Archives for posts with tag: pruning

[Obviously, I’m a bit behind on my garden blogging this year. Okay, much more so than usual. If I have any readers left, however, they will be relieved to know that I am not behind on my garden planting; there is plenty going on there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to catch up. Please note, though, that many of the posts will contain very little text, if any.]

Well, so much for 2014.

It was a long one, trying in many ways, but in the end a good year. That was true for life in general and for the garden in specific.

What worked and what didn’t? Let’s start with the negatives.

Growing herbs from seed: It’s a wonderful concept and something that promises the heat of summer in the dead of winter. I started thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, spearmint, and sage at the end of January last year with high hopes. The only seeds to germinate were the rosemary (perhaps two) and the basil.

I sowed a second batch of thyme, oregano, spearmint, and sage in early March, this time with fresh seeds. The germination rate was much better but the growth of the seedlings was slow. They did not need potting up until the end of April and we didn’t set them out until late June (everything was late last year due to the harsh winter). My conclusion is that herbs are best purchased as seedlings.

Eggplant and peppers: These are not exactly negatives—we had a decent harvest—but they needed extensive feedings (weekly) and did not produce ripe fruit until the early fall. It is possible that I planted them too close to each other (again!) and this year, we will give them even more space. I’m determined to make them work because their flavor is so much better than what you can get at the market, even the farmers’ market.

Photo by Rachel

Radishes and carrots: It pains me that neither the radishes nor the carrots performed well last year—or the two prior years, for that matter. Radishes in particular are supposed to be one of the easiest vegetables to grow. They are also supposed to be quick to mature. In our experience, they are quick to sprout but then their growth slows to a crawl. Carrots are slow in all respects.

With most of the root vegetables, we have also had the problem of too many greens and not enough roots. It’s not a huge problem—I enjoy radish, beet, and turnip greens as much as I enjoy radishes, beets, and turnips—which is a good thing because there does not seem to be anything to be done about it. We will continue to try different varieties to see what works best in our garden.

Cucumbers and summer squash: Like radishes, summer squash is supposed to be easy. It is also supposed to be prolific. Not for us. We had enough but leaving sacks of zucchini and cucumbers on the neighbors’ doorsteps was never an option. This is another case where finding the right variety—a trial and error approach—is really the only solution.

Photo by Rachel

And now, the positives.

Lettuce from seed, indoors: Sure, the germination rate of lettuce seeds is abysmally low but there’s no reason not to sow a hundred seeds at a time. If too many sprout, they can be culled and used as micro-greens (in salads arranged with tweezers!). More likely, only just enough will grow to fill out the planter.

We use window boxes that fit nicely on the bottom shelf of our seed-starting apparatus. We keep one fluorescent light fixture on them continuously (controlled by a timer) and so I only need to remember to water them every other day or so to maintain a steady harvest. If I can figure out a safe way to automatically irrigate the boxes (without fear of flooding the basement!), then the process will be perfect.

Photo by Rachel

Sugar Snap peas: Peas with edible pods are tied with turnips as my favorite home garden vegetable. They are the first to start outdoors (theoretically, as early as March 17) and quickly add a touch of spring green to the garden. The sprouts are useful whether raw, as a topping for crostini, say, or cooked in a stir-fry. The blossoms are beautiful and once the vines start producing, they continue for weeks.

Turnips and beets: Turnips are my co-favorite home garden vegetable both because they are easy to grow and are versatile. Unlike the other root vegetables, we’ve never had a problem with too many greens, which are delicious raw (in a salad, usually) or sautéed (e.g., with onions and garlic). Likewise, the roots can be eaten raw—thinly sliced, with bitter greens and a honey-based dressing—or cooked. I don’t know why more chefs haven’t included them in their farm-to-table menus.

Beets are slightly more problematic and sometimes the roots suffer due to over-abundant greens growth. On the other hand, they are very resilient and last until early fall. (And for all I know, they could over-winter in the ground without damage.) Despite the additional effort needed to spur their root growth, home-grown beets are worth it. Nothing beats the earthy flavor of beets, pulled from the ground and roasted in a hot oven. That’s terroir defined.

