Archives for posts with tag: cucurbits

Since mid-summer, I’ve been spraying the cucurbit leaves with a baking soda and peroxide solution on a more or less weekly basis (see July 12, 2014). Why? To ward off powdery mildew.

I’ve tried other approaches such as pruning the affected leaves and spraying with diluted milk. The first method was futile (too little too late). The efficacy of the second method was difficult to assess (I was using pasteurized milk, not raw). Perhaps the progress was slowed but, in the end, the plants were overcome.

The baking soda solution, on the other hand, seems to be working very well. The first signs of powdery mildew did not appear until very late (the end of August) and the spread has been slow. The mildew has been limited to a small fraction of the leaves.

Unfortunately, the spray is not completely effective. Powdery mildew is still present and, eventually, it can still have a detrimental effect. The cucumbers are more susceptible but the summer squash have suffered a bit, too.

Also unfortunate is the fact that the spray does nothing to prevent bacterial wilt. We have had fewer cucumber beetles this year (who knows why?) but clearly they’ve given our cukes the kiss (well, bite) of death.

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The deadly night shades (tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplant), the cucurbits (squash and cucumbers), and the legumes (string beans) continue to toil away in the mid-summer sun, slowly extending their stems, unfurling new leaves, presenting blossoms to eager pollinators, and fattening their fruits. Their harvest times remain weeks away.

Meanwhile, the members of three families of root vegetables—the crucifer (turnips and radishes), the goosefoot (beets), and the umbel (carrots)—bide their time until we decide to pluck them from the soil. They have matured for the most part and only slowly enlarge with each day’s dose of sunshine and water. We could harvest them all but they are safer in the ground than in the refrigerator, at least in the short-term.

In fact, in the ground is where these root vegetables like to be. Their purpose is to store energy over the winter so that the plants can flower and go to seed in their second spring. The roots will keep a long time and that is why many people store them for winter consumption. Doing so requires that they be kept dry and out of the sunlight, which, somewhat ironically, can harm them as well. Being buried in boxes of sand or soil and placed in the basement protects them until they are needed in the kitchen.

We don’t grow enough of them to feed us over the winter—hence, we do not put them in the cellar—but we do grow more than we can eat at one time or even at the rate that they mature. The icebox is one alternative but it is too cold and too humid, conditions that would foster mold or rot. Therefore, we keep the root vegetables on figurative ice.

We have to be careful, though. If kept too long in the soil, they can become woody or tough and will lose flavor. And if forgotten or neglected, they might decay or provide a feast for insects.

We won’t let that happen. When we are ready to eat them, we’ll them pull up, wash them off, and separate their greens. The roots we will roast and the greens we’ll sauté. And if we don’t eat them all, we will share them with others, which is perhaps the best approach to the abundance.

This year, I am determined not to lose the battle against powdery mildew.

It’s probably a futile goal—quixotic, really—because we have suffered it every year that we’ve kept the vegetable garden, starting in 2011. Spores of Erysiphe cichoracearum, the fungus responsible for powdery mildew in cucurbits, are present, brought here from elsewhere by the wind (most likely) or by spontaneous manifestation (not likely but it is easy to understand why people once believed in it).

Sadly, the fungus is well-suited to survival and produces resting spores called chasmothecia (all of this is according to the folks at UC Davis; see “UC IPM Online”) that can—and do—resist the freezing weather that kills off weaker organism over winter. The only way to eradicate it is with fungicide, the most effective of which I have no interest in using.

No, eradication is not the answer; management is. And the key to management of powdery mildew is anticipation and early detection. It will appear—that’s inevitable—so I must be ready for it. And that means starting to spray the leaves of the cucurbits, which in our garden are the cucumbers and squash, with a preventative solution and starting to spray them now.

Last year, I found a good recipe on Late Bloomer’s website (see “Late Bloomer – National Heirloom Expo 2013 – Episode 36”; there is other interesting stuff there) and I mixed up a batch today. It’s a simple concoction of water, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and dish detergent (which I suspect is there to help the solution adhere to the plant).

I made a loop through the garden this afternoon, spraying each cucumber and squash leaf as I passed. My intuition tells me that spraying while the garden is in direct sunlight is preferable because the sun will evaporate the water, leaving the NaHCO3 and H2O2 (I have no idea what is the chemical formula for dish detergent but it’s probably too long to fit) behind to coat the leaves and inhibit fungal growth.

For the remainder of the season, especially in the fall when the humidity of summer remains but the nights are cooler, I will have to re-spray on a weekly (or so) basis.

Maybe I can’t win the battle but perhaps if I am diligent, I (and the cucurbits) won’t be routed.

