Monday, June 16, 2014

3 Tips to Keep Your Frugal Veggie Garden Healthy and Productive

It's the middle of June and it's getting hot outside!  My frugal veggie garden is growing fast, and I've already harvested quite a bit of my spring veggies.  Although I've not been weighing out my harvests like I intended to do (perhaps next year), my wife and I harvest and eat something from our garden nearly every day.

The peas vines are making good use of my cotton twine "trellis" (i.e. fence)

Snow peas and Sugar Snap peas both ready to eat

My frugal veggie-growing guide includes instructions and details on how to get your garden up and running for minimal money investment, but even a frugal veggie garden needs continual attention and maintenance to keep the plants productive.  Until now, I haven't really discussed the tasks that I am continually doing around the garden now that it is well established.  So today, I am going to share a few tips that I've learned over my few of gardening experience that make the biggest difference in terms of a healthy, happy vegetable garden.

  • Check on your garden at least a few times a week, if not daily
Organic gardening is a great way to produce your own food while simultaneously reducing your impact on the environment.  However, organic gardening is not without its own set of problems.  A majority of these problems are going to be in the form of pests and diseases.  In many cases, a small infestation of bugs or a sign of disease can quickly go from a manageable problem to the destruction of your entire garden.  This is why it is so important to check on your garden often and address any problems before they get out of control.

Now, don't think that you need to spend every waking minute thinking about the bugs that might be eating your plants, or why a leaf on one of your plant has a small blemish.  Obsessing over every little thing that might be harming your plants is not going to help the situation.  In fact, doing this will likely cause you to take unnecessary measures to protect your plants when they didn't really need it, causing more stress to you AND your plants.

Instead, I like to take just 15 minutes out of my day to walk around my garden and look my plants.  Most of the time, I just get to take a leisurely stroll around my backyard and enjoy the outdoors and everything I have growing.  

This diamondback moth larvae chews holes in brassica leaves
If there looks to be a problem with one of my plants, I will stop and observe whatever damage my already be done and make a mental note of it.  Things to look for include holes in leaves, discoloring of stem and foliage, large infestations of bugs in a concentrated area, wilting, et cetera.  For an even more accurate diagnosis, I will take a picture of said damage to the plant or whatever critters are hanging out on it at the time.  Today, for instance, I spotted both diamondback moth larvae and imported cabbage worms on my brassica plants.  I took a picture, not knowing what they were at the time, as a reference for looking up similar worms on the internet.

Then I look up whatever disease/pest is on my plant and take the appropriate action to improve the situation.  Google is good for finding general information on plant pests and diseases.  If you need more personalized information or help, GardenWeb is a good source for that, with specific forums for specific plants, pests and diseases.  Just doing a search of the GardenWeb forums will usually answer whatever questions I have, but if you need more specific info, posting a forum thread with a picture of the problem will help other members identify what the issue is and what to do about it.

This large imported cabbage worm will eat plants down to just a stem
I can provide a great example of this very process from my own garden this year.  One of my tomato plants started wilting and had large yellow circles forming on the leaves that would eventually turn brown and die.  I noted what was happening and looked up "tomato diseases" on google.  After searching through a few articles, a picture of a tomato plant with early blight looked exactly what was going on with my tomato.  Having discovered my plant was showing signs of early blight, I quickly removed all the affected leaves and stems as a preventative measure (more can be done to combat this disease, but it involves spraying fungicide, which I am unwilling to do).  It's been about a week and the tomato seems to be doing fine with the infected parts removed.  It's still too early to tell, however, and I will be keeping my eye on it.

Hopefully this tomato will recover after removing leaves and stems with early blight

In any case, a simple check up done on the garden every couple of days will help keep all your hard work from disintegrating in front your eyes.  Not all plants can be saved once infected from disease or pests, but quick action on your part can help prevent some plant loss.

And in regards to pests attacking your plants, just remember that every egg, worm or adult you kill, you're preventing a whole new generation of pests from developing.  Sometimes I'd rather be doing other things than killing bugs in the garden, but I think about that and my motivation will usually return.

  • Keep your garden beds weed-free, if possible
Sometimes weeding is easier said than done.  I can't think of anyone who likes to do back-breaking weed pulling.  Unfortunately, weeds are the direct competition to your vegetable plants and will usually out-compete them for water, light and nutrients, if given then chance.  To make sure your veggies produce as much as possible, we have to limit the amount of weeds growing in your garden bed.

If you have a square foot garden bed like the one I built in my frugal veggie-growing guide, this will be a very easy task.  In the beginning, when your plants are still very small, a little weed pulling will help your plants get established in the soil.  As your plants get bigger, their leaves will be so close together that it shades the ground underneath them, preventing most weeds from growing.  Any weeds that do pop up are easily identified and pulled up.  Once your plants reach maturity, you probably will have to weed very little, if at all.  One of the perks of using the square foot gardening method.

