Holes in tomatoes

It seems like it’s been a tougher season than normal for our tomatoes. First they got a late start because of the cold wet spring. Then we had a blast of heat just when they were blooming, causing the flowers to fall off. Now insects are attacking any tomatoes that have made it this far.

In one of my gardens, well over half of my tomatoes have tomato fruit worm damage. This is the same insect that bores into ears of sweet corn and other vegetables.

On tomatoes the damage shows up as holes or depressions that are clearly caused by something eating them. Tomatoes can look fine one day, then bam! holes in them the next. Often the worms tunnel into the fruit and leave behind frass –worm poo — if nothing is done to stop them.

Typical tomato fruit worm damage.

The problem is you can’t find who doing the eating. You might suspect bird pecking or mice bites or even tomato horn worm damage. Tomato fruit worms are hard to find. I saw one today on a plant and by the time I retrieved my phone to take a picture for you it was gone, or at least I couldn’t find it again.

Holes chewed in the tomato fruit are a passageway for fungus to enter potentially causing serious fruit rot. When the holes are new, you can just cut away the damaged portion and still use the rest of the tomato.

About the only way you can control these critters once they found your garden is to spray an insecticide. I prefer to use the biological insecticide BT since it will not harm pollinators. Other insecticides will control them too.

If you are seeing symptoms of tomato fruit worm on your tomatoes, I suggest getting them under control ASAP before they do any more damage.

Bob

Blemished but usable produce

Gardeners are fortunate to have the opportunity to grow the freshest and highest quality vegetables. Even now when organic produce is widely available, it’s no match for home grown.

When it comes to their own produce, most gardeners disregard one major criterion that defines quality ; that is appearance. Even ahead of taste, nutrition or freshness, appearance is still what matters most to shoppers. You really can’t blame folks for judging produce by how it looks, how else would you know if there was anything wrong with it? You could smell it, squeeze it or knock on it to hear how it sounds I suppose. Over 30 percent of food is wasted each year and much of that waste is because something doesn’t look perfect.

Gardeners on the other know exactly how their produce was grown because they did it themselves. So generally, appearance is less likely to be a factor in judging their produce. For example, some heirloom tomatoes are very prone to cracking or splitting. Selling blemished tomatoes like that would completely out of the question in a produce department and for good reason. Cracks and splits and other kinds of blemishes provide an entry for microorganisms to enter into the fruit. But if a gardener grew it, he would know that some types of tomatoes crack and wouldn’t worry about it. Most likely it would go from the tomato vine directly to the table reducing the chance of spoilage.

Carrots are prone to cosmetic damage too. Any number of things can cause a carrot to become misshapen such as a virus disease, insects, nematodes, soil moisture, soil texture, inadequately prepared soil, a pebble in the soil, even a tiny granule of fertilizer or who knows what else. So many carrots are deformed in a typical field that farmers had to develop a new use for them. They invented baby carrots. Those bagged baby carrots are cut and shaped from crooked carrots that otherwise would end up being thrown away.

These carrots are not perfectly shaped but are just as tasty to eat.

A gardener knows most of the time there is nothing wrong with a misshapen carrot, there are some exceptions. I met a new gardener the other day who was digging carrots and tossed most of his crop into the compost because they were not perfectly carrot shaped. There was no convincing this person otherwise.

I eat all kinds of damaged, deformed, blemish and bruised produce from my garden that I would never pay money for at a grocery store or farmer’s market. I trim around the unusable parts like most gardeners do. The trimmings and any produce that is too far gone gets fed to the chickens. The hens in turn use the nutrition from those garden scraps to produce eggs. With their help, my food waste percentage is close to zero.

Bob

Plan ahead to avoid mildew on cucumbers

Powdery mildew is a serious fungal disease of cucumbers and other related plants. It can completely wipe out an entire crop in a garden if nothing is done to control it. Regular rains, warm temperatures and high humidities this season have come together to make ideal conditions for powdery mildew development.

The standard method of battling this disease is applying fungicides of one type or another. Some are chemical, others are plant derived and there’s even bacterial fungicides. The drawback to each of these fungicides is that you have to apply them early when the plants are young and continue using them through the rest of the season. But there is another way.

Recently I had a chance to compare cucumber plants growing in two nearby gardens. Neither garden had any fungicide applied to them.

In the first garden, the gardener is growing a standard, run-of-the-mill variety of cucumber obtained from a garden department somewhere. The plants in that garden were nearly overwhelmed by mildew.

Infected non-resistant cucumber vine.

