Recently, as I was walking my property and spotting some more returning poison ivy here and there and lamenting the existence and stubbornness of this pesky weed, a novel thought (for me) popped into my head: I know poison ivy is a native plant – does this mean it is right to totally eradicate it?
About five years ago, I had made an attempt to clear a space on my property beyond my fence and into a drainage ditch that was hard to reach, but getting overrun with tree-smothering vines, English ivy, and all matter of problematic brush. After several hard hours of pulling, clipping, snipping, and dragging, I declared the job done. In the next few days, poison ivy rash made its appearance up and down both arms, a bit on my legs, and even a few places on my body I must have rubbed. This took weeks to heal, and I resolved to be more careful in the future. I hadn’t even realized poison ivy was back there.
The next year, I wore pants, got better educated on how to spot it, and kept a better eye out for poison ivy while I worked on maintaining the same space. Poison ivy again got me pretty bad on the arms!
After a fun year of building support structures and growing really long squash, it was time to wind down the garden. Our first baby was born (thank you, thank you), and we had no further bandwidth or ambition to continue with cool-season crops, so I decided to pack up the support gear, rip out the remaining plants that were producing but slowing down, start a compost pile with the remains, and plant cover crops in the beds.
Packing it up
My big trellis used for the Tromboncino squash and the one made from part of a fencing panel used for tomatoes both folded up and packed away nicely in this outdoor storage area attached to my house. I’m happy with my designs, as I didn’t want permanent structures out in the garden getting weathered, and I didn’t want them to take up a lot of space in storage. These will be easy to set up next year again. The only thing I will do differently in the future is to use something stronger than twine to string on the trellis and hold up tomatoes with tomato clips. A lot of the twine that was under pressure from crops eventually snapped and needed replacing.
Rip it, chop it, bin it
We were going to have such a volume of garden waste this year, I decided to start a compost bin. This should give us a head start on the new layer of compost (previously all store-bought) we add to the raised beds each year. Pretty much all we have to do is throw this stuff in a bin and wait, as we are doing passive composting that is slow but requires very little attention.
I bought a cheap compost bin online; this one is just a sheet of black plastic with holes that you form into a vertical cylinder and throw your stuff into.
I ripped up our squash, watermelon, and tomato plants, wheelbarrowed ’em over to the compost bin in our back yard, stabbed at the pile with a shovel and buzzed it with my string trimmer for a while to chop it up a bit. Then I shoveled it all into the bin, attempting to mix up the types of plants in there somewhat uniformly.
Once leaves fall, I’ll drop some leaves that have been shredded by the mower into there as well.
I know you can drop food waste like fruit and vegetable scraps into compost, but I’m not sure we are going bother making the trip from the kitchen to backyard with a couple banana peels since that’s just not a lot of volume to make a difference for our intended purpose.
We will need to turn the pile a couple times in the next year to aid decomposition, but other than that, this is hands off. I’m looking forward to seeing what we get at the beginning of next growing season to start our summer vegetable garden again.
Cover crops for our raised bed garden to make it through the winter
I know it is good to protect my soil from erosion and add a layer of compostable material on the top over the winter. Last year, I had read that a layer of mulched leaves is good to place into raised beds, but when I did that, I found that much of it quickly blew away.
This year, I decided to plant crimson clover, a cover crop.
Cover crops, also known as green manures, are an excellent tool for vegetable gardeners, especially where manures and compost are unavailable. They lessen soil erosion during the winter, add organic material when turned under in the spring, improve soil quality, and add valuable nutrients.
With a couple inexpensive packets of crimson clover, I sprinkled the seeds over the now empty raised beds, raked a bit to cover them lightly with soil, and then watered the soil most days. I could see sprouts in a week or so.
The clover will add a layer of protection over the winter, and then nitrogen and nutrients in April when I cut it down with a string trimmer and then turn over the soil.
Sounds easy enough. I’m all about lower-effort gardening!
My squash and zucchini have been breeding grounds for these two garden pests in past years. They also have confused me because I tend to conflate the two or have mixed up which one I’m searching for information on online. This year, despite taking more steps to combat both of these evil-doers, my garden still took major hits from this duo.
