Backyard Vegetable Garden

Simple Maintenance: doing less, expecting more

A backyard vegetable garden should be an asset, not a burden. Watering, weeding, fertilizing and similar chores can be kept to a minimum if the beds are properly prepared and well-mulched. Low-maintenance gardens are the only way to keep the fun in gardening, and low-maintenance techniques can also lead to increased yields from your plants.

basic seasonal needs – an understanding of the three essential elements during a crop’s life-cycle will ensure that your vegetables have the right nutrients at each stage of development.

   ~ nitrogen (N) – promotes leafy growth, essential is spring, but nitrogen should not be applied as the plant nears maturity or it will encourage growth instead of fruiting

   ~ phosphate (P) – promotes root growth and new shoots. Rock phosphate and bonemeal can be applied throughout the growing season.

   ~ potassium (K) – aids fruiting and flowering, essential as the plant nears maturity.

• watering – Early in the morning is the best time to water your agrden because there is less water loss to evaporation. Watering in the evening is OK, but leaving the plants and soil wet overnight can encourage slug activity, and can cause young seedlings to ‘damp off’.

• weeding – It’s best to pull any weeds before they are mature enough to put out seeds.
• mulching – Once seedlings are tall enough, it’s time to add a 4″ – 6″ blanket of mulch to cover the soil surrounding the plant. Mulch is not dug in – it stays on top of the soil. Using mulch conserves water by reducing surface evaporation; mulch also greatly reduces the need for weeding, the bane of the gardener. Do not use landscape cloth or plastic sheeting beneath mulch. The mulch will gradually incorporate into the soil, adding nutrients and preserving loose soil texture. The mulch will need to be ‘topped up’ from time to time.

Using mulch reduces maintenance chores for the gardener while saving water and encouraging vigorous plant growth. A savvy gardener always has an eye out for free sources of mulch material. The chart below shows the common materials used for mulch and their properties when in use.

type of mulch
straw Straw is ideal for mulching – it’s easy to apply, stays in place and reflects light which aids fruiting in some vegetables. However, take care to ensure you are using straw, not hay. Hay will introduce seeds to your garden beds which will become unwanted weeds.
alfalfa Alfalfa hay is a good mulching material because it is usually cut before it can put out seeds. Used as mulch, alfalfa is high in nitrogen and long-lasting.
leaves Leaves are excellent when used as mulch and they also contribute nutrients to the soil as they break down. However, leaves are not readily available in the spring; they are valued as over-winter mulch. To keep leaf mulch from blowing away, sprinkle dirt on top.
grass clippings Older (brown) grass clippings work well as mulch. Fresh (green) grass clippings also can be used, and they add nitrogen to the soil. Fresh clippings should not be used in late summer when maturing plants should not receive nitrogen.
seaweed Freshly gathered seaweed makes an ideal mulch which also contributes trace minerals to the soil. Seaweed also deters slugs. Seaweed should be applied thickly because it shrinks a lot as is dries. The amount of salt seaweed brings to your soil is minimal but you can spray it with fresh water before applying if concerned.
newspaper Strips of newspaper can be used as mulch, but it needs to be wetted and either weighted down or covered with dirt or another mulch to keep from blowing away. Do not use glossy paper or newspaper printed with color inks.
black plastic sheeting Widely used as a mulch and ground cover to supress weeds. May need to be weighted down at the edges with rocks. Use a heavy weight (6 mil) plastic. This mulch helps retain moisture in the soil, but cannot be watered through. Some gardeners cut holes for the plant with some room for watering.
Black plastic sheeting can have the negative effect of baking the soil, raising soil temperature as deep as 12″. To minimize this impact, a light-colored mulch such as straw can be laid over the plastic sheeting.
sawdust Fine sawdust is not good to use for mulch because water beads up and runs off in rivulets. Coarse sawdust works well as mulch, but avoid wood shavings from chainsaws because this sawdust has chain oil residue which you don’t want in your organic garden.
bark mulch Commonly used for shrubs and landscaping, this should not be used in vegetable gardens because it is acidic. However, bark mulch is excellent for covering the paths between beds; first lay down landscape cloth on the paths and cover with 2″ of bark mulch.
compost/manure Compost and manure should not be used as a mulch for vegetables because they have too much nitrogen; manure may contain weed seeds. Better to use these as soil amendments when making new beds, or to ‘top dress’ thinly in the early part of the season.

