Home & Garden

Early summer garden care can pay big dividends later on

I have been checking on a row of purple fleshed potatoes, variety Blackberry, that I planted down at Plowshare Produce, a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) run by Micah and Bethany Spicher Schonberg in McAlevy’s Fort. Having my potatoes there has given me the opportunity to observe their crops, which are really doing good in both their fields and in their high tunnels. They are playing close attention to the crops and doing everything right to ensure that they will have continued production of a wide variety of early and later season vegetables for their subscribers.

Vegetable gardens, like farms, that are well cared for in June and July will result in a bountiful harvest of vegetable and small fruits and present a pretty picture in August and September. The recent rains have certainly delayed gardening activities and produced a nice crop of young weed seedlings in the garden. If these very young weed seedlings are hoed or prevented from growing by using organic (straw or grass clippings) or plastic mulches, few mature weeds will be found in the August garden. By not allowing weeds to go to seed you have prevented more weeds from growing in the garden and also prevented the weeds from robbing your garden of fertility and moisture. Keep that hoe sharp and remove those young weed seedlings now before they get too big. Remember to just cut or scrape the soil surface when hoeing. No need to deeply plow the ground when removing the small weed seedlings. Practice regular hoeing of small weeds.

When water is available for irrigation it is important to make sure to use it correctly. Daily light “shower baths” by sprinkling are worse than useless. Very little water penetrates to the root zone: foliage is keep wet-an ideal environment for development of diseases; pollination and fruit set are reduced; and “scalding” of leaf tissue may occur. Water only when the crop needs it but then water well by soaking the soil to a 4- to 6-inch depth. The effective water absorbing roots of most vegetables are in the 2- to 8-inch levels. Actually a dry soil surface most of the time is preferred.

When garden plants take on a slightly limp or drooping appearance at high noon, but recover to a good “plump” condition at dusk, the time for a good soaking has arrived. This daytime or incipient wilting may continue for several days before permanent wilting begins. Therefore, different crops in a garden should be inspected during the afternoons as periods of dry weather develop. When you first see the signs of wilting you should thoroughly water the garden. Irrigating or watering is best done in the early morning hours. This reduces the loss of water from evaporation. Watering early in the morning also permits the plant foliage to dry before the night, thus slowing the spread of diseases by spores geminating under the cooler, wet conditions of night. The use of drip irrigation as is practiced by Plowshare Produce, not only conserves the amount of water used but also helps prevent diseases from developing since the foliage remains dry.

Additional application of nitrogen “side dressing” may be needed for corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and melons. To “side dress” fertilizer, place it alongside the rows about 3 inches from the plant stems. For the home garden a general recommendation of 2 pounds of 5-10-5 fertilizer or its equivalent or 1/4 pound of nitrogen material such as ammonium nitrate or urea per 100 feet of row. Avoid getting any fertilizer on the leaves because it may burn the leaves. Leaf burning is less likely if the foliage is dry. Thorough watering the garden after applying fertilizer will move the nitrogen into the plant root zone and if using overhead (sprinkler) remove any amount on the foliage.

Timely weed control, watering and fertilizing will go a long way to having a productive and attractive garden this summer and help ensure an abundant harvest for the dinner table.

Bill Lamont is a professor emeritus in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by email at wlamont@psu.edu.