by Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA
My husband and I grow most of what we eat. We buy a few basics and essentials, salt, baking soda, yeast, some spices that I cannot grow, plus some things like oatmeal, rice and cocoa. Definitely cocoa. My husband Khoke (pronounced Ko-kee), claims he could bait a trap with chocolate and catch me even if I knew it was a trap. So yes, we will be buying cocoa until they quit selling it. If that happened, then I don’t know… we may have to consider migration…
If we had to buy all we eat there is no way we could afford it. And I like having my husband home too much to give him up to a high paying job half my life just so we can eat well. Good food is expensive. Grass fed beef and dairy, free range chickens, organic and non-GMO fruit, vegetables, grain, honey, and maple syrup. So, we skip the high paying jobs and live on less, spending our lives in each other’s company and growing what we eat.
How much should be planted anyway?
It takes quite a bit of planning to grow what you eat, on beyond just growing what sounds good to eat fresh. You need to think about what you eat, or at least what you want to eat. Then consider, how much of this do you eat in a year? How are you going to preserve it in a way that you will use? How much of it can you realistically grow?
People have often asked me; how can I know how many tomatoes I need to can? Well, how many times a week or a month, on average, do you use tomato products in your meals? Let your estimates be generous. Multiply that out for the year. So, if you use about 3 pints of salsa a month, then you need about 36 pints for a year. Cap it off to forty for a nice even number. This accounts for a possible jar dropped and broken or a party that has it on the menu. Now count up the other tomato products you need/use.
Let’s say you now have an idea for how much you need for your family for a year. How does that translate in a garden? A tomato plant technically can produce a bushel of tomatoes per season. But soil, bugs, weather, and life in general are rarely ideal so 1/4 – 1/2 bushel per plant is maybe more realistic. When planning my garden, I break it down to how much I will need per adult. So, I plant 1-2 cherry tomato plants total and then maybe 2 slicing tomato plants per person for fresh eating and then about 12 Roma’s per person for canning on an average year. If I am trying to get ahead on canning, I may plant 25 tomato plants per person.
This is per adult. You will want to cut it back for children. Does little Jimmy or Jane eat half as much as you do or a quarter? Your teenager may be eating half again as much as you do, or more. Remember that growing children will be requiring a little more every year, one Sugar Baby watermelon at snack time may have been enough last year, but this year it may take more. Figure these things into your formula.
Keeping a gardening journal will help you keep track of your needs. I just use my wall calendar to chart what, when and how much I plant and harvest. I save my calendar and put it under the next year’s calendar so I can easily reference it to compare weather and planting to this year. So, you learned that 25 zucchini plants were excessive when maybe you really only needed two. Or, as much as you hate weeding onions, you really needed twice as many. It doesn’t hurt to plant a little extra to account for possible loss. I almost always lose a couple squash plants so I plant a couple extra to anticipate this. My garden flooded with spring rains one year. I lost over 25% of my tomatoes. I replanted. I shared some of my butternut squash with the squirrels against my will. Planting just a little bit above your exact need is never a bad idea. But 25 zucchini plants when you only need 2 really is excessive. Don’t waste the time, effort and space unnecessarily if you can help it.
The Early Garden
The garden season doesn’t really start in the spring. I’m pretty sure it starts mid-winter when post-season garden fatigue has worn off and those beautiful seed catalogs start showing up in my mailbox. It may be blowing snow up to the sills but my heart is beginning to prepare the garden.
Ideally spring would show up with the ground already prepared the previous fall and a good cover crop standing in it. Then as soon as it is dry enough to work the soil in early spring it can be reworked in preparation for the early garden.
When working the soil in preparation for planting, you want it fairly dry. Too wet of soil makes big matted clumps of dirt that don’t break apart easily after they are dry. The smoother the ground is worked the easier it is to plant and then the easier it is for seed to germinate. They don’t have to try to push big clods aside or try to grow around them.
Seeds need to be planted when the soil is warm enough for them to germinate. When it is too cold, their internal thermostat tells them to stay dormant. Some of the earliest things that I direct seed are peas and lettuce. Some seed, such as beans, corn and some brassicas will just rot if left in too cool and moist of soil too long without sprouting. And other seed, such as lettuce can be sown in very late fall after the soil is too cold, to sit and wait until spring when they’ll sprout as soon as the soil suits them to grow in.
Small plots of soil can be warmed in advance of planting but these plants may need additional care and protection. A small(ish) plot of soil can have the temperature raised a couple degrees by spreading black plastic over the prepared soil. Using black house wrap or lumber wrap may be the most practical. Spread it out, black side up, block it down and let it stay a few days. It would do little if anything on cloudy/overcast days but on sunny days the solar heat would be caught and trapped by the black plastic and should warm the soil under it.
As you lay out your garden, what kind of aisle do you want? Are you cultivating with horse, tractor, tiller or by hand and hoe? As you space your rows you need to account for how much space you need for your method of choice to maintain your aisles. Aisles love to grow weeds too. Your garden can be half the size or grow twice as much if your aisles are only a footpath for you and maintained by hand tools. But you have to be willing to commit to that extra work.
