Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Planting Beans, Squash, & Leeks ~ And Caring for Potatoes & Artichokes

I've been behind in my planting, so I took a day off from work last Tuesday to get caught up.  There were beans to plant and squash to plant and a flat of transplants that needed to get in the ground.

I woke up that morning with a scratchy throat and feeling worn down, but I thought it was just allergies.  I doped myself up and went at it.  I spent half a day Tuesday and all day Wednesday getting stuff done!  Then spent all day Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the couch.  Ugh.

But I did get a lot done.  And Sugar Pie helped.

I'm not sure what she's doing here. Stalking the wild asparagus?

~*~ Artichokes ~*~

The artichokes are doing wonderful.  Big and gorgeous and just beginning to bloom.  This will keep up for quite a while yet - a couple or three months?  I honestly don't remember how long.  I told myself last year I'd remember the asparagus, so for future reference: The asparagus started in February and is just now winding down.  I'll have to keep an eye on the artichokes and note when they quit, too. 

However long they bloom, it's a good while.  Last year I got so many artichokes that I couldn't eat them all.  Good thing Rhonda's here now.  She loves them.  

Green Globe, four year old clump
And when she's sick of them, if she gets sick of them, I'll let them bloom so they'll be trap plants for leaf footed bugs.  For some reason, they love the blooms.  I love that it makes for easy pickings with the vacuum.

My artichokes didn't start out so wonderful.  I planted my first little bare root start in some dirt I hadn't worked, still all hard and unamended.  It slunked along, small and puny, even getting itself accidentally run over with the tiller, 'til I moved it to a seriously worked and amended bed four years ago along with four new sisters.  I took a pup from one side of it and planted that as well, so that made six plants in all.  The four sisters were seedlings, and the two others were the same as bare root, and I haven't noticed any difference in them except the original bare rooted one is bigger, probably because it's a year older and situated in the middle where it gets more "living mulchness" from the other two maybe?

Violetto, planted last year
Since then they have all split so many times I have six huge clumps now, each consisting of three to five plants.  Artichokes grow in winter, bloom about now in early spring, then go dormant during the heat of summer when you'll see nothing above ground.  Once temps cool down, about October, they sprout again.  The "mother plant" doesn't come back, but multiple "pups" or sprouts around it pop up to take her place.  Like agaves.  

About a month ago, I fertilized them for the first time in a couple years, side-dressed them with a thick layer of compost, and mulched them heavily with pine bark.  I think they like it.  In years past I still got lots of buds without the fertilizer, but I think they are bigger since I did.

~*~ Beans ~*~

I love green beans.  Big ones, little ones, purple ones, yellow ones - I love them all.  I tend to plant bush beans since they are like indeterminate tomatoes - they grow quickly, produce a LOT in a few flushes, then are done before the heat sets in.

Royal Burgundy, Slenderette, Rolande,
Kitchen King, Cherokee Wax, and
Grandma Nellie's Mushroom
Pole beans, for me, have also grown fast and produced quickly, but not as much as fast, preferring to spread their harvest out over some months.  That means I have to nurse them through the heat 'til they start producing in earnest again in fall.  I ain't got time for that.  I plant yard long beans instead.  Being cowpea cousins, they can take the heat a lot better.

I planted seven types of bush beans this year, and fit them all into one 4'x12' bed.  I defined each patch's borders with bamboo stakes and string, further dividing them by color, putting a purple variety in between two green ones, so I can be sure which is which.  This will be important later if I have a yummy super producer - since they're separated, I can be sure which one it is and exactly how much it really produced.

When  I plant a whole bunch of a type I know I like, I'm less careful about it, mostly just scattering them across the bed so they land a few inches apart, poke them in where they fall, and call it good.  When I do a trial like this, I'm more deliberate, spacing each seed about six inches apart, to give a more equal footing for all the varieties.  And remember one of those "rules", or guidelines, for planting seeds - plant them twice as deep as the seed is big.  I poked mine down about half an inch, then drag my fingers over the area to cover.

