September 8, 2011

Companion Group Gardening: Late Summer Notes

Broom corn in early August

It's hard to believe September is upon us and autumn is right around the corner. But here it is, and my summer garden is winding down.

My garden at the end of summer

If you've been following along, you know that this year, I tried a new gardening system, that of planting by companion groups. I also switched to permanent beds instead tilling the entire garden every year. So far I've written about:

Now, I'm reflecting back on the summer and how well this system worked for me.

Okra still producing on the far left, BOSS & squash bed cleaned up,
sweet potatoes & purple morning glories still growing, popcorn on right.

The most time and energy consuming part was creating the beds. The good news is that since they are intended to be permanent, I won't have to do it all from scratch next summer. They are not necessarily meant to be raised, but because our garden is on a slope, we decided to terrace the beds. For this we used logs, for as many as we could anyway. I didn't secure all of them well and some rolled out of place during heavy rains. This also meant some of the good soil washed into the aisles as well. Obviously this is on our list to correct!

In between the rains, we had long, hot dry spells. This is a problem every summer, but I find that a thick mulch helps a lot; not only to help keep the soil moist, but also to keep the weeds down.

The potatoes are long since harvested, but the cowpeas
are still producing. Marigolds in the background.

I've learned in the past, that mulching must be accomplished early in the summer because once harvest and food preserving begin, there's little time for anything else. This year was no exception, except that I did a better job of mulching than last year.

The biggest mulching challenge with the companion group beds, was that not everything grew at the same rate. The 4 o'clocks for example...

4 O'clocks (Mirabilis) produce beautiful flowers of many
colors and the leaves are toxic to Japanese beetles.

were much slower to germinate and grow than their companion Red Pontiac potatoes. That meant I had to delay mulching the potato beds until the 4 o'clocks were up. I found the same thing to be true of several other companion groups I planted.

Some beds grew very few weeds, perhaps because they were mulched so thickly, or because of the companion plants I put there, or perhaps because the beds were so crowded that there was no room for weeds to grow.

Junglized potatoes, bush beans & morning glories

Weed-wise, the biggest problem was morning glories, which I left because they attract beneficial insects. What a mistake. These were quickly out of control. In fact, they completely took over my Brandywine tomatoes.

Morning glories engulfing Brandywine tomatoes

A couple days ago it looked like the Brandywines were dead, so I started to pull everything out of the bed. Once the morning glories were gone however, I discovered.....

one tomato on plants that were struggling to stay alive.

The Roma tomato plants have been pulled.
Swiss chard, calendula, and marigolds are still producing. 

My Roma tomatoes, which performed brilliantly at first, finally did succumb to anthracnose as well as the blight. Last year anthracnose set in early, so that I got less tomatoes from the 30 plants I put in, than this year's 18. I saved seed from those plants last year, wondering if they could possibly develop and pass on some sort of immunity. I don't know about that, but I do know that I had beautiful tomatoes until the middle of August.

Disease, in fact, was a bigger problem for me this year than insects. I actually had very few insect problems, perhaps because of the companion groups? Disease however, is more difficult to deal with in the garden, and I'm not sure what the answer for it is. Most organic gardening books recommend prophylactic use of fungicides, but I've never actually found that to be very helpful. Obviously, this is a concern.

Other beds are still producing. We're still getting a few melons, especially watermelons, though they haven't been very tasty this year, bland actually. I'm also still getting a lot of okra, which always performs well here.

Okra with pods, pink cosmos,
& purple morning glories

Other things haven't done so well, like pumpkins, butternut squashes, luffa sponge gourds, and peppers. This wasn't just plants having problems, but seeds not germinating. Some of this was saved seed, some purchased. Other things that didn't come up included eggplant, habaneros, summer savory, poppies, pyrethrum, valerian, basil, and borage. All no shows. Peppers I finally bought plants of, and am just now getting a decent few. Between too few plants and blossom end rot, I won't have enough for a winter's supply of frozen, but something is better than nothing.

