Dogbane in prairie area


When I was aroud ten years old, back when all kids were free-range, I spotted spotted a plant during my wanderings that impressed me so much that I’m intrigued by it to this day. I didn’t know what it was called at the time. It wasn’t until later, when I was in college, that I found out it was called dogbane.

What caught my eye way back then, were the long, thin seed pods. They were hanging from the plant in two’s, connected to each other at the top. What looked weird to me was the fact they weren’t  attached like two green beans. They appeared to be one pod that grew into two parts, separating at the top. I’d never seen anything like that before in my young life.

Distinctive dogbane seed pods.

I’m not sure if dogbane was ever that hard to find but I have noticed however, in the past twenty years, more and more dogbane growing all over our area. That’s probably due to more people leaving space for wild plants to grow for butteries, pollinators and other wildlife

A few years back someone brought me a part of the plant that they had collected asking what the plant was. Recognizing it immediately, I said without hesitating “that’s dogbane”. They looked at me like I was BS-ing them, like I made the name up. I could tell they didn’t believe me when they took their plant and just walked away. The next day they told me they had done research on their own and discovered that indeed the was a plant called dogbane and that yes, their plant really was dogbane.

There’s a spot on my property that I cultivated as a vegetable garden for a few years. I decided it wasn’t a good garden spot so I let it go back wild. Lots of different plants moved in including a single dogbane. That one plant has since expanded into a fairly dense stand. Right now the stand is turning a beautiful gold color.

On farms, dogbane can develop into a fairly serious weed. Since it reproduces by seed and by underground rhizomes is can form stands that out-compete field crops. In most cases farmers keep it under control by herbicides or crop rotation.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

Tar spot on maple trees

In many cases, diagnosing plant problems requires an in-person look at the plant in question. Too many disorders look similar when all you have is a photo to go by.

Earlier this week someone sent me a photo asking about spots on a valuable tree they have in their front lawn. That was an easy one. I took one quick look at the photo and knew right away what it was. Their maple tree was infected with a fungal disease called “tar spot”. It’s quite easy to identify because in this case the name is very descriptive, the leaves really do look like they’re covered with spots of tar.

Tell-tale symptoms of tar spot.

Even though it looks pretty bad, tar spot is relatively harmless even in a heavily infected  situation. There’s no good way of preventing the disease. Some years are worse than others for tar spot and some varieties seem to be disposed to having more dramatic symptoms than others.

The spores from the disease over winters in fallen leaves so you wound think that raking them up and disposing of them would help the situation. Unfortunately the fungal spores can travel for miles in the air and can land on your tree and take hold.

When a tree has a severe case of tar spot, it can lose many of its leaves causing the tree raking season tobegin earlier than normal.

One bright spot is: since tar spot is species specific, it will not spread to other types of trees such as oaks.

Bob

Grape ripening

According to my records, my grapes are about ten days ahead of last year at this date. Every growing season is different and any particular year doesn’t necessarily line up with seasonal average growing conditions.

Ten days is a long time when it comes to grapes. I covered the grapes with netting last week to keep the birds from robbing the grapevines. If I had followed the calendar and waited until last year’s date to cover them, the birds would have eaten them all by now.

I have a trick that I use to determine when to put on the netting. I have a vine of early grapes that ripen about a week earlier than my main crop. When the birds start eating the grapes from that vine, I know it’s time to get the netting on my main crop. It’s a quick and easy way for me to keep track of grape development since I have so many other things going on than just grapes. Serious grape growers have more sophisticated ways o monitoring their grapes but this method works for me.

Color is not the best indicator of ripeness.

How did my grapes get so far ahead from last year? Plants need a certain amount of heat during the growing season to grow and develop. Scientist have developed a thing called “growing degree days” to help farmers predict when crops reach a particular stage of development. I looked the the growing degree days for our area to see if how much warmer the growing season was, thinking that might account for the early timing of my grapes. The record shows that there are fewer growing degrees this year than last! How could that be?

