Archive for May, 2012

Nothing better than fresh, home-grown vegetables.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

I KNOW we’re supposed to rotate our vegetable crops in the garden. It’s one of the golden rules of vegetable gardening to help control insect and disease problems. People with small backyard vegetable gardens often have a difficult time rotating crops because their garden space may be too small. This isn’t an issue for our garden; it’s plenty big. My problem is that we didn’t really plant in a systematic way over the last few years. It’s not like we planted randomly but we didn’t group the plants in the right way to make it easy to rotate our crops.

Some of the tomato blights can be reduced through crop rotation.

Some of the tomato blights can be reduced through crop rotation.

Why is it so important to rotate the crops in your vegetable garden? Crop rotation is one of the simplest ways to reduce the buildup of pests and diseases that affect different groups of plants. In addition, some crops, like beans and peas (the legumes), fix nitrogen during the growing season and add this important nutrient to the soil. Crop rotation takes advantage of these factors and moves groups of plants with similar cultural requirements around the garden in a systematic way.

A simple rotation plan divides the vegetable garden into four sections. Vegetable crops are divided into four groups mostly according to family and planted into each of the four sections.

For this rotation plan, the four plant groups are:

  1. Tomato family: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant
  2. Greens and the mustard family: lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts
  3. Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, soybeans
  4. Squash family and Corn: squash, pumpkin, melon, cucumber, and corn

Carrots, beets, onions, and garlic can be planted in any of these sections.

Tomato devastated by blight

This tomato has been devastated by one of the fungal blights.

This simple plan rotates the four groups through each section of the garden so that none is replanted into the same section until the fourth year. The squash family always rotates to where the tomato family was growing the previous year, the tomatoes go where greens were, greens go where legumes were, and legumes go where squash and corn were growing. Easy!

I have one problem with this plan – planting tomatoes and potatoes side by side in the garden. One year we had a really bad infestation of potato beetles that ravaged our potato crop. It was so bad that we ended up spraying them (with Sevin I think). For some reason, this didn’t seem to faze them and I was horrified to discover one day after work that they had moved over to my tomatoes!

Colorado Potato Beetles can be devastating to potatoes and tomatoes.

Colorado Potato Beetles can be devastating to potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Even though it was many years ago, I’m sure Andre remembers me coming to him that evening in an absolute panic exclaiming that “all my tomatoes are going to die and who ever thought that potato beetles would attack tomatoes and they are chewing right through the stems!”

Andre laughed at me because I was really worked up about it. “Calm down!” he said. “Take this and spray your tomatoes tonight. They’ll be fine!” I can’t remember what it was but it worked and my tomatoes were saved but I have been reluctant to plant potatoes and tomatoes together ever since. This is probably why we are having trouble figuring out where we should plant everything this year.

It is important to keep in mind that tomatoes should never be planted in the same area where potatoes were planted the year before and vice versa. We DO follow this practice.

Mexican Bean Beetles really destroyed our bean crop last year.

Mexican Bean Beetles really destroyed our bean crop last year.

Rotating crops in the vegetable garden reduces the need to spray pesticides and fungicides because it doesn’t allow disease organisms to build up in the soil or allow overwintering insects that emerge from the soil in the spring to find their desirable host plants within easy reach. It just makes sense – an inexpensive, environmentally friendly way to have a successful vegetable gardening experience!

Now I’m going back to the drawing board to figure out where we should plant the tomatoes, beans, and cukes this year. The potatoes and onions are already in the ground and the greens are in containers on the deck for easy access at dinnertime and we’ve just started harvesting some delicious spinach for our salads, yum!

Here’s more information on plant groupings for crop rotation.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Dictamnus albus 'Purpureus'

Dictamnus albus, a.k.a. the gas plant, is a beautiful perennial that is hard to find and therefore underused in the garden. It’s such a shame because this is truly a magnificent and long-lived plant.

A mature clump of Dictamnus provides a showy focal point in the garden.

A mature clump of Dictamnus provides a showy focal point in the garden.

We grew Dictamnus for many years at Viette’s. They came bare root every year in our big winter shipment from Holland. I remember how exciting it was to unpack those huge boxes of bare root plants when they arrived. The boxes were layer packed in peat and each new layer was like a Christmas present – Aconitum, Aruncus, Astilbe, Astrantia, Dictamnus, Helenium, Kirengeshoma, Ligularia, Rodgersia, Sidalcea, and so many more awesome perennials!

The bare root Dictamnus were like sticks with roots. We potted them up into one gallon pots and they grew VERY slowly. They never looked like much in the pots – they were always kind of scrawny and they rarely flowered. The plants we brought in were at least 2-year old plants so they filled out pretty well, but they were still a hard sell – that is until they came into bloom in the Viette gardens. When these gorgeous plants were in flower, they sold themselves! That’s the wonderful thing about having beautiful display gardens surrounding your garden center. Blooming plants are very good at selling themselves!

Racemes of colorful flowers bloom from May to June

Dictamnus albus ‘Purpureus’ has striking blush pink flowers with deep pink veins.

Mature Dictamnus grow to 36″ tall and have beautiful glossy green, leathery foliage that forms an attractive clump in the garden. They start out slowly but after about 4-5 years in the ground, they really take off and begin to bloom reliably year after year. These plants are worth the wait!

There are basically two choices when it comes to Dictamnus; the white form, Dictamnus albus, and a blush pink form, Dictamnus albus ‘Purpureus’ which is my favorite. In late spring and early summer, showy spikes of these pink or white flowers rise above the foliage and add a bright spot of color to the sunny garden. As an added bonus, the flowers have a pleasant lemony fragrance as does the foliage.

Striking flowers of DictamnusThe name gas plant comes from an odd characteristic of this plant that, in hot weather, the foliage emits a pleasantly fragrant but flammable gas just beneath the flowers. On windless summer evenings, the gas can be ignited with a match. It’s kind of neat because it results in a brief vapor burn that looks really cool but is harmless to the plant. I can remember some of the guys at the nursery having fun “lighting up” the Dictamnus in the garden during evening breaks when we worked late during the shipping season. Never a dull moment!

There is a downside though. This fun, flammable gas and the lovely lemony fragrance of the plant come from an oil in the foliage which can cause fairly severe skin irritation in some people. I must be one of those people because years ago, I was careless around the plants and ended up with some pretty painful burns on my arms that lasted for a week or so – and I’m not even allergic to poison ivy! Luckily not everyone is allergic to the oil and since this is a fairly low-maintenance plant, once you get it in the ground, you shouldn’t have to do much except stand back and enjoy its beauty!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Dictamnus combines well with other sun-loving perennials like daylilies, bush clematis, Coreopsis, Rudbeckia, and peonies.

Dictamnus combines well with other sun-loving perennials like daylilies, bush clematis, Coreopsis, Rudbeckia, and peonies.

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