Problem:

Your soil is devoid of life. Bacteria and fungi are depleted. You can't afford to bolster the soil with costly fungi inoculants or bacteria concoctions for a while.

The Next Best Thing:

Worms and casting teas complete a garden patch in many ways. Earthworms benefit gardens by enhancing the soil in the most natural manner possible. They dig and burrow their way through the soil, creating channels and air passages that help the earth retain aerobic conditions below the surface.

But getting earthworms to enjoy your garden habitat is a lengthy chore and would require reams of organic matter. For them to set up camp permanently in your garden soil is simply not feasible.

Red wrigglers like compost and fresh organic matter and plenty of it. Growers can make a hearty brew of worm tea from their castings that can be used as foliar sprays or drenched on plant rooting zones. Worm castings are now widely available, as the vermicomposting craze has begun in North America. Castings are usually suspended in water, mixed with sugars and air brewed for a few days.

Bubbled to an aerobic froth, they laterally team with bacteria that provide nutrients. These watery teas become filled with micro-organisms that plants love and thrive in. Teas can be diluted and applied to plant leaves and root zones. They leave behind a plethora of beneficial products that are readily absorbed by plants' root systems.

Problem:

You haven't had the time to water your plants as frequently as you want to. It is hot and dry and your plants are beginning to wilt.

The Next Best Thing:

Ask family and friends to help with watering chores. Purchase inexpensive, battery-operated irrigation timers and set up hoses, sprinkler heads, flow monitors and tank fill shut-off valves. Raised tanks and containers use gravity for drip irrigation lines that provide a constant flow of water when you are not there. Finally, mulch the soil to conserve moisture over longer intervals.

Soil moisture content plays a critical role in the movement of fruit-building calcium and other micro-nutrients in the soil and its uptake by roots. Without sufficient soil moisture, calcium mobility will be lost. Nutrients are absorbed only by young root tips in which the cell walls of the epidermis are unsuberized. Suberin is a waxy, cork-like substance through which water and nutrients cannot move. Once the suberin layer develops in these cells, water and calcium can no longer be absorbed in sufficient quantities necessary to sustain increased fruit weights and yields.

Avoid drought stress and wide fluctuations in soil moisture by using mulches and irrigation timers. Even a brief soil water deficit can disrupt water and nutrient flow in the plant. If this occurs while fruits are developing, the result is often blossom end rot, pitting and splitting.

Plants generally need about 1 in. of moisture per week from rain or irrigation for proper growth and development. If irrigation of any kind is available, it should be used during periods of hot, drying winds.

Start to irrigate at the beginning of the dry spell. Mulching, which serves to maintain an even level of soil moisture, should be practised where feasible. Caution is required, as mulches containing high ammonium should be restricted. Leaves and straw that are high in carbon make the best mulches.

Problem:

Insects are attacking your plants, causing injury and disease issues, but costly insecticides are out of the question.

The Next Best Thing:

Consider integrated pest management and the use of insect traps to keep the bugs under control. IPM involves the use of regular monitoring and observation to establish pest infestation levels. Traps and lures allow for the use of pesticides as only a last line of defense.

Insect traps use a lure of some kind--food, color, shape, light or pheromones--as bait for capturing and controlling damaging pests. Pheromones are highly effective chemicals released into the environment in small amounts by insects to attract others. They are specific to species and can stimulate males or females.

Traps can be used to detect small insect populations that may not require pesticide use. They are easy to install and monitor, are generally non-toxic, can be used all season long and there are many low budget types available. The use of insect traps and lures also goes hand-in-hand with a friendly and healthy environment, as growers don't need to don personal protective equipment during their use.

Problem:

You're concerned about powdery mildew on your plants. You have purchased some fungicides that would work well for your intended purposes, but you are considering a more natural approach this year.

The Next Best Thing:

There are some good, natural remedies for mildew problems on plants. While milk and baking soda are effective alternatives, they need to be reapplied often, especially after watering, resulting in time-consuming spraying chores.

The most effective solution to this problem is to apply phosphites through foliar canopy sprays and root drenching products. Phosphites control disease while enhancing systemic growth properties. They are also thought to boost plant vigor and vitality while hiking yields and fruit weights to loftier levels.

Not to be confused with phosphates (P), which contain an extra cation of oxygen, phosphites differ from common P forms by being highly soluble and generally unstable in the rhizosphere, so they are easily absorbed by plant roots and leaves, moving up through the xylem and into the phloem. Phosphites distribute macro mineral elements to all parts of a plant's vascular system.

Phosphites are relatively benign to fungi, bacteria and other soil fauna. Similar to a slow-release fertilizer, molecules are eventually transformed by microbes into phosphates within the soil and plants by accumulating an extra oxygen atom.

The result is often higher concentrations of root building, highly soluble and available P and the accompanying cations. When combined with positive cation formulations of nitrogen, potassium, calcium, boron, manganese or magnesium, the instability and solubility of phosphite helps to release extra cations of these important elements into the soil solution. Phosphites are also known to control soil-borne diseases such as phytophthora through a systemic acquired response within the plant.

Problem:

Soil and garden health has deteriorated mainly through the loss of organic matter and the breakdown of the soil's sub-structure through compaction. You have limited ability to amend the soil with organic matter or soil conditioners.

The Next Best Thing:

To improve drainage and air exchange, consider subsoiling (deep tilling), chisel plowing and double-digging to improve air and water infiltration. Garden and greenhouse soil quality can change rapidly in modern, heavily amended plots.

The indicator of the overall health or quality of your soil is the soil's fitness to support a large, vibrant system of roots that move plants to maturity while achieving maximum yields. Grower activities, including movement over the soil of heavy equipment and foot traffic along with poor tilling practices, can reduce soil health, lower yields and result in soil compaction.

Compaction or degradation of soil structure reduces seedling root development, restricts entry and movement of air and water into and through soil, increases the risk of erosion and reduces fruit weights.

Soils are particularly vulnerable to structural degradation when they are fine-textured, wet and low in organic matter content. In the backyard garden, years of adding organic matter and shallow tilling can result in stratified layers of soil-the upper layers often consist of richly amended organic matter while the lower substructures contain clay.

Lower-level stratified soils have small particles (such as clay) and allow only slow movement of water and contaminants through the soil. Soil compaction happens when soil particles are pressed tightly together.

Reducing the pore space between them greatly increases the soil's bulk density. The loss of large pore spaces decreases the oxygen supply to roots, restricting their growth, and hastens the probability of anaerobic root diseases. Reducing the drainage of water out of the soil concentrates nutrients and further restricts growth.

Maintaining the soil's sub-structure is just as essential to sustaining long-term productivity as amending the upper soil levels with organic matter. Good sub-structure means that restricted aeration and drainage do not limit a plant's total root mass and allows for deeper-rooted plants that are better able to withstand climate fluctuations. Opening up the sub-soil results in lower concentrations of anaerobic root diseases, lower concentrations of stored water and nutrients in the lower layers and enhanced aeration and drainage.