In anticipation of this insect onslaught, I took the following extra steps:
I kept the young squash and zucchini plants under floating row cover until they flowered. I uncovered then so that pollinators could get in and do their thing. I potentially could have kept them under cover longer if I manually pollinated, but the plants were growing beyond the cover structure I made, so it was time.
I wrapped foil around the lower stems of the plants as HGIC suggests to prevent egg-laying.
I searched for and removed more regularly squash bug eggs found under the leaves.
I planted these crops in a bed that had NOT yet been used for squash or zucchini and therefore hopefully would not contain overwintering vine borers in the soil.
I planted yellow squash, zucchini, and, HERE COMES A NEW CHALLENGER: TROMBONCINO SQUASH! The tromboncino variety is supposed to be vine-borer resistant.
The following is my garden’s tale of woe, and my future plans for growing a squash bug and squash vine borer-free garden.
Let’s start with the one that has been the most visible to me, the squash bug.
For the past few years, I’ve been seeing these guys’ eggs on the undersides of my squash, zucchini, and cucumber plants. When I find them, I tear off the small section of the leaf, smash ’em between my fingers, and chuck them away. I kept doing this, but kept finding more this year. I’m sure tons of the eggs got past me.
Confirming that notion, I did later catch these nymphs having a party on my plants.
In my garden at least, I don’t believe the squash bugs are the main villain destroying my squash and zucchini crop. I saw some stippling on the leaves here and there, but nothing that seemed to do severe damage.
One of my later tromboncino fruits had a ton of superficial damage on it. My guess it is from the squash bugs. They didn’t touch any other tromboncino fruits, and this particular one was closer to ground level, while most of the rest of my tromboncino crop was high in the trellis. Are these guys afraid of heights?
Squash Vine Borer
Previously, in my gardening efforts, I’ve had zucchini and squash plants succumb to the squash vine borer, and I took several steps to avoid them again this year, but to no avail. I’m sorry to say, both our zucchini and squash plants grew large and healthy, produced a round of solid fruits, then quickly wilted and died within a couple weeks of each other.
I did not see any adult vine borer moths, but I found a big fat larva in the dead plant’s stem. I tore out the dead/dying plants.
While yellow squash and zucchini were out for the count, the tromboncino kept on truckin’ and had no issues so far with either of the nasty bugs other than the one damaged fruit.
What else can I do?
There are more means of combating these bugs if I decide to do battle with these villains again:
For squash vine borers (info mainly from the HGIC page):
Adjust the timing of planting. Planting early or late in the season to attempt to avoid the life cycle of the vine borer. Or, plant in succession; stagger when we plant so if some crops get taken out, you still have another coming along with more fruit and another chance at success.
Do surgery on the stems of the plant you fear is infested, rip out any larva, and mound up dirt over wounded stems to induce supplemental rooting.
Spray lower stems with spinosad or pyrethrum.
Spray lower plants stems and base of plant with pyrethrins when adults are flying (mid-late May). Repeat 14 days later. Or sprinkle diatomaceous earth on lower stems.
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or beneficial nematode Stinernema carpocapsae can be injected into wound to kill borers.
Seal up infested vines in plastic bag before larvae pupate (break life cycle).
Plant resistant crops: Butternut and cushaw are resistant; yellow crookneck is less susceptible than zucchini. (I went for the tromboninos).
Neem, horticultural oil, and insecticidal soap are effective when sprayed directly on nymphs. Adults are very difficult to kill with the insecticides available to home gardeners.
Trap adults and nymphs by placing boards near host plants under which they will hide. Lift boards and destroy bugs in the morning.
Bugs also hide under mulch. When numbers are high, mulch may need to be removed.
Removing all plant debris at the end of the growing season is essential.
Check seed catalogs for cultivars of summer and winter squash that are resistant to squash bugs.
What will I actually do?
I’m gonna give up!
