Archive for July, 2009

Tomato news round-up

Are you enjoying those warm, juicy, sun-ripened tomatoes yet? If so, give thanks. For some people, mostly in the Northeast, this could be a tomato-less year.

Tomato crops–both home and commercial–have been hit with “late blight,” which has caused damage to harvests as far south as South Carolina and as far west as Ohio. The result: Fewer tomatoes on the local market for Northeasterners and higher prices as farmers lay on the spray. Some crops will have to be destroyed altogether. (For a more complete report on the problem from the Washington Post, click here.)

So far we haven’t heard any reports of late blight in this area. But unusually cool and moist weather conditions lately have seemed favorable for this highly contagious fungal disease to spread, so it’s probably not a bad idea for home gardeners to keep a watchful eye out.

Late blight affects tomatoes and potatoes, and is cited as the cause of the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. So it’s something we should take seriously.

There’s a lesson, though, for planting next spring. Some of the disease was transmitted from seedlings bought in big-box stores. Those seedlings were found later to be infected with late blight. Unfortunately, the plants may not have shown signs of blight early in the season (late blight becomes more common in late summer). This is yet another reason I like starting my own plants from seed in January or February.

When I read about the blight in yesterday’s New York Times, I felt a sick knot in my stomach, because something is up with my hybrid Celebrity tomatoes that I haven’t been able to figure out yet. About a week ago, a couple of plants seemed a little droopy, but I attributed it to the midday sun. But when we got back from our trip, we’d lost one, and it’s neighbors all seem to be affected. Could it be late blight?

Here are a few symptoms (you may want to shield the eyes of small children in the room. This is not for the squeamish):


and this:


and this

Late blight on tomato leaflet

And–phew–we have nothing that looks like that. In fact, my tomato problem looks more like spider mite damage than anything else, which is weird, since I always think of spider mites as a mostly hot and dry weather problem. But the green beans next door to the tomatoes seem to be suffering from the same thing and I can just barely make out some tiny things attached to the underside of the leaves. So I’m off to the store today to find an insecticidal soap that might work.  I’ve used pyrethrin powder in the past, but hate to do it now because we’re in the midst of picking. I’m also not crazy about the dust falling on the basil between the tomato rows, which is perfect right now for pesto.

Also in the Times yesterday: A “Curious Cook” column from Harold McGee on cooking with tomato leaves. Yes, you read that right. McGee questions the conventional lore about tomato leaves being poisonous, and even provides a recipe for tomato sauce to which leaves have been added.  He provides his sourcing on his blog.

Mmmm…I don’t know. I guess I can be excused from trying it. I doubt spider mites or insecticidal soap will taste very good.

Christmas in July–Now that the tomatoes are ripe, it’s time to assess our experiment with the Christmas ornaments we hung a few weeks ago. One of Mike’s column readers wrote in that hanging the red globes early would teach the squirrels that those red things hanging off the plants are nasty and inedible.

So we put a few out


And so far it seems to be…working?

Well, maybe not perfectly. We’ve found a couple of half-eaten tomatoes displayed on our deck railing–a rodent form of gang graffiti–but nothing like in years past. So that could be the ornaments doing their magic. Or again, it could be because a church in our neighborhood has knocked down several mature trees as it buys land for expansion.

In either case, it doesn’t look like it will be necessary to set out any live traps this year.


Posted by: Roxie


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Vacations are great. I mean it. We skipped ours last year for financial reasons, but it made us so sad that this year we decided at the last minute to do a three-day camp in Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes (plus one day wandering around downtown Chicago). It was worth every cent we couldn’t afford to spend.


Just that puny few days away–not even a full week, for crying out loud–extracted a horrifying price in the garden.

First the strawberries. I must admit I’ve neglected them since they stopped their first bearing a few weeks ago. Not even the sight of those tiny white flowers again was incentive enough to get me out there weeding before the trip. Too many other things to do. So when we returned, the poor strawberry bed was choked with invaders: Wood sorrel, dandelions, amaranth migrated from the wildflower bed several feet away, lemon verbena (from a plant we put in four years ago and 20 feet away that we can’t get rid of) and even asparagus. It won’t grow in the bed anymore, but somehow wants to come up a few feet away in the strawberries.

