Archive for May, 2010

The adventure begins.

 A proposal from a company called Reforestation Technologies Incorporated  arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, offering a sample of products guaranteed to help me grow a giant pumpkin.  Though I ignore plenty of offers, this struck a chord in me because my spouse, who routinely suffers through experiments I run in the yard, has always had a dream.  One day he hopes to grow a pumpkin large enough to hollow out and climb into on Halloween, then jump up like a deranged pop-tart and scare small children coming to our door.

Each year I try to give him the dream, sowing seeds reputed to have the genetics of giants, but so far my efforts have resulted in nothing larger than an 80 pound squash.  Impressive, but it was only large enough to cover his tush.

Plus, I like experiments.  Those of you who’ve followed my writings may recall The Harpin Incident of 2008, which I’ll include at the end of this post in case you missed it.  That year, I trialed harpin in the garden, getting what I deserved after loading up those females on hormones. 

This time it’s bio-products:  mycorrhyzal fungi, Azos bacterium, and calcium carbonate.   Mycorrhyzae are fungi that attach to the roots of plants, forming a symbiotic relationship that helps the plant take up nutrients and feed carbon back into the fungi.  This improves both top and root growth, and I liberally mixed it into the planting area ahead of putting in the seeds.

 The bacterium, Azos, is said to help the plant fix nitrogen from the air, making me think it’s a type of rhizobium bacteria used to inoculate beans and peas.  I had to roll the moistened seed in this before planting.  The last product, calcium carbonate, is to be tank mixed and sprayed onto the undersides of the leaves to help the vine photosynthesize and strengthen cells walls, enabling the gourd to bloat to record proportions.

I doubt I’ll be called to testify at a congressional hearing over the use of such stimulants – apparently they’ve been in use by members of the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, which endorses these products.  No, I have to face a much tougher panel of critics:  friends and family that will drop by, strolling out to the patch to view the swelling fruit.

As the summer rolls on, we’ll wait and see.

From 2008:

Has anyone seen my sanity?

I lost it somewhere between house and garden.  There’s a product I was given to try, called Messenger, that uses Harpin proteins to fool the plant into thinking it’s under attack from an invading disease.  Once it’s sprayed onto the leaves it triggers a surge of growth and production as a defense against the invader.

 I admit I was conflicted about using it.  I’m familiar with hormones stimulating production; it happens to me at certain points in the month, when my spouse makes a remark that my female physiology takes offense over. At those times I can clean the house to within an inch of its life, plus cook supper, mow the lawn, and tidy up the garage.  Overall it’s an hour well spent, but I’m not happy during it.

Using physiology doesn’t bother me, and since this is a product that’s naturally occurring , I shrugged and set off to make my tomatoes hormonal.

The mixed gallon spread over the tomatoes easily, and I was excited by the possibility that they may grow out of their slump.  Their performance this year has been sluggish so far, and as I spritzed them with Harpins I dreamed of booming harvests.

There was so much left over that I coated the eggplants, peppers, and melons.  The label said this is safe for every plant I would ever grow, so the herbs came next, getting drenched along with the pumpkins and squash.  I knew I was over the edge; I moved on to spraying the roses, snapdragons and Echinacea.  It was only after I’d soaked the zucchini that I realized the extent of my insanity (although I held off on the cherry tomatoes; I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid). 

Dear heavens what have I done?  Every plant in the garden is awash in hormones now, and visions of menopausal chaos – tendrils waving angrily in the air, insects being flicked off and beaten by stalks – are starting to fill my mind.   Surely I owe the male blossoms an apology.

 “It’s ok, it’s safe, it’s safe,” I told myself, “a lot of science has gone into developing this.”  But dare I go out there without chocolate and wine to offer?

In reality the increase in vigor of the plants may take more than one or two applications, and my one day of testing this product may not end in disaster.  Only time will tell if this is triumph or tragedy for my garden.  I’ll keep you posted.  (Blogger’s note:  the winter squash that resulted from this was some of the strangest I’ve ever seen.  Instead of being acorn shaped, they resembled giant footballs and I couldn’t bring myself to eat them.) (Blogger note 2: company is now out of business).

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My hobby is trying to kill me. 

 I know this on Monday mornings, creaking out of bed to go to work after spending two days in the garden.  It happens every weekend: my brain tells my muscles it won’t be that bad, my body is left to wonder why I don’t take up stock in ibuprofen.