Square foot gardening reduces the need to weed

Traditional beds are a little trickier to keep weeds at bay.  In these situations, a little bit of mulch goes a long way.  Do a heavy weed-pulling session until all you see is bare ground.  Then, apply mulch around each plant up to 2-3" from the stem (to reduce the risk of soil-borne diseases from reaching the plant).  This will keep weeds from growing, but you may have to re-apply your mulch frequently, depending on what kind of mulch you use.

Personally, my all-time favorite mulch is dead leaves shredded into little bits with a lawn mower.  Not only do the leaves keep the soil moist and prevent weeds, they are aesthetically pleasing to the eye and last a pretty good amount of time before breaking down.  Additionally, they add a small amount of nutrients to the soil as they break down (a characteristic of most organic mulches).  Dead leaves are also very easy to obtain during certain times of the year, and many people will let you take their dead leaves for free.  That makes is a good candidate for the frugal veggie garden.

Not everyone has a multitude of fallen leaves in their yard, however... especially in the summer months.  Because of this, my next favorite mulch are grass clippings.  If you have a lawn, you know waiting a few days to cut your grass will net you an abundance of extra grass clippings.  Why not put some of that organic material to work instead of leaving it to dry up on your lawn?  Like dead leaves, grass clippings put nutrients back into the soil, easy to collect/obtain for cheap or free, and keep the soil moist and weed-free.  However, grass clipping have a few drawbacks.  First, it can't be applied too thick, as it will form mats that prevent water from reaching the soil.  Many people also despise the smell of grass clipping as they decompose, especially if they have gotten wet from rain or irrigation.  The solution to both problems is to weed the area thoroughly, then apply a thin (like 1-3" at most) layer of grass clipping after all the weeds are gone.  This will keep weeds from growing but also allow your plants to still get water, and the smell of the clippings applied in this manner is virtually undetectable (at least for me).  The main downside is that grass clipping break down very quickly, so you'll need to re-apply every week or two.

In my front yard bed, I use grass clippings to mulch around my corn

Vegetables are the most productive when they don't have to compete for essential nutrients, light and water, so keeping your garden beds as weed-free as possible will go a long way in keeping your plants growing their best.

  • Learn to water properly
A big mistake that even the most experienced gardeners make at times, is watering too much or too little.  Plants, just like people, can die of thirst or over-hydration.  The typical rule-of-thumb for watering is making sure the plants get at least 1" of water per week.  Some people will need a lot more additional watering, while others may never have to water their plants at all during the season.  It all depends on location and climate.

I can write all about how to water plants in a certain way, but only you can know exactly how much water you should give your plants.  It is a delicate balance of keeping the plants well-hydrated, while also keeping the plants from becoming too dependent on surface moisture.  Conservation efforts should also be taken into consideration, especially during the hot, dry weeks of summer.

So despite not being able to give specific directions on how much water your plants will need, I will offer some of the tips and tricks I've started to employ after doing much research on the subject.

  1. Water your plants if they desperately need it.  The rules about not watering during certain times of the day do not apply if your plant is wilting over from thirst.
  2. If possible, water in the early morning.  More water will reach the plant roots instead of evaporating during the heat of the day.
  3. Watering late afternoon is the next best time to water, but be aware that excessive moisture in the soil during night hours will attract more slugs to your plants.
  4. When your plants are well established, try to water only when you notice signs of thirst from the plant.  Doing this will help the roots dig deep into the ground to tap into the moisture that is unable to evaporate.
  5. If your plant starts to droop down farther than normal and the soil is very dry or crumbly, it may be time to water your plants.
  6. Only water the roots of the plant, if possible.  Watering foliage increases the chance that your plants will be infected with a pathogen.
  7. Finally, a slow drip or trickle of water to the plants roots will quench the plants' thirst much better than dumping a huge amount of water on them at one time.  You can make a simple drip watering system by poking a hole or two in the bottom of a plastic cup and setting it near the plants' roots.  Then just fill the cup with water and let it slowly drip out of the bottom.

Utilizing an efficient water strategy, like the one outlined above, will keep your plants growing beautifully, while also minimizing water waste and run-off, as well as reducing the risk of plant diseases.  Watering is absolutely critical for plant survival, but that doesn't mean we should be wasting gallons of water just to make sure they have enough.  The plants will let you know when they're thirsty, you just have to recognize the signs.

Final Thoughts

I sometimes forget how much time and energy I put into the garden, mostly because I find growing plants to be a lot fun!  A fully organic vegetable garden needs a lot of attention over the growing season, with a lot of that time devoted to pest/disease identification and control.  Initially, keeping the garden maintained may seem like it takes a lot of work, but the more frequently you are controlling pests and managing weeds, the easier this task becomes.  You may eventually find that you are no longer working that hard during your garden checks.  Instead, you are just taking a nice stroll through your garden and enjoying the fruits of your labor.

With that said, these three tips, albeit quite simple, are the foundation of maintenance that I do to my own garden throughout the season.  It helps keep my plants healthy and productive, and I'm sure that if you follow these tips, you will see similar success with your garden.  And as usual, employing these tips won't cost you much money, if any at all.

I hope you enjoyed the article today.  My next post is going to be another garden update, and boy is there a lot of new activity going on now that summer has almost arrived!  Stay tuned and keep gardening!

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