We often forget in our busy lives to take time out to observe our canvas before we start creating something on it. Just like a skier or snowboarder usually takes a moment to pick a line, we as gardeners should set aside a few moments before we get to work. Watch the direction that the sun travels in and where its shadows are. Look at your landscape and observe the terrain. Good planning can save you lots of time, countless gallons of water and provide for a successful, abundant harvest.

If you want to build your garden on a slope, take some time to do a little terracing or dig a swale. (A swale is basically a ditch that allows excess ground water to collect in before slipping away down a hill with needed water and potentially useful nutrients.) Choose a location that offers enough sun and shade for the plants you are growing.

If on flat ground, watch to see that there is good drainage so that water does not get stuck in the area you are looking to cultivate. If there is no good drainage, either look for a new spot or use plants that like wet feet. Or, encourage better drainage by adding more porous soil or digging a trench around your grow space to redirect your water flow. One can save a lot of energy when working with the natural terrain instead of choosing a locale that one has to work against.

Next, check your soil. The plants that are above ground are a direct reflection of the soil biology that is subterranean. Is your natural soil good for growing or does it need to be amended, or even replaced, in this space? Measure the pH and see if it matches the needs of your plants. If not, buffer it so that it does. If you need to create a soil mix, the DIY approach is definitely not the best way for beginning gardeners.

There are many organic soil blends that can be purchased from your local gardening or hydroponics shop. Just make sure it is actually organic; also, it is even better if it’s inoculated with beneficial bacteria or mycorrhizae. Good soil biology is one of the most important factors when taking into account the vitality of your soil, so whether you choose to use the soil from the Earth or use soil from bags, make sure to inoculate it with beneficials.

Also consider what you want to grow in your garden. Do a little research when choosing your plant species. Not only will some plants flourish more in your growing zone than others, but some species have different requirements within their own varietals. Again, work with nature as much as possible.

Choose shade-loving plants for areas that are not soaked in all day sun, and avoid planting cool-loving plants in the middle of a full-sun zone. However, remember that shade cloth is one way you can cool down the area you are planting during the summer months. When building a plant nursery, try to find a place with some direct sun and some filtered light as these conditions are great for plants that are still young and aren’t ready to be transplanted into the main garden. Your land’s water capabilities might also direct the plant you choose (based on the plant’s water needs).

Mulching is a great way to provide a healthy environment for your plant. It keeps the weeds down, cools the soil temperature and retains more water in the soil. However, make sure to leave a little ring around the base of your plant so as to not build moisture on the stock and cause rot. Choose a mulch that does not reseed, and observe your mulch to make sure it is not becoming a condominium for local pests that might eat your food before you do.

A healthy plant is much less susceptible to pests and disease than a plant that is stressed in any manner. Therefore, maintain a proper preventative diet for your plants by keeping them well watered, nourished and cared for. (After all, the farmer’s shadow is the best preventative for any disease to the plant.) If, however, you are visited by any of these unwanted guests, always look to organic and natural methods first.

When it comes to pests, the best first start—if the plant is not infested—is integrated pest management (IPM). In this method, beneficial bugs eat pests. IPM can be started by adding certain plant species that will attract beneficial bugs to your garden—remember that monocrop planting does not create that biodiversity that nature yearns for—or by introducing the good bugs yourself. University of California, Davis offers an amazing free site for identifying pests.

Look at nature and learn from her. The garden ideally should be a place of awe and rejuvenation. It is also the cheapest form of psychological counseling, and it will cut down the cost of your grocery and medical bills. So, garden with your kids and your friends. Take some time to sit with your garden. Rejoice in the food that keeps you nourished, and look at your food as medicine. Most importantly try and have some fun.