Category Archives: Garden

Tomato Horn Worms

If you missed the email with pictures of the tomato horn worm, here’s a link from Colorado State University with more pictures of horn worms in all stages of life.  If you visit this site and scroll about half way down the page, you’ll find an image of the horn worm egg on the underside of a leaf.  Obviously the best control would be to find the egg and destroy it before the caterpillar hatches.

I’m also including some images  of horn worms and their “frass”  found on my potato and tomato plants and some from the Y gardens.  Judging by the leafless stems on many of the tomato plants in the various plots, there are still a lot of horn worms on the loose.  Maybe we should offer a bounty for the most captured – should we post a “wanted – dead or alive” poster for this destructive guy?

The one shown on the dead leaf is about 2″ by .5″ diameter and is easy to see on the dead leaf.  However, on potato or tomato plants, they are really hard to spot. The images of what is known as insect “frass” (a scientific name for “poop”) are from a mature worm.    So if you see this on your plant leaves start hunting for the culprit.   When the worm first hatches, its “frass” will look like dirt on the leaves.  At that stage, the worm is less than 1/32″ in diameter.  In about 2 weeks it will grow to this big size shown and larger.  And guess what fuels that growth – your tomato plant leaves and tomatoes.  If you see stems on your plants that have been denuded, start looking for the “frass”.  It takes patience and some practice, but you can find the ravenous green monsters, lurking on a stem, under a leaf or even on a tomato.  If they have the eggs on their backs you should let them live so the beneficial parasitic wasps can hatch.  Otherwise, you can put it in a jar with some sacrificial leaves and wait for it to complete its life cycle.  It would be a great educational experience for your children.  Just make sure you release the moth a long way from the tomato and potato plants belonging to you and to your neighbors.  Or you can avenge yourself for the havoc wrought by squashing it.  I’ll warn you,  it’s messy!


Additional thoughts from Cheryl Nichols

Cheryl has continued to visit our gardens at the Y with her friends Arlene and Terry and has observed that almost all of  our gardens are very thirsty.  As she pointed out, the primary ingredient of  most vegetables is water and most plants need at least 1 – 2 inches of water per week.  It’s best to soak them thoroughly.  Sometimes that means watering the soil around a plant for a minute, moving to the next, then repeating the cycle until the bed is thoroughly soaked.

Cheryl also noticed one statement in my blog about her talk that wasn’t correct.  I should have said that she found the White Queen tomato variety  to be interesting, but not that it was a favorite.  She probably won’t grow it again next year because it’s lycopene content is low due to its light color.    She mentioned a Harvard study  on Saturday that discussed the health benefits of lycopene and that pointed out that the highest values of lycopene are in the darkest red tomatoes.

She suggested a fall talk on soil preparation.  What do you all think?  I personally think it would be great.  From talking to many of you at the gardens, it seems most of us did very little to amend our beds.  While I knew it was important, I was so eager to get started that I added very little to my soil.  Amending the soil over the winter is a typical task for fall gardening and action from which  I think most of our  beds would greatly benefit.

Breakfast Garden Talk – Thank you Cheryl Nichols!

Saturday, July 30, about 15 members of the WildWest Community Garden met under the children’s tent at the Wildwood YMCA for a bagel and pastry breakfast, provided by St. Louis Bread Company and delivered by Jerry Mooneyham.  Jodi Smedley announced that Gill is moving to Holland and Bridget Clancy will be the new “bug corner” author.  Bridget has a a lot of horticulture experience and works at Zicks.   The meal was accompanied by a great talk from Arlene and Terry Conner’s realtor friend and life long gardener, Cheryl Nichols.

Cheryl Nichols, sharing some of her favorite catalogs

Cheryl grew up in southern Minnesota on a family farm.  She remembers how her Dad used animal manures for fertilizer and the many fruits and vegetables they grew.  She told of an apple tree onto which her Dad had grafted multiple varieties of apples.  At the advice of the Department of Agriculture, her Dad sold all his animals and focused on one crop , all the while her Granddad was saying “This will come back to bite you!”.  She remembers doing a report in high school on the book, The Poisons in our Foods and says at that point she decided to avoid manufactured foods like chips, cake mixes, etc.  I checked a few websites to see if an old edition of the book was available, but couldn’t find it.  She recommended two movies about food, Food, Inc and King Corn. Helen mentioned Forks over Knives, which was recently screened at Whole Foods.  This movie “examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting our present menu of animal-based and processed foods.”   All three of these films are available from the county Library.

Cheryl talked about the difference in gardening in Minnesota and Missouri.  Minnesota soil is rich and black and while the garden season there starts later than here, plants grow more rapidly in Minnesota because the days are longer there.  She said it has taken awhile to learn how to grow food in our rocky soil.  She said some of the old timer Missouri gardeners she talked with said they sow spinach seeds in the fall, just before the first frost.  The seeds will germinate in the spring and be ready to grow at the earliest possible time.  Others also say they plant lettuce on February 14, regardless of the weather.

