Posts Tagged ‘Vegetables’

Or we might have titled this post “Why Bees Are So Important.”

In January the press reported that scientists had noticed a significant decline in bumblebee populations in the U.S. — first it was the honeybees that were disappearing and now it’s bumblebees too. Scientists are not sure why just yet, but one thing they can agree on is that this is not good news because bumblebees pollinate about 15% of all crops in the field — blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, squash and watermelon; and in the hothouse — tomatoes, strawberries and peppers.

And it’s not just the many different variety of bees (honeybees, bumbles, carpenter bees, mason bees, metallic sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, ground-nesting bees, and various localized native bees) that pollinate flowers. There are many other creatures that do this work like ants, beetles, moths, flies, birds, butterflies, wasps, bats, and even a few mammals that transport pollen as they make their rounds.

Which is kind of the long way round to the question of problems with fruit set in squash, melons and cucumbers. Several people have asked why the flowers on squash and cucumber plants have been falling off. There are several reasons.

The first thing you should know is you might not have a problem. Squash, melons and cucumbers belong to the cucurbit family and they all have a unique flowering habit. Each plant bears male and female blossoms. The female blossom has a miniature fruit (ovary) at the base of the flower. Male blossoms don’t have this swelling. The male flower’s only job is to provide pollen to fertilize the ovary in the female flower and they depend on bees to do this. If the pollen isn’t transported from male to female flower fruit set will never happen.

Early flowers tend to be mostly male and these will fall off with no sign of fruit set. Not to worry, this is normal. On certain hybrid varieties of summer squash the early flowers are mostly females that don’t get fertilized and they will drop as well.

When the plants start producing both male and female flowers at the same time things should start clicking — unless there are no bees around. Cucurbits have sticky pollen and need bees to transport it from male to female flower. If your garden doesn’t have enough bees to pollinate the female flowers you will not get fruit.

In the absence of bees the only option is to hand pollinate. Get a small artist brush and pick up the yellow pollen that you will find inside the male flowers. Take the pollen-coated brush and paint it onto the stigma in the female flower. It is important to do this to only flowers that have just opened as they are only receptive for a single day.

It would be so much easier to have bees do the work! Without them crops will fail, plants won’t thrive, and we will be hard pressed to find solutions to this growing problem.

How can you help? Rule number one is to NEVER use pesticides in your garden. No matter how careful you are you will almost always kill at least a few bees. Rule number two is to create a garden that will sustain bees and all the creatures that help us grow food and the other plants we love. You can find tips on creating bee-friendly gardens in this post and by clicking some of the links on our resources page.

One last note, though we always recommend lots of mulch for your garden beds be sure to leave a few small areas bare for ground-nesting bees. Mulching is thought to be one of main reasons that this type of bee population is diminishing.

Save the bees!


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MB: Barbara and I always talk about things we’ve found, or rediscovered, that we are in love with. So we decided to create a page where we can share and discuss with you the things that have helped us with our gardening. It might be garden photography tips, tools, design ideas, books, new plants — anything that makes us stop for a moment and say, “How did I ever live without this?”  We are happy to share the love.

Fertilizer Siphon

I just ordered a fertilizer siphon that I’ve always wanted and I’m pretty sure it will be worth recommending. The siphon attaches to a hose and pulls fertilizer out of a container, mixing it with water running through the hose and onto the soil. I finally broke down and ordered it because I’m so tired of replacing clogged sprayer ends. I inevitably end up with stinky fish emulsion splattered all over me and I just couldn’t stand getting that messy and smelly any more. It should be delivered this week and I’ll let you know how it works. I’m sure I’m going to love it.


Barbara recently planted an Earthbox and she’s really loving it. I’m going to let her tell you about it.

B: I’ve been thinking about getting an Earthbox for a while because I keep hearing great things about how well they work for growing vegetables, especially tomatoes.

I’ve had miserable luck growing tomatoes in my yard. The plants that I put in the ground really couldn’t compete with the tree roots and our clay soil is just too dense. Those plants never even got started before they gave up. Then I planted in pots for a couple of years, but they dried out so quickly that I missed a couple of crucial waterings and the plants failed again.

