Growing successful gardens in a season of rain and cold temperatures

This has not been a particularly good year for vegetable gardeners. The weather has been, at best, temperamental; hot and dry early on, with drought conditions throughout almost all of April and on into early May, then turning wet and cold in mid-May and remaining so through June and on into the first half of July. In fact, it rained, at least for a while, pretty much every single day for six weeks straight; pouring, driving rain. Every shower was a deluge. And to make things worse, nights were often quite cool, limiting evaporation. Gardens were unable to dry out.

Standing water became a common site and many gardens remained saturated for prolonged periods of time. Plants suffered. When water stands or when soil becomes saturated, oxygen in the soil becomes unavailable to plants for uptake through their roots. Without sufficient oxygen, roots become damaged. Plants decline and may eventually die. Gardeners refer to this condition as ‘wet feet’.

One Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener volunteer has avoided such growing problems. She ranks among the prepared gardeners who were able to face, and take on the challenges created by this season’s soaking wet, cool weather. She is using properly constructed raised beds, plastic row covers, and a hoop house (mini-greenhouse) in her gardening endeavor. Instead of lost plants and poor yields, her gardens are thriving.

She has generously agreed to open her gardens to the public and host a vegetable garden open house and tour. The event will feature discussions on growing, composting, drip irrigation, and other subjects pertinent to successful North Country vegetable gardening. Master Gardeners will be available to answer questions about starting a vegetable garden or improving an existing one, caring for your garden, good gardening practices and much more.

Raised beds warm up quickly in the spring. And, if properly constructed, dry out considerably faster than the ground does after a rain. In addition, these raised beds are designed so they can be covered to keep rain off the plants and soil, when we experience too much rain.

Soil conditions in raised bed gardens can be more easily controlled than soil conditions in in-ground gardens. For starters, it’s much easier to begin with superior quality soil than it is to improve poor soil. You can fill newly-built raised bed structures with soil mixtures that have been amended to meet the special needs of any crop, making it possible to grow a wide variety of plants that are particular about their root environments. Better root growth from improved soils will result in higher food crop yields and lush growth of ornamentals. As beds are built up, compost or other forms of organic matter can be readily mixed together and used to further enhance soil structure, drainage and nutrient-holding capacity.

By some estimates, the yield from raised beds can be two to three times greater than yields in standard gardens of equal size, even when weather isn’t a factor. That’s because properly constructed raised bed flower and vegetable gardens are just wide enough to allow a person to easily reach to the center of the bed while working from the sides. You don’t walk in the beds to cultivate or harvest, so they don’t require the usual space between rows. More plants can be grown in a comparable area. The result is more production per square foot of garden.

Raised beds are low-maintenance, too. They keep plants organized and confine soil and debris within their borders. The result is less time spent cleaning the yard.

Plastic tarps or row covers can help keep rain off of plants and soil, too. (They can also be used to extend your growing season and to deter pests and diseases.) And raised bed structures can be designed so that they can be quickly and easily covered with plastic film suspended over the beds on hoops made of plastic, metal, wire, or wood, and secured in place with soil, boards, pipes, or similar materials.

The use of plastic covers requires careful management, however, because temperatures under plastic row covers can very quickly become much higher than the temperature of the surrounding air. Plastic covers should be removed, or at the very least opened or lifted, whenever possible, to promote adequate movement of air.

Hoop houses can also be used to protect plants from too much rain. Like plastic covers, they have also proven effective in extending the growing season in both spring and fall.

Like raised beds, container gardens enable you to optimize your soil conditions. What’s more, container gardens can be easily moved under shelter (i.e. onto a porch) when there is too much rain. And I know of gardeners that have built small plastic tents that they place over their containers for protection from the rain and the cold.

The main thing to remember, when we have too much rain, is to try and keep the soil dry and additional rain off, if at all possible. If cool temperatures exist at the same time, covering your gardens with clear plastic to retain heat in the evening and to keep additional rain off will also help.