Some time earlier during the growing season, we had a warm stretch of weather that pushed the grapes into further along in their development than they normally would be. That means the grapes would be that much further along. Raw degree days won’t tell us very much about plant development for specific crops. Plant scientists have come up with methods to apply that data that are unique to each individual crop. Had I been following those scientific parameters, I would have known even before the birds when the grape would be ready to cover.

Bob

Sunflowers cause problems in garden

Plants have developed an number of different survival techniques that can give them advantages over other plants competing for the same growing space. For example, some plants have roots that produce chemicals that inhibit the growth of other nearby plants of other species. It’s a process known as allelopathy.

Black walnut trees are probably the most recognized allelopathic plants. Homeowners find that it’s impossible to grow many kinds of plants in the root zone of a black walnut tree. Although they work differently than black walnuts, many farm crops such as alfalfa, buckwheat, winter rye and others are alleopathic plants.

Sunflowers provide a wonderful backdrop in the garden as they tower over a space making them a favorite of many gardeners. What gardeners might not know is sunflowers are also alleopathic plants. Because they have the ability to suppress the growth of weeds, sunflowers and other plants are the subject of on-going research to develop organic herbicides for use in sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately, along with weeds, many kinds of garden plants are affected by sunflowers as well.

Tomatoes struggle to grow under sunflowers.

Until you know which of your plants can tolerate growing near sunflowers, the best thing is to grow them in a separate bed away from other garden plants.

Bob

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Hoverflies are beneficial insects

As mentioned in an earlier post on this blog, I planted a fairly large plot of buckwheat adjacent to our vegetable garden this spring. The main idea behind planting buckwheat was to provide forage primarily for honeybees and for any other pollinators that might be around to take advantage of it.

As it turns out honeybees are in the minority. When surveying the buckwheat plot, I noticed for every one honeybee I saw there were ten or twenty other pollinators. They included butterflies, small wild bees, small wasps, many kinds of beetles, flies and hoverflies.

Hoverflies are especially good to have in the garden. The adult hoverfly is a very agile flyer able to hover in one spot then zoom away, stop on a dime and hover in place again — they can even fly backwards.  They don’t have teeth or mandibles so they can’t chew or tear into things. Their mouth parts are spongy and are designed to soak up nectar and other liquids as well as picking up small particles such as pollen. That is why they’re so attracted to the buckwheat flowers.

Hoverflies have a superficial resemblance to bees.
Hoverflies have a superficial resemblance to bees.

Hoverfly larvae on the other hand are insectivores that eat small soft-bodied insects. In the garden that means mostly aphids, thrips, leafhoppers and scale. All four of these common garden pests have a stage in their lifecycle when they are soft-bodied.

After mating the adult female hoverfly buzzes around looking for a likely spot to lay her eggs, someplace where her young will have easy access to food. How does she know where the best spot is? Aphids and those other insects get all their nutrition from plant juices. They can only use part of the sugar in plant sap so they excrete the unneeded sugar as a syrupy liquid called “honeydew”. It’s the honeydew that attracts the female hoverfly: where there’s honeydew, there are insects for her young to feed on.

During the larval stage, each individual hoverfly will eat up to 400 aphids and other insects giving it the needed protein to go on to further development.

Since they are such good flyers, it’s very easy for female hoverflies to fly from the buckwheat to our vegetable garden and back again. The habitat that buckwheat provides enables the beneficial insect population to grow much larger than it would otherwise. That is a good lesson about the advantages of encouraging beneficial insects with plants instead of trying to maintain a garden in the middle of a sterile environment like a mowed lawn.

Bob

 

Tomato disease score

This is the time of the season when tomato plants start showing signs of disease infections, usually as different shapes and colors of spots depending on which particular disease has infected the plant.

Last week I took an informal survey of several varieties of tomatoes to see how each variety is holding up under early disease pressure. My MO was to look for leaf spots on the plants. I made no attempt to identify which disease was causing  what spots. Then I ranked them on a scale of zero to ten depending how bad the plants looked. Zero meaning no spots were visible, ten meaning severe symptoms. No plants were bad enough to score what I imagined to be ten.

