Accessing the Health of the Garden

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
This sorry spinach patch was just itching to tell me that a pattern of sickness was afoot. Time to run down the list of possible nutritional/temperature/watering problems.

Visiting the garden is what separates a gardener from a green thumb, learn about accessing the health of a garden. (See the garden photos in the image gallery.)

Gardens don’t like to be neglected. Unlike a cat or dog, a
garden can’t jump into your lap or bark for attention.
Gardeners have to initiate contact. One way to do that is
to plant the garden on either side of a well-traveled path
like between where you park the car and the house. Another
way is to include a visit to the garden in the daily
routine when accessing the health of a garden–get up, go to the bathroom, visit the garden,
shower, eat breakfast . . .

A garden that is forgotten is a garden that has a
diminished chance of doing well. There are, of course,
exceptions, like the tomatoes we planted our first summer
in Maine. Weeds grew up around them supporting them better
than if we had staked them or put a wire basket around
them. The high grass surrounding them protected them from
the wind and no predators, either insect or animal, found
them. We happened upon them just as the fruit was ripening
and considered ourselves truly blessed.

That is the only success story I have of a neglected
garden. Don’t jump to the conclusion that the opposite of a
neglected garden is one that needs constant care. I am a
lazy gardener. If my garden demanded constant attention, I
would probably try to find something else to make me feel
useful while puttering. I’m pretty sure puttering is my
favorite hobby, not gardening. The garden just happens to
work well for a putterer. T think that if you did a survey
of people who supposedly have a green thumb you would find
that one characteristic was pretty universal–they
visit their garden fairly regularly. Visiting is different
from going out to weed or thin or stake the tomatoes or
pick beans. Visiting is just dropping by to admire it, to
see if the carrots have broken the ground yet, to see if
there are tomatoes on the vine or if any are turning color.
It may be the favorite place to watch the sun rise or set
or to think about what the next day might bring.

I am going to take you on some of my visits to my garden
over the years and you will get the idea. You’ll learn how
to deal with some of the various animals that also visit
gardens and you’ll see how this simple and pleasurable
routine works.

When I was working a regular job I would come home during
the growing season and instead of relaxing with a drink or
cup of tea I would head for the garden. It was best if I
changed my pants first as it is really difficult to spend
much time in a garden without dropping a knee now and then.
I think we ought to be called brown knees rather than green
thumbs.

I also like to take a hoe with me. Unfortunately for my
pants it was real easy to grab a hoe on my most direct path
to the garden. The hoe was not for any purpose, you
understand, other than to lean on and maybe to scratch at a
few weeds and, since my garden is in sight of the road, to
impress passersby.

The Virtues of Fresh Garden Clues

One spring day while visiting I noticed that the
high-priced-seed hybrid broccoli that I had planted in a
short row for transplanting later was up–tiny
seedlings with two baby leaves each, each leaf smaller than
the head of a tack. Lovely, I thought, with their dark
blue-green color. On my next visit there were just stems, a
row of quarter-inch-high stems no bigger than toothpicks.
What happened to them? I looked carefully at the soil and
could detect no footprints, no evidence of rabbits or
woodchucks at work. My first visit had been three or four
days earlier. The trail had grown cold. As any detective or
reader of detective mysteries knows, the fresher the
evidence the easier it is to solve the mystery.

I decided that flea beetles were the culprit. These small
black beetles do have a decided fondness for this crop. In
subsequent years I have been able to shoo the beetles away
and cover the plants with a gauze net that protects them.
After years of being too lazy to start these seedlings in
flats indoors, I have come to the conclusion that it is
actually easier to coddle them indoors, which really only
requires watering. The first planting of broccoli was one
of several failures due to neglect. Neglect is a pretty
harsh term for just not visiting the garden every day which
I seldom do unless there is a specific reason like keeping
a close eye on newly emerged broccoli seedlings.

