Notes From the Garden: Helping Plants Survive Their Early Days
Living in a cold spot, I usually wait until June 10 to plant frost and cold-sensitive plants. But lured by perfect warm weather, I planted most of my tomatoes on Memorial Day weekend. The soil was 60 degrees and the sun was strong. Then the weather turned chilly and wet. My tomatoes will survive this, and I can always cover them if there is threat of frost. Still, after all these decades, I should have more patience. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash: all these like hot weather.
I did not plant my vine crops early, however. I like to start cukes, squash and pumpkins indoors in May in 4-inch pots, growing them under lights until they have vines a foot long with several leaves. Or sometimes I will buy a few nice big plants. I do this because of the dreaded striped cucumber beetle, a pest that can, and will, eat up a plant’s first two leaves in one night. But a bigger plant can survive a few beetle bites without trouble.
Another way to minimize beetle damage on any crop is to protect it with row cover, also called Reemay or Agribon (both are trade names). Row cover is a thin woven fabric that breathes and allows more than 90 percent of the sun’s light to pass through without burning your plants the way light through clear plastic would. Got trouble with little green caterpillars on your broccoli? Cover it up. Rain will pass through it, too.
Although you can just lay row cover on your plants, I like to stretch it over wire hoops that are sold for the purpose. It gives the plants room to grow. In either case, you must seal the edges or some critters could crawl under for a free lunch. You can use earth staples sold for the purpose, or just use those stones that Mother Nature pushes up out of the soil every winter.
Row cover holds in some heat, which is good at this time of year. But for crops that need insect pollination — all the vine crops, for example — you must take off the covers when they flower, or hand pollinate, which is time consuming. I sometimes leave row cover on eggplants all summer as they are wind pollinated.
Thinning plants started outdoors by seed must be the most tedious of all garden tasks. Carrots, lettuce, rutabagas, beets? All need to be thinned for best results. Beets and carrot babies are good to eat if you wait until the end of the month of June. I try to have them thinned to one inch apart by the Fourth of July, with a wider spacing a month later.
Beet greens are a classic early summer dish that I like served with a sprinkling of gourmet rice wine vinegar instead of the calorie-packing butter that I use on my asparagus. And just a reminder, don’t keep picking asparagus for more than three weeks. Oh, it’s tempting to keep picking the spears that pop up to replace those you’ve eaten. But the greens are needed to feed the roots, and picking for too long will cause the patch to run down.
My asparagus patch produced well this year, its third, and I am rewarding it with regular weeding, a light top-dressing of organic fertilizer and a little compost. Then I will cover the compost with a layer of wood chips to minimize the need for weeding later on this summer.
Last fall I covered up my wide, mounded vegetable garden beds with hay, straw or fallen leaves after cleaning out most of the weeds. This really minimized my work this spring. I pushed off the winter cover of mulch into the walkways in early May, which kept weeds from starting up there. The sun warmed the soil, spawning some weeds. But I pulled them out or sliced them off before they got established, and then planted without rototilling.
I know some gardeners who love their rototillers as much as they love their spouses. They do create a lovely-looking bed, and they make all the weeds “disappear.” But if you chop up witch grass or perennial weeds, each piece may well produce a new plant in a few weeks.
Many weeds have what I call “photo-triggers.” This means that they need some light to know it is time to wake up and grow. Buried down 4 inches, the seeds can sleep for years. Turn them up with a rototiller and they germinate. So at planting time I try to minimize how much I disturb the soil. I use an ancient four-tined potato hoe and my CobraHead weeder to do most of the soil work.
We’ve all heard of the “runner’s high” — a feeling of well being from running. Sometimes I get a “gardener’s high” instead. Planting a garden will do it for me. I just wish I got the same feeling — instead of a tired back — from an afternoon of weeding.
Henry Homeyer’s website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of four gardening books, and a children’s fantasy-adventure, “Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet.”