Sometimes plants grow in ways you might not expect.
Instead of a nice round stem or flower, you get a flattened ribbon shape, or undulating folds, called ‘cockscomb’. This is called fasciation. It is also known as cresting.
Fasciation is a relatively rare physiological disorder that can create some really beautiful mutations. It can occur anywhere on a plant, but stems and flowers are the most commonly seen examples.
How does fasciation occur?
In normal plant development, growing tips (apical meristems) focus all their resources on a single point. This is what gives us straight and/or cylindrical stems and flowers. Fasciation elongates the apical meristem, creating a ribbon-like growth. The Latin word fascia means “a band” and can refer to anything that looks like a ribbon or wide band.
In some cases, these distortions can create unique bends, twists, and odd angles, or unusual clusters of growth that look like a witches broom. Flowers and leaves growing on these distorted stems may be smaller than normal, more abundant, or have other unique characteristics of their own.
One rare form of fasciation, called ring fasciation, has a ring-shaped growing point that creates hollow tubes.
What causes fasciation?
Fasciation can be caused by plant hormone imbalances, genetic mutations, environmental conditions, or bacterial, fungal, or viral infections. It can also occur for no apparent reason. Environmental factors include chemical overspray or exposure, mite or other insect infestation, and the presence of certain fungi. Exposure to cold and frost can also cause fasciation. Unless the fasciation is caused by bacteria, it is not contagious to nearby plants.
Plants affected by fasciation
In addition to my milkweed, this condition is most commonly seen on nasturtiums, geraniums, dandelions, and ferns. It has also been seen on fruits and vegetables, such as asparagus and broccoli.
Some plants are prized and propagated simply because of their fasciation. I look at it as a nice little surprise from the garden.
Have you seen fasciation in your garden?
If you grow currants, you should know about currant sawflies.
Currants make delicious jellies, pies, sauces, and even wine, but currant sawfly larvae can completely strip the leaves from your currant plants in only a few days.
Also known as imported currantworms and common gooseberry sawflies, these pests feed on gooseberries and other members of the Ribes family. Native to Europe, this pest is now found throughout North America.
Currant sawfly identification
If you see chewed holes in the leaves of your currant bushes, take a closer look. There are several pests that can cause this damage. It may be currant borers (Synanthedon tipuliformis), currant spanworms (Itame ribearia), the Epochra ribearia maggot, gooseberry fruitworms (Zophodia convolutella), or currant sawflies (Nematus ribesii). Sawflies tend to feed in groups, while those other pests do not.
Like other sawflies, adult currant sawflies look like a cross between a wasp and a fly. The larvae grow to 3” in length, but their coloration makes them difficult to see. They start out green with black heads. As they grow, they develop yellowish ends and black spots.
Currant sawfly lifecycle
Adult currant sawflies lay tiny, oval white eggs on the underside of leaves and there can be three generations each year. The first brood emerges after the first leaves appear in spring, the second occurs in early summer, and a third generation may occur, weather permitting. In each generation, feeding is very heavy and rapid.
To make matters worse, feeding often begins on the lower, inner reaches of the shrub, so you may not even notice the damage right away. Be sure to inspect plants regularly for signs of feeding and look on the underside of leaves for eggs.
How to control currant sawflies
Before you take any drastic measures, you need to know that the larval stages of currant sawflies look a lot like little green caterpillars. The distinction is important because control measures are different for moth and sawfly larvae. Take a closer look. If you have one, grab a hand lens or magnifying glass. If if you see 6 or more pairs of hookless legs, it’s a sawfly. Caterpillars have tiny hooks on their stubby legs and they usually have only 3 pairs of prolegs.
You can treat moth larvae infestations with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). That treatment will not work against sawflies. Commercial growers spray plants with Malathion as soon as currant sawflies appear. Your best choice for controlling currant sawflies is to spray infested plants with insecticidal soap and handpick currantworms as they are seen.
When most of us hear the word ‘bicarbonate’ we think of baking soda. In this case, we’d only be half right.
Baking soda (NaHCO3) is sodium bicarbonate. Sodium is salt. Salt is bad for your garden. Period.
Potassium bicarbonate is something else entirely.
What is potassium bicarbonate?
Also known as potassium hydrogen carbonate or potassium acid carbonate, potassium bicarbonate (KHCO3) is a white, alkaline solid used in fire extinguishers, wine making, to make club soda, and to neutralize acids. As a base, potassium bicarbonate is at the high end of the pH scale. If you have alkaline soil, studies have shown that using potassium bicarbonate does not alter sodium levels in your soil, plants, or runoff water. If your garden plants commonly suffer from fungal diseases, potassium bicarbonate may be exactly what they need.
Potassium bicarbonate is an organic fungicide used mostly to prevent fungal diseases, such as Alternaria blight, apple scab, black spot, blights, botrytis, downy mildews, molds, phytophthora, powdery mildew, and Septoria leaf spot. Once these diseases are in place, they are very difficult to get rid of, through potassium bicarbonate can certainly improve the situation.
Research has shown that bicarbonates do, when they cover a leaf completely, slow the growth of and occasionally kill mold spores outright. For potassium bicarbonate to work effectively, it must be in solution. While some people promote the use of homemade mixes that use horticultural oils for this purpose, those oils can lead to phytotoxicity (plant poisoning), oily buildup on the leaves and in the soil, and the mix requires constant shaking to keep the oil and water mixed while applying. The ideal mixture of solution and treatment is sold under the name GreenCure®.
Unlike sodium bicarbonate, which leaves behind a salt residue, ammonium and potassium bicarbonates contain nitrogen, an important plant nutrient.
Can you make your own potassium bicarbonate spray?
You can, but you shouldn't. As a big proponent of DIY just about everything, I must say that this case is an exception to that rule. While you can certainly find recipes for your own potassium bicarbonate spray online, making it properly is not as simple as advertised. The truth is, it took years of research to determine the proper balance of ingredients that allow the antifungal action to occur, while sticking to plants, but not killing them in the process.
The fine folks at The Garden Professors Blog Facebook Page directed me towards some good information along the same lines. Bottom line: potassium bicarbonate is an effective prevention and treatment of many fungal diseases. It is not something you should be making at home. Instead, read labels and buy a product that will protect and not harm your plants.
If you decide to use potassium bicarbonate in your garden, UC Davis recommends no more than 8 treatments a year.
Yellow spots on leaves may indicate Septoria leaf spot.
This fungal disease is very destructive and it affects celery, chicory, cucumber, and other cucurbits, along with asters, carnations, chrysanthemums, verbena, and various trees and shrubs. Septoria leaf spot is one of the most destructive tomato diseases I know.
Like other leaf spot diseases, Septoria reduces photosynthesis and the flow of important nutrients through the vascular bundles, leaving plants to wither and die.
Warm, wet weather is all this fungi needs to set up housekeeping in your garden. And remember, that wetness can be caused by poorly placed sprinklers, leaky hoses, and overhead watering, just as easily as the weather. Temperatures between 60°F and 80°F are ideal for fungal growth. Knowing what to look for can help you protect your plants.
Types of Septoria
Septoria is a family of fungi. Different subspecies affect different plants. The most common types of Septoria, followed by their host plants and symptoms, include:
Symptoms are first seen in older leaves. The disease spreads upward into newer growth. As the spots spread, leaves turn yellow, die, and fall off. This leaf loss reduces plant vigor and increases the chance of fruit being damaged by sunburn. Severe infections can result in complete defoliation.
