Archive for category Vegetable Gardening

Finally, Rain!

A suddenly abundant Silver-spotted Skipper enjoys a refreshed zinnia.

One of the suddenly abundant Silver-spotted Skippers enjoys a refreshed zinnia.

Two months to the day after the last drenching, inch+ rain event on my yard, the rains finally returned. My rain gauge registered almost exactly a two-inch total for the event. Of course, the airport a mere 30 miles away measured over twice that, but I’m willing to overlook that this time.

The only puddle that remained by this morning was in the driveway, and its size was modest compared to previous puddles. When I walked the floodplain this morning, the ground was not muddy anywhere, but it was at least not dusty anymore. And the grass grew half a foot overnight, of course.

Even though the rains came down hard for much of the event, little managed to run off into our creek. I know this, because the creek water level is still quite low. The water is muddy, but barely flowing — still an improvement over the thin thread that occupied that space a few days ago.

The little pond I showed you in my previous post is not full to the top, but the level did rise. Compare the following two photos to those in the previous post.

The pond level rose, but not to the top.

The pond level rose, but not to the top.

Compare this to the close-up view from my previous post:

Better, but not ideal.

Better, but not ideal.

Last weekend, Wonder Spouse decided to harvest his remaining two potato bags. The heat and drought were making the plants look pretty sad, and he was worried the tubers below might be adversely impacted if he waited any longer.

I showed you the harvest of Viking Purple potatoes in the previous post. All three varieties Wonder Spouse grew this year began as a pound apiece of seed potatoes. From that, his yield was 6.3 pounds of Viking Reds.

Viking Red potato harvest

Viking Red potato harvest

The new variety he tried this year, Marris Piper, yielded 7.3 pounds of smaller potatoes.

Marris Piper yield with a pine cone for scale.

Marris Piper yield with a pine cone for scale.

Potatoes are never tastier than when they are freshly harvested, and we have been enjoying frequent potato feasts. Any way you prepare them, the flavor is astonishing if you’ve never eaten anything but old tubers from the grocery store bins.

The other vegetables remain productive despite the drought. In fact, I suspect that the drought is the reason they are still doing so well. During last year’s highly unusual rainy, cool summer, the beans, tomatoes, and squashes all succumbed to fungal diseases quite early in the summer. This year, I’m still picking lovely zucchinis. Two of the six plants have surrendered to the evil squash vine borers, but the other four are still valiantly producing, aided, I suspect, by numerous enthusiastic honeybees from my neighbor’s hive. Thanks, neighbor!

A soggy carpenter bee dries out beneath a cosmos flower, where it likely sought shelter from yesterday's rains.

A soggy carpenter bee dries out beneath a cosmos flower, where it likely sought shelter from yesterday’s rains.

Speaking of pollinators, the almost completely absent butterfly population is finally showing signs of returning, no doubt aided by recent rains. The local experts on the lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) chatlist are theorizing that the previous unusually cold and sometimes wet winter killed most of the overwintering larval stage of these insects. We’re finally beginning to see some, probably migrants from areas that weren’t so adversely impacted.

So far in my yard, I’m still seeing almost no swallowtails, but the little skippers and other small butterflies are now showing up in the numbers I expect, especially now that the flowers have been fortified by adequate (for now) rain.

A battered Pearl Crescent rests on a milkweed leaf. I've seen no Monarchs this year, alas.

A battered Pearl Crescent rests on a milkweed leaf. I’ve seen no Monarchs this year, alas.

I did spot the first bright green Praying Mantis of the summer a few days ago. It was loitering in a marigold growing next to my beans. I usually don’t notice these predators until about this time of year, as they grow larger in preparation for egg laying.

Speaking of egg-laying, just before the rains hit yesterday afternoon, I noticed the Carolina Wrens nesting in a pot on my back deck were covertly flying back and forth — a sign that at least one of the four speckled eggs they’d been tending had hatched. I tried to get a peek this morning, but only managed to annoy a damp Mrs. Wren snuggled inside the nest.

 

That's her unblinking eye staring at me.

That’s her unblinking eye staring at me.

A bonus with the rain is an influx of below-normal cooler and drier air, which is predicted to linger for several days. For me, that means I’m out of excuses regarding weeding and other plant-maintenance tasks. But with moistened ground and a refreshing air mass, digging in the dirt will be a pleasure, not a hardship.

The rains are predicted to return in a few days. Perhaps now that my yard has been re-moistened, some of the future juicy clouds will choose to visit soon.

Here’s hoping all our gardens receive the rain they need to flourish.

Welcome back!

Welcome back!

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The Power of Water

Dying wildflowers

Dying wildflowers

Week seven here with only 0.43 of an inch of rain during that time, and that was almost three weeks ago. It is heart-wrenching to watch five acres of once-healthy  Piedmont plant life wither, yellow, and die. Those are wildflowers I grew from seed a few years back. By now, they should be full of yellow composite flowers topped by dancing butterflies. Not this year.

Leaves curl in a futile attempt to conserve water.

Leaves curl in a futile attempt to conserve water.

