When I decided to try my hand at gardening and purchase a faculty plot at LaFarm, I knew I was going to need some help. I may have an advanced degree in plant biology, but my only “experience” with home gardening was eating the strawberries and tomatoes that my Dad had grown in our backyard when I was a kid. I knew I could rely on my Dad’s valuable home gardening experience for help – his garden had grown from a few plants to a 30 ft x 100 ft plot, and he had learned to make his own compost at Penn State Berks. However, my bookwormish nature also led me to purchase an organic gardening reference book published by Rodale (i.e., The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control). This book, as well as a few pointers from my Dad, helped me to develop several important organic “gardening virtues” right off the bat. Here are the four most important lessons that I have learned:
Virtue #1: Cultivating healthy soil with good drainage, high organic matter, and LOTS of critters and microbes is at the foundation of growing healthy plants.
When I began gardening at LaFarm in 2010, the soil in my plot was rocky, compacted, nutrient deficient, and devoid of beneficial critters. My harvests were pretty modest for the first couple of years as I worked on bringing my soil into balance by incorporating compost, grass clippings, and plant “health tonics” such as kelp and seaweed meal. I also use some tilling to combat soil-dwelling pests. A little bit of tilling can expose pesky insect larvae to heat and predators, but too much tilling can damage soil structure and beneficial microorganisms. During my first couple of years at LaFarm, I also had problems with tomato blossom end rot, a condition caused by calcium deficiency in the fruit that results in tomatoes with black and sunken ends. To combat the calcium deficiency, I have been planting my tomatoes in late spring with eggshells (i.e., a tip from my Dad). Since very wet or very dry soil can aggravate this condition, I also make sure to give my tomatoes deep, but infrequent, watering and use black plastic mulch to help moderate the amount of water that reaches the roots. Since I started using these strategies, I haven’t had any issues with blossom end rot, and my tomato harvests have grown from about 180 tomatoes in 2010 to almost triple that number in 2014.
Virtue #2: Healthy, happy plants are less likely to succumb to pest and disease problems.
I like to tell my students that plants are more like us than we think, and, like us, plants need good nutrition and a low-stress environment to help prevent disease. Obviously, plants will become stressed without adequate sunlight, space, and water. However, as I mentioned in virtue #1, good soil preparation is the single most important thing gardeners can do to promote plant health. Most people are surprised to learn that plants have pretty elaborate immune systems, and when they have access to essential nutrients and help from beneficial microbes and insects, most plants are fully capable of defending themselves from pathogens. However, certain plant varieties are just more resistant to pests in the same way that some people are healthier and less susceptible to disease than others. So, I’ve learned to avoid disease- or pest-prone plants (e.g., green zebra tomatoes are delicious but seem to be more fragile and susceptible to blossom-end rot) and to choose plant cultivars that are resistant to disease (e.g., Cherokee purple tomatoes are naturally tolerant to disease). I have come to realize that preventative measures, such as choosing disease-resistant plants, crop rotation, and companion planting, are the keys to successful organic gardening. BUT, even when I use all of these strategies, there are still new problems to solve each year. For example, flea beetles destroyed my eggplants last year, and this year, I found Colorado potato beetles eating my eggplants! My love for eggplant parmesan, eggplant caponata, ratatouille, eggplant stuffed with falafel (see recipe below), and baba ganoush will motivate me to do my homework this winter and devise even better control strategies for these eggplant pests. However, I believe that one possible strategy for these two pests has to do with my third virtue…
Virtue #3: Make room for more flowers!
Although the primary purpose of my garden is to grow food, I have learned to make room in my plot for more flowers! Flowers both attract plant pollinators and encourage spiders and insects, such as lady beetles, green lacewings, and parasitic wasps, that are predators of plant pests. Since many beneficial insects must feed on pollen and nectar in order to reproduce, they can be encouraged by planting annuals, perennials, and herbs. Many natural insect enemies are small, and they prefer plants with small flowers such as dill, parsley, lemon balm and basil. Once beneficial insects are attracted to a garden, they tend to stick around to help control garden pests. Planting larger nectar- and pollen-rich flowers such as nasturtium, sage, marigold, Black-eyed Susan, and zinnia will attract pollinators and boost garden productivity. According to my trusty organic gardening reference from Rodale, nasturtium and marigold have the added benefit of repelling squash bugs and acting as a “trap crop” for cucumber beetles and aphids (i.e., a number of insect pests prefer nasturtium over other plants). So, there are plenty of good reasons to have lots of showy, sweet-smelling flowers in the vegetable garden.
Virtue #4: The application of organic or inorganic mulch is essential for conserving soil moisture, discouraging weeds, and SAVING PRECIOUS TIME!
Insect pests are certainly a challenge in an organic garden, but there is no question that I have spent more time and effort on weed control in my plot! After spending many precious hours weekend after weekend weeding my garden, I learned about a wonderful and magical thing called black plastic mulch! Although there are some drawbacks to using inorganic mulch – for example, they don’t break down and enrich the soil – inorganic black plastic is the mulch of choice for me for a number of reasons. First, it’s more cost-effective. I can buy all the plastic mulch I need from the Greenhouse Megastore for about $200, and inorganic mulches can be reused for several years. Organic mulches such as wood chips and bark need to be reapplied every year, and MUCH more of it is required to discourage weed growth. Black plastic mulch has the added benefit of warming the soil and radiating heat at night, keeping heat-loving vegetable like tomatoes and eggplants cozy and vigorous. The plastic remains warm and dry, and it also protects the fruits of vining plants from rotting. Because weeds can harm crops both by competing for water and nutrients with garden plants and by harboring pests and diseases, they must be managed. I have found that mulch (i.e., any type is better than none), sowing seeds in rows, and persistence are the best defenders.
Over the past six years at LaFarm, I have experienced exhilarating success, total botanical catastrophes, and everything in between. People often ask me if growing my own food is worth all this effort, and I’m never quite sure what they mean…do they want to know if it’s financially worthwhile? Is it worth the time? Isn’t just easier to go to the farmer’s market? As I sit here feeling just a little bit more relaxed after spending the morning in my garden and enjoying summer squash casserole and gazpacho made entirely from vegetables I recently harvested, I am positive that my answer to that question – whatever it means – is yes.