Spring is a magical time in the garden. Tiny, young sprouts are pushing up through the soil, and newly bedded transplants are settling in. Everything is green and filled with the promise of flowers and vegetables ahead. Life is good, and you are feeling pretty jazzed by your new gardening skills.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, trouble strikes. Overnight, some critter cuts down tomato seedlings you carefully planted yesterday. Tiny bugs are crawling all over the beans. And what is that white fur covering the squash leaves? Panic begins to set in, and you start to doubt the magic of your green thumb.
Take a deep breath. This is all part of the gardening adventure that can fill you with a sense of awe and accomplishment one minute and present challenges the next. Yet, challenges provide new gardeners opportunities to learn what plants require to grow and how to navigate potential problems.
For some expert advice on how to keep a garden alive and thriving, I spoke with Yvonne Savio, one of the most experienced and respected gardeners in Southern California. Savio, now retired, was the director of the Los Angeles County Master Gardener Program for over twenty years.
We discussed some common issues that gardeners face, and she shared a wealth of practical information on how to deal with them.
Whether your garden is in, or you have yet to plant, here are some ideas that will help you optimize your efforts.
Feed the soil, not the plants
“Soil is the beginning, middle and end of successful gardening. It doesn’t just prop up the plants,” states Savio in an article for new gardeners on her website Gardening in LA.
It is important to prepare a garden bed prior to planting. This is especially true in San Dimas. Our city’s native clay soil, although fertile, can prove impermeable to plant roots and water due to its heavily compacted structure.
To provide plants with a proper growing environment, Savio emphasizes the importance of adding compost and aged manure to the bed, then mixing it in to a depth of at least 12 inches.
The goal is to break up the compacted clay, provide a boost of nutrients and create spaces through which roots and water can easily travel.
This process will heat the soil, so it is important to wait a couple of weeks for it to cool down before planting. This will ensure young root systems do not get burned.
Water deeply and infrequently
Proper irrigation is another critical element of successful gardening, but one that is commonly approached using a “best guess” as to the duration and frequency of watering by many beginning gardeners.
Savio explains that improper watering usually results in only the upper layer of the garden bed being moistened, which then encourages plant roots to remain close to the surface. When summer temperatures rise and that area of soil heats up and dries out, shallow-rooted plants suffer.
The goal of irrigation should be to water deeply but infrequently. This encourages plants to grow deep, well-established root systems that will help them survive even when temperatures soar.
Savio accomplishes this by digging a hole in the bed, large enough to place a one- to five-gallon nursery pot into it (letting a few inches stick up above the surface). She then plants right around the edge of the pot. When the vessel is filled, water drains directly to the root zone, encouraging plant roots to pass through the upper layer of soil and grow deeper to where the soil remains moist and cool, even on the hottest days.
To get a handle on how much and how often to water, Savio suggests gardeners purchase an inexpensive moisture meter, a small probe you stick into the soil to assess its moisture content. This takes the guesswork out of the process by indicating whether or not you need to water.
When it is time to water, just fill each sunken pot and move on. Achieving this same depth of irrigation through hand watering could take up to 30 minutes per bed — an unappealing task when temperatures approach triple digits.
Although deep watering is crucial for developing deep roots, it is important to keep the entire bed evenly moist. Seeds require moisture to germinate, and tender, young plants need moisture to get established. Savio uses soaker hoses that “weep” water all along their surface. These hoses wet the soil to about five inches on either side and can be looped back and forth in the bed with vegetables planted in between.
Prepare for hot weather
Get your garden in before the end of April
Savio says this will give the plants time to get established before the heat sets in. Over the past three years, she has noticed that tomato transplants she used to add to the garden in May no longer grow into productive plants, even with great soil and extra watering.
Provide shade on hot days
Although most flowers and vegetables need at least six hours of direct sun to thrive, all plants require some protection from the sun, especially after 3 p.m. and when temperatures rise above 90 degrees. Plant your garden where it receives afternoon shading from a building or tree. Otherwise, you can pop beach umbrellas over your plants or cover them with shade cloth to protect them.
Maintain a thick layer of mulch on top of the bed to help keep soil cooler and reduce evaporation, but keep it a few inches away from the plants.
Adjust your watering
Savio recommends keeping an eye on the weather forecast. If temperatures are going to break 90 degrees, water before the heat hits. Just like with people, she says it is better to hydrate before the heat than to try to recover after being stressed.
Cool down your plants
Savio suggests periodically spraying the tops and undersides of the leaves when it is really hot. Do this early in the day so the plants are fully dry before nighttime to prevent fungus or other diseases.
Outsmart pests and diseases
There are few things more disappointing than discovering something has eaten your homegrown vegetables before you can harvest them. Beans covered with aphids, tomatoes pecked on by birds, melons eaten by rodents, or squash plants covered in powdery mildew can dampen the spirit of even the most enthusiastic gardener.
Aside from visiting your garden frequently to catch problems early, there are some other actions you can take to prevent problems or to deal with them when they arise.
First and foremost, take steps to ensure that your plants develop deep root systems. Strong plants will fare better against insects and diseases than stressed ones. As you know, the healthier you are, the better able you are to fight off illness. Savio explains the same holds true for your plants.
Take the least lethal approach first
Try blasting aphids off your beans with the hose before reaching for the insecticidal soap spray.
Practice companion planting
Growing certain plants together can help reduce insects that target a particular vegetable. For instance, Savio suggests interplanting cucumbers and beans to repel cucumber beetles.
Grow plants that attract beneficial insects
Mustard flowers in the garden will attract ladybugs and lacewings that feed on aphids.
Use barriers to protect plants
Press a plastic cup, with the bottom removed, into the soil around the base of a tomato transplant to keep cutworms away.
Covers made from plastic milk jugs with the bottoms removed can protect young plants from being eaten by mice overnight. Remove the jugs before the day heats up.
Savio also suggests placing strawberry baskets over young lettuce plants to keep birds at bay. By the time the plant starts to lift the basket, it will no longer need protection.
Practice crop rotation
Avoid planting the same crop in the same place each year. This will help prevent plant-specific diseases from becoming established in a bed.
Line raised beds with hardware cloth
Gophers can destroy a garden from below. Hardware cloth will keep them out.
Reduce the pest population
Carefully placed traps can help limit the number of mice and rats that visit your garden to dine.
If all else fails, covers made from hardware cloth can be constructed to fit over an entire raised bed.
Maintain a healthy growing environment
To minimize the number and severity of diseases that attack your plants, Savio says it is important to know the three factors that interact and influence disease development: the plant, the pathogen and the environment. By understanding this, it is easier to avoid situations that may encourage a disease to develop.
For instance, powdery mildew is a common problem in our area because it prefers a hot, dry environment. Knowing that powdery mildew often develops on squash plants, a gardener can take proactive steps to discourage its development and reactive measures when it appears.
To learn more about methods presented in this article, visit Savio’s website Gardening in LA, which contains a wealth of useful information, including monthly suggestions on what to do in the garden. She also invites people to sign up for her mailing list to receive notices about upcoming gardening events.