Archives for posts with tag: heat waves

Wrapping up my assessment of last year’s plantings in preparation for this year’s (see February 6, 2014 for the previous installment), the eggplant and bell peppers are two other vegetables (three, if you count the different colors of pepper separately) which were delicious and did well in our garden but which could use more space.

I had read that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to “hold hands,” so to speak—and set them out accordingly.  I treated the eggplant, the peppers’ near relatives in the deadly nightshade family, similarly.  However, I think that my efficiency in filling the available space actually worked against me.

I planted the eggplant and bell peppers in a staggered row which allowed me to fit eight plants into only about a sixth of the planter.  The plants were certainly cozy.  It was great until the plants grew up and out, at which point the back row was almost completely shaded by the front row.  In a Catch-22 situation, the plants in the back were never able to get the sun they needed to grow above the plants in front.

We’ll grow them again this year but keep them in a single row.  There will be fewer plants and they will take up more space but they should fill out more and produce a greater number of fruit (last year, each plant only yielded two or three).  Also, I have read that eggplant is a heavy feeder and I assume that the bell peppers are, too.  Therefore, I will fertilize them more often.

What’s left?  Lettuce, for one thing.  The seeds we planted outdoors in early spring thrived.  We were lucky with the weather—not too much heat or rain—and the first seedlings quickly grew into diminutive heads of red leaf and romaine.  Contrary to expectation, they were hardy enough to transplant and remained productive well into the summer.  They did not turn bitter until the very end of their season.

We were not as lucky, however, with the second and third sowings.  Most of the seeds germinated but by the time the seedlings pushed through the soil surface, the weather was either very hot or very wet or, on some days, both.  The extremes were more than the tender seedlings could manage and they simply disintegrated.

It seems that there is a critical period during which the seedlings are quite sensitive and after which they are much sturdier.  Therefore, this year we will start the lettuce indoors.  With the enclosed seed trays, heating pads and fluorescent lights, we can better control their environment during the sensitive stage.  After they develop into heads, we will transplant them into larger pots and move them around, inside or out, based on the weather.

That only leaves the sugar snap peas and the string beans.  All of these performed phenomenally well, especially the peas which came pretty close to my ideal vision of the vegetable.  (If I am a bit hyperbolic, it is because they are some of my favorites.)  We will plant them again this year and see whether we can make them even more successful.

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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?

What I’ve learned about beets:  First, they need less Nitrogen than flowering plants and relatively low soil pH (i.e., slight acidity).  Our soil is at the high end (6.78) of the preferred range (6.2 to 7.0), based on last fall’s soil report (see October 4, 2012), and I infer that our Nitrogen level is also high (last year’s report recommended adding only nominal amounts).

Second, beet seeds are clustered.  What looks outwardly like a single seed is actually a seedball consisting of three or four seeds held together by an outer layer.  This redundancy helps insure that the plants successfully reproduce—each seedball is three or four times more likely to produce a new plant—but for the gardener, it can be too much of a good thing.  Under favorable conditions, all of the seeds will germinate and if all of the seedlings are left to mature, the result will be plants that are so closely spaced that there is no room for the roots to develop.  Even with careful sowing, therefore, thinning will be required.

Third, while the beet greens can grow quite quickly, the beet roots will sometimes grow very slowly.  This condition arises in part from the higher Nitrogen concentration in the soil—which promotes vegetative growth—and is dependent on temperature as well.  We had a cool spring during which the beet seeds rapidly germinated and produced lovely heads of dark green leaves.

Then, before the roots could catch up, the weather turned warm and the beets’ development slowed.  We kept them well hydrated, so they were not permanently damaged by the heat, but their growth was stunted.  I will do some research into how to minimize the Nitrogen effect (it is not clear what nutrients would promote root growth) and with luck, next year’s beet roots will develop earlier, before the hot weather arrives.

Fourth, beet roots can go a long time unharvested, even in high heat, with no detrimental effects.  We discovered this when we pulled out the first row (see July 28, 2013) and found the beets to be in good condition even though they had been in the ground for months.  It makes sense, botanically:  The roots store solar energy collected during the beets’ first year of growth in order to produce flowers and seeds during their second year.  It makes beets a good choice for busy people.  Unlike more delicate vegetables like tomatoes, which will rot if left unpicked for too long, beets will wait patiently in the garden with no ill effects until their grower is ready for them.

What I already knew about beets:  They are absolutely delicious, especially when roasted, which intensifies their flavor.  And the greens might be more delicious than the roots (they are certainly more nutritious).  Beet greens make a fine addition to salads when they are young and hold up as well as, if not better than, spinach when sautéed.

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.

