Archive for July, 2010

Want to extend your garden into fall?  Break out the popcorn and settle back: here’s this week’s video from my series for the Boulder Daily Camera

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Every family has them – the bad apples of the bunch.  A cousin that gets rowdy at parties or a sibling that seems like a lost cause may have us shaking our heads, tut-tutting while whispering “well, you can pick your friends but not your relatives.” 

So it should be no surprise that even lady beetles, the beloved icons of the garden, have a skeleton in their closet.  Well, actually, they have a lot of skeletons in the closet and they’re all leaves, thanks to the feeding habits of the Mexican bean beetle (Epilachna varivestis). 

Adults resemble large lady beetles, being rust colored with 16 spots on their backs.   But the larvae are like rock stars:  bright yellow and covered in huge spines. 

This bad bug feeds on the undersides of leaves of beans and soybeans, rasping off the green tissue and leaving  lacy, skeletonized remains.  If enough beetles gather for a food fest, beans and stems can be attacked and destroyed.

Adult beetles over-winter garden debris, emerging from when beans sprout through mid summer. Eggs are laid on the underside of leaves in clusters containing up to 60 eggs, hatching in one to three weeks.   Larvae then feed for two to five weeks.  There are several generations per year.

July and August are when we see the most damage, so scout your plants for signs of the critters.  Control them by hand picking and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water, or if you’re a bit squeamish about squishing, spritz the larvae with insecticidal soap.  Meticulous cleanup of the garden in fall is a must for keeping these pests from overwintering in your yard.

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 “May you live in interesting times,” is a curse that seems to dog gardeners this summer.  If late snow, shredding hail, and humid conditions weren’t enough, Mother Nature is now sending a wave of insects to perk things up in the tomatoes. 

Tomatoes top the list for most kitchen gardeners, ranking number one in popularity across the country in a recent National Garden Bureau poll.  With thousands of love apples blanketing the area, it’s no wonder the Front Range is a hot place for psyllids to take their summer vacation. 

These tiny tomato boogeymen have begun assaulting plants this season in what may be the vanguard of thousands of migrating psyllids (Bactericera cockereli).  Dr. Whitney Cranshaw, Professor of Entomology at Colorado State University, has seen large numbers of these insects several parts of the state, including Larimer county.  Sightings of the insect have also been reported in Louisville and north and south Boulder gardens.  

A classic sign of psyllids is their waste, called lerps.


The aphid-sized adults are lovely, with jewel-toned eyes and dark abdomen banded in white.  Their young, yellow at hatching, gradually turn green with each molt; being flat and elliptical they look like scale.  Though adults move about actively and fly in migration, the young are sedentary, content to sit quietly, feed, and excrete white, waxy frass that resembles sugar. This is their waste, called lerps, and is an easy to see clue that your plant is being attacked. 

We should prepare for their arrival in our area soon, since these small, winged sap-feeding insects have toxic saliva that causes the plant to grow oddly.  Look for leaves turning yellow with purple veins, fruit that’s small and tasteless, or the plant appearing as if sugar were spilled on it.  

  Start scouting your plants, carefully checking them for insects or disease every three days until you spot signs of trouble.  Psyllids can mean big problems for tomatoes, severely stunting fruit; so at the first sign of them begin spraying plants with insecticidal soap to keep them at bay.  Coverage of both upper and lower leaf surfaces is crucial to control, and may not be enough. 

Dusts of sulfur can help, if care is taken to cover all leaf surfaces, but should the insects get the upper hand, stronger products with pyrethrin or esfenvalerate can be used.  

 Several diseases show up in gardens at this time.  Green plants turning blonde by yellowing from the lower leaves upward should be closely examined.  If they have brown spots with concentric rings, suspect early blight (Alternaria solani). 

Water, insects, and gardeners spread this fungus.  Pick off diseased leaves and keep the ground free of debris. Dust healthy leaves with sulfur to shield them from infection.  Once the plants have gotten three feet tall, pluck off leaves in the lower foot to prevent the spreading climb of the fungus.  Give plants room to grow without crowding them, and use drip irrigation to prevent splashing water.   