If you’re looking for a summer workout, gardening is excellent exercise, an intense sport cleverly disguised as an attraction for elderly ladies or gentlemen with British accents.  Its flowers and butterflies are deceptive, like meeting a personal trainer who looks friendly.  But like personal trainers, gardening will introduce you to muscles you never knew you had and, now that you do, can’t move them without whimpering.

Experts recommend two hours and 30 minutes of exercise weekly for adults to stay healthy.  A gardener does that before breakfast, getting the chores done before the heat of the day.  And we often run two-a-days, heading back out into the yard to finish what we started once the evening cools things down.  

Aerobic activities are part of the sport; every time you see a weed your heart rate goes up to a respectable level.  Attacking by digging, hoeing, pulling or pick axing, we rip the weeds, rather than our muscles.  The sixpack we’re looking forward to is cold and best enjoyed while sitting on the patio. 

For bulking up bone density, weight bearing exercise is a key component, something gardening has in abundance.  Cleaning and jerking 40 pound bags of compost onto your shoulder, one by one, and then trotting them into the garden is a great way to build strength.  That we add a super set of bicep curls by lifting flats of petunias to haul along with the bags is just our way of showing off.

There isn’t any fancy clothing required for the sport of gardening; you don’t have to invest in high tech spandex leggings, shoes, or helmets that shout out a brand name.  If you want to bling yourself for a workout, carry tools that make Rambo look like a sissy: knife-like Hori-horis, wickedly pointed garden claws, and pruners big enough to fell a tree.

Yes, gardening builds bodies as well as blooms, but once we’ve finished there’s no smugness about it.  Crouched over for hours, we’re incapable of straightening up for a cheery wave at the neighbors, much less a victory lap around the yard to show off our physique.  Instead, we spray soil as we fling a hand up in greeting, then slouch toward the house looking for that ibuprofen. 

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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There’s an assassin in my garden, a bug with a license to kill.  I spied it the other day when warm weather turned the yard into an insect paradise, and everything came out to play. 

Normally, the garden is filled with ladybugs and spiders but on this day, the predator to beware of is the assassin bug.  I was drawn to the spot, not because of a snappy theme song like the one Bond has, though that would be pretty cool; but no self-respecting killer broadcasts its arrival with an orchestral composition.

No, what caught my eye is the fact that the half-inch long, bright green insect stood out against the red leaves of a rose bush.  A true bug (in the order Hemiptera, probably genus Zelus), the assassin bug has a long, straw-like mouthpart that it uses to impale its prey.  This one was a nymph, not an adult, but it still knew what to do when coming across aphids.  With a swift thrust of its beak, the aphid was doomed.

Assassins are common in Colorado, and it’s always nice to see them about.  On this day it, plus other beneficial insects, were out in force.  Check your garden for them the next time you’re out there, and hum a few bars of the man from UNCLE when you see it. 

 Then let it go on its way – they don’t like to get hassled and are just as likely to jab your finger if you try to pick them up.  Assassins, as a rule, aren’t cuddly.

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(Left to Right) Hayley Seitz, Troop Leader Chantel Schmit, Isi Uranaga, Amanda Wiseman, Hope Seitz, Erin Stuart

  A local Girl Scout has taken the phrase “Think globally, act locally” beyond bumper stickers and t-shirts.  Devoting her time to improving the earth, she made a difference in her community by giving a park in Thornton, Colorado, a team makeover, cleaning it up and caring for it for the future.

“I wanted to do something green,” said Amanda Wiseman, recipient of the Girl Scouts of the USA  Gold Award, “this was before “green” was in.”  The highest achievement that can be earned in Girl Scouts, the Gold Award requires skills in leadership, organization, and perseverance in projects that serve the community.

Wiseman received her Gold Award April 26, one of 49 recipients earning this honor in Colorado this year.  Her project, Eco Education, centered on using a city park as a means for teaching youth the importance of the environment.  In total, she spent a year and a half building her project, coordinating volunteers who donated 67 hours to keeping a park clean.

Settling on Eastlake Park III in the city of Thornton as her focus (“some friends and I have history there, with a lot of inside jokes about it”), Wiseman soon learned patience in dealing with government.  “At first it was hard to get ahold of them (the City of Thornton).  They have no formal adoption process for people wanting to care for parks,” she said.  But once they understood the scope of Wiseman’s project, the city was easy to work with, and enthusiastic about her success at long-term planning.