Six days later - Sprouts!
Either way I do it, I cover them with a *light* covering of pine straw or biodynamic hay just to keep some of the wind off them and moisture in.  And I mean light - just enough so that less than half of the soil is covered.  Bean seedlings are strong and can sprout right up through that.

You don't need to fertilize beans much.  They're legumes, so fix their own nitrogen in the soil.  Bonus!  They make little nitrogen nodules on their roots.  Keep that in mind when you're clearing out the bean bed later.  Don't pull the plants up since you'll be pulling the roots out, too, and that's where the nitrogen is.  Cut them off at ground level and leave those roots to rot in peace.

~*~ Leeks ~*~

When I buy leek seedlings, I only buy pots with many plants in them.  Yeah, they're usually much smaller than the ones with only one seedling in the pot, but it pays off later.  When I get them home, I plant them just as they were in the pot, all together, and let them get some size on them.  The ones I planted Tuesday I've collected and planted over the winter every few months as I saw the pots with tons in them come in (oh, the benefits of working at a garden center).

That yellow stuff on the bottom left is
Come & Get It ant bait.
%&$*#@! fire ants.
You can do the same if you start from seed.  If you sow them close together in a smallish pot where you can keep an eye on them, the thin little seedlings hold each other up.  You can do it straight in the garden, too, but plant more seeds as you won't have as much success since conditions are tougher when you direct sow.  You can put something over the top to dampen the force of rain on your little seedlings.  Rain can and will plaster them flat against the soil where many of them will pick up funguses, wither and die.  A piece of shade cloth tied to the top of some foot-tall bamboo stakes works well.

Some months later, when all the plants in the clump are bigger than a pencil, I dig them up and separate to plant out individually so they grow to their full potential.  That's what I did Tuesday.  Just dig them up, knock the dirt off, and pull apart.

Firming the soil back around them
I'm rather brutal some times, pulling the tops off the roots when they won't come apart easily.  If you swish the clump in a bucket of water, pulling when the roots are under that water, they'll come apart easier.  I usually have too many, so I sacrifice a few in the interest of expediency, planting the roots in case some will sprout and taking the sacrificees inside to make miniature braised leeks for dinner.

For a dibble, I have a sort of pointed stick which was a table leg in a former life (so I have three mates to use when this one gives out).  A real dibble is just a pointed tool used to poke a hole in the soil.  I poke a deep hole in the soil with my dibble stick, six or more inches down, and drop one leek into each hole, firming the soil around them by pushing sidewaysedly down with my thumb, a kind of diagonal motion that pushes the hole shut around the leek.  I think next time I'll try putting some fine compost down the hole and watering it in.  Might work better.

I've already composted and fertilized the soil in this bed, so nothing else is needed now except mulch and a good watering with seaweed.  The leeks do look rather sad right after planting.  You can see how sad in the picture.  Those ones standing up are ones I planted a couple months ago.  Hopefully the flat ones will look like those in no time.

As they grow, I keep that mulch on them, adding to it, making it taller as they grow.  The white part is the part you want to eat, so planting them so deeply helps that elongate, and the mulch helps that even more later.  I also fertilize with something high in nitrogen (the first number), but also something with phosphorous (the second number).  Leeks want nitrogen for leaf production since they get bigger the more leaves they have, each leaf adding a layer to the bottom white part.  But things in the onion family don't have the greatest of root systems, so I like to give them soft soil and plenty of food for roots so they can grow as many as possible, hence the phosphorous for root production.  

I can see many a pot of potato leek soup in my future.  And speaking of potatoes...

 ~*~ Potatoes ~*~ 

I planted these some months ago, maybe in February?  I love Yukon Gold.  They always do well for me.  This year, I thought I'd try some of the fingerlings.  I chose small ones this time, just to see what would happen if I planted them whole.

