High-Desert Gardening by Lesley Aine McKeown
The days have warmed, fortunately not to the scorching heat we usually get in June. The warm days and cool nights make for a happy garden.
You can water just once a day if you do it in the evening. But always check your soil to be sure: overwatering in containers is easy to do, and will cause root rot. Put a chopstick six inches into the soil. If the bottom five inches come out wet, you're fine.
Your young seedlings and small plants should have put on some pretty amazing growth over the past few weeks. While pepper plants don't do well when nighttime temps remain below 60 degrees, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers can grow inches in a day! In this part of the series we'll explore how to train and prune your plants for optimum harvest, fertilizing, and pests.
Tomatoes: Depending on the variety, you will be seeing flowering and fruit beginning to set on your plants. One thing that will help your plants produce better is to prune the suckers. Pruning tomato suckers is often recommended because the resulting new stem is competing for nutrients with the original plant. Your plant may have more fruit if you let the suckers grow, but the tomatoes will be smaller and the plant will be more cumbersome, requiring a lot of effort to stake as the summer progresses. Pruning tomato suckers makes your plants more manageable and more robust at the same time. It's easy to pinch them off with your fingers while still small. Finally now is a good time to fertilize your tomatoes, as they are putting a lot of energy into flowering and fruiting. Expect to harvest cherry tomatoes in the next few weeks! It's a bit early to be seeing pests on tomatoes, but always check your plants thoroughly for signs of destruction. Squash: You should be seeing your squash begin to bloom. Squash blooms are among the most beautiful in the vegetable garden. Zucchini, pattypan and crookneck squash flowers are bright yellow and shaped like gramophone bells. Squash plants produce male and female flowers; the male blooms first, followed by the female. If your plant is not “setting fruit” (producing baby squash), you may need to help it along. Pollinating your squash is easy and fun. Blooms open early in the morning, so be prepared to pollinate your plants then. Here's how to sex your blooms — A male blossom is attached to the plant by a slender stem. A female bloom has a swollen base, resembling a miniature squash, attached to the stem. Time for squash sex! Pick the male blooms when they are fully open in the morning. Remove the yellow petals and rub the anthers of the male bloom, which are covered in pollen, against the interior of the female blooms. You can clip the flowers closed with paper clips so you know which ones you’ve done. Voila! Note: If your plants are only producing male blooms, it may be because they're too hot. Squashes flower poorly in periods of high heat or drought, with female blossoms often first to abort. Regular blooming usually resumes once the heat stress ends. Extra male blooms can be cut and placed in a cup of water for two days in the fridge, so you'll be ready when you get a female bloom! One male can pollinate three females.
Squash pests: The squash beetle is the bane of every organic gardener. The only way to rid your plants of them is to pick them off. You'll find them hiding under leaves and the undersides of stems. These bugs inject a toxin into the plant and suck the sap right out of it, leaving yellow spots on your leaves. Adults are dark brown or gray, and nymphs are gray with black legs. They move quickly and often in groups on the undersides of leaves. I keep a jar of soapy water by my plants, and pick the beetles off and drown them, as they emit an offensive odor. Place a wooden board in your garden and the beetles will congregate on the underside at night! Be sure to keep straw mulch away from squash as bugs love to hide in it. Finally, check the undersides of leaves for eggs, scrape them off and drown them. I know this is a lot of information about beetles, but trust me, vigilance now will prevent heartbreak later!
Fertilizer: Now is the time to fertilize your plants. They are putting a great deal of energy into growth, and container plants need extra attention. Follow the directions on your fertilizer of choice, always fertilize in the early morning or evening. Choose a balanced organic fertilizer. I like Dr. Earth Organic or Sweet Corn Nursery fertilizers. Dr Earth’s Pump & Grow Tomato and Vegetable Liquid Fertilizer is particularly easy to use and will feed your plants for two weeks. A short note on companion flowers and plants. Flowers planted among your vegetables can not only be pretty, but helpful too! Placing these flowers near your container veggies can help keep pests away. Opposite is a list of companion flowers and plants. Next: Surviving the high-desert monsoon season, more on pests and diseases, and some tips on how to use your harvest, great recipes and more!
Lesley Aine McKeown has been gardening organically in the Arizona high country for 42 years.