Wanting her project to be more than a one-year wonder, Wiseman designed it to be a self-sustaining way to care for this small patch of nature.  Recruiting 10 Girl Scout troops to help, Wiseman had each troop sign up for one month per year as their time to clean up the park.  Leaders now keep their troops volunteering to clean them, where the bags of trash and recycling collected by the girls are picked up by the City for disposal. 

Though the park adoption part of her project is running smoothly, Wiseman admits that there were learning moments in this project as well.  Originally, her goal was to start an Eco-friendly club at a local middle school, but that fell through when the school no longer wanted the club. 

But Wiseman, now finishing her Freshman year at Colorado State University, is philosophical about the experience.  “I learned a lot about myself.  I’m better at communication now, and scheduling,” she said, “I learned all kinds of things, one of which is to be realistic.”

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I stepped out over the weekend to do a little lawn care, and as I placidly mowed the lawn my thoughts turned to lawsuits.  Specifically: the lawnmower lawsuit settlement now pending final approval by the court on June 22. 

At least 10 companies, including American Honda Motor Co., Inc., MTD, Sears, Deere & Company; Tecumseh; Briggs & Stratton, Toro, Husqvarna, and others, are defendants agreeing to settle a claim but deny wrongdoing.  Five settlements, totaling $65 million in cash, have been reached and are awaiting the Court’s authorization.

The lawsuit contends that manufacturers overstated the muscle in their engines; that their strength is not so much horsepower as it is Shetland pony-pull in gas powered mowers sold between January 1, 1994 through April 12, 2010.  If you purchased a mower from these companies, their brands, or have engines manufactured by them, you might want to check out the website to see if you qualify for compensation should the settlement be approved.

Let me be clear:  nothing about this lawsuit has anything to do with the safety of these mowers. 

Overseeing this dustup is the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, in a case called In re Lawn Mower Engine Horsepower Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, MDL No. 1999, 2:08-md-01999.  

 I’ve been compensated by a class action settlement before to the tune of $2.19, so the possibility of recovering up to $35 in this case has me near-giddy with excitement.  Riding mowers are included, which is bad news for participants in lawnmower racing:  if you thought your opponent was juicing their engine, it may be they were simply performing to specs.

Manufacturers have agreed to meet a new Certified Power Rating, testing their equipment in an arena with draft horses on one side, a self-propelled on the other.  Trojans are barred from overseeing this contest.

Also, anyone approved as Class Members, with lawn mowers having an engine made and originally warranted by Briggs & Stratton, Kawasaki, Kohler, Toro, or Tecumseh, get a bonus one year warranty on the engine, beginning after the Court’s final approval.  This warranty extension, with potential value of over $1 billion, covers repairs original engine warranties covered, according to Heins Mills & Olson, P.L.C., the law firm involved in the litigation, along with Morrison Fenske and Sund, P.A.  

So if your mower isn’t dragging you along with the strength of 20 stallions, check out the website for this class action lawsuit – you have until August 31 to submit your claim.  For more information, call 877-773-8196; write to Lawn Mowers Settlement, P.O. Box 2309, Faribault, MN 55021-9309; or visit the website at LawnMowerClass.com.

This post previously appeared in the Longmont Ledger.

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Spring brings out an odd assortment of turf problems, with persistent Necrotic Ring Spot and mites headlining the show.  But this year I got called out to a lawn where something special is going on – I had the rare treat of seeing greenbugs in action.

Greenbugs (Schizaphis graminum) are aphids that suck the sap out of lawns, turning the grass a rusty orange color.  Like many outbreaks of aphids, this one is accompanied by Ladybug larvae doing their best to eat them.  Upon seeing the hundreds of ladybugs on thousands of aphids crawling across the lawn, the only thing I could utter was “cool!”

If only the homeowner was as thrilled as I was.

You see, the scene playing itself out in his front yard is better than any reality show drama; there was birth, death, hunting and foraging, all accessorized by a backdrop of translucent orange grass that glows in angled light.  When you don’t see this often, it’s nifty.

  But the homeowner wanted a solution to this problem, after all, these greenbugs were killing the lawn.  The largest spot was nestled under a large pine tree, with a few smaller spots under the Ash.  This is common here, with trees providing some type of buffer that lets the greenbugs survive some winters.  In all, the orange greenbug spot was 10 feet long by five feet wide, and I could understand why this was disturbing the homeowner.

