Thursday, July 28, 2011


Every summer has its own unique set of pest problems.  Sometimes I get so focused on the pests which are causing problems this season that I don’t think about the pests that are not causing problems this year.  Last year the Japanese beetles were a plague, this year I see the occasional beetle but they are not a problem, not even worth the bother of setting out traps.  My best guess is that the heavy late spring rains drowned most of the larva.  This happened in 2008 when we got seven inches of rain in one day.  The beetle population was suppressed in 2008 and the following year, then returned with a vengeance in 2010.  So it’s likely that next year will see more beetles than this summer but it will probably take two years for them to return to their normal levels. 
A few days ago I realized that there has been no mole activity in the yard and garden for some time.  In 2008 and 2009 they were a real problem in the garden, then last year I saw fewer mole tunnels.  Now there aren’t any signs of mole activity.  Maybe it’s the black snake that I see around here on occasion.  Last year I came across a black snake that was about six feet long, sunning itself in one of the vegetable beds that hadn’t been planted.    A few weeks later I almost tripped over it walking out the back door.

This year I’ve had encounters with a smaller snake, about four feet long, that looks like the same species.  It made a move toward the chicken coop in June that I talked about in an earlier post -  I’ve also come across this snake in the pole barn and one of the minibarns, both of which have mice.  It gets around.  So have these snakes been the nemesis of the moles around here?  I really can’t come up with a better explanation.  They are welcome to make themselves at home in the yard, along with the many toads.

The new problem this year is bacterial wilt.  It has killed two squash plants and the Diva cucumber plant.  The weather certainly must be a factor, with cool rainy days alternating with very hot days in June.  This is just a pathogen that I have no control over, other than to make sure the plants have adequate spacing to allow for a free flow of air. 
The hot weather makes some insects more aggressive.  I was stung twice last week.  I was stung walking into the minibarn, where paper wasps get in and build nests.  These wasps are usually not aggressive.   The next day I was stung on the ankle while cutting out saplings on the banks of the pond.   This one really hurt, bad enough to swell up the ankle a little.  I never saw it.  The wasps are welcome too, since many are parasitic to insect pests in the garden.  They usually find tomato hornworms before I do and lay eggs on the caterpillar.  The caterpillar becomes a zombie and stops feeding.   I leave it alone so it can hatch more wasps.
Last summer I was sitting on the deck when a cicada killer, which is a very large wasp, intercepted a horsefly a few feet away.  I watched as the cicada killer set on the fly on the deck floor and cut off the fly’s abdomen and wings, which took only a few seconds, then flew off with the rest of it’s meal, leaving the discarded body parts on the deck.   Insects are gruesome killers.   
The dragonflies are back in numbers after being scarce in June.  I can now watch a variety of species darting over and around the pond, catching insects all day long.  Another insect friend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

No mercy

OK  it was a failed experiment.  But not every experiment can succeed.  I tried planting ½ runner beans along with the butternut squash, thinking they could both share the same trellis.  Well at first the squash went crazy and spread its large leaves all over the place.  How could the beans have a chance, I thought.  But a funny thing happened.  The beans started growing all over the squash and it wasn’t long and they were king of the hill. 

So I had to make a choice.  There are beans in several  beds.  I’ve already lost the acorn and pattypan squash and the Diva cucumber to bacterial wilt.  Somehow the butternut just keeps on chugging along, but why stress it?  It has six nice sized ripening squash but hasn’t done much lately.  The beans had to go.   There's too much foliage there which restricts the flow of air.   And dead air is an invitation to pathogens. 

So out the beans went.  I cut the stems off at the base and pulled the vines out.  The last few days the butternut has put out a few new female flowers with the little squash behind them, and now the leaves will get full sunlight for photosynthesis.  I think of the leaves as green sugar factories that operate when they get sunlight.   It looks much better.  

The Brandywine tomato plant is loaded with tomaters.  The one pounder that I picked a few days ago, the first big slicer this year,  was ripe enough to eat.  I couldn’t help it, I ate that thing in one sitting.  Just salt and pepper and was it ever good.   I had to put in a cross support in the cages to support these two whoppers. 
And here’s the same plant a little higher.  I’m not bragging just showing off.
The marconi peppers are thick.  I had to put stakes all around it to support it.  Looks like a good year for peppers, with the heat.  This is a great pepper for grilling, but I like 'em red.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Update July 25, 2011

We finally got a decent rainfall on Sunday – ¾ inch in the rainguage – which means I won’t have to water for several days.  Most guides recommend that vegetables get an inch of water a week, and it’s better to do this in one or two heavy waterings than a light watering every day.  That way the roots will go deeper since the soil generally dries from the top down.   Since I’m a science nerd I did some calculations to see how long it takes to put an inch of water on 250 square feet of bed space.   I measured the time to fill a gallon container – 10 seconds, or six gallons a minute.  An inch of water on 250 square feet is about 21 cubic feet of water, or 156 gallons. That works out to 26 minutes of watering to put down an inch of water. 

