Friday, October 26, 2012

Garden Enemy Number One ... cutworms

Garden enemy number one. Is it cutworms? Or slugs? This could be a tough decision, but this year the cutworms are definitely on top of the list. Slugs do a lot of damage including chomping so many holes in leaves that the leaves begin to resemble lace. Cutworms chop a plant right off at soil level, and that's it, the plant is done.

I had started cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts seeds in cold frames for transplanting into designated garden spots. As soon as they came up ...
Chomp. Gone. All of 'em gone. I brought home some pepper seedlings and planted them in a composted plot. Next morning: a pepper plant laying on the ground. The following morning: another.

And so I went into panic mode. What to do? Where to find the weapon to confront garden enemy number one? After some deep pondering and soul searching, I decided to google this problem. I typed "cutworms" into the search field.

One suggestion called for Dixie cups. I got some Dixie cups, cut the bottoms out of them, and put them around the seedlings and young plants, pushing them a couple of inches below the soil. This worked. None of the stems were chomped.

The University of Minnesota Extension Service offers the information that cutworms are the larvae of several species of night flying moths in the Noctuidae family. The term ‘cutworm’ comes from the fact that they cut down young plants as they feed on stems at or below the soil surface. Cutworms attack a wide range of plants including tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and cabbage. They are active at night, and spend days in the soil, so you may never see them.

It seems that low-growing plants are a destination for native moths to lay their eggs. Many weeds fit this description, and weeds left in the garden in fall to overwinter may harbor hundreds of these eggs. Non-native, or Migrating moths mate and lay eggs from early spring to late summer.

Control of cutworms is said to begin with removing all plants from the garden beds in the fall after harvest. This is followed by tilling the garden beds. This helps to expose, and hopefully destroy over-wintering larvae. Repeating the tilling in the spring is recommended to further this process.

And then, in case you haven’t gotten all of the cutworms, here are some more remedies found in the Google search. We will certainly be trying most of these in the spring.

*In the evening, spray a mixture of insecticidal soap and water around the plants. As the cutworms appear, hand pick them off and dispose of them. You can use a coffee can to put them in and cover it with the lid.

*Spread cornmeal around the plants. Cornmeal is a tasty treat for cutworms, but deadly. They can't digest it but cannot resist it. They overeat the cornmeal and die.

*Set chickens loose in the garden in the fall. Apparently, Chickens find cutworm eggs and larvae quite tasty. This won’t work in spring when the plants are just beginning to sprout. The chickens would also eat the plants.

*Diatomaceous earth spread around the plants is another suggestion, but it must be reapplied after a rain. The sharp bits cut the cutworms when they crawl over it, causing them to dehydrate and die. Cutting the cutworms sounds like a fitting end for garden enemy number one.

Regardless of any of these remedies, spring transplanting will include Dixie cups around the seedlings. A gardening friend offers another, similar remedy. She pushes an ordinary nail into the ground alongside the stem of the plant. We've tried this too, and it seems to work.

We are hoping to see no cutworm damage ... at all ... in our 2013 garden. I'm putting some red wine into one of my Dixie cups to drink to this. Cheers! -G.H.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It's Clean-up Time

The closet is full of squash. The freezer is crammed with bags of beans. Potatoes, and jars of pickles and relishes fill the shelves of the root cellar. There’s frozen basil, braided garlic, and a crock of sauerkraut. Hot peppers are strung up and hung to dry in the kitchen window. Although beets wait in the garden for the last minute before a hard frost in case they might grow just a tiny bit more, as do the brussels sprouts, for the most of the garden it’s time to clean up.
The last of the garden was gleaned as we pulled up the plants.

We do this every year. This year we’re being ultra careful about it because there was more cutworm damage than we’d care to see (we’ll be doing a post about that). We go around and yank up all the spent plants and throw them onto piles for compost. Then rake up fallen tree leaves and, along with manure, add them in layers to the piles. If autumn gives us plenty of warm days the piles will be turned once or twice. If not, they will be compost by spring anyway.

Fallen leaves are aplenty in this forest environment giving us lots of material for a number of things. Among them are garden pathways. A thick cover of leaves on them serves several functions. Most importantly, the paths stay weed-free all summer. If weeds were allowed to grow there, one of us would have to spend a lot of time weeding, and the same one of us is not into that.

Another benefit is that worms get very busy eating the bottom of the leaf layer. Worm castings are considered a beneficial manure, thus providing nutrients to plants growing alongside the paths. We’ll probably do a post about this sometime, but meanwhile, click here for a source telling about the wonders of worm castings. 

Vining plants like cucumbers and squash spill off the beds and set their fruits on the paths. Lying on mulch, they are clean when we go to pick them.

Yet another benefit of leaves in the paths has to do with slugs. Unwanted populations of the shell-less snails have been growing in the past few years due to excess moisture from our (sadly) changed climate. Using straw or hay as mulch seems to encourage them, but the leaf mulch doesn’t appear to have the same effect. 
Murphy, the ever-wary garden dog inspects the perfectly layered pile of compost.

After filling in the garden paths, more fallen leaves are raked into a piles and reserved for mulching next summer’s potatoes. They are perfect for that, although we do have to check on the mulch as the potatoes grow. Worms eat away at it and it can all but disappear. Adding more saves the potatoes and keeps the worms fed.

