Reflective Gardening: More than a State of Mind

IMG_0354Reflective gardening – the literal, not the philosophical, kind – is the use of reflective material to enhance the sunlight and ramp up the photosynthesis in your plants. This method can be especially helpful if you are questioning whether a growing area gets enough sunlight. During the warm season, food crops need long, hot days and warm soil to mature. That means the average outside temps should range between 65° and 95°F, and plants should get at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day. The good news is that the amount of sun doesn’t have to be continuous. You can have 3-4 hours in the morning with some shade midday and then 3-4 more hours in the late afternoon.

The prevalent advice is to ensure that you are not planting your crops where they will be shaded by arbors, walls, fences, trees, shrubs or some other structure. That is great advice and easy to follow if you have a nice largish space away from any structures and/or getting full sun on a patio with southern exposure.  But, if you don’t, then you might consider experimenting a little. This is where reflective gardening comes in.

IMG_1671I have three 4×6 raised beds that sit between a fence and a pergola that are located on the northwestern-ish side of my property. I planted smaller vegetables in the two southernmost beds and tomatoes in the most northern bed. I did this because the tomatoes get tall and if I planted them in the southernmost bed, they would block out a lot of the sun in the other beds and shade those smaller veggies.

Planting the tomatoes in the northernmost bed between a pergola and fence means that in late spring, the bed has mostly shade until about 10:30 am, then sunshine until about 4:30 or 5 pm, moving to partial shade. I was barely squeaking by the 6-hour mark. To get the most out of the sun for my tomatoes, I  tried reflective gardening. I purchased reflective fabric – the kind used for car sun shields – and cut out large circles that I then placed around the base of my tomato plants. I then cut two lengths of the fabric and placed it each end of the bed. I was hoping to take full advantage of the sun by refIMG_1846lecting its rays up off of the fabric to the underside of the leaves, as well as reflecting the sun off each end of the bed in the morning and late afternoon.

It looked a little funny to see my tomatoes with skirts, and I wasn’t sure if it would work but I had nothing to lose. Here are my tomato plants now. I am very happy with the results so far.  My plants are just as tall as my friend’s plants, that were situated in a very sunny spot.  I’ll have to see how the fruit ripens up, but it looks promising.

If you’re not quite sure about going the “tinfoil” route, then consider using red or blue mulch (sheeting) to help your tomatoes along. The idea behind using the colored mulch is that it reflects and bounces far-red light wavelengths back up into your tomato plants. These red light wavelengths stimulate the growth of tomato plants through a reaction with a specific pigment in the tomato plants (phytochrome).  Montana State University did a 2-year study that found silver and red mulches did speed ripening in tomatoes, with blue mulches edging them out in fruit weight.

The colored mulch comes in sheet rolls.  For the best results, look for sheeting that is opaque, retains its color, and is non-degradable.