Poor planting habits result in poor root growth

This week a friend showed me something that he pulled from his vegetable garden while doing his end of season clean-up. It was the stem and root of a cabbage plant.

The cabbage that developed from that original root system did produce a head but it was much smaller than normal. I would guess it also was more prone to attack by pests because of its weakened condition.

Almost every spring, at planting time, I hear an argument whether or not you need to loosen the roots of  transplants grown in cell packs.

One school of thought says it takes too much time and is not necessary because the plant roots will spread out once the plant is in the soil. The other side says you absolutely need to separate the roots because they will not grow properly if you don’t.

Which side are you on? I used to be very casual about transplanting. If I wasn’t in a hurry, I’d make the effort to separate the roots. Most of the time though I’d just pop in the transplants just as they came from cell pack.

I’ve long since changed my ways and always make sure the roots are off to a good start.

Roots can’t straighten themselves once they are in the ground, they just expand in the direction they started. They can form new root shoots but that takes extra energy from the plant.

These cabbage roots grew in the direction they started at.
These cabbage roots grew in the direction they started at.

So why not help your plant get the best start possible? Then it can use its energy efficiently to grow into a productive plant.

My friend’s cabbage plant was pretty strong proof that you really should take care to release the roots before planting. We’ll keep that in mind next spring.



Warty French heirloom pumpkin

I’ve grown a lot of different varieties of pumpkins in the past, big, small, orange,white, striped and everything in between. None ever got the number of comments that my warty pumpkins have.

It’s easy to understand why people are so interested in them once you see them up close and personal. I get many people asking,”what’s wrong with them?”.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with them, that’s just the way Gladeux d’Eysine pumpkins grow. Most varieties pumpkins of course, are orange and round. Some are flattened, some are striped, some are white, these happened to be warty.

To tell you a secrete, I wasn’t even expecting to see these pumpkins in my garden. I got the seeds from some one who was giving away some envelopes of unlabeled seeds. Even she didn’t know what was in the envelopes.

French heirloom variety
French heirloom variety Gladeux d’Eysine

I planted the seeds as I usually do, five or six seeds to a hill. They came up and grew like common pumpkins, growing pretty good sized vines. Nothing about growing them was out of the ordinary until the pumpkins started to mature and grow those interesting bumps.

Gladeux d’Eysine is a French heirloom variety that French chefs use for soup and  baking. Some people consider them a kind of winter squash, others call them pumpkins, I’m prone to referring to them as pumpkins because of the large, pumpkin-like stems they have. Either way, as do all pumpkin and squash, they belong to the gourd family Cucurbitacea.

I’m looking forward to doing something with them in the kitchen this fall, squash soup most likely. I also plan to save the seeds to plant and give away next year.


Giant ragweed

Earlier this week I spotted a stand of giant ragweed growing next to a parking lot. That brought back memories from long ago when I had a small farm and was growing corn and soybeans. Back then there were a lot of those types of small farms around.

I was a young guy and was excited about my first crop of field corn. It was only 40 acres worth of corn, quite small even back then. I took the first truck load to the local grain elevator. The owner took one look at it and said he would not buy my corn. He told me it was contaminated with a small amount of giant ragweed seeds. He said he had only seen them once before in his entire career — lucky me.

The problem with giant ragweed seed is that although it is shaped differently, it is about the same size and weight as a kernel of corn. The seed cleaning equipment at that time could not remove ragweed seed from corn.

Nowadays, giant ragweed is all over the place. You can spot it in fields and in ditches along the roadways and competing with farm crops like corn and soybeans. It’s become a major problem on many farms.

Not only is it a major weed on farms but in certain areas, it is also a major contributor to the amount of ragweed pollen in the air. A single plant can produce ten million pollen grains a day or about one billion during its lifetime. Compare that to a another plant which produces large amounts of pollen, the corn plant which sheds two to twenty-five  million pollen grains its entire life.

Giant ragweed is not as common as its cousin the common ragweed. Because the population of common ragweed is much higher than giant ragweed, most of the pollen in the air is of the common ragweed variety.

