Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Wonderful Watermelon!

How can you tell if a watermelon is ripe? About a month ago, I was scratching my head and asking that question. I grew a nice patch of SugarBaby Watermellon that looked really good back in July. We harvested our first big melon, excitedly cut into it only to find that is wasn't ripe yet!

Finally almost a month later we got to enjoy ripe garden watermelon! I can't really claim any success for this however. The watermelon patch got completely overtaken by weeds and we thought it was a complete loss. We were a bit disappointed, but at least we had delicious successful cantaloupe this year.

Anyway, the time has come to begin cleaning out the garden and getting it ready for winter. I started clearing out the watermelon/weed patch and much to my surprise, hidden amongst the weeds I found two small melons! This time they were ripe!

I guess the raccoons didn't know they were there either. It's quite possible that there are a couple more still hiding in the tall weeds. I plan to continue cleaning out the garden this week and weekend, so keep your fingers crossed for us!

Just because I'm ending the vegetable garden doesn't mean I'm ending this blog! I have several things still to write about concerning this year's gardening. Major topics I still want to cover are:

  • What ever happened to the baby robins from my previous posts?
  • Final observations on the many varieties of tomatoes grown.
  • A neat garden oriented Father's Day gift I received.
  • Yellow Eggplant?
  • Plans for next year's garden.

So please stay with me for the conclusion of this year's growing season. I apologize for taking a few weeks off from posting. I will try to post regularly again.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Garden Insects: The Good The Bad and The Ugly

When it comes to insects in the garden, some are good, some are bad, and they're all ugly! Even still, I find them fascinating. My research last week about the tomato hornworm and braconid wasps got me very interested in how some insects are beneficial to the garden. Finding the Hornworm made me want to explore the garden to find out what other creatures I could find, so my daughter and I set out on a Bug Photo Safari! I knew we would find a lot of insects since we use no insecticides on the garden. Even still, I was surprised at how many different ones we discovered in just one day. We carefully photographed each one and then went inside to research what they are. Here are the ones we found only in tomatoes!


The Western Yellowstriped Army Worm. Look how much of that leaf he already ate.


Blister Beetle. These guys are doing more damage to my tomatoes than any other bug. They eat a lot of leaves, and deposit nasty droppings all over the place. I plan to post later about them only.


Field Cricket and Grasshopper. Both have chewing mouthparts but the Grasshopper is much worse.


Aphids! I think. They are very small and are found on the underside of the tomato leaves like aphids but they seem to have longer legs than aphids. I really don't know. I only found a few of them.

Bad and Good!

Tomato Hornworm and Braconid Wasps. The Hornworm can eat ALL of the leaves off of a tomato branch. It would probably be the worst garden pest of all if it weren't for the parasitic Braconid Wasps that kill them. See my recent post Tomato Hornworm or Space Alien? for more details.


Spined Soldier Bug. The Soldier is beneficial because it eats armyworms, beetles and cabbage loopers (which were in my garden too). The Soldier Beetle is said to be so beneficial that there was a big article in Organic Gardening Magazine about how to trap them in the wild in order to release them in your garden. Read the article HERE. Notice there is another little bug on his back. I don't know his story.


A small spider. Spiders eat many insects.


I know what you're thinking, a toad is not an insect. You are right, but we found him on our safari and he is very beneficial to the garden since he also eats insects.

There is one more insect to show you, and I can not figure out what it is. I don't know if it is good or bad. I have seen these bugs sitting on tomatoes all season long. They don't seem to do anything or hurt anything. It is shaped like a very small stink bug, but is the wrong color. Look at the bright red color on part of its back. Also notice how small they are compared to my daughter's thumb. There are usually several together and they move pretty fast when disturbed - very difficult to photograph.

If you know what this is, please comment or email me.

Well there you have it. All of these were found in one evening in the tomato portion of the garden. It took a bit of searching to find them, but they were all there hiding amongst the many leaves, happily living their lives to the fullest. Some are bad but some are good. Overall things are balanced out and I still get much production from the garden. That’s why I believe in complete organic gardening. I say we should leave things as natural as possible.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brandywine and Brandyboy Tomatoes

We are enjoying a wonderful tomato harvest!