Tomatoes: As in previous years, we planted twelve vines last year but only six in a raised bed. The other six we planted in the ground, in alternation with the summer squashes. Also unlike ever before, we only placed one tomato vine per cage. More experienced gardeners might be saying, “Duh!”, but we’ve finally arrived at the conclusion that the tomatoes are easier to manage (by which I mean, easier to keep pruned) when they have more space between them.

Photo by Rachel

We also benefited from an unusual late-season growth spurt last year; our vines were still producing fruit in mid-November. It was odd, but in a delightful sort of way. Having fresh tomatoes in the fall—which were still green, for the most part—made us think about them in a different way. Whereas the soft, ripe, red tomatoes of summer were best eaten raw, the firmer, tart, green fall tomatoes tasted better in cooked dishes.

String beans: Pole and bush beans are another vegetable on the too-short list of reliable producers. Their preferred schedule (mid-summer to early fall) makes them the perfect candidate to follow the Sugar Snap peas when they start to peter out. Like the peas, beans sprout quickly, climb their trellis rapidly (one can almost see them creeping upwards), and supply an abundant crop of crisp, brightly-flavored beans that last for an extended period. They are a good choice to end the growing season.

Advertisements

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.

Now that it is fully a month into spring, we made another visit to Stonecrop Gardens. We brought along Rachel’s mother who has never been here before. We were very excited to show her around.

During our previous trip (see March 22, 2014), the ground was still covered by snow and we were confined to the Conservatory, the Pit House and other enclosed spaces.

This time around, the snow is long gone (not counting Tuesday night’s dusting, which only disappeared on Wednesday; see April 16, 2014), the skies are clear and brilliantly blue and, remarkably, it is comfortably warm. Perfect for a stroll through the outdoor gardens.

It’s a good time to see daffodils, hyacinths and other flowering bulbs (although it is still too early for irises and tulips). Not many of the trees have blossomed yet but the weeping cherry tree, the view of which is perfectly framed by one of the moon windows of the Wisteria Pavilion, looked beautiful anyway. Its slender branches have been carefully pruned to cascade downwards in a spherical spray of tiny buds.

This is the earliest we’ve been in the enclosed flower and vegetable gardens and their appearance is strikingly different from how we’ve seen them before. Late last summer (see July 27, 2013) for instance, the beds were overflowing with a rich variety of flowers, groundcovers and vegetable plants. The pathways between them were difficult to navigate without brushing against outreached branches or getting in the way of busy bees and other pollinators.

Today, these gardens are practically bare. Anything annual is long gone—cleared away in the fall, no doubt—and everything perennial has been trimmed back, almost to the roots in some cases. It is hard to believe that it will ever return to its abundant summer state.

But there are promising signs that this will indeed be the case. The Stonecrop gardeners were busy planting peas, lettuce and root vegetables, all under the watchful eyes of the benevolent scarecrow Miss Gertrude Jekyll (who was herself receiving restorative attention after what must have been a tough winter outdoors).

We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

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.

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.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Over the last few days, the blight (or whatever it is) that has been affecting the cherry tomatoes almost completely overwhelmed them.  There are now only a few branches that are not mottled or completely brown.  This is the first time we’ve had a disease that affects the fruit.  Clearly, it is time for some aggressive pruning.

In the process of amputating the diseased branches, I uncovered four hornworms (I would say that my worst fears were confirmed except that I have come to accept their inevitable presence).  None of them was very large and one was quite small; two had been visited by braconid wasps and were carrying egg sacs.  And despite their numbers, they had done relatively little damage.  Instead of killing them, I simply pruned the branches on which they were munching and tossed them onto the refuse pile.

When I had snipped away all of the afflicted Sungold and Black Cherry vines, there was not much left to look at, perhaps one gangly stem per plant, several feet long, with a small fan of leaves and a few clusters of tomatoes at the end.  I carefully draped the stems over the top of the supporting cages to prevent breakage or kinking.  Some of the remaining fruit has nearly ripened so the season is not quite over for them.

Inspecting the other tomato plants, I found that the Aunt Ruby’s German Green and the Red Brandywine vines are suffering from the same disease; many of their branches, leaves and fruit are similarly overcast with a sickly brown pall.  I took the same approach as with the cherry tomatoes and pruned away the damaged branches.  Not surprisingly, I also found more hornworms.

