Digging In: Maintaining a small garden

This is my battle gear: Gloves, water, a hand hoe, a regular hoe and a wheel hoe. All effective tools depending on the space you have.

Love is a battlefield, so is growing food. Every inch of every corner in a garden there is something that helps your future food to fail. The ground isn’t full of Charles Manson bugs that are stuck in kill mode but nature is a vicious place and even on the smallest levels competition is fierce.
Your favorite tomato plant isn’t the only green life looking for precious sunlight, water and soil nutrients. Weeds in all shapes and sizes will try to hoard the nutrients that you may have worked so diligently to put in place.
Even if you manage to keep a weed free garden, bugs and small animals will be more than willing to pillage your fresh food source without giving thought to the fact that you have poured days into the planning, preparation and maintenance of this small patch of earth.
Bugs and weeds seem like small obstacles compared to the 6 foot tall 170 pound enemy they have found in me but they are not. Already this year I have had one garden nearly devoured by slugs. I had pledged to not use harmful chemicals and, as if they had overheard me make this comment, they attacked in hoards. Eventually I found a way of fighting back the bastards with beer baths but not before they had taken out over half of my transplants, leaving a stunted food supply and a lot of wasted energy.

I was lucky enough to stay on top of weeding in that garden but I have seen the results of what unwanted suneaters can do.  The first year I was working on the farm, the weeds that were growing around our asparagus became so tall that while I was chopping down a “weed” taller than myself, I accidently leveled a birds nest.  We hid the birds nest in a nearby blackberry patch, giving them protection and hoping that the mother would come back to her crying children.  We pretended the story ended happy when after three days we found the site was abandoned.

Luckily in my past few years I have gained some knowledge to stave off the advancing hoards out to attack the best laid plans or gardeners.

Keep plants Hydrated

I admittedly don’t know too much about watering plants, I just know that they need it.  My strategy is to make sure the soil never gets too dry.  To do this I dig underground about an inch and see if it’s moist. If it is I consider the plants to be well hydrated (transplants are an exception, they need immediate watering after being planted and routine watering for the next few days until its positive that they’ve taken to the new spot). If the spot is dry I’ll usually use a hose with a sprayer attachment to dampen the ground.  The best times for watering are in the morning and evenings when evaporation is less likely to occur.

This is a harlequin beetle. After teaming up with a group of squash bugs and caterpillars, these critters managed to keep our cabbage heads about the size of a fist. Crushing them gives a satisfying crunch though.

Controlling garden pests

Usually I don’t see the world in terms of black and white but when it comes to garden creatures I separate them into two categories, good and evil.

The good inhabitants like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds I will go through great lengths to maintain.  The evil critters such as squash bugs, harlequin beetles and slugs I will do everything in my power to destroy.

The method of attack depends on the enemy.  For a lot of insects I have found insecticidal soap to be extremely effective while having a minimum impact on the soil and planet in general.  The recipe I use for this is simple combination of dish soap, vegetable oil and water. The proportions are as fallows.

4 tablespoons of non-antibacterial dish soap

1 tablespoon of oil

1 gallon of water.

Mix these all and pour into a spray bottle.  When applying the “pesticide” keep in mind that it only kills what it comes in contact with.  Avoid spraying good insects and cover all parts of the plant.  I have found that many foes like to hide on the underside of leaves or around the root so these parts of the plant deserve special attention.

Slugs are plant predators that take advantage of the gardeners weaknesses.  Where most animals attack during the day when it’s dry, slugs prefer night raids and rainy days, times when most people aren’t really wanting to be out in the yard.  In order to take out these particular pests a change of strategy is in order.  I have heard of some people vigilantly searching under rocks and in other moist places carrying out seek and destroy missions.  They will hunt and kill every slug or snail they can find in the hopes that their attacks will reduce populations enough for the plants to outlive the assaults.  My favorite strategy is much less hands on.

I cut the bottoms off of 20 oz bottles, about two inches, and burry them in the dirt to where they are level with the ground.  After that, I fill them about half full with beer.  Slugs can’t resist the yeasty goodness that comes with a cold one.  After that I cover the beer traps with plastic strips cut from milk jugs, propping them up with small sticks to give the greedy creatures a way in.  Once they discover the beer they will find a way in, get drunk and drown.

Pest management is never a matter of total war.  You will never kill all of the enemies unless you move to less sustainable methods that impact both your food and your soil.  The conflict isn’t about total evisceration anyways. The war against insects only needs to be carried out to the point where the plants can survive their attackers.

This is a wheel hoe. With an 8 inch blade attached, this tool makes weeding in between rows easier than dropping the blade on a guillotine.

Weeds and the territory battle

Since plants are stationary, they are stuck in a bitter struggle for survival. When weeds get out of control they steal necessary resources from everything planted around them.  This theft of nutrients may help support one form of life but it won’t help anyone put food on the table.  If you actually want to preserve some of the investments of time and money that have been put into a garden I find that frequent weeding is essential.

My favorite tool for fighting weeds is a hand hoe.  Light and sharp, this tool cuts the heads of anything trying to pop up into the garden, but care should be taken. I can’t count the number of friendlies I have decapitated on the war against weeds.

Another essential is a good hoe.  Hoes save both your back and free-time.  There are literally dozens of hoe variations and which is best depends on what type of space your working on.  Mother Earth News came out with a great article about hoe varieties and use’s that did more justice to the subject than I ever could.  The link to that article is at the bottom of this post.

If you have your garden planned out with plenty of space between rows than I would suggest using a wheel hoe.  After one day testing this tool out in the field I was hooked on it like a bad drug.  It didn’t take much effort and even when the soil was moist it uprooted more weeds than I could have imagined, all without being gas powered.  A bonus to this tool is that you can get a cultivator attachment (I just learned about this from a comment on the cultivating section of the Digging In series).  When the next season rolls around you just take the weeding head off and attach a cultivator for a sturdy multipurpose tool.

Gardens do a lot of work on their own but when outside forces start landing on the breaches and working their way to the interior, good maintenance initially can save you a world of frustration and swearing later on.

Mother Earth News article on hoes

Another article on wheel hoes

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2 responses to “Digging In: Maintaining a small garden

  1. i’ve said it before, and i will say it again: You are so cool. and i miss you.

  2. Coffee Grounds for slugs! Caffeine is a neurotoxin to slugs. You could spray coffee, but the grounds tend to stick around longer. I use various combinations, neem oil, baking soda, dish soap (original palmolive or murphy’s oil soap), vegetable oil, I even use my old cigarette butts into a dark tea. spray it on plants. kills lots of stuff too especially aphids. Try cor meal for fungus. I buy the tortilla masa from the Mexican stores. Works great. Keep up the good work.

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