Posts in category: Gardening



Die, cutworm, die!

Marissa     Gardening         4    

I’m dealing with some serious cutworm issues in the new garden at our house. The okra was badly hit. Many of the new seedlings were being mowed down during the night by the little soil-dwelling caterpillars. But I actually thought I had passed through the critical stage as the cutworms were nibbling on stems but not completely biting through them. A few were still managing to get all the way through. But those were BIG cutworms too. Each morning, I scratched through the dirt around a victimized plant and usually found the culprit (who would then be promptly squished with green guts going everywhere…green from my poor plants of course!).

Cutworms are a serious problem in my garden!

I thought I was winning the battle with this simple technique. But then one morning…that all changed. Mission: Cutworm Genocide began that day.

I waltzed out to the garden a little over a week ago to check on things, thinking the destruction would be minimal. Sure enough, the okra all seemed to have survived the night! But wait, what was that? What the…WHAT HAPPENED?!?

Black Hungarian Pepper with cutworm damage

My beautiful Black Hungarian Pepper, grown from seed by Mom, had been hacked off about 8 inches high. Not just one stem, but all of them that stuck above that height. The worm just crawled to the top where the stems were more delicate and CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP. Sure enough, I found the assailant and turn him into a smooth paste on a nearby rock…I knew my rocky soil would come in handy one day. Surveying the garden, an Emerald Bell Pepper, about 30 feet away, was similarly topped. Fortunately, both plants will survive and those were the only two. But I knew something more serious had to be done about this.


Defensive measures (i.e. put collars around plants to prevent access.):

The usual recommendation is toilet paper tubes. I don’t have enough of those to sprinkle all around the garden on every seedling, so I started by using them on plants adjacent to cutworm damage. Pretty soon, all the okra was up and I was able to cover the ones that were closest to the hot spots of activity.

This is a picture of toilet paper tubes to protect seedlings from cutworms

I lost one seedling in a toilet paper tube, but I had likely trapped the little caterpillar in there with it! D’oh! Don’t worry. He was squished too.

For bigger plants, which probably shouldn’t even be bothered by the cutworms, I couldn’t slip a toilet tube around them. I tried something else that I had read – aluminum foil. I wasn’t really sure how to make a cutworm-proof collar out of it, so I just wrapped the stems. No idea if it really helped, but I haven’t had any damage on the peppers in the week they’ve been up.

This is a picture of aluminum foil collars for larger plants to protect from cutworms

Offensive measures (i.e. kill the buggers!):

Use Bacillus Thuingiensis (Bt) on the soil around plants. Bt is actually considered an organic pesticide. It disrupts a caterpillars digestion – I like to say it makes their stomachs explode. The graphics at the top of this post (if you are looking at the default blog page, you’ll have to click on the post title to go to the single post page to see what I mean), courtesy of the University of Florida, are just priceless. Look at the poor wittle caterpillar with its wittle dead feet in the air. It just needs ‘x’s over the eyes. So I bought some Bt and couldn’t wait to sprinkle it and have cartoon dead cutworms all over the garden.  But Bt is no good after a rain (not sure if it makes it inactive or just washes it away) and you aren’t supposed to bother applying if its going to rain within 24 hours. Guess what? All that lovely evening rain we’ve been having for the past week has meant that it would be pointless to put out the Bt…but during the wee hours of the morning when the rain finally does stop…the cutworms emerge! Phooey. FINALLY, I got it sprinkled on the seedlings and soil on Saturday night.

Introduce parasitic nematodes that will hunt down and slaughter cutworms in the soil. I love this idea. I’ve yet to find the right stuff though and it’s more of a long term solution than an immediate fix. I will certainly be doing this in the future to improve the general health of the garden.

Squish, squish, squish. Every morning check around the base of nibbled plants for the culprits. Be ruthless! The cutworms are now in the corn (yes, I planted about 2 weeks late…). These are smaller ones. I don’t know if this is a new hatching or what. But they’ve taken out about a quarter of the corn and I’m out of toilet paper tubes!


So the battle continues. I’m usually not this blood thirsty…but this is war! Anyone have any good cutworm advice?




The fruits of our labors

Marissa     Gardening     ,     0    

Ah, puns, don’t you just love ‘em?

Anyway, after several years of various events and the weather conspiring against us, we are finally getting a decent fruit crop. We’ve had drought, late freezes, gopher infestations and even pesky chickens preventing us from harvests in the past. But this year things are looking good. Our relatively mild winter had the peach and pear trees blooming WAY too early. I was just sure that a late frost, like last year, was going to wipe out the whole batch. But it never came. We kept our fingers crossed. And before we knew it, it was 90 degrees (seriously, can we have a nice long cool spring some year again?).

