Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mystery Late-Season Blueberry

What a nice August surprise! One of our rabbiteye blueberry bushes has a lovely crop of late season berries ripening. We've never been able to pin down the variety. In addition to the three "standard" rabbiteye (mid-Atlantic) bluberries we grow: Climax, Premiere, and Tifblue, we also trialed lots of varieties up for evaluation as new additions to the commercial blueberry offerings. This blueberry seems to be reliably dwarf, by comparison to the larger, standard varieties, and the berries are just ripening now, 3rd week in August. My vote is Eliot, my husband says Powderblue and I'm also betting it's one that had no name, only numbers, when it came to us. It's always a nice bit of a treat to have this small harvest of a few pints of late summer berries. If anyone has a suggestion on variety name, please let me know!

How Sweet the Harvest!

As the summer season winds down and gardening enthusiasm falters under the long days of heat and humidity, I find that the last harvests from my fading plants often seem the sweetest. The tomatoes, faded from a verdant thicket of brilliant green growth to an untidy sprawl of dusky, rather tattered-looking stems, still hang with deep red fruits. I know that only a few of the small, green tomatoes will ripen satisfactorily now and it makes the rich, ripe fruits I'm harvesting all the more sweet to know that soon enough my only menu option will be tasteless supermarket tomatoes. Quick! One more round of BLT sandwiches! One more tomato pie!

Meanwhile, our courtship of the beneficial insects has shown more results. On almost every tomato plant, late-season hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata) have appeared - but with a new look! Each one is decorated along its back with the egss of the tiny braconid wasps called Cotesia. This terrible (from the caterpillar's standpoint and only occasionally the gardener's) parasite lays its eggs along the caterpillar's back. The larva hatch, burrowing into the hornworm's body. Paralyzed, the caterpillar is consumed alive as the wasp larvae eat it from the inside out. As they burrow out, the larvae spin cocoons and mature into tiny wasps, beginning the cycle again. Knowing what the caterpillar is enduring, it is very difficult for me not to kill the hornworm outright and end what I envision as an agonizing death but doing so will also kill the beneficial wasps we've tried to attract to protect our tomato plantings! Another of the many dilemmas of gardening... when the ally is more frightening than the enemy.

The peppers are really in their stride now. Of all our backyard garden vegetables, the peppers love the heat the most. Dark green and loaded with brilliant red, yellow and green peppers, they are a delight to see. In past years, I've had terrible slug damage on peppers during late summer wet weather spells. This year I mulched each raised bed with several inches of a shredded cypress mulch - cheap (less than $3 per bag), prickly as all get out, and a nice weed suppressant. Bonus! It discouraged the tender snails and slugs right out of those beds! I'm bedding everything with cypress mulch henceforth.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vegetable Garden Maintenance

For all us Useful Gardeners - Just a reminder of how important it is to keep your vegetable and fruit plantings clean at this time of year. Pests and diseases spread and harbor in any damaged, diseased and decaying vegetation and fruits. As you are collecting that hard-earned harvest each day or two, it's important to remove any veggies and fruits that show signs of damage or disease. That slug-bitten pepper will only get more decay, it won't heal and get better. Ditto those tomatoes. If you remove the damaged fruits as soon as you spot them, you'll avoid having to pull off disgusting, rotten remains later and you will have removed and/or discouraged whatever caused the damage in the first place. Removing bad produce will encourage the plants to create new, clean fruits that you can use. There's still lots of time for lovely produce from your garden - don't hang onto the bad stuff.

If you think that the problem stems from disease, as with tomato plants succumbing to Southern Wilt, do NOT compost that material. Most home compost heaps are not "hot" enough to deter viruses and diseases that will later be spread anywhere you use that compost.

If it seems pretty obvious that the culprit is pecking birds, creeping slugs, worms, beetles or any of your other garden co-inhabitants, then toss the veggies and fruits onto the compost heap, making sure that you cover them well with dirt or grass clippings. (In our setup, they are left on top of the heap so that the chickens can enjoy and "turn" them for us.)

The August Doldrums....

Image: Haze turning to rain over the back fields.
The Dog Days of Summer are now in full blowsy, August abandon. Everything wilts, including me. This is a hard time of year for a natural gardener. Sooty mold, blackspot, powdery mildew, slugs... oh, all the unwanted things that love the heat and humidity, are coming on. Hot and sweaty, it's hard to care - but I know we do. All of us summer gardeners who have worked so hard and brought our gardens to the edge of seasonal perfection, large and full of harvest promise, we sweat, drag hoses and pull weeds.... to the point of being overcome by the heat and humidity. Things start to slide. Everything looks a bit "has been".... summer annuals, vegetable and floral, are starting to fade, to fall over, to look like they need a rest.
Come to think of it, I look exactly the same way.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Bargain Seeds and Plants

Most of us who qualify as Useful Gardeners - that is, we garden for productivity and usefulness in addition to beauty - also keep a watch on our garden spending. Each year, I swear that I'm only going to spend a handful of dollars on my gardens.... a resolution that goes smack out the window when I find fabulous "must have" new plants, tools, ornaments - you know the routine. But I do treasure bargains when I find them, including the amazing plants one can find at local Master Gardener fund-raising sales and end of season close-outs at area garden centers.

I just scored a huge handful of good veggie and flower varieties in 2009 seed packets at a local store - lettuce, broccoli, carrots, parsley, you-name-it, for my fall garden.... at 19 cents per packet. Down from $1.99, in some cases. All the garden and variety stores are clearing out the very last of the seeds and it's a great time to grab seeds for now and next spring. Even some of the seed catalogs have end-of season, on-line seed sales going.

I keep seeds in a tupperware-type sealable container in the bottom of our fridge. Leftover seeds and home-gathered seeds from the spring and summer season are in small ziplock bags in the container and "regular" seed packets are just stored "as is". They last not only for the entire year but up to five years, depending on the variety.

In addition, I notice that most of our garden centers are closing out their summer plant stock. Obviously, this is no time to load up on annuals - unless you have an outdoor fall event for which you need show-stopping back yard - but in among the summer annuals I've found wonderful buys on plants that are actually perennial here. This past week I bought a flat of quart-sized asiatic lilies, which do wonderfully well naturalized in our gardens, at Home Depot on a Buy One - Get SIX Free sale. Yep. I bought the entire flat of six good-sized lilies for the price they charged for ONE earlier in the season. Why? Because they were no longer blooming and therefore wouldn't sell. I bought several very nice orchids that will live in our house (porch in summer) for $3 each (formerly $14 each).

Remember that the truly neglected, unwatered plants may not be worth even the small amount the stores are charging.** So look over the stock carefully - but this is a wonderful time to get fabulous bargains on plants and seeds.

So, Frugal Gardeners - shop now!

**(The neglect you see in the stores is often the result of the Pay-Per-Scan regimen that the Big Box stores have imposed on growers in another post. As a former nurseryman, I will rant about that in another post.)