“I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose I would always greet it in a garden.” ~ Ruth Stout
At long last, after a long, cold winter, spring has returned to the Shenandoah Valley. If it could always be spring….what joy. And I’m allergic to it, been on shots and meds for years, but I love it anyway.
And best of all, I’m finally back in the garden. I come from a long line of plant lovers and inherited the gardening gene. I’ve passed it on to my younger daughter, my right arm in the garden, but all of my children are fans. And now, the little people, the grandbabies are our new crop of apprentices. My six yr old grandson is of some real help. The same cannot be said of the three yr olds. Toddlers are no help at all. Nor, I might add, are well-meaning dogs who lie on plants. One of our dogs, a lab mix, actually eats asparagus, corn and tomatoes. He’s worse than groundhogs and raccoons, so we’ve secured our fence against him.
My main recommendation when it comes to gardening is to use a lot of compost and natural mulch, like well-rotted hay or straw, even leaves, in your vegetable and flower beds. Robust plants better resist insects and disease. Earth worms are a gardener’s best friend and thrive in natural mulch, humus-enriched soil. I’ve even gone on worm finds and introduced more into the gardens, plus bought them from a reputable online source. Yes, I’m nuts over worms as are my grandbabies now. Thanks to my enthusiasm, they think worms totally rock.
Avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides or you’ll kill the worms and other beneficial insects. I mix up an organic brew to spray on susceptible plants to fight diseases and battle our most voracious pests. I favor a blend of 1 tab. baking soda and 1 tab. liquid copper (both fight diseases), 1 capful (approximately 1 tsp or more) of liquid seaweed or some such sea based fertilizer, 1 tab. neem oil (fights diseases and chewing insects without harming those that don’t chew) and 1 tsp. Safer’s insecticidal soap mixed in a gallon of water. *Some directions for Neem suggest mixing one ounce per gallon, but I’ve had some problems with leaves getting burned at that rate. Nor do I always add Neem to my brew. Garlic is also good to fight diseases and pests, but must be strained well or it clogs the sprayer. Always avoid spraying during hot sun or leaves might burn. And don’t spray Neem on plants that host butterfly larvae. They chew but turn out quite beautifully so in their case, chewing is allowed. The best plant protection, though, is healthy soil.
My primary focus in gardening is our vegetable, perennial & annual flower and herb beds. I’m particularly fond of herbs and old-fashioned cottage garden plants, those heirloom flowers and vegetables passed down from generation to generation. Some of these vintage varieties involve saving seed and ordering from specialty catalogues. Those herbs and flowers that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds, and honey bees are of special interest to me. I strive to create a wildlife sanctuary of sorts. The American love of a chemically dependent green lawn is the opposite of what beneficial insects and wildlife need, and plants for that matter. Think wildflowers and herbs. Rejoice in the butterflies and hummers that will follow.
We rotate annual our garden vegetables as well as practicing companion planting. Time honored combinations we’ve tried, as well as making some of our own discoveries, are to plant nasturtiums and radishes closely around the cucurbit family (commonly called the cucumber, gourd, melon, or pumpkin family) help to deter the squash vine borer and cucumber beetles which are deadly to the plants. This family is our most trouble prone, so gets the greatest attention when it comes to companion planting. Radishes are also a good companion for lettuce, spinach, and carrots. If I were to choose one companion plant it would be radishes and the second, nasturtiums, but there are many excellent choices and we’re learning more all the time about effective combinations.
I interplant garlic with roses and have beneficial effects in warding off some of the pests and diseases that attack them. *I prefer the old-time roses and David Austen varieties that combine the best of the old with the repeat bloom of the new. My favorite rose is Abraham Darby by David Austen.
Tomatoes grow more happily when planted near basil. Peppers also like it. Sweet marjoram, which reseeds itself for us, is another beneficial herb to interplant with vegetables and flowers. Mint helps deter cabbage worms. Pumpkins and squash better survive when rotated from their usual spots. This year we tucked a pumpkin in among the massive, native clematis vine growing along the backyard fence that we refer to as ‘the beast.’ The borers didn’t find it, plus ‘the beast’ helped cradle the orange globes.
We’ve observed that old-fashioned sunflowers with multiple heads (planted by birds from the birdseed variety) grow the most vigorously. Sunflowers attract masses of goldfinches, a favorite songbird, and when planted in and around corn, reduce army worms in the ears. Marigolds are an excellent companion plant for vegetable and flowers to help ward off Japanese beetles. Borage enriches the soil, attracts honey bees, and is another good companion for squash. Onions planted near carrots help repel the carrot fly. Chamomile is another good companion plant but use it sparingly.
Encourage beneficial insects to make their home in your garden and experiment with companion planting. Avoid monochromatic schemes and think variety. And remember the old time, non hybrid varieties of flowers and vegetables. A great book about growing heirloom plants and sharing them with others is Passalong Plants. A delightful book chocked full of information.
And Happy gardening!