G11: There’s just two things that money can’t buy …

Posted on July 19, 2020

Credit:  Mother Nature.

… and that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.

This is yet another post about my garden.  Just an update, with a few things I’m doing that might be of interest to local gardeners.

If you have no interest in gardening, read no further.

Squash vine borer update.  Haven’t seen the moth around for two days now.  Plausibly she’s gone, at this point, unless I just missed her today.  If she is gone, that makes SVB season (the period from first sighting (7/5/2020) to last sighting (7/17/2020) just a little bit under two weeks.  Which matches the conventional wisdom for the SVB season in this area.  Edit:  Nope, see Post #G12.  She’s still around.

I continue to spray roughly every five days with spinosad, in the evening (for the bees’ sakes), spraying the main stems of the plants only, using a solution that works out to 0.008% spinosad.  Spraying every curubit I have.  I’ll continue so that the last spray provides protection through 7/31/2020, which is the last plausible SVB egg hatch-out date, based on these sightings.

I threw in a round of spraying with neem, in that same fashion.  (Using true 100% neem containing azadirachtin, not the 70% hydrophobic extract that is, more or less, just a horticultural oil, per this excellent reference on neem.)  I thought it might smother the eggs (acting as a horticultural oil), thought it might perturb their metabolism in other ways (acting as an insecticide).  But I don’t see neem as the stand-along solution due to the potential for a very short half-life in the current high-humidity, need-to-water, high-temperature climate.  In theory, it lasts 100 hours until it’s completely gone.  In practice, given the weather, and the required dose for insect toxicity, I’d probably have to spray it every other day to feel comfortable with it.

Haven’t lost any plants.  Yet.  If that starts, I’m going to try the “inject neem right up the frasshole” approach, outlined at the bottom of Post #G10.

In case you wonder why I’m waging war on this particular bug, here’s my largest garden bed.  From front to back, that’s summer squash, acorn squash, pumpkins of some sort, butternut squash on the back trellis, and some cucumbers on the side trellis.  Maybe a tomato or two, and a handful of beans.  Does it look like I wasn’t thinking it through when I did that?  I wasn’t.  It just sort of ended up that way.

Tomato shade is in place.  My tomatoes aren’t ripening.  I’ve been looking at the same green cherry tomatoes for about a month now.  My wife checked with the Vienna garden club, and apparently that’s happening all over town.

Plausibly, it has just been too hot.  (This I find out, via Google).  I thought tomatoes liked hot weather.  Not so.  They prefer it about 75F.  Over 85, they can’t produce the chemicals that go into a ripe tomato.  So they just hang out, waiting for better weather.  Apparently, we may have gone from too cool for good ripening, to too hot for good ripening, per the Vienna plant Facebook group.  That was news to me, and I’ve grown tomatoes around here for decades.

A quick Google search (shade cloth tomato) shows that commercial and hobby growers in many warm-climate areas apply shade cloth to their tomatoes.  The idea being to protect them from the highest temperatures.

So when I found out that in Maryland, shade cloth increases commercial tomato yields by 30%, I was sold.  Particularly when you really don’t have to go to any great effort to get that shade cloth in place.  Read this article if you still have doubts about this.  This guy just drapes it over his tomato stakes.  That’s the sort of low-effort high-yield thing that once you see it, you have to do it.

Reading around, seems like about a 30% light reduction is ideal.  So I took out my light meter and found that three layers of the very lightest floating row cover will reduce sunlight by about 30%.  So I took some bamboo, PVC pipe, and floating row cover, and put a shade over my most mature set of cherry tomatoes.  Looks like total crap, but we’ll see if that does anything.

Powdery mildew on my cucumbers.  I won’t run down my litany of woes here (squash bugs, cucumber beetles, bacterial wilt, and so on).  This is about powdery mildew.

Back in the good old days, when I was a total low-effort gardener, I was a powdery mildew fatalist.  Seems like something in the curcurbit family got it, every year.  And my approach was to provide supportive care, and nothing more.  Cucurbit hospice, if you will.  Keep the plant fed and watered, and if Gaia wills that the plant should survive, in her infinite wisdom, then it will.

But now that I’m trying to be a serious gardener (a.k.a., retired with nothing else to do), I’m not going down without a fight.  Been doing my research, seeing what I had on hand, and this evening I’m spraying down the affected leaves with a baking soda/neem oil/soap mixture.  The most common recipe seems to be (surprise) a bunch of round numbers:

  • One heaping tablespoon of baking soda (sodium bicarb, but potassium bicarb would be better);
  • One tablespoon of light horticultural oil (always a risk in hot weather, I’m using neem oil 70% hydrophobic extract);
  • One teaspoon of mild soap (Dr. Bronner’s, in my case).
  • One gallon of water.

