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BACK UP GARDEN OPTIMISM WITH A PLAN

by Dr. Vern Grubinger Vegetable and Berry Specialist University of Vermont Extension

With springtime just around the corner, optimism abounds. Red Sox fans think World Series; school children hope for straight A's; and gardeners dream of their vegetables, fruit, and flowers to come.

My seed catalogs are dog-eared, the dilly beans are gone and it's too early to plant much in the windowsill. So what else is there to do but plan for the best garden ever? Forget last year's weather woes and pest problems. Optimism is the engine of horticulture in Vermont.

These are my predictions for the coming season. The last frost in early April will be followed by steady warming until summer temperatures hit 75 to 80 degrees F--and stay there. Rainfall will be uniformly distributed. An inch or two every week, between Mondays and Fridays, with full sun on weekends.

There may be hail, flood or drought in other states, but we'll have none of that. The season will stretch on into autumn, the first frost holding off until after a bumper crop of fall raspberries has been picked.

Japanese beetles and European corn borer will promote international harmony by doing no damage on these shores. Blights, wilts, scab, and smut will not live up to their names. Birds and bunnies will find enough food in the wild. And the local deer herd will enjoy a menu that doesn't include cultivated crops.

Just in case these fantasies don't come true, I am making some practical plans, too, trying a few new things in the garden this year to tilt nature's balance in my favor. I'm attaching a trickle irrigation system to the outdoor spigot. For a hundred bucks I can get all the components, including a filter, pressure regulator, tubing, connectors and oodles of drip tape. Another 60 dollars buys a programmable water timer. This system will save many hours of dragging hoses and standing around like a human sprinkler. Plus, my plants are going to get the steady supply of water they need to grow best. And since leaves won't be getting wet as often, foliar fungi like tomato early blight will be kept at bay.

Once my crops are growing like Jack's proverbial bean stalk, they'll need plenty of nutrients. Instead of applying lime and fertilizer based on intuition, this year I'm going to test my soil and apply only what's recommended. I'm swearing-off manure that's not fully composted, since it usually contains vast quantities of weed seeds, and it has the potential to cause illness if it splashes onto food crops. Instead, I'll be mixing a couple of inches of mature compost into each bed before planting annuals or spreading a layer around my perennials. However, I'll still get my load of manure--to make next year's compost.

My homeland security plan for the garden emphasizes exclusion to manage the onslaught of flea beetles, potato beetles, and cabbage maggot flies. I'll be covering many early-season crops with a floating row cover like Remay, a lightweight cloth that lets sun and water in, but keepspests out, as long as the edged are covered with soil and weighed down with rocks. The moment young caterpillar pests arrive I'll be ready to with B.t. biological insecticide to keep them under control, without harming beneficial insects. On my apples, I'll use a non-toxic insecticide made from kaolin clay, called Surround, to suppress plum curculio.

For noxious weeds (Is there another kind?) I'm planning on hand-to-hand combat. I've sharpened my trusty old hoes, and even ordered a special 'collinear' hoe, designed by horticultural guru Elliot Coleman. It has a special thin blade for cutting off small weeds in tight places, before they become big weeds.

Of course, the joy of gardening comes not just from triumphs over uncooperative weather and ravenous critters. There's also the pleasure of trying new crops, cultivars, and growing techniques. This year I'll be trying out edamame, also known as vegetable soybean or butterbean. I've ordered multicolored radishes, red and yellow carrots, and purple tomatillos. Like many commercial growers, I'll experiment with planting strawberry plugs in the fall and harvesting fruit the following spring, rather than growing the plants for a whole year before harvest.

Some of my plans will bear fruit, and others may wilt, but one thing I know for sure. By the end of next winter I'll be dreaming of the perfect garden once again.



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