Monday, May 30, 2011

A TOMATO EMERGENCY- Practicing Field Medicine

Our tomatoes were doing great; thick strong stems, dark green leaves, flowers blooming, fruit forming.... then one morning about a week ago I walked into the garden to find some of them wilting. Oh, crap, the dreaded southern blight is back! This is some evil stuff for which there is no organic remedy. It is a soil borne fungus that attacks the stem of the plant at the soil line. By the time you see the symptoms ( leaf yellowing and wilting of the stems) it is usually too late to do anything.

But I had to try. I do not want to lose my whole tomato crop in the front garden. The first thing I did was to treat the plants with Bacillus subtilis (Sererenade) a bacteria that attacks fungi. When I examined the plants to confirm my suspicions i noticed the presence of adventitious roots ( the little bumps) along the stem.
I thought that maybe i could make a kind of poultice out of worm castings by soaking them in water and packing them around the stem to provide a medium for the adventitious roots to grow into making a new root system above the dying one. I did that and one of the plants is beginning to recover. I can see new roots growing out into the worm castings. We are going to have temperatures in the mid 90's for the next 10 days so it will be a race to see if the plant can grow roots fast enough to meet its water needs in the heat.

The blight has spread to several neighboring plants. I placed poultices around them and pruned the wilted stems to reduce stress. Tomorrow I will put poultices around the rest of the plants in this part of the garden as a preventative measure. It is possible that there are beneficial organisms in the worm casting that will attack the blight and protect the remaining plants.

This stuff will attack beans, melons, peppers and many other plants. It will persist in the soil for several years. It will not survive being buried deep in the soil and it requires undecomposed organic matter to get started. Apparently grasses, i.e. rye or wheat, are not hosts so i will probably till deeply and plant a cover crop in the fall.

I will post updates about whether or not my palliative measures are working.

As a further precaution I got some replacement plants and planted them in a bed far away from the infected ones so I will have a later crop to take their places if this crap spreads.

Here is some additional information about Southern Blight from N.C. State extension.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Eggplants Like it Hot and Patience is a Virtue

About a month ago, against my better judgement, I planted some small eggplant transplants in the ground. We had a week of unusually low temperatures and they just sat there sulking while the flea beetles proceeded to ravage them. Just what I expected to happen.

2 weeks ago i planted some of the same transplants into some large containers along the drive. They are 5 times the size of the ones i planted in the ground and unaffected by flea beetles. The soil in the containers is much warmer than the ground because the sun shines directly on the pots and is reflected onto the sides of the pots by the concrete drive.

I also planted some into 6" pots to grow out for transplanting. They are 3 times the size of the ones in the ground and are ready to go into the garden. Growing them to a large size and transplanting after the soil warmed up and after the first generation of flea beetles was over was my original plan. The large transplants will be able to withstand the next flea beetle attack and become established quickly in the now warm soil. They will be planted into the garden tomorrow.

Being in a hurry is of no benefit in the garden or in life. Breathe y'all.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Honing Our Skills to Grow More Food in the Same Space

Our production record keeping cycle runs from June 1st through May 31st. With 11 days to go we have increased our production from 1600 lbs. last year to 2600 lbs. this year. We grew an additional 1/2 ton of food, a 62.5% increase, on our little 1/8th acre micro-farm. We are very proud of that accomplishment. The total does not include the eggs our hens produced or the wild mushrooms we harvested throughout the year.

This year we have set a goal to increase our production to 4000 lbs. , 2 tons, a 53% increase. How will we accomplish that?

Maintaining the Soil Food Web
Over the past year we doubled the amount of stable humus in our soils. We accomplish this using 3 techniques:
  1. When crops are finished we cut the tops off at the ground level leaving the roots to feed the microorganisms in the soil.
  2. We leave as much crop residue as possible to break down right in the beds. This cuts out the extra step of having to compost it too.
  3. We maintain a mulch layer of either straw or leaves on the beds at all times. The mulch is slowly broken down to supply nutrients to the plants and add organic matter to the soil. The mulch also keeps the soil from drying out and makes great habitat for the shredders like pill bugs, ear wigs and millipedes as well as earthworms and spiders. You can dig anywhere in the garden now and find lots of earthworms.
We are continuing our soil testing and remineralization program. This is the single most important thing we do. We want to provide our plants with all of the nutrients they need in the right proportions to maximize production and to ensure that we are growing the most nutrient dense, health-giving, nourishing food we can for ourselves and our customers.