It’s been a good year for broccoli.  Probably because I stopped growing the De Cicco variety and replaced it with Major.  I switched over to Gypsy for the summer maturing broccoli.   This is the first Gypsy brocolli and it did real well in the heat, but I don't think it is as good as the Major.  There’s one broccoli plant left but it looks like the heat is taking its toll.  Most of the cole crops have been showing some leaf burn.  I picked the last bok choi of the year this week.   Next year I'll definitely plant more broccoli and less kohlrabi.

I’m not a big fan of carrots but grow a few.   In the past most were deformed and split.  This half-row of Danvers turned out real nice. 

The peppers look like they are really going to produce soon.  That’s a red hot cherry in the foreground.  I’ve tried one - it’s like a sweet Jalapeno, slightly less hot. 

The Fairy Tale eggplant has a lot of small eggplants nearly ready to pick.  It’s really a striking plant.  I've picked a few slicing tomatoes from two plants - German Queen and Brandywine.  They are Bonnie plants from Lowes and I suspect that they are both the same variety - somebody must have switched tags at the store.  But they're tasty so no complaints.

The Sunburst pattypan has gotten bacterial wilt, which has already killed the cukes and Acorn squash.  This morning the dead stems and leaves were covered in fungus.I’ve removed nearly all the old foliage and the new foliage looks like it has recovered some after the rains and cooler weather.  We’ll see how it holds up once the temperature returns to 90 degrees.   I’m not going to grow this variety next year.  Maybe it was bred to produce heavily for a few weeks and then expire, but that’s not the growth habit I want in a squash.   
Totals for the week:
Snap beans 3 lb 15 oz;  Broccoli 1 lb 1oz;  Summer squash 9 oz; 
Bok choi 15 oz;  Carrots 1 lb;  Tomatoes 1 lb 8 oz;  Peppers 9 oz
There’s a new tab with a spreadsheet of the harvest totals and plans.  I’m having a little problem converting the spreadsheet to a JPG format in the right size.  It’s more irritating because I got it right once and now can't repeat.  You have to click on the picture and then zoom in.  I'll have to retitle this blog  "The trials and tribulations of the computer illiterate bloggger".   85 pounds now!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mowing the banks

It was time to mow the banks of the pond on either side of the deck, something I haven’t done in three years.  I let the shoreline go wild on purpose, just hand scything the weeds and saplings near the deck.  The original owner/builder cut the grass with a push mower around the pond, an all day job.  I couldn’t see spending all that time mowing, thinking that if I let the shoreline grow it would make a better wildlife habitat.  After several years of benign neglect the area behind the garden had weeds about five feet tall and quite a few saplings.  A little too much neglect I guess. 

The side of the pond across from the house I don’t cut.  The shoreline is always within ten feet of the property line.  The adjacent property over there was a pasture ten years ago and is going through early succession.  The owners live in Chicago and bought several properties in this area, with no definite plans to build here.  Tulip poplar, red oak, black cherry and other tree species are ten to twenty feet tall.   In another ten years of neglect it will look more like a woods than a weedlot.  I'm more than happy to let nature take it's course on that shore.  

A lawn is essentially a prairie biome where succession is prevented by regular mowing.  Cutting stimulates growth of new grass while selecting against the growth of many weeds and certainly trees.  My house and yard are in the middle of woods, scrub and pasture.  I use two levels of mowing here.  The areas close to the house and over the septic field are mowed weekly,  like a suburban yard.  Then there’s a buffer area surrounding the lawn that butts against the woods and pond.   I mow this four to five times a year with a trail cutter, a 44 inch mower with its own engine that is towed by the garden tractor.  The trail cutter cuts about six inches high and will go through heavy brush and small saplings. 

Last year I tried to mow the banks with the trail cutter.  The turf tires on the tractor just slipped and I ended up getting stuck and winching the tractor/mower setup from the banks – something I don’t want to go through again.  Now I have some chains for the tractor tires.  I removed the mower deck, put  the chains on the back tires, and hooked up the trail cutter.   It’s a little nerve-wracking to back this setup down a bank toward the water then put the tractor in forward and pull up, but the chains got traction every time.  I left about a yard wide strip at the shoreline uncut.

