Drought, Fertilizer, and Caring for the Vegetable Garden

What to do this week
By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening” on 970WFLA

ABC Pest Control Inc. FloridaDrought, Fertilizer, and Caring for the Vegetable Garden

With just over a couple of inches of rain falling since this past October, many of our plants, including our lawns are showing the symptoms of drought stress. There are several products you should be aware of which can help us manage the water we apply to our landscape, and the costs associated with this. We also are nearing the last time we can fertilize our lawns and plants before winter and still get the benefits of the nutrients we apply. The last thing I will discuss this week is what we should be doing for our vegetable gardens to ensure we benefit come harvest time. Let’s get started!

Every year it seems that once we reach October and prepare to start fertilizing our lawns and plants, Mother Nature throws us a curve ball and shuts off our water supply. The same is true this year. Since October, only a few inches of rain at most have been recorded. This is especially worrisome to me because I have waited all summer long through the fertilizer blackout period to apply the nutrients our lawns and plants need to survive the winter months. October 1st was the first day you were allowed to apply fertilizer and of course, if you had followed my instructions and applied these products, then you would have had to water afterwards. Usually, Mother Nature or your sprinkler system would take care of this for you, but since we have not had any appreciable rain, you have had to rely on irrigation wells or city water to keep your plants hydrated.

Unfortunately, many of us have forgotten to adjust our sprinkler systems for the lack of rainfall we have had. I recommend you apply at least one-inch of water per cycle, two days per week. You can adjust your system using the simple technique of placing empty tuna fish cans around your sprinkler heads and timing how long your irrigation system needs to run in order to fill your cans with one-inch of water. Once you have completed all zones you can adjust the time each zone needs to run. Each zone may differ in the time this takes but the result will be a more efficient system. The reason we apply one-inch of water in each zone is that it takes an inch of water to penetrate the soil to a depth of six to eight inches. Plants and grass need this much of the soil horizon moistened to establish a quality root structure. Those of us, using city water during drought times may run into additional problems.

Paying for city water can be very expensive. Without the aid of a well, the costs associated with maintaining your landscape can be prohibitive. If you are in this situation, then I do have a recommendation you may want to try. There is a product called Hydretain, which is a “water-saving” technology that once applied to the soil, acts like tiny water magnets actually pulling water out of the atmosphere and directing it to your plants root system. This product can reduce your plant watering by up to one-half and save you up to fifty percent off your water bill. That savings can add up over time, and you only have to apply the product once every three months. You can purchase Hydretain at your local garden center.

The other problem with letting your lawn and landscape suffer from drought stress is that you have the possibility of compromising the plants root system. Plants under stress begin to shut down their vascular systems eventually displaying wilting then death to the plant. Turf grass blades fold up lengthwise in the early stages of drought followed by a dull grayish appearance. You will also be able to see footsteps as you walk across the turf. In the later stages of drought, the grass will take on a golden appearance as it eventually succumbs to the lack of water. Ornamental plants may lose their flowers or their leaves depending on the type of plants you have. If left without water long enough, then you could lose the entire plant. All the symptoms mentioned above can be compounded in the event you fertilized your plants during the months of October or November.

This is not to say that you should not have fertilized your property. Adding the proper nutrition to the soil is as important as watering your plants regularly. Fall treatments of fertilizer have the nutrients necessary to build strong cell walls, which can protect the grass from the cold, drought, and heat. It also provides help in proper root formation and disease protection. Potassium is the last number listed in the analysis on the bag of fertilizer and is responsible for these benefits. I recommend an application of fertilizer with the analysis of 16-0-10 for the turf grass and an 8-10-10 fertilizer for all of your ornamental plant beds. If you have not done this yet, then you should apply these products now. We also need to talk about your vegetable garden.

There are several products you should be considering using in your vegetable garden. Remember, vegetables are short-lived plants that need to be constantly pushed to produce. In a typical ninety-day to one-hundred-twenty day growing season, your crop should be fertilized with a granule product at least four times. This does not include the liquid applications of products like Miracle Grow or Peter’s fertilizer, which should also be applied to your plants’ foliage every ten to twelve days. Fertilizers are necessary to keep the plant in an active growing state which encourages flowering and of course the production of fruit. I recommend the application of a fruiting fertilizer which is normally designated with a middle number that is high in phosphorus; an example of this would be an 8-15-10 or similar product.

Weeds are another problem you should be dealing with this time of the year. Even though my vegetables are growing well, there are multitudes of weeds that try to fill in every nook and cranny where light can get to in the garden. Pulling the weeds is far better than applying a herbicide like Round-Up, which can drift causing problems in your vegetable garden. There are products you can use after hand-pulling weeds like Preen granules. Preen can stop the germination of weed seeds after you eliminate the growing weeds. If you have large open areas in the garden, then you may want to consider adding a few more vegetable plants. Additional plants can limit light to the soils surface thus eliminating weeds due to lack of sunlight, which helps them to germinate.

Insects and diseases are also out in full force now that our vegetable crops are starting to mature. Caterpillars can be controlled by applying Dipel or Thuricide to the plants leaves, and these products are safe to apply on vegetable crops. For other insects like aphids, ants, thrips, or scales, I suggest a product called Conserve. Conserve can be used on many vegetable crops, including tree fruits. The active ingredient in Conserve is spinosad. Please make sure to apply this product to both the upper and lower leaf surfaces for the best control. For disease control such as powdery mildew, early and late blights, and downy mildews, I suggest an organic product called Garden Friendly Fungicide, which is manufactured by Southern Agriculture. All of these products are readily available in most garden centers and are fairly inexpensive.

Drought can be a killer if you do not monitor your landscape and periodically check your sprinkler system for good coverage. Products like Hydretain can help offset watering bills for those of us who do not have an irrigation system. Make sure your lawns and plants have had their fall application of fertilizer to prepare them for the winter months ahead. Your vegetable garden also needs its fertilizer, and you should check regularly for insects and disease. Treat your plants accordingly when pests are spotted. Weed your garden and apply pre-emergence herbicides as necessary. Good luck working on the garden and remember, without plants, we would not be here.

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