Thursday, June 28, 2012

Square-footing-it in the South

I have been tinkering with plant spacing in my garden for years. Mostly, over time, I have been widening the spaces between plants.

For bush-type green beans, I usually end up with four to six plants per square foot. Back when I planted beans closer together, so that there were more plants per square foot, the tops were such a tangle that I had a hard time finding the beans! The real problem, though, of tighter spacing is in the increased risk of disease here in the heat and humidity that is typical of the Southeast. When plants are spaced very close together, air-flow is reduced, and any stray fungal spores will find a welcome home. The closer spacing also seems to invite more pests.

A guy was talking to me once about the failure of his tomato plants to yield much fruit. As the conversation continued, it came out that he had used a one-foot spacing, planting four plants in four feet of row, with a row of peppers one foot in front of them. At the time, I had no idea that this was the standard intensive-gardening plant-spacing, and I told him that one square foot was WAY too little space, even though my biggest problem in plant spacing has been with the tomatoes.

In my more rash youth I squished the spacing down to just a couple of feet. In those earlier gardening years, when I put them in the ground any further apart, the plants looked so small and lonely! I've gotten tougher with time and experience, and a three-foot distance between new transplants looks better to me now, but I have been pushing myself to space them out to four feet and beyond. As a result, in general, my yields have gone up.

There are many problems with closer spacing that can lead to reduced harvests. One is, as for the beans, the increased risk of acquiring diseases that are "in the wind" and the risk of spreading the disease to adjoining plants, since at the three foot spacing they are all touching each other, and the air-flow around the plants is reduced. Not too surprisingly, sick plants tend to be less productive than healthy plants.

Another is that their roots will be in each others' spaces, competing for water and nutrients. When I pull up tomato plants at the end of the season, the roots are easily two-to-three feet long. Even when the plants are four feet apart, if the plants are healthy enough to put out a good root system, there is competition in the root zone. This means that the soil needs to be augmented with more nutrients than the usual recommendation (which is geared toward research-recommended spacings of about four feet) to support the "crowded" plants, and the plants are going to need a lot of watering as the temperatures rise to summer highs.

Here in the South, anyone who plants tomatoes on a "one foot center" is going to have to put in some extra work, beyond adding extra fertilizer, to get a good harvest. To start, some serious pruning of the plants needs to be done (all the way back to a single stem), to reduce the amount of leaf-area that will be pulling water up through the plants through transpiration. Otherwise, the gardener may need to water those plants two or more times each day in the hottest part of the summer. Enough leaf-cover will need to be left to protect the fruits from sun-scald, but the pruning will help reduce the risk of disease, too.  A severely pruned canopy will have better air-flow, making it less inviting to fungal and bacterial invaders, since the leaves will dry faster after rains and too-exhuberant watering.

For gardeners using an intensive planting system in a Southern summer, choosing smaller varieties might help make the spacing work better. I have planted several varieties of peppers this year, and one that seems especially suitable for planting on a one foot center is Feherezon. It has stayed in-bounds, while producing some big, tasty peppers. The bell peppers, both Napoleon Sweet and Sweet Chocolate, the Golden Greek, the jalepeno, and the Ancho peppers already have canopies that completely span the 18-24 inches I allowed for them when they were planted. 

In the cooler fall and spring growing seasons, intensive spacings seem to work better. There is less heat stress, and the plants need less water as a result. The cooler weather brings reduced disease-pressure, and there seem to be fewer pests. Any gardener having trouble with intensive spacing as the summer progresses can look forward to fewer problems soon. In just about six weeks, it will be time to start planting the fall garden!

Monday, June 25, 2012

State of the Garden Report

Harvests of the early summer producers are still ongoing, but the biggest late-summer producers, the tomato plants, might not do as well this year as I would prefer. Another plant needed to be removed, but not for early blight this time; it was one of the wilt-sisters, fusarium and verticillium.

There wasn't any remarkable yellowing of leaves yesterday morning, but the "wilt" part was fairly pronounced in spite of the 0.7" of rain we had on Friday, so I went ahead and pulled the plant from the garden. When I sliced through the stem, the "browning" of the vascular system was readily apparent. Based on the previous history of disease in my yard, I'm calling this one verticillium wilt.

The affected plant is a Cherokee Purple. It had quite a few nice, big tomatoes on it, and I noticed this morning that the largest couple of these - still in the basket on the table in the kitchen - are starting to ripen. They won't be as good as tomatoes that ripened on the plant, but they will be good enough!

Elsewhere in the garden, the Mexican bean beetles are making a feast out of my bush beans. This adult is doing a good job of looking like a ladybug, but she didn't fool me! She has been dispatched to "that great bean-field in the sky."

She was followed by several of her spiky yellow larva, including this one.