Usually, you cut the seed potatoes (the ones you buy to plant) into pieces of no less than one inch cubed and with a couple eyes on each.  Let them sit overnight to "heal over" (to let the cut sides dry out and form a sort of tough scab), then dust with soil sulfur and plant.  If you don't have any soil sulfur, you can use wood ashes, just make sure they're from non-treated wood, and I'd pass on ash from charcoal briquettes, too.

Most of the advice tells you to dig a deep trench, plant at the bottom, and fill in the trench as the plant grows.  That's never done any good for me.  I get a longer main "tap" root, but that's about it.  The few times I did get more potatoes deeper down on the stem, they were so small and few in number that it wasn't worth the extra digging.  I've also tried the "planting in a stack of tires" method - had to drag the stack apart with my truck and a tow chain.  All I got was a loooooooong tap root and a few potatoes clustered together in one tire.

So I do things the easy way.  Remember, I'm not lazy, I'm efficient.  I amend the HELL out of that soil with compost to keep it loose and soft.  That makes it easier for the plant to form the potatoes, and makes it easier for me to dig later.  Then I plant right near the top, covering with no more than an inch of soil.  I've already mulched the bed thickly, just pulling the mulch back enough to plant, so nothing else is needed yet.

Once the plants grow, I add more compost to the top of the previous mulch, about an inch maybe, then more mulch on top of that.  I used biodynamic hay for the first layer of mulch this year, thinking once it's topped with compost it would break down easier than the pine straw.  And that's a good thing.
And fertilize.  Potatoes are tubers which are actually a stem structure, so nitrogen is called for.  I also give them phosphorous, since a good root structure equals a good plant.  (And, secretly, even if I know the tubers are stems, thus want nitrogen, I just can't kick the thought that they're sort of roots, too, so want phosphorous.)

Pretty pretty potatoes.  I should be getting some new potatoes soon, hopefully in about a month, about the time I start getting green beans.  Green beans, new potatoes and bacon.  Mmmmmmmmm.

~*~ Squash ... and Cukes and Melons ~*~ 

Squash seedlings six days after planting
Squash and other cucurbits are stupid easy to start from seeds.  You can either do it indoors to get a jump start on the season, or direct sow them in the garden itself.

The seeds are fat little things from whence sprout the stoutest, most vigorous little seedlings that have the most adorable little cotyledons (seed leaves), so cute and fat that every time I see them, I just want to pinch their fat little cheeks.

Tatume and Spaghetti squash on the trellis. White Egyptian,
Golden, & Black Beauty zucchini at the base, along with Early
Butternut, Musquee de Provence & Long Island Cheese. 
The main problem with growing squash down here is the squash vine borer.  I started talking about them here, but my expletive-filled rant description of them and instructions on how to fight them (with a gleeful list of creative ways to dispatch them) grew so long that I decided to make it it's own post.

For here, I'll just say cover them.  Right from the beginning - just cover them.  That's what the black shade cloth in the pictures is for - to exclude the moth that lays the eggs that hatch into the borer that kills your plants.

Melon seedlings. Aren't they cute?
So on to planting.

I've already topped my beds with a layer of compost and activated it with molasses.  I also scattered some fertilizer at the same time.  Then topped the whole thing with a thick layer of mulch, and water.  To plant, simply pull back that mulch on your beds to expose a circle some inches across, loosen the soil a few inches deep and all across, work in some more compost if you want, plant three or four seeds an inch apart and no more than half an inch deep, firm the soil and water.

Sugar Baby watermelons & Charantais cantaloupe
Don't forget to tuck them back under the cover.

That's it.  Really.  Like I said, stupid easy.  Now you just wait for them to sprout, ooh and aah over the babies that will appear shortly, and pinch some cheeks.  This year it was six days between planting and baby pictures, despite half of those days being cool and overcast.  They're fast!  I'm an instant gratification kind of girl, so that's probably why I like planting squash so much.