Seeds and transplants are very small and their infancy can look exaggerated in the broad blanket of prepared garden plot. Those zucchinis can take up to a square yard of space at maturity, as can mature tomatoes. Resist the urge to plant those innocent little pepper plants 6 inches apart, they really need about 18 inches. Watermelons really do need at least 8 ft of space between rows or they will crawl into your bean row like they did to mine last year, and they might anyway. Some squash and gourds need more than 12 ft spacing between rows. I had some birdhouse gourds overtake two rows of watermelons one year.
If you are cultivating in any way and have planted vining crops across the lower end of your garden, those vines will eventually block your row exit so you cannot turn around when cultivating. Try to keep your vining crops all in a full length row to one side, or planted in rows with other vining crops.
It also helps to plant your garden rows in sections that mature in the same time frame. I like to have my garlic, onions and early garden greens all in a block. Then in early July when the garlic and onions are harvested and the springs greens have bolted from the summer sun, this block can be disced under instead of either being maintained or growing weeds. A cover crop can be planted in this plot or it can be prepared from some fall garden.
Seed packets will usually have planting instructions on the back with general guidelines for seed depth, when to plant, spacing, days to maturity, etc. The seed company with most informative seed packets I’ve seen are those by Botanical Interests. The first time I successfully grew Pak Choi was out of one of their packets.
Seed can be started indoors. If you are reusing old potting containers, they may have the fungal residue of a disease called Damp-Off. Most people who have started seed indoors have seen this. It is when your little tomato plants get about an inch tall and then shrivel at the base of the stem, then the plant tips over and dies. Classic Damp-Off scenario. And it affects a lot more than tomatoes.
There are two ways I have dealt with Damp-Off. The first is preventative. I wash all my pots in soapy water and then dip them in a bleach solution, 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. The other way is when I am feeling lucky (or lazy) and take my chances by not washing my reused pots. I pack them with potting soil and plant as usual and keep them in a sunny spot with good circulation and am very careful to not overwater them. Then I cross my fingers and hope they will be okay.
Reused potting soil also carries Damp-Off. I can take this soil and put it in pans and bake it in the oven to kill any pathogens. Clay pots can also be oven baked to kill fungus. Baking plastic pots is asking for a melted disaster in your oven. Seeds are usually started indoors to extend the season. Who wants to wait for direct seeded tomatoes? I start my tomatoes either indoors or in a cold frame in time to have 6-8 inch-tall plants to transplant in May. But in late May I also like to direct seed some tomatoes in the garden. These younger plants take over when my early tomatoes start looking tired of summer.
Direct-seeding requires attention to correct planting dates. Early spring greens such as arugula, lettuce, cabbage and other brassicas, beets, and carrots are resistant to frosts and can be planted at least a month before the tender summer vegetables such as beans, tomatoes, peppers, and squash.
As you seed your row, be careful not to cover them too deep. Once planted, tamp (press) the soil over the seed just a little to compact the soil lightly. This is to ensure that the seed has full contact with the soil and the moisture in it. It helps them sprout more evenly.
If I have plenty of seed, I like to plant my direct seeded rows rather thick and go back and thin them if I have to. I really hate the time lost to replanting rows with poor germination. If I am short on seed, I will lay a piece of fabric or paper towel on a plate, sprinkle the seed on it and cover it with another layer of fabric, moisten it and put it in a plastic bag in a warm place to sprout them. Depending on the seed it can take 3 days to 2 weeks to get the seed to germinate. Then I carefully plant these sprouts and water them well after planting. Generally sprouted seed or transplants can grow in soil that is colder than what they would naturally sprout in, within reason of course.
Poor direct seed germination can be caused by multiple reasons. The soil may be too cold, or too dry, the seed may be old, the soil was waterlogged after planting and the seed rotted. Or crows walked down the rows and ate all the corn.
An old man named Loman Bailey used to live next door to me in Tennessee. Loman was born at the beginning of the Great Depression in the Land Between the Lakes in the Cumberland River valley. He used to tell how his grandfather taught him to plant corn when the leaves of a slow budding hickory were the size of squirrels’ ears. But I remember a year when he didn’t listen.
My brother happened to be particularly fond of sweet corn and one year he decided that sweet corn couldn’t come too early. So, he built a little greenhouse and started sweet corn in trays and then transplanted them out well before anyone direct seeded any in the ground. He just covered his little patch to protect it from frost if he had to. Unbeknownst to him, the locals had been driving by and noticing that he had corn over 6 inches tall in his garden. Loman was among those who went promptly home and planted corn. However, the soil was still too cold for good germination and a number of our neighbors were discing and replanting a couple weeks later.
As Loman got older, stooping to plant seeds became more difficult but he loved gardening too much to give it up. So, he got a 4 ft length of 1-inch PVC pipe and wired a tin can to it. He’d fill the tin can with bean seed and then drop a bean in the end of the PVC pipe where it would fall exactly where he wanted it to go. Then he’d move his manual seed planter 4 inches farther down the row and drop in another seed.
