Garden Diary 2020 - July 16-31
Our tomato plants are overflowing their cages and producing a bountiful harvest. Sharing it with family and friends elevates the joy. The onset of summer diseases and pests presented challenges, but they did not outpace the beautiful fruits that came off our vines. While we worked to rid the garden of the destructive insects, we welcomed another in the name of conservation - the monarch butterfly. A second planting of summer veggies and a little DIY kept us busy throughout the month. Never did hard work feel so rewarding! Check my intro article here, where I'll add links to my Garden Diary 2020 posts throughout the gardening season.
More Tomato Support
The tomatoes have grown so wild that they have outgrown even the tallest cages. All at once, they began drooping over, crimping the stems and breaking some under the weight of the fruits. Thankfully, I had extra bamboo on hand that I attached to the inside and on the sides of the tomato cages to add support. At some point, I will have to top the tall branches.
Those Dastardly Worms!
I've often heard the gardening experts warn of the dreaded tomato hornworm, and the amount of damage they can cause overnight. I'd successfully avoided them until now. During my morning garden walk, there it was, dangling upside-down on a hot pepper plant. The size of it was rather startling. Just above, it had stripped off all the top leaves of the plant. It had to go! I snipped off the branch where it was hanging and set it out for the birds. If I hadn't caught it, one worm would have wiped out several plants.
Red Hot Peppers
Another glorious harvest has finally arrived - my husband's beloved dragon cayenne peppers. We have dozens of them growing on all of the varieties, but these were the first to turn red. I'm not a hot pepper fan myself, but I tasted one just to share the experience with my husband. Blah!! I could feel the heat the second it touched my lips. I don't know why he craves them so much! After gulping a huge glass of water to douse the heat, I concluded that hot peppers were his thing, not mine. I'll use them to kick up the flavor of a recipe, but will never eat them straight off the vine again.
Tomato Plant Woes
I haven't been as vigilant as I should be about maintaining my tomato plants. Many of the lower leaves are suffering from what I believe is early blight, turning yellow and spotted. Some of the branches have escaped or overgrown their cages, and have fallen over from the weight of the leaves and fruits. As a result, some branches have broken creating an open wound for pests and diseases to creep in. It appears that they are not getting their full water uptake. Much of the heavy mulch layer has washed away. I started a little maintenance this morning before the heat of the afternoon could drive me away from the sunny part of the garden. There's more to do, and I might have gotten to them too late. Fingers crossed that it won't affect the whole plant.
Several years ago, I planted milkweed to help support the declining monarch butterfly population. I first learned of their fascinating plight and life cycle after taking my son to see the IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, at a science center. As a result of spending more time in the garden this year, I finally witnessed a splash of orange and black fluttering over the milkweed. On closer inspection, I noticed that the monarch was laying eggs! It felt good to give back to Mother Nature.
Late Summer Plantings
I planted a second round of bush beans, pole beans, onions and tomatoes. The bush beans have a 45-60 days-to-maturity cycle, and should have time to deliver a fresh crop of beans. The pole beans take a little longer, but should be ready in time before frost.
Though the first set of onions were disappointingly small, I've begun to appreciate their miniature size. I often use a small amount of onions for flavor, not eating, so I end up wasting much of the large onions I buy from the grocery store. Since I had a big box of onion sets leftover from spring planting, I planted all of the rest wherever I could find space. I replanted the bed from the original set, stuffed them into grow bags with the hot peppers, and in between the rows of bean and pepper plants. I'm looking forward to the fall crop.
For the tomatoes, I still have many leftovers from my seed indoor over planting. I could either throw them away or stuff them into the planter beds. I planted all of the rest of the Roma tomatoes, since they are a determinate variety and will remain relatively small. Since I don't have any cages left, these will be small enough that I can simply stake with leftover bamboo.
Cilantro Seed Saving
Cilantro, I have learned, bolts early when the summer heat arrives, and the seeds are ready for collecting by mid-summer. I plucked out the plants that had fully browned and began saving cilantro seeds (coriander). At some point, I will plant a few to test whether they germinate. Seed saving is new to me this year and I'm eager to find out if I'm doing it right, since every plant is different.
French Bean Feast
My favorite way of cooking French beans is stir frying them with onions, salt and bacon, then boiling them in chicken broth. They were so much more enjoyable knowing that we grew them ourselves.
Rain, At Last!
The brutal, dry heat in the high 90s was finally broken by heavy rains. I've been watering the garden daily to rescue the drooping plants, but nothing can replace a heavy rainstorm.
Blossom End Rot Strike
Another plant disease I learned about this year was blossom end rot, where the bottom of the tomato turns black. I noticed it last year but didn't know what it was. The tomato experts say it's a nutrient deficiency, likely caused by insufficient watering. The temperatures have stuck in the mid-90s with no rain, and though I watered, it was probably not enough. I've seen it occasionally on a several of my tomato plants, but this Roma in particular got hit with it pretty hard. What's up with that?
After days of dry weather, we enjoyed another clear morning with heavy thunderstorms in the afternoon. Not only does the garden benefit from the soaking water, but it also enjoys the temperature drop with breezy wind. I'll have to deal with soil borne diseases, especially more yellowing of my tomato plants, but the tradeoff is worth it.
Bean and Onion Sprouts Already?
With the warm soil and heavy rain, the beans and onions I planted July 19 have already begun to sprout. It took longer in spring, and some got stunted by the cold weather. It will be interesting to compare the first spring/summer crop size with the second summer/fall crop.
Tomato Sauce Season Begins!
