I want to start by reminding people that I still consider myself very much a novice gardener. Yes, I’m a complete gardening and permaculture nerd, reading all manner of books and conducting all manner of ongoing experiments; however, I only planted my first garden in 2011. A lot of people have asked me questions, though, and I’m happy to share my own experience and knowledge. Whenever I go to the Farmer’s Market or meet someone at a permaculture gathering, I shamelessly engage them in garden discussions, so it feels fitting to pass along the tips and tricks I’ve gleaned and learned along the way. Today’s post is by no means comprehensive, but here goes:
I’m having challenges growing my squash. Leaves are turning yellow. How much water do they need?
Squash like consistent water and well drained soil. Yellow leaves could indicate too little water or too much. You’ll really need to check the soil. If you have really sandy soil, you might want to mulch around the roots to keep in moisture, but if your soil doesn’t drain that well, then mulch could contribute to fungal issues. Root rot from poorly drained soil does kill plants, so beware of over-watering.
Please note that squash (as well as cucumbers and melons) don’t like having their leaves left wet. When watering anything in the Cucurbitaceae family, aim for the roots rather than spraying the leaves. If you notice white splotches, your plants might have powdery mildew. Remove affected leaves. You can make a baking soda based leaf spray to prevent powdery mildew. I’ve not done this, but it’s on my list. You can find recipes online or in the book, “What’s Wrong with My Plant? (And How Do I Fix It?)” My parents bought me this book for Christmas, and it has proven a valuable diagnostic tool. I’ll admit that it’s a bit intimidating to see just how many things can go wrong with your plants, but it provides a lot of helpful solutions.
How much space do my squash/melons/cucumbers/tomatoes need?
That depends on the particular cultivar. If you want to grow in containers, you might want to select dwarf varieties or ones mentioned as suitable for containers or small spaces. In general, all of these require quite a lot of room! If you trellis them, you can grow more plants in less horizontal real estate.
My tomatoes have outgrown their cages and require daily pruning to keep them from completely dominating the garden. I have tons of tomatoes growing, but I’d also love continual basil, parsley, onion and kale harvests, so I prune back unruly branches and tie them to trellises. Next year, I plan to devote my raised beds to other crops and will give the tomatoes room to spread elsewhere.
If you decide to trellis, you need to consider crop size. Cantaloupes, for example, need support for the heavy fruits, since the stems generally can’t hold the big round fruits above ground. I’ve used pantyhose tied to a fence before, and you can also use small nets to support them.
For watermelon, you would need to select a small fruited variety. I didn’t, so my experimental milk crate watermelons are given room to spread over a mulched out area. I have no idea what to expect as I’ve never grown watermelons before. These varieties promise 15-40 pound fruits, so I opted for ground rather than trellis. I would have loved to let them spread out over the back yard without the mulch, but we’ve got a poison ivy issue back there, which I don’t want to encourage by neglecting to mow the lawn all Summer. Nor do we want to get poison ivy every time we harvest a watermelon!
Squash grows well on trellises. In 2011, I grew volunteer pumpkins along our neighbor’s fence in Madison, and they did surprisingly well as decorative fruits. I had no idea how to care for pumpkins at that time, especially since I didn’t even know what the plant was until Fall! In the future, I would suggest regular watering as well as periodic soil enhancement via compost or organic fertilizers. I’m growing two varieties of squash this year — acorn and Boston Marrow — all of them in landscape cloth lined milk crates, all of them to be trellised up “combo” fencing from Tractor Supply Co. LOL, I feel like I’ve graduated to the big farm stores now! I had to explain to the good folks there that I don’t have hogs or cows, just squash and cantaloupe. We’ll have six 8-foot wide panels and 18 stakes delivered on Friday.
Our cucumbers are a smaller variety, growing three to a crate, and I’ve got a decorative wrought iron trellis for those. So far so good, although the first plant has only just now flowered.
What’s a tree collard?
It’s a perennial “tree” that produces amazingly huge collard-like leaves:
Apparently, you need to trim it down and bury the lowest branches in mulch or soil during the winter months. I plan to research wrapping it in burlap inside a cold frame/hoop house. In the meantime, check out these leaves, pictured next to two large bananas for size reference:
I love them as wrappers for Whole Foods’ “Guac-Kale-Mole” and salsa, but they also sauté nicely as strips with a bit of garlic and lemon juice. I’ve added them as the green in “Beanie Greenies,” too. David and I particularly like Beanie Greenies with a splash of wheat free tamari, chipotle pepper, and a hint of miso and blackstrap molasses. Yum! In the past, I’ve had terrible luck growing collards, so I am thrilled with these tree collards. I’ve not done this yet, but supposedly, you can also cut off a lower branch, root it and grow a whole new tree. This one’s so prolific that I don’t think I’d need a second one. It loves the deep soil available in the second tier of my InstaBed.
What if I only have a patio?
You can grow a lot of things in pots! When we lived in Madison, we had a very shady raised bed out back and only the thinnest strip for a garden on the side of the house. Combined with lots of containers, this garden fed us well all Spring, Summer and into the Fall, with some supplementary food from the co-op and Farmer’s Markets:
My Madison Garden on July 1, 2012
As you can see from the above photo, I planted a lot of herbs in pots and gave larger plants like tomatoes and tomatilloes a spot in the soil. David found these Grow Soxx last year, and they worked great. I am still intending to locate them before next year, as I’d love to use them to plant some of my medicinal herb collection. The Grow Soxx are tubes of stretchy landscape cloth that you fill with soil and compost. They keep out weeds (mostly) for two years. I figure two years would be plenty of time from my somewhat invasive medicinals to take hold and transform our lawn into more of a permaculture paradise than a weedy mess. For those with a small strip of poor soil, the Grow Soxx work well.
Something to consider with container gardening, though: you will need to water a lot more! If plants can’t grow extremely deep roots to find water, then they’re at your mercy. Some pots offer reservoirs for water, which makes watering less of an urgent need. I still found I needed to water my containers once or twice per day during the heat of the sunny Summer.
I’m sure there’s much more, but this is all my busy day will allow me to share. I hope it helps! Happy Gardening … each plant you grow brings you a little closer to Nature, a lot more freshness, and one step closer to food sovereignty. Bon Appétit