I have a specific reason to visit the spinach patch
regularly after the seedlings start developing true leaves.
I have had considerable trouble growing spinach. It just
seems to disappear plant by plant in patches leaving me to
harvest about one fourth of the area planted. The plants
look fine and then one day several will be wilted and some
lying on the ground, cut off. Cut worm is the first
thought, but when cutworms are the culprit I can usually
find the grub by scratching around near plants they have
cut off. Not so in the spinach patch. Then I began to be
able to detect slight wilting of upstanding plants. On
further investigation I found that these plants would just
lift out of the ground having little or no root structure.
Some would look as though the root had been cut off about a
quarter of an inch below the soil line leading me to
suspect cut worm again, but I don’t know of any cutworm
that works on roots. Then others would come up with a
shriveled root leading me to believe damping off or root
maggots. It took years of casual observation to get to the
point of really wanting to know. Now I have gathered a lot
more evidence but I still don’t know what is causing the
problem.

However, with a lot of thinking and some reading and some
more thinking I think I have a solution. My guiding premise
is always “healthy plants in a healthy soil don’t attract
insects or diseases:’ Whatever it is that is cutting back
my harvest so severely, its cause must be a soil imbalance.
But why is there only one crop that has a problem, Sherlock
Holmes?

You see my dear Watson, I rely on natural fertilizers in my
soil which are largely insoluble. For these fertilizers to
become available to my plants they must be converted to a
soluble form, which is what happens when the soil
microorganisms break down organic matter. Over winter the
soil microorganisms become inactive. To make the problem
worse, winter snow and spring rain draining through the
soil carries the soluble materials away. This is called
leaching. Come spring, nutrients are probably pretty
scarce, especially nitrogen, unless fresh manure has been
spread. I have been fertilizing my garden with low nitrogen
materials through the summer, expecting that the garden
would always be ready to grow more wonderful vegetables.
Spinach needs a lot of nitrogen.

But, Holmes, you never have any problems with peas and they
grow even earlier in the spring. Don’t they need nitrogen?

Ah yes, but peas are legumes and have the ability to fix
nitrogen from the air. The next time I plant spinach I am
going to use a naturally occurring water soluble high
nitrogen fertilizer like dried blood or manure tea. Blood
is expensive but I will be limiting the use to just the
spinach rows mixing it in just before planting the seeds.

You may have gathered that I don’t like to use soluble
fertilizers even if they are organic and you are right. Too
much rain will simply wash them away. What a waste not to
mention the damage they may cause in the water. If you are
having trouble grasping the solubility issue, try this
experiment. Put a tablespoon of salt and a tablespoon of
flour in a coffee filter. Pour water through the filter. If
you catch the water and taste it you will taste salt.
Eventually all the salt will be gone but the flour will
remain in the filter. Now put the filter in the compost
pile. Depending on the microbial activity, the filter and
the flour will be gone in a couple of weeks to a few
months.

As you can see, there are times when a detective’s
sensibility appeals to me, and without regular visits to
gather clues, I’d still be scratching my head and offering
eulogies to my wilting food.

More Nutritional Problems

Nitrogen

The symptoms of plants with a nitrogen deficiency are slow,
stunted growth, reduced size, and the leaves becoming pale
green and then yellow, especially the lower portions.

While visiting the garden we become more familiar with our
plants. If we know what the corn looks like in a good year,
we are more likely to recognize a problem soon enough to do
something about it. If I noticed that my corn looked
anemic, pale yellow-green instead of the bright vibrant dark
green I am used to seeing, I would side dress it with
manure or seaweed. I will be surprised if that ever happens
to me since I recognize corn to be a heavy feeder and I
always make sure it has a special dose of manure or seaweed
in the soil before I plant.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus deficiency causes leaves to turn reddish purple
on blades, veins, and stems, especially on the underside.
When soil tests show that my garden is deficient in
phosphate I like to spread rock phosphate to correct the
problem. This is a ground rock that is not water soluble so
it would not be good in an emergency. It is great for the
long haul, providing phosphate for several years. If I
needed a quick fix, I would probably use bone meal which is
about 21 percent phosphorus.