Septoria leaf spot lifecycle
Septoria fungi travel on the wind and in rain, so it’s something you need to monitor for regularly. Spores come into contact with host plants and send out thready hyphae, which enter plants through cracks and injury sites. Spores overwinter in the soil and on infected plant debris.
How to control Septoria leaf spot
As with many other diseases, prevention is far easier than treating. These tips will help prevent Septoria leaf spot in your garden:
If Septoria leaf spot is seen, remove infected leaves right away and throw them in the trash. Also, sanitize any tools that may have come into contact with infected plants and avoid working around plants when they are wet.
While it might be cute to picture a fly buzzing around with a tiny saw, there is nothing to love about sawflies.
Sawflies get their name because their ovipositor (egg-laying organ) is shaped like a saw and used to cut notches into plants for egg-laying.
Sawfly larvae may look like caterpillars or slugs, but these pests are in the same order as bees, wasps, and ants, and are closely related to woodwasps and horntails. You can tell the difference between sawfly larvae and caterpillars by counting their legs. Caterpillars usually have five or fewer prolegs on their abdomen, while sawfly larvae, such as the California pear sawfly, have 7 or 8 pairs of prolegs on their abdomen and 3 more pair on the thorax.
With over 8,000 sawfly species, spread out over 800 genera, there is a wide variety of coloration and body type in the world of sawflies. As a group, their soft bodies are stubby and only slightly wasp-like, and they tend to be weak flyers. The ovipositor is often mistaken for a stinger, though sawflies cannot sting. Some sawfly larvae, however, are known to puke up a noxious liquid that would-be predators find distasteful, while other sawfly species raise their rear ends up, cobra-fashion, weaving back and forth a warning.
Some of the more common sawfly species include:
Adult sawflies only live for one week, during which time they mate and females lay 30 to 90 eggs. Eggs are tan, oval or kidney-shaped, and look like tiny blisters on the upper surfaces of leaves. In 2 - 8 weeks, depending on temperatures, those eggs hatch and then go through 5 or 6 larval stages, depending on the species, before heading to the soil, en masse, to pupate. Some sawfly species use webspinning and leafrolling to protect their young, while others spin cocoons. The entire process can take 2 years. It is during the larval stages when sawflies do the most damage.
Sawflies are defoliators, which means they strip the leaves from several garden plants. Species tend to be host-specific. Rose sawflies attack roses, pine sawflies attack pine trees, and so on. Plants vulnerable to sawfly feeding include apple, cherry, peach, pear, plum, and quince trees, along with most cane fruits.
Larvae often feed in large groups, for added protection. Damage caused by larval forms of sawflies include leafmining, defoliation, skeletonizing, galls, and notching of leaves.
Generally speaking, handpicking is your best method of controlling sawfly larvae. You can feed them to your chickens for a tasty protein treat, or bag them and toss them in the trash. While Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can be used to control moth and butterfly larvae, it is not effective against sawfly larvae.
Insecticides can be used against sawflies, but sawfly larvae are a popular food for many native birds, including partridges, black grouse, corn buntings, and chestnut-backed chickadees. Shrews, lizards and frogs also enjoy snacking on these pests, along with several predatory wasps, including ichneumon and braconid wasps.
You can attract these garden helpers by providing fresh water, growing a variety of insectary plants and plants that provide pollen and nectar, and avoiding the use of broad spectrum pesticides and herbicides.
Blue-green sharpshooters are sap-sucking, disease-carrying cousins of leafhoppers. Native to California, blue-green sharpshooters (Graphocephala atropunctata) have only recently become serious pests.
As blue-green sharpshooters feed, they inject plants with a bacteria that causes Pierce’s disease.
Pierce’s disease primarily affects grapes, but it can also appear on alfalfa, almond, avocado, blackberry, citrus, elderberry, and olive. The bacteria that cause Pierce’s disease block the flow of water and nutrients through the xylem, causing scorching, stunting, bleaching, leaf stippling, “matchstick” petioles, ‘green islands’ on stems, raisined grapes, defoliation and dieback. But symptoms do not always appear in the year the plant is infected. This results in many more plants becoming infected as sharpshooters move from plant to plant as they feed. Plants infected the previous year often exhibit delayed or absent budbreak. Plants infected early in the growing season are more likely to look as though they have recovered, even though they haven’t.
There is no cure for Pierce’s disease and infected plants usually die within 1 to 3 years. Other diseases caused by the same bacteria include almond leaf scorch, oleander leaf scorch, and olive leaf scorch. These bacteria can also be carried by spittlebugs and glassy-winged sharpshooters.
Outbreaks of Pierce’s disease have been growing dramatically. This is believed to be due to warmer temperatures allowing vectors, such as blue-green sharpshooters, and the bacteria they carry, to live through the winter.
Blue-green sharpshooter description
Unlike glassy-winged sharpshooters, which average 1/2” in length, blue-green sharpshooters are much smaller and easy to miss. As far as pests go, the blue-green sharpshooter is quite colorful. From a distance, it simply looks like a wedge-shaped green insect. If you look closely, with a hand lens, you suddenly see striking bright blue to green wings, thorax, and head, with a yellow abdomen and legs. There are sometimes red, yellow, or green markings. You may also be able to see red drops of sap attached to their legs.
Blue-green sharpshooter lifecycle
Until recently, only one generation of blue-green sharpshooter appeared each year. Rising temperatures and stressed predator insects are making multiple generations possible. Most sharpshooters overwinter near creeks, becoming active in spring. Eggs are laid just after budbreak. As surrounding vegetation begins to dry up, concentrations of sharpshooters in gardens, vineyards, and orchards increases. Sharpshooters go through complete metamorphosis, frequently leaving pale discarded exoskeletons behind on the underside of leaves. Nymphs and adults feed on nutrient-rich sap throughout the summer, moving back into nearby weeds and vegetation at the end of summer.
Blue-green sharpshooters use vocalization to communicate and to find a mate. Males have 3 distinct calls: a complex mating call, a gulping call, and a chirping call. Females have a call they use to respond to males’ mating calls. The pair sings a type of duet before mating, which is all very nice, but they still spread disease. Because there is no cure for Pierce’s disease, interrupting the disease cycle is the only way to prevent plant loss.
Controlling blue-green sharpshooters
The first step to controlling blue-green sharpshooters is to make sure they are present. This is done with yellow sticky sheets. Sharpshooters are most commonly found in locations with abundant soil moisture and some shade. Unshaded, dry areas and areas of deep shade are less likely habitats for sharpshooters.
You can reduce the chance of infection of Pierce’s disease with these tips:
Famers have found that installing bluebird boxes goes a long way toward reducing blue-green sharpshooter populations. Insecticides aimed at sharpshooters are only marginally effective, while insecticidal soap and horticultural oil provide some control.
Cereals may show up in boxes on store shelves, but they always start out growing in a field or garden the same way all the other grasses you see coming up in lawns grow.
It is believed that people started cultivating figs some 11,000 years ago and that full-fledged farming of cereal grains started some 8,000 years ago. Many historians attribute modern society to the wealth created by agriculture and farming cereal grains in particular.
We get the word cereal from the Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture and the harvest.
Cereal grains include:
A cereal grain is actually a type of fruit called a caryopsis. The seed heads are called ‘ears’, even when you are talking about something other than corn
Combining the fruit of a a cereal grain with a legume provides us with complete proteins needed to stay healthy. This means peanut butter (legume) on wheat bread (cereal), or rice (cereal) and beans (legume) gives us the same amino acids as eating meat [though I will rarely turn down a steak]. Cereal grains contain amino acid chains, called peptides, that bind to the same receptors in our brains as opioid drugs, which may explain why those carbs are so damned addicting.