I didn’t count how many leaves were infected; or measure how many square centimeters were discolored; or brix levels of leaves; or levels of ethylene gas; or any other scientific criteria. Heck, I didn’t even alphabetize the list of varieties. I ignored any cultural differences such as mulch, staked or caged plants, planting history, etc. .Over half were heirloom varieties, some of those looked quite good compared to the modern ones.

I surveyed about fifteen gardens in two different locations about 20 miles apart. I made a point to look at them all the same day because twenty four or even twelve hours could mean the difference between no spots and spots. Here’s a chart of what I came up with:

Tomato variety Plant score
Brandywine 3-6
Belarus 0-1
Cherokee 1
Juliet 0-1
Sheboygan 0
Pruden’s Purple 0
Granny Crantrell 1-2
Super Sweet 3
Belstar 3
Pink Honey Drip 3
Roma 4-6
Yellow Cherry 5
Large Red Cherry 6
Early Girl 3-5
Rainbow Blend 3
Roma Type 7
Beefsteak type 6-7
Brandywine Pink 6
Moon Glow 3-4
San Marzano 3
Bobby’s Girl 0
Chadwick Cherry 0-1
Unknown varieties 5-6

Pruden’s Purple, by far looked the best it has no spots and  very vigorous leaves. Chadwick Cherry came in a close second. There were a few different beefsteak-type tomatoes that were not specifically tagged by variety but all of them had more advanced disease progression.

Keep in mind this is only a snapshot of conditions for one day. That could all change later on as the plants begin to get stressed by fruit production.

Bob

 

 

Striped cucumber beetles causing problems

A couple of gardeners I know asked me why their cucumbers didn’t come up this year. Others have mentioned that their beans didn’t come up either. Was there something wrong with the seeds this year?

After inspecting a few gardens, it became apparent to me what was going on. In each case, there was a heavy infestation of striped cucumber beetles. They are voracious feeders and are always on the lookout for their preferred food, cucumber vines and related plants such as melons and other vine crops.

In those gardens, the beetles ate every plant they could find that tasted like a cucumber. The sprouts just emerging from the soil were particularly vulnerable which is why it appeared that the cucumbers didn’t come up — they ate every last bit of the tiny cucumber sprouts before the gardener knew what happened. And larger, young transplanted cucumber plants were well on their way of disappearing down the gullets of the beetles. When the vine crops were all gone, they moved over to the bean sprouts and ate those down to the ground. Even older bean plants had lots of holes in their leaves from the beetles.

Striped cucumber beetle.
Striped cucumber beetle.

Striped cucumber beetles are about a quarter of an inch long. They have bright yellow bodies with distinct black stripes running the length of their wings.

This was just the first wave of cucumber beetles, we can expect one or two more generations of beetles to show up later this season.  This generation of beetles will lay its eggs at the base of the plants in the garden. Later they will hatch, feed on plant roots for a while then pupate and emerge as adults later in the season. The next generation of beetles will feed on the underside of the leaves and even chew gouges in the fruits.

Even more important, cucumber beetles carry and will spread bacterial wilt, a serious disease of vine crops. Infected plants wilt and never recover. There is no cure for bacterial wilt once it infects a plant. It’s very disheartening to see your cucumber vines grow and begin to flower only to lose them to wilt. So it’s a good idea take care of cucumber beetles as soon as you find them. Hand picking doesn’t work because they can get away too fast. Instead, apply an insecticide labeled for cucumber beetles, most garden insecticides are effective against them.

Bob

 

 

Planting buckwheat for weed control and helping honeybees

I have an area in the garden that I will not be able to plant this year. Instead of letting it stay fallow and grow weeds, I planted buckwheat. It’s something I’ve done through the years whenever I’ve been unable to use an area for one reason or another.

Buckwheat is a fast growing plant that will out compete most weeds. Planting buckwheat allows me to place-hold that unused garden area while reducing weeds at the same time. It also takes up mineral nutrients from that soil that are unavailable to other plants. Those minerals are incorporated into the growing plant. Eventually, I’ll cut down the buckwheat and till it into the soil. As it decomposes, all those minerals will be released back into the soil in a form that other plants can use.

