Archives for posts with tag: balance

Warning: Insect photo below.

We’ve been pretty good about keeping the tomato plants pruned this year. It’s a difficult balance between over-pruning, which can reduce a vine’s productivity, and under-pruning, which can lead to disease and insect infestation.

We’ve also been vigilant in our checks for hornworms, who like to hide amongst the tomato leaves—sparse, dense, or otherwise—silently munching away at them until suddenly (it seems), the branches are bare.

And up until today, we haven’t found any. I don’t know if this is due to our efforts or it is just a bad year for hawkmoths. Either way, I’m happy to have survived most of the summer without having to deal with them and hope I don’t see many more.

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Okay, I admit it:  I let the tomato vines get away from me.  I was aware of the impending problem and had adjusted my action plan accordingly (see August 20, 2013) but then I failed to follow through.  I have not done much pruning while the plants have continued to grow with abandon.

The result is a nearly impenetrable mass of stems and leaves that occupies the upper third of all six supporting cages.  We have had to drape vines from each plant across the cages of one or two adjacent cages in each direction.  At the ends of the east planter, the vines reach out into space, looking for something to grab on to.  It makes walking around them more difficult.

In addition, the unbalanced weight of the developing fruits is causing the cages to lean precariously this way and that.  We had braced them securely in the spring (this condition seems to be inevitable regardless of the size of the vines) and had we not done so, the cages would surely have toppled over by now.

Who knows what is going on in that tangled clump of vines—and with whom?  Hornworms may be munching away for all I know.  And with each plant intimately enmeshed with the others, if one contracts a tomato disease, they will all get it.  Luckily, there has been no sign of either, with the possible exception of some freckled and yellowed branches of the Country Taste beefsteak tomatoes.

The upside, of course, is that there are plenty of tomatoes of all varieties.  The beefsteaks are the most plentiful—there must be dozens of them, in all stages of development—while the Brandywines (which we think look more pink than red) are the largest.  We picked a husky specimen last week that must have weighed two pounds.  We could have made a pot full of sauce using just the one tomato.

Here’s another thing that can happen when tomato plants extend too far beyond their supports:  A far-reaching branch will develop a cluster of fruits which, as they enlarge, weigh down the stem and eventually exceed its capacity.  Sometimes the branch will break (and down it will fall); other times it will kink (what as a structural engineer I would call plastic deformation).

The latter has occurred with multiple branches of the apparently hapless Country Taste beefsteak tomato vines.  Despite their bad luck, they continue to grow enthusiastically.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.  Because of their unbridled expansion, they are experiencing mishaps directly associated with their size (see also August 13, 2013).  In other words, they are growing too much for their own good.

The beefsteaks are not the only ones.  In fact, all of the tomato vines have extended upward and outward from their cages.  Each now trails across the top of the adjacent cage to either side of its own.  The plants at the ends—the aforementioned Country Taste to the west, the Sungold cherry tomatoes to the east—have no cage to one side.  Consequently, their outer branches spill over and downwards, most of them kinked but not broken.

It puts me in an awkward position.  I had vowed to keep the tomato vines in control by careful pruning.  I have clipped the main stems and nipped the suckers on an almost daily basis.  But at some point in the last week or so, the vines sped past me during a moment (okay, maybe it’s a day or two) of inattention.  And now, not only are the vines very long, they all support several ripening fruit as well.  To cut the vines off at this point would mean losing a large part of our crop.

So I’ll adjust my approach.  On the longer stems, I will prune beyond the last cluster of fruit even if that means abandoning some blossoms.  For the vines that remain (and there a lot of them), I will do my best to support them from as many cages as necessary (without allowing the whole works to topple over).  We’ve ended up with a tangle of stems and leaves—the very condition I was trying to avoid—but at least we’ll maintain a good supply of tomatoes for the next few weeks.

And that, of course, is the whole point.  Our tomato harvest has really only just begun.  And the Country Taste beefsteak plant is looking to become the biggest producer.  We’ve already picked a couple of beauties—large, round, dense—and will be having them tonight for dinner.  Finally, a BLT.

I’ve been using an old plastic container, the kind in which plants from the nursery are potted (that’s how we came into possession of it), as a waste bucket.  It is a convenient place to toss weeds, pruned branches, rotted vegetables and other green waste from the garden.  It sits on the ground near the hose bib and next to the watering can and is a much easier target than the ravine beyond the pool fence.

I started this practice a few weeks ago and by today, the bucket was full.  So I walked it over to the refuse pile and flung its contents on top.  What I immediately noticed as the mass of organic matter plopped onto the pile was that the material at the bottom of the bucket, which had been kept moist by rain and warmed by the sun, had already started to decompose.  After less than a month, the green garden waste had become a dark brown, granular mass, well on its way to becoming rich organic soil.

In other words, my waste bucket had turned into a mini compost pile.  If I had let it bask in the sun much longer, I could probably have simply tipped it back into one of the planters to replenish the soil’s organic content.  Presumably, there is a little more to the process—balancing different materials, mixing them together, aerating the pile—but the experience showed me how simple the basic operation is.

Also, how magical the process is, almost like alchemy.  It is very encouraging and will motivate me to find a place where a pile of garden discards can be transformed into a useful soil amendment.