Unused seed should be stored in some sort of plastic container in the freezer. Washed peanut butter jars work very well. Seed will keep almost indefinitely when frozen. Outside the freezer, the life of a seed can vary widely. Onion seed will only last 1 year, lettuce, tomato and bean seed can all last 5 years if kept in a cool dry place. It won’t maintain perfect germination but some of it should still grow.
There are different types of rows. You can plant in single, double, or triple rows or a general wide-row. You can also plant in hills. Hills are a cluster of 4-5 seed/plants and spaced 2-4 ft apart. This helps localize supplemental compost right at the plant’s roots. This is popular for watermelons and pumpkins. I usually just plant my melon and squash in a single row and sprinkle my compost in the row. Then I give that row several feet from the next row.
I like to use double or wide rows for green beans. For a double row I pull two rows side by side with my hoe. Then I sprinkle in some compost, plant my seed, cover and then tamp. With a wide row I prepare a strip about 2-3 ft wide of loose crumbly soil and then press my bean seed into the soil about every 4-6 inches in each way, creating a grid. These plants will create a short hedge that shades out any chance of weedy competition. They only need weeded when they are little.
Wide rows work great for salad/greens of any kind, carrots, beets, beans, etc. For things like peppers, cabbages (most brassicas) and eggplant, I like to make a staggered double row. The second row of plants has no aisle and the plants are spaced to offset its companions in the next row. This makes a denser row with extra leaf cover to shade the soil and discourage weeds.
For my life and that of my generation, vegetable plants are always transplanted out of plastic containers. One day back when I was in my teens, I was thinking about how much the world has likely changed by the relatively recent invention of plastics. What did people do before them? Then I realized with a start that propagating vegetable plants in advance of the season had to look a lot different at one point and I had a hard time picturing a greenhouse nursery with hundreds of thousands of little clay pots. So, I asked my father what pre-plastic propagation looked like.
He told how back in the early 70’s, his parents sold vegetable plants. They made a couple hot beds; this was either a wooden frame with a glass lid or an old fridge or freezer minus its door and replaced with windows. The bottom was packed with several inches of fresh horse manure (this generates heat), then 3-4 inches of soil covered the manure. In this soil, stripes of seed such as tomatoes, peppers, cabbage etc., would be planted to later transplant out.
They hung a little sign at the end of their driveway and when people came in, they’d ask for maybe 12 bell peppers, 24 cabbage and 24 tomatoes. So, someone would go back to the hot beds, count out the plants, dig them out, wrap them in newspaper, then they were paid for and gone.
In the meantime, plastic presides in our world today. When a person brings their transplants home, often they are at least somewhat rootbound. This is when the roots that would normally spread out are trapped in the plastic casing that holds them and tightly entangle themselves therein. Badly rootbound plants have a hard time recovering from this and some never do, their roots remain fixed in the shape of the container they came out of. It can help your tomatoes and peppers to loosen the roots so they flare out at the bottom as you plant them, they will be free to grow more naturally. Don’t worry about tearing a few roots, tomatoes and peppers are fairly tough. Just water them well and baby them for a couple of days.
The transplants you don’t want to do this to is anything in the squash family. Squash, melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, and gourds all have very tender roots. Disturb these roots as little as possible as you transplant them. Your pot with 2 tomatoes in it can be divided, but your pot with 2 watermelons should not. Dividing could kill them both. Just cut the weaker melon off with scissors.
When you bring plants home from the nursery they have just come from a fairly sheltered, climate-controlled life. If your weather is anything but mild, these plants can suffer from transplant shock. It is good to harden them off a little. They need to be set out where they get a little wind and sun. A little buffering toughens them up but cold turkey exposure to a windy day or hot sun can sunburn or windburn their tender young leaves. Rain can flatten them because they have never yet stood up to a wind-borne deluge.
Cold resistant plants such as cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, all need a little transition time too. Sure, they can take pretty cold temperatures, if they are acclimated to it. Greenhouses keep them pretty warm so they grow fast. If they go from never seeing colder than 70 degrees to living in 30 degrees, they could die. Just bring your tray of transplants home, put them in a relatively sheltered place outdoors and bring them in for a few nights. Expose them to cooler and cooler temperatures over the course of a few days, then they can go in the ground. Once acclimated they can withstand some pretty cold temperatures.
As you set these plants out, you’ll want to make sure your hole is an adequate depth. The roots need fully covered and then pressed lightly. Tomatoes can and should be planted as deep as whatever extra stem they have, leaving 3-4 inches above the ground is sufficient. This stem will grow roots wherever it has soil contact. Don’t pick off the leaves, the buried leaves will grow roots too. There have been times where I planted overly leggy tomato plants with a post hole digger.
I like to make custom amendments to the soil as I plant. Along with the compost I like to add a tablespoon or two of garden lime, Epsom salt and dehydrated molasses. These add trace minerals, lime for calcium, Epsom salt for magnesium, dehydrated molasses for iron and other trace minerals. Blossom end rot is an expression of calcium deficiency. Note that your soil may not be actually deficient in calcium. If it is dry enough to prevent the plant from absorbing the calcium it can show signs of calcium deficiency even if there is nothing wrong with the soil. But if the soil is actually deficient in calcium, administering garden lime will help correct this. Mix this and your other soil additives in with the compost and soil in the hole and blend them well before you plant.
