Winterizing a Garden in February?

Q.  We just moved into this house in late December.  The previous owner has a vegtable garden full of tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage, potatoes, pumpkin, red and green peppers, jalepenos, and I think grapes.  Unfortunately, the garden has not been tended to in months and I have no idea what I am doing, but i would love to give it a try this spring.  Is it too late to “winterize” my garden? If not what do I do?

A.  The first thing to do with any garden, after the harvest, is to remove all the old vegetation and clean the ground completely.  This is doubly important in your situation, where the plants have stayed in the garden for several months after the harvest.

Diseases and bugs have likely taken up residence in those places, and you need to remove all plant materials from the garden entirely.  If you can’t haul them off you should burn everything.

Before doing that, make a detailed map of which plants were growing in every part of the garden.  This is a classic case of the need to do crop rotation.  Do not plant nightshade plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) in the same places where any of them were grown last year.  The same thing goes for squashes, and most other plants in the garden. 

You want to make it as difficult as possible for diseases and bugs to get re-established this year.  Bugs and diseases that love one variety may not do as well if a different variety of plant is grown in that spot for a couple of years.

If you can get a big propane torch and and burn the surface of your soil you might be able to kill some bugs and diseases.  Wait until the soil is thawed out, though, as you will want the heat to penetrate as deeply as possible into the soil.

Do not dig or till your soil until you have cleaned as much as possible according to the above instructions.  Putting these old materials into the soil only gives protection to the bugs and diseases that may be harbored there.

In the future, always harvest your crops at peak maturity, then immediately dispose of the plant residue.  If it is clean and disease free it is best tilled back into the soil.  Otherwise, remove it entirely from the garden area.

How Much to Water – Tradition says 1″ Per Week & Mittleider Says 1″ Per Day!

Q.  I came across a question and answer you gave previously (another article which states that 1″ of water in the beds is needed each time you water) and it confused me somewhat. I have a question about putting an inch of standing water on the beds every day.  Conventual wisdom is an inch of water per week. Are we to apply a week’s worth of water per day to the beds?

A.  An example of the confusion many people experience with this subject can be found in an article by Cornell University Agricultural Extension Division about watering tomatoes.  The author states that tomatoes need 1″ of water per week at a minimum.  In the very next paragraph the article gets more specific and says that a single tomato plant needs between 3 and 5 gallons of water per week.

On the surface, those two statements seem to be very inconsistent, but let’s go a little deeper.  Traditionally, tomatoes are grown much farther apart than we do in the Mittleider Method.  In addition, traditional watering is done by flooding the entire garden area.

Let’s suppose a person’s tomatoes are planted 2′ apart, in 30′-long rows that are 3′ apart.  That garden space of approximately 100 square feet would contain about 16 plants, and would require 64 gallons of water per week (assuming 4 gallons per plant).

Applying 1″ of water to 100 square feet of garden would require 8 1/3 cubic feet, or 62.5 gallons (1 cubic foot is 7.5 gallons), which is consistent with what Cornell recommends, both as to the 1″ and the 3-5 gallons per watering.

In the Mittleider Method 16 tomato plants – planted 9″ apart – will take up 12 lineal feet in a soil-bed.  The width of the planting area is 10″-12″.  Using a 12″ width, it would require 1 cubic foot of water each time(12′ long X 1′ wide X 1/12′ deep =1 cubic foot).  That amounts to 7.5 X 7, or 52.5 gallons per week.

So, you can see that watering 1″ per day in your Mittleider Method soil-bed uses less water than watering 1″ per week by flooding. 

There is more to consider, so let’s carry it a bit further.  If you are growing in heavy clay soil Cornell’s recommended 1″ per week may be sufficient, because water drains very slowly from clay soil.  But if your soil is loamy or sandy, or if the temperatures are hot, the water will be gone from the top 8-12″ of the soil in less than a week, and your plants will be stressing.

Tomato plants grown under traditional watering conditions have to expend substantial energy sending their roots deep into the soil, to follow the receding water, and keep from dying.  This is energy we prefer to use growing and maturing fruit.

Furthermore, flooding the entire area wastes much of the water, and usually much more than 1″ depth is applied, wasting even more.  Also, flooding makes the aisles hospitable places for weeds to grow, increases humidity which invites diseases, and the moisture, weeds, and cooler temperatures nurture the bugs.

All things considered, Dr. Mittleider has it figured out very well, even to the point of declaring that you will save 1/2 or more of the water you traditionally used, and promising a better garden with fewer problems with weeds, bugs, and diseases – without resorting to pesticides and herbicides.