Monday, August 31, 2009

Vegetable serpent

My neighbor loves to try new plants, no matter how weird or difficult to grow in our area. This is a cucuzzi gourd from his garden. He harvested one fruit that was 4.5 ft. long! One gourd can feed our entire block.

I read that some Italian growers train the vines to grow along tree branches so that the fruit will hang down for convenient harvest. They can be prepared and eaten as a summer squash when young. I sliced this one and fried it with garlic. Delicious.

A great sweet pepper

I love Italian frying peppers for their high yields and thin skin. Fry or grill them and you'll barely detect the skin in your mouth. 'Red Marconi' and 'Golden Marconi' are my two favorites. Here are some 8-10 inch long 'Golden Marconi' peppers. I often recommend them to gardeners who are having trouble getting ripe (red, yellow, purple...) fruits from bell pepper plants.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Super Duty Trellis

We are tired of tomato cages that fall over and leave our tomatoes a tangled mess of diseased plants that are dificult to water, weed, and harvest. String weaving is more labor intensive with the same results. So this year we devised a system that will change our whole garden. Using sturdy metal T-posts and heavy welded wire fencing, we erected a trellis that keeps the tomatoes off the ground. As we train the vines into the fencing, the tomatoes grow up into the sun and air never to topple over. A furrow at the base makes irrigation easy. Circulating air wards off disease reducing the need for fungicides. We have been rewarded with a heavy crop of beautiful tomatoes that will continue into autumn. This same trellis will serve future crops of peas, pole beans, cucumbers, and vining squash. As we construct more of these trellises, our vertical garden will generate higher yields and better quality produce.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Changing of the guard at the Governor's Mansion

No, I'm not talking about the troopers on the security detail. I'm referring to the vegetable garden.

There was no fanfare but this past Saturday, volunteers removed the greens that stood strong all summer. Most had bolted and were given a proper burial in the compost. Thanks to donations by Bonnie Plants in Kennedyville, they were replaced with collards, swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, green cabbage and Chinese cabbage.

The cucumbers were waning but refused to give up their ground. In honor of their service, they were allowed to live out the remainder of their time on the decorative trellises. Peas were planted at their feet and will gradually replace their elders.

The carrots and turnips that were planted as seeds in April are finally showing signs of maturing. The herbs have claimed a place of honor at the main walkway and are thriving with the attention and harvesting of the chefs.

The containers by the fountain are sculptural beauties in their own rite. The herbs and ornamental sweet potato vine have filled the pots nicely and are a fine compliment to the tomatoes and eggplant.They stood at attention and gave their respects to those who were retiring and welcomed the new recruits.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Harlequin Bugs Vanquished! (Well, we tried.)

Last year at the Derwood demo garden, we had an awful problem with harlequin bugs (Murgantia histrionica), a pest of the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family. They destroyed our crops of kale, broccoli, radishes, and cabbage, and also attacked the nasturtiums and beans, and completely covered a cleome plant (another favorite host). They were everywhere by the end of the season, and in numbers much to high to continue hand-picking and squashing and drowning, our previous methods of control.

Look at that histrionic species name, by the way - I like to know a bit about the history and nomenclature of the bugs I'm squishing, and it's especially appropriate I'm writing this entry today, since I'm going to see a commedia dell'arte play tonight, and these bugs are named after the servant character Harlequin in that style of theatre, because of the pattern of his costume and the pattern of their coloration. They're not much for camouflage!

(Photo courtesy Barbara Knapp.) Isn't that a great picture? It's like they were posing, lined up in their different growth stages. The one on the left is fully mature, but the immature ones are similar to the adults, just differently patterned and smaller.

Anyway, what I decided to do this spring was plant a trap crop. The theory of trap cropping is either to entice pests away from the crop you want to eat to another they prefer, or to isolate them early on a crop they like and destroy it (and hopefully them) before planting others they might also eat. I chose the second method, and planted a row of mustard in a spot where they'd been numerous last fall. And... waited. No harlequin bugs in the spring. One set of telltale eggs in June:

(Photo: Katherine Lambert.) We saw our first actual bug in July on the day Jon came to teach our Grow It Eat It class about garden pests - good timing, bug! - but it was a lonely camper, and didn't have much of a family developing until August.

