Posts Tagged ‘Vegetable’

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

Crop To Cuisine

On the outskirts of Minneapolis, in a town called Eden Prairie, a vegetable patch is growing. This is not an average kitchen garden; the corn, beans, melons and tomatoes have a mission greater than feeding their gardener. Instead of filling plates with salad and side dishes, the plants here serve as canaries in a coal mine, providing early warning for problems cropping up on nearby grass.

Known as indicator plants, the vegetables are part of a holistic approach to turfgrass management on the professional practice fields of the Minnesota Vikings football team.

“The public thinks we practice at the Metrodome (inMinneapolis); they don’t know we have fields,” says Grant Davisson, Head Sports Turf Manager for the Vikings, who play in an indoor stadium. “But we have a lot of activity all year on this turf, from the end of March through the end of the season.”

With higher humidity and rainfall – they receive 30 inches per year – disease poses a challenge for managing the 210,000 square feet of turfgrass the Vikings practice on. Leaf spot, pythium, pink snow mold and Brown Patch are chronic problems.

Many high-use sports fields rely on a combination of play rotation and pesticides, but this facility is next to a riparian area protected by law. Because all of the runoff dumps into the wetland, Davisson is conservative in his turf treatments and prefers alternative means to controlling problems. “We don’t want any runoff, and we want as few applications as possible.”

That’s where the vegetables come in. In a 10-foot wide swath, watermelons, corn, tomatoes and soybeans act as sentinels for conditions that spur disease, succumbing to sickness a few days before the problems show up on the turf.

Rooted in the knowledge that disease outbreaks require the right environmental conditions to thrive, Davisson watches his vegetables for signs of oncoming turf problems. “Watermelons get hit by pythium, and though it’s not the same pythium that affects turf, they both need the exact same conditions,” he said, speaking of the disease that sends chills through turf managers’ spines due to its rapid destruction.

“It’ll hit the watermelons on the third hot, humid day and they’ll get killed, often by July 1. But once it shows up on the watermelons, I have a day or two lead time to spray the turf.” That’s all the time he needs to target his controls, knocking the dread fungus back behind scrimmage lines to keep it in check.

“Then we get cloudy days and the tomatoes get leaf spot. I’ve tracked it – three to four days later the turf gets leaf spot.” Affecting crown, rhizomes and roots in addition to leaves, in the heat of summer it kills the turf, leaving bare spots. “I hate leaf spot. It’s a bigger problem on rye than bluegrass.”

Replicating his plots in full sun and part shade, Davisson mimics the variable conditions on his fields, which receive differing amounts of sunlight. Applications of fertilizer are made at the same time to keep turf and vegetables even.

In addition to watermelon and tomatoes to watch for pythium and leaf spot, Davisson has corn and soybeans for rust. The peppers and peas are “because I like to eat them.” Harvested produce goes to coaches and staff.

Following a set schedule for fungicides calls for applications to be made every 90 days, and on fields this size, every application cost $35,000 to $40,000. But through this vegetable sentinel system, Davisson has been able to stretch out applications to 142 days between applications, saving money and lowering the impact on the environment. “It’s easily to most successful means to gauge disease,” he said, “and I save two applications per year. That’s a lot of money.”

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After years of envying other gardeners’ bounty, I finally got my wish for a little more spice in my summer.  Year after year, despite my best effort, the garden lacked a little zest until Bill Renner, a friendly Colorado Master Gardener, gave me his secret:  all I had to do was let things heat up and Mother Nature does the rest.

The result is a harvest of peppers bigger and bolder than any I’ve ever had – so full of chiles, belles, and jalapenos that I fear for my family’s stomachs this winter.  After a weekend spent harvesting, roasting, and peeling, 16 bags are nestled in the freezer just waiting to warm cold evenings with a hot, sweet meal.

His secret?  Peppers love the heat, and I was cooling them off with a blanket of mulch too early in the summer.  Keeping roots cool is a core tenet of gardening in a hot, arid land, but not every plant likes to be coddled.

Peppers are tough plants that like their soil a tad dry and plenty warm, so I didn’t mulch until well into July, when soaring temperatures baked the earth.  The peppers loved it, setting fruit and growing large until they produced so many pods just looking at them made me sweat.

Sure, there were a couple of blemishes, but with this primer, you’ll learn to ignore a few spots and get rid of the problems:

What:  Light colored, thin-skinned spots on the fruit, becoming sunken, bleached, and papery. 

Cause:  Sunscald.  Skin crisps under the baking glare of our high altitude sun.

Cure:  Select cultivars with good leaf coverage.  Because our wind can push leaves off of the fruit, provide wind buffers if you live in a windy spot (essentially the entire state of Colorado).  Cut off affected area and enjoy the rest.

What: Ends of the peppers are rotten, look water-soaked, then dry out.

Cause:  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. 

What: Peppers are malformed, with yellowing, concentric rings around spots.

Cause:  Cucumber mosaic virus. Viruses can cause odd-looking problems. 

Cure:  Spread by aphids and occasionally by gardeners, once virus has gotten into the plant, pull it.  There is no cure; the plant just becomes the mothership for the disease.  

What:  Plants are wilting, leaves have brown spots and the fruit develops large, rotten spots, often bordered by white mold.

Cause:  Phytophthora, a soil borne fungus that is a problem in chronically moist ground.

Cure:  Provide good drainage, and later your irrigation.

What:  Leaf spirals, cupping or distortion.

Cause:  Peppers 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.

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