Mulch instead of staking tomato plants

Here we are, it’s the middle of July. The tomatoes have made good growth so far but some of them don’t have cages around them. Right now the plants are so big, you couldn’t get a cage around it no matter how hard you tried. What’s a gardener to do?

The first idea that comes to mind is to stake the plants to get them off of the ground. That sounds good, but at this point in time it is not the best thing to do for tomatoes.

Staking and pruning works great for small areas or when a gardener wants to cram as many plants as possible into a given area. In other words it makes efficient use of garden space.

In order for tomatoes to be staked properly however, they must be pruned from an early age. Pruning must continue regularly until the plant is fully grown or when the plant reaches the size you want. All of that pruning actually reduces the tomato yield per plant but it can increase the yield over a certain area because you can fit more plants per square yard.

If you haven’t caged your tomatoes by now, I’m willing to bet you haven’t been pruning them either, so for that reason alone, staking is out of the picture. Not only that, driving stakes next to a plant this time of year can cause serious damage to the roots.

In this case the easiest solution is also the best solution.

Tomato plants by nature have a sprawling growth habit, they don’t climb like cucumbers or melons. They don’t prop themselves up against objects to grow upward either, which is why we have to train them and tie them to supports.

You can simply let tomato plants do their thing and sprawl over the ground — if you mulch them. One of the best mulches to use for this is straw.

Mulch the plants by gently lifting the plant and tucking the straw beneath the foliage. Use about six to eight inches of straw and make sure you cover the entire space under the plant.The deep mulch will raise the foliage and fruit away from the ground and drastically reduce the possibility of disease and rotting fruit compared to letting it grow directly on the garden soil.

Tomato plants can take up a lot of “floor space” when left to grow over the ground. That means they may get crowded if they were planted close together with the idea of staking in mind.

There are some advantages to using this method. One is an increase in yield per plant. Another is less work because no pruning or tying  is required. Plus there is a reduction in cracked tomatoes and blossom end rot because of more even soil moisture in the root zone.

On the negative side, the fruit is more apt to have an uneven color on the side resting on the straw.  The fruit may somewhat smaller and not quite as even in shape compared to staked tomatoes.

Bob

Snapping turtle eggs in the garden

There’s a corner of the garden that I rototilled earlier this spring but never got planted so the weeds were really out of control. I decided today it was time to re-till the area and do something with it.

It was a real struggle to get the tiller to knock down those tall weeds but I managed to get most of them. On the second pass with the tiller I spotted what looked like a pair of under-sized, off-white, leather ping-pong balls. I recognized them right away, they were snapping turtle eggs.

Snapping turtles spend almost their entire lives in the water. The only time they come out on to land is to lay eggs.

I’ve seen websites that say snappers typically lay 20 to 40 eggs in a single clutch. The most I’ve ever found was 19 eggs several years ago in a different garden in another part of the state. Maybe you’ve seen more.

Raccoons, foxes, crows and other animals love to eat turtle eggs.
Raccoons, foxes, crows and other animals love to eat turtle eggs.

I’ve come across them in compost piles, piles of wood chips and mulch, flower beds and areas of loose sandy soil. Female snapping turtles will walk quite a distance to find a spot she thinks is best, up to a mile in some cases. This one was about two hundred yards away from the water. The problem I see with that is that the newly hatched turtles have to walk all the way back to the water. The farther away it is, the longer they are exposed to predators. Which brings up another question: how do the hatchlings know where the water is?

Back in the garden, I discovered I had inadvertently tilled up the entire nest and broke at least a half dozen eggs. None of them looked like they had any developed turtles inside. They just looked like tiny, off-colored scrambled eggs laying in the dirt.

I took the two undamaged eggs and put them in a protected area where the pumpkins are growing. Now we’ll have two cute baby turtles in the neighborhood that will grow up to be ugly, mean, grown-up snapping turtles.

Bob

Local lacewings in your garden

While inspecting my garden today I ran across some very cool looking structures on the underside of a leaf. I could tell immediately that they were lacewing eggs. The thin stalks, each holding up a tiny white egg on its end, was the giveaway.

Lacewing eggs are held up on tiny stalks about 1/4" to 3/8" tall.
Lacewing eggs are held up on tiny stalks about 1/4″ to 3/8″ tall.

Lacewings are a good ally to have in your war against insect pests because they are a major predator of aphids and other soft-bodied insects like mealy bug, mites and even small, newly hatched caterpillars among others.

It is the larva stage of the lacewing that terrorizes the other small insects, especially aphids.

