By Victoria Rolfe
Summer is in full bloom and we are in the heart of gardening season. For the most part, your garden should be fairly established by now. So we move into maintenance mode. In the previous Weed It and Reap column I discussed the proper watering and fertilizing techniques, which you will need to continue to practice throughout the summer months. You will also need to keep your garden weed free and, of course, continue to happily harvest and eat your produce.
The next maintenance task to be discussed is keeping your plants free of pests and disease. This is one of the main reasons why, way back in the planning phase, I recommended placing your garden as close to your house as possible. It is important to patrol often so that you can catch problems early and nip them in the bud (so to speak) if you can.
To start with, healthy plants are happy plants. It may seem almost counterintuitive, but pests do not usually like to eat healthy crops. It is actually much easier for them to attack plants that are compromised in some way. Therefore, your first line of defense is to maintain good soil, fertilizer, and proper hydration practices.
That said, it is good to be ever vigilant for the first sign of trouble in your garden. Hopefully, you are strolling in your yard each day to enjoy the delightful oasis you have created there, and pick some fresh veggies for your dinner, and maybe even a bouquet of flowers to enjoy on your table while you are eating. When you are there, keep your eye out for anything amiss. Do you see any holes or discoloration on your leaves? Any signs of chewing? Unfamiliar insects? Any wilting? Any blemishes or distortion of fruits?
At the first sign of something wrong it is time to take action before a small problem escalates into something harder to control. Now is the time for a little detective work. The more you can learn about what is happening to your plant (mostly through the magic of Google), the better you are equipped to deal with it. A good resource for your vegetable gardening questions can be found at https://gardening.cals.cornell.edu/garden-guidance/ .
It is always best, especially if you wish to grow organically (which hopefully you do), to start with the simplest controls. For instance, try hand-picking your pests and dropping them into a can of soapy water (passionate gardeners learn not to be squeamish pretty early on) or squirting aphids off your plants with a hard spray of the hose. Another neat trick along these lines is to use duct tape to gently pull insect eggs off leaves without harming the leaf. This works especially well with squash bug eggs. Just press a piece of tape onto them and lift them off. If they have hatched into little bugs, well … squash them.
Sometimes your problem may not be due to a pest at all or even a disease, but rather a cultural problem, such as blossom end rot of tomatoes, which is caused by uneven watering conditions. Or it could be due to something such as poor pollination, which results in stunted misshapen fruits on crops such as cucumbers and squash. If you see weird things happening to your plants, it’s time to get your Sherlock on once again and do a little “digging” on your computer. An informed gardener is a savvy gardener.
I beg you here to not grab a spray bottle of something at your nearby garden center as soon as you see a bug. First of all, you don’t even know what that little critter is. He may be doing no harm at all. In fact, he may be helping you. Even beginner gardeners know that lady bugs eat aphids and so they leave the cute little red beetles alone. But few realize that the prehistoric-looking thing they encounter on their plant is actually a lady bug larva, and their first instinct is to destroy the ugly bugger.
The bottom line is that there are many steps you can take to keep your garden free of pests and disease that do not require you to spray anything toxic. And it is very prudent to use these natural measures rather than heading to the garden center for harsh chemicals and dousing your plants with them. Better for your pocketbook, your health, and the environment.
Remember: Your garden is a beautiful ecosystem of its own and when you spray toxins you are also killing many beneficial insects that are helping your plants to flourish. Be kind and gentle and your garden will reward you in a multitude of ways for the loving care you have bestowed upon it.
Victoria Rolfe has had a love of gardening all her life, from the time she was a tiny child coveting the daffodils growing in her neighbor’s yard (and wondering why she couldn’t have them in her own), to her teenage years when she took her pot experimentation in a different direction by growing the seeds she extracted from the bag into a beautiful marijuana plant on her bedroom windowsill. She went on in her adult years to feed her family by growing a huge and bountiful vegetable garden, as well as beautifying her three-acre property with an array of ornamental trees, bushes and flowers in the magnificent Hudson Valley region of New York.
Victoria learned a great deal in the process of all this plant experimentation. She then added to that knowledge by taking courses with the Cornell Cooperative Extension to become a Master Gardener Volunteer. In her volunteer capacity, she helps to educate the public on gardening through classes and information booths, most notably at the Dutchess County N.Y. Fair each August. Throughout the summer months, Victoria is most likely to be found among the weeds, either in her own garden or those of others who actually pay her to play in their dirt and do the thing she loves best, delight in the magical world of gardening.
Victoria is not only a gardening aficionado; she is also passionate about helping people live a better life on less money. Visit her website and blog at brightfuture2budget4.weebly.com, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.