Posts Tagged summer vegetable garden

Hello, Summer — Almost

White Ibis flying over mouth of Cape Fear River in Southport, NC

White Ibis flying over mouth of Cape Fear River in Southport, NC

I know that most folks measure the beginning of summer from Memorial Day, which is still a bit more than two weeks away, but I’m thinking summer has gotten a head start this year. My evidence? Well, there’s Tropical Storm Ana, which hammered the NC coast just as Wonder Spouse and I were departing. We had a lovely, mild week of weather, and Wonder Spouse took hundreds of great photos, like the one above (Click on the photo to see a larger version). Let’s all meditate on that tranquil shot and say a collective “Aaaah,” before I return to the garden tasks now facing me.

Dazoc potatoes on May 11

Dazoc potatoes on May 11

The vegetables were very busy while we were gone. Wonder Spouse took one look at the growth of his beloved potatoes and immediately unfolded another level of his potato bags, so that he could tuck in more of his magic growing mix around his prodigies.

The Kipfel fingerling potatoes really multiplied:

Kipfel fingerling potatoes on May 11

Kipfel fingerling potatoes on May 11

I’m thinking their reputation for productivity is likely justified. If you’ve never eaten a fingerling potato, try some from your local farmer’s market when they show up freshly harvested in a month or so. Pure potato heaven awaits you.

Purple Viking potatoes on May 11

Purple Viking potatoes on May 11

The Purple Vikings are not as numerous, but the plants have really bulked up. I suspect their tubers are doing the same thing.

My beans germinated while I was gone. The Fortex pole beans came up enthusiastically, but the Jade bush beans did not. I wasn’t home to water the soil to keep it softer for germinating seedlings, and the Jades, which are not as robust as the Fortexes, may have suffered accordingly. Or the voles ate the seeds. I seem to have a bumper crop of voracious voles this year. I try not to hate any of Mother Nature’s creatures, but I’m still searching for a reason to appreciate voles.

Enthusiastic Fortex pole bean seedlings. I resowed the Jade bush beans yesterday.

Enthusiastic Fortex pole bean seedlings. I resowed the Jade bush beans yesterday.

The peppers and tomatoes are filled with flowers and tiny fruits. I spent a good half hour or so tying up tomatoes that shot up a foot while I wasn’t home to watch them. The squash seedlings now have multiple leaves; they’re still safely tucked beneath their Reemay tents until they begin flowering.

The bed of greens needs a good harvesting before the heat turns them bitter. The dill, chives, and parsley really filled out, and enhance just about every meal we eat (I don’t put them on my morning oatmeal, but they make scrambled eggs sing).

Red Ace beets look to be especially productive this year.

Red Ace beets look to be especially productive this year.

And, of course, I can’t close without showing you some of the fabulous flowers currently adorning our five acres. The Fraser Magnolia finished blooming while we were gone. I can just see small seed cones beginning to develop. Currently, the Ashe Magnolia is showing off, and I do mean showing off. This shrubby small tree decided to bloom from top to bottom this year. And when I say bottom, I mean touching the ground.

My Ashe Magnolia is just beginning its bloom cycle.

My Ashe Magnolia is just beginning its bloom cycle.

I could smell the sweet perfume of this magnolia before I got within 20 feet of it.

This Ashe Magnolia flower nearly rests on the ground.

This Ashe Magnolia flower nearly rests on the ground.

The Ashe Magnolia’s bigger cousin, Bigleaf Magnolia is full of buds. It will complete the native deciduous magnolia show in another week or two.

A Bigleaf Magnolia flower bud high above my head. This tree is about 20 feet tall now.

A Bigleaf Magnolia flower bud high above my head. This tree is about 20 feet tall now.

The deciduous azalea show is winding down, but the cultivar of Rhododendron flammeum — Scarlet Ibis — is peaking this week. The blooms don’t look scarlet to me, but they are indisputably spectacular, with a subtle perfume that adds to their wow factor.

