Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rain and More Rain

If you are gardening in the South and have yet to bring in a perfect, red tomato, take heart! I have heard from more than one gardener who said that the past couple of days of sunshine helped the green tomatoes on their plants make it to the blushing stage, and they are hoping to harvest one or more actual, ripe tomatoes soon.

Of course, yesterday morning the thermometer on my front porch was showing a temperature of 59 degrees F, and this morning it is raining, yet again. The unusual weather, both cool and wet, that has been ongoing for months, delayed planting in the spring and has caused a lot of trouble in our summer gardens.

As bad as things are for the gardeners, though, they are much worse for the farmers whose livelihoods depend on the success of their crops. Our grocery store shelves depend on them, too!

An article in the New York Times, "With Too Much Rain in the South, Too Little Produce on the Shelves," points out that much of the Southern U.S. has received WAY more rain than usual. Georgia is up by about 34%, and other states aren't far behind.

The vegetables that aren't doing well in gardens are also not doing well on farms. Fruits either explode in the rain or ripen with a bland flavor. Fields are a muddy mess that can't be accessed with the usual heavy equipment. Fertilizers and pesticides can't be deployed because they are spread by some of that heavy equipment. When those are successfully applied to the fields, it rains again.

One of my friends subscribes to a CSA -- she gets a box of vegetables each week from her local farmers, a husband and wife team up in Rockmart, GA, who have been hit hard by the weather. They had to replant some crops more than once in spring (seeds washed away in heavy rains), and the wet weather has brought enough other problems (disease, ripening issues) that they have really struggled to provide vegetables to their share subscribers. My friend says that the farm had to let go more than half of its subscribers, and the website carries a note that the farm won't be offering a fall CSA due to the excessive rain. It seems unlikely that the farmers will be making anything like "a living" this year from the little farm.

Meanwhile, Eastern Australia probably has just had its hottest July ever, and people in Shanghai are dying of heatstroke from "unprecedented summer heat."  Closer to home, "Anchorage has set a record for the most consecutive days over 70 degrees during this unusually warm summer."

People around here like to say, "if you don't like the weather, just wait a minute..." but the weather doesn't seem to be turning on a dime these days. According to Jeff Crouch, a climatologist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. who was quoted in the top-linked New York Times article, “Whenever we get in a pattern like this, we kind of stay in the status quo,” he said. “When we’re hot and dry, we stay hot and dry. When we’re wet, we stay wet.” 

I'm just about resigned to more of the same - rain and more rain. Let's hope my garden is up to it, too!

Monday, July 29, 2013

When to Harvest Vegetables in a Tough Gardening Year

One of the most wonderful aspects of growing food in your own yard is that you and your family get to eat vegetables (and fruits!) at the peak of their flavor.

UGA has a publication about when that flavor peak occurs for many of the garden crops; it's called (not too surprisingly) When to Harvest Vegetables.For those who are new to gardening, the information about how to tell by look, feel, and smell that it's time to harvest the veggies is very useful. Over time, though, most gardeners begin to develop their own ideas about when the Absolute Peak of flavor is.

One of my most favorite gardeners, Gene Logsden, a.k.a "The Contrary Farmer," has his own ideas about when to harvest. In his recent blog post "Defining Freshness," he wrote:
"With both corn and peas, freshness has another connotation. There is a peak time for flavor, at least for me, depending on how far along in development the vegetable is when picked. If allowed to mature too much, goodbye subtle nuances. Peas have to be picked when they have not yet filled the pod tightly, corn when the kernels are still just a tad on the green “pimply” side as we say."
When all goes well, we go with our own, inner taste guides. When all does not go well, we may be lucky to have a harvest to bring in at all!

For example, many gardeners grow tomatoes so they can experience the amazing flavor of truly vine-ripened tomatoes. This year, I am unlikely to have that experience. If the plant hasn't been attacked by roving bands of fungal spores, then a rogue chipmunk has swarmed up the stems and bitten each fruit before it can ripen fully, or an impatient bird has decided to puncture the side of each one for a taste of the (not fully ripened) insides.

This one should have been picked sooner, before the chipmunk found it.
I have taken to bringing in the fruits as they just begin to blush, not waiting for the approach of ripeness. In some cases, this drastic measure is meant to save the tomatoes from critter damage; in others, it was because the plant looked unhealthy enough that it needed to be pulled up.

Right now, there are almost ten pounds of tomatoes in various stages of ripening in my kitchen. None of these will have "vine-ripened" flavor, but they still will be home grown!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Attack of the Pickleworms

My garden has been attacked by pickleworms before, so this is nothing new, but can I just say that I am not happy to see them? Luckily, so far they are not in the zucchini or melons, but they like those, too.

