Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reindeer Games

Because this is the dormant season in my garden (and the busy season in my work life), I haven't posted much lately in the garden blog. But now that school is officially out for winter break until January, I have time to share a couple of things with you. First, the photo above is of my new indoor plants. My principal bought every teacher a poinsettia (left) for Christmas. Also, one of my students gave me the beautiful holiday cactus (right) for Christmas. You can't see it well in the photo, but it is full of tiny pink buds just getting ready to open. Both plants are now adorning my dining table.

It has been a busy fall. I'm in my first year teaching third grade and it is the hardest job I'll ever love. Unlike jobs I've had in the past, you never really feel like "you've got it" or "you're in a routine". Or maybe you do and I just haven't gotten there yet. My experience is that there is constantly something new just around the bend and I have to learn about it, think a lot about the best way I can meet the expectations set for me, and what I need to do to accomplish it. Just when I think I'm done, a new thing comes along.

I am starting to feel more comfortable with what my students are capable of and what I need to do for them as far as pacing. Pacing is the hardest thing about teaching. You have so much that you need to teach them and that has to be balanced with their prior knowledge and how fast/slow they need to go to learn new material.

I'm happy that I have a two-week vacation to relax with my family. But I'm also excited about starting a new semester in January. We will be starting some new subjects (history and health) and I feel more comfortable with the subjects I'll be continuing.

This past week was trying. The week before the holidays is probably the wildest week in any elementary school. The students were almost literally bouncing off the walls. Yesterday we had our class Christmas party. We played some games (including a relay race where each student eventually sported a red Rudolph nose - picture below). I gave them a snack (Little Debbie Christmas Tree cake and Sprite). We finished off the party by exchanging gifts (books) and I gave them each a personalized stocking filled with goodies from me. It was a fun and exhausting week.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

After the Frost

We were hit by frost on Tuesday night. We've been busy and hadn't tried to save anything. I just shrugged and figured whatever gets zapped, gets zapped. Today my garden looks like this.
At least my lettuce (mostly Red Sails), carrots, onions, mustard and collards and cabbages still look pretty good.

My tomatoes are all done for and the bell peppers look sad and wilty.

And my basil has turned brown.

We are on fall break from school and are about to go on our annual fall/Halloween camping trip. When we get back, it looks like I have lots of clean up to do in the garden.

Today's local weather:
High temp: 64
Low temp: 46
Partly cloudy, showers overnight.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Delayed Gratification

I had been holding off on harvesting my Beauregard sweet potatoes because I'd read somewhere that you should wait for the foliage to start turning brown before they are ready. Then yesterday I was poking around on and I read that you are supposed to get sweet potatoes out of the ground before the first frost. Now, it has "only" been getting down to the 40's at night lately, but I don't want to be caught off guard. I am really busy right now so I need to use the time when I have it. Besides, it is October now and I planted these things on Mother's Day weekend in May. That should be plenty of time, right?

Well, as you can see, I have a very respectable crop. This was my first time to grow sweet potatoes and I didn't know how to plant them. I didn't realize you were supposed to take the plant from the nursery and separate it into slips before planting them all. I just planted the whole thing as one big clump. As a result, many of my potatoes are on the smallish side. But I'm not complaining. And next year I'll know how to plant them. I think I have several fairly large ones despite them being crowded!

This was definitely one of my more successful crops and I will grow them again without a doubt.

Today's local weather:
High temp: 75 F
Low temp: 46 F
Sunny and clear

Monday, September 29, 2008

The garden is winding down

It has been a month since I lasted posted here at Dirt in my Fingernails. School has started and I have been substitute teaching a lot. Plus I have been hired to start teaching a third grade class full-time starting in November so I have been gathering materials and making plans. I have been neglecting my garden, I'm afraid.

As you can see from the picture above, the garden is no longer full of lush green life like it was in July. It's to be expected I suppose. Several of the crops have been removed and others are in their last days and weeks.

As you can see here, my tomato plants are still full of tomatoes that I have not been able to keep up with. Many of them have problems with cracking and usually go straight to the compost bin. Also, my big Beef Heart plants became so top-heavy with huge tomatoes that they fell over, taking the flimsy trellis with them. Several large tomatoes rest on the ground outside the garden where they are being feasted on by the army of slugs that have appeared. I should probably do something about it, but with everything else going on, I have kind of lost the will to fight. The tomatoes I do pick usually sit in a bowl on my kitchen counter for a few days until they begin to spoil and I take them out to the compost. I just can't keep up with them and I don't have time to process them. Next year I'll plan better. You can also see the bell pepper plants to the right. I've found that if I catch the pepper when it is just right, I can take it inside and use it immediately or cut it up immediately to freeze. If I wait too long, it'll rot on the vine or on my counter waiting to be used. I've lost several of those already. And the patch of weeds in the middle of this photo is where my pumpkins used to be. I need to clear this area out so that those nasty squash bugs don't have a comfy home to overwinter in.