In the second garden, the cucumbers show little sign of mildew. That gardener opted to grow a mildew resistant variety from seed that he sowed directly in the soil.

Resistant cucumber vine.

The difference between the two crops is very impressive. If you are one of those gardeners who have given up on growing cucumbers and don’t like to spray fungicides, then planting resistant varieties is the way to go. Really, it’s something every gardener should look for when choosing cucumber seeds. Make a note of it in your garden journal as reminder for next year.

Bob

 

 

Cicada killers on the prowl

A few days ago I noticed a fresh pile of dirt near one of my tomato plants. Looking closer I noticed a hole in the ground next to the pile. I recognized the excavation as that of a cicada killer wasp.

That’s a descriptive, but unimaginative, name for them since they really do kill cicadas. These wasps show up each year shortly after the cicadas arrive during the dog days of summer.

These are big wasps that make a lot of scary buzzing sounds when they fly. Entomologists tell us that they rarely sting even when provoked. Mine were certainly even tempered. But I’m not the one that is going to tell you that they won’t sting you. I seem to remember a few years back some experts telling us that stingrays in the ocean are harmless, but I digress.

I wanted to get a photo of the cicada killer when I first spotted it but it wouldn’t sit still long enough. As soon a I was able to get close enough to focus my phone camera, it would take off with the immobile cicada in tow. A few days later I forgot all about the wasp and was placing some straw around some of the tomato plants to keep the fruit off of the ground. Low and behold, there was a cicada killer, with a cicada, looking for a way to get into her tunnel. A shallow layer of straw slowed her down long enough for me to snap a couple of photos.

The straw slowed down the wasp enough for me to snap a photo of the wasp and her prey.
The straw slowed down the wasp enough for me to snap a photo of the wasp and her prey.
She found her way into the tunnel entrance.
She found her way into the tunnel entrance.

The female wasps are responsible for all the digging we see. They construct tunnels that are between six and 12 inches deep and can be three or four feet long, or even longer. That’s a lot of dirt for one insect to move all by herself. Often there are side rooms in these tunnels.  Not only does the female wasp dig the tunnels, she also does all the hunting for the cicadas. The male is unable to hunt even if he wanted to since he does’t have a stinger. He does help however by scaring away predators.

Once the female finds a likely victim, she plunges her stinger into the cicada, not to kill it mind you, but  just to paralyze it. She wants the cicada to be alive when her offspring eats it. Once the cicada is immobilized, the wasp flips it over so it is face to face with its prey. Even though the cicada can weight more than twice as much as the wasp, she is such a strong flier that she can lift it and fly with it to her tunnel. There she carries it down to one of the rooms and places it there as sustenance for her young. She then uses her stinger, which is actually an ovipositor , to lay an egg in just the right spot of the cicada.

The wasp grub hatches from the egg right away and quickly starts eating the cicada in such a way to keep it alive as long as possible. In a few days, there is nothing left but the hollowed out shell of the cicada. In the meantime, the grub has grown into a full size larva. If the grub is a female, she gets to eat a second cicada.

Once mature, the larva spin a cocoon and pupate underground until next summer when they emerge as an adult wasp. Like many insects, the adult wasp has a different diet than its larval stage eating only tree sap and nectar from flowers. They don’t even take a nibble from the cicadas they kill.

Cicada killers prefer sandy soil with sparse vegetation — that pretty much describes my weed-free tomato patch. Also there needs to be trees nearby with cicadas in them to provide hunting grounds.

Bob

 

Sphinx moth caterpillars

When you spend a lot of time outdoors in the garden, you’re bound to run across some interesting things from time to time.

This week I was working around some grapevines. In one area I was cleaning up neglected rose bush pulling out an assortment of weeds including a small wild grapevine. It was there I found the odd-looking, pink caterpillar of a Achemon sphinx moth munching on grape leaves.

The next day I was moving a few small grapevines from one location to another and found two more caterpillars, one orange and the other green. One was another Achemon the other looked to be a Virginia creeper sphinx moth. They are closely related to each other and both are related to tomato hornworms, as you could probably guess that by the horn on their posterior.

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen these even though there are a lot of grapes in our area. I usually have to travel to another area to see them and that was the cases this week.

A pink caterpillar this size really catches your eye. Here the caterpillar's "horn" has shrunk down to resemble an eye.
A pink caterpillar this size really catches your eye, over two inches long. Here the caterpillar’s “horn” has shrunk down to resemble an eye.

