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12 months of gardening

Sep 12, 2023Sep 12, 2023

The tomatoes are swelling in gardens throughout the county. Summer is coming.

Van Buren County Democrat

June is the transition month when cool weather crops begin to fade and warm weather crops start to become productive. The thought of vine ripened organic tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peppers appearing on my kitchen table fills me with eager anticipation.

The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts our summer will be wetter than average but also warmer. Typically we can expect a dry period here in the summer but hopefully not for as long as last year. But being prepared just makes good sense. Especially considering community water provider prices keep going up with no end to that trend in sight. More on this later.

While many were successful at getting their early crops started, in spite of frequent spring rain, some gardeners had difficulty. A few have mentioned getting started late or not at all due to wet ground. So before we talk more about "too dry" let's look at what can be done to address "too wet".

Of course lots of rain makes for soggy soil which can make gardening difficult. Cultivating soggy soil can ruin its tilth, causing it to compact. Compacted soil forces plants to use more energy sending out roots that could have been used developing top growth. As a result, plants develop slower, tend to be smaller and less productive.

Knowledgeable gardeners never work their soil when it's waterlogged, preferring to wait until some drainage has occurred. How long that takes depends upon the quality of your soil. High clay mixes, like we have around here, take longer. Soils with large amounts of organic material and sand drain quicker.

Tread lightly in the garden when it's wet. It possible to damage roots due to soil compaction under these conditions, although using raised beds and growing boxes, never intended to be walked on, quickly solves the problem.

After storms, check for damaged leaves and stems and remove promptly. Stake up bent plants. Check for erosion and cover exposed roots with compost or soil. Check for signs of fungi and bacteria that can lead to disease. Treat promptly.

Watch for flooding. All parts of the garden need to drain promptly. Standing water for any length of time can cause root rot. Ditch to get water away.

Some weeds pop up quickly in wet weather. Get them while they’re young and get the root, which usually pulls easily in moist soil.

Watch for signs of slugs and snails. They can be very destructive. Slime trails are easy to spot at a certain angle because they reflect light. My friend, mentor and fellow organic gardener Lalla Ostergren's favorite method of fighting back was a half filled tuna can with beer sunk flush with the soil. They crawl in, get drunk and drown. Just kidding, actually they’re after the yeast, so nonalcoholic beer works too. Even something as simple as a board laid in the garden at dusk will have several slugs under it by the next afternoon. Just pluck, smash or snip to dispose of them. Several organic slug baits are available but be careful of some of the more traditional baits as they can poison wildlife and pets. Actually, there are several more options available including a mini electric fence that is powered by a 9 volt battery. If you’re desperate for something to do, plans are available on the internet.

Don't let mosquitoes breed. Most gardens have an assortment of catchwaters: wheelbarrows, watering cans, saucers, buckets, etc. Dump the water so the larva can't finish their growth cycle.

And finally, replenish nutrients. Repeated rains and flooding wash away much needed nutrients that keep your plants flourishing. Adding additional compost and organic fertilizers will help.

With summer approaching the problem often changes to "too dry." Locally we can generally depend upon a drought at some point but a bit of preparation can get our gardens through these tough "dog days" of summer with flying colors.

Adding compost to your garden soil will help it to retain its moisture longer and benefit your plants nutritionally. Fine mulch, mixed into the soil, can also help. But, since it will pull nitrogen out of the soil as it decomposes, additional fertilizer may be needed.

Also, mulch on top of the soil will slow down evaporation. Straw is a favorite as it allows rain to easily pass through, contains few weed seeds and is readily available.

I also use leaf litter raked up from the forest floor. I prefer it from under pines as the needles allow rain to pass through to the soil. Broadleaf litter, if not chopped, can act like a roof and prevent rain from getting to where you want it.

Pine needles and oak leaves will, over time, move your soil to the acidic side. While that's good for blueberries, nasturtiums, hydrangeas and azaleas, most garden vegetables prefer near neutral soil. A pH testing kit is well worth the investment.

I have had neighbors tell me that they give up on their gardens in the summer due to water prices. Yet these same neighbors let hundreds, maybe thousands, of gallons of water run off their roofs, down gutters and into the ground.

With a combination of rain barrels, tubs and cattle tanks, I have passed a thousand gallon storage capacity. In my size garden that goes a long ways. My brother Tim, who lives in town, purchased two decorative rain barrels that offend none of his neighbors.

Another suggestion is to water early in the morning. This will allow water to soak in before the sun starts to accelerate evaporation.

And finally, consider using shade cloth. Common choices are white and black. White reflects light and helps to keep your plants cooler. Black is best at blocking light and keeping plants cooler at night. The amount of light that can pass through is often expressed as a percentage. So 30 percent shade cloth blocks much less light than 90 percent. For vegetable gardens less light blockage is preferable. But any blockage will slow down moisture loss from plants, and the ground, during the hottest parts of the day. I use a simple framework made of bamboo poles and baler twine. Lalla used t-posts and long pieces of small dimension lumber and clothesline. Others use small diameter PVC. Kits are available.

Garden productivity is most often directly proportional to a gardener's knowledge base. Application of this knowledge can help you have a bountiful garden this year in spite of most tough environmental conditions.

"The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul."– Alfred Austin

Hope to see you in the garden next month.

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