As you can see above, my sweet potatoes are flourishing. They've spread out to cover a huge area and I can't wait to dig them up and see what we have. Jeff is getting antsy and wanting me to dig them up, but from what I understand, I need to wait until the foliage on top begins to die away before I dig.

I have planted several items for my fall crops and they seem to be doing well so far. Here are the mustard greens and collard greens I planted in August. The collards appear to be getting eaten by the cabbage worms I've discovered. I tried Neem Soap spray. We'll see how it works.

Here are my cabbages that are also being eaten by cabbage worms.

And here are the lettuces and spinach I planted in early August. For some reason, many of the seeds I planted didn't come up. This is all I have from that particular planting. There is Black Seeded Simpson on the bottom, Red Sails in the middle and Spinach on top. I also made a second later planting of spinach over on the right where you see the little tiny green sprouts. And yes, the weeds are encroaching on the left...I need to get to that.

And finally, in mid-September I went out and planted the rest of my lettuce and spinach seeds in several vacated spots in the garden. Here is a close-up shot of spinach (bottom) and Red Sails lettuce (top) seedlings in the bed where the melons used to live. They are only two weeks old but are off to a great start!

Today's local weather:
High temp: 76 F
Low temp: 54 F
Sunny in the morning, thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Spaghetti Sauce - My Latest Experiment

So on Thursday, August 28, I decided to try my hand at making spaghetti sauce using my roma tomatoes. I had frozen 3 gallon-sized ziploc bags full of washed and cored romas plus I had probably another gallon's worth that I'd just picked sitting on my counter. I thought I'd share with all the web surfers out there what I did and how it went.

First, I had to soften the tomatoes so that the seeds and skins could be removed from the tomato flesh. I took all three bags pictured here plus the ones on my counter and filled this stock pot almost to the top.

I heated the tomatoes on high heat and let them simmer just 5 minutes or so, long enough to soften them and loosen the skins. Then I ladled them into the food mill to press the juice and flesh through and separate out the skins and seeds.

Once everything had gone through the food mill, I had quite a bit of juice in my turkey roasting pan.

This was what was left over and what will feed my compost bin:

Next, I put the roasting pan of juice into a 350 degree oven for one hour. After one hour, I turned the temp down to 300 degrees for four more hours. I stirred it every half an hour to make sure it wasn't sticking. The point of doing all this was to have the water cook out and reduce the juice so that it was thick like sauce and not runny.

One hour before the sauce was done, I prepared and added the seasonings. (I'll post my recipe at the end of this post.) After the end of the total 5 hours of oven time, I took the sauce out of the oven. It smelled wonderful. Meanwhile, I had brought my boiling water bath canner full of water to a boil. I had sterilized some quart jars and had the lids and rings simmering (not boiling) on the stove for 5 minutes. When the sauce was ready, I used my funnel and ladle to fill hot quart jars with the hot sauce (remembering to remove the bay leaves first!). I wiped the rims of the jars, used tongs to put on a lid and then screw on the rings to fingertip tight. I then put them in the boiling water bath canner. All of those tomatoes had simmered down to just over 3 quarts of sauce. (I knew it would be considerably less than what I started out with, but it was still a disappointment after all that work!)

Anyway, I boiled the quart jars for 45 minutes. Then I removed them to cool. Here they are. The white powdery stuff on the outside of the jars is mineral deposits from our hard water in the boiling water bath. After the jars cool, I have to wipe that stuff off before I label them.

The good news is that there was a little bit left over so I added some chopped tomatoes and sauteed onions and garlic to it the next night and we tried it on pasta. It is really really good. The only difference I will make next time is I will decrease the amount of crushed red pepper in the recipe. It calls for 1 tsp. but I think the end result was a little too spicy for my 6yo's tastes. Jeff and the two older boys will like it, but I think next year I'll only add 1/2 tsp.

Oh, and in case you're interested, here's the recipe I used. I have to credit the folks in the Harvest Forum over at with the recipe. I altered a couple of the instructions/ingredients as mentioned.