The berry bed wasn’t the only thing. Everywhere we looked, there were plants wanting attention STAT. Gigantic cucumbers, fat, yellowish and unusable. Our first cauliflower head that grew overnight and needed to be picked. Broccoli side shoots that hadn’t flowered. Butternut squash that chose the minute our car was out of the driveway, apparently, to go marauding into the cucumbers, tomatoes, beets and sweet potatoes. It’s threaded its way through the rabbit fence and put on several green babies in such a way that they can’t be pulled back through. (But don’t worry. I’ll never hurt you, my pretties.)

And tomatoes! When we left there were only a few cherry tomatoes ripe and one or two Celebrities. Now everywhere we look is blushing red.

Sadly, the Topsy Turvy tomato plant is suffering. Our sons stopped by to check on things, but watering the Topsy Turvy wasn’t at the top of their list. And it needs a lot of water. It still has the two baby green tomatoes, but it needs time (and even more water) to recover from our trip.

So it’s back to work for us, weeding, picking and dreaming up strategies to deal with the wilty looking Celebrities and our experiments in second seasons.

Sleeping Bear Dunes: So Worth It

Sleeping Bear Dunes: So Worth It

Posted by: Roxie

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And So It Begins

Is there any better time in the garden than the summer’s first ripe tomato?

We have ours at last. A Celebrity that managed to get a deep reddish orange before any squirrel could get it’s mitts on it. (I have to pick them before they turn completely red, and let them ripen on the counter.)

Of course we had a few cherry tomatoes earlier. But they don’t count. Only the perfect red globe of a full-sized tomato brings on this kind of satisfaction. The oversized grocery store tomato, purportedly locally grown, was good enough a week ago. But that was Before.

When things really get going, we’ll be eating tomatoes with everything. Tomato, basil and mozzarella salad with olive oil, tomato bruschetta, tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches. Ths list goes on and on. I’ll can quarts and quarts of tomato puree, salsa and chopped tomatoes.  Eventually we’ll (maybe) even get a little tired of them. Until the last green ones picked before frost turn red on our basement table, and it’s time to start buying from the grocery store again.

For now, though, it’s a time to revel in their juicy acidity and the warmth of the sun. High summer is finally upon us.


Posted by: Roxie

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High summer

It’s like I just closed my eyes for a second and when I opened them, it was midsummer. Gone are all the greens and tender vegetables of spring. They have been replaced by the beginnings of the main summer crops. Here’s how things are going.:

Developments that please us

Cucumbers–A few weeks ago I was unnerved by some premature droopiness in a couple of the cuke vines. This usually presages the dreaded cucumber wilt, which ravages our vines year after year. And I love pickles more than anything.cukeedit

Today I’m happy to report that the cucumbers are going gangbusters. No sign of the droop. I credit the “new” fence we trained them on (which is actually an old one formerly built for Sugar Snap peas). This fence is made of square dogwire attached to stakes and works ever so much better than the strings and single wire we used last year.

Of course, it could be that the variety is more resistant. This year I planted Pickling Alibi, ordered from Park Seeds. It’s definitely on my short list for future gardens.

Broccoli–Sudden onset of extremely hot weather caused the first heads to turn yellow overnight, but the side shoots are looking good and holding better. Hope it stays below 95 for a while.

Potatoes–I dug up enough Red Norlands to put in a salmon hash the other night. Looks like a good year shaping up.

Purslane–Yes, I know this is supposed to be a weed. But I’ve seen and heard so much about how delicious and nutritious it is that we decided to suffer some of it to grow.  Predictably, it’s doing great.purslaneedited

Tomatoes–We have our first ripe tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes. Three to be exact. But more are on the way. Hey, maybe I’ll soon have enough to try one of these recipes for purslane.

Butternut squash–The first babies are growing fast. Yum.

Garlic–Mike just dug them and they’re uniformly nice. No runts in the litter this year. He gets credit for going back to the books and planting them a little deeper last fall.

