Midsummer is a wonderful time in the vegetable garden. Daily harvests of squash, zucchini, beans, tomatoes, salad greens, herbs & fruit keep my pantry & kitchen well stocked with fresh ingredients for home-cooked meals. But the dog days can be tough on gardens, and gardeners as well. Scorching heat, high humidity and a lack of rain have made this growing season tougher than usual for many farmers and home gardeners. Although Vermont has technically avoided the historic drought currently ravaging crops throughout North America, keeping gardens watered and healthy has been a real challenge —even in the Green Mountain State. Thankfully, rainfall has recently increased for those of us in New England; easing the burden on our wells and watering arms.
This is the time of year when I start to find trouble-shooting questions about insects and diseases in my email and voicemail boxes. If the question comes from far away, I often refer the gardener to Cornell University’s excellent resource, Vegetable MD Online, or I might suggest a book with organic solutions to common vegetable growing problems (see the Garden Library Page here). Insects and diseases are often air-borne, and know no boundaries. At some point in the growing year —regardless of education or experience level— all gardeners will face horticultural challenges. How to keep crops alive during less-than-ideal conditions? “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow” may be a time-worn Chinese proverb —which you may recall that I have mentioned here before— but it’s one certainly worth repeating. When I am out filling my harvest basket each morning, I make it a habit to patrol for pests and diseases on the plants in my garden. Catching little problems when they first appear makes them much easier to manage than when they explode into big disasters …
Take powdery mildew, for example. A common problem in gardens during hot, humid conditions —particularly during long dry spells— powdery mildew is easy to spot on leaves when it makes its first appearance (see photograph below). This air-born fungus can be found on the leaves of everything from beans, summer squash, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and peas to ornamental herbs and flowers like bee balm and garden phlox. Left unchecked, powdery mildew will spread and weaken plants. In addition, mildew infected flower buds will fail to open, reducing yields. Preventative measures such as crop rotation and wide spacing for air circulation will only go so far, as the spores of this fungus travel on the wind. Planting susceptible vegetables and flowers in full sun will certainly help reduce the risk of infection, but in gardens where mildew is an ongoing problem, I like to suggest regular, spray-applications of either neem oil (also acts as an insecticide, so beware of use around pollinators) or homemade anti-fungal solution as a method for controlling this common disease. The easy-to-prepare anti-fungal recipe listed below —made from basic ingredients found in most kitchens— is my favorite, quick and economical powdery-mildew solution …
Powdery Mildew (Pictured on the Leaves of the Summer Squash Above) is Common Both in Mid to Late Summer Potagers and Ornamental Gardens. Easy-to-Control When Caught Early, Spray Applications of Baking Soda Solution Will Quickly Put a Stop to the Spread of Powdery Mildew. Neem Oil Can Also be Used Both Preventatively and as Effective Rx.
Anti-Fungal Baking Soda Solution*
1 Tablespoon Baking Soda
1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil
1 Gallon of Warm Water
Method: Mix 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil with 1 cup of warm water until dissolved. Add the mixture to the remaining warm water and pour as needed into a spray bottle. Apply to all areas of susceptible crops when powdery mildew is first noticed, and continue applications once a week. This solution may also be used preventatively on susceptible crops during hot, humid weather (particularly when there is a lack of rain). Be sure to spray both the underside as well at the surface of foliage on affected plants and nearby crops once every one to two weeks while hot, humid conditions persist.
*divide or multiple this recipe evenly to suit your needs.
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