31 August 2009

August frost!

An August frost snuck up on us this year. Not too surprising, we did have a frost warning on July 8th this summer, for goodness sake! With an early June frost in the tally, it seems we were only graced with a full 86 frost-free days this season. That's a pretty big swing from last season's 126 days. Thankfully, not much was damaged in this August frost, so here's hoping for a couple of warm weeks to finish up the season!

It got down to about 4C/39F the morning of August 29. At first glance, it appeared that there was no damage, but we do have one mysteriously frost-prone stretch in the garden. Potatoes were planted there this year. It is only slightly lower than the rest of the garden, maybe 4 inches, but it also gets some of the earliest sunlight in the morning, and it is the action of the sunlight on the ice-crystals that burns the leaves. Plants can be surprisingly tolerant of light frost, as long as the frost melts before the direct sun hits the leaves or fruit. I have seen ice coated squash leaves that suffered no frost damage, because clouds rolled in before the sun came up, allowing the ice to melt without damaging the leaf tissue.

The potatoes in the frost pocket were not burned, but some over-eager winter squash vines had started rambling over the potato patch as the potato tops die-back in preparation for harvest. And these errant squash vines got their tender tips knocked back like naughty fingers reaching for the cookie jar. Besides these frosted vines I only found some frost damage on a few basil plants and poppy leaves. No major loss, just an early surprise!

To keep this spring's tender pepper and tomato transplants warm, we lined the rows with hay bales on either side, and never did move them due to the cool summer temperatures. So they are still there to provide a warm pocket that will hold off early light frosts, such as this one. We provided the peppers with an added heat sink of rocks around the base of the plant. The rocks will help to radiate a bit of heat to keep the nightly temperatures warmer. It might be just enough to get a few red peppers this year, though I'm just as happy with the green ones. The rocks also help support the stems of these heavily-laden pepper plants during hurricane season.

The yearly fall migration has begun, and the frosty mornings remind us that winter is nearing.

26 August 2009

Tomato (or Otherwise) Chutney

I found a most delicious tomato chutney recipe, of East Indian inspiration, in an April 1981 Organic Gardening magazine. I modified it slightly, it's great fresh, served with a summer vegetable curry and cooked grain, and I have no doubt it would be great canned as well.

I do love chutneys because they are so malleable. You can use just about whatever you have on hand. I made an apple, tomato, green pepper and dried blueberry chutney last year that brightened up quite a few plain winter meals. The fruit ingredients in just about any chutney can be altered, the recipe inspiring the concoction above called for sultanas, and I substituted our dried blueberries with delicious results. Just keep the proportions the same and use your own varieties of garden or local produce for your own regionally specific chutney.

Tomato (or Otherwise) Chutney
8 large fresh tomatoes (blight sufferers can substitute tomatillos or ground cherries or other fruit, such as apples, or fruit and green tomatoes equal parts)
1 small medium-heat Hot Pepper
1 medium Sweet Pepper (green or otherwise)
1 medium onion
2-3 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp minced ginger (or 1 tsp dried ginger powder)
1 1/2 tsp whole mustard seed
1 tsp fennugreek seed (can substitute fennel or anise seed)
2 tsp turmeric powder
1 1/2 tsp paprika powder
salt to taste

Quarter or dice tomatoes or fruit, finely chop onion, peppers (remove seeds for milder flavor, or include them for extra heat), garlic and ginger. Set aside.

Heat heavy-bottomed sauce pan with 3 Tablspoons Olive or vegetable oil on high heat. When hot, nearly smoking, add mustard seed and fennugreek seed. Continue to heat until mustard seeds start to pop, remove from heat and add powdered spices (turmeric, paprika and ginger if using powdered). Let the spices heat through, but do not burn (about 1 minute). Return to medium heat and add minced onion, garlic and ginger (if using fresh), stirring frequently until onion is golden brown. Add minced peppers, heat through, stirring to blend flavors. Add tomatoes or fruit and cook until softened. A pure apple chutney may require some liquid like apple juice, cider or cider vinegar, or other fruit or citrus juice. Salt to taste.