She has many long narrow beds, 3’ x 25’,  that are essentially raised without frames.  She uses a lot of mulch from lawn clippings, making sure that the clippings are from yards that do not receive herbicidal treatment. She sterilizes her seed starter soil in a stainless bowl in a 200 degree F oven for a couple of hours.  She buys copper fungicide in the powder form and mixes it with water in a small sprayer bottle and applies to her 26 beds.  Yes, you read correctly, 26!

Peppers can easily get too much nitrogen (N), especially if near another plant that produces nitrogen or if you feed too often.  She says when that happens, the plant will make blossoms and get tall, but won’t bear fruit.   She observed that most of the tomato plants in our gardens needed a boost of nitrogen – many lost a lot of their leaves during our blight issues.  Others are just pale green.  She recommended a foliar spray like Miracle Gro.  She doesn’t like to use fish emulsion as a foliar spray on tomato plants because she feels it affects the flavor. Some recommend kelp spray as an organic solution.   In any case, when you spray the leaves of plants, you want to avoid spraying the fruit. You also want to spray early morning or evening so the wet leaves aren’t burned by the sun.   She asked me to tell everyone to be careful not to over due it with fertilizer. Here are her recommendations:   If the leaves are watered twice in a two week period with Miracle Gro, it will be enough.  If too much Miracle Gro is applied, you could end up with all leaves and no fruit.  Balance is important.  Always read the directions for the fertilizer.  For the rest of the summer, use an organic fertilizer. 

She also thinks the gardens aren’t getting enough water.  Although they are watered every morning, most of our gardens didn’t have mulch to keep the moisture in and as hot and dry as it has been they probably need to be deep watered at least once a week with a hose.  Cheryl noticed that after Arlene Conner followed her suggestions for foliar feeding and additional watering, Arlene’s garden looks much better.  She also said that the high temperatures and dry weather we have been having will cause most plants to stop producing as they conserve energy to survive.  Blossoms are likely to fall off or just not set.

She admired the fencing around our garden, saying she has many critter issues, ranging from raccoons, turtles, rabbits and deer.  The best product she has found for a deer repellent is Bobbex which she sprays around her perimeter fencing.

Here’s a partial list of some of her favorite vegetable varieties:

  • Peppers – Margaret’s red
  • Tomatoes – Amish Paste, Legend, and White Queen
  • Zucchini – Black zucchini

She orders many seeds from catalogs.  A couple of her favorite sources are Jung Seed and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.   Baker Creek is a family owned company located in Missouri and has an interesting history.  For old fashioned vegetable varieties, she shops at Valley Park Elevator where she buys seeds by the ounce inexpensively.  She subscribes to Mother Earth News, and finds a lot of helpful gardening information on the MOBOT gardening help site.

She grows most of her plants from seeds, starting many under fluorescent lights before time to transplant.  She says it’s very important to keep the transplants less than 2″ from the light.  Otherwise, they get thin and “leggy”.

On the subject of strawberries, she had several comments.  The variety she has grown for several years  is Allstar.  They are very productive, disease resistant and good for eating fresh.  Cheryl says she has had sweeter ones, but Allstar is good for making jam although it does not freeze well.  They lose their color and are mushy when frozen.  She recently had an 8 point buck devour the leaves of her plants but she said they are rapidly recovering.

She said most seed catalogs selling strawberry crowns will tell you if they are better for freezing or eating fresh.  She thins her strawberry plants every third year, removing the oldest plant crowns.  It’s necessary to know whether you have June bearing or every bearing strawberries.  June bearing produce fruit for 2-3 weeks, then begin to send out runners and make new plants for the next season. This spring she ordered the variety Honeoye from Jung Seeds to replace Allstar.   Allstar and Honeoye are both Junebearers which means they produce a very heavy crop in June. This spring she also planted Tristar which is an everbearer meaning it produces all summer long but the production is not heavy.

She also recommended bird netting over the plants rather than the Reemay row cover some are using in the garden.  Bird netting is available in rolls in most garden centers and is probably available at Valley Park Elevator.  Cheryl was concerned that the leaves don’t get enough sun light when covered with Reemay row cover.

For small beds like ours, she suggested bush varieties of squash and other vining plants, unless you train them to grow vertically.  Otherwise, one plant can take over your garden and the one next to it.

Cheryl provided a fabulous handout, with 3 pages devoted to tomatoes and a calendar from Missouri Botanical Gardens with gardening tasks for the month of July.  There’s also a discussion of organic disease control along with several recipes for organic treatments.    There’s a page devoted to squash bugs and an integrated pest management plan. This link has some great images of squash bug eggs, nymphs, and fully grown beetles.

Squash beetle eggs

Jodi and I discovered some of the squash beetle eggs clustered on a leaf in one of the plots.  When we turned the adjacent leaves over, we found the nymphs crawling all over it.  Every one needs to keep an eye out for these pests.  Destroy the eggs, nymphs and beetles.

Another page from Missouri Botanical Garden is titled Making Compost.  One page discusses primary plant food elements.  On the garden tour, Cheryl pointed out beets that needed additional Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K).  Phosphorus is needed for growth of roots and Potassium often in the form of potash, promotes production of sugar and increases vigor of plants.  There were two pages devoted to peppers.  The final page is a list of resources for organic gardening, with books, internet sites, magazines, local and catalog suppliers.  Jodi has extra copies of this handout and you can find much of the content on the MOBOT gardening help web site.

