Birds, Bugs, and Seedlings
I got a peek at the baby doves this week. They are growing fast, but I still haven’t heard a peep out of them. Now that the babies have some feathers, mother and father doves are able to leave the nest and spend some time together. It’s clear they enjoy each other’s company.
This week, I saw another fascinating insect. At first, I thought it might be a blister beetle, but there were no stripes or spots on its wing cases. And, as far as I know, there aren’t any lightning bugs west of the Rockies. That’s when I realized it was a soldier beetle. One of the Good Guys. Soldier beetles eat aphids and the eggs and larvae of many moths, beetles, armyworms, and other pests. I was happy to let it go where I it, among the forest of borage plants that appear each spring.
Another insect has me baffled. I collect insects when I find them and try to identify them. Until I know what they are, I keep them in clear plastic containers. In this particular container, I had a piece of netting covered with what I thought were stink bug eggs, a butt-less honey bee I came across while collecting honey, and a cottony cushion scale egg sack. Early this week, a bunch of tiny black flies appeared in the container. I assumed they were male scale insects but then learned that those are much smaller than these flies. I still don’t know what the flies are, but I did get some photos of the male scale insects, so that was exciting.
My perennial beets have started to produce flowering stems. The first time it happened, it really surprised me. Beet stems get pretty tall and then they hang, willow-like. They are very pretty and I will collect seeds when they are mature.
Speaking of seeds, I’ve lost count of how many varieties of tomatoes, beans, and peppers I started this week, along with carrots, chard, and basil. There were arugula, cabbage, and sunflower seedlings to transplant and the lettuces and chicories are thriving.
Every year, my asparagus harvest gets better. The first year, nothing looked like it was going to grow. The second and third years, all I got were skinny, ferny growths. But now, I am getting some delicious, fat, juicy, purple asparagus shoots that never make it into the house.
Finally, I rigged some netting around my young pear and apricot trees. I have no intention of losing any of those crops to squirrels and birds!
I hope that you are staying safe and well and are able to spend more time in your garden.
Remember, you may have neighbors who could really use some of your extra produce during quarantine. Let’s keep shopping trips to a minimum.
April Antics in the Garden
Six weeks into quarantine and I still have plenty to keep me busy in the garden. In fact, April is usually pretty busy and this year is no exception.
Temperatures are slowly rising and I have started more beans, a batch of tomatoes and peppers, and even some melon seeds. I’ve discovered a new pest, there’s something odd happening in my corn patch, and my nectarine tree isn’t doing well. The big news this week was my first honey harvest.
While many beekeepers are struggling to keep their hives healthy and productive, mine came through the winter healthy enough to swarm a second time. My friend, John, came over to collect the swarm and he helped me swap out heavily laden frames from one super and I added a new super on top. The bees were pretty calm about the whole procedure. Some of the honey had crystalized, but I ended up with 27 pounds of honey and 6 pounds of beeswax. I guess I’ll have to try my hand at candle-making.
Corn crop quandary
After caging one of my raised beds and planting corn, lentils, and yellow watermelon, I noticed one half of the corn is coming up beautifully and the other half doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all. It may be that they are different varieties, but, more likely, it has to do with the fact that the corn planted on the right was from last year’s seed. It may make it and it may not, but the corn on the left is doing well. If you look closely at the photo, you can see peas growing along the back, which I had thought failed, and, in the middle, you can see new growth on a broccoli stalk I had cut back to soil level. These plants never cease to amaze me.
Potato crop rotation
I decided to move my potato crop from a raised bed close to my patio to the bed farthest away. Once potatoes get established, they don’t need a whole lot of attention or protection. They had been growing in the same bed since 2015 and crop rotation is a good way to disrupt potential pest or disease problems.
Digging up all the potatoes and potato plants, I discovered dried fruit beetle grubs and wireworms. Wireworms are the larval stage of click beetles. They are bright yellow and a little more than one inch long. They have hard bodies and they burrow into root crops and stems of peas, beans, and melons, so I’m glad I decided to move my potatoes. My chickens were happy about it, too, but for different reasons.
Something bothering my beets
Speaking of soil-dwelling pests and being bothered, I discovered a new one in my beet patch. Harvesting a couple of beets for dinner, I discovered that the roots were significantly smaller than they should have been and that some very tiny, white centipede-like creatures were crawling around on the surface. Dang it. My beets have symphylans. Also known as garden centipedes, these tiny, fast-moving pseudocentipedes are not really related to centipedes at all. They are their own thing and they are a pain in the garden. Their presence explains why nearby kale seedlings never thrived. The only thing I can do is remove vulnerable plants, till the area a few times, and hope the symphylans don’t migrate into other areas of this 25’ long raised bed. Since these pests frequently burrow down 3-feet into the soil, chemical treatments are rarely helpful. I’ve read that beans aren’t as vulnerable, so I’ll plant beans there and see what happens.
