In real estate — and home gardening — one thing to remember is location, location, location.
The ideal garden spot offers all-day full sun, well-draining but moisture-retentive soil and easy access to the hose for the inevitable dry spells.
Just as important are following some basic practices to ensure good soil health and creative thinking to transform less-than-perfect places into productive locations.
Once you find that sweet spot for tomatoes and other favorites, it seems reasonable to grow them there again and again. It is possible to reap repeated success, but most likely, the sweet spot will sour and produce wimpier plants, while pesky bugs and plant diseases increase.
“You have to rotate things,” said Robin Gorrell, an Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Seneca County. Pest populations can build up in soil over time. This is especially true of tomatoes, among the most popular plants.
Crop rotation, a principle widely practiced by generations of farmers, renews the soil to keep it productive. Plus, by keeping the host plant out of the area for several seasons, pest and disease problems tend to die out.
“In some places they can grow corn after corn,” said Kris Swartz, a Wood County Farm Bureau member and past president of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. That’s not the case with his farm. He relies on clover, wheat and soybeans as part of the rotation schedule with corn. Swartz was recently recognized with the Olin Sims Conservation Leadership Award by the National Association of Conservation Districts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Swartz is a Wood County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor.
For Bob Rothwell, an OSU Master Gardener Volunteer in Washington County, the wait between tomato plantings is four years. The same wait period applies to tomato’s nightshade family cousins: potatoes, peppers and eggplant, which can attract some of the same problems.
Rothwell keeps records on what’s been grown in his 20 cultivated beds. He uses members of major plant families to fill the beds between tomato (nightshade) plantings. For instance, one season it’s members of the mustard family, such as cabbage and turnips; then legumes, including peas and beans; and others such as lettuce, spinach, chard, onions and garlic. Legumes add some nitrogen to the soil, replacing this essential element needed for plant growth, said Gorrell.
While infrequent, soil-borne pests can affect some flowers, said Pamela J. Bennett, the Ohio State Master Gardener Program director. “Rotation is always a good idea.”
A few years ago downy mildew showed up as a fatal problem for impatiens, popular summer annuals for shaded places. The soil-borne problem can persist for years, Gorrell said. She has found impatiens available again and tried them with success in her woodland landscape. Those who had impatiens affected by the mildew can use New Guinea type impatiens or wax begonias as replacements.
Tips from the gurus
Master Gardener Volunteers and other seasoned growers have several suggestions for greater success with vegetables.
- Choose disease resistant varieties. Generally the more initials after the name of a tomato, the more ills it resists. Tomatoes are especially prone to diseases and pests, Pamela J. Bennett said.
- Use new potting soil each season for containers.
- Remove old vegetable plants as soon as they stop producing. Put them in the trash, not the compost pile, where pests may survive and then be spread to other areas of the garden or landscape.
- Watch out for walnut trees. They produce a substance called juglone that can stunt or cripple nearby tomatoes and other sensitive flora.
- Rotate root crops. Wire worm builds up where potatoes, carrots and other root crops grow repeatedly, Bennett said.
- Use the shade of taller plants to provide a summer environment for lettuce and other lovers of cool conditions. Bob Rothwell relies on an arch of woven wire fence to support vegetable vines. Below these he grows lettuce.
- Plant fast growing radishes in the same row as slow-to-germinate carrots. As the radishes are harvested, carrots fill in, said Robin Gorrell.
- Cultivate good soil. Adding compost, growing cover crops and using crop rotation increase the diversity of soil microbes that benefit plants, said Kris Swartz. The more types of life in the soil, the better it is for the plants.