Tips for Keeping a Vegetable Garden Healthy and Productive in the Midwest

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My earliest memories of a vegetable garden are of giant sunflowers (Helianthus annuus and cvs., annual) was growing in our backyard when I was about five years old and my mother was working diligently to support our growing family. A healthy and productive garden needs attention. In mid-summer, this includes being vigilant to protect your plants from heat, unexpected rains, and the various pests that challenge us in the Midwest. Here are some care tips to add to your summer garden to-do list to keep your edible plants healthy and productive.

Planting a soaker hose in a vegetable garden
Soaker hoses are a great way to water vegetable gardens in the summer. Photo: Nels Benjamin

Water vegetable plants 1 to 2 inches per week.

Providing an even amount of soil moisture for vegetable plants is a key ingredient to their success. Summers can be very hot and dry in the Midwest. Tomatoes and peppers are especially prone to problems without adequate water. Blossom end rot is common if they do not receive 1 to 2 inches of water weekly, whether rainfed or irrigated. To encourage plants to establish a deep root structure, a heavy soaking is best (rather than several light waterings). Soil moisture can also be controlled by establishing and maintaining a 2-inch or deeper layer of mulch (preferably organic). This has the added benefit of suppressing weeds. Reapply mulch as needed to cover the soil.

Close the hot pepper plant.
Give your vegetable plants, like this hot pepper, plenty of elbow room to encourage good air circulation and healthy, disease-free plants. Photo: Jennifer Banner

Keep plants healthy to help reduce pest and disease problems

Insects and diseases tend to appear in hot weather. As plants become stressed by hot summer environments, they become more prone to these problems. Be alert and cautious. Tomatoes, peppers, and other soft-skinned vegetables can suffer from sunstroke if the shaded parts of the fruit are suddenly exposed to sunlight. Keep plants healthy to help prevent this from happening. Prune leaves and stems for good air circulation, and avoid overwatering; Crowded and wet leaves provide the perfect conditions for problems.

Powdery mildew plant disease usually rears its ugly head in June and July as a result of humid weather and poor air circulation. If management is deemed necessary, copper fungicide is an effective organic control. Clean up any diseased plant debris, and avoid overhead watering. Some plant species are more susceptible than others, so don’t be surprised if powdery mildew appears in an irregular pattern.

Slug closure in vegetable garden
Watch out for troublemakers like slugs, which can cause significant damage to your vegetable plants. Photo: Carol Collins

Use caution when controlling nuisance aphids, caterpillars, slugs and snails

Aphids are a frequent problem for stressed plants. If you see them in small numbers early, you can remove them from your plants with a strong spray of water from a garden hose. However, if there is a large infestation, options for controlling aphids with neem oil or insecticidal soap are to be considered. Just be sure to follow the label directions, and only apply when the temperature is cool, on a cloudy day or in the evening hours.

Insects and caterpillars can be a challenge for some vegetable plants. Be sure to identify any nuisance insects or caterpillars before taking action to control them. You don’t want to harm the beneficial insect larvae. If management is required, BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) is an option. It is a common soil-borne bacterium that is a popular organic pesticide that is toxic only to insects and caterpillars (not harmful to humans or animals). When using this method, be careful to avoid overspray, stay away from host plants for monarch butterflies and any other endangered species. Even when you’re using natural pest control, it’s important to use it judiciously so as not to harm beneficial insects.

Slugs and snails are a common problem for strawberries and other large-leafed plants. Bear traps have a proven record of working to control slugs, as well as diatomaceous earth (DE) — a non-toxic, organic control — and of course you can pick them up and dispose of them.

Seed vegetables
After your first harvest of the summer, take the opportunity to do another round of sowing to get a second crop of food from your garden. Photo: Jennifer Banner

Sow extra seeds in July for a fall crop.

As you finish your initial planting crop, it’s time to start a second crop for harvest in the fall. July is prime sowing time for fall crops of radishes, bush beans, peas, carrots, beets, spring onions, lettuce, bok choy, kale and cabbage. As the weather cools, you can put in a spinach crop (July is a bit too hot to start). I recommend keeping a notebook to track the performance of the vegetable species you grow each year, as well as their location in the garden. Rotating your harvest locations is important, and we can’t always rely on our memory when spring rolls around again.

Nourish your vegetable garden with homemade compost.

If you don’t have a compost bin, now is the perfect time to start making nutritious compost for your vegetable garden. There are several options for composting. The easiest way is to buy a ready-made compost bin unit, preferably a tumbler if you have a modest sized garden. An easy-to-turn, double-chamber unit will give you the fastest conversion from plant debris to compost and take up the least amount of space. Alternatively, you may choose to build a compost pile that requires a little more muscle to turn by hand with a pitchfork or shovel. Keep your composter or pile working at its best by turning it regularly, at least once a week, adding organic matter regularly, and keeping the material moist.

Summer is a busy time for gardening. Picking and enjoying what is ready to eat, tending to what is to come, and sowing seeds for the next crop will keep one a little more busy. You can find joy in your vegetable garden, no matter how big or small it is.

-Marty Neely, FAPLD, owns and operates Marty Neely Design & Associates in Omaha, Nebraska.

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