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Garden – Strategy for Better Overall Garden Health

We eat mainly what we grow and there are very few vegetables that I buy from the grocery store — even in the winter.  And when I do they’re organic and in season.  I wouldn’t pay even a penny for a tasteless store bought tomato or cucumber.  Nor do I buy onions or potatoes. (Yes, I know— I’m spoiled.)  I consider myself blessed that my garden has produced the food we need.

Even though for many years I only had straw, weeds, kitchen scraps, leaves and plant residue to use as my organic material in the garden I still had what I considered to be a healthy garden.

To see the pictures in a larger format — you can sometimes double click on them and they will enlarge. If you have this capability it will make the post more meaningful to you I think.
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Lettuce in various stages, beans, onions, asparagus, potatoes, kale, cultivated dandelion (far left center of picture), and bush cucumber. (And daylilies.)

Built in Disease and Pest Control

A little study into what great biodynamic and organic gardeners have done and you’ll find out in a hurry that pest control and disease is not something they worry about a lot — because there’s no need to.  Soil life and the plants themselves — if supplied with the proper food can pretty much fend for themselves without our constant attention.

Although I’ve certainly lived the nightmare of hand killing hoards of squash bugs and potato beetles 3 times a day for a month or two in prior years — my pest problems have been minimum compared to what I hear about.

Oldest squash plants at top of garden. I planted these in the stubble from rye that occupied the bed in fall, winter and spring.

Oldest squash plants at top of garden. I planted these in the stubble from rye that occupied the bed in fall, winter and spring.

Best Year So Far

This year seems the most pest free of any I’ve experienced.  Of course — it ain’t over ’till it’s over — and it’s still early summer AND we’ve had nice rains.  No drought makes for less stress on plants — and less stress means less pest bugs.

In addition to all the things I’ve done to improve garden conditions and soil life, the weather has a lot of influence. And hot humid weather definitely puts stress on plants.

I’ve found only about 5 squash bugs on the squash in the picture above. (I check twice a day.)  I’ve also seen indication of squash vine borer, but can’t find where it is.  But overall the plant is doing ok and giving me squash.

No cucumber beetles thus far — even on the bigger plant shown close to the end of this post.

New squash plant, lettuce, chard, kale seedling, onions, potatoes.  Fading pea vine is in lower left corner. I've left a few vines from which to gather seed.

New cucumber plant, lettuce,  onions, potatoes. Fading pea vine near new cucumbers. I’ve left a few vines from which to gather seed.

I had a bit of trouble with slugs back in March and put Escargo down in some spots.  I see plenty of small slugs out there now, but I’ve had little or no damage from them even with my gazillion lettuce plants — which is usually one of their favorite foods.

I had potato beetle larvae on two volunteer potato plants that were in less than desirable soil.  I killed the larvae and took up the plants because they looked poorly.

When we first moved here 15 years ago the potato beetles almost drove me crazy.  Now I hardly get any.  I still check everyday just in case.

This year I’ve found 3 potato beetles on my first and second planting of potatoes shown below.  They looked almost dead and I couldn’t help but wonder if a predator had already gotten to them.

Potatoes, newly germinated beans (top middle), marguerite blooming, onions, kale, lettuce in various Potatoes, newly germinated beans (top middle), marguerite blooming, onions, kale, lettuce in various stages, radishes going to seed, borage, some asparagus.

Potatoes, newly germinated beans (top middle), marguerite blooming, onions, kale, lettuce in various  stages, radishes going to seed, borage, some asparagus.

Last year for the first time ever I had  lots of harlequin beetles in the garden.  (I had more plants that they like.) I had to pull up a lot of Russian Kale, Hakurei turnips, and few other things because the bugs seemed to be taking over and ruining the plants.

This year I’ve seen a few (and killed them) but find that there is very little damage.  Russian Kale is damaged but I’d have plenty for a meal if I wanted it. The Hakurei turnips are beautiful and the harlequin beetles have not bothered them at all. Even the still-eatable radishes are free from any damage.

You can see lettuce in various stages, chard, kale, onions, potatoes, asparagus, squash. Upright straw stalks at end of garden (top middle of picture) remains after harvesting rye seed.

You can see lettuce in various stages, chard, kale, onions, potatoes, asparagus, squash. Upright straw stalks at end of garden (top middle of picture) remain after harvesting the rye seed.

I’ve not had more than a few bean beetles in many years.  When we first moved here they ate my beans up before they were even 3 inches out of the ground. (See the beans in the picture below without a hole in them.)

Onions, beans, lettuce, asparagus, radishes going to seed.

Onions, beans, lettuce, asparagus, radishes going to seed.

Last but not least I wanted to mention that for the past 3 years I’ve had to watch my onions closely for sign of root rot which is caused by a soil borne fungus. (This is one important reason to rotate onions.)

Much to my amazement this year — there has not been one sign or indication of root rot.

Nature’s Wake Up Call

If you’re a regular reader you may recall that last year my tomatoes had Early Blight — the first time in many years.  It certainly woke me up to the fact that I needed to further improve conditions for the soil life so that they and my plants could work hand in hand to take care of disease and pest control for me.