I’ve seen some evidence that a dilute solution of milk works (10:1, water:milk), but all the evidence said was that there was a statistically significant negative correlation between concentration of milk and final concentration of powdery mildew.  I’ve also seen people talk about using cheap mouthwash (3:1, water:mouthwash) but have not seen experiment evidence confirming that this works (or doesn’t).

I’m a little leery of the horticultural oil, and the advice is to water thoroughly before doing this, don’t do it in high heat or direct sunlight, and so on.  I only have to hit a handful of leaves, so I don’t think I risk killing my cukes.  I might leave one leaf as a control.

Summer squash:  What can you say about a food that you have to disguise in order to get your family to eat?  Sure, for the first few, you can be pretty up-front about what you’re serving.  Steamed squash with butter.  Maybe a little squash casserole.  But at some point, getting rid of your summer squash requires some stealth.

My go-to straight-up squash recipe is crock-pot recipe attributed to Martha Stewart, with a few additions.

  • Two large or four small squash, thinly sliced into coins. A mix of zucchini and yellow squash is preferred.
  • One onion, thinly sliced.
  • Two large tomatoes, skinned, cored, and cut into pieces.
  • Couple of tablespoons of olive oil
  • Couple of tablespoons of water.
  • One teaspoon of salt.
  • One tablespoon of general-purpose Italian seasoning mix.

Put in in your crock pot.  Mix the ingredients together.  (Got room left?  What a great opportunity to add more squash.)  Turn it on high.  Wait two hours.

Best guess, maybe ten minutes of prep time, two hour cook time.  I use a mandolin to slice the squash and onion, and the “toast-it-over-the-open-gas-flame” method to skin the tomato.  Both of which reduce the prep time.

For stealth recipes, I’m searching for the highest ratio of squash to all other ingredients.  I mean, sure, you can toss a cup of squash into a cake recipe and call it squash bread.  But most of what you’re eating is cake, and a cup barely makes a dent my squash supply.  Minimum acceptable ratio is 50:50.  If it’s not at least half squash, then it’s an inefficient way to use up summer squash.

Here’s my favorite savory stealth squash recipe so far, meeting the 50/50 rule.  This one is:

  • 50% squash,
  • 25% cheese
  • 25% bread crumbs.

I’m going to try the next batch using Old Bay, shooting for a faux crab cake.  FWIW, I use the salt-and-let-it-drip method to get the water out of the grated squash, rather than the “strangle it in a kitchen towel” method.

Finally, I’ve lacto-fermented smaller squash (USDA guide, Chapter 6), just as you would ferment cucumbers to make pickles.  When cut into spears, zucchini and yellow squash hold up very wall to fermentation and make for a nice, crisp pickle.   This (pickled squash) is one of the few forms of squash that is it safe for the home canner to can.  The lacto-fermentation raises the acidity to well below the pH 4.5 that’s the cutoff for safe water-bath canning.  Worst comes to worst, you can put up some squash pickles, just as you would cucumber pickles.

Why garden?

This post is prompted by a recent New York Times article on how peaceful and restful gardening was.  For that author.

All I can say is, I live in a different gardening world entirely.  Her world is a Zen paradise.  My world is nature red in tooth and claw.  If it’s not the deer, it’s the bugs, or the plant diseases, or the excess heat, or the lack of rain.

And for what?  Maybe a few hundred dollars’ worth of produce, at best.  In a good year.  For all the materials, and the worry, and the sweat, and the uncertainty.

So you have to make the most out of what you get.  For sure, fresh produce doesn’t get any fresher.

And I do get occasional moments of delight, despite myself.  Got up early Saturday to water the plants.  It was a nice quiet morning, and standing in the middle of my garden, all I could hear, in every direction, was the gentle hum of bees at work.  Like I had my own person beehive.  Not an experience you can buy at the farmer’s market.  Last time I recall hearing that, I was a kid, in Manassas, crossing some waste-land field in the middle of the summer.  I know that bees world-wide are in trouble, but you surely wouldn’t know that from my mid-summer garden.

And then there’s the view out my bedroom window.  Can’t buy that, either.  Sunflowers are just so — cartoonish — that they can’t help but raise your spirits.  Built just like a regular ol’ flower, but ludicrously big.  The ones in the back there are about 7′.  It’s nice to get this little bit of of a view every day before I brew the coffee, turn on the computer, and read the latest news.