One of the things that many home gardeners use netting for is frost protection (but not insect control) but there is increasing use of fine netting in Europe that we can learn from here in our home gardens.
Organic fruit growers have been using fine mesh netting (white in color) for hail protection as well as codling moth protection. For the record, the mesh size on this product is .12″ by .29″ (very fine so insects can’t get through but air and light can)
Research in France shows this size mesh also reduces aphid damage (rosy apple aphid) and there are increasing moves to use it commercially as their pesticide regulations are much more restrictive than N.A. commercial orchards.
It is a great way to control a range of insects and it is applied in spring “after” flowering is finished (to allow bees to pollinate the fruit). Apparently, in France, the microclimate temperature increases under the cloth are minor and don’t bother fruit. I can’t say the same here in N.A. so you’d have to run some trial on small amounts of fruit.
I also suspect it could be used in the production of a wide range of vegetables that weren’t insect pollinated (like tomatoes that are also wind-pollinated) or that we don’t want or need pollinated (cole crops etc) Crops with bee pollination and insect damage that coincide (squash family) wouldn’t work too well with this system.
This is a perfect way to increase pest management in the home garden without having to resort to any kind of pesticide. One or two short trees (dwarf or semi-dwarf) could easily be covered.
The issue is going to be finding the netting and when/if I find that resource, I’ll pass it along here. If any of you do find tree-sized netting for consumers, post it here.
In the meantime, here’s a link to Frost Fabric which will do almost the same thing and provides a measure of frost control for northerly gardens. (Probably a better bet in the long run anyway.) While it’s not the same thing as the material the Europeans seem to be using, it is readily available and will act to prevent insect damage on vegetables.
Do you know the difference between a good vegetable garden and a good flower garden? Both of them start out looking good; nice and neat with even rows and plant spacing with never a weed in sight.
Both of them demand lots of care and attention if they are to grow properly but the main difference is that while the flowers of summer are starting to produce eye candy and give glorious picture opportunities, many vegetable gardens are looking a bit scruffy around the edges.
And, this is deliberate. Remember that with leafy plants, regular harvesting is essential for continued growth. You’ll get far more basil if you cut half of the new leaves off every week or harvest a little bit every few days than if you try to grow it into a humongous plant and take a single harvest.
This is the same for lettuce and spinach and any other of the salad greens that are so wonderful at this time of year. Harvest those leaves regularly and don’t be afraid to keep doing it even though the plant is a bit on the ugly side.
How To Start The Vegetable Garden Season
Mind you, twice weekly watering and heavy applications of compost in the spring are necessary to keep the plant producing rather than simply withering away under the onslaught of regular harvesting.
A good friend and great gardener has been selling some of his excess organic vegetable produce for a few seasons now and he produces some of the best greens I have ever tasted. He does this by regular harvesting (man, his plants are ugly) and copious amounts of compost every year.
There are few weeds to be seen in his huge garden and water is supplied through regular drip irrigation so the plants aren’t stressed. He handpicks all the pests and other than last year’s scourge of squash beetles, his garden is relatively pest-free. I also note he starts the second crop in July so that it is starting to come into harvest just after the main heat of the summer has passed.
Mind you, the rest of your vegetable garden should be starting to look pretty good about now. The growth of tomatoes and vine crops should be well on the way to harvest size.
Do not remove the leaves above any ripening fruit set; the plant needs them for food production. In the greenhouses, we would remove all leaves below the fruit set being harvested. In other words, the staked plants would be clear of leaves right up to the fruit set currently ripening. (Tomatoes ripen from the bottom up.)
If you’re not staking your plants, do not remove leaves from your tomato plant (no matter what the Internet says)
Regular Watering Is Critical To Avoid This
Regular watering is essential for all vegetables but particularly for tomatoes at this time of year. If the first fruit set has a soft flattened bottom with mold or rot there, you likely have. This is a physiological condition and not a disease. While technically it means the blossom didn’t get the calcium it needed, in practice, it means the plant did not get the water it needed to move the soil’s abundant calcium up to the blossom in time.
Don’t bother buying calcium; simply add more water to the garden. With all the rain we had this spring, this should not be a major problem in our gardens.