How cereal grains grow
There are warm season cereals and cool season cereals. Most of them are cool season plants, which means they grow best in mild climates. Of the cool season cereals, there are spring and winter types. Spring types are planted in early spring and then mature in late summer. Winter varieties are planted in autumn, grow for a time, and then go dormant during the winter. When spring rolls around, these plants have a head start on the competition and burst into full flower before maturing in late spring or early summer.
How to grow cereal grains at home
Most cereals are planted by broadcasting seed across a prepared bed and then raking the area to a depth of 2”. The area is then watered thoroughly and then covered with a 2- to 4-inch layer of straw. The straw helps retain moisture and reduces seed loss to birds. It also makes life more difficult for weeds. After that, there isn’t much you need to do. I like growing cereals alongside fences and the house, though you do have to watch out for mealybugs and fungal diseases.
Pests and diseases of cereal grains
Rats, mice, and other rodents, and birds love cereal grains and you will be hard pressed to keep them out of your cereal grain crop. Netting helps, somewhat. Extended rains can lead to blotch disease, rust, and leaf spot. I have also found mealybugs to be a problem.
Harvesting cereal grains
Amber waves of grain isn’t just a line from a song. Field or garden patches of ripening seed heads create a comforting sense of satisfaction. And that’s a good thing, because harvesting cereal grains takes a lot of work. First, the dried stalks, or stover, are cut off, close to soil level, and hung or stacked to finish drying. Then the threshing begins. Threshing breaks the seeds free of the non-seed portion, or chaff. Then the material is tossed into the air on a windy day or in front of a fan to get rid of the chaff.
What would corned beef be without rye?
Completely different from the ryegrass growing in your lawn, rye has a lot more to offer your landscape than just a marbled deli sandwich.
Cousin to wheat and barley, rye is a cereal grain used to make bread, beer, and liquor. Native to Turkey, rye has been cultivated since the Bronze Age and it is considered the hardiest of all the cereal grains.
Rye has a lower gluten content than wheat, and higher fiber content. But, even if you don’t eat it, rye provides many benefits to your soil.
Benefits of growing rye
Rye (Secale cereale) makes an excellent green manure and cover crop, particularly in no-dig gardening environments. Rye grows well in poor soil, especially in sand. A fast grower, rye not only suppresses weeds but it produces allelopathic chemicals that reduce weed growth. Rye also prevents erosion, and its tough, fibrous root system can easily reach depths of nearly 3 feet, and as much as 7 feet deep in sandy soils, helping reduce soil compaction and improving drainage. Rye is also used frequently in crop rotation and in orchards and vineyards as a way to improve soil health.
If you have a patch of really poor soil, plant a mix of rye, hairy vetch, and crimson clover in the autumn. Near the end of winter, cut it all down and leave it where it falls. By late spring, you should be able to grow the best tomatoes in the county on that soil, and those tomato plants will be bothered less by Colorado potato beetles and early blight, due partly to beetles having a hard time moving through the residue and reduced soil splashing.
The rye plant
Similar to wheat, there are winter ryes and spring ryes. Spring ryes are usually used as wind breaks and nurse crops that are cut down before seed heads develop. Winter rye is grown for everything else.
Rye is a rugged plant. It can tolerate drought, flooding, and freezing temperatures. In fact, rye has a surprisingly high tolerance for frost. Winter varieties of rye even contain their own version of antifreeze! Rye plants quickly reach 3 to 6 feet in height, making it an exciting winter crop along fences. Allowed to go through its entire lifecycle, this annual will produce flowers in April and May, with seed heads maturing in May and June, in California. Stalks, or stover, are very fibrous and they break down slowly.
Rye pests and diseases
Rye has very few pests and those it has cause little or no damage. Pests of rye include cereal bugs, cereal chafers, dart moth larvae, fruit flies, gout flies, Hessian flies, leaf beetles, nematodes, and rustic shoulder knot larvae. Rye plants also harbor bird cherry-oat aphids.
The more intriguing side of rye includes is high susceptibility to ergot, a fungal disease. Apparently, eating rye infected with ergot causes hallucinations, convulsions, and witch trials, due to the LSD-like chemicals produced as waste products by the fungi. The infamous Salem Witch Trials are believed to be the result of hungry communities eating rye infected with ergot. Not exactly a recreational drug, ergotism also causes miscarriages and the loss of fingers and toes, and it can kill you. Luckily, ergot isn’t the problem it used to be.
How to grow rye
Unlike other cereal grains, rye is very particular about seed planting depth. Plant it more than 2” deep and the seed will die. You can drill holes in the ground for rye seeds or you can broadcast the seed over an area and rake it in. Keep the area moist, but not soggy, until germination occurs and then you can pretty much leave rye to its own devices.
When seed heads mature, they turn a golden brown and dry on the stalks. You can leave the plants where they are and allow the seeds to feed local birds and other wildlife and reseed the area, or you can cut the stalks and hang them to dry more completely before threshing and winnowing the grain.
Threshing means beating the snot out of the seed heads to break them loose. Winnowing means throwing everything up in the air in a windy (or fan-blown) place to get rid of the non-seed parts, or chaff. This is a very labor-intensive process, but seeing a bowl of rye (or wheat) berries harvested by your hand is a very satisfying experience.
If you grow rye for no other reason, lady bugs love it!
Have you ever peed on a tree?
You may have heard garden lore about peeing on lemon trees to improve tree health and fruit flavor, but is it true? And is it safe? [Mostly yes, and yes.] And what is in that bag of urea, advertised as such an excellent source of nitrogen?
As the human population and the demand for food and water continue to increase, new solutions are being sought. Using urea and urine to fertilize edible plants is one of those solutions. Before you get grossed out, you need to know that urine is practically sterile and it is an important part of the nitrogen cycle. As mammals urinate on the ground, nitrogen fertilizes the soil, helping plants grow.
What is urea?
Our bodies use urea to excrete nitrogen in our urine. Urea is colorless, odorless, soluble in water, and non-toxic. Urea and urine both contain a lot of nitrogen, and all plants need nitrogen to grow and thrive. Nitrogen is the fundamental building block for chlorophyll and plant enzymes and proteins, including a plant’s DNA. Without nitrogen, photosynthesis cannot occur.
Over 90% of the world’s manufactured urea is used in agriculture as the most concentrated, affordable nitrogen source available to plants. Pure urea has an NPK value of 46-0-0. For comparison, ammonium sulphate has an NPK of 21-0-0, followed by blood meal at 13-1-1. On average, human urine has as NPK value of 18-2-5. This means urine contains 18% nitrogen (N), 2% phosphorus (P), and 5% potassium (K). The potassium and phosphorus found in urine, human or otherwise, are in forms that are quickly absorbed by plants.
Keep in mind that nitrogen, in all its forms, is highly mobile and easily leached into ground water. This causes out of control algae blooms and water pollution. Regardless of where you get your nitrogen, don’t add more than is needed. [Get a soil test before adding anything!]
How urea feeds plants
When urea comes into contact with the soil, specific bacteria convert it into ammonia (NH3), ammonium ions (NH4+), and bicarbonate ions (HCO3−). Other bacteria use the Calvin Cycle to oxidize the ammonia, converting it into nitrites, in a process called nitrification. This makes the ammonium and nitrites readily available to plants. It also acidifies the soil slightly.
