Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Battle of the Bugs has Begun!

Yesterday morning, while enjoying a steaming hot cup of coffee on the back patio before the humidity became unbearable, I decided to pick some tomatoes and cucumbers for dinner.  While collecting the perfectly ripened fruits of the Summer Sweet tomatoes, I noticed one of the plants was missing quite a few leaves off the top.  At first, I figured it was my fault, as I accidentally bent the top of one of the stems a week ago while trying to chop down the weeds growing behind the raised beds and had to cut the stem.  But then, I saw it – damning evidence of the dreaded tomato hornworm.

These disgusting, grenade shaped droppings are a telltale sign of a tomato hornworm eating its way up and down the plant.  They can be found on top of the leaves and around the bottom of the plant and, combined with missing and/or chewed leaves, clearly indicate an unwanted pest in the garden.

Tomato hornworms can be found almost anywhere in the US and can quickly devour tomato plants.  They are up to 5 inches long and are pale green with black markings, eight white “v” shapes across their back, and a horn-like protrusion on the end.  Two summers ago I had my first encounter with tomato hornworms and it only took a minute to find the perpetrator.

Now, there are some people (like my father) who will break out the pesticides and spray away.  I am actively against using chemicals in my garden, particularly for pest control, but will occasionally spray some horticultural oil around if I can’t spend another minute picking aphids off of leaves.  Tomato hornworms are easily eradicated by pulling on a pair of gardening gloves, pulling (sometimes with force) the hornworm off the plant, and dropping it into a container of soapy water.  I also find that a little bit of squealing like a schoolchild and hopping from foot to foot helps to kill the suckers (or calm my nerves after dealing with the creepy crawly).

Today I found a second hornworm on a different tomato plant in the other raised bed.  I did another careful inspection of all of the tomato plants and didn’t see any more, but for the next few weeks this will be a daily activity to ensure the hornworms don’t destroy the tomato plants.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Time to Build a Trellis!

It was early May.  The plants had been in for about a month and the cucumbers were already growing out in any direction they so chose.  I have never grown cucumbers before but I knew that the plants would need to be trellised in some way so I started weighing my options.  And that’s when I headed to Home Depot to find some supplies and build a trellis.

I started with two 2-inch pine boards (one 8-feet  long and one 6-feet long) and cut them in half. 

A 4-feet by 3-feet trellis would fit nicely in the area off of the small raised bed so I screwed all the boards together to form a rectangle.

After what felt like hours of wrestling with a roll of 10-feet by 4-feet chicken wire, I managed to unroll enough to cover the frame and staple it to the wood.

And here’s where I had a major light bulb go off and I must say I am super proud of myself.  I faced two dilemmas with building a trellis – 1) how am I going to attach this to the raised bed so it doesn’t fall and 2) how the heck am I going to move a trellis when I need to cut the lawn?  Well, the answer to the first question came shortly after having left Home Depot (go figure!). I could attach the trellis to the edge of the raised bed using hinges – the hinges would allow the trellis to angle off of the raised bed without any stress to the wood frame of the trellis.  So off I went to Lowe’s, which just so happens to be between Home Depot and my house.

Sometime after getting off the highway and halfway through singing Jason Aldean songs at the top of my lungs, it hit me.  The answer to the second question, right there rattling around in my brain.  If I was attaching the trellis to the raised bed using hinges, why not add some hooks and chains to elevate the trellis when I need to mow the lawn?  I am so smart sometimes…ha.

Less than a month after installing the trellis, the cucumbers have already outgrown their 12-square feet of trellis space.  Cucumbers are growing through the chicken wire and around the sides, staking their claim around my yard.  But their sprawling doesn’t seem to be an issue now, since the grass in my backyard started dying off about a week after I installed the trellis.  Now I don’t even need my genius elevating-the-trellis-to-mow-the-lawn invention.  Go figure!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Taming the Tomatoes

I went on vacation for a few days and came back to my tomatoes screaming to be stabilized.  Most of them were a little over two feet tall and cranking out tomatoes like it’s midsummer.  For the past few years, I have tied each plant to its own stake, securing them with strips of old (white) grocery bags.  Now, this worked just fine growing tomatoes in containers, but it was time consuming to secure each individual plant to each individual stake.  And if the tomato plant outgrew its stake (as was the case last year with the epic 9.5 feet plants) I would have to restake the entire plant to a new stake.

Given that I’m growing my indeterminate tomatoes in rows in the raised beds, I was convinced there had to be a better staking method.  I was looking for something that wouldn’t take as much time since the already 85+ degree heat has just been melting my skin off and something that would allow me to add taller stakes with more ease later in the season.  After spending more hours than I’d like to admit reading gardening blogs and forums on the internet, I decided to try my hand at the Florida Weave.  In short, this method uses a stake on either end of the row of tomatoes (stakes can be placed in between if the rows have more than a few plants) and winding jute/twine around the posts and between the plants in a figure eight pattern.  Yes, that sounds confusing to the average reader and that is how it is vaguely described on many blogs and posts.  However, Betty over at Garden Betty describes it perfectly in this post, complete with easy to follow instructions and diagrams.  Here's a closeup of one of my Sunsugar plants secured using the Florida weave.

I used jute on my plants, which is controversial given some sag from watering and rain, but I want to be able to compost it at the end of the season and not have a plastic-based product to throw in the trash.  I figure the worst things that could happen are that I will have to restring some of the weaves later in the summer as the jute sags, or I will have to stake each plant individually if the weave doesn't withstand the elements.  And in the grand scheme of things, neither of those is a deal breaker for trying something that could save me from hours in the sun once the temperature sustains its typical 95+ degrees.

So, in about 20 minutes, I had applied the Florida Weave to the Sunsugar Cheery, Sweety Grape, Yellow Boy, and Summer Sweet tomatoes in the raised beds, and they are all happily vertical once again.