Archive for June, 2012

After the Storm

Tropical Storm Debby pulled away on Wednesday after dropping a total of about 7 or 8 inches of rain on the area. As the skies cleared and the sun started to dry things out, I was able to return once again to my garden and make an inspection tour. I was actually very pleasantly surprised to find that nearly everything had not only come through unscathed, but seemed to have been relishing the deep, soaking rain. I will use the pictures I took during that tour to give you a quick guided tour.

The pictures below provide an overview of my vegetable garden. The first one shows two of my 4×4 raised beds in the foreground, with my cowpea patch just beyond. Although they’re hard to make out in this picture, I also have a row of green beans (White Half Runner) planted along the fence in the background. Those beans were planted in March and have about run their course, so I will be taking them out in the next day or two.

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The next picture shows my SFG bed, a 4×4 raised bed which is the only bed I currently have planted in strict accordance with Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Garden specifications. As you can see, the plants in this bed are thriving, so thus far I give a big, green thumbs-up sign regarding this approach.

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My fourth and final raised bed is the 3×6 bed shown below. Its primary purpose is to be a blueberry bed, but from this angle the two blueberry bushes are hard to discern. One is located just to the right of and slightly behind the bean tower in this picture; the other is in the mirror-image location on the left. The beans you see growing up past the top of the picture are Kentucky Wonder beans, all growing from a single square foot.

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You may notice above that the square just to the left of the beans is empty. I had to remove the cucumbers previously growing there, because sometime during the storm, they succumbed to what I presume was a squash vine borer attack. Here is what they looked like when I found them.

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Moving on to happier thoughts, the next two pictures show some bell peppers (Sweet California Wonder) and the first okra pod (Clemson Spineless) of the season.

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The next two pictures show varieties I have never grown before, and which I am anxious to see on my dinner table. First, you can see a close-up of Lina Sisco’s Bird Egg beans. The pods become streaked with purple shortly before ripening. They are then allowed to dry on the vine before harvesting. The shelled beans themselves are very pretty little dried beans with a white or cream color, mottled with purple. Second, you can see a Fish pepper plant. It is now blooming quite a bit, and although I couldn’t get a good picture showing one, it has some little tiny pepper pods beginning to grow. Like the plant, the pods should be streaked with white.

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I also noticed during this tour that the first of my cowpeas are developing pods. The picture below shows some California 46 Blackeyed peas on their way to becoming harvest-ready.

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As you can see in this next picture, the marigolds are really beginning to come into bloom now.

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And the rose bush I just planted the other day made it through the storm okay, even though it needed to be staked to stabilize it.

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In my butterfly garden, several of the nectar sources are really popping out in blossoms. This picture shows some Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea).

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Next is one of only three species of lantana native to Florida, Lantana depressa, so named because it stays low to the ground, rarely exceeding a foot in height.

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Towering above the other plants in the area is this rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium). This is the same blossom that I showed being weighed down by the rain in my Wordless Wednesday Walkaround blog post earlier this week.

As an aside in case you are wondering, I do have other tall varieties planted nearby; they just haven’t grown yet. I am hoping they will catch up by late summer.

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Since the storm left, I have noticed an incredible number of butterflies hanging around, but I have yet to get a picture worth posting. So far, I have seen several Zebra Longwings (Florida’s state butterfly), a couple Giant Swallowtails, a Black Swallowtail, and numerous Gulf Fritillaries. Speaking of Gulf Fritillaries, I found several Gulf Fritillary caterpillars on my passion vine, including the one in the next picture.

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Before signing off, to keep from leaving you with the false impression that everything made it through the storm without problems, I’ll show a couple examples of things that didn’t fare quite so well. First, before the storm I had quite a display of tithonia torch (Tithonia rotundiflora) blossoms here and there around the yard. They are supposed to look like this:

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Unfortunately, most of them now look like this:

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I also have a couple hills of young, still rather tender pigeon pea bushes. The sandy soil nearby must have taken quite a pounding with the rain, as the plants now look like those below. Although they are still standing upright, I am concerned about the sand filtering too much light, inhibiting photosynthesis. For that reason, I will try to gently wash the sand off the leaves tomorrow. However, anyone who has tried to wash sand off themselves or anything else following a visit to the beach will recall that sand doesn’t loosen its grip easily, especially with just a gentle washing.

