Last year, I put in some raised beds and made a serious effort to grow some vegetables. Mostly, it was to have something to do during the pandemic. If nothing else, during all that isolation, it was cheering to look out my back window and see a patch of giant sunflowers.
Now it’s year two of the pandemic and of my garden. I’m done with planting for the year, and I’m focused on winding things down, and on the likely first frost date for Vienna, VA.
It seems like a good time to summarize what did and did not go well this year. Mostly as a reminder to myself, but also in case anyone else might benefit from reading it.
After a brief note on first frost dates, I’ll go through methods and techniques I tried this year, and maybe finish up with some notes on individual vegetables, if there is anything notable to say. Click the links to go to the relevant sections. Click the links below to see those sections, click the “back” link to return here.
- A brief note on first frost date.
- Hugelculture (success)
- Radiant barrier freeze protection (success)
- Traps for squash vine borer and Japanese beetle (success)
- No-dig gardening for potatoes (success).
- Lint roller and inspection mirror for squash bug eggs (success)
- Electric toothbrush for pollinating tomatoes (success?)
- Core beds (harmless failure)
- Hardwood mulch as garden mulch (failure)
- Early planting of squash and cucumber to avoid insect pests (total failure)
- Bee-proof sticky traps for cucumber beetle (failure)
- Solar tomato dryer (currently reworking it).
- Deer deterrents (win some, lose some).
- Worst remaining problems: Rain-barrel irrigation, mildew, cucumber beetles.
- Some notes on individual vegetables.
First, a brief note on fall first frost date.
First and last frost dates are pretty straightforward. Somebody tabulates the dates of the actual last spring freeze and first fall freeze, for the past 30 years, for your area. From that list, they generate a table showing the fraction of the time a frost occurred after a given spring date, or before a given fall date.
To pick a likely date, you determine what risk of frost you are willing to live with. For whatever reason, the most frequently-cited figure is the 30% date. (Which is also, confusingly, sometimes cited as the 70th percentile date, see below.) That would be the date on which, 30% of the time, some spring frost occurred on or after that date, or some fall frost occurred on or before that date, during the past three decades.
Once you’ve chosen the risk of frost you’ll tolerate, that plus the historical data determine your likely spring last frost date, and fall first frost date, from the standpoint of planning your garden. Of course, nothing prevents using several dates, erring on the side of caution for frost-sensitive plants and not for others.
Geek that I am, I noted a few oddities about the first and last frost dates for my area.
First, nobody agrees on terminology, that is, what I’ve called the 30% date, above, others will call the 70th percentile date. It all depends on whether you’re talking about the fraction of frosts that occur before that date, or the fraction that occur after. So you can’t just look at the headings on a table and pick your date. You have to pay attention to how they are ordered.
Second, the presence of reliable long-term forecasts means that you can “game” your spring last frost date. I explained this in Post #G21-005, the percentiles in a last-frost-date table are correct if and only if you blindly plant on that date, and ignore the forecast. By contrast, if you pay attention to the forecast, in practice, your “30%” (or 70th percentile) spring last frost date is actually your 10% (or 90th percentile) last frost date. For the simple reason that if frost is in the forecast, you won’t plant on that date.
No such gaming for the fall. Whatever you are growing is already in the ground by the time the first frost date occurs.
Third, even accounting for the different naming conventions, different sources will give you different dates. You would think that couldn’t occur, as they all use the same underlying weather station historical data. But it does. Right now, the fall first frost date for Vienna, VA is given as:
- October 21 (50%): Davesgarden.com
- October 22 (30%): Old Farmer’s Almanac
- October 21 to October 31 (no percentile given): Plantmaps.com
- October 24 (30%), NOAA, one Vienna VA weather station via this map.
- November 4 (30%): Garden.org.
Even among dates that are supposed to be the 30% date, that’s a pretty broad range. I’m guessing that most of the variation is in which particular weather stations they use to calculate the dates.