Fortunately the cavalry had arrived, and the ladybugs were doing a good job of cleanup; my main challenge was helping the homeowner to accept that, if given time, those ladybugs would clean up the mess.  Armies of insects duking it out on the lawn isn’t everyone’s suburban dream show.

He was very positive about the process and willing to let nature take it’s course, once he crouched down to see the ladybugs in action.  There’s nothing like watching the black-with-orange spotted, spiky creatures wind around grassblades to chomp an unsuspecting aphid.

In other areas of the country, greenbugs are a much bigger issue, but in Colorado, they’re more of a novelty.  Our winters are usually too cold for them, and this colony probably won’t survive another year.  So the homeowner has agreed to wait it out, and reseed in a few weeks when the dust settles out there.

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 Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

You can tell who the serious vegetable gardeners are.  They’re the people who construct the darnedest coverings to provide a few extra weeks worth of growth before the weather really warms.   Gardens start to look like a rock festival with all of the tents, tunnels, and jugs showing up.  

One gardener in Lockport, Illinois, a town just outside of Joliet, sent me photos of the prettiest seedlings I’ve ever seen grown at home.  Despite living in zone 5, he planted these out on April 13, a full month-and-a-half ahead of when we – also zone fiveish – put ours in the ground. 

Now, I’m not what you would call a competitive gardener – if others like to get their gardens in fast, that’s up to them.  But looking at the deep green, foot-tall plants this 74-year old gardener’s got in the ground made me pause in envy, and think “when I grow up, I want to be just like Jim Koski.”

As we head into May and you’re shopping for that special seedling, take a page from his book to keep your plants cozy in our unsettled weather, at least through frost date.  Jim tucked his into the ground with a combination of items; his objective is to warm the soil with sun in the day and give plants frost protection at night. 

  With a red plastic Automator tray – the product touted for channeling water and fertilizer to roots – to warm the soil, Jim breaks wind on his seedlings by wrapping their cages in stiff, black salt paper.  Chill breezes are a seedling’s enemy, but this method keeps his plants “nice and toasty.” 

I’ve seen many types of protective covers; a friend of mine firmly believes that Christmas lights hung inside a plastic tunnel are the best means of protecting plants from late frosts.  This makes sense to me.   By using one 25-light string of mid-size, non-LED (C-7) Christmas lights per four-foot-by-five-foot tunnel, gardeners can give an additional 6 to 18 degrees F◦ of warmth to plants and add that festive touch to a spring landscape. 

Constructing the tunnel isn’t difficult.  Space sturdy wire hoops at 3 to 5 foot intervals or closer if the location is windy. The hoops hold a cover of six-ml or thicker plastic that forms a tunnel along the bed. Weigh down the edges of the plastic by burying it a few inches into the soil on all sides, or staple the plastic to the sides of a raised bed box. Be certain to allow some ventilation with small, two-inch holes along the lower sides, or make a strip along the top that can be opened and closed.  To avoid overheating the seedlings, open the vents on warm days, but leave them shut on cloudy, cool days.

String the lights from the hoops to allow them to dangle slightly into the tunnel.  Use an outdoor-approved extension cord to run electricity to them, and you’ll have tomatoes to brag about weeks earlier than your neighbors (but most neighbors will take one look at those Christmas lights and assume you’re crazy, so won’t argue over whose tomato was ripe first anyway).

The most common frost protection is water walls, a tee-pee like ring of plastic tubes filled with water surrounding the plant.  This works on the principle of heat release when water changes from liquid to ice and can protect down to mid-teen temperatures. They’re helpful if you want to put your tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant into the ground before the end of the month, when the weather settles into warmth.

The trick to using the water walls is to pick a warm day, plant the seedling, position the water wall and fill it.  I find that using a watering can with a narrow spout helps to control the water when pouring into the tubes, or a hose end hand sprayer works well if the water pressure isn’t too high.

Give your seedlings a shot of starter fertilizer, or try Jim’s technique of spraying the plants with organic fertilizer.  He uses dilute fish emulsion or Sea Magic, a seaweed extract mixed into water, then spritzed on the leaves of the plants.  Your plants will be catching up to his, in no time.  

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