Eric’s Pet Plant(s): Vegetables! Fighting Pests with Healthy Plants and Companion Planting

Our friend Eric has again turned from his many plant charges at Yale to take another run at his home vegetable garden. And I do mean run; what follows is a drive-by “do-this” list from someone who knows what he’s talking about…and was, when he sent it, just about to go on a well-deserved vacation.

lettuce interplanted with broccoli

According to Eric, "The broccoli and lettuce are interplanted to maximize space and the broccoli provides just enough shade for the lettuce in the long sometimes hot days in June. Note the (untreated!) rough lumber for the raised bed." Works just as well with the red cabbage in the foreground.

In The Vegetable Garden

By Eric Larson

Every so often I get a response that I think deserves inclusion in the next article. I always ask permission, because that was the way I was brought up, and Elene thoughtfully allowed her words to grace the page, adding lipstick to this pig as it were.

“Eric,  enjoyed the lettuce article, she wrote, “I plant lettuce at my front entrance and visitors always comment about it.  Sometime I soak my lettuce in cold water with salt – seems to get rid of unwanted critters.  I then wrap it in a cotton dishcloth and keep in the fridge for latter consumption. This is great in the summer when the lettuce gets a little wilted after picking and saves me lots of time later in the day while preparing meals. Elene”

All gardeners have had to deal with “critters” of one sort or another. I have been asked about deer, rabbits, skunks, groundhogs, moles, voles, cabbage worms, aphids, thrips and the bug list goes on.

There are a few bugs that, like deer and slugs, bother a large number of plants, and there are others that are more host-specific, like cabbageworms.  I have discovered that these are not attracted to red cabbage for some reason, perhaps having to do with the kind of colors their eye’s receptors pick up.

More generally, there are many cultural activities that one can engage in to lessen the chance of insect invasion, and by that I do not mean attending opera and learning to read Latin.

Proper spacing of plants ensures air circulation, lessening fungal problems like last year’s  tomato blight.

Good soil preparation is also a key. A great gardener I met in France, Princess Sturdza, told me that it is ALL ABOUT preparing the soil for each plant, THAT is the secret to gardening. Well, there are many secrets, but that is a good one.

Get a soil test to learn the nutrient content of your soil, and don’t forget to ask for results about lead and other heavy metals. Many soils here in New Haven, for instance, are contaminated from the munitions works that had their day in past years. If your soil has serious problems, you can use raised beds filled with screened topsoil or planting mix from a garden center. The basic macronutrients, NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potash) are important, but so are the trace elements. These can be added to your soil any number of ways, but compost is among the easiest and cheapest.

Don’t walk on your garden soil when it is wet, or at all if you can help it. Create paths, using stones, bricks or other material to spread your weight when you stroll through your garden. There is nothing like visiting the garden after a summer rain, when you can feel the plants taking in the much-needed water. But by walking on the ground when it is wet, you are compressing the soil structure into hard-to-penetrate clumps.

Think of a sponge, but a sponge that doesn’t recover after it has been squeezed. Plants need air as much as water, and the voids between the soil clumps are as important as the nutrition in the soil.

It’s also important to water well, less often. Drip irrigation is excellent, once one has figured it out for each plant.  I like hoses myself, because some plants need more water than others, even the same genus, species and variety.  They just do. Perhaps one plant is in a bit more sun or in a patch of soil with more peat moss in it. Peat moss is very ‘droughty’ as we used to say in Kentucky.

Companion planting is placing vegetables, flowers, trees and shrubs together in certain combinations that offer synergistic qualities. This is often spoken of in terms of protection from pests: marigolds deter some nematodes, small worm-like creatures that live in the soil and destroy plant roots. Wormwood is supposed to ward off slugs and snails.

But companionship can also offer other benefits, sometimes in multiples. One of my favorite examples is the “Three Sisters” of the First Peoples: corn, beans and squash. The corn provided a trellis for the pole beans; the beans helped stabilize the corn, lessening the threat of ‘blow down’ and also provided nitrogen (being legumes, they ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil from the air), and the squash covered the ground, shading out weeds and lessening soil moisture loss through evaporation. Three plants, four benefits and no extra work or expense.

Disclaimer: The opinions and thoughts expressed within these columns are not those of Yale University, Marsh Botanical Gardens, or Leslie Land. They are personal reflections on life, plants, humankind and the daily miracles that come my way.

Meanwhile, over in the Hudson Valley

companion planting, squash with peas

winter squash and bush peas as companions. The squash is so new it hasn't been thinned yet.

This is a picture from our own garden. The baby squash and early peas don’t look exactly chummy, but that’s partly the camera angle and partly the whole point.

Instead of having their own row somewhere in the garden proper, the peas are at the edge of the winter squash bed. By the time the squash vines are ready to cover that space, the peas will be history.

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