Sherrilyn M. Billger
All vegetable gardeners want a successful harvest, and I’ve found that no time is more pivotal than the first month or so after planting. This is when our seedlings take route, and establish a strong foundation for future growth. I spend more time in my garden in spring than any other time of year, and it always pays off. Here’s a list of late spring tasks that will benefit your organic vegetable crops.
1. Attract pollinators
Many of our vegetable plants already attract bees and butterflies, but we can supplement these with flowers like Echinacea, bee balm (Monarda), poppies, zinnias, yarrow, and sunflowers, among others. And I like to grow common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) to attrach Monarch butterflies, and bronze fennel to attract Swallowtails. It’s also a good idea to include a shallow water source for the pollinators. And if you’re committed to attracting pollinators, you could get your garden certified.
2. Protect your vegetables from critters
I live in central city Philadelphia, but my vegetable garden lives in rural Berks county (zone 6b). I see no deer or groundhogs in my neighborhood, but they certainly frequent the neighborhood around my garden. The local rabbits are quite voracious as well. So I’ve installed simple 8-foot long 2x4 posts (not pressure-treated) and plastic deer fencing. I added heavy logs around the perimeter to prevent the rabbits and groundhogs from sneaking under the deer fence. I’ll have to keep an eye on my fence throughout the growing season, because those critters are crafty, and just might find/dig/gnaw a way through or around my fence. Vigilance is key.
3. Weed and Mulch
As they establish themselves, our vegetable plants compete with weeds for sun and water and soil nutrients. My garden is host to a seemingly endless army of thistles and wild onions. Until my vegetables are large enough to shade competitors, I need to weed frequently. I also use mulch to keep the soil moist and discourage weeds. Some gardeners use inorganic materials, but I prefer organic mulch. It doesn’t keep every weed out, but it will slowly decompose and further nourish my soil.
You might consider red plastic mulch for your tomatoes. Penn State scientists found that red mulch increased tomato harvest by 10 percent, on average. To keep the weeds at bay and encourage a better tomato harvest, staple red mulch to black mulch and lay it on the ground red side up. The easiest time to do this is before you plant your seedlings, but you could also lay it after planting, and create cut-outs for your tomatoes to poke through.
4. Erect plant supports
If you haven’t yet done so, now is a great time to install plant supports. Putting off this task will leave you wrestling with large plants, and you’ll risk breaking the stems and damaging the roots. Supports are particularly important for peas, pole beans, and tomatoes. I also like to provide supports for my cucumbers, and occasionally for my pepper plants. Garden supply stores offer a wide variety of stakes, teepees, and cages, but you can also make your own. In order to keep your garden chemical-free with natural materials, choose bamboo, cedar, cypress, and jute twine. I use jute twine throughout my garden, because I can toss it in my compost pile in the fall.
There are many ways to support your tomatoes. As a beginner gardener, I used the ubiquitous metal cages, but now I’ve graduated to the Florida weave. It is a simple method, and requires stakes and twine. If your garden is in a windy area, put stakes between each plant and at the end of the rows. Use fewer stakes if wind isn’t such an issue for you. Begin your first weave about 6 inches from the ground, securing the twine to one end and gently weaving the twine through the row, next to each plant. After you get to the end of the row, finish the weave back to the end where you started and tie it off. Add a new row of twine every week or so. (Side note: I grow indeterminate heirlooms, so I plan to prune my tomato plants throughout the season. Even with the Florida weave, the plants will get too tall eventually.)
5. Make frequent inspections
Organic vegetable gardening is actually really easy. The biggest time commitment comes in the spring, but the summer and fall payoff is truly worth it. Take a little extra time now to nurture the plants and help them set a strong foundation. The absolute best thing you can do for your garden now and throughout the growing season is to walk around and look at the plants. How are they doing? Are they getting enough sun and water? Do you see any evidence of disease or insect damage? Catch it early, and your plants are likely to recover. If you find something strange or troubling in your garden, don’t hesitate to contact the Master Gardeners. We’re here to help!