The most depressing part about the above pictures? I took them before nine in the morning yesterday, long before a ray of sunlight touched them. They are in a chronic, perpetual state of wilt. I doubt a deluge would bring them back now.

The great canopy trees only show signs of water stress when the sun beats on them in the afternoons. They are conserving water by dropping their fruits prematurely. Tiny acorns and pecans litter the dusty ground. And the massive black cherry that was loaded with fruits was unable to carry them to juicy ripeness for the Pileated Woodpeckers who love them. Instead, shriveled fruits litter the dry ground beneath it.

Shriveled black cherry fruits dropped by their water-stressed mother tree.

Shriveled black cherry fruits dropped by their water-stressed mother tree.

I’ve shown you the tiny pond on our floodplain before; its water level reflects the state of the perched water table in that part of our yard. Two months ago, it was full to the top and overflowing out the other side of its overflow pipe. This is what it looked like yesterday morning.

A puddle, not a pond.

A puddle, not a pond.

Here’s another view, so you can see how much the water line has dropped.

The water always grows very muddy when its almost gone.

The water always grows very muddy when it’s almost gone.

The creek is equally low, because it’s fed by springs from the same perched water table. A stagnant thin string of water wends its way into the drying swamp. This would be quite bad enough, but the worse news is that the ten-foot-deep well we use to water our vegetable garden pulls from this same rapidly dropping perched water table.

With high-ninety-degree temperatures forecast for the next few days, I doubt I’ll have water for my veggies much longer. Hurricane Arthur passed by a mere 150 or so miles to our east a few days ago without dropping a single raindrop on my thirsty yard. I’m starting to wonder if our sky has forgotten how to rain.

For the moment, we harvest and rejoice in the bounty. Blackberry patches on the floodplain feed the wildlife.

Blackberries delight birds, coons, and possums.

Blackberries delight birds, coons, and possums.

The abundant blackberries have bought me time to harvest blueberries from our bushes without having to argue too much with the feathered folk. The berries are not as big and juicy as they are some years. But their flavor is bright, concentrated, and quite tasty mixed with plain yogurt or sugared in a fresh-baked crumble.

Wonder Spouse helped me pick a full quart of ripe berries yesterday.

Wonder Spouse helped me pick a full quart of ripe berries yesterday.

I’m doling out water to the veggies twice a week, timing how much each plant receives. It’s not as much as they’d like, but it’s enough to keep them going. I watered yesterday morning for about an hour, dutifully counting the seconds of precious liquid each vegetable received.

Wonder Spouse harvested his first bag of potatoes yesterday. From his one-pound investment of Viking Purple seed potatoes, his yield was six pounds of perfect tubers, unmolested by the voles which plagued the crop before he switched to this methodology.

Viking Purple potato harvest

Viking Purple potato harvest

Today’s garden harvest demonstrates the power of water vividly. For now, our table is full.

Only a few dozen beans, but 8 slicing tomatoes, 4 paste tomatoes, 46 cherry tomatoes, and four zucchinis.

Only a few dozen beans, but 8 slicing tomatoes, 4 paste tomatoes, 46 cherry tomatoes, and four zucchinis.

Today we cherish the harvest, freezing what we can’t eat immediately, because we know that it won’t take too many more rainless tomorrows to end these gifts from the garden.

Pray for rain, ya’ll.

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A Tomato I-told-you-so

Diseased Early Choice tomato

Diseased Early Choice tomato

Sometimes I hate being right. When the company I usually order my tomato seeds from sent me a substitute without asking my permission, I had a feeling I was going to be disappointed. I explained my misgivings in this earlier post.

I had ordered Early Goliath. Due to a crop failure, they sent me Early Choice. I suspect that some order-filler at the company figured since both varieties had the word “early” in their names, they were equivalent. Not even close.

Wonder Spouse removing the diseased Early Choice plant before it can infect neighboring plants.

Wonder Spouse removing the diseased Early Choice plant before it can infect neighboring plants. The trash bag is for the diseased plant. Never compost diseased plants.

When I first visited the company’s site after I got my order, Early Choice wasn’t even described in their listings. It’s there now. I voiced my suspicions about this unwanted substitute’s disease resistance in an earlier post. Now, in their description of this variety, they claim it is “highly disease resistant.” However, the imprecision of their language is highly suspect.

If you look at a good tomato seed catalog, the first item listed after the name is usually a list of letters indicating the various diseases to which the variety is resistant. For example, Early Goliath — the variety I wanted and had grown successfully previously — has these letters after its name: VFFNTAS, meaning this variety is resistant to Verticillium Wilt, Fusarium Wilt (Races 1 and 2), Nematodes, Tobacco Mosaic Virus, Alternaria Stem Canker, and Stemphylium Gray Leaf Spot. That’s a heck of a lot more specific than “highly disease resistant.”

My Early Choice seedlings started off looking as healthy as the other varieties I’m growing this year, and they’ve received identical treatment. I don’t know which wilt disease is actively destroying them, but it’s moving fast. And the fruits were nearly tasteless anyway. We decided to remove the plants before their plague could spread to neighboring tomatoes on the trellis.

Empty trellis space. What a waste!

Empty trellis space. What a waste!

