Archives for posts with tag: cycle of life and death

One vegetable dies, another takes its place.

One plant germinates, sprouts its tiny stems, spreads its leaves, grows larger, offers its colorful blossoms to eager pollinators, sets fruit, and then gradually, or sometimes quickly, puts forth a bounty of shiny produce to the gardener who tended it.

And then, more quickly, the plant fades away, its produce picked and its energy spent. No more pretty flowers or tasty vegetables. Most plants simply wither away at this point although biennials will contentedly continue to absorb and store energy for their flowering the second year (not having flowered or produced seed in the first).

Depending on the time of year and the climate, that leaves a vacancy in the garden, a void that would be wasted if left unfilled. If it is early enough in the summer and the first frost is not expected until late fall, there is plenty of time for a fast-growing vegetable—radishes are a good example—to repeat the cycle of life and death before winter descends.

That’s how succession gardening is supposed to work, anyway.

In the best planned garden, there is more to it than squeezing a second round of produce into the growing season. With careful selection of the first vegetable planted, when it is through the soil will be well prepared (even if depleted in some respects) for the plant that follows it. Likewise, the second vegetable, if chosen with thought, will leave the soil ready for what is sowed the next spring. This process can be stretched out over multiple seasons in what becomes long-term crop rotation (see May 18, 2014).

Theoretically, we follow this approach. In practice, we do the best we can. I’ve already described our crop rotation strategy (see May 4, 2014) and for succession planting, we do multiple sowings of root vegetables, including two or three early in the season and one late in the season, for which we are about due.

We also planted a mid-season replacement for the Sugar Snap peas, the last of which we harvested this morning. There were still plenty of peas but production had slowed and the leaves had begun to turn yellow. New growth had appeared at the base of several vines and I was tempted to wait to see whether it would bear fruit. But wanting to move on, we pulled them out.

In their place we sowed string beans. We planted the same varieties as last year—Amethyst Purple and Roma II—knowing that they are fast-growing and prolific (assuming the seeds are still viable, of course). I don’t know whether string beans are a good successor to peas in terms of soil conditioning but I do know that they are the only other vegetable we grow that needs trellising.

Also, I love to eat them.

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We had a relatively warm and bright morning today, something that we will not have many more of (the warm part, anyway) until spring.  So, after breakfast, we performed another round of fall clean-up in the garden.

It is not as if everything is dead or dying—there has been no killing frost so far—and yet, nothing is developing very quickly.  The growth of the squashes, in particular, has slowed to a near stop.  There are plenty of zucchini and crooknecks and even a few large yellow blossoms—all beaming like it was still August—but none of the squashes has gotten any bigger than a few inches in length.

I have to keep in mind that the squashes are summer vegetables and we are now squarely in fall.  The zucchini and crooknecks are past their season and it is time to let them go.

Pulling out the vines was relatively easy.  The only difficult part was finding where they were rooted to the ground.  Summer squashes grow from one central stem along which the leaves and fruit radiate.  After the squashes ripen and are harvested, the leaves wither and die, leaving their section of stem barren.

At the same time, the leading tip of the stem continues to grow outward and new leaves, blossoms and fruit are created.  As a result, after four months of bounteous growth, the vines reach a length of several feet.  The active end gets separated from its starting point and the intervening stem gets buried by fallen trees leaves.  At a casual glance, it looks as though the vines have moved around the garden.

The winter squashes we grew this year develop in a similar manner.  But instead of letting the Naguri squash (a Kabocha-like variety) trail spread out on the ground, we trained it up and around a tripod of garden stakes.  When we removed the vine last week (see October 13, 2013 for photos), it had reached the top of the tripod, within striking distance of the temple bell that hangs there.

The Zeppelin Delicata squash looked as though it would follow the same path as the summer squashes.  Sadly, though, it got no farther than the perimeter of its mound of soil.  It produced only a few fruit, none of which got any bigger than an inch or so in length.  For us, their name was something of a misnomer.  I wouldn’t even characterize them as weather balloons.

The string beans weren’t the only plants that got pulled out this weekend.

The tomatoes, about which I have been obsessing lately, have not been improving despite my pruning of several days ago (see September 27, 2013).  Once infected with late blight (the suspected culprit), the plants have little hope of recovery without the use of fungicides.  Late blight is caused by oomycetes, non-photosynthetic fungi (perhaps that’s redundant?) that spread through the production of millions of oospores.  Oomycete is a cool word but it is a very uncool organism.

