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Archive for September, 2011

Three veggies for the long haul

Gardening is tough in the South!

Many southern gardeners┬áhave a lot of problems with pests. We think we’ve gone a long ways to solve most of the pest insect problems by working to build good populations of beneficial insects.

Many of the bad guys don’t have a chance here. Our paper wasps, assassin bugs, robber flies, mantises, lady bugs and others, along with our large bird population, keep most of the bad bugs from ever growing up.

It’s gotten so that my wife – who likes to raise butterflies – has to capture the larvae and bring them inside to munch on potted plants. Otherwise they become prey for one of our garden predators.

Pests are one thing, however, and disease is another. Heat and humidity seem to compound the disease problems. Even drought doesn’t seem to slow down the progress of disease.

This means that many veggies are only temporary. Tomatoes engage in a race with early blight, which gradually defoliates the plants. Our tomato crop was very good this year. But we also had them planted earlier than ever before. Folks that waited until the traditional plant day (Good Friday) pretty much lost the race. 85% of our tomato crop came on early. The rest was a smattering from a few holdout plants, especially the cherry tomatoes.

Squash and cukes race with powdery mildew, which also kills the leaves. I focused on tomatoes this year and the squash got planted late. We had very little squash.

Avoidance of the problems is very much coupled with good timing on plantings – early in the spring to mature before heat, or late in the summer to grow and mature in the fall.

I’ve come to appreciate a few veggies that just hang on and keep right on producing, no matter how hot and dry it is.

Young eggplant fruit

Eggplant resists heat and disease, has been knocking out fruit for us since June and shows no sign of stopping now in late Septmber.

One of these is eggplant. We planted them early, made sure we had plenty of bees to set those first blossoms – and they’ve never stopped producing from June to now in late September as I write this. As far as I can recall there are only two problems I’ve ever had with eggplant.

Eggplant and bumblebee

Eggplant is a bit difficult to pollinate, and blossom drop is the key symptom of problems. The deed is done by various bees (not usually honeybee) with bumblebees being the most efficient.

One is pollination – which should be obvious to gardeners, but often isn’t. And the other is flea beetles. In past years I’ve had eggplant eaten up by flea beetles, but with our increased populations of predator insects, these pests were only a minor and brief problem while the plants were young. Years ago, I sprayed eggplant for the flea beetles, but it did little good, anyway.

The second of these favorites of mine is peppers. We don’t go in for hot ones, but we grow a lot of sweet bananas and some bell peppers. Like the eggplant, they have very few insect pests (in our current environment), and seem to only have problems if there aren’t enough bees to pollinate. Diseases are practically non-existant, and heat doesn’t faze them a bit.

Sweet banana peppers

Peppers are a good Southern plant, resistant to heat and disease. They need bee pollination - usually by tiny Lasioglossum bees or bumble bees; rarely are they visited by honey bees.

The third is an old Southern tradition – okra. I believe okra could grow and fruit in Hell, as it simply loves hot weather. Young okra is a beautiful plant, with large dark green leaves and gorgeous creamy white flowers with red centers.

Okra flower

Beautiful okra flowers produce copious amounts of large sticky pollen grains, and the flowers are obviously are self fertile. These are one of the few garden plants that don't actually require bees, as the sticky pollen easily is transferred by beetles, flies and other agents.

But as it grows, it only produces on the top, and the lower leaves die and fall off. By late summer it is a rank, ugly plant. Some of mine are six to seven feet tall right now, and look quite disgusting. But they still keep on knocking out the okra pods.

Okra pod with lady bug

Okra keeps on producing in the hottest weather. This photo also shows one of our best garden friends, a lady bug beetle.

One secret, if you haven’t grown them before – pick okra young, before the pods get tough and stringy.

Have you got any favorite veggies that just seem to be long-haulers and failsafe for Southern gardens?

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