This is at least the third year in a row with a similar story for the yellow squash and zucchini in my garden, and I think I’m done with regular yellow squash and zucchini for a bit. There are more things I could do to mitigate the problem, but I’m tired of providing food for these buggers, and I’m not into high-maintenance gardening, so I’m gonna call it quits on those crops for now.
Besides, the vine-borer-resistant tromboncino squash crop I tried this year has excelled, and it cooks and eats pretty much like its susceptible cousin crops. I plan to keep going with tromboncino. Maybe a year or two without fodder for these bugs will break the cycle and allow them time to die off or move elsewhere.
Here are two great videos on both of these problem bugs:
I had a lot of goals for improving my garden since last year’s adventure which meant new things to build! However, with the current prices of lumber and materials, plus my only basic carpentry skills, I didn’t want to go all out creating beautiful, sturdy, perfect designs and structures from new materials purchased specifically for these builds.
I wanted to quickly build tomato support, floating row cover, a large trellis for climbing plants, deer fence, and a garden gate all without spending too much at the hardware store or spending a ton of time planning. That meant largely using scrap wood I had laying around or cheap materials like PVC, and going for it.
I’m trying tromboncino squash this year which really climbs, and I also wanted to allow cucumbers to climb, so I thought I’d build some sort of large support object. I had a bunch of 2×2, 10 ft long lengths of wood left from contractor work in my basement and thought that would be good material. I wanted something tall that I could walk under and pluck vegetables from. Plus, I wanted it to be non-permanent.
I decided to make this ladder-like structure with a hinge at the top so that I can collapse it and store it in the garage without taking up a lot of space. I bought a metal threaded rod, drilled holes through the wood at the ends that would make the apex of the structure, and ran the rod through those holes to make a hinge. The rest is built with wood screws. Metal eyelets were screwed into the wood so that I could run twine crisscrossed through the structure to allow plants to climb.
The structure was a bit wobbly on its own since it is so tall and not wide, so I worried about it getting blown over during a storm — especially with leafy plants acting as sails. I tied rope to two cinder blocks that pull down and away to give it more stability.
Fence panel tomato hangers
I saw these cool tomato clips online; you can have some sort of structure to hang a string from, then use these clips to fasten joints of the tomato plant to the string to hold it up. With these, all I would have to do for tomato support is to make some sort of triangle or tripod with a high point I could tie string to. It seemed like a simple way to build something. Also, I liked the way my trellis folded flat for storage.
Again, leftover from contractor work, I had some parts of wood fencing from a recently replaced segment of fence I had done. I took off a bunch of the boards, leaving the two outside ones connected by the horizontal segments, and connected two of the removed boards to the others via hinges at the top. I added more horizontal support at the top and bottom, then added eyelets at the top crossbar to tie rope to. This fits right in my 4’x4′ tomato bed. The strings hang down and with the clips, hold up the tomatoes.
Easy PVC piping structures
I went to the hardware store and picked up several lengths of 5 ft white PVC pipe and a handful of T connectors. I didn’t have an exact plan, and I probably should have bought a bit more of everything, but I was able to start with building floating row cover for some of my squash, and then when that wasn’t needed, I reconfigured it into support for my tomatoes.
I cut the pipes: some in a third and 2/3 lengths. Connecting them with the T connectors, bending, and wedging the ends of the pipes into the corners of the raised beds, I was able to make an archway over my 4ft square section of raised bed. For floating row cover on squash, I draped row cover fabric over it and pinned it down with bricks around the edges. For tomato support, I drilled a few holes, screwed eyelet hardware in, attached twine, and used tomato clips to hold up tomatoes.
The 1/2in pipe is a little flimsy, and I ran out of enough pipe to make as much support as I wanted.
I left on vacation for a week and came back to totally collapsed tomatoes. No big surprise there. This design is good for row cover, but not for tomatoes beyond a certain point. I need stronger materials for this one.
After the PVC failure, I wanted a quick way to build something that would hold up the tomatoes. I’m running low on quality materials, so I made this unimpressive support out of two fence panel boards, and the other longest piece of scrap wood I had around. Two wood screws connect them at the top. I don’t think I will keep this for next year as it isn’t collapsible, isn’t that sturdy, and I would hope to make something better if I need something next season. Clips were used again to hold up the plants.
