Saturday, August 28, 2010

I hate to spray. That’s why last week I wrote that I’d rather snap the ends off ears of sweet corn infested with earworms rather than spray the corn to avert damage. That, despite the fact that the spray, Thuricide, isn’t poisonous to humans and most other creatures besides corn earworms and related insects. Today I had to spray, using this very material on a different plant.

Thuricide, one trade name for the bacterial insecticide Bacillus thurengiensis karstaki, or BTK, is specific against lepidopterous caterpillars. Lepidoptera is the order of insects that includes moths and butterflies (which these particular caterpillars become). Some lepidoptera, such as the swallowtails, are very beautiful. Other lepidoptera, such as those white moths that flit about cabbage, broccoli, kale, and related plants, are mundane.

Those innocent looking white moths are the culprits du jour, laying eggs on cabbage and its kin. The eggs hatch into velvety green caterpillars, known as imported cabbageworms, with voracious appetites for these same plants’ leaves. Although the insects’ camouflage is almost perfect, they can be spotted in various sizes if you look closely, especially on the undersides of leaves.

This morning I checked kale seedlings to find that they had been stripped to their main veins. This damage might spell death to them. Then again, it might not. Besides eating leaves of larger plants, the caterpillars also typically work their way in among broccoli buds. The insects turn pale green when cooked, making them look too prominent on that plate of cooked broccoli -- yuk!

Because I dislike spraying, I hold off as long as possible before spraying Thuricide. Large plants can, anyway, tolerate a certain amount of damage. Not the seedlings, though. Perhaps this spray will hold the imported cabbageworms at bay for the rest of the season.


Last fall I wrote of an exciting tuft of leaves sprouting in a flowerpot. The plantlets were the result of sowing dust-like seeds from some Mandalay Mandarin hybrid begonia plants. Excitement mounted this spring when the frail seedlings started to grow robustly and, then, when only a few weeks old, began to flower.

The seedlings have now grown up into sturdy plants that are smothered with flowers among the attractive, lance-shaped leaves having wavy edges. Like the parent, a plant that I highly recommend growing, the offspring have been flowering nonstop all summer, and keep up a neat appearance by cleanly shedding spent flowers. The resemblance of the children to the parent extends to the appearance of the flowers, which are red with a tinge of orange and dangle downward from the stems.

How odd all this resemblance! Mandalay Mandarin is a hybrid, the result of a breeder’s deliberately bringing together the pollen and egg cells from two carefully selected parents, perhaps a number of generations of carefully selected parents. When you sow seeds of any hybrid, be it a tomato, a begonia, or any other plant, the hybrid’s parents are, of course, different from the children’s parents, so the children should be different from their parent. My seedling begonias’ parent was Mandalay Mandarin; Mandalay Mandarin’s parent were -- who knows what?

Carol Deppe, in her excellent book Breed Your own Vegetable Varieties, points out that a similarity between children of a hybrid and the hybrid could come about if the hybrid was not really a hybrid or if the parents of the hybrid were very, very similar.

At any rate, I now am growing, in addition to Mandalay Mandarin hybrid begonias, some other topnotch begonias that are genetically different from Mandalay Mandarin. The two siblings that made it alive through last fall and winter, now that I look at them, also look identical to each other. How odd, but beautiful.

Friday, August 20, 2010

In an hour and a half this morning, a 20’ long by 3’ wide bed of spired, aging corn stalks morphed into a bed of succulent, young greenery in the form of escarole and radicchio transplants.

Before beginning this job I harvest what ears were still ripe on the stalks. The yield from this first corn planting was small, both in quantity and size of ears. Old fashioned Golden Bantam, as told by its name, normally yields small ears -- but not usually as small as the 3 to 5 inch long ears I harvested. Planting in “hills” (clusters of 4 plants) usually provides for adequate pollination, but scorching weather at a critical developmental stage might have thrown pollination awry. At any rate, with ears harvested, I lopped each stalk in half with my Hori-Hori knife, then dug straight down

right around the base of each hill to sever the main roots so I could jerk the cluster of stalks up out of the ground. I also cleared away from the bed the few weeds as well as the leafy mulch I had applied, and carted everything over to a compost pile.

For the return trip from the compost pile, I loaded the cart with finished compost from another pile. An inch depth of compost slathered on top of the old corn bed had it ready for planting with escarole and radicchio transplants I had waiting in the wings. The 40 transplants had grown up during the month of July in a seedling flat and were just ready to outgrow their individual cells. Each went into a quickly made hole jabbed into the ground, the holes 15” apart in each of the two rows running down that bed.

The refurbished bed will provide good eating beginning in early October and, with some covering for protection, should last into December.


Besides merely compost, the compost pile often yields some interesting and forgotten objects. (Some annoying things as well, such as those fruit labels fixed to the skin of almost every piece of commercial fruit.)

For years now I’ve had trouble bringing myself to tossing anything compostable into the garbage for eventual burial in a landfill. It seems so wasteful of materials and disrespectful to the soil to use it as a dumping ground for cast-offs. Soil is a limited resource so eventually there will be no more places to bury trash.