Last week, we dug the holes (see May 4, 2014). This week, we filled them.

Last year, I did a careful estimate of how much soil we would need and meticulously calculated the volume of the (assumed) conical mounds of soil on top. Of course, I was very precisely wrong and underestimated the total by a wide margin.

This year, I eyeballed it.

Well, okay, not completely (that would be contrary to my nature). At the garden center, I figured about four bags of compost per bale of peat moss (at equal proportions) of which I guessed we needed two. I then applied a factor of safety of 1.5 to the compost and got 12 bags.

Back in the garden, I wrestled a bale of peat moss (it is quite heavy and awkward) onto the wheelbarrow and Rachel sifted in a quantity about equal to a bag of compost. Bales of peat moss are very tightly compacted—they are almost rock solid—which made dispensing it even more difficult.

Peat moss is packaged in a bone-dry state, so we sprinkled it with water and gave it a stir. Like a magic trick, the water disappeared after only a few turns. We repeated the process with similar results until finally, after five applications of water, the peat moss looked slightly damp.

At this point, we added a bag of compost and stirred (with our hands) to incorporate. The moisture contained in the compost was sufficient to produce a workable consistency and we dumped the soil into the first hole. There was enough to fill it and to form a mound about six inches high and 18 to 24 inches in diameter.

Five bags and half a bale of peat moss later, we had filled and mounded the remaining holes. We were left with almost as much peat moss as we started with (counting the bale already on hand) so once again, my estimate was way off. I had not taken the peat moss’s compaction into account and as a result we purchased at least twice the necessary quantity. Also, my factor of safety on the compost was completely unnecessary.

It’s no matter; the peat moss and compost will not go to waste. We used some of it to top off and tidy up the mounds from last year which are now ready to be planted again. We can’t do any cucurbits (who inhabited these spaces last year) but perhaps we will try tomatoes (of which we have more than we can fit into the raised beds).

After potting up the herbs and deadly nightshades (see April 25, 2014) and before leaving on our road trip (to visit friends and their Belgian Tervuren at the ABTC National Specialty event in Huron, Ohio), I sowed seeds for two varieties of summer squash and two of cucumbers. Optimistically (hope springs eternal, my father always said), I also planted a third batch of orange bell pepper seeds. I left them all (along with the rest of the seedlings and outdoor garden) in the very capable hands of Rachel’s mother.

Well, it would seem that she has a very green thumb (thanks!). I hardly expected the seeds to germinate by the time we returned two days ago—only six days after planting. Well, they germinated all right (probably after three or four days) and the seedlings have also surged to a height of over four inches. When I went downstairs to check on them Thursday, they were pushing up on the seed tray’s clear plastic cover.

On closer inspection, I found that not everything had sprouted. There was no sign of the Orange Sun bell peppers. The third time is not a charm for these seeds which must be past their pull date (contrary to what is printed on the seed packet). It would appear that not even the greenest thumb can resurrect them.

Further (or lesser, in this case), only one zucchini and only one pickling cucumber seed have germinated, in contrast to the six crookneck squash and five slicing cucumber seeds that sprang forth. Again, there is not much we can do about older seeds except to resolve not to plant them. Next year, we’ll be buying everything fresh.

I wasted no time moving the squash and cucumber seedlings into the tallest plastic pots I have. After placing them back on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, I hitched up the fluorescent light fixture to its highest position. At the rate the cucurbits are growing, they will be brushing against the bulbs well before we set them out on Memorial Day weekend.

I’m still going through the process of evaluating last year’s plantings to determine what will go into the garden this year.  Last time (see January 15, 2014), I used three criteria:  how much we liked the vegetable; how well it grew; and, if not well, what could be done about it.  So far, I have concluded that all of the cucurbits—summer and winter squashes; cucumbers—are loved, grew reasonably well (with exceptions) and can be encouraged to grow better.

What else did we grow?  Well, lots of root vegetables.  And, I should point out, lots of root vegetable greens.  The radishes, carrots, beets and turnips all sprouted quickly and then produced a full crop of verdant leaves.  This was not at all a bad thing because I have come to enjoy the greens almost more than the roots that generate them.  Whether plucked from the garden early (as part of the thinning process) and thrown into a salad or clipped from the mature roots and sautéed, they are a delicious addition to the table.

Sadly, the roots took a lot longer to develop, if they did at all, and their eventual success was varied.  The radishes did particularly poorly with the first and second plantings yielding a root only about half of the time while the third planting never really reached maturity.  The carrots and beets performed moderately better but were painfully slow (especially the carrots) to ripen.  I don’t think any of them got as big as they could have.  The turnips were the top performers and provided both sizeable roots and plentiful greens through most of the summer.

