Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sightings in New Mexico

While on an incredibly overdue getaway in New Mexico, with my wife, I came across this rarity in the town of Mogollon. Just like similar sightings – it is important that the observer take distinct pictures to provide evidence to prove that these creatures are real.

This creature definitely looks incredible.

I had never seen one of these insects in real life and I would have to say that it was one of the coolest bugs that I have ever seen – somewhere between a mantis and a lacewing.

I thought nothing of this bug at first, until I took a closer look.

From the Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders, Mantidflies live in Grasslands and forest edges from New England to Georgia and west to California. The adult and larva prey on smaller and less aggressive insects, spiders, and grow quickly [by consuming] spider egg masses. Larva also feed on wasp nests when possible. Oval eggs are laid on short stalks.” I wonder how these would do in Tucson. I was not about to disturb this one in transport even though I would love to see a few of these in my garden!

This mantidfly was not photogenic

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Purple Carrot Experiment

In looking for new vegetable varieties to try out I stumbled across purple carrots. Although the majority of purple carrots I have grown in the past have been of purple only on the outside, I have been experimenting with some more deep purple carrot varieties.

A few purple carrots from a recent carrot trial

One helpful hint, courtesy of Kitazawa seed company, is that if your desire is to have your carrots exhibit full dark colors, you should grow them over the winter. Thus, if you want to grow a dark red or purple carrot – you should try to grow them when the weather is cool.

In May my purple carrot experiment was doing well

Thinning a few of the carrots out in May

Some more purple carrots

Another reason to grow carrots in the winter, should you live in a hot climate like I do, is that growing over the winter can assist in avoiding harsh summer growing conditions and pests. In my excitement to plant a new purple carrot variety, I decided to try growing my carrots over the summer. However, thanks to some local leaf-hoppers and the unrelenting heat of the summer putting my plants under stress, my whole purple carrot patch became infested with mosaic.

With leafhoppers comes Mosaic
The leafhoppers discovered the remaining carrots
All I could do to save the remaining carrots from mosaic was to pull up most of them and hope for the best. While pulling out the carrots, the leafhoppers clued in on what I was doing and shifted their population to the last healthy plants. The remaining plants soon became diseased. My only consolation is that I learned something and that I have more seed for next fall. Until then, I will make sure to remove all food sources (including carrots) for the local leafhoppers. The main consolation of a failed vegetable experiment is that I can consume my failures before they consume me.

Another way to say "garden failure" is "dinner time"

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

EM·1 Microbial Inoculant

Back in December 2011 I attended a Tucson Organic Gardener (TOG) meeting with a presenter from Terra Ganix. During this meeting, the gentleman presenting highlighted the incredible properties of their EM·1 Microbial Inoculant. He noted that its multiple anaerobic microbes were able to naturally “heal” gardens and bring the beneficial microbes in a garden into balance. I thought very little of this presentation until this last spring when I decided to give the EM·1 stuff a try. I contacted the company and found the location (on West Grant, in Tucson) where I could pick up a bottle from a vendor without having to pay shipping.

EM·1 Microbial Inoculant

With some amount of hope, I took my EM·1 home and diluted it in water – making sure to apply it in the evening. As luck would have it, I applied it on the only cloudy day in April.  Instead of using tap water, which is full of chlorine and other possible antibacterial substances, I just used filtered water that had been sitting out for a day – just to make sure. I also applied more water afterwards – to ensure that the EM·1 penatrated deep into the soil.

So – does EM·1 Microbial Inoculant really work? What happened when I applied this miracle cure to my garden? Nothing really. All of my plants miraculously grew at the exact same rate that they had been growing. The plants that were doing poorly continued to do poorly and those that were doing well just kept on doing well. I would like to say that EM·1 is some kind of miracle item but I really cannot. One would hope that this means that I have plenty of good microbes in my garden already. Perhaps, in the future, I will get better results by applying diluted kefir to my garden

EM·1 Update: Even though the EM·1 did nothing for the rest of my garden it helped my sweet potatoes grow and produce much more than they would have otherwise produced. If you grow a lot of sweet potatoes I would highly recommend this product. I have more information on my more recent experiences with EM·1 posted here.

No noticable change in my Garden after applying EM·1 

My experience was not a total waste of money. To be able to compost more of my kitchen scraps – including bones, meat, and dairy I plan on using my EM·1 to make some Bokashi. Bokashi is a substance that uses a substrate (such as wheat bran) to pickle your compost in a way so that it does not stink. You can think of Bokashi as a compost pre-digester. EM·1 can be activated to make more EM·1 and make lots of  Bokashi – so you can compost more food without having the negative pests and smell associated with composting. You can find out more about this process on Terra Ganix’s website.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hand Pollinating Squash

Even with the many other websites that overview hand pollinating squash, I figure that it cannot hurt to review the process. Just like melons, squash are monoecious: meaning that they have separate male and female flowers that grow from the same vine. In order for fruit to mature, this type of plant requires a pollinator to remove pollen from the anther of the male flower and deposit it on the stigma of the female flower.

Immature Male Squash Blossom

Female flowers are identified by the bulbous protrusion on the stem right below the flower, whereas male flowers consist of a thin stalk leading up to the flower.

Depending upon the type of squash you are growing, female flowers may take a while to appear. The 90 days that I waited for my Long of Naples to produce female flowers was nearly enough to persuade me to cut the whole plant down.

Immature female Squash Blossom

Other reasons why female flowers may not grow include a lack of some nutrient. On one occasion, when I had a large zucchini plant with no female flowers, the plant quickly began to produce flowers after an application of a little bone meal. However, the correlation could be considered questionable. Whether the production of female flowers was because of the bone meal or whether the plant would have produced female flowers anyway was difficult to determine.

Mature Female Squash Blossom (side view)

Mature Female Squash Blossom (front view)

Pollinating of squash can occur as soon as a female squash blossom has been identified and that blossom begins to open its large flower. To pollinate, I identify a blossoming male flower, pull it by its stem, remove its large petals and rub the pollen from the male anther gently around stigma of the female flower. As there are usually more male flowers than female flowers, I usually use repeat the process several times using multiple male flowers.

Mature male squash blossom (Tucson ants will even eat pollen!)

Pollinating the female stigma with the male anther

So – how do you know when you’ve pollinated your squash correctly? Within a week the squash should either begin to grow or shrivel up. If it grows, then all the conditions were right for pollination and fruit set.

Squash set fruit - this is usually a good thing

If the fruit does not set and shrivels, this may not be the gardener’s fault. If I have multiple fruits setting at the same time on the same vine, the vine will often abort the less developed fruit in favor of a heartier fruit. This does not mean that I am a bad gardener, but rather – if I pollinated all the fruit correctly then I see this as the process by which the squash plant is determining its next generation of offspring. A stressed plant in a poor environment may favor the smaller fruit over the larger fruit, to enable it to perpetuate its seed; whereas a vigorous plant in a healthy environment will favor setting larger fruit with vigorous seed. 

Withered squash fruit - this could be a bad thing

When growing squash, it is wise to pick a variety that you can sustain in your garden and your climate. In 2010 I grew Athena (hybrid) cantaloupe in my garden. The vines set so much fruit (at the same time the plant was under intense environmental duress) that the plant literally killed itself. Slow and steady wins the prize: It is better to choose a variety that works in my environment then to pick a variety that produces so abundantly that it kills itself before the fruit matures.