Spaghetti Sauce

4 gallons fresh roma tomatoes (yielding approx. 16 cups puree)
3 Tbsp. oil
4 cups chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tsp. oregano, crushed
2 bay leaves
1 Tbsp. plain salt (non-iodized)
1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 Tbsp. dried parsley
1 Tbsp. celery leaves, minced (I skipped this ingredient)
1/4 c. lemon juice

Prepare tomatoes yielding approximately 16 cups of puree.
Saute onions in oil until soft and translucent. Combine with remaining ingredients except lemon juice in heavy saucepan. Simmer 2 hours stirring often until desired consistency.*

* Instead of simmering 2 hours, I roasted in the oven for one additional hour after simmering the tomato juice for 4 hours, as mentioned in my description above.

REMOVE BAY LEAVES. Pour into jars and can (as described above).

Yumm! Next year I'll need to grow more roma plants so that I have more than 3 quarts of sauce to show for it!

My new garden visitors

I went to Back-to-School Night at the high school last night so Jeff had to tend the garden. When I got home, he told me that in the course of watering the garden, he'd found two praying mantises. This photo isn't the exact Praying Mantis found in our garden. I borrowed the picture from the above link on wikipedia. However, ours looked just like this one.

This is such great news! I'd been hoping all season to see at least one praying mantis and Jeff found two, each at a different location in the yard. According to wikipedia, these things mate in the fall so maybe that's what they are getting ready for. They are more than welcome to lay their eggs in my yard.

Why am I so excited about these praying mantises? Praying mantises are one of the good guys, bug-wise. They are predatory insects who feed on those nasty bugs who would try to eat my garden. So inviting them into my garden is an organic way to control bugs. My only hope is that they stick around and invite some friends and have some babies. It was very obvious to me that once I put in my garden, the bad bugs showed up. I was only hoping the good guys would eventually realize this was a great place to find a meal. Yippee!!

In my pre-garden days I'd never think I'd be cheering the arrival of new bugs. Now I am enlightened.

Today's Local Weather:
High temp: 85 F
Low temp: 67 F
Morning fog, plentiful sunshine later, possible thunderstorms over night.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Today's harvest

This is what I got out of my garden just this morning:That would be (clockwise from the left):

* four Cherokee Purple tomatoes
* three Beef Heart tomatoes
* two Better Boy tomatoes
* a bucket full of Roma tomatoes
* one spaghetti squash
* one muskmelon
* one red bell pepper
* one golden bell pepper
* 5 cucumbers
* a huge container of grape and cherry tomatoes

The harvest is particularly large today because I worked yesterday subbing all day in a classroom so I totally neglected the garden. Even last night I had to take my 12yo son to his guitar lesson and make dinner so I didn't even walk out to the garden at all. But today I didn't work so I made up for it. What a haul! I need to figure out what to do with it all.

Meanwhile, look what I found growing back behind my tomatoes near the birdfeeder. I included my sandal in the photo just so you'd have a sense of scale of these things. Huge!

Today's local weather:
High temp: 87 F
Low temp: 69 F
Cloudy, chance of showers or thunderstorms throughout the day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lessons My Garden is Teaching Me

Things in the garden are slowing down a bit and the kids are in school again, so I have time to be philosophical. I planted this garden this year to give me something to do over the summer months so that I wouldn't dwell on the fact that I didn't have a permanent job. There was a possibility that growing our own food might offset our grocery bills a little, but that wasn't a big motivation for me. It would just be a nice bonus. What I didn't expect were all the other things I'd learn from having my own garden.

I live in a stereotypical suburban neighborhood which is probably like hundreds of identical neighborhoods all over the country. We have winding roads with names that are "Peaceful" or "Moonlight" or are named after nature like "Red Maple". Cul-de-sacs with basketball goals and kids riding bikes sit at every turn. Cookie cutter houses sit on row-by-row of 1/4 acre lots, all separated by the obligatory privacy fence which cuts us off from our neighbors and fosters the delusion that we are more spread out than we really are. Our yards are planted with grass and an ornamental tree or two with Walmart shrubs and annuals planted next to the front door. We sterilize the lawn with chemicals to kill all of the "weeds" and insects. The key is that *we* control what lives and dies on our little rectangle of land.

And we all do it. Most of us never give a thought to it. It's just what you do.

But what if we don't? What if we decide not to use chemicals and to let the dandelions and clover grow? What if we decide to attract life to our land rather than keeping it away? We can put up bird houses, bird feeders, bird baths. We can plant other plants that aren't there to impress the neighbors.

In my suburban backyard, near the privacy fences my neighbors had erected, I planted a garden. Not a manicured flower garden. But a large, fenced-in vegetable garden. We also planted berries that (from what I am told) will eventually spread out of control.

