Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Compost Report

If I was prone to poetic overstatement, I'd tell you that the compost pile is the beating heart of the organic garden -- the living organ that pumps the very life force into the soil and thus the plants which, when finally spent, return to the pile to begin again the cycle of life.

Wait, maybe that would make it the lungs then. Regardless, I want to talk about compost.

Here's my pile, which got a long-awaited turning last weekend.

It's been an especially hot and dry summer, and I've been especially stingy with the water, so the pile has been very dry since the spring and therefore, not very active. Composting, as I'm sure you know, has 3 basic ingredients:

Browns -- dry leaves, straw, twigs, etc.
Greens -- grass clippings, garden cuttings, kitchen waste, etc.
Water -- enough that everything is damp, but not so much that there's no air in the pile.

Mix them together in some some magic proportion and a menagerie of bacteria, fungii and bugs go crazy eating it and each other until it's all broken down into a pretty fundamental mass of organic material. Put that in your garden and it improves the texture and water-holding ability of your soil. And all that bacteria keeps eating any organic material it can find, breaking it down to the basic molecules that feed your plants.

The magic proportion can take a lot of fussing to find, but fortunately, even if you never manage to come anywhere close, it's all going to end up as compost anyway. It may just take longer and get kind of stinky at times.

Or you might find that 6 months of stocking a 40 cubic-foot pile gets you about $6 worth of compost.

But then it's all about the journey, isn't it?

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Let's work together on this, America!

I realize I probably seem a little obsessed with the squash vine borers, but come on! A couple of squash plants could provide us with vegetable dishes for every meal of the summer if left to their full potential. But all it takes is one or two tiny worms to kill a whole plant.

I've officially given up on squash round one. The plant I thought was doing the best failed to bounce back from its daily wilt today (6/4), so I pulled it and slit open its stem to find this guy

and his little brother.

The round-two squash seedlings are doing well and will go in the ground soon. But that's really just an appeasement strategy. What we need is a solution. And today I'm stepping up to the plate to provide the leadership needed to find one.

The Crazy Billionaire X-Prize for Squash Vine Borer Abatement

To the person or team who concocts a reliable method for preventing the infestation of food crops of the family Cucurbitaceae by the larvae of Melittia Cucurbitae I will award a homemade cookbook containing my family's many favorite recipes for the preparation of squash and zucchini. Details of the winning method or invention will be published on this Web site under Creative Commons license for the good of all humankind.

If we can put a man on the moon and make a square watermelon, we can beat this little worm, people. Let me get you started with a couple of ideas:

1. Somehow that moth knows a squash plant when it sees, or smells, it. I don't know if its pheremones or what, but can't we concentrate it, bottle that shit and spray it on a glue trap? Or how about a big fake squash plant covered in glue -- something that will really grab hold of the old ovipositor and never let go.

2. I've noticed my squash plants tend to have ants crawling on them. Now if Monsanto can genetically engineer a potato that will kill a potato beetle, why not an ant that loves to crack open and eat delicious moth eggs?

Anyway, that's just spitballin'. I'm sure you'll surprise me with something better, gardeners of the world.

Let's do this.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SVB Update

The Squash Vine Borers, as expected, have done their damage.

The squash have been going downhill for about a week now, wilting easily during the day and not putting on as many blossoms. Saturday morning I pulled up the Peter Pan squash and tossed it in the compost pile after slitting it open and decapitating the inch-long larva inside (sorry, no photos).

Of the remaining three plants, one is still pretty strong, and the other two are looking decent, but small. Their stems all look something like this.

I've sliced into them lengthwise with a razor blade to see if I could catch the culprit, but there's no telling. I did find these in a spot by the fence where we grew tromboncino last year.

Those are the discarded cocoons (I probably saw a dozen of them) of the next brood, so I'm guessing they're not going to be done anytime soon.

Meanwhile, I've started seedlings for zucchini, butternut, and tromboncino. They grow extraordinarily fast, so I'm going to try to just keep a succession of squash going all summer. Screw those guys!

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Too many mother uckers uckin' with my squa!

I got home from work today and went to visit the garden, where the squash (3 Sunburst, 1 Peter Pan) are in heavy blossom mode ...

Only to find this ...

Actually, about 70 or 80 of those, which you may recognize as the eggs of one Melittia cucurbitae, a.k.a. the Squash Vine Borer moth, a.k.a "Those goddamn motherfuckers" (pardon the blue language).

I can't tell you I was surprised -- growing squash around these parts is largely an exercise in futility due to the Squash Vine Borer. But, as fast and prolific as squash are, it's worth it to keep trying for the few weeks of production we usually manage to get before they succumb.

And the end is not pretty. Once any one of those eggs hatch, the tiny larva burrows into the hollow squash stem and begins burrowing downward until it hits the solid, meaty base, where it starts eating, growing and pooping. Usually you'll see a little sawdusty poop (frass) pile at the base of the stem as the caterpillar eats its way through. More and more of the plant's leaves get wilty (a condition referred to as "tha itis" in our house) until they're all dead. Then the fat borer crawls out of the stem, belches loudly and drops into the soil where it digs in and cocoons up for the winter.

Actually, I found a few of them when I was preparing the beds in February. These were summarily executed.

Organic prescriptions for SVB include covering your plants with row cover and pollinating by hand, picking off eggs and spraying or injecting the stems with Bt, and shopping for squash at Whole Foods.

I opted to pick off as many as I could and hope for the best.


Look who I found skulking about in the pea seedlings ...

ps. The squash plants aren't actually that green. Something in the camera>iPhoto>PicasaWeb chain was messing with the levels, a problem I've since remedied.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ladybug lifecycle

In early March, our big artichoke was swarmed with aphids. Within a couple of weeks, it was swarming with these little black creepy-crawlies ...

Which one by one holed up in these little spotted cocoons ...

Which were soon vacated by little yellow ladybugs ...

No more aphids!