R. flammeum 'Scarlet Ibis' grabs your attention even from a distance.

R. flammeum ‘Scarlet Ibis’ grabs your attention even from a distance.

A closer view of its flowers is even more eye-popping.

A closer view of its flowers is even more eye-popping.

A few more currently blooming floral highlights before I close this post:

Baptisa 'Purple Smoke' provides consistent spring color every year, and the plants continue to expand.

Baptisa ‘Purple Smoke’ provides consistent spring color every year, and the plants continue to expand.

 

The white-blooming form of Florida Anisetree contrasts beautifully with the more common red-flowered ones.

The white-blooming form of Florida Anise-tree contrasts beautifully with the more common red-flowered ones.

 

Seed-grown yellow foxgloves bloom for over a month every year, and they self-sow too.

Seed-grown yellow foxgloves bloom for over a month every year, and they self-sow too.

The two Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ plants I added some years ago have become a Sweet Kate horde, and that’s just fine with me. They will bloom off and on until frost, barring severe heat waves/droughts.

Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate' is blooming enthusiastically beside my front water feature.

Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ is blooming enthusiastically beside my front water feature.

To close this update, let’s meditate once more on the peace and tranquility that only a spring trip to the NC coast can provide. Wonder Spouse took this shot from the deck of our rental cottage. After several hours of rain, the sun returned on the final day of our visit and painted the sky with a rainbow framed against departing clouds (Click on it to fully appreciate the shot).

Aaaah...

Aaaah…

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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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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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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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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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So much to see …

An iris (name forgotten) thriving in a neglected corner of my vegetable garden.

An iris (name forgotten) thriving in a neglected corner of my vegetable garden.

Is is just my yard, or is everyone seeing an explosion of growth from their gardens? There is so much to see that I really need to be outside every day with the camera. I am certain that I’ve missed peak moments of some of my spring beauties.

Everywhere I turn, I am wowed by another gorgeous flower — like that iris in the above photo. Long ago, I chunked some irises into a bed in my vegetable garden, thinking it would be nice to have a place for cut flowers and to bring in pollinators. I’ve forgotten the names of the varieties planted there, and most years, I am very slow to get their area weeded. But despite nearly complete neglect, they reward me with spectacular flowers every year. I love that about the bearded irises.

Speaking of which, check out these:

Iris 'Batik'

Iris ‘Batik’

These jaw-droppingly gorgeous blooms live in my front garden — another currently very neglected part of my yard. But do they complain? Never! They continue to multiply, blooming ever more magnificently every year.

Another plant that stops everyone in their tracks in my front garden this year is the coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’). It grows and blooms so wonderfully that I’ve had to prune it severely several times over the years to prevent it from pulling down the trellis it perches on.

Major Wheeler's scarlet wall of beauty

Major Wheeler’s scarlet wall of beauty

Why, you may ask, am I missing daily walks and neglecting beauties like those above? Two things: the vegetable garden and the greenhouse. As you may recall, my greenhouse was jam-packed with plants I grew from seed — veggies and flowers. However, in my part of NC, by early May, our temperatures are usually getting summertime hot. Even though the roof of my little greenhouse is covered by shade cloth and ventilated with a temperature-sensor-controlled fan — and I keep the door wide open during the day — temperatures get into the 100s in there pretty early.

Thus, I’ve been in my annual race to get everything growing in the greenhouse planted and/or moved to their summer spots before they sautéed themselves in the greenhouse. I’ve been working dawn to dusk at least every other day (weather permitting) to achieve that goal. And I just finished yesterday. Yes, I am tired, and yes, my aging, overused joints are not entirely happy with me. But it’s done. Every seed-grown start has been transplanted, watered, and mulched. Now it’s up to them and the whimsies of weather.

Top priority was the vegetable garden. Food plants always trump flowers. If I do say so myself, that part of my yard is looking pretty darn good. See for yourself.

Squashes grow large within their tents, surrounded by peppers, flowers, and herbs.

Squashes grow large within their tents, surrounded by peppers, flowers, and herbs.

The Fortex pole beans are making excellent progress.