Research published in the 2007 American Chemical Society [J. Agric. Food Chem.200755218657-8663] reported that cabbage grown with human urine as a fertilizer grew larger than those fertilized with industrial fertilizer. Those same plants showed less insect damage that their commercially fed counterparts, though unfertilized cabbages showed the least amount of insect damage. The same study demonstrated that urine performed equally well as commercial fertilizers on cucumber and barley crops, without increasing the risk of disease. In each case, there was no noticeable change in the flavor of the food being grown. [So much for those lemons! ]
In a similar study, published by Cambridge University Press, larger harvests of amaranth were noted on the crops fed with urine. Other studies have found similar results with beets and tomatoes. In fact, beets grown with urine tend to be 10% larger than those grown with commercial fertilizer.
Top dressing your garden with urea or urine just before it rains or irrigating can add a lot of nitrogen to the soil. If you buy a bag of urea, be sure to keep it tightly closed. Nitrogen evaporates rapidly into the atmosphere and urea absorbs water from the air very quickly. Also, you should know that urea can contain biuret, an impurity that can be phytotoxic, or poisonous to plants.
Did you know that the average adult in the Western world pees enough in a year to fill three bathtubs? That’s a lot of plant food!
But there’s a catch.
Too much fo a good thing can be a bad thing
There is so much nitrogen in urea and urine that it can prevent seeds from germinating and burn seedlings, roots, leaves, and your lawn. This is especially true if a plant’s moisture content is low. Urine also contains salt, which can dehydrate or kill plants. You know those dead spots in the lawn where Fido relieved himself? That damage is nitrogen and salt burn.
If you want to use urine to water and feed your garden, it is a good idea to dilute it first. The recommended dilution is one part urine to 2-8 parts water, depending on who you ask. This nutrient rich mix can then be dispersed using a watering can. If you are taking prescription or recreational drugs, you may want to discuss transference with your doctor or local pharmacist first. Chemicals in our water and food supplies is real.
Otherwise, go unzip yourself at the more mature plants in your backyard, such as that lemon tree, or you can contribute some nitrogen and moisture to the compost pile and conserve some tap water.
Since people first started growing plants for food, we have been battling the pests that eat, damage, or infect those plants.
Initially, those battles were hand-to-hand combat. Pests were removed by hand, chased away, and puzzled over. Then came the age of ‘better living through chemistry’, when powerful concoctions were sprayed willy-nilly, threatening entire species. Now, the pendulum has swung in a new, more balanced direction. That direction is called integrated pest management.
Integrated pest management (IPM) is a program of science-based pest controls with the minimal disruption of natural cycles and least harm to other organisms. Integrated pest management was made a national policy in the U.S. by President Nixon in 1972.
What are pests?
Your younger brother or sister may have been a pest when you were kids, but garden pests never outgrow the potential to cause damage. Garden pests include any organism that can harm or hinder the plants we want to grow. Using this definition, a pest can be disease-carrying bacteria, viruses, or fungi, a plant-eating insect or animal, a competitive weed, destructive soil nematodes, or a neighbor’s cat that thinks your carrot patch is its litter box.
What is IPM?
IPM takes a long view on reducing the negative impact of pests in ways that are sustainable and responsible. An integrated pest management plan has six basic tenets:
Rather than relying on a single method of control, IPM combines these tenets, in the order presented, to reduce the negative impacts associated with killing off pretty much anything. Rather than spraying chemical pesticides and insecticides on your food plants and into the soil and water table, you can work your way through these sustainable practices for surprisingly effective control of most garden pests.
Monitoring for pests
The first step in an IPM program is monitoring. Monitoring involves more than simply looking for bugs. Monitoring for problems begins by arming yourself with factual information about your soil and microclimate. This means sending out a sample for a soil test. Test results will let you know which nutrients are at acceptable, toxic, of deficient levels, along with soil pH, soil organic matter levels, and base saturations. It also means noting sun and wind exposure levels at various locations in your yard, the likelihood of frost damage, drainage problems, and preexisting pest problems. Each of these conditions play powerful roles in keeping plants healthy enough to defend themselves against pests.
After collecting all that information, go outside and start look for pests. You don’t know what you are up against without looking. You can use pheromone traps and yellow sticky sheets to help collect information of what costs are present. As you see pests, learn to identify them and then read up on them. Learn enough about them to counteract the damage they do without causing undo damage of your own. This is where things like trap crops come in handy.
The next step is to decide just how much damage you are comfortable with. Wiping out entire species is generally not a good plan. Evolution takes time and the balances that are created can be delicate and easily thrown out of whack. Allowing tolerable levels of pests to be present provides food for beneficial insects which will help you fight the battle against those and others pests.
Cultural practices are the way you manage your garden. Do you use overhead watering, which can encourage fungal disease, or do you use soaker hoses? Pruning for proper air flow and good structure go a long way toward pest control. There are several good cultural practices that help your plants stay healthy:
The third plan of action is mechanical controls. Row covers, tree cages, tomato cages, netting, sticky barriers, brassica collars, mulch, shade cloth, tree supports, trellising, and fencing are common mechanical controls that help plants stay healthy. This stage of pest control also includes trapping, hand picking, and soil solarization. Cold frames, greenhouses, and hoophouses also provide mechanical controls that reduce pest damage by making life harder for the pests.
There is an army of beneficial insects ready to help you control pests naturally, if you will only get out of their way. Instead of using chemical pesticides and insecticides, which can kill off beneficial predators and parasites, install insectary plants and provide water to create a welcome habitat for the natural enemies of the pests in your landscape.
Other biological controls include the release of sterile insects (generally performed by government agencies and universities) and introducing other natural predators periodically. Unfortunately, buying ladybugs and other predators rarely works as well as you might hope. They generally don’t stick around. Creating a welcoming environment is far more effective.
Chemical pesticides are used as a last resort. Pesticides should be selected as appropriate for the specific pest being controlled and used in ways to avoid affecting non target organisms.
Whichever chemical controls you use, it is important to switch things up periodically to prevent the likelihood of pest resistance. Pest resistance occurs when an organism develops an immunity toward a treatment, making it necessary to use ever-stronger poisons against them. Insects and pathogens evolve much faster than we do, so there is a limit to what we can tolerate.
Finally, after monitoring the situation and deciding which pests can be tolerated, using good cultural, mechanical, biological controls, and applying only necessary chemical controls, be sure to assess the situation, to make sure the problem is being corrected. If it isn’t, you need to go back and learn more about the pest(s) causing the problem to develop a new plan of action.
Generally speaking, pests appear seasonally and on specific crops. Knowing when to look and where to look can give you a jump-start on controlling the pests that damage your garden plants.
You can help the scientific community by participating in citizen science projects, such s the Big Bug Hunt, where you report insect sightings as you see them. This helps researchers develop better predictions about when pests are likely to appear in your area.
Trichogramma wasps are small but mighty.
These microscopic parasitic wasps protect an astounding collection of edible plants. It might be easier to list those they do not protect, but your almond, apple, avocado, beet, blackberry, blueberry, celery, cherry, corn, cotton, grape, orange and other citrus, legume, papaya, peach, peanut, pear, plum, pumpkin, quince, squash, strawberry, tomato, walnut, and zucchini plants and trees are better off when Trichogramma wasps are in the neighborhood. These tiny wasps protect your plants from damage by parasitizing the eggs of these garden pests:
Parasitic wasps lay their eggs in many common garden pests. This group of beneficial wasps includes braconids, chalcids, Goniozus wasps, ichneumon wasps, and Trichogramma wasps.