If your cucumbers have been attacked, what you'll see on the outside of the cucumber is likely to look a lot like this:
Evidence of pickleworms: Pale green frass and little round holes.   PHOTO/
If you slice into the cuke carefully, you may find the whole caterpillar. Of course, you might also find just half the caterpillar, which is a little disconcerting.

Actual pickleworm, tucked neatly into a cave of his/her own making. 

Since I don't like to use much in the way of pesticides in my garden, my options for controlling the problem are limited. One year, I thought I'd try covering the plants at night, then uncovering them in the morning. Since the worms are the babies of a night flying moth, covering them at night would keep the moths away from my plants.

It turns out that I don't love cucumbers enough to go to all that work - I would forget to cover them at night, and sometimes, when I'd managed that, I'd forget to uncover them in the day, which meant the new flowers didn't get pollinated.

If the rain would hold off for a few days, I'd spray the plants with Bt for caterpillars, which is supposed to not harm any other kind of insect, but the weather-radar this afternoon is showing little storms all over the Southeast, several of which are pretty nearby, and one of which is pouring water all over my yard right now.

The real trick would have been to get the cucumbers planted earlier, so my harvest-window would be longer, but the cool wet spring delayed planting, and my garden was plagued by crows as the seedlings began to show above ground. The crows kept pulling them up, and I kept replanting them. It may be a miracle that we have any fresh-garden cucumbers at all!

The good news, sort of, is that the onslaught of pickleworms coincides with some other cucumber-related problems. Even if I could keep back the pickleworms, there's still downy mildew, and we have some cucumber beetles, too, eating the leaf tissue while leaving behind a netted lace of the leaves' veins.

Sometimes, the best thing is to prepare to say "goodbye" to the cucumbers. While I wait for the other problems get worse, I will be trimming away the wormy spots, to get as much good cucumber as possible for as many more cucumber salads as I can.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Time to Start Thinking about Cool Weather Crops

Last night, I pulled a box of Jiffy Pellets from my garden-supplies shelf and a few seed packets from their storage boxes, and I started some broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower plants. Am I a total loon to be starting this early? It turns out that the answer is "no." Now is definitely the time to start some of the fall crops that typically are set into the garden as transplants.

Seeds that I hope to plant directly into the garden in mid-August (just four weeks from now!) include carrots, beets, and winter radishes. The lettuces, spinach, and other greens that would normally be planted outside at about the same time can be started in flats, to be transplanted out later. I usually don't start the fall greens in trays (or peat-pellets), but this year I might need to. 

My garden got off to a late start this year; I kept waiting for warm weather, and it was very slow in coming! That means that the whole garden is running behind. As a result, it will be more of a challenge than usual to get the fall crops planted, making the use of lots of transplants much more necessary. Transplants can go into the ground later than seeds, giving the summer crops more time to finish their work.

The good news for gardeners who don't have the right packets of seed on hand is that, in the past several years, local stores have begun keeping seeds in stock right through the summer. A decade or so ago, by mid-July there no longer were any seeds in stock on shelves in any of the usual places. We all had to plan ahead much more carefully!

For people who are new to Fall gardening or who have questions or want to know more, I'll be giving talks on Planning the Fall Vegetable Garden in the next couple of weeks. One will be at the Cobb County Extension office (Tuesday, July 23, 6:30 p.m.) and one at Chestnut Ridge Christian Church (Saturday, August 3, 10:30 a.m.). Both are free and open to anyone who'd like to attend.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Squash Downy Mildew

It has been hilariously rainy here, and the garden is having some of the expected disease problems that go along with all the wet soil and humid conditions. For example, a volunteer butternut squash plant growing among the tomatoes is showing signs of downy mildew on its oldest leaves.

The front of the leaf looks unwell, but not spectacularly bad: it is yellowing and is showing some small brown spots inside bright yellow halos. This alone would not be enough to really nail down a diagnosis. (Sorry for the quality of the photos - I was having trouble with the lighting.)

The backside of the leaf is the clincher: it shows the development of the purplish spores of the mildew.

A 2009 article about Downy Mildew, by Debbie Roos, out of NCSU's Growing Small Farms program, includes a useful set of suggestions for managing downy mildew in cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, melons) using organic-growing methods:
"Cultural strategies can help prevent downy mildew. Plant resistant varieties. Plant in locations with good air circulation. Use drip irrigation to minimize leaf wetness.