Of those, I’m working from the October 24 date, because that’s from a weather station literally in Vienna, VA. It’s a little risky to rely on just one station, as there may be calibration issues with any one thermometer. But at least I know exactly what I’m looking at. And it’s not as if there’s a lot of leeway anyway. If that’s the 30% date (30% chance of frost on or before), the 70% date is just ten days later. Odds are that the first frost will occur sometime between those two dates.
When you boil it all down, it’s not a lot more precise than saying I should expect a first frost sometime around Halloween. Which would come as no surprise to anyone living in this area.
Having settled on that date, I’m not planting anything that takes longer than a month to mature. And I’ve pulled up my pumpkin plants, as there is no way they can set fruit and have it mature before first frost.
In a nutshell: Burying scrap wood in raised beds is a good way to get rid of the wood and reduce the amount of soil needed to fill a raised bed.
Project: This year, as I turned over the soil in my raised beds, I took all the waste wood in my yard and tossed it into the bottoms of the beds. These were things like chunks of firewood that were too tough to split, as well as downed branches and such. I did this mostly to raise the level of the soil, which had sunk over time. And to get rid of the rotting wood sitting around my yard.
The idea of building a raised bed over wood is that the wood a) takes up space, b) rots and so adds nutrients and tilth to the soil, and c) retains water in the soil.
Results: I’ll vouch for a) above. Burying logs will definitely raise the level of the soil in the bed. I’m not so sure about the other claimed benefits. At least, not in Zone 7 in Virginia.
In particular, the deeper beds (where I did this) didn’t seem to require any less watering than my shallower beds (where I didn’t). And that makes sense, as you water when the first couple of inches of soil is dry. So I’d say it’s a reasonable way to raise the soil level in the bed. It’s unreasonable to expect this to lower your watering chores. And I have no information on whether or not it materially improves the soil.
Would I do this again? Yes. It’s a cheap and easy way to reduce the amount of soil you need to fill a bed. And, for me, it’s a way to get rid of chunks of wood that had been rotting in my yard. Other than that, any other benefits were too minor for me to notice.
Radiant barrier as raised-bed frost cover (Post #G21-018).
In a nutshell: A few jugs of water and some cheap radiant barrier material increased nighttime temperatures in my raised beds by 10 F.
Project: Test some common suggestions for protecting plants from spring frosts. Separately, test the use of a radiant barrier (such as a space blanket) for that purpose.
Results: A lot of things that people recommend for cheap D-I-Y plant frost protection simply don’t work, or don’t work well. I tried floating row cover, and I tried jugs of water placed near plants. I got virtually no benefit.
By contrast, covering the bed with radiant barrier (as is sold in hardware stores) worked exceptionally well. Leaving jugs of water to warm in the sun during the day, followed by covering the bed at night, kept the bed more than 10 F higher than the ambient temperature. With this system, I should be able to go well down into the 20’s F without getting frost damage. Moreover, because it’s opaque, if I forget and leave it on, it won’t cook the plants the way that (e.g.) a sheet of clear plastic would.
Cheap space blankets didn’t work. They were too thin, and tore in the wind. It needed actual radiant barrier material intended for home construction. The downside is that construction radiant barrier is stiff and awkward to use. So this works, and is durable enough, but remains physically awkward to put on and take off daily.
Would I do this again? Yes, in fact, I’m planting lettuce and spinach right now, with the idea of keeping them going into mid-winter using this system. Obviously, as configured, I can’t use it to keep anything tall from freezing. But for greens, this should work just fine.
No-dig potatoes (Post #1073).
In a nutshell: Grow potatoes by placing them on the ground and covering with a thick layer of hay.
Project: Prepare your potatoes for planting as you would do normally. Chit (sprout), cut into pieces, let the pieces scab over. Then place them on the ground, cover with a recommended foot of straw, and wait for them to grow. The theory is that the potatoes will grow above ground and you won’t even have to dig them up. Just reach under the straw and pull them up.
