Gardening: Maintaining Your Garden Bed

This is the second part of an indeterminate series on gardening.
See Part 1 here:
Gardening: Preparing Your New Garden Bed

It has been one month since we laid out some basic methods of preparing a garden bed, including planting it out.

Waiting is the Hardest Part

The first year we gardened in our current home, we direct seeded in June. Talk about a late start. Waiting for the little seeds to germinate and show their first leaves seemed to take forever and no time at all simultaneously. The miracle of new life never ceases to inspire joy, excitement, and an eagerness for what the future holds. While it’s not as life-altering or grand as other “new life” experiences, it still stirs in the human soul. This is the miracle of Spring. To garden is to take hold of this miracle and to place your hope in its success.

Too Poetic? Perhaps, but this is how I personally feel about it.

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. – Genesis 1:29-30

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. – Genesis 2:15

You could say that the need to grow food, tend plants, and foster a fertile micro-climate ecosystem is implanted deep in my psyche. The funny thing about it is that it was hard to recognize this before we started making changes to de-artificialize our lifestyle. The more nature-centric our choices became, the more we wanted to maximize the nutrition of our food, lessen our impact on the environment, and forge a practical connection with nature as a normal part of life. Gardening accomplishes all three of these things. (stacking functions is always encouraged)

Moving On…

Your seedlings have sprouted, and have a few sets of true leaves. Your starts are looking significantly bigger, and show promise of home-grown food (tomatoes, squash, corn, chard, kale, whatever you love). You might also see birds, rabbits, squirrels, spiders, and insects. If you are used to living in a bug-free zone, you might feel overwhelmed. You might also be on the verge of shopping for the most effective insecticide you can find at your local home improvement store or gardening center.

If you are trying to be more tolerant of what happens in nature, you might be asking yourself whether a particular new resident is considered a gardener’s friend or foe. Here is how I tend to approach it early in the growing season.

Be Patient and Watch (Dealing with Pests)

There is more than one documentary about the behaviors of plants. One of my recent favorites is “What Plants Talk About” (NATURE-PBS) which you can watch here. I have a lot of other favorites, but let’s just stick with this one for now.

The Creator’s Design is Thorough

Just when we think we’ve got a little piece of creation figured out, we discover a whole new layer that exploits the true depth of our ignorance and the arrogant belief that we know everything. For instance: Plants have immune systems. They also communicate in their own unique way. Some are known to call the natural predators of their own predators. Let’s consider a real life example.

Aphid Infestation Remediation

There are countless ways to naturally deal with aphids. One of the most popular is to spray them off with a hose. This has become so common, that there is actually a hose nozzle designed and sold specifically for this purpose. Another commonly shared method is brush them off by hand, or squash them with your fingers. If you get past the ew factor, this is a permanent solution, at least for the aphids you get your paws on. A popular one to talk about that always seems less efficient in the end is a ladybug release. Usually, this is unsuccessful because of improper release technique, but this is neither here nor there.

The first line of chemical defense in organic gardening is usually the application of soap and neem oil. This effectively halts the reproduction of the little suckers… while simultaneously doing the same for the good guys whose presence you want to encourage.

I prefer to wait for as long as possible with careful and frequent observation.

The Kale

We have a few Red Russian kale plants that survived last summer through the winter. As it started warming up this spring, I noticed that they were just covered in aphids. I told myself that I would neem them… eventually. (time is a scarce commodity in our house) I believe that time is better spent learning and observing rather than rushing to apply what little knowledge I think I have. In this little project of ours, this has never failed to be the best course of action.

I noticed a couple of ladybugs in our not-lawn yard (it’s not grass, but it’s not bare, either.. the result is a carpet of tiny beautiful purple, white, and yellow flowers every spring), along with a few honey bees, wasps, cane flies, wolf spiders, and a fire ant hill here and there (which is something I’d like to address another time). Ladybugs liked our not-lawn yard, apparently, and ladybugs eat aphids. I thought I’d wait to see what happened rather than waste 2 tablespoons of neem oil and 2 tablespoons of Dr. Bronner’s soap (not to mention the water). A couple of days later, I batted the kale plants with my hand to see what would fall out. I saw lacewing larvae, a few ladybug larvae, a couple of assassin bugs, and an increased number of aphids. The good news is that the predators had found their prey. The bad news is that the prey were still increasing in number, and appeared to be on track to destroy the smallest of our kale plants. I resolved then that I would DEFINITELY neem them.. eventually.

Less than one week later, I checked it again. The aphids had been drastically reduced. I saw ladybug larvae everywhere, and one of the biggest ladybugs I had ever seen in another part of the garden on a growing sunchoke stalk. Larry Korn, the famous student of Masinobu Fukuoka, said that if there is enough food on site, ladybugs won’t leave. I have to say.. he was right. What’s more, I actually see fewer wasps, about the same number of lacewings, no assassin bugs, and the only time I lifted a finger was to lift leaves to see how the aphid problem had progressed.

ladybug on sunchoke
The big ladybug on a sunchoke (Jerusalem Artichoke)

The Conclusion

Try to intervene as little as possible, and see what happens. If it gets too bad, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the neem solution, though I do think that other measures should be taken first before the problem gets too bad. Folier-feed your plants with compost tea and molasses. If you haven’t applied rock dust previously, now would be a good time. The idea is to strengthen the plant’s immune system by enhancing soil biology. Then watch to see what happens. If all you have is a monoculture lawn next to your garden, the lack of plant diversity is the Achilles’ heel of your oasis. Use the neem solution. 2T each of neem oil and castille soap to 1 gallon of water in a sprayer. Spray liberally. It could take more than one application. This will work for most all pests at this point in the growing season. Whatever you do, please do not use synthetic pesticides. A garden is all about fostering and encouraging as much life as possible in a balanced system for maximum return. One of the best ways to do the opposite is to kill all insects. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time understanding how one can expect healthy food to come from an unhealthy system.