Much of my clothing is cotton or leather, both of which are natural products that should break down to enrich a finished compost. So I sometimes compost such garments, forgetting that I did so until an uncomposted piece of the garment makes an appearance as I turn the compost pile or shovel out the finished material. The distinctive zipper and fly snap from my Levi jeans, for example. After an intermediate thinning phase where they resembled sheer polyester, the jeans were finally swallowed during their third compost cycles. In contrast, my daughter Genevieve’s non-Levi jeans were threadbare after merely one cycle.

I came upon a not immediately identifiable object today as I shoveled out finished compost for spreading on the escarole/radicchio bed. It was about a half inch thick, almost flat except for some bends, and spongy. What could it be? Aha! The cushioning from my sheep skin booties. Most of the leather portion had decomposed.

My guess is that the bootie was transformed as far as it would go so I’m not returning it to the new pile for another cycle.


My ears, now, are relatively large. Corn ears, that is.

Since writing about the diminutive ears from my first planting of sweet corn, I’ve harvested a few ears from my second planting. That second planting went in 2 weeks after the first planting but is ripening close on its heels. Hot weather early in the season compressed those ripening dates.

Just about every ear in this second batch of ears is large (for the variety Golden Bantam) and well filled with kernels. I occasionally find a corn earworm feasting on some of the kernels at the tip of the ear. That’s the nice thing about home-grown sweet corn -- it’s not nice having the earworms but it is nice not being bothered by them. Corn farmers don’t have that luxury. I just break off the tip with the worm and enjoy the rest of the ear.

The earworms got inside the husks by eating their way down the corn silks. Spraying the corn with the benign biological pesticide Bacillus thurengiensis (sold under such friendlier names as Thuricide), or cutting off or squirting some of mineral oil into the silks right after pollination is complete (3 to 7 days after silks appear) could control this pest. But why bother for an occasional pest that is so easily ignored or removed?

Friday, August 13, 2010

King Tut is alive and well, very well in fact. I’ll cut to the chase: This particular King Tut is a variety of papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) that I planted a year ago in spring. Papyrus doesn’t tolerate temperatures down to freezing, so this far north King Tut is billed as an annual. But rather than let the King die in winter, I was so smitten by him that in autumn I moved him in his pot indoors to a sunny window. There he clung to life and, with warm, sunny weather, got growing again this past spring.

In contrast to regular papyrus, which grows 5 to 9 feet tall, King Tut’s claim to fame is that he’s a dwarf, billed as rising 4 to 6 feet high. My King Tut only gets about 3 feet high. All papyrus have a very distinctive and attractive appearance. The base of the plant is a clump of grassy leaves from which rise tall, leafless stalks which are capped by grassy-leaved mopheads looking something like the ribs of an umbrella. A houseplant relative of papyrus, Cyperus alternifolius, is commonly called umbrella plant.

Many, if not most, problems with plants in general can be attributed to too much or too little water. King Tut (and umbrella plant) are very easy to grow because they love water up around their ankles. All the plant needs is a deep saucer in which the pot can sit, with the saucer kept full of water. Not that King Tut demands water around his ankles. It’s just that consistently moist soil is needed, which means close attention to watering or standing in a water-filled saucer.

King Tut grows very rapidly, so this spring I divided the one King Tut plant into two and potted each one up separately. I also cut back all the old stalks. Although I tossed them in the compost pile, I could have made them into sandals, a boat, paper, or any one of the other papyrus products of ancient Egypt.


A few weeds garner my respect and my affection. Over the past few weeks, spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculate) has become one such weed. Spotted spurge has mouse-ear sized leaves, each with a reddish blotch along part of its main vein, and the leaves line up in a very orderly manner along the stems. The definitive identifier for this weed is the way the stems spread out, flat, on top of the ground. In sun, no part of the plant rises more than a half an inch above ground level.

Mostly, I see spotted spurge growing in the wood-chip mulched paths in my vegetable garden. The amazing thing about this plant is the way it keeps sprouting in the paths. We’ve had very little rain and drip irrigation pinpoints my watering only within the beds, so the soil in the paths is quite dry. Yet every time I walk into my garden, I’m sure to see a few foot-wide circles of spotted spurge’s flattened stems growing anew. I can’t help but respect a plant that can keep showing up under such adverse conditions.

Whenever I see the flattened stems, I reach down and pull it out, roots and all. My affection for this plant comes from the ease with which it is removed. The stems don’t form roots where they touch ground, as many other plants do, so grabbing the center of the clump gets rid of the whole thing in one fell swoop. How satisfying.

Removing the plants is important. Spotted spurge is a summer annual that thrives in heat. Left alone, tiny flowers in each leaf axil give rise to tiny seeds that germinate through summer or, when weather warms, next year. It’s important not to dawdle in removing the plants because only a couple of weeks of growth are needed before young plants are old enough to flower and make seeds.


I’m not usually a big fan of flower breeders’ new and wondrous creations, such as blue roses or tulips that look like peonies or peonies that look like tulips. That said, I’m quite enthralled with some cosmos I planted this spring that have been bred to look not very cosmo-ish.