It wouldn't be summer without Fortex pole beans for dinner.

It wouldn’t be summer without Fortex pole beans for dinner.

One thing I love about a late spring vegetable garden — everything looks so neat and tidy. After the plants have grown a while, weather, bugs, and diseases create a more “lived-in” look.

Potatoes in the foreground, onions, lettuces, and the summer veggies in back.

Potatoes in the foreground, onions, lettuces, and the summer veggies in back.

Today is the first day my area will go into the 90s since last September. I have not missed those temperatures. Also, all the bugs are back — the good, the bad, and the really annoying — biting flies, gnats, ticks. It’s a jungle out there again, or getting there anyway.

No more working dawn to dusk for this gardener. As summer temperatures settle in, I’ll be up at dawn for a bit of quick pruning, tying, watering, and harvesting, then back indoors by 9:00 a.m.  Unless a rare cool spell stops by.

Also stopping by this week, a couple of critters I don’t often see. A Red-headed Woodpecker hung around my yard for about 4 days, even sampling my suet feeders. I see them every once in a while, but they never seem to stay. I’ve always wondered if the Red-bellied Woodpeckers drive them away.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

This other critter was trying to hide in my garage when I found him. I suspect he escaped from a load of wood chip mulch that I’d been spreading. That’s where these beetles live, so it was likely my fault that he was wandering around my garage. I relocated him to the mulch pile.

Eyed Click Beetle

Eyed Click Beetle

I haven’t begun to enumerate all that’s showing off in my yard right now. The Ash Magnolia blooms will be open very soon. The deciduous azaleas are amazing this year. The swamp wildflowers are ridiculously enthusiastic, likely from all that rain they had last summer.

I confess I spend my too-infrequent walks around the yard exclaiming over the loveliness of a bloom, the rate of growth of a particular shrub, the tiny discarded cones beneath my towering Dawn Redwood. Spring in my garden makes me a child again — surprised and delighted by every gift Mother Nature bestows on me.

Baptisia 'Purple Smoke'

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’

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To graft or not to graft?

Do the advantages compensate for the extra cost?

Do the advantages compensate for the extra cost?

Actually, I’m not planning on grafting my vegetables myself. Spending time grafting annuals for a small home garden is not efficient for my situation. However, everywhere I turn — in catalogs and gardening magazines — the big buzz is about the advantages of planting grafted vegetables.  All the catalogs want to sell me these higher priced darlings.

If you use your favorite search engine to learn about the advantages of grafted veggies, you will get many, many results. A quick perusal on my part this morning was instructive. Apparently, the Japanese, especially greenhouse operations, have been grafting melons, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers for quite some time. Fruit production is supposed to be higher, as is the length of productivity — more fruits over a longer period.

For those unfamiliar with this ancient horticultural technique, grafting usually involves putting together two different cultivars of the same species. Fruit growers have been doing this for centuries. They look for a tree with a vigorous root system and less-than-spectacular fruits and a tree with great fruit quality but perhaps weaker roots. They take a cutting from the top of the tasty plant (called a scion) and plug it into the lopped-off top of the plant with vigorous roots (called the rootstock). When done correctly, the two pieces grow together nicely, leaving just a bit of a scar line where they join. The grafted fruit tree scion generally becomes able to produce more, healthier fruit, because it is growing on the vigorous rootstock.

Often, rootstock plants are more resistant to diseases than the tasty fruit plants, so when the rootstock is able to impart this advantage to its grafted top, fruit production improves. This propagation process makes perfect sense to me for long-lived perennials and trees. But for annuals in a home garden? I’m just not sure, which is why my 2013 garden will feature an experiment.

Tomato growers are hyping grafted heirloom plants as the solution to heirloom tomatoes’ notorious susceptibility to diseases, most of which linger in the soil for years. They claim that an heirloom tomato growing on disease-resistant rootstock will give growers much more vigorous plants, and prolonged crops of tasty Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, etc.

