It’s challenging to keep any size garden weeded. Mark and I are barely managing to stay one step ahead of the weeds in our market garden. For plants that are not grown in groundcover, the hula hoe has been a godsend. The hula hoe goes by several names. It’s also called a stirrup hoe because it’s blade is in the shape of a stirrup or a scuffle hoe because it scuffles back and forth in the soil.
Mark does a little demonstration (below) of how we use the hula hoe in our garden. It’s good for clearing up walkways or even in between plants. The hoe sweeps the weed’s feet right out from under them, slicing the roots below the soil line. The hoe’s blade cuts on both the pull and the push strokes. (Note: you can tell that Mark prefers the ‘pull’ stroke in the video.)
The hoe works best with a nice sharp blade. Use a file to sharpen the blade once it feels dull.
We carry this hoe at Gaddy’s. It retails for $19.99.
It is best to use the hula hoe on young tender weeds. I prefer to weed early in the morning on a hot day so the sun can bake any exposed root system. Clear the weed debris from you garden and put it in the compost pile.
My young cucumber plants are too precocious for their own good. Not yet 10″ high they are already blooming and trying to produce baby cucumbers. Not so fast, little cucumbers.
These plants are way too small to support fruit AND sustain healthy growth at the rate needed for long-term fruit production. Although it is very hard to do, a ‘tough-love’ approach is the best in this situation. A bit of pruning is in order.
I always pinch off the first blooms of the season (for cucumbers, squash or melons) even if my plants are looking especially vigorous. This way the plants can put all of their energy into establishing a good root system instead of tending to raising little ones of their own. With proper care these plants will soon reach a mature size and will produce prodigious amounts of fruit.
It seems like the weeds are growing faster in the garden than the vegetables. And although I don’t mind spending a little time weeding, I’d much rather tend to other gardening tasks. Planting through groundcover or landscape fabric is one technique Mark and I use to keep weeds out of the garden.
When we started our market garden, there were several feet of old landscape fabric on the ground, left in place from our old tree growing operation. Even through the fabric had been in place for almost 10 years, it was in fairly good shape, so Mark cut some holes in it and planted tomatoes (see photo left). It worked so well, we decided to add more groundcover to our garden.
The groundcover we chose is the same as what we sell at the store. It is made by DeWitt and is a woven polypropylene that allows moisture and air through but prevents weed growth by blocking the available light. The groundcover is UV stabilized to help it withstand exposure to the Texas sun and it is striped every 12″ which makes it easy to plan plant spacing. Our groundcover is available in different widths and is sold by the foot. For example our 3ft wide groundcover is $0.69/ft.
Groundcover is easy to install. After your soil is prepared (soil amendments added, large rocks removed, area relatively leveled). Place the groundcover over the area you wish to cover. There is a fuzzy side and a slick side. The stripes are most visible on the slick side. Place the fuzzy side towards the ground. Secure the groundcover in place with landscape pins. These pins look like giant hairpins and they go through the landscape fabric and into the ground. We place our pins every 4-5 feet around the perimeter of the groundcover.
Next, cut or burn holes in the groundcover. The size and spacing will be determined by what plants you wish to grow. We usually plant transplants into the groundcover but we have also seeded through the holes. It’s hard to tell in the pic below, but the holes are much larger in the pic on the right (about 8″ for tomatoes) than in the pic on the left (about 3″ for sunflowers planted from seed).
We grew spinach, broccoli and lettuce using groundcover this past winter and had no weed problem whatsoever. The groundcover also kept the leafy plants so clean I had very little soil to wash off after picking.
To minimize garden pests and maximize soil health, Mark and I will rotate crop placement in our garden. Lucky for us, groundcover can easily be moved. When we are ready to plant next year’s cucumbers we will prepare the soil in a different part of the garden, pull the pins on the old groundcover then install it over the new site.
There are some limitations to using groundcover. It takes a long time to plant seeds in groundcover. We don’t use groundcover at all when planting beans, corn, or any crop we want to quickly and easily seed using our Earthway Seeder. We also don’t use groundcover for any root crops like turnips, beets or carrots. Another worry for us regarding our groundcover is the reflected heat from the sun. Once the weather gets hot and stays hot we will probably also want to put mulch around our plants to keep them from frying in the Texas sun.
