Archive for September, 2009

Goodbye Topsy

The end of Topsy

It’s time to pull the plug on the Topsy Turvy experiment.

With one day left in September, our sad little upside-down Roma tomato is unhappily clinging to life by a few spindly stalks. We did get three tomatoes off of it. So there you go.

The Topsy Turvy, which is basically a bag with holes in both ends and a hanger, is the invention that took the gardening world by storm this season. The idea: You fill the bag with soil, position a tomato plant in the bottom and hang it up for a life upside down.

Although this makes an appealing metaphor for our own lives this year, I can’t say it was a success. The tomato did not, in fact, grow like Topsy.

The advertisers claimed plants would grow better in the contraption because nutrients would flow more easily to the plant with the help of gravity. And the root system would “explode” by being up in the warm sunlight.

We looked upon these claims with severe skepticism. God and evolution designed plants to grow up and roots to grow down, and it seemed a bit arrogant to assume a $10 purchase from Home Depot could improve on that. My bet was that the stalks would make a U-turn and grow upwards anyway, and that the roots would suffer from heat and dryness in the sun.

Since planting the Topsy Turvy, I’ve been told that commercial gardeners actually do grow tomatoes upside down in greenhouses. I even came across some hanging upside down–but not in a Topsy Turvy–in a communal garden in my neighborhood.

Some of my predictions came true. Our Topsy Turvy tomato stalk did start a U-turn towards its natural habit. But then the weight of the leaves and tomatoes pulled it back down to earth. (Another life metaphor?)

But the real reason it failed was the constant need for water. I found the upside-down system seems to need even more water than would a tomato potted in the usual way. If the regular garden was still damp from rain the day before, the Topsy Turvy would need water. If we went out of town for a weekend, it would need a water-sitter. And folks, we’re not that perfect.

The tomatoes we got were smaller, but they didn’t taste any different.

Conclusion: Sorry Topsy Turvy, but next time we get the urge to put a tomato in a pot, we’ll do it the usual way.

Here’s one farewell picture.


Posted by: Roxie


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After summery and sunny days like this weekend’s, it’s hard to believe that the time has come to start planning for frost. But the calendar doesn’t lie. As we move into October, first frost becomes more and more likely.  In fact, the earliest fall frost recorded was Sept. 22, 1995. (NOAA)

A look at the conditions today bears this out: North winds and a high that shouldn’t even reach 70. Lows into the 40s. And it’s those lows you’ve got to watch out for.

So this weekend, we began our emergency frost preparedness by searching out the some pots and dishes for the herbs that have to come inside. Unfortunately, that is only Step One.basil

The list of pre-frost chores is intimidating. We still have a lot of things growing–sweet potatoes, tomatoes, basil, peppers, eggplant, green beans, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and one lonely cauliflower whose head isn’t quite big enough yet. Oh yes, and a rag-tag bunch of mixed greens that grudgingly came up for my fall garden effort. Only the Brussels sprouts and maybe the cauliflower and squash can handle a light frost. The rest will have to be harvested and brought inside.

Then there are the perennial herbs that won’t do well in the cold. We pot up the rosemary, bay, lemon grass, thyme and marjoram and put it in windowsills for winter, along with some houseplants that spend the summer on our porch.

All in all, this is too much to expect to do in the twilight and darkness and perhaps the cold rain after work. So we have a plan.

First, we round up all the pots and saucers for the herbs. When we get a free minute, we’ll dig them up and pot them, keeping them outside and watered during the day and bringing them in when the nights get too cold. That way they can spend the most time possible outside, where they do best (more later on my unfortunate history with houseplants).

The harvesting is more of a gamble. If it looks like there’s only a middling chance for light frost, the first priority will be the most tender plants–basil and sweet potatoes. We’ll probably go out and pull up the basil, or at least part of the basil. That will be hung up to dry inside. Although the sweet potatoes look green and robust, I’m told that even a light frost can go all the way down the stems and underground to ruin the potatoes. So they have to come out too.

We’re a little more daring with tomatoes, peppers and squash. If we really want to keep the season going and the frost forecast is extra early, we’ll try to get away with covering these with whatever cloth we can find. Sometimes that works, but it’s a crapshoot.

