*Part 4 of 5 of my Gardening 101 series.*
Your seeds and seedlings are now planted in your garden. What a sense of accomplishment you're probably feeling now. But don't relax, your job isn't over yet! Now comes the task of nurturing and caring for your plants as they grow to maturity.
Staking your vegetables: Some plants, especially tomatoes, do better when staked or caged, and vining plants such as cucumbers, beans and squash thrive and save space on a trellis system. They offer support and encourage strong and tall plants. The benefits of staking and trellising your plants are many. It keeps the vines and fruits off the ground, they stay cleaner and are less prone to rotting, and it's easier to work around the plants and harvest them. The “original” way to stake tomatoes involves tying the tomato plant to a stake or stick stuck in the ground next to it. The plants need to be checked on a regular basis though, and new growth tied to the stake. You also want to make sure the stake is tall enough to support the height of the plant. This is the method I use, and measure the stakes to 4 feet tall. If my plants start to get taller than that, I prune them back to encourage bushier growth.
How to stake: Place the stakes within 6 inches of each plant, and make sure they are deep enough in the ground to keep them from being wobbly. You want to place the stakes in the ground at the same time you plant your seedlings, so as not to damage any root growth. You can use a number of different items to tie your plants to the stake, such as fishing line, zip ties or twine. My favorite is old pieces of knee-high pantyhose since It's gentle on the stems. To tie the plant to the stake, locate the lower, thick part of the branch below a fork. Wrap the tie around the branch and gently pull the plant to the stake. Tie the ends together around the stake in a knot. Not to tightly, you want just enough tension to train the branch to a straight position along the stake. Don't forget to tie new growth to the stake as needed, but only the thickest parts of the stems. Or if you have a bit more money to spend, you can buy pre-made cages for your tomato plants. They are placed around the plants as you plant them, and reduces the amount of time you need to tend to them.
Using trellises: One of the easiest ways to grow vining plants, is to train them to grow up a trellis. Not only does it save on space, but it keeps the fruits cleaner and less prone to rot. It's important to put your trellis in place before planting, to avoid damaging the roots and stem of your vines. Set your plants about 6 to 12 inches away from the support to allow enough growing room for the stems. The vines should be tied loosely to the support using strong, stretchy materials (old knee-high pantyhose) that won't cut into the growing branches. You can buy special trellises for your plants, but if you're like me, you like being frugal, and using what you already have on hand, or can purchase cheaply. One of the cheapest trellis ideas I know of is for pole beans. Just plant them directly next to corn, and the beans will naturally climb up the corn stalks. Other ideas include old fencing, stakes and twine, large sticks or bamboo poles formed into a teepee frame and tied with twine, old wooden ladders, pallets, chicken wire supported with support poles, the list goes on and on. If your on Pinterst type "trellis" into the search bar and you'll find loads of trellis ideas. Just make sure whatever support you use, it's strong enough to support the weight of the eventual fruit the plant will bare.
Watering your plants: While nature will provide some of the water your garden will need, it more than likely wont be near enough of what your plants will actually need. The first several ideas I'm going to give you are not only frugal, but fairly easy. Of course, if you have a very large garden, some of them may not be feasible. They are what we use though, and hopefully you can incorporate them as well.
Collecting Water - While we don't have a water shortage where I live, I try my best to use as little water as necessary in my daily tasks. Not only does it make for a cheaper water bill, but it helps to save on our earths precious water supply. One way I do this is when I'm getting ready to take a shower, or to do dishes. I have an older house, and it takes a good old, long time for the hot water to reach my faucets. As I was standing in the bathroom one day, waiting for the water to warm up so I could take a shower, I thought to myself, "Wow, that's a lot of water just going down the drain". Talk about a lightbulb moment! So the next time I took a shower, I set a bucket up under the faucet to catch the water as it heated up and collected almost a gallon and a half before the water was hot. Multiply that times 3 family members, and that is 4 1/2 gallons of water going down the drain per day! Now that water gets saved and used to water my garden as needed. (I also use this trick when I'm going to wash dishes).
Save Cooking Water – If you steam or boil vegetables, save the water rather than pouring it down the sink! It is full of nutrients when cooled, and does double duty by fertilizing your plants as you water them.
Collecting Rain Water - A great way to get free water is to collect rain water. My husband has a large plastic barrel set up under our guttering, and every time it rains, I get free water to water my garden with. He has a screen covering the barrel to keep the mosquitos out, so remember that if you set one up for yourself. You definitely don't want to give them a breeding ground so close to your home. Right now I scoop the water out of the barrel into a watering can to water the garden. But my husband is trying to set something up where I can hook it up to a garden hose, which will make it a lot easier on my back.