Because they are so big at this stage, they can eat quite a bit but not enough to do any real harm to the grapevines and harvest size is not affected by their feeding either. They will keep eating and get bigger. In a week or two when they are full size, they will burrow into the soil then form a pupa. There they will stay until next summer when they will emerge as a large moth.

The yellow caterpillar was feeding on concord grape leaves.
The second caterpillar was feeding on concord grape leaves.

If left alone they have the potential to overwhelm a vineyard but their numbers are kept in check by parasitic wasps. Those wasps deposit their eggs into the caterpillar’s body where the eggs hatch. The young wasp larvae then feed on the caterpillar and eventually complete their larval stage of life.

Like a lot of moths, they are only active at night sipping nectar from flowers. Although I’ve only seen a few at night, I occasionally have found them in the morning clinging to a walls near a flower garden. One time I even found one inside, it must have flown in when someone open the door.

I ended up moving the caterpillars to an old, well-established grape vine where I knew they couldn’t do any harm. Once they settled down from all the ruckus, they went back to happily munching  leaves as if nothing happened.

Bob

 

Join the International Monarch Monitoring Blitz

By now I’m sure you know we are in danger of losing the monarch butterfly migration in our lifetime. This critical situation was addressed in 2014 when President Obama met with President Pena Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Harper of Canada about it. At that meeting they agreed to “to establish a working group to ensure conservation of the monarch butterfly”. Since then much has been done to encourage research into the habits of monarch butterflies. One such result is the establishment of the annual International Monarch Monitoring Blitz.

This is an event that takes place all across the range of the monarch butterfly that spans large parts of  The United States, Mexico and Canada. The purpose is to try to get a count of the number of monarch butterflies during a small window of time. This year the count started July 28th and runs through August 5th.

Scientists are looking for help during the Blitz, they’re asking for “citizen scientists” to step forward and pitch in for the butterfly count.  It’s simple and fun to participate as a citizen scientist, anyone can do it. All you need to do is count the number of monarchs you see in all stages of the insect’s development; egg, larva, chrysalis and adult and make some observations about milkweed plants. Once you’re done, report your findings online at the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project website.

There’s another one! Add him to the tally.

This is only the second year of this international event, so now’s your chance to get started as an amateur researcher. Years from now as the Blitz expands and becomes more well known, you’ll be able to proudly tell your friends you were among the earliest participants.

We’re working on our part of the Blitz right now  and hope you find the time to join in too. It’s a great way to spend some time outdoors while knowing you’re doing something tangible to help save our beloved monarch butteries.

Bob and Judy

Quilt gardens tour in Elkhart Indiana

We recently visited the Quilt Gardens, a really fun ongoing garden tour in the Elkhart Indiana region.

Volunteer gardeners from that area installed more than a million plants in eighteen gardens. Flowers and colorful foliage plants are arranged to reproduce quilt patterns on a large scale.

A geometric quilt pattern reproduced with flowers.
Another quilt garden.
Quilt garden next to a building.
Ornamental peppers provided color in this quilt garden.

In addition to the gardens, twenty one large quilt pattern murals adorn assorted buildings along the tour.

This large quilt pattern mural dresses up this otherwise plain wall.
Quilt makers will recognize the quilt patterns.

The Quilt Gardens are open to the public now until October 1 and are free of charge. For downloadable maps and guides visit their website.

Unless you’re short on time, we suggest you plan on taking at least two days to enjoy the gardens and other attractions along the way.

Bob and Judy

Tomato blossoms damaged by hot temperatures

During the past couple of weeks I saw a lot of gardens having problems with tomato plants not producing fruit. When discussing this problem with gardeners, the first thing I hear from them is usually,” I’m growing lots of leaves but no tomatoes”. Then they go on to attribute it to an overabundance of fertilizer of one sort or another.

Nutrient imbalance may cause problems, but this season it is likely due to the extended hot temperatures we had until the break in the weather happened this week.  Temperatures in the mid-nineties can damage tomato blossom causing them to fall off the plant — no blossoms means no tomatoes. This phenomenon is known as “tomato blossom blast”.

Heat damaged tomato blossoms turn brown.

There is really nothing we can do to prevent flower damage when the temperatures are so high except wait it out. Now that the weather has moderated, our tomato plants will start producing more blossoms and setting more fruit.

If another heat wave occurs, it’s likely we’ll see another round of tomato flower blast.

Bob

Become a bee helper

By now, most people are aware of the declining honeybee population. What is not as well know is wild bees are having the same problems.

Wild bees are important because in many instances they are more efficient at pollinating some crops than are honeybees. They are also highly adapted to pollinating wild flowering plants making them an essential part of our ecosystem.