Weeds are Friends, Not Foes

In full disclosure, I like some weeds a lot more than others. I like dandelions just fine. I love henbit (purple flowers, edible, mint family, mineral-rich.. yes please). I’m a big fan of purslane (edible excellent source of Omega 3 fatty acids) and clover (nitrogen-fixing beautiful green groundcover.. and food for pesky rabbits). I do okay with thistle in certain locations, but for the most part, if it hurts to walk on barefoot, I don’t necessarily want it in the same space as our toddler. What to do?

When clover pops up in our raised garden beds, I pretty much just leave it alone. If I need to plant where the clover is, I dig the hole anyway, kill the clover, and bury its roots (which contain the nitrogen-fixing bacteria nodules). If it’s not in the way, I just lave it alone. Its roots aren’t deep enough to compete with our garden veggies, and it’s a beautiful living mulch. (if it starts to get out of hand, it’s very easy to pull out without a lot of fuss) When nut sedge pops up, I can just pull it out. The roots ARE deep enough to matter, but they come up so easily, I don’t really consider them a big threat. When dandelions (or their relatives with huge taproots) take up residence somewhere, the practice of observation kicks in. If you have read my article on loving your weeds, you understand my hesitation.

When a species introduces itself into your landscape, nature is at work. Every single one of them has a function and is present for a reason. Sometimes these are also beneficial to the gardener.. other times they are in the way. I am what I like to call a “lazy” gardener. It’s not because I don’t like to work (in fact, I find hard physical work to be therapeutic). It’s because I don’t want to jump the gun and do something I might regret.

A dandelion and its taproot

When a “weed” will play nicely (and potentially even benefit) its garden plant neighbors, I tend to let it go. (there is clover running rampant in our raised beds, and all kinds of things happy as a clam growing around our cowpeas) However, when I’m considering that the tomato start that I just planted was buried a good 6-8″ deep, I start to consider that the deep taproot of a dandelion (pictured left) is probably not the best companion, as it will most assuredly compete for nutrition. When I find it around, say, strawberries, I cut it down, but don’t pull the root. I know the root won’t compete, but I also know that the strawberries have a good chance to be shaded out. (when you have really good soil, even the weeds grow big)

If what we want is fertile, loamy soil, there’s no reason to remove the “invasive” plants that are doing this work for us unless we have to. Plus, the insects like it, and birds like insects. More life, in general, is a good sign.

Irrigation – When and How

If you have good soil (or if you started with compost or the peat/vermiculite/compost blend) and you put down a good layer of mulch, you really should not have had to irrigate much yet, if at all. (the exception being watering in new plantings thoroughly, or watering sown seeds until they germinate) I highly recommend using rain water if you have it. It is rich in oxygen, nitrogen, and free of chlorine, chloramine, sulfur, fluoride, and all of those other nasties that are so common in city water. Plants LOVE it.

If you do not have rain water, I encourage you to at least use a water filter on your garden hose. We have a Boogie Blue filter, which filters chloramine (not all filters will, and our city water has it). I get no benefit for the plug, but taste the water coming out of it, and you’ll understand. Why? You don’t want to kill or decrease the life in your soil.

Test Your Soil

You can do this with a soil moisture meter, or you can do it my preferred way: stick your hand into the soil (or finger, depending on the root depth of your garden bed), reach down deep and feel for moisture.

Does it feel nice and damp? Don’t add water.

Does it feel like it’s beginning to dry out? If the weather is hot and/or dry, add water. If the weather is cool and/or humid, don’t add water, unless it is close to being dry.

How to Water

If you can help it, try not to over-head water which results in wet leaves. Some popular garden plants (like tomatoes) are susceptible to fungal disease, and wet leaves are like rolling the dice. Drip irrigation is great, as it waters slowly (water takes time to soak in), with zero over splash, which results in no waste. If you must hand water, use a nozzle that mimics rain as closely as possible. Water an area so it is as wet as you can get it without suffering from runoff, then move to another area. Continue through all parts of the garden that need watering, and go back to where you started and do it again. The idea is to water as deeply as you can. The deeper, the better. Watering often is not nearly as good as watering efficiently.

Death by Love

It may be tempting to show affection to your plants by giving them lots and lots of water. Fight the urge. Do you like water torture? Neither do your plants. Part of loving is learning how to love. (that’s a free tip… no charge)

Love Your Successes | Learn from Your Failures

Gardening is not a one time event. It is a (potentially) lifelong journey. Sometimes, a plant won’t make it and you don’t know why. Sometimes, a plant will thrive and you don’t know why. This is where observation and critical thinking can work to your advantage. Try to figure out why the failure failed, and try to figure out why the major success was a major success. The answers can be obvious or not so obvious. Learning is an integral part of gardening. The more you garden, the more you understand, and the better you’ll be able to plan for the next season/year.

Overwhelmed? Don’t be. If the details are too much for you, just ignore them. If you are growing more of your diet in your own garden, you are on the right track. Whatever it takes for you to continue down this path is probably worth it. You’re doing fine.

Thanks for reading. We appreciate your comments. This is where I remind you to leave yours below.


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