We didn't sterilize our land this year...we invited life. Now with that invitation is the risk of (gasp) bugs and weeds. But my garden has taught me to look at that differently.

In my pre-garden days, I thought of bugs as pests. Period. And weeds made the lawn look uncared for. I no longer feel that way. Bugs are not one size fits all. There is a huge variety of life out there that we wipe out when we sterilize our lawns. But when we allow life to exist in its normal state, we realize the delicate balance that was created by Mother Nature, Creation, God (whatever you call it). If we stop trying to control everything and just let it be, everything can manage very well on its own, thank you very much. Yes, there are bad bugs out there that can eat your food crops. But there are also good bugs out there that will eat your bad bugs. And yes, clover and dandelions make your lawn spotty. But they also attract bees which pollinate your other plants. Even snakes can be scary, but they eat nasty yard pests like mice and voles. It is all in the balance. Human beings like to upset that balance. We need to work more at respecting and preserving it.

My garden has also taught me to resist perfection. See that picture at the top of my post? In my old way of thinking, I would look at that photo and see all that is wrong with it. My spaghetti squash up front looks pathetic, my walkways are getting covered with weeds, the pumpkin patch is yellowing and wilting, and I've even left some bricks out when I was finished using them. I was good at beating myself up for not making things perfect. But now when I look at this photo I see it differently. I see the open spot up front where my (now dead) zucchini once stood. I have 22 cups of shredded zucchini in my freezer. I see the sprawling sweet potato plant that keeps growing and (I'm assuming) producing sweet potatoes underground. I see the spaghetti squash that has survived despite the attack the plants have undergone. So far I have frozen the flesh of 6 spaghetti squash that I managed to salvage from the damaged plants. And I think that two of those that remain may be salvageable. My pumpkin patch has several healthy looking pumpkins that are turning orange. Wilting vines aren't stopping them. My huge tomato plants are still producing and I'm picking a huge amount each and every day. And right up front under that lattice are the lettuce seeds I've just planted and will be germinating soon for my fall crop.

This garden, my first real garden, has seen a lot of success. It isn't perfect, but then what is? It has been a blessing in more ways than anyone can see.

Local weather today:
High temp: 84 F
Low temp: 64 F
Partly cloudy

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Race Against Time

Jeff has been nursing the pumpkin patch along for the last several weeks. Starting in mid-July, we have been undergoing an all-out attack on the pumpkins which included squash bugs, squash vine borers, powdery mildew, and scorching hot sun. The fact that anything is still alive out there is, in itself, a miracle. But it is barely holding on. Here is what my pumpkin patch looks like this morning.As you can see, the pumpkins are turning orange. The tiny Jack-Be-Littles (not pictured) are doing great and look fine. There are 3 Sugar Pie pumpkins and two are mostly orange and one is only starting to change. This particular photograph shows our two jack-o-lantern pumpkins in the early stages of changing to orange. I have to say that the amount of work and space that goes into growing pumpkins sure doesn't seem to be commensurate with what you have to show for it. I would rather not grow them next year but instead use the space for something that wouldn't have me pulling my hair out so much. But Jeff wants pumpkins. I finally compromised and said I will do one pumpkin plant next year and that is it.

Today is August 18. Do you think this pumpkin will survive and make it until Halloween?

Today's local weather:
High temp: 84 F
Low temp: 61 F

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Life Cycle of a Garden

Lately, I've been frantically working to preserve what I can from our garden before they go bad. So far I have put up:

10 pints of dill pickle slices
8 pints of bread and butter pickle slices
8 pints of dill pickle spears
22 cups of frozen shredded zucchini
200 (approximately) dried then frozen cherry tomatoes
4 baked, shredded then frozen spaghetti squash

I have also frozen a gallon bag of roma tomatoes, a gallon of Better Boys, and a gallon of Beef Hearts for temporary holding until I gather enough to can. I am hoping to can the last batch of pickles today now that the kids are all back at school and I have the house to myself today.