This is what I get for procrastinating and not putting on my row cover in a timely manner–the cucumber beetles have invaded, both spotted and striped. As their name implies, cucumber beetles like to eat cucumbers, but they also enjoy feeding on squash, melons and pumpkins (any cucurbit will suffice). In no time at all they’ll munch through lovely green leaves then leave some eggs, which will hatch into larvae. The larvae will then start eating your plant’s stems and roots below ground. If that wasn’t enough damage, the adult cucumber beetles also fly from plant to plant spreading disease like Mosaic and Bacterial Wilt.
I imagine that I’m not the only gardener with a cucumber beetle infestation. If you see either of the above culprits in your garden, here’s what you can do.
Spray. If you are using only organic products in your garden, you can spray with Spinosad or Pyrethrum. Spinosad is a bacterial found in crushed sugarcane that is harmful to many insects. Pyrethrum in an organic insecticide made from chrysanthemums. If you are not opposed to using chemical insecticides, spray with one safe for vegetable plants like permethrin. NOTE: No matter what spray you use (organic or chemical), spray in the late evening or very early morning so you have little chance of harming honeybees when you spray.
Hire a known killer. Green lacewings, ladybugs, and spined soldier bugs all like to feed on the eggs of the cucumber beetle. Buying beneficial insects will not provide immediate control of an infestation but the addition of beneficial insects to your ecosystem will provide long term help to manage natural infestations. NOTE: If you choose to spray, even organic pesticides will harm beneficial insects.
Deter the bad guys. Sprinkle kaolin clay on your plants to provide a filmy layer that creates an unattractive environment for egg laying as far as cucumber beetles are concerned.
Prevent the problem. Protect your plants by covering them with a lightweight floating row cover as soon as the plants are in the ground. Once your plants are blooming, you will need to remove the row cover so insects can get to the blooms and aid in pollination.
What did I do about my problem? Since I am using only organic products in our garden, I sprayed last night with spinosad. If I had noticed only a few cucumber beetles, I might have taken a ‘watch and wait’ approach and given my ladybugs a chance to work, but I had beetles on about 75% of my cucumber plants and about 50% of my squash so I chose to spray. If I don’t see results in the next couple of days I may spray with neem-pyrethrin spary. I have also planted the next two rows of cucumber and squash plants and I will definitely get my row cover on them before the seeds even sprout!
If you have taken a look at the market garden lately, you might have noticed that Mark and I have constructed a tall stake-and-wire trellising system for many of our tomatoes. This system will allow us to guide our indeterminate tomatoes up an 8ft piece of twine as they grow. We will prune the ‘suckers’ from these plants to promote upward growth. Our determinate type tomatoes, will be supported by a shorter basket-weaving trellising system that will be less noticeable from the road.
We are constructing two different trellising systems because some tomato varieties(indeterminate) grow very tall up a central stem and other varieties ‘self-top’ at more manageable heights(determinate). Here’s how I remember what indeterminate and determinate means–the height of determinate tomatoes is determined (usually under 6 ft) while the height of indeterminate tomatoes is not (they will grow until the central stem is pruned).
Home gardeners can use tomato cages to successfully support both indeterminate and determinate tomato varieties. Although pruning is not necessary, indeterminate tomatoes may need to be pruned so that these free-wheeling tomatoes don’t take over your garden. In contrast, determinate tomatoes should not be pruned. Removing the suckers from determinate varieties will reduce your crop yield. I prune only the bottom-most leaves and suckers from my determinate tomatoes because I don’t want foliage touching the ground.
Indeterminate and determinate tomato varieties also have different patterns of fruit production. Determinate tomatoes produce a crop all at once. This is great for gardeners who want to preserve their crop by canning–you can pick all at once and put everything up. Roma, a popular canning tomato, is a determinate variety. Indeterminate tomatoes keep producing fruit throughout the growing season. This is great for growers who want slicing tomatoes. It’s nice to have a few tomatoes ripening at any given time. (Note: All tomatoes tend to stop setting fruit when temperatures climb consistently into the mid 90’s. This happens sooner than we’d like in Central Texas.)
Although I’m not opposed to the judicious use of chemical fertilizer, I am a much bigger proponent of organic fertilizers. When you put organic fertilizer on your lawn you are feeding your soil not just your grass. And soil health is crucial to any type of gardening.