Warty leaves on my nectarine tree
Once again, my nectarine tree has been infected with peach leaf curl. Our recent heavy rains made applying fixed copper ineffective and provided the perfect medium for fungal growth. Hopefully it won't lead to other problems, and I still have plenty of nectarine preserves from last year.
I’m not sure, but I think the Barbary dove eggs have hatched. There was much cooing back and forth between the parents a couple of days ago, though I haven’t seen any frequent feeding trips yet.
I hope you are all staying home and well, and enjoying time in your garden!
Still sheltering in place and with no real idea of how long this will last, many gardeners are looking ahead to what they can grow, how they can care for what they have, and where they might find new places to grow edible plants. This gardener is no exception.
In past years, spring was always a lighthearted look at what I might like to try my hand at in the coming summer months. This year, planning has taken on new meaning. I’m not a Prepper or a Doomsayer, but we’re not through this pandemic yet and some groceries might become harder to come by. I am finding myself wondering where I might add new edibles, which harvests can be canned or dried, and which Regulars are not worth the real estate. For me, tomatoes, beans, salad greens, cabbages, potatoes, squashes, melons, teas and herbs, and my fruit and nut trees will be getting the most attention and space. And protecting my crops has become more important, as well.
Even though I knew it was too early/cold/wet to start beans last week, I did it anyway. Most of the seeds have rotted in the ground or been tossed around by foraging birds. The few that germinated have been gnawed to nubs by sowbugs, with only a couple of exceptions. This week, I will be starting bean seeds again, but in small containers that I can protect and keep warmer. As they grow and temperatures rise, I will place them where I want them.
In the meantime, I should probably make sowbug and earwig traps. The traps are super easy to make. You just take rolled up wet newspaper, held together with rubber bands, and place them in areas where sowbugs and earwigs have been a problem. Those pests will use the newspaper rolls as shelter. In the morning, just throw them in the trash. It won’t get them all, but it puts a dent in the pest population.
The compost was finally ready, so I spread it in most of my raised beds and around my fruit and nut trees. I know the compost improves conditions for the sowbugs that seem to be causing so many problems already, so I followed the compost with a light sprinkling of slug bait.
For the third time, I am going to try growing corn. The first year I did it, not a single seed survived the birds and squirrels. The second time I tried, I actually got a few measly, scrawny looking ears. Unfortunately, it was a traditional Indian blue corn variety that was probably great for grinding into cornmeal, but it was practically inedible. This year, I am planting two sweet corn varieties in the same raised bed and I have fenced the bed in, to protect against the normal marauders. If everything goes as planned, I should have a decent harvest for this year’s 4th of July picnic. [Fingers crossed]
The rhubarb is coming in, as well, but you can see damage from sowbugs and slugs already. These reliable perennials have been coming in for 7 or 8 years now.
My giant container of purple sweet potatoes has also begun showing signs of life. I love the deep purple color of the new growth, pushing its way through its winter bed of straw. By mid summer, this planter will be a lush, draping plant with attractive green leaves. All you have to do is burrow your hand into the soil and fish around for a couple of purple sweet potatoes for supper. I think I have been growing this vine for 5 or 6 years now.
Like legumes, sweet potatoes can fix atmospheric nitrogen, but they still need to be fed other nutrients, so it is time for me to top dress my sweet potato container with some of that aged compost. I might need to add a little bit of acidifier. I’ll have to check the pH first. It needs adjusting every once in a while, even in containers, because our water supply is very alkaline and sweet potatoes prefer acidic soil.
At a time when I have no desire to go to a store (or anywhere else), I am so glad to have a garden at home! Our salads are abundant and diverse, with red leaf lettuce, radicchio, baby beet greens, butter leaf lettuce, kale, arugula, chicory, spinach, and curly endive free for the picking. They are all coming up nicely in raised beds and containers. Having let the endive and lettuces go to seed in previous years, I am also finding these plants growing on their own, wherever it happens to suit them. I should probably plant more this week.
Speaking of planting more, I spent yesterday afternoon filling flats with potting soil and seeds, enjoying the sunshine and the promise of future harvests. I ended up planting peas, sugarloaf chicory, more beets, arugula, Swiss chard, and some sunflowers. I also transplanted several cabbages and some early cucumbers. I think I'll start some tomatoes and eggplants this weekend. And those beans.