Ash and Toxic Ash
Wood ashes are a great thing to add to your garden soil. They are high in minerals, particularly lime, phosphorus and potassium. Make sure the ashes are not too concentrated in one area, spread them out. Like anything they can be too much of a good thing and can burn plants with the trace amounts of lye in them. Sprinkling a little wood ash in rows can help deter cabbage maggots and other worms that like to burrow into radishes and other vegetable roots.
Be careful to only use wood ash. Never use ash from treated wood or anything that has burned trash. Ashes that have burned any form of plastic with the wood create dioxins that are extremely harmful to your health, as in, they are among the most carcinogenic chemicals on the planet. These should never end up in a garden plot.
The Importance of Minerals
There are macro and micronutrients. Macronutrients are those that plants can handle and need in higher doses like nitrogen that grows your plant top and phosphorus that grows its roots. Sometimes people get so focused on nitrogen that they overdo its application. Plants can be burned with too much nitrogen. Even if they aren’t burned, too much nitrogen can cause too much plant and not enough fruit (or tuber), it can also compromise the storage quality by making vegetables more prone to rotting.
The nutrients easily overlooked are the micronutrients, what the plant needs in minute amounts. When we moved from Ohio to Tennessee, my father planted a strawberry patch as he always had. However, these southern strawberries would get Leaf Spot so bad that it would completely defoliate the plants. Even varieties like EarliGlo, who were supposed to be resistant to the disease Leaf Spot, were affected.
Determined to get to the root of the problem, his persistence finally paid off after a few years. The answer came from a fertilizer specialist in Minnesota. The man listened to what was described and said it seemed to him that between our gravelly soil, high temperatures and rainfall, we had subtropical conditions. This can leach out the nutrients faster than they can be put in. The Leaf Spot problem sounded to him like an increased sensitivity to the disease that could be caused by a magnesium and boron deficiency.
Since my father didn’t grow enough strawberries to be worth buying the expensive fertilizer the fellow had available to sell, he just told him how to make his own homemade version. He told my father to mix 1 teaspoon of Borax and 1 tablespoon of Epsom salt per gallon of water and spray 2-3 applications of this on his patch before they ripen. Once when they were blooming, again when they set fruit, and again post season. The results were stunning. It completely corrected the problem and the foliage was normal for the first time since we had moved south.
The fertilizer specialist, whose name I do not know, cautioned that one should not get carried away when applying Boron/Borax to the soil. Boron is highly toxic when used in excess. Yet as a micronutrient it is essential, but only in very small amounts.
The gardens we grew when I lived between the Buffalo and Tennessee Rivers were planted in soils that were very poor. It was difficult to build up the soil because of the mineral leaching that resulted from the combination of gravelly soil, high rainfall (over 60 inches annually), and the honestly earned reputation for high temperatures.
The fertilizer specialist previously mentioned tipped my father to try holding the nutrients with charcoal. Native cultures were found to farm successfully in South America in the impossibly infertile tropical soils they had. They built their own soil with charcoal. I am not talking about slash and burn which is a shortsighted farming practice. These native cultures instead built the soil by adding large amounts of charcoal to it.
The charcoal itself has little to nothing of itself to offer. But what it does have, is a microscopic network of catacombs that catch and hold nutrients, microorganisms and even water, dramatically slowing the release of these and holding them captive for plants to access when they need it. Putting charcoal in the soil is like putting a pantry in your soil for your plants. Adding too much charcoal at one time could possibly pull nutrients from your soil temporarily as these pores fill.
Charcoal does not rot away. It can remain for thousands of years in fact. Wood rots, but when it is burned partially or heated to a high temperature without oxygen, it makes charcoal. When you burn wood in a stove, some of the wood vaporizes into the smoke we see, some of it turns to charcoal but if left to burn completely will make ash which behaves entirely differently than charcoal. Charcoal becomes much more stable, like a stone rather than wood as it no longer will decompose. It will break into pieces but will not break down in decomposition.
My father decided to see what would happen if he added charcoal to our soil. He had a 30’ x 60’ greenhouse that he filled with early tomatoes. The seed was started around Christmas every year and so our wood-heated greenhouses had to be stoked nearly all winter. Instead of letting the wood burn all the way down to ash, he would shovel the bed of coals out while they glowed red, hose them with some water to stop the burning process and then this charcoal was spread over a particular field. That next year, the corn we grew there showed a noticeable difference for the better over the next plot which had no charcoal.
The South American cultures are not the only ones who created their own soil fertility with charcoal. Evidence of this has been found in locations ranging from Australia, India, Japan and on up through parts of Europe. But among the most well-known examples are those found in the Terra Preta in the Amazon Basin in Brazil where large areas of land had its soil permanently changed from poor to rich. Even though the work was done over 2000 years ago the soil there still benefits from the charcoal in it today.