Organic fertilizers use natural ingredients like compost, bone meal, feather meal, molasses, corn gluten meal, and potash among other ingredients to create a mixture that contains a blend of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). Just as important as the NPK blend are the extra micronutrients and beneficial bacteria organic fertilizers impart to your soil. Unlike chemical fertilizers that deliver the NPK on inert ingredients, organic fertilizers use beneficial material like compost for the foundation of their products. Plus the organic materials have staying power, providing long-term benefits for your plants. It is a win-win situation for your lawn.
Benefits of organic lawn fertilizer:
Beneficial bacteria and micronutrients are added to your soil.
Increased bioavailability of nutrients to your plants.
Organic matter stays in the soil for a longer time than chemical ingredients.
Very difficult to ‘burn’ plants when using organic fertilizer.
Environmentally friendly by decreasing nitrogen and phosphorous ‘run off’.
One of our most popular organic fertilizers is the Ladybug Brand 8-2-4. It’s a great all purpose fertilizer to have on hand because it can be used on the lawn as well as in the flower bed or vegetable garden. Gaddy’s carries it in 6# or 25# bags.
As some of you might have noticed, we’re in the middle of rearranging the store at Gaddy’s. To make shopping the organic gardening products easier, I’ve put them all in one spot. Come by and check out our new line of Jobe’s organic products. Jobe’s has a fabulous line of organic soils as well as organic fertilizer spikes.
If the unseasonably warm weather has you thinking about fertilizing your yard, our spring shipment of Gaddy’s Brown Bag Fertilizer is here. If you’re new to Pflugerville you may not have heard about our Brown Bag Fertilizer, so let me tell you a little bit about it. Over 25 years ago, my in-laws, Frank and Lynn, were searching for a fertilizer that would work well for the alkaline clay soil in our area. They wanted a slow-release nitrogen formula with added sulfur, iron and micronutrients. Unfortunately the only products they found that fit the bill also had a steep price tag. Not ones to be deterred, Frank and Lynn decided to have their own fertilizer made. And because all the money goes into the product and not the packaging, the fertilizer comes in a plain brown bag with an analysis tag. We, and our customers, refer to it as our Brown Bag Special.
The Brown Bag is a 2o-5-10 blend of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. It immediately releases a 15-5-10 ratio which is recommended for lawns, then the extra 5% nitrogen is slowly released, helping your grass stay green longer. The micronutrient package contains sulphur, iron, copper, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. One bag covers 6,000-8,000 sq feet. An average size yard is 4,500-5,000 square feet, so you may even have a bit left over for the next application.
If you are using a chemical fertilizer it is important to use it properly to maximize the benefit to your yard. First thing, don’t fertilize too early. A lawn doesn’t need to be fertilized until it is actively growing in the spring. A good rule of thumb is to fertilizer after you have had to mow your grass at least one time. Your grass can’t really use the fertilizer until it is awake and actively growing. How would you like to eat a huge Thanksgiving meal at 5:30am? Let your lawn wake up and get moving before you feed it.
Fertilize again in the summer only if your yard is green, growing, watered, and healthy. Adding fertilizer to a lawn that is struggling due to summer heat or stress can add to the problem instead of help. Also during summertime avoid fertilizing in the heat of the day to minimize the chance of burning your yard. And always water the fertilizer in well after application. If any fertilizer gets on your sidewalk or driveway, wash or sweep it up to prevent staining.
Many gardeners apply fertilizer in the fall to winterize the yard. Time this feeding to your grass’ needs. Wait for the weather to cool down and for your yard to recover a bit from summer heat stress. As with the first feeding of the year, fertilize in the fall when your grass is actively growing. Use the fall growing season to get your yard fed and healthy before it goes dormant over the winter.
There are also plenty of organic methods available at Gaddy’s to keep your yard fed and healthy. Organics tend to be a bit more pricy, but they help keep your soil healthy as well as provide many longer lasting benefits to your yard’s ecosystem. One of the best things you can do for your yard is to spread some organic matter, like compost, over the grass in early spring. More on organic fertilizers in another post.