Female Trichogramma wasps seek out the eggs of pesky moths and butterflies and sawflies to use as nurseries for her own eggs. When she finds one, the first thing she does is drum on it with her antennae and ovipositor to see if it has already been used. Drumming also helps her determine how big and useful the host egg is. This dictates how many eggs she will insert.
After being inserted into a host egg, the wasp egg develops, pupates, and then hatches, after which it feeds on the contents of the host egg. This turns the host black. If you use a hand lens and see a healthy white host egg with a chewed hole, it means the egg was not parasitized and a healthy (destructive) caterpillar emerged instead.
Trichogramma wasp species
Unless you are a scientist with a very powerful microscope, you will never see a Trichogramma wasp. At 1/25“ to 1/50” long, you could fit 20 to 40 of them nose-to-tail across a dime. If you could see them, you might be struck by the simple beauty of a minuscule yellow wasp with red eyes. Or, you might not. There are over 200 species of Trichogramma around the world.
Before you order a shipment of Trichogramma wasps as a biocontrol, keep in mind that different species of Trichogramma parasitize different hosts. It is important that you order from a reputable seller to avoid releasing a threat to other beneficial insects into your garden. When reading product descriptions, take the time to do a little research before you buy.
Trichogramma wasp eggs are shipped as larvae in host eggs that have been glued to cards. If you buy Trichogramma wasps for release, these tips will give them the best chance at being successful:
Keep in mind that Trichogramma wasps will not kill all the pests they come across. What they do is provide one piece of an integrated pest management program that uses natural processes to reduce the overall impact of pests, rather than spraying chemical poisons on your food.
Watch out for the yellow jackets and hornets, leave mud daubers and paper wasps to go about their business, and add some insectary plants to attract and provide for beneficial wasps, such as the Trichogramma.
Goniozus wasps can sting, but you’ll never have to worry about that.
Like many other parasitic wasps, adult Goniozus wasps mostly feed on nectar, sap, and other sweets. The benefit they provide is that they also parasitize pests of almond, apple, citrus, fig, pistachio, walnut, and coconut trees, as well as blueberries, blackberries, grapes, and strawberries.
Navel orangeworm, obliquebanded leafroller, and light brown apple moth caterpillars are favorite egg-laying hosts, giving Goniozus the common name of navel orangeworm wasp. Personally, I prefer Goniozus - in my mind, it’s the Gonzo wasp. These garden helpers also use banana scab moths and several insect pests associated with galls as hosts.
Goniozus wasp description
There are 20 different Goniozus wasp species, and they all look like tiny flying ants. Walking through the garden, you may simply see a very small, shiny brown or black wasp-waisted insect. Most insects who fit that description are beneficial, so resist the urge to swat them away. Instead, take a moment and see if you can tell what they are up to.
Similar to cuckoo bird species, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, Goniozus wasps are also known as cuckoo wasps because they lay their eggs in the bodies of other insects.
Adult females use their stinging ovipositor (egg-laying tube) to paralyze their victims, injecting hosts repeatedly with venom. The venom of some Goniozus wasps is permanent, but not all. In those cases, the venom only lasts half an hour or so, so she has that much time to transport her victim, mostly by dragging the much larger host, to a good hiding spot. If necessary, she will continue to inject venom over several hours, if that’s how long it takes to get where she needs to go.
Once tucked safely into a crevice somewhere, some females will feed on the juices of said caterpillar over the next few days, aiding in the development of her eggs. This does not always kill the host. In some cases, the host simply walks away, a little worse for the wear, until the eggs hatch and begin feeding from the inside out.
Goniozus larvae go through several developmental stages over the next 2 or 3 days, attached to their host, ultimately spinning tiny cocoons around themselves before reaching adulthood. Apparently, Goniozus wasps have been observed paralyzing far more hosts than they can possibly use for egg-laying. No one knows why.
How to attract Goniozus wasps
Beneficial parasitic wasps can be attracted to your garden with insectary plants. Insectary plants provide the food and shelter needed by these garden helpers. Most insectary plants feature umbrella-shaped flowers commonly seen in carrot, dill, cumin, mint, and cilantro, or globe-shaped flowers, such as chives. Allowing these plants to go to seed not only attracts beneficial insects, but seeds then create perpetual, edible crops. Other insectary plants include cosmos, sweet alyssum, yarrow, dandelions, and borage.
Adding these useful plants to your yard looks nice, too!
Unlike beneficial parasitic wasps, hornets attack honey bees, steal honey, invade bat houses, girdle branches, and ruin summer picnics.
So why would we want to tolerate hornets in the garden? What good can they do? Let’s find out!
Worldwide, there are 22 hornet (Vespa) species, including:
There are also 3 species of nocturnal Asian Provespa, which are not actually hornets.
Despite their name, bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), commonly seen in California, are not true hornets, either.
There is only one true hornet found in North America: the European hornet (Vespa crabro). Introduced in the 1800s, this hornet is now found throughout the U.S.
Hornets are highly social insects. They live in large colonies, housed in papery hives, that are commonly built in dark crevices, such as dead tree trunks, under house eaves, and in your garage. Hives are made up of interconnected brood cells. Both the queen and workers can lay eggs. Fertilized eggs laid by the queen develop into sterile females, called ‘gynes’ while eggs produced by workers develop into males, called drones. Drones mate with the queen during ‘nuptial flights’. As a result, a hornet’s nest is largely populated by two nearly distinct gender-dictated populations. Workers care for the eggs as they move through larval and pupal stages, ultimately emerging as adult hornets.
Hornets and yellow jackets are both types of wasps, though yellow jackets tend to be smaller, with more yellow and black, while hornets tend toward more black and white or yellow and brown coloration.
Most hornets average 3/4” to 1”, while queens can be 1-1/2” long. If you look closely, you might be able to see that a male hornet abdomen has six segments, while females have seven segments and a stinging ovipositor.
Hornet stings and allergies
Like many other stinging insects, hornets become aggressive when they feel accosted (swung at, stepped on, sat on, that sort of thing), or when they believe their food supply or the colony are threatened.
Hornet stings are more dangerous to humans that other insect stings because they contain higher concentrations of acetylcholine. Hornet stingers are not barbed and can be reused many times. Also, when one hornet stings you, it releases chemicals that tell other hornets to sting you, as well. These same chemicals are also released when you kill a hornet or spray a hornet’s nest with poison, so be forewarned.
If you are allergic to stinging insects, you should always carry antihistamines or an EpiPen with you. Signs of an allergic reaction include shortness of breath, swelling of the face, lips, or throat, severe itching, weak or racing pulse, nausea, wheezing or gasping. If any of these symptoms occur, get medical help immediately. Call 911, grab a family member, or a neighbor right away. These symptoms can quickly escalate into a life-threatening situation. Otherwise, follow these steps to ease your temporary pain:
You can also take aspirin or acetaminophen to ease the pain, just be cautious about mixing medications, as that can cause yet another medical problem. Generally speaking, you are going to feel really miserable for 30 to 45 minutes, moderately uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon, and you may experience discomfort for a week or so. You may also want to apply hydrocortisone or calamine lotion to the area. Pastes made of baking soda or colloidal oatmeal can also sooth the area. If you haven’t had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years, that can be a good idea, as well.
So, why would we want hornets in the garden?
Adult hornets feed on sweets, such as fallen fruit, sap, and your lemonade. They also collect insects for their larvae. This is part of the reason why they cause us so much grief during picnic season. From a hornet’s point of view, it is simply defending a food source when it refuses to back down from your burger and fruit punch. In addition to your picnic, European hornets commonly chew up beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers and crickets, katydids, locusts, mantises, moths, and other wasps. This pulp is then taken back to the colony, where it is fed to larvae in the nest.