People today are remembering the long-term benefits that can come from building the soil with charcoal. You can buy Biochar, or you can make your own. The ancient people used to make earthen pits, get the wood burning in it and then cover it with mud to smolder the fire to make charcoal. There are multiple ways to make it. Never use treated wood or allow your charcoal to become contaminated with chemicals you wouldn’t want to eat through the vehicle of your plants.
It is important to always water your transplants. Unless you happen to get rained out of the garden and the ground becomes fully saturated. If your weather is mild enough, you can get away with a topical application of about a pint of water per plant after they are planted. Pour the water slow enough for it to soak in and not run off. When it is very warm or the sun is intense, I like to put most of this water in the hole before I even cover it. If the ground is dry and the sun is bright, I do this and then rake a little dry soil over the wet watered soil to shade the ground to help keep the sun from wicking away that moisture.
Last summer I’d had some old basil seed that I wasn’t sure would germinate. So, I dumped it in a 12-inch square spot just to see what would grow. Well, I think every single seed grew. They really needed to have some transplanted out for room to grow but we were having some blistering heat that seemed to stretch as far as the forecast could see. Even though it was much too hot and dry to try to attempt it, I transplanted a couple dozen of them anyway. I am sure they thought it was attempted herbicide (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself). They were only a couple inches tall, so I transplanted them, watered them well and then lightly sprinkled straw over them so they would be shaded with filtered light. To my amazement, every one of them grew! Once they were established, I parted the straw so they could grow through it and they grew to full size.
I am not a fan of long seemingly endless rows, but I also like to be practical when it comes to space. Long rows are easy to plant in the spring when the zealous gardener is planting under a warm sun with bare feet in soft soil. But come July, all that zeal melts into a puddle as the solar thermostat raises. Weeds stretch and grow faster that vegetables in that midsummer humidity. So, I plant flowers.
Yes, I said that right. As I plant to my heart’s content in May, I break up my long rows with a few zinnia seed every 50 ft or so. Where plant have died or gaps in a row show from poor germination, these places are where I seed in a few bachelor buttons, calendula, annual chamomile, cosmos, zinnias or other assorted flowers. These help make the garden a place I want to be when the weather turns into an outdoor sauna.
Early on, Khoke would ask if I wasn’t just creating extra garden work for nothing in return by planting flowers. I assured him they were more help than harm, just a little self-imposed psychology to help me be where I should want to be. It is also a favorite place for kids to go when families come visit. I hand out scissors to them. The more bloom they cut the more bloom the plant will set and you should see their faces when they come back to my house with an armload of flowers.
Mulch does lots of wonderful things for the garden. It keeps plants clean by preventing dirt from splashing onto the leaves. This also helps slow soil borne diseases when the spores aren’t splashed up onto the leaves via mud post rain shower. It also shades the soil, holds moisture in, suppresses the weed pressure, it encourages earthworm activity and, in the end, it becomes organic matter to feed the soil.
That is what it is supposed to do anyway. It can also hold excess moisture in and introduce new weed seed. You have to watch out for those fresh new garden weeds, some of them are more obnoxious than others. Bermuda grass, Quack grass, Johnson grass, and Canadian thistle all can come from hay. These are all spread not only by seed but by rhizome and are particularly loathsome in the garden.
Weedy straw can also bring in unwanted weed seed. Sometimes the weed seed in straw is just the wheat or oats that did not fully shatter out at harvest. The worst mulch though can be the “guaranteed weed-free” mulch. This was likely sprayed with herbicides whose residues in your garden can continue to kill your broadleaf vegetables (anything that isn’t in the grass family such as corn).
I like tree leaf mulch. We used this when I was growing up. We’d load a trailer with wet matted partially composted leaves and mulch with that. This worked great. The tree leaves to watch out for are those such as walnut and sycamore whose leaves release a growth suppressant as they decompose to hinder their competition. Obviously, we don’t want to tuck our tomatoes in a bed of growth suppressing leaves.
Cedar and relatives of pines are a mulch I avoid because they can acidify the soil. I save these for my blueberries. Cedar can also repel beneficial insects. Wood chips or sawdust can also acidify the soil. They need to be very dry or fully composted first.
If you are late getting to the mulching and the weeds have cast a thick green volunteer cover crop in your rows, you do not have to go through all the effort of weeding the rows before you mulch. If the weeds are tall enough to lay over, flatten them so they don’t poke their head out from under the mulch and just lay a thick carpet over them. Most weeds will not survive this. Mulch as close to the vegetable plants in your row as you can.
Bugs are like bacteria, there are good ones and bad ones. Common garden pests include (but are not limited to) cucumber beetles, squash bugs, potato bugs, tomato hornworms, flea beetles, cabbage loopers, and cutworms. These are all among my least favorite garden guests. Widespread use of insecticides kills these but it also indiscriminately kills all the beneficial insects as well: beneficials such as ladybugs, honey bees, praying mantis, butterflies and lacewings.
When buying seed, try to avoid seed treated with neonicotinoid insecticides. This group of systemic chemicals are absorbed by the plant and render the entire plant toxic to insects. One treated seed can have enough chemical on it to still be toxic enough to kill bees by the time the plant is blooming.