Things we’re experimenting with

Topsy turvy–Ugh, this thing is a pain. It has to be watered all the time, which is not the way I like to do things. I’m seeing some yellow leaves on the bottom, so maybe I accidentally gave it too much the other day, in my frustration. The stems have made a U turn and are growing upwards. We have flowers, but so far no fruit set.

Second season–I put in a couple of rows of green beans, as usual. But this year I’m trying something new. I direct seeded some cauliflower and they’re just up. It will be a challenge keeping it watered and protected from bugs.

Christmas ornaments–Mike got this idea from a reader’s tip. You put red ornaments out on the tomato plants early, to train the squirrels to think that all the red balls are inedible. So far so good. I’ve only seen one squirrel-chewed green tomato by the fence. This will probably work best if the squirrels aren’t also using their sense of smell.

Things that give us pause

Cauliflower–Is terribly far behind. For some reason, it’s just not growing. So far, no sign of any heads.

Eggplant and peppers–The plants look good, with some flowers. But where are the fruit?

Zucchini–I can’t believe I’m saying this, but will we finally get a zucchini this summer? So far I’ve seen a couple (golden) start and then wither. We have another two in progress, so here’s keeping our fingers crossed.

Apple tree–Unfortunately, we were late with the Bt (environmentally friendly) spray this year and all the apples on one tree got bugs. They were subsequently cleaned off by the birds. The other tree looks better, though.

blueberrysmallBlueberry–We’ve had this thing for how many years now? Three? Four? It never gets higher than a foot and never produces any flowers. Maybe it’s time to find another location.

Hope your gardens are doing well.

Posted by: Roxie

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I used to watch a lot of gardening shows. They usually were Saturday mornings on public television. There’d be an expert, telling you the best way to grow Brussels sprouts. Then we’d “pop in” on someone’s exceptional garden for some vegetable envy.

Things were always perfect at those gardens. No weeds, no sign of leaf fungus. No telltale lacy holes where bugs had been. And I always used to wonder, “How many hours did it take to make that garden picture-ready?”

Our own garden has never been that pristine. Just look down and it’s pretty easy to find some stray crab grass or some purslane. But that didn’t bother me because I knew, for a fact, that no one would ever come to take pictures. We were free, free, free to make mistakes. No one would ever know.

So it was that I found myself in a manic weeding session Sunday afternoon. The photographer would be here, at our garden, with Monday’s first light, Mike was out of town and the plot had to be ready for pictures that will go with our gardening book, due out this fall.

As I furiously pulled, I began to count the things I’ve done that go directly against our own advice. Had I been out doing regular garden inspections? Apparently not as much as I should have or I would have noticed those slightly overmature green beans. Did I  use less toxic alternatives as first choice on the eggplant bug problem? No. I’d gone to pyrethrins in a fit of panic when I saw how lacy and thin the leaves were looking. Was I watering with the more-efficient soaker hose? As a matter of fact, no. I’d put the sprinkler on–during the height of day when evaporation would be highest.

Even the things I meant to do right weren’t making me happy. Ever since we found out purslane and lambs’ quarters make good eating, we’ve gone a little easy on them. But now–well, they’re weeds! Right out there in the open. Allowed to live! And yes, I sometimes leave the bugs alone because they’re not doing really that much damage. But there are holes in the leaves. For everyone to see.

I saw myself adapting my garden chores to conform with my grandmother’s principle of house cleaning. That pair of socks  is all right on the floor when it’s just family, but it had better be out of sight when people come over. My reply to her then was that you should never invite people over who would judge you based on your cleaning skills.

And now, people were coming over the next day who were going to look at the garden and judge me, the big garden author.

That’s pretty much how it always goes, in our garden. Bouts of serenity and self-satisfaction are followed by fits of panic and despair, where good intentions go down the drain. Weeds go ignored until it takes a mule team to pull them out. Bugs are allowed to multiply until nuclear options seem like a good idea.

We sweat, we pull, we curse. And then the crisis passes. Everything’s okay again. We’re free to wipe the slate clean and start over with fresh resolve.

I got most–but not all–of the weeds. And, well, I guess that’s okay. My garden, just like me, will never be perfect.

gardenaerialsmall Here it is, back in May.

Posted by: Roxie

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