Despite all this work, first frost fills us with anticipation. The garden season is ending. Nothing left to weed or can. Time for a break.

Posted by; Roxie

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Things are quieter, in the September garden. We no longer go out every day and bring back two or three bags full of everything. Yet, despite the daily battles with bugs and powdery mildew, the plants continue to grow. We still have tomatoes (although the fruit ripens at a smaller and smaller size). We still have peppers, a couple of eggplant, the butternut squash and, of course, sweet potatoes.  The basil I planted between tomato rows is chest high, yet we still pick the flower buds off so we can continue to make pesto.

But as first frost approaches, we’re beginning to turn certain things “off.” Broccoli, for instance. We’ve been picking side shoots for months. Now the plants are nearly waist high and the shoots are tiny.We have enough, and I’m tired of picking it. So Mike went out with a corn knife (a machete, to anyone who’s never walked beans in Iowa) and got rid of all but a few plants. Ahhh.

I’m tempted to tell him to whack the Celebrity tomatoes as well. They never wholly recovered from those mites, and what’s left of them are producing only tiny tomatoes. But–I don’t know–I hate to do anything that makes the grocery store tomato-buying season any longer. So maybe not.

We still have a couple of cauliflowers setting on heads and…what’s up with that? This is the latest cauliflower I’ve ever seen! Last year was the same thing, although I blamed it at the time on a bug problem.

Let’s see…what did we plant? Here it is: “Amazing.” Seventy-five days from transplant to maturity. Well, we put it out in mid-April, so that would be maturity in July some time. To me, mid-September is just too long to wait. So I guess I’ll be finding another variety next year.

Now that the main crop is almost done, time to check in on the seeds I put out for a fall garden.

A second garden season is something I used to try when we first started gardening. At the time, I naively believed the TV experts who said you could get a wonderful second chance at some of the things that didn’t go so well. But I gradually quit planting fall gardens as it became obvious I would get nothing more than green beans.

Blame it on the recession. Blame it on our gardening book (Mike & Roxie’s Vegetable Paradise, coming to stores soon). But this year I decided to give fall gardening another look.

So let’s check in and see how things are doing, shall we?

In late August, I put in the obligatory green beans, plus salad greens, spinach and a few white potatoes (hey, the extension service said it works).We watered them faithfully, and even put a little straw over the rows at first, to keep the ground from getting too hot.

So far: Just a few of the salad mixed greens are making a brave effort, but the majority of the row didn’t come up. One potato plant is a few inches above ground (yay!). And of the spinach, nada. We are beginning to pick green beans, though.

Ok. The other day I replanted some mixed lettuce. The spinach, though, is a puzzler. The weather has been just as mild as in May, when it usually flourishes. We’ve had rain. Why did it not come up? It’s just stubbornness, I think. I picture the seeds underground, arms crossed, saying “Nuh-uh. We won’t.”

Oh well. I replanted with yet another variety. Maybe this time will be different.

Posted by: Roxie

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The Walnuts

No two ways about it. There are definitely fewer squirrels living on our block this year.

And that poses a problem: What to do with all these black walnuts?

We have one black walnut tree just out of branch’s reach of the back of our garden. In the past, this has always been a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, chemicals secreted by these trees can kill certain garden plants, in heavy enough concentrations. But on the other, at least the green walnut globes give the little tree rats something to eat besides our tomatoes. (I’ve often wondered if squirrels learned to eat green tomatoes because they look so much like walnuts.)

So in the past, we’ve just left the walnuts where they landed and let the squirrels do their work.

This year is different, though. Not only are the squirrels leaving the tomatoes alone, but also the black walnuts. So much so that a couple of months ago, a branch came crashing down. It looked totally green and healthy–but loaded with a bumper crop of walnuts.

So we decided to risk rodent wrath this year and bag some of them up. (The walnuts, I mean.) Don’t these squirrels know there’s a recession on?

I picked up a plastic grocery bag full (leaving plenty on the ground) and carried them to the basement. In an ideal world, I would have gone straight to a gardening book or the Internet and  started working on them immediately. In fact, I promptly forgot about them. When we returned from a quick vacation to Michigan, the whole bag was moldy.