I gave the Barbary doves a reason to ignore me and my dogs by tying a nesting basket in the corner of the pergola where they have been hanging out. They still fly away when I walk by, but I keep seeing their lovely gray heads peeking out over the rim of the basket. I love the way they sound!
All this new growth and bird courtship reminds me that everything will continue. Life goes on. Hopefully, we will get through this quarantine with a greater respect for getting by with less stuff, staying home more with family and friends, and recognizing that we are all in this together. Globally.
Wow. What a surreal time it is.
Today is the first full day of spring, but I just learned that day and night are not actually equal on the equinox, that the sun we see each sunset has already dropped below the horizon. The more I learn, the less I know…
The rain has come and we are grateful, but the streets are often empty. The sky is cleaner than it has been in decades. Neighbors I have never seen in the 8 years I've lived here are out walking and chatting (from a distance). No stores. No errands. A friend texts and asks if I have any eggs available. I am happy I can tell her I do.
Suddenly, my hens and my garden have taken on greater meaning. Being older and immunocompromised, going to a store is too risky. My husband is willing, but we both know he might just as easily bring COVID-19 in with the groceries.
Luckily, I was very poor when I was young. I learned the importance of shopping wisely, buying storable things on sale, and always making sure you had beans, rice, lentils, flour, sugar, and canned vegetables on hand. We are, for the time being, self-sufficient in San Jose.
None of us know how long this will last. A month, two months, a year, forever. We simply do not know. My guess is that we will have this under control before summer. In case I am wrong, I am shifting my garden design to be more in line with a survival garden than just a fun thing to do.
But gardening is fun and that’s where a goodness equal to the food I harvest comes in. Gardening in these uncertain times provides me with a grounding, a centering, a wider perspective. Summer and autumn will come. The trees will produce sweet juicy nectarines, crisp apples, and delicious almonds. I will plant seeds, pull weeds, and repair a patch of netting. I will clean and sharpen my garden tools, toss my compost pile around, craft the shape of ornamental and edible trees and shrubs, and collect eggs.
I will, as I always do, can tomatoes and green beans, and make marmalade, fig jam, and nectarine preserves, regardless of whether or not it’s safe to go or be anywhere else. The plants don’t know or care about COVID-19. Either do the bees and other pollinators.
It is spring and the cycle of life is continuing as it always has out in the garden. The artichokes have started to come in. My almond tree is covered with baby almonds. The lettuces, chicories, kale, and chard are gearing up for heavy production. The compost pile is cooking itself into an excellent top dressing for my raised beds. A pair of Barbary doves are considering building a nest under my pergola. Everything is going to be alright.
Stay home. Be well.
If you have even the tiniest space that gets a few hours of sunlight, plant a seed. Watch it grow. Care for it. You’ll both be better off.
Daylight saving time messes me up. I don’t like it and I’m not even on a clock. Each time it changes, it feels as though the world is off kilter for a couple of weeks. The plants and chickens don’t seem to notice, so I should probably just follow their lead, and leading they are!
Despite the concerns of several visitors, bees and other pollinators seem to have no problem getting through the tree cage netting. Of course, that also means codling moths can get through, as well. But the birds can’t and the rats and squirrels haven’t yet tried. I guess we have to pick our battles, eh?
My apple and fig trees are just about at budbreak and there are even some tiny figs starting to form! Did you know that the only way a fig can form is if a little wasp gets trapped inside? The fruit of a fig is actually a cluster of flowers that form on the inside. How weird is that?
Anyway, the almond tree is in full leaf and our daily salads have been full of delicious variety with sugarloaf chicory, radicchio, Swiss chard, beet and kale leaves, and red leaf lettuce, along with baby purple broccoli shoots. We have even gotten our first taste of this year’s purple asparagus. [Can you tell we like purple food around here? Wait until it’s time to harvest the purple sweet potatoes!]
The compost pile is coming along nicely. Following the USDA’s guidelines for safely using manure in compost, I am checking the temperature every day and flipping the pile most days. If you look closely at the image below, you can see that the center line of the pile, which has had its top removed, is nearly white, while the rest is yellowish-brown. That white is made up of fungal filaments that are decomposing the bigger bits into smaller molecules that can be used by plants as food. The steam that comes out in the morning when I flip the pile is a pretty impressive sign that chemistry is actively taking place in my simple pile of chicken bedding and yard waste!
A couple of weeks ago, I posted concerns I had for my California poppies. I have been diligently removing stems that show signs of fungal disease and have been brutally thinning plants to provide better airflow and it seems to be helping.