While touring the garden, Cheryl shared several observations.  She observed many fruits and vegetables, ripe and overripe.

Green bean, ready for picking

She mentioned that exposing a tomato to the sun will not aid ripening.  She pointed out that if you need to pick a tomato before it is ripe,  the best way to ripen it is by placing it in a paper bag.  Ethylene gas is released during ripening and some people speed the process by adding a banana or an apple in the bag with the green tomato.  This makes sense if you think about the fact that tomatoes and peppers can suffer sun scald.  This Colorado State University site talks about ripening tomatoes, especially if you find yourself removing them in advance of frost.  Another source of information I found that all you tomato lovers might find helpful is The Tomato Dirt web site.

In conclusion, I’m sure I have missed something; Cheryl’s talk and tour was quite informative and I feel sure I have forgotten some details. If you missed the event, you will definitely benefit by obtaining a copy of the hand out from Jodi. You can also visit the various links included in this post.

A Distraction from the Heat

So everyone knows that we’re in the midst of a heat wave.  We’re awakened in the morning by the radio announcer stating the current time, while simultaneously  telling us to expect temps  near 100 before the day is over.    A glance at the window reveals condensation, the tell-tale sign of high humidity which we all know makes the temperature even more unbearable.  While I can’t change the weather,  I hope to distract you by sharing images  shot in the past week of plants and insects that are thriving.   Some were made at the WildWest Community Garden at the Wildwood YMCA.  The remaining images were shot at our home, with the exception of the “wall of water” which is featured below.

Images copyrighted by Dancing Woman Designs

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Watching the bees and butterflies busy at work insuring that our plants are pollinated made me realize that  we are blessed on many levels.  We are blessed to have nature working hard to produce fruit and seed so that we may eat.  Beyond being grateful for the activities of bees, butterflies, birds,bats,  and other pollinators, I’m reminded of other aspects of life that we often fail to fully appreciate.   Here’s a short list of what our current weather reminds me that I’m thankful for:

Farmers and all who work without air conditioning 

First and foremost on my short list of things to be thankful for during our “excessive heat wave” are farmers and the many other workers who toil outside in the weather, regardless of the temperature.  The produce we enjoy from local growers  like that offered at Ellisville Farmers Market and Wildwood Farmers Market   is possible because lots of people work in spite of the muggy hot days.  You know, those days when it seems the air is so thick and so still that a spoon could stand upright on its own, given an opportunity.   I have 3 community garden plots and some plants on our deck that I confess I have chosen to ignore on more than one day because it is too hot or I have something else I’d rather do.  I don’t think the people who chose farming as a way of life have that choice.  Where would we all be if someone didn’t accept the challenge and endure the heat?  I have loved gardening for years, but when I started trying to grow vegetables this year, I quickly realized that what I really love is gardening in the shade.  If you think about it, you know how incompatible shade gardening is with raising vegetables.  So if you’re sun averse as I am, you can vegetable garden at dusk or dawn, but the challenge is to figure out how to get everything done within those narrow windows of time.

Air conditioning

I grew up in Texas without A/C until I was  almost an adult.  We didn’t have it in our homes or our schools, and it was an expensive option in automobiles.   At the time, girls were required to wear dresses to school and the style  included full skirts which were supported by a petticoat.  It was unbelievably hot. Paper fans were de rigeuer, as open windows provided the only breeze.  When it’s 95 degrees or more, “breezes”  are nonexistent.  In high school one wing of the building had A/C so all the English classes were held there.  The theory was every one was required to take an English class so every student would have at least one class a day in an air conditioned room.  So I’m grateful for air conditioning and consider it a luxury although most of us have come to expect it as a necessity.

Potable and plentiful water

An interesting side development occurred while I was writing this blog.  I hoped to add some water images to elicit sensations of coolness.  I set out Wednesday evening to capture the fountains at Fountain Plaza in Ellisville.  I arrived around 8 pm, armed with my Canon Rebel XT digital camera with a Canon EFS 17-85 mm lens.  I intended to capture the water flowing down the stone walls and bubbling from the top.   I parked across the drive near the wall just south of Lifetime Fitness; put my Android phone in one pocket, my keys in the other and locked the car.  I walked across the dry grass and was thankful when I realized that there was a grassy strip in front of the fountains which would allow me to shoot without worrying too much about cars coming and going on the drive.  I shot two images and realized that I needed to change my angle to better frame the water bubbling from the top.  I took one step onto the foot wide ledge that sets slightly off the ground.  I instantly started sliding wildly.  My first thought was, oh well, I’m going to get my feet wet.  The next thing I know, I’m falling backwards into the narrow trough between the wall and the ledge.  As I had my camera in my right hand, I reached frantically for the sky, hoping to keep it out of the water.  The last thing I remember  as I slipped completely beneath the water’s surface was tossing the camera as far as I could onto the grass.  I hit my head on the wall, but thankfully not hard enough to lose consciousness.  It took me a few seconds to right myself as the bottom of the trough was also slick.   My first concern was for my camera; I had completely forgotten about my smart phone in my pocket.  I dragged myself out of the fountain which I swear is nearly four feet deep.  Guess I’ll have to go measure it just so I’ll know. I found a canvas shopping bag in my car and dried the water spots from the camera and realized that it was still powered on and seemed to be functioning.  With my vision impaired by dripping eyeglasses, I tried to evaluate the  condition of the lens.  I tried turning the zoom barrel and  concluded that I had separated it from the main lens body.  Not good.  That’s when I remembered my phone, still in my left pocket.  I pulled it out and realized there was water under the screen.  I kept remembering the time I dropped a cell phone into a glass of water and was able to save the phone by drying it with compressed air.  I covered the driver’s seat with another cloth shopping bag, loaded my soggy self and my phone and camera into the car.  When I arrived home,  my son said that I looked like a drowned rat.  I’m afraid that was a pretty accurate description.    I tried drying the phone with compressed air and got most of the water out, but it is a loss.

