Keep your berries healthy all summer

Keep your berries healthy all summer

Berry plants tend to be fairly low maintenance plants, put them in the right place, keep them watered and they will grow stronger, bigger and more productive every year (until they threaten to fill your whole garden and you have to start restricting them). Even so, there are a couple of things you can do to help your plants and increase the harvest for years to come.

In most places the most important thing you need to do for your berry plants is protect them from birds. Birds love berries just as much as you do (after all, berries were created to be eaten by birds as a way of transporting the seed). If given the opportunity they will strip the bushes of every edible fruit. You could try various ways to scare them away — shiny tape, inflatable predators, scarecrows — but birds will soon figure out that these aren’t a problem, so they don’t usually work for long. The only foolproof way to foil the birds is by carefully covering the plants with netting (this has to be done thoroughly because they will look for any openings). Applying and removing netting is a real pain because it snags on everything it touches (be careful it doesn’t tear) and is one of the few garden jobs I really dislike. If you have to do this every year, you might think about putting your berries inside a permanent fruit cage (the simplest of these is made from PVC pipe).

The other important maintenance activity is removing old stems to encourage vigorous new fruiting growth. Blackberry and raspberry canes usually die after their second year and can create a dense thicket if not removed (these can be removed after they have finished fruiting). Blueberries and currants fruit more vigorously on younger wood, so every year some older ones are removed to encourage new growth.

To keep the plants growing as vigorously as possible, you also need to keep them well watered. Keep the soil moist, but not wet. If the plants are bearing heavily then some fertilization may also be needed to keep them producing well. The best way to do this is to apply some mulch, which will also keep down weeds and conserve moisture. Just be sure to use an acidic mulch such as pine needles for blueberries, since they need a bit more acid.

Gardening in extreme heat

Gardening in extreme heat

This year has brought record high temperatures to much of the country (again, but don’t worry, Exxon says this has nothing to do with global warming), so I wanted to say something about keeping your vegetables garden happy when the mercury soars.

Pick the right plants
High temperatures don’t just make plants uncomfortable, they can actually stop them growing and seriously affect productivity. When it gets too hot we can simply stay in the shade, or go into the house, but plants are stuck in the full sun and have to deal with it. Your choice of variety is also significant as some are more heat tolerant than others. Look for those that were developed for the tropics, desert or southern states, as many of these plants have developed several mechanisms for coping with heat stress and these are the most reliable plants to grow in hot weather. They include cowpea, okra, melon, pepper, tomato, sweet potato, lima bean, watermelon, and amaranth.

But even heat-tolerant fruiting crops (beans, tomato, eggplant, pepper, okra) can have problems when it gets much above 90 degrees Fahrenheit because flowers may not pollinate and will drop instead of setting fruit (plant breeders are working on heat resistant varieties that don’t do this).

Water them well
Just as it is essential for humans to drink plenty of water during hot weather, so it is with plants. Your first priority should be ensuring they get enough water, as this will help them to keep growing and producing (without it they are toast). The best way to water in hot weather is with a drip system, such as in-line drip irrigation tubing or soaker hose, which allows the water to quickly soak in to the ground. Overhead sprinklers aren’t as good because a lot of the water will often simply evaporate in the heat. If you must use sprinklers then avoid watering in the middle of the day, do it in the cool of early morning or early evening (early enough that plants don’t stay wet all night). Water is especially critical when plants are sizing up fruit and blossom end rot is often a problem if watering is irregular.

Mulch to keep them cool
Bare soil dries out quickly when exposed to the fierce heat of the sun, so it is also important to keep it covered as much as possible (there is no point in supplying water and then watching much of it evaporate). The most convenient mulch is a 2 to 4” layer of straw, which is readily available at feed stores. Mulch also keeps the soil cooler by shading it from the heat of the sun (plants can cope much better if their roots are cool). It also prevents the growth of competing annual weeds.

Give them some shade
In extremely hot conditions strong sunlight can be a problem because it raises temperatures even further. In such situations plants may benefit from some kind of shade during the hottest part of the day. This could be provided by shade cloth over hoops, or some kind of wooden framework covered with trellis, or even sticks (to create dappled shade). You can also create shade by planting tall plants such as sunflower or corn, but of course these require water too.

Help them recover quickly
Many plants (especially those with big leaves) wilt naturally in the heat of the day to reduce moisture loss, but they recover quickly when it cools down. If plants don’t recover quickly when the temperature drops, they are severely stressed and need water. Prolonged water stress is easily identifiable because leaves (and sometimes fruit) become bleached or scorched and growth is slower.

