In gardening, as in life, maintenance is easier than repair. A little weekly effort at garden upkeep during growing season will ensure garden health and a good crop yield.
What kind of maintenance is required? There are four main areas: watering, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Watering — Most summer vegetables need a steady stream of moisture – about an inch of water weekly. Water once or twice weekly when the top inch of soil is dry. Raised beds drain quickly and may need watering every other day.
Increase the yield of vine crops such as green beans and peas by providing vertical places to climb. Water near the base of plants to keep foliage dry and reduce fungal diseases.
Weeding — Give weeds an inch and they’ll take over the yard. Don’t let weeds rob crops of moisture and soil nutrients. Use a hand tool to stir the top inch of soil regularly to discourage new weeds.
A light layer of wood chip or straw mulch can fend off weeds around larger plants. Deadhead flowering plants weekly to encourage new blossoms. Check plants weekly for signs of disease or pests and respond quickly.
Fertilizing — Fertile soil is crucial to crop yields. Follow up the high-quality compost added during planting with a packaged warm-season fertilizer. Follow the directions carefully.
More is not better, as misapplication can injure plants and reduce yields. Apply fertilizer to soil six inches from plant bases. Water afterward to dilute and spread the nutrients.
Harvesting — Many crops can be harvested in stages. Leaf lettuce will continue to grow as you snip off leaves. Cucumber and zucchini can be eaten when a few inches long or allowed to grow to full size.
The plant will respond to picking by producing more. Plan to rotate crops annually to reduce stress on the soil.
With fall approaching, here’s a list of some of the crops that do well in cooler temperatures.
- Collard greens
- Brussels sprouts
As far as the summer growing season is concerned – and we still have several more weeks for that – here is a to-do list for a few garden favorites. Save this information for next year as well.
Lettuce thrives in soil rich in humus, with plenty of compost and a steady stream of nitrogen. Keep soil moist but well drained. Mulch is crucial to keeping the soil temperature down. Plant lettuce in the shade of taller crops.
Weed carefully to avoid harming the plant’s shallow roots. Lettuce will wilt when it needs water. Sprinkle any time, even in the heat of the day, to cool the plant.
Before the plant matures, outer leaves can be harvested and the center leaves will continue to grow. Harvest in the morning before the leaves are in the sun. Refrigerate in a loose plastic bag for up to 10 days.
For a fall harvest, cool the soil in August by watering the ground and covering it with a hay bale. After a week, the ground under the bale will be 10 degrees cooler. Sow seeds, rotate the bale and repeat.
Water generously throughout the growing season. Consistently deliver about two inches per week. When plants are well established at about five weeks, add mulch to retain moisture.
During the warmest and driest days, large flat rocks next to each plant can help pull moisture up from the ground and reduce surface evaporation.
Fertilize two weeks before anticipated first picking and again two weeks afterward. Prune plants on stakes to only a couple of stems per stake.
Tomato skins crack when moisture is uneven, such as rainy periods followed by drought. Keep levels consistent with watering and mulch.
Tomatoes are ready to pick, regardless of size, when they are firm or give only slightly and red with perhaps some yellow around the stem. Avoid refrigerating tomatoes to preserve that fresh garden flavor.
Ripen tomatoes on the vine. Place those that fall off early in a paper bag, then stem up. Tomatoes placed on a sunny windowsill rot more often than ripen.
Zucchini and squash
Mulch plants to protect their shallow roots, reduce weeds and retain moisture. Water consistently and deeply each week with the goal of moist soil four inches deep. Fertilize after the first blooms and again occasionally after harvesting begins.
Most plants yield after about 60 days and are ready to harvest as soon as a week after flowering. Check plants daily for new growth.
Smaller squash are more tender and flavorful. Cut the vine rather than breaking off the plant at the stem. Fresh squash will keep in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
Harvest winter squash in late September to early October when the rind is firm and colorful. Winter squash keeps best in cool dark settings, around 60 degrees.
Peppers need soil that drains well but stays moist. Consider mulch and plastic covering. Water one or two inches per week. Warmer climates may require daily watering.
Stake plants or use tomato cages. Fertilize after the first fruits set. Weed carefully.
Use a scissors or knife to cut peppers off the plant to prevent damage to the plant.
The longer peppers are left on the plant the sweeter they become and the higher their Vitamin C content. Peppers keep up to 10 days refrigerated in loose plastic bags.
When plants reach five inches tall, transplant as needed to maintain recommended distance between plants. Fertilize transplants after three weeks. Keep soil moist with mulch and two inches of water weekly.
Look for first harvest in about 70 days. Cut the cabbage head at its base with a sharp knife. Bring it indoors immediately or remove from shade.
For a second harvest, cut the cabbage head from the plant, leaving the outer leaves. The plant will send up new heads. Pinch them off until only about four remain. They can be harvested when they reach the size of baseballs.
Soil must drain well yet be kept moist. After pods appear, water regularly during sunshine so that foliage does not remain soaked.
Fertilize after a heavy bloom and first pods. Apply lightly to avoid creating heavy foliage but few beans. Weed frequently to avoid disturbing the soil deeply.
Beans are picked before the seeds inside have fully developed. Snap off the pods and avoid tearing the plant. Beans are fresh for about four days and can be refrigerated in a dry, airtight container.
Thin two-inch tall plants to three or four inches apart. Pinch off unwanted plants so as not to disturb nearby roots. Mulch and water well. Cultivate gently as even mature plants have shallow roots.
Harvest when you like. For larger bulbs, wait. But remember they will be tougher. Harvest before leaves reach six inches. Beet greens are delicious and have more nutrients than the root.
Fresh beets can be stored for up to seven days in the refrigerator by clipping off the tops to a one-inch stem. Beets can be brushed clean and stored in a cool dry place.
Thin inch-tall plants to three inches apart in loose, sandy soil watered at least one inch a week. Fertilize at six weeks.
Harvest as desired after 10 weeks or one-half inch diameter. Carrot flavor improves after frosts. Cover the plants with shredded leaves to preserve them. Carrots can be stored in the ground if it will not freeze.
After harvesting, twist off the carrot top and brush off dirt under cold running water. Let it dry, seal in airtight plastic bags and refrigerate. Carrots can be stored over winter in tubs of moist sand.
By doing a good job of taking care of your garden throughout the growing season, your harvest should be a great one.