Archive for the ‘Gardening challenges’ Category
Here in the Southland, onions can be a year around crop. In fact, we’ve found that for green onions, we don’t even need to seed them anymore.
Now most people think of onions as a summer crop, but it’s pretty nice to go pick some fresh crisp green onions for your cooking, in the dead of winter. Actually it’s more of a three-season crop, as it will live, but greatly slow its growth in the heat of summer.
Some time ago I was given a large bunch of green onions from the store that were dried out and unsaleable.
I decided that the best thing to do was to plant them.
In six weeks they looked like this:
And when pulled they looked like this:
The wonderful thing is that the story does not end here. When preparing the onions for cooking, I simply cut off the lower (bulb) part and saved it, along with the roots, which I replanted.
These are simply replanted and they grow again. Here’s what they look like in three weeks, despite the scratchings (and replanting) due to an errant hen:
This cycle can be repeated over and over for many years, indicating an endless supply of green onions -forever!
I love this flower. It will flourish on poor soil, needs little fertilizer, feeds your pollinators, repels pests, all the while beautifying your homestead. This is dwarf French marigold, Tagetes patula. Our homestead is practically overrun with these. Our bees and butterflies love them.
(If you plant them, be careful never to contaminate the blossoms with pesticides that will kill off your pollinators.)
DFMs are a non-chemical way to control root knot nematodes, which are the bane of many a gardener with sandy soil, especially in the South. Commercial vegetable growers have powerful fumigants for root knot suppression. These are unavailable to gardeners, and dangerous to use, as well.
One can use a cover crop of DFMs in a fallow year, to nearly completely suppress these nasty pests, or one can interplant with the veggies to partly suppress them.
Another nemesis of many gardeners is the squash bug. A heavy infestation can kill your squash plants.
The first year I had a border of dwarf French marigolds around one of my squash beds, I noticed that I had no squash bugs in that bed whatsoever. Yet within a hundred feet, I had another squash planting that was heavily infested. Since then I have surrounded or interplanted DFMs with my squash. And, in the past three years, I’ve never seen another squash bug in my garden – although my neighbors have them.
(To get photos of squash bugs, I had to visit other gardens that had them.)
DFMs seem to work with cucumber beetles as well. These have vanished from any spot near the marigolds, although there are usually a few on my sunflowers in the front yard. I think they help with other insects as well. But they have failed to be any help with squash borers or pickleworm.
While they repel many harmful insects, they seem to be good hosts for some beneficial insects. I see a lot of assassin bugs on mine, and I am careful to let them alone. They may eat a bee now and then, but they’ll also eat aphids, flea beetles, caterpillars, Japanese beetles and many other pests.
Hints for growing your own
T. patula will do fine in the North, but is especially suited for southern USA, because extreme heat doesn’t bother it a bit. It will continue to produce masses of bloom when other flowers have faded out. Of course sweltering heat is often accompanied by drought – and I would advise watering as needed in times of drought.
In the South, you can plant these seeds in beds outside in the fall, winter or spring, and they will grow when the soil warms in the spring. To start them blooming earlier, begin them inside as you would tomatoes. I find good results by sowing them thickly in trays in a sterile seed starting medium. Don’t overwater, as this encourages damping off. When they are in their second leaf, transplant into individual containers.
Here in South Carolina, I’ll be planting about January 20 to February 10 in the trays. They are set out in the ground about the same time tomatoes go out. Do not put in deep shade or boggy areas. Mine bloom from early May through early December. It takes a hard frost to kill them.
I use fertilizer VERY sparingly. I have tried deadheading flowers, but find it’s really unnecessary, and very time consuming, due to the large quantity of blooms. About mid-season, the plants begin to get a bit rank, so I prune them severely, removing about half the plants. This stimulates regrowth and dense clusters of new bloom.
To save seeds cut off dead flowers when they are mostly dry, but not shedding seeds. If you wait too long, they will spill all the seeds from the capsules. Put them in a warm dry place with plenty of air circulation (flat trays or hung up). Protect from mice if necessary. When they are crunchy dry, and the seeds are starting to fall out, hold each seed capsule tightly, and pinch off the dried blossom petals. Then roll the capsule in your fingers over a tray or container and the seeds will fall out.
Flowers are produced by the thousands, but you’ll only need a dozen or so to supply plenty of seed for yourself for next year. Just be sure it’s dry before you put it into closed containers or it may mold.
I have not tried other types of marigolds, but others who have, indicate to me that these do not work for pest suppression or repelling.