But I hate to be thwarted by anything, especially my own procrastination. So I put on a bicycle helmet for protection and the dog and I went out to pick up more. (Apparently there was still one squirrel left in that tree with sufficient hatred and a good eye. And he especially didn’t like the dog. He became more accurate with every throw.)

What could I do with these walnuts? Well, I remembered reading about a tasty liqueur called Nocino in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It sounded awfully good. But–uh oh–you need very immature walnuts picked in May or early June. So that’s out.

Guess I’ll just crack them open and freeze the nutmeats.

The procedure: Using a hammer, rubber gloves and a board you don’t mind being permanently stained, pound the green husk off the walnut. Either that or run over them with the car. Then wash. Then, I guess, crack open the hard shell, pick out the nutmeat and store in the freezer. (Here’s a link to more advice on how to do this.)walnutsmall

So far, I’ve finished step one, and–to my relief–it was pretty easy. I figured running over the nuts with the car would just stain the driveway and spit the nuts everywhere, so I opted for the plywood board and a hammer. The green husks are pretty soft and usually let go of the nut easily enough once you crack them.  I’ll let them dry for a while in the basement and then get out the  black walnut cracker my brother gave me one year for Christmas. Who knows, if this works, maybe I’ve found my second calling.

Too bad about the Nocino, though. The lowest branch on our tree is about 50 or 60 feet up, so there’s no hope of picking any immature nuts next year. But not to worry. I’ve already scouted a bunch of public trees with low-hanging branches.

Posted by: Roxie

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Cider time


Yes, this is just what it looks like. Apple cider pressing time finally has arrived.

We (and by “we” I mean Mike) spent a big chunk of Labor Day weekend gathering apples, washing them and putting them through our 20-year-old press. A garden geeky way to spend the holiday, you say?

Well, yes. But when a gallon of apple cider at the store goes for close to $7, there’s nothing so sweet as cider you get for just the cost of your own labor. Last season we pressed 8 gallons–a savings of $56. (And we love cider. So you can bet we would have bought that much at the market.) This year the apples weren’t quite as good, so we came out with slightly less from about 5 bushels.

It always surprises me when I hear people complain about the mess and hassle of having inherited a fruit tree. The rotting fruit on the ground, the worms, and on and on. Then they go out and plant something completely useless like a Bradford pear or a flowering crabapple. Yeah, they’re pretty. For about two weeks. Then where are you?

Were it up to me, we’d have nothing but fruit trees in our yard (with, perhaps, a nut tree thrown in besides. But more on that later.)

We bought the press back in the ’80s, during our first years in Kansas City. Our first house had two full-sized apple trees (Yellow Delicious and some red type I never was sure of. The trees were a big selling point with us.). Even after the squirrels had their fill, we still had bushels and bushels of apples to deal with. One day we found an ad for a home cider press on sale for a little more than $300.

It turned out the company that makes the presses was just over in Paola, KS (Jaffrey Manufacturing). So to save on shipping, we drove down some pretty muddy dirt roads and picked it up ourselves.

About 10 years ago, we moved to a house with no apple trees. We planted two (then one more, when it turned out the nursery sold us a yellow apple tree that was mislabeled).

Those trees have never provided enough apples to do much pressing, though. I think there’s not quite enough sun, for one thing. Or maybe it’s a lack of honey bees. Whatever the reason, squirrels have no trouble picking the trees clean each year. (This year we tried netting on one tree, with some success)

No, we’re able to press cider because we keep our eyes peeled on various walks about the neighborhood. As a result, we’ve found two trees on commercial property whose owners are delighted to have someone pick the fruit and clear it away for free.

Jaffrey still makes the presses, but today they sell for around $670, plus shipping (They’re improved, with a metal housing for the grinder).  That’s a lot of cider–about 12 years worth, going at our rate. Unless you get creative and keep your eyes peeled.

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Falling leaves

Let’s talk about cherry leaf spot.

