Many local gardeners look forward to their vegetable gardens beginning to yield their bounty in July. At the same time, enthusiasm for working in the garden during the hot and muggy days of mid-summer can be difficult to muster, especially if weeds and insects are threatening your dream of a beautiful, bountiful garden. Here are a few tips to help lessen the workload and increase your yields.
Weeds compete for sunlight, water, and nutrients — often better than our crop plants! For your garden to produce all that it is capable of, weeds need to be kept in check. “A stitch in time saves nine” is really true when it comes to weeding. It’s best to check for weeds and remove them at least once every 10 days. If weeds have a longer time period than that in which to get established, removing them can disturb the roots of your crops and set them back.
There is a style of hoe that is starting to gain popularity because of its ease of use. Often called collinear hoes, these hoes have very thin blades, and they are used to quickly and efficiently remove small weeds. Using them is akin to “shaving” the soil. The long-handled models are held in the same way that you would hold a broom. They also come in short-handled models. With both models, the key is to sever the roots of the weeds by running the blade parallel to the soil, just under the soil surface. The speed at which a garden can be cleared of weeds using these types of hoes truly is amazing.
Of course you can prevent weeds from growing at all by placing a thick layer of mulch such as grass clippings, straw, or spoiled hay around your garden plants. There is an added benefit to using these types of mulches — not only do they decrease weeds, they also help retain moisture in the soil and increase the soil’s organic matter. If you use grass clippings, be sure that they come from an area that has not been treated with a “weed and feed” product, as the herbicides in those products can harm vegetable plants.
Weeds can also be controlled with man-made products such as plastic “mulch” and weed barrier fabric. If you use these types of materials, be sure to look for ones that have been treated to be UV-resistant. Ordinary black plastic can break down after a month in the summer sun, leaving you with a mess to clean up as well as weeds.
Insects, both good and bad, abound in gardens. The key to managing those that have the potential to cause harm is to know what insects to watch out for, and what the vulnerable points in their life cycles are.
One way to start learning about the “bad” insects is to try using the image section of your favorite internet search engine. Type in the name of your crop plus “insect pest” and see what comes up. Photos that link to university websites can provide a wealth of valuable information. Click on those photos to learn more about the name and life cycle of any insects that you’ve seen in your garden.
Once you know what insect pests are in your garden and a little bit about their life cycle, you can come up with strategies that are both effective in controlling them and limit your exposure to toxins. For example — if you have squash bugs, the adults can be difficult to kill, but the eggs are not. The eggs can be easily seen on the underside of leaves. A piece of duct tape will quickly remove them — no pesticides required!
Another strategy is to create an environment that attracts the insect’s predators. For example, many birds will eat tomato hornworms. Heavy duty trellising for tomatoes, such as livestock panels, can provide a perch for birds. By providing them with a perch, birds are likely to return the favor and take care of your tomato hornworm problem for you.
You could also try making the area inhospitable to a bothersome pest. Slugs can be a major problem in lettuce. Slugs prefer shady, moist areas. By spacing lettuce plants so that they have ample room between each other, and not using mulch, you create a warmer, drier microclimate that slugs tend to avoid.
Barriers are also very effective. Floating row covers are made from spun-bond polyester and come in various weights, including those light enough to allow 95 percent of sunlight to come through them. These light-weight barriers can be placed over crops to protect them from insects. As long as the edges of the covers are buried in the soil, insects will not be able to reach your plants and damage them. Note that you will need to remove the covers so that pollination can occur if your crop is one that requires pollination.
This technique works well to prevent damage from cucumber beetles. Not only do these beetles eat young plants, they also spread the bacterial wilt disease. By the time cucumber plants are in full bloom and the covers should be removed, most cucumber plants are strong enough to withstand an attack from these insects.
Theresa Williams is the Executive Director for the Wexford Conservation District and a life-long gardener. The District offers a series of workshops on backyard food production each year during the months of February and March. For more information, visit the District’s website at www.WexfordConsrvationDistrict.org, or call them at (231) 775-7681, ext. 3