I planted 20 different varieties of tomatoes this year, but my family's favorites are Brandywine and Brandyboy. Do any of you grow Brandywines? Brandywine is an Amish heirloom non-hybrid tomato. Because of that, you can save the seeds and get the same quality of plant next year. If you save the seeds of a hybrid plant, you are not guaranteed the same plant the following year. Yes, the plant will likely grow, but you might get poor fruit or different flavor from the parent. One problem with growing an heirloom, non-hybrid variety is that the look has not been altered, meaning the fruits are not uniform and sometimes downright ugly. They are also more susceptible to disease and pests.

See how funny some of them look. The ones in the back are not all the way ripe yet because we've found that if we wait until they are completely red to pick them, the critters beat us to them. We have had turtles and raccoons eat them. They have also been attacked by the tomato hornworm and blister beetles much more than the other varieties. The animals seem to be able to tell that they are non-hybrid. I guess they like them because they are more natural than the others.

Brandyboy is a newer variety that is a hybrid derived from Brandywine. As far as I can tell, it is very similar to Brandywine. Its flavor is not quite as good, but the tomatoes are more uniform and round. Both varieties are pretty big and compare with the beefsteaks in size. See my quarter reference.

I'll leave you with this picture of the beginning of my BLT from the other day. This is a Brandyboy. Notice the seed pattern is a bit different and there is much more "meat" in the center. It is so good I could almost eat a BLT without the B and L. Turkey bacon isn't quite as bad for me as regular bacon though, so why not enjoy the great american summer sandwich?

Trust me, it was delicious!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Tomato Hornworm or Space Alien?

Doesn't this look like a creature from a science fiction movie? I found two of these in the garden munching on tomato leaves. As it turns out, there are over 50 creatures in this picture.

This is a Tomato Hornworm with Braconid Wasp cocoons attached to it. I think the Tomato Hornworm is the absolute coolest garden pest there is. Most people hate seeing them in the garden because they can eat all of the leaves off of a tomato plant. Call me weird, but I have been hoping to find one of these in the garden this year. Actually I didn't find them. My wife found one, and my daughter found another one the next day. I knew they were Tomato Hornworms but I didn't know why they had white cocoons on their backs. We did some research on the internet and found out that they were Braconid Wasp cocoons. There were many good resources on the net but our favorite was The Bug Lady. The Braconid Wasps are parasitic. They live in the Hornworm (which is actually a caterpillar) as larvae, and then make cocoons on the outside to pupate. The adult wasps emerge, kills the caterpillar and flies off to find more caterpillars.

The Braconid Wasps are good guys! They are beneficial insects that control the caterpillar population. You see, there is no need for chemical insecticides, but I can get into that in a future post.

My daughters thought the hornworms were pretty cool too, so we put them in a big jar and brought them in for a couple of days. We put pantyhose over the mouth and waited and watched the tiny wasps hatch. We then emptied the whole jar back in the garden. This picture montage tells the story a bit better:

Notice how many wasp cocoons are on the hornworm in the above pictures. I counted over 300! If only half of them find a new caterpillar to invade, I won't have any caterpillar problems next year. God is amazing! He even thought of making tiny little parasitic wasps to keep our food source protected. Wow!

There are even smaller parasitic wasps out there. GardensAlive! is a store that sells organic and natural fertilizers and pesticides. I used to work there part-time in fact. They sell Trichogramma wasps for you to introduce into your garden to do a similar thing that my Braconids are doing. The Trichogramma wasps are almost microscopic!

Benificial insects are really cool. I even like the Tomato Hornworm. He doesn't eat that much, and I like having space aliens around in the garden. Here's one last close up look!

Yikes, beam me up Scotty!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Diggin' For Gold!

Digging potatoes for the first time feels like you are uncovering buried treasure, especially for kids. Even more so when you plant "Yukon Gold" potatoes. This is the first year we've planted potatoes and it was very successful. In our garden as a kid, digging potatoes was hard work because they were planted in our hard Kentucky clay soil. I read on some other blogs in May about growing potatoes in barrels or in a stack of tires to make harvesting easier. I didn't do either, but I used the spirit of the idea.

I started with only 10 seed potatoes, cut them in half and planted the 20 pieces in a 4 foot by 5 foot section of one of my beds. The compost pile was in that spot the previous year, so the soil was great. As the plants grew, I kept adding good dirt and added a 2nd and 3rd landscape timber layer making the bed even more raised. I had planned to keep getting higher and higher like you would growing them in tires, but I ran out of good soil. The plants make potato tubers all along what once was the stem of the plant if you keep burying the stem. When it came time to harvest, it was easy to get a shovel in and under the potatoes. A few times we harvested them small to add to a roast or something. When we did this we could just reach our hand down in the dirt and find a potato without disturbing the plant. Good loose soil is key! For the rest of the plants, we waited until the tops died back and the potatoes were pretty good size. We got several big bowls full of potatoes in just a small amount of space. Look at the potato in the picture below next to the quarter as reference:

I definitely recommend the barrel or tire method. If any of you have written about this or know someone who has, please let me know and I will link to it.

