June is just around the corner, the month when all of this gardener’s dreams for the season seem to coalesce. School will be out and I can be in the garden every day, taking breaks from transplanting tomato seedlings or weeding onions to pop a just-picked strawberry in my mouth while watching Reilly the Brittany tug at pea vines.
In this column, I offer selected gardening tips and helpful ideas gleaned from my upcoming book, “The New England Gardener’s Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, to be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. For more tips on successful gardening, visit http://www.facebook.com/negardener.
Hardening transplants of summer crops
Use the first week of June to harden transplants of tomatoes and other summer crops before planting them in the garden. Whether home-grown or purchased from a greenhouse grower, transplants will need gradual acclimation to the full sunlight and wind that they will soon experience.
We use our sunny porch railings and steps for this task. On the first day, in the morning, we move the flats of seedlings to the porch and give them an hour of angled light as well as exposure to wind. If the wind is hard and constant, we either delay hardening by a day or place the plants where the wind is buffered.
Each day we extend this outside time by an hour, so that by the end of the week the plants are able to remain outside until planted in the garden. Moisture loss from the pots increases under these outdoor conditions and we adjust the frequency of watering as needed.
Protect planted seedlings from desiccating wind
After planting, seedlings exposed to wind may lose moisture from their leaves faster than their limited root systems can absorb water from the soil. Inserting windbreaks made of cedar shakes or other thin wood into the ground next to the plants will help reduce water loss on windy days.
Wait to late in the month to mulch vegetable plants
Don’t be in a hurry to mulch your just-planted tomatoes and other vegetable plants. Let the soil continue warming until late June, then put down a water-conserving mulch such as straw, compost, or shredded leaves.
Support peppers and eggplants with a bamboo stake
Place a bamboo stake next to pepper and eggplant seedlings when you set them out. As the plants get top heavy with fruit, you can tie them to the stake to prevent toppling.
Use cutworm collars on all vegetable transplants
Cutworms are moth caterpillars that spend the day hidden in the soil, emerging at night to cut succulent young stems to the ground. In just a few nights, they can devastate recently-planted crops, including transplants of tomato, pepper, eggplant, cucumbers and squash.
Cutworms can be thwarted with collars of newspaper rolled around the stem before planting. The collars should extend at least an inch above and below the soil line. By the time the newspaper disintegrates, the stem is too tough for cutworms to damage.
Monitor compost pile temperature
Take your compost pile’s temperature every day using a long-stemmed compost thermometer. When the temperature in the center of the pile starts to decline, its time to turn the pile, moving material on the outer edges into the middle. This is easily done be simply forking the contents of the pile into an empty bin, then starting a new compost pile in the emptied bin.
The tomato grower’s dilemma: to stake or cage
Tomato plants must by supported off the ground, particularly where slugs are common. Upright plants take up less garden space and the enhanced air circulation reduces foliar and fruit disease.
Which method of support, stakes or cages, is best? While both have their merits, I recommend cages for three reasons: less maintenance (no pruning), more (if slightly smaller) tomatoes, and less sunscald.
Staked tomatoes require pruning, the removal of lateral or side shoots that appear in the leaf axils between the stem and the leaves. If not removed, these shoots compete directly with the main stem, weakening it. Strong side shoots loaded down with fruits can easily break their attachment to the main stem and all is lost. At the same time, removal of the side shoots reduces foliage cover, increasing the chances of fruit sunscald. A staked tomato is a stressed plant.
Caged tomatoes do not require pruning. The fruiting side shoots are supported by the cage wire while the abundant foliage cover protects the fruit from sunscald injury. True, the heavier fruit load will delay ripening a bit and result in somewhat smaller fruits.
If you decide to go with cages, build your own out of concrete reinforcement mesh. The openings are wide enough (six inches) for your hand to reach in and harvest tomatoes with ease. And they will last forever. Other tomato cages are flimsy by comparison.
A cage five feet tall will support most tomato varieties. A five-foot length of five-foot-wide mesh can be rolled into a cylindrical cage with an 18-inch diameter. A six-foot length will produce a 21-inch diameter. Form the cylinder by hooking the two cut ends of the mesh together, then remove the bottom rung to form prongs to push into the soil. For stability, tie the cage to a strong stake driven into the ground.