Sequencing and Crop Rotations
We are refining our crop sequencing to be sure we get the most production out of each bed. This spring we started many more plants in pots and got them in the ground as early as possible. We started a second round last week, mostly winter squashes. Next week we will start our corn to take the place of the potatoes that will be harvested in about a month. Then we are going to experiment with a second crop of zucchini and cucumbers which we will start in July to go in the ground in August.

Last fall we planted all of our greens at the same time. The thinking was that they would be mature by November or so and we would be able to harvest through the winter. Well our winter was much colder than usual so even with row covers we lost much of the crop. We did learn which varieties are more cold hardy than others, a good thing to know. This fall we plant to space
our plantings out. We will direct sow the earlier greens and start others in pots to be planted in November and even into December. The younger plants seem to survive the cold better. I know that seems odd but our experience and that of our friend Steve proves it to be true.

We will grow fewer beds of greens and more carrots, turnips and beets. We have learned how much greens we are able to sell through the winter, We want to have more variety available to our customers.
Maximizing our Space
If it is a vine it is going to grow up. Beans, cucumbers, squashes and tomatoes all grow on fences or bamboo towers with lower plants like peppers, bush beans, eggplants, basil, dill and flowers planted around and among them. In addition to getting more food per square foot this method helps with pest control by bringing in more pollinators, predatory insects and confuses the pests making it harder for them to find their targets.

We are growing in containers for the first time. We have some big pots left from our garden center days that we filled with a nice soil mix and planted with eggplants. The eggplants love warm soil and can tolerate drier soils that some other crops. They are doing much better so far than those planted in the ground which are getting eaten up by those dang flea beetles.

Expanding Perennial Food Producers
We continue to expand our perennial crops including sunchokes, berries, leeks and fruit trees into spaces not suitable for vegetable production. We are starting to get harvests from the trees and bushes we have planted over the past several years. Our single nanking cherry produced over 10 lbs. of fruit this spring. Our blueberries are producing a small crop this year. We added a second row of blackberries and doubled our sunchoke plantings. Our apple trees have a few fruits on them this year. We might get a few if we are lucky. In the fall we plan to plant some Asian persimmons, pears and a grape vine.

With the help of our 3 new interns, Deanna, Frances and Catherine (who are doing a great job so far) we can make this happen!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

We Found Another Beneficial Insect That is Working with Us- Euplectrus

On Friday one of my new interns, Deanna, found these pupae on the leaf of the nanking cherry tree while we were picking. I placed it in a container and waited to see if something would emerge. Sure enough on Monday tiny black bee like critters crawled out. I took photos and sent to them to my new friend, entomologist at UGA, Dr. John Ruberson. This is the response I got from him today.
"Interesting pictures. Thanks for passing them along! I don't know exactly what they are, but they are parasitic wasps in the Superfamily Chalcidoidea, most likely a species in the family Eulophidae, and possibly in the genus Euplectrus. If so, then they have killed a caterpillar of some sort and left the host before it died and fell from the plant. Euplectrus wasps lay eggs on the outside of their hosts, and develop externally as larvae until they pupate off of the host."
I did some research and found this further information on
Euplectrus has interesting pupation habits. When the larvae finish feeding on the host and have completely sucked out the fluid contents, they leave the dorsal position and seek the underside of the deflated host, where they arrange themselves transversely, in a single orderly row in some cases, and prepare to pupate. A light weblike cocoon is formed which binds the host remains to the leaf, the latter thus serving as a protective covering. Several authors have called attention to the fact that the material from which the cocoon is spun is derived from the Malpighian tubules rather than from the salivary glands and that the slender tapering tip of the abdomen of the larva serves as an "arm" in the construction. The meconium is cast by the prepupa, and sometimes it is ejected from the cocoon. The pupa lies upon its dorsum and is attached to the substrate by means of the last larval exuvium, which envelops the tip of the abdomen.
The yellow stuff is the meconium, or waste, cast off by the larvae before they pupate. The black structures are the pupae.

I am always excited to find new warriors in the battle to grow food.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tomato Bondage - It's How We Roll!

The tomatoes have been in the ground for a little over 2 weeks now. The yellow cherry variety is starting to set fruit. All of them are starting to put out side shoots in the axils (where the leaf meets the stem) of the leaves.