I think we’ll give them all another chance this year (we still have plenty of seeds) but will make sure to limit their Nitrogen, by which I mean that I will not add any to the soil.  That means using fertilizers that do not contain it (i.e., those with zero as the first number in their N-P-K rating).  I will have to do some research into what might work best but that’s a topic for a future post.

I would prefer to limit the colors of the radishes and the carrots because we found that the purple varieties were the tastiest (I guess I like the flavor of anthocyanins; see October 20, 2013), followed by the red.  However, that would be difficult without buying new seed.  Our current radish and carrot seeds are “rainbow” mixtures and there is no way to determine the root color from the seed’s appearance.  I suppose this is one good reason not to buy seed mixes.

Five of the six tomato varieties we planted last year passed the taste test and for the most part, all of them performed well.  We’ll replant the Country Taste Beefsteak, the Brandywine (although, perhaps, only the yellow), the Black Cherry, and the ever-popular Sungold but we’ll skip the Aunt Ruby’s German Green.  Therefore, we’ll have room for some new varieties.

And speaking of room, I think we will give each tomato plant a bit more this year.  Pruning remains a critical factor for tomato plants and the lack of space (due to the vines’ exuberant growth) compounds the issue.  The first year we gardened, we pruned too little; the next year, we pruned too much.  We’d hoped that last year would be just right and, in the beginning of the season, it was.  But then, at the peak of the summer, the tomatoes’ rapid growth overwhelmed us.

This year, we’ll plant one tomato seedling per cage and keep a closer eye on them.  Each plant will have more space to spread into and will have less impact on its neighbors.  With luck and careful pruning, each vine will remain within the confines of its own cage and will wrap around it rather than spill over the top.

Keeping the tomato plants separate will be also important to prevent the spread of blight which, having made an unwelcome appearance last year, is likely to return this year.  Once it arrived (on the Brandywine or Black Cherry vines), the blight quickly spread to the other plants.

The only vines that did not contract the disease were the Country Taste Beefsteak, which is another reason to replant them.  Even though the beefsteaks were infected by some other disorder (Septoria leaf spot?), it did not really affect their output.  Spraying everything with a bicarbonate of soda solution should also help.

At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

After an unusually warm July, we’ve been experiencing a strangely cool August.  It is great for sleeping (no need to run the air conditioner) but it is not so good for the garden.  The humidity remains high (unavoidable in the northeast in summer) and, consequently, there is a heavy dew every morning.

Anyone growing cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons) knows that these conditions are conducive to powdery mildew.  And the evidence in our garden is proof.  The leaves of all of the squash plants—summer and winter—are covered with the white fuzz.  It seems to be increasing daily, almost as I watch, despite periodic (but, admittedly, infrequent) milk sprays.

Luckily (and so far, so good), the mildew has not affected squash production significantly.  New leaf growth is still quite strong, there are plenty of blossoms and the pollinators have not been interrupted.  We will still be eating squash for a few weeks (at least) to come.

Where powdery mildew seems to have the greatest negative impact is on the older end of the vine, nearest the roots.  This portion of the vine has already produced fruit and its leaves would be dying back anyway.  However, the mildew seems to speed up the process.  The question has now become, will the rate of mildew progress overtake the vine’s growth?

Several branches of one of the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato plants have blackened and shriveled.  They didn’t look like they were going to get better (e.g., by watering or spraying with bug repellent) so I clipped them off and discarded them.  Could this be the blight that I have been reading horror stories about?  Or perhaps some other tomato disease?  The plant looks fine otherwise and is producing fruit.  I will keep an eye on it (and head to the internet for research).

We were away for a few days (visiting friends at their summer getaway in New Hampshire) and, of course, the zucchini and crookneck squashes grew in both size and number.  Can they sense when we are not paying close attention?  Fortunately, there was an easy solution to our sudden wealth of ripe summer squash:  We sent some of them home with Rachel’s parents, who were watching the garden (and the cat) for us.

The last row of carrots and turnips is taking a long time to mature.  Like the beets, they prefer cooler temperatures in which to grow and slow down during warmer weather to conserve their strength and water.  As a result, however, the cauliflower plants in the south row, closest to the carrots and turnips, are getting crowded out by the bushy greens.  The cauliflower plants in the north row are not doing much better; the leaves of one of them were lunch for somebody (not us).

