you are preparing a garden for next year, consider signing up for ChipDrop and requesting enough chips to cover a large area thickly; they will decay in place and form great soil. (In that case, you will definitely need a wheelbarrow.)
  • Fertilizer. It’s good to have a basic all-purpose fertilizer on hand to deal with nutrient deficiencies in your crops. Use according to directions, please – more is not better!

Some other notes:

  • Soil testing. We normally recommend testing your soil before you start, but this may be challenging this spring as many labs have shut down. If there is any chance that your soil contains toxic chemicals, please use containers and raised beds for your food gardening until your soil can be tested.
  • Compost quality. Please do not use manures that haven’t been fully composted (and never use dog, cat, or human waste on gardens). If you have your own compost pile, make sure composting is finished before spreading. The compost should be crumbly and fresh-smelling, and have no recognizable bits of its original components. You may be able to get deliveries of compost or soil mixed with compost from garden centers, or purchase in bags.
  • Pest control. Prepare for this; you can read about various pests on the HGIC website and learn about floating row cover. First-time gardeners often have “beginner’s luck” when it comes to insect pests – they just haven’t found you yet! – but it’s good to be ready.
  • Flowers. It’s great to plant some flowers in your vegetable garden! Flowers help bring in pollinators and other beneficial insects. Plus they cheer us up with their bright colors. Also plant some herbs to make your meals more interesting, and let them go to flower – bees love those too.

We’ll have more posts in coming weeks to help you on your gardening journey! Stay well and safe, friends.


By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more by Erica.

Gardening resolutions 2020

Happy New Year! At the beginning of January we typically think through what we plan to do better in the coming twelve months in all aspects of our lives, whether that’s reading more books or committing to a fitness program or eating healthy. Of course we don’t always follow through, but it’s still worth considering what might make our lives better–including our gardening lives! Here’s just a snippet of what I’m focusing on in 2020. Continue reading