Some things are yet to be harvested, like my late Red Pontiac potatoes, onions, popcorn, the rest of the broom corn and sweet potatoes...

Sweet potatoes and purple morning glories

Speaking of the popcorn, it was the only plant that sustained damage when we had the storm.

Wind blown popcorn behind the sweet potatoes.

In reflecting on what I'll do differently next year, there are several things on my list:
  • proper borders for the beds
  • start slow germinators and growers earlier
  • mulch or weed the aisles between the beds earlier
  • perhaps widen some of the aisles
  • pull every morning glory I see sprouting

I think this was the prettiest garden I've ever had, and overall I'd say the experiment was a success. It will be easier next year, because I already have the beds made. I also have my basic companion groups figured out, though I plan to expand and improve upon the groups. All in all, it's one experiment I'm glad I tried.


Lynda said...

Leigh: Don't let that morning glory go to seed...even a tiny bit. I planted beautiful morning glory on our fence 30 years husband had a fit..he calls it fancy bind-weed...anyway we still have the darn stuff they are a nightmare.

I like your yearly review..think I'll work on doing the same thing.

Jane @ Hard Work Homestead said...

I really think that anyone that was able to harvest food this year should get a pat on the back. It was such a bad year on so many levels, weather, bugs, disease, low germination. Glad to see you had so many successes.

The Apple Pie Gal said...

We haven't found a great insect treatment either. The worst for us is the Japanese Beetle, boy they love green beans and fruit trees here! Disease never used to be a problem until the last two summers and the tomatoes and peppers seem to get hit the hardest. They look like dead sticks with fruit on them if you are lucky! Companion planting wise, I don't think I was as intense as needed either. The one combination that seemed to help most was the radish gone to seed in the squash type plantings. The fact that they are all still surviving is a small miracle. By now they are usually wiped out. But every last one is still producing! So I will keep that little trick for sure! Don't know if it was a fluke or not.

Leigh said...

Lynda, "fancy bind-weed." Excellent descriptive name for it. I've been pulling it out of the main vegetable garden, but it's been harder to control than in the field corn. I've been harvesting that for the past few days and the morning glories are terrible. I bemoaned all the seeds and what this will mean next year. What a nuisance.

Jane, that certainly seems to be true, doesn't it? Thank you for reminding me to be thankful for what I did get!

Diana, it seems to be getting worse every year. Are you collecting those seeds? I will have to try radishes with squashes next summer. It's worth a try! Thanks for the tidbit!

Andrew said...

Ah the morning glories. When I was 8 or 10 they looked a lot like what I was growing next to the house as a kid's project that was a morning glory. I convinced mom not to pull them because I thought it was pretty. And well, they kind of are. Bind weed is accurate though.

Control: Yep, getting the seeds is a good idea. I've been pulling its sprouts out of my garden every year for the past, oh twenty years, since that fateful season when I convinced mom to let it grow. It does just about as well with root rhizomes as it does with seeds. And I've heard scary reports that it can put those down to a depth of about three feet or so. Well, in the spring those arrow-shaped leaves are pretty characteristic and after mid-summer it gives up sprouting. So, with some rigorous manual weeding I control it in my own garden. Darn if I've managed to get rid of it. :(

Nina said...

Planting some companion plants is something I've always done, just from common sense and experience. The problem is of course when one of those plants has hardy seed, like the Morning Glory and becomes invasive. It's been an odd garden year this year, with a cold, wet, long spring and half the summer being incredibly hot with drought conditions. It's been so cold lately, that tomatoes just aren't ripening. Last year I got 13 pumpkins from 3 plants. This year, nothing at all from 3 plants.. odd year indeed.

bspinner said...

From the photos you've posted I agree with how beautiful your garden beds are. I think your blue morning glory are so pretty but then I don't have to deal with them. You and Dan sure have come along way since you bought your farm.

Sarah said...

What an amazing garden and what an abundance and variety of planting! Even if some thinngs didn't come up or produce! Mom has had her garden in beds for years now instead of one giant tilled garden. I love to walk through it. Its so inviting done that way!