If left alone, aphids can rapidly overwhelm a plant by sucking the juice out of a plant's leaves and stems.
If left alone, aphids can rapidly overwhelm a plant by sucking the juice out of a plant’s leaves and stems.

Lacewings eat so many aphids that entomologists have nick-named them “aphid lions”. A single lacewing larva can eat over 200 aphids a week. The adult on the other hand, eats only nectar and pollen.

Depending on the weather conditions, the lacewings will stay in the larval stage for about two to three weeks devouring small insects all the while. When the time is right, they then spin a cocoon and emerge five days later as an adult. The adults mate and the females lay their eggs on the underside of a leaf or other sheltered spot. About four or five days later the eggs hatch and the cycle starts over again.

Watch for lacewing eggs on your plants and avoid spraying insecticide when you find them. Let them do their work and they will reward you by building up their population and eating even more insect pests.

Bob

Look out for cabbage worms

Earlier this week I spotted some small, white butterflies flitting around in our garden.  They were the easy to recognize adult stage of the imported cabbage worm larva. Now, a few days later,their larvae are voraciously eating our cabbage.

Typical signs of cabbage worm infestation: holes in the leaves and caterpillar droppings called "frass".
Typical signs of cabbage worm infestation: holes in the leaves and caterpillar droppings called “frass”.

Curiously, I haven’t seen any on the broccoli or kale yet, but they will show up there soon too. These pests eat any and all plants in the cabbage family including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, turnip and rutabaga. They are said to attack radishes as well but I’ve never seen it in all my years of gardening. Maybe it’s because our local population would rather eat the other plants if given the choice.

BTW, it’s not the baby caterpillar that makes the choice what to eat, it is its mother. The female butterfly flies all around looking for the ideal spot to lay her eggs so her offspring have the best food to eat. That way they can grow up to be big and strong and healthy. That is good for the cabbage worms but can be disastrous for a garden.

Farmers know that within days a few cabbage worms can chew so many holes into a cabbage that it will be unfit for market. Even in a home garden cabbage worms will ruin large portions of a cabbage.

There are a couple of different species of cabbage worms in our area, one is the imported cabbage worm, the other is the cabbage looper. They are both green and color and do the same damage. Imported cabbage worms are very slow and sluggish when they move. Cabbage loopers move along like inch worms.

If left alone, this young imported cabbage worm will quickly grow and cause lots of damage.
If left alone, this young imported cabbage worm will quickly grow and cause lots of damage.

Both species of cabbage worm are easily controlled by insecticides labeled for chewing insects on vegetables. Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, is a favorite worm killer among organic gardeners. It is made up of spores from a bacteria that infects only caterpillars and is harmless to other insects.

Controlling them now while they are still small is much easier than waiting until they get bigger and really start chewing away large chunks of your crop.

Bob

Flea beetles causing damage in vegetable garden

We’re seeing the first flea beetles in the garden this season. These tiny pests can cause a lot of damage to small plants if they’re not knocked back early on.

Usually the first thing you see when flea beetles enter your garden is the distinctive chewing pattern they make on the leaves and not the beetle itself. Flea beetle damaged leaves are riddled with small holes.  Imagine what would happen if a garden fairy took its tiny shotgun and blasted away at the leaves, that’s what flea beetle damage looks like.

The beetles themselves are black and less than 1/16″ long. They sometimes will jump, sort of like a flea, when disturbed.

Like many insects, they have their favorite foods. In our garden eggplant and potatoes are the first to be gnawed followed by tomatoes then all of the other vegetable plants.

Vigorously growing plants can usually shrug off a flea beetle attack.
Vigorously growing plants can usually shrug off a flea beetle attack.

The greatest danger to the garden is when the plants are small and growing. At that young stage flea beetles can stunt or even kill plants. As the plants get larger, they can sustain much more feeding by the beetles.

Fertile soil and timely watering will help plants stay healthy and grow past that vulnerable stage.

A homemade concoction made from garlic and hot peppers will fend off the beetles for a while. Take a half dozen cloves of fresh garlic and crush them up. Add the garlic along with a tablespoon of dried, crushed red pepper to a quart of water. Let it steep for a couple of days. Strain the mixture. Spray it onto your plants every three days or so to chase away the flea beetles.

If you have a really bad infestation or a big garden, you can use any garden spray or powder that is labeled for killing beetles in the vegetable garden. Organic gardeners can use that old stand-by rotenone. Pyrethrum or spinosad, both considered organic insecticides, are good too.

