Friday, August 26, 2011

All squashed up

Over the years my experience as a volunteer - whether it be a girl-guide leader or a weed picker - has taught me that volunteers are happy in their work in even the harshest conditions, probably because they choose to be there and are there for no other reason than they want to be. This applies to plants too!

This year, I carefully planned out my raised beds, following scale drawings of where I would plant my warm season vegetables. I planted seeds and lovingly tended to them. Some grew and others well... struggled. Meanwhile, in a far distance corner of the garden, a host of squash plants germinated. They were ignored as I poured love and care over the plants I had in my raised beds. I didn't even water the volunteers. And now they have outgrown the chosen ones and look fantastic, and I can't claim any of the credit.

So what happened? Well, some of this is elementary, my dear Watson. The volunteers popped up where I had emptied the compost bins, before I spread mulch after removing lava rock, back in the spring. No mystery there. However, I know that I only had pumpkin seeds and seeds from butternut squash. And here's what has grown.

Pumpkins sure:

And something approximating a butternut squash:
Then we have a selection of different shaped, colored and sized squash - some that remind me of acorn squash and others I've never seen before.

So what's all this about? Well, still not a huge mystery - at least not to a gardener. Squash plants are, shall we say, promiscuous. The female flowers can be pollinated by lots of different varieties of squash, such that, unless you have those little ladies under wraps (a plastic bag will do) they will be pollinated by any squash pollen that a bee presents. The fruit is already genetically coded for so, if you know you have a butternut squash seed from a butternut plant that has only been subjected to butternut pollen (seed packets should guarantee this), then you will get a butternut squash fruit no matter what pollinates it. But if you seed save from a squash that has been open pollinated then you won't know what you may get. That is, the fruit does not guarantee what type of offspring you will get. So, in this case the butternut squash and the pumpkins seed I had thrown in the compost were obviously  pollinated by pollen from a variety of different squashes.

The the real mystery is this - what happened to my carefully tended squash?

Here are the pumpkins I planted.
Not even fruiting!

And the sibley I had such high hopes for.
My candy roaster was a complete disaster.
Especially when you compare it with the volunteers.
The bottom line is that the soil in my raised beds is tired. It really needs some serious soil amendment before I put in  the winter garden. I was still able to eat from the garden all summer, but I don't have much by way of surplus (except for pole beans!).

My friend Judy gave me a pumpkin seedling which I planted in an "overflow" bed - a small bed where I had cut out a shrub and instead of digging up its roots I covered it in compost and wood chips - and it has really taken off.

One huge pumpkin and the vine is 10-15 feet long.
Mystery solved - So with out any further BS it's time to break out the steer manure!

But another mystery alludes me - how will I know when to harvest my mystery squashes?

Byddi Lee

Friday, August 19, 2011

Something a little corny.

Baby sweetcorn is vegetable I've had a hard time finding here. Typically used in Asian cuisine, especially stir-fries, it brings a delicate taste and interesting texture to a dish. While I lived in Ireland it was on my weekly shopping list. Usually Sainsburys sold it in combination packs with mange-touts peas or runner beans. It is an expensive vegetable but one we viewed as a healthy indulgence.

Last year, I had little luck growing its bigger relative, the standard sweet corn. I'd been warned that it is tricky. You need a large number of plants for pollination - It is wind pollinated so our garden helpers, the bees were of no use. I filled half of one of my 5'X8' raised beds with a stand of corn. It looked mighty impressive as it grew tall over the summer. (Though not as tall as Al's corn!) But for some reason, most likely poor pollination, only three ears matured, and they tasted horrible! Perhaps a different variety would give me a better experience, and one set of results does not make a sound scientific conclusion.

I vowed never to grow sweetcorn again, but when a packet of seeds for baby sweetcorn turned up at a Master Gardener seed swap, I thought, "Why not try this?" It was, after all, a long way to Sainsburys!

The seeds were nearly ten years old, and I didn't hold out much hope for any of them even germinating. I planted the entire packet - about 40 seeds. 12 germinated. I planted those out in a raised bed and they grew slowly, as if it were a great effort to do so, but they still did get bigger. Eventually, they produced the flowers that bear the pollen, and along the sides of the stalks the silks appeared - the hair-like female part of the edible cob. Best of all, each multi-stalked plant gave rise to, on average 3, cobs per stalk, and in theory can yield much more, according to seed supply companies.
The corn needs to be picked about 5 days after the silks appear. I found this hard to keep track off because they didn't all appear at once - really seeds ought to read the packet as well, so they know what is expected of them!

