Saving a zinnia heirloom variety

This gardening season, I adopted another unique heirloom seed to try to save from extinction.  Currently, I’m saving four dry bean varieties that are not available commercially plus my own heirloom variety of tomato.

Now I’m adding the first flower to my growing collection of heirlooms, a variety of zinnia. It was given to me by a gardener who I lost contact with. She never said what the variety name was; only that she had been saving them for many years. I believe she is no longer able to garden so it’s now up to me to keep the strain going.

This variety has all pink flowers and is not a mix of colors. It probably started out that way a long time ago.

The blossoms were about 4 inches across.
The blossoms were about 4 inches across.
I like to wait until the flowers are well dried before harvesting the seeds.
I like to wait until the flowers are well dried before harvesting the seeds.

The plants eventually grew to nearly four feet tall despite the fact that I sowed the seeds very thickly. I didn’t know what the germination rate would be but as it turned out, just about every seed germinated. I transplanted a lot of them into new rows. I eventually gave up on trying spacing them out since there were so many plants that I ran out of room. The remaining ones grew up to form a dense stand, almost like a hedge.

Seeds are produced at both ray flowers (edge)and disk flowers (center)
Seeds are produced at both ray flowers (edge) and disk flowers (center)
Once dried, the seeds easily separate from the petals.
Once dried, the seeds easily separate from the petals.

Like other zinnias, they responded well to cutting, the more I cut, the more flowers grew to take their place.

I plan to keep the strain going and eventually give away seeds to other gardeners.

Bob

Turtle head flowers for your fall garden

During an afternoon walk while visiting our daughter Robin, we came across a grouping of Chelone, more commonly known as turtleheads. We found them growing in the 606, an elevated park planted by the city’s talented landscapers.

You don’t need much imagination to see why they are called turtle heads; their flowers really resemble a turtle’s head, especially when they open their jaws!

These fascinating plants provide additional color to the autumn flower garden palette all the way until frost.

While Chelone are native to a large part of the United States, just a few small, local populations are found in the wild in Michigan. They prefer sunny, moist areas but can grow well in just about any fertile garden soil.

Chelone plants are available from many plant nurseries.

Bob

Lookalike insect pests

This week while scouting for garden for pests, I came across an interesting coincidence. Two look-alike, but completely unrelated, insect pests showed up at the same time. They were in the same general area but on different plants in nearby gardens.

The first insect I spotted was rose sawfly larvae feeding on the roses. There were quite a few of them and were pretty big by the time I saw them.  They had eaten quite a bit of the foliage. If I hadn’t spotted them, they would have completely defoliated the bushes.

The other insect I came across, just minutes after seeing the sawflies, was cross-striped cabbage worms feeding on some cauliflower plants. It struck me how similar the sawflies and cross-striped caterpillars look. At that stage in their particular lifecycles, they were nearly the same size.

Even though they were each feeding on their preferred food, if you didn’t know better, you could easily confuse the two. However, cross-striped cabbage worms would never be found on roses and like-wise, rose sawflies would turn up their noses at cauliflower.

The sawfly larva at this stage looks like a caterpillar but is not.
The cross-striped caterpillar is a true caterpillar.

Both of these insects eat leaves and the damage they do is quite similar looking too as they both chew holes. That’s where the similarities end. They are unrelated species. The rose sawfly belongs to the wasp family while the cross-striped caterpillar is in the butterfly/moth family (Lepodoptera). About the only thing you can say about them is they are both insects.

That doesn’t make too much difference when it comes to killing them with chemical insecticides, but if you are an organic gardener, it can make a huge difference. For example the biological insecticide Bt (Bacillus thuringensis) infects butterflies and moths so will kill cross-striped caterpillars. But rose sawflies, because they are wasps and not Lepodoptera, are un-phased by Bt spores. They can eat Bt all day long and not be affected in the least.

I see cases of mistaken identity all the time. This is a good example of how easy it is to misidentify something if you’re not careful.

Bob

 

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