In conversation with my friend this week, he noted that his squash was not pollinating very well this year. He said that what was happening was the small squash would look like it might be forming after the flower fades but then it rots away.
He pointed out that this is not a disease but rather the blossom was not being pollinated. Without pollination, there will be no fruit set. Bees normally do this for those big yellow flowers but bee populations seem to be down this year (bees are quite sensitive to many horticultural chemicals) and you too may find your vine crops are not what they might have been.
It’s Not Likely A Bee
As a side note, I always take umbrage with people who go picnicking and say that the bees were swarming them looking for food. Invariably, bees take the blame here but it is actually wasps that are doing the raiding. Further to that, wasps are actually beneficial to our gardens because while they might take the odd bite here and there from a fruit or vegetable, most of them are insect predators of one kind or other and help control the bad guys in the garden.I whack them when they get into the house but once outside, wasps and I have a friendly truce going.
So don’t be too worried if your vegetable garden is looking a trifle blowsy right now. That’s the way it is supposed to look if you are enjoying it.
One of the interesting things in the vegetable garden is the existence of “trap plants” we can use to both attract and identify pest infestations as a form of companion planting.
We say these plants act as “insect traps” for the rest of the garden.
For example, beans and eggplant are beloved of spider mite and white flies so if you want to know if these pests are a problem in your garden, check these two plants first.
Or, if you’ve had a problem with these pests in the past, do plant these plants so they’ll both attract the pests (taking them away from other plants such as tomatoes) and give you an easy place to spray insecticidal soap for control purposes.
This means you can actually put some eggplant and bean plants next to other plants that have had insect problems in the past to use as “traps” and infestation early warning signals. A few plants scattered here and there through the garden works really well instead of concentrating these two plants in a section all by themselves.
Trap-cropping has several things in its favor in the home garden.
The first is that it works and has a great deal of scientific study behind it. The second thing is that it’s easy to do.
Trap-cropping is a simple system with limited plants to use.
The plants listed below attract the indicated pests. Period.
This means the insects prefer to eat the trap crop (most do anyway) instead of your preferred plant.
This gives two positive results –
the first is that your preferred plant isn’t being eaten and
the second is that the majority of pests are all in one place, making it much easier to kill them.
Because this is what you’re going to do – kill the pests attacking the trap crop.
Differences To Note
I note much of the research has been done on commercial farms where the trap crop is a row or two on the outside or running between rows of the desired crop.
It is on a much larger scale than backyard gardens so there are a few more details to be aware of and techniques to be used along with trap-cropping.
Diverse Planting In The Home Garden
This means plant a lot of different kinds of plants – vegetables, herbs and annual flowers in the same area.
Insects are less likely to build up into total crop-devouring numbers when there aren’t large mono-cultures. (All the same kind of plant.)
Did I mention to include flowers in the vegetable garden?
These will attract a great many beneficial insects as well as provide some beauty in your garden. And a cutting garden of your favorite flowers will fit right into a vegetable garden as both flowers and vegetables are constantly being cut and pruned.
My advice about which flowers to plant would include:
All of these plants have been shown to attract insects.
Also include your favorite flowers for cutting. Don’t be restricted by what’s “good” for the garden but instead consider what’s good for the gardener.
Commercially Used Combinations You Can Use in the Home Garden
These suggestions are gleaned from commercial vegetable production research and studies and are recommended for big growers. I suggest home gardeners can take advantage of these as well.
Again, a trap crop will attract the pest first but it won’t “protect” the main crop in any way.
You do have to control the insect but at least you know where it’s more likely to be first. Check these trap crops regularly for the beginning stages of insect infestation.
When you see them on the trap crop, control immediately before the insect moves to your preferred crop.
Chevil attracts slugs. Plant with everything as it’s a favorite slug food.
Chinese cabbage seems to attract more Cabbage webworms, flea hoppers and mustard aphids than regular cabbage. Plant this form next to your regular cabbage.
Dill and Lovage are preferred foods of the tomato hornworm so mix these herbs into your tomato plantings.
Hot cherry peppers are used as trap crops for regular sweet bell peppers to attract pepper maggots. Plant all peppers in the same area but check those hot cherry types first for problems.Peppers also attract aphids probably more than any other vegetable – check this crop first and plant it next to any other plant you want to protect.