In the meantime, healthy garden habits can reduce outbreaks and control what shows up anyway. One of the many reasons we should rotate where we plant our fruit/vegetables is to help control the insects that overwinter in the ground. Letting the garden site trade off with another site every other year is an even better idea. This helps keep domestic insect populations under control.
Before you reach for the sprayer, there are other methods of control to try first. One of which is hand picking. I have spent hours every summer playing hide and seek with the tomato hornworms in my garden. They are hand-picked off. Let me clarify, I pick off part of the stem so I don’t actually have to touch them. Khoke just pulls them off the stem. My head knows they are harmless to touch but I am not interested anyway. I am sure I miss a few which doesn’t really bother me. The tomato hornworm (also known as the tobacco hornworm) will turn into the Sphinx moth, a pollinator for night blooming plants. From egg to newly hatched moth takes about 6 weeks, so there will be two generations of these larvae in a summer season.
For things like potato bugs or Japanese beetles, I just carry a wide mouth container half full of vinegar or oil. When I spot one, I just put the cup under the leaf where it sits and tap the leaf with my finger. These bugs’ defense instinct is to drop to the ground as soon as the plant is disturbed, this is why the cup is there to catch them. I just don’t quite have it in me to squish them barehanded as I have seen other gardeners do. I have no criticism for it, I just cannot do it.
One can also use insecticide soap to help control insects. Sometimes I will mix up some Dawn dish soap and spot treat aphids or spider mites (on my houseplants usually). Too much Dawn can burn your plants. But the Dawn dish soap dissolves the exoskeleton of insects. My former neighbor, Loman Bailey, would sprinkle wood ashes on his potato plants when the potato bugs were more than could be hand picked off. Too much wood ash can burn the plants too though.
In the early spring when you see just a few of those little white or yellow butterflies fluttering around the cabbage family, know that they are laying eggs on those plants every day. Turn your cabbage leaves over to see if you can spot those singly laid little yellow oval eggs.
Before the cabbage loopers are big enough to be obvious, you’ll start to see the leaves freckle with little holes that get bigger and bigger. These cabbage loopers do not stay caterpillars all summer long, only a few weeks. They go from egg to butterfly in 4-6 weeks which means they can have more than one life cycle in one season. If you don’t get the first round of loopers under control you can have hundreds of them by season end and completely decimated brassicas.
To control cabbage loopers you can hand pick them. Look on the underside of the leaves and on the newer growth. These are some of their favorite hideouts. Or you can spray or dust your cabbages with Dipel. Using Dipel is kind of like biological warfare. Dipel is Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterial disease whose favorite host is caterpillars, so it can be used in the organic garden. It is highly effective against caterpillars of any kind and that includes cabbage loopers.
Last year Khoke rescued a baby pigeon (acutally a Rock Dove) who was somehow evicted from his nest in the cupola of our barn. We named the young bird Piper and continued feeding him. When I would go out to the garden, I discovered that he was game for eating cabbage loopers. As I walked my rows handpicking the loopers, he’d follow along to eat them. It was fun to watch for both of us. It was the cleanest (of cabbage loopers) that I’d had in my cabbage patch in a long time.
Buying and/or encouraging beneficial insects (and spiders) to live in the garden is a great natural defense against unwanted bugs. Also encouraging toads to live in the garden helps control insects.
Most diseases are fungal, bacterial, or viral, but not all. Some appear to be diseases but are simply the plant coping with mineral deficiencies. Blossom end rot is just the plant’s response to being unable to absorb enough calcium. Dressing the soil with garden lime and making sure the plants have enough water should take care of this.
However, most of the rest of the time viruses, bacteria, or fungus are to blame. Many of these are soil borne, meaning infected plant matter decays and returns to the soil. These pathogens that lay dormant there until a fresh new host shows up for them to infect. A well planned garden rotation helps control species specific diseases.
Healthy plants with adequate nutrition can usually defend themselves from disease. Depending on the disease of course. There are also some healthy garden habits that help tip the scales too. I like to mulch as much as possible. One of the things this does is keeps the dirt/mud that may carry dormant disease from splashing up onto the leaves where they can spread faster.
When I have plants begin showing signs of disease, I will sometimes pick the infected leaves off and carry them well out of the garden. This can slow the spread of disease. Badly affected plants just need to be pulled out and disposed of far away from the garden.
Overwatering and excessive moisture also promotes disease problems. If disease is a regular problem in your garden you can consider planting your vegetables a little farther apart to improve air circulation around them.
Be mindful to not save seed from infected fruit. Diseases such as Anthracnose, Watermelon Fruit Blotch, and others can spread from infected seed. One of the more virulent diseases is Tobacco Mosaic Virus which can spread to any of the nightshade family simply from the tobacco smoke clinging to your clothes or wafting through the air because the tobacco being smoked can be infected with the virus, and still be spread post processing.
Disease can and often is transported by insects. As they move from one tasty plant to the next, they carry more than their legs with them and can spread mildews and other unhappy garden companions. This is why it is important to deal with diseased plants as soon as possible so that it doesn’t spread.
