Burning tree leaves

A couple of weeks ago I was running behind in my fall garden projects including taking care of the fallen leaves all over my lawn. The early snow we had back then didn’t help either.

One weekend while driving back from up north, I spotted several people catching up on their fall tree leaf clean up. They were easy to spot because of the plumes of smoke rising up from their lawns and ditches. By the way, this was happening out in the countryside where leaf burning is still fairly common.

I enjoy the smell of burning leaves as much as the next guy. When I smell leaf smoke, it reminds me of my childhood when nearly everyone in the neighborhood burned their leaves. It actually was a pretty good tactic to get the kids out of the house. As a matter of fact, the neighborhood kids looked forward to raking the lawn because of the fire afterward.

Of course nowadays most communities have ordinances restricting leaf burning. And Michigan has a state law regulating open burning of leaves so we don’t see or smell much of it anymore.

As much as I enjoy it, as a gardener I wouldn’t burn leaves even if it were allowed. They are just too valuable as a soil amendment to let them just go up in smoke.

Burning destroys valuable soil builders.

I you think about it for a bit, trees have huge root systems that absorb soil minerals from a deep and wide area, nutrients that may not be available to other kinds of plants. Those soil nutrients, along with carbon from the atmosphere, are used by trees to make their leaves. That’s a lot of plant nutrients that trees make for us when you consider the shear volume of leaves each tree produces every year.

The mineral components of the leaves quite are valuable, providing much more fertilizer value than manure. Even more valuable than the mineral elements are the carbon compounds that make up the bulk of a leaf. When leaves break down in the soil they provide humus, that magical ingredient that experienced gardeners know is the secrete to a flourishing garden.

I remember several years ago a friend of mine used to pick up bagged up leaves from the curbside in the city and take them home to use because she didn’t have access to enough leaves. One day just as my friend was about to depart with a van full of bagged leaves, the homeowner came running out of the house shaking her fist and yelling, “put those leaves back!”  The funny thing is those leaves were about to be picked up by the trash collectors and taken to the landfill.

The biggest drawback to leaves is their tendency to blow around and not stay put where they are needed. That can easily be taken care of by cutting them up into smaller pieces. I use a leaf vac with a collection bag to shred and collect most of my leaves. Some of the heavier and tougher leaves like cottonwood, I run over with a lawn mower first to make them easier to vacuum up. Then they either go right into the garden as a mulch or into to the compost pile if there are any left over.

Instead of looking at leaves as trash that needs to be bagged up and hauled away, I like to consider them free soil builders provided by mother nature every year. In case you were wondering, my friend did manage to escape with her misbegotten load of contraband.

Bob

What side of the debate were you on this fall?

While much of the country is focused on the mid-term elections, two opposing camps of gardeners are lining up this fall.  Each side has compelling reasons why they are right and the other side is wrong. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.

One side is more, you might say, traditional in their approach to preparing perennial beds for winter. Those gardeners remove all of this year’s dead plant material from the garden and dispose of it by composting or other means. They claim that removing dead material now, in the fall, creates a clean slate for new growth in the spring. Tender new growth will less likely be damaged than if you try to remove last year’s growth when the plant is actively growing in the spring.

Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.
Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.

The other group says, “We care about birds”. They leave all of their plant growth untouched in the fall. All of that tangled up mass of plant stems provides valuable cover for wild song birds that over-winter. This group feels they have a responsibility to the wider ecological community when gardening. Many perennials produce seeds each fall. Leaving those old flower stalks up, they say, provides an addition food source for birds.

Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.
Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.

Leaving the garden alone in the fall has some other, less tangible benefits. All of that debris tends to collect and hold snow in place providing a natural insulating blanket. The protective snow cover can reduce the chance of freeze damage or frost heaving in some years. Not only that, the stalks provide an attractive visual element to the winter landscape as well, claims the leave-it-be group.

Gardeners on the other side counter those arguments claiming by the time they start clearing their gardens, the birds have already eaten virtually all of the seeds. Their small plot of flowers would not provide any really usable cover for birds either, they say. And who wants to look at a messy garden area all winter anyway? Not only that, spring is busy enough without having to do all the work you should have done last fall.

So every fall die-hard gardeners endlessly debate the merits of their position. I’m not really sure how often one breaks ranks and joins the other side, probably not very often.

Bob

 

 

 

 

Planting garlic

 

Since I ordered my garlic bulbs way back in the spring, I was not thinking of them at all when they arrived in the mail several days ago.

I got those garlic cloves into the ground right away even though they could have been planted anytime from October through November. Getting them earlier gives them a chance to put down some roots and get nestled in for the winter.

In the past, I’ve had to postpone my garlic planting until well into November and the crop seemed to do quite well despite the delay.

Garlic for planting looks just like a bulb from the grocery store produce department.
Garlic for planting looks just like a bulb from the grocery store produce department.
Cover the cloves with one  to two inches of soil.
Cover the cloves with one to two inches of soil.
Before planting you need to separate the cloves yourself.
Before planting you need to separate the cloves yourself.
Always place the garlic clove with the root end down.
Always place the garlic clove with the root end down.

You have to plan ahead if you want to grow garlic because when planting time rolls around, you very likely will not be able to find cloves to plant. So put it in your calendar for next spring as a reminder to yourself to place your order.

Bob

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