Archives for posts with tag: staking

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.

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Here’s one of the things that can happen when tomato plants extend too far beyond their supports:  A stray gust of wind can knock down an over-reaching branch, resulting in a damaged stem or fruit.  This befell a Country Taste beefsteak vine last night during one of the unusually cool rainstorms that have characterized the weather this August.

In this case, the affected branch was one of the main stems, a forked vine supporting half a dozen ripening tomatoes (all still very green).  And sadly, the damage was irreparable.  When I tried to straighten out the toppled plant in order to tie it securely to its cage, the stem snapped off.  Tomato stems will accommodate a high degree of deformation but their capacity is not limitless.

On the surviving stem, I made a clean cut and used an additional Velcro strip to lash the free end to the cage.  I then harvested the unripe tomatoes from the broken branch and took them inside.  Two of them, at least, are very close to turning red and may ripen on the kitchen countertop.  The remaining four—much smaller but otherwise in fine condition—will not likely get any better before they start to get worse (but don’t worry, we will eat them anyway).

Warning:  Insect photo below.

This morning, we found the culprit who has been munching its way through the basil and leaving a nasty mess behind:  a large, hairy caterpillar.  I’m not sure what it will eventually morph into (a moth, probably) but it looks more like something I would see if I put a drop of swamp water on a glass slide and looked at it under a microscope (i.e., more Parameciidae than Lepidoptera).  We clipped off the leaf it was clinging to, along with the other soiled leaves, and tossed them into the woods.

We also replanted—again—the arugula seedlings that a friend gave to us.  They had not been doing well in their pot (too small) and we are hoping that by moving them to the east raised bed (where the other lettuces have been happily growing) they will have a better shot at survival.

At the other end of the garden, the Kabocha squash plant looks to be a climber. It has been steadily creeping outward from its mound of soil, searching for something to wrap its tendrils around.  To accommodate it, we built a tripod of six-foot-high stakes (the green plastic type, tied together at the top with twine) and trained the vine up one of the legs.  Its leaves are now facing the wrong way (north) but they should soon readjust.

From the top of the tripod, we hung a temple bell that a friend gave me for my birthday (the same generous friend who gifted me the blue ceramic pot; see June 29, 2013).  Gleaming with reflected sunlight, the bell now anchors the west end of the garden and provides a meditative—and melodic—focal point for anyone passing by.

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.

Another strong rain and wind storm swept through the area yesterday and although not seemingly as intense as the deluge a few days ago (see June 24, 2013), it dropped more than half an inch of rain on us.  It was also windier, as evidenced by the tomato and bell pepper plants that were toppled over by the strong gusts.

I’ve mentioned before that the tomato plants have kicked into high gear but I haven’t had much to say about the eggplant and bell peppers.  Up until now, they have been plugging along at a relaxed pace.  However, they too enjoy the drier, warmer conditions that we’ve been having over the last two weeks (occasional downpours notwithstanding) and are making up for lost time accordingly.  The eggplant and peppers are not yet as tall as the tomatoes but generally, all of the deadly nightshades are prospering.

To prevent further mishaps (the thunderstorm season is only just underway), I inspected each tomato plant and Velcro-ed any loose branches to their supporting cages (I snipped off one or two that seemed excessive).  For the eggplant and peppers, I installed a bamboo stake (the green-tinted, pencil-thin variety) adjacent to each stem and tied them together with more Velcro tape.

While working on the bell peppers, I noticed that when they first form, their young leaves look like crumpled wads of paper (albeit shiny, deep-green paper).  As they develop, the wads slowly expand, the leaf surfaces becoming less crinkly until finally, when they are full size, the leaves are smooth and oval.  It is as if invisible hands are opening up and smoothing out the wadded leaves just as one would an important paper thrown into the trash by mistake and later retrieved.

Presumably, at the end of the season, the leaves will dry, darken in color and return to their crumpled state at which point they will truly be ready for the metaphorical wastebasket.  Here they will remain until next spring when the cycle repeats itself.