A teepee for Mexican Sour Gherkins
Once they've had some days to get some size on them, thin them to just one or two.  After they're a week or so old, it will become apparent which ones are the healthiest.  Snip the others at ground level with scissors or clippers.  Don't pull them or you'll disturb the roots of the ones you leave.  Squash don't much like that, so just snip them.

I added some fertilizer when I put the compost on.  Since what you want from them are fruit, give them something with a good bit of phosphorous (a high middle number).  Phosphorous is fruit food.  It's bloom food, too, and since you need blooms to get fruit, that's a good thing.  (Eat the extras.)

Winter squashes and cucumbers are vines, so I put them at the bases of trellises.  I had fun building the little cuke teepee.  I only had two short bamboo poles, so used a loooooong one for the third leg, intending to cut it shorter later.  After putting it up, I got an idea to hang a set of prayer flags across the walkway with it.  I LOVE cute little happenstances like that.

Come to think of it, that's kind of how my entire garden has evolved.  A series of cute little happenstances.  And that makes me happy.

L-R: Melon bed, bean bed, leek bed, squash bed, and two beds of tomatoes.
Those weeds on the far right show what all the walkways looked like
before I put down the plastic and pine bark.  Ooof.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

What to do About Squash Vine Borers ~ A Profanity Laden Rant

The main problem with growing squash down here is the squash vine borer.

The squash vine borer moth is a nasty little bastard that lays it's eggs on the stem of squash where they hatch into caterpillars that look like maggots, burrow into the stem, and start eating from the inside.  As they grow they eat more and as they eat more they grow, this cycle reaching critical mass when they internally decapitate the plant.  While you are standing there aghast, mourning your wilted and collapsed zucchini and cussing enough to make a sailor blush, that freaking little shit is dropping out of the stem and burrowing an inch or two into the soil, where it will pupate and turn into that asshole moth that started this whole damn thing.  Fuckers.

They're especially nasty little things to deal with since they're cunning, laying their eggs on the undersides of stems where you may not see them.  They're tiny enough, about the size of the head of a pin, so are hard to see in the first place.  Add in their tendency to lay them on the undersides and it makes for a very hard-to-spot enemy.  Some people do vigilantly look for them, especially spotting the ones laid on the sides or tops, and dispatch them, so I think those overachievers are helping to breed smarter borer moths who consistently lay them underneath, hiding them from the rest of the slackers us.

Even as adolescents they're juvenile delinquents, hiding from the light of day like roaches, holed up inside the squash stem where you, dear gardener, will never see them until they've laid waste to your plant.  Even if you know what to look for - crackly, scar-covered holes in the stem with "frass" coming out of them - you may still miss them.  (Btw, "frass" is a fancy name for caterpillar shit, and in this case it looks like wet sawdust.  Wet sawdust from the nether regions of a BUG FROM HELL.)

They attack summer squash especially since those types of squash have a softer, more hollow stem, thus easier dining and more room for the developing larvae.  Winter squash, cucumbers, and other members of the Cucurbitaceae family usually aren't affected, but can be in especially heavy infestations.  So if, like me, you had every single freaking squash plant in your garden, INCLUDING the winter ones, taken down by these bastards last year, treat all cucurbits the same - cover them all.

And for God's sake, DON'T PLANT THEM IN THE SAME BED.  They're in the soil of the bed of last year's victims and will emerge right under any plants planted there.  So don't give them breakfast in bed.  Plant somewhere else.  (In the interest of full disclosure, here is where I have to put a note.  You know how I always tell you to keep accurate records?  Map out your garden, writing down everything you plant as you plant it, and keep that map 'til next year?  Last year I don't remember updating mine when I planted the squash.  Or if I did write that info down, I don't know where I put it.  Yeah.  So I hope I put this year's squash in the right beds. *sigh*  Those who can, do. Those who can't ...)

