Best tasting potato variety?

I just finished digging the last of our potatoes last week. They were growing in a well-drained, sandy area so I was able to let them sit there in the ground for quite a while after the vines died down. Since I couldn’t get to them right away, leaving them right where they were was the best option. A few weeks in the ground did them no harm.

German Butterball potatoes are a bit smaller than our other potatoes.
German Butterball potatoes are a bit smaller than our other potatoes.

I’m always excited at potato harvesting time, it’s like digging for buried treasure. You can’t see what you grew until it gets dug up. The excitement starts when you lift the first cache of potatoes from the soil. It’s pretty neat that the humble potato can give such a thrill. I have to admit though, the excitement begins to wear a little thin when my back starts to ache and there’s still a long row to dig.

These potatoes are particularly treasured, they’re the wonderful ‘German Butterball’ variety.  They are absolutely the best potatoes I have ever tasted. The yield is small compared to standard potato varieties but the flavor and texture more than makes up for the smaller harvest.

They are so tasty, that in years past, I’ve had raccoons dig them up and devour them while leaving perfectly fine standard varieties alone. They dug up the Butterballs, ate them until they were all gone but then never came back for the other potatoes.

The flavor is hard to describe but trust me they will delight even those who are ho-hum about potatoes. And the texture — wow! You’ve probably heard that the perfect potato should be crisp on the outside and mealy on the inside. These go way beyond that. They tend to form a delicate outer crispness when baked in wedges. The inside texture is so finely textured, it is almost creamy. What a taste experience!

Because of the comparatively low yield, I would not suggest growing this as your main crop, especially if you are trying to grow potatoes for storage. They do however, make a wonderful addition to the flavor palate of a vegetable garden.

Now you know one of my best kept gardening secretes. If you have a favorite potato variety that you think is better than German Butterball, share it with us in the comment section below.

Bob

 

Gardening as an investment

In our garden this year we had two hills, with five seeds per hill, that produced over 60 pounds of winter squash. Considering the seeds cost 14¢ each that is a tremendous return. However there are other expenses besides the price of seed that should be looked at.

Buttercup squash gave us a very high return on investment in the garden.
Buttercup squash gave us a very high return on investment in the garden.

The largest expense would be the labor involved in preparing the soil, planting the seeds, caring for the plants, harvesting and storing the crop. Some people would also factor in the opportunity cost of their labor. In other words, “what could I be doing with that time that may make me more money?” If gardening is looked at as part of person’s recreational or exercise time, then there are no labor costs. It certainly has more income potential than watching TV.

Now, on the other hand, if we hired someone to do the tilling and irrigation the costs would jump up dramatically.  If you were to make these calculations on your own plot of land, those costs would have to be taken into consideration. Business people would look at other things such as value of the square footage of the land, property taxes for that area, equipment amortization, and other items.

Even if all of the other expenses are factored in, the return on investment is still very high especially compared to other activities. A CEO of a large, well-known horticultural business figures the return in a garden can be up to 25,000% annually. Of course we’re looking at production on a small plot of land tended by a person during their off-hours.

So why aren’t all farmers multi-millionaires if the return on investment is so great? Once you start scaling up production the economics changes. At that scale much more needs to be invested in machinery, energy, labor, taxes, interest on borrowed money and all of those other things that go into operating a farm.

For us gardeners though, we can have the satisfaction of knowing we are such shrewd investors.

Bob

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.

Bob

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.

Bob

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.

Bob

 

 

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.

Bob

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.

Bob

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

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