With gloriously long days, summer is full steam ahead. From starting new crops to protecting the ones you have, along with improving the quality of the vegetables you already grow, there are always ways to increase your garden’s bounty. Give these summer gardening techniques a try to make this summer one of your best.
Use red mulch on your tomatoes.
Although it might sound like a too-good-to-be-true sales pitch, using red plastic mulch underneath your tomatoes does increase the yields by roughly 20 percent. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research, when a pigment in a tomato plant called phytochrome detects far-red light waves, it signals the plant to grow faster and produce more fruit, particularly during the early part of the season. The mulch also conserves water and suppresses weeds. So, if you want to increase your harvest, set out your irrigation hose in your tomato bed or row, spread out and stake down the red mulch, then cut a slit in the mulch and plant the tomato through the plastic. Typically, the mulch is only good for one season, but it’s well worth it.
Protect corn from birds.
You can fence out deer and raccoons, but there’s no real protection from magpies and other birds that have a taste for fresh corn since they quickly become accustomed to loud noises or visual deterrents when a good meal is involved. It’s difficult to cover the entire corn patch, but if you want to keep your corn safe, place a plastic or brown lunch bag over each ear to save it until it’s ripe. Do this after your corn has been pollinated and check it frequently so you harvest it at its peak.
Transplant individual plants in flats.
After I sow seeds in 4-inch containers indoors, I transplant them into flats once their true leaves appear. I don’t bother transplanting each seedling into larger, individual containers. Make sure there are holes in the bottom of the flat and fill it with a sterilized planting medium. For larger vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, eggplant and cabbage, plant three to four seedlings across and six to eight plants per row in the flats. For smaller plants, you can double the quantity. The plants stay in the flats for about a month. When it’s time to transplant them into the garden, simply scoop out each plant and put it in the ground. This way, you don’t have a lot of containers to collect and wash.
Grow your own hops.
For those aficionados of craft brewing, growing your own hops is the natural next step in creating a one-of-a-kind beverage. But you don’t have to be a brewmeister to raise your own hops; you just need to know that the female flower is part of the hop plant and is called a cone. The nice part about a hop plant is that it basically grows itself. Provide a sturdy structure, since each plant will reach a height of 8 to 12 feet (and sometimes more) in short order. Give the plants consistent water and harvest the cones in the late summer to early fall when they’re mature. Cut the plant completely back to the ground in the fall or late winter before the shoots begin growing once again.
The early spring shoots are also edible and are cooked liked asparagus. Cut them when they’re less than 8 inches tall. Don’t worry about stunting the plant; it’s a vigorous grower and you’ll never notice the difference.
Protect your plants from herbicide damage.
There’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing your tomato, pepper, eggplant or potato (members of the Solanaceae family and all very sensitive to herbicide damage) twist and wilt before your eyes. The best way to prevent this is to know the cause. For those in agricultural communities, there’s a risk from spray drift if you’re located next to a field where crops are treated with herbicides, but this is not the typical way that plants are contaminated. For most home gardeners, residual herbicides find their way to the garden through grass clippings used for mulch or in animal manure.
While avoiding lawn clippings that have been sprayed is best, if this is your only option for mulch, use clippings only when the lawn has been mowed three times after being sprayed. Animal manure can be trickier because how long the residual herbicide remains in the manure depends on the chemical used, and there are several herbicides available for pastures and hay fields. Some of these are so potent that they will affect plants even after they were put in a compost pile five years earlier. It’s important to know what animals are fed to know if their manure is safe to use. For instance, if a horse is fed weed-seed-free hay, avoid its manure. It might not introduce weeds into your garden, but it might kill everything else, too.
Encourage beneficial insects during summer gardening.
Enlist the help of beneficial insects—praying mantises, predatory wasps, ladybird beetles and some ground beetles, to name a few—to help control garden pests. To keep them in your garden, avoid using pesticides as much as possible, even the organic ones. If the “good bugs” have something to eat, they’ll do their job with flying colors. This does mean you must tolerate a certain level of pest pressure, but a few holes in your cabbage plants are worth having if you don’t have to dose them with chemicals. Plant a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers to give the beneficial insects a habitat in which to find “bad bugs” like aphids and whiteflies; the parasitic wasps, in particular, prefer to perch on the umbrella-like blossoms of carrots and dill. Variety makes the garden more interesting and gives these tiny predators better opportunities to find prey.
Create a strawberry bed.
Plant strawberries now to enjoy delicious fruit for years. There are three primary types of strawberries—June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral—and choosing the right one for you depends mostly on how you use them. For those who prefer simply to snack on the strawberries and harvest smaller amounts for longer periods of time, consider everbearing or day-neutral varieties. For hardcore jam makers, opt for the June-bearers that produce a large crop at one time.
Whether you’re planting strawberries in a garden bed or a container, the key is to dig out the area for each plant so you can spread out the roots, then cover them with soil up to the crown, which is at the top of the root system. Plant strawberries at too shallow a depth and they can shrivel and die; plant too deeply and they won’t produce as well.
Mulch potatoes with straw.
The old-fashioned way of planting potatoes—digging an 8-inch trench, then hilling the potatoes with soil as they grow—works absolutely fine, but it’s a lot of work at the end of the season when it’s time to harvest. An easier route is to plant the potatoes 4 inches deep and mulch them with straw as they grow to prevent the sun from scalding the tender spuds. When it’s time to harvest, it’s much easier to pull back the straw to gather your potatoes and use a fork to gently lift any left in the ground—no deep digging required.
Grow veggies vertically to save garden space.
When space is at a premium, consider growing up. There are a surprising number of vegetables that tolerate vertical growth, and it’s an efficient and productive way to raise them. Besides beans and peas that are frequently trained up some kind of trellis, consider growing smaller pumpkin, melon and squash varieties, as well as cucumbers, in this way. Vigorous growers, they need to be trained so their vines and foliage can grasp a sturdy support. For beans and peas, simply plant their seeds at the base of whatever structure you’re using. Plants, not seeds, are usually a better option for the other varieties so you can secure them to the trellis from the beginning.
What you decide to utilize for a trellis system depends on what you’re growing, as well as your personal flare. Making a single-season unit using twine and a few pieces of lumber is a project most anyone can accomplish, or you can utilize an existing fence or build towers that will last many seasons. As long as the plant can be secured, either by draping it over a wire or part of the trellis or by loosely tying it to the structure, it will be fine.
Re-queen your hive.
For many gardeners, part of their success relies on making the colony of the hard-working honeybees as productive as possible. It may be a little draconian, but in order to maintain hive health and production, consider re-queening your hive every couple of years. Most packaged bees will have their queen marked with a colored dot to indicate her particular year, so you don’t forget how old she is and fail to replace her until she starts lagging in egg laying.
Before you usurp the matriarch, have a new queen on hand, whether from your own hives or from an apiary that raises them. Of course, the best situation is to have a bred queen to reduce the time before she begins laying in her new home, but even if she hasn’t done her mating flight, as long as it’s early enough in the season, she’ll be able to provide a sufficient number of new bees to create a healthy hive.
When it’s time to replace the old queen, find and pick her out of the cluster surrounding her, then cut her in half with your hive tool. Put the new queen in between the middle frames as you do when you install a package of new bees. She will be in a queen cage with a marshmallow or piece of candy at the entrance. This gives the colony a couple of days to chew her out of her enclosure while they accept her. Be sure to note the month and year of the re-queening so you know when to do it again.