Friday, July 14, 2017

Growing Things

July 14, 2017: My garden as it appeared this morning.

Everything is still growing! Which is still something like a miracle to me, especially considering the continual challenges that keep arising. You can see how much larger everything has grown over the past almost-six weeks, especially the tomato plants, by comparing the above photo with the one below.

For comparison: How my garden looked back on June 4, 2017.

I even have several young tomatoes growing on all four tomato plants, as well as one bell pepper that's getting big quickly. The other pepper plants have blossoms that have curled in and are starting to form into adorable little bell peppers.

Infant tomatoes and a transitioning tomato blossom.

More little green tomatoes.

Not that everything is going perfectly smoothly, of course. Yesterday, while pulling weeds at 7 a.m., I noticed how many itty-bitty holes there were in some lower leaves on both my tomato and pepper plants. I looked at the undersides of the leaves and found little dark spots that I thought might be aphids. I'm no expert, obviously, but I remember my mother battling them in her gardens. She was a master gardener who clearly did not pass on the gardening gene to me. I don't think there's a problem of epidemic proportions yet, since the plants appear quite healthy and are producing, but just in case... I went to the hardware store yesterday and bought a bag of diatomaceous earth to eliminate any pesky pests. Death by dehydration!

Little bell pepper blossoms preparing to transform.

Also yesterday, while I was weeding around the bell peppers, I heard a snap! and one of the bell pepper blossoms flew off the pepper plant. It didn't drop. It didn't land beneath the plant. It flew or was flung, literally, several inches from the plant. I was stunned. What kind of critter would have the strength to snip off a relatively sturdy little stem and toss it out of the plant? I searched the pepper plant immediately but found nothing. How can I fight an enemy I can't see?

My lone, tiny bell pepper. So adorable!

My bell pepper plants have doubled in size. The strawberries beyond are
also doing well, although I've finally realized I bought two different species!

The strawberries are a lost cause, I think. Oh, they're doing great, producing blossoms galore and making dozens of little green berries. It's just that I never get to see those berries turn red. They disappear as soon as they make a thieving-critter mouthful.

Green and white berries adorn most of the strawberry plants...

...and then they don't. Four of the five berries on that stem were bitten off whole.

Well, there was that one time... One morning last week I was surprised to see a tiny splash of scarlet amidst the emerald plants. It was a lone strawberry! The stem had held five little berries, but four of them had vanished, snipped off whole like all the others before. I presume they're being enjoyed by rabbits or squirrels, since birds don't shear them off neatly like that.

Nonetheless, one minuscule berry remained, small as my thumbnail but bright red. I knew if I didn't claim it now it would be gone by morning. I plucked it off the vine, carried it into the house like a great prize, washed it off lovingly, and savored the tiny burst of perfect sweetness in my mouth. No store-bought strawberry will ever match the perfection of that tiny berry's delectable flavor!

One brave little berry plant valiantly fights its way back from oblivion.

On the bright side, the one little curled and crumbly strawberry plant that had fizzled away to nothingness has staged a comeback. It seems determined to rejoin its eleven siblings, growing larger by the day. You've got to admire that kind of tenacity.

As for the vanishing berries, I'll keep trying, but I'm not going to throw myself on a grenade over it. I have a plan for next year that involves netting, which I hope will resolve the issue so we can enjoy the rewards of our labors.

My pole beans are climbing their tower! The tallest one,
the one farthest left, has curled all the way to the top of this photo.

Speaking of netting, I'm very pleased with the progress of my little green bean plants, which began as seeds buried at the base of a very tall bean tower. After a couple of bunny attacks that destroyed a few of the newly emerged plants, Dylan and Jake helped me cover them with netting, which completely stopped the vandalism. However, they've been growing so quickly that they began to outgrow my netting this week. Their little vines, searching for something to grasp, found the tower and began climbing it quickly. During their search, several of the little clinging vines got themselves entwined in the netting itself and had to be gently disentangled and urged toward the tower. I felt like their mommy teaching them to walk.