Bob

Thin vegetable plants for best results

One major job in the garden this week is thinning our vegetable seedlings. It’s one of those things that is hard to do sometimes. Plucking all those little seedlings after waiting so long for them to germinate seems drastic but it needs to be done.

Most of us have no compunction when taking out weed seedlings but have very mixed feelings when it comes to removing vegetable seedlings. After all, we paid good money for those seeds and now we’re going to pull them out just as they are getting going?

When growing too close together, vegetable seedlings compete with each for nutrition, water and sunlight just like weeds.

Beet seedling can be moved and transplanted to a different part of the garden after thinning.
Beet seedling can be moved and transplanted to a different part of the garden after thinning.

Over crowded seedlings will grow and produce but will never live up to their full potential. Gardeners who have never thinned vegetable seedlings before are often shocked at the improvement that happens the first time they thin. Vegetables are larger in size, better quality and have a higher total yield.

Seed packs have information printed on them that give final plant spacing which is very helpful to beginning gardeners. Experienced gardeners are able to estimate spacing by envisioning the plant when it is full size, then leaving the right amount of space between seedlings.

Most thinned seedlings can be transplanted to another part of the garden, the exception is carrots. A carrot’s shape is determined by its main taproot. If the root gets bent during the transplant process, the resulting carrot will develop that shape defined by the bent root.

Bob

Damage caused by twine left on balled and burlapped tree

The balled and burlapped method of planting trees is very popular because it allows nurseries to dig, move and sell larger specimens than if the trees were bare-root or potted. It also makes it easier for homeowners and landscapers to plant. In landscaping, like in any other business, time is money which is why it can be tempting for some to cut corners when planting trees.

The most common of these cost-cutting items is dropping a balled and burlappped tree into a hole, replacing the soil, then mulching the new tree. From the outside everything looks wonderful but not taking care of the burlap or twine can prove to be devastating to a tree.

Wire, burlap and twine does not decompose in the soil as readily as some landscapers would like you to believe. To keep roots growing to their full potential, wire must be cut and removed from the root ball. It will not “rust right away” as we are often told.

I had an experience many years ago when someone asked me to move a tree for them that was planted five or more years earlier. It was going to be a big job. When I uncovered the top layer of soil I discovered that the landscaper had left the wire basket on the rootball. It was a simple matter for me to hook a chain onto the wire basket and just lift the entire tree out of the hole with a front end loader on my tractor and carry it to its new location. The tree looked like it just came from the nursery. The wire was still sturdy and the burlap was sound with no roots growing through.

Severe damage to a tree trunk by twine.
Severe damage to a tree trunk by twine.

The twine tree growers use to tie the top of the burlap does not deteriorate very fast either and will eventually cause major damage to or even kill a tree if it is not removed. As the tree grows in diameter, the twine stays in place and acts as tourniquet strangling the tree. It may take many years for symptoms to show.

A callus formed around the twine as the tree tried to minimize the damage.
A callus formed around the twine as the tree tried to minimize the damage.

Finally, the burlap cloth itself should at least be slashed to allow roots a place to grow into the surrounding soil — removing it completely would be even better.

Even the roots were damaged from the twine.
Even the roots were damaged from the twine.

If you landscaper tries to tell you that that leaving twine and burlap on the trees is standard practice, don’t believe it and insist they do it right.

Bob

Don’t till wet soil

Tilling a garden at the wrong time can be damaging for certain types of soil. That is why it’s good to know when to till. Tilling at the wrong time can be disastrous for a garden.

Gardeners make gardens in all types of soil: sand, loam, clay or, more often, a combination of two or more of these types. Short of hauling in new topsoil, there is nothing you can do to change soil type. Adding compost will vastly improve a soil’s ability to sustain plant growth but will not change the soil type.

Soil structure is different than soil type. Soil type refers to the size of the soil particles and the percentage of the different particles. Sandy soils have the largest particles while clay has the smallest, silt falls somewhere in between.

Soil structure refers to the arrangement of the sand, silt and clay particles in the soil. In soils with good structure , the soil particles are clumped together. That gives adequate space between the particles allowing water and air movement into the soil.  That provides the ideal environment for plant growth.

Tilling while the soil is too wet can destroy soil structure making it difficult for plant roots to grow.

Sandy soils are the most forgiving soil type. In a garden setting, sandy soils can be quite wet and still be tilled without doing much harm to the soil structure. On the other hand, loam or clay type soils are much more susceptible to soil structure damage caused by tilling wet soil.

