Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Just What IS Potting Soil, Anyway?

Potting soil.  We've all used it, but very few of us know what's in it.  "Oh, I know that!" you may think.  "I'm a gardener and we ALL know what's in potting soil.  It's potting soil!"  Okay, then try this little test: Guess what's in that bag you have in the garage.  The ingredients.  Peat moss?  Probably.  But what else?  Dirt?  Styrofoam beads?  Compost?  ... Now go read the package.  Unless you are a very experienced gardener, or are a gardening nerd like me who needs to know the "What?! - Why?! of Everything", chances are really good you guessed wrong and that there are things in there you didn't realize were in there.

Now try another little test: Tell me what all those different ingredients do, why they are used in potting soil.  Even if you passed the first test with flying colors, chances are slim that you can pass this one.

Knowing what is in your potting soil and why it's there is important.  If you want to grow those lush green house plants or profusely blooming annuals we all see spilling out of the pots on the porches in the gardening porn magazines, you must give those plants what they need to grow.  And that means knowing exactly what's in the potting soil you're using and why it's in there.

NOT all potting soil is the same.  Far from it.  Most people think it is and pay no more nevermind to it once bought, as is evidenced by the standard answer I get when asking a customer what kind of potting soil their plants are growing in: "Regular potting soil."  There are so many brands of potting soil made by so many different companies in so many different places that "regular potting soil" doesn't really mean anything.  It's like saying you had food for lunch.  There are too many variables to determine what that really is.  What's the main ingredient?  What kind of plants it formulated to grow?  Does it have fertilizer in it?  Is it all quality ingredients or does it contain cheap fillers?

Sounds like buying groceries, doesn't it?  It is like that, very much like that.  So just like with groceries, you have a choice - keep on blithely trusting that whatever's in whatever bag you buy is good and healthy, which means you can stop reading here (but I hope you don't!).  Or become a label reader.  Label Readers, read on!

Firstly, the "soil" in "potting soil" is a misnomer.  According to Wikipedia, soil is an American metal band formed in Chicago, Illinois in 19...  Wait. What the hell?! Wikipedia is ALWAYS WRONG!  Those freaking morons!  They're always ... Huh?!  There's more than one entry for "soil"?  Well ... uh, um ...

Cross section of soil
Soil is the mixture of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and the countless organisms that together support life on Earth.  It's a natural body, the "skin of the Earth".  There are many types of soil, about as many as their are places on the planet, but the one thing they all have in common is they're naturally occuring on the ground.  They ARE the ground.  They're just what's there, what Mother Nature made.

Pots are non-natural environment we have created, so we have to take on the role of Mother Nature.  Most plants have evolved to grow in particular soils She gave them, soils with certain attributes like moisture retention or fertility, and we have to match the soil to the plant just like Ma Nature does.  Unless we just want to grow plants that are native to our area (which leaves out ninety-nine percent of all vegetables, flowering annuals, tropical houseplants, and other miscellaneous ornamental plants), we can't just go out in our yards, dig up some "skin of the Earth", plunk it in a pot, and expect it to work.  You can use some in a potting soil mix, sure.  A few handfuls to add in some good minerals and seed the new soil with beneficial organisms, especially if it's taken from that top layer, the dark rich looking one in the photo above.  But pure dirt?  Very much most often, no.

But take heart - picking a good potting soil isn't as daunting a prospect as it may seem.  Most of the plants we like to grow in pots can make do nicely with similar potting soils made of easy-to-find ingredients that hold moisture and nutrients well, doing just fine in soil that's not necessarily what they've evolved to grow in, but is plenty close enough to make them happy.

Instead of telling you which soil is best and sending you on a sometimes-fruitless search for "The One" that ends up being "The Not-So-Good-One-For-Me", I'd like to teach you how to pick a great potting soil by reading the ingredients list on the label and knowing what those ingredients do.  Also, once you learn that, you can easily pick another one when your usual brand isn't available.

