I've had my share of gardening disasters, including a less-than-friendly exchange with neighborhood squirrels. To ensure that we both have a more fruitful garden this season, I got a little advice from Deborah Harrison, general manager of Atlanta's Habersham Gardens. As a New England girl who fell in love with a Southerner with a green thumb, Harrison’s passion for gardening developed over time. Follow her expert tips, and perhaps you will have a new passion — and a full pantry — by this time next year.

Ease up on the water

While water guidelines vary by vegetable, Harrison suggests that you wait until the soil dries out a bit before watering plants. “Less is more,” she warns. “If you overwater tomatoes, not only are you flirting with fungus and other types of root rot; you are also affecting the flavor of your tomatoes.” Lettuce, a cool-weather crop, currently is thriving in Harrison’s home garden. Atlanta’s recent blanket of snow kept this moisture-loving crop happy. Once the snow melted, she added a sprinkle of water only when necessary.

Prep your soil

More than perennials, Harrison says, vegetables need permeable soil so that roots can push through, spread and thrive. “People think ‘Mother Nature provides soil; all I need to do is put the plant in and wait for the harvest,’” Harrison says. “It doesn’t work like that.”

What does work is grabbing a rototiller and digging about 12 inches into the soil before mixing in a soil amendment. This allows moisture to drain away from plants. To determine the amount necessary for your backyard, consult a gardening center or your local cooperative extension office, a network of colleges and universities that offers gardening information for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. For more information, check out a previous column about how to determine what will grow in your yard.

“The extension service is one of the finest services we have for gardening,” she notes. “They are staffed by people who understand local soil and know what vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees will grow in your area.”

Offer plenty of breathing room

Plant your seedlings far apart so they have room to grow. “You usually end up with 50 or 100 plants when you only have space for 12,” Harrison says, adding that nothing will thrive if there is too much competition. “Don’t try to accommodate 50 seedlings. Take every other one out.”

The same rule applies to larger plants. Some tomatoes want 3 feet of space, she says. “Even though they look tiny, they need space, nutrients and soil to thrive and do well,” she says.

Monitor moisture levels

Harrison considers mulch a must-have year round. “It keeps the cold out in the winter, and keeps moisture in during the summer,” she says. Just avoid adding too much mulch around the plant stems, Harrison warns. “Fungus is a primary problem with veggies, due to too much moisture around the crown of the plant,” she says.

A ladybug eats aphids on a stem Not only do ladybugs look good in your garden, but they love eating pesty insects. (Photo: Christian Musat/Shutterstock)

Don’t let insects bug you

“There are two schools of thought when it comes to insects: Either you nuke them or you don’t,” Harrison says. “Our philosophy is a non-nuke one, so we use organic means; sometimes that means picking off Japanese beetles by hand.” To control tomato-loving hornworms, she cuts them with garden scissors. “It’s not the most fun, but it gets the job done,” Harrison says. “Get in there within the first few days of seeing them.”

She also suggests doing your homework before waging war with insects. “See if that caterpillar is the one that will eat tomatoes, or is it really a butterfly,” Harrison says. “There are good caterpillars, too.” Ladybugs also do a great job in the garden.

Habersham Gardens purchases and sells ladybugs that have been collected naturally. “They eat the bad guys, like aphids,” Harrison says. “Follow the rules regarding how to release them and they will munch away on all the garden pests. My granddaughter thinks ladybugs are the best thing going.”

If you really want to take out the bad bugs, Harrison says that installing a bat enclosure will do the trick. My colleague Matt Hickman also shared a garden-friendly nugget of information that explains why bats are Mother Nature’s best exterminators: A single little brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. They also enjoy gnats, beetles and wasps. That will make it much more tolerable to actually tend to your garden this summer.

Note that greener insecticides require patience

To prevent the growth of insects, try spraying plants with diluted dishwashing liquid, which smothers tiny larvae. Just be prepared to repeat this approach on a regular basis. Harrison says the solution washes away every time you water the plant. Keep a bottle near your garden.

Invest in support crops

Many pests find the scent of marigolds displeasing, Harrison says. So be sure to add a few to your garden as a natural preventative. It’s also a good idea to mix other plants, simply for the visual appeal.

“[There's] Nothing more beautiful than an okra plant growing with other tall plants,” she says. “I tend to mix ornamentals with food products. Just make sure you plant ornamentals that don’t need more water than your vegetables.” Daisies and marigolds tend to hold up well in a garden, Harrison says, especially compared to “water sissies” like hydrangeas.

Turn the garden into a family project

Harrison loves to grow sweet potatoes and beans in water with her grandchildren before planting them outside. Peppers also make fun and colorful projects for the kids, even if they don’t love eating them. “It’s definitely more likely that they will try with an open mind plants that they’ve grown themselves,” she says. “Sweet potatoes from the garden are smaller than ones at the grocery store — more concentrated. My dog loves the peels more than anything.”

Harrison also is partial to winter squash, baby okra and vine-ripened tomatoes from the backyard. As for preparing these yummy veggies, she suggests a dash of salt and pepper, and a little balsamic vinegar, or a quick sauté in olive oil.

“Nothing tastes better than plants right out of the ground — from the ground to the plant to sauté pan.”

Yum. I can see Mother Nature smiling now.

How to get your vegetable garden off to a good start
Follow these eight tips and you'll have plenty of success this year.