Hands On Gardener: Feed Me and I’ll Feed You!

by Miriam Hansen.

So far this has been a banner gardening year. We’ve had the perfect amount of rain and sun, and plenty of heat to encourage vegetables to grow and produce quickly. Pests have been minimal, though we have sprayed BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) a couple of times to combat cabbage moths and other caterpillars that feed on brassicas. We’ve been harvesting and freezing broccoli for a couple of weeks and have yet to see any caterpillars on the heads and leaves.

A friend recently e-mailed me a question about her tomatoes. She was seeing discoloration, yellowing leaves with green veins, necrotic spots and curling on the lower leaves of her tomato plants. She was, of course, worried about late blight. The good news is that it’s too early for late blight. I directed her to http://usablight.org/, a website that covers everything from updates on outbreaks in your area to detailed descriptions and photographs of late blight imitators. She was especially relieved when she visited and noticed that some of the bottom leaves of my field tomatoes have similar symptoms. It’s nothing to worry about, just a touch of early blight and Septoria leaf spot. We removed the leaves and bagged them so as not to spread the spores. It just reminded us that it is time to remove lower leaves on tomatoes to improve air circulation and prevent the spread of fungal and bacterial diseases. Since all my tomato varieties are indeterminate—which means they continue to grow and produce tomatoes all season—I continue to remove suckers or side shoots. This is the growth that appears in the crotch between the stem and a branch. The earlier you remove suckers, the better. When they’re small they can just be pinched off. If you’ve missed some and the stems are larger than a pencil, it is a good idea to cut them with pruners to avoid damaging the plant.

We’ve planted our winter carrots and they germinated well. Some folks have told me that they are still having trouble with germination. We do what we always do. Plant the bed, water it well and then lay boards on the rows where we’ve planted the seeds. You don’t need to check for germination for three to four days. But then, the trick is to look every day to see if they are starting to germinate. You really have to look closely. The emerging plants look like pale, thin hairs at first. That’s when you have to remove the boards. If I don’t see anything after a week, I err on the side of caution and remove the boards anyway, figuring that they should be germinating by now and that if I don’t see them, it’s not because they’re not there but because I’m not looking closely enough. Sure enough a couple of days later, they are visible to the naked eye.

Like the rest of us, plants need food to grow big and healthy and produce. By mid-July it’s pretty easy to tell which plants are thriving and which could use a shot of fertilizer or tonic.

A couple of weeks ago we noticed that the peppers were a little spindly and pale. Too much nitrogen is never a good idea for peppers because excess nitrogen produces big leafy pepper plants with little to no fruit. We decided to use a rich but balanced fertilizer: worm tea. Worm tea is made from worm castings—worm poop. It’s compost tea on steroids. We harvested the castings from our worm bin, soaked two cups of castings in a five-gallon bucket, and added two tablespoons of unsulfured molasses. The molasses feeds the micro-organisms you are trying to promote. We stirred regularly to keep the solution aerobic and let it stand for 24 hours before applying it to the plants. Now, ten days later, the pepper plants are deep green, stocky, covered with flowers and setting fruit.

If you don’t have worm castings, compost tea mixed with sea or fish emulsion is an excellent tonic for plants that need a little something. We fill a five-gallon bucket about a quarter full of compost and then fill the bucket with water. The nutrients leach into the water. We let it sit for about a day and then, if we remember, we also add a quarter-cup of sea or fish emulsion just before spraying or pouring the tea around the plants. Try to apply it when you are not expecting rain for a couple of days, so the nutrients don’t immediately become diluted by rainfall.

When we noticed our carrots were looking a bit yellow at the tips, we applied compost tea and we are now harvesting early sweet, long carrots.

It’s too late to start fall crops of broccoli and cauliflower but not too late for some of the Chinese greens, kale, salad turnips, beets, radishes and greens. When growing a fall crop, add more days to maturity than the packet indicates. This is because the days are getting shorter and the night temperatures are getting lower. In these conditions, plants grow more slowly.

We’ve been freezing snow and snap peas, broccoli and summer squash. I find that instructions for blanching are generally a little too long. I always subtract 30 seconds from the blanching time. As long as the vegetables go from dull to bright green, you’ll be fine. With blanching, less is best.

Happy gardening!

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