Micro deer fence
I’ve got one 4’x4′ raised bed segment with corn in it that got devastated last year, presumably by deer. Originally this year, I was planning on building a tall deer fence around my entire garden area, similar to this one. I understood that the fence doesn’t need to be particularly strong – just tall enough they couldn’t jump it.
Then I had the idea, “Dan, you clever guy – why don’t you fence ONLY the corn and save a lot of effort!” So I decided to make a tall, twine fence around just the corn.
Again, with leftover fencing boards, I just screwed four of the boards vertically to the walls of the raised beds, tapped some nails in them for string, and wove twine around the whole thing.
It was soon after I finished stringing this thing up that I realized the error in my logic (most readers here were probably yelling at their screens): yeah, a deer cannot jump into my corn field, but they sure could stick their snouts through the gaps in the twine and much fairly unhindered.
I mused about stapling a segment of the rodent fence material used for the outer fence around the four boards, but in the end, laziness and the sense of experimentation helped me decide to leave it as-is and see what happened. Perhaps the deer would be weirded-out enough by the twine to leave it alone.
As of this writing, we are beginning to harvest corn, and it hasn’t been touched which is further than we got last year. Fingers crossed this trend continues.
Building is fun
It’s been fun building. I’ve done this all without breaking out a ruler or tape measure! Mostly, it’s hammer, nails, wood screws, drill, and string that I’m using. Nothing fancy. Luckily, produce does not care if all corners are square, and good enough is generally good enough if you don’t have to support more than a couple plants.
The last item I’ll mention is a little gate panel built from the absolute last pieces of the 2×2 wood. I didn’t even have enough to make a diagonal cross piece that went from corner to corner. I stapled a bit of wire fencing onto it and put a slide bolt to shut it. My wife was tired of having to hop the wire fence to get into the garden, so this was the solution. Again, not strong or beautiful, but it works.
Hello again! Last year, I published a series of blogs chronicling my 2020 growing season from the perspective of a “semi-novice gardener.” Some things went well, some things did not, and I learned a lot in the process, thus I am upgrading my gardener status to “intermediate!”
This year, I will share my work with the class again, but with a focus on certain challenges I encountered last year and what I am doing to do better this time.
For starters, my wife Krysten decided to try seed-starting this year. We set up a grow station on a shelf in the basement with a grow light. I used a smart outlet to power the lights and programmed it to turn on at sunrise and off at sunset. Krysten even pointed a fan at the seedlings, as she read that it simulates a breeze and helps them grow stronger than if they grew without any breeze pushing on them. We started Tomatoes and squash. This was Krysten’s department, so I don’t have a ton of details to share, but we got a ton of tomato, cucumber, and squash seedlings out of it.
We had a cubic yard of compost delivered (along with mulch and soil for other projects) and added that to the previous year’s soil in the raised beds.
Our overall plans and goals
Like last year, we are growing:
Unlike last year, we are attempting strawberries and tromboncino squash. Tromboncinos are purportedly squash vine-borer resistant (a big issue for our squash in the past), easy to grow, and I thought it would be fun to have high-hanging vegetables.
Like last year, we have several pollinator-attracting plants in the garden, but this time, we are keeping them in pots and not planted in the raised beds with the vegetables since we had issues with overcrowding last year. We’ve got cone flowers, milkweed, marigold, lilac, zinnia, and dahlias around the perimeter.
We are upping our security from munching mammals such as deer and rabbits. Pictured at the top of this page, we still have the low rabbit fence as last year, but we are going to build a high fence to keep out deer JUST around the bed with the corn. I thought this would be much easier than creating a high fence around the whole garden area like in this video.
We are taking steps to stop squash vine borers from killing our squash plants mid-season, and that will be detailed in a future blog post.
I’ve built a big support structure for the tromboncino squash; it is the big triangular ladder structure you see in the photo. I am planning on some different structures to support tomatoes as well, and I will detail my construction projects in a future post.
