Friday, September 27, 2013

Viruses Are Good . . . Sometimes

I suspected, and recently confirmed, that my raspberry plants have the “flu.” Okay, not the flu (as in influenza), but a virus, in any case. The plants looked okay but they weren’t bearing their usual abundant crops. And the berries that they were bearing seemed a little crumbly.

The virus culprits were narrowed down to two possibilities, raspberry dwarf bushy virus and tomato ringspot virus. Either of these viruses may also bring on patterned yellowing of leaves, or not, depending on the raspberry variety, time of year, and other variables. (No, raspberry dwarf bushy virus does not make raspberries grow dwarf and bushy.)

Not that viruses are the only things that can make raspberries crumbly. Tarnished plant bug is an insect that feeds on developing flowers and fruits of raspberries and a slew of other plants. If too many druplets of a berry are eaten, the rest of the berry can’t hold together. Boron is another possibility, an
essential micronutrient, the deficiency of which also results in low yield and crumbly fruits. But . . . tarnished plant bugs were not particularly prevalent this year and sandy soils low in humus are where boron is usually lacking. Soil here on the farmden is not sandy and years and years of mulching have maintained very high levels of humus.

Weather -- my usual scapegoat for everything this year -- can also be responsible for crumbly raspberries, both directly and, by its effect on bees, indirectly. But . . . raspberries flower over a long period so the weather, every type of which we experienced this season, has to be let off the hook this time.

Specific virus infections can be confirmed with a antibody test called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or, for short, ELISA.  Back in July, I sent separate samples of leaves from my Cuthbert and Fallgold raspberries to Agdia Labs in Elkhart, Indiana. Bummer, The variety Cuthbert was confirmed to be infected with tomato ringspot virus and Fallgold with dwarf bushy virus.

Once a virus infects a plant, it spreads throughout, and a plant generally cannot be cured. Still, I’m not giving up eating home-grown raspberries, and I’m not settling for crumbly ones either.

The first thing to do is get new plants. No, not plants dug up from my own raspberry patches or from generous neighbors’ or gardening friends’ patches. What’s needed are certified virus-free plants from a nursery that produces such plants.

Ideally, my new plants would go into new ground far from my old planting or wild raspberry or blackberry plants. But where am I going to find a place at the recommended 600 feet(!) “from my old planting or wild raspberry or blackberry plants?” In my neighbor’s yard?

Tomato ringspot virus is spread by dagger nematodes, and some evidence exists that thorough tillage causes dramatic drops in their numbers. Generally, I rail against tillage for a number of reasons but, hey, gardening and life are about achieving a balance. For my new raspberries, the benefits of tillage might outweigh the negatives.

Dwarf bushy virus is carried from one plant to the next via infected pollen. Preventing pollination would, of course, prevent fruits from developing. So there’s nothing that can be done to prevent eventual infection if it’s in the vicinity.

Time flies, and I realize now that my raspberry plantings are getting some age to them. Although raspberries are perennial, after about 10 years, any raspberry planting -- not just mine -- is bound to pick up diseases, some of which result in nothing more dramatic than a decrease in yields. The time clock is up on my plantings. I’m ordering new plants for planting in a new location in soil that will be tilled up and enriched with wood chips, leaves, or other organic material.

I’ll plan on replanting again in by the year 2023.

Virus diseases aren’t always to be cursed, in plants or animals. They can be beneficial.

In dwarf apple trees, for instance. Apple trees are dwarfed by being grafted onto special rootstocks that limit tree size of whatever variety is grafted upon them. (The apple fruits are the same as on full-size trees.) Dwarf trees are more efficient than large trees at converting sunlight into tasty fruits. Malling 9 apple rootstock restricts tree size to no more than about 8 feet high.

Plants can sometimes be cleared of viruses through heat treatment or by cloning whole new plants from a few cells that have not yet become infected. When Malling 9 rootstock was cleared of viruses, it lost some of its desirable dwarfing powers. (The virus-free rootstock of Malling 9 is called EMLA 9.) I’m scared of heights and like to harvest the most apples per square foot of ground, so I made my trees by grafting them on Malling 9, rather than EMLA 9, rootstock.

Looking around my yard, my eyes come to rest on the fantail willow, its branches fused together and
contorting in fanciful directions -- more pretty than painful. Such fusion is called fasciation, the result, sometimes, of virus infection.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Better than a Boxer and Goodbye to Mac

Check it out! New video up at showing step-by-step preparation of weedless beds in autumn.