Results: This mostly works as advertised. I think I got a somewhat lower yield, compared to planting in the ground. And, while some potatoes were above-ground, some had to be dug up anyway.
Aside from (maybe) a lower yield, the only disadvantage of this is that the cost of the straw (for me, in the suburbs) is almost certainly greater than the value of the potatoes (if priced at typical grocery-store prices). It is, in my case, a form of value-destroying enterprise.
That said, this has a lot of advantages.
- It takes little effort, because you don’t have to dig.
- You can grow potatoes over heavy clay soil, which would otherwise be unsuitable for that crop.
- The foot-thick hay layer seems to retain a lot of water. I believe I only watered my potatoes once all summer.
- You can pick a few potatoes early just by rooting around in the straw until you find some.
It’s not as if potatoes are a high-maintenance crop in the first place. For me, they have been about as trouble-free as you can get. But in the past, I’ve had to devote space in my raised beds to potatoes, as the native soil is just too dense. This gives me a way to raise potatoes anywhere I have adequate sunshine. At the expense of a slightly lower yield, and a high cost of hay.
Would I do this again? Yes, in fact, this will be my go-to method for potatoes moving forward. For me, the overwhelming advantage is that I can grow potatoes on (not in) heavy clay soil. Hence, I can tuck a potato patch into a corner of the yard, and reserve the good soil in the raised beds for something else.
As to the cost of it, I’ve decided that fresh potatoes out of the garden just taste better than what I can buy at the store. So I’m willing to pay a bit more for the higher-quality product.
Traps for squash vine borer (Post #G21-042) and Japanese beetle (Post #G21-037)
In a nutshell: Use pheromone or scent-based traps to kill male squash vine borers and Japanese beetles of both sexes.
Project: This consists of following the directions on a standard Bag-a-Bug Japanese beetle trap, and on a pheremone-based trap that attracts and kills male squash vine borer moths. Note that, for the Japanese beetles in particular, you want to place the traps well away from and downwind of your garden, based on the prevailing wind direction. The idea is to intercept Japanese beetles flying upwind, attracted by the scent of the growing plants.
Results: For Japanese beetles, as was true last year, two traps seemed to solve my Japanese beetle problems in short order. I put up two traps strictly in accordance with the directions. Within days, the number of beetles in the garden fell, and within a couple of weeks, there are essentially gone. I noted an almost immediate reduction in the number of beetles in my garden, and within a week or two, there are no beetles left.
This is somewhat controversial, as there are academic studies suggesting that these traps actually increase your Japanese beetle damage by drawing local Japanese beetles to your garden. All I can say is that either it’s pure coincidence, or these work like a charm for me.
Results: For squash vine borer (SVB), this is a semi-enclosed paper sticky trap with a pheromone lure inside. It only attracts male SVBs. For sure, a) this caught a lot of male SVBs, and b) it caught nothing else. Whether or not it actually reduced SVB damage in my garden, I can’t say. I lost several summer squash plants to borer damage this year. At the very least, these are not a sure cure, in the sense that the Japanese beetle traps appear to be a cure. And in fact, they are not sold as a control measure, but as a monitoring measure, for farmers to see how many SVBs are in their area.
Would I do this again? Yes, for the Japanese beetle traps. Those appear to knock the population down in a matter of a couple of days. But probably not for the SVB lures. Those only attract the males, and the females managed to lay fertilized eggs on my summer squash anyway.
Lint roller and inspection mirror for squash bug eggs (Post #G21-034).
In a nutshell: A cheap hardware inspection mirror is the low-effort way to check the undersides of leaves for squash bug eggs. Lint roller is easier than scraping them off by hand.
Project: Use a standard hardware inspection mirror to check for squash bug eggs on the underside of squash leaves. Use a cheap lint roller to remove the eggs neatly without damaging the plant.
Results: Works like a charm. Much easier than having to lift and look under every squash leaf to find squash bug eggs.
Would I do this again: Yes.
Core bed (Post #G21-008)
In a nutshell: Make a raised bed “self-watering” by filling the core of the bed with straw.