The peaches are actually ripening! Mom and I ‘pruned’ two bug bitten ones yesterday for the sake of the tree, but of course couldn’t resist eating them as they were perfectly ripe. Delicious, juicy and wonderful! Unfortunately, most of the peach trees have had their roots literally eaten out from underneath them by gophers so it’s not like we have a bumper peach crop. Two thirds of the trees did abort their fruit and several of them actually died. But the ones that grow with roots intact will provide us with enough sweet fruits to think that the orchard just might be worth the effort (three years and this is our first significant amount of fruit…)

The pears, plums and even apricots are all going to produce this year. But I have to extend a big apology to any CSA customer reading this and starting to drool over impending fruit additions to their baskets…we likely won’t have enough for the CSA! Even though I’m very excited about the “bumper” crop, I’m using that as a comparison to other years. We might not ever get a single piece of fruit into the house as most of it is likely to be plucked and eaten straight from the tree. Next year, I promise, next year!

We are having good luck outside the orchard too. The same late frost that wiped out the fruit tree buds last year took out the entire, huge, ample, serious enormous crop of blackberries. It was the most depressing sight. But this year, no such bad luck! The blackberries are just dripping with fruit. It’s just starting to ripen and you have to be careful – even the black ones might still have a few days to go. We are learning how to get them when they are just right. And once again, these rarely make it into the house. Straight from thorny branch to open mouth.

And finally, the ‘wild’ plants are also producing. I use the term loosely because we did actually plant the cactus. Not everyone knows this but cactus fruit are edible – and delicious. In Mexico, they are called ‘tuna’ and they make an excellent jelly. I love to serve people ‘tuna jelly’ and freak out the normals. Fortunately, this is a spineless variety though it does still have little pointy hairs all over it so you still need to be careful. A few years ago Chad and I collected some wild tunas in the park near our house (with metal tongs) and spent the next month picking teeny thorns from our hands. Hopefully these will be just as delicious but a lot less work!




Expansion: The Nickle Farm

Marissa     Gardening         0    

Yeah…I still haven’t come up with a good name for our place in NW Austin. So The Nickle Farm it is for now.

The soil at Sand Holler is, you guessed it, SAND. While this is great for many things – warming up quickly in the spring, growing large root crops, etc – it’s not so great for other things. Sandy soils tend to be acidic and the farm is no exception. They can also be quite low in nutrients but a few years of adding compost is fixing both problems. Still, some plants just don’t seem to thrive at the farm.

The soil at my house in Austin is a heavy clay type. Much of West Austin sits on top of a thin crumbly soil with caliche directly beneath. I was fortunate enough to avoid that as I’m in a pocket of glacial deposits, probably on the edge of Blackland Prairie soils (which would have been way better!). So I have a good 2 feet of actual dirt. Granted, it’s riddled with fist sized chunks of chirt, but it’s still soil. And it’s alkaline.

So the farm expanded, or possibly re-expanded depending on how you want to phrase things, to include a garden at my house. Tomatillos, which whither and drop before ever ripening at the farm, grow like weeds at my house. We planted them one year, never watered, tried to kill the things off, and ended up with 20 pounds of the little husked fruit off ONE PLANT. Eggplants can also benefit from the soil at the house. And the farm has had horrendous problems with squash vine borers, mosaic virus and choanephora on both winter and summer squash. I simply did not have any trouble when I grew squash. So we are trying a fair variety of plants at our house to see how we can compliment the farm operation.

We had an extensive garden in the years proceeding the purchase of the farm. It was my first time gardening on my own on a large scale and I was a little adventurous with my garden layout (read: difficult to manage!). Once the farm really took off and I started working out there several days a week, we made the hard decision to let our home garden go fallow. The spring of 2009 was the last time anything was planted there. Surprisingly, we continued to harvest a variety of mustard (called Tendergreen and tasting almost like spinach) and fennel from the weed patch that took over. Every spring, those plants just kept coming back. But this year, the whole plot was tilled under to be put back into cultivation (well, we left the big spot of fennel!).

Our hard working WWOOFers made the drive into town to drop off the Austin CSA baskets and then swung by my house to get the projecting rolling at the end of February. I had never really cleaned up the old garden, so hoses and rocks lining the old beds were strewn everywhere underneath the tall weeds. It was a bit of a mess! But they got it cleaned up and started tilling. It took several more weeks to get everything tilled – not only did the weather not cooperate (you can’t till muddy soil and it seemed to rain the night before CSA delivery day for weeks!) but the tiller suffered several mishaps in my rocky soil – a tine broke, the gas tank rattled itself into a leak and finally the engine seized and we discovered that the cast iron flywheel had several teeth broken off and they had ground themselves to powder along with the magnets in the flywheel and ripped through the wires of the coils in the generator. Alas, the tiller is still in this state as Scott performs life saving surgery on the engine. Fortunately, the majority of the garden had been tilled by then.