But in between picking, freezing, and canning, lately I've been thinking about the life cycle of a garden. It's amazing to me to see it change over time. It occurred to me that a garden's life is similar to a person's life. When the seedlings are small, there isn't much to them yet, but you just know they're filled with limitless potential. Then you watch them grow and spread out. If you nurture and protect them, they can spread out further than you ever expected them to. Suddenly, in the heart of summer, they're thriving and producing beyond your wildest dreams and every item you pick feels like a blessing. But then it happens. Gradually you begin to notice weaknesses. It could be bugs or a disease that suddenly appears. You do everything you can to minimize the damage and prolong the life of these precious plants. If you do a good job and the plants are strong, they can still last quite a while. But, as fall approaches, they begin to fade. Production slows down and some plants succumb to the bugs or disease or just the stress of coping with the demands of late summer. They begin to die off. The garden becomes sparser and what is left begins to look feeble. You realize the end is near for this crop. It has been a good run, but it is nearly over. As temperatures cool and winter approaches, you reconcile yourself to accept the garden's fate. It is sad, but there is one thing that pulls you through...seed packets saved for next year.

My 2008 Garden:March 31, 2008 (Before tilling)

April 18, 2008 (Preparing the soil)

May 31, 2008 (The seedlings are planted)

June 22, 2008 (Everything is growing)

July 7, 2008 (The plants are young adults)

July 29, 2008 (The plants are producing like crazy but starting to show signs of trouble)

August 14, 2008 (Plants are beginning to die off and production slowing down)

Stay tuned for more...

Today's local weather:
High temp: 80 F
Low temp: 60 F
Partly cloudy with chance of afternoon thundershowers

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sugar Baby Watermelon

This is the first ripe Sugar Baby Watermelon from my melon patch this year. I picked one in July and when I cut into it, it was still white...not close to being ripe. But as you can see, this one is perfect. It's large too. We cut into it on Saturday. I sliced half of it for dinner as you can see here:We ate it with dinner Saturday and Sunday and I think there are still one or two slices left. I have the other half of the melon still in the fridge and we need to eat it today.

Meanwhile, I have 3 more ripe watermelons and 7 or 8 ripe muskmelons in the garden right now. What am I going to do with all of them?

Today local weather:
High temp: 77 F
Low temp: 58 F
Sunny and unusually cool

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ode to the Cherokee Purple

Ok, I will admit that the idea to plant Cherokee Purple tomatoes this year was not mine. My husband got the idea in his head that he liked the idea of a "Cherokee" heirloom tomato and I humored him by buying a couple of plants when I bought my Better Boys, Beef Hearts, Romas, and Sweet 100's. I figured it was just another one of his "big ideas". I stand humbly corrected.

I am here to testify that Cherokee Purples are wonderful! We will be growing them for the forseeable future. Not only are they an interesting and striking color of purplish red (see photo above), they are also flavorful and juicy. I know photos don't convey things like flavor and juiciness, but get a load of this:We like to slice up a tomato with dinner and eat slices with just a little bit of salt on top. One tomato is enough for our family of 5.

Our success with this variety has made me want to branch out and try some other "off the beaten path" varieties next year.

And one more tomato note...I have also been impressed with our Beef Heart tomatoes. They are quite huge. I never expected to grow something so large. They are also meaty and juicy (almost as good as Cherokee Purple, but not quite). Here's a photo of my 6yo son holding the two Beef Hearts I picked last night.

Today's local weather:
High temp: 81 F
Low temp: 58 F
Partly cloudy and windy

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Every Day It's Something New

Yesterday at lunch, I decided to make BLT's. I went out into the garden to pick some tomatoes for the sandwiches. As I was picking, I noticed a strange looking goo on some of the leaves. I'd never seen it before and wondered what it was. I looked directly above it to see where it might have come from and this is what I saw:After my initial shock and gasp of disgust, I called my 16yo son over to look. For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is what is called the Tomato Hornworm. I've seen pictures of these things on the internet, but let me say, internet photos do not fully capture the size and scale of these buggers. They are about 4 inches long and 1/2 inch in diameter. They are a wonderful example of adaptation as their coloring and design makes them blend in with tomato plants and they are really hard to pick out. That's why it is such a shock when you finally do see them. This huge caterpillar is right there under your nose and you don't even see it. Makes me skin crawl just to think of it.

Anyway, we found three different ones and pulled them off to kill them. I admit that I have gotten over being squeamish after killing dozens of squash bugs with my own hands. But these Tomato Horn Worms were a different matter altogether. They were just too big for me to deal with. So I played the defenseless female card (haha) and got my teenage son to do the nasty work for me. Wearing my gardening gloves, he pulled them off the plant. It was actually kind of hard to do. Those things have several pairs of feet that really grip the stem and it was hard to pull it off. Then once he threw it on the ground, we either stepped on it and cut it in two with a gardening shovel. It was very disgusting. The whole experience had me worked up for hours.