One notable item
Before I sign off, I thought I’d share one interesting issue I discovered with my tomatoes:
I found these weird white growths on the stems of my tomatoes last week. I sent in this picture in to the horticultural consultants at Ask Extension (you can too!) for identification. They answered:
Those are adventitious roots along the stems. See this page on the HGIC website. Some heirloom varieties of tomato tend to produce these roots, which would grow into normal roots if placed in contact with the soil. In some cases, adventitious roots are a reaction to a stressor (too much water/poor drainage, high nitrogen, even exposure to herbicides). There is nothing you need to do other than consider if the plant was under a period of stress and then improve the conditions, if possible. For example, if the plant was growing in a pot with poor drainage, if you move that plant into the ground with good soil conditions, those roots will develop into normal ones to support the plant (assuming the plant is otherwise healthy, no disease issues).
This particular tomato plant is in a pot. It may have been over-watered, and it had also been humid and rainy in the last few days. It’s good to know it isn’t a big deal. We’ll just watch out how much we water that one.
Stay tuned! My next update will likely be about all the construction projects I’m wrapping up as I write this post. I’ve got the big triangle trellis, tomato suspension supports, row cover support, a new garden gate, and deer fencing around one bed.
And thus concludes my most ambitious growing season yet. I learned a lot, got a decent amount of vegetables to eat, got some exercise and building experience, and had a few challenges. For this final post, I will do a quick recap of what I learned and how I might approach my gardening next year.
Since my last post, we basically became lazy and gave up on the garden. No more maintenance was done, certain plants were being eaten by critters that can hop our fence (deer, likely), weeds were growing, and we mostly didn’t even water it. Our tomato plants began looking pretty unruly and sad but somehow were still producing quite a few fruits (albeit with cracks in them).
We did find some curious mushrooms in the garden at some point a few weeks ago.
Even though our tomatoes were still producing, we had had our fill and were ready to be done with the garden. I pulled up all the plants, took down the supports, and disassembled our fence, as we will likely revise our garden defenses next year.
To protect our raised bed soil for the winter, I threw a layer of mulched leaves into the raised beds. I just raked some piles of leaves, drove my mower over them a couple of times, and scrooped them into the beds. According to this Maryland Grows blog post,
We can improve soil health in gardens and on farms by:
limiting soil disturbance (tillage)
planting a diversity of plant species
keeping soil covered throughout the year
These practices reduce erosion and nutrient run-off, build organic matter, and increase carbon storage in soils which helps mitigate the effects of climate change.
We had considered growing a living cover of crimson clover, but we would have had to plant it much earlier and our garden hadn’t quit producing yet.
Things we learned or will try to do differently next time
We want to be more vigilant in protecting squash from vine borers. We’ll likely follow these tips from our blog post:
You can prevent flying adults from laying eggs on your plants in May and June one of three ways. Wrap a collar of aluminum foil around the lower stems. Dust or spray with spinosad or pyrethrum. Or, cover your plants with floating row covers until they flower.
I need to both provide better support for my tomatoes earlier and work harder at pruning them regularly. My plants became way too voluminous and flopped over often before (and after) I had sufficient support built. I had some basic cages and then makeshift boards with twine strung across them, but I will likely build something more ambitious next year, and earlier.
Overgrown tomato plants
We wanted to make sure we had flowers near our crops to attract pollinators, so we planted ornamentals in the raised beds. However, some plants crowded others, and since we now have the rest of our garden path and enclosure, next year we will just plant some flowers in pots nearby.
We are going to increase our garden defenses next year. I believe our short fence worked well for short animals, but eventually deer got the memo about the tasty stuff in the garden and easily hopped the fence. We are going to consider augmenting our short fence with tall fishing line fencing, or perhaps just create PVC frame row covers just for certain vulnerable plants.
I had a lot of fun sharing these updates with the blog, and it also pushed me to do better and stay focused. I’m looking forward to using these experiences to do a better job next year! I also found a ton of useful information on the HGIC website and hope that I was able to point out the breadth of information at your fingertips available on our site.