When harvesting with clippers or snips of some kind it is a good idea to carry a container of rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach to dip the clippers into. As you move from one squash plant (or any other vegetable) to another you can be giving bacteria the legs they do not have and spreading them on the clippers as you go. Just dip the clippers to sanitize them as you go.
For long rows that won’t be mulched something will have to be done to help keep down the weed pressure and one of the best ways to do that is hoeing. I will also sometimes hoe in the garden until I get around to getting things mulched. I try to ease into hoeing, there is a lot of it to do. If I do too much at the beginning of the season I end up with blisters. I try to stop when my hands get sore, just before the blisters show up and this builds calluses. They may not be beautiful but they are practical.
There is an art to efficient hoeing. First of all, you don’t want to do any wild hacking and chopping unless the weeds happen to be really tall. Ideally the weeds you’ll be hoeing will all be less than 4 inches tall. The shorter the better. My favorite is when they are less than an inch tall.
I like a wide bladed hoe that is not too deep and then I hold the handle so that my hoe cuts just below the surface of the soil. The deeper you cut the more fresh weed seed you bring to the surface.
Cutting just below the soil surface severs the plant top from its root. The angle it takes to skim the soil at a shallow depth does not take a very big swing and once you get the hang of it you can accomplish quite a lot of hoeing in a relatively short time without wearing yourself out. You also have more control of the blade and can hoe closer to the vegetables without cutting them off or damaging their roots. I like to hoe the garden just as the weeds start to break the surface of the soil, then I just skim the surface disrupting a cast of new sprouts. It is the easiest time to do what I am going to have to do sooner or later anyway.
Be careful when hoeing to not flip dirt into your young cabbage or lettuce plants. This dirt may get lodged in the heads and still be there when harvested.
If your weeds are large and well established, they will sometimes send up a new shoot from the root after they are cut off. These larger weeds may need to have more of the root removed so that it is not strong enough to regrow. The bigger the weeds are the harder you’ll have to swing and deeper you’ll have to cut. Once the weeds are hoed out, try to avoid walking on them. This can press the roots back into soil and they may regrow.
So, if I prefer hoeing out weeds when they are small how do I end up with the big ones? Well, when we get long spells of wet weather, this is not conducive to keeping up with hoeing. When the ground is too wet in the garden the soil will gum onto the hoe and make it difficult to use. Wherever I walk will also compact the soil causing problems later.
We never sharpened our hoes when I was growing up. But then, my father’s philosophy was “tired kids are good kids.” There’s a good chance we weren’t always tired enough. In my own gardens now, I have found that my husband is right, a good sharp hoe makes the work go so much easier. Just sharpen with a file or grinder the outside edge of the hoe.
There is something really satisfying about weeding in hot weather. I don’t know how many times I have found myself in the garden, I’d already been there for hours with the mercury rising in the thermometer the whole time, but it is still hard to stop. I look at the green weeds ahead of me and the wilted ones behind me. The victory is so sweet. I keep telling myself in the hot still air, “I can take 5 more minutes of this heat.” The hot summer sun wrings out all the water I drank, but I know every weed behind me is not coming back. Finally, the little alarm bells in my ears that are telling me that I am overheating, get me carried to the house to cool off.
There are plenty of uses for the ancient art called hand weeding. Hand weeding is what is left over when I have hoed as close to the row as I dared. But there are situations that call for this handpicked selection and elimination. My carrots that are planted in a wide row call for hand thinning and weeding.
Now and then I’ve had a big pigweed show up in my potato rows. They hide easily because the leaf pattern looks somewhat like that of the potato and occasionally one will have been overlooked. Pulling very large weeds next to a vegetable plant can be tricky. I put one hand on the ground pressing down around the potato stem, the other hand pulls out the pigweed, pulling it away from the potato. This helps keep the potato from being inadvertently pulled out along with the weed.
Pull out the weeds and shake the dirt off. This lessens the chance of them rerooting. If I am doing a lot of hand weeding, I will be careful to lay the weed roots on the previous handful’s weed tops. This also helps prevent rerooting. I let the weeds dry in the garden if there is no danger of them rerooting or maturing seed. They will then return to the soil as organic matter.
There are different types of roots. Carrots have a taproot, grass has fibrous roots. There are others that have rhizomes. Rhizomes are not really roots, they are more like a creeping rootstalk, shoots that grow horizontally underground until they send up a vertical shoot that grows a new plant. These are really about the most obnoxious weeds in the garden. I pull it out and all the little broken rhizomes left behind grow new plants. Probably the inspiration for the mythological Hydra.
One of the ways to deal with these rhizomes, besides digging and pulling out every last rhizome, is to keep forcing them to regrow over and over by hoeing, weeding, or in large areas by discing. Knock them back again and again. If they cannot get more than 2-4 inches of growth before they have to regrow, then the regrowing saps all their strength and they will die. But this requires you to be more tenacious that they are.