Marigolds deter root-knot nematodes in the soil so plant next to legumes (peas, beans) that are a main food crop of this pest. (Contrary to Internet advice, I haven’t seen research they actually “work” in any other way. But it never hurts to grow flowers in a vegetable garden and who knows….)
Nasturtiums are beloved and eaten by aphids, flea beetles, cucumber beetles and squash vine borers. Plant them either next to or among your cabbage and squash plant families.
Radishes are eaten by flea beetles and root maggots more than cabbage so plant radishes between your cabbages.
Tansy is a great food source for Colorado potato beetles so plant it next to your potato crop.
Trap crop plants don’t deter insects, they attract them. This makes it easier for you to find/control/eliminate the bad guys.
Don’t make the same absent-minded mistake I made when I dug and shaped the rows in our small vegetable garden.
Which Way Do Your Vegetable Garden Rows Run? (and other tips)
And who would have thought the directions of the rows would make a difference? Well, to be honest, I did. But then I went and forgot all about it when I was building the vegetable garden (a fact I’m correcting now).
Take a large plastic bottle – cut off the bottom end about a half-inch from the bottom.
Take the screw-cap top off and with a hot needle, poke a hole in the top. Note that a drill is usually too large.
Put the top back on the bottomless bottle – and dig a hole about 8-inches deep right beside your tomato plant.
Set the bottle into the hole – pierced cap end down. Backfill it and fill the bottle with water through the cut-off bottom end.
The pierced cap will slowly leak the water into the soil and will provide a few hours of regular deep watering. If they leak out (emptying the bottle) within an hour, the hole is too large. You want a steady and very tiny trickle of water.
The trick is to make one of these bottle waterers for each tomato in your home patch and fill them up once a day. This will keep the ground uniformly moist (but not soggy) and will allow the tomato plant adequate moisture.
There are quite a few drip irrigation systems on the market, and here are a few things you really want to think about.
If you have a well? Get a filter at the beginning of your system if you live in the country. You’ll be surprised how much “small sediment” can quickly clog up a drip system.
That’s assuming you’re using a by-pass so you don’t filter garden water. If you’re taking it after the filter, you’ll find your filters will clog much faster.
Distance Apart for Tubes
Drip irrigation usually only covers about a foot or so on either side of the hose. This means if you have a 4-foot wide bed, you’ll need two runs (down and back) to properly irrigate. A single run will not provide enough water.
It’s far better to have the hoses closer than too far apart – so if you have to err, do it on the side of close.
Drip irrigation systems are also quite useful in creating an excellent soil moisture level without losing much water to evaporation. The only problem with them is they do tend to clog up and you’ll have to check them out daily or your plants will quickly suffer.
A drip irrigation system flow rate can be calculated by knowing the flow rate of each emitter and then counting the emitters. Or, by immersing the entire system into a 5-gallon bucket and timing how long it takes to fill up the bucket.
If you use overhead irrigation nozzles, water in the early morning so the sunshine has a chance to dry out the leaves. Watering in the evening will bring on fungal problems as the leaves will stay wet all night. (remember that damp and dark create homes for fungus to grow)
And no, watering during the day doesn’t “burn” the leaves. That’s an old wives’ tale.
And definitely, use a form of rain gauge to figure out how long to run the irrigation system. A rain gauge will work quite nicely to tell you how many inches of water you can apply with your irrigation system in an hour. Most gardens do nicely with approximately 1 ½ inches of water per week.
If your hose puts out 1 inch of water in an hour – you need to put 1 ½ hours of water onto your plants. Split this amount into two ¾ hour segments equally spaced over the week (say on a Tuesday and Friday – or Saturday and Wednesday)
Rather than purchasing an expensive rain gauge, I use an old yogurt tub and mark (using a permanent magic marker) every half-inch up the container for a few inches. When I start the sprinkler, I time how long it takes to put a half-inch of water into the container. And that’s my base time. Double that time for an inch of water etc.
Hand-watering The Garden
The last resort but a relaxing one is to hand-water your plants. I say last resort because hand watering is usually not as consistent as a sprinkler or drip system. You tend to water more at the beginning and less as you get closer to finishing. You tend to overwater some plants and underwater others.
