24 October 2012

Bottle Gourds

This summer I decided I wanted to grow gourds.  I didn't get an early start, but there was still plenty of time to get a small crop of them.  I had collected seeds from an apple gourd and a luffa gourd, and I had a pack of mixed gourd seeds as well.  I started the gourds in seed flats - I knew I had lots of apples and luffas, but I didn't know what type the mixed gourds would be.  Gourds are a vining plant, similar to squash or pumpkins - since I have a small garden, anything that vines usually gets trained to grow on a trellis.  In this case, it was the lattice hiding our garden tools from our neighbors.  Once the fruit started developing, I realized I had a few Lagenaria siceraria, or bottle gourds, also known as Calabash.  Supposedly the bottle gourd was the first cultivated plants in the world, but it wasn't used primarily for food - it was used as a water container.

Growing the gourds was the easy part - if you plant too many - like I did - they will be almost uncontrollable.  Mine grew up the lattice and onto the roof and started fruiting up there too.  I had to do some pruning, and pull up several plants that hadn't thrived like others.  Once the fruits finish growing, the vine leading to the gourd will slowly dry out and turn brown.  When it's completely dry, harvest the fruit by cutting the vine several inches above the fruit.  Like any warm-season plant, you will need to harvest before the first frost, to avoid any damage to the fruit.  When harvesting, be careful and avoid damaging the fruit - any bruises or scrapes could lead to rotting.

Once harvested, you need to clean the gourds with soap and water and let them dry.  After they are dry, soak them in a 1:10 bleach and water solution to kill any fungus or bacteria that might form.  For the gourds to completely dry, they need to be in a warm, dry area out of direct sunlight.  Place them on clean newspaper or cardboard, spaced so that they do not touch.  Depending on the size of the fruit, drying could take as long as six months.  The bottle gourd you see here was harvested on August 27th, so it took less than a month to dry completely.

Now that the bottle gourd is completely dry, there is one more step for a Lagenaria type of gourd - you have to scrape off the outer skin to reveal the hard inner shell. Soak the gourd in warm water for about ten minutes - this is harder to do than you think!  Then take a scouring pad and scrub off the outer layer.  Almost anything rough will do - I used a stiff-bristled brush and some steel wool.  Once the outer layer is completely gone, let it dry, and you'll be ready to harvest the seeds, or make it into something that holds water, or a ladle, or whatever you can think of.  For more information, see Harvesting & Curing Gourds.

21 October 2012

Mealybug Destroyer

Mealybug Destroyer
There are a number of beneficial insects that people are familiar with - lady beetles being the most popular - but I ran across an interesting one today - the mealybug destroyer!  I was in the process of cleaning up my trellis of gourds - cutting back overgrown vines and thinning out, leaving the mature gourds to finish ripening - and I started noticing possible insect eggs on the underside of leaves - then I came across something a little scary.  I went to get my camera and a specimen jar, took a few photos and took it in the house to figure out what it was.

I used my standard approach to these problem - doing an image search for common pests of gourds, but I had no luck.  So I searched for "white insect" and there it was, on the first page of results - the mealybug destroyer larva.  Once I discovered it was a beneficial insect, I quickly relocated back to the gourd patch.

Mealybug Destroyer Larva
Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, the mealybug destroyer, is a native of Australia, where it is known as the Mealybug Ladybird.  It was introduced into California in 1891 by Albert Koebele to control the citrus mealybug.

 Normally they are cold-sensitive and would need to be re-introduced every spring, but the climate here may be warm enough for them to overwinter.  Adult mealybug destroyers feed on all stages of mealybugs, even laying their eggs in the mealybug egg sac - when their eggs hatch, the MD larvae begin feeding on the mealybug eggs.  They even feed on honeydew, a sticky, sugary substance secreted by mealybugs.  Although a lot larger that mealybug larvae, the MD larvae have the same wooly appearance and may be overlooked by their prey - a case of aggressive mimicry.

So if you see these in your garden, leave them.  More Mealybug Destroyers mean fewer mealybugs.

17 October 2012

Cross-striped Cabbageworm Caterpillar

Once again I have severely neglected my vegetable garden - until I resolve the chicken issue, I have only a few beds to plant right now, and they are a little inconvenient.  Back in August I transplanted broccoli there, and it has suffered in the waning days of summer.  I went out there recently and found that they were being eaten by lots of caterpillars.  Despite the demise of the broccoli, I was excited(?) to find another pest to learn about.