There is always so much to be done—my to-do list is lengthy—but only so many hours in which to do it.  On any given day, I have to make several decisions about what I can accomplish before the sun goes down.  To a few things, I say “Yes”; everything else gets an implicit “No”.

The choice can be difficult, especially when the garden is on the receiving end of one of those nos.  When that happens, I sometimes feel like I’m neglecting the vegetables and that something critical may occur while my attention is elsewhere.  Perhaps hornworms will appear on the tomatoes (Yikes!) or a first eggplant will form (Rejoice!) and I won’t be there to witness it and take appropriate action (removing the offending insects for the former and photographing the blessed fruit for the latter).

So my goal is to avoid missing the garden for more than one day.  Frankly, not much happens in the garden in any particular 24-hour period and often the garden will go for several days with no discernable changes, good or bad.  (Those dreaded hornworms, which can chomp their way through entire tomato plants in a very short time, might be an exception.)  If I have to be away longer, I get someone to look after things.

Ironically, blogging about the garden can be counter-conducive to the actual gardening activities themselves.  Noting the progress (or lack thereof) of the vegetables, taking photographs, writing about it (probably the largest demand on my time), and posting; these things take time.  That’s time that could be spent doing the things that eventually I will be blogging about.  It could easily become a Catch-22:  I can’t write the blog if I don’t do any gardening but if I spend too much time gardening, I can’t write a blog about it.

And, sometimes, it feels preferable to blog about something rather than do it, a la Andy Rooney.  For instance (nasally, whiny voice):  Don’t you just hate it when you have to remove sod?  It has to be the most difficult part of constructing a garden.  And what do you do with all of that sod, anyway?  It’s not like you can sell it or exchange it for other plants.  (With no disrespect to Andy Rooney, who wisely—or luckily—made a long, successful career out of such rants.)

While I’m on the topic of ironies, here’s another one.  At times, I feel reluctant to harvest vegetables when they are at a near-perfect state of ripeness and aesthetic beauty.  They look so nice, the well-formed squash, blossom still attached, or pristine white turnip, peeking out of the ground with a symmetrical plume of succulent greens on top.  It would be a shame to spoil the tableau.  And once harvested, a void remains, a barrenness, an absence of beauty.

But, hey, this is dinner!  I snap a few photos, grab the vegetables and head for the kitchen.

I’ve noted before (see June 30, 2012, part 2) that saying “yes” to something means saying “no” to other things, whether explicitly or not.  There are only so many hours in the day and only so much that one can do with them.

A corollary of this axiom is that saying “no” to something that previously enjoyed a “yes” means that the door is open for other things—potentially, many other things—to rush through in an attempt to get a “yes” and fill the available time.

And once a new activity is chosen—the critical “yes” is uttered—then the previous activity becomes no different from the multitude of other “no” activities.  It may start at the top of the list but with passing time it can fade into obscurity.  It gets progressively more difficult to say “yes” to it again.

This is why almost a month has elapsed (nominally) since my last posting.  With nothing to do in the garden, I have effectively said “no” to it and in the meantime, other activities have taken prominence in my daily life.  Consequently, I have not had much to blog about (I haven’t had much to complain about, either).

But this blog is not only about gardening and I will come up with some things that are good enough to say “yes” to (and, as always, you can decide whether they are good enough to read).

I finally found some time to look at the soil test reports and to compare them to each other and to last year (less to do in the garden means more time to spend doing other things).  The results were neither earth-shaking nor even startling but there were some changes, all of them for the better.

First—and most important—the soil pH for the east planter fell to 6.31, well within the optimal range (as recommended by Rutgers) of 6.20 to 6.80.  Last year, the pH was at 7.38, or slightly alkaline, and too high for most vegetable plants.  We added elemental Sulfur in the spring (see February 20, 2012) and it appears to have done the trick.

Similarly, the soil pH for the west planter was in the acceptable range—just barely—at 6.78.  The main difference between the soil in this planter versus the soil in the east is a lower proportion of compost.  Therefore, it would appear that the compost has a higher pH than the soil or peat moss.  By using less of it, we started with a lower pH than we did with the east planter last year.  For both planters, we will not need to make any adjustments (no Sulfur, no limestone) next spring.

Of lesser importance (and, perhaps, interest), the concentrations of macronutrients—Phosphorus, Potassium, Magnesium and Calcium—in the east planter have decreased, although all but one remains above optimum.  The exception is Potassium, whose concentration has dropped into the optimal range (whatever it is; the optimal ranges are not noted in the report).  The reduced Potassium concentration and the still-high Calcium concentration are consistent with the drop in pH and the recommendation not to add limestone (which is mainly Calcium Carbonate).

The macronutrient concentrations in the west planter are very close to those in the east with the exception again being Potassium.  Its concentration is higher and very near to what it was in the east planter last year.  That might explain why the west planter’s pH is higher.  The interactions between macronutrient concentrations and pH are very apparent from the testing results.

Finally, the concentrations of micronutrients—Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Boron and Iron—in both planters remain more or less the same.  They are for the most part classified as adequate (with no explanation of what that means) with Manganese and Iron falling into the high category.  These concentrations do not seem to have much impact and all are deemed not a limiting factor by the lab techs.

The bottom line is that as long as we maintain pH in the optimal range and continue to use balanced fertilizers, our soil will be just fine.