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I will leave you with that for now. I hope you have enjoyed this brief tour around my garden!

Happy Gardening!

Wordless Wednesday Walkaround

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If I promise to miss you, will you go away?

I wish I could tell you how much rain Tropical Storm Debby dropped on the area before pulling away, but I can’t; she hasn’t left yet. Between squalls yesterday, I emptied the rain gauge shortly before it would have overflowed. The marks on the gauge go up to five inches, so it was a bit more than that. I emptied it again this evening, but it only had a bit over an inch then. Now, it looks like it could start pouring any minute. Rain chance overnight is at 70% and then 80% tomorrow. It looks like it should start to dry out on Thursday or Friday.

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But I’m not complaining!! It has obviously caused me to curtail my gardening activities, but we have been bone dry this year until now, and this storm could have been a whole lot worse. Locations along Florida’s Gulf coast have had several times this amount of rain, leaving a number of areas flooded. I also remember the summer of 2004, when we had three full-fledged hurricanes (Charley, Frances, and Jeanne) come through here in a matter of six weeks! Even as I write this, western states such as Colorado are experiencing hot temperatures and devastating fires, and the northeast is melting from record heat coupled with humidity. So, all things considered, Debby has actually been a rather well-behaved guest, as tropical systems go. But she has overstayed her welcome. Truth be told, I’m just itching to get back out in my garden, that’s all.

Still, I did manage to do a couple things garden-wise today. The sun came out for a little while this afternoon between rain squalls, so I was able to expose my fall starter tray to a few rays. This is sorely needed, as several of the plants, tomatoes in particular, are getting quite leggy.

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I also had time between rains to harvest some green beans. It’s not a huge harvest, but it’s enough to allow the two of us to have beans with a couple meals. You can see for yourself in the picture below. These are a combination of White Half Runner and Kentucky Wonder. With any luck, I should be able to pick another batch in about a week or so.

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Well, here comes the rain again! Seriously. I’m not making this up.

Rainy Days and Sundays

We don’t get very many rainy days here in Florida. Now, before you look at me like I’ve flipped my lid, note that I did not say we don’t get very many days with rain here. We do. Hardly a day goes by in the summer without it raining. On a typical summer day, we will have sunshine in the morning, clouds at midday, and then by sometime in the afternoon, the skies let loose with lightening all around, gusty winds, and blinding, driving, torrential rains. And then it’s over. The rain stops, the wind dies down, and the sun comes back out.

That’s not what I’m talking about. A “rainy day” is one of those days when you wake up to rain, have rain throughout the day, and when the sun goes back down, it’s still raining. On the rare occasions when we do get this kind of a rainy day, the rain usually has a name. Today has been one of those days, and the rain’s name is Debby. That name was assigned by the US National Hurricane Center yesterday evening when Debby reached tropical storm status.

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I snapped this picture about an hour ago, and it has continued to rain since then. For those of you more accustomed to the metric scale, the other side of the gauge shows a reading of about 7 cm.

I don’t know how much we will end up with before this system moves out. The forecasts have been very inaccurate up to this point. In fact, based on last night’s forecast, I went to bed with the expectation of spending today gardening. That didn’t happen. Nonetheless, I’m still grateful. So far, we have been spared the really heavy rain, and we haven’t had any winds of consequence.

About the only gardening I’ve accomplished today was a little bit of tending to my fall garden’s starter tray. The tomato and pepper seedlings are big enough now to where I was able to select the strongest specimens and to clip out the rest. I always feel a twinge of guilt when I play God like that, but I know it’s for the best. So, with just a few scissors snips, I got that starter tray down to one plant per square. Pretty soon I will be moving them into individual pots to carry them through the next phase. They are getting a bit leggy now, so if it ever stops raining, I’ll start exposing them to more sunshine.

Just not today. Debby says otherwise.

