With temperatures remaining below normal during the first week of March, the spring planting season is still a long ways off. Gardeners are itching to get busy but have to wait while March and April drag by, teasing us with spring-like spells that are inevitably followed by cold snaps.
To put some of that pent-up energy to good use, gardeners would be wise to spend a good chunk of time now planning out their gardens. Perennial flower gardeners can creatively rearrange their plants and search for particular colors or bloom times to fill in gaps. Planning ahead can also help reduce some disease problems for vegetable gardeners.
The first step is to learn the vegetable families. Luckily, there are just a handful of families to which most vegetables belong:
· The legume family includes all the beans and peas, plus clover and alfalfa;
· Cucurbits include cucumbers, summer squash, winter squash, zucchini, pumpkin and melons;
· Crucifers or Brassicas include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and also kale, arugula and radish;
· the Solanceous or Nightshade family includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and tomato; and
· the Allium family includes onions, garlic, leeks, shallots and chives.
There are a few outliers including lettuce, spinach and corn (which belongs to the grass family) but you can see that most home vegetable crops belong to one of five main families.
It’s helpful to know these families because diseases and insect pests are often particular to one family but not the other. Late blight only affects tomatoes and potatoes, it does not touch cucumbers or broccoli. The new pest in our area, leek moth, only affects members of the onion family while any crucifer is prone to flea beetles.
Some crops such as corn and tomatoes are heavy feeders, using up a lot of reserve nutrients in the soil while legumes can ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots which can benefit the next crop planted there.
Crop rotation is a recommended practice: gardeners group crops by family and move these families to different locations every two to three years. This is nearly impossible in small gardens without room to move far but if raised beds or containers are used, each bed could hold one family at a time. Rotating between families helps to slow down the disease build up in the soil and can disrupt pest development. It’s not a cure, since spores can float on wind currents and many insects can fly, but it can help slow pest and disease development.
It is also helpful to know which families your favorite vegetable crops belong to so you can prepare yourself for the pests and diseases particular to that family. Rather than read up on every possible problem, I encourage gardeners to study the main pests and diseases their own gardens are prone to, then research strategies to disrupt their development. Crop rotation is just one tool you might consider. Other options, depending on the problem, include choosing disease-resistant varieties, timing, row cover barriers, trapping, and everyone’s favorite, hand-picking.