My son said it reminded him of the giant green caterpillar in A Bug's Life. That's true. They must have used the Tomato Horn Worm as their inspiration for the character. From a distance they are actually kind of pretty as they have a design that runs down their backs.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Part Two: Surgery

If Saturday night was a murderous rampage, Sunday night was surgery night. I'll get into that in a minute. But now for something completely different:You never know what you'll find when collecting things from your garden for your dinner salad.

Now onto the surgery...I spent my evening in the pumpkin patch. I went out armed with knife and a bottle of organic mildew cure for the powdery mildew. I decided to cut out the worst leaves/vines, to douse what was left with mildew cure, and hopefully revive these sick plants. I started hacking away at sick leaves and throwing them into a pile outside the garden. I discovered that most of the sick leaves had both powdery mildew AND the frass that indicates squash vine borer. My theory is that the squash vine borers drilled into the vines making them more susceptible to diseases like powdery mildew. When I was finished hacking away, I had packed a 30 gallon trash bag with leaves and vines. The pumpkin patch is probably half as dense as it was before. With the worst of the plants gone, I went around and covered everything that was left with the mildew cure. My hopes were lifted by new green (healthy) looking growth that I discovered when I peeled away the bad.

One thing about clearing away all those large leaves - it is easy to see that there are lots of weeds that have moved in. In fact, I realize they may have been contributing to the problem. So this morning before the heat sets in for the day, I am outside pulling weeds from the pumpkin patch. I've already done one section and am taking a coffee break to update the blog before I go back out again. I was excited to have to share my area with the bees who were buzzing around because there are several new blossoms opened this morning! What a terrific sign! I hope I've been able to nurse the plants back to health.

Today's local weather:
High temp: 91 F
Low temp: 73 F
Lots of sun and hot

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Shading Fall Plantings

As I mentioned in my last post, yesterday I planted mustard and collard greens, spinach, and broccoli and cauliflower for fall crops. According to the August/September 2008 issue of Mother Earth News, the heat this time of year can be torture for plants, particularly new plantings for the fall. I learned that many established plants won't pollinate once the daytime temps are over 86 degrees. And seeds will not germinate if the soil temperature is too high. Apparently if daytime temps reach 90 degrees, soil temperatures can be 110 degrees - too hot for germination.

So this morning before the heat set in, I dug out some extra lattice we had stored in our minibarn and laid it down over the areas where I'd planted seed yesterday. I used bricks to prop them up so that air can circulate underneath the lattice. Once the roots are established, I'll either remove the lattice or replace it with a more appropriate shading for seedlings.

Today's local weather:
High temp: 83 F
Low temp: 66 F
Abundant sunshine

Saturday, August 2, 2008

My murderous rampage

I went on a murderous rampage tonight although I fear it may be too late. We decided to pull out the big guns. Now, we've tried to stay organic as much as possible and have had generally good luck. But this squash vine borer thing has gotten out of control. We went to the organic supply store to buy beneficial nematodes to attack the pesky grubs, but we found out that the store didn't have any in stock. They'd have to order it for us. We felt that time was of the essence so we looked for other alternatives. We ended up getting a product called Rotenone. It is an organic pesticide. However, some organic gardeners dispute its use because it is still considered moderately hazardous. It is considered "organic" because it is made from naturally occurring substances.

Compared to "nonorganic" pesticides, it is still less harmful over all and the damage being inflicted in our garden is bad enough that we felt we need to go this route. I waited until this evening after all the bees (i.e. pollinators) had left the garden before I began stalking my prey. I had made up a gallon of solution using 4 tsp. of the rotenone to 1 gallon of water. With spray bottle in one gloved hand and a knife in the other, I headed toward my squash. My second zucchini has been hanging on for dear life for two days now so I doused it good. My spaghetti squash is looking worse and worse every day. It is yellow and wilted and some leaves are starting to turn brown. It may be too late for the zucchini and spaghetti squash, but I'm doing what I can. I also went through the pumpkin patch and sprayed all of the vines that I could. All three plant crops had evidence of the borers (the golden frass at the site of entry). I'll see in the morning if I notice any difference.

In other news, I planted some of my fall crops today. I direct seeded everything in a vacant area of the garden. I re-planted the broccoli and cauliflower (since what I planted two weeks ago never came up). I also planted mustard and collard greens and several spinach plants. I'm going to plant more lettuce too, but I'm holding off on that since the Indiana Extension Service says to wait until August 15 for fall plantings of lettuce.