Black, sunken, rotten spots on the bottom of fruit are blossom end rot, a disorder caused by poor uptake of calcium.  Though calcium is plentiful in our soil, irregular watering and excessive heat prevent the plant from using it.  The key to control is watering consistently, so use a timer to automatically turn on and off the irrigation.  Mulch plants to keep the soil from drying out too rapidly.  

More information on tomato troubleshooting can be found on the Colorado State University Extension website.

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My editor at the Boulder Camera talked me into making a series of videos about gardening this summer.   The experience has not been without mishaps – dumping fish emulsion in the newsroom was one – but as the summer wears on I can say I’ve learned a few things:

1)    Plants don’t cooperate with the video crew, so if you’re not good at a quick origami of leaves to hold them away from the scene, you’ll end up with leaves in your face.

2)  Interns from the local university are talented, but only experience can teach them not to record a woman of my age from below and slightly behind.  Visiting hours at the hospital are from 9 am to 8:30 pm daily.

3)  Have all planes from the local airport file their flight plans with you before taping.  Explain to the pilots that they’re temporarily grounded due to a gardening video.  

4)  The microphone’s always on and the video’s always recording, so someday that “freak-out” dance I did over the snake will find its way onto Youtube.

5)  Gardeners are kind people who love to share.  Many thanks to Roland, who cheerfully let me side dress his crops for the video.

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 The worst time for a gardener to take a vacation is during the summer.  Not because you’ll miss the blossoms or there are too many chores to be done; those can wait a week or two and friends can text you photos of the flowers.

No, what happens when gardeners takes their eyes off their plot for a few days is that the scourge of Western civilization takes over your yard.  That scourge is field bindweed (Convovulus arvensis), the best-known and most hated weed to stalk our gardens.

Despite being a member of the morning glory family, there’s nothing glorious about it.  It snakes through the garden.  It entwines itself through branches, drapes itself along trellises, and coils into every nook and cranny.  Nearby plants are smothered, reduced to objects of support for the cheerful-blossomed horror.

Pulling this plant results in a nightmare out of Greek myth – nodes along the roots spring up into a hydra-like mass of vines from the single plant pulled.  Battles with bindweed are epic and are a common thread between gardeners.

The amount of bindweed in my perennials is not so much a nuisance as it is a coup; this plant clearly has visions of holding dominion over this garden.  It lays egg-shaped capsules in the soil stuffed with eight seeds per capsule, something that has me believing those who claim this is really a creature, not a plant.

One friend suggested an approach to conquering bindweed: snip the bindweed back, leaving two or three sets of leaves, slide a coffee can with both ends removed over the weed to protect other plants around it from harm, then paint herbicide onto the bindweed.  For a gardener with a lot of time and not a lot of bindweed, this might work. 

I’m opting for pulling repeatedly and frequently, until the plant’s energy in the roots is exhausted and can no longer regenerate.  Obviously the bindweed has the same thought, and by extending its roots 20 to 30 feet in many directions, is succeeding in exhausting me.

Stamina and dedication are required in pulling to control this plant because it must be done thoroughly, leaving no trace of bindweed growing along the 30-foot span.  Any plant left on this long root system feeds and replenishes the root, supporting the birth of new siblings to resume the hostile takeover.

This is where control gets entangled with neighbor relations, because a root this long means a gardener with intent to eradicate might end up two yards down, trenching through lawns, rose beds, and children’s play boxes.  Unless you want to be hauled off for the safety of the neighborhood, stick to your own yard and practice pulling or hoeing up the plants every 10 to 14 days.  This will keep the infestation to a livable level, and your garden relatively bindweed free.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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If your lawn stays thirsty even though you water often, you might have a problem with thatch.  Thatch is a brown, spongy material made of grass stems, living-, and dead grass roots that forms a mat along the surface of the soil.  It resembles peat moss in look and feel. 

