Sitting on my front porch I hear birds singing and insects buzzing. A hummingbird is working the many flowers of a nearby stand of red honeysuckle. From here I can see most of the garden, including a four foot tall tomato plant that I started early and successfully protected from two late freezes.
I have had a couple neighbors tell me they delayed much of their gardens due to the persistent rains this spring. We have had a lot of rain this year and there is more in the forecast. So let’s talk about “too wet” first.
Of course lots of rain makes for soggy soil which can make gardening difficult. Cultivating soggy soil can ruin its tilth, causing it to compact. Compacted soil forces plants to use more energy sending out roots that could have been used developing top growth. As a result, plants develop slower, tend to be smaller and less productive.
Wise gardeners never work their soil when it’s waterlogged, preferring to wait until some drainage has occurred. How long that takes depends upon the quality of your soil. High clay mixes, like we have around here, take longer. Soils with large amounts of organic material and sand drain quicker.
When my friend and fellow organic gardener Lalla Ostergren moved to the Dennard area, in the 1970s, her selected garden site had about an inch of top soil, followed by several inches of a yellow clay and rock mix, followed by red clay. It was hardly an ideal situation for a robust garden. So she started transporting top soil from the bottom of a nearby creek and composting large amounts of grass clippings, leaves and other organic materials, eventually adding chicken manure from her flock. She said it took about three years to get a good eight inches of top soil that any organic gardener would be proud of.
When I took over care of her garden, due to her increasing infirmity, the soil had been depleted by weed growth and a lack of compost additions for two years. So that first winter, I sheet composted the whole garden. Meaning I covered it over with two feet of leaves and other foliage, mixed with chicken manure and let it set. I turned it over twice through the winter and dug it in the first of March. While it still had a ways to go, it was good enough to grow several of her favorites. And she was delighted with the tomatoes I would bring to her when she was in the nursing home for a few months.
At that time I asked her why there were so many stones in her garden soil.
She said, “You know I used to haul our creek soil for the beginning garden and later for mixing with leaves in my compost tumbler and three stage composter in the greenhouse. It had a lot of small stones in it.”
“Yes Lalla, but my dad always wanted me to pick the stones out of our garden soil.”
“Well Jeff, that took time and the stones took up space that I didn’t have to make soil for.” Then she laughed and continued, “And I had always hoped that maybe the stones were providing some trace minerals for the plants that would benefit me when I ate them. Mama would always say, ‘Make do with what you have.’ So I did.”
Now let’s get back to suggestions for extended wet weather. Tread lightly in the garden when it’s wet. It possible to damage roots due to soil compaction under these conditions, although raised beds and growing boxes, never intended to be walked on, quickly solves the problem.
After storms, check for damaged leaves and stems and remove promptly. Stake up bent plants. Check for erosion and cover exposed roots with compost or soil. Check for signs of fungi and bacteria that can lead to disease. Treat promptly.
Watch for flooding. All parts of the garden need to drain promptly. Standing water for any length of time can cause root rot. Ditch to get water away.
Some weeds pop up quickly in wet weather. Get them while they’re young and get the root, which usually pulls easily in wet soil.
Watch for signs of slugs and snails. They can be very destructive. Slime trails are easy to spot at a certain angle because they reflect light. Lalla’s favorite method of fighting back was a half filled tuna can with beer sunk flush with the soil. They crawl in, get drunk and drown. Just kidding, actually they’re after the yeast, so nonalcoholic beer works too. Even something as simple as a board laid in the garden at dusk will have several slugs under it by the next afternoon. Just pluck, smash or snip to dispose of them. Several organic slug baits are available but be careful of some of the more traditional baits as they can poison wildlife and pets. Actually, there are several more options available including a mini electric fence that is powered by a 9 volt battery. If you’re desperate for something to do, plans are available on the internet.
Don’t let mosquitoes breed. Most gardens have an assortment of catchwaters, wheelbarrows, watering cans, etc. Dump the water so the larva can’t finish their growth cycle.
And finally, replenish nutrients. Repeated rains and flooding wash away much needed nutrients that keep your plants flourishing. Compost and organic fertilizers are best.
With summer approaching, around here the problem often changes to “too dry.” We can generally depend upon a drought at some point but a bit of preparation can get our gardens through these tough “dog days” of summer with flying colors.
Adding compost to your garden soil will help it to retain its moisture longer and benefit your plants nutritionally. Fine mulch, mixed into the soil, can also help. But, since it will pull nitrogen out of the soil as it decomposes, additional fertilizer may be needed.
Also, mulch on top of the soil will slow down evaporation. Straw is a favorite as it allows rain to easily pass through, contains few weed seeds and is readily available.
I also use leaf litter raked up from the forest floor. I prefer it from under pines as the needles allow rain to pass through to the soil. Broadleaf litter, if not chopped, can act like a roof and prevent rain from getting to the soil.
Pine needles, and oak leaves, will over time move your soil to the acidic side. While that’s good for blueberries, nasturtiums, hydrangeas and azaleas, most garden vegetables prefer near neutral soil. A pH testing kit is well worth the investment.
I have had neighbors tell me that they give up on their gardens in the summer due to water prices. These are the same neighbors who let hundreds, maybe thousands, of gallons of water run off their roofs, down gutters and into the ground.
With a combination of rain barrels, tubs and cattle tanks, I am approaching a thousand gallon storage capacity. In my size garden that goes a long ways. My brother Tim, who lives in town, purchased two decorative rain barrels that offend none of his neighbors.
Another suggestion is to water early in the morning. This will allow water to soak in before the sun starts to accelerate evaporation.
And finally, consider using shade cloth. It will slow down moisture loss from plants, and the ground, during the hottest parts of the day. I use a simple framework made of bamboo poles and baler twine. Lalla used t-posts and long pieces of small dimension lumber and clothesline. Others use small diameter PVC. Kits are available.
This information can help you have a more productive garden this year in spite of most tough environmental conditions. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Hope to see you in the garden next month.