Having run a nursery with many different workers doing the watering, I can tell you that these variations do make a difference when spread out over a growing season. I use sprinklers in my gardens (I’m also a lazy gardener who wants super yields too).
However you do it – do not let your plants wilt or suffer from moisture stress if you want a good garden.
There is a very simple rule when it comes to applying water to container garden plants.
Always water so that at least 15-20 percent of the water poured in the top comes out the bottom.
Having done this, do not water again until the surface of the soil is just dry to the touch.
Until your finger comes away dry from touching the soil, the plant does not require watering.
This system of watering ensures that the entire soil ball is wet so tender young roots do not go begging for moisture. If the soil ball is wet right to the bottom of the pot, the roots too will grow to the bottom of the pot.
Deeply rooted plants are invariably healthier and better able to resist stress than are the more shallowly rooted ones. A thorough watering also ensures that all excess fertilizer salts are always being moved to the bottom and right out of the pot so as not to damage the tender young feeder roots.
“Another reason why plants kept in rooms are generally unhealthy, is, that they are watered in a very irregular manner.” Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden 1858
When Your Container Goes Bone Dry Because You Forgot To Water
Should the soilless mix dry right out, it will pull away from the sides of the pot as it shrinks. This will allow the water to run quickly and easily down between the pot wall and the soil ball. This, of course, isn’t doing any good to the plant in the process.
The remedy with these types of shrinking soils is to sit the pot in a tub or pail of water for at least an hour to allow the soil ball to absorb all the water it can handle and expand again.
If the container is too large to move into a tub, then very slow and often-repeated waterings will accomplish the same thing. I have often had to trickle water over some of the larger containers three or four times, with a half-hour between waterings, to convince them to rehydrate and soak up moisture.
“A great many ladies kill their plants by extreme kindness; that is, they keep on feeding them until the plants get too much water, when the roots rot and the plants die.”
Heinrich The Window Flower Garden 1887
The secret to this container watering, whether it be inside or outside potted plants, is to learn restraint.
If you touch the soil and your finger comes away damp, then do not add more water. Too much water will kill a plant almost as fast as will too little. If your finger comes away dry – then and only then do you water.
Mr. Heinrich did not mean to be particularly sexist when he refers to the ladies killing their plants by “extreme kindness”. The fact is that at the time of writing, maintaining the container gardens was very much a proper ladies form of gardening.
Women, at least those who would purchase and read a book on container gardening, did not work out in the fields. They gardened on a more refined scale in a container garden.
Use these organic vegetable gardening tips in your own garden
Here are ten organic vegetable gardening tips to consider for your own garden. If you follow all ten of them, you’ll: • Have better soil so your harvests will be larger. • You’ll do less hard work than more traditional gardeners. • You’ll lower your costs dramatically. • You’ll know when to water and when not to — saving money on water bills. • Your frustration level will go down. And that’s always a good thing in my world. • You’ll feel better, physically and spiritually, after a garden session.
#1 It’s All About The Soil
There’s an old adage in the organic gardening world that you don’t feed your plants, you feed your soil. If you have a healthy soil, your plants will grow a ton better than if you’ve killed off the microorganisms by using chemicals and/or excessive amounts of chemical fertilizers.
Add organic matter such as compost or peat moss every year to your garden. The alternative is deep mulch. Both of those things will keep the organic matter content of your soils high. Vegetables thrive on high organic matter soils This is the number one thing to do. Here’s a simple way to prevent weeds in the vegetable garden and improve the soil at the same time
#2 Use Compost
Compost is one of the last stages in organic matter decomposition and it’s the lifeblood of any soil.
How much do I need to add?
The simple answer is as much as possible. But let’s say you read a book that says, “Put 1/4 inch of compost onto your garden every year” • To apply 1/4 inch of compost to 1000 square feet of garden you’ll need .75 cubic yards of compost. • 3/4 of a yard per 1000 square feet will give you 1/4 inch. • If you need 1/2 inch, you’ll need 1.5 cubic yards of compost Now we’re starting to talk about a lot of compost. In the real world, you put on what you can afford and you apply it using the easy system right below.
How Do I Put Compost Onto The Garden?
