Those Darn Weeds!

 

creeping-charlie

Weeds. Those evil plants that rudely push their way into your garden, crowd out your vegetable crops, rob them of nutrients, reduce your yields, and generally look plain ugly. And the time and sweat you have to put forth to yank those interlopers out of your garden has you uttering words a lot stronger than golly gosh and gee willikers. So what can you do? How can you slow or stop these green varmints from setting up shop in your garden? Well, there are three ways to deal with them.

 
Herbicides — I mention it, but I do not recommend it. First, herbicides are no-specific. There is no one herbicide that kills only crabgrass or another that kills only creeping Charlie. Herbicides generally will kill anything green. So, if you’re not careful with how you use them, you will wind up killing your vegetable crops right along with the weeds. Even worse — if the wind blows the herbicide residue onto your neighbor’s roses, this will definitely win you no friends.

herbicide
Mechanical methods — This includes hoeing, digging, and pulling. When using these techniques, it’s important to handle the weeds the same way they vote in Chicago — early and often. It’s far easier to mechanically remove the weeds while they’re few and small. If you wait too long they will be well-entrenched and more difficult and time-consuming to remove. Furthermore, the mature weeds will shade your vegetable plants and rob them of nutrients.

hoeingdigging-weedspulling-weeds
Mulch — This is by far the best way to deal with weeds. Laying down a layer of mulch — either organic (e.g. corncobs, straw, etc.) or inorganic (e.g. black plastic, paper, etc.) after preparing your soil but before planting your vegetables, then either moving aside the mulch (organic) or cutting holes where you want to plant (inorganic) will essentially place a barrier on your soil that will reduce or completely block the sunlight reaching the weeds, thereby robbing them of an essential factor needed for growth, and essentially preventing the weeds from out competing your garden vegetables. And of course, fewer weeds, means less tedious, back-breaking work for you. But for mulch to work, you have to lay it down before you plant your vegetables. If you’re already plagued with weeds, it’s too late. Also, mulch is effective only on annual weeds. Perennial weeds such as thistle or dandelion will not be stopped by mulch.

straw-mulch
So which method will you use to control weeds? Choose the correct one, and you’ll thank me — very mulch.

A Garden in (Perpetual) Motion

perpetual-motion-machine

The laws of physics will not be violated, no matter how many times you try. Throughout history, many people claim to have superseded physical law and invented a perpetual motion machine — a device that runs continuously, unhindered by friction and dissipation of energy, in defiance of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. Such a device is fantasy and cannot ever be created.

 
However, it is possible to create a near-perpetual garden. By this, I mean a garden that provides you with fresh produce throughout the majority of the year, instead of only in the spring, summer, and early fall. How, you may ask? Simply by working in harmony with nature, planting vegetables that are appropriate for the seasons, and allowing the overwintering of certain root crops.

 
To further illustrate the concept, I will present a rough plan for this near-perpetual garden.

 
Early spring — Order seeds, plants, and supplies. Get the garden ready for planting by adding compost and organic fertilizer and turning over the soil to work it in. Direct-seed cool season crops (brassicas, peas, root crops, lettuce, other greens, etc.). Start seeds of tomato, pepper, eggplant, herbs, etc. indoors in seed starters under grow lights. About a month after the seeds have spouted into seedlings, transplant them outdoors. Protect them from frost and cold temperatures by planting them in season extending devices such as cold frames, cloches, hoops covered with garden fabric, Walls O’Water, etc.

 
Mid-spring — Transplant any remaining seedlings into the garden. Direct-seed corn, beans, squash, and other warm season crops.

 
Summer — Harvest any remaining cool season crops before the summer heat causes them to bolt (produce a flower). Fill the spaces with additional warm season crops.

 
Late summer — Begin harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers and other warm season crops. Keep the garden well-fed and watered and check for signs of insect infestation and disease. Begin planting another round of cool season crops for a fall harvest (either started indoors or direct seeded in the garden).

 
Autumn — Harvest remaining warm season crops. Fill the now available space with cool season crops, either transplanted from what you’ve grown indoors or direct seeded. Plant garlic, onion, and horseradish. Can, dry, freeze, or cold store whatever harvested produce you cannot eat fresh or give away.