I’m happy to report that the rest of the vegetable garden is flourishing despite over 6 weeks with less than a half inch of rain. I am watering all veggies twice a week, but the shallow well designated for that purpose will go dry soon. Our best hope is the developing tropical storm currently south of us. Rains from a nice juicy tropical system could easily reverse my drought in a day. Fingers crossed.

Carolina Wren takeover

Carolina Wren takeover

In happier news, a pair of Carolina Wrens has built a nest in one of the flower pots on my back deck. The flowers survived in this pot over winter in my greenhouse and were just starting to look nice. Apparently, the wrens agreed. A pair raised a brood in this same pot last year. I don’t know if these are the same parents, or perhaps an offspring that recognized its birthplace.

Three eggs so far

Three eggs so far

The female has laid one egg per day so far. Last year, they stopped at four. I’ll let you know what they do this time. The birds don’t seem to mind me coming out on the deck to water the plants. And it’s great fun to watch the parents hustling back and forth with tasty morsels when the hungry nestlings emerge. I do continue to water the plants in this pot, but I fill the bottom saucer and let the roots pull up the liquid from below.

The pot is on a stand tucked against the house under the eaves. Out of the wind and the worst of hard rains, it's not a bad spot to raise a brood of perky brown wrens.

The pot is on a stand tucked against the house under the eaves. Out of the wind and the worst of hard rains, it’s not a bad spot to raise a brood of perky brown wrens.

So this past weekend I lost two tomatoes and gained (so far) three Carolina Wren eggs. I calculate this to be a net win for the yard and garden. Now if I can just persuade the rains to return…

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Summer

Mixed cosmos mingle with veggies

Mixed cosmos mingle with veggies

Mornings in the garden must start early, now that summer has officially arrived. Even if the solstice had not occurred last Saturday morning, I would have known it was here when I heard cicadas thrumming for the first time as the sun topped the trees.

Honeybees on zucchini flower

Honeybees on zucchini flower

I’m harvesting every day, despite a distressing absence of rainfall. In the last four weeks, we’ve had 0.43 inches of rain. That’s it. I’m watering the veggies twice a week. When the well runs dry, their time will run out. If only it would rain…

Ripening Sweet Treats tomatoes

Ripening Sweet Treats tomatoes

The Sweet Treats tomatoes — the cherry variety we grow — finally began gracing us with ripe fruits last week. Nothing says summer like ripe tomatoes.

Fortex pole bean

Fortex pole bean

The Fortex pole beans have been quite productive, but the heat and lack of rain are slowing them down. Fortunately, the Jade bush beans are just cranking into production mode. When you grow your own, you quickly learn that all beans are not created equally. Like the nuances between tomato varieties, bean varieties offer subtle differences to discerning palates.

Today's harvest: Fortex at the top, the first few blueberries beside them, Jade beans at the bottom, with Sweet Treats and one Early Choice tomato in between

Today’s harvest: Fortex at the top, the first few blueberries beside them, Jade beans at the bottom, with Sweet Treats and one Early Choice tomato in between.

For the first time in several weeks, I did not harvest a zucchini today. No worries; there are several in the refrigerator and plenty more ripening quickly in the garden.

Coneflowers in the boulder garden

Coneflowers in the boulder garden

After I’m done in the garden, I walk to the front of the house to inspect my neglected flower gardens. While I was sick and not paying attention, the voracious deer ate all the daylily and coneflower flower buds they could find. This is the only coneflower they missed, because it’s nestled between some large boulders.

Daylily 'Apricot Spider' with Spanish lavender.

Daylily ‘Apricot Spider’ with Spanish lavender.

The only unmolested daylilies grow in a bed between my front deck and the house. They lean out a bit to catch more sun.

Daylily 'Winsome Lady' grows near 'Apricot Spider'

Daylily ‘Winsome Lady’ grows near ‘Apricot Spider’

I planted mostly spider form daylilies in this narrow bed, because I knew they’d grow tall enough to be seen.

Daylily 'Prairie Blue Eyes'

Daylily ‘Prairie Blue Eyes’

When I realized with horror what the deer had done to my daylilies, I sprayed all their remaining buds with deer repellant. Thus, I’m getting a few, somewhat stunted blooms from most of them.

Daylily 'Pink Betty'

Daylily ‘Pink Betty’

I like Pink Betty because she’s a bit different from many daylilies. She has managed to put out just a couple of flowers on stubby scapes — much shorter than normal. Like hostas, daylilies are deer candy, alas.

A volunteer cross

A volunteer cross

Some of the best-looking daylilies this year are the result of unsupervised crosses between named varieties. From its location and appearance, I’m fairly certain this is a cross between Brocaded Gown and Red Toy.

Daylily 'Brocaded Gown'

Daylily ‘Brocaded Gown’

The light was not strong for these shots. A number didn’t quite work. I’ll try again on another summer morning. Abundant rainfall would help these struggling beauties a lot. Here’s hoping help arrives soon.

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Yesterday’s Garden Highlights

That's what I'm talking about!

That’s what I’m talking about!

Finally, I’m in serious daily harvest mode. But it won’t last long, unless we get some rain. It is excruciating to watch the green blips on the radar detour around my yard day after day.

