Springtime! Visions of strawberries, snow peas, tomatoes and other delights accompany me as I prepare the soil and begin planting. My anticipation is tempered, however, by the realization that I must plan now to protect my plants and crops throughout the growing season.
Gardeners are often filled with enthusiasm for growing, but find themselves disheartened and frustrated when their hard work is wiped out by circumstances beyond their control. Extreme weather (hot or cold, too much or too little rain), birds, and small animals can ruin a harvest in a fraction of the time it took to create. It’s important to look at some of the methods used to protect plants and produce from these unpredictable “enemies”.
Row covers protect tender seedlings from the cold in the spring and fall. This protection is easiest with a spun fiber floating row cover. This cover comes in various lengths and widths. The one I use most is a 6’ x 100’ piece to cover a 3’ x 100’ bed. The cover is kept in place by bricks, boards or shovelfuls of soil. In the early spring and late fall the cover creates a temperate “mini-climate” underneath the material, thereby protecting the plants from extreme cold and frosts.
The cover also can be used in the summer to protect leafy greens and fall transplants from the heat and sun. In addition, row covers protect plants from small animals and insects. I often use the covers all season long to protect the parsley and broccoli from hungry groundhogs. These covers also protect young bean plants (before they flower) and Swiss chard from insect damage, but the beans need to be uncovered for pollination once they begin to flower.
Birds and small animals can be devastating to a garden. I have had a lot of success using bird netting over vegetables (winter squash, watermelon, melons) and berries. Birds do not like to have their feet tangled in the netting.
It’s maddening to plant transplants only to find that birds have broken them off or have pulled them out of the ground. To protect the young beans, peas, corn, and small tomato plants, I attach colored plastic grocery bags to wooden stakes, 4 to 6 feet above the ground. Then place the stakes randomly throughout the area that needs protection. The flapping of the bags in the wind sounds and looks exactly like humans in the garden and does a great job of keeping pesky crows and other birds away. In addition, I cover the beds of newly planted corn with a thin layer of straw. The birds can’t see the corn plants until they are too big to pull out.
Mulch in the summer is essential and should be used by all gardeners. Most know that mulch helps to keep weeds from growing, but they don’t know that it also protects the soil from getting too hot or too cold and keeps the soil from drying out. The soil underneath the mulch stays cool and moist. Mulch also can protect plants from too much rain by acting as a shield around the base of the plants. Make sure that early crops are not mulched until the soil warms up.
I mulch nearly every crop, including herbs and berries. After many years of experimenting I have found the best mulch to be the combination of newspaper and straw. The newspaper is placed directly on top of the soil, four pages thick, with two to six inches of straw on top. Newspaper stops the weeds in the soil from growing up through the straw and stops any weed seeds in the straw from reaching the soil. Make sure that the newspaper is completely covered with the mulch as the paper will act as a wick and draw the water from the soil. Remember not to use newspaper that has colored ink, as it is toxic and should not be put on the soil. Most newsprint is black ink made from a soy product. It is not toxic and will break down easily.
Straw is a convenient and a “neutral” mulch. Some mulches can be very acidic (wood chips) and some can have a high nitrogen content (freshly cut grass clipping). In addition, some mulches can actually pull nitrogen from the soil (fresh sawdust). Straw will begin to break down during the season, and the next spring both the left over straw and the decomposed newspaper can be tilled back into the soil. Newspaper encourages earthworms to gather, as they love to munch on the paper.
Shadecloth is extremely effective in protecting leafy greens, especially lettuce, from the summer sun and intense heat. Shadecloth should have a percentage of shade that is at least 50% in July and August. I use a 63% shadecloth, which allows me to grow abundant quantities of leaf lettuce all summer long. Like the row cover, shadecloth allows water and sunlight to penetrate, but unlike the row cover, the grower can choose how much sunlight to allow in.
Deer and groundhogs ate their way through my garden during the early years. To keep the deer out I was forced to enclose the area with New Zealand high tensile electric fencing. It stands about five feet tall, with six wires, and operates on a psychological basis as well as electric shock. The deer can’t see the thin wires, therefore don’t try to jump the fence. Instead they come up to it and either run into or try to get through the wires. The deer learn to stay away after they received a shock. This shock does not cause injury but is strong enough to stop them from going through the fence.
A Hav-a-Hart animal trap baited with parsley catches the groundhogs (six, last summer). The trick is to find their “home” and place the trap just at the edge of one of their burrowing holes. After the human scent has worn off, the animals will enter the trap to eat the parsley. They then can be carted off to some other safe place. Make sure they are taken at least one mile away because they can come back and bring their relatives.
Protecting your garden throughout the growing season is essential to success. A little extra work is worth the effort. It may make the difference between an abundant garden or no garden at all.