Many beginner gardeners start off with a bang and are excited and encouraged when their seeds germinate and their started plants take off and grow. But then the weeds begin to show more vigor than the desired veggies.
Even experienced gardeners, who know that you cannot let the weeds even get a couple day’s advantage, sometimes lose the garden to weeds, when there’s several days of rain and it becomes too muddy to get into the garden.
It’s pretty dismaying when you have trouble finding your plants among all the weeds. You can wind up spending many hours of catch-up work, and still find that your plants were severely set back, both by the competition with weeds, and the damage you did to their roots when you pulled up the weeds.
It’s been several years now, since I basically solved the weed problem. Sure, there’s weeds in my garden, but they are few and far between, compared with what they used to be. I find that just a few minutes a week is sufficient to pull up the weeds, and keep my own veggies growing without competition.
There are three basic reasons why the weed problem mostly disappeared:
1. I no longer till my garden. Every time you turn over the earth, you expose new weed seeds to sunlight and air. Weed seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, then suddenly germinate when you’ve given them ideal conditions to grow.
I’ve been able to pretty much eliminate tilling because all my gardening now is in raised beds. I was forced to go to raised beds, because our land is as flat as it can be, and we are subject here in coastal South Carolina to occasional heavy rains. These rains would flood my garden and pretty much spoil it. Few of our garden veggies can stand in water without dying or getting riddled with disease.
The raised beds took a lot of work to set up, but once they are up and running, the work forever afterwards is minimal. I started with a mix of about 40% sandy loam topsoil, 40% well rotted compost, 10% crushed coquina (for lime and minerals), and 10% crushed charcoal (to help prevent leaching when those heavy rains come).
These raised beds are in production year around. As soon as one crop is finished, I start with another. About the only disturbance to the soil is when I pull a deep rooted plant like tomatoes, or a root veggie like carrots or turnips. With smaller plants like beans or peas, I just snip them at the soil surface and leave the roots in the ground.
2. When planting or setting out a new crop, I topdress it with about an inch of fresh compost. This compost has very few weed seeds, as it reaches a high temperature during its formation.
My soil remains soft; I can easily plunge my hand up to the wrist into the soil, just by wriggling my fingers and pushing. The soil smells sweet and it’s full of worms and insects, unlike most agricultural soils in the area, which are quite barren of life. I always figure that the worms are tilling the soil for me, as much as it needs and in a very natural way.
3. I don’t let the weeds go to seed. By having raised beds, I never walk directly on my garden. I have more-or-less permanent walkways between the beds. This means that I can always pull weeds, even if it’s very muddy. The weeds never get a chance to get ahead of me.
I can’t take very much credit for this system of weed supression. Actually it came as a pleasant surprise. And I had to study it a bit to come to an understanding of why there are so few weeds.
Our growing season for tender plants usually ends in mid to late November with a killing frost. But we can move fall tomato and pepper plants into a cheap homemade greenhouse to add extra heat for ripening and postpone the frost date. It would be nice if we could extend our season to Christmas, but we haven’t gotten quite that far yet.
Of course more cold-hardy plants can handle frost or even freeze, but when it gets really cold, they stop growing. This year I am also moving potted broccoli and cauliflower into the greenhouse, in hopes that the extra heat will serve to keep them growing and harestable through the winter. Otherwise we’d have to wait for warmer spring weather to continue their growth – and that sometimes ends with them bolting (flowering and going to seed), instead of heading.
In the spring the greenhouse is perfect for starting plants early. Actually the germination is done in trays at a southeast-facing window inside. But as the seedlings reach transplantable age, they go into separate containers and out into the greenhouse. We’ll tell more about this in a separate post.
We have two low-tech greenhouses to help extend our seasons. The smaller is on our deck on the southeast side, and the larger is attached to the southwest side of our house. Both are made of pvc pipe with some 1×2 bracing and covered with six-mil polyethylene plastic sheeting. The sheeting is attached at the top by being clamped between two 1x2s, but the rest is held in place with cheap spring clamps.
The sheeting is replaced seasonally, and is the only ongoing cost. I found that four-mil sheeting will not last long enough, but six-mil does okay.
We do not try to heat the greenhouses, but I do have water containers to help them hold the day’s heat and prevent night freezes as long as possible in the fall.
The larger one has served now for two years, and the smaller for a year.
Both will ultimately be replaced (we hope) by more permanent greenhouses, but for now, on a limited budget, they serve quite well. Neither cost more than a hundred dollars, though the larger one might go a bit over that now, with the recent rise in prices.