Daylily 'Winsome Lady'

Daylily ‘Winsome Lady’

This tall spider-form daylily is having a spectacular year so far. These are two of the five flowers open yesterday — all more than 6″ across!

Fresh veggies and an array of lovely flowers — seems like summertime heaven to me.

Now if I could just persuade the rain clouds to visit…

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Gardeners Feed the Hungry: Friends of CORA Garden

CORA garden and Carol

We hear about it often these days — community food pantries in dire need of donations, due to increasing demand. In these United States, we have way too many hungry people — including an alarming number of children. That’s why I’m starting an occasional series on my blog: Gardeners Feed the Hungry. I’m hoping to feature gardeners across the southeastern Piedmont who are using their green thumbs to help fill hungry stomachs with fresh produce. The gardener walking through that immense (60′ x 60′), well-ordered garden in the photo above is Carol Newnam, the driving force behind a community garden about a mile from my home.

Most of one half of the garden.

Most of one half of the garden.

Carol was kind enough to allow me to visit this garden today and ask her about this project.  Like me, she’s been gardening for decades, but when her husband passed away, she found herself with a garden too large to manage by herself. She was already a volunteer at our county’s food pantry: Chatham Outreach Alliance (CORA).She noticed that although CORA received generous donations of slightly too old produce from local grocery stores and donations from local farms and a community garden, there was never as much fresh produce as there was demand for it. That’s why last year, Carol decided to dedicate half of her immense garden to growing food for CORA. Thus the Friends of CORA Garden was born.

Winter squashes

Winter squashes

Last year was the first year for this project; they donated over 800 pounds of fresh produce to the food pantry. That’s a lot of nutritious food for those in our community who may not have the funds to pay for many fresh vegetables. Carol even grows flowers she donates to the pantry, because she believes everyone should be able to brighten their homes with a little beauty — beauty they couldn’t afford on their own.

Carol at work.

Carol at work.

Carol’s garden is part of her five-acre spread, which is forested everywhere except where she’s growing food. She has fruit trees, an asparagus patch, grape arbors, giant blueberry bushes loaded with green fruit, patches of mint and other herbs and flowers — even a few chickens. I noticed that the dominant trees on her land are beautiful white oaks, which grow on hilltops in the Piedmont. As is usually the case, such land is rocky; I noticed large boulders on the edges of the cleared garden area. And Carol mentioned that when new areas are dug, rocks are always encountered.

Beautiful white oaks surround the garden space.

Beautiful white oaks surround the garden space.

Carol has been adding organic material — mostly leaves — to the garden beds for years, resulting in rich soil that clearly makes veggies very happy. This season, she’s growing lettuce (almost done now), beets, parsnips, tomatoes, peppers, pole beans, field peas, crowder peas, summer straight-neck squash, zucchini, winter squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, onions, garlic, okra, and gourds. Use of space is maximized by even growing vines on the fence that protects the garden from marauding deer. This year, they trained cucumbers onto the perimeter fence, only to discover that the deer were nibbling as much as they could from the outside. But Carol and her volunteers devised a clever solution.

Attaching spun garden cloth to the outside of the perimeter fence prevented deer from nibbling on the cucumbers.

Attaching spun garden cloth to the outside of the perimeter fence prevented deer from nibbling on the cucumbers.

Carol harvesting beets.

Carol harvesting beets.

Carol is a Master Gardener, which means she has gone through training provided by the NC Agricultural Extension Service. Her garden is not entirely organic, but the pesticides she uses are the least toxic options, and used only when hand-picking of problem insects is not sufficient.

Half-runner pole beans and assorted tomatoes.

Half-runner pole beans and assorted tomatoes.

Although you only see Carol in these photos, she was not alone when I visited. Two loyal volunteers were also there, inspecting squashes for squash bug eggs, weeding, and harvesting. Carol tells me she also has had the help of high school students fulfilling community service graduation requirements, and some of her fellow master gardeners also help out. I asked Carol what had surprised her most about this project. She replied that she’s been delighted by the reliable, loyal volunteers who keep returning week after week to help her fill the food pantry’s shelves — although, she says, she could use a few more helpers.

Carol relies on proceeds from an annual plant sale and generous donations from the community to get the seeds and plants she needs for the garden. A local business gives her old seeds dated for the previous year. For most vegetables, year-old seed is still quite viable. You won’t get 100% germination, but you get enough to fill a garden — and the price is right.

Carol's tomato ties are pieces of cut-up fabric from old clothes.

Carol’s tomato ties are pieces of cut-up fabric from old clothes.

Community gardens such as the Friends of CORA Garden provide much-needed vegetables to food pantries, which in turn contribute to wider nutrition options for the hungry. They also provide opportunities for gardeners — some perhaps retired from maintaining their own gardens, but who still get the itch to dig in rich earth, to feel the sense of accomplishment from harvesting a well-formed zucchini, a fat purple beet, or a red, juicy tomato, knowing that a hungry soul will appreciate their efforts.

