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Ask Ruth: Basic Garden Maintenence

May 30, 2012

Dear Ruth,


My wife and I started our first vegetable garden this year. We are a bit worried about fitting it into our busy schedule. Do you have any basic suggestions for us as beginning gardeners?

-Albert and Lucy
Asheville


Dear Albert and Lucy,

Congratulations for jumping in and planting something to eat. Harvesting dinner right from your own garden is always a thrill. Here are a few hints to help streamline your garden chores, so that you can spend less time on maintenance and more time enjoying the fruits of your labors. Big, tough weeds and bug-eaten plants are discouraging to most of us, so strive to minimize those problems.

Mulch immediately.

If your gardening time must be squeezed in between your kids’ summer activities, work, making dinner, and keeping up with the rest of your life…mulch is your savior!

Mulch will suppress the weeds and help retain moisture in your soil. If you mulch generously, your garden will look pretty good all summer no matter what else happens. As soon as you have planted and watered your transplants, apply mulch about two inches thick and (in general) don’t let the mulch touch the stem of the plants. Wait to mulch freshly seeded areas until the baby plants have sprouted and the seedlings are easy to see. Make sure the soil is moist before mulching, and wait to mulch warm weather crops (like pepper and tomatoes) until the soil is nice and warm. Wheat straw is an excellent mulch, but many materials can be used as mulch – such as hay (may be weedy), old carpet, un-waxed cardboard, leaves, cover crops, or compost.

Make it a fun place to be.

Gardening is a great family activity. If you have children, make a bean teepee or a sunflower house for them to play in (mulch the floor) while you work in the garden. Let your kids pick out a few favorites to plant (beans, zinnias and sunflowers are easy success stories). Have a bench nearby in the shade for enjoying a lemonade or beer break. Your bench can be as simple as a board and two concrete blocks.

Start small.

Smaller is easier to keep maintained, and if your garden is well maintained you are going to feel better about the whole endeavor.

Relax.

Your garden doesn’t have to be perfect. Every gardener is learning from their mistakes every year – no matter how long they have been gardening.

Retrain yourself to harvest before you buy.

Most of us grew up with “the store” as our default mode for food. Company is coming and you are in a hurry. Stop. Reprogram your default mode to “check your garden first.” Don’t let those beautiful lettuces (or whatever) sit in the garden. They won’t hold forever. Pick them at their prime – before they bolt and you can’t eat them.

Harvest regularly.

Even if the weeds are waist-high and freaking you out, try to harvest from your garden every other day. Harvesting regularly will keep the produce coming. The whole reason you have a garden is to eat the food. Nobody likes giant woody okra or baseball-bat squash. Refrigerate your pickings for a couple of days to compile enough to make your favorite dish, or cut up delicate baby veggies to eat raw in salads or with dips. Oh, and if you have more produce than you can eat…share the love and give some to your neighbors and co-workers!

Water regularly, but not everyday.

Veggie gardens need at least one inch of water per week to maintain healthy plants. When you water deeply, one or two waterings per week is adequate for established plants. For disease prevention, use a watering wand, soaker hose, or drip irrigation to keep the water off the plant foliage. Water in the early morning so that leaves are dry by evening. Use a rain gauge to determine whether you need to water (a tuna fish can will suffice). A drought-stressed plant is more susceptible to insects and disease issues.

Fertilize regularly.

This depends on your soil and its particular attributes. If your plants start looking lame with poor color and vigor, it is time to fertilize. I suggest side-dressing with an organic fertilizer like Harmony or Plant-Tone. You can use a liquid fertilizer like Neptune’s Harvest. On the other hand, too much nitrogen produces lots of succulent growth that is a magnet for insects and disease. And don’t waste fertilizer on plants that are past their prime.

Pest Control Strategies:
A pest can be an insect or a disease. Start things off right by planting pest-resistant varieties. Keep your plants healthy with adequate water and nutrients. A healthy plant is less susceptible to pests. Good air circulation helps reduce disease issues. Scout your garden regularly, and tackle any issues quickly before the problem multiplies.

Squish any bad bug or larvae that you see. Keep a (preferably unbreakable plastic) jar of soapy water down in your garden. Hand-pick insects off your plants and drop them into your jar of soapy water where they will not live to reproduce. Don’t wait around for an all out invasion to begin taking action – nip it in the bud. Remember to identify before you squish – many of the insects you will see in your garden are actually beneficial — see a beneficial insect guide here.

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) specifically targets soft-bodied caterpillars (like the green caterpillars that adore eating cole crops such as broccoli and kale, and tomato hornworms). Bt is considered a “soft” approach since it will only affect caterpillars that are eating your vegetables. The caterpillar must eat the Bt, so spray it on all sides of the leaves and repeat according to directions. Dipel DF is an OMRI (Organic Materials Review Board) approved Bt.  (More info here.) When you start seeing holes in the plant leaves, carefully examine the edges of the leaves and right next to the stems/veins for little green caterpillars. Smaller caterpillars manage to stay well-camouflaged; they are very hard to see and therefore they are harder to hand-pick than a more colorful pest.

Avoid Broad Spectrum Insecticides if possible.

Unlike Bt, they target many insects – including beneficial insects, and sometimes bees and other pollinators. Some broad spectrum insecticides include Neem Oil, Spinosad, and Pyrethums.

Diseases:

There are a number of OMRI approved fungicides such as Serenade, Actinovate, Oxidate, and Surround. Copper is another very effective fungicide (certified organic growers may need to check which brands are allowed) that can be especially helpful with tomato blight. These are best applied preventatively to crops that are predictably susceptible like tomatoes (blight) and squash (powdery mildew).

Early and Late Tomato Blight go hand-in-hand with tomato growing in Western North Carolina. I’m going to say it right out loud…even though they are tastier, heirloom tomatoes go first when blight hits.

Once your plant has blight, there is not much you can do. You must be pro-active, plan ahead, and take preventative measures:

  1. Spray with a fungicide once a week (See fungicide list above. Tom Elmore recommends copper sprays under the cover of a high tunnel) – beginning when you first plant, and thoroughly coating the plant each time.
  2. Water at the base of the plant so the leaves stay dry and water regularly to prevent Blossom End Rot.
  3. Mulch the tomatoes so blight won’t bounce up from the soil on to the plant.
  4. Maintain good air circulation around the plants and in the garden area.
  5. There are blight resistant tomato varieties that were developed in WNC at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center. They may not be as tasty as heirlooms, but blight resistant tomatoes may be key to enjoying a bountiful tomato harvest in the mountains. These varieties often have “Mountain” in the name, such as ‘Mountain Merit’, ‘Mountain Fresh’, and ‘Mountain Magic’. Tom Elmore recommends ‘NC 144’. It looks like an heirloom, tastes great, and his customers love it.

Here is the simple version…mulch right away, harvest every other day – before hitting the grocery store, apply adequate water and fertilizer, deal with insects and diseases sooner rather than later, and enjoy yourself and your harvest.

Best wishes,
Ruth

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at http://tailgatemarketfanclub.wordpress.com. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Ask Ruth © 2010 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School
Gardeners: Got a question for Ruth? Email it to us!

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