Next year I will grow a lot more potatoes so we can dig for more gold! The flavor of Yukon Gold is excellent too. They are a yellow color even after they are cooked. I bought mine from PineTree Garden Seeds, which is my favorite seed company. They also have "Red Gold" potatoes if you want to stay in the pirate theme!

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Rain dances don't help, but Murphy can!

We are all familiar with Murphy's law. According to Wikipedia, Murphy's law states "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong." Many times that is true, but when I think of Murphy's Law I think of it more as "whatever you expect to happen, the opposite is what will actually happen." Case in point is the fact that it hasn't rained here for a couple of weeks even though the weather forecast has been "slight chance of showers or thunderstorms" every single day. For the past week I have been counting on that rain to rescue my wilting garden

Finally, I decided that it wasn't really going to rain. Last night I watered the garden as best I could with my hose, AND put blacktop patch down on my driveway. So, since the instructions say that you don't want it to rain for 24 hours after you apply the blacktop patch and since I ran the water hose for almost 2 hours, Murphy paid me a visit! You guessed it, it stormed all night.

Not only did Murphy catch me by surprise, he messed up my plans for today's post. I had planned on complaining about the lack of rain and voicing my worry that I might lose some of the plants since I can't water them all adequately. These were the pictures from last night that I planned to show you:

Pretty awful isn't it? Well, even though I'm kidding about Murphy's law, I'm very glad it rained. It stormed almost all night long. It rained way more on the garden than I could ever water with the hose. Thank you God! I didn't go up to the garden this morning, but I took this picture on my back deck that shows the rain evidence.

Doesn't it look wonderful! Oh, and the blacktop patch still looks okay too.

The moral of the story is that Murphy's Law always prevails, but sometimes you can fool him into doing something good!

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Beginner Pickle Maker Breaks Jars!

The above title reads like a newspaper headline doesn't it? My family had so much fun making pickles that even when we had a jar break, we had a good laugh about it. I was quite surprised the first time it happened but now I know why all canning directions say that you need to have "hot" jars and you must put "hot" liquid into the packed jars. They never say why you need to do each step on the directions! Obviously if the jars are not hot, the extreme temperature change that occurs when putting the jars into the boiling water can (and will) break the jars.

The first time it happened, as pictured above, we were making dill pickles. I noticed it right away because I was putting the jars in one at a time. The 2nd time it happened, we were making Bread & Butter pickles and this time I had discovered that you can lower all of the jars in at once (remember, I am a beginner). This time we didn't know the jar was broken until after the processing time was complete. What a mess! We don't have a range hood so the whole kitchen was sticky because the steam carried the sugar!

Even with our beginner mistakes, we had fun making the pickles. We have eaten several jars of the dills already but are supposed to wait a few weeks before opening the bread and butter pickles.

The whole family took part in making the pickles and my daughters had a great time!

Friday, August 4, 2006

What a Great Harvest!

Wow have we been blessed with a great harvest so far! The garden is exploding with tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, onions, zucchini and green beans.

We have been busy picking everything, making pickles and salsa, and freezing green beans. My daughters have been great about picking and snapping the beans.

We have been having a lot of fun with the harvest. We are still waiting on the corn and melons, but everything else has been doing well. The only thing not doing well are the carrots. We allowed the cantaloupe to take over the carrot and radish beds because I never put up the trellis that I was planning to build.

I hope your gardens are doing well. Sorry that I haven't posted in over a month. I have much to tell you and lots of pictures. I will try to get back to posting often. I want to tell you about what happened with the baby robins, and how the tomato supports have done. I have some interesting bugs to show you, some funny canning stories and much more. Check back frequently! Until then, blessings to you all.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Robin's Nest NOT so Peachy!

It should be almost time for the robin eggs in our peach tree to hatch. I checked on the nest this morning and found that the nest had almost fallen out of the tree. Two of the eggs were on the ground!