A row of summer squash

A row of summer squash

That’s the other thing that surprised Carol after she began this project — how often folks thank her — folks at CORA, and some of the hungry souls who rely on the food pantry to nourish their families. That appreciation helps fuel her resolve to keep the garden going.

If you’d like to volunteer

Carol not only oversees this impressive garden, she also writes a blog about it. If you’d like to help/volunteer at this garden, visit Friends of CORA Garden. Contact information can be found on the About the Garden link on this blog.

If you have a southeastern Piedmont community garden

If you are involved with a community garden that is feeding the hungry in your community, I’d love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at the address listed on the About page of my blog if you’d like me to feature your group’s efforts.

The Friends of CORA Garden Man

The Friends of CORA Garden Man

 

All gardeners who grow food know the satisfaction of feeding their families fresh, nutritious vegetables and fruits. Most of us have extras of something from time to time during the season. If you haven’t done so already, please make a call to your local food bank and ask them if they will accept donations from home gardeners. If the pantries have the facilities for storing fresh produce, they will almost certainly welcome any food donations you can offer. Given the rising numbers of hungry souls in this country, I encourage all my gardening brethren to share their bounty. Let’s all do our best to feed the hungry.

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Animal Visitations

Summer sunrises are complete in my yard, now that the Wood Thrushes are back for their nesting season. Their haunting voices — a cross between the airiness of a flute and the rich depth of an oboe — echo through shadowy woods as the rising sun shoots golden rays through holes in the canopy. If you don’t know this song, listen to the link provided above. It is exquisitely beautiful.

All the birds are very busy right now, either nesting or feeding nestlings or newly fledged chicks. A gang of juvenile crows loiters around my bird feeders until their lookout spots me at a window. They scatter into the deep woods, raucously laughing at me.

This year, I grew a number of annual flowers from seed, including a mix of dahlias, salvias, and snapdragons. I transplanted them in the bed along my front walk about a month ago, and they settled in nicely, blooming well. Then one morning about two weeks ago, this:

Murder victim #1

Murder victim #1

And this:

Murder victim #2

Murder victim #2

Two of the six dahlia plants I had nurtured from seeds in my greenhouse for months had been destroyed, their roots devoured. I knew immediately which critter to blame: pine voles.

Two species of voles are common in my region, but I’m fairly certain my plants were not murdered by meadow voles. I base this on what I’ve read of the habits of both species, and on the bodies I find occasionally lying in my driveway. I think a neighbor cat is likely coming to my yard to hunt, leaving trophies of its work behind for me to admire.

For years, indestructible lantanas grew in this bed. But they always grew too tall, requiring me to hack them back regularly — and I wanted to grow something different there. With the help of some strong garden assistants, we dug out the lantanas, which turned out to have woody roots so deep that we had to cut them to get the plants out. Lantanas, as you likely know, have fragrant, resinous leaves and flowers. I suspect the compound responsible for their fragrance is also in their roots, which is probably why the voles always ignored them.

But dahlias are apparently vole candy. Dahlia roots form tubers, and my seed-grown plants were already sporting these fleshy root forms. If you look at the photos above, you’ll see that the salvias surrounding the dead dahlias are undamaged, likely because salvias have fragrant resinous leaves and stems — and probably roots — just like the lantanas before them.

Too sick to seek out replacement plants myself, I sent Wonder Spouse out to find replacements that would fit with the other plantings. He came home with:

Verbena 'Candy Cane'

Verbena ‘Candy Cane’

So far, this eye-popper has been unmolested, and I predict it will remain that way, because verbena leaves are spicy too.

The other plant he brought home was a pale-flowered penta. These annuals are pollinator magnets, and Wonder Spouse did a nice job of finding a color that is compatible with the other plantings.

So far, the penta has also remained unmolested.

So far, the penta has also remained unmolested.

The other four dahlias are blooming well and are quite pretty in a petite way. I’ve been taking photos. I’ll show them to you soon.

The voles are also wreaking more havoc than usual in my vegetable garden. In fact, I think their population may have risen considerably this year, likely due to last year’s lush vegetation that was fueled by above-average rains. Every time we water the veggies, caverns open up — entries to vole tunnels. I won’t use poisons, and cats can’t get into my deer-fence-enclosed veggie garden. I’ve recently read that spreading cayenne pepper around plants and in the vole tunnel entrances will deter the voracious rodents. I’ll let you know how that works.

We had a much more interesting animal visitor about two weeks ago. As Wonder Spouse was pulling out of the driveway early one morning, he suddenly stopped and signaled me to join him. In the strip of lawn between our road and our front woods was this creature:

River Cooter?

River Cooter?

This female turtle is probably a River Cooter, but Florida Cooters are also common in my area, and the species interbreed. For sure, she’s a Cooter, and she was digging a hole for her eggs right beside our busy road!

She was a big one — somewhere between 12 and 14 inches from nose to tail. She hadn’t started laying eggs yet, and I was worried that her hatchlings would head for the road and get squashed, so I decided to relocate her to the floodplain, where we’ve seen Cooters laying eggs before.

Of course, I had to document this visitation, so I ran into the house, grabbed my camera, and stopped off to get our new wheelbarrow. She was too big for a bucket, and I know better than to try to carry a turtle that big for any distance. It’s about 200 yards from where she was digging to the edge of the creek on my floodplain. I figured using the wheelbarrow as transport was my best bet.