While I felt much cooler after my dip in the fountain, I don’t recommend it.   Public pools in Ballwin or Ellisville would be a lot more fun.  Ballwin has the outdoor pool at North Pointe and an indoor pool at The Pointe, while Ellisville has The Edge Aquatic Center in Bluebird Park.  Just remember to put your electronics safely away first.

While at the Ellisville Farmers Market on Thursday, I was reminded again to be thankful for water.  George Sackett made the rounds with pitchers of iced water, making sure that everyone stayed hydrated.  I stayed a couple of hours, visiting with friends.  When I came home you can bet I was grateful for a cool shower.  I washed a couple of loads of laundry today.  I have to confess, I didn’t think anything about the water used to do that.  It’s amazing how easy it is to take clean and plentiful water for granted. We just turn the faucet, and clean water magically appears.   As Ben Franklin wrote in 1746, in Poor Richards Almanack, ” When the Well’s dry, we know the Worth of Water.”  With drought stricken states all around, parts of the U. S. are getting a hint of what it’s like in so many other countries of the world.  The University of Nebraska at Lincoln Drought Impact Report  for the last 6 months reveals that roughly 70% of the states have been impacted by drought in the past 6 months.  I’m sure you’re all familiar with George Hutchings, fondly known as The Shoe Man.  George is intimately familiar with the impact on life due to water scarcity.  George is a Ballwin resident who works tirelessly collecting shoes for the resale market,using the proceeds to pay for water drilling expeditions to places like Kenya.  If you haven’t met George, visit his website and learn about his work.   He is indeed an amazing man!

I’m sure each of you finds relief from the heat in your own way.  I’d love to hear what keeps you cool when it’s 100 degrees outside.  What are you thankful for during a heat wave?

Thomas Jefferson would turn over in his grave. . .

Friday, July 1,  I was listening to Science Friday on NPR.  The featured story was about Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Fathers and their gardens/farms.    The interview was titled Growing A Revolution: America’s Founding Fathers.  “Monticello garden director Peter Hatch and historian Andrea Wulf discuss how Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison helped create the uniquely American garden”.   Peter Hatch notes that Jefferson believed that the United States would be an agrarian republic.  I wonder what Jefferson and the Founding Fathers would think if they knew that the US Census no longer lists farming as an occupation? Instead, farmers are included in the catch all “other” category.  Last week I watched the documentary Ingredients.  In the film it was stated that less than 1% of Americans now farm.  I think Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers would turn over in their graves if they knew how far Americans have moved  from tending the soil.  Simply put by M. Gandhi, “To forget how to dig the Earth and to tend the Soil is to forget ourselves.”

NPR host Ira Flatow asks the question  “Where do you see the Founding Fathers – in battle, around a table signing the Declaration of Independence, or sowing seeds?”  I suppose many of us think more about Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison involved in politics and government than we  think of them as  intimately involved in nature and gardening.  I know I never really thought much about them as gardeners or how nature affected their attitudes.  At the time America declared independence, these leaders recognized the importance of  agriculture  to a successful economy and to the young nation’s identity.

Hatch, Garden Director of Monticello points out that Jefferson maintained a journal of his garden plantings, called  The Garden Book.   The word “failed” appears frequently in his writings; he was an experimenter – he documented the planting of some 89 different species, 330 varieties of vegetables, ranging from sesame to okra.  He also grew 170 varieties of fruit.   Jefferson wrote: ” In gardening the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.”  Hatch says “If Jefferson could successfully grow a new crop, one time out of 100 he considered himself a successful horticulturist. ”  Jefferson studied meteorology and supposed that farmers clearing land might have impacted weather.  It’s amazing to me that the wisdom and experience of our Founding Fathers has been lost to most Americans through the past two centuries.  Perhaps our study of history needs to include more than politics, military actions, social issues  and economics but also the environment and agriculture.

Hatch believes that Jefferson’s legacy of gardening  is that he saw plants as a vehicle of social  change –  he supported seed saving, local foods, and farmers markets.  When Jefferson was President, he tracked the arrival and departure of37 vegetables in the farmers market and was a great supporter of that market.