The Earthbox seemed like a great solution for my situation. Planting in the box provides the tomatoes with the loose, rich soil they love. The Earthbox has a water well in the bottom that keeps the soil consistently moist and it has wheels that let me roll it around so the plants get enough sun. (I don’t have to go far which is good because with soil and water combined it’s about 80 pounds.)

My tomato plants are going like gangbusters. The plants are growing really fast and there are many more blossoms than I’ve ever had. I’m happily anticipating quite a crop this year. Finally!

We’ll be posting more reviews, thoughts, information, etc under the new tab “We Love This!” at the top of the page. Please visit often for ideas and products that can help you become a happier, more productive organic gardener.

We also want to share what you are loving these days. It can be anything garden-related —  tools, recipes, growing or photography tips. Please share it with us and the rest of our Bees and Chicks community.

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It’s getting really hot pretty much everywhere, so we’re going to focus on keeping your plants well-watered. Plants transpire (evaporate) water vapor through tiny holes on their leaves — mostly on the underside. This helps to cool the plant and draws nutrients from the soil and roots to the upper parts of the plant. On hot or dry, windy days plants can lose a lot of water, sometimes faster than they can take it up, and that can stress them making them more vulnerable to insects and disease.

  • When the temps get into the 90’s and above you may need to water your plants twice a day — early morning and late evening.
  • Container plants are especially vulnerable in this hot dry weather. Check for wilting.
  • Some wilting can be normal for certain plants, but if they look really droopy and the soil is dry don’t wait, water right away.
  • Check newly planted trees and shrubs. Keep them well watered — deep watering is best.
  • Water deeply in advance of hot Santa Ana winds. Don’t wait for it to start blowing.
  • A good layer of mulch, 2 -3 inches, will keep plant roots cool and will cut down on evaporation.
  • Make sure bird baths are clean and have plenty of fresh water
  • Make sure you drink plenty of water while you’re out in the garden — heat exhaustion and heat stroke are no fun.

Garden pests are hard at work this month so stay on top of it.

  • Keep aphids under control by knocking them off with a spray water from the hose.
  • You can try the same for whiteflies and be sure to wash off the sticky honeydew too.
  • Watch for tomato hornworms, they’ll be chomping on your tomatoes this month. They’re hard to see; look for their frass (poop). Click for a pic.
  • Keep an eye out for ladybug larvae which have a voracious appetite for aphids. Protect them and let them do the work for you.

Ladybug larva. It looks scary, but it's one of the beneficial insects you'll be happy to have in your garden.

It’s time to divide your Iris. Lift the clump up with garden fork, snap off leaf fans with about 3 inches of the rhizome attached. Trim leaf fans back to 5 inches tall and replant them in soil amended with compost. Water well.

Garlic scapes should be popped off when they are in a full curl, but don’t throw them away!

Chop scapes up and saute them in olive oil and serve over pasta. They’re really good in scrambled eggs too.

Keep an eye on your garlic for signs that the bulbs are ready to harvest. When the bottom 3 or 4 leaves start turning brown it will be time to lift the bulbs and cure them. Depending on the variety of garlic this should start near the end of July into August.

Treat yourself to a bouquet of flowers to enjoy indoors — that is why you grow them right? I love scattering a few small vases filled with flowers through the house.

And finally, start plans for your fall vegetable garden.

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Is there any plant in gardening that provokes more passionate discussion than tomatoes? There are as many “surefire” tips for growing the “best tomatoes ever” as there are gardeners who grow them, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are a few tips that will help you grow great tomatoes.

The first thing you need to know is if the plant is a determinate or indeterminate variety. Determinate varieties bear fruit over a one to two-week period. (You may want to consider growing several varieties that set fruit at different times so you can have a longer harvest period.) These plants are usually more compact and good for growing in containers. Some people will tell you that you don’t need to stake this type of tomato, but it’s usually a good idea to tie them loosely to a stake or put a wire cage (the commercial type will work here, but it should be 4′ tall) around them when you plant. As for pruning, determinate don’t require it.

