In July we can start to harvest some of our summer vegetables. We’ve worked hard getting to this point, and then the bugs come and disease starts to hit. What can we do to help our vegetable plants?
Plants could use a boost as they start to produce veggies about mid-July. I would fertilize with organic fish fertilizer and liquid seaweed, which can be mixed together and then either poured in the well around each plant as a drench or sprayed on the leaves until they’re dripping. Plants can absorb the nutrients either way. This treatment gives them some much-needed food so they can produce more, and it also helps make them stronger and more disease-resistant. (For the proper amounts of fertilizer to use, always follow label instructions.)
In our summer heat, plants need more water, especially if we haven’t gotten a lot of rain. Once the monsoons come, we can back off the water a little, but not too much, because in July plants are really exploding in growth and starting to produce, which takes a tremendous amount of energy. To help retain moisture, mulch with straw (not hay — too many weed seeds) around the base of each plant.
Mulch also suppresses weeds, and it keeps the soil from splashing up on the lower leaves of plants. Dirt splashed onto plants encourages diseases that may be in your soil, such as early blight disease that affects tomatoes. Early blight fungal spores live in the ground; when it rains or we water from above, soil can splash up on tomato plants’ lower leaves, where the spores attach themselves. That’s why we sometimes see those lower leaves turning blotchy and yellow. Mulch acts as a physical barrier between the soil and the plants.
If you get early blight, cut off the infected leaves and sterilize your clippers with a 10 percent bleach solution between cuts as the disease is contagious. You can also spray with an organic fungicide to help control this and other fungal diseases on all kinds of vegetables. Serenade is a good general organic fungicide.
But there are occasions when I don’t use mulch, for instance with winter and summer squash plants, I have found that straw mulch provides shelter for squash bugs. A big nemesis of many vegetable gardeners, squash bugs really come on strong in July. To minimize them, it helps to understand their life cycle. First adults lay eggs on the undersides of leaves and on stalks. The root-beer-colored eggs take seven to 10 days to hatch into grey nymphs, which then suck the juices from plants.
A large number of nymphs can kill a squash plant. They grow into adults and repeat the cycle. So I go out every seven days and remove the eggs and the adults and put them in a bucket of soapy water. The trick to keeping them under control is to get them before they hatch into the dreaded nymph stage.
The second thing we can do to protect squash plants is to cover them with row cover when they are young; but once they start to produce flowers, we need to take off the row cover so pollinators can find them. The last thing we can do is to plant summer squash later and hope we miss the squash bugs altogether. You usually can’t do that with winter squash because it needs more time to produce fruit.
Vegetable gardening takes a little work, but it’s well worth the effort when harvest time comes.
Jannine Cabossel, the Tomato Lady, grew and sold heirloom tomatoes at the Santa Fe Farmers Market for 10 years. She is a Master Gardener and teaches many vegetable classes around the city. To find out more about gardening in our high desert climate, visit her blog at www.giantveggiegardener.com.