First, of course, I tried to get a better shot of her.

Apparently camera-shy, she started to flee -- straight for the road!

Apparently camera-shy, she started to flee — straight for the road!

I ran in front of her and with my gloved hands (turtles bite!) I picked her up and quickly transferred her to the wheelbarrow. The plastic orange tub was too slippery for her to pull herself out. I grabbed another quick photo.

She was not pleased.

She was not pleased.

Before we headed down the hill, I snapped a shot of the hole she’d started. She had made quite a bit of progress.

The hole was about three inches across.

The hole was about three inches across.

As gently as possible, I pushed the wheelbarrow with its turtle cargo down to the floodplain. I deposited her beside the weeds (mostly evil Japanese bamboo grass) growing near the creek. She sat there glowering at me.

She wouldn't move until I moved out of her line of sight.

She wouldn’t move until I moved out of her line of sight.

Once she couldn’t see me, she high-tailed it into the tall weeds beside the creek. When I walked back to where I’d left her, all I could see was a trail of freshly flattened weeds.

I hope she found a nesting spot to her liking in a nearby sand bar.

I hope she found a nesting spot to her liking in a nearby sand bar.

I don’t know how sensitive Cooters are to disruptions. I can only hope that moving her away from the road was the right thing to do. I try not to interfere with the wild creatures that share my land with me. But the image of squashed freshly hatched baby turtles was too horrible to ignore.

 

 

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If it’s June, there must be zucchini…

Today's harvest

Today’s harvest

I did it again, gardening friends. I planted too many zucchini plants. The seedlings all looked so gosh darn healthy, I just couldn’t compost the extras. Thus, I planted six plants: 3 Spineless Perfection Zucchinis and 3 Dinja Zucchinis. Spineless Perfection has been a reliable variety in my garden for a number of years. Dinja is a newcomer. Both look fabulous — and alarmingly productive — at the moment.

Healthy zucchini plant -- for now

Healthy zucchini plant — for now

The wire you see is a support for the woven fabric covering I use to protect seedlings until they start blooming. This prevents varmints from attacking small plants. Of course, when blooms appear, the bees need access, so I remove the coverings. Unless they’re in the way, I often leave the supports to give the plants something to lean on when gusty thunderstorms blow through.

Today when I watered, I captured the first squash bugs of the season.

Today when I watered, I captured the first squash bugs of the season.

All six plants are currently growing much more upright than they have in past years. Usually they revert to a more vine-like growth pattern. The upright growth form makes harvesting vastly easier.

I only picked two zucchinis today, but the refrigerator is growing alarmingly full of them. Despite the absence of measurable rain for the last two weeks, the plants are remaining productive, due to our attentive watering. We’ll keep watering as long as the shallow well we use for the veggies holds out.

Watering around the base of a squash plant with a hose in the early morning is a great way to flush out lurking squash bugs. They start climbing the stems, making it easy for me to pick them off and deposit them in the jar of soapy water I keep in the garden for unwelcome insect pests.

The zucchinis may be the current vegetable in abundance, but much more is going on.

Sweet Treats Tomatoes are now taller than I can reach.

Sweet Treats tomatoes are now taller than I can reach.

All the tomato plants are weighted down by swelling green globes of future goodness. Waiting for the first ones to ripen is always torture.

Caged potato

Caged potato

The potatoes have grown so tall in their bags that Wonder Spouse erected wire cages around them to prevent flopping. Last year — his first year trying the bag method — a gusty thunderstorm knocked over the tall potato plants, damaging them in the process. This year, Wonder Spouse was determined there would be no repeats of that issue.

Potato cage close-up

Potato cage close-up

The last of the other spring-planted veggies are nearly ready for harvest.

Peppermint Stick Chard

Peppermint Stick Chard

A freebie from Renee’s Garden Seeds, the Peppermint Stick Chard is gorgeous and tasty.

Dill plants have grown large enough to contribute to many tasty dishes.

Dill plants have grown large enough to contribute to many delicious dishes.

Beets and carrots

Beets and carrots

The beets and carrots have surprised me by growing larger than I expected. They got a late start, but we’ve been diligent about watering them, plus I actually remembered to side dress them with fertilizer about a month ago. They’ve responded well.

Black-eyed Susan

Black-eyed Susan

June also brings what I think of as the first round of summer flowers, including the Black-eyed Susans, which are just starting to strut their stuff.

All look great now, but if we don’t get some significant rain soon, I’ll be in a race to see how much food I can coax from the veggies before drought, heat, bugs, and diseases damage them beyond salvation. Fingers crossed…

 

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Savannah: The Green-handed Gardener

cosmos

My apologies, gardening friends, for my lengthy silence here. I am still recovering from the worst illness I’ve battled in decades — a horrible sinus infection brought on by traveling to a city with an inhospitable climate: Phoenix, Arizona. I realize many folks love it there, but I’m a creature of humid Eastern US forests. According to a good friend, that was my problem. She tells me I have “East Coast sinuses.” Even my doctor has encouraged me to avoid traveling back to the arid southwestern US as much as I possibly can.