If you start having a hornet problem while dining outside, you can reduce the chance of stings by placing a plate of meat and fruit somewhat away from the picnic table.
If hornets become a problem around your home, try excluding them before poisoning them. Those chemicals tend to create more problems than they resolve.
There is far more to wasps and hornets than you might expect.
This group of insects is massive and it contains many beneficial insects. You may not be familiar with chalcidoid wasps, but odds are pretty high they’ve been working hard in your garden all along.
The chalcidoid superfamily of wasps contains 22,500 known species, with an estimated 500,000 species yet to be named. One of those families in particular, the Chalcididae, gives us chalcid wasps. And figs.
Chalcid wasp description
Ranging from only 1.5 to 0.75 mm (1/50 - 1/100”), you could fit 12 to 24 chalcid wasps nose-to-tail across a dime, so you probably will never see one. If you could see them, you would understand how they got their name. The word ‘chalcid’ comes to us from the Greek word for ‘copper’ because most chalcid wasps are a metallic bronze or copper color, though some species are metallic blue or green, and some are the more classic black and yellow variety.
Beneficial chalcid wasps
Most chalcids are parasitic wasps. They lay their eggs in several common garden pests. When the eggs hatch, larvae feed on the host insect before pupating into adult wasps. [I know, it’s sounds awful.] Those hosts include the eggs and larvae of flies, beetles, moths and butterflies, some spiders and nematodes, and true bugs. Since true bugs (Hemiptera) include aphids, leafhoppers, spittlebugs, thrips, whiteflies, and scale insects, I am all for more chalcid wasps! [Plus, I love figs!]
Figs and tiny wasps
While most chalcidoid wasps parasitize all those pests, a handful of them are phytophagous, which means the larvae hide and feed in stems, galls, seeds, and flowers. Fig flowers, in particular, are hidden clusters found inside a hollow structure called a syconium. Fig pollination is usually completed by tiny specialized wasps, such as chalcid wasps.
But, not all chalcids are good.
Chalcids as pests
Other phytophagous chalcids are not so helpful. These tiny wasps are pests because they lay their eggs in seeds. When those eggs hatch, larvae eat the seeds of pistachios and alfalfa, among others, creating burrows and allowing fungal and bacterial diseases a point of entry.
In many cases, sticky barriers can be used to reduce the damage caused by these pests. Most chalcids, however, are beneficial.
You can attract chalcid wasps to your garden by installing insectary plants, such as yarrow.
Wasps may have a bad reputation, but there are beneficial wasps, and ichneumon wasps [pronounced ick-NOO-mon] are one of those Good Guys. Well, mostly.
Ichneumon wasps are parasitic wasps and they have been around for over 15 million years.
There are somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 different ichneumon wasp species in the world, with 5,000 species in North America. Clearly, with those numbers, there is significant variety in appearance.
Ichneumon wasp description
Like other wasps, the ichneumons have a narrow body and an even narrower waist. Some females have an especially long ovipositor, which is often mistaken for a stinger. Ranging in length from 1/10” to over 5” long, they can be black, brown, yellow, or some pattern combination of those colors. These wasps have 16 or more segments in their longer than average antennae. Ichneumons are solitary wasps.
Common ichneumon prey
Adult ichneumon wasps eat little or nothing. Their larvae, on the other hand, are voracious feeders of beetle, butterfly and moth, wasp, ant, fly, and sawfly larvae and pupae or chrysalises. This is what makes ichneumon wasps so helpful in the garden. They also parasitize beet armyworms, some spiders, and wood-boring grubs.
Some ichneumon wasps do this by using their long antennae to detect prey, then inserting the ovipositor into the wood, plant, or soil, to strike their prey, piercing its skin and inserting an egg. Other ichneumon wasps crawl down the stems of aquatic plants to inject eggs into water-dwelling insects. Yet another ichneumon is the parasite of a parasite, making it a hyperparasitoid. This ichneumon lays its eggs in moth-eating ant larvae. She emits chemicals that confuse the ants as she does her deed.
Ichneumon wasp lifecycle
Most parasitic wasps lay their eggs on, in, or near their prey, but ichneumon wasps kill their prey outright and then lay eggs. When the eggs hatch, larvae feed on the host’s body. After hatching and eating their host, ichneumon larvae spin cocoons and pupate in or near the exoskeletons of their first meal. When they emerge from their cocoon, they are adult wasps who go in search of a mate.
These garden helpers do not sting and they are worth their weight in gold, so check before swatting at something just because it might be a wasp. [Swatting at wasps is usually a bad idea, anyway…}
One of the best ways to attract and provide for beneficial ichneumon wasps in California is to plant coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) and to maintain hedgerows.
Sweet, juicy persimmons are easier to grow than you might expect.
There are many good reasons for growing your own persimmon tree, the first of which is they are not particularly fussy about soil and they are nearly pest-free. You don’t need to worry about chilling hours as much as with other fruit trees, and they bloom late enough in the season to avoid frost damage.
Persimmon is a tropical tree that grows best in Hardiness Zones 7 to 10, and they are large. Mature persimmon trees can grow from 15 to 60 feet tall and 20 feet across, with a lovely rounded canopy. Leaves are both glossy and leathery on top, with a brown, fuzzy undersurface. These leaves will fall off in autumn, being deciduous, but that makes it easier to prune and manage the tree during dormancy.
Your first decision, when growing persimmon, is to decide which type you want.
Types of persimmon
Persimmons are actually the fruit of several trees in the Diospyros (‘Zeus’s wheat’) genus. This group of trees is divided between valuable, dense ebony lumber (Diospyros ebenum, et al) and fruit-producing varieties. Within the fruit-producing varieties, there are some you can eat right away, and some you’d be better off waiting a while.
The North American native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) tends to be smaller and seedier than its more popular Asian cousin (D. kaki). The Oriental, or Japanese persimmon is further divided into two groups: astringent and non-astringent. That astringency [read ‘pucker factor’] is caused by tannins. Those tannins can make your mouth feel as though you just washed your mouth out with witch hazel, which I do not recommend. Generally speaking, the astringent varieties need to be fully ripe and soft before becoming sweet and delicious.
With over 2,000 cultivars of fruit-producing persimmon trees, you have several to choose from, including:
Native and Oriental persimmon trees will not cross-pollinate.
Persimmon fruits and flowers
Native persimmon trees are dioecious, meaning they have male or female flowers, but not both. If you have one of these, you will need two trees. Oriental persimmon trees have both male and female flowers. In either case, those flowers are relatively small, creamy white, with a large green calyx. The calyx is the cup-like structure seen at the base of a flower’s petals and is the hard, dried leaves on top of a harvested persimmon. Botanically, a persimmon fruit is a berry because it is formed from a single fertilized plant ovary.
Fruits mature in autumn, staying on the tree into winter. Don’t be fooled, however. Squirrels and rats have an uncanny ability to gnaw the insides out of your persimmons from the side facing away from your windows. I have a friend who discovered, to her dismay, that every single piece of fruit, and there were many pieces of fruit, had all been hollowed out while she wasn’t looking.
If you only have room for one persimmon tree, just make sure it is a self-pollinating variety. Both ‘Hachiya’ and ‘Fuyu’ will produce fruit without a second tree.
How to grow a persimmon tree
If you want to grow a persimmon tree from seed, you will need to put it in the refrigerator for a couple of months. This is called stratification and it mimics the effects of winter weather. Unlike other fruit trees, which are pretty much companionable to a wide variety of root stock grafts, persimmon trees are not as amenable. You are probably best off buying bare root stock from a reputable seller. Just be gentle with your young tree. The immature taproot breaks easily.