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I Never Promised You Much of a Rose Garden

Today I took care of some long overdue gardening chores by tending to a part of my yard that has been sadly neglected of late: my rose garden. It’s probably a bit of a euphemism to call it a rose garden. It’s actually just a strip of land along the south-facing side of our house in which I try to grow roses (with mixed success).

There are several reasons for my challenge with rose gardening. For starters, roses and Florida don’t naturally get along very well. By nature, roses prefer a cooler, more temperate climate with gentle rains spread out fairly evenly throughout the year. They’re quite happy in places like the British Isles or, in North America, along the Pacific Northwest. I hear they also do pretty well in the higher altitudes of East Africa (although they had to be imported there). Places like Central Florida, where we have long, hot summers featuring torrential downpours are just not part of their natural habitat.

There are varieties that have been specially developed for our climate, and I do find roses to be very pretty, so I have designated a section of my yard for rose gardening. The varieties adapted to our climate prefer full sun, so the south wall is ideal for them.

I actually prefer to grow native, or at least “Florida friendly” flowers, for reasons I’ll go into in a separate post. However, since the roses that grow here can only be propagated through grafts and cuttings, I decided that roses do not represent any kind of threat to the environment, so it would be okay to set aside a small portion of my yard to grow them. Besides, the only thing they displaced was St. Augustine grass, which is equally unnatural.

Having said all that, I had allowed this little rose garden to get in rather pitiful shape. I only had five rose bushes to begin with. One of them had died. Another is probably deserving of an intensive care unit. The rest are doing okay, but needed a fair amount of pruning to get rid of some diseased leaves and spent blossoms, not to mention some shaping. On top of that, the nearby grass had begun to creep back into the area, and as best I can tell, the mowing crew (with all due apologies to Mother Nature) appears to have treated that grass to some Round-Up last time they were here. Here’s what it looked like when I got to it this afternoon:

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The first order of business was to remove the dead grass. That didn’t take very long, given that it was dead. I also pulled out the dead rose bush. The next couple of pictures show how it looked following this clean-out.

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With that out of the way, it was time to start the restoration. First, I dug a nice, big hole where the dead rose had been and installed the replacement I had purchased earlier in the day. I forgot to take a picture of the replacement before planting it, but it’s a multi-variety graft of three different varieties of long-stemmed hybrid tea rose. The varieties are called Red Sensation (red, as you can imagine), Cool Breeze (which is a dark pink), and Orlando (a lighter pink with a purplish cast to it). It should be quite pretty, and it should provide for some nice cut flowers to place in vases around the house from time to time.

Now, there couldn’t be a worse time of year to plant roses here. Ideally, roses should be planted around January or February in this area. But when you are replacing a dead one, anything is an improvement. Besides, I purchased this one at a store that offers a one year replacement guarantee on all live plants, so I should be covered if it doesn’t do well.

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With the new plant in place (on the right in the next picture below), it was time to improve the soil. One problem I knew I had was with the sandy soil not holding water very well. I also assumed it was rather depleted of its nutrients. I started out by spreading a mixed soil containing loam, compost, and peat. Then I added a layer of just peat moss.

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Next, I added a layer of course vermiculite to help with moisture retention.

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Once the vermiculite was in place, I added some rich, loamy topsoil, which just happened to have some earthworms already in it!

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Finally, I spread all that mixture around and worked it thoroughly to give it a fairly uniform color and texture.

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The last thing I did was plant some chives. It just so happens that chives are a good companion for roses. Their scent serves to detract a number of rose pests, and their roots should help to retain the soil in between the widely spaced roses. Aesthetically, the chives should fill in the sparse space with some greenery, as well as some pretty purple blossoms. Chives also tie in nicely with my desire to add edible landscaping wherever feasible. The entire plant is edible, including the blossom.

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An Unexpected Visitor

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I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw this little fellow appearing to stake a claim on my bell pepper!

As a practical matter, I’m sure his (or her) presence there will help keep the insect population in check.

Of Nematodes and Gnomes

I don’t know why, but whenever I hear the word “nematode”, I always think of gnomes. I had the unfortunate experience of having to think of nematodes today, so naturally my thoughts turned to gnomes. I’ll have more to say about the nematodes in a minute.