Project: This is variation on hugelculture in which you fill the center of the raised bed with straw. The idea is that the straw will retain water, and the bed will act like a self-watering planter. Rains will saturate the core, and the retained moisture will reduce or eliminate the need for watering.
Results: I’m giving this one a big “nope”, in my hot Virginia climate. I put my summer squash in this bed, and I surely had to water those as much as I watered any other plants in the garden. For sure, the idea that this bed would take care of its own watering needs was wrong.
Would I do this again: No. It’s a fair bit of work and expense to get the straw packed into the middle of the bed. And I saw no reduction in the need for watering. Maybe if I grew something a little more deep-rooted there (e.g., sunflowers), it might have worked. But for the vegetables I was growing (summer squash), I saw no benefit. Arguably, this might work in a cooler and more well-watered climate.
Toothbrush for pollinating tomatoes (Post #G21-034).
In a nutshell: Buzz your tomato flowers with the back of an electric toothbrush to increase the pollination rate and fruit production.
Project: Use an electric toothbrush to pollinate tomatoes by shaking the blossoms. Briefly touch the back of the vibrating toothbrush head to the blossoms. The idea is that tomatoes have “perfect” flowers containing both stamen and pistil, and this will shake the pollen loose and pollinate the flower.
Results: I can’t be 100% sure this works, but it seems to. I had my best tomato year ever. It does not, however, guarantee that every blossom will result in fruit, and so every truss will be full of fruit, is incorrect. Fuller, maybe, but I still had a few empty spots.
Would I do this again: Probably. It takes a bit of time if you have a lot of tomatoes.
Hardwood mulch as garden mulch
In a nutshell: Hardwood mulch lasts longer, but drawbacks outweigh benefits when used in raised vegetable beds.
Project: I figured I’d use a longer-lasting material to mulch the surface of the garden. Things like (e.g.) straw and grass clippings disappear pretty quickly in the Virginia heat. Hardwood mulch, I reasoned, would cut down on the effort.
Results: Well, it is mulch. It worked very well to suppress weeds and keep the underlying soil moist. And it’s still there, so it does last.
But: 1) That heavy load of uncomposted brown material draws nitrogen out of the soil, as soil bacteria break it down. I had to add a lot of nitrogen to that bed, based on the paleness of the plants. 2) It reportedly provides places for bugs to hide. I could not directly verify, but I think that makes sense. 3) It makes it tough to dig and plant, as you have to rake the blanked of mulch off, then make sure you aren’t smothering the new plants when you rake it back.
Would I do it again? No, not in a vegetable garden. For perennials, maybe. For annuals, it’s better to use something lighter that will rot faster.
Early planting of squash and cucumber to avoid insects and diseases.
In a nutshell: Start these plants as early as possible so that you can get a crop in before various insect pests and fungal disease arrive. Then pull them up in mid-summer.
Project: Based on my first year of gardening, I thought I could get in a nice, solid crop of cucumbers and summer squash before various pests started to arrive. Those pests being the squash vine borer, cucumber beetle, and powdery mildew.
Accordingly, I started them inside and then planted them in the garden at an aggressively early date. That was based on my analysis of last frost dates (Post #G21-005). Based on the times that various insects arrived last year, I figured I’d get a decent amount of produce in, then just pull them up rather than try to defend those plants against those pests.
Results: Nope, did not work. Several factors came into play.
First, in 2020, I didn’t have cucumber beetles until mid-summer because I’d never grown cucumbers here before. What I noted last year was the arrival of the second generation of cucumber beetles of the season (Post #G21-027, Post #G21-030). Now that I’ve attracted cucumber beetles, they are endemic to my garden, and they come out to feed early (May) and stay all year long.
In short, there is no usable of the growing season in Virginia zone 7 in which cucumber beetles are not present. Once you have them in your garden, they come out in May and are present all year long.
Second, a warm spring led to early emergence of the squash vine borer (SVB). So I did not get a full growing season SVB-free. And I can’t count on that in any year, because the warmer the spring, the earlier they arrive.