Take care of the gardener
It is also important to think about yourself in hot weather. Drink plenty of water and keep out of the garden during the hottest part of the day (also wear a hat). If you are an early riser the best time to be in the garden is when the sun first comes up, it is so beautiful and peaceful. I tend to come to life in the evening and get most of my work done in the couple of hours before the sun sets.

Essentials of watering

Essentials of watering

While the rest of the country has been under severe heat warnings and drought conditions, summer has finally arrived for us in California, and in my garden we have already passed the point where the vegetables can get enough moisture from the soil. Until the rains start again in late October it is up to me to supply enough water to keep them alive. This is the most important summer gardening activity and if it isn’t done properly there won’t be much of a vegetable garden.

There are four important steps to keep in mind when watering to get the most benefit:

Watch your plants
If you know what to look for it is easy to tell when plants are suffering from lack of water. The first sign is that they lose the sheen on their leaves and start to sag slightly instead of standing rigidly upright. It is important to water immediately when you see this happening, as further stress will slow their growth. More extreme signs of water stress include curling leaves, floppy growing tips and dying leaves, all of which means the plant is severely distressed and has stopped growing.

Simple wilting of leaves isn’t always a sign of stress however. Many plants (especially those with large leaves such as squash and cucumber) do it intentionally in hot sunny weather as a means of reducing water loss. They recover quickly when the temperature drops though, whereas water stressed plants recover more slowly. This is why you should check plants for water stress in the cool of early morning or evening and not in the midday heat.

Sunflowers are particularly prone to water stress (they wilt before almost anything else) and can be used as a living indicator of when the soil is starting to get dry. Simply plant a few sunflowers in your garden bed and when they show signs of wilting, it is time to water the entire bed.

How much water to apply
The usual rule of thumb says you should give your plants 1″ of water per week in summer and about ½” in spring and fall. An inch of water means ⅔ gallon per square foot, or 66 gallons per 100 square feet and should be enough to penetrate 6″ to 12″ into the ground.

Though 1″ per week is a reasonable average to start with, it is only a guideline and will be altered by temperature, humidity, soil type, crop and more. You have to look at the plants and the soil to determine if you are watering enough and adjust accordingly. After watering the soil should be evenly moist all the way down. Probably the commonest mistake of beginner gardeners is to water only until the soil surface looks nice and wet and then move on. Appearances can be deceiving though and only an inch or so down the soil may still be completely dry. If your plants are wilting again within 24 hours you didn’t give them enough water.

Time of day to water
In hot weather you should avoid watering in the middle of the day, because any water that lands on the leaves, or the soil surface, will quickly evaporate and be wasted. Water either in the morning, or early enough in the  evening so that wet leaves can dry out before nightfall.

How to apply water
Water should only be applied to the soil as fast as it can soak in. If you apply water faster than this it will puddle and the surface structure may break down. Water may also run off of the bed and be wasted (it may also take soil with it).

My Three Favorite Tools

My Three Favorite Tools

When asked to describe my three favorite tools I initially thought about which tools couldn’t I do without, but that would depend on what I am doing. I have a favorite tool for each task (watering, making compost, weeding, digging) and each task is an essential step in growing vegetables. So instead I thought about the tools I most enjoy using and consider to be best suited to their purpose. This was an easy choice as I have several tools that I wouldn’t want to be without. Even after many years of using them, I am still impressed by how well they work.

Hand Hoe

This hand held little hoe is the ultimate tool for close up weeding. It can scrape over the soil surface and chop down small weeds without disturbing the soil surface (which would bring up more weed seeds to germinate). It is small and maneuverable enough to get between closely spaced plants without damaging them, but much quicker than hand weeding. It makes weeding into a pleasurable and brief activity.

Haws Watering Can

With its long spout and brace that doubles as a carrying handle, this symbol of gardening tradition is the ultimate watering can. It’s unique design was first patented in 1886 and has been made for well over 100 years without significant changes because it is perfect. It has an interchangeable rose that puts out a perfect upturned spray, it is durable (I’ve had mine for almost 20 years), comfortable, and so well balanced I can use it with one hand. Perfection doesn’t come cheap, with the 2 gallon can costing around $144. However if you amortize that over 25 years it works out to less than $6.00 a year, which makes it sound like a bargain. There is also a cheaper plastic version that works pretty well, but it just doesn’t feel the same.

T Handle Compost Fork

I bought this Bulldog (now Clarington Forge) tool at Smith and Hawken when it was still primarily a tool company, rather than a brand. It is designed specifically for turning compost and manure and with its wide head and five solid forged tines it works better than anything else I have ever tried (I imagine someone must have done extensive research to find the best way to shovel shit). Even the T handle is perfect, providing a better grip and more maneuverability than a straight handle.