Archive for July, 2009

Sugar beet entryOk, I admit it:  I love county fairs.  All of it – the chickens clucking in their pens, the hogs running pell-mell through the barns, the adorable dairy goats nibbling anything that walks by – it’s a slice of America everyone should experience. Sunflower and straw

 For gardeners, this is the time for competition; the chase for the coveted blue ribbon.  Friends gently tease each other for weeks before the event, slyly mentioning their ‘perfect entry’ kept secreted in the garden until the big day.  They engage in trash talk, boast of sure-fire wins, then spend hours in quiet desperation the night before the event getting every speck of soil off the entry.

 Flowers are prepped in cool rooms and water, their petals fluffed and groomed as if going to a ball.  Months of practice runs designing and making floral arrangements lead up to the last moment, when you do the best you can, walk in, and push your entry across the table to be judged. fair squash

 Today at the Larimer County Fair in Loveland, hopes were high as contestants brought in their produce or flowers, eyeing the competition shelved just behind the clerks’ tables.  David Rubenthaler of Fort Collins was one of them.  In his 11th year of competing at the fair, the tall software engineer had his hopes pinned on his green beans to win the show. 

 “I had a lot of great things this year, but my favorite is the green beans,” he said, “I always try to win that category and they are excellent this year.  The carrots were pretty nice too, though.”  Entering 33 different vegetables, Rubenthaler recalls getting soundly beaten last year, and hopes his increased entries will do better this season.

Larry judgingPointing at the vegetable judging, he commented that the judge, Larry Propp, is a big reason why he keeps coming back.  “Larry’s one of those guys I love to hear, he’s so knowledgeable.   I took a day of vacation just to come over and listen.” 

 Propp is well-known to vegetable contestants in our area.  For a judge, he’s very talkative, keeping up a running patter of comments on every class.  Chopping and munching his way through the vegetables, he passes plate after plate of produce around the crowd, encouraging people to try the food as he critiques it.  The information you get from Propp is useful in gauging your harvest, and also in picking produce at the grocer’s. 

 Flower enthusiasts hung on the words of judge Kate Kator, who spoke glowingly of the diminutive designs in the mini category, her nose down close to the tiny blooms.  Gently touching the petal to test for freshness, she offered suggestions on improvements for each of the entries.  Bouquet entry

 Larger bouquets drew Kator’s praise for their use of new varieties of Agastache in the design.  Behind her, brightly golden sunflowers and dramatic spikes of gladiolus were waiting for their turn on the table.  “The weather has been a bit of a problem this year for the flowers,” said Mary Monroe, co-superintendent of the show along with her husband, Bill, “we had 94 people pre-register but only 53 came in with entries.”  Hail was likely the biggest culprit, Mary and Bill mused, plus endless days of wet weather.

 Still, the shelves of blooms drew smiles from every passerby.  And the contestants waited with baited breath to find out how their entries did, already forming plans in their head for next year’s competition.

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Tomato problems are popping up all over the place, with plants suffering everything from early blight to bacterial speck.  If your tomato’s looking peaked, check out the symptoms against this list of possible culprits.  For more extensive information, click here for the CSU Extension fact sheet on recognizing tomato problems.

 Symptom: Leaves chewed to a nub, large pellets littering the area below the plant.   hornworm

Culprit:  Tomato and tobacco hornworms are large green caterpillars with white stripes and a soft, flexible horn on the hind end.  Like hungry teenagers, they quickly strip plants of leaves and damage fruit.

Cure:  Hornworms are easy to control.  Courageous gardeners pick them off by hand or you can apply Bacillus thuringiensis(Bt), an organic product that gives hornworms a deadly bellyache.

 Symptom: Leaves turning yellow with purple veins.  Fruit is small and tasteless, and the plant looks as if sugar were spilled on it.

Culprit:  Psyllids, small sap feeding insects whose saliva causes the plant to grow oddly.  Look under leaves for the scale-like nymphs.  Their waste, called lerps, looks like sugar.

Cure:  Tiny Psyllids can mean big problems for tomatoes, severely stunting fruit, so at the first sign of these bad bugs, spray with insecticidal soap.  This is limited help, though, and you may need something stronger. 

Symptom:   Green plants turning blond, yellowing from the bottom up.  Older leaves have brown spots with concentric rings, and sometimes stems or fruit is blemished.     early blight

Culprit:  Early blight is a fungus spread by water, insects, and gardeners.

