Fine Tuning My Garden

Reader Contribution by Laura Damron
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I think most gardeners are, by nature, observant people. We know where the really sunny side of the garden is, as well as the spot that’s a little shadier than we’d like. The trick is taking that information, and using it to site your plants accordingly, so that each plant is in its ideal habitat. In a perfect world, that is. And, I don’t know about you, but my world is pretty darn far from perfect.

But what about plants that need a little more help? Our Pacific Northwest summers are on the mild side by most standards, making it difficult for me to get the yields I’d like from my heat-loving plants such as tomatoes. For years I kept saying I’d build a greenhouse, but let’s face it … greenhouses are expensive! So, I’d just let my tomato plants plod along, greedily munching the ripe ones when no one was looking, and cursing all of the tiny green ones lost at the end of the season.

Not so, this year! I still don’t have the greenhouse of my dreams, but I did put up a little PVC-framed enclosure for my tomato bed and my plants have started growing like crazy. I was so encouraged by the visible difference that it was making that I built another, shorter, one so I could give a couple of eggplants a shot this year. We love to eat eggplant, so it’s always been a bit of a bummer that I couldn’t find a place for it. I also tucked a couple of sweet potato vines in there too, just to see what will happen. The guy at the nursery called them a “novelty” plant for our area (due to the lack of heat) but I’d like to try to prove him wrong.
I employ a few different methods in my garden, where perhaps a little fine tuning on growing conditions might be warranted. I keep a stash of bricks handy, which I like to use around plants that need a little more consistent warmth. The bricks get nice and toasty in the sun, and slowly release that heat later. My pepper plants seem to do much better when they have bricks in with them. You could also use rocks, or jugs of water – really, anything that will collect heat and release it slowly will do. I haven’t used one myself, but those water-filled plastic tomato surrounds work on the same premise.

I also like to stack plants to help manage the exposure of others. For example, I plant cool-weather plants like my kohlrabi behind taller, more heat-tolerant plants that will help provide shade. Corn is a great plant for this type of planting. Last year, I experimented with planting potatoes in with my green beans, to take advantage of the shade that the vines produce. It worked rather well, with one exception – I didn’t leave enough room to easily hill up my potatoes, so it was a little fiddly to keep the new tubers covered. I ended up with a few green ones, but that’s okay … we call it a “learning experience” around here.

Of course, there are other methods available – cloches and colored plastic mulches are two that immediately come to mind. I do occasionally use cloches (usually for seed-starting) but I’ve cooked a few plants using them, as well – sometimes I get a little forgetful and all it takes is a couple hours of full, midday sun to overheat such a small space. It’s all about trying different methods and seeing what works for you.

Finding cooler spots is more of a challenge, the more I think about it. It’s also not a problem I have too much experience with, personally. If I had to try, though, I think floating row covers would be my first choice. The plants would still have bright light, but at least some of the intensity of the sun’s heat would be reflected away. Do any of you in the warmer areas have advice for keeping plants cooler in the heat?Leave me a note in the comments section or over on the Acorn and Thistle Facebook page … I’m curious to hear what works for you!

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