Ragweed buds will eventually grow into seeds.
Ragweed buds will eventually grow into seeds.

Giant ragweed is native to north america. It usually doesn’t show up in an area unless the soil has been disturbed for some reason, like tilling a field, or in this case, building a parking lot.

Fortunately, the grain dealer eventually took pity on me and bought my grain. Regulations allow a shipment of corn to contain a tiny percentage of weed seeds, not enough make a difference in the final product. So much corn was coming in during that harvest season that when my minuscule crop was mixed in to the rest, it virtually disappeared into the tons and tons of corn from other farms.



Different approach to controlling field bindweed

I came across an old publication about dealing with weeds in farm and garden situations. The author discussed why weeds grow where they do and how we can use that knowledge to reduce weeds naturally without the use of herbicides. Needless to say, that is a large and complex topic, too big to go into detail here.

One item that did jump out at me was a unique way of killing field bindweed.

Field bindweed is one of the most tenacious weeds we have in the garden. If you have ever had a bindweed infestation in your garden, you know what I’m talking about. It grows from a net work of underground roots that will grow several feet deep and have a lifetime of twenty years or more. I’ve blogged about this weed in the past.

Even after being cut back all season, this field bindweed still managed to push its way through mulch.
Even after being cut back all season, this field bindweed still managed to push its way through mulch.

Other than using chemical herbicides, the traditional way of controlling bindweed is to starve the root system by cutting back the tops whenever you see them. That may mean as often as every few days or so, especially early in the season. By cutting back the tops, you remove the leaves stopping all photosynthesis. That forces the plant to use stored energy as it sends up new shoots. Eventually, the plant runs out of energy and dies. That process may take a few years.

The author of the weed publication offers a different take on bindweed. He mentions, almost in passing, that dahlia roots secrete a substance that kills field bindweed. I’ve been trying to think back to all of the hundreds or even thousands of dahlias I’ve grown in the past and can’t seem to recall ever seeing bindweed growing with dahlias. I’m not growing dahlias this year and have not grown them for several years.

You would still need to control other weeds in your dahlia area.
You would still need to control other weeds in your dahlia area.

If the dahlia vs bindweed theory is true, that gives gardeners a new ally against this noxious weed. It would mean taking a piece of ground out of normal production and growing dahlias there for a season, which would not be all that bad of a thing I suppose.

Growing enough dahlias to cover a large area presents a whole new set of challenges. That is a topic for another time.


Netting on grapes

We had to get our bird netting on the grape vines this week.

The grapes have been turning purple very quickly and are getting sweeter by the day. That whole process  of ripening is known as veraison  in the wine making world. But for me and the neighborhood birds, it’s just plain ripening.

The birds are starting to sample the grapes and I can tell more fruit was missing every day. They are not eating a lot of grapes just yet. Even though the grapes are becoming a deep purple color they are still not sweet enough. Birds start eating grapes when the sugar content reaches about 15%. Grapes need to be around 22% in order to make wine. A little simple math tells us the grapes will be long gone before they ever get sweet enough to make wine or even grape jelly for that matter.

We use Concord grapes for making jelly.
We use Concord grapes for making jelly.

Really, the only way to keep birds from decimating a grape crop is to install a barrier so they can’t reach the fruit. That’s where the netting comes in. This year we invested in new, premium polypropylene bird netting. The netting is 14 feet wide and 45 feet long — two panels will cover the row.

We unroll, then drape the net over the vines. Then we fold the bottom edges up and fasten it back on itself to enclose the entire  grapevine.

Once we get the vines covered and they are protected from the birds, we’ll be able to taste test the grapes at our leisure and pick them once they have sweetened up to our liking.




Accidentally saving radish seeds

Our garden is big enough for things to go unnoticed plus I’m not as tidy a gardener as I should be.

This week I found a radish that had gone to seed. Somehow, one radish managed to escape being harvested with the rest of the crop. It continued to grow, flower and produce seed pods right under my nose. Apparently, it got left behind when I was pulling radishes this spring.