Better yet, once I get done with you, you can buy those ingredients separately and custom mix your own potting soil that's perfect for the particular plants you want to grow.  Talk about freedom!  No longer will you be constrained by the meager choices at the garden center!  No more will you spend good money on cheap crap!  Never again will you be held hostage by not knowing, having to settle for whatever someone else thinks you want!  You can grow ANYTHING YOUR LITTLE HEART DESIRES, AND GROW IT WELL!  WOOT!!

But I'm getting ahead of myself (... !melodramatically! ...).  After the list of common potting soil ingredients I'll give a basic rundown on how to make your own.  But first...

The most common potting soil ingredients and what they do
(in "sort of" order of how often you'll encounter them in potting mixes, most common first)

Peat, aka Sphagnum Peat or Peat Moss: Good for moisture and nutrient retention.  Peat is the most common ingredient in potting soils and seed starting mixes.  Avoid anything labeled as "sphagnum moss" without the word "peat" - peat is the dead, decaying moss that is good for use in potting soil while "sphagnum moss" is harvested when it's alive, holds together in sheets or chunks, and is more suitable for ornamental purposes such as lining wire baskets.
          Pros:  Is acidic, so is great to use with our alkaline water.  And it holds that water well when hydrated (holds 16+ times it's weight).  Is widely available most anywhere.
          Cons:  Sometimes holds water TOO well, becoming so throughly soaked and soggy that it takes forever to dry out.  Conversely, sometimes it gets so dry it pulls away from the sides of the pot and can't be rewetted easily, the water just beading up on the surface and not soaking in at all.  When this happens, it runs "around" the root ball - across the top, down the sides, then out the bottom - with little or no moisture soaking in.  For these reasons, and since our climate is feast or famine when it comes to rain, it's best to mix in a healthy amount of other things with that peat, making your mix something like less-than-half peat.  (Hint: When peat or any potting soil gets too dry, either use an olla-type waterer or bottom water overnight to rewet it.)
            Environmental concerns:  The US gets 80% of it's peat from Canada.  Canada has a vast area of peat bogs, over 200 million acres, and peat is harvested from less than one percent of that.  Apparently learning from the Europeans who in turn learned from the past damage to and destruction of so many of their peat bogs, the Canadians harvest their peat in a sustainable, managed way - they leave enough moss underneath and at the sides of the harvested bog to grow back relatively quickly.  The North American Wetlands Conservation Council estimates that a bog managed this way can return to an "ecologically balanced system" in 5 to 20 years.  That doesn't necessarily mean "full-blown, healthy, peat bog", but it's a really good start.  Couple that with the estimate that new moss growth in all of Canada's peat bogs is 60 times as much as what is harvested and it does appear that using peat is not the great evil it once was.  Just check the label to ensure you're getting Canadian, eh?

Coir Fiber:  Good for moisture and nutrient retention, similar to peat.  Coir is simply ground coconut husks.  Coir holds less moisture than peat, though still a good bit, while not having the maddening tendencies towards extremes that peat does.  Comes loose in bags or compressed into bricks.
          Pros: Doesn't get waterlogged or quite as dry/hydrophobic as peat (doesn't pull away from the sides of the pot like peat does), yet holds eight or nine times it's weight in water.  Has a high nutrient-absorption capability, so holds on to those liquid ferts well and doesn't let them run out the bottom as much as other things do.  Due to it's high lignin content (tough, indigestible fiber), it lasts a long time before it breaks down, but doesn't tie up nitrogen like uncomposted wood (see below for more on that).  Very renewable and a good use of a former waste product.
          Cons: Not as easily available as peat, though it's getting easier to find as time goes on.  May contain too many salts - look on the package for "washed" or "desalinated".
            Further Environmental concerns:   It literally grows on trees, so in that way it's a sustainable resource, being a waste product of an industry that has been around for hundreds of years.  Coconuts are grown for edible coconut, oil, and fiber that is used to make brushes, rope, and padding for automobile seats and matresses.  The coir we use in horticulture is the fine dust left over after the larger, longer fibers have been harvested.  This dust previously had no widespread use and took twenty years to break down into compost, a fact that makes it good in potting soil but problematic for the producers.
     Most coir is produced in India and Sri Lanka, so there is a concern with the environmental cost of having it shipped to our side of the world.  It's relative light weight and compression into bricks to take up less space during shipping lessens that somewhat, but it's still a very real concern.  Also, the retting process (soaking in water for long periods of time to soften it) uses copious amounts of water, much of it being fresh water that has had salt or other substances added, so there is a pollution concern there as well.

