Posts Tagged ‘reducing disease in the vegetable garden’

Computer paper mulch

Remember way back when there was no such thing as a personal computer? That was a long time ago …

A young meadow vole sits in crownvetch.

A young meadow vole sits
in crownvetch.

Back when Eric and I were in graduate school at Penn State, the computer available to students was a giant mainframe that was housed in a computer center on campus. During the summer when we weren’t in the field collecting data, we basically lived in the computer center. This was kind of nice because in order to keep these giant computers from overheating, the whole building had to be air conditioned. Being in the comp center offered a nice break from the hot crownvetch fields where we were using a combination of live trapping and radio telemetry to study the home range and movement patterns of meadow voles.

Meadow vole being fitted with a radio collar

A female meadow vole being fitted
with a radio collar

We spent hours in the comp center entering data by punching cards (anyone remember that?) and later by typing our location data into a remote terminal. We would then plug the data into various programs to plot the locations and run statistical tests. The jobs were submitted to the big mainframe computer, and then we had to wait for them to run and eventually print out on the wide, continuous feed, green bar paper (or sometimes a heavier weight white paper). Depending on the job queue, it could take quite a while to get a printout. My how technology has changed since those days!

Anyway, there IS a point to this story!

Our years at Penn State left us with boxes and boxes of computer paper output which Eric has been storing in his office at the college. Last year, he decided that it would make the perfect mulch for our vegetable garden so he brought two boxes home for use in the Three Sisters Garden.

One year we mulched with composted leaves.

One year we mulched the tomatoes with composted leaves.

We have discovered that for people with busy lives and big vegetable gardens, mulching is one of the keys to success.

A cover of mulch around the plants and throughout the vegetable garden is wonderful way to reduce weeds and thus the time spent weeding.

Mulch also helps maintain soil moisture and keeps the soil from drying out too quickly. This not only saves water because you don’t have to irrigate as often, but the more even soil moisture helps to prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes.

Cucumber leaf ravaged by a fungal disease.

A cucumber leaf ravaged
by a fungal disease.

In addition, mulching the vegetable garden helps to reduce disease problems so you spend less time (and money) spraying fungicides. Fungal diseases, such as early blight, late blight, and septoria leaf spot, are the main destroyer of tomato plants. Downy mildew and anthracnose can wreak havoc on cucumbers, squash, and other cucurbits. The fungal spores that spread these diseases are lurking in the soil just waiting to jump onto your vegetable crops. A layer of mulch can prevent these spores from splashing up onto the leaves of your plants during a rainstorm or when the plants are watered.

Eric laying out the computer paper

Eric lays out computer paper

The mulch we usually use in our vegetable garden is a thick layer of newspaper covered with straw. This works really well and the newspaper prevents most of the straw seeds from germinating in the garden. Last year, we substituted the computer paper for the newspaper – it worked really well!

Since each computer job generated pages and pages of continuous output, we could literally walk backwards through the garden unfolding the paper as we went. When you got to the end of a row, you could either tear the paper at a perforation or turn around and go back to lay down a second (or third) layer. It was easy as long as the wind wasn’t blowing but this is true with the newspaper as well. Usually one of us would spread the straw as soon as the paper was laid down thick enough.

Computer paper ready for a covering of straw

Ready for a covering of straw


Straw completely covers the paper.


Laying computer paper goes much faster than putting down sheets of newspaper and it’s a great way to recycle the boxes of computer output that have been cluttering Eric’s office for all these years! But … I suppose there aren’t too many people that have boxes of old computer paper lying around!

Oh well, mulch that garden with something – you’ll be glad you did! Here’s to a prosperous gardening season with loads of fruits, vegetables, and flowers!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!


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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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