If it is left to grow past the eating stage, a radish plant will  eventually send up a flower stalk. The  resulting flowers are then pollinated by insects. Seed pods that superficially resemble peas or beans arise from the pollinated flowers.

It takes nearly the entire growing season for radishes to produce seeds. This one’s pods were already dry and contained mature seeds.

The seeds are a bit smaller than typical radish seeds.
The seeds are a bit smaller than typical radish seeds.

Pollen from one variety of radish often will be carried by insects to a different plant and can easily cross-pollinate another variety of radish. Radishes don’t care if they are pollinated by one variety or another. The seeds resulting from the random cross may or may not produce a desirable eating radish when planted next year.

Since the one in my garden was the only one I found, the seeds should be OK — unless the pollinators brought in unknown pollen in from somewhere else. Professional seed growers separate their different radish varieties by a half mile or more.

Anyway, I’m keeping a few seeds to try out next season.


Powdery Mildew on Squash

Growing pumpkins and squash has changed sine the early days early days of my career. Back then, pumpkins rarely had any problems whatsoever. You could just plant some seeds, keep the patch weeded and you were pretty much guaranteed a fine crop.

This year demonstrates how times have changed. In addition to the squash vine borer and squash bug that I talked about the last couple of weeks, we are now seeing powdery mildew on our pumpkins and squash.

Powdery mildew shows up as a white powdery-looking coating on the surface of the leaves. It eventually cause the leaves to turn yellow and die. Under certain conditions it will eventually kill the entire plant.

We’ve had textbook weather conditions for the development of powdery mildew. This type of mildew is a fungus that thrives when daytime temperatures are high and nighttime temperatures are low enough to form morning dew.

Unlike most other fungi, powdery mildew does not need liquid water to infect a plant and grow. High humidity within the leaf canopy provides the environment powdery mildew requires.

We do not see much powdery mildew during rainy years. As a matter of fact, one non-chemical approach to controlling powdery mildew takes advantage of this. Spraying the surface of the leaves with overhead irrigation will wash off much of the infection. It also will cause existing spores to absorb so much water that they burst, greatly reducing the source of new infection. This method only works if the area is well drained, otherwise you will end up causing other problems due to excess water.

Some varieties are more resistant to powdery mildew than others. Here two different squash varieties growing side by side.
Some varieties are more resistant to powdery mildew than others. Here two different squash varieties growing side by side.

Commercial chemical and organic formulas are available on the market to control this disease. I’ve been using a homemade concoction that has been working pretty well for me. I mix one table spoon of baking soda and two tablespoons of Murphy’s Oil Soap to a gallon of water. Spray it onto the leaves no more than every seven to ten days. It’s important to use this ratio, a stronger solution will damage leaves.

The spores from the species of powdery mildew that infects the squash family of plants does not survive Michigan winters. Spores are blown in to Michigan on southerly winds each spring to start a new cycle of disease.

Powdery mildew is very species specific, meaning each species of plant is infected a specific strain of fungus. For example, the powdery mildew that infects lilacs cannot spread over to squash and vice-versa.

This, I hope, will be the last problem we’ll have to deal with on our vine crops this year.




Look for squash bugs on pumpkins and squash

The squash crop is looking pretty good so far but has had its share of problems.

Earlier in the season we were worried about squash vine borers moving in. Now we have a new pest that we need to take care of, squash bugs. A few days ago I spotted a very familiar sight, squash bug eggs. Once you’ve seen them, you’ll have no trouble finding more.

The eggs are small, shiny, metallic-looking usually found on the underside of the leaves. Many egg clusters I’ve seen this year however, are appearing on the top side of the leaf. Usually, the female lays clusters of eggs that follow the outline of the veins of the leaves giving the clusters a roughly triangular shape.

Here's a couple of squash bug egg clusters. Down in the whorl of the leaf is a group of squash bug nymphs.
Down in the whorl of a squash leaf is a group of squash bug nymphs. To the left and right of the nymphs are two small egg clusters.

