After growing her family’s produce on a southwest Iowa acreage for decades, garden columnist Jan Riggenbach now tends raised beds in the city. Her latest book is Your Midwest Garden: An Owner’s Manual.

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Resolutions for a Better Harvest
by Jan Riggenbach       #Misc   #Seeds   #Winter

I don't wait for January to make resolutions for the New Year. While the memory of the successes and failures of the recent season is still fresh in my mind, I like to make a list of resolutions as soon as I’ve put my garden to bed for the winter.

Here are just a few of those resolutions I’ve made over the years that have resulted in more fun, less work and a better harvest:

  • If pear trees are struggling with fire blight, evidenced by branches that look like they’ve been burned, replace them with varieties such as ‘Moonglow’ and Starking Delicious, which have built-in resistance to the disease.

The first line of defense against fire blight is a variety such as Starking Delicious, which has built-in resistance.


  • Late plantings of zucchini usually escape damage from vine borers.

    Keep the zucchini crop coming by planting zucchini seeds in June or early July. Late-planted zucchini usually avoids the dreaded squash vine borer. There is also less damage from squash bugs, another serious pest of squash.
  • Along with the usual large-fruited tomatoes, also plant some varieties that have early, small to medium-sized fruits. They will provide a dependable harvest even if brutal summer weather keeps large-fruited tomatoes from producing.
  • Keep tomatoes as far away as possible from mature walnut trees to avoid walnut wilt, which kills the plants. If necessary, plant tomatoes in containers so their roots won’t come in contact with those of a walnut tree.
  • Allow dill and fennel to self-sow in a back corner of the garden, so there will be plenty of extra plants for the larvae of the beautiful swallowtail butterflies to devour.
  • Make permanent raised beds using materials that won’t rot, warp or swell. I settled on Bear Board, a recycled plastic lumber that can be worked and fastened with the same saw, drill and screws that you’d use with wood.

A raised bed made from Bear Board resists rotting and warping.

  • To reduce problems with mildew, leaf spot and other foliage diseases, use soaker hoses, not overhead sprinkling, watering the soil instead of the leaves. Install rain barrels at downspouts so plants can enjoy the benefits of rainwater even during dry spells.
  • Replace summer-bearing raspberries with a fall-bearing variety, such as ‘Heritage’. Advantages include simplified pruning by mowing off all canes in late winter or early spring, no worry about damage from winter’s cold or browsing animals, and no remaining canes to infect new shoots with disease.

Fall-bearing raspberries are much easier to manage than summer-bearing varieties.

  • Practice patience in spring. Don’t rush the season. Remember that heat-loving plants such as peppers, eggplant and sweetpotatoes are set back by nighttime lows of 50 F despite the lack of frost.
  • Spread out the harvest of lettuce and other salad greens by making small sowings every two weeks, rather than all at once. Keep the salad bowl full in the heat of summer by relying on shade cloth or planting lettuce in the shade of tall plants, such as corn, and by planting heat-resistant greens such as ‘Summer Crisp’ (Batavian) lettuce.
  • Don’t let weeds get established. For an organic solution to the weed problem, spray herbicide-strength vinegar, such as Burnout Weed & Grass Killer, when weeds are still small.
  • Once the tops die, don’t hesitate to harvest garlic and onions, which can rot in wet soil. Remember to plant a storage onion such as ‘Copra’ for long-term winter keeping.
  • For an easy way to add organic matter to the soil, sow oats for a green manure crop in August and  September in any empty garden spot as other crops finish.
  • Keep composting during the winter with a worm bin in the basement using kitchen wastes, such as fruit and vegetable peelings, eggshells and coffee grounds. Use the liquid that drains from the bin as fertilizer, and enrich the soil in the vegetable garden in spring with worm castings.
  • Clean up all the dropped fruit and leaves around trees and remove any dried “mummies” still hanging from the tree to eliminate disease problems such as apple scab.
  • Check supplies, such as plant labels, floating row covers and pesticides. Order before the spring rush.
  • Find a reliable way to keep rabbits and deer out of the garden. I chose a black polypropylene fence fabric, plus rodent barrier. What a relief!

One last ongoing resolution: Make notes of which crops produced too much and which ones produced too little. Adjust annually for your family’s changing tastes. Don’t forget to check amount of stored produce. Plan next year’s plantings accordingly.

No matter how carefully I plan, there are always glitches along the way. Weather is the wild card. But I love the challenge of trying to make the garden better every year.

Saving Seeds for a New Year
Don’t toss those leftover seeds. Most vegetable and herb seeds save surprisingly well. Beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers and dill seeds are particularly long lived. Onion and corn seeds, on the other hand, are much less dependable.

To preserve leftover seeds to plant next spring, wrap in tissues a half-cup of dry milk powder from a newly opened box or silica gel. Secure the packet with a rubber band and put it with your seeds in an airtight container.

Silica gel is a good choice because you can use the same powder year after year. Simply empty the tissue packets and heat the silica gel in the oven at a low temperature until blue dots reappear.

Research suggests that the refrigerator is the best place to store seeds. If you have too many seeds, choose another cool space, such as a cabinet in the basement.


A version of this article appeared in Iowa Gardener Magazine Volume 1 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Jan Riggenbach.


Posted: 11/28/17   RSS | Print


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