The last of the onions were finally dry enough to weigh, for adding to the June harvest total. This particular patch was wildly uneven in size. However, along with the onions already harvested, we should be able to not buy onions for awhile.
I've replanted the space from which these onions were pulled with trombocino squash, which, if all goes well, will start giving us some squash around the end of August. Since the zucchini are about to keel over from their current infestation with squash vine borers, we will be more than ready to welcome some new squash to the table.

We're getting plenty of cucumbers, the popcorn is coming along nicely, the melons are forming under their vines, the pepper plants are overloaded with peppers, the next patch of bush beans is beginning to flower, and there soon will be an eggplant or two ready to eat. Regardless of how the saga of my remaining tomato plants turns out, it's looking like a good summer in the garden.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Not an Avanlanche of Food, but Close Enough

This might be my best "zucchini year" ever. We have brought zucchini, sometimes two or three squashes at a time, to the kitchen almost every day for a few weeks now. Some of it went into the freezer this past weekend, and some went into the freezer the weekend before this one.

Our green beans have produced enough for current meals, but we have harvested more at the garden/farm where we volunteer on Saturday mornings. This weekend, we not only managed to get a lot of our own zucchini into the freezer, but my husband canned 16 pints of  green beans, we made a batch of blackberry jam, made a blackberry pie, and we put a couple of quarts of blueberries into the dehydrator. Not exactly an avalanche of food, but it was a very busy weekend!

The raspberries and blackberries in our yard are never quite so abundant as the blueberries, and they have passed their peak of production. However, the berries have really brightened up our breakfasts. Most of the blackberries that went into this past weekend's jam were from our Saturday work. The berries below are from our yard.

The peppers are doing pretty well, and the cucumbers are now producing "eatin' size" fruits.

The bad news is that the day-flying moths of the squash vine borers that I saw awhile back did exactly as expected; they laid eggs on my zucchini plants. The hole in the big petiole below is a sign that the eggs have hatched and the larvae already have bored into my plants. It is likely that, in a few days, I will need to pull these plants from the garden.

In the better-news category, the cucumbers are about to provide a lot more food. We had a cucumber salad tonight with our potato/zucchini soup, and if all goes well (I have heard some sad tales of downy mildew recently) we should have plenty of cucumber salads ahead of us.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Keeping Track of the Harvest: April and May

I have been trying to weigh and record most of what comes into the kitchen from the yard, so I'll have a more accurate idea of how much food my yard provides.

April was a bit of a bust, but overall the yard has been busy growing food for my family. We haven't weighed the smaller harvests that won't register on our scale (for example: just enough lettuce for sandwiches, small amounts of herbs). The weights are recorded in kilograms:



Onions, bulbing
Onions, multipliers
Bush beans, green
When those numbers are converted to pounds and ounces via an online calculator, April still looks like a dud, but May looks pretty good:

April total 0.85 kg = 1 pound 13.9 ounces
May total 22.77 kg = 50 pounds 3.1 ounces
Running total: Jan. through May = 77 pounds, 11 ounces

Plant a Row for the Hungry Finally Gets a Start!

The Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry project for which I am a volunteer has had a whole series of setbacks this spring, but we finally have plants and seeds in the ground. We are all so very happy to have the garden underway! I am guessing that the food pantry that we deliver to will be happy, too, when we are able to start bringing in some food.

We are still waiting for the deer fence, which is an essential element of large gardens around here. The fence materials are supposed to be delivered this week, and the construction completed late next week. Until then, all the beds are under sheets of lightweight row-cover. This is not the ideal material for use in the hot summertime; I think some plants already have had a little trouble with the "greenhouse effect," but we have had a large roll of this stuff in our supplies for years. Using it meant that we didn't have to go out and buy something else.

The materials for our pole bean teepee were donated. We have been building one of these each year for awhile now; it's a fun way to grow the beans. The teepee was also a lot of fun to put together for the five or six gardeners who worked on it.

One of the great features of our new location is the space filled with community garden beds right next to it. The community garden doesn't show up in either of these photos, but many of the gardeners have made a good start on getting their 5-by-12-foot beds planted. It is going to be a lot of fun to work right next to so many other veggie gardeners.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bad News Bugs

Just before I left town for another trip to Oklahoma, I saw three adults of the squash vine borer flitting among my plants, and I smashed two Mexican bean beetles in the bush beans. It looks as though the pests are going to be as early as the veggies have been! These are two pests that typically cause a lot of damage in my garden, and I know that my zucchini-days, especially, are numbered.

Also before I left town, I pulled up two tomato plants that were not thriving. The two were both Rutgers, which is normally my emergency backup, never-fail variety. Apparently, this gardening year is going to throw one curve after another at the veggie gardeners! When I pulled up the two plants, there didn't seem to be anything overtly wrong. The vascular system looked clean (not gunked up with fungus) and the roots were un-knotted (no root knot nematodes); the roots were not vigorous, though, and the plants weren't growing well. Since I don't know yet what went wrong, I planted sunflowers in the spaces those plants were pulled from.

