A Pest you Can’t Help but Love

by Sandy Swegel

Yesterday was a bright sunny day and pollinators were out gorging on the nectar of asters. It’s been a good year for asters, those vigorous re-seeders.  Besides honey bees and some native bees, there were at least seven hummingbird sphinx moths in a small garden area. Their very long proboscis lets them eat from many kinds of flowers and carry pollen about.  I was watching them while scooping up ten inches of topsoil that flood waters had moved about 15 feet away from the raised tomato bed.  So I was scooping the soil up and putting it back.  Easy enough.  In one shovel there was an enormous mud-covered caterpillar squirming.  Slowly I realized that underneath all that mud there was a bright green tomato hornworm and my gut reaction was to kill it right away so I could save my tomatoes.

Fortunately I also immediately thought about the hummingbird moths I had just been admiring. My brain cells reminded me the hummingbird moth and the tomato hornworm are one and the same creature.  How can I both love and hate one creature?  I also found myself filled with compassion for the hornworm because we had earlier pulled and thrown away all tomato plants. Between the ecoli the flood waters carried, the fungus growing on the leaves from too much water, and the forecast of 34 degrees tonight, there was no good reason to keep tomato plants.  So no more food for the hornworm.  Poor hornworm….flood and famine.  He was really big and fat so I hoped he had enough calories to pupate and I threw him on the pile of mud and dead tomato debris that was going to the landfill and wished him well.

Next year I just have to remind myself to plant enough tomatoes so one or two hornworms can grow up into the beautiful hummingbird sphinx moths that pollinate my flowers.

Photo Credit http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-07/lifestyle/41153436_1_light-tomato-darkhttp://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/

Cover Crops

by Sandy Swegel

Here in watery sodden Colorado, our flood waters have mostly receded and people are busy with the arduous task of rebuilding after a disaster.  Seen from above I imagine we would look much like an anthill with thousands of workers scurrying about.  Homeowners dragging ruined carpet and drywall into massive dumpsters. State workers repairing 40-foot gaps in state mountain highways. Disaster recovery crews from Texas to Utah cleaning up this big mess.  1500 volunteers summoned by social media #boulderfloodrelief organized to go in teams to neighborhoods to provide physical labor to anyone who needed it. Food banks gathering enormous amounts of food and distributing it quickly to those in need.

Gardeners and farmers have quite a recovery job.  We have to repair any damage as quickly as possible.  More importantly, we have to keep on the schedule of regular garden tasks.  The regular task in Zones 5 and 6, if you haven’t done it yet, is to get winter cover crops in on bare soil.

Cover Crops are quick-growing plants that protect and can provide many nutrients to the soil.  Some of the most common cover crops are grasses/grains such as Winter Rye.  The other favorites are legumes such as clover, vetch and peas that fix nitrogen in the soil.

Why plant cover crops? 1. They hold the soil in place.  Flood waters make this more real…There are few things sadder to a gardener than the spots where flash floods came through and took away the topsoil, leaving only hard crusty subsoil.  Even without floods, hot winter sun dries out the top inches of soil and then winds blow it right away.  A good cover crop is easier than trying to hold some kind of mulch down. 2. They enrich the soil.  Producing food uses lots of nutrients from the soil. If you let the cover crops grow all winter and then till them in Spring, you now have “green manure.”  All that organic matter from leaves and roots goes right into the soil. This is much easier than cleaning out a barn and hauling manures.  3. They provide additional bee food.  Clovers will often flower before you till them, giving bees and beneficial insects good early season food. 4. Cover crops are just beautiful. Winter rye stays green long after lawns have turned brown and stays green till really hard frosts kill the rye.  It’s beautiful in the cold brown landscape of December to see a mini field of winter rye out in the vegetable beds. 5. They suppress weeds.  By Spring, a fall-planted cover crop has shaded and covered the soil and those zillions of weeds that show up every year never germinate!  Less weeding work…my favorite reason to put in a cover crop.

Cover crops are effective whether you till or not.  In cold winter areas cover crops die on their own and are a good mulch in place even when dead.  Plant your cover crops under fruit trees and you can just mow them.  If you till then cover crops make a huge difference in your soil.

