Strange Bedfellows

There are some strange contraptions in my vegetable garden beds this spring. My efforts to garden organically have engaged me in various battles - against insects, funguses, and diseases - using alternatives to chemical treatments. I'm trying various "preventative" measures, some rather unconventional, which I've either read about or invented. I'm using other containers as mini-greenhouses, aids to watering, and other purposes. Here's a look....

You know from my past blog posts that for two years I've lost my tomato crops to "blight," which is caused by a fungus in the soil. This is the same strain of blight which caused the potato famine in Ireland over a century ago. In an effort to avoid the fungus which is likely residing in my garden soil, I have isolated my tomato plants. I've also sterilized my garden tools, tomato cages, stakes, and other items which would contact the plants, with bleach. I've avoided using my compost soil on the new plants as well, since that might have contaminants from last year's crops. The photo to the right shows how I planted a Baby Roma heirloom, which I started from seed. My garden cold frame, with its cover panels removed, has become a quarantine ward. I covered the soil with a layer of weed barrier cloth, covered by a layer of red plastic mulch, since this cold frame is actually in my established vegetable garden (the fungus resides in the soil, and spores bounce onto the lower leaves when rain splashes). I've also trimmed off the bottom 12" of leaves, in case any splashing occurs. The plant is healthy so far, with little bunches of green tomatoes forming.

The photo left shows a second effort to get tomatoes: an isolated tomato garden. I started two tomato varieties from seed which are supposed to be "blight resistant" - Old Brooks and Legend. I chose an area where I've never gardened or planted tomatoes, the spot where I piled the composted cow manure my friend Mitch delivered for a couple of years. I figured this area would have decent soil, since it got run-off from the now depleted manure pile (most of our land is clay and needs to be amended). Again, I covered the soil with a fabric barrier. In addition to all these precautions, I am doing weekly spraying with an organic fungicide, and also sprinkling ground cinnamon, a natural fungicide, around the base of these plants. When I see any discolored leaves, I remove and dispose of them. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Elsewhere in my garden, you'll see various other covers and containers. Descriptions are below each of the photo collages below:

The photo above left shows fine netting over my sweet potato bed. Last year grasshoppers kept eating the sweet potato vines. The leaves would grow back, but I'm guessing that the plants put all their energy into growing new tops, since my harvest of sweet potatoes - the roots - was really skimpy. I planted little plants from a 9-pack of Beauregard sweet potatoes, rather than from slips, since bunches of slips usually include 25 or 50, and I didn't need so many. The dead branches you might notice in the photo are the remnants of the peapod plants which grew in the same spot in early spring, left there to impart their nutrients to the soil. The white netting comes from the fabric department, 72-inches wide for just 99 cents per yard. It lets in the sun and rain, but so far keeps out the bugs. I've held down the edges with garden staples. A hint: tie a piece of survey tape to the staple top and you won't lose it in the soil - it could damage to a passing rotatiller blade. I left one sweet potato plant uncovered, to compare my results. Sweet potatoes don't flower or need pollination, so the netting can stay on for the entire growing period. I've also used this netting over some of my bigger blueberry plants, which are now ripening and protected by the netting from hungry birds. To the right is a celery plant, growing in a plastic sleeve I made by cutting the ends off a big white jug. This is not to fight insects, it's mostly so that the celery plants get a good drink of water when I am hosing the garden, since they like extra moist conditions. I thought it might also "blanche" the stalks, keeping them from being real green, but I don't see that happening... they are green - and delicious.

I've used translucent jugs, with just the bottom cut off (and cap discarded), as mini greenhouses. Above left shows a jug covering a canteloupe plant, pushed about an inch or two into the soil, keeping the plant warm and shielding it from squash bugs; the center photo above shows the same plant uncovered. To the right is another plant I used this method for, Black Beauty eggplant, which grew much faster under cover than another which I left uncovered - and grew strong without any flea beetle damage.

When I have young perennial flowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings which need special attention, I plant them in a big pot of good soil and submerge the pot in garden soil. The buried pot doesn't dry out as fast as it would if it were above ground, and the pot gets watered and gets my attention when it's in the veggie garden. By next year, a tiny cutting should have grown strong roots and be ready to transplant to a permanent location. In the top right photo above is a fig tree seedling, which I have lovingly nurtured from a little twig cutting from an established fig tree, given to me by my friend Richard. The other two photos above show contraptions I also used last year; in the center, a mesh hamper (folds up flat when not in use) over a gherkin plant - I'll remove it when flowering begins, so the plant will get pollinated. I've used another hamper over a small blueberry bush, to keep the birds from eating the ripening berries. On the right you see a pocketed red plastic Kozy Koat (the pockets hold water, which absorbs the warmth of the sun), keeping a healthy sweet Marconi pepper good and warm, since peppers like growing in hot weather.

Don't be afraid to try unconventional aids in your garden!