Covid-19 Inspired Gardens Need Care All Summer Long.

Image of tomato plantsGardens are blooming in 2020

The year 2020 is proving to be a challenge for everyone whose health or business has been impacted by the global pandemic.   Every decision maker, from mom and pop to corporate executives and leaders of nations is faced with uncertainty.  Garden centers are a niche market that seems to be doing well.  As people seek self sufficiency and food security, 2020 has become the year for gardening.   Reuters reports that the seed company, W. Atlee and Burpee, sold more seeds in March, 2020 than at any time in its 144 year history.

Food gardens can help buffer the side effects of a global pandemic. 

People ranging from experienced gardeners to beginners are upping their game by starting or expanding food gardens this year.  In fact, while media attention focused on toilet paper shortages, CBS news is reporting shortages of vegetable seeds.  The sudden interest in gardening is not surprising.   Many households are struggling, not only with higher food prices, but also with the difficulties of shopping while maintaining social distance.

My own father, for instance, at age 90, depends on others to shop for him.  He is visually impaired, and likes to shop with someone who can verify his selections.  However, he lives in a COVID-19 hotspot near Gallup, NM. Earlier this year, the governor of New Mexico shut down the entire city to reduce disease transmission.  Many stores are still only allowing one person at a time inside. Needless to say, my father’s shopping choices are limited.

Our own choices have been limited too.  We were in the process of selling our home when the virus hit the national radar.  We couldn’t plant a garden until the second week of June, after we had closed on our new property and unpacked a few tools.

But those who were quick to plant gardens this spring are already enjoying early fruits of their labors.  The fresh fruits and vegetables they harvest not only spare them a few trips to the grocery store (and potential exposure to infected carriers), they also provide them with more bioactive fruits and vegetables–produce that does more to support a healthy immune system.  Best of all, gardening can be carried out for a fraction of the price associated with buying fresh produce.  With so many people out of work, and food prices on the rise, a productive garden can provide families with a buffer against both food and financial shortfalls.

Managing gardens for soil health can reduce gardening expenses and improve crop quality. 

But making those seeds produce a bountiful harvest takes more than an inspired weekend at the garden center.   As we move into mid summer, many first time gardeners are seeking strategies for keeping their garden pest free, weed free and healthy.  This is the stage that separates the productive gardener from the hobbiest who spends more at the garden center than s/he harvests in produce all season.  The successful gardener understands and applies the basic soil health principles discussed in my Building Better Soils class.  The successful gardener uses adapted varieties, proper nutrition, companion planting, and other smart management practices to keep plants healthy.

Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are rarely the best solution. 

While box store garden centers may be quick to stock chemical formulas that home gardeners can use to kill weeds and insects, these are not likely the best approach for producing healthy food.  Neither are products that suggest miraculous growth with a magic blend of synthetic chemical nutrients.

Sure, these products are labeled for use in vegetable gardens. Experts manufacture them, and test them under standard conditions.  But are you reading the labels?  Are you applying the chemicals to specified crops, mixing them properly, and waiting the correct number of days before harvest?   My experience has been that a majority of casual gardeners don’t.

Nonetheless, even when gardeners do follow directions, garden chemicals that eliminate entire classes of pests are also eliminating biodiversity in general.  Often, pesticides you pay good money for are also killing those beneficial insects and microbes in your soil that were managing your pests free of charge!  I’ve seen weekend gardeners wage chemical warfare on  lacewings and ladybugs just because they saw them on their plants.

Chemical residues on crops can reduce nutritional quality and repress immune systems.

One big disadvantage of managing garden pests with chemicals is the impact this can have on human health.  If you are gardening to reap the health benefits of fresh produce, you need to be aware that product safety testing is little more than a political-industrial guessing game.  Sure, some scientific studies are required.  But the process is very limited in scope.  It is designed to protect you from acute poisoning, but it is not designed to ensure that crop nutrition is not compromised, or that a pesticide treated crop will not interfere with your immune response.

Please don’t think I am suggesting that these things should be tested…Such testing would be prohibitively expensive.

However, the body of scientific literature suggesting that pesticides can suppress the immune system is growing.   Common pesticides may inhibit the growth of T-cells and other components of a healthy immune system.  This is not an effect you want to see in the middle of a pandemic.

If you decide you must use chemicals, read the directions, apply properly, and follow up with management practices that prevent the next outbreak, including those suggested in the next paragraph.

Biological and organic amendments, managing soil health, and maintaining balanced nutrition will provide a better harvest. 

A sad truth about gardening is that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.   Pest and fertility management that is effective relies on a multi-faceted approach to monitoring and managing soil health and crop nutrition.  Farmers can quickly justify the cost of laboratory soil analyses.  Home gardeners may also find an occasional soil test more cost efficient than simply clearing out the pesticide shelf at the local garden center, or buying the product your neighbor had good luck with.

A good soil test will reveal the soil pH and cation exchange capacity, and levels of more than a dozen elements plants use as nutrients.  Don’t settle for a test that only measures N, P, and K (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), as this will not give you the information you need to help your plants combat disease.

In the absence of testing, keep in mind that insect pests and plant discoloration are almost always the direct result of crop nutrient deficiencies or environmental stress.  Regular watering, good soil, mulching to retain moisture, and ensuring appropriate sunlight are all good preventive measures.  Foliar sprays with organic amendments that are rich in macronutrients, micronutrients, trace minerals and biologicals can ensure plants are getting the nutrients they need, and even provide relief from minor pest problems.

Preventing pest problems is always preferable to fighting an invasion once it begins.

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