At last, I harvested enough tomatoes to start making sauce. It's been a long, six-month wait! I collected enough ripe ones to fill a cookie sheet, that is, those that didn't get eaten first! There were some of each variety I planted, except the heirlooms, which are still not ripe.
The KitchenAid fruit and vegetable strainer attachment made processing the tomatoes a breeze! Last year, I did it the old-fashioned way - threw them boiling water, then in an ice bath, peeled off the skin, cut out the core, and squeezed out the seeds. The flavor was amazing, but the process was time consuming and too many seeds made it into the sauce. Knowing that I'd have to find a better way, I invested in the attachment shortly thereafter. Well worth it!
We rough chopped the tomatoes to a size that would fit into the strainer, except the cherry tomatoes, which went in whole. Once completed, we boiled it on medium/low for about 1 1/2 hours, let it cool and put it in the refrigerator. Once adequately cooked down, there was only about half the amount of liquid that we started with.
Our first recipe will be a simple marinara sauce with herbs so that we can enjoy the full flavor of the tomatoes. It won't last long! Can't wait to harvest another batch.
Heavy rains and high heat are wreaking havoc on my tomato plants. The lower half of some of them are covered with diseased leaves. I've tried to cut off the bad leaves, but they keep spreading. One of the Roma tomato plants has been hit particularly hard. The front half is diseased and wilting, while the back half still looks good. Most of the fruits are still green, and a few are just starting to turn red. I'd like to pull the plant out to keep the disease from spreading to the other plants, but I want to give the fruits that are already on it a chance to start ripening.
I didn't realize until recently that Romas are a determinate variety, meaning that they fruit all at once and then they're done for the season. I have other leftover Roma seedlings to put in their place as a succession planting. It's a race against time. Will the disease kill it before the tomatoes ripen?
For the second year in a row, I've gotten tomato plants from the garden store with the wrong label. I purchased three San Marzanos - the only tomato plants that I didn't start from seed - because I couldn't find the seeds on the shelf back in February. I realized that the fruits on one are round and plump rather than long and slender, as they should be. I wish I knew what kind it was!
Whoa! What a Cucumber!
While I was out on my morning garden walk, I found an enormous cucumber 2 1/2 feet long, 2-3 times the size of a normal one. It had been hiding under the sprawling cherry tomato plant. It's much too overripe to eat, but it may be in prime condition for harvesting its seeds. I'm going to ferment them and see if they are viable. I can't believe I missed it!
Tomato Plant Strategies
Even though I'm enjoying a bountiful tomato harvest, there are definitely things I can do better next year. Spacing this year has been an issue. Most of my tomato cages are lined up on the side of my house in a 4 1/2 foot deep bed. I staggered the cages two deep between the windows so that they would not block the light coming inside. I left a wide enough space in between for the plants to have air flow, but not wide enough for me to access the back row once the leaves were sprawling out of their cages. It was really hard to envision how big they would get when they were tiny seedlings, and about triple the size they were last year. As a result, I ended up breaking some of the branches when I squeezed through to harvest the back row. I believe the breakage invited disease that's killing two or three of the plants. Next year, I'll try a different configuration.
If I plant Roma tomatoes again next year, I will put all of them in the front. I didn't know that they are determinate and can be pulled out and replaced with a second planting after they fruit. I'll be able to pull and plant them much easier if they are all in the front row.
On July 19, I witnessed a monarch butterfly laying eggs on my milkweed plant. Today, we found five monarch caterpillars munching away at the leaves. How exciting to see! I planted the milkweed just for them and was happy to give a little back to nature. This is the one instance where I'm happy to see an insect eat my plants! We will be on the lookout for their pupa and will hopefully get to witness them hatch.
A Special Celebration
The best part of the harvest is sharing it with friends and family. Tonight we celebrated my parent's anniversary with a special meal from the garden. I made Vodka pasta with our first batch of homemade sauce with an appetizer of tomato crostini. My son and I served our parents as if we were at a fancy restaurant. Everything was delicious, even more so because it came from six months of tending our garden. Someday I'll publish the recipes that we thoroughly enjoyed.
Today the caterpillars were gone. Have they entered the pupa phase? I don't see a single chrysalis dangling on the leaves.
I have a huge basket full of ripe tomatoes, with more on the way. However, the temperature has been stuck in the 90s for a couple of weeks, a little too hot for the tomato plants. The garden experts warn of "blossom drop" during high heat, where the tomato flowers wither and don't form fruit. I see that happening all over my plants. The next few weeks aren't going to yield nearly as many tomatoes, but I'm hopeful once the heat breaks they will start to fruit again.
Cilantro Harvested Seed Planting
With fall coming around the corner, I decided to plant more cilantro. This time I used the seeds that had dried on the plants that I planted from seed in the spring.
I put my homemade workbench to use to build my first wooden planter box. I found this easy plan by Ana White and made it over a couple of days. Now that I have one under my belt, I'll be building a second to flank a couple of posts on my carport. I'll stain or paint them first, and tack in some garden fabric before filling it with a soil mix. I'm not sure what I'll plant just yet. Maybe I will use it for seasonal flowers. Starting with a fairly easy project like this gave me confidence to build something more complicated.
All of the build-up for the summer garden paid off. Our tomato harvest has been bountiful.
Flowers that I planted by seed, such as the bee balm and ageratum, are spraying the garden with color.
Older perennials, like the daylilies and purple coneflower, continue to anchor the flower beds.
And there, in my little garden pond, the tadpoles have become frogs.