Vermiculite:  Good for moisture and nutrient retention, as well as aeration (the ability to keep air incorporated into the soil, something roots need).  Vermiculite is a naturally-occuring mineral product made up of multiple flat mica-like flakes.  It is heated-treated after mining to make the layers exfoliate or "puff up", increasing it's water-, air-, and nutrient-holding capacity.  Vermiculite is mined from deposits all over the world, including some in the Eastern US.  As with peat, to lessen the environmental impact of long-distance shipping, check the label to make sure you're getting it from the US.  And since it comes in different particle sizes, check the label so you don't get the wrong one.
          Pros: Easily available.  Does not break down over time.
          Cons: Since it's takes hundreds of thousands of years to form, it may not be sustainable.  For now though, our use of it isn't threatening to use up all the world's stores.
          Further Environmental Concerns: Today's vermiculite does NOT contain asbestos.  For much of the 20th century, the majority of vermiculite came from a mine in Libby, Montana, which had a deposit of toxic asbestos (also a naturally-occuring mineral product) intermingled, contaminating the vermiculite.  Since vermiculite is commonly used as loose-fill insulation, and since, during it's years of operation, as much as 80% of all vermiculite insulation produced in the US came from this mine (along with vast amounts used worldwide), this was a massive danger to public health, finally showing up when miners and others that worked around it became seriously ill and the mortality rate rose quite high.  This finally led to the Libby mine being shut down in 1990.  Today we get our vermiculite from other mines that continually do asbestos testing to ensure it is asbestos free.

Perlite: Good for aeration and drainage.  Perlite is a volcanic mineral that, when heat treated, pops like popcorn, increasing it's air-holding capacity and lessening it's weight-by-volume.
     The science nerd in me has to geek out for a minute about how it really does pop like popcorn. The tiny bits of water trapped inside it expand when heated and finally explode, just like in a kernel of corn. The water gets there when the molten lava flows into a body of water like the ocean, then slowly cools, trapping it inside tiny little "cells". How COOL is THAT?!
          Pros:  Fairly readily available.  Does not break down over time.  Much lighter in weight than other things used to increase drainage in pots, such as sand, gravel, or decomposed granite, and also has much better air-holding capacity than those more dense products.  That air-holding ability makes it really great for use in peat-heavy potting mixes.  It's so good at that that a mix of peat and perlite is one of the, if not THE, most popular potting media choice for commercial greenhouse growers.  It may be (arguably) sustainable since it is a volcanic product and volcanic processes are ongoing, and it isn't mined in the traditional tear-up-and-devastate-vast-amounts-of-land sense, but "harvested" by scraping from the top of the ground where it is deposited by previous volcanic activity.
          Cons:  Can float to the top of potting mixes when they are continually flooded, but doesn't do it as badly as the styrofoam pellets some potting soil makers use instead.  (To find out which is in your soil, pick out one of the big pieces and squeeze it.  If it flattens, it's styro - if it feels more like a crunchy grain of sand, it's perlite.)