I also mowed the levee  with the brush cutter .  The pond side of the levee has a lot of willow growth while the other side is thick with blackberries and wild roses.  These plants will overgrow the levee in no time if they are not cut regularly.  And you can't let trees grow on the levee, they could go down in a storm and once uprooted allow a breach in the levee.  It’s a challenge to get the trail cutter as close as possible to the edge of the banks without dropping a wheel over, and the new blackberry canes usually give me some good scratch marks.  I’m encouraged to see more cattails establishing themselves around the pond edge, and will cut down some willows this fall to favor the cattails.  The cattails harbor Marsh Wrens and Redwing Blackbirds, stabilize the shoreline and keep mud from eroding into the pond. 

When it comes to nature it’s hard to find that happy medium between total neglect and overcontrol.  Michael Pollian observed that Americans have something of a contradictory view of nature.  We either think of it as something to be subdued and controlled completely, or we want areas where we think nature is untouched and pure.  Neither approach is  realistic.  You can never control nature completely, and there is no part of the natural world that is not affected in some way by people.  But you can work with it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tomato taunt

Every day I check on the tomatoes to look for the first blush of red.  Quite a few tomatoes are full size and have turned a pale green that is one step away from edibility.  The tomato plant on the left is a German Queen, and a Pink Brandywine is on the right, both heirlooms and new varieties for me.  They are very healthy, the Brandywine is six feet high and growing.  On Saturday my sister visited from out of town and I gave her a green tomato of each variety.

In front of the tomatoes, the Fairy Tale eggplant on the left is way behind  the Lavendar Touch eggplant on the right.  I’m now getting a steady supply of Hungarian Wax peppers and it looks like some Red Hot Cherry peppers are just about ready.  Can’t wait to find out just how hot they are.  The paprika peppers are impressive this year, but still green.  

The Sunburst pattypan squash gave me just one squash this week after producing more than twenty pounds over the last three weeks. Many of the leaves were turning yellow and dying, but there was also a lot of green new growth. It looks to me like the plant completed a cycle and the dying leaves were no longer making energy for the plant. The dying foliage was hindering air circulation and harboring squash bugs. It was time for the vorpal blade to go snickersnack, and about 2/3 of the folage went into the compost bin. If the sprayings of Bt stopped the vine borer, then the plant should have a second life and make more squash. If it’s got the borer, well it’s all over anyhow in a week or so. At least the squash bugs have fewer places to hide now.

The Yukon Gold potatoes looked like they were done for – no new growth and most of the foliage yellow.  So out they went and I managed to dig up the spuds without spearing any potatoes with the fork.  Planting the Yukon Golds in front of the cages with the Red Pontiacs was a mistake, bad for both varieties because air movement and sunlight were restricted.   It looks like the Red Pontiacs do the best in these beds, maybe it’s the alkaline soil here that makes potatoes a challenge.  But I got a nice haul of Yukon Golds from six seed pieces, considering how early they came out.

Can’t forget the brassicas, and how annoying it is when Microsoft Word changes the spelling to “basics”.   Cabbage crops did the heavy lifting in late spring/early summer and they are still producing.  In the back of the bed are two Gypsy broccoli, a heat tolerant variety that has replaced Major, and one is nearly ready to pick.  In the front are two nice cauliflower plants, Burpee’s Summer Harvest, which are really healthy looking plants. The new leaves stay upright and look like they will shade the growing head really well.  The large plant is a Brussells Sprout.  A row of beans went into an empty space in this bed.  And that's nearly dead sugar snap peas on the trellis.

Also some beans,  three okra, red long of tropea onions and some wax peppers.  I tried some chard and, well, spinach it’s not.  It was a little bitter  And I caught a catfish this morning for dinner tonight.  Same size as the one in the last post.  For some reason the big cats are not biting, but they are in there.   Totals:
Potatoes  8 lb 12 oz;  Beans 1 lb 11 oz;  Okra 3 oz;  Summer squash 14 oz; 
Peppers 4 oz;  Cabbage 13 oz;  Onions Red Long 5 oz;  
Tomato German Queen 15 oz;  Tomato Brandywine 6 oz (green tomatoes);  Catfish 18 oz.
I made an Excel spreadsheet of the harvest totals after finding that the Google Docs spreadsheet did not have enough columns.  Not wanting to rant, but after using Excel for years in my job I've got to hand it to Microsoft for finding a way to ruin a great program.  Well done, Mr. Gates!  When I can figure out how Blogger adds a new tab I'll add a JPEG pic of the spreadsheet.  Seventy four pounds to date!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Catfish for Dinner