Some people consider owning a Porsche Boxer to be a luxury; I consider crunching through winter snow to the greenhouse and picking a fresh head of lettuce to be a luxury. This lettuce-y luxury must be earned at a price that is more than monetary. It was a couple of weeks ago that I started paying for part of this year and next.

The goal is to harvest a head of lettuce every day from now through winter and on into next spring. That takes planning.

So at the end of August I filled a 4 by 6 inch seed flat with potting soil and sprinkled a different variety of lettuce into each of four mini-furrows. Covered with a pane of glass and watered, the seeds soon sprouted,
and after the sprouts grew for a week or two I delicately lifted individual seedlings out of the flat by their tiny leaves. Each sprout went into a waiting hole dibbled into a larger flat filled with potting soil, this time a flat where each sprout got its own cell.

Another payment: Today I spread an inch depth of compost in each permanent planting bed in the greenhouse. (Excepted were two beds, one awaiting the ripening of two more melons and the other that will be ripening cucumbers for the next few weeks.) Into the beds went seeds of various cool weather greens -- m√Ęche, arugula, mustard, minutina (also known as erba stella), and baby bok choi -- as well as a few different varieties of lettuce.

Yet another payment: Towards the end of the month, I’ll lift out the lettuce seedlings that I transplanted into seed flats and plant them about 8 inches apart in any remaining beds.

All this planting may seem hectic or redundant but there is method to the madness. These greens tend to bolt (go to seed) when the weather is warm and days are sufficiently long. Sown too soon for winter, and they do just that. They’re ruined. On the other hand, autumn and early winter days are short and temperatures are cool to cold which makes for very slow growth. If plants are too small going to autumn, they don’t grow large enough to amount to anything until February or March.

So plants have to be big enough, but not too big going into autumn. How big is best depends on the plant, in some cases even the variety of plant. Plants grown from seed planted directly in the ground seem to bolt less readily than plants grown from transplants. All of which is why I grow a little of everything every which way at various times.

Although I’ve gardened for decades, my greenhouse experience spans only 13 years; perhaps after another 10 years I’ll know just when to sow everything to ensure a steady supply of fresh salads all winter.

“Payment” for my lettuce-y luxuries is too strong a term. All this ground preparation, sowing, and transplanting really just extends the fun of gardening into the winter months. And, did I mention weeding. What fun it is in winter. Really!

It is with regret that I thinned out excess turnip seedlings this morning. Not that I regretted tossing away the green tops. What I regretted was not being able to share the tops with Mac, my old neighbor. He died late last year.

Mac grew up in the South and wended his way north harvesting fruits and vegetables. He eventually
settled in the north, in a small house that practically butted right up against my garage.

You couldn’t conjure up a more disparate pairing: me, a short, white guy from the suburbs of New York City, and Mac, a tall, black guy from deep in the South. We were drawn together by our love for gardening. Perhaps I have some roots in the South (doubtful) because he and I also shared our love for okra and greens. A frequent summer refrain over the hedge separating our yards was, “How many bags of okra you got in the freezer so far?”

Mac and I always got along. When a pin oak on our property line was threatening to shade my plum trees, I hadn’t even finished my question before Mac answered, “Just take it down.” Some visitors here thought the ramshackle sheds and assorted objects scattered over his yard were an eyesore. I looked upon them as nothing more than “different strokes for different folks.”

Mac eventually moved into an apartment in town and, as he aged, his gardening capabilities diminished. But not his love for gardening, being in the garden, and eating from the garden. Each spring, he would bring me some seeds that he thought were worth growing and I would raise “starts,” as he called them, for both of us.

Because I’m partial  to the turnip varieties Purple Top White Globe and Oasis, I always got my own turnip seeds. The seeds are small and no matter how thinly they’re sown, they always come up crowding each other. So the only way to get nice, plump turnip roots is to thin out the plants when they are still young.

I like turnip greens but Mac liked them more. Every year, I’d collect the thinnings into a bushel basket, then hand them over to Mac who would sit outside his front door washing them, then cook and freeze them.
After he moved to an apartment, he started washing them here to bring home. As he aged, I started washing them while he watched. And finally, I started bringing him bags of washed, boiled, frozen turnip greens.

This year, I’ll just compost most of the greens. Bye, Mac.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Tomatoes and Corn, mmmm

And the winner is . . . (drum roll) . . . Lillian’s Yellow. Last week’s tomato growing workshop here climaxed with a tomato tasting of 15 heirloom varieties. Many of the fruits came from Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, NY, which specializes in and, in spring, sells transplants of, heirloom varieties.