Today we went to visit the place where we had a plot in a community garden when we were first married. We were walking up and down the aisles between the plots and critiquing what we saw. We were amused at the fact that we both have learned so much since that time we tried to garden years ago. It made me feel better about my own garden. Most of these gardens were not well-tended. They were overgrown, ripe veggies hung on the vine as food for the pests that were moving in, and everything needed to be watered. Despite the problems we've had lately, I think our garden is in pretty good shape and we are doing a lot of things right. This was exactly the pick-me-up I needed today.

Friday, August 1, 2008

End of July Garden Update

So technically I'm a day late, but it is time for the monthly garden review.

First of all, I finally have a new blog header picture! I've been waiting for that particular bunch of cherry tomatoes to ripen for weeks solely for the photo op. I've had them pegged for my blog header for a while and today they were finally picture-worthy in my opinion.

I have to admit, the end of this month finds me in kind of a sad gardening mood. I realize now that the early part of the summer was easy on us. July has been much more difficult. Challenges that passed us by early on have started to hit us hard the last couple of weeks of the month.

Here's a plant-by-plant update:

* July started with bitter lettuces being dug up and added to compost. Their former bed sat empty for most of the month of July. For fall crops, I direct sowed some broccoli and cauliflower in that spot and so far I've only seen one broccoli seedling.
* Carrots are still in the garden and we've harvested a few, but generally I've decided I planted them too close together and didn't thin them out enough. They haven't had adequate room to grow to a useful size.
* The green onions have been slow to grow, but the ones I've pulled up to use in salads have been good. Next year I want to plant a bigger crop of these. We go through green onions faster than what this crop has allowed.
* My two zucchini plants provided us with lots and lots of zucchini. Most of it has been shredded and frozen. A week ago one plant succumbed to the squash vine borer and I fear that today the same thing is happening to the remaining plant. I think zucchini is done for this year.
* My potatoes didn't make it this year. I planted both Red Norland and Irish Cobblers. They started out impressively enough. But I didn't have a lot of soil to mound on them properly. What really did them in, though, is the amount of rain we had this May and June. It rained and rained and rained and area rivers and ponds flooded. Many people lost their homes so I guess I'm lucky that I only lost my potatoes. The tops turned yellow and died off way early and when I dug them up, the potatoes I found were rotten. I'd heard that potatoes were "really easy" to grow, but I don't think I'll try them again next year.
* My sweet potato plant looks healthy as ever. It has been vining out all over the place and will probably take over the area previously occupied by its next door neighbor: the zucchini. Still no idea how it is doing underground, but if the foliage is any clue, it's doing well.
* My yellow onions started to fall over which I took as a sign to harvest. I pulled about every other one up and was really disappointed with how small they were. I expected bigger. Maybe I planted them too closely together. I left the other half of onions in the ground to see if they'll grow anymore and the other ones are drying on my back patio before I store them.
* The bush beans did really well. We had two fairly large harvests and they tasted great. I plan to do pole beans next year. I might plant more bush beans too to provide us a harvest before the pole beans are ready.
* The pumpkins have become a thorn in my side, so to speak. The main reason I'm growing them is because of my husband thinking it would be neat to have our own pumpkin to carve at Halloween. Meanwhile, the pumpkins have provided me more worries than the rest of the garden combined. They are huge and are growing into the neighboring beds. There is no longer a walkway between the pumpkins and the tomatoes and bell peppers. Plus, I am tormented by an infestation of squash bugs and squash vine borers. I have to go out and kill bugs and tear off leaves with eggs every day. And now my pumpkins are covered with a nasty case of powdery mildew.The good news is that I seem to have several pumpkins set (3 different kinds) and if the plants hold out, we should have a decent harvest.
* We have three watermelons growing on the vine and the first one looks almost ready.
* We have had 8 muskmelons growing on the vines and so far I have picked two. The first one turned out to be not quite ripe yet. The second one, however, is delicious and juicy.
* I have been overwhelmed by the cucumbers my two little plants have produced so far. I have put up 10 pints of dill pickles and 8 pints of bread and butter pickles and I have a big collection of cucumbers in my fridge that I think I'm going to do as dill spears sometime this weekend. Not only are they plentiful, but they taste really good too. My mom says she's never tasted a better cucumber. At the nursery they were just labeled as "burpless cucumbers".
* We have been harvesting green bell peppers once every couple of days for use in salads or as a seasoning. I have ten bell pepper plants and one has already produced all of its peppers and I pulled it for the compost bin. The other plants are still full of small but growing peppers.
* My spaghetti squash plants have been making me proud. I have 9 spaghetti squash in various stages of development. I think the first one is about done.However, my leaves are turning yellow and the plants don't look good. I don't know if the problem is squash vine borer, powdery mildew, or just lack of a good watering, but I worry that the plants won't last long enough for the squash to ripen.
* The tomatoes are doing well (knock on wood). I have been bringing in a bowl of ripe tomatoes every morning. Most of them are cherry tomatoes, but some of the bigger ones have started turning. Last night we sliced and ate our first Cherokee Purple with dinner and it was delicious!