 
Mid to late autumn — Harvest cool season crops, clean up spent plants and either chop them up and add to your compost pile or throw them away. Add compost and organic fertilizer and turn over the soil. This will effectively “put the garden to bed” and set it up to be friable and fertile for next spring. If you choose to leave root crops in the soil to overwinter, cover them with a thick layer of mulch.

 
Winter — Enjoy the fruits of your labor. And if you need fresh carrots, turnip, rutabaga, etc., go out to the garden, pull back the mulch, and dig them up. Begin planning next year’s garden.

 
And there you have it. If you plan and execute wisely, you can enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables practically all year long. No it’s not perpetual motion. But it just might be perpetual happiness.

All Hail the Mighty Pumpkin!

pumpkin

 

If there is any one fruit that signifies the month of October it’s the delicious, round, and ribbed squash variant known as the pumpkin. And what better time then the month of October to consider just how versatile this amazing fruit is!

 
Pumpkins are native to North America. The traditional pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is traditionally planted in the spring, cultivated in the summer and harvested in mid to late fall when the outer skin is a firm bright orange. The flesh of the pumpkin can be boiled, baked, steamed, or roasted to make soup, pies, purees, dessert bars, and hundreds of other recipes. The seeds can be roasted for a delicious and healthful snack. And, of course, the fruit can be hollowed out and then faces can be carved into the shell to create the traditional jack o’lantern that is a big part of Halloween.

jack-o-lantern
Pumpkins also have a wide variety of other uses. Here are a few.

 

  1. Pumpkins can be fed to dogs and cats as a supplement for managing constipation, diarrhea, or hairballs. The fiber provides the bulk matter that aids in proper digestion.
  2. Raw pumpkin can be fed to laying hens to increase egg production in the colder months
  3. Pumpkin phytochemicals and nutrients may have positive biological effects.

 

There are also pumpkin chunking contests where teams build mechanical devices such as catapults and cannons to hurl a pumpkin as far as possible.

pumpkin-launch
So this month, while you’re eating your pumpkin pie, carving a jack o’lantern, or enjoying your pumpkin spice latte, stop for a moment and consider this amazing fruit that can be used in so many ways.

The Pervasive Power of Poop

Poop, by the strictest definition, is the waste product left over from the digestion of a food source. Call it what you will — scat, number 2, muck, feces, manure, etc. Sure, it can be gross and disgusting, especially when it’s fresh. But our lives would be so much poorer without it, although for some people, their lives are poorer with it, in which case, may I suggest a laxative? But I digress.

 
As gardeners, we all know how important manure is as a relatively inexpensive source of nitrogen, a critical nutrient, for our garden vegetables. For many of us, if it wasn’t for this “fruit of the cow’s butt” (or horse’s butt or bat’s butt), the fruit of our gardens would be considerably reduced. Ever heard of castings? Castings are another excellent source of critical garden nutrients. They’re also a fancy name for worm poop.

earthworm-castings
When we make cheese, we add a starter culture to our milk. The bacteria in this starter culture will chew up the sugar (lactose) in the milk and convert it to lactic acid. This lowers the pH of the milk and prepares it for coagulation. So you can think of this lactic acid as bacterial poop.

 
When fungi colonize a growing medium, they secrete enzymes to break down the food source. They then absorb the nutrients through their cell walls and excrete waste products. They literally swim through their own fungal poop. Then, when the temperature, humidity, and light are just right, the fungi will produce their fruiting bodies, a.k.a. mushrooms. Then we eat the mushrooms — that came from the fungi that was swimming in its own poop. And speaking of mushrooms and poop, do you like portabella mushrooms? You do? Excellent, because they are grown in a pasteurized substrate which often contains horse manure as one of the ingredients.

 
And last, but not least, how in the world would political campaigns ever even get off the ground without manure to propel them forward?

 
So remember folks, love may make the world go ’round, but poop is the grease that keeps all the gears moving!

It’s Cleanup Time!

Congratulations to you and your garden! Your springtime preparation and planting and summertime cultivation and watering have paid off handsomely. Your refrigerators are filled with fresh produce, jellies, jams, and preserves; your cupboards and pantries are filled with canned vegetables and fruits, and your basements are brimming with fruits and vegetables that have been stored away for the coming long, cold, and snowy winter. (Note to Mother Nature: go easy on us this winter. Please?) Perhaps you even have a fall crop of greens to which you’ve been routinely consuming. Now’s the time to kick back, relax, and enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labors.