I’m looking forward vegetable gardening next year and possibly sharing the process again!
Here’s update #4 on my raised bed garden efforts this year. While we are enjoying eating our vegetables, some other creatures are as well. As our summer crops are winding down, we are starting some light fall vegetable crops, and planning to prepare the other beds for the winter.
Critters are back
Last time, we had corn coming up in one bed. It looked like we’d eventually have little corn cobs to pick, but soon after we took the picture below, something came in and ate the entire crop!
The same night our green bean crop, which was providing lots of beans for our dinners, was eaten as well.
That’s pretty much the end of both crops. We got a lot out of our green beans, so that was not a big loss, but we are sad that we didn’t get to see what the corn was like eventually.
This doesn’t have much to do with our vegetables, but we have a potted butterfly milkweed plant placed just inside the fencing, and it was a host to a bunch of insect activity.
We found a couple big, juicy monarch caterpillars hanging out munching on its leaves, and at the same time, a whole crew of orange aphids were sucking sap out of the stem. A few days later, all the leaves were gone off the plant.
We began to have to check our green beans for caterpillars. We’d occasionally find these little guys or their holes in the beans. We think it is a young armyworm caterpillar. The problem wasn’t enough to do anything about — just an entertaining mention.
In this action-packed scene below, we have a tomato hornworm hanging out on my tomato plant while being a parasitized host for Braconid wasps, while a tomato fruitworm lounges above with a fly on top of it.
Powdery mildew and insect stippling on our ornamentals
Our zinnia and marigolds got these white spots all over. At first, I suspected this was powdery mildew on both due to their close proximity and both symptoms appearing white. However, my trusty, knowledgeable editors commented while reviewing this post that the issue on the marigolds was likely feeding damage from insects, but we don’t know what insects. As a reminder; you too can tap the knowledge of HGIC certified professional horticulturists via our free Ask an Expert service. Send in your questions!
The powdery mildew hasn’t transferred to the vegetable crops around them, so we haven’t been too concerned about it. The HGIC article on powdery mildew mentions that overcrowding of plants can create good conditions for mildew to grow due to the limited airflow. Our beds are definitely overcrowded. We’ll be spacing things out next year, and likely putting our ornamental pollinator attractors in pots outside of the raised beds.
We have been really learning that tomatoes are a crop that needs quite a bit of attending to. I should have been pruning suckers maybe every other day. The vines kept growing and growing, covering other plants and laying on the ground. Interior vegetation started browning and maybe getting moldy due to lack of airflow. There were green tomatoes growing, but it took them a while to ripen and be ready. I suspect my lack of pruning allowed the plant to use its energy to grow more vines rather than developing tasty tomatoes.
A few tomatoes on our orange tomato plant were on the vine for a LONG time and developed odd bulging characteristics.
I went hard trimming both plants; cutting off a lot of branches that didn’t have fruit on them, or were growing on the ground. Fruit has seemed to come in faster and more plentiful since, but I need to keep pruning! This is easier and less traumatic for the plant (I would assume) if I just picked those little suckers early.
As the season wears on, more and more of our tomatoes are getting cracking, but the fruits are mostly good to eat. The HGIC page says that this could be caused by excessive fertilizer, but we haven’t added anything to the soil. It mentions irregular watering could do it, and I suspect that may be the culprit. My wife and I have been in a perpetual, “Hey, you’ve been watering the garden these last few days, right?” “Uh, no, I thought you were” cycle recently. We’ll need to keep vigilant with our chores!
The future of this garden
So what’s next? We’ll see how long our tomatoes keep producing. Krysten planted a couple kale seeds and winter squash seeds that are coming up. We don’t have a grand plan for these, but we’ll see how they do.
For the rest of the beds, we will likely pull the leftover ornamentals and the tomatoes once done, and plant crimson clover cover crop. Cover crops lessen soil erosion during the winter, add organic material when turned under in the spring, improve soil quality, and add valuable nutrients. In the spring, we just mow it (in our case, in the raised beds, we will string trim it) to kill it, then later turn it over into the soil.