Archives for posts with tag: pollinators

A funny thing happened to our tomato plants as the growing season started to wind down for the year. They went berserk!

Usually, production of new fruit diminishes at this time of year. Fewer flowers blossom and once the weather gets colder, the pollinators stop visiting them. The fruit that remains ripens only slowly, if at all (often, it doesn’t).

But this year, the number of blossoms has actually increased as we have moved later into the fall. And, apparently, the bees haven’t packed it in yet. Most of the blossoms have been pollinated and many fruits have set.

This is particularly true of the Black Cherry tomatoes. All of the remaining branches are supporting multiple clusters of dozens of tomatoes. Most of them are green but each cluster includes a handful that are starting to turn red.

With no signs of frost in the short-term forecast, it looks like we’ll be eating tomatoes at Thanksgiving!

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When you’re a gardener, it’s reassuring to know that you have friends.

Friends such as earthworms (the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout…).

Not to mention the pollinators, by which I mean mainly the bees.

Also nice—and quite beautiful—are the butterflies and hummingbirds.

Frogs are friends of the garden as well; they eat plenty of harmful insects.

And then there are dragonflies. I’m not sure if they are beneficial or merely benign but they’re not harmful, definitely. Also, they are curious and always seem genuinely interested in whatever I am doing.

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.

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.

I haven’t said that much about this year’s crop of string beans but that’s not because there hasn’t been a lot to say.

Most notably, both of the varieties we planted matured earlier than expected.  Based on the days to maturity listed on the seed packets, the Roma II bush beans would, on average, begin yielding ripe beans on Labor Day; the Amethyst Purple, a filet bean, theoretically would have needed another two weeks after that.

But in general, both types of string bean have been very enthusiastic growers.  After pushing out of the ground a few days sooner than average, the seedlings quickly climbed their trellis to a height of two to three feet (and, like the Sugar Snap peas before them, two or three vines reached even higher).  Apparently, the long, hot days of July were much to their liking.

Cooler weather (relatively speaking) in August did nothing to slow them down.  Daily, the vines grew bushier and bushier (both varieties are of the bush type, after all) and produced many blossoms.  These were quickly pollinated (and not just by bees; the flowers attracted many moths and butterflies as well) and by early August, tiny string beans had formed.

By the last week of August—a week early—we harvested our first crop.  At the same time, the vines continued to grow higher, blossom regularly and profusely, and produce even more beans.  Since they started, we have picked several large baskets full (actually, we use a colander) of sturdy, but tender, beans.  We have been preparing them simply, sautéed with butter or, decadently, bacon fat (which adds a smoky flavor).  I particularly like the Roma II beans which are meatier than the Amethyst Purple.

All good things must come to end, however.  As the season has wound down, the string beans have also slowed and the number of new blossoms diminished.  Today, we made what I think will be the final search through the leafy vines to find and pick the remaining beans.

We collected a large bag full of the Amethyst Purple and only a few of the Roma II beans (which was not unexpected; this is, on average, an earlier variety).  It is enough for at least two meals during which we will celebrate one of this season’s bigger successes.

This season’s unsung vegetables are the bell peppers and the eggplants.  That’s probably because there has not been much to sing about.  They have been steadily but quietly passing the days in the east planter, fending off intrusions from the nearby basil and enjoying the unobstructed sun they receive from the west (at least until the basil we transplanted there gets much bigger).

But they have not produced much.  Each of the pepper plants carries one ripening fruit and of these, three attained full size a week ago.  Since then, however, they have remained steadfastly green.  Eventually (I hope), they will turn either red or orange (we didn’t note exactly where we placed each variety) signaling that they are ready to be eaten.  Until then, we wait.

The eggplants, wedged tightly between the peppers and the basil, seem to be healthy enough.  The main stems are tall—at least two feet—and their leaves are large, thick and lush.  They remind me of tobacco leaves, another member of the deadly nightshades (family Solanaceae) to which they are closely related.

They have also been producing the most delicate blossoms in an understated shade of purple.  Beautiful as they are, though, it would appear that the pollinators in our neighborhood (bees, mostly) are not impressed by the color choice or do not care for the flavor of the eggplant’s pollen.  Whatever the reason, the flowers have not been successfully pollinated and no eggplants have formed.  So:  more waiting.  Gardening is not for the impatient.

At the other end of the garden, there is more to sing about.  The string beans are nearing maturity and the beets continue to thrive.  The beets have probably been harvestable for weeks (even accounting for this year’s slow growing season) but we’ve been storing them in-situ.  I think that the roots are better off in the ground than they would be in the refrigerator:  The weather has been moderate and the automatic watering ensures that they do not become dry.

In the meantime, the greens have filled out and darkened in color, an indicator of their high concentration of nutrients.  We continue to enjoy them when we do pull a few from the soil.  And we can’t get enough roasted beet roots.  We save them for a relatively cool day when turning on the oven will not heat the house too much.  Then, we savor their deep, earthy flavor with bitter lettuces and a simple vinaigrette.  They’re good enough to make me burst out into song.