Suzan said...

Love seeing your 4 o'clocks and morning glories. Reminds me so much of my Grandmother's beautiful garden in southern Indiana. All you need are the morning doves cooing in the background!!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. I haven't tried companion planting yet but I might next year. How difficult is it to harvest your crops? It looks like it is harder to find ripe veggies with companion planting.

Sinus Symptoms said...

Ask help from other farmers. Their opinion matters.

Leigh said...

Andrew, I think we're got a long uphill battle ahead of us. We bought the place in 2009. The house had been empty for several years and the land neglected. Prior to that, the owner was terminally ill and did nothing with it then either. Consequently, the weeds are firmly entrenched: morning glories, sedge, blackberries, briars, nightshade, and numerous others I haven't identified. This is our second year with this garden, and except for letting the morning glories get out of control, we're actually making some progress!

The field corn is the bigger concern. It's the first year of trying to grow anything there, but it's a larger area (about 1/2 acre) so it's harder to cultivate by hand. Since we don't use herbicides, it's worse than the veggies!

Nina, at least morning glory seedlings are easy to pull! I only wish that were the case with the bermuda grass that's trying to take over.

So far, it sounds like it's been a poor year for pumpkins and squash. Very disappointing.

Barb, thanks! I agree they are pretty. Too bad they can't be contained where they won't spread!

Sarah, I love the concept of inviting! I have to say I'm glad we've switched our method. So far it's been great.

Suzan, they are pretty, aren't they? And we do have those morning doves! I love their call.

Anonymous, yes it was a little difficult to find things, I admit. Next year I'll allow a little more room between plants. I think the problem was more planting them too closely than having a variety. We'll see how I do next year!

SS, unfortunately there is very little farming done around here. Besides hay, it's all monoculture corn and beans. Too bad because they would make a great resource if they understood what we are trying to do.

Cat Eye Cottage said...

Wow, how do you find the time?

Anonymous said...

Leigh, great update! Would love to hear your thoughts on how you put the garden to "bed" for the winter. That is what I am researching right now. Want to make sure I don't have to till next year, so may do a mix of manure and hay to give it a good layer to decompose over the winter months.

badgerpendous said...

This is fascinating stuff, and I love your methodical approach! We're always threatening to expand our garden, and I'm hoping we finally do so next spring. Thanks for sharing your finding!

Sherri B. said...

It is good to know about the 4 o'clocks and I need to look up the word you used for the tomato problem, many of us in the PNW have a common problem with tomatoes, maybe that is it. Thanks for all of your good information!

Leigh said...

Candace I can't, which is why so many things get neglected around here, LOL The animals needs is always top priority, and after that food. Even then it's a scramble to keep up with the chores.

Stephanie, thanks! Yes, I do like you're planning to do. Last year I used the cleanings from the chicken coop. At the very least I like to put a thick layer of mulch over each bed. With the hay, just make sure it doesn't have any seed heads. I mulched with oat "straw" once upon a time which was loaded with oats. I had it growing all over the garden!

Badgerpendous, thank you! I am happy our experiments are useful to someone else. I actually had some beds I didn't plant last summer. Maybe next year I'll uncrowd my plan a bit and use more beds.

Sherri, I'm not very good at diagnosis, but did find a helpful sight -

Initially I thought it was blight, until the plants put out new growth. That nixed blight and I was able (through the above website) to diagnose anthracnose. Not sure what to do about it, but it least I have a label for it!

Lisa said...

Hi Leigh,
I think your garden was (is!) lovely.

Grace said...

I really like your idea of establishing permanent beds rather than digging the whole garden up every year. This seems a more manageable plan to me. My garden was weird this year, too. A few successes, many unexpected failures, lots of learning. As always, thanks for the information and inspiration. I've learned a lot reading about your efforts and experiments.

Leigh said...

Lisa thank you!

Grace, I agree, permanent beds are so much easier to manage. I'm so glad we switched (which was a feat 'cuz DH loves to till.)