Indeterminate tomatoes are larger vining plants — from 6′ to 12′ or larger. These tomatoes will produce fruit throughout the growing season until they are killed by frost or the days are too short to support their growth. Many old varieties and heirlooms are indeterminates. These plants definitely need to be supported. You can let them sprawl on the ground, but you will lose a lot of fruit to rot and pests.

There are lots of ways to stake tomatoes, but there are two important points to keep in mind. First, indeterminates can get really, really big. Add lots of fruit and you’ve got a surprising amount of weight to support. Second, it’s best to stake your tomatoes when you first plant them; just be sure that you’re thinking about how big they’ll eventually get.

One method of staking is to make a cage out of 5-foot tall 6″ x 6″ hardware cloth. Cut a piece long enough to create a 2 foot wide cage. Bend it into a circle and secure the edges. Be sure to stake the cage into the ground so it doesn’t get blown over in the wind. Another option is to drive 8-tall stakes a foot or two into the ground and to tie the plants to the stake as they grow.

The last method we’ll talk about is a trellises. This is our favorite option and there are several ways to do it. Here’s one that I built for a client last year.

These plants (Better Boys I think) were in a very tight space, but it was really sunny and warm and the plants grew like crazy. As a matter of fact, I should have used 2″ x 4″s instead of 1″ x 2″s and I should have used a metal rod across the top because by the time we got to August the plants were so heavy with fruit that the wooden dowel was bent to the breaking point. In spite of its limitations this trellis worked great and my client harvested an unbelievable amount of fruit.

The list could go on and if you’re interested search the web where there are lots of clever staking systems. One thing you shouldn’t bother with are commercial wire cages. They are too short and will not be able to support a mature plant that’s loaded with fruit.

To prune or not to prune indeterminates? Again, there are lots of opinions about this. My client never bothered and I can’t say it was a bad choice. Still, when I grow my tomatoes I always remove any leaves or stems from the bottom few inches of the plants to keep them disease-free (water can splash fungus spores up onto low-growing leaves) and I remove suckers early on so that there are only two or three main stems. After that I remove enough of them to keep the plants somewhat controlled and to ensure good air circulation. Plants need leaves for photosynthesis so don’t take off too many. It’s a little bit of an art and you’ll just have to get in there and develop your technique.

The stem growing out of the crook is a sucker.

Small, thin suckers like this one can be pinched out; larger ones should be cut with clippers. Make sure that your clippers are disinfected before you prune your plants and clean them when you move to the next plant to avoid transferring disease from plant to plant. If you’ve previously had blight, it’s probably best not to prune your plants, as cuts might leave the plant open to infection.

Finally, tomatoes need full sun, fertile soil with lots of organic matter dug in, organic fertilizer (fish emulsion and seaweed extract or Stress-X will make your plants happy) and regular deep watering.

Then just sit back and enjoy those delicious red, ripe beauties.

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I completed my March gardening to do list in the final days of the month. I collected all my tools, cleaned them up, and sharpened and oiled my pruners. All the garden beds are cleaned and ready to go, and I pruned the winter damage to my shrubs and trees.

I planted cool weather veggies in new beds that I prepared last fall. The soil was beautiful and it felt good to sink my hands into it! I put in snap peas, lettuce, spinach, kale, radishes, golden beets, and Swiss chard. I also planted some open seed packages of flowers along the borders ’cause I love flowers in my veggie garden. With luck I’ll have white cosmos, borage, marigolds, and sweet peas. It was a good thing I finished when I did because the snow started to fall a few hours later.

I planted garlic last October and I’m very pleased with its progress. The spring-green tops are starting to appear above the pine needle mulch and I think the plants are really happy in the beds I made them.

And finally, I took soil samples that I sent off on Monday. Barb and I will share our results when they come in.

As you read this I will be on the last leg of my drive to the East Coast (with my husband, our 2 dogs — Kea and Sage, and our maniac cat, Joker). We’ll be staying on Block Island for a few weeks so my Colorado gardens will have to fend for themselves while I am gone. That’s a real bummer, but the Island is beautiful in the spring and I can help with the gardens while I’m there. I’m really anxious about my Island bees and hope they survived the harsh winter. We’ll see…

Spring is ramping up, so stretch your gardening muscles and get ready for April’s to do list!