There are a number of OMRI-listed products purported to help control downy mildew in cucurbits: copper, neem, biofungicides (e.g., Serenade®), peroxides (e.g., OxiDate®), and bicarbonates (e.g., Kaligreen®). According to Dr. Louws, research has shown that copper is the best organic option, but only on the crops that show little to no symptoms. He said if the infection is far along not to bother spraying because it wouldn’t do much good. Spray early in the morning to avoid phytotoxicity problems caused by spraying in the heat of the day. If the disease is present on the farm, a prophylactic application of a copper product can be made to curcurbit crops that show mild or no symptoms. If the weather does not favor the disease (which likes it warm and wet and humid), then the copper is more likely to suppress the disease. In other words, the copper may help but it may not be enough. (See Pesticide Use Guidelines)."
Notice the mention of weather that is "warm and wet and humid"? That is exactly what we have going this month, so this one volunteer squash might not be the only plant in Cobb County to be experiencing the problem. It may be helpful (though disheartening) to know that Powdery Mildew isn't the same as Downy Mildew, so that treatments that work for Powdery Mildew, which many local gardens dealt with last summer, might not work on this different mildew/fungus. (The ATTRA article on Downy Mildew in cucurbits, by George Kuepper, offers similar suggestions to those in the above NCSU article, with caveats that don't appear in the Roos' version, in case anyone is interested in looking at an additional source.)

It is a little too late to plant resistant varieties this year, but if anyone has a garden that is particularly plagued by this fungus, selecting a resistant variety for next year might be a good idea. The bad news is that I have been unable to find a good list of resistant cultivars. Apparently, several cucumbers have decent resistance to Downy Mildew, but very few squash do.

However, it is still possible to improve air circulation around existing plants, by pruning or removing nearby other vegetation, even though we can't do much about the rain.

I would whine about how the weather this year is unusually bad for gardening, but it seems to be bad, in one way or another, pretty much every year. There will be a deluge, or a drought, crazy high winds, unusual high temperatures, or unusual cool temperatures, tornadoes, hurricanes or their remnants, hail, falling trees that come across the top of the house and smash parts of the garden.... you get the picture. No year will be The Perfect Gardening Year. Amazingly, we still get plenty of good food out of the garden, and I still love to be working in the yard on my little patches of crops.

Hope that all the other gardens and gardeners out there are growing well!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Garden Update

The usual abundance of the summer garden is finally kicking in:

Straight Nine cucumbers; yellow, red, and black tomatoes; assorted peppers.  PHOTO/Amy W.
Chanterelle mushrooms.      PHOTO/Amy W.
The harvests aren't wildly varied right now, but that will change as the summer rolls on. The cucumbers are doing especially well. I don't know how long that will last, though, because the first vine up already has some interesting angular lesions on its leaves. That is not a good sign. However, Joe started a crock of brined pickles today, and I loaded the dehydrator with tomatoes and peppers. Things are looking up!

The woods have been a source of abundance, too. We've eaten chanterelle mushrooms with a few meals in the past week or so, and a lot were dried (have I said lately how much we love our dehydrator?) for later use.

Out in the neighborhood, the Cobb County Water department has been working on the water lines. We have a new fire hydrant in the Northwest corner of our yard, which is definitely good, but we also have a bit of a mess up by the curb. When we found out about the plan to replace our pipes, I delayed planting some of the crops that had been slated for the beds nearest the road.
Cucumber on a still-healthy vine.     PHOTO/Amy W.

The workmen did a great job of avoiding my gardens, even though they technically encroach into the easement, and I decided last week that it was probably safe to plant those spaces.

It is too late for the peanuts, so those will have to wait until next year. It is probably too late for the sorghum, too, but I planted some anyway. There were a lot more seeds in that packet than in the peanut packet, so it seemed like a safer gamble.

I also planted some bush beans. There is still plenty of time for those!  There is a plan to put a couple of tomato plants where the first bush beans came out (those pesky Bean Beetles did a lot of damage!), but the weekend has been very busy, and that isn't done yet.

In a weird bit of good news, I have a bad habit of tossing tomatoes affected by things like chipmunk bites and blossom end rot into the shrubbery by the creek.

Poblano peppers.       PHOTO/Amy W.
A couple of tomato plants have come up over there, and they both already have a few flowers. I have no idea what kind they are, but I will be digging them up one evening this week to transplant into the garden.

Meanwhile, I am expecting the zucchini plants to expire soon (due to Squash Vine Borers), and when they do, I will be planting buckwheat as a short-term cover crop in that space. In mid-August, when it is time to start putting out the fall crops, I'll turn the buckwheat into the soil and plant carrots in that bed.

I hope that all the other gardens out there are enjoying our break from the rains and doing well!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tomato Problems Abound

The tomato-ripening has been slow to begin, but it finally is coming along at a faster clip. The Cherokee Purple tomatoes are big and beautiful; however, the plants on which they are growing look terrible. I wasn't able to get a good picture of the tops of the two plants, partly because the plants are so tall and partly because it keeps raining. Aiming up results in a wet camera lens!

