How does your garden grown?
FOUR KEY TO-DO’S TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EDIBLE GARDEN’S PRODUCTIVITY THIS SUMMER
It’s early summer. Your garden is planted with your favorites: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, melons and basil. After the frenzy of readying the ground and getting everything planted, you might feel like you just want to kick back and watch these crops grow. But if you really want to have a robust harvest, there are still tasks to be done.
Here are the four key tasks that need to be on your summer garden chore list:
1 Feed What You Grow
Once you’ve planted your favorite summer crops, you need to feed them regularly to encourage the plants to grow strong scaffolds that will support and send nutrients to the harvestable “fruits of their labors.”
I always recommend organic products for feeding edible crops—look for “OMRI listed” and “organic” on the label at your local nursery. OMRI is the Organic Materials Review Institute and their certification on the label means you can trust a product to be truly organic. Two crop foods I highly recommend are kelp (Maxicrop offers a great kelp product) and fish emulsion. These deliver mostly nitrogen and essential micronutrients to your plants.
I like to “foliar feed” plants every two weeks when they are in their early stages of vegetative growth (before flowering or fruiting), which means to deliver nutrients in liquid form directly to the leaves. To do this, mix the food with water in a watering can or spray bottle, following the specific feeding instructions on the product label, and apply directly to the leaves. Less is more in foliar feeding— a light application is best for absorption. The best time of day to feed your plants is in the evening when the sun isn’t blazing on the leaves and the stomata (the pores of the leaves) are the most open. Make sure the soil around the plant is moist before foliar feeding.
2 Mulch In the Moisture and Mulch Out the Weeds
For the same reason that animals, including humans, like to retreat from the heat into the shade of a tree or porch, microorganisms living in the soil and plant roots appreciate some shade and buffering from the sun’s intensity. Mulching provides these to your garden inhabitants, as well as helping to hold in moisture and suppress weed growth.
It is important to choose the right mulching medium, because some can become habitat for pests and disease. I recommend using a product that contains aged fir bark and aged chicken manure. The chicken manure slowly delivers nitrogen to the crops, in addition to the mulch holding moisture in the ground and helping to suppress weed growth.
Mulch should be applied to the entire garden area, about an inch thick, except for a four-inch “doughnut” of mulch-free space around the base of each plant. This prevents too much moisture from building up on the plant’s stem, which could cause it to rot.
3 Prune Indeterminate Tomato Varieties for Health and “Wealth”
There are two types of tomato plants: indeterminate and determinate. Indeterminate means the plant keeps growing, like a vine, throughout the season. Indeterminate tomato plants need pruning while they are getting established (before they put out fruit). Determinate varieties, including the popular Early Girl, only grow to a certain size and should not be pruned. Check with your nursery expert (or seed provider) to determine which varieties you have before you get down to the business of pruning.
There are several rewards to pruning your indeterminate tomatoes while they are getting established, including earlier ripening and, often, more tomatoes because nutrients are directed into fruit rather than foliage; a slimmer plant that is easier to harvest; and an overall healthier plant—improved air circulation reduces the chance of fungal disease and pest problems.
Wait to prune your tomatoes until they are one to two feet tall. At that point, there will be branches coming off the main stem. Commonly growing out of the “crotch” between these branches and the stem is a smaller additional branch, commonly referred to as a “sucker,” which can be removed with clean pruning shears. You don’t need to remove them all—leaving 2–3 suckers at the bottom of the plant is ideal.
The best time of day to prune is early morning on a dry day so the “wound” has time to callus before night falls and there is moisture in the air. A freshly cut tomato branch can be an entry point for fungal disease.
Pruning should be done every two weeks until the plant starts to produce fruit.
4 Succession-Plant to Maintain a Steady Harvest
Re-planting while crops are growing is not something that most backyard farmers think about, but I have found in our mentoring program that taking the time to consider what you want to be able to harvest all season long, and then creating a (re)planting calendar based on that, is well worth the effort.
There are some crops, lettuce and carrots being two of the most common, that you plant once and harvest once—there is no second harvest. So if you want to eat garden-fresh lettuce all season (or all year, in our area), you have to plan for that. Even some plants like cucumbers and summer squash that have a longer (four- to six-week) harvest window can be planted twice during the summer for an extended harvest.
A general rule is to plant crops like lettuces, carrots, beets, basil, dill and cilantro roughly every two to three weeks, depending on how often you eat them and the time of year. To create your personalized calendar for planting, use the “days to maturity” listed on the plant start label or seed packet and match that to your menu planning. It might be hard to leave that patch of prepped soil un-planted during your initial sowing, but you will be thankful you did when you are enjoying backyard garden–fresh vegetables and herbs all year long.