Immediately I went to work on a strategy to improve the soil life.  In a nutshell here’s my 4 Phase/4 Season Strategy:

Phase 1 – Last summer I choose a variety of cover crops (buckwheat, winter rye, oats, field peas) to pull up and recyle nutrients, add the nitrogen I need for the coming spring, and all the other wonderful things cover crops do.   (This year I’ll add forage radishes and clovers which I have not used for a while).  (Remember — diversity, diversity, diversity.)

Here’s how I handled each cover crop:

  • Just before the buckwheat set seed I cut it and left it on top of the bed and covered with straw. These beds were perfect for sowing seed in early spring
  • I left the winter rye to over winter well into April in spots where I planned to plant tomatoes this year. Then I cut it and laid in on top of the bed.  When my tomato seedlings were ready I dug a spot using a hand tool in the stubble to plant them.  Also did this with my squash.
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Tomato in front side border with daylilies and yellow snapdragons. Also parsley, chard, and seeding lettuce.  I wasn’t sure this tomato  was going to get enough sun but it appears to be doing fine.

  • Oats winter killed.  I cut the biomass and laid it on top of the bed in which it grew. Roots decayed enough to transplant various seedlings into it in late spring.
  • Field peas – I sowed with winter rye and oats.  I cut when I cut the oats and rye and left on top of the bed.

Phase 2 – early winter last year

I put a layer of leaves on top of every bed except those with growing oats and rye.

Phase 3 – this season – early spring

I have always interplanted, but this year I did so to a much greater degree.  My aim was to have the soil covered by a diversity of growing plants in almost every spot in the garden.  Although I’ve not achieved that 100% — I’ve come close.

When the plants are finished I cut them off close to ground level and allow their roots to remain to feed the soil and provide protection  for soil life.

Phase 4 – this season – early summer

I’ve already under-planted some of my peppers and tomatoes with buckwheat. Before it sets seed I’ll cut it back and leave it where it falls.

I think under-planting of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants can be very beneficial in preventing the fungus that causes Early blight from splashing up on the plant.  Usually, I depend on straw to do that job, but my thinking is — the buckwheat is still alive and able to work in ways that the straw can’t.  (I’m not a scientist — so I don’t know all the technical aspect — but if this helps— and I think it will — I’ll continue to use it.)

Clovers would be excellent for this purpose as well.

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This is buckwheat seeded around small seedlings of eggplant and pepper that I just put in.  I’m watching to make sure the buckwheat doesn’t take them over before they get bigger. I want the buckwheat to help protect the plants from pathogens in the soil.

Early Blight usually hits when tomato plants are heavy with fruit.  I have a while to go yet before that time comes, but I’ll be most anxious to see how the story plays out.

I’ve seen a couple of yellow leaves on a few plants  but nothing that I would consider a danger signal.  And of course, I took the precaution of taking the lower leaves off the plant when I transplanted the seedlings.

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Tomato (on left) in border outside lower end of garden.

You can see how good the tomato foliage looks in the above picture.

Volunteer potato, parsley and beets.

Volunteer potato, parsley and beets. You’ll note the beet leaves are free from damage by the harlequin bugs.

The tomato below is so heavy I used 3 supports for it.

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Tomato and parsley in back border.

This Julia Child tomato is not as bushy as some other varieties.  Am looking forward to seeing how it performs.

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Another tomato, Julia Child, in back border.

The brilliant green oak leave lettuce is still sweet and delicious. It’s been a nice addition to my lettuce collection.

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Various lettuces.

My original plan was not to put any tomatoes in the garden this year, but I ran out of space and ended up with 10 in the garden.  The biggest one is shown below (center).

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Tomato in the garden with lettuce and marguerite blooming. Top far left of picture is buckwheat that is growing around peppers and another tomato. Netting is part of covering for blueberry bushes. Lettuce to the left and seeding lettuce to the right.  Potato volunteer plants to the right.

This cucumber – the first planted — is still looking great.

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Cucumber in grow bag to right as I enter the garden.

Already have 1 1/2 gallons of blueberries in the freezer.  Have used 2 quarts fresh already.  Want at least another 1 1/2 gallon for winter use and that much more for fresh use too.  Yummmmmmmm!

netting for blueberries and rye

To the left is winter rye.  I will harvest the seed and use for next season’s planting.  The netting covers our blueberry bushes.

Final Thoughts

I’ve found this year to be one of the most exciting years of gardening.  The less I have to deal with garden pests and disease — the more enjoyable and wonderful gardening becomes.

If you’re experiencing anything less — be patient.  Keep on keeping on and working WITH nature. Before you know it the joy of gardening almost totally pest free and disease free will be yours!