Cure:  Pick off diseased leaves, and keep the ground free of debris. Dust healthy leaves with sulfur to shield them from infection.  Or you can try potassium bicarbonate, talked about in a previous post.  Give plants room to grow without crowding them, and use drip irrigation to prevent splashing water.  

Symptom:  Black, sunken, rotten spots on the bottom of fruit.

Culprit:  Blossom end rot, caused by poor uptake of calcium.  Though calcium is plentiful in our soil, irregular watering and excessive heat prevent the plant from using it. 

Cure:  Use a timer to automatically turn on and off the irrigation, and mulch plants to keep the soil from drying out too rapidly. 

 Symptom:  Fruit with bleached-out soft spots or unripe, green shoulders.

Culprit:  Intense sun and high heat are too much of a good thing for tomatoes, causing sun scald, poor fruit set and unripe spots.  green shoulders

Cure:  Canopy the plant with shade barrier cloth draped on support poles above the plant. 

 Symptom:  Limp, wilting leaves that don’t perk up in the evening or after watering.  Older leaves yellow and die, often affects just one side of plant .  Plant may be stunted with few tomatoes.

Culprit:  Fusarium Wilt, which blocks the water transport system of the plant.  Tomatoes that are labelled VFN are resistant to this disease, but heirloom varieties may suffer.

Cure:  Pull and destroy the plant. The problem remains in the area for several years, so plant your tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes and peppers in another spot for the next three seasons.

 Symptom:  Mottled yellow and green leaves, or leaves with purple spots.  Plants are small, yellow and bushy.  Leaves are misshapen and look stretched out like taffy.   virusFruit has yellow rings and spots.

Culprit:  Cucumber mosaic virus or tomato spotted wilt virus.  Viruses can cause odd-looking problems.  If you notice your plant suddenly looking like it’s from outer space, with leaves elongating like a shoestring, becoming curled or cupped, it may be a virus. 

Cure:  Viruses can’t be cured, so pull and destroy the plants.

 Symptom:  Leaf spirals, cupping or distortion.

Culprit:  Tomatoes are sensitive to herbicides. Many gardeners don’t spray their food plants; instead, the damage is from drift.  Drift can occur from applying weed killer on windy days. 

Cure:  Limit applications of weed killer to cool times of the day when wind is calm.  herbicide

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Ok, which one of you thumbed your nose at Mother Nature, upsetting her enough to visit the Wrath of a Ticked Off Elemental on us this summer?  I can’t remember the last time we’ve had such awful hailstorms. 

 The one Monday night – July 20 – brought gale force winds, two small tornados and Dorothy clutching Toto as they flew by.  While the big stuff – farms decimated, power knocked out, dented vehicles – is very serious and sad, there is one group so savaged by the hail that just seeing the pictures in the Denver Post had me howling in anguish:

 The trees.

 Uprooted and flung, limbs and trunks torn; the destruction is profound.  Many landscapes had trees completely defoliated, their branches now bare of leaves.  The question is:  is this fatal?

To find the answer, I went to Robert Cox, a co-worker with Colorado State University Extension.  Robert is one of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to trees, a fellow who cares a great deal for the strong, silent plants.

 “If they’re pretty well-established deciduous trees they should be ok,” said Robert, “because they’re used to putting out several flushes of leaves each season.  The ones that concern me only put out one flush, like pines or spruce – they can be badly damaged.”

 Though we’re well into July, deciduous trees should be able to leaf out again, but buds for next year’s leaves may be compromised.  Trees set buds for next year in summer; if those buds were torn off along with the leaves, the trees have to form new ones.  These young buds won’t have as long on the tree to grow plump and healthy before the tree goes dormant. 

 The result may be small leaves next year, and sparser amounts of them.  “Trees will look peaked, they won’t have as many leaves,” said Robert.  Make a note not to panic on your calendar for next year to remind yourself of the devastation this week.

 Bruising of the bark and the cambium below it may interfere with the tree’s ability to transport water, causing it to struggle in the heat.  Pay close attention to the water your tree receives, making sure it isn’t going dry.  In other words, water your tree.

 Help your tree with a light touch – too much love will end up adding insult to injury.  Clean up any broken branches by pruning them off with a clean cut.  Should the bark on the trunk be torn, use a sharp knife to clean off jagged edges of bark around the wound, then let the tree seal itself – without any wound paint.