This recipe makes about 2 pints. If making larger quantities for preserving, multiply as desired. For conversion, remember 3 Tbsp = 1/4 cup. Oil can be reduced to 1 Tbsp per pint if desired. Process in a boiling water bath, 10 min pints, 15 min quarts.

24 August 2009

Fungal diseases in the garden

With the incredible rainfall we've had here in the east, there's been ample opportunity for fungal diseases in the garden. The late blight epidemic, affecting tomato and potato crops, is an example, although blight is not technically a fungus it responds to the same cool wet conditions. Fortunately, we have no signs of blight in our nightshade crops this year, which led me to ask the question why? What did we do right? In asking this question, I also did some research on a few new (to me) fungal diseases, and what led to their introduction into our garden.

As far as late blight is concerned, I believe the two most important measures of prevention were quality, uninfected seed, and rotation. I've saved my own tomato seed for three generations, and each year I follow the method of fermenting the seed pulp before washing the seed and properly drying it for storage. The fermentation process promotes good germination, but it also destroys potential pathogens that can be harbored by the seed. Our potato seeds are put to the test by coming through a long storage period, proving that they are disease free.

Second to quality seed in disease prevention, is rotation. It is best to maintain a 2-3 year rotation of crops, and whenever you are introduced to a new disease in your garden, it is important to research the alternate hosts of this disease. It can be surprising to find dissimilar crops can host the same disease, and often weeds will harbor and spread disease. Along with rotation, it is necessary to remove any plant residue (leaves, stems, roots) from the garden and properly compost the material before returning it to the soil.

These two important factors certainly contributed to our garden's blight free status, despite the prevalence of blighted potato fields no more than 5 miles from us. Healthy plants will be able to withstand certain thresholds of disease, borne in on the wind and rain, so part of the story is plain good fortune that our crops did not succumb. But keeping the plants from contact with the soil can also prevent or suppress blight. So perhaps the layer of mulch we applied to the crops in mid-June hampered the incubation process, necessary to the spread of the disease.

I always thought of carrots as a rather trouble free crop, once they are thinned and weeded, they generally take care of themselves. We've had some damage from Carrot Root Fly (or Carrot Rust Fly), but again, rotation and fall cultivation is usually enough to keep their numbers under control. This year I have been introduced to a fungal disease that affects the carrot leaves, Alternaria Leaf Blight. It affects older crops, later in the season after the rows have closed in, reducing air flow. Like other fungi, it thrives in cool wet conditions. But where did it come from, how was it introduced to our garden?

Going back to my original statement, about the importance of quality seed, I realized that my first carrot seed saving venture was flawed. I had selected quality storage carrots to grow for seed last summer, but I had not read enough information about preventing the spread of disease through seed. Alternaria is most often transmitted through infected seed. And there is a simple method of treating seed to halt it's spread to the next crop. Many types of seeds, including the Cole family, lettuce, spinach, eggplant and nightshades, as well as carrots, can be treated in a hot water bath, for a specific length of time (see the table on this link for details). I have also read about using a hot water and cider vinegar solution, though it looks as though the temperature and length of exposure is the most effective measure of killing potential pathogens.

The Alternaria leaf blight does not much damage the crop, especially at the later stages when most of the growth is complete. For the most part, it is a problem for mechanical harvesters, as the stems break off easily, leaving roots in the ground. The most damaging effect of this fungus is that is promotes the spread of damping-off in the soil. And I do believe that my last planting of carrots was cut back by damping-off. This could lead to potential problems for direct seeded crops and young seedlings in the future.

Alternaria Leaf Blight of Carrots

Cereal crops have their own biosphere of diseases, including fungi, bacteria and viruses. Most of these disease cycles can be broken by planting non-cereal crops in rotation, but some vegetable and legume crops can host cereal diseases as well. Developing resistant seed in cereal crops is an important and active area of agricultural research. Research labs around the world are constantly responding to new mutations of cereal diseases, breeding crops with genetic resistance, and making these resistant varieties available to many Third World countries whose farmers do not depend on fungicides for healthy crops.