Near as I can tell, the only way I can avoid these pests is to grow these plants in a screened enclosure and pollinate by hand. And that seems like a lot of expense and effort for a few tens of pounds of low-calorie produce.
In any case, my entire first two plantings of cucumbers were killed off by bacterial wilt, carried by the cucumber beetle. I’m now having a small fall cucumber crop from a late planting of one variety that seems somewhat resistant to bacterial wilt (Little Leaf). Those cucumber plants are surviving, but the yield is lousy compared to (e.g.) Boston Pickling, which is what I had planted last year.
The upshot is that this was a total crash-and-burn, with respect to cucumbers, and less than successful, with respect to summer squash. I still have no good options for dealing with cucumber beetles short of using long-lived synthetic poisons, which kind of defeats the whole idea of growing your own food.
Would I do this again? No, it does not work, now that cucumber beetles are endemic to my garden.
Bee-proof sticky trap for cucumber beetles (Post #G21-029)
In a nutshell: Sticky traps are non-selective. Do something to keep bees, butterflies, and birds off your sticky trap.
Project: Take a standard garden sticky trap, designed to trap insect pests. Buy wire mesh large large enough to allow cucumber beetles to pass though, but small enough to exclude bees. This is shown at left, with the protective paper still on the sticky trap. Construction details were given in (Post #G21-029).
Results: I didn’t catch any bees, which is good. I didn’t catch any cucumber beetles, which is bad. I tried this, separately, with yellow bowls filled with water and a bit of dish soap, covered by the same screen. Same result.
I’m still not sure what caused the failure. E.g., I’m not sure that he cucumber beetles would have been attracted to the traps or water-filled bowls in the first place, absent the screen.
That said, I think this approach of a guarded sticky trap has a use, I just need to up my game. Last year, I tried an open-faced sticky trap with pheromone lure to attract cucumber beetles. It did that — it trapped some cucumber beetles — but also trapped everything that happened to fly past it. It only lasted a day before I took it down and threw it away.
Given that I have nothing, right now, that works against cucumber beetles, I think I might try that again. But this time, I’ll put that pheromone sticky trap in a wire cage. That should exclude most of the beneficial insects. And if the cucumber beetles are motivated, presumably they’ll crawl right through the screening.
Would I do this again? Yes, I’m still working on it. This was a total failure this year. But I still think there’s something to be said for a sticky trap that excludes birds, bees, and butterflies. So I’m going to keep working on this one.
In a nutshell: Modify a clear plastic tote for use as a solar tomato dryer.
Project: Take a food-safe plastic tote, add an insulated lining, put some vent holes in the top, and you have a device that should work for solar tomato drying, even in the relatively humid summer climate of Virginia.
Results: It does remove water, but not fast enough. In full sunlight, this removed about a pound of water a day, from four pounds of tomato slices. One day in the sun was not enough to dry the tomatoes to the point where I felt comfortable leaving them out. This did, however, somewhat reduce the drying time in the electric food dehydrator.
The genesis of this is the high energy cost of drying tomatoes in an electric food dehydrator (documented in the posts cited above). I looked over plans for solar dehydrators, and most of them were simple boxes with a clear front and some ventilation. Rather than take the time to fabricate a box like that, I simply bought a clear food-safe plastic tote, then cut holes in the top and added a “chimney” for ventilation.
I ended this with a few thoughts.
First, after working through the arithmetic, it seemed clear that the most likely problem was the still air in the box. The lack of air movement greatly reduces the speed of evaporation. The obvious fix there is to put in the box that will circulate air.
Second, because the drying gets less and less efficient the dryer the tomatoes get, I might consider drying tomatoes to a “leathery” state in the electric dryer, then finishing them over several days in the solar dehydrator.
Would I do this again. Yes, I’m still working on it. This wasn’t a total failure, but clearly needs improvement before it will be usable as a food dryer. The next try will add powered ventilation — a little computer fan on top of the chimney. Don’t know if that will work, but I have one of those fans sitting around, so I might as well give it a try.