Here are some photos of our construction of the larger, so you can get a better mental picture:
Many gardeners, especially new ones, are dismayed to find that the luscious ears of sweet corn that they expected look more like this:
Only a few kernals are present on the cob! All that hard work, fertilizer, watering, and all is just wasted!
(Please note that all the illustrations of corn pollination are with field corn, as I do not currently have room for sweet corn in our garden – a problem I’m working on – but the illustrations will work fine; all the principles are exactly the same.)
There are two main reasons why we have failure to pollinate: one is that the pollen is dead, and the other is that the pollen just did not reach the female flowers.
Dead pollen is common in years of extreme heat and drought during the pollen shed time for corn. Corn is rather unique among plants in that it is on an exact schedule from the day it is planted until the day it is harvested. When pollination time comes, whatever will happen will happen, and it only lasts a few days, after which the opportunity is gone. The corn will go on doing its thing, but all the inputs of the farmer or gardener are wasted if pollination doesn’t occur.
Corn is generally wind pollinated. Lack of wind can be a big factor in corn pollination. When one sultry day follows after another, corn pollination can fail.
A morning thunderstorm can do an immense amount of pollination in that first rush of wind before the rain starts. There is normally a flush of pollen shed in the morning just after the dew dries, and there may be another smaller discharge in the evening as the air cools. The male flower is the tassel at the top of the stalk.
An acquaintance of mine had a charter helicopter service in Illinois, and he was kept busy during the corn pollen shed, by contracting with farmers to provide wind for pollination. He would hover over the fields, moving up and down the rows – and got paid for it, because it was a valuable service for the farmers.
The pollen is produced inside the anthers:
Gardeners generally have pollination problems for the second reason – pollen doesn’t reach the female flowers at the right time:
The silk is the female flower which can be seen at the tip of the incipient ears on the side of the cornstalk. Each thread connects to a single incipient kernal on the ear. When it is green and tender, it is receptive, but it will turn brown in just a few days and the opportunity to pollinate is gone.
When a grain of pollen falls and sticks to one of the silks, it begins to grow a pollen tube down inside the silk strand, right to the incipient seed, which it then fertilizes.
The problem with garden pollination is that there are usually few plants; not a whole field; there is a limited amount of pollen available – and it may blow the wrong way. New gardeners are frequently advised to use four short rows, rather than one long row, for this reason. Corn planted in blocks does pollinate a bit better.
For even more pollination insurance, do it by hand – it only takes a minute. When tassels first appear, pollen shed is only a day or two away. If you look at the tassels in early morning light, you can see the pollen, if you look toward the sun. If you shake a tassel there will be a visible dust from it, if it’s ready. If you shake it too hard, of course you’ll shake loose the anthers themselves.
So, when the tassels are ready, in the morning just after dew is mostly dry, bend a tassel over the silk (on another plant) and shake it.
Or you can snip a tassel and go down the row, “dusting” each silk. If you do it gently, focusing as much of the pollen on the silks as possible, you can do 10-15 ears for each tassel.
On bigger patches, you can simply walk the rows with your elbows out, so you give the stalks a bit of a jar, which will shake loose the pollen.
Some gardeners claim the process works better if you play soft music (but that may be a myth).
Corn is considered a wind pollinated plant. It’s pollen is tiny, and millions of grains are produced; only a small portion of them falling onto the female flowers.
Some falls on the leaves, some on the ground, and some will fall on your car hood, if you are downwind of a corn field.
Because the grains are small and have very little protein, they are not a priority pollen for bees to gather to feed their brood. However, many times corn pollen shed is during a general time of pollen dearth; on these occasions honey bees and bumble bees will vigorously gather corn pollen.
In the process of gathering, they will shake loose quite a bit also – and this can fall on adjacent plant silks. So, while corn is basically a wind pollinated plant, bees can be significant in pollination, particularly if there is no wind.
I have *almost* no insect pests in my garden.
I’m not bragging so much as wishing to share some wonderful principles that I have learned.
I like to browse the Internet garden groups, and am seeing large numbers of gardeners who are losing all or a major part of their garden crop to aphids, grasshoppers, tomato worms, flea beetles, squash bugs — you name it, and somebody, somewhere has a major problem with it.
If these are a problem year after year, something is wrong. We often treat our gardens as if we are fighting a fire. We stamp out a spot fire here, and another pops up there. We are in constant damage-control mode. A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone.
Here are some of the important principles to consider:
1. Learn to work alongside Nature instead of fighting her. Simply by tilling the soil, we are altering Nature a great deal. Then we plant monocultures, add herbicides, spray poisons for pests, add extremely concentrated nutrients, and generally totally disrupt Nature’s balance in multiple ways. How can we reduce our impact and get things back into balance?