Wulf reports that our Founding Fathers Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison had a shared passion for nature, plants, gardens, and agriculture that was deeply woven into and very much a part of the fabric of America.  She says that at that time, nature, gardening, and agriculture were  subjects they all agreed upon.

Wulf believes that James Madison is the forgotten father of American environmentalism.  In a speech in 1818, he  tried to convince America that if it wanted to survive as a nation it would have to stop destroying forests and stop depleting the soils of Virginia.  She says Madison believed that Man had to return to Nature what Man took from Nature.  He spoke  about the balance of nature and how easily it could be destroyed.  I’m sure both Madison and Jefferson would be appalled at our country’s lack of consideration for the balance of nature and the failure to practice sustainability in all aspects of our lives, and particularly in agriculture.

Wulf relates this story:  In the summer of 1776  as Washington faced 30,000 British troops arriving  in New York  with about half the man power, or 15,000 men.  Imposing British war ships were sailing into the harbor.  Washington sat down and wrote a letter to his estate manager instructing him to design a new garden.  He specified that it contain only  native species in order to create a uniquely American garden.   Wulf feels that at the moment America faced the almighty British army,  Washington was declaring his own independence with the design of his garden.

These are just a few stories of how passionate our Founding Fathers were about nature and agriculture.  I’m looking forward to reading Wulf’s book,  Founding Gardeners.  It’s true that while they toiled in their gardens, they relied on slave labor to provide the majority of human power.   But their involvement in the daily routines and decisions provided them an understanding of the value of agriculture and nature.  I can’t imagine any of our Founding Fathers  finding much significance in the daily routines of most Americans – running errands, shopping at the mall, watching TV, playing video games, texting.  Where in our experiences are we gaining life skills for coping with failure or understanding the mysteries of nature?

I heard a discussion on the radio the other day that resonates with me.  When we worked the land and worked with our hands, failure was tangible.  You could hold it in your hands.  In today’s society where most  jobs are service oriented or have output that is difficult to measure, failure can easily be ambiguous.  It seems that one consequence of our disconnect from physical labor is the lost opportunity to experience tangible failure. I believe that this experience is vital in developing character traits that have been synonymous with America.  Somehow we need to reconnect with  the realities and experiences of our agrarian past.  I know  folks that were raised on a farm and don’t miss it one bit.   However, while growing up taking care of crops and animals, these people learned to appreciate life’s realities and the value of hard work.  They carry determination, ingenuity and persistence into their lives beyond the farm.  Unfortunately I think that many of us and especially our children have grown up believing their efforts should produce success.  Without concrete measurements, it’s easy to discount the existence of failure.   It is difficult to understand that failure can be a learning experience and  to accept Jefferson’s statement, ” In gardening the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.”

If 1% of our population is working to feed us and the remaining 99% are ignorant of even basic knowledge of nature and agriculture, is that wise?  How do we encourage the other 99% to somehow weave their personal threads back into the fabric of America?  Some may believe that our country’s fabric has changed irrevocably and that there’s no need to re-integrate it into a weave from 200 years ago.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If you believe that the fabric of our past was woven from agriculture and reverence for nature for good reasons, how do we  restore it?  I offer this thought.  What better place for learning the rhythms of life than in a garden? In the past ten years, I’ve seen countless children terrified of bees, afraid of rain, having no experience with an earth worm.  They frequently enter a gardening experience timidly or fearfully, but often come out with new skills and an appreciation for foods they would have never otherwise considered.   I’ve recently become involved with a community garden and have found joy in watching the reactions of children who see vegetable plants for the first time.  There is a trend towards more community gardens; that is a positive sign.  I hope those neophyte gardeners stick it out and find the challenge rewarding.

I won’t begin to claim that gardening on my deck and in community beds is synonymous with farming or animal husbandry as an occupation.  But as Karen in her Back Roads Journal so aptly said,  “People that enjoy gardening spend lots of time outdoors in all kinds of weather, be it good or bad. The work they do digging, planting, weeding and watering is a labor of love. . . Gardeners endure a trial by fire of sorts. Drought, monsoon rains, high winds, hail, assorted diseases, insects, deer, rabbits, groundhogs, etc.”  And if you, like others, accept the challenge from Mother Nature and see the garden as a continuous experiment, you are getting a sample, albeit a small one, of the joys and tribulations experienced by the small group that still remains involved in agriculture.   Yes, your involvement is on a much smaller scale than that of our local farmers.  Maybe your participation  will encourage some of our children to move towards agriculture and nature.  I think it would be a great idea  for our country to begin a Farm Corps.  Young people could serve two years as an intern on a farm or ranch.  Our government and the farmer could work out a reasonable split for payment of their stipend.  What do you think?  Would a Farm Corps be beneficial to our nation and our citizens?

I also see the light of understanding at farmers markets, in the interaction between the hard working farmer and the curious customers, many accompanied by their children.  We ask questions of our farmers – What is this? Why are there holes in the leaves? Does it matter? When will you have strawberries?  When do you plant potatoes?  Why do sweet potatoes need to cure?  How do you know when they’re ready to pick?  Why and how do you collect seeds?  All these answers were once part of the basic knowledge of most Americans.  Most arriving here as immigrants from their home countries brought precious seeds.  And everyone knew you didn’t eat the seed potatoes.

