Spending the extra effort to start with good soil is an investment in your summer crops, as well as an acknowledgement of the Carpinteria Valley’s limited and precious water resources. As southern Californians facing a future where the effects of climate change remain uncertain, we must do everything we can to be wise stewards of our lovely valley by growing organic, water-wise gardens. Two other ways in which we can reduce our water needs and build soil health is by laying drip irrigation and spreading organic mulch.
Drip irrigation (tubes with emitters punched into the line) lies on top of the soil, gently soaking plant roots. This is far preferable to using hoses to water summer crops from above, since many veggies such as tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers are especially susceptible to powdery mildew, blight, and rust, diseases spread by wet soil splashing onto foliage from overhead watering.
Organic mulch is a thick (2 to 3 inch) layer of wood chips, straw, or leaves laid over the irrigation and the soil. Mulch protects the billions of microorganisms thriving in your freshly nourished garden from the damaging effects of the sun. Mulch also slows evaporation from sun or wind, allowing one watering to go much further. Ideally, you should be able to reap bountiful harvests of summer veggies from one thorough watering per week.
Once you have established healthy soil and appropriate irrigation, it’s time to get planting! Many summer veggies can grow quickly from seed once soil temperatures stay consistently above 65 degrees, including beans, cucumbers, summer and winter squash, beneficial flowers, and tomatoes. Another option is to buy transplants, or plants several weeks old in pots from the garden store. A special trick for growing healthy tomatoes is to bury the entire plant halfway in soil—since tomatoes are a vine that roots from the stem, half-burying the plant ensures a healthy root system.
Make sure to include a few beneficial flowers in your summer garden for companion planting to call in insect pollinators. Marigolds, sunflowers, yarrow, calendula, zinnias, and flowering herbs such as basil, dill and fennel are especially appealing as food and habitat for our insect friends upon whom more than 85 percent of our food crops rely. Another flower that should be included in every summer garden is our native species of milkweed, narrowleaf milkweed or Asclepias fascicularis. This milkweed is a crucial food and habitat plant for our beloved monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, which are facing near-extinction due to habitat loss and chemical poisons. Narrowleaf milkweed is not to be confused with many of the tropical orange and red-flowered milkweeds available at garden stores, which can actually be detrimental to the health of monarchs in the long run. For more information on this topic, see my March article.
Make sure to observe your garden carefully so that excessive insect damage or disease can be nipped in the bud. One of my favorite remedies for insect and disease troubles is neem oil, an organic compound available at garden stores or online, which is used as a foliar spray to prevent insect invasions and slow the spread of disease. However, if you make sure to build healthy soil and do not water from above, summer plantings should mostly take care of themselves. One mid-summer step you might consider is to feed plants with fish emulsion or liquid seaweed, natural fertilizers which can help plants to outgrow many common pests and diseases.
Growing a summer garden provides a beautiful and healthy learning experience and meaningful connection to the natural world. Growing even a small garden provides loads of fresh produce and herbs and creates more food sources and nesting spaces for the native insects who are such a crucial part of our local ecosystem. For those of you just starting out, or considering switching to organic production, the community garden hosts classes throughout the growing season for beginning home gardeners which are usually free and always open to the public.
“Summer garden starters: Part 1” ran in last week’s paper, Vol. 25, No. 36. Pick up a copy at CVN’s office or read the story online at coastalview.com.