We bought our Vicar Hulless Oat seed from a small independent seed producer, the seed is an heirloom variety, and granted, there are few options for purchasing small quantities of cereal seeds in Canada, so we hoped for the best. The description of the seed said nothing of disease resistance, and in the future, that will be a requirement in my seed purchases. Our Hard Red Spring Wheat is a modern, disease-resistant cultivar, proven in our climate, and it has withstood the variety of cereal diseases this year. The Hulless Oats, on the other hand, are peppered with Septoria or Speckled Leaf Blotch, a fungal disease. It can easily spread to other cereal crops, so our healthy crop of wheat, only 20 feet from the infected oats, has given me first-hand evidence of the necessity of disease resistant cultivars.

Septoria or Speckled Leaf Blotch on Hulless Oats

20 August 2009

Too much beauty

There's just too much beauty in the garden, I simply must share...

Syriphid Fly eating the nectar of a Calendula Flower.

Northern Leopard Frog, Rana Pipiens, this wet and soggy summer has been great for the frogs, never seen so many frogs and toads in the garden. Even found a young Wood Frog in the Zucchini. Plenty of bugs and slugs for them to eat this year.

Syriphid Fly tasting a Red Clover blossom. It's a great year for these Syriphid Flies too, there's dozens in the garden, the larva are predatious, often of aphids and other small soft bodied insects, but the adults are pure nectar eaters. And red clover is one sweet source of nectar. I use it as a natural sweetener in herbal teas.

Unidentified big green caterpillar.

Grass Skipper resting on the Betony blossoms.

Ichneumon wasp tasting the Carrot flower nectar, an important parasitoid in the gallery of natural enemies in the garden.

Marigold bloom.

Skullcap flower spikes. A hardy perennial herb useful to support a good night's sleep, and also a graceful flower in the garden landscape.

Grasshopper in the alfalfa. I've let my alfalfa bushes go to seed, after harvesting an early cut of leaves for herbal teas. The seeds for sprouting will be a great store of live food on our Winter menu. I just love the complement of colors in this image, the lavenders on the grasshopper highlighted by the alfalfa blossoms, the picture is a pallette of pastels.

The mullein flower stalks do not fail to attract the highest concentration of bumble bees, day after day. And the bees sure are stocking up on pollen from this prolific bloomer. Not only do they fill their leg pouches with rich golden pollen, but their fuzzy bums get covered in the stuff. Pollination in action.

18 August 2009

Growing small grains and seeds

We are growing some test plots of small grains and seeds in the garden this year. Mostly, these plots have taught me about the growing conditions of each crop, as well as the pests and diseases specific to each. We started with small seed packets last year, planting roughly a 3' X 3' bed of each grain or seed. The seeds saved from the first plot planted out about 500 row feet this year. Again we would be saving the seed, and would get some moderate harvests, along with enough seed to plant out a full sized crop to supply our needs for a year. That was the plan, of course, before we cemented our plans to move to the West coast next spring. It will be strange, and in some ways wonderful, to not be growing a garden next year, a sabbatical of sorts.

Back to the grains, this year we planted 200' of popcorn (I've found that it makes a nice cornmeal as well as a popping corn); 100' of sunflower (we will be lucky to harvest any seed this year, still no flowers); 300' of amaranth (good mixed with cereals, and we are going to try it as a sprouting grain for winter); 500 row feet of millet (a good rice substitute); 500' of quinoa (an excellent protein and good flavored rice substitute); poppy seed here and there (the cutworms really got to them, so I kept re-planting wherever we had the space); 500' of hulless oats; 250' dry peas; 350' baking beans.