Covering from the get go really is the best way to do it imho.  You can try using Bt (Bt will work on them since the borers are caterpillars even though they don't look like it), but since they have to eat it, you have to make sure the entire exterior of the stem is covered at all times.  And don't forget those leaf axils (stems)!  They can and will get in that way, too. But getting Bt powder to stick on the underside isn't easy, and you have to reapply after every rain or overhead watering.  If you use the liquid you'll have to spray every couple days since Bt is only alive for 36 hours or so after mixing it with water, and it has to be alive when the caterpillar eats it.  So repeated sprayings would be necessary.  For months.  Bah.  Ain't gonna' happen here.

So, as soon as you plant those seeds or set out those transplants, cover the whole shebang.  Some say they don't hatch until May so you don't have to cover 'til closer to then.  Bullshit.  Maybe the main hatch is in May, but I've already seen one two weeks ago at work, which would put it during the second week of April.  Bosslady Bridget and I were checking out the new squash transplants in the driveway when she spied with her little eye a borer moth on one of them.  I caught it quickly and took it to the Info Desk where I showed it to everyone I could.  Know. Thy. Enemy.  And cover from the very beginning.

If you plant early in the year when the nights are still chilly, use heavy floating row cover to cover with.  It does double-duty, helping keep the seedlings warm.  If later, you can use lightweight row cover or some sort of mesh with fine holes, like the Haxnicks micromesh we sell at work.  I have some shade cloth Frugal Me brought home when they took it down from the annual house at work.  It's a fine mesh, so works well.

Leave them covered until you see female blooms.  Male blooms come on first, then the females follow a week or two later.  Males are a long, thin stem with the bloom right on top.  Females are a short, fat stem with a baby whateversquashyouplanted, then the bloom.

At this point, you have a decision to make: either hand pollinate or uncover and hope for the best.

To hand pollinate, pick a few male blooms, remove the petals, and use them like paintbrushes, swirling each inside all the female blooms you see.  For best pollination, you should do this around nine in the morning since that's the time when the pollen and the pollen receptors are at their best and most receptive.

I think hand pollinating every day throughout the season is a pain in the ass.  Doing it a few times to save seed isn't too bad, but every day?  Or even a few times a week?  For months on end?  Screw that.  If you're disciplined and motivated enough to do that, more power to you.  And when I bemoan my squash dearth due to the borers, you can giggle and poke fun at me as you eat your fried zucchini.  But that energetic and devoted I am not, so I just uncover and hope for the best.  By this time, my plants are usually big and healthy enough to withstand a borer attack long enough for me to get a good harvest.  You know how much zucchini produces.  By the time the borers take them down, I and my neighbors are usually sick of them.  And I'm not THAT fond of yellow squash anyway.

One other thing I've been thinking of trying, but have yet to get around to: planting some sacrificial lambs.  I've had a thought that maybe, if I plant some extra summer squash plants outside covers and pull them up when I see the borers, extracting the fuckers and merrily dispatching them, it may lessen the threat to the covered plants that are left.  Keeping in mind that reproduction is a biological imperative, I'm thinking that if the moths have somewhere easy to lay their eggs, they'll be satisfied enough and won't fight so hard to find a way through my covers.  If anyone tries this, or has tried this, let me know in the comments, would you?


What if you find borers in your squash plants and want to try to get rid of them?  There are a few ways to do this that I have used with varying success.

1. Injecting Bt into the stem: Just what it says - mix up a strong liquid Bt solution and inject it into the squash stem.  Since these assholes are caterpillars, the larvae of moths, Bt will work on them.  BUT they have to eat it.  You can't just sprinkle it on the outside and hope it will get to them - it won't.  So stop by a feed store, pick up some syringes with 18 gauge needles (they're BIG), mix up a solution of Bt, and inject it into multiple spots along the stem.  You won't know where they are, so just put it everywhere along the stem, every couple inches, all the way up to a foot or so from the base of the plant.  Repeat in three days.

2. Surgery: Slit up the stem lengthwise and remove the fuckers.  I've seen as many as six borer maggots in one stem, so don't stop at the first one.  Go up quite a ways, quite a few inches  if not an entire foot.  Once you think you've gotten them all, carefully close the stem wound and bury it.