There’s a simple test you can do right in the garden to help you decide when it’s time to till your individual garden. Scoop up a handful of soil and roll it into a ball. Lightly poke it with your finger. If it falls apart easily, it’s OK to till. If the ball holds together it is too wet to till. Let the garden dry out and try the test again another day.

Roll a handful of soil into a ball.
Roll a handful of soil into a ball.

This time of year, a good rain or strong thunderstorm can dump enough water onto a garden to set back your tilling plans a day or two so always check your soil moisture first.

Bob

Save time and money by servicing your two-cycle outdoor power tool

Winter is the time when outdoor gardening stops and gardeners move indoors to get their power equipment ready for spring.

I took care of most of my equipment this winter, but not all. As the weeks went by, some things got pushed to the back of the storage shed. It’s like they went into hibernation and are just now waking up to see the light of day.

Last week I dragged all my power tools outside to make sure they would start. All ran fine except one. It is powered by a two-cycle engine — sometimes called a two-stroke engine. You know, one of those that you have to mix oil into the gasoline. String trimmers, chainsaws, leaf blowers are some of the most common tools that use this type of engine.

A two-cycle outdoor tool that has lost its power or won’t start or is hard to start, probably has carbon build up on the exhaust port. And that’s exactly what happened to mine.

Two-cycle engines require unobstructed air flow to run properly. After many hours of use, carbon deposits inevitably  build up on the exhaust portion of the engine –especially if it is run at slow speeds — making it hard or impossible to start.

Fortunately, cleaning those carbon deposits are a doable project for someone with some mechanical experience. It’s a good project to try if you want to progress beyond blade sharpening or oil changing.

Here’s one way to do it.

For safety sake it’s always a good idea to get into the habit of disconnecting the spark plug wire whenever working on gasoline powered engines.

Remove the heat shield from the muffler.

Then un-bolt the muffler from the engine which will expose the exhaust port. You’ll be able to see the carbon caked onto the exhaust opening.

Move the piston so it covers the exhaust opening by gently pulling the starter rope.
A typical exhaust opening.

Slowly pull on the starter rope to bring the piston up to cover the port opening. That will keep loose particles from falling into the cylinder. Stray particles inside the cylinder will cause scoring of the piston and cylinder walls, then you’ll have a bigger problem to deal with than just carbon deposits.

Use a small piece of hardwood sharpened to a point– or a screwdriver if the carbon is really tough — to carefully scrape off the carbon. Don’t dig into the underlying metal and be extra careful not to scratch the piston!

Once you have the carbon loose, vacuum it up with your shop vac.

Clean all muffler parts too.
Clean all muffler parts too.

Check the muffler and other parts for carbon build up too before you reassemble everything.

Check the exhaust screen to make sure it is clean. Not all engines have an exhaust screen.
Check the exhaust screen to make sure it is clean. Not all engines have an exhaust screen.

The engine should start easily and will have more power. This is the first thing a repair shop will do when they get a two-stroke engine . So it makes sense to try this first before taking it into the repair shop. You’ll save money and be able to use your machine right away instead of waiting weeks for it to get repaired.

Bob

Join the Million Pollinator Challenge

While you’re deciding on what plants to add to your garden and landscape this year, think about pollinator friendly plants. By now most gardeners are aware of the steady decline in the number of pollinators over the past several decades. Bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and other pollinators have all taken a hit.

A large percentage of the foods we eat, over thirty percent, depends on pollinators. Plus, add to that, all of the different wild plants that depend on pollinators and you can see why it is such a problem. Even the federal government has acknowledged it be a matter of national security.

Planting even a few pollinator friendly plants in a garden will help, however more is better in this case.

Even though the situation is serious for pollinators, helping them doesn’t have to be a drag. The National Pollinator Garden Network has come up with a fun way to help us help pollinators. It’s called the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. The organization hopes to register one million gardens, both existing and new,  that are pollinator friendly.

They suggest six simple to understand guidelines to help you with your pollenator garden. And if you want to take it to the next step, their website has loads of information to guide you.

Our own Michigan State University has been scientifically studying the pollinator decline and has a wonderful website tailored to the three general ecosystems in our state: Southern Lower Peninsula; Northern Lower Peninsula; and Upper Peninsula.

When you register with the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, your garden site is pinned to a map of North America. It’s fascinating to see all of those pins on that map and where the gardens are.

Our area of southeastern Michigan looks under represented to me. I’m not sure if it’s because of a lack of gardens or if it’s because gardeners are unaware of the program.

Let’s make our gardens pollinator friendly this year, get pinned on the map and show the world how much our region cares about helping pollinators.

Bob