If you missed my post, The Robin's nest is Peachy from the other day, then you don't know that this is a pretty big deal to my family. My daughters are praying for these little birds and checking on them daily. My wife said that one egg fell out yesterday afternoon. It appeared unharmed and she put it back in the nest. The mother robin then came back and kept sitting on the eggs as if nothing had happened.

This time, two eggs fell out, and again they were not broken. They also were not wet, so they must have just fallen out. I put the eggs back in the nest and asked myself, how can we keep this from continuing to happen? I don't know if it will work, but I put a rope around the nest and tied it to the branch nearby.

It may be too small of a branch, but it was the closest one that is growing up instead of down. I hope the mother comes back. I took my camera out there this morning in hopes of catching a picture of her on the nest. Imagine my surprise to have to photograph this instead.

What do you think? Will the eggs be okay? Do you think they can still hatch? Do you think the mother bird will come back or be upset that I disturbed her nest? We are hoping for a happy ending. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Goodbye Cool Season Veggies!

Appropriately so, now that it is officially summer, our broccoli has bolted! Not surprising since the temperatue has been well over 90 degrees this week.

Pretty ugly huh? We had a great broccoli season. We only planted 6 plants, but from the other 5, we harvested so much that my family got tired of it. My daughter had fun cutting the heads and putting a couple together to make a boquet.

That picture was taken last week. Now the broccoli is finished. The peas and lettuce are finished too. We harvested the last of the peas last night. The ones at the end were a bit smaller with fewer peas to a pod.

The lettuce hasn't bolted yet, but it has gotten bitter. we pulled all of the remaining plants and put them in the compost bin. We ate a lot of lettuce this season. In addition to having their own bed, plants were tucked in beside tomatoes and peppers. my daughter found a plant that we must have never harvested from. It was enormous!

Too bad there isn't a Grow The Biggest Lettuce Plant category at the fair! my kids really seem to like giant vegetables. We have to plant the pumpkins, and in a hurry! Do any of you have suggestions for what giant varieties to try? Now that the cool season is officially over, we can turn our attention to trying to grow a monster pumpkin, and harvest it before the first fall frost!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Helping the Apple Tree

This apple tree was a mess. It had become more and more crooked over the past few years. Finally it was time to do something about it! At least it didn't have a bird's nest in it like our peach tree from a few days ago.

I was able to drive a stake and put some ties on it to hold it straight. These are the metal wire ties that go through a rubber tube. The rubber protects the tree from injury. I used to use clothsline, but the tree grew right around the clothsline and girdled itself. Be careful of that! Thats probably why I hesitated so long to fix these trees.

After I got the tree straight, I had another problem - the branches had adjusted the the leaning tree. Now that the trunk was straight, most of the branches were leaning to the left. I had to try to spread them back out so some will grow to the right. I would like to get some plastic limb spreaders, but until then, I used a second stake and some more wire/rubber ties. It works, but it aint pretty!

The limb spreaders I'm talking about can be found where trees are sold, but the ones I've looked at are from Stark Brothers, where I bought my trees. I have heard that they are stronger than most, and come in several lengths.

Please let me know if you have used limb spreaders and if you've had success with them. I'll let you know if I get them, but my make-shift spreaders are working for now.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Let Your Kids Help in The Garden

It is a great idea to let your children help you in the garden. I used to be a perfectionist and resist the help of a little one because things would not be done exactly right. Now I see that it is worth losing a seedling or two to have your children by your side in the garden. Even if they only help in small ways, they begin to understand how plants grow. They get to be part of something bigger than themselves. They marval at God's workmanship in every step.

So far, my daughters have been able to enjoy watching broccoli, lettuce and peas grow from seed to harvest. As for the tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, beans and everything else, they now want to check on the progress almost daily and notice even small changes in growth. Because of my girls, we have planted more vegetables than I originally planned. Every time they want to plant something new, we find a little more space. They recently planted corn and green beans.

I know it is kind of late in the year to be sowing seeds, but as long as we don't have a very early frost, they will make it. This weekend they will be planting pumpkins and gourds. We don't really have enough room in the garden for such space hogs, but by being a little creative I think we can manage. I will save the details for a future post.

The bottom line is that gardening is a great family activity. Our family is having a great time and learning a lot together. If you have a garden of any kind, I encourage you to involve your children in the tasks needed. As long as you can get them to see it as fun as well as work, they will want to visit the garden again and again!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Confessions of a Rose Murderer

Okay I confess. I am a Rose killer. However, I'm not a very good one! The rose bush below is one that I not only cut down, but dug out and threw out - or so I thought.