I have read about using a baking soda spray in several publications and websites (see, for instance, Late Bloomer’s Episode 2.16) and will probably try that next year, starting early in the season to prevent onset.  We’ll plant the tomatoes in the west planter—the best we can do, in terms of crop rotation—and keep everything as clean as possible.  However, given the ease with which the oospores spread and their ability to survive, underground, through severe weather, we are at a disadvantage (and greatly outnumbered).

It’s much too late for any kind of spray this year so I pulled out the spindly vines of the Sungold, Black Cherry, Brandywine (red and yellow) and Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes that remained.  There were plenty of green (i.e., unripe) tomatoes but none that were fit to eat.  On all of the plants suffering from blight, the disease had spread to the fruit.  I don’t mind a rotten spot or two or even the occasional wormhole or bird peck, but the brown lesions, with their white spore sites, make even the best looking tomato unappetizing.

I’m happy to say that the plants were otherwise healthy and had produced extensive root systems (which required a fair amount of effort to pull out).  I was also pleased (and surprised) to see that the Country Taste Beefsteak tomato vines continue to resist the late blight; there were no signs of the lesions or brown spots on the leaves or stems.  This makes them a very good candidate for next year’s garden.

Of course, they are suffering from something else, possibly Septoria leaf spot (my hypothesis is based on review of photos of afflicted plants online) or maybe early blight.  Unfortunately, all of these conditions are spread by spores, the production of which is favored by the cool, humid weather that occurs in the fall.  I left the beefsteaks alone (well, I may have trimmed a few branches) in the hope that we will be able to harvest the dozen or so ripening tomatoes that are still on the vine.

Having harvested the last of the string beans (see September 25, 2013), we decided it was time to clear out the vines and start readying the west planter for winter.  Some gardeners would chop up the vines and till them into the soil to decompose and add organic matter (so-called green manure or green fertilizer).  Others might cut the stems off at the ground surface and leave the roots in place, hoping that symbiotic bacteria (if present) would continue to fix Nitrogen in the soil.

But neither of these ideas appeals to me.  Even though the planter is not that big (four feet by 12 feet), turning the soil would be a lot of work.  And anyway, we are following the no-till approach, which moderates decomposition, improves drainage and minimizes weed growth by leaving the soil surface undisturbed.  Somewhat ironically, it also maintains better aeration by eliminating compaction and encouraging the earthworm population.  In fact, our soil is essentially turned over several times a year by an abundance of energetic Lumbricidae.

Leaving the roots in place would require less effort—even less than pulling them out.  However, we do not necessarily have Nitrogen-fixing bacteria and it is not clear that they would have enough time to make a significant contribution to the properties of our soil.  Besides, it is more likely that we have too much Nitrogen rather than not enough (see June 22, 2013), as evidenced by our crops of carrots, beets and radishes which produced more leaves than roots.

Being completely honest, it probably wouldn’t matter if either alternative had a scientific justification because pulling the vines out is more in keeping with my nature.  I have been described as a neatnik and it is a characterization I do not deny.  At a certain level, getting the planter tidied up for its long winter nap is much more important to me than ensuring that the soil has a proper concentration of Nitrogen.  Our soil’s nutrient distribution can be adjusted in other ways and at other times but I have to look at the empty planter all winter long.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Fall returned this week, like an old friend who had been away visiting others for a few months (family in the southern hemisphere, I believe).  It is good to see the autumn come around again and bittersweet to watch as our houseguest, summer, packs up and leaves.  We had some good times these past three months but we’ll have more fun with a different crowd in the months ahead.

The changing season gives me a warm feeling, even while the weather is turning decidedly cooler.  On the one hand, a swim in the pool has almost suddenly lost its appeal (time to close it soon) and I can actually wear long trousers, having faced up to the possibility a week ago.  In the morning, I need a sweatshirt when I go out for a run.

On the other hand, sleeping is much more comfortable.  The air is crisper—although not yet as dry as it will be in winter—and warms up by late morning.  It can be almost as hot as in summer, in an absolute sense, but the heat is usually moderated by cool breezes.  The sun is lower and shade is more plentiful; it provides a handy respite from the still-intense rays of light.  All things considered, this a good time to be outdoors.

Unless you are a vegetable.  Many of the plants have withered away, leaving only bare spots behind.  I’ve already mentioned the shortening day and increasing solar screening by adjacent trees (see August 25, 2013).  Now, with overnight temperatures dropping into the 50s and 60s, the vegetables’ growth rate has slowed to a crawl.  The tomatoes, green beans and squash are still producing but not as much and not as often.