Supporting your local farmers market at least gives you an opportunity to experience sustainably grown foods and get to know the people who work to bring the food to you.  Maybe it will also encourage you to grow a vegetable or two.  Another option is to participate in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)  group by purchasing a share of a farmer’s harvest.

Hope each of you and your families have a fun filled July 4!  Spend some time to reflect on our agrarian past and what it means to our future.  Should each of us make an effort to participate more in raising our food?  Have we lost forever our agrarian connections?  Let me know your thoughts.

Cooler full of veggies

It’s been about a week since  I visited my 3 community garden beds, bringing along a cooler for the veggies I picked.  My plot at WildWest Community Garden had a few onions ready to pull, a couple of peppers and two handfuls of basil.  ( I have since learned you should never pull onions, but rather dig them in order to prevent damage to the plant).

From there I went to the church gardens and harvested a bunch of chard, kale, more onions, a couple of carrots and a couple of small stalks of broccoli.  The cooler was full so I decided I’d come back another day to cut more chard and dig more onions.  As it turned out, I kept putting off cooking the chard and eventually had to throw it out which made me feel badly.

6-27-11 Water from just a couple days of rain

I also harvested more basil from my plant on the deck that has produced the largest, most amazing leaves.  I made another 1 cup batch of pesto with these leaves.  I also picked a few tiny, grape sized tomatoes.  My son and I discovered that the tub intended for sweet potato plants and that had been empty, was bulging with water from a couple days of rain.  I took the opportunity to make a few images of the potato blossom and the potato and tomato plants in containers on the deck.  The tomato plants on the deck look much better than the ones in my plot at the WildWest Community Garden.  I really think the biggest difference is the soil.  The plants in containers are in Miracle Gro Organic gardening soil and/or potting soil.

6-27-11 12 Kibets Ukrainian and one brandywine tomato lost to blossom end rot

I also removed 13 tomatoes, 12 from the Kibets Ukrainian plant.  All suffered from blossom end rot.  Unfortunately I don’t know whether I amended the soil with crushed egg shells as I had intended.  This is supposed to supply calcium.  The day I transplanted most of the tomatoes was so hectic that I forgot the egg shells when planting some of them.  Our abundant rain could also be the cause of the rot rather than a calcium deficiency. Guess it will remain a mystery.

On the one hand, the amount of food I have harvested so far is a rather disappointing amount considering the effort involved.  On the other hand, I also realize that a lot of the work was due to the fact that 2 of the 3 gardens were built from scratch.  Since it’s my first year to garden vegetables,  I’m definitely on the steep part of the learning curve.   I do feel like I’ve learned a lot. The most important knowledge I have acquired is that  I have so much more to discover.   Lessons learned will be another post.

Onions – Short, Intermediate, and Long Day Varieties

Thin neck onions

Thin neck onions - probably "short day"

My records indicate that I planted short, intermediate, and long-day onions at the church gardens on April 2, 6, and 9.    The onions in the images were harvested on June 24.  That is 83 days to maturity,  assuming they were planted on April 2,  or 76 days if planted on April 9.   I didn’t record which variety I harvested so I can only guess whether these are short, intermediate, or long day onions.   Dixondale Farms says that short day onions planted in late spring in northern states mature around 75 days which leads me to believe that these are probably short day onions.  Of course the onions I dug aren’t necessarily at full maturity; I still don’t know enough about onions to know when to dig them.  Some I have harvested because I planted my onions on 2″ spacing, planning to harvest every other onion for green onions.  That plan didn’t exactly work out.  Some grew too big to be green onions and began crowding their neighbors.  I figured if the bulb was showing and the tops were starting to flop, I might as well dig them.

Dixondale Farms defines short, intermediate, and long day onion types as follows:

Short-Day Onions
  • Start bulbing process when day length reaches 10-12 hours
  • Mature in 110 days when planted in the south during winter or early spring
  • Mature in 75 days when planted in northern states in late spring
  • The earlier you plant them, the larger they get
Intermediate-Day Onions
  • Start bulbing process when day length reaches 12-14 hours
  • Will produce nice-sized bulbs unless you live in far south Florida or south Texas
  • Mature in 110 days when planted at the proper time
  • Exceptionally sweet
Long-Day Onions
  • Start bulbing process when day length reaches 14-16 hours
  • Do extremely well in northern states
  • Sweet, storage, and specialty long day varieties available
  • Excellent for long storage

Our weather has been crazy – windy, rainy, cold, followed by hot and then cold again, more rain, then hot again.  At least one of my onions set flower which is supposed to happen after the second season in the ground.   Apparently this onion was fooled into thinking it had been through two seasons.  I will probably have some that have suffered from growth starting and stopping due to the wild swings in temperature and soil moisture.  This can cause the bulbs to revert to making stalks.  (Mother Earth News)

The information sheet that came with the Dixondale Farm onion sets I planted says that as a general rule, sweeter onions don’t store as long as more pungent ones.  The food gardening guide  for onions says to use the thick neck onions first.

