The Organic garden plot

By George Bushell
(Some tips for gardeners at Orient Park and Anderson Road.)

Drainage is considered by most gardeners and agriculturalists as the most important factor affecting plant growth.  With the exception of perhaps rice, plants require good to excellent drainage if their root system is to develop fully and produce the healthy and abundant growth we all desire.  Some plants are “shallow-rooted”, (e.g. peas) and require only a few inches of well-drained soil, while others, like corn, thrive on  three or four feet of well-drained earth.  However, no plant likes to “stand in water”.

The most noticeable effect of a “water-logged soil” is slow growth and a pale yellow-green colour (roots which sit in water cannot properly utilize many soil nutrients, especially nitrogen).  A “wet soil is a cold soil” is a well known agricultural saying that is especially relevant early in the growing season when temperatures are low and the soil needs to be as warm as possible in order to promote seed germination and vigourous root development.

What can you do, then, to improve the micro-drainage of your garden plot?  One of the easiest and most beneficial practices is to plant in “raised beds”.  This will raise the seed bed as well as provide drainage depressions around the bed.  The soil in the bed will drain better and the small ditches will assist the water in the lower soil layers to evaporate.  There are added benefits as well: the soil in the raised bed will warm up faster in the Spring; it will be deeper and less compacted where your plants are growing (better carrots, etc.) and will probably yield more produce from your plot than if you planted in the traditional rows.

pH Balance
The pH balance of your soil is often ignored by gardeners, but it can be a crucial factor in the successful growth of some plants.  A pH scale indicates whether your soil is acidic, alkaline, or neutral.  A reading of 7.0 means a neutral soil, a level of 4 indicates a highly acidic soil while readings of 8 and above reflect very alkaline soils.  Most plants grow best in soils with readings from about 6.0 to 7.5.  (See also the pH table in the Newsletter.)

Ritchie’s Feed and Seed tested samples from Orient Park and found the soil at this site to be relatively acidic (from 5.0 to 6.0).  Because of the closeness and similarity of the soil at Anderson Road, it is most likely acidic there as well.

As you have probably noted, the “brassica”, or cabbage family, have the greatest problem thriving under such soil conditions.  There is an added problem with this family as well: formerly, both the Orient Park and Anderson Road sites were used for market gardening and as such were planted to considerable quantities of brassica.  Some were infected with a fungal disorder called club root and the soil became infected as well.  The spores of this fungus remain in the ground for years and can re-infect members of the brassica family when they are planted.  Furthermore, this fungus thrives in acidic soil!  Consequently, our problem.

Don’t give up, however.  Many gardening books indicate that the effects of club root can be significantly reduced by the simple application of lime, pulverized limestone, or some alkaline substance (e.g. wood ashes).  So give it a try.  Work at least one to two lbs into the soil around and beneath each plant.  You could even work more into the soil part way through the season.  (Note: Ritchies sells limestone in bags at a very reasonable price!)

Insects & Diseases
Gardeners often feel that they must wage war against insects and disease (in addition to the weeds and groundhogs).  But take heart, it only seems that way sometimes.  With a little knowledge and planning, the problems can be easily overcome.  Firstly, because of the concentrated nature of our garden plots, we cannot spray or use toxic insecticides or fungicides.  It would be highly inconsiderate to spray your tomato plants in the morning when your neighbour might pick lettuce to eat that afternoon (sprays drift imperceptibly over great distances).

Nevertheless, we can do much to counter insects and fungal disease.  B.T. (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bacteria, is very effective against many soft-bodied larvae, especially cabbage worms, and is non toxic.  However, one of the most effective methods of insect control is still the “old” way: hand-picking (if you are a little squeamish about handling the little wigglies, use a pair of rubber gloves).  Colorado potato beetles can be completely controlled in this way as can most other insects.  If you remove the Colorado potato beetles as well as their bright orange egg clusters (from the underside of leaves) you will have very few leaf eating larvae to deal with.

Blights and other diseases can be more difficult to control without the use of toxic sprays, but there are some things we can do.  The most important is to ensure that your plants are strong and growing vigorously.  A healthy plant can resist most diseases and stress caused by disease.  So read your gardening books about what nutrients and growing conditions are best for each type of vegetable you grow.  Blights can be a particular problem some years (particularly in August if the weather is damp and relatively cool).  The spores that cause this fungus disease remain in the soil and infect lower leaves as rain and overhead watering  splash from the soil onto the bottom leaves.  The next rain or watering causes the spores to be “splashed” onto a higher level of leaves, and so on, causing, in some years, your tomato plants to gradually lose their leaves in a bottom to top sequence.  Consequently, tomato blight can be lessened by removing the lower leaves, giving each plant lots of space, and by not using overhead watering.

Uncontrolled growth of weeds can ruin a garden and sometimes discourage a gardener to the point of surrender.  But this needn’t happen to you if you do a little planning and keep ahead of their growth.  The greatest weed problem that you could encounter at Orient Park and Anderson Road will be caused by “good old twitch grass”.  This perennial grass propagates by sending up shoots from its roots and the more you disturb and break up its roots, the more it seems to thrive.  Short of using herbicides, which are not allowed there are really only two ways to control this primary noxious weed.

The first involves digging your plot to a depth of eight to 12 inches in the Spring before planting, and sifting out the crinkly, white-brown roots from the soil (use a potato fork and remove all roots from the site).  This will take several hours but will be highly effective.  The second way, which allows you to spread your effort throughout the year, involves the diligent and continuous hoeing of the grass as it breaks the surface.  If the growing part of the grass is continually removed, the roots will, over a season, weaken and die.

Other weeds also thrive at our sites, as they do in every garden that ever was or ever will be, but hoeing, cultivating, and hand picking can easily destroy them.  If you pull them with the roots, or at least cut the plants below the growing crown, they die immediately and do not regenerate as does twitch grass.

The “right” amount of water and the correct method of application is very important to the healthy growth of your plants.  In most years, you will not have to water very often, but there are times when it is important.  At transplanting time it is important that you soak the ground thoroughly and that you ensure that your plants have plenty of moisture until their root systems become established.  Later in the season, if you encounter a prolonged dry spell and you wish to water your garden, it is important that you do so properly.  Do not simply sprinkle the upper surface of the soil.  Thoroughly soak the soil to a depth of six to eight inches, and only water infrequently when you use this method (e.g. once a week).  Frequent shallow watering causes the roots to remain near the surface where they are not as effective.

These animals can be a problem at Anderson Road, but there are some effective control methods.  If groundhogs start causing trouble, give your Anderson maintenance representative a call and he/she will see if one of the overall collective approaches is justified.

ConclusionOnly a few topics can be covered in a small newsletter.  For more information about the subjects discussed here and for details about soil nutrients, companion planting, organic gardening, etc., refer to the many gardening books at your library or book store.  Gardening may seem like one long list of problems after reading this article, but the problems can easily be overcome.  Granted, there are challenges, but the rewards greatly offset the problems.

Good gardening!

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