Learn to avoid garden fatigue

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJuly 14, 2014 

There's something primal in every one of us that responds to spring. Since the dawn of agriculture, humans feel the urge to plant flowers and food crops after a long, cold winter. But as the weeks pass into midsummer, rising heat and fair weather activities can diminish that early drive to get out into the garden. Just when the plants need you most you'll be off to the beach or a dozen other summer activities.

Once the solstice passes at the end of June, the garden goes into production mode. This is the peak of a vegetable plant's life cycle that beings with seed germination and ends with seed formation. If you succumb to garden fatigue and neglect them now, your harvest will suffer. But if you follow these simple tips, your garden will live longer, produce far more and remain trouble free into fall.

1. Mulch: Mulching is key to making midsummer life more comfortable for your plants. An organic mulch is not worked into the soil - it lays on top to shade the soil and keep roots cooler, blocks sunlight so weeds don't sprout, and most of all, mulch prevents moisture from evaporating from the soil surface. Straw is a common mulch for vegetable gardens because it's cheap, plentiful and resists decomposition. Plan on a mulch layer at least two inches thick to get the full benefit.

2. Adjust water: With drought and water conservation now a national concern, it's important to apply enough water to keep your plants happy without wasting a drop. For those on drip systems, which is the most ideal way to grow veggies at home, take care to adjust the flow rate as plants grow larger because they need proportionately more moisture. If you fail in this, your crops will be small and pithy, insects attack the dehydrated plants and diseases crop up. Many people who think their plants died from the heat don't realize that it's inadequate moisture that causes these declines at midsummer. If you're off on summer road trips, install a simple battery-operated timer to the drip system to ensure it keeps delivering on schedule even when you're away.

3. Pick often: Because our vegetables are annual plants, they're in a hurry to make seed. This is what happens when you let the zucchini grow to the size of a football. Inside the seeds are large and mature, so the plant quits making new flowers because it thinks the life cycle is complete. This is why it's important to pick vegetables often or daily to trick the plants into extending its growth period well beyond the first few fruits. Failure to pick promptly enough is another cause of seasonal midsummer decline.

4. Feed: Some think it's the weather that makes gardens slow down in the heat. Sometimes this decline is due to nutritional deficiencies, particularly in first year gardens that don't have the benefit of long term soil building. The best way to give your plants a boost during the growing season is to add a liquid base organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion, which is mixed with water and applied to the individual plants. Plant food in solution puts what plants need right into the root zone with enough moisture to enhance immediate uptake.

In summer, keep one eye on the weather and the other on your plants. Water more often on hot windy days because this condition draws moisture right out of the leaves. Flood the root zone with water to make sure you don't lose fruit to dehydration before it ripens.

The majority of failures occur in midsummer due to garden fatigue and neglect. Avoid it by planning on a few minutes of quality time each morning or evening observing your plants. What you see will not only guide you in making appropriate adjustments, you'll discover those minutes pay off in more ways than you ever imagined.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.

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