Thick neck onions, shallots, chives - from church garden

This correlates with the writings in  Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel.  They say that thin neck onions store better than ones with thick necks.   This Mother Earth News article offers quite a bit of information on how to plant and harvest onions for storage.

So far, I have only harvested onions for immediate use.  I plan to follow the recommended harvest procedure, prepare some for storage and see how well I do.  I haven’t been very good about keeping records on the taste and types for the onions I have harvested so far.  I guess as a neophyte veggie gardener, I’m just happy to harvest some onions.  Hopefully I’ll improve on record keeping and fertilizing.

I’m still searching for names of  varieties that store well.  I’d rather plant heirloom onions.  I’m not ready just yet to try starting onions from seed, so I’ll keep an eye out for heirloom onion sets.

One thing that remains a mystery to me – what did I do with the cipollini onions that I thought I unpacked back in March?  Did I accidentally drop them into a package headed to the thrift store?  Am I going to discover an awful smell of rotten onions one of these days in the basement or in the garage?  Or did I dream the appearance of the cipollini onions?

Jodi’s Inspiration for Our Community Garden

After the Saturday lunch and learn, several attendees were touring the gardens, admiring all the lush growth and the biggest zucchini and summer squash I have ever seen!  Apparently John has been on vacation.  Boy will he be surprised when he sees his squash plants!

6-18-11 Benches with flagstones

6-18-11 Benches with flagstones

I was admiring the flagstones that Michael has placed in front of the two benches and Jodi shared a personal story with me. One of the graceful concrete benches is dedicated to the memory of her brother who died suddenly a couple of years ago.  The last thing they had done together was to plant a garden in Houston and the first thing she saw when she returned to Houston was a big bowl of tomatoes from the garden.  She was inspired by their gardening experiences together to dream of building a community garden at the YMCA in Wildwood.   I am thankful that Jodi directed her grief over the loss of her brother to dreaming big – creating and inspiring others to come together for this shared purpose.   We have all benefited from Jodi’s enthusiasm and we can celebrate Jodi’s love for her brother by experiencing our connections to gardening, our friends and families.  Thank you Jodi!

Slideshow, 6-18-11 Garden (Click to Enlarge)

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Fun “Lunch and Learn” at WildWest Community Garden

Saturday morning, 20+  gardeners gathered under the tent adjacent to the WildWest Community Garden to hear Eric Lober of Sunny Creek Farm, Villa Ridge, MO.

Eric Lober, Sunny Creek Farm, speaking with WildWest Community Gardeners

Eric Lober, Sunny Creek Farm

Unseasonably cool temperatures had several attendees wishing they had brought light jackets.  Eric talked about Sunny Creek Farm and how he and Kathy  began farming five years ago after completing a Farm Beginnings class (now known as Grow Your Farm) offered by University of Missouri.    They lease 174 acres, with about 2 1/2 acres planted in produce.  Their current focus is on raising animals – cows and chickens – for processing into meats.  They raise grass fed beef which is inspected by Swiss Meats and pasture raised chickens which are processed, inspected and immediately frozen as whole birds at a facility in Loose Creek, MO.  They sell meats and some produce to  St. Louis restaurants, attend the Wildwood Farmers Market on Saturdays, and provide  CSA(Community Supported Agriculture)  subscribers with shares of produce and meats during the season.  They also market pork raised by Todd Geisert, Washington, MO.  When asked what time they got out of bed Saturday morning, Eric replied, “5 am”, which drew laughter from the audience.

They have worked hard to re-balance the soil on their leased land.  It had been used for years to grow hay which depleted the soil’s nutrients.  Eric recommended Midwest Laboratories for thorough soil testing.  It costs about $35 per sample excluding shipping costs.  He talked about the importance of micro-nutrients in the soil and the fact that a simple NPK soil analysis doesn’t include enough information to accurately select amendments.  One of the minerals that they have found necessary to add to their soil is pelletized gypsum.

They will soon harvest potatoes.  They applied Bradfield Organic fertilizers to this year’s crop and are looking forward to seeing improvements in their production.  Several gardeners wanted to know when to harvest potatoes.  Eric said that it is variety dependent, but it is definitely some time after the plant flowers.  Yukon gold potatoes have a short season of about 60 -70 days, but they don’t keep well.   He usually marks 50 – 60 days out from the time he first sees growth after planting.  When that time arrives, he checks a plant to see how the potatoes are doing.  If they are ready, he cuts the tops off before harvesting to let the skin harden.  They have access to a mechanized potato harvester that is owned by Missouri Organic Association ( or Cooperative).  They order potato stock from Potato Gardens in Colorado.