My garden is no longer tilled. The only soil that’s disturbed is the spot where I put a seed or a plant. Minimal! I don’t pack it down either. All my gardening is in raised beds that I can reach without walking on it. I let the worms till it, the natural way. I can wiggle my fingers and easily dig six inches into the soil.
2. Feed the soil. Our southeastern soils are naturally heavily leached, so they are mineral poor. They tend to be higly acid. Organic matter is near zero because of burning of crop residues and scorching of the sun. I add about an inch of compost each spring on the top. The worms till it. Then I use lots of leaves and grass clipping for mulch around the growing plants. This cools the soil, preserves moisture, and promotes biological diversity in the life of the soil.
Yes, plants grow much better when the soil is teeming with life – much of it too small for you to see. These organisms feed the plants. Plants grow sturdy and resistant to pests. If used at all, fertilizer is used sparingly. We don’t want an artificial growth spurt, especially one from overuse of nitrogen, which actually makes plants more susceptible to insect pests and disease.
3. Aim for as much biodiversity as possible. Mix it up. Yes, plant your flowers intermixed with your veggies. If you choose your flowers well, you can have nectar and pollen sources that run continously through the garden season. Some folks do this for pollinators – and this is good – but most don’t realize that you also gain pest control. Many pollinators, soldier beetles for example, in their adult stages are voraceous predators in their younger life.
4. Don’t freak out when you see a pest, and go to battle to eradicate it! Identify it. Learn about its life cycle; its food preferences; its enemies. The more you know, the better you are prepared to deal with it.
A lot of folks dust their garden at the first sign of any insect. This is very bad policy; first the insect may well be a friend. And second, using a pesticide that’s not labeled for an identified pest is a violation of the label (pesticide misuse), and it may well be ineffective or add risks that you don’t need.
5. Learn to accept some damage and the sight of a few pest insects. Ten years ago, we had a plague of Japanese beetles. Today, I can count on my fingers the number I see each year. The reason – we are practically overrun by assassin bugs, who love to eat Japanese beetles.
Now when I see an occasional Japanese beetle here or there, I am glad. I don’t want a pest to die out completely – as its control may then also die or leave the area. I just want to keep them in balance.
The squash borers got a couple more squash, including one I had done surgery to, to remove the borer, whom I thought was a loner. But the post mortem revealed that he had four siblings.
All of the various squashes are prone to suddenly wilt and die, just when we think we will have a bumper crop. It’s all due to a reddish moth that looks like a wasp to the uninitiated, that has a larva (grub) that eats the inside of the squash stems.
If you see this mama flitting around your squash, be prepared for trouble! And you can see that she’s already been there. Note the holes and the damage to the main stem.
She’s not going to hold still very long to get the camera focused, but here you see the coloration that identifies her as an adult squash borer.
Once you see damage on the stems, just above ground level, that plant is not long for the world, unless you intervene. Soon, as it munches away, you will see gelatinous pellets of frass alongside the hole. The larva is growing.
We are going to try to catch this one young. We hope we can save the plant.
So we will carefully slit the stem, parallel to its length. This won’t hurt the stem, at least not near as much as the borer will!
Found ya! You little parasite! You are dead meat!
We’ve saved this plant. Time to cover the wound with some moist soil, so it can heal.
One can try a less intrusive form of surgery by poking a sharp toothpick or a stiff wire straight into the stem every quarter inch or so above the entry hole. But this poses a risk of missing the larva.
Here’s one that was too late to save; the borer has already eaten out all the plant’s plumbing, and has grown to large size.
The squash borer is a serious pest of all kinds of squashes. Some try to kill it with pesticides, but this is fraught with problems. You must kill the adult in the brief time it comes to lay eggs – or the freshly hatched egg just before it bores into the stem.
Once it is inside the stem, it’s pretty well protected. But using an insecticide on squash that is blooming may contaminate the nectar and pollen that feeds the pollinators. Kill the pollinators – and you bite the hand that feeds you!
So I would personally rule out pesticides for borers. Most years, you can get a harvest before the borers arrive.
Some use aluminum foil around the stem to either confuse or prevent the moth from egg laying. Some wrap the stems in pieces of old pantyhose.
One technique that I have used for vining squash is to cover the stem with dirt every couple feet. The plant will put out new roots at that point. If the main stem is destroyed by a borer, the plant will still live and produce from its alternative roots.
What has worked for you?
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