It is hard to pick a favorite gardening month or gardening activity for that matter, but May combines the joy of setting out seedlings, planting seeds, harvesting the first vegetables and all without mosquitoes. The air and soil are warm. The rains are plentiful (usually). The pests are few. Weeds are just beginning to grow. Your bare feet can commune with the soil once again. May is a great month.
The world is alive with insects, birds, plants and animals. Many will be beneficial to your garden; some will mind their own business and others will bother you and your garden. This article is an attempt to keep your garden (and your mind) in balance. The emphasis is not control or kill, but manage and nurture. The same stroll through the yard that brings you peace can help you notice what is prospering or struggling. Hopefully you will be able to find solutions to the challenges that so much life brings. Vigilance, simply noticing unwanted visitors is the first step.
Friends and Allies
Most bacteria, fungus and other soil organisms will find a perfect balance to support plants. You can help by not disturbing them, keeping the soil mulched and avoid walking on soil that is producing. Mulch is one of your greatest allies. It conserves moisture, keeps the soil at an even temperature, suppresses weeds, adds organic material to the soil and protects the soil and plants from beating rains. You can mulch with almost any organic material: chopped leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, peat moss, bark, straw, hay or compost.
Animal friends include: Earth Worms that constantly aerate and fertilize your soil. They love mulch and will eat it, changing it into fertilizer. Spiders, Snakes, Lizards, Frogs and Toads are predators of all insects. Buzzing Flying Things, including bees, wasps and many flies, pollinate all fruiting plants and shrubs. Ladybugs eat aphids. Some Wasps and Flies lay their eggs in caterpillars. Birds are wonderful to watch and listen to and eat their weight in bugs, especially those that like to bite you. They also like grubs and caterpillars.
Many plants are beneficial to have in your garden because their flowers attract pollinators and their scent may confuse harmful insects. Herbs will provide both color and aroma. Tea herbs like chamomile and anise hyssop are especially helpful and you can drink other benefits. Some plants (like evening primrose) will attract harmful insects (Japanese beetles).
Cats and Dogs discourage rabbits, voles, woodchucks, chipmunks and wild turkey. Their presence and their scent is a great deterrent. They also keep you company and quickly learn that the garden is important to protect and where they can go in it. The command “not in the garden” works on activities that you want to discourage, especially digging.
Soap and Water is a wonderful remedy for most insect infestations. Washing the plant by dipping the infested part in a bowl or pan of sudsy water (aphids, squash bugs, white flies) or picking the bugs off and dropping them into the water (caterpillars, slugs, Japanese beetles). (I use Palmolive dishwashing liquid.) Some bugs, like Magnolia scab, cannot get back on the host plant once knocked off by a hard stream of water from the hose. If the infestation is so extensive that hand methods are not practical, it is best to remove infested plants, bag them in plastic and put them in the trash. Be sure to keep your garden free of debris that can harbor insects and diseases and clean up (compost) all plants that are done growing.
Foes and Challenges
Bad Weather is the greatest challenge for a garden. Too much or too little rain, extreme heat or cold, strong winds and hail can slow down your garden. A healthy, fast growing plant is the best remedy for most problems. Collect rainwater to use for dry periods. Water deeply and mulch well. The smaller the plant, the more even is its need for water. Transplant when rain is forecast. Keep mosquitoes from laying eggs in your water by use of lids or screens. Also chipmunks and squirrels can drown in buckets when they seek a drink during dry weather. Put a stick in an open bucket for them to climb out. Protect young plants from wind, bugs, animals and cold with garden blankets. If plants are small and high wind, frost or hail is in the forecast, you can gather the mulch up close around them gently for protection. Even an old sheet comes in handy to protect larger plants from hail. All that said, plants have a wonderful ability to cope with most weather extremes even if you do nothing to help.
Weeds will crowd out your plants by using the nutrients, moisture and sunlight. Even planting your seedlings too close together will slow their growth. Weeds can be used for mulch or put on the compost pile. Try not to let them go to seed. Many weeds are edible and can be a source of very nutritious early greens and roots (more on that next month). Keep planted areas weeded and mulched and paths covered in paper or cardboard with chips or leaves over it.
Insects can decrease the vitality of your plants and damage produce or flowers. Encouraging predators (both animals and other insects) and keeping your plantings diverse are the best defenses against harmful insects. Using chemical interventions (poisons) will kill the beneficial insects along with the ones you notice causing damage. This will upset the balance and sometimes make matters worse, but the greater problem is danger to your pets and yourself. One of the best reasons to grow your own food and flowers is safety. You know that they haven’t been sprayed or treated and cannot have residues of poisons.
Many view not enough Time as the number one reason not to garden. When you are doing anything for the first time, it does take more time. However, having a garden can be a great time and energy saver. You can simply “shop” in your garden for food for every meal. Gardening is so satisfying and healthful that you will have more energy for other activities.
Fencing, nets or other barriers can deter rabbits, birds, groundhogs, turkeys, deer, etc. Also the scent of predator animals (you can purchase fox urine, for example) will discourage rabbits. I have found dog and cat hair from my vacuum cleaner useful below ground (planted with pea seeds when voles are abundant) and as a mulch. Most small animals will stay clear of it. Blood and bone meal will deter many animals (smells of death).
Some common problems and solutions by plant:
Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants – occasional tomato hornworm or slug. Just pick them off.
Beans, peas – Japanese beetles and slugs during wet weather are a minor problem.
Squash, cucumbers – yellow and black striped cucumber beetle will spread disease and slow pollination by eating inside the blossoms. The squash aphid or bug (starts small and grows into very large gray bug) can be caught and destroyed. Also look for their golden eggs under leaves and scrape then off. These bugs can kill your plant. Be sure to clean up old vines and plant in a new area each year. Slit open vines near the ground and kill squash borers, cover wound with mud. Garden blankets or floating row covers can prevent many pests from laying their eggs on your plants.
Cabbage worms – pick off, prevent moths from being on plants with nettling or summer blanket.