The cutworms preferred the amaranth, quinoa and poppies over the cereals like oats, millet or popcorn, so they may deserve some protection if cutworms are a problem. The next time we grow these grains I would plant them in different soils, in a separate rotation. The cereal type grains (oats, millet, wheat) can be planted in newer ground, with few amendments, such as after turning in a cover crop. Dry peas and baking beans can be treated this way as well, although they do benefit from working a light layer of compost into the soil. The vegetable type grains (amaranth, quinoa, poppy) require fertile loose soil, with a high compost and humus content, and would benefit from the higher water retention in this class of soil as well. Popcorn and sunflower are heavy feeders and require rich composted soil as well.
Golden Amaranth. The grains seeds are the size of sesame seeds with a high protein content of 16%. I am also testing each of these grains as possible feed grains for livestock, so the high protein grains are attractive. Amaranth greens can be eaten as a cooked vegetable when young, so plant thick, and thin the plants out to about 2' spacing (livestock will love the thinnings as well). This variety can reach 6-8' high. The seeds are good cooked in porridge, added to granola, added to breads or baked goods, and can be popped as a snack, or sprouted.
Proso Millet. 12-14% protein content. Good potential for chicken feed, the seed heads are easy to harvest, and can be fed out whole, no milling or threshing required. We also enjoy cooked millet as a rice substitute, often using it in casseroles, or as a base under vegetables or curries. Highly drought tolerant, and ripens quickly in short seasons.

Red Quinoa. At least 16% protein, and a whole protein at that, with all of the amino acids our body requires. It can be tricky to grow, seems to be more susceptible to drought, rust and aphids, and does not have the hardy characteristics of it's cousin Lamb's Quarters, which seems to thrive just about anywhere. It is also a longer season grain, and light frost will burn and kill seedheads.
Vicar Hulless Oats. Easy to grow and thresh for use in the kitchen. Similar growing requirements to regular feed type oats. We chose a heirloom variety, but it is not showing high resistance to rust, so in the future we would choose a more resistant modern variety. Only a few plants are as blighted as these ones, most of the crop will mature despite the rusted leaves, but it is not good practice to allow rust to develop in our garden as it will jeopardize our wheat crop. If we were staying for another season, we would most likely have pulled up all of the rusted plants and removed them from the garden.

"Popcorn" popcorn. Easy to grow, these plants only reach about 3' high, and produce 2-3 6" cobs. The cobs dry quickly in the ears, needing only a few weeks of extra drying time after harvest in northern climates.

But they do need protection from the European Corn Borer. I would like to try putting mesh bags over each ear, in the early stages of development, to prevent the maggot from damaging the kernels. Left as they are, with the biological controls of natural predators, they take about 10% of my crop.
St. Hubert Dry Peas. Well worth growing your own split peas if you have the room. They dry quickly in the pod, and thresh out with ease. These grain peas cook down to a delicately flavored puree, as you would expect from split peas. They can also be ground into a high protein flour. Cracked, they would make an excellent livestock feed at 22-24% protein.
The Pea Moth is the main pest of our pea crops, but they seem to prefer the higher sugar content of the shelling peas, and generally leave the dry peas alone. The dry peas are also more resistant to mildews, because they seem to mature and dry out before the long-fruiting shelling types.

Jacob's Cattle Baking Beans. A decent bush type baking bean. It's not the highest yielding type, but the beans are very good, smooth and flavorful.

Mauve-Flowered Poppy. I snuck a row of poppy seeds in with my flower and herb beds, where a cutworm fence protected them. The flowers are mostly done now, as the cosmos take over blooming. Poppy seed is easy to grow and easy to harvest and thresh, each plant produces 4-6 poppy flowers/seedheads. They dry out well within our short season, but must be watched for mildew in early autumn heavy rains. The stalks tend to fall over and could benefit from trellising or fencing.

Some grains and seeds we did not get around to trying include sesame seed, flax seed, chickpeas, soybeans and lentils. These can also be easily grown in the garden, and harvested for the pantry without the need of specialized machinery or milling.

10 August 2009

Fermenting in the garden

The August garden is a delightful ramble of green. Hunting out the early fruits feels like a daily treasure hunt. Scraping a light layer of soil back, from underneath overgrown potato bushes, to uncover a few of the new crop. Parting the huge squash leaves to see how the winter squash are coming along.

Lifting cucumber vines, anticipating the first crunchy fruits.
Daily visiting the zucchini bushes, never disappointed with a harvest.

Peering into the thick of the massive tomato bushes for a spot of red.

Eyeing the peppers for any signs of color change.
Snapping off the first tight heads of broccoli.
Protecting the newly forming heads of cabbage from worm damage.

