Ooofffff. What a start to the gardening season, after a long winter followed by a wet and cool spring. My great uncle Johnny, in his potato farmer wisdom, always said, “There’s always next year in farming.” Let’s look at some common problems right now and manage what you can for this season, and then use that knowledge to plan differently for next summer.
Hail; cover your assets
Hail is a common weather pattern here along the Front Range. Yet this year in “Hail Alley” it feels more frequent due to the regular thunderstorms that have brought rains, flash floods and winds. While small hail will not likely damage much, it can strike terror in the heart of any gardener. Take a deep breath, and know that you are resilient — as are many of your plants.
Here are the basics of what to know and how to plan better moving forward.
After a hail storm, assess what can grow back. The good news is it is early in the season still and much will recover. Lasting damage depends on how large and long the hail rained. If the damage is more to the leaves rather than the main stems, there a chance of recovery, especially if the plant is more established versus a young seedling. Clean up but leave some of the tattered leaves to see if it can rebound. Perennials may have an aesthetically unpleasing year but will bounce back next.
Damage to the main stem of more delicate annual plants like those in the cucurbits family — think cucumbers, squash and other gourds — could mean replanting. For folks who grow their own from seed, many of us grow extra and stagger planting for this very reason or have extra to share; check with your local neighborhood or buy nothing/gifting group.
Many Colorado gardeners have learned the hard way to plan hail coverage in their growing design. It is best to have it up for the season rather than running out trying to cover as hail happens. If you do find yourself dashing out the door to cover, have buckets, storage bins, or large pots handy for transplants. This may be easier for container gardens. For this situation, you can have pots on wheels to pull under cover or have them permanently placed on the edge of awnings or balconies where they get both sun and protection.
A few different materials can be used to cover, including hail netting. You can also use shade netting, burlap or reuse any light thin cloth like old sheer curtains or blankets. If you plan on having it up through the summer, make sure it is sheer enough to allow rain and sunlight.
Ideas for how to string up your cloth of choice include a few options based on your layout, space and available materials. For raised or in-the-ground gardens, many gardeners build structures to support cloth. You can build PVC or metal conduit hoops over beds. You can hang cloth from poles, nearby fences, or studded fence posts. Whatever it is just needs to be sturdy enough to withstand continuous rains, winds and hail.
Yellow; the color of water and nutrient issues
How to tell what the cause is of yellowing? The clues are in the leaves. Yellowing is a symptom of both water issues — too much and too little — and nutrient deficiency.
Even with good amounts of rain this season, Colorado’s water does not always soak in due to clay-based, compacted soil. Depending on plant location, you may notice poor drainage issues or runoff. This is a good time to assess for sitting water or for dryness below the topsoil.
For garden beds and in-the-ground plants, mixing in organic material after growing season can improve drainage and absorption. Soil compaction is a major issue in newer housing developments due to construction machines that press out the air pockets in the soil. Adding organic materials into the topsoil will invite back natural space makers like worms. These pores are critical for oxygen being accessible to plant roots.
Excess watering damage shows up as yellowing of lower leaves and sometimes wilting. Much of our overwatering issues will clear up as the Colorado sun comes out. Make sure the soil can dry out some, then add water only when needed. If you have an automated sprinkler system, activate the rain sensor or turn off the system and water manually right now. For potted plants that aren’t draining well, drill in a few holes on the bottom.
If you have too much drainage, plants may experience yellowing from nutrient issues or seepage.
A nitrogen deficiency shows up in a more uniform yellowing of older leaves and is combined with stunted growth. If you suspect this, you can add some blood meal or alfalfa meal into the top layer of soil around the plants. You can also mix in some seasoned compost around plants. In all cases, be careful not to disturb the roots. Planning forward, you can seed nitrogen-fixing plants in that area, such as legumes, clover and peas.
Yellowing between the veins on leaves and on the newer leaves is a common iron deficiency called chlorosis. This tends to show up more with woody plants in Colorado than garden annuals. Signs of chlorosis do not always mean there is a lack of iron in the soil but more that it is insoluble or not usable by the plants. Overwatering and compacted soil exacerbate this issue and it is best to invest in soil amendments with organic materials so that the iron is more available.
Swarms; bugs in abundance
Baby grasshoppers, swarms of mosquitos, hungry caterpillars and assorted beetles have hatched simultaneously.
In the gardening world, we talk about integrated pest management as a way to say there are multiple approaches and components to make the bug situation manageable. Right now the important parts are mitigating stress from weather and insects, then responding with the lowest negative mitigation impact to support health. Most garden insect issues right now do not require chemical application but easier, safer options.
The overall good health of plants is a big piece to warding off insects. The stress from hail or overwatering-caused root rot weakens plants’ resiliency to pests. How you manage the environment that plants are growing in matters. Look around in your environment to see what you can control to minimize pest abundance and then to reduce their impact. Given the rains, sitting water makes ideal homes for mosquito eggs. Keeping areas mowed or cut short right now can assist as both grasshoppers and mosquitos prefer tall, grassy areas to protect them from sun and wind. Overgrown weeds and grasses are abundant right now and this issue will taper off as the rains lessen. Effort now can benefit later.
Barriers like insect mesh or the shade cover protecting your plants from hail can minimize insect damage, especially when installed preventatively. This works best if you have hoops to secure the cloth to and create a row cover. A consideration though is if the covered area has flowering plants in need of pollinator access. If that is the case, remove the cover during flowering time. Row covers work well to exclude aphids, cutworms and some beetles. A bonus of building cover is it can extend the growing season.
Overall, keep an eye on what you have growing. Check stems and underside of leaves. I had not paid attention to my red currant bush because I was focused on the annuals in the garden beds. Then I noticed the backside was green sticks with stripped leaves: A gang of sawfly caterpillars had hatched and eaten a quarter of the leaves already. Luckily, I had some time to pick them off and throw them to the neighbor’s chickens. Manual removal into a soapy bucket or food for pet lizards or chickens goes a long way.
All of these challenges may feel overwhelming at times, but do not give up. Gardening in Colorado has much to teach us on how to adapt and proactively plan for next time.
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