Persimmon trees perform best in soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, which may be more acidic than is present in your soil. Keep in mind that altering pH is an uphill battle that requires constant attention and effort. If you are determined, you can acidify your soil to make things more hospitable for your persimmon tree. Your persimmon tree will benefit from good air flow, but the wood tends to be brittle, so provide protection from strong winds.
When planting a young persimmon tree, it is critical that the tree is planted at the proper depth. Then, cut the aboveground portion down to 3 feet in height and mud it in well. You will also want to provide sunburn and herbivore feeding protection. Deer, rats, squirrels, birds, and gophers will gnaw roots, stems, bark, or fruit, depending on the species. Even coyotes enjoy the occasional persimmon.
Select a location with plenty of sunlight, though partial shade will work, too. California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. suggests keeping persimmon trees away from eucalyptus trees. I’m sure there is a good reason, I just don’t know what it is.
Regular irrigation will improve fruit size and quality, though the trees are somewhat drought tolerant. Mature trees will need 36 to 48 inches of water each year.
Persimmon trees do not need a lot in the way of feeding. In fact, if you give them too much nitrogen, they will drop their fruit! Over-feeding, over-watering, and too much boron in the soil can cause blossom drop and young fruit drop. Top dressing with aged compost and some mulch is probably a better way to go, unless a lab-based soil test tells you some important plant nutrient is missing.
Persimmon fruit forms along the sides and at the tips of long, current year stems. If those stems are too long, the branches are likely to break. During the dormant season, train your persimmon tree into a modified central leader or open vase system, removing any dead, diseased, or rubbing branches. Each year, you will want to perform light to medium pruning for size, structure, and air flow. Persimmon can also be pruned into a lovely espalier. Heavy fruit loads can cause branch loss, so fruit thinning is a good idea.
Persimmon pests and diseases
While relatively pest-free, persimmons may occasionally be attacked by root nematodes, mealybugs and scale insects. If you see ant trails, look more closely for signs of scale infestation. You can use sticky barriers to eliminate the protection provide by ants. Other minor pests include whiteflies, thrips, and mites.
The diseases most likely to impact a persimmon tree include armillaria root rot, grey mold, leaf blight, leaf spot, and Phytophthora root and crown rot. Fusarium dieback may also occur.
More commonly, nutrient deficiencies can cause a number of symptoms. Low iron cause cause leaf bleaching, while insufficient calcium leads to leaf curling, and magnesium deficiencies cause brown spots on leaves. Sunburn damage is common, so whitewash exposed areas and keep trees well irrigated during the peak of summer.
We should all have such problems…
You buy a seedling.
You dig a hole. You place your fingers around the stem and gently flip the pot upside down, dislodging plant and soil.
You carefully tip the leaves skyward and lower the cube of roots and soil into the hole, pulling surrounding soil into the empty space. Then you tamp down the soil with your hands, right?
We’ve been doing it forever but it’s the wrong thing to do and there are several reasons why.
It all starts with the conditions under which seedlings are grown.
The state of a seedling
Commercially available seedlings start out life in as perfect an environment as possible. Protected by greenhouse walls or hoop shelters, temperatures, soil, moisture levels, nutrient availability, everything is working in its favor. Add sunlight and water and those seeds germinate and start growing like crazy. Then they get loaded into flats, which get loaded onto trucks. Those trucks are dark and bouncy. Roots and leaves get rattled around a bit, before being moved a few more times to end up in new lighting, new temperatures, and environments where people pick them up and put them down, repeatedly. Finally, they get in a car, go home, and [hopefully] spend some time in quarantine before being designated some garden real estate.
Even seedlings started at home end up in a pot that they are about to outgrow, if they haven't become root bound already.
As delicate root hairs reach the walls of their containerized world, they twist and turn, looking for more room. Eventually, all those twists and turns can get crowded and a little abrasive. Root hairs break off very easily.
At 1/10 the diameter of a human hair, root hairs start forming right after a seed germinates. These tiny growths profoundly increase the surface area of the root system, making the roots better at absorbing water and nutrients, anchoring the plant, and facilitating microbe interactions. When these delicate hairs break off, they can’t do their job. It is the damage done to root hairs during transplanting that causes most of the wilting associated with transplant shock.
Water and gravity
Instead of tamping down the soil and breaking off millions of valuable root hairs, let water and gravity do the job the way nature intended: disrupted soil gets rained on, rain drops collect and make soil heavier, drawing particles down into some air pockets while leaving important macropores and micropores, that allow air, water, and roots to move through the soil, intact. Your watering can or gentle garden hose spray do the same thing. No tamping down required.
As you add seedlings to your garden, resist the urge to crush those delicate root hairs and mud them in, instead. Then, tuck them in with a nice blanket of mulch, for good measure.
Cantaloupes are a unique type of muskmelon. And American cantaloupes aren’t actually cantaloupes at all.
Did you know that melons are actually berries?
It’s true! Because the fruit, or pericarp, of a cantaloupe is produced by a single ovary, cantaloupes are considered berries. Specifically melons are modified berries called pepos. Pepos are formed from an inferior (meaning internal, not less than) ovary and they feature many seeds. Pumpkins and cucumbers are also pepos.
Also known as rockmelons, cantaloupes are members of the squash family. Like other cucurbits (Cucurbitaceae), cantaloupes feature a hard outer rind that protects the lush fruit inside.
Types of cantaloupe
Here, in the U.S., our cantaloupes have a strongly textured, or ribbed, rind and bright orange flesh. This North American variety (Cucumis melo var. reticulatus) is not technically a true cantaloupe.
How cantaloupes grow
Cantaloupes are vining annuals that love heat. Temperatures between 85°F and 95°F are ideal, and these plants can tolerate temperatures as high as 104°F. Cantaloupe’s bisexual flowers are mostly pollinated by bees, so a healthy bee population is important for a good melon crop. Whereas a single bee visit is enough to pollinate other crops, cantaloupes are fickle and may need 10 to 15 bee visits before pollination is completed.
Cantaloupes can be grown successfully in all types of soil and they even seem to thrive in our heavy clay, as long as there is good drainage. Cantaloupes are sensitive to root rot diseases, so proper soil aeration goes a long way toward keeping cantaloupe plants healthy.
To grow your own cantaloupes, wait until temperatures are well above 60°F and plant single seeds 3” to 6” deep in loose mounds. Mounds should be 3 feet apart and in full sun. Keep the mound moist, but not soggy, until germination occurs.
Cantaloupes are moderate feeders, which means a top dressing of aged compost after germination is probably all that is needed. [Of course, you should still conduct a soil test to make sure your plants have access to all the nutrients they need.]
Cantaloupe pests and diseases
Aphids, green peach aphids, in particular, cucumber beetles, cutworms, leafhoppers, leaf miners, root knot nematodes, seed-corn maggots, silverleaf whiteflies, spider mites, squash bugs, and wireworms may all pester your melons, but many of these pests can be thwarted by row covers and regular monitoring. The real threat to your melon crop is disease.
Cantaloupes are prone to several fungal diseases, including belly rot, downy mildews, Fusarium wilt, Monosporascus root rot, powdery mildew, sudden wilt, and Verticillium wilt. Aphid-borne viral diseases, such as cucumber mosaic virus, cucurbit yellows stunt disorder, watermelon mosaic virus, and zucchini yellows mosaic virus may also occur, as can bacterial angular leafspot.
