31 August 2008

What Pepper Are You

Peppers are one of the few vegetables that are successful in the backyard garden, which receives about 80% full sun. With a new wood fence along the north, this year seemed to produce better tomatoes and peppers, maybe due to some reflected light from the fence?

Since peppers in most years are started from seed, I can select the exact variety I want, rather than picking out seedlings at the local nursery that are started for mass sales. Over the years, several varieties were grown and evaluated for growing conditions and for flavor. This year, two new peppers were planted.

The first Karma Hybrid peppers from Park Seed are now turning red and being harvested. These were found to be very good in flavor, nicely shaped and sized, and had good thick walls.

Flavorburst peppers are also just now beginning to ready for picking. These are yellow and have a very tasty flavor, although they never reached the size of their Karma cousins growing next to them.

My pepper plants are placed inside tomato cages, while the tomatoes are staked. The peppers have now grown to a height of 30-inches (75 cm) and will eventually grow over the cages at this time of year. Hot weather affects the plants by causing blossoms to drop off without setting fruits. Peppers harvested now were developed in early and mid spring. With the cooler temperatures now beginning, the pepper plants are once again happily putting out lots of baby peppers.

Pepper Roll Call
Some comments on varieties that were grown in previous years:
Yellow Banana Peppers
      There are many varieties of banana peppers. The mild, sweet banana
      peppers grown were very prolific, but the flavor was bland and lacking.
      Not bad, but they never turned red, and instead produced rough dried cracks and streaks on
      the flesh as they aged on the vine. Maybe they should have been picked earlier.
Bonita Bell
      These red bell peppers were nicely shaped and had good flavor, but the walls were very thin.
      This was a disappointment, especially since internet descriptions indicate thick walls.
      These turned out to be long bell peppers with pointed ends. They were very large, and their
      taste was fairly good, but they took their own sweet time turning red.
California Wonder
      This turned out to be very good in size, shape, and flavor, with thick walls. A winner.

Garden Calendar:
• Blooming: silver salvia, nicotiana, cosmos, canna, castor, basil
• Harvested: 3 tomatoes, 4 peppers

23 August 2008

...The Bad, and The Ugly

This blog (and most others) document gardeners' successes and perfection with pride. It's time to come down to earth. This week you will find the summer failures. It takes strong fortitude and courage to share failures with the world. Learn, offer your own advice and experience, and take a walk with reality.

Tomatoes are always started from seed each year. Over the last few years, the variety Early Girl was planted, hoping to gain as many tomatoes as possible before the four plants start their annual summer tailspin. This year, Better Boy was tried. The fruit ended up being larger than Early Girls, but thankfully produced just as early. As in every year, they begin with promise and healthy growth. Then in the height of the summer heat as the fruit begins to ripen, the leaves begin curling, especially the new leaves. Leaf color goes from green to looking like they were speckled with white powder. Then the leaves dry up and die. The plants are now 6-feet (1.8 m) tall, growing above the stakes, and looking very pitiful. After the cooler weather starts in late summer and fall, new healthy leaves form at the tips of the stalks, blossoms emerge again, and we are back in business producing a small crop before frost.

The suspicion is that first, there is not enough sunlight, causing the excessive height and long stems. Second, I think the hot dry weather brings tiny tiny mites - this same type of tiny speckled light-ish green leaves appear on the sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, and asters. Third, because of limited space, the tomatoes are planted in the same area every year, promoting overwintering of disease. But, some nice tomatoes are harvested each year before the plants go bust. This bounty pictured is from mid-July. (Notice the three tomato-scented candles on the window sill.)

Next, the sunflowers: holy-leaf! These holes get larger and larger as the season goes on, and whatever chomps on them only comes out at night - late night. The critters that do this damage have never been caught or seen, although not for a lack of trying. It happens worst nearest the ivy ground cover, so slugs are suspected. But, slugs are cleared out early in the season, and no slime trails are ever seen. I suspect the beasties hide in the ivy during the day - the same damage does not appear on the backyard sunflowers. Crickets? Beetles? Earwigs?

These zinnias are red spider zinnias - much smaller than I expected, and much more susceptible to powdery mildew. Based on experience this year, these are not recommended since they were short, had smaller blossoms (some no bigger than a dime), made poor cut flowers with their short stems, and were powdery mildew magnets.

The small-leaf sweet oregano is ancient - probably 20 years old. This spring, its growth was stunted for some reason, and the usual 6-inch tall (15 cm) stalks with the leaves never appeared. The plant with its spicy leaves only grows in the cooler weather of spring and fall, so fingers are crossed that it will start to take off again soon. The flowers are produced in late summer and are always cut back to encourage fall growth. Maybe cutting the plant back to the ground will encourage new leaves this fall, or kill it for good.

Alien invaders sprout up from time to time almost overnight. One year, a 'cat puke fungus' appeared in the front yard mulch. I thought it was exactly that, and after closer examination (umm, yes I did get closer) the blob was discovered to be a fungus, so I named it after its resemblance. An internet search seems to match descriptions and photos for a 'jelly fungus'. That irregular shaped fungus appeared as a coating on the mulch - orange and white and shiny - looking like the wet guts of a pumpkin thrown on the ground. However, cat puke elicits a more accurate response to its appearance. (It added some summer color to the shady spot under the mountain laurel.) This year, the 4-inch high (10 cm) E.T. fungus has landed. There are actually two growing, and nothing resembling this asymmetrical creature can be found in the online fungal photo directories.