Drip irrigation system - I don't care for this method, as it involves tedious weeding, or use of mulches, which I prefer not to use. For those who have a very large garden, it may be a neccesity for you to use though. I don't have any experience with this type of watering system, so I can't advice you on how to set one up. I did find some pretty good videos on how to install them on YouTube if you'd like to learn more. Just type in "Drip Irrigation" in the search bar.
When to water - The best time to water is early in the morning while it is still fairly cool. This will allow the water to run down into the soil and reach the roots of the plant before it evaporates. I prefer to water at the base of my plants as much as possible instead of overhead. Wet leaves are more prone to things such as powdery mildew. If you water early in the morning and do get moisture on the leaves, they will have plenty of time to dry out before nightfall, when diseases and fungi most like to move in.
Avoid Overwatering – Don't make the mistake of overwatering your plants, as it breeds dependent plants that grow shallow root systems, which in turn equals weak plants that are more susceptible to disease. So how do I know if my plants need water? Test the soil. I check my garden daily, and to tell if my garden needs water, I test the soil moisture with a screw driver. Silly as that seems, it works. I simply stick the screwdriver into the ground. If it goes in easily, don’t water. If you have a difficult time getting it into the ground, then grab the watering can!
Fertilizing and feeding your plants: In order for your garden to thrive, you need to feed and fertilize your plants. While you can mix up your own fertilizer if you'd like, it can be a bit expensive buying all of the nessasary ingredients for it. So I prefer buying my organic fertilizer already pre-made. I fertilize my garden several times through the growing season. Once when I am tilling up the ground for planting, with a dry fertilizer. Then again about once a month to the plants themselves with a liquid fertilizer mixed with water. I apply it to the base of the plants, so the roots can soak it up quickly.
Weeding your garden: Weeds are a nuisance every gardener must deal with. Weeds compete with your plants for water, nutrients, sunlight, and growing space. Left alone, they will overrun your garden. So you need to be diligent in getting rid of them on a regular basis. They're are several ways of accomplishing this.
Pull them - Your first defense against weeds is to pull or hoe them before they get established. Learn to identify weeds as young seedlings and nab them as they emerge.
Mulch - Organic mulches such as shredded leaves and wood chips are best. A 2- to 3-inch layer will keep sunlight from reaching the weed seeds, preventing their germination. Some people like using plastic sheeting, or newspaper to block out light and smother young weeds. I don't care for mulch, and prefer to pull and hoe weeds up as I see them.
Controlling garden pests: As an organic gardener I don't use chemical pesticides, and prefer using natural solutions to keep garden pests at bay. While this will require a bit more work on your part, the health benefits to your plants, and you outweigh the extra work.
Minimize places insects live - Keep gardens clear of debris and weeds which are breeding places for insects.
Rotate crops - Insect pests are often plant specific. Rotating crops each year can help you avoid re-infestation of pests which have over-wintered in the garden.
Keep leaves dry - Water your plants early in the day, so leaves will be dry for most of the day. Wet leaves encourage insect and fungal damage to your plants.
How to remove common garden pests
Slugs - Hand picking them is the best way to get rid of them as you see them in your garden, or on your plants. We have had some success with beer traps as well.
Squash bugs - A piece of tape can be used to quickly catch a squash bug, so you don't have to physically try to pick them off with your fingers. Tape also does a pretty good job of removing their eggs that are attached to the leaves themselves. Spraying the plant and leaves with neem oil has worked for us as well, at killing the bugs and eggs, as well as deterring them from returning.
Aphids - A spray of soapy water will kill them, as well as neem oil.
Cabbageworms - Those pretty little white butterflies you see flying around in your garden? Those are cabbageworm moths, and they are laying the eggs that will turn into cabbageworms. Hand picking them is one line of defense, but can be hard to see as the are camouflaged well. They can mostly be found on the underside of the leaves in the early stages of infestation. Crush any eggs you find with your thumbnail. Neem oil is also effective against them as well.
Tomato hornworms Hand picking is the easiest and best way of keeping this pest under control.
Cutworms Make plant collars. Put a 4-inch piece of cardboard (such as a toilet or paper towel roll), or a plastic cup with the bottom cut out around each plant stem to help stop cutworms from reaching tender stems. Make sure to insert it into the ground slightly. Hand picking with gloves can also be done, but must be done at night with a flashlight when they are active. Drop them into a bucket of soapy water to kill them.
Cucumber beetles Hand picking and neem oil are good defenses against this garden pest, that spreads bacterial wilt to cucumbers and melons.
Whiteflies Whiteflies are easy to identify. If you move or water your plants and you see a snowstorm of tiny white specks swirling around, you have whiteflies. A soapy water spray, as well as neem oil are about the only things I have found that can control them.
This isn't a complete list of all the garden pests you may have to deal with, but these are the ones that are an issue for me here in southern Indiana.
Don't miss next weeks installment where we will discuss what to do After The Harvest.
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