Uhh, not quite so fast. There is one task remaining for you — one that should not be ignored if you want to improve your odds of having a successful harvest in next year’s garden. That task is to remove the cages, stakes, and other supports, clean up the spent plants, and perhaps even apply some compost and turn over the soil.

“Oh, there’s no need to do all that now,” you say. “I’ll do it in the spring.”

No. There’s every need for that. Cages and stakes left to the mercy of the winter can rot and/or rust. Spent plants and other garden debris left in the garden can become breeding grounds for insect pests and diseases that will plague your garden from the get-go next season and leave you with a severely reduced or non-existent harvest. Cabbage worms and tomato hornworms, for example, can overwinter in the pupal stage in dead or decayed leaves and plant parts. If you get rid of the plant debris, you’ll leave theses pests with no place to hide and survive, thereby lessening the odds that they’ll chomp on your plants next summer.

cabbage-wormTomato Hornworm

Turning over the soil in the fall also has many benefits. For starters, any overwintering insect pest pupae will be buried in the soil. The moth will then be unable to emerge (and lay eggs on your vegetable plants) next spring. Any grubs that would normally overwinter below the soil surface will be brought above ground where they can be seen — and eaten by birds and other grub-eating predators. And if you work in some compost, then all throughout the three months (or more) of winter, soil bacteria will break it down. Come springtime, you’ll be off to a good start with healthy and nutrient-rich soil.

So clean up that debris and turn over that soil! You’ll find that a clean garden is a happy garden — and a productive one too!

A Fall Garden? Why Bother?

Fall Vegetable Garden

 

When we think of gardening, most of the time we associate it as a spring and summer activity. We start our seeds and/or plant our seedlings in the spring, cultivate the garden in the summer, and harvest the fruits and vegetables of our labor in the fall. However, fall is also an excellent time to start a garden. But why? We’ve already put in enough grunt work for the garden we have now, and we’re getting a fine harvest from it. Why should we go through all that again twice in the same year?

 

Well, I’ll tell you why. There are many reasons for, and advantages to planting a fall garden.

 

  • Fall vegetable gardens require no special care, because autumn conditions can be more favorable than summer conditions to certain vegetable crops.
  • Fall-grown vegetable crops are usually more productive and of higher canning and freezing quality than those which mature in midsummer’s hot dry period.
  • There are fewer destructive insect pests to infest your garden and destroy your plants.
  • In the fall, there are fewer weeds infesting the garden and competing with your garden plants for water, nutrients, and light. This makes weeding less time-consuming and less laborious.
  • There is usually more rainfall in autumn then there is in summer, so the time and effort spent watering your garden is reduced.
  • If a light frost should occur, it probably will not harm your crops. In fact, frost actually improves the flavor of certain vegetables – kale, turnips, parsnips, collards, salsify, and Chinese cabbage.
  • Fall-grown vegetables such as leeks, salsify, and parsnips can be mulched, left in the ground, and harvested during winter and early spring, ensuring a steady supply of fresh vegetables when nothing else is growing.
  • Onion top sets from winter onions can be planted for fall use. If you choose not to use them, you can leave them in the garden over the winder. In the spring, they will sprout and they can then be used as green onions. Be warned, however that these overwintered onions can sometimes be quite pungent.

 

So as you can see, active gardening does not have to end in the fall. In fact, if you plan your plantings correctly, you can have garden vegetables of one kind or another available to you all year long. That’s certainly one way to take the edge off of winter.

Danger in the Raw

There has been a lot of information in the popular press about the benefits of a raw diet. According to WebMD, those who eat their food raw believe that cooking destroys the nutrients and natural enzymes present in our food. Eating raw foods ensures that we get the full benefit of all the intact nutrients in the food items, which results in a more nutritious diet and healthier bodies among the humans who consume raw food.

 
The overall benefits of a raw diet are debatable. What is not debatable is that certain fruits and vegetables should never be eaten raw, as doing so can cause illness or even death. These particular vegetables either have harmful microbes or contain compounds that can cause digestive upset. Cooking inactivates the compounds and kills the microbes, rendering the foods safe to eat.