I caught a catfish in the pond this morning and remembered to take a picture.  The catfish have been skittish lately.  After losing a nice one on Sunday I tried again on Monday and got nothing.  The equipment I was using was just all wrong, and unless a fish struck the bait the instant it hit the water it wasn’t likely that a fish would be hooked.  (For those of you who are interested, an open-face reel with cheap 20 lb line was combined with a spinning rod.  I could cast a bait about 15 feet before friction stopped it, then the cheap line would coil up and pull the bait in).

Monday I went to the sporting goods store and bought a rod and reel combo, some quality 12 lb monofilament line and the right-sized hooks.  Amazing!  I could cast a bait and bobber nearly across the pond, and the line was hardly visible.  Well the fish were still skittish so I abandoned the shores around the deck where they are fed and set up at the widest part of the pond, where the water is likely the deepest.  One cast and I hooked a really nice fish and began reeling it in.   Once hooked these fish tend to swim right toward shore in the direction they are pulled, then really put up a fight when they are in close to the shore.  That’s when I realized that the drag on the new reel had not been set.  I had no idea what the setting was.  This fish gave a good thrash near the shore and broke the line.  Lesson learned.
I walked to the other side of the deck and tried again.  After a few minutes a channel cat pulled the bobber under and I set the hook.  The drag was ready this time and the hook felt solid.  The fish was mine.  No it’s not a big fish, about 16 inches long, but big enough for a nice meal of pan-fried catfish.  And more fish guts for the compost bin. 

To me, channel cats have a physique more like a regular fish than most catfish.  They still have a wide flat head but overall they are more athletic than many other catfish species.  It’s amazing that these fish can learn to eat floating food since their eyesight is poor and they are not built for top-feeding.  They throw their heads back and forth to locate the food, probably using their barbels to zoom in on the food. 
When some fresh sweet peppers, tomatoes, corn and potatoes are all available – not long now – I will make some Lousiana catfish chowder.  I’ll have to buy celery to make the trinity, since the celery I planted never made it.  There’s about six or seven meaty catfish backbones in the freezer already for the fish stock.    

Monday, July 11, 2011

The week of the squash

Way more squash than I can possibly use – from one plant.  At least the Sunburst pattypan produces in waves so I’m getting a break.  I gave most of the harvest to the food bank and it doesn’t look like there will be more squash until later in the week, when the squash deluge will start all over again.  

Summer squash (Sunburst pattypan) 13 lb 14 oz (14 squash); Beans (Dragon Langerie) 1 lb 7 oz;  Onions 6 oz; Cabbage (Earliana) 1 lb 11 oz, Catfish 6 oz. 

Dragon Langerie, an heirloom wax bean, started producing.  The beans on the upper parts of the plant that get more sun are strongly mottled, the beans at the bottom are more pale yellow.   They are good but not as tasty as green beans, which have a more beany flavor.  I’m growing State ½ Runner beans on the same trellis with the butternut squash.  It may be a challenge to find the beans in all the foliage.  The premature demise of the cucumber left an empty trellis so I planted some more ½ runner beans there.

Another head of cabbage, Earliana, was picked.  It’s a decent early cabbage but I like Gonzalez better.  Two cauliflower plants, Summer Harvest, are looking really healthy and the Gypsy broccoli is coming along.  It has a longer maturity than the Major broccoli I was growing so it will probably take about ten more days to mature.  Whenever I check the brassica bed there are usually a few sugar snap peas to snack on.  Amazing that it hangs on like that in the heat.

I really have to rethink this summer squash thing.  With limited garden space I want to raise high value crops.  Is summer squash high value?  It’s certainly high yielding but I can think of a lot of vegetables I like more.  If I could find a more compact summer squash that produced less, and had more intense flavor I would definitely want to try that.   But nearly fourteen pounds of squash in one week? 
I caught a small catfish, enough for one meal.  I tried to catch another one on Sunday but lost it reeling it in.  Once a catfish is hooked the rest of them won’t bite for several hours, so the fishing was done for the day.  I’m going to try again this evening.      

