Our new garden on the Mississippi Gulf Coast already is providing plenty of food and education. So far, besides the early spring radishes, we have harvested ripe cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapeño peppers, about a dozen zucchini, and several small bunches of green beans.
In addition, we have harvested a few gallons of wild dewberries not far from the house, and I have identified several other wild edible plants in our yard and neighborhood.
This all sounds amazing, right? Like we have moved to a land of abundance.
Challenges in our Gulf Coast garden
Let me just list, though, some of the challenges facing the garden (and gardener!) in this yard, starting with zoological forms:
- Fire ants — many, many colonies — which will take awhile to discourage. I have plans, though, based on my organic fire ant control articles, part 1 and part 2.
- Moles, which have tunneled through the garden, damaging roots and making it impossible for some plants — the ones with tunnels right underneath — to develop deep root systems.
- Squirrels, which dig random holes in the garden and uproot smaller plants as they dig.
In addition, other insect pests and the first diseases have already attacked. First, caterpillars destroyed the Swiss chard (Just like in Georgia!). When I finally pulled up the chard to replant that space with another kind of crop, the caterpillars moved to the tomato plants.
It took days and days of spraying the plants with an organic-approved Bt product for caterpillars (Thuricide) and hand-smashing the larger caterpillars to stop the infestation. I think that I finally got them all, but would not be surprised to find a couple more.
Then, the zucchini leaves got covered up in mildew. The cucumbers have been attacked by pickleworms, and then we had a tropical storm.
The storm waters have receded, but the ground stayed saturated for several days. Not all plants in the garden will recover from having their roots under water for so long. The okra looks fine, but the tomato plants are still wilted, the green bean plants are turning brown, and the rosemary (not surprisingly) is totally brown.
How does an organic gardener address these many challenges?
It helps if a gardener has a good sense of humor, a lot of patience, and a readiness to observe, experiment, and learn.
To reduce risks of flooding
We had placed the garden in the highest part of the back yard that gets full sun, but that was not high enough. For this particular garden, an obvious place to start addressing our challenges is in building raised beds, to keep the garden from drowning in future storms.
Considering where we live, future heavy-rains are a certainty. Raised beds would allow the garden to drain faster, even if it goes underwater again.
Raised beds might also reduce some of our mole-tunneling issues.
We didn’t start with raised beds, partly because we wanted to get things planted right away, but also because of the fire ants. I had observed in Georgia that fire ants seem to be attracted to raised beds. However, an underwater garden is worse than dealing with ants. Raised beds are definitely in our future.
How to address other garden challenges:
For other critter issues, bugs, and diseases, reaching for “products” is not, usually, my first choice. An exception is when I am caught totally off guard — for example, by unexpected rampaging herds of caterpillars.
Instead, these are strategies that I use:
- Try different planting dates, to avoid the pest or disease that is causing problems. In Georgia, planting bush beans as early as the weather would allow meant I could harvest more beans before the bean beetles attacked the plants.
- Try a different variety of the crop. Birds and other wildlife can be confused by varieties of crops that ripen to an unexpected color (when “ripe” is white or green instead of red, for example). Also, some varieties of cucumbers and squashes can stand up to mildew diseases longer than others, before dying. In addition, it is possible to find varieties of most crops that ripen sooner/faster than others, so gardeners can harvest more before an expected disaster strikes.
- Switch to completely different crops. Some crops might be inappropriate for a particular garden. If the only way to harvest from the crop is to provide constant application of sprays/powders, that could be a clue that it is time to try other crops. Learning to love a different crop that is better suited to your yard is a strategy to try. (Note: I did not used to even LIKE beets, but now they are a favorite.)
- Expect and be satisfied with a short harvest window for a crop. My zucchini plants produced veggies for about three weeks. Now the plants are done, partly due to mildew and partly to being underwater, and I can use that space for another crop. Even though I would love to have more zucchini from the garden, the ending of the crop is not a disaster. Instead, it is an opportunity to plant another crop. Maybe sunflowers…
Strategies in action for this current garden
We won’t have time to put in raised beds until fall. The house we moved into has had a lot of updates, but it was built in 1948. There are things that need to be done.
Today, for example, we crawled under the house (18 inch clearance) and pulled out the dead animal that has created an awful smell and attracted about a million flies over the past couple of days — it was a possum.
However, we have considered some different options for raised beds, checked prices of supplies at the local hardware/lumber stores, and figured out how much of each supply we will need, when the time comes.
For changing the timing of planting — this is our first season of planting in this garden. I have recorded planting dates and crop notes in my copy of the Garden Planner and Notebook, so that next year I will know which crops — such as zucchini, cucumbers, Swiss chard, and green beans — I should try planting earlier. Because I have kept notes, I will be able to compare results from the different planting times.
For switching out to different crops — I already have switched out the Swiss chard to something completely different. Peanuts are growing in that space, and the plants withstood the flooding like little champs. The seed packet is leftover from 2013 (!!!). I don’t really know why I kept the packet, because it took up a lot of space in my seed box. Glad I did, though. The seeds all came up.
I am still looking for edible greens that can withstand the heat, humidity, caterpillars, and other hazards of a Southeastern US summer. I have tried Malabar spinach in the past, in Georgia, and it does well, but I have been unable to love it.
My parsley is still too small to provide greens for the kitchen, and so is the purslane. I might try Good King Henry next, even though it is related to Swiss chard. Maybe as a “wilder” type of plant, it will not be as attractive to caterpillars.
To address the challenge of a short harvest window, the best move might be to just plant LOADS of whichever crop is going to have only a few weeks of productivity. Even if the garden is small. Then when the crop comes in, it will be glorious, for just that short time.
This is the strategy I will likely try for Swiss chard next year. In addition to planting it earlier, I will plant more seeds closer together and harvest them smaller. At the first sign of trouble, I will harvest the whole crop to bring into the kitchen. We can luxuriate in the Swiss chard for awhile, then move on to another crop.