By the time Wonder Spouse and I were flying home, I could feel the uninvited bacteria burrowing deeply into my sinus cavities. I was sipping my giant cup of iced tea from the airport Starbucks and daydreaming about my garden when one of the flight attendants interrupted my reverie. She asked if she could have the large plastic cup holding my iced tea when I was done with it. She told me she was a gardener, and she used the plastic cups to protect her young vegetable seedlings.

Paste tomatoes on May 24. Photo by Wonder Spouse using my camera.

Paste tomatoes on May 24. Photo by Wonder Spouse using my camera.

Never has a flight attendant ever asked me for anything beyond a beverage order. In the most unlikely of locations, I’d found a kindred spirit — a gardener! Of course, I told her that I’d be happy to hand over my cup to her, and I shared the fact that I also gardened.

Immediately, her face brightened. She smiled broadly, told me her name was Savannah, and thanked me. A half hour or so later after all the passengers had been served their beverages, Savannah surprised me by returning to my  seat with her IPad in hand to show me pictures of her garden. I was duly impressed. As I told her, she does not have green thumbs; Savannah has green hands!

May 24 -- tomatoes and other veggies.

May 24 — Our tomatoes and other veggies.

Savannah is originally from a Caribbean country; her voice carries the slightest hint of her homeland. Now she gardens in Albuquerque, New Mexico on two acres. She has a Wonder Spouse partner too, and from the pictures she showed me, they have worked wonders in that arid region.

She uses the plastic cups like the one I gave her after she cuts out the bottoms. They protect young plants from often harsh winds, and also the voracious rabbits that are her great animal pest challenge. I was tempted for a moment to think Savannah had it easier than me — only rabbits? No deer, groundhogs, voles, squirrels, and in my case, occasional marauding beavers? But her photos revealed why the rabbits plague her garden. It was the only green spot in the photos.

May 24 -- As is their habit, the zucchinis grew enthusiastically during our absence.

May 24 — As is their habit, the zucchinis grew enthusiastically during our absence.

Savannah waters her garden from a well dedicated for that purpose. Without that water, she would have no garden. But add water and her green hands, and wow! She showed me an array of happy vegetables, some lush Caribbean herbs sent by her mother that are essential ingredients to her homeland’s cuisine, and an orchard planted in the shape of a peace symbol. Her hubby wanted it to be visible in aerial photos — and it is! She showed me a GoogleEarth shot to prove it.

By this time, I was thoroughly convinced that Savannah had some of the greenest hands of any gardener I’d ever encountered. And then she showed me her orchids. Breathtakingly gorgeous plants — dozens of them — all blooming as if they’d just been taken from a speciality greenhouse. But Savannah doesn’t have a greenhouse. Her exquisite orchids obediently bloom as house plants for her. I was flabbergasted!

Salvia "Coral Nymph" on May 24.

Salvia “Coral Nymph” on May 24.

Savannah fights an arid, hot, windy climate to create her lush landscape, but that harsh environment does make one aspect easier for her than me. She has no weeds — not because she is an attentive weeder, but because that climate doesn’t support anything remotely resembling the weed jungle that I battle constantly. I was envious — for about 2 seconds. Then my sinuses reminded me why I’m not a fan of arid climates.

Wonder Spouse has been a trooper while I’ve been stuck indoors single-handedly (or is that nosedly?) ensuring the success of the tissue industry. He’s been out tying tomatoes and taking pictures, even rising early to harvest produce before morning temperatures grow too hot. He took all the pictures in this post for me on May 24. The garden has really taken off since these photos. I’ll show you more soon. I intend to write several catch-up posts to try to make up for my prolonged silence.

But this first one had to be about Savannah — the green-handed gardening flight attendant who fiercely nurtures her charges in a hostile environment. It was a delight to meet such an avid gardener in such an unexpected location.

Thanks for sharing, Savannah. This last picture is for you — my front water garden showing off some North Carolina natives that, like me, would never make it in your climate — even under the care of your amazing green hands.

May 24 -- the water garden flourishes.

May 24 — Our water garden flourishes.

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Tomato Talk

Tomatoes and friends

Tomatoes and friends

I exercised great restraint this year. I only chose 5 tomato varieties to grow from seed, and I only planted two of each kind in my vegetable garden, for a total of 10 plants. Compared to my younger, wilder days, that is a modest tomato planting, trust me.

Because I was being so restrained, I devoted a great deal of thought to my seed choices. I decided I couldn’t live without two varieties that have been consistently wonderful for me. One is a hybrid cherry tomato called Sweet Treats. Search my blog for that variety, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to appreciate my loyalty to this variety, including its resistance to a number of tomato diseases.

First fruits of Sweet Treats.

First fruits of Sweet Treats.

My other repeat choice was Goliath Early Hybrid, a member of the Goliath series of tomato varieties that I’ve found to be both early and wonderful. It is also resistant to just about every tomato disease out there, and it shows in the resiliently vigorous vines that usually top my 8-foot-tall trellis. Thus you can imagine my distress when the company I ordered from — Totally Tomatoes — substituted a completely different tomato without asking me, claiming a crop failure. Although I understand crop failures, Totally Tomatoes infuriated me by sending me a substitute without consulting me. Now on their Web site, they admit what they’re doing — that notice wasn’t up when I ordered. But even now if you search for the variety they substituted, you cannot find a description.