Garden Calendar:
  • Blooming: silver salvia, nicotiana, cosmos, sunflowers, canna, zinnias, castor, basil
  • Harvested: 15 tomatoes
  • Bell peppers begin turning red

16 August 2008

Fuzzy Punk Rocker

Without a lot of room in the garden to spare, dwarf sunflowers are becoming more and more intriguing. They grow fairly large blooms for such little guys, and after blooming, end up leaving goodies for the birds. This year, two new shorties were given a chance, and the second of the two is now blooming.

Starburst Lemon Aura sunflower (Helianthus annuus) ended up not resembling the catalog description very much. (Imagine that - bet this never happens to any other gardener's plans . . .) Surprise number 1 - can it really be considered a dwarf after it grows to six feet (1.8 m) tall? It used to be listed in the short sunflower section of Park Seeds online catalog. This is a good thing, since the taller height actually looks better in its present location after all.

Surprise number 2 - No brown centers. All the plants produced large, fuzzy, lemon yellow blossoms. This is also a good thing since they don't have any of the brown 'rotting center look' found in the catalog photo. Does the marketing department think their photo is attractive and will sell more seeds?

Surprise number 3 - the multiple side blossoms (although not numerous) are almost as big as the original main blossoms, and with stems long enough for cutting. The only drawback is that the leaves look dried and diseased this late in the summer, and I don't know why. If they remained healthy, the plants might have grown taller.

All things considered, the punk-rock, 'needs a shave' appearance of this variety did not approximate the catalog, but that was a good thing. They will be invited back next year.

For The Record:
  • Heavy clay soil
  • Full sun
  • Peat and hummus manure fertilizer

Garden Calendar:
  • Blooming: silver salvia, nicotiana, cosmos, sunflowers, canna, zinnias, castor, basil
  • Harvested: 14 tomatoes

10 August 2008

Concrete Hostas

The green hostas are finished blooming, but at least they are not growing in concrete the way they were found. While visiting some friends in May two years ago, the entire foundation along their summer home on Staten Island (they live in Manhattan, so their Staten Island house is considered a summer vacation home) was thick with plain green-leaf hostas. Hostas are known for being a tough plant, but concrete? I was given permission to dig up a few and haul them back to Virginia on the train. After clearing away some leaves to begin digging them up, no soil could be found. Moving away large chunks of concrete yielded smaller and smaller concrete pieces until eventually roots were found thriving in sandy gravel. These were growing in construction debris. Needless to say, if plants survived concrete soil, they survived the train ride a day later and summer transplanting.

Two plants were placed in shade, and one in partial shade. The sunnier location yielded lighter colored green leaves that tended to dry out and burn a little around the edges. But this plant also grew larger than the shady two, and produced twice as many flower stalks this summer. And, it also formed seed pods pictured here, whereas the shady siblings did not. One gardener offered an explanation that being in so much sun, the plant was stressed and through it was doomed, so it rushed to reproduce, growing more flowers and seed pods.

There are three other hosta varieties growing in the backyard garden, but only this no-name variety is doing well. The others are 'Gold Standard' and two unknown varieties obtained in our local plant swap brunch. All hostas are relative newcomers to the garden, and their sun and soil requirements still need some tweaking (and a year or two more to really fill in.)

Some Online Hosta Resources
  • Growing Hostas Fact Sheet
  • The Hosta Patch Store
  • New Hampshire Hostas Store
  • Green Mountain Hosta Nursery
  • Hosta Library
  • Bridgewood Gardens Hosta Store
  • American Hosta Society

For The Record:
  • Heavy clay soil
  • Partial shade / full shade
  • Peat and humus manure fertilizer

Garden Calendar:
  • Blooming: silver salvia, nicotiana, cosmos, sunflowers, canna, zinnias, castor, basil
  • Harvested: 12 tomatoes

01 August 2008

Disobedient Plant

The tag on the pot at the nursery read Obedient Plant. As she was handed the payment, the cashier warned, "don't believe the name - it ought to be called the disobedient plant because it spreads like crazy." After four years, the obedient plant (or dragon flower as it is sometimes called) has been behaving itself.

The Obedient Plant (physostegia virginiana) does like to spread, but it is easy to keep under control. It's all in the wrist. Pulling out the new shoots in the spring where they step over the line is all that it needs.

It's probably a good guess that the plant growing in my front display garden is not the best cultivar when compared to the photos found around the internet. Photos of someone else's plants show several blossoms open at the same time, as opposed to my experience of only a few.

The plant should prefer its native wet swampy soil, but it seems to be happy in full sun and the well-drained bed. It starts growing in early spring as a dense clump, providing deep green foliage for months before producing flowers at the height of summer. Heavy summer rains tend to push them over after the 2-foot high (60 cm) stalks have reached their full height at flowering time. This is a plant that doesn't shout, and can be trained despite its reputation as a bad boy.

For The Record:
  • Well-drained drained organic soil
  • Full sun
  • No fertilizer

Garden Calendar:
  • Blooming: silver salvia, nicotiana, cosmos, sunflowers, canna, zinnias, basil, castor
  • Harvested: 5 tomatoes