Compost:  Good for moisture and nutrient retention.  Compost is naturally-broken-down (rotted) organic matter.  Leaves, food scraps, manure, grass clippings, byproducts of the agriculture industry (such as cotton burrs and shredded landscape refuse), and many more things that were once alive are piled up and left to be colonized by beneficial organisms that rot things, unlocking the nutrients.  It is a natural process though most times, especially with commercially made compost, the rotting is managed by humans who ensure the pile doesn't dry out or get too wet, is turned (stirred up) to ensure all components of the pile are equally broken down, and is monitored to determine when the composting process has been completed.  Good quality fresh compost made yourself or obtained from a reputable source is one of the best, most natural things you can use in your potting mix.  It is the basis of all life in Nature, being one of the main links in the food chain.
          Pros:  I can't say enough good things about compost.  IT'S ALIVE!  IT'S NATURAL!  IT'S SUSTAINABLE!  And it's SO VERY healthy for your plants.  Fresh compost contains beneficial bacteria and fungi needed by most plants to live, just like how we need the beneficial bacteria in our guts.  Compost has excellent moisture-holding capacity, and contains a decent amount of needed nutrients (Dead and decayed organic matter is what plants have evolved to use for food.  Makes me think of vultures in the animal kingdom. Plants are the buzzards of the plant kingdom! They're Arizona Chickens! YAHAHAHAHA!!).
          Cons:  It's fairly easy to get bagged compost that is old and has dried out, killing the beneficial organisms in it, though that's easily remedied by re-inoculating it with the beneficial organisms (adding a few handfuls of fresh compost or pouring on some aerobically brewed compost tea) and watering that in with molasses (1/4 cup per gallon of water) to bring life back to it.
          Also, manure compost can contain broad-leaf herbicides that can still be present in large enough concentrations to damage plants.  Herbicides are commonly sprayed on hay fields to kill weeds, and there are herbicides today that can survive the hay being cut, baled, stored, fed to livestock, and come out in the manure still able to kill broad-leaved plants.  That's some scary shit, huh?  It can take up to two years of composting for these herbicides to break down enough to not be a threat.  To test for this, simply plant some pinto beans or other dried beans from your kitchen cabinet in some of it, planting some in regular soil as a comparison, then look to see if the beans growing in the compost/manure grow deformed.  If so, that compost is probably tainted.

"Raw" rice hulls, before boiling or composting
Rice Hulls: Increases drainage and air-holding capacity in the soil.  Rice hulls are just what they appear to be - the tough, outer covering of rice left over when it is processed for human consumption.  For agricultural uses, the hulls are usually parboiled and/or lightly composted before being sold to the public.
          Pros: Like coir fiber, it's a good use of an agricultural industry waste product.
          Cons: Can dry out quickly.
          Further Environmental Concerns: Many people erroneously believe all rice and it's associated products like rice hulls are imported from far away when in fact over ten percent of the world's rice is grown in the US.  Certainly some is still imported since our climate isn't amenable to growing all types of rice, but it's doubtful that rice hulls are imported in as large amounts, so the environmental threat from shipping isn't as large of one as may seem from first glance.  Many people take issue with rice farming's massive use of water.  In rice-growing areas such as Texas and California where water is in short supply, this is a valid concern.

