Only the strong survive

Survivors, the strong ones, the pioneers, the natives . . . am I speaking of people or plants? The same rules apply. You gotta be tough to make it out here.

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on ‘Ambrosia’ melon. Thanks for the i.d. from Gardens With Wings.

Perhaps, as the song says, “Only the good die young,” but I don’t think so. Instead, Billy Joel should sing, “Only the strong survive.”

Sometimes, they even thrive.

This year, in the vegetable garden, I purposely chose varieties from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I figured seeds grown in the south were the ones most likely to survive a summer from Hades. Then, I was lucky enough to meet Ira Wallace at the Garden Bloggers Fling in Asheville. Unfortunately, I was so busy conversing with her I forgot to get her photo. Ira is charming and thoughtful, and I understand why her company does so well. She writes for her own website and for Mother Earth News. Talking to her made me want to attend the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello this year. I don’t know if I’ll get there, but I’d like to try.

‘Bowling Red’ okra is as pretty as most flowers in the ornamental garden.

I sowed two kinds of red okra seeds: ‘Hill Country Heirloom Red’ and ‘Bowling Red.’ Both have been extremely productive, and they are pretty because they are red on the plant and cook up green. However, I won’t plant the first again because it gets tough too early. ‘Bowling Red’ will be my choice. A gorgeous plant and wonderful okra. I unabashedly love okra. My whole family does.

Hamburger patty with squash and sun-dried tomato risotto, sliced tomato and stuffed, fried squash blossom. All the vegetables were from the garden.

As for squash, I planted a gray zucchini from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. Again, they are out originally out of southern Missouri so I figured our weather isn’t all that different in summer. This summer it’s been more hot there than usual in fact. I’ve so enjoyed Zucchini ‘Gray’ I will grow it again next year. Tender skinned with sweet flesh, it is a winner whether you eat it raw, fry it, stir fry it, fritter it, eat the blossoms, etc.

As for yellow squash, you can’t beat the heirloom crookneck for flavor. Just pick them small. I did something different this year. I didn’t plant squash seeds until I was sure I would be home to patrol full time for squash bugs. It’s worked so far. I control adults by catching them early in the morning when they are slower moving, and I throw them in soapy water. They drown almost immediately. Today, I found some squash bug nymphs. They were too numerous to squish, so I did spray them with a soap and pyrethrin spray at the base of the plant, being very careful not to spray it anywhere the bees are. I use a hand spray bottle and don’t wet all of the foliage. I direct it just to the squash bugs nymphs. This spray is an organic control, but will harm bees if you spray them directly. I do not spray unless I can’t catch the bugs, and I make sure all bees vacate the area by gently shaking the plants. I also applied diatomaceous earth around the base of the plants, and every morning, I clear all dead foliage or debris. Adult squash bugs are the grayish color of diseased foliage and blend in with it. You can also lay a 2 x 4 in your garden, and sometimes, the adults will hide beneath it. Knock them into the water. They move slow in the mornings like me.

I also grew corn rather unsuccessfully. I think I got it in too late. One thing I’ve learned from this summer is we need to start our gardens earlier in spite of worrying about late frosts and freezes. I think our weather is changing at least in the short term, and perhaps, long term. I should have planted the corn three weeks earlier than I did, but Bill was plowing up a space for me, and life got in the way. I tried ‘Peaches & Cream’ sugary enhanced variety and another one I can’t recall.

Tomatoes have been easy and lovely until recently. Yesterday was 109F so I expect blossom drop now. Tomatoes don’t set fruit with temperatures above 100F, and it appears we will continue to have these for awhile. However, here’s the lineup of those varieties doing well:

‘Arkansas Traveler’ started pumping out pinkish tomatoes early and often. Still, I won’t plant it again. I hate the taste. Don’t hate on me, but it’s simply BORING!

‘Homestead’ a lovely red, semi-determinant tomato developed in the 1950s for the south. It’s been great.

‘Lumpy Red’ was the earliest, mainstay tomato, and it’s wonderful. Great acid/sweet balance.

‘Sun Sugar,’ a golden orange cherry tomato has kept me in strong supply all summer. Amazing really. I’ve eaten it for snacks, breakfast, froze some like marbles, etc.

‘Sungold,’ another yellow cherry I planted just in case ‘Sun Sugar’ didn’t perform. It started later and isn’t as sweet.

‘Rutgers,’ a “general use” tomato with plenty of bite. Although considered an heirloom, it was developed in 1934 by Lyman Schermerhorn at Rutgers University.

‘Black Krim’ was purchased at a half-price sale because I’ve grown it successfully before. It has settled in, and I hope it will make tomatoes once the season cools just a bit. It is a great tomato, and I’ve done well with this heirloom in the past.