I suppose I should consider myself lucky and remember all the positive things that have come out of the garden so far. It has been a pretty good garden, especially when you consider this is my first real garden. And nothing is perfect. There will always be problems. I guess the trick is to stay one step ahead of the bad guys and never let them get the upper hand.

Today's local weather:
High temp: 90 F
Low temp: 66 F
Partly cloudy with thunderstorms this evening.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Organic solution for powdery mildew

The hot and humid weather of late July in Indiana has come and along with it, Powdery Mildew in my garden. My spaghetti squash, zucchini, and especially pumpkins are all affected. So this morning I made up a mixture of 1 cup of skim milk to 9 cups of water and filled a spray bottle so that I could organically get rid of the powdery mildew. It was a lot of work and not very enjoyable since at 10:00am it is already about 80 degrees and 74% humidity. But I managed to refill my spray bottle three times and douse all the affected plants. According to the website I just linked to, a weekly application should be in order. Sigh. I'm still worried about the possibility of squash vine borer infestation, but for now it doesn't seem to be a problem (with the exception of one lost zucchini plant).

Meanwhile, the harvest continues. I continue to get at least 2-3 cucumbers a day. This morning I picked 3, one of which is a record breaker in length at a whopping 16 inches.
Also, here is a photo that is representative of the tomatoes I'm harvesting each day lately.This isn't a huge amount, but we're getting that much every day. It's starting to be more than we can eat. This particular example shows one Better Boy, two Romas, several large grape tomatoes, and scads of cherry tomatoes. At this point, the majority are still cherry tomatoes. They are the Sweet 100 variety and they live up to their name. When I buy tomatoes at the grocery store, grape tomatoes are always sweeter than cherry tomatoes. But in these homegrown tomatoes, the cherry are far sweeter than the grape. I am going to cut back on the number of mini tomatoes I grow next year, and I think I'll stick solely to the Sweet 100 cherries.

As for dealing with the backlog of cherry tomatoes, I discovered via the internet that you can dry cherry tomatoes to save for later use. The other day I sliced a cookie tray full of cherry tomatoes, laid them cut side up on the tray, and baked them in the oven at 200 degrees for at least 4 hours. They probably could have gone a little longer, but I had to leave the house and didn't want to leave the oven on. So I put them in a baggie and put it in the freezer. That should be fine. I can rehydrate them and add them to soups for seasoning this winter. I'll probably end up doing that again as the cherries continue to ripen. The number of green cherries still on the vine far outnumbers what I've picked so far.

Today's local weather:
High temp: 86 F
Low temp: 68 F
Hot and very humid

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Squash Vine Borer

As a follow up to yesterday's post about the dying zucchini, it seems I have a case of Squash Vine Borers. I pulled up the dead plant last night and the main stem broke off in my hand just an inch or two above ground level. What I found looked much like the two pictures at the bottom of the page I've linked to. Big white juicy grubs, three of them, squirming around in a rotted stem. I've put them in a trash bag and tied it off. Now I'm on the lookout for frass (a golden cornmeal-like substance that appears around the holes once the little grubs burrow into the stems). I haven't seen any more yet, but I'm paranoid.

The really annoying thing is I saw a pretty looking new insect in the garden yesterday and spent over an hour searching on the internet trying to figure out what it was. I never found a satisfactory match. Then this morning, my husband found a photo of the adult moth form of the squash vine borer. I'm 100% positive that's what I saw yesterday. If only I'd known! I should have killed it then and there...UGH!

Today's local weather:
High temp: 83 F
Low temp: 65 F
Sunny and clear

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are

We made a discovery this morning when Jeff was watering the garden. Having the water raining down onto the plants made the squash bugs come out. He stood there watering while I was on the watch for the bugs. Whenever I'd see one, I'd squash it (pun intended). I must have killed at least 5 or 6 just this morning. We've killed 2-3 a day for the past several days. I've also made at least two trips a day out to check the leaves of the pumpkins, spaghetti squash, and zucchini. I've torn off several corners of leaves with clusters of squash bug eggs on them. I drown them in the bucket of water with dish soap. I'm doing my best to keep those critters from gaining control in my garden.