I use a very scientific approach. I take a shovel full and toss it around the base of the plant. • Small plant, one shovel. • Big plant — several shovels See, I told you it was scientific. 🙂
I don’t dig it in. It just gets tossed onto the soil or in our case, on top of the deep mulch that covers every square inch of my gardens. The rain and worms will drag it down.
# 3 Put Down A Deep Layer of Mulch
I read about this in an old garden book by Ruth Stout back when I first started gardening seriously. I’ve done it — more or less — ever since. A deep layer of mulch does some very interesting things:
It saves water by reducing evaporation.
It reduces weeding. A 4-inch layer of mulch reduces weeding by as much as 90%. This is a very good thing in my world.
It provides food for all manner of insects and soil microorganisms. And all these creatures help keep your plants healthy and growing well.
Yes, you can use straw or hay or leaves or anything you get locally. I personally prefer straw because it has fewer weed seeds than hay and it doesn’t mat as much as hay but I know folks who prefer hay. Use what you can find and afford.
No — you don’t want to use a mulch on your gardens that doesn’t decompose. The objective here is to provide an ongoing supply of decomposing organic matter to feed our soil. Rocks, ground up rubber tires etc just don’t cut it.
Deep mulching is (imho) the single best thing you can do for your garden to reduce work, reduce water use, increase fertility without work, and get bigger harvests.
#4 Save Your Own Seeds
This is one of the easiest of gardening techniques (we save all our own vegetable seeds) and all it takes is a bit of work in the late summer/fall. Plus you’ll be able to save the plants you like, save money and have seed to share with friends and neighbors. There’s a lot of “mystery” about this but it’s really, really simple to save your own seed. Here’s a quick ebook written by my better half Mayo Underwood — a recognized expert on heirloom seeds. She does all our vegetable seed saving and I take care of the flowers. For the most part, you simply have to take the seed out of the mature plant, dry them (space them well apart on a plate) and then store cool and dry for the winter. Do NOT freeze vegetable seeds.
#5 Get Your Plant Spacing Right
Too many gardeners crowd their plants. The gardens, plants, and gardeners suffer as a result. For example, tomatoes are best grown on 4-foot spacing. That means 4 feet between plants and 4 feet between rows. But gardeners insist on bringing that spacing down so the vines twine together and the plants compete for food and water. And we’re not even considering how diseases are worse when plants are crowded (no air ventilation drying the leaves out). Get the correct spacing and everything else follows from that. I have all the spacing info in my ebook on Vegetable Gardening in the North available here on Amazon. • Do your research on this and plant vegetables at the right distances apart. • Hint: it’s often on the back of seed packages or on labels. This isn’t quite what we mean by vertical gardening but…
# 6 Garden Vertically
When you have a smallish garden, going vertical is the solution to getting a ton more plants in a small space. For example, staking tomatoes will give you far more fruit in a small space than allowing them to flop on the ground or even growing them in cages.
You’ll get more tomatoes per square foot of garden space by staking than by allowing them to grow on the ground. The yield per plant won’t be as high but the yield in your small backyard garden will be higher if you stake.
This is the same for almost every crop. Try growing cucumbers, trailing squash, pole beans vertically. We now eat almost 100% pole beans instead of space-hogging bush beans) and even grow watermelon and pumpkins vertically.
Do I have to tell you that if you’re growing large fruit you really need to ensure the trellis is strong. 🙂 Heck, my tomatoes have broken strings, bent poles and been blown over in high wind storms. Overbuild your trellis systems. It will only take one tomato-plant-on-the-ground to make you into a believer of strong systems
You can also grow your vegetables in containers if you don’t have a garden plot.
#7 Control Weeds
Yeah, every garden article you’ve ever read gives you this bit of advice but if you read the point above about mulch you’re on the right track.
A four-inch deep layer of organic mulch will cut your weeding by 90% (give or take a few percentage points)
Using mulch is a no-brainer in my world — and now you know why every one of my gardens has a deep layer of mulch.
Planting at the correct distances as in the picture below will also help control weeds because there’s no light getting to the soil (and it’s cooler in the shade) so weed seeds are not encouraged to germinate.