‘Beefmaster’ is one of the best tomato hybrids. I have tons of fruit. I’ve taken all of the tomatoes from all of the varieties and made tomato saucer per the instructions in The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year, by Spring Warren.

‘Park’s Whopper Improved’ is resistant to nematods, verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt races 1 and 2 and tobacco mosaic virus. It also produces a lot of tomatoes.

Other tomatoes I tried didn’t do as well. I’m not growing these again. ‘Church’ has been slow. ‘Principe Borghese’ has weird-looking leaves, but seems to be hitting its stride. ‘Japanese Oxheart’ has low yields thus far. Zapotec Pink Ribbed’ has only produced one tomato, but it was tasty. The others didn’t perform.

Grasshoppers munched most of my green bean crop. However, the pinto beans are growing gangbusters in the vegetable garden. I’m also growing an heirloom watermelon, ‘Picnic,’ from Seed Savers Exchange that I bought on a rack at Wal-Mart in Guthrie of all places. None of the Wal-Mart shoppers knew what to think, but I grabbed some corn and the watermelon to try. Also growing a cantaloupe, ‘Ambrosia.’ It’s Bill’s favorite.

‘Picnic’ watermelon. Still waiting for it to ripen.

Growing ‘New Mexico Big Jim’ chilis, ‘Thai Hot Ornamental’ peppers–using in Thai dishes, and three plants of ‘Purple Beauty’ pepper I’m growing away from the hot chilis so it stays sweet.

As for my other favorite summer vegetable next to squash, peppers, okra, corn and cucumbers, I’m growing four different types of eggplant. I love Thai Basil Eggplant so my garden is full of aubergines. ‘Emerald Isle,’ ‘Lavender Touch,‘ ‘Little Fingers’ and ‘Fairy Tale,’ along with a white variety from Monticello. Helen Weis gave me the seeds. Little holes in the leaves indicate flea beetles so I’ve dusted the tops and bottoms of the leaves with diatomaceous earth. It works, but wear gloves when applying. It is very drying to your hands. It dehydrates insects and kills them this way so it is a mechanical control. Next year, I will apply black plastic to the soil to keep the insects from coming up from the ground and will cover with row covers. At least that’s my plan.

‘Little Fingers’ eggplant with flea beetle damage. Ugly, isn’t it?

Okra and eggplant are two of the most beautiful vegetables out there. They would look great in an herbaceous border don’t you think?

So, like the plants in my garden, I wait for the Death Star as–Pam puts it–to beat a retreat come September. Only the tough survive here, but when they do, they are fruitful and beautiful. Hope you’re having a fruitful year in your garden too.


Pollinating summer squash

The vegetable patch at the beginning of July, 2012

All looks well in my vegetable patch doesn’t it? Well, looks can be a bit deceiving. As you may know, I have very few bumblebees this year. All pollinators are down in spite of my efforts to spray nothing harmful and to grow all their favorite foods. Summer squash and other cucurbits are not wind pollinated like corn. They need help to bear fruit so this year I’m playing Aphrodite. Just in case you’re facing the same bee crisis and want some cucumbers, melons, squash, etc., I wanted to show you the difference between male and female flowers.

Male flowers of summer squash, Gray zucchini

The beautiful male flowers, which are also good for eating, appear first, about seven to ten days before the female ones. In Latin America, they are much sought after and are called flores de calabaza. The male blossoms are here to lure bees and other pollinators to the plant. They hope the bees will communicate back to the hive or nest saying, “Hey, the good stuff is over there.” They entice the bees to do their dances and entice their fellow workers out to play.

Unless, of course, the bees have been confused by a certain class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. Then, the bees behave as if they were Alzheimer-inflicted, nursing home residents who wander off by themselves. Scientists think that’s why bees are disappearing all over the United States. But, no talk of colony collapse disorder today. Here’s what you can do if you notice your squash is withered like this.

Squash which isn’t pollinated will wither on the plant.

First, break off that squash and feed it to the chickens or throw it in the compost pile. Next, find an open female blossom (easy to spot because the females have an ovum at the base of the blossom).

Female squash blossom. See the ants? They don’t hurt anything. At the bottom of the bloom is an ovum which will grow into a squash if pollinated.

Either take a q-tip and dab pollen from the male bloom to the female one, or if you’re like me and have no q-tips handy, pinch off a male bloom. Tear off its outside petals and expose the stamen.

Pulling off the petals to expose the stamen
Pulling the petals off of a male squash blossom to expose the stamen.

Take the stamen and gently dab pollen to the female blooms pistils.

Take the stamen and gently rub the pollen onto the female squash blossom.

That’s all there is to it. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. In a few days, you’ll have a squash big enough to harvest. I find this gray zucchini especially tasty. We’ve fried it, sautéed it and even eaten it raw with ranch or another dressing.