Though thatch can be useful in small amounts to help keep the soil cool and the lawn comfortable to walk on, once it gets thicker than a half-inch, it turns into a big problem for lawns.  Plant roots are lazy when it comes to penetrating a resistant soil, and most plant roots will remain in the easy-to-grow area created by thatch, instead of forcing their way into compacted soil. 

Over time, the major part of the grass’ root system gets limited to the thatch layer, which doesn’t hold water or nutrients well.  The result is turf roots drying out and top growth burning back despite excessive irrigation.  Once this happens, the recommended amount of water will not be enough to keep your lawn healthy. 

 Thatch can be a problem on Kentucky bluegrass, bentgrass and fine fescue lawns, but rarely on tall fescue or buffalograss.  To help slow thatch buildup core aerate each year to break it up and encourage roots to grow into the soil profile.  But wait to aerate until fall or put it on your calendar for spring – mid-summer is not a good time to open up a bunch of holes in the soil for the heat to dry out.

Contrary to myth, grass clippings don’t add to thatch problems; use a mulching mower to leave the clippings on the lawn to recycle the nutrients they contain.

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 There is a foodie magazine in the area, Edible Front Range, that I contribute articles to occasionally.  It’s a wonderful magazine filled with interesting stories on local food and their blog is always fun to read.  Last year I added the following post on making your own Greek-style dolmades, the little grape leaf rolls commonly served as appetizers.  Here it is for you, in case you have grape vines that need a little pruning:

If you grow grapes like I do, you’ve probably noticed that the wet weather has turned those well-behaved plants into The Vines That Ate The Neighborhood.  Though grown dry, grapes actually love water, taking all we can give them; the result is wild, uncontrollable growth. 

Instead of hanging demurely on the trellis, the shoots are running rampant – cascading over fences, coiling around perennials, and throttling the competition.  These plants are out of control – I live in fear of them grabbing small pets or compact cars as they go by. 

The choice is simple:  either let the grapes terrorize the neighborhood or give them a haircut.   While the first is amusing, the plants can’t tell friend from foe and my own garage is being swallowed whole.  They must be stopped, so armed with shears on a sunny day, and I marched forth to prune.  Sixty minutes of clipping, snipping, and flailing later, I stared at the pile of cuttings. 

 Slowly a delicious thought formed:  it’s time for Greek dolmades. 

Don’t groan – those over-pickled, canned stuffed grape leaves can’t hold a candle to the light, savory flavor of fresh dolmades and they’re surprisingly easy to make.  That stack of shoots was ideal for the job, because those leaves were young, soft, and medium-sized.

 Bright eyed and eager to try something new, I took the vines into the kitchen, piled them on the counter and commenced diving into cookbooks for recipes.  Yet tome after tome was silent on the subject, as if Greek cooking was too complex for words.  But the leaves were waiting, so I did what every red-blooded cook has done through the ages – I panicked.  Then I called my friend for help. 

She’d seen dolmades made from fresh leaves once, and rummaged about until she found the recipe.  Preparation is simple – just clip the petiole of the leaf off, wash them gently, and par boil them for three minutes.  Plunge them into ice water immediately to cool.

The stuffing’s just a bit of rice, dried currants, pine nuts and herbs from my garden, all boiled together with water and lemon juice.  After it cools to room temperature, you fill and roll the leaves, drizzle them with olive oil and lemon juice, and bake them.

All told, it only took an hour and was much easier than pruning.  And the result was light, delicately flavored hors d’oeuvres fit for a fancy event or simple gathering of friends.

If you’re not growing grapes, ask your friends if they have some leaves to spare – 40 are perfect for the recipe, but it feeds a crowd.  Use only leaves from edible grapes, not ornamentals.  Make sure the plant hasn’t been sprayed with pesticide, and use the leaves the same day they’re picked.

Check out the recipes at What’s Cooking America. 

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