By the end of March, the raw earth was ready, a water line had been trenched to the garden shed (the house is about 100 feet away) and there still seemed to be an endless amount of work! I had hoped to get all my spring/summer plants in by March 15th but things kept getting pushed back. With most of the heavy manual labor finished, this pregnant lady finally got out in the garden and kicked the project in the rear. Only one work day a week makes for slow progress so we got to work putting in the rows and getting plants in the ground. By April first, we finally had all the starts in – tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplant, peppers and cucumbers.

And finally this last week, one of the last “big jobs” was completed – an irrigation system! Yeah for drip tape! It’s far superior to the soaker hoses I used in the garden the last time around. A crew of WWOOFers showed up and in no time, the trench was dug for the main line (I might add, they were all girls and I’m quite impressed at how quickly they got it done!). The drip tape was laid on the rows and Chad and I sighed in relief as we saw the hour of morning watering chores evaporate. Phew.

There is still a 10 foot or so section at the end of the garden that hasn’t been tilled (on the left side of the above photo). But things are finally progressing and its looking great. Hopefully our CSA customers can look forward to a better variety of summer squash, larger eggplants and maybe even some tomatillos!




Garden: Fall of 2008 to Spring of 2012

Marissa     Gardening         6    

I’m sitting here, bored out of my mind at my desk at work today (hopefully my boss doesn’t read this blog…). I just can’t concentrate – it’s a beautiful day and just about quitting time. An email dings in my inbox. It’s a picture of the new bat house they’ve been working on at the farm. Honestly…it took me a minute to spot where it was! Leave it to my dad to find the HIGHEST place to put something (he’s 6’9″). It’s the greenish thing sticking up above the very point of the garden house!

Seeing the picture made me realize how far we’d come in just 3 and a half years. While living through that, it seems like it took forever, but so much has been accomplished. We bought the farm in the fall of 2008 and started turning a large section of the bermuda coastal pasture into a garden. It started with just some tilling and mounding of rows but the threat of critters (deer mainly) lead us to a big fencing operation. I think there were maybe ten 20 foot rows during that first fall season. Here they are just as the first crops went into the ground in October 2008.

You can see us slaving away in the background on a fence. From the other side of the soon-to-be-fenced garden, you can see just how little had been started and how big our dreams were.

By the next spring, our original caretaker family had moved on and my family had taken over sole care of the farm. We were a little (er…a lot!) daunted and the garden suffered in those early spring days as we learned to adjust our schedules. Sure, it was growing things…just not always the RIGHT things!

Nonetheless, I was quite proud of the first CSA boxes I put together that May. I think we had 6 customers – a good start. We were growing plenty for them and our family and it felt good to be working the dirt!

By the end of 2009, we had plans to “redesigned” the garden with more efficient water supply (it had several hose bibs but no real ‘irrigation’ system) and a central building to store the harvest and pack the CSA boxes. The garden must not have been much of a pretty sight during all of this because I have very few pictures of it and mostly they are just close up shots of individual plants! Much of the work was done over the winter of 2009 – rearranging water lines and some of the rows – especially making them more uniform. And we also moved away from the deep furrows between the rows which we discovered simply filled up with ankle deep water every time it rained, making it impossible to work out there. So by early 2010, we had some new rows and a plan…and that was about it!

But we didn’t stop with just the plan…we actually carried through! That’s one good thing about having a slave master as the matriarch of our family (Hi Mom!). The majority of the rows were completed and the new beautiful garden house was built by the end of 2010.

In 2011, most of the garden infrastructure work was complete and it was just refinement – removing the last of the coastal from the garden, setting up a few extra rows where there was space and finishing the massive amounts of row cover that we use each winter to protect the crops from the freezing weather.

While the garden seems “done” now, there will always be future changes and improvements. Just this spring, 4 new rows were added in a spot previously used to raise poultry to the size they can be let out on the rest of the farm. But now we have a brooder house for that specifically so the garden space can be put to growing plants.

I can’t wait to see what it looks like in a few more years. Always improving!




Garden Life Support

Stephanie     Gardening         0    

Hello, I’m “Mom” finally making an appearance as an author on the blog!

It is only the middle of July and already the garden is on life support mode! We have had more than a dozen days over 100 degrees and the triple digits look to be stretching out as far as we can see on the calendar. Sand Holler is also experiencing some pretty stiff sustained winds and the humidity dips down to xeric levels in the afternoons. So we have flat chard, droopy beans, and crispy squash. But the okra, long beans and most of the melons and tomatoes are basking in the hellish weather.

We have covered the chard with the winter garden hoops and put up shade cloth instead of row cover. We’ll see how effective our little “oases” are for the tender greens. The mustard and the callaloo still look perky but we are prepared to pamper the rest of the leafy veggies as well.

The worst of our woes is the invasions by raccoons, those devilish little bandits who have a predilection for knowing exactly when cantaloupes and watermelons are hours from being picked. They have left nothing but hollow shells with only little tooth grooves to show that varmints are responsible instead of fruit loving aliens.

We can almost hear them smacking their lips in the woods when we come out and discover the depredations in the morning. Today we buy more electric fence!