• use organic fertilizer – In our vegetable garden we rarely use fertilizer because the beds are prepared with sufficient nutrients. If you see the need for fertilizer, you can ‘top dress’ the bed with a thin layer of compost, fishmeal or composted manure, or you can water the plants with compost ‘tea’. Organic fertilizers are preferable to chemical fertilizers because they are gentler on the plants so there’s less chance you will burn the plants. Chemical fertilizers have a short-term benefit only, and should be restricted to spot treatment. There is no substitute for a well-prepared, organic garden bed.
• rotate crops each year – plant crops in a different bed each year, waiting until the third year before planting any crop in it’s original bed.
• pests and diseases – While this is a big topic, the short answer to reducing plant damage from pests and diseases is this: grow healthy plants. Vigorous plants have a natural resistance to pests. Pull any weak or infested plants and remove from the garden. Ensuring that the soil is well prepared before planting, and using healthy looking transplants are a good defence against problems.
• plant ‘green manure’ in over-winter beds – When a garden bed lies idle for a time, the soil can be built up by growing “green manure’ cover crops. These are fast growing green plants that can be easily chopped up and spaded into the soil, adding green organic matter which readily composts into humus. These plants of the Legume family also add nitrogen to the soil as a boost for spring crops. Some cover crops can be spaded into your garden and with others it is better to cut off the green tops, add them to the compost pile, and spade only the roots left behind into the soil.
In the fall, sow any of these cover crops: Alfalfa, Austrian Field Pea, White Clover, Crimson Clover, Purple Vetch, Hairy Vetch, Woolly Vetch, Common Vetch, Fava Beans, Wheat, Oats and Cereal Rye.

Harvesting and Storing

The glory of gardening is harvesting. A few tips can help ensure a bountiful harvest and successful storage to extend the bounty well into fall and, for some vegetables, over winter.

• broccoli – Harvest broccoli before any small yellow flowers appear on the central cluster. Pick the main center head first, and cut it 5″ down the central stalk; this will encourage the side shoots to then develop into new smaller heads which can be harvested regularly for weeks, even months. By continuously harvesting the small heads just before they flower, you can triple the yield from each plant. This method will extend the harvest for months if weather conditions allow.
• onions – Once the stalks turn yellow, bend them down and wait two weeks. Then stick a pitchfork well beneath the onion bulbs and gently lift the soil up a bit. This will loosen the soil around the bulbs. Wait another two weeks till harvesting. This method will increase the size of the onions.
• tomatoes – When the fruits begin to turn red, check the plants each day, and pick any red firm fruit. Harvest tomatoes with the calyx on. Unripe tomatoes (windfalls or late-season) can also be harvested; set them in a warm place indoors and they will turn red. Or you can wrap unripe tomatoes individually in newspaper and store in a dark, cool room for slower ripening.
• potatoes – Once the plants wilt and die back, the potatoes are ready to harvest. Use a pitchfork to minimize damage when harvesting; work the fork in from the side and get well under the plant before lifting up to expose the potatoes.
• squash – As the squash near maturity they should be kept dry. Letting the squash lie in damp grass can encourage small rot spots which will ruin the squash for winter storage. Some gardeners set a small saucer under each squash to help keep it dry. Another method is to trellis the squash, in which case each mature squash should be tied to the trellis with a piece of netting or nylon strip, fashioned like a sling to hold the heavy squash.
• leave the fall garden cleanup until spring – When your annuals die off in late fall, they can be left on the beds over winter. The roots will break down into the soil over winter, making them easy to pull in the spring. Also by letting the spent crop go to seed, you may find free volunteer sprouts in the spring which you can use as transplants. Some annuals may even survive winter. In our garden, for example, several broccoli survive winter and provide small heads from side shoots which are much appreciated winter greens.

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