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We’re coming up fast on Labor Day people. Lots of tired clichés come to mind and I’m not going there (you’re welcome), but yikes! Here in Southern California that means it will soon be time to plant our cool season crops. We’re a lucky bunch, we get two growing seasons  — warm and cool. But that doesn’t mean that gardeners in the cooler regions can’t grow cool season crops. There are some regions where it’s not possible, but for most of the country you can grow at least a few of the early maturing crops.

Tip #1— Cool Season Crops

In Southern California the list of vegetables that can be grown in this second season is long. It includes: arugula, beets, broccoli, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, mache, escarole, favas, green onion, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mesclun, mustard, parsnips, radicchio, radish, snap peas, spinach and turnips. These seeds should go into the ground in mid-September.

In Colorado where Mary Beth gardens it is possible, with some frost protection to get a few plants to produce into early November. These seeds should go into the ground now: arugula, beets, broccoli, green onion, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips.

As always, read your seed packets! There is a wealth of information on them. Pay attention to the days to maturity. This will tell you how long it takes to go from seed to harvest. If you are unsure of your climatic conditions contact your local cooperative extension. They know everything there is to know about local growing conditions and will be happy to help you figure out when to plant.

Check our resources page for seed companies and get your orders in asap.

Tip #2 — Extend Your Growing Season

To extend the growing season in the colder regions invest in some hoops or row covers. They’re not too expensive and they will protect your crops from light frosts which could buy you a few weeks of harvesting fresh vegetables.

Tip #3 — Digital Photography Contest

The nice folks at The Nature Conservancy contacted us to let us know that they are running a digital photo contest. Surely you have some great photos that you’d like to enter! Anything depicting to the natural world will do.

It’s easy to submit photos. Contestants can enter using the Conservancy’s free Flickr(TM) photo sharing group. All photos submitted to Flickr(TM) should include the tag – “PhotoContest-TNC10”.  Deadline for submissions is October 4, 2010 11:59 PST. Go to the Nature Conservancy website for more details on what and how to enter.

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There’s no theme or focus today, just a little of this and a little of that — kind of like what’s going on in my head today.

Tip #1 — Getting Transplants Off to a Healthy Start

Now that we’re all scrambling to get our baby plants in the ground, here are a few tips to help you do it right.

  • Make sure your soil is loose and friable — which means crumbly. Vegetables have very fine root hairs and need a looser soil structure to be able to grow well. This is especially true of carrots which will get gnarly if they encounter anything in the path of their root as they grow.
  • Amend your soil before you put in your transplants, but don’t put anything in the hole you dig for your plants. That means no fertilizer (dry fertilizer will burn the roots killing the plant) and no weird additions that your grandmother swears by. New research by the folks at the University of California shows that plants do best with nothing but the dirt you just dug up around their roots.
  • Now you can fertilize your plant, but only a little bit! To help your starts recover from transplant shock, mix a little fish emulsion into a watering can or bucket and water in your transplants. Use just enough fish emulsion to color the water.
  • Don’t forget to water your babies well over the next couple of weeks. Never let them completely dry out. Once they are established, you can water less frequently.

Tip #2 — Keeping Container Plants Watered

One of the big issues with containers is keeping them moist enough throughout the dog days of summer. To that end we suggest mixing water absorbing granules into your potting soil. We have been using Soil Moist in our pots and it works like a charm. But we only use it with ornamentals, never with edibles because it’s petroleum-based.

We recently heard about another product by Zeba called Quench which is an “all natural, starch-based product.” It supposedly releases water into the soil more readily than the petroleum-based products. A grower we talked to at a well-known nursery swears by the stuff. So we’ll be giving it a try it in our containers this summer.

Mix it into your soil according to the package directions. Use only the amount specified — more is not better. Use even a little bit more than you’re supposed to and the granules will swell up and push your plant right out of the pot! It should cut down your container’s water requirements significantly and save you from coming home one blazing afternoon to droopy or, worse yet, dead plants.

That’s all we’ve got for this week. Happy gardening!

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