The cucumber at the west end of the row shriveled up and died.  It went very quickly—practically overnight—and with no warning (not that having a warning would have helped).  Like before (see August 17, 2013), I pulled the vine out and disposed of it well away from the garden (after salvaging one nearly-ripe cucumber).  The remaining four plants look to be okay (not counting the powdery mildew on their leaves).

Each day in the garden, I take a tour of the squash and cucumber vines searching for spotted squash and striped cucumber beetles.  Usually, I find them hiding in the blossoms, especially the smaller flowers of the cucumber plants.  Bees often spend the night in the larger squash blossoms; I suspect that they do not make good roommates.

When I find the little varmints, I grant them no mercy (and that’s probably enough said about that).

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?

On this fine summer afternoon, we found ourselves looking for an outdoor activity, one that did not involve manual labor or anything that might be construed as work.  It is not as if we don’t have anything to do—our list of chores is very long and there is never a shortage of things to be done on a Saturday.  But we were in need of some downtime.  So we decided to make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.

With some dismay, I realized that we have not been here since last fall (see September 16, 2012, part 2).  That means we completely missed spring and what would undoubtedly have been a dazzling display of blossoming trees, daffodils, irises and peonies (luckily, we got to see most of those at home).  On the other hand, while our previous visits have occurred in March, June and September, this is our first trip in July.

We were expecting that in the peak of summer, the colors would be primarily green; there are fewer plants that flower this time of year than in spring and it is much too early (thank goodness!) for fall coloratura.  However, the gardeners and landscape designers at Stonecrop have done an excellent job of diversifying the plantings and we were very happy to find many flowers in bloom.

Most notable is an impressive variety of lilies.  In our neighborhood, the majority of lilies is wild and of the tiger type:  dark orange with darker orange stripes.  In our ornamental garden, we have a bright yellow variety.  Here at Stonecrop, though, the lilies range from pink (both pale and Pepto) to peach to blood red (with yellow stripes) and back to yellow (although a much paler lemon shade, compared to ours).  The petals vary from short and wide to long and narrow (almost spidery in some cases).

Also of note (and as I have noted before) are the leafy groundcovers that fill many of the beds.  In addition to the typical green, we saw purple, yellow and blue (well, bluish) varieties.  And among the green-leafed types, some have variegated leaves with accents of red, yellow or white.

We were happy with the broad spectrum of colors on view.  Even happier were the bees and other pollinators who were busily making their rounds of the beckoning flowers.

We finished what we thought would be the last of the Sugar Snap peas the other day and I was considering pulling them out in preparation for sowing seeds for green beans.  But although there are currently no peas developing, each plant is producing another round of blossoms.  We’ll wait another few days to see if a late crop forms before we move on.  The peas are a short-lived treat and if there is the chance of a few more, I’ll take it.  There is plenty of time for the string beans.

For the last few days, I have been worried about the slow growth of the tomato plants.  The weather conditions up until now have been almost exactly the opposite of what they prefer (cool and wet versus warm and dry).  Reassuringly, however, the vines are finally showing signs of life.  As of today, they have all reached the second rung of their cages.

Not only are they taller and fuller but the Sungolds have sent forth their first branches of blossoms.  The flowers are only just formed and have not yet completely opened but once they do, they are sure to attract bees and other pollinators.  After that, it will not be long until we see cherry tomatoes.  Of course, we will still have to wait for them to grow and ripen but it is encouraging nonetheless.

All of the tomato plants are sprouting new branches, some which are low on the stem, as far down as the soil surface.  Using clippers, we nipped off all new growth lower than about six inches above the ground.  This will help keep the lowest portion of the plants dry and exposed to ventilating breezes.

Suckers have also started to form at most of the existing branches.  Now, I’m generally a proponent of aggressive pruning and my first reaction was to remove all of them.  This is the policy to which I adhered last year and certainly, the tomato vines were much easier to manage and tie to the cages.  But they also had fewer branches on which fruit could develop and that may have contributed to last year’s meager harvest (I don’t think it was the only reason).

This year, I will take a more moderate stance and assess each budding branch individually.  If a sucker is located where there are already several branches (or otherwise lush foliage), I will clip it off.  Alternatively, if a sucker forms where the plant is sparse, I’ll let it grow in.  The goal will be a uniformly full plant without undue congestion.

The summer squash plants also seem to have shifted into a higher gear and are beginning to fill out.  The only exception is one of the zucchini vines.  It otherwise looks normal but is only about half of the size of its sibling.  It is like someone hit it with a shrinking ray.  Actually, its color is also not as deeply green as its sister plant, which may be an indication that it is struggling.  Perhaps a dose of fertilizer to spur its growth?