There is a variety and abundance on the table that we haven't experienced since last year's fall harvest. Each meal is a celebration of flavor and accomplishment. And for every meal laid on the table, ten are put up for winter. Besides the usual canning of pail after pail of green beans and shelled peas, I am experimenting with lacto-fermented vegetables. Why wait for the cabbages, when really, just about any vegetable can be fermented? Fermented vegetables make a nice addition to the winter fare, still crisp and full of flavor and vitamins and minerals that the pressure canned vegetables lack.

I'm trying peas first, using the recommended salt ratio of 1 pound for every 5 pounds of vegetables. But this really does taste a bit too salty to me, and the bubbling fermentation process has not started yet on the third day, so I'm going to add more peas. As you can read in the link above, the salt slows the fermentation process, and fermentation can be achieved with very little salt. But the less salt you use, the more risk of surface mold. The most important part of fermenting is to keep the vegetables well submerged below the brine. Some vegetables will produce their own brine, such as shredded and packed cabbage. The salted peas did produce some brine, but not enough to cover, so I added brine to the recommended proportion of 1/4 lb salt to a gallon of water.

The peas in their brine are covered with a clean towel, weighted with a plate and mason jar full of water. There's an inch of brine covering the peas.

I'll also be doing a dill and garlic cucumber crock, lacto-fermented pickles are crisp and wonderfully sour, compared to the limp boiled variety.

04 August 2009

Meta-predator meta-narrative: The portrait of a lady

Lady beetles have been breeding like crazy in our garden this summer. It has been an education to observe their life cycle, from larva to adult, and it has been a pleasure to watch them flourish. I can only hope there are enough aphids in the garden to support them in their hundreds. We had a small window of about two weeks in the end of May when aphid infestations could be found in certain crops: in the wheat, quinoa and poppies primarily. But it didn't take long for the Lady Beetles to catch up.

Here is the life cycle of the Seven Spotted Lady Beetle, our most numerous species: Adult, lays eggs in favorable sites.

Larva, roams widely, preying primarily on aphids among other things.
Larva transforms into a pupa, and while attatching itself to a leaf, it does yoga exercises, stretching up to the sun, then down into resting position.

The pupa turn from yellow to this color patterning and stay put, about a week, before emerging as adults.

When pupation is complete, the beetle emerges...

yellow and tender as a newborn.

They seem to hang around the pupa casing until their shell begins to harden, trying out their newly acquired wings.

Just about the time they get their spots and start to turn from yellow to red, they abandon the dried casing, striking out into the garden for food.
Aphids on a wheat stalk.

The balance between predator and prey is never static, population densities are always changing, typically following a pattern of alternating boom and bust. In the biological study of ecological communities, it has been observed that when prey populations spike, it will trigger a population explosion of predators, who will typically over-extend the limits of their food resources. Prey species will dwindle, followed by dwindling predator numbers. It's like a game of tag, predator population density seeming to lag behind. As I've mentioned before, it is this lag time that we, as gardeners, must make up for, keeping pest populations under control until the predators can catch up, and either take over for our job, or more typically, complement our efforts to keep pests in balance. And even trickier a gardener must allow enough pest/prey species to survive in order to encourage and support the lagging predators, without letting pests get out of control, damaging the food crops and exponentially exploding in the next generation. It is this balance that I am learning, and observing as I watch the relationship between the aphids and the Lady beetles in my garden.

Recent biology studies into the relationship between predator and prey have revealed some counter-intuitive interactions. The first study I heard (on a radio science show) on this topic, looked into the re-introduction of wolves into parks where they had been locally eradicated for decades. It was thought previously, as it would seem by my description above of the cyclical tag game, that the predators in any given area were a result of the number and type of prey in that area, and that the prey were a result of the availability and abundance of forage. So it was surprising for biologists to discover that it is the predator who largely shapes the landscape, and not the other way around.

