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Answers from a Master Gardener – 2

My neighbor installed a garden shed near the property line. It provides a Four Seasons Hotel layover for marauding woodchucks who especially like peaches fresh off my trees.

If you’re growing a small kitchen garden, it’s helpful to know a master gardener who also has a kitchen garden. For those who don’t know a master gardener, I asked what questions you’d ask, if given the chance. Then, I asked those questions of Ginger Pryor, the director of Penn State University’s Master Gardener program. In my last post (Answers from a Master Gardener – 1), I presented some of the insights Ginger shared. This post continues the presentation.

Grow Organic?

Twitter acquaintance @hardknocksmba asked how to grow organic produce with the least possible effort; is growing organically worth the effort? Ginger’s immediate response was, “No.” To produce certifiably organic crops you must be quite intimate with your plants. Ginger agreed you can use many organic practices without working too hard, but you’re likely to face a crisis or two and turn to non-organic solutions for expediency.

Ginger says it’s a lot of work to grow commercially viable organic produce… if you’re a lazy gardener, you won’t be happy trying to maintain a completely organic garden.

Marauding Critters

@hardknocksmba asked the kind of open-ended question that draws stories from every gardener: How can I keep critters out of my garden? Ginger and I had quite a discussion about critters beginning with speculation about which critters might be causing problems.

Until you see an animal marauding among your growing produce, you can’t be sure what’s doing the damage. And, of course, gardens in different neighborhoods will have different challenges. For example, deer and voles threaten Ginger’s home kitchen garden, but rabbits and groundhogs harass plantings at the office where she works.

Ginger shared a story about a kids’ garden project in which some critter was eating only the young watermelon plants. It turned out that a skunk was choosing watermelons from among a variety of options.

I’m not a master gardener, but I have a suggestion for anyone whose small kitchen garden is getting eaten by sneaky, unseen critters: Install one of these. A live red-tailed hawk will strike terror in the hearts of small rodents; it might keep down the pocket dog population as well.

In a remote rural setting, Ginger is involved with a kitchen garden having an animal fence that extends five feet high, and one foot into the soil. Five feet is high enough that deer can’t jump the fence, and the underground reach keeps out burrowing animals. This is reasonable protection for a garden that gets attention only a few days a week. A small kitchen garden in an urban or suburban yard may not face threats that require such a high fence, though Ginger assured me a woodchuck will climb over a fence (and woodchucks thrive in many suburban neighborhoods).

More About Critters

I related my squirrel and pears story to Ginger (posted in Your Small Kitchen Garden back in September). I had left some pears on the tree when I harvested, but then watched a squirrel return to my tree day-after-day to make off with the ripening fruit. About that time, I’d learned from other gardeners that squirrels would rather drink water than eat fruit, so stealing pears indicated that the squirrel was thirsty; putting out a bowl of water might end its larcenous behavior.

Ginger couldn’t confirm whether this would work, but she did emphasize that it can take some heavy surveillance to identify whatever is damaging your crops. A variety of rodents might bite off emerging sprouts. Others might leave tooth-mark-scars in low-hanging fruits. Once you identify a culprit, it’s much easier to take appropriate steps to stop it.

Still to Come

In the third installment of this series, Answers from a Master Gardener, Ginger shares thoughts on rooftop gardening, on solving plant disease problems, and on the most common mistakes kitchen gardeners make. Subscribe to Your Small Kitchen Garden’s RSS feed, or check back again in a few days for the conclusion of Answers from a Master Gardener.

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