#8 Water Properly
The normal recommended amount of water to put on a garden is 1.5 inches a week (3.1 cm) but that’s a generalized recommendation that may or may not work depending on your soil type. I follow a simple alternative system in my own garden. I pull the mulch back and touch the soil. If my finger comes away “damp” I push the mulch back and don’t water. If it comes away without visible dampness on it, I soak the garden.
To ensure I soak the garden, I put a yogurt container down in the sprinkler pattern so it gets the same amount of water as the plants. And then I measure it. Normally an inch to two inches in the container will be fine to get down through the mulch and into the soil.
But then I test the next day again — and every day in different parts of the garden.
I don’t turn my garden into a swamp by overwatering because of the finger test — and I don’t allow it to dry out either.
This consistent attention to watering — which reduces plant stress — will make a major difference to your garden yields. It will also save you money on water bills and increase your vegetable harvest. It’s a good thing to do. I note this is another great feature of mulch. It reduces water evaporation and while it costs money up front to buy, it does all these great things.
# 9 Use Organic Problem Control Methods
The reality is that too many home gardeners believe that if a little bit of chemical insect stuff is good — then a whole lot is better.
Let me state this very clearly. We use organic insect controls, have for years and our gardens are doing just fine.
We get all the food and flowers we need and we know we and our kids (and now grandkids) can eat anything out of the garden without any concerns about washing it first. It’s healthy food.
Earwigs (for example)
For example, earwigs are one of the most ferocious of predators who eat other insects and they also consume decaying organic matter. A deep layer of mulch gives them lots of food and a hunting ground for other insects. I have lots of them in my gardens and rarely see them on the flowers as they’re stuffed from eating other insects and resting below the deep mulch.
But too many gardeners blame them for plant damage when they’re simply the ones found (resting usually after a night of slug eating) This is particularly true when a slug digs a hole in your tomato and the earwig goes in there — eats the slug and stays because it’s dark, moist and a good place for rotting food now the slug has exposed the inside of the tomato to air. You don’t see the slug but you do see the earwig. Guess who you blame for the hole in your tomato?
The Biggest Problem Used To Be…
Getting peas out of my garden has been a lifelong challenge. On the farm, my kids would harvest them like snacks, filling their pockets regularly throughout the day. The day I saw one of my daughters with a hat stuffed full and the hat perched precariously on her head was the day I almost gave up hope of ever eating one.
The day I did give up hope was the day I saw one of our Old English Sheepdogs stealing them as well (the kids had given them to the dogs and the dogs learned what they looked like and how to get them for themselves).
Now, with my kids grown up I thought my time had come. Only to discover my sneaky partner loves the darn things as much as my kids did… And my grandkids… well…
Seriously, it’s gardening. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not rocket science and it’s not (for most of us) life or death. So when something goes wrong in your vegetable garden (and it will) then take a deep breath, learn something and move on. Life is far too short to get yourself upset about some critter taking a bite out of your plants. And that’s the end of that sermon.
Remember. If you’re not having fun in the garden, you’re doing something wrong. Those nine organic vegetable growing tips — and this one bit of personal advice — should get you started in the right direction.
You’ll never meet an old gardener. You may meet an aged gardener but no real gardener ever gets truly old
My Last Thoughts On Learning Organic Vegetable Gardening
• Vegetable gardening and learning about it is a lifelong thing. I learn something new every year in my garden and I want you to keep this in mind when you wander into yours. • This isn’t a competitive sport. The insects will get their fair share no matter whether you spray noxious products or not. Individual plants will die — no matter what you do. Stuff will go wrong but more stuff will go right. It’s not about beating the neighbours, it’s about sharing with the neighbours. • It’s about feeling good after a garden workout knowing you didn’t have to go to the gym to get exercise It’s about looking back at a garden when you leave knowing you’ve accomplished something really good for your body and spirit. • Being in the garden is being close to nature, being close to the really important bigger things in life. It’s a spiritual thing for many of us. • I find the more time I spend in your garden, the more things go right. When I really pay attention, the plants will show me what they need in small recognizable and learnable ways. And it’s learning to recognize those small ways — like a baby has small ways of letting you know what they need — that makes a gardener. • Your vegetable garden need not be utilitarian. You can make it look great too.