Lately, I’ve been concerned about the beets.  The first batch has been sitting in the ground since April.  How can they possibly need more time?  Their leaves are a beautiful, dark green color that signifies their high concentration of iron.  But are they still okay after all of this time in the ground, exposed to the summer heat?

To find out, we pulled up the entire first row.  They range in size from marble to baseball and all of them are firm and dry.  They show no signs of rot or other decay.  Also, the growth patterns of the Chioggia (red) and Touchstone Gold beets appear to be essentially identical.

From this, I conclude that any issues (and perhaps that is too strong a word) have to do with the growing conditions and not with the particular beet variety.  Most likely, our soil had too much Nitrogen (which promotes the growth of the greens) to begin with.  Then, when the weather turned hot and the beets were still in the ground, they went into self-preservation mode.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the beets have survived safely in the ground.  Beets are excellent storage vegetables and can be kept for long periods of time if they are protected from light and moisture.  A farmer friend of ours packs his surplus crop in sand-filled wooden crates in which they pass the winter, stacked in the basement of one of his barns.

We won’t keep ours that long.  One night soon, when it is cool enough to run the oven, we will roast them with olive oil and salt and then chop them into a salad with arugula and goat cheese.  The greens, which we carefully cleaned of mulch and soil (but did not wash so as to keep them dry), we will sauté with garlic and onions.

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

The weather has been miserably, exhaustingly hot and humid, with almost no rain.  At seven days and counting, this is the longest heat wave (high temperatures over 90 degrees) that I can remember.  I have been making sure to water the garden daily (and the lettuce twice daily) to keep it as moist as possible.  Luckily, there have been no signs of dehydration or wilting so far.

One might think that the heat-loving tomatoes would be ahead of schedule and, in fact, all of them are tall and energetic, overshooting their cages by at least a foot.  But some things cannot be rushed.  In spite of weather conducive to accelerated growth, the fruits that have set are not ripening any quicker than they would under normal conditions.  Like it or not, we will have to wait until early August for tomatoes.

Still, two Sungold cherry tomatoes did turn from plain green to golden green, a sign of impending ripeness.  It was just in time for Rachel and me to use them in a ceremony celebrating our Silver Wedding Anniversary.  As noted by our celebrant, tomatoes are referred to as “love apples” in many languages and are said to possess aphrodisiacal powers; seeing them in our dreams signifies domestic harmony.

What better way for us to symbolize our growing together—both literally and figuratively—than to feed each other the first sweet tomatoes of our 25th year as a married couple?

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.

I got what I asked for (see June 25, 2013) and summer arrived in spades on the Fourth of July.  We’ve had mostly 90-degree days ever since.  The humidity is high and it rarely gets below the 70s at night so almost needless to say, our pool—and our one small air conditioner—are getting a lot of use.

We’re a bit exhausted but the vegetables seem to be enjoying it.  The tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are all heat lovers and are growing by leaps and bounds.  The squash and cucumbers are also looking pleased with the warmer weather.  We have not had any rain to speak of so I have been careful to run the water every day (the remaining heads of lettuce get a mid-day sprinkling as well) to keep anything from drying out.

Not everything is responding well to the heat, however.  The arugula has been struggling to get beyond the seedling stage even with frequent watering.  And some of the carrots and beets have been in the ground since April.  The carrots in particular are looking a bit scraggly and are probably in danger of bolting.  So we decided to pull out all but the last row of carrots and turnips.

We were not surprised to find the turnips large and meaty—they have been performing well all season—but we were positively ecstatic to discover that the carrots had quietly grown to normal size.  We planted a mixture of seeds that were marketed as a rainbow of colors but comprised only red, orange and yellow, the Roy in Roy G. Biv (I guess that puts us on a first name basis with the rainbow).  Of these, the red grew the largest (and sweetest).

In the space left behind, we transplanted a six-pack of cauliflower seedlings that we purchased a week or two ago from a small, family-owned garden center nearby.  Of the Bishop variety, the seedlings have been toughing it out in their plastic container waiting for an opening in the garden.  We arranged them in a staggered row, loosened their root balls and buried them up to their first set of leaves (their stems had gotten quite long).  These are the only vegetables we did not start from seed and it will be fun to compare the outsiders’ progress to that of the natives.

Between uprooting and planting, we noticed that something has been getting into the basil and nibbling on the leaves.  I can’t say I blame whoever is responsible—the basil is incredibly lush and irresistibly fragrant—but I will say that they are not very tidy.  Several of the basil leaves are covered with scat (frass might be a more appropriate term).  We clipped and discarded the affected leaves and reminded ourselves to carefully wash whatever basil we use.

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.