Thursday, July 21, 2016

I Lost a Caterpillar in my Car

Guest post by Susie Hill, Frederick County Master Gardener and former HGIC Horticulture Consultant. This article originally appeared in the Frederick News-Post.

“My mom threw your caterpillar in the grass when you weren’t looking.” Ella’s gargantuan blue eyes got even bigger. “I think I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.” I could only laugh and appreciate finally having the answer to what had happened to the tomato hornworm caterpillar that got lost in my car two years ago.
It was summertime. I had been in the tomato patch and found the largest tomato hornworm I’d ever seen in my life. So often, I see the evidence of their presence (missing foliage and poop, also known as frass) but I can’t find the camouflaged, chewing destroyer. On this lucky day, I found him.
The temptation to put him in a paper bag and take him to the pool was irresistible. I had to show curious children his enormous mandibles and explain how they move sideways instead of up and down like ours. I felt compelled to share that this caterpillar would one day become a sphinx moth. They marveled at my find — and its mandibles. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the fact that jaws so strong could easily chew through the paper bag I’d chosen to use as his holding pen. This is how I lost a caterpillar in my car.
It could have turned out differently … if that caterpillar had been found by a braconid wasp first. Braconids are small parasitic wasps that feed on hornworms. The adult female lays her eggs under the surface of the unsuspecting hornworm’s skin. She uses a special piece of equipment, called an ovipositor, to lay her eggs. As an aside, ovipositors are commonly referred to as stingers. This means, of course, that male bees and wasps have no stingers. Anyway, eggs hatch out and feed on the caterpillar from the inside. Once they are ready to pupate, the larvae emerge from the skin and form white cocoons on the outside of the body. If I’d seen white cocoons on my hornworm, I would have left him in my tomato patch — one, because it would be dead — and two, the emerging wasps would go on to parasitize more hornworms.
As luck would have it, I found the hornworm first, got a little too excited, and as a natural consequence of my actions, lost an enormous hornworm in my car. It was unlucky to lose that thing in my car. For weeks, and months, I kept my eyes open for it, fully expecting a horrific smell to overtake my van — something even worse than my van’s usual malodor. Finally, after two years passed, I got my answer.
Historically, the sight and smell of my van’s interior has offended adults and children alike. Ella’s mom, Anne, has compassion for me due to my lack of home and car management skills, so she offered to help me clean my van. While my back was turned, she found the hornworm dangling from the bottom of one of the seats. Knowing that I would have tried to take it home to feed to my chickens, she swiftly tossed it in the grass, instructing her daughter with sign language for SHHH.
My hope for your tomato patch this summer is that the braconid wasps find the tomato hornworms before you. For the sake of your family, I hope that if you do find them, you will not choose to put them in a paper bag and take them to the pool for show and tell. If you don’t have a friend as nice as mine, the story might not end so well for you.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The year without a blueberry

Every year in the garden seems to teach a lesson about how things change. This year, I've been disappointed in my blueberries.

I wrote a post a few years ago about my blueberries and how I always manage to harvest lots of them despite giving them no protection from birds (and there are lots of birds around). Last year I lost a few more berries than usual, enough that I decided this spring to hang up some bird-scare tape, the shiny red-and-silver kind that's supposed to make birds think your plants are on fire. Well, I guess my birds are daredevils, or attracted to flashy things, and certainly extra hungry, because they've been taking ALL the berries from the day the first ones got close to ripe - in fact since then I have not seen a single berry looking anything like blue.

Blueberry harvest this year = absolutely zero. Down from weeks of decent harvest last year, plenty to eat fresh and freeze. So why the sudden change? My neighbor, a Master Naturalist, says she's seen a lot more jays, catbirds, and other large birds that enjoy and can handle the size of blueberries. We have many large trees in the neighborhood, and lots of food for birds, between insects, other berry and seed plants, and supplemental birdfeeders. Maybe the population is up and they have finally figured out - after 15 years or more! - that the blueberries are available.

I will also confess that I haven't pruned my blueberries properly in a while, and I plan to do that this coming late winter (and will remember to post about it then!). This should make the crop heavier next year - but will it be enough? A few flowers might have succumbed to the late freezes this spring, which decreased the fruit setting. However, I still should have been able to harvest some!

It's particularly infuriating to lose the harvest this year, because I've just planted six new blueberry plants in the space where we took out a useless privet hedge. However, the cleared space does allow me to put up some kind of structure around the new bed - something attractive, since it's a prominent part of our landscaping - that can be covered with bird netting while the plants are bearing. I won't be able to do that with the original four plants, unfortunately.

I also plan to create a structure around my newly redesigned black raspberry planting, since I have not harvested any of those either this year - and again, we are used to sharing with the birds, but always get plenty for both fresh eating and preserving a bit.

And who knows - maybe next year the birds will find something else to snack on, and the harvest will go back to normal. Anyone who's been gardening for a while can tell you that each year is different - the year you get no tomatoes, or no squash, or no beans, and the years that those crops are super-abundant - and the patterns are not necessarily predictable.

And luckily, the local farms have plenty of blueberries to pick - so my husband was still able to start his planned blueberry wine, and we've had snacks and cereal toppings and desserts. It's just not June and July without blueberries!