Potassium

The edges of leaves of plants with a potassium deficiency
may curl or even turn bronze and dry out and they may get
brown spots. This is most noticeable on the lower parts of
plants. Since I burn several cords of wood every winter I
always have wood ashes around which are approximately seven
percent soluble potassium. You might wonder why I don’t
just spread the ashes on the garden when I clean out the
stoves. First, soil tests indicate that my garden doesn’t
need any more potassium. Too much of a nutrient can be as
problematic as too little. An overabundance may cause other
nutrients to be bound up so the plants can’t use them, for
example. The other reason I don’t dump the ashes in the
winter is the solubility of the nutrient. If the plants
need it, I don’t want it leaching out of the soil. For
those who don’t have wood ashes, greens and is a
commercially available natural product that provides about
five percent potassium.

Those are just the three major nutrients. There are
seventeen nutrients altogether that plants need. An expert
can identify many deficiencies just by looking at the
plants. I’m too lazy to try to figure that out. Besides,
what would I do? I’d just kick myself for being too stingy
with the manure or compost or cover crop rotation. I might
try a rescue operation by side dressing compost or watering
with a manure tea or foliar feeding by spraying seaweed
extract. But I don’t need to know which nutrient or
secondary or trace nutrient is missing or in low supply. My
approach is usually going to be some complex organic
material to feed the soil and let the microorganisms sort
out who needs what.

An Interesting Case

By visiting the garden regularly you are less likely to
encounter rude surprises. I got a call one Saturday from a
woman who was practically hysterical. “Something is eating
my whole garden!” she exclaimed. “Please, can you come and
tell me what to do.” If she had something that was eating
her whole garden, that would be news. My garden has been
visited by everything from flea beetles to moose and none
of them ate everything. The biggest problem with moose, by
the way, is the size of their feet. Fortunately they have
always been passing through because if they wandered around
a little they would do a lot of damage.

Before grabbing my camera to photograph the phenomenon I
thought it best to calm her down and get a little more
information. What were they eating? Everything! Maybe she
planted only the things woodchucks like to eat? It had to
be an animal because insects are very plant-specific.

Finally I got this woman to tell me that it was on the
asparagus, it was the size of her finger, yellow and fuzzy.
I had to send her out to look at the culprit again. When
she called the second time she told me that it didn’t have
legs. I thought we were getting close but the fuzzy bit
still had me baffled. A slug, fuzzy? She did say fuzzy, not
slimy.

I told her she could stick a sharp object like the point of
a knife into them if she wanted to do battle right then and
there. But that they probably wouldn’t actually wipe out
any of her crops, even the asparagus. Long-term, she needed
to make the surface of her garden drier as well as the area
around the garden.

Slugs don’t eat much, not much of the garden that we like
to eat anyway. They actually do more good than harm turning
dead organic matter into plant nutrients But they can be a
problem. They love to live in lettuce and cabbage plants,
down in the lower portions where water collects. At one
time I thought they ate tomatoes because I often found them
inside holes in ripe tomatoes. With more frequent visits to
the garden I learned that the slugs were actually getting
into holes that crickets made in the fruit. Not that slugs
won’t eat a little of just about everything but their
feeding is not the real problem. The real problem is that
they are not pleasant to come across in the garden, and
less pleasant to come across in the kitchen, and you really
don’t want to see them in the dining room. When I was
selling lettuce and cabbage it became absolutely necessary
for me to figure out a way to keep them out of these crops.

At that time I was mulching heavily, sometimes the whole
garden, sometimes year around as Ruth Stout advocated in
her books. Slugs love the cool moist environment under a
mulch. I had tried a number of methods all of which worked
to some extent. Slugs are attracted to malt. If you put out
dishes of beer, they will crawl into them and drown. A tip
for those who use this method. Place the beer traps at the
edges of the garden. Otherwise I think they just keep
coming in and when you run out of beer or get tired of
emptying the traps, there are even more slugs in the
garden.

