August 11, 2013

A challenging year for gardeners

Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection

— This has not been a particularly good year for vegetable gardeners. The weather has been temperamental, hot and dry early on with drought conditions throughout most of April and early May, then turning wet and cold in mid-May and remaining so through June and the first half of July.

In fact, it rained pretty much every day for six weeks straight, pouring, driving rain. Every shower was a deluge. And to make things worse, nights were often cool, limiting evaporation. 

Standing water became common and many gardens remained saturated for prolonged periods. Plants suffered. When water stands or soil becomes saturated, oxygen becomes unavailable for uptake through the roots. Without sufficient oxygen, roots become damaged. Plants decline and may die. Gardeners refer to this condition as “wet feet.”

One Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer has avoided such growing problems. She ranks among the prepared gardeners who were able to face the challenges. She is using properly constructed raised beds, plastic row covers and a hoop house (mini-greenhouse). Instead of lost plants and poor yields, her gardens are thriving.

She has agreed to open her gardens to the public and host a tour and open house. The event will feature discussions on growing, composting, drip irrigation and other subjects pertinent to successful vegetable gardening. Master Gardeners will be available to answer questions about starting a garden or improving an existing one, caring for your garden, good gardening practices and more.

It will be  held at 1 p.m. Aug. 18. It is free, but donations to the Franklin County Master Gardener Program will be accepted. To register, call 483-7403 or email Directions will be provided when you register.

Raised beds warm up quickly in spring. And, if properly constructed, dry out faster after a rain. In addition, they are designed so they can be covered to keep rain out.

Soil conditions can be more easily controlled. For starters, it’s easier to begin with superior quality soil than it is to improve poor soil. You can fill newly-built raised bed structures with soil mixtures that have been amended to meet the needs of any crop. Better root growth from improved soils will result in higher yields and lush growth of ornamentals. As beds are built up, compost or other forms of organic matter can be mixed and used to further enhance soil structure.

By some estimates, the yield from raised beds can be two to three times greater. That’s because they are just wide enough to allow a person to reach the center of the bed while working from the sides. You don’t walk in the beds, so they don’t require the usual space between rows. More plants can be grown in a comparable area.

Raised beds are low-maintenance, too. They keep plants organized and confine soil and debris within their borders.

Plastic tarps or row covers can help keep rain off plants and soil. (They can also be used to extend your growing season and deter pests and diseases.) And raised beds can be designed so they can be quickly covered with plastic film suspended over the beds on hoops made of plastic, metal, wire or wood and secured in place with soil, boards, pipes or similar materials.

The use of plastic covers requires careful management because temperatures can very quickly become much higher. Plastic covers should be removed, opened or lifted whenever possible to promote movement of air.

Hoop houses can also be used to protect plants from too much rain. They have also proven effective in extending the growing season.

Like raised beds, container gardens enable you to optimize your soil conditions. They can be easily moved under shelter (i.e. onto a porch) when there is too much rain. And I know of gardeners who have built small plastic tents they place over their containers for protection from the rain and cold.

The main thing to remember, when we have too much rain, is to try and keep the soil dry and additional rain off, if at all possible. If cool temperatures exist at the same time, covering your gardens with clear plastic to retain heat in the evening and to keep additional rain off will also help.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone,12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email