Monday, June 27, 2016

At Least It's Been a Lettuce Year

This was a hard spring for many of us – we had frost over here on the upper Eastern Shore of Maryland in May with plenty of rain and cool, overcast days – all of which put most of us into something of a funk and at least two or three weeks behind in planting. In fact, while the rule of thumb around here is: Put tomatoes in on Mother’s Day, we were lucky to get them in by Memorial Day, which is the rule of thumb way up in the Adirondacks!

Red Ruffles and Butterhead Bibb Lettuces on June 20
But the LETTUCE!  It’s the best lettuce year I can remember having. I had started red leaf and butter Bibb in my little greenhouse late (due to a greenhouse disaster, which also set me back), then brought ‘em out to harden off, hauled ‘em back in several times to prevent getting trashed by the cold and critters (it's been a blowout bunny year -- while writing this, I heard a ruckus in the flower bed outside my office window and had to chase -- yes chase! -- a rabbit out).  In about the middle of May, I finally put the little lettuce plants in the ground under row cover, as both protection and camouflage. It woiked! as Curly (of Larry Moe and…) would have said.
Light green is the second planting of lettuce 

I only began cutting heads of lettuce a maybe three weeks ago, a time when it’s usually starting to bolt around here – and have almost finished as of this morning. Maybe one or two more days and this first flush will be gone.

I’m going to shove some seeds into a partially shaded patch in the veg garden in another day or two and cover them with row cover in hopes of getting some salad greens despite the young rabbit that let me accidentally step on him (scared us both to pieces and we both screeched) while putting a couple of wizened cuke plants along with some cuke seeds into a patch on the north end of the peas, some of which I had for lunch with shallots and prosciutto for lunch – hooray! We’re actually having a garden this year. Food glorious food!

ID this plant! My mystery Asian celery/parsley

I usually know the names of the plants in my garden (at least the ones I put in on purpose), but this year I have an unknown in my vegetable bed and I am turning to the GIEI readership to identify it. I was given the seedling last year by someone who'd received it from someone else (yes, the vagueness is unfortunately real) who said it was a Japanese (or perhaps otherwise Asian) type of celery. So I planted it, and it crept along pretty much ignored, and then this year it kind of exploded and looks like this (about 18 inches high and wide):

It is not the Japanese parsley known as mitsuba or Cryptotaenia japonica (which I actually have seeds for but didn't get around to planting this year). I think it may be Oenanthe javanica, known as water celery or Java water dropwort. This is the closest guess I have, but if anyone recognizes the plant, please let me know!

Yes, I have been eating it (since it's from a presumably reliable if forgotten source), and it tastes similar to both celery and parsley and is quite good. So far I've just thrown bits into stir-fries and the like; I was thinking about making a kind of pesto with it, since I have so much of it, but would appreciate other recipes. Thanks for any help you can give, GIEI readers!

Monday, June 13, 2016


This is GIEI's Year of the Tomato, popularity winner of the nightshade family. More about tomatoes soon! but today I'm going to talk about a few other members of Solanaceae that I'm growing.

Here's the nightshade corner of my deck, where I keep some of my vegetables going in not-quite-enough sun. This picture is actually a week and a half old; the plants have grown since then.

To the left, and then in the middle of the back row, I have two Long Purple eggplants. Growing eggplants in containers up on the deck allows me to keep them uncovered, since flea beetles seldom find them up there. (If planted in garden soil, or even in raised beds or containers sitting on the ground, they are best served by providing row cover until they get big and sturdy. Flea beetles hang out down low.) Eggplants self-pollinate with a bit of wind, but I'll keep an eye on their fruit production, and also will limit the nitrogen fertilizer as they grow - last time I tried this I ended up with huge healthy plants with no flowers or fruit, since too much nitrogen means lots of leaves but less of the part you want to eat.

Between the eggplants is a poha berry, which is apparently a GIANT GROUND CHERRY - well, at least bigger than the usual kind. I will report back.

In front of that is an Antioch pepper, a family heirloom of one of our Master Gardeners. I try to grow this one every year isolated from other peppers so the seed won't cross and can be saved. One plant will only provide enough seed to share with local growers, but I have some from last year if you want to try it. The peppers are long and mildly hot, and can be eaten in pale green or red stages.

To the right of the pepper is a crazily-branching thing called a Tzimbalo, which is supposed to be a quicker-producing relative of the pepino melon, making small sweetish fruit. I have no idea if I'll get anything from it, but it's worth a try. Another plant has already died in the ground at the demo garden, and the one in my community garden plot is struggling at about a quarter the size of this one. Apparently container growing is the way to go. Maybe.

Tucked away in the back you can see the rising stems and big floppy leaves of nicotiana, which is also in the nightshade family (though not to be eaten). Pansies and marigolds are not relatives, just there to be pretty.

At the community garden, along with several other nightshades I have planted some King Harry potatoes, which are supposed to be resistant to Colorado potato beetles due to their hairy leaves. Well, guess what.

I will note that this is the plant doing the least well (which might be due to soil or some other factor) and the others are not nearly as infested, and that potato plants in other plots have a lot more adults on them (and probably larvae too). We have some King Harrys at the demo garden too, and I will check on their status tomorrow.

Anyone else growing unusual or interesting nightshades?