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Some Related Posts:

Principle of Diversity – Assuring Your Success

Early Blight on Tomatoes – There’s Hope

Sustainable Gardening for Even More Success

Cover Crops – Garden Information – Staying Out of Overwhelm

Cover Crops – Your Purpose Determines When You Cut or Incorporate into the Soil

Crop Rotation – Your Garden too small to Rotate Crops? Cover Crops are the Answer

Cover Crops – Benefits – Some Easy Ones

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Organic Gardening is easy, effective, efficient — and it’s a lot healthier.

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11 comments to Garden – Strategy for Better Overall Garden Health

  • Susan Klein

    Hi Theresa,
    Last year I had a BIG problem with the potato beetle. This could have been how I found your blog. I wish I could remember for sure.

    Anyway, last fall I decided that I would enrich my soil. I used leaves and compost. It looked crazy, because I really built it up high. Then I covered it with cardboard and held that down with firewood to keep it all from blowing away.

    This year my soil is amazing! Talk about a turn around. I haven’t seen any of the potato beetles, or any other pests. My soil is so soft and lovely. It is a joy to work in.

    I’m thinking of using a cover crop this fall so that I can skip the cardboard and firewood. What method do you use to cut the cover crop? Lawn mower or weed wacker?
    Thanks,
    Sue

  • Theresa

    WONDERFUL story Susan! Congratulations on a job very well done!
    One note — always keep a look out for pests — even if you don’t have any. Never take it for granted that they won’t come. (It’s easy to do.)
    I think if one lives in the north — they can be totally pest free with a healthy garden. But in the south — with our hot and humid weather — bugs can be part of the picture very easily.
    By not letting them get a foot hold — it’s much easier.

    I use a hand sickle (also called a hand scythe) to cut rye and oats.
    Buckwheat is so easy you can pull it — or leave the roots and cut it with hand hedge trimmers. (That’s what I do)
    If you want to use a weed wacker — that should do the job for all.

    Glad you are taking the step towards cover crops. They will be of great benefit to you.
    Thanks for letting us know the great results you had.
    Theresa

  • Aparna

    Using cardboard to keep the leaves and compost from going all over the place- a wonderful tip! I hadn’t thought of it before. Lot of my surplus leaves(after what I keep for composting and mulching) would be given away for curbside pick up. Now no more!
    Thanks to Susan for sharing this information.

  • Theresa

    I am so glad you read Susan’s comment Aparna! Just the thought of your putting all those wonderful leaves out along the curbside for pick up made me weak in the knees! Leaves are like gold for your garden and you can never have too many.

    If need be — you could cut them up with the lawn mower and put them in a bag for future use.

    Glad Susan’s tip saved your future leaves!
    Theresa

  • Aparna

    Theresa,
    The kids and I will jump on a pile of leaves or I just bag them up and leave it in the sun and then stomp on the bag a few times after a few days. This usually shreds them up not very fine though.
    The lawn mower is a good idea though.

  • Sandra

    Theresa, There’s a lot here, and great information. I’m getting very comfortable with buckwheat use, and have used it a lot as an underplanting. Also, I just cut it with the shears and leave the roots in the ground now, instead of digging it in. I have not tried field peas as a cover crop, but I have some seed. Is now the right time to plant those? I hope your site never goes down because there is a WEALTH of good information here. Thanks.
    I am struggling with early blight already, quite bad in some plants.

  • Theresa

    Sandra, field peas should have plenty of time if you plant now.
    Even at this late date — try underplanting tomatoes with some buckwheat or clover to help prevent more blight. I don’t know if it will help now — but certainly worth the try.
    Theresa

  • Sharon

    Hi Theresa,
    For the first time ever I have early blight on my tomato plants.
    I took over a community garden plot in December that had been neglected, with the fungus probably already in the soil. I’ve been digging out tons of nutsedge and am finally getting a handle on that which gives you an idea of the neglect.
    I’m sure the unusually humid weather, even here in Southern California, contributed to the blight.
    I’ve been cutting off the infected leaves like you talked about doing in another post and the tomatoes are okay, so far. There is also new leaf growth so maybe my tomato hopes and heirloom dreams will come true after all!
    Thanks for your great advice. I intend to use it for next years crop.

  • Theresa

    Sounds like your story will have a happy ending Sharon so just keep on keeping on.
    Let me know how you do.
    Wishing you a bumper crop of tomatoes in spite of the blight!
    Theresa

  • Sarah Kroon

    Hi Theresa, love your blog! Im a landscaper living on the east coast of South Africa, and this is the first year that I am fully getting into organic vegetable gardening (never had space of my own before). It is very difficult to get hold of organic produce in supermarkets here, so the only way to get them is to grow your own. What a thrill!! I have lots to learn, but Im sure I will learn a great deal from your posts! Keep them coming!

    Sarah

  • Theresa

    Nice to have you reading Sarah. Welcome to TMG.
    I always think of it being hard to get organic in the USA but for some reason I imagined most other countries having more “organic” produce available. So your comment was an enlightenment for me.

    Glad you are able to grow you own. I’d love to hear more about how you are doing and what you are growing.
    Thanks for commenting.

    Theresa

    P.S. Can you let me know how you found me. I assume you were googling something — but what? Thanks.

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