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!
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.
Being supported is important. For you. For me. And for our garden plants.
The right garden supports help keep plants healthy. Lifting them up, up, up on stakes, cages and trellises boosts air circulation. This cuts down on rot and fungal disease.
Garden supports help keep heavy blooms from snapping stems. Is there anything worse than finding your prize delphinium prone in the morning, her poor neck broken by fierce wind?
Supports also expose vegetables and fruits to more sun, helping them to ripen faster. And they make picking easier, lessening knee and back strain.
Best of all, plant supports save space. Vertical gardening gives you a good harvest in a smaller footprint.
Place stakes, cages, and trellises early so plants are supported from the get-go. This avoids unpleasant wrangling of jungle-like growth later which is not good for you, your plants, or your resolution to avoid colorful language.
Anchor supports deeply to give them strength and stability when the inevitable high winds and rains come and plants grow large and heavy.
Some plants naturally cling with tendrils. Others need ties. Use a soft material like a strip of an old t-shirt, pantyhose, or reusable Velcro plant ties.
Plant supports can be store-bought or homemade. Use wood, bamboo, string, and other materials to make your own. Or hit your favorite local garden center, supercenter, or online store.
What type of supports are best?
Stakes are good for tall plants with a single flowering stem such as foxgloves or lilies. Some even come with hoops to lasso stems. My daddy staked his 10-foot tomatoes and harvested with a ladder. It was a point of pride.
But cages work better for heftier plants like tomatoes. Simply a frame with a grid, cages are good for shrubby edibles like tomatoes and eggplants.
I like square cages that fold flat for storage, but any sturdy cage will do. Steer clear of flimsy ones which tip over with the slightest provocation, also inducing colorful language.
Trellises are upright panels with criss-crossed wood or string. Both single panels and A-frames work well. In our demo garden, we use upright metal frames with string mesh.
Trellises are ideal for plants that twine or cling with tendrils such as peas, cucumbers, and pole beans. You can also use them for melons and squash provided you give the heavy fruits some extra support.
That’s right, boys and girls. It’s time to talk about cantaloupe bras. Laugh if you will, but strips of my old t-shirt served well to lift and separate cantaloupes on our demo garden trellis.
Teepees provide both support and a pleasing focal point. Use them for vining plants or those that climb with tendrils. Make a fun kids’ teepee by growing beans and morning glories on a frame.
Hybrid supports work well for specific plants. Circles with grids and legs are terrific to prop up perennials with large, heavy flowers such as peonies.
Look up. Think up. And grow your plants up with the right supports.
By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.