Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gardened Out

The growing things are winding down, and this is just as well. I am feeling a bit gardened out. But like all gardeners (well, all obsessive-compulsive gardeners) I am taking stock in what I’ve done and what I would change next year. Let me share my successes and failures, beginning with...

Undoubtedly the biggest disappointment, my curcubits (cucumbers, melons, zucchinis, and, well… “squashes”) were slow to start, forcing me to replant, and then were very quickly set upon by both spotted and striped cucumber beetles. I got sucked in thinking they looked kind of cute before I realized what kind of havoc they could wreak, which they promptly did. I got fewer than ten cucumbers before the vine succumbed to cucumber wilt, so I pulled the rest of the plants to avoid further soil contamination. (At this point I have to say how impressed I am by the simplicity of garden nomenclature. My cucumber vines wilted, and the disease that caused it is called “cucumber wilt.” The bugs that carry the bacterium in their evil little guts are stripy or spotty beetley-looking things, and they are called “striped cucumber beetles” and “spotted cucumber beetles,” respectively. I’m all for transparency in gardening.)

The butternut squash succumbed to a slightly different problem. Not knowing that the Sungold tomatoes would grow into a sprawling jungle of nightshade fecundity, and I planted them too close to the squash. I couldn’t find the squash plants again until they bloomed, but by then they weren’t getting enough sunlight. On the plus side, the striped and spotted cucumber beetles were so busy in the cucumbers that they pretty much left the butternut squashes alone. On the down side, in some kind of pre-arranged turf-agreement, the squash bugs took over the butternut squashes, and they, too, left wilt in their wake (How dumb is it to kill your primary food source? No, wait… Humans do that. Never mind.).

Bottom line on squashes: controlling pest problems begins at the seedling stage either by physical means (row covers and screens) or chemical means (spraying). Weeds trap moisture and provide cover for insects; if they are allowed to gain foothold it’s harder to control the insects, and bacterial vine wilt is inevitable. Spacing is also important; good airflow, especially in humid climates, discourages fungus. Everything needs room to spread out properly without competing for nutrients, not to mention that it’s nice to be able to find stuff, unless you’re like me and enjoy that Eastery feeling of discovering hidden butternut squashes.

But having made all these mistakes, I still managed to eke out 3 tiny squashes (one at 1 lb. and two at 0.5 lbs.), which made the most delicious roasted butternut squash risotto. It was enough to encourage me to try again next year. As soon as I see seedlings, I’ll throw down mulch or newsprint with mulch to keep the weeds down, and I’ll skip the neem oil and go right to pyrethrin.

The concept of creating a “bean fence” with anchor poles and cross poles and twine wound around is a load of compost. The Blue Lake pole beans had those cross pieces and twine ripped down by the end of July and were cruising towards the neighbor’s fence. The quality of the beans was great; I only wish there had been more. But once again, I didn’t mulch soon enough to keep down weeds, and I planted too many beans in too tight a space, resulting in mineral deficiencies and fungal blight. That was easily controlled when lack of water caused the diseased leaves to fall off (I’m a “hands off” gardener, sort of “organic through lack of doing anything else”).

So! Mulch. Weed. Water. More importantly, there’s a reason they’re called “pole beans.” I’m putting up a line of seven foot poles and planting three seeds at the base. I might wrap a little twine around the pole to give the vines something to hang on to, but I’m not sure that’s necessary.


a 1.25 lb tomato on a scale
This is the first time I’d ever grown tomatoes from seeds (they’re fuzzy). My first Paul R. tomato weighed one and a quarter pounds and I ate it like a steak, but every one after that has been considerably smaller. I was really bad about letting them get too dry before watering, which lead to cracks in the fruit, making each tomato a potential insect hotel. I also let the spray schedule slip a few days, with disastrous results. I can track tomato hornworms by the damage they do, and I do not let them live (which leads to a whole other topic about karmic debit accrued by snipping large caterpillars in half with garden pruners).

As for the Sungold tomatoes, well… It didn’t matter what I did. Unwatered, unweeded, crowded, and attacked by an occasional hornworm, the three Sungolds produced pound after pound of tiny orange tomatoes. By late August I realized that if I ate another Sungold tomato, I would puke. And there they sit to this day, producing tiny orange tomatoes without a care in the world. Of course, those tiny orange tomatoes are full of tiny fuzzy seeds, dropping off the vines as I write. Next year I don’t think I’ll have to “plant” Sungolds anywhere; I think they’re just gonna come up. As a matter of fact, I think they’ll be the new weed problem in that section of the garden. I will plant three Paul Robesons, but only TWO Sungolds next year. Fertilizer and consistent watering will help yield more consistent fruit.


I’ve been blogging peaches all season, so I’ll spare you most of those details. My two big lessons: thin more aggressively and keep spraying with the pyrethrin. I think I’ll also seek out some oriental fruit moth traps and see if I can’t make a difference in that problem. Pruning this winter will be essential to try to reverse the damage done by the OFMs. Based on the flowering schedule of this year, I’ll wait until mid-February before I prune. This will give me a few branches I can force indoors for an early spring treat. I’m still trying to get MP to smoke ribs using last year’s prunings, but not having any luck. After this season, I am proud to say I can field-strip a peach in 10 seconds.


zinnias everywhereThe zinnias are the sleeper story of my garden year. I had a tiny patch of dirt left over, and I thought I’d just put in some happy flowers for the heck of it, something I could use as cut flowers and give the place some color. I ordered Burpee’s Cut and Come Again Oklahoma Mix and paid $5 for a packet of seeds that produced… fourteen seedlings. I was livid. “Rip off” and “robbed” were words oft bandied about, as MP will attest. And yet those zinnias exploded. Look at them. I love how this photo makes them look like acres of flowers, but really, we’re talking a 3x4 ft. space, tops.

a goldfinch seeks a snack of zinnia seeds When the zinnias really started going and a few flowers had begun to fade, I noticed petals strewn over the ground. It was like the leftovers from a colorful wedding. I didn’t think much of it until one morning I caught a goldfinch absolutely ripping the flowers apart to go after the seeds. That was the end of spraying the zinnias with pyrethrin (yes it kills bugs, but it also kills fish and is not so hot for frogs and birds, either. I try to go with the least damaging pest control, but this year, the beetles were bad).

I’m glad I stopped, because not long after I was in the garden, crouched down and studying the beans, when I heard a deep buzzing sound over my shoulder. Certain I was facing down the biggest bee in the Mid-Atlantic States, I turned very slowly and saw not three feet from my head a hummingbird, wanting to have a go at the zinnias. As we regarded one another, my first thought was “My, what a sharp and pointy little beak you have.” Did you know they cheep? Kind of a funny, squeaky sort of cheeping. I did not know that, nor would I have if not for planting the zinnias.

There are still a few things left growing – the zinnias will go until frost, as will the tomatoes. MP has a tiny little jalapeno pepper that survived some kind of fungus and is thriving, in a tiny sort of way. And just the other day I harvested some greens for a salad. MP found me at the sink, gasping and raking at my tongue. “Mustard greens!” I sputtered, hoping the burning in my sinuses wasn’t permanent damage. “Here, try some.”

Gardens. Amazing entertainment, I tell you what…

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