One harvest yielded about half a dozen finger length cobs - roughly what you'd get in a combo-pack from Sainburys, and enough for one stir-fry.
They are really fiddly to shuck and it took ages to get the little cobs out. Now I appreciate why they were so expensive to buy.

They should look a little under developed because you eat the entire thing not just the nibblets, so it needs to be tender. A few of ours were a little too old and you could hardy bite through it, but the others tasted great. I'd have had a greater yield if I'd harvested earlier and more often - like runner beans.
That is an average sized tea spoon in the photo to give you an idea of scale. They can be eaten raw or cooked - steamed or stir-fried. You can add them to stews or roast them also.

I didn't pull out the stalks as I harvested though some did break. Those that remained produced more silks, and I had a second harvest - so compared to the big corn, I had twice the yield, i.e. two dinners worth! And that was with old seeds - imagine how much better fresh seeds might be.

When I checked yesterday, I found one more silk developing - I don't think we'll get another dinner from it! Perhaps I should let it go to seed.

So which is best to grow in the home garden?
I garden to grow tasty, healthy food. As an added bonus it is usually cheaper than buying organic, locally grown food, so the bottom line is this - economics.

It costs more to grow the large sweetcorn than to buy it in season (and the bought stuff tastes great). The baby sweetcorn is cheaper to grow than to buy. Also I get a kick out of having a Sainsburys aisle in my back yard as I stop to pick runner beans from the next raised bed to complete my "combo-pack".

So for me its baby corn all the way! What say you?

Byddi Lee

Friday, August 12, 2011

The sad tale of the Black Widow and her babies

Having waxed lyrical last week about all the beneficial insects my organic garden is attracting, it is with great irony that my post this week is all about finding a Black Widow spider in my shed. Not just in some deep dark furthest recess of the shed either but on a web spun right across the doorway.

I try not to kill spiders - they are extremely beneficial in the garden (and even around the home) killing pesky flies and gnats. Technically, the Black Widow doesn't harm the garden either - perhaps just the gardener! I've always tried to catch the spider and release it outside if I find one in my house. (Actually, I wail that a spider needs recused and my husband does the rest!) Since moving to California and subsequently finding out that there are poisonous spiders here, I've taken a greater interest in identifying spiders. In Australia, I had a policy of "kill now, ask questions later", but over there so many things bite and with poisonous bites too, I was a bit freaked out. I even got bitten by a pet bunny rabbit! Not poisonous but painful and totally unmerited - as I stood minding my own business, the deranged bunny just hopped over and sunk its two front teeth into my ankle. Ha! No wonder they brought in myxomatosis!

So this week, as I opened the door to the shed, a large black spider scampered along a silken thread. It was just about knee high, and I caught the movement out of the corner (or bottom) of my eye. When I looked down into the murky depths of the corner of the door, I could see a white egg sac and the spider crouching near it. I quickly ran back into the house and got a torch and the camera, stopping to put on the long lens - I didn't want to get too close to that Mama!

When I got back she was still there. I took this shot but its not great - the adrenalin was pumping because I was fairly sure she was a Black Widow just from the shiny blackness, She looks like polished ebony. No other spider is quite as dark or as shiny. And I was scared!
The egg sac was about 1.5 cm long and about 1 cm across. The spider's abdomen was also about 1cm across.

Still not wanting to kill an innocent spider, I had to check for the red hour-glass pattern on the underside of her abdomen. How do you ask a spider to turn over so you can check out its tummy? I got a stick, a very long stick, a very very long stick, (I was afraid she'd run up it!) and turned her over. I thought my heart would stop when I saw the red marking. It was a bonafide Black Widow Spider with a sac full of her babies.

I tried to kill her, but the extra long stick was not easy to manipulate and she  escaped out under the door. I called the neighbors house. Dalton came over straight away. With teenage curiosity and lots of courage he cut open the egg sac - the nude translucent babies were busting out all over.

We killed them all. Sounds terrible, but I just didn't want a whole colony of them setting up house in my shed. Over the weekend I intend to clear the shed of all cobwebs and try to implement more regular house keeping. Dalton was very calm and said that he's seen a few and never gotten bitten.

