Posts Tagged squash vine borer

More answers to your questions

Harvest from July 25

Faithful readers of this blog may recall that last month I wrote an entry in which I tried to answer some of the questions from search engines that lead people most frequently to my blog. For example, frequent searches still find my blog while seeking information on tomato ‘Indigo Rose’ and how to tend your garden during record drought and heat waves. Lately, a few other topics have been recurring regularly, so I thought I’d directly address some of them for you today.

First, check out the top photo. We finally got some decent rain last weekend (2.5 magnificent inches), and that moisture rekindled enthusiasm among my vegetables.  All but one of my squash plants surrendered to the heat and bugs several weeks ago. But one zucchini ‘Spineless Perfection’ continues to survive and produce fruit against all odds. A close examination of the stem shows clear evidence of Squash Vine Borer intrusion, but this plant has outwitted  the bugs by taking advantage of the fresh mulch that Wonder Spouse and I applied to all the paths between the veggie beds. This plant flopped itself over one side of its bed and into the path, and everywhere its stem touches the mulch, it sprouted new roots. Eventually, the borers will overcome this defense, but for now, I’m still picking a few zucchinis every week.  I will definitely be growing this variety of zucchini again.

When tomatoes receive a lot of moisture in a short time, sometimes the fruits will split, because they try to expand faster than the skins can stretch. I’m happy to report that the 60 seconds of water my tomatoes were getting every third day during the heat wave/drought, combined with the deep mulch in the paths, prevented my tomatoes from exploding from the recent surge in moisture. As you can see from the photo, all varieties are producing well, and the Carmen and Merlot peppers are also cranking bigtime. Yes, I am cooking down tomatoes into sauce for freezing on a regular basis so as not to waste a single red globe of goodness.

Now, on to a couple of questions.

Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa)

In the last month, several searches have found my site searching for a “tree with heart-shaped leaves and seed pods.” Sometimes the search says “giant heart-shaped leaves,” which is why I’m fairly certain these searchers are wondering about Princess Trees.

This non-native, highly invasive tree plagues 25 eastern states in the US. It was introduced deliberately as an ornamental tree, and some lumber companies are now actually growing plantations of these invaders for their lumber, which the Japanese adore. In the spring just as invasive Chinese Wisteria is finishing its blooming period in my area, these trees produce large upright clusters of purple flowers that resemble wisteria flowers from a distance. I suppose some might call the flowers pretty; I call them trouble.

The problem lies with the papery seeds that lurk within the abundant clusters of seed capsules. Experts have determined that one tree produces 20 MILLION seeds in one year. These light-weight seeds float far on wind and water, invading disturbed areas like roadsides and newly logged land. These trees can grow 15 feet in one year, and after they are established, it takes serious perseverance to eradicate them. It can be done. The link above offers instructions and more information on this aggressive invader.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Some folks want to know what’s eating the petals of these lovely, tough native wildflowers. The short answer is that any number of bugs may be nibbling on your flowers. In my gardens, where this wildflower thrives on my total neglect, petals do get nibbled. But I have so many that you don’t notice unless you get right on top of them. And I’ve never had a case in which all the petals were devoured. I can always find a plant or two worthy of a photograph.

I’ve also seen questions about whether these flowers multiply, and if they do so every year. In my sandy loam garden soil, my coneflowers multiply vegetatively at least a little every year. From the base of the mother plant, new plants sprout from her roots. When these new plants have a few leaves — usually in late fall — I gently separate them from the mother plant and plant them elsewhere. If I don’t get around to doing this, the baby plants usually manage to grow and flower right where they were born.

Because the central “cones” of the flowers are so showy even in the winter landscape, I don’t cut them off when the flowers fade. I also leave them because the seeds of this native are deemed desirable by goldfinches and several other seed-eating birds. I let the birds devour as much as they want. Inevitably, they scatter some seeds on the ground, at least a few of which sprout to become new plants the following spring. Sometimes, an entire seed head is overlooked by the feathered ones. I can always tell when this happens, because I’ll get a zillion tiny coneflower seedlings sprouting in one spot the next spring. I separate them and transplant them to ensure a continuing supply of these beauties.