In a nutshell: This year I added “wireless deer fence” to my arsenal of deer deterrents.
Project: My garden isn’t fenced. I’ve used a variety of things to try to keep the deer from eating my garden. That includes, in likely order of effectiveness:
- Yard Enforcer motion-activated sprinkler.
- Bobbex deer repellent
- Home-made motion-activated ratio (Post #G07)
- Blood meal, Irish spring soap, and other similar folklore-based repellents.
This year, I planted the garden so that the most deer-attractive stuff was right next to the Yard Enforcer. The outer reaches were reserved for things like potatoes, which (so far) the deer won’t eat. That was a good move, and seems to have saved me quite a bit of heartache. Near as I can tell, deer don’t ever get used to the Yard Enforcer.
But as fall sets in, and the deer get larger, hungrier, and more aggressive, it gets increasingly hard to keep them out of the garden. And, frankly, I get tired of spraying stinking solutions every week, trying to keep them out. And I’ll forget to turn on the Yard Enforcer after I’ve been working in the garden.
I looked over what was commercially available, and settled on “wireless deer fence“, three units for $60. That’s probably not quite enough for the size of my garden, but these will work in conjunction with everything else.
The wireless deer fence consists of roughly 1 foot tall plastic stakes that hold a deer-attracting scent-based lure. They hold that lure in the middle of four high-voltage metal tines, running off a couple of AA batteries in the base. If the deer touches nose or tongue to the tines, it gets a nasty shock. And, ideally, this trains the deer to go elsewhere. Place one wherever you note deer damage.
Of course I tried it on myself. If this is really horrific, I’m not going to use it. Though, I admit, I did not have the courage to lick it. I tapped it on my wet skin. It hurts, but not too badly. Felt about the same as brushing up against an electric fence. Unpleasant and startling, but not hugely painful. And no lingering pain once you lose contact with the high-voltage metal. Once you break contact, you’re fine.
Based on the company’s write-up, one shock is enough to train any one deer to stay away. In the grand scheme of things — no damage, no lasting pain, one shock, and trying it out on myself first — this did not seem like an excessively cruel deer deterrent to me. Others could reasonably disagree.
Results: With deer deterrents, you know if they’re not working, but you’re never quite sure if they are working. If you see continuing deer damage, they aren’t working. If you don’t, then either the deer have randomly decided to go elsewhere for a while, or it is working. In any case, I’m seeing no new deer damage. Tentatively, this last bit of escalation in my private deer wars seems to be producing results.
The sign, by the way, does not work at all.
My unsolved problems
Cucumber beetles. I have now found out the hard way that I more-or-less cannot grow cucumbers in my garden due to an ongoing infestation of cucumber beetles. They carry bacterial wilt. Bacterial wilt killed off my first two plantings of cucumbers. Currently, my final planting of “wilt-resistant” varieties is also failing to thrive and is showing signs of damage from bacterial wilt.
I have no tested and effective means of controlling these. The only thing I am confident will work involves using long-acting poisons such as Sevin dust (per The Rusted Garden). I’m not willing to do that . In particular, these beetles infest the blossoms of both squash and cucumbers, and any poison I spray there would kill the bees trying to pollinate those flowers.
One experimental approach would be to surround a pheremone-lure sticky trap with screening to keep bees, birds, and butterflies out of the trap. I may yet try that.
But, in the end, I think that the only way I’m going to be able to grow cucumbers next year will be to grow self-fertilizing (parthenocarpic) varieties in a net cage that excludes all insects. Or, alternatively, find a cucumber variety that actually is wilt-proof.
Powdery mildew, early blight, and similar leaf diseases. Last year, I spent a lot of time spraying for powdery mildew. The good news is that I found a solution that would kill it, after it had become well established on my squash and pumpkins (Post #G20). The bad news is that it took a lot of effort to kill it,and killing it didn’t repair the damage that was already done to the leaves.