Saturday was a washout (it rained all day) and yesterday, we spent our time expanding the west end of the garden (see May 26, 2013).  Today it is time to plant!

To start, we installed the tomato cages across north side of the east planter.  In each of the last two years, we added stakes late in the season to stabilize the cages against the unbalanced forces of unruly tomato vines.  Recognizing the inevitability of this step, this year we did it right from the beginning.

For each variety of tomato, we chose the two best specimens (even after having given some away, we had several to choose from), dug a deep hole on either side of a cage, and buried the seedlings and their root balls up to the first set of true leaves.  The buried portion of the stems will produce roots and help firmly establish the plant in the soil.  In prior years, I have relied on my memory to keep the location of the different tomato varieties straight.  This year, I placed row markers against the stakes.

In the south center of the east planter, we formed two rows, staggered, for the eggplant and peppers.  We have room for eight plants and chose three Rosso bell peppers, three eggplant, and two orange bell peppers.  We have no need to identify these with row markers; their fruits will (eventually) identify them.

I read that that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to hold hands—so we placed them with only about a foot in between.  All will eventually need support for their main stems but being short on stakes, we will have to provide them later (they are not yet very tall so there is time).

In the remaining sextant (at the southeast corner), we laid out a relatively dense pattern of staggered rows for the basil.  We planted nine seedlings that had been hardened off (we gave away the others) and added five seedlings from indoors.  The latter had not been hardened off and they showed it with their droopy leaves (I would be disconsolate, too, if I had been kicked out of the house).  These seedlings are also smaller having never been potted up.

With that, the east planter is now full.  We gave all of the newly transplanted seedlings a drink of water (we’ll install soaker hoses later) along with a dose of fish emulsion.

Summer thunderstorms have been frequent and violent this year, with lots of pounding rain, lightning (some of it too close for comfort) and gusty winds.  So far, there has been no damage to speak (or write) of but each storm scatters the yard with leaves, twigs and small branches.  The three spruce trees in our neighbor’s yard are shedding their needles and the wind deposits them everywhere, including in the pool.  Like their namesakes, the needles are very pointy and sharp (I usually find them with my bare feet).

The evening before last, a particularly windy thunderstorm passed through.  The day’s weather had been lackluster, hot of course but neither sunny nor fully overcast.  It was one of those days when Mother Nature seemed unable or unwilling to make up her mind.  Anyway, the storm came upon us quickly, as these storms are apt to do, about an hour before sunset.  The sky darkened, thunder rumbled up the valley and the pitter-pat of light rain began to sound on the trees’ canopy of leaves.

The wind started with just a few gusts but quickly developed into a sustained blast of gale-force winds that were constantly changing direction.  It was thrilling (and alarming) to watch the 40-foot-tall trees around us rapidly swaying back and forth as the storm passed through.  It was also easy to imagine how tornadoes can be spawned from these conditions.  The lights blinked and dimmed (a power line was failing somewhere) for about five minutes before the storm front moved on, followed by torrential rains.  The deluge lasted another ten minutes before the sky returned to calm.  By then it was twilight.

To our surprise, we found only one downed branch the next morning.  The pool was a mess (everything seems to end up in there) but the garden was mostly unaffected.  Despite our recent pruning, the cucumbers are still top-heavy on their cages and as a result, they were listing to the south.  When I tried to set them right, I could not get them to remain vertical.  Over the last few weeks of windy weather, the legs of the cages have become loose in the soil.

As a remedy, I drove a cedar stake deeply into the soil at the front of each cage while Rachel held it plumb.  With a strip of Velcro tape, I lashed the cages to the stakes making everything fast and shipshape.  For good measure, I also added a stake beside the eggplant and bell pepper plant.  They are growing taller every day and with an eggplant and two peppers ripening, will soon be prone to toppling.

I’m not sure why I didn’t install the stakes from the beginning (wishful thinking for a calm summer?) but now we are ready for the next big storm.