For some situations, this may be true. For example, if your garden space is so small that you can’t manage to rotate your crops each year, grafted veggies may help you. When you rotate crops, you avoid growing members of the same plant family in the same spot every year. I am blessed with a large garden area. I only grow the same plant family in the same spot after growing other plants there for the previous two years. This may not eliminate every vestige of lingering disease spores, but I think it helps a lot.

Squashes are members of the cucurbit family.

Squashes are members of the cucurbit family.

For those who may have forgotten, squash, melons, and cucumbers are all members of the cucurbit family. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes are all members of the Solanaceae family, and peas and beans are legumes. Rotating where you grow these family groups makes it harder for their diseases and predators to lay in wait for them.

I have also read research that suggests that stressed plants produce more chemicals that make them less appealing to bad bugs and diseases. Grafting does stress plants, in that it requires them to allocate resources to heal the graft wound. Maybe this revs up the plant’s vigor?

The only way to learn more is to try some of these new-fangled plants, so I have ordered two grafted plants: a Brandywine and a Goliath. I have never had much success with seed-grown Brandywines in my garden. I usually get a few nice fruits, then the plant is overwhelmed by disease. I usually pull them out of the garden before the hybridized, disease-resistant tomatoes are halfway done. If the grafted Brandywine I plant this year really performs better, I will be a believer in the concept, although I’m still not sure it is enough of a return on investment to justify the cost.

The other grafted variety I’m trying is Goliath. This hybrid, disease-resistant tomato has always produced magnificently for me from seed-grown plants. I cannot imagine that grafting will improve its productivity in my garden, but it will be interesting to see.

Of course, I must have control plants to measure against the grafted ones, so I’ll also grow Brandywine and Goliath tomato plants from seed as usual. I’ll plant them at opposite ends of the trellises to minimize any cross contamination. May the best tomato win.

Fans of grafted tomatoes wax positively poetic about how disease-resistant rootstocks will prevent diseases from overwhelming tasty, disease-susceptible heirlooms. I am a doubter for my garden, because the root systems of all my tomatoes are always vigorous, and <knock on wood> I don’t have a nematode problem in my garden soil.

Most of the diseases that hit my tomatoes correlate with weather — hot humid summers breed fungal plagues — and insect infestations — spotted cucumber beetles, stink bugs, and other sucking insect predators insert diseases into plants when they suck out their juices. Unless the act of grafting in itself is the key to such improved vigor that even insect-introduced diseases are repelled, I doubt I’ll see much, if any, difference between my seed-grown controls and grafted test subjects.

Similarly, many of the soil-born wilts reach leaves when they are splashed up off the ground by watering or heavy rain. If you use organic mulch around your tomatoes, as I do, eventually soil-based fungi will find their way onto lower leaves, then work their way up from there. I don’t see how a disease-resistant rootstock will save a grafted heirloom in that scenario.

One more point for those who may have read about my tomato-planting technique in previous posts. I always dig a deep hole, maybe 8 inches below ground level, so that I can plant tomato seedlings deeply. The newly buried length of stem almost instantly begins to sprout roots, which may explain why my tomato plants always have vigorous, plentiful root systems.  However, for the grafted plants, I won’t be able to do this.

If I buried the grafted plants so that the graft line was below soil level, the buried stem of the scion (top part) would sprout roots. Because those roots would be from a plant that is less disease-resistant, any advantage conferred by the graft would be negated. This is another reason I’ll be surprised if the grafts win the productivity race. Their root systems will almost certainly remain smaller than their seed-grown competitors. If roots are the key piece of this puzzle, my money is on the seed-grown, deeply buried plants.

I’ll keep you posted as the season progresses. I’ve ordered all my seeds and plants, and I’ll be prepping my greenhouse soon for seed production mode. It will be most interesting to see the results of this experiment.

Have you ordered your seeds yet? If not, get busy. Seed sales are up as more folks are trying to grow some of their own food. To get the best selection, ordering soon is your best option.

Don't forget the herbs and flowers when you order your veggie seeds. A diverse garden is always healthier.

Don’t forget the herbs and flowers when you order your veggie seeds. A diverse garden is always healthier.

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