I used to have to give people lots of suggestions about where to find cover crop seeds or how to mix their own.  In the past, I would have to get 10-pound bags from the feed store and find a lot of friends to share it with.  Fortunately for my small garden area, BBB Seed Head Honcho Mike added a green manure cover crop mixture to our catalog last year.  I didn’t even have to ask for it!

For more technical info on cover crops: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/244.html

Fall Planting Information:  https://bbbseed.com/fall-planting.htm

After the Deluge

by Sandy Swegel

I went out into the garden yesterday for the first time since September 10th.  I’m sure you heard of our flooding in Boulder and the Front Range area of Colorado. Back on September 11th, it started to rain here.  That Wednesday started as a welcome rain day…a break in the busy-ness of the harvest season. At the end of a day of a record breaking 1.09 inches of rain, we signed happily, “We needed the moisture.”    But that was the last normal day as one of those freakish “perfect storms” parked right over Boulder  and refused to budge. We got 72% of our annual rainfall over the next few days. No good reason….the storm just wouldn’t move on. It’s normally harvest time and we’re busy trying to get our tomatoes to ripen before killing frost. Winter squash are fattening.  We often have to do a lot of irrigating because irrigation ditches have long since dried up. Newly seeded greens and root crops are developing for Fall harvest.

No regular harvests this year.  Farmers are advised not to sell anything fresh out of the floodwater soaked fields unless it’s bleached first.  Kinda ruins the whole organic thing. But we are harvesting lots of compassion and empathy for other areas that have flooded and a new understanding for people who live in rainy areas.  We’re still full of fear and suffering over losses of home and field and livelihood, but ever so grateful for those who have gardened and farmed in flood before and shared their wisdom.

On the most mundane level, I understand the Pacific Northwest garden in a new way.  Peering into my sodden compost bin with sheets of rain pouring in, I suddenly understood what the lid was for…to keep water out.

I understand my father’s south Louisiana garden a little better.  You have to have really high raised beds to grow in because the water table is right at ground level.

I am so grateful to the the farmers and scientists of North Dakota and the Midwest.  Our ag college is daily emailing info on how to treat soil and crops and trees based on what they learned from the floods of 2011 in North Dakota and 2008 in the Midwest.  Nothing like 10 feet of water and mud in our own basements to really understand those pictures that come across the TV whenever the Mississippi River floods. But now we know how to help our trees and plants survive.

I flashback to images of mudslides in California and understand why we have to plant slopes for erosion.  A few plants don’t stop the entire mountainside from repositioning, but they can really help absorb and slow the water from steady rainfall.  Once our 100-year Creek flood got going, it just took entire trees and the three feet of soil under them, but in other places, plants and grass meadows kept the topsoil from floating to Kansas.  Sorry, Kansas.  Think of this and remember to seed your wildflower meadows and your cover crops;

We’re still in shell shock, but it was hot and sunny yesterday and the forecast is good today.  Any day now, we are going to join the millions of farmers and growers throughout time who finally wipe the mud off their brow, tear open a seed package carefully saved from floods, and plant again.

Watermelon Crop Circles

by Sandy Swegel

Nature is so darn weird some days.  My friend Lara found four watermelons with this a design in them growing in her farm field.  Her neighbors are, um, quirky enough that one of them might have spent the night carving the design.  But a quick google for “crop circles and watermelons” turned up more equally cryptic images.

Most likely these watermelons weren’t carved by industrious aliens.  Designs like this can be caused by spot or mosaic viruses   Last year, we saw lots of the Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus that wiped out tomato plants locally.  Vining plants like cucumbers and papayas are also susceptible.

Most of these plant viruses are spread by insects, often aphids or thrips.  An infected insect goes from plant to plant spreading the virus.  Sometimes the effects are inconsequential and sometimes, as happened with the papaya ringspot virus, most of the crop can be wiped out, endangering the economic status of the entire growing area. Insects often overwinter in debris in the field or nearby, so clearing out your garden after harvest can sometimes break the disease cycle.

Not much you can do once you have the virus. Sometimes they don’t spread, and other times they wipe out the field. Lara only has four fruit so far so she’s hopeful it’s an isolated problem.

Why is tidying up always the answer to most problems?