Sawdust, bark or other wood products:  When fully composted, certain types of wood products can hold a decent amount of moisture and, similar to other types of compost, can add some nutrients.  However, if it's not composted, or the wood is in chunks that are still recognizable as wood, it's not good in potting soil.  Pine bark fines, little pieces sifted from bulk pine bark, might be an exception (maybe because they're a soft wood? Dunno for sure), but other woods, especially hardwoods, are best avoided.
     Some makers, like Fox Farms, use "aged forest products", something very different from wood.  This is mostly leaf mold (rotted leaves), which is a really good thing.  It's Mother Nature's compost, what all forests have evolved to use as the basis for their own food.  In a forest it's slowly broken down, colonized by beneficial bacteria and fungi, and forms the very cornerstone of the forest itself.  More trees and plants take root in it, insects move in, small animals prey on them, everyone poops and dies and, along with more leaves, gets transformed into nutrients that trees and other plants use, and on it goes.
     Some unscrupulous manufacturers will use sawdust or fresh shredded wood as filler since it's cheap.  Again, read your labels - "pine bark fines" = fine (see what I did there?), "sawdust" = avoid, "composted sawdust" or "composted shredded wood/landscape refuse" = maybe, but only if it's low on the list and is WELL composted, not leaving big chunks of wood still in the mix.
          Pros: Can be sustainable if obtained from a reputable source who composts it well and mixes it with other good things.  For instance, Austin company Organics By Gosh takes in landscape trimmings from professional landscape companies as well as homeowners, diverting it from landfills.  They compost all that stuff correctly and mix it with other good things for use in their retail products, including good-quality potting soil and compost.
          Cons:  Since they make such a cheap filler, it's easy to get potting soils and composts with a lot of uncomposted wood products in them, especially when they are bought at "big box" stores.  Again, uncomposted wood is NOT good for any kind of horticultural use except as mulch ON TOP of the soil, NOT IN IT.  Here's why: When wood decomposes, it ties up nitrogen in the soil.  Wood contains much more tough fiber (such as cellulose and lignin) than other soft plant matter like leaves and compost, so the beneficial bacteria in your soil will be so busy working so hard on that wood that they won't be breaking down those other easier-digestible things.  Bacteria breaking things down is what feeds the plants, so if that process is compromised, slowed down, those bacteria aren't making as many nutrients and the soil can become nitrogen-poor, starving your plants.  To sum it all up: Fully-composted wood products that are rotted to the point that you can't tell they're wood anymore are fine to use in potting soil, but if you can still tell it's wood, avoid it.  
     One note: You may notice that a lot of commercial plant growers use wood or bark chunks in their growing mixes.  Usually it's pine bark and for some reason pine isn't as bad as other wood, plus commercial growers fertilize a lot more often than we do with chemical fertilizers that have nutrients that are immediately available to the plants and don't have to be broken down by bacteria and fungi.  That's how they can get away with it - they have push-button fertilization that they use often.
Coarse Sand, Gravel, and Other Minerals:  Increases drainage dramatically and some kinds add needed minerals to the potting mix.  If you're making potting soil for succulents or cactus, a coarse mix of mineral sands and gravels would be a good thing to use as one of the main ingredients.  Rabbit Hill Farms' Minerals Plus is a good mix to use that's fairly easily available (Get the big bag and throw the rest in the veggie garden. It helps your plants be healthier and, I think, tastier.).
     Another good thing to add to increase drainage is expanded shale, aka haydite.  Expanded shale is mined from the naturally occurring Midway Shale deposit that runs not far underground diagonally across must of the state of Texas.  Then it's crushed to an inch or smaller, and kiln fired so it expands.  During cooling, voids are formed which gives expanded shale it's ability to soak up water, then release it later.
     If you're not growing xeric things like succulents or cactus, and don't need to add weight to the pot of a top-heavy plant, you may not need much if any of these.  Drainage can be better accomplished by other things in the above list since they also increase the soil aeration and actually catch some of that moisture as it goes by, releasing it later - same with nutrients.  Since they're not porous in any way, sand and gravel just let those pass on by.
          Pros: Adds needed minerals. Can be cheap.  Increases drainage dramatically, so is good for cactus and succulent mixes.
          Cons: Heavy. Can be TOO free-draining and doesn't contribute to aeration of the soil, so is best to avoid in large quantities except in cactus and succulent mixes.
Fine sand: DON'T USE this
     A note about fine sand:  Too much fine sand such as play sand can actually decrease drainage since it fills up the small empty areas in between other potting soil components, making it more compact and even less draining than without it.  A little fine sand that comes along with other ingredients such as decmposed granite and Rabbit Hill Farms' Minerals Plus isn't enough to worry about.  Just don't go get "play sand" and use it as a standalone potting soil ingredient.
     And a note about "gravel in the bottom for drainage": That's a myth and can actually be bad.  There's a normal thing going on in your pots called a "perched water table", a constant-level layer of moisture at the bottom of all bodies of appropriately-hydrated soil that contains more moisture than the rest of the soil due to gravity.  That perched water table is present in ALL potting soils that aren't parched-dry, and putting a layer of gravel at the bottom does nothing except move that perched water table up higher and take up valuable real estate in the pot.  If your potting soil doesn't drain well enough, you need to mix that gravel, or better yet perlite, into the soil, not put it at the bottom.  And if your shallow pot always seems to stay too wet, then you need either the aforementioned something-else-mixed-into-the-soil or a bigger, deeper pot - not gravel in the bottom.  Here's an article that explains it in much more detail, with pictures.  And here's another page with some good tidbits on this subject.