In order to be semi-scientific about which heirlooms tasted best, I splayed them out on a tray, and as I sliced each variety, we tasted and rated them on a scale of 1 to 10. Occasionally we went back to tasting prior ones to see if taste buds were getting dulled or if we had started out setting the bar either to high or too low.

Lillian’s Yellow’s victory, with an average rating of 8, came as a surprise. After all, it was up against Brandywine, which is a top contender in every tomato taste-off. Carolyn Male, in her excellent book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for American Gardens, describes Lillian’s Yellow as having a creamy, yet meaty, flesh and a deep and complex flavor, “rich, citrusy, yet slightly sweet.” Put more simply, it tastes very, very good. This variety is not high-yielding and the fruit often ripens with blemishes and in odd shapes. Still, on the basis of flavor alone, I’ll be planting it next year.

Brandywine, which came in as a close second with an average rating of 7.7, is described by Male, as exploding “with flavor, literally assaulting your senses with every bite, and [having] a depth of flavor that truly matches its century-long heritage.” Brandywine’s close kin, Yellow Brandywine, was no slacker, just missing coming in third. That prize went to the variety Goldie, which averaged 6.7 to beat out Yellow Brandywine at 6.6.

Averages have their limitations. Someone who really really loved Golden King of Siberia, which most people at the workshop disliked for having a soapy flavor, might bring up the average. One eccentric taste bud would be evident in the wide range of the rating. Here, then, is the average and range of ratings for each of the heirloom varieties we tried:

 Variety Average Range
Amish Paste 4.2 6
Aunt Ruby 7 4
Belgian Giant 5.3 5
Brandywine 7.7 3
German Johnson 4.8 5
Golden King of Siberia 3.2 5
Goldie 6.7 5
Green Zebra 6.3 5
Lillian’s Yellow 8 2
Mortgage Lifter 6 5
Mountain Princess 4.2 5
Nepal 5.1 4
Rose de Berne 7 2
Truckers’ Favorite 5.8 4
Yellow Brandywine 6.6 4

Take all this with a grain of salt (literally, if you like) because weather also might figure  into tomato flavor. And then, of course, it is all a matter of taste.

I’m not sure just how much effect weather has on tomato flavor but the effect can be much more dramatic in other ways in the garden. Especially this year’s weather.

How about that heat back in July? I’m blaming it on a poor showing of peppers and a couple of plantings of corn. Peppers are especially finicky about the weather. Blossoms drop without getting pollinated when daytime temperatures rise above 90° in conjunction with nighttime temperatures above 75°, or if nighttime temperatures are below 55°. Sensitivity varies with pepper variety, with hot peppers being more heat (as in weather) tolerant than sweet peppers.

Unfortunately, this year I grew varieties that seem to be temperature sensitive. Most plants are beautifully lush and green, but have few fruits on them. Many fruits have set after the heat wave and won’t have time to reach full, red ripeness.

Corn also had pollination problems, evidenced by ears with too many missing kernels and uneven ripening. Temperatures in the 90s kill the pollen, which is shed from the tassels atop each plant, although
most pollen is shed in the morning before temperatures get that hot. Again, though, nights that are too warm can interfere with corn pollination. Some insect eating the silk at critical stage could also result in incomplete pollination.

Whacky weather can also put tasseling and silking out of synch. Pollen is usually shed beginning two to three days before silks emerge and continues for five to eight days. Dry weather -- especially hot, dry weather -- slows silk growth but not tasseling so that when silks are finally receptive, there’s not enough pollen around for complete pollination. Complete pollination, where each of the about 1,000 silks of each ear gets some viable pollen so that the kernel to which it is attached can grow, is what leads to plump, full ears.

To keep us in fresh corn from midsummer on, I made four planting of corn, each a couple of weeks apart. Yields from the last two plantings are heavy, so we’ve been eating and freezing corn almost daily. 
Getting back to the question of weather and tomato flavor . . . Although a lot of people feel like the effect can be dramatic, no studies have shown that to be the case. True, cloudy weather means less photosynthesis, which translates to less sugars and other flavor components. And yes, quantitative differences in flavor components have been measured by sensitive instruments. And a lot of rain probably does make tomatoes somewhat more watery. But generally, such changes are too small to be noticed by our taste buds.

Except, there is one dramatic, taste-able difference due to weather. If poor fruit set occurs and fewer fruits result, the remaining fruits will taste noticeably better. Which is one reason why determinate varieties of tomatoes, which set all their fruit in a short window of time (good from a commercial standpoint), taste so bad. And why many heirloom varieties, whose harvest is spread over many weeks, taste so good.