This year, rather than spraying for mildew (and, separately, for early blight on the tomatoes), I just pruned out leaves as they became infected. The idea was to slow these diseases down some.
That was a reasonably effective strategy for summer squash, where leaf production is prolific and the season is fairly short anyway. But that didn’t work well for winter squash or for tomatoes. Both my winter squash season and tomato season were cut short because those fungal diseases eventually overwhelmed the plants.
I’m not sure where I’ve ended up on this one. With enough effort, you can keep those diseases at bay. But it takes a lot of consistent effort. Maybe next year I’ll pick my varieties based on known resistance to wilt and blight, instead of the pretty picture on the seed packet.
Source: Amazon.com The last big issue that I haven’t solved is rain-barrel irrigation. This year, same as last year, I carried water from barrels to garden. The only upgrade is that I started using five-gallon buckets, which makes the watering go faster compared to two-gallon watering cans.
The problem with rain-barrel irrigation is that almost nothing set up and sold as irrigation equipment will not work well with the near-zero water pressure of a rain barrel. In addition, with more-or-less zero water pressure, frictional losses in the irrigation lines limit how far you can transport the water. For example, this source suggests a practical limit of about 25 feet of irrigation pipe for a system set on flat ground. And that’s the trick, because 25 feet just won’t work with my garden.
It’s not hard to set up rain-barrel irrigation for a plant or two. For years, I’ve kept a potted lime tree irrigated by using a battery-powered timer and a short length of hose, attached to the nearest rain barrel. The timer provides a minute of water flow every six hours. That’s enough to keep the potted tree from drying out. But watering one tree, next to the rain barrel, is a far cry from watering a large garden.
Even then, the equipment made to work with rain-barrel systems seems inferior. For example, hose timers from most major manufacturers won’t work with a rain barrel system, because they require water pressure to open and close the valve. The off-brand timers that will work with zero pressure all seem to last about two years, at which point, you chuck them and buy another one. Above, you see my latest replacement, which, from the looks of it, is better designed than its predecessors. We’ll see how it goes.
I tried a few gravity-fed approaches this year, but nothing worked. Soaker hose is a total failure. Even irrigation tubing with punched holes works poorly, as the water does not spread much due to the low pressure.
One option is to run a submersible pump to give me pressurized rain water. That’s wasteful, as (e.g.) drip irrigation has to run a long time. But at least in theory, at that point, regular irrigation equipment should work, and I can just install off-the-shelf (e.g.) drip irrigation from Home Depot and be done with it. Run a hose from pump to garden bed and turn the pump on to run the drip
A second option is to chuck the rain barrels and irrigate with city water, run through a high-volume activated charcoal filter to remove the chloramines used to disinfect the water. (Some plants can’t tolerate chloramines.)
Neither of those is particularly appealing. So I suspect I’ll be carrying water for some time yet.
Notes on individual vegetables.
Tomatoes: For the first time in my life, I followed the rules on tomato growing. And I had what I consider to be a great crop. In the past, I was a minimal-effort tomato gardener. Chuck the plant in the ground, put a tomato cage over it, and come back when you see ripe fruit.
This year, by contrast, the whole rigamorle included:
- Test the soil, amend as necessary.
- Stake the plants up on tall stakes, not tomato cages.
- Pull off the suckers (for indeterminate tomatoes) to keep each vine to a single main stem.
- Mulch heavily to prevent soil splash (slows down onset of blight).
- Trim off lower leaves as the plant grows (slows down onset of blight).
- Fertilize the flowers using an electric toothbrush.
I did no spraying to try to suppress fungal diseases. At some point, I just let the blight run. My tomatoes only grew through mid-September as a consquence.
Verdict: Sad to say it, but following the rules actually works. It was more effort, but the result was my best tomato year ever. I’ll do it this way next year.