Slugs like cool, moist places like under a board. I have
put boards down in the garden paths and sure enough would
get quite a collection of slugs under the boards on a sunny
day. A bit of a bore disposing of them, though.

None of these trap methods suited me for an acre market
garden so I decided to make it an environment they wouldn’t
like. I have not tried making a barrier of diatomaceous
earth around the garden or around the lettuce and cabbage
but I had read that the sharp edges of this powdery
material would deter slugs. Instead I came up with a method
that suits me best. I just make the area around lettuce and
cabbage as dry as possible. That means no mulch, even on
the adjacent paths. I cultivate the top of the soil, making
it a dry dust most of the time. I also mow closely all
around the garden. This makes a casual barrier for the
slugs since the short grass dries out early in the day. The
lettuce and cabbage patches have to be kept fairly free of
weeds as weeds will collect moisture and shad the ground
keeping it moist during the day. These considerations work
most of the time. I had more slugs in 1996 than I have for
many years. One, it was a wet summer. Two, I did not till
the garden last year and left one section in mulch from the
year before. Still, they were manageable.

The Dangers of Over-Watering the Garden

You have probably noticed that where you have scratched the
surface of cultivated soil, it is drier than the soil left
alone, but do you know why? Do you remember capillary
action from high school physics? The teacher had several
glass tubes with small bores, smaller than a drinking
straw. I know because I just tried one. When the ends of
these tubes were put in water the water defied gravity and
rose in them. It rose highest in the smallest tube. This is
capillary action. Another way to demonstrate it is with two
panes of window glass. Hold them together and dip one end
in water. If water doesn’t rise between them, they are too
tight together. Sprinkle a little dirt on them, just enough
to hold them apart a little and try again.

When we cultivate the surface of the soil we break the
capillarity, we make the spaces too great for the water to
work against gravity. This dry surface is more than a good
barrier against slugs. It also keeps moisture from coming
to the surface where it will evaporate, thus keeping more
moisture in the soil where the plants can use it. This is
called a dust mulch. Another way to observe this phenomenon
is to notice your footprints in a path you have cultivated
or in the rows you firm when you plant seeds as opposed to
the tilled or raked soil adjacent to the rows.

While I’m on the subject of moisture, I should mention the
greatest hazard of visiting the garden: improper watering.
Whenever I see someone standing in a garden or on their
lawn, holding a hose and spraying water, I want to run up
to them and say, “Stop, you are ruining your garden (or
lawn).” If you visit the garden in the middle of a hot
afternoon, you may observe some wilty-looking plants. That
may be their self-defense against the heat of the sun.
Please don’t jump to the conclusion that the plants need
water. Check them again in the late evening or morning. If
they look like they need water then, they probably do. If
you have been watering by hand, they probably do. The
problem with watering by hand is that you simply don’t have
the patience to stand there for the three hours necessary
to get the job done properly. The spritz you put on the
surface will, at best, evaporate before the roots even know
its there. At worst, the roots will learn to look for water
close to the surface. Now you are in real trouble. Some day
in August drive through a neighborhood where people spend
weekends mowing, grooming and watering their lawns. The
brownest lawns belong to the people who have been on
vacation longest.

I will never water a garden more frequently than once a
week and that only in a severe drought. I want the roots to
go as deeply as possible. They are the foundation of a
strong plant. Of course, I’ve got to put in a plug for
organic matter. The more humus in the soil the more water
it will be able to retain.

Duels with Larger Critters

Animals are the most important reason for visiting the
garden. Generally the first visit an animal makes is purely
by accident. It is just wandering around looking for food
or just going from here to there or looking for a good
place to make a home. In any case it is going to check out
the potential food it comes across. In my experience
animals generally take a few tastes first. Perhaps they
have learned that something that tastes good may not sit so
well on the stomach later. If it tastes good and there are
no ill effects, they will be back for more. If you let them
have two pleasant experiences, you are likely to have a
serious problem on your hands.

Take the woodchuck I matched wits with for two years. If
you don’t know what a woodchuck is, it is what groundhogs
are called some places including Maine.