My biggest pest this week seems to be sowbugs. I decided to give this little Gerbera daisy a manicure because it was looking chewed upon and congested. What I discovered was that it was thoroughly infested with sowbugs! Check out this little bugger, tucked comfortably into a new leaf, munching away to its hearts’ content.
Needless to say, I cut out most of the damaged leaves, pulled the mulch away from the whole thing and thinned out the center a fair bit. Let’s see if I can get more blossoms and less bugs.
I hope you are all able to spend some time in your garden this weekend. What’s keeping you busiest or bringing a smile to your face out there?
Marching Towards Spring
Spring is getting closer by the day and my fruit trees are in full bloom.
Raising chickens creates a lot of really good compost, but it only works if you have enough green material to mix in with all that dirty straw. This week, I collected all the straw from my chicken run and used it to create a new compost pile. Then, I took all the bedding from the coop, moved it to the chicken run (for my next batch of compost), and gave them fresh straw in the coop. They don’t seem to care, but it makes me happy!
Then I took lawn mowings, fava bean trimmings, and some other green materials to mix into the pile. I mixed it all together, watering each layer as I went, to give those helpful microbes everything they needed to get the job done. It must be working because the compost pile heated up to 154°F yesterday morning and there had even been patches of frost on the lawn! Yay microbes!
The netted panels I put on my raised bed have worked wonders at keeping birds away from seeds and seedlings.
There have been many battles over the birdhouses that I mounted on my tree cages, however. The original holes were the right size for indigenous bluebirds, finches, and wrens, but a Nuttall’s woodpecker kept making the openings larger, so English sparrows claimed all four boxes.
It’s feeding time!
Since my soil tests indicate I already have too much of everything besides iron, all my compost will be used to top dress the raised beds, once it has been properly aged, making the manure safe. This will add nutrients, shade the soil, and increase soil organic matter. The actual soil on my property got nothing but nitrogen and iron, since that’s all it needs. I gave my roses and fruit and nut trees their spring feedings of urea, an excellent source of nitrogen.
I’ve given up on removing lawn grasses with a spreading habit. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to be that picky. I’ll just have to keep it mowed as short as possible during the cooler months and remove only the most obnoxious specimens.
Hairy bittercress has begun to appear, so I am diligently removing them every time I see them. You know what they say, “One year of seeds, seven years of weeds.” Last year was my hairy bittercress weed year and I was not as diligent as I should have been. Bermuda buttercup is trying to invade, as well. I actually like the flowers, but I know how invasive these plants can become, so I hoe them down every time they come under the fence.
What weeds cause you the most grief in your garden? How do you deal with them?
Let us know in the Comments!
As much as I would love to say spring is here so I can put things on track for spring planting, I don’t dare.
It’s pretty hard to believe we still have two weeks of potential frost, seeing as how the weather folks are predicting a high of 80° today. My artichoke plant is going crazy!
I did break down a couple of weeks ago and planted some more cool season crops: beets, arugula, cabbage, chard, and spinach. And I couldn’t resist starting some basils, as well. I have them all on my pumpkin ladder, under a piece of row cover at night. The seedlings seem to be doing well, so far.
The almond tree is in full bloom and some of my bees seem to be enjoying the nectar and pollen, though not as many as I recall from last year. It may be early, because there are plenty of bees out and about, in and out of the hive all day. The nectarine and baby apricot trees started blooming this week, as well. It feels early, but when I look at my calendar entries from previous years, they are right on schedule.
If you’ve never used a garden calendar, you might want to give it a try. I enter budbreak, or first bloom, for all my fruit and nut trees. I also add recurring reminders for tasks like feeding, pruning, dormant and delayed-dormant sprays, and fruit thinning. It helps a lot.
I was a little worried about all the fruit and nut trees this year. This winter isn’t feeling nearly cold enough for most of them to get the chill hours they need to stimulate fruit production. [Being from Upstate New York, I can hear all of you in the Midwest and New England talking about blizzards and snow!] I decided to look up my local CIMIS station (California Irrigation Management Information System) and found that the numbers weren’t nearly as bad as I had thought. While there aren’t any stations here in San Jose, the Gilroy station numbers told me that we are actually well above normal for the number of chill hours accumulated this season. Yay science!
Speaking of blossoms, the California poppies gave me a super bloom last year that was truly exceptional. This year, the plants came in bigger and thicker than ever.
I got my first blossom as few days ago, but things are looking a little worse for the wear. I am seeing a lot of chlorosis on outer stems and some spots that look like fungal lesions. Since I was spraying fixed copper on the trees, roses, and the lawn anyway, to treat rust and scale insects mostly, I decided to give the poppies a squirt, too. Fingers crossed.
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.