To summarize the study, in the absence of predators, the elk and deer had browsed un-harassed, and therefore had selected feed and feeding areas along waterways and streams, to the point where young willows and other trees were grazed down, and stream banks were beginning to erode, and in some places, even dry up. Without predators, the herds grazed the land in different patterns, effecting the landscape and the flora. When the wolves were re-introduced, herds had to return to grazing in open landscapes where they could remain watchful. They shied away from dense clusters of trees, and only approached more exposed waterways where they could stay alert to the ever present danger, minimizing the sites where they entered the water. In a matter of years, the willows regained the stream banks, held the erosion, and kept the waters cool and flowing for the fish and amphibians. Grassland, and meadows started to open again, and clusters of young trees were allowed to grow into forests, supporting the diversity of birds, each of which depend of a specific variance of habitat.

This first study into the impact of wolves on the ecological community from which they had previously been evicted, led to further studies into the impact of predators on the landscape. A study into the impact of spiders on the flora of pastures and meadows revealed the same counter-intuitive result: the presence of spiders changed the feeding habits of insects, which selected for certain plant species that would otherwise be grazed down by herbivorous insects. So perhaps we have the tag-game inverted, and should rather look at it as predators in the lead, with prey species fitting into the spaces where they can best survive, and the landscape as the result of this interaction.

It is interesting to think upon a gardener as a sort of meta-predator in the garden. The landscape, or garden, is the direct result of the gardener's selection of insects and varieties of plants. All other predators are there as guests and allies, dependent on the gardener for prey and habitat. I can see this type of relationship in my garden, never more so than when I hand-pick certain pest species. Patrolling the garden every day for Colorado Potato Beetles and larva, and Imported Cabbage Moth caterpillars, I feel very much like a predator. These are the two pests in my garden that are both visible and can be easily hand-picked, and both can do a lot of damage to foliage if left unchecked. And because I have daily observations of the pest populations, I am also able to observe the populations of predators, which leads me to learn more about enlisting and encouraging the specific predators. This kind of daily observation also teaches me a lot about the life cycles, and seasonal cycles, of these insects (or avian, amphibious and reptilian predators).

I sometimes see my job in the garden as Ecological Wildlife Management. I try to keep things in balance, using a variety of techniques such as row cover and physical barriers, but the most effective techniques are preventative and supportive. (I find the same is true for our own physical health as is true for the garden health.) Prevention techniques revolve around proper rotation, and often require it, for example, in my second year of gardening, I put row cover over a spring crop of radishes to protect from Flea Beetles, but had not managed my rotations correctly. Not yet understanding the life cycle of Flea Beetles, I quickly found that the first generation of Flea Beetles emerged from the soil, under the row cover. I have never yet used an insecticide, and will continue to view it as a last result. Insecticides, including the Organically acceptable plant derivatives, resemble anti-biotics in their inability to distinguish between harmful pests and beneficial insects. And insecticides work against any supportive measures to encourage an intact biosphere of beneficial predators and their prey.

A garden invites intimate interactions with the garden ecology. While reading a 1977 Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, I came across an article written by a woman who understood this intimate relationship. She had been handpicking Hornworm caterpillars from her tomato plants, and stomping them underfoot, when she came across a parasitized caterpillar. She left this one to hatch out the parasitic wasps inside, but was inspired to collect the rest of the caterpillars into a tall bucket. She left the bucket in the garden, and continued to collect and feed the pests. The parasitic wasps had access to an abundance of hosts, and it did not take long before she was hatching out dozens and then hundreds of beneficial wasps.

When I walk through the potato patch and find more Lady beetles and larvae than I can find Colorado Potato beetles, I look at that as the best crop insurance that money can't buy. The toads and Garter snakes have provided the same invaluable crop insurance against slugs in the market garden this year. With 20 inches of rain between June and July, our garden would be overrun with slugs if not for these hungry predators. And I am happy to report that Lady Beetles will continue to find other sources of food when the aphids run short, including the eggs of moths and other beetles, and small invertebrates, which may explain the dramatic reduction in hatching Colorado Potato Beetles since the Lady Beetle population has exploded. I am beginning to find them in the Brassica plot, hoping they will find the Imported Cabbage Moth eggs to be a tasty treat, between the occasional aphid meal.