I got back home on Tuesday evening and didn't have chance to do much more than take a quick look around the garden. Everything looked basically fine. But when I went around on Wednesday to check things out more closely, I saw that one tomato plant had been attacked by a pest:

The gaping holes and some black frass (poop) that had fallen onto some lower leaves were a huge give-away that the pest is one or more caterpillars, but I didn't see any at first. When I leaned across to the next plant, though, I found one:

This guy is very bad news. He/she is an armyworm, and like the squash vine borer and the Mexican bean beetles, this pest has made an early appearance. My copy of the book The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control contains this somewhat alarming sentence about these caterpillars:

Larvae can consume whole plants in 1 night.

Needless to say, I have a date with a little sprayer full of Bt (the bottle I have is called Thuricide), the organic-approved pest control substance for caterpillars.

Even worse, when I was looking at the tomato-neighbor to the damaged plant, the plant on which I found the armyworm, I found some of these brown lesions on the lower leaves:

It's a little faint in the photo, but the ringed brown spot indicates a disease called Early Blight, which means that this particular plant is a goner. Several leaves had similar lesions. After verifying the disease with my handbook (hoping that my first guess was wrong), I got out a pair of pruners and a big garbage bag so I could get this plant out of the garden.

The plant was big, and it already had nice big tomatoes on it - making the loss especially annoying - and it had to be cut up to be removed from the cage. Cutting through the stems was a revelation! The insides of all the stems were already completely brown, and the lower stem was mushy inside.

I haven't decided yet what to plant in the space from which the diseased plant was removed. It shouldn't be another tomato or tomato-family relative, but that leaves a lot of options open.

Happily, the biggest problem some of my plants have is that they are so overloaded with pretty flowers that they are falling over.  Bee balm always reminds me of fireworks, but my husband thinks they look like Sideshow Bob, from The Simpsons.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Seeds We Need

I’ve been thinking more about the seed industry ever since reading a copy of The Heirloom Life Gardener, by Jere and Emilee Gettle, co-founders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.

If you haven’t read the book yet, it contains, among other topics, the story of how the Gettles got started in the seed business.

Jere Gettle noticed back in the ‘70s that seed companies had begun to drop heirloom seeds from their catalogues. It turns out that, over time, seed companies had been adjusting their seed offerings to the public to favor new, hybrid varieties, and, that consolidation of seed companies in the past 20 or so years has reduced, generally, the number of varieties available to home gardeners.

The heirloom varieties are still available due primarily to the work of individuals like the founders of Baker Creek who care about those varieties and who are concerned about the possible loss of biodiversity that we might someday need.

What does this all mean for gardeners?

As the seed industry has developed innumerable hybrids, gardeners have more varieties from which to choose and can select for particular, desired characteristics, such as resistance to common diseases.

Many of the newer varieties are highly productive, but some important characteristics (flavor, for instance) have been sacrificed as other characteristics, such as the ability to produce in hot weather, are selected for.

I’m thinking here of the Heatwave tomato. I notice that this variety hasn’t been on the shelves (at least, not where I've been looking) at the local garden store this year, but a few years back it was prominently displayed and being touted as a great tomato for the South. The year I grew it, Heatwave didn’t perform as well as Rutgers, an open-pollinated variety that was developed in the ‘40s, and no one at my house would eat a second Heatwave tomato after the first one came into the kitchen. I have noticed that a Heatwave II is being offered as seeds in various catalogues, and it may be that this is a newer, tastier version.

Another wrinkle in the seed industry as it is today is that a new, favorite hybrid might disappear from the market at any time, which is annoying. I have had that experience with a canary melon. I found one that I just loved, then one year it was available through only one (expensive, specialty) seed company, and now it is gone from the marketplace.

As a home gardener, it’s hard to know how to address all the changes cropping up in the seed industry. The Gettles started a seed company to insure that a host of heirloom varieties wouldn’t be absolutely lost as the larger seed companies discontinued listing them in their catalogues. Since then, the mainstream catalogues have returned to listing more heirloom varieties, which enables them to keep customers who are looking for a broader range of varieties.

In my suburban garden, I’m working to develop a stable line from my favorite hybrid melon, and when that work is done (in an unknowable number of years), there should be enough seeds to share with pretty nearly everyone who would like to try the newly open-pollinated variety in their own gardens. I’m also saving seeds from my friend The Tomato Man’s yellow and pink Amish tomato. He first grew his Amish tomatoes from seeds he bought more than 30 years ago, and he has been saving seeds from the plants every year since then. He gave me a few plants, and now I’m saving their seeds, too, as backup.

What I’m doing isn’t as far-reaching as what the Gettles are doing, but it’s something. Most gardeners won’t have the resources (time, space) for even this much, but there are bound to be other ways to make sure that the seeds we home gardeners need are readily available over the long haul. It's likely that "voting with your money" is part of the answer, but there is probably more that can be done; I just don't know yet exactly what that is.

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