In retrospect, I think we actually killed off a lot of last year's bugs by tilling our garden early this spring. The last generation overwinters in the soil, and should emerge when the weather gets warm. Which it took its good time doing this year, of course. Between those factors, I bet the bugs that started laying eggs this summer were newcomers that found our mustard and moved in, not descendants of last year's bugs. So perhaps a spring trap crop isn't the best method of control after all - a spring tilling does even better, and a fall tilling might be better yet. It wouldn't have to be the whole garden, either, just the parts where the bugs congregated in the fall.

But here it was August, and we had a ratty row of mustard with harlequin bugs all over it, and fall planting coming up with lots of yummy brassica plants in store. Here's what we did: dug up the mustard plants, popped them quickly into big garbage bags, tied them off, then searched the soil for escapee bugs and popped those in a final bag, and threw the whole lot in the trash.

That was last week. Of course when we got there today there were harlequin bugs on the row of radishes behind where the mustard had been. But not very many, and we squished them, and we'll keep after them and hopefully get them all, because collard and turnip seeds went in today, and broccoli seedlings will follow soon, and more in that family that are magnets for the pests. And it would be very nice to have a harvest this fall!

The other critter we've been squishing a lot of recently are squash bug nymphs:

They might be hard to see in the photo (by Nick Smith, patient son whom I drag out to the garden to photograph things) but they are a good example of a bug that unlike the harlequin is different in the juvenile stage from the brown and armored-looking adult. Kind of cute, I think. (Squish!) This is what happens when you don't get to the eggs in time (they are usually orange-ish and planted in clusters under the leaf, often in the joints of veins where they are hardest to crush).

You can see all these bugs in person (if we haven't eradicated them) by visiting the garden - any time, but particularly on Saturday, August 29, from 10 am to 1 pm, for our Open House. Google the Agricultural Farm History Park in Derwood for directions. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Grow It Eat It Garden Update

This year in the Derwood Demo Garden we planted a 10x10 bed we're calling the Grow It Eat It Garden. It's meant to represent a typical home garden with the most usually grown vegetable crops, and our goal is to weigh all the produce that comes out of it and assess a value based on average grocery cost, so the hypothetical homeowner can see how much he/she is saving.

We've had fun planting, harvesting and weighing.

Our total harvest through the end of July:

Spinach 7 lbs
Snow peas 1 lb
Mixed lettuce 11 lbs
Beets (with greens) 8 lbs
Cucumbers 13.5 lbs
Basil 2.5 lbs
Peppers 1.5 lbs
Tomato 1 lb
Zucchini 1.75 lb

That's a single tomato and a single zucchini. More to come, we hope! The tomato plants (one Brandywine OTV and one Carnival) look great, and so far so does the zucchini plant (Fordhook), though we are squashing squash bug eggs like crazy and have lost plants in other parts of the garden to borers. Our cucumber plant (Salad Bush) succumbed to wilt after an attack of cucumber beetles. I've planted another but it probably won't get going in time to produce much else this season. We would normally have beans by now but had a little accident getting started and will have a delayed harvest - very soon now. Fall crops go in soon.

As I've said before, I think the average homeowner, even a beginner, could do better than we have because of the ability to tend plants daily and replant in a more timely fashion when a crop was finished. And if I was going to do this garden over I'd probably try to stuff more plants in there. We've got a big garden to tend aside from this one bed, but if all you've got is 100 square feet, might as well make the most of it!

And the total cost savings so far, calculated based on Giant supermarket prices: $153. Cost of getting the garden started not subtracted, but let's do that at the end of the season!

Of course, there are benefits beyond cost savings to having your own garden: knowing where your food comes from, learning about plants and insects, having fun and getting exercise. I do recommend a scale, though; gives you a sense of satisfaction.

(photos by Katherine Lambert of MGs Erica Smith, Maria Wortman, and Millicent Lawrence)