Some facts about Black Widow Spiders:

Black Widow spiders will run away from you if they can. They are not aggressive but may try to protect their eggs.

Their venom is a neurotoxin and can kill but generally only if it bites children or the elderly. More information about bites can be found here.

Only the female can inject enough venom to actually do any harm, the males and the babies have such small amounts as to be considered not harmful to humans.

The Blue Mud Dauber wasp preys on Black Widow Spiders. Hope I find some of those in my yard.

The web is really sticky and feels extremely strong.

Good house keeping - keeping storage areas web free, vacuuming in the corners of rooms etc. and sealing up cracks in foundations can help prevent spiders from moving in. See the UC Davis IPM notes for more details.

Aternatively, you could follow the advice my sister gave me when I called her in Ireland to tell her of my find - "Go inside, lock the door and tuck your trousers into your socks!"

Since she'd been complaining bitterly earlier that day about the rain they'd been having, I hadn't the heart to tell her I haven't worn socks in months, and that anyways I have none long enough to reach my shorts! But then again - raindrops don't bite...

Byddi Lee

Friday, August 5, 2011

97% of insects do not harm the garden

Next time you find a creepy-crawly in your garden that you've never seen before, think twice before reaching for the bug spray - in fact, try to never reach for bug spray at all. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) only uses chemicals as a last resort and uses those that are kindest to the environment first.

Only 3% of insects found in the garden are actually harmful to the garden. And the best news is that other bugs may actually kill those bad bugs for you. So why would anyone spend money on chemicals and go to the bother of spraying if they can have the job done by someone else for free and with no upset to the food chain? In fact, it strengthens the food chain and hence ups the wildlife fun in your garden.

The kingpin of IPM is to invite beneficial insects into your garden and the best way to do that is to do nothing! A frustrating approach when you are faced with a lemon tree full of soft brown scale and all you want to do is blast the blighters to kingdom come.
The tree also was heavily infested with all kinds of aphids - though I'd never seen woolly aphids in the flesh before.
Black sooty residue or sooty mold covered the leaves. The aphids and the scale produce honeydew - sticky sugary droplets upon which the black mold grows. Its presence is a sure sign you have an infestation.

This honey dew is highly prized by ants and they "farm" the aphids and scale to get it. They protect the pest insects from their natural predators, so that even if you have ladybugs (ladybirds in Ireland - but they do look more like bugs than birds, so I'm siding with the Americans on this one!) they can't get at their prey because of the ants.
The first step is to control the ant population. We took a two-pronged approach, laying down baits to kill the colony (there are so many ants on our hill I wasn't too worried about wiping out this layer of the food web - it's simply impossible) and preventing access up the tree by using tangle foot.
We strapped a piece of paper over the bark to prevent contact between the goop and the tree. In the photo above you can see that the ants are pretty stymied by the tangle foot - or perhaps repelled by a draft of some of my writing (beneath the goop) - who knows?

And very soon it became apparent who was winning the war as the ladybugs moved in for a feast.
But then we spotted two new(to us) beasties. One looked like a brown ladybug. A drab creature - very much the Melanie Wilkes* of the ladybug world. If it even was a ladybug. But I followed IPM protocol and did nothing.
Then, a few days later, I spotted this creature. It ambled purposefully around the leaves and though it did look alarming, I thought it rather cute in a "West-highland Terrier" kind of way.
I had to find out what these two creature were so I posted their photos to the Master Gardeners yahoo group and within minutes had some possible answers. One of the first suggestions was that the white one may be a mealybug but my picture looked slightly different. I was given great advice - check out the UC Davis IPM website. Now, why hadn't I thought of that?

With my curiosity now tweaked, I decided to find out what the Melanie Wilkes Ladybug really was. I was delighted to discover that it was a Mealybug Destroyer! Then I got another email from a Master Gardener to say, "Check out the mealybug destroyer's larva picture ." My photo of what I thought was a mealy bug, is actually a mealybug destroyer's larva, and these guys are even more voracious than the parents.

Good job I went with the IPM idea (do nothing), or I'd have been out there committing mealybug destroyer infanticide!

Byddi Lee

* Reference from Gone With the Wind - Melanie Wilkes was the drab wife of Ashley Wilkes, the man Scarlet O Hara was madly and somewhat secretly in love with.