As I suspect is the case with most of my fellow travelers through this mass-produced, fast-paced, fully-interconnected, always-on, just-in-time, homogenous, twenty-first century of ours, the first image that comes to mind is that of the ubiquitous ceramic garden gnome statuettes that pop up in as many places around the world as Flat Stanley and that may be colored differently or have different facial features, but pretty much all look alike. But where, I wondered, did the idea for that little guy come from? To answer this question, I did a little research and came up with this gem from the Encyclopedia Brittanica: “In European folklore, dwarfish, subterranean goblin or earth spirit who guards mines of precious treasures hidden in the earth.” That sounds pretty much like the creature caricatured by those statuettes, but it doesn’t do much to explain my mental association with nematodes.

The article went on to say that gnomes are “represented in medieval mythologies as a small, physically deformed (usually hunchbacked) creature resembling a dry, gnarled old man.” I read that and the word “Bingo!” was shouted from somewhere in the recesses of my mind and bells started going off. Take a look at the picture below and you’ll understand why. The picture shows the roots of a tomato plant infested with root knot nematode, or simply RKN, as it is known in gardening literature.

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A number of sources also mentioned the 16th century alchemist Paracelsus, crediting him with popularizing the term. As he described them, gnomes had the ability to move through solid earth in much the same way fish do through water. I guess that explains how the nematode gnomes came to live right beneath one of my best tomato plants.

Until a few months ago, this tomato was among the most productive in my entire garden. It was a Super Sioux that I started from seed last August. It regularly bore fruit throughout the winter months and into the spring. At its peak, its longest vines were up past the top of the eight-foot stakes I used to support it. Lately, though, it has been in a state of decline. Its demise started out slowly; enough to give me an excuse to be in denial, but then the decline became precipitous and I knew it was just a matter of time. I tried to stave off the inevitable. I trimmed off the unhealthy vines to allow the plant to direct its energy to new growth. I fed it a well balanced, organic tomato food. I watered it carefully and regularly. It was all to no avail. Today I had to give up and say goodbye to my friend.

RKN is a common problem here in Central Florida, so it is not unexpected, merely unwelcome. I had had other tomatoes succumb to this disease in the past, so I recognized the signs: leaves that lose their luster, some leaves that turn yellow and drop off, lack of fruit production, and just a general appearance of declining health. The symptoms are similar to those of tomatoes lacking nutrition. The difference is that a good dose of nutrients does not help to revive an RKN-infected tomato. In fact, the reason for the decline of the plant is that the knots on the roots (a form of scar tissue) prevent the roots from being able to take up nutrients.

There are precious few organic remedies for RKN available. One of the best approaches is to cover the soil with black plastic for a few weeks, ideally in the summer, and allow the high temperatures to kill off the nematodes. However, given that I have such limited space to work with and because I have other plants in such close proximity, I have been seeking other methods that won’t require idling so much of my garden for that period of time.

The approach I am taking is two-fold. First, I planted French marigolds. As you can see in the picture below, I actually planted one marigold alongside this tomato several weeks ago when I suspected the nematodes. Everything I have read about using marigolds to treat nematodes has emphasized that they need to be French marigolds, not African. Second, I will try to steer toward RKN-resistant varieties of plants for the next planting in this space. The French marigolds are said to leave behind a substance that is toxic to these pests. By following them with resistant varieties, the hope is to basically starve any nematodes that survive the marigold toxins.

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If you are like me, you may find it a bit tricky to locate French marigolds. Several months ago when I first discovered an RKN problem elsewhere in my garden, I went looking for a local supplier of French marigold plants so I could get them up and growing quickly. Most of the ones I found at retail outlets were simply labeled “Marigolds” and the sales people were of no help. Some were labeled as African marigolds, but I could not find the French variety anywhere. Failing that, I scoured the seed racks, with pretty much the same result, so I turned to the Internet and quickly found some I liked for a decent price at Amazon.com. They are certified organic French Brocade Marigolds from Seeds of Change. I ordered a pack and planted them right away. In another couple weeks, they should come into full bloom.

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They have several others as well, but if you’re interested in this one, here’s a link to the exact product I bought: