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Archive for August, 2011

Melanoplus femurrubrum (redlegged grasshopper)...

Image via Wikipedia

A rustling noise alerted me to a visitor in the squash patch, one that gives gardeners the chills each season. Thinking it was a squirrel, my concern was simply for the swelling pumpkins whose rind is irresistible to the pilferers. Stalking up to the patch to catch the robber red-pawed, the rustling fell silent and no squirrel was found.

Mouse, rabbit and neighborhood cat all went through my mind but it wasn’t until the thief sprang from the foliage that I knew I had a problem. I stared into its eyes as it clung to the front of my shirt, gently masticating the last of its snatched meal. A grasshopper had invaded my vegetables, and where there’s one, there’s bound to be many.

More than 100 species of grasshoppers live in Colorado. Some feed on grasses, others weeds, but the Differential (Melanoplus differentialis), Twostriped (Melanoplus bivittatus), and Redlegged (Melanoplus femurrubrum) are frequent pests in home gardens. All types lay their eggs in the soil, favoring dry, undisturbed locations for their nurseries. Upon hatching in spring the young dine on nearby plants until they reach adulthood and fly off in search of food.

Controls for grasshoppers are aimed at the nymph stages, when the insects are vulnerable and don’t move over long distances. Baits, sprays, or the parasitic nematode, Nosema locustae, that worms its way throughout the body of the bug are all best on younger grasshoppers in early summer.

Now that it’s August such controls are no longer effective, since the hoppers in my yard arrived as adults. The sprays of insecticides that can be used are only slightly effective; they might kill the munching marauder today but have a limited time span. Another hopper will take its place in the next few days.

My usual method for ridding my garden of pests — throwing them in the neighbor’s yard — doesn’t work with grasshoppers; they just bounce right back. Literally. And floating row covers would do more harm than good, since I’d be trapping the hoppers under the tent with a complete buffet at their claw tips.

Poultry are a great choice if you live in an area that allows them. I know this first-hand, since my son used to raise ducks. They were comical, and thanks to a drake who took guard-duck duty seriously, were effective at keeping all manner of annoying creatures out of the yard, including grasshoppers and door-to-door salesmen.

Chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl are also touted by Colorado State University Extension as excellent non-chemical grasshopper control. The first two birds I’m familiar with, but guinea fowl are a mystery. Evidently they look like small vultures wandering your yard, shrilly cackling as they swoop down on insects, particularly grasshoppers, June beetles or Japanese beetles. Guinea hens are noisy, belting out a warning whenever intruders arrive, which in suburbia, means a cacophony arises whenever the postman, meter reader, garbage truck or my mother stops by. The entertainment potential alone makes them worth considering.

Ultimately there is little to be done to rid my garden of grasshoppers. Hopefully the plants

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It nurtures the seeds warms the soil; with it the plants we love blossom.  But the sun that’s warm on our face is also wreaking havoc on our skin, and gardeners need to be savvy about sun protection.

“Sun does a lot of good; it’s good for mental health and makes you feel great.  And 10 to 15 minutes twice per week is what you need for vitamin D,” says Mary Buller, Chair of the Skin Cancer Task force of the Colorado Cancer Coalition.  “But more people are getting Melanoma in Colorado than in the rest of the United States.  It’s a combination of three things:  our altitude, 300 sunny days per year, and outdoor lifestyle.”

That outdoor lifestyle is what puts gardeners at risk, puttering away in our yards under the broiling sun.   That we spend more time out there once we’re older increases the chances for skin cancer, since cumulative exposure over a lifetime is part of the risk factor.

“Scientists had been thinking that the most dangerous sun exposure you get is as a child; but a new study shows older humans can get just as much risk, or you make it worse,” she said, by heading outdoors once retirement arrives.  Since gardening is a popular pastime, keep yourself safe with a few tips:

 – Schedule your gardening around peak UV hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Climbing temperatures work in our favor by driving us indoors during the heat of the day.  Cool mornings and evenings are the best time to garden and stay sun safe. 

 – Be smart when using sunscreen.  SPF rating will tell you two things:  how strong the sunscreen is and how long it will last.  Lotion with SPF 15 blocks 93-percent of UVB, SPF 30 96-percent; beyond that there is a diminishing return on benefit versus cost, says Buller.  “It’s impossible to block a hundred percent UVB, so the higher numbers – that often cost more – might not be a good purchase.”

Better to purchase slightly lower numbers and reapply more often, but to ensure protection, know how long your sunscreen lasts.  Though that is unique to each person, Buller gives a simple equation for planning reapplication.  “Take the number of minutes it takes for your skin to redden and multiply it by the SPF.  The total is the length of time, in minutes, that sunscreen will work.”  For example, if you redden in 12 minutes and use SPF 30, you should reapply it every six hours. 

Not reapplying sunscreen often enough is one reason many end up sunburned, says Buller, but how you apply it is also a factor.  A full ounce should be slathered on each time you apply it, using the two-finger method found on their website,  sunsafecolorado.org/.  Keep in mind that sweating reduces the length of time between applications, sometimes as often as every 40 minutes.

 A combination of cover up and sunscreen is the best option for gardeners, so toss on a wide brimmed hat, slacks, and shirt with long sleeves before heading out.  Inexpensive, lightweight, sun protective clothes made from wicking fabric take the heat out of covering up, and you won’t have to start spending more on your wardrobe for weeding than you do for your tools.

 But if your budget prevents you from purchasing new clothes, grab a long sleeve shirt from your closet; as long as the fabric is tightly woven it helps.  “Hold it up to the light, and if you can’t see light coming through it, that’s best.”  Darker colors absorb UV, while white is better at reflecting it.

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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

  What wacky things a gardener will do if bitten by the competitive bug.  You might have one in your neighborhood – they’re those who hoist the first ripe tomato aloft, lifting it high enough to be seen above the six-foot privacy fence, proclaiming loudly “Honey, we’ll be enjoying tomatoes tonight!”

 Those of us on the other side of the fence can only sullenly stare in envy, alternately wondering how they did that and vowing to win next year.  Deals with the devil are made, and gardeners can quickly find themselves so wrapped up in the competition they lose sight of common sense, or even sanity.

 Take Kata Schmidt, a devoted vegetable gardener and Colorado Master Gardener inPueblo.  Eager to be the first in her neighborhood to harvest ripe tomatoes, she starts her 30 seedlings in January, then trundles them in and out of her home daily to protect them from frost.  That twice-daily tomato migration begins in February, a time when most of us are dreaming over catalogs and watching the snow fly.

But the task pays off for Kata, who begins plucking delicious love apples around Memorial Day, when most tomatoes are barely in the ground.  But it isn’t just the glory of the first delectable fruit that drives her, or the nutritious, homegrown food; she has her eye on the coveted title of Tomato Lady in her community, and goes after it.

 “There’s a woman nearby who likes to brag that she gets hers by the Fourth of July, but I so have her beat,” says Kata, adding that it’s fun to be so early in harvesting.

Now that it’s August, it’s crunch time for the most competitive in our neighborhoods, when County Fairs play on this obsession by pitting gardeners against one another in good-natured – and sometimes not so good natured – competition.   Perfection is measured in the straightness of beans, the uniformity of peppers, or the weight of cabbage.  And when it comes to pumpkins, size matters.

Blemished produce is no use in the county fair, so when the monsoons arrive, tossing hail and tree limbs, gardeners go to great lengths to protect their prized plants. Canopies, crates, and other coverings spring up almost as often as frost blankets, tossed on in the middle of the deluge once the hail becomes real.

Crazed gardeners measure the progress of overgrown zucchini, measuring its length and girth daily to see if they’ll triumph in the giant zucchini contests.  Alison and Gil O’Connor of Windsor are going after that prize, measuring their squash next to the size of their beagle, Willow.

If you’re planning to enter your crops for a chance at the blue ribbon, here are a few tips for selecting the prize winners from your plants:

Eggplant should be shiny, uniformly deep in color with a bright green cap.  Avoid dull color, green tinge or brown discolorations, which are all signs of bitter or old fruit.

 Sweet corn ears need to be filled to the tip with tightly packed, plump kernels, bursting with milky juice if lightly pressed. The silk should be a dark brown.   Leave those ears with dry brown husks and indentations on the kernels at home; they’re old, and the sugars have turned to starch.

Cantaloupes need to have a well defined grey-yellow netting over tan skin. Pick up the cantaloupe and shake it – the seeds will rattle when ripe, and gently press the blossom end to see if it gives slightly to pressure.  These are both signs of a perfectly ripe cantaloupe.  Judges will frown on spongy, wrinkled or moldy rinds.

Sweet peppers  should have deep, rich color that feel heavy for their size. Unless you’re growing some of the Italian bull’s horn types, avoid those with thin walls that give when pressed.  Enter the slender bull’s horns varieties that are wrinkle-free and sleek.

 Green beans are best when picked young, cooled quickly and brought to the fair as soon after harvest as possible.  Make sure the beans are slim, the seeds small and not swelling.  Look for pods less than one quarter to one eighth inch around with bright color and an audible snap when broken.

 

 

 

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