Sitting on my porch, I hear birdsong and the buzz of insects. A hummingbird works 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 frosts.
A few neighbors have told me that they have 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, a lot of rain makes the soil soggy, which can make gardening difficult. Growing soggy soil can ruin its tilt, causing it to compact. Compacted soil forces plants to use more energy by sending out roots that could have been used to develop superior growth. As a result, plants grow more slowly, tend to be smaller and less productive.
Savvy gardeners never work their soil when it is waterlogged, preferring to wait until drainage has occurred. The time it takes depends on the quality of your soil. High clay mixes, like we have here, take longer. Soils containing large amounts of organic matter and sand drain more quickly.
When my friend and fellow organic gardener Lalla Ostergren moved to the Dennard area in the 1970s, her chosen garden had about an inch of topsoil, followed by several inches of a mixture of yellow clay and rock, followed by of red clay. This was hardly an ideal situation for a robust garden. So she began hauling topsoil from the bottom of a nearby stream and composting copious amounts of cut grass, leaves and other organic matter, eventually adding chicken manure from her flock. She said it took about three years to get a good eight inches of topsoil that any organic gardener would be proud of.
When I took care of his garden, due to his growing infirmity, the soil had been depleted from weed growth and lack of compost additions for two years. So this first winter, I composted the whole garden. That means I covered it with two feet of leaves and other foliage, mixed with chicken manure and let it sit. I turned it over twice during the winter and dug it out on March 1st. While there was still some way to go, he was good enough to cultivate several of his favorites. And she was thrilled with the tomatoes I would bring her when she was at the nursing home for a few months.
At that point, I asked him why there were so many stones in his garden soil.
She said, “You know, I used to haul soil from our stream to the starter garden and later to mix it with leaves in my compost tumbler and my three-tier composter in the greenhouse. It contained a lot of small stones.
“Yes Lalla, but my father always wanted me to collect stones from our garden soil.
“Well Jeff, it took a while and the stones took up space that I didn’t have to make with dirt.” Then she laughed and continued, “And I had always hoped that maybe the stones provided trace elements to the plants that would benefit me when I ate them. Mom always said: “Do with what you have”. So I did.
Now back to the suggestions for extended rainy weather. Walk lightly in the garden when it is wet. Root damage is possible due to soil compaction under these conditions, although raised beds and grow boxes, never meant to be stepped on, quickly solve the problem.
After storms, check the leaves and stems for damage and remove them promptly. Plant curved plants. Check for erosion and cover exposed roots with compost or soil. Look for signs of fungi and bacteria that can lead to illness. Deal quickly.
Watch for flooding. All parts of the garden should be emptied quickly. Stagnant water, no matter how long, can cause root rot. Ditch to evacuate water.
Some weeds emerge quickly in wet weather. Catch them while they’re young and get the root, which usually pulls easily in moist soil.
Watch for signs of slugs and snails. They can be very destructive. Slime trails are easy to spot from a certain angle because they reflect light. Lalla’s preferred method of retaliating was a half-filled tuna can with beer poured low to the ground. They crawl, get drunk and drown. Just kidding, actually they are looking for yeast so non-alcoholic beer works too. Even something as simple as a plank set in the garden at dusk will have several slugs underneath by the next afternoon. You just have to pick them, crush them or cut them to eliminate them. There are several organic slug baits available, but be careful with some of the more traditional baits as they can poison wildlife and pets. In fact, there are several other options available including a mini electric fence powered by a 9 volt battery. If you are in desperate need of something to do, there are plans available on the Internet.
Don’t let mosquitoes breed. Most gardens have an assortment of sumps, wheelbarrows, watering cans, etc. Drain the water so that the larva cannot complete its growth cycle.
And finally, replenish the nutrients. Repeated rains and floods remove nutrients that are essential for your plants to bloom. Compost and organic fertilizers are the best.
As summer approaches here, the problem often turns into “too dry”. We can usually count on a drought at some point, but a little preparation can help our gardens get through those summer “dog days” with flying colors.
Adding compost to your garden soil will help it retain its moisture longer and benefit your plants nutritionally. A fine mulch mixed with the soil can also help. But, since it will extract nitrogen from the soil as it breaks down, additional fertilizer may be needed.
In addition, mulch on the soil will slow down evaporation. Straw is a favorite because it allows rain to pass easily, contains few weed seeds, and is readily available.
I also use leaf litter collected from the forest floor. I prefer it under the pines because the needles let the rain pass to the ground. Broadleaf litter, if not chopped, can act as a roof and keep rain from reaching the ground.
Pine needles and oak leaves, over time, will shift your soil to the acidic side. While this is good for blueberries, nasturtiums, hydrangeas, and azaleas, most garden vegetables prefer almost neutral soil. A pH test kit is well worth the investment.
Neighbors told me that they abandoned their gardens in the summer because of the price of water. These are the same neighbors who let hundreds if not thousands of gallons of water flow from their roofs, into gutters and into the ground.
With a combination of rain barrels, tanks and livestock tanks, I’m approaching a storage capacity of a thousand gallons. In my pruning garden, it goes a long way. My brother Tim, who lives in town, bought two decorative rain barrels that don’t offend any of his neighbors.
Another suggestion is to water early in the morning. This will allow water to enter before the sun begins to accelerate evaporation.
And finally, consider using a shade cloth. This will slow the loss of moisture from plants and soil during the hottest times of the day. I am using a simple frame made of bamboo poles and baler twine. Lalla used T-poles and long, small pieces of wood and a clothesline. Others use small diameter PVC. Kits are available.
This information can help you have a more productive garden this year despite the harshest environmental conditions. When we want we can.
Hope to see you in the garden next month.