Woodchucks and I go way back. When I bought this house 28
years ago they were living in the wood shed under the
porch, used the drainage culvert to cross the road and, in
general, thought they owned the place. I fenced my first
gardens, until one built a home in the winter squash patch.
It wasn’t until we got a dog that they decided this was not
prime real estate. It is amazing how canny animals are. Our
most recent dog was nearing the end of her life three years
ago and the woodchucks started moving back. They would
taunt her, it seemed, coming closer and closer knowing that
if they could coax her to get up and chase them they could
beat her back to the hedgerow.

Two years ago the dog died and protecting the garden fell
back on me. I had grown lax. I let the critter eat some
lettuce. Then I put out some lettuce in a have-a-heart trap.
Are you kidding? Eat wilted lettuce in a trap when fresh is
right there? I had lost the initiative. I then sprayed my
favorite Mexican seasoning on the lettuce and beans,
figuring it would just be a matter of time before he or she
tried those. But it rained and I wasn’t visiting the garden
as regularly as I should. The woodchuck was getting fatter
and finding more escape routes. I strung an electric fence
around the garden at woodchuck-nose-height. By now the peas
were being harvested. At one point my son was in the garden
grabbing a snack when he found himself eye to eye with the
woodchuck, who was feasting on something in the garden,
looking for all the world as if it was his or her garden.
When Josh chased it he saw how it got past the fence. It
just lowered its head and ran.

If the fence had been there earlier the woodchuck would
have decided the garden was not a nice place. Having
determined that the garden was, in fact, one of the nicest
places for a meal imaginable, he or she was willing to risk
a little shock.

So I put up another strand of wire and I seasoned the
plants again. The seasoning, by the way, is about a
tablespoon of liquid detergent and a tablespoon or more,
depending on how angry I am, of Tabasco in a watering can
of water. Animals in Maine, at least, do not like highly
spiced food. This works especially well if this is the
first taste they get from your garden. Almost as well if it
is the second. Past that and you may have more convincing
to do.

I feel badly that I misled this animal into believing that
we could be partners in the garden. The next spring when he
started foraging again having spent the winter under my
shop, I gave him or her one more chance. I went around to
all the escape routes I could find–under the porch,
the road culvert, a hole in the hedgerow and the den under
my shop–and plugged them up. I shot at him once but
missed and he ran off to the barn. But still he returned.
By this time I had determined that it was a lone male
planning to establish an attractive place for a mate. He
tempted fate one too many times.

I know that it will distress some people to think that I
killed a small furry animal. I would rather not have had
our relationship end that way. Some people tell me that I
should plant enough for the animals and myself. A nice
idea, however, I can assure you that all that would do is
increase the population of animals and I would have to
expand the garden every year to accommodate the rising
population. I want animals that eat my vegetables to stay
out of my garden and all animals other than humans to stay
out of my house. Anyone who allows mice and t rats to run
unmolested in their homes is welcome to condemn me for
killing the woodchuck. Please remember that I do “take
responsibility for that killing. It was my fault because I
allowed the animal to– become familiar with my
garden.

The electric fence around the gar den was wonderful later
in the season when raccoons and porcupines frequently get
into the corn. There is a deer that has found my garden and
comes back every year after the first frost. I strung an
additional strand of wire about three feet off the ground
to see if I could persuade the deer that I had moved and
been replaced by a nasty person. One morning I found the
fence down and some deer tracks in the garden but no
damage. The tracks looked like a deer running rather than
wandering. The fence had been put up flimsily so it was no
surprise that it was down. No deer last year.

Visiting the garden may be most important for animal
control but there are all sorts of things you may come
across that will save time and make for a better garden if
caught at the right moment. If you are staking your
tomatoes, you will probably do a much better job of tying
them to the stake before they flop down with twisted stems.
You’ll know when the corn and zucchini are ready to
harvest. You’ll catch in sect damage early and be able to
monitor it without panicking. And what gardener can
casually walk through a garden, any garden, without pulling
a weed or two?