Buckwheat is not an actual wheat at all. Wheat is a type of cultivated grass, buckwheat on the other hand, is a broad-leaf plant.  While regular wheat forms inconspicuous flowers that are hidden, buckwheat grows a profusion of while flowers. Those flowers are very attractive to honeybees and other pollinators. The dark, strong flavored honey that results from buckwheat nectar is highly prized by some honey aficionados.

Many years ago when I first started beekeeping, that dark buckwheat honey was considered a low quality product. Now that has all changed and buckwheat honey is often sold at a premium.

Buckwheat seeds have a distinctive pyramid shape.

Planting buckwheat is a simple process. Till the spot you’re planting, spread some seed over the area and lightly rake it into the soil. Figure on using a couple pounds of seed per thousand square feet. In a few days you’ll see the young buckwheat plants emerge from the soil. If after a week or so of growing, some of your planting looks a little thin, sow more seed to fill in the area. Buckwheat can cover a space up to ten inches in diameter but an open spot larger that a foot across will allow weeds to grow.

I’ll keep you updated on the progress the buckwheat makes through the growing season.

Bob

Lambsquarters a wild edible bonus from the garden

One of my lushest weeds in the garden right now is lambsquarters. The pure stands coming up in my beds make it look like I purposely planted them there as a crop.

lambsquartersI didn’t plant them but I sure am using them as if I did. Lambsquarters are the most nutritious plant that grows in the garden. It makes the “super-food” kale look like junk food by comparison. Well maybe not junk food, but it is much more dense in most minerals and vitamins on a gram per gram basis than kale. A serving of lambsquarters has more minerals, by far, than a serving of kale. But to be fair, kale has more vitamin C than lambsquarters.

If you like the textures and tastes of a wide variety of salad greens, you’ll enjoy lambsquarters. It sort of reminds me of chard but it has its own texture and taste profile.

Raw lambsquarters has a small amount of oxalic acid but so does kale, spinach, all berries and many other foods including chocolate.

This morning for breakfast I made myself a frittata with lambsquarters and feta cheese. The blueish green leaves turned a bright green after a few seconds of steaming. When added to my deep-yellow, free-range eggs it made an appetizing color combination. The feta cheese added a tasty balance to the earthy flavor of the lambsquarters. It’s my favorite breakfast ingredient this time of year, right behind bacon, sausage and hash browns.

I’ve written about lambsquarters before and will probably will do so again but that is because such a gift from the garden shouldn’t be over-looked just because it is a weed.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security though. It is still a weed, a very aggressive weed that’s easy to control when it’s small but can quickly get out of hand if you let it. In a couple of weeks you’ll be wishing you didn’t save that patch to use as a salad green.  Get rid of it as it appears and don’t worry, more will sprout up through the season.

Bob

 

 

Pruning milkweeds

I saw my first Monarch butterfly several days ago. I know they were here much earlier because I found a caterpillar on my milkweed plants. That means there had to be a female butterfly around before that.

It takes around four days for a Monarch egg to hatch. The caterpillar stage lasts around a week and a half to two weeks. Since my caterpillar was almost fully grown, the female Monarch that laid his eggs arrived nearly two weeks ago. How did she sneak into the yard without me seeing her?

This monarch caterpillar has by now formed a chrysalis.

Most of my milkweed plants are on the verge of blooming. The plants are maturing and the leaves and stems are beginning to stiffen and get tougher in order to hold up the flowers and seed pods. Although female Monarchs will lay eggs on any milkweed, they prefer the more tender leaves toward the top of the plant.

A gardener I know suggested that I cut back my some of my milkweed plants to stimulate new growth and leaves. Theoretically, those new leaves would make my plants more attractive to the butteries than others in the area. I just snipped off the plant just above the existing leaves. That caused some milkweed sap to ooze out of the cut. That sap is poisonous and irritating so make sure you don’t in your eye.

Cutting the milkweed just above the leaves allows secondary leaf buds to sprout and grow.

This is the first time I’ve tried this with milkweeds. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Bob