I soon figured out that the pest was the Cross-striped cabbageworm caterpillar - not knowing why it was called a cabbageworm, I decided to look it up. They are called cabbageworms, because they feed on cabbage and other cole crops like mustard, cauliflower, turnips, radishes, and broccoli.

At first glance, I only saw a few here and there, but there was significant damage - on further inspection, I found tons of caterpillars on the underside of the leaves.  The odd thing was that there were completely untouched plants next to ones that were skeletonized.  On the untouched plants, I found what looked like egg clusters.

Caterpillars can be a huge problem, especially when they find their food of choice.  Fortunately, if you catch it early enough, there is a good solution.  Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a bacteria that is a biological pesticide for controlling caterpillars.  Because B. thuringiensis is a bacteria and has little or no effect on humans, animals and beneficial insects, it is considered environmentally-friendly.  Bt is probably the active ingredient in all products that are labelled to control caterpillars.  These products are usually a liquid spray applied to plants, which then needs to be ingested by the caterpillars to be effective.

Personally, I have just decided to let the caterpillars have the broccoli this time.  It was just a few plants, but next time I will be prepared.  In the meantime, I will remain vigilant for signs of the next attack. 

14 October 2012

My Gardening Library

I do most of my garden research online - the Master Gardener's office is filled with books, but I head straight for the computer.  It's more comprehensive and easier to search, but what if I couldn't use the internet?  I have not been a collector of books for a long time - in fact, I have been getting rid of books over the last decade, but I decided I needed a small reference library for my gardening questions - and there was no better place to get started than the local Friends of the Library Annual Book Sale.

My main goal was to pick up some good reference books, ranging from plant identification, to pest and diseases, and maybe some botany or soil science.  I didn't know the likelihood of finding what I wanted, but I was hopeful.  I should have been preparing for this a lot longer than I did - because of work and other factors, I didn't get there until nearly the last day.  I missed the member preview on Thursday night.  I missed Friday because I had to work late.  And I didn't get to the sale on Saturday until 3pm.  I did feel better when Robin bought me some books on Friday, and the sale didn't seem to have a lot that I was looking for.  Despite all of that, I did get a good start to building a garden reference library.

At first glance, I saw a lot of common types of books - small books dealing with one type of plant, probably from a book or gardening club, or those that you can pick up at Lowe's.  Then there were books about more interesting things like native plants, or weeds, or roadside plants, but they were specific to a completely different part of the country (or world).  Another type of book I ran across a lot was the older, complete gardening guides.  Some of these books had brittle pages, out-of-date information, old color photos, b&w photos, or no photos at all.  There were a lot of books that I would like to have looked at it, but not paid for the privilege.  So, I managed to find some books I could use, like:

Identification and problem solving books:
What Flower Is That? - 1000+ color photos
Southern Living Garden Problem Solver
Colour Dictionary of Garden Plants
Trees of the Eastern and Central US and Canada
Rodale's Garden Insect, Disease and Weed Identification Guide
Landscape Plants for the Southeast
Garden Guide to the Lower South
Taylor's Gardening in the South

Books on organic gardening:
Macmillan Book of Organic Gardening
Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening
The Chemical-Free Lawn
Gardening for the Future of the Earth
Growing Fruits and Vegetables Organically
The Organic Garden Book
Successful Small-Scale Farming

I'm planning to build a greenhouse, so:
The Complete Greenhouse Book
Your Homemade Greenhouse

Essays, Biographies, Curiosities:
A Gardener's Book of Words
Garden To Order - The Story of Mr. Burpee's Seeds
The Best Gardening Ideas for the 80's
Second Nature - A Gardener's Education - Michael Pollan
Plant Propagation - Principles and Practice
The Curious Gardener (essays)

Until I made this list, I didn't realize how many books I bought.  Wow!  Well, they will come in handy if I can use the internet - and they look good on my bookshelf.

11 October 2012

Leaf-Footed Squash Bug

The leaf-footed squash bug became a problem in my garden this past spring.  With not much of a winter and an early spring, the insects were out early.  Cool-season gardening is usually my favorite - I plant potatoes as well as lettuce, spinach, broccoli and peas.  With the early warm weather, came the squash bugs.  I have to say that I saw lots of these pests this year, but I didn't see much damage.  The most dramatic scene was a declining potato plant with many squash bugs in different stages of development.  The orange/red nymphs had me fooled at first - I thought they were assassin bugs.