Squash bugs can do a lot of damage to your vine crops if you are not careful. Several years ago I had nearly half an acre of pumpkins that became infested with squash bugs. We tried battling them with the first line of attack, crushing their eggs whenever we came across them. After crushing literally hundreds of egg masses, it became apparent we were not going to be able to keep up with the insects. We ended up having to resort to applying an insecticide to save the crop.

The eggs hatch about ten days after being laid. The young newly hatched nymphs have a very soft “skin” making them very susceptible to contact insecticides. Spraying the nymph stage is your best chance to control these pests since the adult bugs are very tough and hard to kill.


Squash vine borer defense

Squash vine borers are one of the most insidious insect pests in the garden. They attack many vine crops in the vegetable garden especially pumpkins, winter squash, summer squash such as zucchini yellow crook neck, and gourds. Sometimes they will infest muskmelons, watermelons and cucumbers. I’ve had many times in squash and only once in cucumbers.

Although the adult stage of the borer is a moth, it doesn’t look like or act like a moth. Unlike most moths it flies during the day. And instead of fluttering around like a moth, it flies quickly, like a wasp.

The female adult lays its eggs on the base of the main vine, the eggs hatch and the baby borer eats its way into the vine and keeps feeding for about four weeks. It’s very possible that our squash and pumpkin vines have borers in them right now even though they are not exhibiting any visible symptoms.

At first it’s easy to confuse borer symptoms with drought. The plants wilt on hot, sunny days then recover overnight. If left alone, eventually the plants suddenly and completely collapse. The most startling symptom of a squash borer infestation is seeing healthy vigorous vines one day then seemingly the next day they are collapsed, wilted and dying.

I would hate to lose my squash vine at this point.
I would hate to lose my squash vine at this point.

You can help your vines minimize borer damage by taking advantage of  vine growth habits. You’ve probably noticed that squash and  other vines sometimes root themselves further away from the base of the plant. Those roots are actually functional and contribute to the vines growth. By encouraging rooting along different places along the vine, you can minimize the damage the borers do since the vine can get still get water and nutrients from the soil because of the extended root system. If the plant had to depend only on the roots at the base, no water would be able to reach those parts of the vine past the area damaged by the borer.

Rooting happens at the nodes.
Rooting happens at the nodes.

Rooting takes place at the nodes of the vine; those swollen spots on the vine from where the leaves grow. To encourage rooting, cover several nodes with a shovelful of garden soil. The secondary roots that form will support the plant even if the primary vine is destroyed by borers.


Best way to sharpen garden hoe blade

I’ve hoed a lot of long rows this season. Now it’s time to touch up the edge on my garden hoe.

The hoe I’ve been using for more than 15 years is a Dutch made, swan-neck style. Its light-weight head combined with a curved shank makes it a pleasure to use. As an added bonus it has an extra long handle which makes easier for a taller guy like me to operate. I don’t have to bend over in an exhausting, awkward position to reach the ground.

Nearly every hoe I’ve seen has the wrong bevel on the cutting edge. Right from the store, hoes often have a flat edge with no bevel at all. People take them home and immediately grind a sharp, angled bevel, like a wood chisel edge. That makes a very sharp edge but it does not last very long. It soon gets dull cutting through the soil. So gardeners end up working in their garden with a perpetually dull tool.

The proper way to form an edge on a hoe is to file a curved profile on the back of the hoe blade i.e. the side facing away from you when you use it. Keep the front of the blade metal flat, don’t grind it.

File the back of the blade, the side facing away from you when using the hoe.
File the back of the blade, the side facing away from you when using the hoe.

Imagine if you were to cut the blade in half with a hack-saw. Looking at the cross section of your blade edge with a microscope, you would see the front face ending at a right angle while the back face curves to meet the front edge.

Most of the wear on a hoe blade happens on the back side of the blade edge. A rounded back edge leaves much more metal on the side of the edge that is prone to wearing down.

You won’t be able to shave with that edge but it will last much, much longer in the garden.