I’ve said it before: I’m not a gardener. I’ve dehydrated cacti, drowned ‘indestructible’ house plants and even obliterated my perennial oregano!
BUT, growing edibles does make me immensely happy. How could all these amazing colours, textures, tastes and scents NOT make you happy? And all of it right in my own back yard.
Over the past few years, my resourceful and industrious husband has been building raised planter boxes to expand our garden space, using lumber left over from the previous home owners (woohoo free and no waste!). A few benefits of raised planters include:
- less weeding required,
- less access for furry scavengers and wandering cats, and
- longer growing seasons (which is especially nice in Ottawa, where our winters tend to last 9 months….blech!).
We now have six 4’x6′ planter boxes and two 4’x4′ boxes, plus additional ground-level gardens around our property.
I’ve decided I need to share my most recent gardening wisdom (before I forget it myself) so here it is…
TOP THREE LESSONS FROM MY GARDEN:
LESSON #1 – Timing your harvest (aka ‘seize the moment’)
After two full seasons of unnoticeable fruit, our cherry tree finally produced a gorgeous show of bright red fruit this year. We’re not 100% sure why it fared so well this year, but we suspect it’s because we draped a small piece of netting over a few of the branches in attempt to deter birds and other hungry little thieves. We tasted a few cherries, I snapped a few pictures, and we waited patiently for the “right moment” to pick. Then one day my husband sent me a message at work: “Let’s pick those cherries tonight.” Yes, okay, awesome, let’s do it!
By the time I got home from work and went to the back yard, the limbs were bare. I thought my impatient husband must have gone ahead and picked them without me… Nope. Whatever selfish little critter it was, he didn’t leave a speck of fruit on the entire tree!
So the lesson is: harvest sooner, as soon as things look ready, pick them. Don’t wait. We now go out to the garden multiple times a day to pick whatever snow peas, tomatoes, greens and beans look edible. And a bonus – for many crops (like beans, peas, zucchini and tomatoes), the more you pick, the more the plant produces! Freaking brilliant!
LESSON #2 – Rotate your crops
There are many reasons for rotating crops (e.g. improving soil structure and fertility, mitigating the spread of plant disease) but I will tell you about another reason: evil pests. Our gardens are pretty spacious and spread out in different locations across our property, so it was fairly easy to adhere to the crop rotation tradition – except for my stubbornness when it came to planting our hubbard squash…
This spring, the kids and I had excitedly started a number of seeds indoors, including cucumber, zucchinni and a few squash seeds (seeds we had simply saved from various varieties of squash we’d eaten throughout the winter). The seeds took off indoors and we patiently waited for mild enough weather to plant outdoors. We had a few healthy cucumber and zucchini plants, plus a spaghetti squashling and two stunningly gorgeous hubbard squashlings. When the relentless Ottawa frost finally quit, we planted them into our gardens at different sides of the house, some in raised planter boxes, some directly in the ground. For the hubbard squash, I had just the spot: the same 4’x4′ square planter box that grew cucumbers and squash upon a homemade teepee/trelis the preceding year. And of course I was determined to do that same thing again this year. Big mistake. Everything was growing nicely UNTIL we saw these little guys:
Not so little, actually. They are about 1-2 centimeters in length, with large greyish shield-shaped backs. I *really* don’t like to kill animals and they appeared to be just hanging out, so I let them ‘hang out’. The next time I checked our hubbard squash, some leaves seemed to be yellowing and I saw more of these bugs so I decided to consult the Google experts. One gardening site (The Old Farmers Almanac) told me that these bugs are in fact squash beetles, often confused for stink beetles (due to the unpleasant odor they emit upon being squished). Why squash them then? Well, apparently these jerks also like to suck the juice from and inject plant-murdering toxins into not only squash plants, but all relative plants of the cucurbit family (e.g. cucumbers, zucchinis….). AAAAAAAAHH!!
Armed with some small pieces of wood, the kids and I went to battle with the stinkers every day for weeks. I read some more about these bugs and some similarly destructive pests called cucumber beetles. The cucumber beetles were smaller and cuter, with black and yellow stripes but just as monstrous. More bugs to crush.
And according to many blogs and gardening sites, crushing is the most effective way to get rid of these things?!?! Insecticides could be used but would also threaten the pollinator bees (no thanks!). We also attempted to make various squash beetle traps found on the interweb – one by leaving two pieces of wood in the garden for the bugs to shelter in overnight and then crushing them in the morning…. and a second out of a 2-liter pop bottle and an LED light. Still no luck.
Seems these persistent pests overwinter in garden beds and are known to return to areas where curcubits have been planted the previous year (pretty impressive, really). Doh!
What could I do? I yanked the scraggly hubbard plant remains from the garden in desperation! But the squash beetles kept attacking, moving on to new sections of the garden…
Then I read another gardening blog that actually suggested purposely planting hubbard squash as a sacrificial “trap crop“. Double doh!
Seems most of my curcubit crops are doomed this year, except for our giant organic zucchinis and our lovely cucumber teepee 🙂
At the end of this garden season, I will need to be careful to destroy all the curcubit debris appropriately, to avoid more overwintering little buggers. Next year I might take a break from planting squash (and battling squash bugs!). And when I’m ready to tackle those pests again I will be armed with experience!
LESSON #3: Companion planting is awesome!
To leave on a positive note, this year I experimented with a lot more companion planting. Companion planting is a great organic and traditional method for controlling pests, disease and improving soil quality (similar to the concept of crop rotation). Certain species, when planted together help each other to ward off harmful insects and supply each other with beneficial nutrients, supporting diversity and even improving yields (how incredibly cool is mother nature???!!!!) — plus, it looks prettier!
Anyway, I read up on some suggested combos and here are some of the groupings that really worked:
- Dill + asparagus
- Cucumbers + radishes + marigolds
- Tomatoes + basil + marigolds
- Potatoes + nasturtiums
- Carrots + peas
- Strawberries + arugula
- Beets + chard + nasturtiums
- Brussels sprouts + marigolds + nasturtiums
- Nasturtiums and marigolds everywhere, really….
I have honestly never had such happy basil! And I had never even planted a nasturtium before – beautiful, edible AND useful?! How dreamy!
Those are my three main take-aways from our 2016 garden (though the season isn’t over yet, I felt the need to share… before I forget all this advice myself…). If you have any gardening success stories – or failures – or strategies for preventing squash bugs, please share!
Thanks and happy harvesting!