Recently, someone found my entry on coneflowers while searching on “my purple coneflower grew a white flower.” Yes, it probably did. In fact named cultivars of white-blooming purple coneflower are sold commercially. ‘White Swan’ is a commonly sold cultivar of this species. If you bought what you thought was a purple-blooming plant from a nursery and it produced white flowers, your seller was careless during propagation. Named cultivars of plants are mostly propagated vegetatively, meaning they grow cuttings from a known desirable plant, or remove offsets from mother plants, as I described above.

But if you grew your coneflowers from seeds, it is entirely possible that one or more of them would produce white flowers. White flowers are a recessive color trait in this species, meaning that two purple coneflowers can produce a white coneflower baby if both carry this recessive color gene, much as two brown-eyed people can produce a blue-eyed child, if both parents carry the recessive gene for blue eyes.

In my gardens, white coneflowers pop up regularly in small numbers, because I do allow the seed heads to complete their life cycles where the plants grow. Personally, I think the white coneflowers contrast nicely with their dominantly purple siblings, adding a little variation to the landscape. I took the following photo of my front garden last year. As you can see, a recessive white-blooming flower grows with its more common purple siblings.

A recessive white purple coneflower with its dominant purple siblings

If you bought a named purple-blooming cultivar of purple coneflower from a nursery, you have a right to complain, but if you’ve been letting your coneflowers reproduce on their own, consider the white one a happy addition — a blue-eyed child in a brown-eyed family, if you will.

More answers to your searches in future entries.

Happy gardening to all.

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Answers to your gardening searches: past seven days

Today’s harvest

You’re looking at 120 Fortex pole beans, 35 Jade bush beans, 2 Spineless Perfection zucchinis, 1 Raven zucchini, 2 Viva Italia tomatoes, 1 Sweet Treats cherry tomato, and 1 Early Goliath tomato.  Yes, the summer vegetable garden is hitting its stride just in time for this Wednesday’s Summer Solstice. If the shallow well I use for watering the veggies doesn’t go dry, I’m predicting an avalanche of ripe tomatoes in about a week. But this is just an update for those keeping tabs on my garden.

Today’s post is mostly about your questions — the ones I get via the search phrases you use to find my blog. WordPress’ statistics software conveniently tracks the terms you use to find my site, and over the last 7 days, I’ve noticed enough repetitive searches that I thought I’d try to address some of your issues.

First up: Indigo Rose tomatoes. You folks find my site often by searching for information on this new variety of tomato.  Many simply search on the name, but two other searches this past week caught my eye. You asked: Do Indigo Rose tomatoes taste good? And you searched on: My Indigo Rose tomato is slow to ripen.

So I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. Like many of you, the picture and description of this new tomato variety in this year’s seed catalogs piqued my curiosity enough to make me try growing them. If you search on this variety within my blog, you’ll find several entries that apply, but I’ll summarize what I’ve learned so far here. First, the seeds didn’t germinate quite as enthusiastically as the other varieties I grow; I got a 50% germination rate, which is low for me.

Second, the vines continue to grow well, but not nearly as fast as other varieties I grow. The other indeterminate varieties I grow send out many more growing shoots than my Indigo Rose plants. My theory — and I am totally guessing here — is that the purple pigment that colors the tomatoes and darkens the stems of the plants may reduce the amount of green pigment available for photosynthesis, thereby slowing the growth rate of the plant compared to more familiar tomato varieties.

Third, the Indigo Rose plants set abundant fruit; the clusters contain quite a number of relatively small fruits. When the fruits fully ripen, I’m thinking their small size and unique color will make them ideal for salads.

This brings me to your questions. Without a doubt, my Indigo Rose plants are ripening more slowly than my other varieties. Only in the last few days have the lower fruits on one of the plants begun to show the expected color change from green to reddish on the bottoms of the fruits. Here’s a shot of the bases of the ripening fruits:

Bases of Indigo Rose tomatoes finally begin to change color

And here’s the same cluster of tomatoes from the other side, so that you can see the blue/purple pigment on the tops of the fruits, along with a hint of the color change below:

Note the hint of redness along the bases of the fruits.

Thus, I advise patience to those searchers who are wondering why their Indigo Rose fruits aren’t ripe yet. You now have photographic evidence of what to look for. When they are fully ripe, I’ll be sure to post another photo in this blog.  Obviously, I can’t speak to the taste of these tomatoes yet, since, like you, I’m still waiting for them to achieve full ripeness.  Again, you’ll know when I know.