As far as I’m concerned, a company should always ask if substitutes are acceptable. When given that option, I always say no, because I want to decide what my Plan B will be, not some company that knows nothing about me and my garden needs.

The packet of Early Choice tomato seeds I received as an unwanted substitute offered no information about the variety. I have no idea what, if any, disease resistance this variety offers, but I’d bet big money it doesn’t match the disease resistance of the variety I actually ordered. Although my Early Choice plants look fine so far, I have grave misgivings about their staying power, because they have leaves that resemble potatoes (tomatoes are in the same plant family). All of the potato-leaved tomato varieties I know are heirloom types — delicious, but they fail fast, because they have no disease resistance. I want plants I can count on. In my climate, that means plants with disease resistance and flavor. I’ll let you know how this one turns out, but I will also tell you that I plan to never order seeds from this company again. They failed me with grafted tomatoes last year, and they failed me this year by substituting without asking my permission. Two strikes, and they are out. Luckily for me, they are not the only tomato seed company option available.

The other three tomato varieties I chose this year are determinate and new to me. For you tomato newbies, a determinate tomato grows to a set height, ripens all the fruits it has set, and then it’s done. Indeterminate varieties — Sweet Treats and Early Choice for me this year — just keep growing and producing until diseases or frosts kill them, whichever comes first. I chose determinate varieties because growing mostly indeterminants results in a messy, out-of-control trellis every year. I’m hoping that using determinants will give me more good-eating tomatoes with fewer disease issues. Time will tell.

First fruits of either Charger or Tasti-Lee. I can't tell from this photo.

First fruits of either Charger or Tasti-Lee. I can’t tell from this photo.

First up, Tasti-Lee Hybrid. I picked this one because it is supposed to contain 40% more lycopene than other varieties. This antioxidant has proven to be a nutritional powerhouse in a number of studies — and it’s supposed to have “true tomato flavor,” so I’m giving it a try. This one’s a bit of a gamble, because no disease resistance is listed.

The other slicing-type determinant variety I’m trying this year is extremely disease resistant. Charger Hybrid is supposed to be high-yielding with good flavor. It’s also crack-resistant; cracking is an issue when you get a lot of rain after a dry spell — something that happens in my summer gardens most years. The fruits absorb too much water too fast, and their rapid expansion causes them to crack.

I’ve been growing the same paste tomato for years — Viva Italia. But this winter when I was perusing my options, I decided to try a different variety. I don’t remember why, and my choice — La Roma III Hybrid, is actually somewhat less disease-resistant than Viva Italia. It may have been the fruit size. Viva Italia plants produce 3-oz fruits. La Roma III is supposed to produce 5-8-oz fruits. I may have been thinking I can make more tomato sauce faster with larger paste tomato fruits. I can tell you that, so far, the La Roma III plants are extremely vigorous, their growth habit more shrubby than vine-like. And their fruits are growing faster and larger than the other slicer varieties I’m growing.

La Roma III fruits are winning the size contest so far.

La Roma III fruits are winning the size contest so far.

I’m sure I’ve shared my tomato-growing tips in previous years, but to review briefly, I grow my plants from seed in my greenhouse. I usually start about six of each type, then transplant the ones that look most vigorous. Extra good-looking starts are shared with friends. I never have trouble finding good homes for them.

I try to wait until nighttime temperatures are remaining above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, because studies have shown that tomatoes exposed to temperatures lower than that are slightly less productive. This year, I waited as long as I could, but my transplants have definitely experienced a few nights when temperatures dropped into the upper 40s in my garden. They all look great, though.

When I transplant my tomatoes, I dig deep holes, so that the bottom leaf nodes end up buried when I fill in the holes. New roots sprout from the newly buried leaf nodes, providing even more nutrition conduits for the plants. I also add organic fertilizer especially formulated for tomatoes. My soil is wonderful, but this boost seems to generate optimal flowering and fruit set for me.

I’ve tried every tomato support system out there over my decades of tomato growing. For me, a trellis system works best. I can plant on both sides, being sure to space plants so that they aren’t directly opposite each other. Remember to sucker indeterminate plants to foil their attempts at world domination. But don’t sucker determinant plants. Because they don’t grow infinitely tall, all those side shoots are needed to produce a good fruit crop.

Water when rains don’t do it for you, then wait for the green globes to go red. This is the hardest part for me — the waiting. I should be eating cherry tomatoes by the middle of June, maybe even a bit sooner. The others will likely take a week or more longer.

But I should be up to my eyeballs in another fruit before the tomatoes are ready. My enormous blueberry bushes are loaded with a record fruit set. I see blueberry muffins, pies, cakes, pancakes, and jams in my future, along with handfuls of fresh fruit for instant snacking goodness. I’m so ready!

This year, there should be enough blueberries for me and the birds.

This year, there should be enough blueberries for me and the birds.

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