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The garden is back — and so are the bugs

clusters of small pink flowers grow
Karen Blaha
The gardens at University of Virginia are in full bloom.

What’s not to love about May? It is a month filled with flowers from start to finish. The warming soil also opens the door to planting the summer garden. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, corn, all squash, okra, melons and cucumbers are planted in May. I am planting the sweet potato slips I started from crop I grew last year. Clif Slade gave me these sweet potatoes after I interviewed him for the 2022 season’s July show, and I can almost taste this year’s harvest.

I stagger sowing the corn, carrot and bean seeds by planting partial rows now, saving the rest for another sowing in 2-3 weeks. This succession planting method will extend the harvest, preventing me from becoming overwhelmed with vegetables.

Do not forget to install the plant supports when you start your gardening. Placing them now will prevent damaging the plants when wrestling with larger plants later. For an optimum potato yield, I keep hilling potatoes through May. Simultaneously, I harvest leafy greens for as long as possible. The cool season-loving leafy greens will soon bolt into bloom due to the rising temperatures. Try to allow some greens to bloom because their flowers attract beneficial insects to the garden.

For plants that are not hybrid varieties, consider letting the flowers go to seed — once dried, collect the seed for next year’s crop. I save my dried seeds in labeled envelopes and store them in a sealed container in my refrigerator’s produce drawer.

Dating and saving the empty seed packets and plant tags in a shoe box creates a quick reference file for gardeners who do not embrace journaling. Taking a picture and saving it in a garden folder is easy and quick too. There are apps available online and for those who love spreadsheets or writing in a journal, go for it! Discover which type of garden “journaling” suits you best.

I am vigilant about insect control early in the season. Using Integrated Pest Management involves monitoring and managing any issues as they arise, not when they become a problem. An easy step to take is to place row covers atop the broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards and kohlrabi to reduce cabbage moth and flea beetle damage. Before mid-May, I encourage you to cover your beans with a floating row cover to protect against bean leaf beetles; this simple action could save your crop.

small green insects on red leaf
Peggy Singlemann
Soft bodied insects like mealybug, whiteflies, thrips, mites and the aphids pictured above can be controlled with repeated soapy water sprays.

By checking the garden daily, you can monitor for insects such as aphids, which are tiny white/green sap sucking insects that cluster around the tender tips of new growth and flowers. Repeated soapy water sprays typically kill these soft bodied insects. I learned the hard way not to add too much soap to the water: The heavy mix killed my squash plants. I abide by 2 teaspoons of non-detergent soap to 1 quart of water.

An easy control measure for Colorado potato beetle is to remove the yellow eggs by hand found on the underside of potato leaves. The red, humpbacked larvae and the yellow and black striped adult beetles can be removed by hand, too. I keep a closed jar of soapy water handy to drown the handpicked insects and eggs in.

Another organic control measure is food-grade diatomaceous earth, a white powder that will remind you of chalk. The powder is silica from the skeletons of ancient phytoplankton, or the fossilized remains of tiny aquatic organisms called “diatoms.” Regularly sprinkle the powder on the plants in the evening to combat many types of pests:

  • Use food-grade DE on the stems of squash plants to protect the plant from the squash vine borer.
  • Apply it on the leaves of cucumbers for the spotted and striped cucumber beetles, which transmit bacterial wilt disease. 

Important: Food-grade DE is a nonselective, broad spectrum organic insecticide, so always use it in the evening to prevent harming beneficial insects and bees. Before using any type of garden product, remember to read the label and follow the instructions.

Insects and diseases typically do not affect healthy plants and rich soil is a major contributor to plant health. Having your soil tested yearly will determine which nutrients need to be augmented with an organic fertilizer. Apply the fertilizer according to the directions on the label and within the dripline of the plant. I always gently scratch granulated and powdered products into the top few inches of soil for easy assimilation by the roots. Do the same when applying compost, and remember to turn the compost pile regularly to aerate and water the decomposing organic matter.

Consistent soil moisture is another key element to maintaining plant vigor. I set a rain gauge in the garden and check it regularly, so I know when to water. There are high tech weather monitoring systems that connect to your phone and others that connect to your irrigation system.

When setting up an irrigation system, please remember roots grow to the depth of the soil moisture. Long, deep waterings spaced weekly are better than daily short bursts. Deep root growth is always the goal. Roots follow water, so a shallow watering method sets the gardener up for the season long cycle of wilting and watering…

red, orange, yellow and white tulips grow in a garden bed
Peggy Singlemann
The big flowers of Tulips are rarely repeated in Virginia. For the best display, I dig them after they bloom and replant new bulbs in the fall.

The big flowers of Tulips are rarely repeated in Virginia. For the best display, I dig them after they bloom and replant new bulbs in the fall. (Photo: Peggy Singlemann)

I use annual flowering plants to add explosions of color to my gardens and attract pollinators and beneficial insects. Here are some of my favorite varieties for all kinds of sun and shade:

  • Some of my full sun favorites are lantana, vinca (Cartharanthus spp.), angelonia, annual ageratum, zinnia, petunia, calibrachoa and sunflowers!
  • For partial shade areas, I enjoy growing petunia, annual ageratum, bacopa, begonia, calendula/pot marigold and coleus.
  • To brighten up a full shade garden, I love the colorful flowers of impatiens, the begonias complemented by the colorful leaves of coleus, and caladiums. I especially enjoy the blue wishbone flowers, (Torenia fournieri), and the blue Browallia species of flowers in a shade garden because adding blue to any garden blends other colors together.

When choosing bedding plants, buy or grow multiples to plant a mixture of flower shapes and colors in the vegetable garden. The flowers will attract beneficial insects right where they’re needed among the veggies! To keep the flowers blooming, deadhead the spent blossoms or cut them regularly to enjoy in a vase or share with others. I feel many gardeners grow plants not only for their own use or enjoyment, but for family, friends, the community and the environment.

We should continually celebrate the harvest of fruits, berries, vegetables and flowers every season.

Happy gardening!— Peggy Singlemann, Landscape Consultant and Gardening Speaker

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