Some commercial beekeepers make a large part of their income by renting hives of honeybees to farmers who grow valuable food crops. Almonds are one example of a crop that requires honeybees to pollinate large plantations of trees. There are now a new breed of beekeepers who are commercially raising wild species such as alfalfa leaf cutter bees and renting them out to farmers. I guess in that case they’re not wild anymore.

So what can we do to help out out little flying friends? We can plant pollinator friendly plants in the garden. We can be be aware not to spray our fruit trees when wild plants like dandelion or dutch clover are blossoming in the orchard. But not everyone has fruit trees or even has space for a garden. Not everyone has the inclination or desire to become a keeper of honeybees either. Or if they did, they may not have the time or resources to spend on a hive of bees

You can however become a beekeeper of sorts with very little effort. Instead of keeping honeybees, you can provide a home for wild bees. Most species of wild bees are solitary. They do not congregate together to form colonies like honeybees. They never will see their parents or siblings unlike honeybees who are surrounded by thousands of family member all pitching in to raise them.

When an adult female solitary bee looks for a place to lay her eggs, she doesn’t look for a hive. Instead she looks for a sheltered spot where the egg will be safe while it is incubating on its own. This is most often a crack or fissure in a tree or even better, an opening made by some other animal such a a hole left behind from a tree boring insect.

Complete bee houses are available already built. Or you can build your own, bees are not picky.

Small bee houses for these solitary bees are available to those who would like to help out our wild bees. These bee shelters come in an almost endless variety but they all have one design feature in common, holes that mimic natural cavities for female bees to lay their eggs. Some designs are not much more than simple blocks of wood with many holes drilled into them. Others use stacked up hollow stems of bamboo to form the shelters. Sometimes a roof is attached to keep the rain out.

You can make your own or buy these bee houses at garden centers or online. Either way it is an easy way to become a beekeeper or at least a bee helper. Unfortunately, solitary bees don’t make honey, they have no reason to.  On the other hand they don’t sting.

Bob

 

The lawn of the future

Imagine self-propelled robotic lawn groomers, too sophisticated to be called merely lawn mowers, taking care of your lawn without any help from you. Miniature drones with intelligent eyesight hovering over your lawn identifying weeds insects and diseases, zapping them with pin-point precision accuracy. All this guided by on-board artificial intelligence leaving behind an absolutely flat, emerald green, expansive mono culture of grass that is your lawn. NOT!

That vision of the the lawn of the future may soon be outdated and considered quaint and wasteful. There’s a grassroots movement beginning to grow in this country that has an entirely different view of what a lawn should be. Millennials and upcoming generations are abandoning old-fashioned lawn ideas for something quite different.

Rather than boring grass (yawn), perennial broadleaf plants are replacing much of the grass in these new lawns. Growing together in pleasing patterns they form a natural tapestry kind of look.

This mix of broad-leaf plants is an attractive alternative to monotonous turf-grass.

Broadleaf plants are quite variable in their growth habits, each one has a different texture, color or leaf pattern. Most will even flower for part of the season adding an extra element to the lawn tapestry.

In an ecosystem made up of dozens of species of plants, instead of one or two grasses, turf diseases, insects and other pests can’t even get a start much less spread. Legumes like white dutch clover fix nitrogen from the atmosphere then add it to the soil reducing or eliminating the need for added fertilizer.

This type of lawn can be mowed much like grass to keep it looking neat. Most people cut their grass too short so typically, the height of the mower will need to be raised to allow more leaf area on the plants to keep them healthy and looking good.

Weeds can still be a potential problem in this system however typical lawn herbicides can’t be used to control them. The very herbicides used by lawn companies are designed specifically to kill those kind of broadleafs that make up the new lawn.

No more herbicides and no more fertilizer has the potential to upset the lawn care industry. On the other hand, the trend, over time, will probably move beyond a do-it-yourself project encouraging a new generation of entrepreneurs to develop a new industry installing and maintaining the new look. As an analogy, think of what micro-breweries are doing to the beer industry.

In the meantime, you can start your own lawn mosaic. Start by eliminating the use of herbicides that kill lawn “weeds” — that includes so called “weed and feed” formulations. A wider variety of plants will be encouraged by improving the fertility of your soil. Try experimenting with different types of seeds to see how they grow in your lawn.

There’s no need to feel sorry for the herbicide industry as they lose market share, there will always be people who will stubbornly hang on to the old ways of growing a lawn.

Bob