None of these Brassicas has shown any sign of producing curds.  Spy Garden gave up on hers more than a week ago (see her July 21, 2013) and if ours looked as good, I’d be happy.  Apparently, cauliflower is difficult to grow (that’s only a small consolation) and like many vegetables, it does not enjoy hot weather, especially in its early development.  This is the only vegetable we did not start from seed this year so it is not a big loss.  Maybe we’ll try it again next year from seed.

I had been holding my breath, not wanting to say out loud (or in writing) that we have not seen any striped cucumber beetles this year.  But sadly, Rachel found one on a squash plant this afternoon and shortly afterwards I spotted two hiding inside a cucumber blossom.  Almost needless to say (if it were needless, I wouldn’t say it), we terminated the little buggers without delay (and one must be quick; cucumber beetles are expert at avoiding capture).

And speaking of cucurbits, is that powdery mildew I see on a crookneck squash leaf?  Please tell me it’s not.

We’re running behind with the cucumbers which should have been in the ground over a week ago.  With plans for the weekend, we decided to make time during the working week to get caught up.

The cucumbers, like the squash, are moving out of the box.  Specifically, we are locating them along the fence behind the west planter, safely distant (we hope) from the east planter where they grew last year.  Next year, we will move the cucumbers to that portion of the fence.

I briefly considered putting the cucumbers behind (i.e., north of) the squashes where there would be no danger of their being shaded.  But that would be putting all of our cucurbits in one basket.  Because they are susceptible to the same harmful insects (e.g., the ubiquitous cucumber beetles) and diseases (such as the seemingly omnipresent powdery mildew), the cucumbers and squashes will be better off if kept as separate as possible.  Besides, at this time of the year, the sun casts a very shallow shadow.

We measured six locations, spaced at two feet on center, and brushed away the cedar mulch.  Rachel used a standard shovel and I used a spade to dig holes about six inches deep.  It is interesting that a standard shovel is best suited to a hemispherical hole while a spade, with its flat, rectangular blade is better for cubical excavations.  The shoveled holes were about eight inches in diameter; the spade-dug holes were approximately six inches square.

Once the holes were completed, we mixed up two batches of soil (each batch consisting of one 40-pound bag of compost and an equal volume of peat moss) and filled the holes.  We kept the mounds small in diameter (especially compared to the squash mounds) because they are located along an access aisle.  We want the cucumbers to be as tight against the fence as possible.

We expect that the cucumbers will grow high and wide.  To support their wandering branches we installed a chicken wire trellis along the fence.  We marked locations for six cedar posts (seven might have been better but we were short by one) and, using an old steel chisel and a sledge hammer, formed pilot holes.  This step is necessary due to our rocky soil.

Then, we pounded in the stakes.  I had originally planned to embed the six-foot stakes by 18 inches but had to stop at a foot (the depth of the pilot holes).  Once a stake encounters a rock, there is a risk of splitting or crushing it with further pounding.  Using our trusty Velcro tape, we tied each of the stakes to the top rail of the pool fence.  The stakes have a slight backwards rake to them (their bases are about three inches outboard of the fence) which will both stabilize the trellis and prevent it from feeling too imposing.

To form the trellis, we unrolled a 12-foot length of four-foot-high chicken wire and stapled it to the stakes using an electric staple gun.  (We acquired this tool many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall.  It always strikes me at first as silly—like an electric carving knife—and yet it is very useful and practical.  Although it delivers a staple with great force it does not otherwise disturb the work and requires very little effort.  In that regard, it is more akin to a pneumatic nailer.)  We held the bottom of the chicken wire eight inches above grade to give the young cucumber plants room to sort themselves out.

After that, we set out the cucumber seedlings, alternating the slicing and pickling varieties for visual interest.  On a leaf of one of the pickling cucumbers, I noticed a small white spot that might—I say, might—have been the beginning of a powdery mildew infection.  Just to be on the safe side, we tossed the seedling on the refuse pile and chose another.  Powdery mildew on the cucumbers is almost inevitable (we’ve had it every year) but we certainly don’t need it this early in the season.

To wrap up the planting (literally and figuratively), we dressed the soil mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to all of its other advantages—moisture retention, weed control, erosion prevention—the mulch will act as a visual marker of the cucumbers presence, just like the yellow tiles on the edge of a subway platform.  While installing the trellis, we found that it was easy to accidentally step on the mounds and now that the cucumbers are resident, we don’t want that happening again.

Due to the trellis’ location, I had to remove the hose rack and then reinstall it on the fence, two pickets to the right (east).  Eventually, we will install a timer-controlled soaker hose to irrigate the cucumbers but today, I gave them a bucketful of water (laced with fish emulsion).  Tomorrow, rain is forecast (as Tropical Storm Andrea makes its way up the Atlantic coast) so the cucumbers should get plenty of water.