Lithops, a type of succulent, in soil heavily amended with coarse sand.
And more lithops because they're just so damn cute.

Fertilizer: This is something that's not usually in potting soils, but a lot of people think it is so I thought I'd mention it.  Unless it says specifically on the label, potting soil shouldn't have fertilizer in it, so you'll need to add it.
     If you think it'd be good to buy a soil with fert in it, be aware that doing that can limit your use of the soil later.  If a soil has a phosphorous fertilizer in it for flowers, your herbs will be more apt to bloom if you use it for them.  If there's a high nitrogen fert in there and you want to use it for flowering annuals, be careful adding a flowering fert since you can overdose on nitrogen.
     Plus, what kind of fertilizer is it?  Organic?  Commercial chemical?  Time-release?  Sometimes it'll say on the package, but not always clearly.  Once ferts are added, you're committed since you can't really get them out again, at least not easily.  So I prefer a potting soil without fertilizer in it so I can have more control.


Now that you know what the most common potting soil ingredients are and what they do, you are well on your way to finding that perfect potting soil that's really worth what you pay for it.  Now you can walk into a garden center with confidence, read those labels, and pick out the one that you know will do what you want it to.  And if you want to make your own but would prefer a recipe to follow, you can go look through the myriad potting soil recipes on the 'net and make an educated decision.

However ... ("however"'s like "but", isn't it? And there's always a "but" ... ) just like cooking, a good box-mix or recipe is so subjective - one person's to-die-for pancake mix or soup recipe is another's BLECH!  My potting soil recipe works great for my houseplants, but it'll kill my more-devoted-and-regular-watering friend Janice's, or at least give her fungus gnats.  Ick.  You can certainly make a much more informed decision on which recipe to use now that you know the usual ingredients, but even so (there's that "but" again) sometimes those recipes don't turn out like you thought they would (Peppermint Cake, I'm looking at you...).

Wouldn't it be better if you could make up your own recipe and custom-blend your own soil that fits you perfectly?  To never have to go without because you're cooking from scratch with easy-to-fnd ingredients?  Why, yes it would!  And here we go...

Making your own potting soil

Generally speaking, most things we grow in pots - vegetables, annuals, and tropicals - are heavy feeders that like a moisture-rententive soil that doesn't dry out quickly and hangs on to that water for a good while, staying rather moist but still fluffy with air.  That doesn't mean constantly soggy wet without much air in it.  The only things that like that are water lilies and bog plants.  It means somewhere in the middle of soggy wet and popcorn fart dry - "like a well wrung-out sponge" is a good goal to aim for.

Think of it this way: "Soggy wet" = all water and no air.  "Popcorn fart dry" = all air and no water.  Plants' roots need air and water both, so aim for the middle.  Use the ingredients that will give you a nice mix of both air and water, and you'll do well.  From that point you can adjust up or down for plants that need more or less of either, things like cactus or ferns.