I’m also seeing a big uptick in questions about squash growing. This doesn’t surprise me. My squash are beginning to be plagued by squash bugs, and I actually have already lost one of the Y-Star patty pan plants I was growing. The roots of that plant were destroyed by voles. These plant-eating rodents are the worst I’ve ever seen them in my garden this year. I blame this past nonexistent winter for their abundance.

I’m also seeing a few bronze eggs on squash leaves, and when I watered yesterday, two squash bugs lurking at the base of a plant scurried up the stems to escape the water. I nabbed them quickly and deposited them in my bug extermination jar (filled with soapy water) that I keep in the garden this time of year. I wrote a long entry last year on everything I know about growing squash, which you can read here.

But I do want to address a search question that arose this week. Someone searched on:  sevin directly on squash vine borer and larvae.  By the way this question is worded, I’m guessing that someone is confusing our two main squash insect varmints: squash bugs and squash vine borers. You can read all about the differences in that entry linked above. But know that borers are the larval form of a moth; squash bugs hatch from eggs as smaller larval forms of the adults.

Because borers live inside squash stems, I can’t think of a way to get Sevin onto them. And although non-organic gardeners will tell you to put Sevin on squash to kill squash bugs, I think it’s a very bad idea. Sevin kills pollinators. If you want squash fruits, you need those pollinators. If you pile on the Sevin, you may have pretty plants, but you won’t get any squash.

Squash flowers need visits from pollinators like these if you want squash for your table.

One person searched on:  brownish bronze eggs that have been laid on my tomato plants. These could be squash bug eggs. I’ve known the bugs to lay eggs on other vegetables, even my basils, although I don’t think they eat them.

I’ll address additional search questions from my readers in future entries. If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer, send it to the e-mail address I list on my About page. I’ll try to help you if I can.

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Squash 101

Honey Bear Acorn Squash

Here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, summer temperatures have been keeping me sweating in the garden for about a month now. Because I had the best spring garden I’ve had in years, I rapidly fell behind on preparing the summer vegetable beds, which is why my squash plants are only just now ready to yield their first fruits. However, we’re still pulling onions, carrots, and even a little spinach from the spring garden, so I’m not too upset about the slower start to the summer vegetables.

As fast as the summer vegetables grow, you can barely tell I got behind at this point. The tomatoes are all now taller than me (I’m 5’4″), and I’m going to need a step stool to stand on to harvest the ‘maters, since they’re clearly heading straight for the moon this year. But tomato talk is for another day. Today, I want to write about squash.

Two Categories of Squash: Summer and Winter

This veggie is divided into two broad categories: summer squash and winter squash. Summer squashes include zucchinis, crooknecks, and pattypans. You pick them when they reach a size you like, and you eat them right away. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for a week or two, but not much longer.

Winter squash include acorn, butternut, delicata, and hubbard types, among others. These squash take longer to mature, and when stored in a cool, dark place (not the refrigerator) after proper curing, will keep for months.

In my Piedmont NC garden, I have great success with the summer squashes — at least for a while — long enough for us to grow tired of eating squash every day. However, I’ve never had much success with winter squashes, mostly because I don’t seem to be able to keep them alive long enough to mature. It’s the bugs. Squash varmints are tough.

Squash Insect Troublemakers: Borers and Bugs

The two insects that eventually kill my squash every year are Squash Vine Borers and Squash Bugs. All the gory details you need to know are here, but I’ll give you a few highlights.

I usually see the Squash Bugs first. In fact, this year, I caught one loitering on a basil plant waiting for me to uncover my young squashes, which were sealed away safely under a spun lightweight garden fabric designed to thwart the bugs. This fabric lets in light and water, but the bugs can’t get through it. When I transplant my squash seedlings into the vegetable beds, I immediately cover them with this garden cloth. They stay under it until they begin blooming.

Protecting with barriers

I an forced to uncover the plants when they begin to bloom so that pollinators can do their work. But until then, the plants are able to grow strong and unmolested, which I think makes them better able to withstand the bugs and borers after I remove the covers. Here’s what my little plants looked like right after I transplanted them out and covered them on May 16:

Squashes just planted and covered

Note that I didn’t plant them all together. In between them are peppers, basils, marigolds, and even some bush beans. By increasing diversity, I make it harder for the squash bugs and borers to find their targets, and I think the strong smell of the basils and marigolds may help disguise the squash scent a bit too — that’s my hope anyway.