Now it is time to start their weekly training ritual. Remember we will train 2 stems up the tall stakes to provide us with fruit while keeping the plant open for good air circulation to minimize conditions that are conducive to disease infestations.

About now there is usually one side shoot that stands out and shouts "Pick me" as the one to train as the second stem. That one we keep and pinch out all the other side shoots.

Every week we will pinch out all of the side shoots and tie the 2 vines to the stakes as they climb up the poles.

Mmmm, fresh tomatoes soon :)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Vegetable Planting in 3-D - Creating a Zombie Proof Garden

We want to maximize the use of all our space here at the Funny Farm. We live in a 3 dimensional space that has height, width and depth. Ma Nature takes advantage of that with plants that crawl on the ground, some that grow 1' tall, some that grow 4' tall, some that grow every size in between, some that are thick and dense, some that are light and airy, some that grab hold of other plants and climb up them as far as they can go.

We take our cue from her and emulate that in our beds. We plant our tomatoes 6' apart in a staggered pattern and tie them to a single stake. We train 2 vines up the stake as far as i can reach. When they reach the top of the stake i cut them off and they proceed to drape down another 3 or 4' by the end of the season. There are 3 reasons why i use this method. The first is that it allows for plenty of air circulation around the plants that should decrease the incidence of disease. The second is that the plants are ripening fewer fruits so the fruits will be bigger. The 3rd is that i can plant the spaces between them with other plants of various sizes and growth habits to take advantage of the volume of space. Time plays a factor in this scheme too. I wait at least 2 weeks after planting the tomatoes to plant more stuff so the tomatoes have time to become established so they do not get overwhelmed by other faster growing plants.

The next thing i plant are zucchini transplants. I plant a few in each bed scattering them around the garden. Today i filled the remaining spaces with basil, dill, marigolds, holy basil, zinnias. All of them serve a purpose for us.
Basil goes in our marinara we can and pesto.... and salads and soups and sandwiches ... and...
Dill is an essential ingredient in our pickle-making. We use it fresh and save the seeds for later use allowing some to fall to the ground to produce another crop in the fall.
Marigolds have been attributed with all kinds of super-powers most of which are unfounded. Whenever we have grown them we have never had a problem with zombies so maybe that one is true ;) We grow them because we think they are pretty and Robin likes the smell. We grow the tall ones not the dinky little ones you find at garden centers and hardware stores.
Holy Basil is a revered plant by Hindus. Many Hindus grow it by the front door and eat 17 leaves each day. It has many purported medicinal properties, some of which have been confirmed by scientific research. Of particular importance now is its ability to protect us from radiation poisoning. I grew it last year and made of habit of munching on the the leaves each morning as i took my daily observational walk through the garden. It has an interesting flavor that i found appealing over time.
Zinnias grow 4' - 6' tall in our garden so the fill the middle space between the lower things and the tomato vines. We love them. They bring butterflies. They are bright and cheerful. Robin makes bouquets out of them that we sell at the market. Our garden would not be complete with out zinnias. We like the Benary hybrids best.
Other Potential Benefits of This Planting Method
Plants send out electro-chemical signals to attract pollinators to them. Plant-eating insects can follow those signals too. By planting a lot of different plants the signals co-mingle which we hope confuses the plant eators and excites the pollinators, many of whom are are predators of the plant-eating insect pests. It is kind of like creating a village with lots of restaurants to choose from and plenty for the kids to do. Hopefully the adults will like it enough that they will choose to make it their home for the summer.

Does it work? I cannot say for sure. I am not doing scientifically rigorous experiments with control plots. Example... last year we planted zucchini throughout the garden rather than is a row as we had in the past. We had very little problems with squash vine borers compared with the previous year. However we started a new fertility program that strengthened the plants and we grew different varieties than the year before. Either or both of those could have been the reason why we did not have a borer problem or all 3 factors working in syncronicity.

I do know that we attract lots of different pollinators and other beneficial insects. Each year i find more different beneficial insects in the garden than the previous year. I can also conclude that we get more productivity per square foot than we did when we planted in rows.

There are lots of list on the internet about companion planting. Very few have any scientific basis to back them up. I have seen several recommendations that i know from my own experience to be wrong. The key is to open your hearts and minds to the natural world so you can truly see what is before your eyes and learn the lessons that you can apply to your gardens. Every garden is unique. Every season is different. Think critically and creatively. Try new things. Break the rules.

And watch out for Zombies :)