See, about this time last year, I noticed our Montmorency cherry tree was cherryfunguseditstarting to turn a little yellow. Since mid September is pretty early for the leaves to drop, I assumed this was a sign of an early fall and cold winter, and I went about confidently making these predictions to my friends, all based on the cherry tree.

I watched as more and more leaves turned yellow and then fell. One day I looked ont he ground and noticed we’d lost–wow–a lot of leaves. Most of the leaves. Yet none of the other trees in the area showed any signs of turning.

It was as this point that I began to suspect that the yellow leaves were not telling me of an early fall.

As luck would have it, the cherry tree forgave me, as it has done so many times in the past (sometime I’ll talk about the canker scare when it was just a sapling).

cherryspoteditSo here we are in September once again. One day I noticed a little yellow on one or two leaves. Hmm. Then, seemingly within hours, half the tree had the spotted, yellowed leaves. Suddenly, leaves were all over the ground.

Even though I can look out my window right this minute and see a big sugar maple across the parking lot in fiery red, I know Sept. 8 is too early for fall leaf drop for these parts. So off to the Internet I went. After matching my leaf against several on Google Images, I came to the conclusion that the problem was most likely cherry leaf spot, a fungal disease. A quick check pretty much confirmed this. Let’s see…Montmorency (sour) cherry vulnerable, check. Cool, wet weather, check.  Dark spots precede leaf yellowing and dropping, check, although I was quite surprised about how fast this can happen.

The spores form in dead cherry leaves that overwinter, so first of all, the leaves should be cleaned up, the experts said.

Ok. We’ll be sure to clean under the tree especially well this fall.

As to the leaves that remain, the copper spray is considered to be one of the best controls, organic or otherwise. I’ve always used a lime-sulphur fungicide in the past, but I have to admit it isn’t working right now. So off I went to the garden store for an $18 jug of concentrated sulphur spray, which we applied this morning. One advice site cautioned about using it during hot weather, but it doesn’t look like that is going to be a problem.

Time will tell.


We did finally pick three tomatoes from the Topsy Turvy, shown here.


However, the scraggly thing continues to struggle. Gravity defeated the plant’s brave insistence in growing it’s stem upward, so the tomatoes hang low. Topsy did not escape the mite invasion. But it has not made as good a recovery as the other tomatoes, perhaps because I find it impossible to keep watering it at the level it needs.

Posted by: Roxie

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The fallen walnuts were getting so thick that I gathered them in a pile with a garden rake the other day.

Where on earth are the squirrels when you need them, I wondered.

The answer, at least in the case of one of them, was provided shortly after when I saw our pup rolling happily in the grass.  My, he seemed more playfully content than normal as he turned onto his back and  tossed what I thought was a piece of rope into the air.

“Whatcha got butch?” I asked and knew almost as I asked the question that it didn’t resemble a rope so much as it did one of  the local tree rats who are in the habit of pilfering from our garden.

Our dog, a shepherd mix,  tore off before I could get near enough to make a positive ID. But shortly after, confirmation was made  and I reached for the cellphone.

“Omigod, you’re right!” Roxie said as peered out the kitchen window at the gruesome spectacle in our side yard. “You’re sure he caught it and he didn’t just pick up a dead one.”

Well, no. I had to admit that I couldn’t say with certainty that he’d killed the squirrel.  Perhaps the little bugger had suffered from depression, decided to end it all and  hurled itself to the ground from the high branches of the elm tree.  Or maybe he’d had one too many rotten tomatoes and  fell accidentally.

But he certainly wasn’t a bit of road kill that had found its way into the yard. It was a limp as a rag doll, indicating that this squirrel  had been alive fairly recently, otherwise  rigor mortis would have set in.

I guess what amazed us both is that our previous pup didn’t bag her first squirrel until she was 10 or so.  We watched in admiration as she patiently perfected her technique.

And now here was Speedy’s successor achieving the same milestone — we’re fairly certain — before he was eight months old.

It seemed unfair, I told Rox.

“It’s as if a guy were to take up  golf  and then score a hole in one during his  first season on the course.”

It didn’t seem right. Yet I was pretty proud of him, even if does mean the walnut pile won’t dwindle as fast as it might.

Smart dog. No wonder we named him Einstein.

Posted by: Mike

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