Then, the final thing to do with the garden beds is to go over them with a four prong cultivator, fluffing the top layer of soil. We hope this will discourage the afore-mentioned cutworms. The soil of the beds is then left bare for the winter. Any undesirables might be either bleached away by the sun, or frozen out over the winter. This is what we’ve done for a good number of years, and it seems to work for us.

And, while we're cleaning up, there is also some fall planting to do. It’s garlic planting time. Garlic needs cold temperatures to induce bulbing, making October an ideal time to plant. We gather another pile of raked leaves and reserve them to cover the garlic after the soil freezes. Click here for our post about garlic.

Some of our prior blog posts are about our cold frames, into which are now planted winter salad greens and spinach. Click on “Cold Frames” in the righthand column for our posts about those. Cleaning and planting seem to be on the October agenda! -jmm and G.H

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Favorite Plant: Purple Pole Beans

Trust me, we wouldn’t rave about beans unless we really thought them worthy of it. Beans are a mainstay amongst garden veggies and most often don’t attract much thought. They are mostly trouble free, easy to grow, one of the most reliable of the veggies, and there have always been plenty to pick. It would be easy to take them for granted.

Normally we have little debate over which variety to choose from the seed catalog. We simply get Provider Bush Beans, and a yellow, wax bean, also a bush type. The bush beans put out a great crop in the space of a short garden row over several weeks. Then the plants are yanked and stacked on the compost pile. A crop of spinach or other fast grower can be planted in the now-empty row with plenty of time to grow before a frost. Or not, depending on mood, the weather, other commitments, or even whim. It was this way for years.

Then one year, in a mood or on a whim, I decided to try the three sisters; the traditional combo of corn, beans and squash. A new place had to be found for this, since the garden beds are already predestined for their designated crops. The new area started with three separate mounds of composting material (for info on what we compost, and how we do it, see the post on composting here). Onto these went some dirt and composted manure. Over each mound I set up a tripod of three tall poles tied together near the top. Finding poles is easy here. We simply do some thinning in the woods, a benefit to the larger trees.

Next, I planted the seeds. Because I never really trust things to grow anyway (based on some past experiences), I didn’t bother to stagger the plantings. Corn is supposed to be seeded first. The beans and squash are supposed to go in when the corn is off to a good start. The beans can then climb up the corn, while the squash simply gads about around the feet of the other plants. As it turned out, however, the corn grew into feeble foot high stalks and no farther. The beans climbed the poles, and the squash rambled all over the nearby countryside. For squash and beans, the experiment was a success. And, we haven’t continued to plant the third sister, corn. 

The beans happened to be purple pole beans, a seed catalog selection based on something-that-looked-interesting with no practical considerations intended. My preference for the color purple was the only prerequisite for choosing this style of bean. Purple would be fun, a color boost to the garden. And, of course I didn’t expect they would grow and climb the poles and produce beans.

But grow they did, producing a bountiful crop that came in later than the bush beans and kept going way into fall. They are easy to pick; they grow in bunches and you can grab a whole handful at once. Wonderful to eat; they turn deep green when cooked, and are excellent for freezing. Everything you'd want in a bean! 

We have been saving seeds ever since. Saving the seeds is easy. Leave the beans on the vine until the pods turn brown. Pick them, open the pods, and spill the seeds onto a plate. Leave them to dry for a few days, then put them into a paper envelope. Viola, next year’s beans! -jmm

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Freezing Basil

Fresh from the garden, basil, Ocimum basilicum, is an aromatic delight. It has a pungency that goes airborne, steeping the entire yard and then the house when leaves are picked and brought into the kitchen. A natural room freshener, it floods your nasals with a deep aroma that lasts for awhile. According to Wikipedia, basil is related to mint, and there are more than 160 varieties of it. It is a half hardy annual that does not survive a frost.
Basil in the colander ready to wash.

Fresh is the ultimate way to use this plant. Although it’s common to find dried basil in the spice selection at the market, drying it leaves only a hint of its heady scent. We’ve found that freezing basil preserves much more scent and flavor. While there's nothing like fresh, a package of basil taken from the freezer has a lot more of the basil aroma than the dried variety.

There are three varieties of basil in our garden this year. They are Genovese, the most common basil and the type found in most supermarket produce sections; Thai, with smaller leaves and its own aroma; and Lime with a distinctly citrus aroma. Lime basil is a new variety for us this year.

Drying the basil.
Over the summer we've made a few batches of pesto, herbed up our soups and stir fries and included basil in salads. After picking leaves for these things, more leaves grow; the plants keep on producing. Because of this there is plenty to put away for winter, and now that fall is here, it’s time to freeze some basil.

Here's how we do it.

Pluck the leaves from the stems and wash them in cold water.

On the pan and ready to freeze.
Dry the leaves between two layers of towels.

Place the leaves on a baking sheet, spreading them out to prevent clumping.

Put the baking sheet in the freezer for a few hours or overnight.

Take the pan out of the freezer, package the frozen leaves in a large bag, and put the basil back into the freezer.

We use the frozen basil by taking a small handful out of the bag, chopping it and adding to cooked dishes. Freezing basil causes it to wilt, making it less suitable for uncooked uses.

The process of preparing basil for freezing takes only a small amount of time. It's a way to enjoy its fabulous aromas and flavors all winter long. -G.H.