From the order Hemiptera, which means half-winged, these insects have a partially hardened forewing, while the rest of it is membranous.  Leaf-footed means that part of their hind legs are flattened, possibly resembling a leaf.  They have sucking mouthparts - a proboscis pierces the plant tissue and sucks out the liquids.  While some bugs transmit pathogens, it is unclear whether this one does, although any damage to plant tissue can be an opportunity for diseases to infect the host plant.  They also can be a lot larger than other garden pests, measuring a inch or more, including the antennae.

In the spring, eggs are laid typically on the underside of a leaf of a member of the Curcubit family - squash, cucumber, pumpkin, etc.  In about ten days the eggs hatch and the nymphs begin feeding on the host plant and in about 4-6 weeks they will have grown into adults, having completed simple metamorphosis.  The adults don't mate, but overwinter until spring when they emerge, mate and begin the whole life cycle again.

The best control for this pest is vigilance.  Check regularly for egg clusters, hand pick individual bugs from plants, remove dead host plants and cultivate the soil, hopefully disturbing their winter resting places.

07 October 2012

Social Media Update

I'm at a loss for what to write about this weekend.  There are a number of little things, but nothing too exciting.  I know it's really not about our garden or chickens, but it might be interesting if you haven't checked it out in a while, or ever.

What am I talking about?  Park Circle Homestead's social media, that's what!  I've been expanding a little bit recently and thought it was time share the news.  We are now on Tumblr - PCHomestead.tumblr.com.  I know - you're saying, "another site?"  I've tried to make these as unique as possible.  The only major duplication might be between Instagram and Tumblr.  Let me try to list everything:

Blog:  blog.PCHomestead.com - Some variations of PCHomestead.com and ParkCircleHomestead.com will get you here, but it's not foolproof yet.

Email:  If you have any gardening questions, I'll be happy to try to answer them for you.  You can email me at ParkCircleHomestead@gmail.com.  It's also on the site.

Twitter:  @PCHomestead - For those not keeping up with the site,  I send out updates on Twitter when I post new articles.  I will also tweet a few photos and gardening news when I have them.

Instagram:  PCHomestead is our username.  If you have Instagram on your phone, please give us a try.

Tumblr:  PCHomestead.tumblr.com - I decided to start this to share original photos.  There's a larger audience on Tumblr than there is om Instagram, and, silly me, was never tagging photos.  Since I started doing that, I've had a lot more interest in them.

Pinterest:  Sorry, not yet.  I looked into it when I was starting the Tumblr page, and I just don't know what to do with it yet.

OK, sorry to have bored you, but I had to get that info out.  Being Columbus Day, this is a holiday weekend for some of us.  I'm sure by the end of it, I'll have something good to write about.  Stay tuned!

03 October 2012

Soil Drainage Test

How well does your soil drain?  This is an important question - it could mean life or death for your plants!  If your soil has too much clay, it could remain waterlogged, keeping oxygen from getting to plant roots.  If it is too sandy, water and nutrients drain right through the root zone.  Here's how to find out how well your soil drains:

First, dig a hole about a foot deep.  Fill with water and let it drain completely.

Immediately refill the hole and measure the depth of the water with a ruler.  Fifteen minutes later, measure the drop in the water level in inches and multiply by four, to calculate how much water drains in an hour.

What is your soil's drainage rate?
If it drained between 1 and 6 inches per hour, then you have well-drained soil.  If your rate was less than an inch per hour, your soil has poor drainage.  If it drained more than six inches, your soil has excessive drainage.

What does this mean?  What do I need to do?
If your soil has poor drainage there are a few things you can do.  Amending the soil with compost or other organic matter will help with drainage as well as adding nutrients.  You can also choose plants that tolerate wet conditions - there are many native plants that work well - hibiscus, bog lilies, pitcher plants, and many others.

Adding organic matter helps soil with excessive drainage as well.  If the area gets a lot of sun, you may want to consider growing succulents.  There are a number of aloes, agaves, yuccas and cactuses that are hardy in your area.  Also, once established, native flowers like Rudbeckia and Echinacea can thrive in areas where drought-tolerant plants are needed.

With the right information, there's no need to let plants grow in a soil that's not right for them.