 Apply a fungicide to the damaged area to keep disease at bay. 

 Above all, don’t fertilize the plant.  Yes, I know – our nurturing instinct is to offer a soothing cup of tea to the wounded; in this case it’s a splash of fertilizer to make it feel better, but for trees in July, this is counter productive.

 “Fertilizing now won’t be seen until August and September, and that new growth won’t harden off in time for winter,” says, Robert, “if you want to do something, the best thing to do is give it a light – LIGHT – application of foliar fertilizer, at one-eighth strength.” 

Mix up a batch of liquid plant food at this very dilute rate, then spray it on the remaining leaves on the tree.  Make sure you winter water your tree this year, once every four weeks if we don’t receive a lot of snow.

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The Harvard Business Publishing rooftop gardeners are having a grand season up in the eaves, larking around like chimney sweeps with their produce.  Let’s take a moment to peek in on them:

[Contributed by Martha, one of the eight]  

Hi!  Welcome back to HBP’s rooftop garden.  A lot has been going on and I’m afraid I’ve neglected you all.  However, we have NOT neglected our garden.  After our initial planting of lettuce and peas, we spent time hardening off the rest of the plants and getting those into containers.  The last of the plants started inside were planted just after Memorial Day weekend.

 And then the rains came.

 Oh lordy, but June was cold and rainy.  We had so much rain that I swear I saw people building arks.  We were still wearing long-sleeved shirts and jackets at the end of June.  I was really worried about our plants, and some did take a beating.  One of the eggplants and two of the cucumbers and melon plants did not survive.  The great thing about seeds is we just planted more. 

 The lettuce and peas loved that weather.  The lettuce is pretty much done now but the peas are still motoring along flowering and bearing pods.  They are hardy little buggers.  We have been picking the peas and either eating them on the spot or taking them home to mix in with dinner.  Finally, around 4th of July weekend, we got some dry, warm weather and the plants have really started to take off.

HBP tomato plants Miraculously all the tomato plants survived June.  As you can see from the picture, we have lots of tomato plants.  The cherry tomatoes are blooming and putting out little tomatoes.  The Big Boys are also blooming but don’t seem to be quite as prolific.  One of our gardeners, Matt Han, cannot wait for the first tomato to ripen.  He has salsa recipes and canning recipes all ready.  Matt Wagner has a marinara sauce recipe all ready to make.  Others of us are hoping for tomato, basil and mozzarella Panini’s. We’ll see what we’ve got once these start to ripen. 

 We have been harvesting other things besides peas and lettuce.  We have six containers of basil and we’ve been harvesting it almost daily.  We had enough for a wonderful pesto that Tara made (using pistachios and Asiago cheese rather than pine nuts and parmesan).  We had a pesto pasta salad mixed with baby spinach, tomatoes and red peppers which was delicious.  We picked the lone cucumber and it was the sweetest I’ve tasted.  We do have a number of herb plants besides basil.  We have tarragon, sage, parsley, dill and cilantro.  We’ve started harvesting some of these others. 

 Matt Wagner indicated he was going to make chicken soup this weekend using some of the tarragon.  Unfortunately, when he did this, it came out tasting like grass, and the end result of boiling a chicken with it was so shameful he daren’t bring it in.  Upon research he found that you can’t actually grow the aromatic tarragon from seed :o)  It turns out that the aromatic version spreads mainly through cuttings or via its root system (much like oregano) and that the kind you get from store-bought seeds is essentially a flavorless weed.  Who knew?  Well, lesson learned for next year.

Ornamental gourdsWe have had a lot of blooms on other plants as well.  Check out the ornamental gourds.  These plants have been flowering profusely and guess what?  I discovered a baby gourd on one of the plants!  It’s so cute!  The cucumber plant has had lots of blooms but only one cucumber has developed.  There have been lots of blooms on the melon plant but no fruit.  Hmmm, I do hope something comes of our efforts with these plants.

HBP 3 The most unusual plant in our garden has got to be the eggplant.  I’ve never grown them and had no idea that the leaves had spines right down the middle.  I discovered a blossom on the big one yesterday and can’t wait to see it bear fruit.  It should be really cool watching it grow.

