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Archive for June, 2011

This past Christmas, I tried using a living Christmas tree for the first time. Despite the research I had read about living Christmas trees dying the following summer, I decided it was worth a go, as long as I was smart about the way I handled the tree. My tree spent a few days on my front porch, and then came inside for a week. I bought some LED lights, to avoid heating up the branches with incandescent lights. (Hint- get the little LED lights. The medium size ones are blindingly bright indoors, if you use about as many as you would with incandescent lights.) When the tree went back outside on boxing day, I set it near the house, in a spot fairly sheltered from the wind.

For the remainder of the winter, Seattle had a few snow flurries, lots of rain, and nighttime low temperatures generally in the 20s and 30s. My tree seemed to like this just fine, because my little tree has a healthy amount of soft, light green new growth right now. I guess the new growth means that this year my Christmas tree will be a few inches taller.

In other delicious gardening news, my garden has started yielding snow peas, snap peas, lettuce, and ripe strawberries. These long days are helping the rest of my plants shoot up like Jack’s bean stalk- except for my pole beans, which were chewed to the ground by slugs and will not be shooting up to any height.

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Leafminers attack!

This is my first year growing chard, because I didn’t figure out until last year that chard isn’t nearly as gross to eat as kale is. (I know, being a kale hater is like heresy in the Seattle edible gardening world.) That means that this year is also my first major run-in with leafminers. Leafminers are insects that feed between the upper and lower surfaces of leaves as maggots, and leave ugly brown tunnels in leaves. After enough mines are created, the tunnels no longer appear as distinct paths, and just look like brown, crinkly blotches, that are even grosser to eat than kale.

There are a few insects that cause similar looking damage, but the most likely suspect in chard or spinach leaves is the spinach leafminer, Pegomya hyoscyami. As adults, spinach leafminers are 1/4″ gray flies that lay eggs on the underside of leaves. Within a week, itty-bitty maggots hatch, and wriggle inside the leaves to feed. After another 2 or so weeks, the maggots are full grown and drop out of the leaves and burrow into the soil to pupate. Within a month, an adult fly emerges, and the whole cycle starts again. Once the summer is over, some leafminers will overwinter as a puparium in the soil, in order to start the cycle again the next year.

It didn’t occur to me to worry about protecting my plants from leafminers until they showed up and took out most of my chard crop. If I had payed closer attention to my vegetable beds this spring, I probably could have saved more of my chard by removing the first infected leaves I saw, since the leafminers are probably already in the their second generation this year. I didn’t catch the problem until early this week, by which time all of my chard plants had significant damage, and my spinach plants had so many eggs on them, that I harvested it all as baby spinach for salads (and washed it thoroughly before eating, because eating fly eggs is also pretty gross).

Besides removing infected leaves, next year I’ll plan on planting my spinach and chard in a different vegetable bed as part of my crop rotation, because of those puparium overwintering in the soil. Another way to prevent leafminer damage is to use a hoop house or floating row covers, which operate by covering the plants with something that lets light in, but keeps insects out. Floating row covers are made of white garden cloth, and hoop houses sometimes use garden cloth, and sometimes use white semi-transparent plastic. Both methods also help protect early crops from frost. I’m reluctant to go to the work of setting them up, though, because they also don’t let bees or butterflies in for pollination, and I tend to mix crops like flowering herbs, greens, and raspberries in the same bed. Hoop houses are also pretty ugly, and I consider my vegetable beds to be part of my overall ornamental garden. Leafminers can also be controlled by spraying neem oil, which is among the less alarming things you could spray on plants.

After removing all the infected leaves, and having mostly chard stubs left, I though about giving up on growing chard and spinach, but then my Territorial Seed Company winter catalog came, filled with seductive late-harvesting varieties, and I’d bet that chard will be making a reappearance in my fall garden.

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For the holiday weekend, we took advantage of the just-reopened North Cascades Highway, and headed up to Mazama. Mazama is situated at the top of the Methow Valley, and while not actually very high (about 2,200 feet), the ecology has a distinctly sub-alpine feel because it melts out so late and gets snow again so early. We stayed at my parents’ property, where they keep a sparse garden that is very different than their lush, overstuffed city garden. In Mazama, trees are left standing, unless they threaten to fall on the house or garage (which is a very real danger- at least 20 trees fell last winter). Most of the property is left for nature to decide what will grow there- both our time and water is too scarce to worry about cosseting plants that are further than a few feet from the house. Even when we try to control the landscape, nature usually gets her way. My mother had carefully staked a crabapple tree that was splitting down the middle, but the bear that climbed the tree and sat in it while munching on the crabapples didn’t care about what my mother had in mind for the tree.

The few cultivated plants, which form a little perimeter around the house, are at least a month behind those in Seattle. The early daffodils, grape hyacinths, and forsythia are blooming now and the lilacs are just setting buds in our shady woodland garden. It will get hot here soon, and by the end of June, the flowers will catch up with our Seattle gardens, with the oriental poppies blooming at the same time in both places. In the fall, when Seattle is enjoying the slow descent into winter, Mazama will be getting isolated snow showers, hopefully with enough snow accumulation to cross country ski by Thanksgiving.

Mazama is in USDA zone 5b, whereas Seattle is in zone 7b (the lower the number, the colder the winter is on average.) For comparison, Denver, CO, and Columbus, OH, are also in zone 5b and Atlanta, GA, and Forth Worth, TX are in zone 7b. Some folks claim that the USDA zone system works well for choosing plants East of the Rockies, but isn’t quite as useful in the West, where elevation and proximity to the ocean have major effects on which plants will thrive. I can’t speak to how easy it is to choose plants in the East, but every year I get suckered into buying something that can handle Seattle winter temperatures just fine, but dies of soggy roots instead.

An alternative to the USDA hardiness zones are the Sunset climate zones, which take into account parameters other than winter season lows, such as length of season, wind, and maritime climate. In the Sunset system, Seattle gets a zone 5. I think Mazama is a zone 1a, but the whole Methow valley is helpfully left off the map on Sunset’s web site. I’m pretty sure folks in the Methow don’t need Sunset to tell them that it’s unwise to grow tomatoes that take 85 days to mature, though- ski season in Mazama will be back before we know it.

A smattering of what's blooming in Mazama

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