Much earlier in the season (see September 2, 2013), the Country Taste Beefsteak tomatoes became ill but with something different.  Instead of a uniform brown cast, their leaves are speckled with small, brown polka dots.  Eventually, the leaves turn yellow, wither and then die.  Sometimes, the fruits develop the same spots but these do not otherwise impair their color, ripening or flavor.  Just to be on the safe side, I pruned away most of the afflicted branches.

The only tomato plants that do not seem to be suffering are the Yellow Brandywines.  Given their close proximity to the others, however, I do not give them much of a chance to remain disease-free.  Still, the season will probably end due to weather before a possible infection can have an effect on production.

After I was finished, it looked like the tomato plants had been given a military haircut.  There are next to no branches on the vertical portion of the stems and the foliage is only slightly bushier at the top.  On the positive side, there are still plenty of tomatoes left.

Many of which are green, including a big bowl of cherry tomatoes and several of the other varieties that were attached to the branches I had to prune (a handful ended up in the garbage because they were almost completely covered with the blight).  We’ll make the most of them:  one green tomato casserole coming up.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

We have reached—and moved beyond—the point of diminishing returns on the basil.  It has grown much faster than we can use it and now, the leaves are starting to deflate and turn yellow.  The plants still smell divine—this has been by far the most aromatic basil I have ever grown—and their flavor remains bold and clear.  But the basil won’t be getting any better and could easily start to degrade.

Therefore, we decided to end the season for the original planting (at the southeast corner of the east planter) and clear-cut the lot.  Doing so produced a huge pile of leaves, enough for several batches of pesto.  In addition to the usual recipe—with pine nuts and parmesan—we will vary the nut and cheese options.  One batch will use walnuts or pistachio nuts and another will include Pecorino Romano.  We’ll also make what might more aptly be called basil paste, with neither nuts nor cheese.

The basil’s corner of the planter now looks a bit ravaged, like a miniature tornado tore through it.  Eventually, I will pull out the stubs and roots as part of my fall clean-up.  Meanwhile, the more recently planted basil in the southwest corner of the planter will provide enough green leaves to add to salads, etc., until the first frost.  If we get enough warning (the National Weather Service is not always timely), we will clear-cut this basil as well.

Because I already had the clippers out (and I had to use the big ones; the basil stems were large and tough), I took yet another pass at pruning the tomato vines.  My periodic cutting and trimming has been keeping them partially in control although the branches are still more tightly entwined than I would like.  It is reassuring that the plants remain healthy and robust.

I had been holding my breath, hoping that we might make it through the year without seeing a tomato hornworm.  But, really, what was I thinking?  Sure enough, as I was untangling a couple of Brandywine branches, I uncovered a large hornworm, calmly munching away.  It hadn’t done much damage but I shudder to think of how many leaves it could have eaten if it had been left undiscovered.

This is the latest in the season we have made it without finding any of them.  Last year, the first hornworm appeared in mid-August; in 2011, we had two broods, one in mid-July (which seems very early) and another in late-September.  After three seasons of vegetable gardening, I have concluded that the presence of this particular pest falls into the “inevitable” category.  If you grow them (tomatoes), they (hornworms) will come.

At the other end of the garden, the Purple Amethyst and Roma II string beans have been quietly producing an abundance of beans.  Perhaps stealthily would be a better description.  A casual glance at the plants—a wall of leafy vines clinging to the trellis—might mislead one into thinking that no beans were present.  But after reaching into the vines and pushing the leaves aside, a multitude of ripening beans is revealed.  They dangle vertically, parallel to the vines and protected from the sun by the leaves.

We are growing purple beans, which aside from their color look quite typical, and Italian-style beans, which are wider and flatter with larger lumps (the actual beans).  Rachel grew up with the latter but they are relatively new to me.  They have a distinctly vegetal flavor—their taste might be the definition of green—and are delicious steamed and/or sautéed with lots of butter.

We’re not the only ones who like them.  Several of the beans had been tunneled through by creatures unknown.  They are some type of worm, judging by the entry and exit holes, and left the beans looking like Swiss cheese.

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.