Transplants work better than direct-sowing

I stopped direct-sowing squash in favor of greenhouse sowing some years ago. I have better control. Seed packets tell you to sow squash in hills containing several seeds. I’ve found this just creates a big mess as the plants grow and become entangled, and it’s much easier for the bad bugs to hide from you. Now I plant individual plants, mulch them, and keep them covered until they begin blooming. We are all happier with this arrangement — not counting the squash predators, of course.

Here’s what the plants looked like just before I removed their covers:

Almost ready for their big reveal

This year’s squash varieties

This year, I’m growing three summer squash varieties and one winter squash. I am weak when I peruse the seed catalogs in January, and the description of Honey Bear — an acorn type — sounded too good to pass up. That’s it with its first bloom in the photo at the top of this entry. I grow two plants of each type — that’s eight squash plants, for those doing the math. I know — that’s a lot of squash.

But when we’ve got more than we can handle, I generally give my excess away to friends and the local food bank. All the fruits find appreciative stomachs somewhere.

Summer varieties this year are Raven zucchini — a deep green fruit producer we really liked last year, Plato zucchini — a new variety that produces over a longer period than Raven, which tends to produce all its fruits at once, and Summer Sunburst — a pattypan type with lovely flavor and color that we’ve enjoyed for years.

My insect-management strategies

As for the bugs, I don’t use poisons. You’ll just kill the pollinators trying to get to your squash blossoms if you use them anyway. Instead, I patrol my plants almost every morning before the sun gets too hot. If you water the base of the plants, any hiding Squash Bugs will hightail it out of the mulch and onto the stems and leaves, where you can grab them and dispose of them. I keep a jar full of soapy water handy for the disposal part. I also inspect the leaves for the metallic bronze eggs of the Squash Bug; they’re quite distinctive. If I am diligent, I can usually keep my squash plants free of serious Squash Bug damage for at least six weeks after they begin producing.

Squash Vine Borers are tougher. Borers are the larval form of a clear-winged, inconspicuous moth that lays its eggs on the stems. The eggs hatch, and the larvae burrow inside and start eating. Goopy sawdust-looking yucky stuff along the stems is usually the first sign that the borers have moved in. Your options from there are all difficult, and after trying every one of them, I’ve settled on burying the affected part of the stem in hopes that the stem will grow new roots and keep going. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. But I’m usually pretty tired of eating squash by the time the borers kill the plants anyway.

At the same time borers begin to impact the squash plants, I’m usually dealing with unrelenting drought. Often my garden well has gone dry by then, and when squash plants don’t get enough water, the bugs cannot be stopped. It’s all downhill from there.

Some folks have issues with powdery mildew on their squash. I suspect I rarely see this because of the way I space out my squash plants and interplant them with other veggies, herbs, and flowers, but that’s just a theory.

Don’t forget to feed and water them

One more thing — feeding. I add a good organic vegetable fertilizer to the soil when I transplant my squashes. Then about every two weeks, I foliar feed all the vegetables, including the squash, with a dilute mix of fish emulsion and sea weed extract. I use a sprayer to spray the mixture onto the leaves of the plants, coating both sides as best as I can. You must do this early in the morning before the sun is strong, or you will boil your plants. And you don’t want to do it in the evening, because the moisture will linger and encourage mold growth. Foliar feeding has been shown in many studies to strengthen plants against predators and diseases, and the nutrients are absorbed directly into the leaves.  And until the solution dries, your garden has a nice ocean smell — just don’t let your cats lick the leaves before they’re dry. 🙂

All vegetables need an inch of water a week. If it doesn’t rain, you must add the water. This is especially important for members of the squash family (includes pumpkins and cucumbers), because so much of their fruits consists of water. Without adequate water, fruits will develop slowly, strangely, or not at all. When I slip my finger beneath the mulch around my squashes and I feel only dry soil, I know they are overdue for water. I try to keep the dirt beneath the mulch around my squash plants moist at all times.

Now you know everything I know about growing squash in the Southeast Piedmont of the United States. So get out there and get growing!

First blooms of Plato zucchini

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