The three numbers on a bag of fertilizer represent the percentage of three elements commonly found in fertilizer–nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K). Nitrogen is used for leaf growth and helps plants stay green. Because of this many lawn fertilizers have a higher percentage of nitrogen, like in a 15-5-10 fertilizer. Phosphorous, represented by the second number, helps plants form new roots, fruits and flowers. Many ‘super bloom’ type fertilizers have a high phosphorous number like a 9-58-8.
Potassium, represented as the third number on a bag of fertilizer, promotes overall plant health. Soluble potash is a source of potassium.
A common garden fertilizer is a 13-13-13 blend. There are equal amounts of N, P and K in this fertilizer blend. So what’s the difference between a 13-13-13 and a 10-10-10? They both have equal ratios of N,P and K in them but the amounts of N, P and K compared to the inert ingredients in the bag is different. The N-P-K numbers also represent the percentage of each ingredient by weight. A 13-13-13 bag has 13% N, 13% P, and 13% K. In a bag of 13-13-13, 61% of the weight would be due to the carrier ingredients, often clay. In a bag of 10-10-10, 70% of the weight would be due to carrier ingredients.
Organic fertilizers will also have a N-P-K number. The numbers are usually lower than on a bag of chemical fertilizer, but the carrier products are often times beneficial materials for your yard such as compost. Plus many products such as the Ladybug garden fertilizer shown below, have added organic micronutrients and beneficial mycorrhizal fungi.
Do you have a sunny spot in your back yard that you’ve always thought would make a nice garden but didn’t know where to begin? The first thing you’ll need to do is to get rid of as much of the grass or weeds as you can in your future garden. Here is a simple and organic way to kill grass and weeds in a garden-sized area. All you need is some black plastic or a tarp and some weights to keep it in place.
Simply lay the tarp or plastic over the area you want cleared, and weigh it down with bricks, or large rocks or garden stakes. Then wait. And wait. Eventually the lack of sunlight will kill everything now growing under the plastic. This is how Mark and I have been prepping soil that will eventually be planted for the store’s market garden. In the picture above you can see a couple of areas where we used large pieces of black plastic weighed down with buckets of sand. The smaller white and yellow patches are a couple of old advertising banners now used to block the sun. We used this method successfully to clear the area that now is home to some young pea seedlings.
Once the weather gets hot another way to kill weeds or grass is to cover the area with clear plastic and basically let the sun ‘bake’ the weeds and weed seeds. But if you did this in mid February, clear plastic would probably act as a nice greenhouse for your weeds.
Mark and I planted two long rows of asparagus in the market garden yesterday. Asparagus is a wonderful vegetable for Pflugerville because it actually enjoys the slightly alkaline soil in our area. However asparagus appreciates looser soil than our black clay so be sure to amend your soil with plenty of organic matter and maybe some sand when you prepare asparagus beds.
We planted our asparagus at the edge of our garden. Asparagus goes well at a well-drained edge of your yard or garden because the bed will be there for a long long time. It will probably take two or three years for the asparagus we planted yesterday to be producing at full capacity.
Asparagus is propagated by planting 1 or 2 year old roots, called crowns, into 4-12 inch deep trenches. Gently separate the roots so the center of the crown will lie in the center of your trench like an octopus. (See picture below.) The trenches can be gradually filled as the plant grows, or filled in all at once if your soil is loose enough for the plants to break through easily.
I recommend choosing a male variety of asparagus like the Jersy Knight that we planted. Male varieties are hearty and good producers, plus they do not produce berries and seeds like the female plants. (‘Washington’ varieties are generally female.)
Keep the new asparagus bed well watered and weeded throughout the spring, summer and autumn. In the winter, after the first freeze, cut the ferns off at ground level and remove them from the bed. Ferns left in the garden over winter provide good shelter for asparagus beetles which could wreak havoc on the plants in the spring.
It’s best not to harvest and asparagus for the first two years after planting. The idea is that all the plants energy should go back into the plant’s root system, providing for a better harvest in subsequent years. However, I have picked just a few spears on the second year and didn’t have any long term problems based on my impatience.
Asparagus is usually the first think ready to pick in our home garden in the early spring. When you are finally able to start harvesting your asparagus, snap the spears off with your hand at ground level. The sprouts should be about 4 to 10 inches in height. Don’t let the spears get too big or they will be tough and fibrous. When the weather gets warmer and the spear heads start opening up, stop picking and wait for next year. Asparagus is best when eaten fresh, but will save in the fridge for up to three weeks.