Proper plant spacing and the use of a trellis can interrupt many of these diseases cycles by improving air flow. Fruits grown up a trellis will need to be supported with hammocks. Melons growing on the ground should be protected with a layer of straw or sawdust, a board, or some other material that gets them up off the soil.
Choosing resistant varieties, removing weeds, maintaining good air flow, and avoiding overhead watering will all help keep your melon vines healthy.
That being said, weeds can be a serious problem in cantaloupe beds as hideouts for pests and diseases. Stay on top of those water and nutrient thieves from the start to ensure a healthy crop of melons later in the summer. And watch your watering. Heavy rain (or over-watering) can cause fruit split.
Cantaloupes are ready for harvest when a thin crack can be seen encircling the stem end and the fruit comes away from the vine easily. This is called the “full slip” stage. Cantaloupes should be eaten as soon as possible after being harvested, as they tend to lose moisture more quickly than many other members of this family. If you end up with a bumper crop of melons, your best method of preservation is to try your hand at canning some preserves. Cantaloupe pairs nicely with peaches and nectarines. And be sure to save seeds for next year's crop!
The majority of the world’s cantaloupe crop is grown in China and shipped around the world. Believe me when I tell you that harvesting a fresh melon from your yard is a very satisfying and delicious experience.
And halved cantaloupes make lovely ice cream bowls...
Cumin’s pungent aroma has made it a popular spice since ancient times.
Kept on Egyptian tables the way we use salt and pepper, cumin is said to provide many different health benefits, though there is zero scientific proof for any of those claims, There are still plenty of other good reasons for growing your own cumin.
Cumin’s umbrella-shaped flowers make it easy to identify as a member of the parsley family. Other common garden Umbellifers, or Apiaceae, include carrots, celery, dill, parsnips, and fennel. Like other umbellifers, cumin flowers attract many beneficial insects, such as hoverflies and pollinators.
Native to the Middle East, cumin (Cuminum cyminum) grows best in hot, dry regions and is very drought tolerant. It takes 3 to 4 months of hot weather to reach maturity. If temperatures drop, leaves will turn purple. If it gets really cold, cumin is very susceptible to frost damage.
The cumin plant
Cumin seeds look a lot like caraway seeds, being oblong with ridges. Those ridges are oil glands. Cumin plants grow 12 to 20 inches tall, with attractive, feathery leaves. Cumin seeds are contained in dried fruits called achenes.
How to grow cumin
If you have the heat, you can grow cumin. Seeds should be planted 1/4 deep and spaced 8” apart. These plants are very delicate when they first germinate and do not perform well in heavy clay soil. They prefer loose, sandy soil with good drainage, which makes them an excellent choice for raised beds. The ideal pH is 6.8 to 8.3.
Cumin pests and diseases
Aphids, mites, thrips, tobacco caterpillars, cutworms, cigarette beetles, drug store beetles, and root knot nematodes may cause problems for cumin. Diseases that may strike your cumin plants include Fusarium wilt, blight, powdery mildew, and damping off disease.
Cumin seeds are frequently included in birdseed mixes, so this plant has spread globally. Once established, this annual plant readily self-seeds an area.
In 2015, dreaded chili thrips arrived in California from Texas and Florida. Originally from Southeast Asia or India, this pest first hit North America in 1991 and is expected to be a permanent part of our gardening experience from here on out.
Let’s see what we’re up against.
Before we do that, however, let’s get one thing clear. Whether you are talking about many thrips, or just one (and there is never just one), they are both referred to as “thrips”, with the “s” on the end. I know, it’s strange, but there it is. It comes from an 18th century word meaning “woodworm”, which is even more strange since these pests are disease-carrying sap-suckers.
So, what does a thrips look like?
Chili thrips description
Like other thrips, chili thrips (Scirtothrips dorsalis Hood) are really tiny - often less than 1/20” long. That works out to 8 or 9 thrips, standing nose-to-tail, across the head of a dime. Their pale bodies are thin and they have dark wings, but you may never get that close. What you may see is light-colored flecks of movement as you walk past a plant. That’s your first clue there is a problem.
Plants vulnerable to chili thrips
Your habaneros and Scotch bonnets are not the only plants susceptible to these pests. In fact, over 100 species [no, make that 200 species], from 40 different plant families [rather, 70 families], have been identified. Host plants include fruit trees, such as apples, bananas, cashews, citrus, figs, lychee, mango, pears, and even the beloved cocoa bean. Other garden favorites include asparagus, basil, beans, blueberries, buckwheat, corn, eggplant, grapes, peanuts, sweet peppers, soybeans, strawberries, and tomatoes, as well as many popular ornamentals, including chrysanthemums, coleus, camellia, Gerber daisies, poinsettias, pyracantha, roses, snapdragons, and zinnia.
Damage caused by chili thrips
Symptoms of chili thrips infestation are first seen as damage to the upper surfaces of leaves, creating yellowish-green or brown angular spots on the upper surface and a grey sheen on the under surface. Leaves may become thickened or start curling. As nutrients and water are pulled from the plant, stunting, bronzing, distorted or elongated leaves, and flower bud scarring are also seen. Severe infestation can lead to the complete defoliation of a plant and these pests can carry tomato spotted wilt virus, peanut necrosis virus, peanut chlorotic fan virus, and tobacco streak virus.
Compounding the problem, chili thrips damage looks a lot like chemical overspray, aphid feeding, and micronutrient deficiencies.
Chili thrips lifecycle
Female chili thrips insert eggs into leaves, petioles, fruits, leaf axils, in curled leaves, and in leaf litter. In other words, they can be anywhere. Those eggs hatch in about one week and go through two larval stages in the second week. A single adult female can lay 60 to 200 eggs in her lifetime. That works out to a lot of sap sucking, disease-carrying insects.
Controlling chili thrips
Fast moving, highly prolific, and devastating to many of our garden plants, chili thrips have already developed resistance to insecticides containing asbifenthrin, cyfluthrin, and permethrin, so don’t bother. As of 2016, chili thrips had not yet developed resistance to insecticides containing acephate, imidacloprid, and orspinosad, but that window of opportunity may already have passed, and who wants those chemicals on their food anyway? Spinosad is actually more effective and less damaging to the environment. Sticky barriers may be used to monitor for chili thrips, but they won’t control the problem.
Your best defense against chili thrips is to encourage beneficial insects, such as green lacewings and minute pirate bugs. Certain predatory mites and thrips and parasitic wasps will also help in the battle against chili thrips. These garden helpers are all attracted to gardens with a wide variety of plants and flowers, a clean water supply, and the absence of broad spectrum pesticides. Sadly, releasing purchased predators into the garden rarely works out. If conditions are good, they will come to you. If conditions are not good, it doesn’t matter how many times you buy and release beneficial insects. They will simply leave or die.
Dusty conditions should also be avoided. Give susceptible plants an occasional quick shower with the garden hose in the morning to make life more difficult for thrips of all sorts. Also, stressed plants are more susceptible to infestation than healthy plants. This is yet another reason for selecting resistant cultivars that are suited to your microclimate, putting them into quarantine until proven healthy, feeding and watering them when they need it, and then giving them a helping hand with row covers as they become hardened off to your garden. Since shearing cuts off the ends of all twigs, it should be avoided if thrips are suspected. It is simply too stressful for the plant. Reflective mulch may disrupt thrips flight, if you want to try that.
Infested foliage should be removed, bagged, and taken to your local County Extension Office for identification. If you don’t have time for that trip, please throw the bag in the trash. Do not compost plant material infested with even one chili thrips.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!