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Timing and rotation are keys to successful vegetable garden

Last year, I was foolish enough to brag not only about the environmental virtue of planting a vegetable garden, but about the harvest I expected.

"Nearly every evening meal will be supplemented by food from our garden, starting, in a few weeks, with herbs and lettuce sprouts,'' I wrote last February. "Later will come squash, onions and more tomatoes than we can eat.''

What a joke.

My tomatoes were so infested with tomato pinworm they dissolved into mush on the vine. I didn't realize until I'd pulled up a succession of pitifully slim bulbs that, in Florida, onions are a winter crop.

And the squash, the supposedly idiot-proof zucchini? I'm here to tell you it's not. Mine were small, shriveled and teeming with what I later learned were pickle worms.

"A little extra protein,'' joked Jim Moll, Hernando's urban horticulture extension agent.

I called Moll partly because I wondered if the national vogue for growing vegetables — inspired by hard times and a desire to eat locally — had spread to Hernando.

It has, he said. His vegetable gardening classes have been packed, and some students are as clueless as I am.

"Most of them get the timing completely wrong,'' he said. By that he meant Northerners want to plant spring crops in Florida the same time of year they did in Wisconsin. So, if this column has any worth at all, it will be to warn those of you who were planning to put in tomatoes this weekend.

It's too late, Moll said. Our summer heat and bugs will descend before they are mature enough to fruit.

My problem, or my main problem, is that I have been growing the same crops on the same plot of land for five years.

Once a pest like the tomato hornworm finds a few rows of its favorite food source, the pupa hang around in the soil. If the gardener is foolish, and the moth lucky, a leafy canopy perfect for a new clutch of eggs will be the first thing it sees when it emerges the following year.

So, what I've mainly produced over all these years is a dense and varied population of pests.

Yes, there's a solution. Organic gardeners, like Realtors, have reduced it to a mantra: "Rotation, rotation, rotation.'' But this is a lot of work — tilling and fencing off a whole new block of earth, enriching it from scratch with compost.

Looking for a shortcut, I visited Green World Path, a year-old business off the State Road 50 truck route in Brooksville. Like me, its workers think we can't go on raising crops the way we do now. Pesticides take the life out of soil, said technical director J.B. Williams, and leave it empty of all nutrients other than the chemical fertilizer farmers apply.

"Our plants are junkies,'' Williams said.

Unlike me, he had some solutions — natural products that enrich the soil, restore beneficial fungi and bacteria, and build stronger plants better able to fight off pests.

What Williams didn't offer was a shortcut. He doesn't like to sell anything without a $48 soil sample (which is much more complete, he said, than the $10 one offered by the Cooperative Extension Service) and a follow-up consultation.

Maybe for my fall garden. In the meantime, my tomato plants have grown hip-high, and I can now look forward to a nice crop of mush.

Timing and rotation are keys to successful vegetable garden 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 7:42pm]
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