What I’ve always liked about cosmos is their lack of pretension. The flowers are simple and sit singly atop tall stalks of sparse but feathery leaves. So along comes cosmos Rose Bon Bon this spring. As a cosmos fan, I figured I’d try Rose Bon Bon in spite of the fact that the flowers are double, which means they have multiple rows of petals. More complex and, hence, less cosmo-ish.

Rose Bon Bon flowers, all of them soft pink, are beautiful. They’re still cheery, just like regular cosmos, frilly and cheery in this case. The name Rose Bon Bon notwithstanding, they do NOT look like roses.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Almost everyone, upon taking their first step out my back door, glances upward and says, “What are those bags for?” They’re looking at my grape arbor from which dangle bunches of grapes as well as white paper bags. To me, the purpose of the bags is obvious: to enclose some of the bunches. Perhaps the fact that not all the grapes are bagged is confusing. Perhaps people are thrown off by the inscription “Fresh Delicious Wholesome Baked Goods” printed ini bold letters on the bags, which I bought in bulk from a bakery supplier.

Grapes are a luscious treat not only to us humans, but also to birds, bees, and some furry creatures. And disease organisms, such as black rot and powdery mildew, enjoy “eating” the berries as well as the leaves. The bags keep birds and furry creatures from eating the grapes or, at least, makes these creatures first figure out what is inside the bags and then work to get at the fruit. (I don’t think the bakery inscription throws them off.) The bags also keep the bunches dry and less susceptible to diseases that need moisture to flourish.

Bagging grapes fends off all these threats to let grape bunches be harvested when they are thoroughly ripe. And I mean thoroughly ripe, which is usually after the recommended harvest date for a particular variety. What a treat to tear open a bag to reveal a perfect bunch of grapes, dusted with their natural bloom, very sweet, and very rich in flavor! In autumn’s cool weather, ripe grapes hang in prime condition, bagged, for weeks.

Bag a bunch of grape by first making slits a couple of inches down each side of the open end of a paper bag. After snapping off the leaf or tendril opposite where a bunch attaches to the vine, a bag can be slipped up over a bunch and then its top folded back down over the stem and itself to seal out water and insects. Two staples, one on either side of the bag, hold it in place.

So why are aren’t all my grape bunches bagged? Because bagging all the bunches on the dozen different grape vines here would be too tedious a job. And anyway, not every unprotected bunch gets pilfered or diseased so we just eat the unbagged ones first.


Squirrels seem to have receded back into the woods, and not because I played bagpipe music at them (which, I reported previously, was found to scare or otherwise keep rats away from tourists in Vienna’s historic sewers).

I still may resort to bagpipe music. For now, I have live traps ready, baited with peanuts and wired open for a few days so that any errant squirrels feel more at home wandering into them for a meal.

A few weeks ago, squirrels cleared green fruit from my one old apple tree, which was the one apple tree that did not get sprayed with Surround, a commercial clay product for organic insect control. Perhaps squirrels left my other trees alone because they don’t like the taste or feel of the clay. Just in case, today I gave all the trees still laden with apples another spray of Surround.


Today, July 20th, we ate our first ripe fig, a Green Ischia, picked from the greenhouse and almost the size of a tennis ball. Halving the fruit reveals a glistening deep red, juicy, sweet flesh.

This first fig is of the so-called breba crop, the crop that ripens on stems that grew last summer. My Green Ischia breba crop is always light because I had to cut back many of the stems late last fall, as I do every year, to keep the plants from overgrowing the greenhouse.

The main crop should start ripening in about a month, and fresh figs will continue ripening well into fall. Main crop figs form and ripen on new stems, a bearing habit that makes it easy to keep a fig tree from growing too large and makes it possible to harvest fruit well north of fig’s subtropical origins. All that’s needed is a season long enough and hot enough for new stems to grow, develop, and ripen fruit. The more drastically a plant is cut back (or freezes back), the longer the season needed to ripen fruit.

My other two varieties -- Brown Turkey and Kadota -- bear only main crop fruits. Their large crops of fruits, nearing ripeness soon, are different from each other and from Green Ischia, but are equally delicious.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010



Now is the time to learn which tomatoes taste best so you can buy or save seed (covered in workshop) and plan for next year’s garden.

This workshop will cover “soup to nuts” about growing the best tasting tomatoes. Why grow very good tomatoes when you can grow great tomatoes? We will also taste some of the best tomatoes.

•What are the best tasting tomatoes.

•Where to get seed (buy or save) or buy seedlings.

•How to grow tomato transplants: timing, soil, technique.

•How to plant out transplants: soil, sun, planting.

•How to train tomatoes for maximum production in minimum space.

•Potential pests (including blight) and how to control them organically.

•What to do with the harvest: picking, canning, drying, freezing.

•Tasting of some of the best tomato varieties.

The details

•Date: August 12, 2010

•Time: 6 pm - 8 pm

•Place: My garden in New Paltz, NY

•Cost: $35

Space is limited so reservations are a must. For reservations, information, or questions, contact me through the "contact" page at my website.