As many of you are pulling your old summer plants out to make room for your new fall plants, now is a really good time to talk about plant roots and what you can learn from them.
As you remove your old plants, especially the ones that did not produce well, take a good look at the root of the plant. Is it short and blocky? Does it have bumps or nodules on it? Does it have only a few long roots shooting off of the main base? If so, chances are very good that your bed is infested with nematodes.
What are nematodes? Commonly they are a microscopic flatworm that appears in almost all soils. Some nematodes are beneficial, but many are not. They attack the roots of your plants by either leaching on like a tiny mosquito and sucking out nutrients or by burrowing into the root itself and making a little home there. If your plants aren’t producing well, if they always seem dry even when you just watered them, check the roots. Then you can treat the problem and protect your next season’s crop.
The first step is to keep your soil healthy and well balanced. That will attract the good bugs who will control the nematodes for you. Nematodes don’t usually kill your plants, they just make them ugly and unhealthy, so a few are OK, but if your bed is out of balance, here are a few ways to bring it back. Keep in mind some methods will kill both the good and bad bugs in your bed, so for a mild infestation, start with a milder treatment, then work your way up as needed.
1. Increase the good bacterias in your soil to attract the right kind of buggy predators and hope they will eat up the nematodes. Stir your bed up and add lots of fresh compost. Make sure there are plenty of dried egg shells in it, they attract nematode eating bugs. I water mine with a solution of 1 cup of molasses (you can use sugar too) and a can of beer mixed in 2 gallons of water (on an 8×4 bed) to help get the bacterias going again. Wait a week or so, then try again with your next season of vegetables.
2. Plant a whole bed of French marigolds for a season. They not only get rid of the nematodes, but repel other pests as well. You can even inter-plant them later with your tomatoes and squashes to prevent re-infestation. (Don’t plant them with your beans though, they don’t get along as well.)
2. Flooding. Literally flood your bed for a few days. They let it dry out, fluff the materials and add heaps of fresh compost.
3. Solorization. This takes up a whole growing season, but is worth it if your problem persists. This is best done over the summer since it is too hot to grow much anyway. Till your bed to stir up everything really well and break up existing roots. Then cover with a thick layer of fresh compost or manure. Spread a sheet of heavy clear plastic over the whole bed and weigh the corners down with bricks or more dirt. Make sure it has some slack to expand, then wait and leave it covered for 6 weeks or so. Remove plastic. At this point I would not plant vegetables in the bed yet, but follow the solorization up with a seasonally appropriate cover crop. There are many to choose from, but for cool months an easy one is rye grass, for the hotter months, try peanut. Then till the plants back into the ground while they are still immature and wait another month before planting your vegetables.
There, all better. Remember, good soil, cover crops, and crop rotation will help keep things from getting out of balance again.
For more information or to get your roots checked by a professional, visit your local University of Florida Agricultural extension. http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/map/