Thus I had to remove the netting two days ago. The vines had reached the point where we'd threaded the netting through the tower, and I didn't want it to stop their climb. I'm pleased to report that nothing has bothered them since they've been exposed, but I don't want to take any chances. While the stalks of the tomato and pepper plants have grown thick and sturdy, and therefore unlikely to be destroyed by marauding rabbits, the bean plants are still fairly delicate. 

A closer look at the vines winding their way up the tower, as well as
tiny holes cut into the leaves of a couple of plants below. I'm thinking ants.

So I clipped garlic pens on the lower rungs of the tower and sprayed a foul-smelling liquid around the base, which is supposed to drive away small animals by offending their sensitive noses (I'm trying to avoid chemicals). And then Mark helped me surround the plants with a scat-mat, which is studded with plastic spikes to hurt but not harm the animals' feet, discouraging them from getting too close. I don't know if any of these solutions will work, but this is my season to learn.

Thankfully, I've seen no signs of aphids or other destructive insects on the bean plants. All of them look perfectly healthy, with the possible exception of one or two that have some small holes cut into some of their leaves. And I do mean cut, with squared-off precision, so I'm thinking it was probably done by ants. Nothing recent, though, so I'm not going to worry about that for now.

Mark helped me install this scat-mat around the bean plants today.

My cucumber plants, on the other hand, have become my greatest headache. Early on, after the rabbits had chewed up my pepper plants twice, they abandoned the pepper leaves and turned their full attention to my cucumbers (with an occasional foray into the bean plants). I was so sad, because the cucumber plants were getting so big and beautiful, covered with large, perfect leaves. At first it was just a few leaves here and there, but then the invaders began stripping the plants of nearly all their leaves. I didn't see how they could survive.

However, I soon noticed that the rabbits came to feast on them only once every three or four days, and during that time the plants were quick about putting on new leaves. Maybe there was hope. That's when I bought the netting, and Dylan and Jake helped me cover the cucumber plants the same night we covered the beans, more than two weeks ago. Somehow, the vermin got through the netting and chewed the cucumber plants up again, three nights after we installed the netting, but they must have decided it wasn't worth the trouble because they never came back after that. That gave five of the six plants time to recover and fill out with new leaves again. (One of the plants still looked pretty denuded, with just a couple of new leaves.)

How my cucumber plants looked when I left them at 8:45 this morning.

The biggest issue I had with the netting was trying to weed the patch under it. Everything got tangled in it and it was basically in my way. So I ordered six bell-shaped cloches to put over the cucumber plants at night until they were larger and tougher. This morning I removed the netting and prepared the area for the cloches, which I planned to put over the plants after watering this evening. The plants were looking pretty healthy when I went back in the house around 8:45.

This afternoon, six short hours later, I walked back out to the garden and was horrified to see that some nasty culprit had already shorn half the leaves off my biggest cucumber plant. I gaped at that mass of bare-naked stems and wanted to scream "Murderer!" This brazen vermin had committed planticide in broad daylight!

How they looked when I came back out at 2:30, just 6 hours later!
(Compare to the two plants on the far right in the photo above.)

That means the cloches will have to stay on the plants whenever I'm not with them. I'll monitor them closely to see how it's working out, but clearly I'm not going to have any cucumbers this year if I leave them open to predators. Hopefully they won't get overheated. I would think the increased humidity would be beneficial--unless it causes mold... There are air holes on top, and I'll remove the cloches when I water or otherwise work in the garden. Other than that, I don't know what else I can do.

The cucumbers under their new cloches, where they'll likely remain for a while.

Gardening has been quite the experience thus far. I'm pretty committed to giving it another try next year, so I can apply what I've learned this year. Beyond that...well, the jury is still out. I can't say I've found much peace through gardening, though there is a great sense of satisfaction in what successes I've seen already. Conversely, the frustrations create a lot of stress, and it doesn't always balance out. I've spent a lot more time and energy and pain (very hard on my knees) on this project than I'd expected, to the extent that other projects have had to be postponed, which is also stressful.

I know it will work out in the end, and I believe it will have its payoffs. That's what keeps me going. That, and the anticipation of a flavorful harvest!

The garden at 6:45 this evening, after being watered and armed defensively!

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