From the list above pick out which ingredients sound like they'll give you that good mix of air and water, ones your Inner Environmentalist feels comfortable using, and go get some of them.  We carry most if not all the ingredients I mentioned above at The Natural Gardener, a lot of them in smallish sizes as well as large so you don't need to buy a Number 8 washtub full if you don't need that much.  If you still need a little help, come see me or one of my coworkers at the Info Desk and we'll be glad to help you find them.  If you live too far from us, check out your local nursery to see what they have - chances are good they'll have most if not all of them.  And if you just don't have a local nursery, most of the big box stores should have this stuff, though sometimes coir fiber is hard to find there, and do remember the caution about using their bagged manure composts.

Once you get your purchases home, it's time to get cooking!  As a starting place, think back to what potting soils that worked for you looked like, or take a look at some potting soils in pots you have now that are doing well.  How many white specks are in them?  And which kind of white specks - sort-of-round like styrofoam beads (perlite) or kinda' flat and shiny like itty bitty shards of glass (vermiculite)?  Are there any particles in there that don't look like peat, but look more like compost?  Or coir fiber?  Do you still have the bag so you can read what's in it?

Use those memories and findings as a guide.  Since they will be the bulk of your mix, pour any peat, coir, or compost you'll be using into your mixing tub first.  Next add in small amounts of vermiculite, perlite, and/or other ammendments, mixing as you go, until you get something that looks like the good potting soil you've used before.  If you're growing herbs, succulents, or cactus, now's the time to add a bunch of coarse sand or mineral mix - a little for herbs, more for succulents, and a lot for cactus.  Don't worry too much about getting too much or too little of something.  You probably won't, and if it ends up that you did, just fix it later, unpotting that plant and mixing in more of what you think it needs.  You'll learn from that and can adjust next time you mix up more.

Measure out the amounts and write it down for the future if you want.  Or not - I usually "mix by the seat of my pants", adding things until it looks and feels about right, and it usually ends up just fine.

Voila!  You just made your own potting soil!  Yes, it really is that easy.  Over time, just like cooking, you'll refine your "recipe" until it's absolutely perfect.  You'll get to know the properties of the mixes you make intimately and can customize them for any type of plant you want to grow, perfecting it all until your plants thrive, growing bigger and healthier and more gorgeous than before.  The container gardening world really will be your oyster then, and that's when you'll start finding a lot of pretty pearls a lot more often.


Further Notes
Here are a few more things I've found helpful, and hopefully you will, too.


A note about storing all this stuff:  An attractive way to store your ingredients and even your mixed soil is in galvanized trash cans.  They're rain-proof, squirrel-proof, and usually fit right under your potting table!  Even if they don't fit under it, they'll look good sitting next to it.

If you're a buy-small-bags-of-ingredients kind of person, just one of the big thirty-or-so-gallon ones will hold all of them and probably even have room left over for a bag of extra home-mixed soil.  But buy two anyway.  You'll thank me later when you use the second to store things vermin like to get into, like corn meal and bird seed.  Man, that stuff's rat crack, so you'll definitely want to keep it in something they can't chew through.  Get extras of different sizes for pine straw, empty pots, tools, used potting soil, extra compost, and yes, even trash.  They're not expensive.  Not as cheap as plastic, but plastic doesn't last anywhere near as long as galvanized does so you'll be way ahead in the long run.  Plus, plastic cans aren't rat proof.  

You can save an empty mulch bag and turn it inside out to store your home-mixed soil in.  They're usually white on the inside, which would then be the outside, so you can write what's inside it outside it with a magic marker, even writing out the recipe you used to mix it.  Nifty!  Those mulch bags are made to be TOUGH, so they'll last longer than a garbage bag.  And it keeps another one out of the landfill.


