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Homegrown; Some Basic Advice Will Have You Reaping the Rewards of Your Own Garden

June 15, 2008

By DAVID LEWELLEN

Supermarket sticker shock has led more Wisconsinites to think about the satisfaction of growing their own produce.

“It’s so cheap to grow your own vegetables, and it’s so rewarding, and it tastes so much better,” said Marie McGinnis, a master gardener who supervises a plot for the Food Pantry of Waukesha County. “You’ve got to try it, even if it’s one pot on your patio.”

A recent Garden Writers Association survey indicates that 39% of Americans with yards grow some of their own food.

Most people who seek to grow a vegetable garden have planted it by now. But there is still plenty to worry about. How much water or rain is enough — or too much? Why did that leaf turn yellow? What about that insect on the cucumber plant? Is it too late to put in more lettuce?

From an assortment of experts, here are some suggestions for novice and experienced gardeners alike:

– It’s not too late to start. Memorial Day is the traditional date in Wisconsin to set out frost-sensitive plants such as tomatoes and cucumbers. But the growing season runs through September. “Sometimes I don’t get something in until mid-June,” said Ann Wied, consumer horticulture educator with the Waukesha County UW Extension, “and we’ll still get a lot of vegetables or flowers.”

– Mulch. A layer of something on the ground around your plants will help keep water in and weeds out. What that layer is can vary.

Pat Williams, a horticulturist at Johnson’s Nursery in Menomonee Falls, won’t grow tomatoes without spreading black plastic on the ground. Organic mulches — straw from a garden center, or grass clippings from your mower bag — also offer protection for plants, and will enrich the soil in future years. Sharon Morrisey, the consumer horticulture agent for the Milwaukee County UW Extension, recommends not laying down your mulch until mid-June, when the soil is fully warmed.

– Water efficiently. Get a rain gauge; as a general rule, plants need about an inch of water a week. “If (plants are) wilted in the afternoon, you may need to water,” said Barbara Ellis, author of “The Veggie Gardener’s Answer Book.”"If it’s still wilted in the morning, that’s when you really need to do it.”

If the garden looks OK and it hasn’t rained for a week, do the finger test: Stick a trowel about 4 inches down into your soil and feel. If it’s moist at that level, the plants will be fine.

Technique is important in watering. By far the best time is early morning. At midday, water evaporates too quickly; in the evening, water left on leaves overnight invites fungus and mildew. Try to direct the stream of water to the base of the plant in order not to get leaves wet at all, and really soak the roots. One thorough watering a week beats two or three superficial ones. Many gardeners recommend a wand attachment for the hose; McGinnis uses an irrigation system of soaker hoses.

To measure your watering, Morrisey suggests putting a shallow can at the base of the plant.

– Be judicious in attacking bugs. “There are more beneficial insects out there than pests,” Wied said. “If you spray any time you see something, you’ll kill everything, the good and the bad.”

If you use a chemical, follow the directions and know what you’re targeting.

“You shouldn’t just spray something on there in hopes that it will kill whatever insect,” Williams said. Some pests can be handled with low technology — a saucer of beer positioned at ground level will attract most slugs in the neighborhood. So will a rolled-up cone of wet newspaper.

When McGinnis encountered green bean beetles, she used a floating row cover over the bush beans. This arrangement allows sun in but keeps bugs out, as well as deer and rabbits.

Tom LeMoine, a master gardener who supervises a plot for Harvest for the Hungry, also suggested that a strong stream of water can knock pests off — but do it first thing in the morning.

– Keep plants neat and clean. Partly this is aesthetic, but it may also fend off disease and bugs, although Ellis said, “Healthy vegetable plants can deal with more disease than you think.” Trimming off blossom-less branches of tomato vines will encourage the plant to put more energy into fruit rather than leaves. Take yellow leaves off your plants, but don’t compost them — you don’t want to introduce disease in the pile.

– Get two crops from one row. The lettuce and radishes that you are enjoying now will probably be done by July. Rather than let the space lie fallow, you could put in a crop of bush beans, or wait until the promise of cooler weather in late August and plant more lettuce for fall. Other combinations are available; check the “days to harvest” information on seed packets.

– Keep a journal. “Most of us learned by trial and error,” Williams said. If you take a few minutes once a week to write down what works and what doesn’t, it will be a big help next year. Williams also suggests saving seed packets and noting which kinds worked well.

– Relax. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information, much of it conflicting. Some people also have the best of intentions, but run out of time.

“If you have a busy summer, just plant your tomatoes,” said Wied of the Waukesha County UW Extension. “People can do this without a lot of knowledge.”

Ask the experts

No article or publication can cover all the questions or problems that gardeners may encounter. But there are plenty of places to turn for answers.

– The University of Wisconsin Extension maintains offices in every county to assist with gardens, among other agricultural topics. Its home page is www.uwex.edu/ces/wihort. Or call your county extension agent.

Waukesha County: (262) 548-7779, Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-noon

Milwaukee County: (414) 290-2410, Monday-Wednesday, 9 a.m.-noon.

Ozaukee County: (262) 284-8288. Monday and Thursday, 1-4 p.m.

Racine County, (262) 886-8451, Tuesday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-noon.

If your county agent does not answer questions, any Wisconsin resident can call any of the above numbers.

– For information on donating excess produce, call the Hunger Task Force at (414) 777-0483 or the Food Pantry of Waukesha County at (262) 542-5300. Both locations can accept fresh produce directly or refer gardeners to closer pantries.

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