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Another one bites the dust

This is really starting to annoy me.  Last Monday I posted a picture of the winter squash bed with two robust winter squash plants – a Metro Butternut and Tiptop Acorn – both F1 hybrids from Johnny’s.  The next day the Acorn squash wilted badly.  I cut back about a third of the foliage and watered it.  It looked worse the next day.  I watered it some more.  After two days it was obvious that this squash plant was done for.  I cut it off at the base then, starting from the bottom, cut the stem up in ½ inch sections.  No sign of the borer.  Like the cucumber , it just wilted and died.  It looks like the chlorophyll just drained out of it.   This was the plant last weekend:

And a few days later:

Recently I did some deep thinking (yes I know, really scary) about the microenvironment for the vegetable beds.   I considered how much wind the beds are exposed to.  South and west of the beds a woodlot blocks the prevailing winds.  The woods also start blocking the evening sun in October and by Halloween they block most of the sun to the beds, which makes autumn crops a challenge.  The only way the beds get a fresh breeze is if the wind is from quadrant between NW and NE direction.   
The weather recently has alternated between cool rainy periods and spells of very hot still air.  Good conditions for microorganisms like fungi and bacteria.  I really have to factor in the lack of breeze when designing the layout next year.  This year I planted potatoes in cages because I thought holding the plants upright would allow more air movement.  I planted three cages of Red Pontiac but made the mistake of planting Yukon Gold in front (south) of the cages.  Next year I’m going to plant all the tater plants inside cages and plant something low, like onions, in front of the potato cages.  That should allow more air movement and give the potatoes enough sun.
So I was thinking (?) about what vegetable plants make sense here.  With 250 square feet of bed space planting on a whim or experimenting with varieties is a limited option.  I need a reasonable expectation that most of the plants that go into the beds will produce food.  If I find something that works, what are the chances I can find an even better variety?   
Winter squash are a prime example.  In three seasons I’ve planted Kabocha, Butternut, Acorn, and Delicata varieties.  I’ve lost the Acorn and Delicata to the borer.  This year the Acorn succumbed to something else.  The Kabocha did not get the borer but mildew cut yields to just a few squash. 
The butternut has outproduced all the other squash combined.  It’s never gotten the borer.  Powdery mildew slows it down but does not kill it.  It’s produced well every year. The butternuts keep all winter and they are very good.  From the information I've gotten in three growing seasons, it's hard to justify growing any winter squash other than the butternut in this particular space.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Better late than never?

As the saying goes, I’m a day late and a dollar short for the weekly totals.  But the relative (for me) yields are impressive, so here goes:

Broccolli  1 lb, 11 oz (one head);   Summer squash 5 lb, 8 oz (6);  Bok Choi 2 lb, 13 oz; Peppers 4 oz.

The brocolli was the last of the Major variety, and it was, as they say, a doozy. Previous heads were about ¾ pound, this head was twice as large as any before. After this I switched from Major to Gypsy, a more heat tolerant variety, or so they say. Something I just noticed about this variety is that the leaves are incredibly blue

The Sunburst pattypan squash plant is going nuts.  I picked another five pounds this morning, which goes into next weeks tally, and gave away most of them to the food bank.  The foliage is so thick I have to push apart the leaves to find the squash. 
Winter squash is doing really well too.  There’s an acorn and a butternut in this bed.  Last year wasn’t very good for squash but it looks like this year will be very good.  I really can’t define any real difference in the weather that is responsible.  The trellis is shared with State ½ Runner beans, which are not supposed to get over three feet high.  Right.  Mixing the squash with bean may not be a great idea.   It’s gone to be hard to find the beans in all the foliage.

Here’s a pic of one of the butternuts that is getting to size:

I wish I knew what’s going on with the cucumber.   I planted two kinds, Diva and a Burpee’s variety.  After getting two very early cukes from the Burpee’s plant I decided to remove it.  One reason I removed the Burpee’s plant is because it looked more stressed from pathogens while the Diva has been healthy in the past.   The Diva plant got the wilt this weekend and looks like it is done for.   I was seeing a few squash bugs on the Diva.  They vector a lot of diseases and I always associate squash bugs with a host of other problems.  Last year was a cucumber deluge.  This year it looks like I’ll get nothing. 

Also one very large bok choi, a green stemmed variety from Johnny’s called Black Summer.  I donated that one too.  I haven't had time to catch any catfish lately.  Since there was some interest in harvesting these fish, I'll put in some pics in a few days of the next fish that's caught. 
OK I've tried to edit the font and spacing on this post for the last 30 minutes and this is the best I can do.  I'll have to quit while I'm ahead.  You win blogger!