There are also weeds in the garden that I just hoe around and let grow. Among these are the milkweeds. I love their highly perfumed flowers and the fact that they are Monarch butterfly habitat. Other weeds that I let go, at least for a while, include Lambs Quarters. This plant is in the Amaranth family and I give them regular haircuts so I can wilt their leaves in to my rice or soup dishes.
I used to let the purslane go too, but not anymore. I learned my lesson. Sure, purslane is highly nutritious and easy to pull and even easier to hoe out. But these succulent plants can make dense mats two feet or more in diameter. And. Then. They. Don’t. Die. I have cut purslane mats off, flipped them upside down and left them in the hot sun for weeks and if they somehow get flipped back over after all that time, they will re-root. I realize there are many people who wish they had this problem but our garden grows a despairing amount of purslane.
One year I walked through a strip Khoke had disced clean just a few weeks before that now was covered in a thick carpet of primarily purslane. Looking at all this thriving edible vegetation, I felt a loss that we didn’t like eating it. I thought surely there has got to be a way it can be prepared that we’d like. So, I tried pickling it. I had been pickling cucumbers and so with a little leftover dill pickle brine I pickled a few jars of purslane. But to my shame, it was at least 3 years before I was brave enough to open a jar and try it. Then I opened the jar for our household’s biggest purslane skeptic to try. Surprising both of us, Khoke loved it!
Armed with new confidence, I told my neighbor Cindy Smith about it. She tried a few of her own culinary experiments and reported that she found steamed purslane to be excellent, and in her opinion, the only wild green she’s found to equal spinach to her liking. She also found that she could use purslane’s long cordlike but tender stems as a pasta substitute when they are steamed as well.
There are so many good resources for gardeners it is hard to narrow it down to a few. A couple of the books that are on my shelf that I reach for time and again are The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden and Yard the Earth-Friendly Way, written by Fern M. Bradley, Barbara W. Ellis and Deborah Martin, and Joy of Gardening, by Dick Raymond. Mr. Raymond promotes wide row gardening and has a lot of practical suggestions/ideas for the backyard gardener.
A couple great garden supply catalogs are:
E&R Seed and Garden Supply
1356 E 200 S
Monroe, IN 46772
Martins Greenhouse Supply
5627 S Fork Ridge Rd
Liberty, KY 42539
Animals in the Garden
There’s nothing quite like working hard in the garden all day only to feed it to the wildlife at night. Rabbits coming in to feast on the salad garden or nip off bean sprouts. Crows walking down the corn row and picking out and eating the freshly planted kernels. Groundhogs eating off the sweet potato vines and carrying off little melons. Squirrels opening the butternut squash and eating out the seed. Deer mowing off the rest of the sweet potatoes and anything in the bean family, they have also been guilty of pawing open melons. Don’t think coyotes won’t do that too because they can and sometimes will. Raccoons are famous for decimating the corn patch the night before you are ready to.
Really, the best thing a person can have is a good guard dog. A territorial, barky little pain in the neck will keep most of these away. Unfortunately, my garden is just far enough away from my house to be outside of my dog’s regular patrol. When my sweet corn is nearing its time for harvest it is like a beacon call to raccoons everywhere. Although there are people who do, Khoke and I will not tie our dogs out to guard the corn. When that time approaches, we put a tent by the garden edge and sleep out there with our dogs sleeping outside our tent. Heaven help any racoon, opossum, or groundhog that thinks it wants to stroll through the garden at that time.
One of the ways to discourage rabbits is to make sure they don’t have a lot of cover. Mow the perimeter of the garden short. Maybe plant the veggies they are fond of in a more open strip closer to the center of the garden. The idea here is that they tend to be more reluctant to stray too far from cover and don’t like being in the open too much. This leaves them vulnerable to owls and other predators.
Groundhogs once established will help themselves to whatever they like to eat in your garden, and next year there will be even more of them. All I can tell you is that groundhogs taste like chicken. Yes, I did try it a very long time ago but my dogs keep them far enough away that I have not been tempted to try it again.
My father used to have trouble with flocks of crows walking down his newly planted rows of (field) corn and eating the kernels as they went. They could see where the corn planter went and would fleck a little dirt away and help themselves. He fixed this by running a cultipacker over the field perpendicular to his rows. This made the appearance of rows and a fruitless effort to follow the rows quickly discouraged the shameless little thieves. Crows are extremely intelligent birds. Shooting a guilty crow and leaving it lay in the corn field makes a point that is not missed by them and does effectively discourage them as well.
Problematic deer really do need that barky little dog, really tall fences or a good hunter.
My garden provides for me but this is not a one-sided relationship. Both sides serve the other. I walk the rows and help tip the scales against an invasion of insects. My bucket carries water to thirsty plants and I bed them down with a blanket of mulch to hold it in. I cut away their competition with my hoe in a shameless display of botanical favoritism. In return for their happiness and health, my garden gifts me abundantly with the vegetables they hold out on their limbs for me to find.
This mutual and tangible gratefulness is preserved in jars or laid in crates to carry through the sleeping seasons, reminding me and taking care of me. May holds the reunion, the rekindling of the relationship. My garden and I are serving and being served, a mutual expression of love.