Many of the leaves are bedraggled, and there is marked wilting of some individual stems, while other stems continue to look just fine. I sliced into one of the wilted stems and saw brown in the vascular tissue (located between the green skin and the white, central pith). Those indications, along with the fact that the tomatoes continue to look good, leads me to believe that the problem is one of the soil-borne wilts, probably Fusarium. That is a huge relief, because I have heard that Late Blight (a very bad tomato disease) has been "going around."

Great-looking Cherokee Purple tomato, finally ripening, on a very sad plant.  PHOTO/Amy W.
Ironically, the Costoluto Genovese tomatoes also look good, and also on a very raggedy-looking plant, but it has a completely different problem; it has a leaf-spot disease. I'm thinking that it is Early Blight, because the brown areas on the leaves continue to expand (slowly), and they get the typical concentric rings as they enlarge.

Costoluto Genovese tomatoes, on a plant with a leaf-spot-type fungus.  PHOTO/Amy W.
For the Cherokee Purple tomatoes, my current plan is to harvest all the big tomatoes and then pull up the plants. My next patch of bush beans will go in their place. I just need for it to stop raining long enough to manage the task!

The Costoluto Genovese tomatoes aren't quite as far along. I keep hoping for a dry day (notice a theme here?) on which I can go out and trim away all the "bad" leaves and then see if there is anything besides fruit left to salvage after I complete the pruning.

While I was in Texas, the rain gauge out in the garden accumulated more than five inches of rain. The tomato-disease problems aren't a big surprise, considering how wet it has been all spring and summer. However, they are annoying. Since the forecast is for more, and yet more rain, I am thinking that it is time to come up with a Plan B. Wish me luck?

Meanwhile, there is a little lesson here about these two varieties of tomatoes: Costoluto Genovese seems to resist Fusarium wilt, and Cherokee Purple seems to be resistant to Early Blight. In future years, that information might come in handy.

I hope that all the other gardens out there are having fewer tomato problems!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Tracking the Harvest: May and June 2013

Who knows what a normal gardening year looks like? I'm beginning to wonder if it will ever be possible again to predict with any accuracy when a crop will come in!

This year's harvests are coming along, but fairly slowly. In other words -- it's all a bit late. I know I'm not the only gardener in the area with this problem, because I've been getting calls at the office from other gardeners who are waiting (and waiting ...) for some of their crops to reach maturity. The potatoes in my yard were a week or so late.

About two-thirds of this year's potato harvest.         PHOTO/Amy W.
The tomatoes, though, are driving us all nuts! Some people are getting decent ripening in their cherry tomatoes and some of the hybrid varieties, but most of the big heirlooms seem to be waiting for less rain and warmer temperatures.

Cherokee Purple tomatoes, just hanging out, not in any hurry to ripen in this cool, wet weather.  PHOTO/Amy W.

The native plants out in the wooded back yard seem unfazed by the weather, but the Rabbiteye blueberries in front are very late, and they aren't too many generations from "native".

Goldenseal making its beautiful red fruits in my back yard.        PHOTO/Amy W.
So, to update the harvest tally, this is what my yard has given us - measured in kilograms - in the past couple of months:

Onions, multipliers
Peas, edible pod
Beets plus greens

Bush beans, green
Swiss chard
Berries, misc.
Onions, bulbing
Tomatoes, ripe
Onions, multipliers

The total harvested weight for May was 3.6 kg, which converts to 7 pounds, 15 ounces; for June it was 36.5 kg, which converts to 80 pounds, 7 ounces.  
The running total for the year, January through June, is 59.75 kg, which converts to 131 pounds 11 ounces.
Last year's harvests from these months were very different, but last year was warm unusually early, so it isn't a good year for comparison. I am pretty sure, though, that the tomatoes should be stampeding into my kitchen by now.

Hope we get a few days break from the rain soon, and that all your gardens are doing well!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

I've Been in Texas

Sorry for the lack of garden-posting, but I've been to Texas for a big family gathering. One special feature of this particular gathering was that ALL my brothers and sisters were able to be there, so we stood together - in birth-order - for a photo with Mom. Mom is on the far left, the oldest daughter is next, and so on; I'm between two of the boys (fourth person from the left, but the third of Mom's children).

Mom and all eight of her children. July 4, 2013.          PHOTO/Amy W.
There were lots of kids and a few grandkids (great grandkids for Mom), and we ate too much food, some of which probably wasn't all that healthful. However, it was all great!

I'll be back with our "regularly scheduled programming" in the next day or two. Hope everyone else had a great Independence Day!
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