Seed Starting Mix: If you think the potting soils we've been talking about mixing sound like most seed starting mixes, you're right.  The only differences I've come across between the two are that the seed mixes are usually sifted to be finer with no chunkies to squash your seed babies and they rarely if ever contain much if any fertilizer.  So yes, you can mix your own seed starting mix, too!  And cutting mix!  And rooting mix!  And everything else mix!  Any kind of gardening mix you can think of, you can mix yourself.  Really.  Just make an extra-moisture-retentive-but-still-well-aerated potting soil, sift it, and there ya' go.  

A note on sifting: Some coir fiber and compost can be a bit chunky for even regular potting soil, so it helps to sift out those big chunks first.  You can buy pre-made compost sifters or make a simple one yourself out of boards and small-holed mesh wire like hardware cloth.  
Mine is made to sit atop a wheelbarrow - its simply a bottomless "box" made of 1x4 boards nailed together on edge (in the shape of a capital H with an extra horizontal in there) and hardware cloth stapled to the bottom.  The boards running along two sides are long enough to set it on top of a wheelbarrow and be grabbed and shaken back and forth to sift.  It looks a lot like the one the people are using in the picture at left, only mine has "handles" on two sides, not just one like theirs.  It's just like this commercially-made one from Amazon for fifty bucks, only mine's a lot cheaper.

The way you use it is pour in some coir fiber and push it around on the wire, back and forth, shaking it some so that they fines fall through into the wheelbarrow.  You can use it like the people in the picture are doing, too, though that works better for sifting compost or regular old dirt - lean it against something, pour your compost or soil at the top so that the fines will fall through and the large chunks and rocks will roll to the bottom of the sifter.  If you need to catch the sifted stuff, put a tarp or shallow pan under it.


Match up the soil to the type of plants you're growing and to the kind of waterer you are.

"Wait. What?  What kind of waterer I am?"  Yep.  If you're a chronic underwaterer like me, then you're gonna' need a more moisture-retentive soil, maybe something with extra vermiculite in it to keep it from drying out before you get around to watering again.  However, if you're a chronic overwaterer who just lives to visit their plants every day and can't refrain from loving on them with water every time, you'll probably do better with something with more drainage, like with extra perlite or rice hulls in it.

Not sure which one you are?  Think about all the plants you've killed.  (Don't feel bad. We've all done it.  Besides, like I always say: it's okay 'cause they're not puppies.)  Think back to see if you saw leathery yellow leaves or brown crispy ones - yellow means too much water while brown means not enough.  DON'T GO BY WILTING.  Wilting is a sign of stress, NOT DRYNESS.  A plant will wilt just as often from too much water as not enough.  It'll also wilt from stress from transplanting, or even just being too hot.  My peppers do this every summer and even though I KNOW better, I still get the urge to water them every time I see that.  So I just don't look at them between 1 and 9pm. *snicker*


Something else to take into consideration: Indoors or out?  If this potting soil will be for pots kept indoors, then just make one that's fairly moisture-retentive so the water doesn't often leak out onto your floor and you're done.  If it's for pots that will be outdoors, you've got one more thing to think of: the vagaries of weather.  Add in enough drainage-inducing ingredients so that flooding rains don't waterlog your pots, and enough moisture-rententive things so that you're not watering twice a day in summer.  Finding the mix that does that well takes some practice and experimentation (and a lot more plant killing - remember, NOT puppies - NOT puppies), but you'll figure it out.

On using "used" potting soil: Do it!  If the plant that used to be in it didn't die of some contagious pest or disease, go for it.  No sense in letting it go to waste.  If it makes you feel better, you can bake it (yes, in the oven) for half an hour at 200 degrees F.  Do be warned that it can stink up the house, so do it on a nice day when you can open the windows.  

The plants that grew in it before did take out some nutrients that'll need putting back, so amend appropriately.  And if that old soil looks like it contains too much of something like peat, add in something else to counteract that.  If you have your own stash of compost, vermiculite, et al, it'll be a cakewalk.  I add compost to enliven it as a matter of course, and don't use it for planting anything rare or sentimental, just in case.  


Now, get out there and go for it.  
And Happy Potting!

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).
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