Friday, September 6, 2013

No-Till & Compost, and Still Problems

One of the best things about no-till gardening is not having to till. The soil of my vegetable garden hasn’t been disturbed for over 2 decades. Besides avoiding the hassle of tilling, not having to till makes for quicker and easier planting.

Today, for instance, I planned to clear a bed of harvested edamame plants to make way for lettuce. Easy! I just pulled up each plant, coaxing it along, if necessary with a Hori Hori knife so that I had the tops and only the main roots in hand. Once plants were up and out, light use of a lawn rake gathered up dropped leaves, pods, and other debris, and brought what few weeds were still present into focus for removal. In 20 minutes, I had the double row of plants in a 20 foot by 3 foot wide bed cleared, and the bed cleaned up.

“Quicker and easier” are not the only benefits of no-till. Not tilling makes for less weeds because weed
seeds, buried within every soil, don’t get exposed to light, which they need to sprout. Untilled soils also make better use of water and maintain higher levels of organic matter.

I could have sown right into the clean surface but chose, instead to further enrich the ground for the months and year ahead. A garden line and sprinklings of ground limestone re-defined the edges of the beds, along which I laid two-by-fours. The two-by-fours, only temporary, were to contain the compost which I piled into the bed to a leveled depth of about an inch.

That one inch of compost provides all the fertility the bed needs for a year of vegetable production, even with multiple crops of vegetables in the bed. In addition to fertility, the compost helps the ground hold water and air, snuffs out small weed seedlings, and sustains beneficial soil organisms for healthier plants. Because the compost is made from “garbage,” fertility derived solely from compost is truly sustainable.

Compost, as I wrote, makes for healthier plants. Thorough bed cleanup after each crop also makes for healthier plants by reducing sources of disease inoculum. (See my new compost video,, for more about my compost making.)

That’s not to say that my garden has no pest problems. A pest problem arises when you have that perfect confluence of a susceptible plant, the presence of the pest, and a suitable environment. Susceptibility of a plant depends on the type of plant as well as how well it’s been nourished. 

All of which leads up to the admission, despite compost, pruning, and careful siting, that my tomato plants are not the picture of health. The plants, each pruned to a single stem that climbs, with the help of string ties, to a bamboo pole, have lost many of their lowermost leaves.

“Blight” is the mantra I keep hearing from other gardeners. Not so fast. Not every tomato affliction is
“blight,” a buzzword that originated, no doubt, with the “late blight” epidemic of a few years ago that sensitized gardeners and farmers to this disease. Late blight is but one of tomato’s enemies, but it’s not the only one.

Tomato plants bereft of leaves could be due to the diseases septoria leaf spot, early blight, or, of course, late blight, or the insect tomato hornworm. The hornworm is easily identified because it’s a big, fat, hungry caterpillar that chomps off big portions of healthy, green leaves. The caterpillar itself is quite a sight, as big as your thumb and with white stripes and eye-like markings along its length. Control is easy: crush them (unless they have parasites, which look like rice grains, attached to their backs) or spray using some commercial form of the biological insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

The three diseases are easily distinguished. Early blight marks leaves with spots of tan and black,concentric rings and yellowing leaf tissue. Septoria spots are small, round and gray, each surrounded by a single, dark margin. Late blight marks leaves with greenish-black splotches, each surrounded by a pale, greenish-yellow band. In humid weather, a downy growth develops on the undersides of leaves. On fruits, symptoms are firm, dark, greasy looking lesions.

My thorough cleanup and compost mulch greatly reduces presence of early blight and septoria leaf spot spores in the beginning of the season, as does planting tomatoes in a different location each year in a 3 year
Tomato hornworm with parasite
rotation. Late blight needs living tissue to survive winter here, so returns by wintering over in infected potato tubers, by hopscotching up from the south on favorable winds with cool, moist weather, or, as happened a few years ago, by arriving on infected transplants sold by big box stores. I grow my own tomato seedlings and hope for the best as far as cooperative weather for my plants.

Taking a closer look at my tomato leaves, I see that the main causes for their defoliation are septoria leaf spot and -- uh-oh -- late blight. Weather in the next few weeks will determine how fast plants decline. I could spray (some formulation containing copper) but choose to avoid even mild pesticide, in this case. Upper portions of the plants still ook fine and, most importantly, I have been eating, canning, and drying plenty of tomatoes.