Archive for the ‘Teachable Moments’ Category

Flood relief

Summer is the rainy season in Central Florida. Rain is frequent and heavy, and is often accompanied by gusty winds and lots of lightening. Anyone who has visited the region during the summer months can attest to the severity of our afternoon thunderstorms this time of year. They can also tell you how, once the storms clear out each evening, the sky will clear up again and we will have a warm and muggy, but otherwise pleasant evening.

This past week was different. One storm in particular had all the locals chattering on Facebook and comparing notes for several days afterward. Several things made this storm stand out. To begin with, it caught nearly everyone off guard by coming through the area at night. It also produced exceptionally heavy and frequent lightening. And thirdly, it dumped an incredible amount of water in a matter of just a few minutes. The rain gauge below shows what this storm dropped on my garden in under thirty minutes.

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Under normal circumstances, if I have young plants out, I can see the storms coming well enough in advance to bring the plants in under a shelter. Not this time. My young seedlings caught the brunt of it. And by the time I was aware of the storm, there was far too much lightening for me to go outside safely. Thinking back on it afterward, I realized that I did hear the storm coming; however, since I live within earshot of the Magic Kingdom, I actually thought the thunder was just a somewhat louder than normal nightly fireworks display. Little did I know!

When I checked on the seedlings the next morning, the tray they were sitting in was filled to the rim, and it was obvious that the plants had taken a beating. I didn’t think to take a picture at the time, though. I just dumped the water, tidied up the plants and refilled their little peat pots with fresh Mel’s Mix.

Yesterday, we had yet another heavy storm. This one wasn’t quite so intense, but I did not see it coming, and once again my plants got hit pretty hard. Here’s what their tray looked like this morning. There was almost an inch in the rain gauge. As you can see, much of the soil was once again pounded out of the pots. Some of the pots themselves had even been ripped by the force of these storms!

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Today, I provided them some relief. I repotted those in the worst shape, moving them to plastic pots, and placed the plastic pots in a tray with drainage. I am hoping that does the trick. While they are still vulnerable, I will try to pull them in out of harm’s way, but obviously I’m not always able to be there for them.

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Here’s hoping they have seen the worst of it! In the meantime, happy gardening!

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:

A Nightmare on Vine Street

The day started out like any other in Gardenville. As the sun peeked through the hedges, the dew on the squash vines glistened, just as it did on the beans and tomatoes planted nearby. The bright yellow squash blossoms caught the sun in that certain way that gave them a “come hither” look sure to be irresistible to any passing pollinator. The young fruits were already beginning to swell and take shape, promising the yellow crooknecks a head-start of several days in front of their rivals, the nearby zucchinis, in the race to the dinner table. From all outward appearances, it was starting out to be yet another wonderful day in paradise for growing veggies.

Alas, outward appearances can be deceiving. By the time the gardener strolled out for his customary midday garden check, it was apparent that a nightmare had come to visit Gardenville. The evidence was right there in the middle of Vine Street. Rather than find the usual assortment of minor garden-tending tasks, such as tying something here, snipping something there, or providing a welcome drink of water to a thirsty plant, the gardener found himself standing face-to-face with something much more sinister: the dreaded Melittia cucurbitae, otherwise known by its more descriptive term, [cue the ominous music] the squash vine borer.

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The symptoms were clear. Several vines had simply drooped to the ground, still attached, but totally limp, withered, and hopeless looking. No amount of watering would revive them from this kind of wilt. Upon closer examination, the telltale signs of squash vine borer were there — the translucent appearance to the affected stalks, the occasional small hole near the base, accompanied by an accumulation of gooey looking frass. A few snips and a slit later, and the offending organism was found. There it was — that inch long mass of writhing, wriggling larval protoplasm that spelled gloom and doom for any infected squash plant. The gardener’s heart sank.

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Epilogue

Despite my best efforts to deal with this pest, I eventually had to concede defeat. Melittia cucurbitae had won this round. My next planting opportunity for these varieties will be in September. I have until then to plan my strategy for dealing with this garden version of Freddy Krueger.

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In the meantime, the space previously occupied by by yellow crookneck and zucchini will be planted in cowpeas, since they are not susceptible to this parasite and do well in Florida’s hot summer weather. As for any cravings for garden-fresh summer squash, my best bet will be one of the nearby farmer’s markets.