Summer squash: The whole grow-them-early approach was a failure. In addition, this year, I tried staking them up and pruning aggressively. I also went after squash bug eggs on a daily basis, using mirror-and-roller as described above. I sprayed the stems with spinosad weekly once the squash vine borer showed up, but otherwise did no spraying. I still lost some plants to the SVB.
I also had a very weird problem, in that something was eating all of my male squash blossoms. That turned out to be birds. I had to put cages around immature male blossoms in order to have any males to use in fertilizing the female flowers (Post #G21-041).
As was true in the past, early prolific yellow straightneck was hands-down the most productive variety I grew. I tried patty-pan, but the yield seemed far inferior.
Verdict: I’m not going to stake them up again. It’s hard to do, it’s unnatural, and it didn’t see to help with anything. I will definitely keep the aggressive pruning strategy to try to keep powdery mildew at bay without resorting to spraying. (Post #G20 shows the results of a home-made spray that worked for me last year.)
Cucumbers: Total failure, as discussed earlier in this post. I planted varieties that are susceptible to bacterial wilt, and I had an abundance of wilt-carrying cucumber beetles. I’ll have to try either growing them under netting, or growing varieties that are truly resistant to bacterial wilt. At the moment, I have no good way to deal with the underlying problem, which is cucumber beetles.
Potatoes: Totally hassle-free, other than finding potatoes that will sprout. Good yield of calories per square foot. And I swear that my potatoes taste better than store-bought. I will be growing these regularly.
Sweet potatoes: If I get any yield at all, this will be a winner. Talk about your no-effort vegetable. Once you get them started, the only problem is keeping them from taking over the entire garden. And they are a snap to propagate. Just cut a foot off the end of a vine, strip off all but the last leaf or two, and bury it. Sole drawback is that you have to start sprouting them months in advance of when you plan to plant them out. I had little difficult in getting grocery-store sweet potatoes to sprout.
Green beans. I had common bean mosaic this year, which more-or-less killed off every planting of beans after I’d gotten a few handfuls harvested. Never happened to me before. No idea how that got here, but I think I need to skip beans for a year or two.
Peppers. Never had any luck before, but this year, I had and still have an abundance of them. Sweet peppers and hot peppers. Virtually pest-free, seemingly disease-free. They are getting their second wind now that the weather is cooling down, and so this is a set of plants where the rate of harvest actually increases as the plants age into fall. I’ll definitely plant these again. No idea why I got a decent yield this year, but never had much in the past. I’m going to try to overwinter the best of the lot and get a head start for next year.
Beets, turnips, rutabagas, radishes. I put these in the same class because they all grow in more-or-less the same fashion. And I’ve had a terrible year for all of them. My entire spring planting either bolted or failed to grow. A handful finally sprouted on this last round and are growing for fall. I have not had a single beet sprout, despite multiple planting attempts, something that apparently is not uncommon in areas with heavier soils.
Verdict: Had a pretty good year last year, but this year’s spring crop failed to materialize. Jury is still out on the fall crop. My only finding from last year is that these do not keep well once you harvest them, so you are better off leaving them in the ground.
Lettuce: For the first time, I grew greens and actually had an abundance of them. The biggest success was romaine lettuce. I’m planting now for a fall/winter harvest. We’ll see if that was just luck the first time around.
Mustard: My go-to cover crop. Grows like a weed, shades out the competition, breaks up the soil. I still have not yet figured out how to harvest the seeds. Quite pretty when flowering. A pound of mustard seeds will last me for years.
Rosemary. My son planted a couple of plants, and it’s clear that this is another one where the only question is how you manage to keep it from taking over. That’s now going to be a permanent fixture in the garden. Whether I want it or not, I think.
Sunflowers: I continue to grow these purely for the looks. These actually produce a significant number of calories per square foot. And they are pollinator-friendly. But I’d have to take extreme measures if I wanted to keep the birds off them. In the end, I grow them for looks and for bird food. Not that I wouldn’t grow them for my own food, if I could. I just can’t figure out how to do that without covering the entire sunflower patch with netting once the seeds start to ripen.