Now before you Rose lovers hate me, I have to explain. This bush was growing along the side of our house. It was already there when we moved in, but was very puny. My wife cut it down several years ago and planted daylilies all along the house. We also got new siding put on the house and this is on the side of the house that we rarely see.

Last year the rose bush grew back and grew up and under the siding! After it got under the siding, because it was looking for light, it grew several feet up into the side of the house! I nearly ripped off the siding trying to get the rose out of there! At that point I decided to completely remove it.

Well, just the other night I was cutting the grass on that side and was quite shocked to see such a prolific rose bush! Now I don't know whether to leave it or try to dig it up and move it to a better spot. Obviously, it likes living right where it is. Do you think it should stay?

Funny isn't it, that sometimes when we try very hard to grow a certain plant in a certain spot, it dies. But other times like this, we get a beautiful plant without even trying. It just goes to show you that it is the Lord above, and not the gardener, who is really the one in control!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Tomato Cage Alternatives

I am experimenting with tomatoes this year. I chose 20 different varieties to plant, watch and critique. Of course I couldn't have just one plant of each. For safety I needed to plant at least two of each kind. That means I have over 40 tomato plants! Never mind how I'm going to use all of those tomatoes, I've spent the past month trying to figure out how I'm going to stake or cage that many plants.

I've never been a big fan of using stakes. It seems you are always tying them up and they fall down anyway, or pull the whole stake down. All of my friends use the cages that you can buy at Wal-Mart or the hardware stores. Many of those commercial cages are too small. The bigger ones are too costly. I had a few cages from previous gardens, but I set out to find other ways of tomato support.

Above on the left is an example of the store bought cage. Above on the right is one of my new tomato tables. I call it that because it is built like a topless table. The idea is that the plant will grow through it and spill out over the top. It should give it just enough support to keep the tomatoes off the ground (I hope). I'll let you know later this month if they work well or not. They are built out of scrap wood that my father-in-law gave me. The boards were part of crates that flowers are delivered in at the florist he works for. I am now building some double-decker tables to try, just in case my single level tables aren't tall enough.

In another area of the garden I'm trying a different approach for tomato support. These are my cherry and grape tomatoes. They are indeterminate and grow quite tall and skinny. As you can see in the picture on the left, they were already falling over and sprawling on the ground. The picture on the right is my solution.

This is my first tomato trellis, also built from scrap wood. I drove two ten foot boards into the ground and attached a top board by drilling holes big enough to drop long bolts down. I left the top board longer on the ends to hang a planter of flowers later for added beauty. To support the tomato plants I just tied clothesline to the top support and then to the base of the plant. I then wrapped the clothesline gently around the main stem of the plant to hold it upright.

This is very easy to make. You don't actually tie the clothesline to the tomato plant. You make a loop at the base of the plant so it is not tight as the plant grows. Several years ago I did this but tied the clothesline to a stake in the ground next to the plant. This worked too but some of the plants pulled the stakes out and fell over. I then switched to this method and it worked well. I'll let you know later if it works again this year.

Even with my tomato tables and tomato trellis; I still have some tomato plants without any support. Do any of you have any other suggestions for cheap and easy means of tomato support? I'd love to hear any ideas. If not, I guess I'll keep making tomato tables or resort to plain stakes. Don't you just want a BLT sandwich right about now?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Robin's Nest is Peachy!

I know I haven't posted in a while, but that doesn't mean that nothing has been going on out in the garden! I have recorded much progress with the vegetable garden, the flower gardens, and the fruit trees and will be posting regularly now. My daughter wanted me to show this to you first.

A Robin has made a nest and laid eggs in our peach tree (she laid a third egg after this picture was taken). My daughter is very excited and watches the momma bird with binoculars. The problem is that I was in the process of staking my fruit trees because they are leaning a bit. Guess I'll have to wait at least a few more weeks to straighten this tree.

I did manage to straighten an apple tree that is next to this peach. I didn't even see the birds nest. Children are much better at noticing such things. The nest is low - right at my daughter's eye level. It has a nice foundation of eight or nine half-size peaches.

Look at how low and wide open the nest is. We are a bit worried about predetors. My daughter is praying for those baby birds, but it may take a miracle to keep a hawk or something from spotting them. Is there anything that we can do to help their fate? From researching Robins we think the eggs should hatch around June 24th or so. We'll keep you posted on how they are doing.

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