 
So which fruits and vegetables should never be eaten raw?

 
Brassicas (e.g. cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, mustard, etc.) — While most people can eat these vegetables raw, others may experience gas and bloating from the complex, difficult-to-digest sugars present. Those who have thyroid conditions should definitely cook these vegetables, as they also contain thyroid inhibitor compounds that can worsen these conditions.

Brassicas

Beans — Raw beans contain lectin, a glycoprotein, which, when consumed, can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea within three hours of consumption. Eating five uncooked kidney beans is enough to cause illness. Boiling beans, however, inactivates the protein and renders the beans safe to eat.

Beans 2
Potatoes — Uncooked potatoes, especially those that have a greenish color to them, contain high levels of the toxin solanine, a very dangerous toxin. And if the solanine doesn’t get you, the uncooked starch will — with the gift of gas and bloating. And if that isn’t enough, the hemagglutinins present can disrupt red blood cell function.

Potatoes
Mushrooms — Though not a vegetable, I’m including them here because we often consume them along with vegetables. Raw mushrooms contain agaritine, a suspected carcinogen. Cooking, however, inactivates agaritine and renders it harmless.

Mushrooms
So go ahead and eat that raw diet if you think it will benefit you. But if you want to really want to live a little longer, and you plan on eating the vegetables mentioned above, then cook them. The life you save may be your own.

Bring On the Good Guys!

In the movie Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, the protagonists, Bill and Ted, have to confront their evil robot doubles. They decide that the only way to confront the “evil robot usses” is to build some “good robot usses”
A similar analogy apples to your garden. From the point of view of the gardener, there are “evil” creatures — cutworms, Mexican bean beetles, corn borers, rabbits, squirrels, etc. that are out to do great harm to your garden. Oh sure, you can use pesticides, traps that kill, etc., but that’s not playing very harmoniously with nature. No, the best and most natural way to combat the “evil” creatures is with sanitation, repellents, and “good” creatures. By good creatures, I’m referring to the animals and insects that prey upon the creatures that prey upon your vegetable crops. Encourage them to come into your garden — provide them with suitable habitat, and they’ll repay you by devouring those crop destroyers.
Just who are these good guys? Allow me to introduce you to a few.
Lady bird beetles — Lady bird beetles are voracious predators of aphids. Each larvae can eat as many as 400 aphids, while each adult can eat as many as 50.

Fullerton

Fullerton

Lacewings — Lacewings are probably the most effective insect predator you can invite into your garden. Their larvae, which looks like a tiny alligator, preys on aphids, caterpillars, mealybugs, leafhoppers, insect eggs, and whiteflies.

Lacewing

 

Parasitic wasps — Trichogramma, braconid, chalcid, and ichneumid wasps lay their eggs on aphids, corn earworm, tomato fruitworm, cabbageworm, and tent caterpillars. The larvae then feed on these pests, eventually either killing it or completely disrupting its activities.

 

Braconid Wasp

Hover flies — Hover flies look like bees, but they zip through the air in a manner similar to flies. Hover flies will lay their eggs near aphids or other soft-bodied insects. The larvae will then feed on the aphids. A single hover fly larvae can eat as many as 60 aphids per day.

 

Hover Fly

Pirate bugs and big-eyed bugs — These two “true” bugs feed on eats aphids, thrips, mites, whiteflies, and insect eggs.

 

Pirate Bug

In addition to insect predators, there are also animals that you can invite to your garden. Toads and frogs will eat insect pests in the daytime; bats will get them by night. Snakes will eat insects, rats, mice, moles, and gophers, as will hawks, foxes, and coyotes. All of these creatures, yes even the bats and snakes, should be encouraged to set up residence in your garden. And nothing rolls out the red carpet for these good guys better than creating the right kind of habitat around your garden. This means providing them with food, water, and shelter. Grow plants such as tansy, fennel, zinnia, and statice, which are good sources of nectar for adult insect predators. Provide shelter in the form of leafy plants for the beetles and ceramic “toad abodes” for frogs and toads. Provide a source of water for these predators to drink by watering overhead and leaving puddles on the leaves or by providing a saucer filled with water.
Most importantly, don’t use insecticides!