The vegetables are starting to miss their summer companion and will soon be joining its exodus from the garden.

Don’t worry:  No insect photos below.

We’ve found further evidence of whatever has been eating the cauliflower leaves (that is, evidence beyond the condition of the leaves themselves).  Several of them are covered with tiny green balls.  Insect frass, I presume.

And that’s not all that they’ve left behind.  On the underside of one leaf, we discovered a dozen or so egg sacs (they look like cooked grains of white rice).  My reaction in a word:  ick.  The insects in question (which we still haven’t seen) have made sure that their species continues to eat our cauliflower for at least another generation.

Which is fine except that they won’t be eating it in our garden.  Given the cauliflowers’ poor performance (still no sign of curds forming) and given that these Brassicas have served only as insect fodder, we decided to pull them out.  Onto the refuse pile they go where the worms (or whoever) can munch to their hearts content.

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.

Driving north on the New York State Thruway, on the way to Saratoga Springs, I noticed that several clumps of brown leaves pockmarked the foliage of the many normally verdant trees that line the right of way.  It looked strange—the lush green of the deciduous forest is one of the characteristics that distinguish summer in the northeast from other, drier, places I have known, such as the Central Valley of California where I grew up (everything turns straw-colored there).

At first I wondered what could be afflicting the trees, most of them maples, which I think of as resistant to disease and insects.  And then it came to me:  the brown and drying branchlets are sites of 17-year cicada eggs.  Female cicadas gnaw shallow notches in the branches into which they deposit their eggs; the notches cause the branches to die.  This phenomenon is considered the only significant downside to the emergence of the insects which otherwise cause no permanent damage (even if they do create a mess).

I do not recall observing any dead branches after the last cycle (in 1996) but I have noticed a few on some of our trees this time around.  Luckily, the condition is temporary and the trees should return to normal next year.

In the afternoon, as the sun—and the temperature—rose higher, we became aware of the arrival of the dog-day cicadas.  Their high-frequency, rapid-fire clicking cyclically swells to a crescendo before suddenly coming to a stop.  The pause always gets my attention (with the final staccato notes ringing in my echoic memory) and leaves me waiting expectantly for the resumption of the music, which usually follows shortly.

The song of the cicadas fills the aural void left behind by their 17-year cousins and marks (for me, anyway) the peak of the summer season.

Early morning is the best time to garden, while it is light but the plants are still shaded by the eastern trees.  And when the weather is hot, as it has been lately, early morning is the coolest time of day.  Once the sun clears the trees and starts shining on us directly, everything heats up.

Having eaten the last of the Sugar Snap peas last night (we chose to make them the last; the plants probably would have continued to produce), I carefully removed the vines today.  They had formed an interwoven fabric of stems, branches and tendrils that was firmly anchored to the trellis.  Pulling the vines free of the trellis without damaging it required some effort and concentration.

In the process, I found one pea that Rachel missed, despite her careful inspection of the plants, stem by stem.  I know from my own experience that the pea pods, even when they are large and plump, can hide in plain sight, blending in as they do with the surrounding leaves and branches.

And, in fact, I also found several peas that we had missed weeks ago.  Yesterday’s escapee was plump and sweet (I later gave it to Rachel to snack on); the older evasive peas, ensconced in tangles of leaves and tendrils, were shriveled and black (and completely unappetizing).

When I was finished with the demolition, Rachel joined me.  After clearing away the mulch, we sowed seeds for two types of string beans:  Amethyst Purple Filet Beans (to the west) and Roma II Bush Beans (to the east).  Working quickly (the sun was starting to rise above the treetops), we spaced holes at about two inches on center, using our fingers as dibbles.  Bean seeds are easy to plant (they are simply dried peas) and we were done in a matter of minutes.

String beans are slowpokes (55 to 70 days to maturity) and we will have a bit of a wait before we can eat them.  We should have the bush beans by late August.  The filet beans—a bright purple variety I remember my mother growing when I was in high school—take even longer to mature.  We will not be eating them until after Labor Day.

The second best time to garden is dusk.  As the sun drops to the horizon, there is an almost audible sigh of relief from the earth as the seemingly relentless barrage of light and heat diminishes and cooling begins.  Starting at about 6:30, there are one to two hours of twilight during which a lot of work can be done before it gets too dark.

On Sunday—a day of blistering sun—I spent those precious evening hours pruning the tomato plants and tying them to their cages.  I also retied the bell peppers and eggplants (moving their Velcro straps upwards) which have grown much taller in the summer warmth.