We’ve started planting some beans too.  We had a couple extra containers and decided to start our beans in them.  Since the lettuce is gone, we will revitalize that soil by adding some fertilizer and maybe some extra soil and plant some more beans.  I’ve got a hankering for some beans and hope we can get a good crop in before it turns cooler.

Well, that’s the update from HBP.  Thanks for stopping by and I will really try to check in more often.  Happy gardening!!

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Readers, if you’re easily offended don’t read today’s post.  I’m venting – but with a purpose.  People seem to be under stress these days and quickly spin out of control.  We should try to remember that lawns and gardens shouldn’t be taken so seriously that we forget to be humane to one another.

 Lawns in our area struggle – we have heat and drought that stresses the turf, plus other problems that can crop up in the yard.  It is, after all, a living system and nature will do whatever it wants. 

Part of my job is to pay house calls on sick lawns, and 99 times out of 100 the people I meet are friendly and kind.  But then there’s that last one-percent, where an innocent Lawncheck turns into a horror story:

I was called out on a lawncheck visit, arriving to find everything looking calm.  A sweet lady answered the door and she, along with her equally kind-seeming husband, came out to the front yard to show me the first of their problems – little suckers in their lawn.

Some trees do this – produce suckers from the roots as a way of multiplying themselves.  It’s natural.  It’s normal.  But these folks wanted the suckers to die.

They asked what to spray and I told them “nothing, really, just mow them down.” Oh, good heavens you’d have thought I kicked their dog! Do you remember that movie “Gremlins” where the cute fuzzy lil guys turn into hideous monsters??   Three minutes into this lawncheck and that lady changed right before my eyes (it’s a velociraptor!).

 Screaming “ARE YOU TELLING ME THERE’S NO POISON TO KILL THEM?” her entire personality changed.  I answered “Umm…not really.  The jury’s out on whether the products on the market can be translocated back and harm the mother tree.  Mowing them down is an easy way to keep them in control.”

Her volume got louder.  “I’M NOT ABOUT TO LIVE WITH THIS….THIS…THIS STUFF COMING UP IN MY YARD! IT’S THEIR TREE,” she shrieked, turning and pointing to the neighbor’s house.  “YOU TELL THEM TO CUT DOWN THAT TREE!  CUT IT DOWN!”

At this point the previously gentle husband heard the neighbor backing out of their garage (blithely unaware of the imminent danger) and he – I kid you not – ran out into the street and put himself in front of their car to stop them. Grabbing the driver’s open window, he yelled, “IT’S YOUR TREE! IT’S YOUR TREE! DO YOU HEAR THAT?? IT’S YOUR TREE!” (No further proof is needed to convince me velociraptors travel in pairs).

Arbitrating neighbor relations is a pitfall I try to stay away from in my business; often they end in litigation.  I don’t know the whole story on either side and blowups could stem from years of conflict having nothing to do with plants.

 Besides, I was too busy fighting off the vicious savagery of a woman who clearly needed medication, all the while keeping a wary eye on the husband who was slavering all over that poor neighbor’s car in his attempt to disembowel her.

Then – horror of horrors – the neighbor made her escape, and I was left to face them BOTH. They took me into the back yard where they showed me their second problem: sod gone bad.  As is often the case, it stemmed from problems with watering.

 But here’s a funny thing about humans:  in many cases folks just don’t want to believe that operator error is what caused the problem.  It’s much easier to have a bug or disease to blame, or spray to get rid of.  Watering issues are challenging; you turn your system on and water flies everywhere, so how can water be the problem?

But look closely at the arc of the spray as it courses over the lawn.  Try to see if the water is spreading evenly across the area, reaching far enough to give head-to-head coverage.  Then run a quick catch-can test to see if you’re delivering enough water.  Take six to eight cans (all the same size) and lay them out in the area of watering.  Run your system for a normal cycle, and then measure the water in each can.  Add the depths together, and then divide by the number of cans.  The result is the average amount of water that zone put on the lawn during its cycle.  For information on how much to water, check out the helpful CSU Watering Established Lawns publication.

But would this couple believe that improper watering was the problem? NOOOOOO. Why that’s the same thing the sod company guy said when he came out.

“YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL THE SAME!” came the piercing shriek from the female as she prepared to hunt again. “YOU’RE ALL IN CAHOOTS WITH ONE ANOTHER!”  Even the male was frightened by this, and scurried off to run the sprinkler system when she gave the word.