 
It’s true that nature is filled with creatures that will make a meal out of your garden. But nature also provides creatures to devour the garden-eaters. So invite these “good guys” into your garden and let nature work for you.

Support Your Local Farmers Market

Farmers Market

 

They show up every spring; they’re here through September or October; then they’re gone for the year. Nearly every town and city has one, and they are growing in popularity. I’m speaking, of course, about farmers markets, and, next to your own garden, they are one of the best sources of fresh fruits and vegetables you’ll find. In addition, you’ll find vendors that sell baked goods, meats, soaps, spices, eggs, and honey straight from the hive. Some even have live music provided by local talent.

 
Most farmers market vendors accept cash only as payment for their wares, but some will accept credit and debit cards. A few farmers markets are set up to accept food stamps and their equivalents — a wonderful way to provide good nutrition to lower income people.

 
But just as a movie theater needs butts in seats to survive, farmers markets need bodies in their booths to stay alive. So I encourage everyone to patronize their local farmers market. Yes, we should all plant our gardens and grow our own food. I encourage that; that’s what I’m all about. But a garden is merely a means to a goal — providing a consistent supply of fresh produce that hasn’t been tainted with potentially harmful chemicals. Farmers markets can be another means of helping you to reach that goal. Though you may have your own garden, your space for it is limited. As much as we may like to, we gardeners cannot grow everything. Furthermore, due to city ordinances, many of us cannot raise our own chickens or keep our own beehives. Farmers markets, with their wide array of fresh food offerings, can provide for us the items that we cannot produce for ourselves. And when you buy from a farmers market, you’re helping small family farm operations to stay in business.

 
So get yourself down to your local farmers market and avail yourself of all the wonderful fresh offerings. It’s good for you, good for your family, good for farmers, good for the economy, and good for America!

 
I’m The Garden Troubadour, and I approved this message!

The Heartbreak of Blossom End Rot

You started your tomato seeds in March, planted them in the ground in May, and you’ve been taking good care of them since. You water, fertilize, and weed with care, or so you think. And finally, all your hard work is beginning to pay off. Your beautiful plants are producing colorful and beautiful tomatoes, and visions of tasty salads and tangy salsas are dancing in your head.

And then, it happens. You go to pick some of those beautiful fruits and you discover, to your horror, that several of them have hard, ugly, sunken, misshapen, gnarled black spots on their bottom halves, and your tomato dreams dissolve into nightmares. “What happened,” you cry.”Where did I go wrong!?”

Blossom End Rot

What happened is a condition known as blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is caused by a deficiency of calcium within the plant tissues. This often happens when plants grow rapidly during a wet spring and then fruit set occurs when the weather turns dry. The plants are rapidly absorbing calcium which suddenly runs out. The fruit damage occurs when the fruits are first beginning to mature, and by the time the fruits become full size, the water-soaked, black, leathery spots become evident.

Several factors can cause this calcium deficiency. Fluctuating soil moisture levels, too much nitrogen in the soil (often caused by over-fertilization), root damage due to overzealous cultivation, cold soil, soil with too high a pH, and soils with excess salts.

So how can you prevent this awful condition? In several ways.

1. Make sure you are providing the soil with a consistent level of moisture. If rain has been in short supply, make sure that you water your tomatoes deeply (to a depth of about six inches) at least once or twice per week.

2. Mulch around your tomatoes to prevent moisture loss. As a side benefit, mulch will also suppress the growth of many weed species, which will reduce the amount of time and effort you have to spend weeding.

3. Spray the plants with a calcium supplement such as Tomato Rot-Stop by Bonide® or Enz-Rot™ Blossom End Rot Concentrate Spray.

4. Make sure the soil has warmed up in the spring before you put your tomatoes in the ground.

5. Go easy on the fertilizer, especially high nitrogen fertilizers such as manure. Use fertilizers that are lower in nitrogen, but higher in phosphorous.

6. Keep records of your garden. You may discover that certain tomato cultivars tend to be more susceptible than others to blossom end rot. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to plant the least susceptible varieties.

Follow the above advice, and you will be able to say, in the words of Lady Macbeth, “Out, out damned spot!”