Eric also mentioned that pests are worse in gardens with imbalanced soil.  Questions were asked about what caused eggplant leaves to look like they had been shot,  riddled with tiny holes.  The problem is likely flea beetles and Eric said that it is difficult to treat for them with organic methods.  He and Kathy have tried every organic product on the market and have given up trying to grow plants susceptible to flea beetle invasion. While he thought some of the home remedies for pests might be practical or effective in a small garden, they have found that these methods aren’t practical in a garden the size of theirs.  Regarding blossom drop, particularly with cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, he recommended Zone liquid calcium foliar spray, available at Morgan County Feed.  He cautioned that when you use foliar spray, you should apply it either early in the morning or late in the evening or the leaves will likely burn in the sun.   He also pointed out that heat and excessive moisture can cause blossom drop.  Eric said that if you have aphids, you probably have too much nitrogen in the soil.

On the subject of extending the growing season, he recommended Eliot Coleman’s book, Four Season Harvest.  An earlier Coleman book,   The Winter Harvest,   is available at the St. Louis County Library.  Methods such as hoop houses and cold frames are discussed in detail in these books.  Black plastic on the soil will also raise soil temperatures.  A hoop house greatly extends the season and allows the gardener to control the water received and protects plants from temperature extremes and wind damage.  There are seeds that can be started in August to plant in September.  He suggested kale and carrots as examples.  They usually start lettuce about 3 weeks before planting.

Miscellaneous thoughts from Eric – he read somewhere that brown or purple green beans germinate in cooler soil vs. the warm soil temperature requirements of the white bean seed.  He and Kathy have grown corn but  it required too much land to meet it’s cross pollination needs, so they no longer plant it.  When asked about a lettuce that would better survive the heat of summer he recommended Summer Crisp Lettuce.  He suggested Route 66 Organics as a source of compost for those who would like to amend their soil.  Route 66 Organics is located in Pacific and the owner frequently comes to the Wildwood Farmers Market on Saturdays.

The event was covered by reporter Jo Beck of the Eureka-Wildwood, MO Patch. Be sure to check out her story on their web page.  Doug Smedley barbequed delicious hamburgers and hot dogs for the lunch that followed Eric’s talk.  Several garden members brought additional pot luck items – brownies, cookies, salads, watermelon and dips.  I’m pretty sure no one left hungry.  Deanna Eguires manned a snow cone machine, offering to make icy treats for any one interested.

Deanna making a snow cone for Bella

Deanna making a snow cone for Bella

Jodi Smedley introduced members of the garden committee who received rounds of applause from the audience for all their hard work in bringing the garden to reality.  We are all so grateful for the hours of planning and organization that occurred leading up to the build day, April 30.  Everyone seems excited and enthusiastic about the efforts that have transformed a field of grass into more than 40 gardens brimming with a variety of beautiful flowers and vegetables in just a couple of months.  What a great example of community working together for a common goal!  Yea, Wildwood YMCA!

 WildWest Community Garden “Lunch & Learn” 

Planting purple Japanese sweet potato slips

I bought 30 purple Japanese sweet potato slips  from Karl Burgart,  Healthy Harvest Gardens,  at the Ellisville Farmers Market on Thursday, planning on getting them in the ground Friday morning.  After looking at my plot at WildWest Community Garden I realized that I  only have room for maybe one plant.  I planted one after adding some of Dana’s coffee grounds and some soil   left from “build” day.  Most references say that soil for sweet potatoes needs some extra preparation and that they like acidic soil.  Since I didn’t take any of those extra steps, I’ll be lucky to get many sweet potatoes, but I figure you have to start somewhere.  I left most of the potato slips there, hoping some of the other gardeners will try them too.  Karl said that they are supposed to be great “keepers”, which means they can store well after harvest.  Last year I learned another interesting fact about sweet potatoes: they need to be “cured” to improve their flavor.

I took the opportunity to record the progress of the squash and cucumber plants that I planted from sprouted seeds 6/4/11.  I thought I might be able to plant 2 or 3 slips at the church garden and drove there in spite of what appeared to be a developing thunder storm in the northwest.  After arriving, I unloaded my tools and the potato slips and surveyed the two plots there.  I noticed wild sweet potatoes, or perhaps they are just morning glories, along the path.

close up, sweet potato or morning glory?

close up, sweet potato or morning glory?

It’s fascinating to me that some plants are related – who would have thought that the sweet potato was in the same family as the common morning glory?  And until I planted radishes this year, I would never have thought about a radish making flowers.

Delicate pink flower on one nonproductive radish

Delicate pink flower on one nonproductive radish

Obviously the seeds come from somewhere; you would think I would have connected the dots.  And did the few that flowered in my garden do so because they were too crowded and the plant somehow decided that it should go to seed if the root wasn’t going to grow?  Or did it flower just because it had been in the ground a certain number of days?  Another mystery of gardening – if you know the answer, please share it with me.

I managed to get one slip planted in the south bed before I decided that I really shouldn’t be out in a field with thunder rumbling in the distance and foreboding skies closing in.  I hurriedly packed up and will just have to make it another day.  Leaving was a wise decision; the storm passed through the area about 30 minutes later.  We had more storms early this morning and are apparently in another cycle of unstable weather.

6-17-11 NW skies that prompted me to pack up and come home

6-17-11 NW skies that prompted me to pack up and come home

Gallery of Images, 6-17-11 WildWest Community Garden  & LW Church Garden (click on images to enlarge)