Squash are fairly tough, especially when they're bigger, more mature plants.  They can usually take it.  This does injure them, so I'd give them plenty of seaweed to help them get over it.  And sometimes they don't seem to pull out of it.  But it's kind of like doing CPR - yeah, you break some ribs, but if you do nothing, the patient will die anyway.

3. Impalement:  My personal favorite.  Stick some hatpins in the first foot or eighteen inches of the stem, all the way through, and leave them for a week or two, then remove.  I use fifteen or twenty pins per stem, inserting them every inch or so unless I feel a borer as I'm poking.  In that case, I'll add another pin there for good measure.

Yes, you can feel them sometimes.  You'll feel some resistance with a crunch when you go through the first stem wall, then it gets really easy to push the pin as it goes across the empty center, then resistance and a crunch when you hit the other wall.  When you find a borer, it's more like resistance/crunch-resistance/resistance-resistance/crunch.  Makes me smile every time.  "But Linda! How can you be so bloodthirsty?!  We are all God's creatures!"  Fuck that.  This is war.  ProTip: Count the pins before you put them in and write it down somewhere because you WILL forget how many you put in each plant, and believe me you don't want to find them later when you pull the plants out.  Not fun.  And painful.

So there you have it.  Everything I'd really like to say when I talk to a customer at work about these bastards, but can't.  (At least not in quite this way.)

I hope this helps you fight them successfully.  If not, I hope it at least gives you some comic relief and sense of camaraderie, knowing that you are most certainly not alone as you trod back to the house after your squashes' funeral and mix that bourbon and water.





Frass (shit) on outside of stem

Two borers in a squash plant stem,
cut open to show them:

Wilting leaves in the heat of the day
(sometimes, if it's not too late, you can do
surgery at this point and save your plants):

Nice little graphic of it's life cycle:

Really good Q&A from GardensAlive.com.

And another good article from ToxicFreeNC.org.

Identification photos above from Universities of Minnesota, Kentucky, West Madison, and Georgia, and Wikipedia (Wikimedia Commons).

Monday, April 13, 2015

New Mulch ~ So Neat & Tidy

I've been putting down new mulch in the pathways lately, half a yard at a time.  This is what it looked like a week ago, after the first yard.

I've been getting half a yard, all that will fit in my little Toyota Tacoma, most days after work.  It only takes four wheelbarrows full, half an hour, to unload and spread.  Below is what it looked like today after spreading the latest half yard.

I'm lovin' it!  And all just a little half yard at a time.  Like eating an elephant.

I was just talking about this to a customer yesterday, and another one today.  They were both overwhelmed because I'd just explained to neophyte-gardeners-them how much compost they'd need to haul and spread and work into their planting beds and over their lawn.  I told them of my garden mulch project, how I'm doing it just a half an hour a day, and how good it's looking after just a little more than a week.  I gave them a pep talk about how they could do it themselves, that they didn't need to hire anyone or beg favors from guy friends with trucks.  I wish I would have had these pictures to show them.  

I used to get two full yards at a time when I had my big truck.  It was a chore to unload.  I'd be out there for hours shoveling and spreading and shoveling and spreading.  I came to dread it.

So I avoided doing it.  I'd sheet mulched and put down new mulch each year, but the weeds kept coming, some probably because I waited 'til the last minute, avoiding.  Last year I had some health problems (I'm a lot better now.), so the weeds really got away from me.

 One year of seeds equals seven years of weeds.  I saw the writing on the wall early this year (after two days of pulling weeds out of the walkways, and that was with Rhonda helping. Ugh.), so sprung for black contractor's plastic right away and made the firm decision to just eat that elephant one half yard of pine bark mulch at a time.  

I'm done fighting weeds.  I want a pretty garden that's easy(er) to keep up.

 I think I have it now.

I may sound all calm here, but inside I'm jumpin up and down and dancing a HELLUVA jig!  

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