 It was the longest hour of my life.

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It seems like the problems are coming fast out in the vegetable patch.  One that I’ve battled every year has reared its ugly head:  early blight on the tomatoes.  This fungus gets its jollies by attacking plants as the temperatures soar, and now that we’ve gotten toasty warm outside my plants are showing their first signs of disease.

Early Blight is the common name of the fungus Alternaria solani.  It overwinters on leaves or other plant parts left in the garden, then colonizes the plant by spores splashing up during irrigation or driving rain – something we’ve had a lot of this season.   early blight

 Once symptoms show they appear as brown to black, target-like spots on older leaves lower on the plant.  Effected leaves turn yellow, then drop from the plant.  Once this begins it seems that the rest of the summer is a race against the disease.  Fruit may or may not be effected, and you can still get plenty of love apples from the vine.  But in severe outbreaks the fruit is ruined. 

In the long term, good sanitation in the garden is the way to keep the disease pressure low:  cleaning up all fallen leaves every fall and destroying them.  Experts recommend rotating tomato plants out of the area for a couple of seasons, but in a backyard this isn’t exactly do-able.  I have one vegetable garden and the plants will have to get tough or suffer.  earlyblight3

Spacing plants far apart to get good air circulation is another way to keep disease low.  I’m a big proponent of this and try to give my plants plenty of room when I pop them in the ground.  But they have a nasty habit of growing, filling out and touching one another, then all hope for order in the garden is lost to chaos.   Vines ramble where they want, grapes reach out to throttle their neighbors, the tomatoes stick shoots out at odd angles and the pumpkins produce leaves big enough to diaper a baby – there’s no such thing as good air space when August rolls around.

Fortunately this season I have a new weapon to try in the battle for tomato dominance:  Potassium Bicarbonate, a.k.a. Green Cure.  This organic fungicide was developed by Dr. Ken Horst of Cornell University to combat many fungal problems on roses, but it is also labelled for use on tomatoes and other crops.  Green Cure

Dr. Horst found that potassium bicarbonate keeps fungus at bay, although it doesn’t completely eliminate it.  It’s useful on early blight, powdery mildew (I’m keeping an eye on my squash for that) and other common leaf problems.

 Green Cure is a wettable powder – you mix a couple of tablespoons in a gallon of water and spray it on the plant.  As with ALL pesticides, organic or not, read and follow the lable.  I like to spray early in the morning, before breezes kick up and the sun becomes intense on the leaves.  With this product, coverage of upper and lowersides of leaves is important, and will have to be reapplied every two weeks until I decide I’ve had enough tomatoes.

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The first sign of trouble on the kale really didn’t look like much compared to the havoc on the beets and spinach nearby.  Those were getting tunneled by leaf miners, making them inedible; that obvious loss to my salads absorbed my attention. 

 The kale seemed indestructible in comparison – immune to insects and disease.  After all, the nibbling of the leaf was just a light scoring of the surface, and, lulled by the belief that the kale wasn’t as sissified as the tender spring greens, I ignored it.

Oh, how foolish can a gardener be?  Those early signs were the key to staving off the destructive juggernaut of the Imported Cabbageworm.   cabbageworm larvae

These one inch-long, velvety green caterpillars are munching down on every kale leaf in the bed and where they haven’t gnawed, they’re leaving deposits of frass, which is an entomologist’s way of talking nicely about poop.  My dinner prep the other night consisted of hand picking the worms and sluicing off their leavings (we weren’t having guests for dinner – honestly, I’d never serve them this). 

 The worst part of this latest assault on my garden isn’t the bugs – they’re easily dealt with by a spritz of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).  This organic pesticide made from soil-borne bacteria will give those bugs a killer bellyache.  No, the bigger problem is that I know better than to let the early signs of an oncoming problem be ignored.

You see, most garden problems don’t require pesticides if the gardener is alert and scouts their plants.  In the early stages, a pest can be controlled with a bit of pruning, hand picking or row covers.  Most plants can take a small amount of damage, but if left to mushroom out of control, small bugs become big pests and people either abandon their crops or break out the chemicals. 

 Hence my guilt for ignoring my training.  Yes, I have an organic solution, and once under control, the kale will recover – fortunately there is enough growing season for the plant to size up.   As for other, more serious pests on the horizon, my lesson is learned and I’ll pay attention to the early warning signs.

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