Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harvesting the Halloween . . . . . . Eggplant????

Our normally sedate town goes crazy for Halloween. The iconic vegetable of the season -- the glorious pumpkin -- is displayed everywhere. It's been fun seeing those reassuring bright orange globes appear on porches around the neighborhood. People don't hold back. Some houses have all sizes and shapes lined up along railings or sitting on each step of their front stairs.

I have to go out to see pumpkins. We don't grow them and don't even bother putting one on the porch because the trick-or-treaters never seem to make it to our cottage behind the hedge at the end of a dead end street.

Despite the dearth of pumpkins here at our hidden homestead, we have been reveling in summer bounty even as the seasons shift: picking eggplant in the autumn rain, plucking peppers and tomatoes on chilly, foggy mornings.

But there are plenty of pumpkins to admire wherever I go. On the outskirts of town I drive by fields of them swarmed by hordes of school children as the farmers make the most of their brief window of profitable time. By tomorrow those fields will be left to rot, along with the pyramids of hay bales and tee-pees of corn stalks, as the inevitable processes of decay take over.

Maybe, deep down, that's what this holiday is all about: coming to terms with the encroaching darkness. We conquer our fear of the dying of the light and take control of our worst nightmares by dressing up like them or by inviting them onto the porch and into the light so we can bribe them into playing nice and thereby harness their power.

Gardeners know that darkness and the sometimes gruesome progression of rot and decay are regenerative forces that eventually bring about surging new life. Still, there is sadness when, at the end of a productive lifespan, the pepper plant topples over because its stem has rotted or the eggplant succumbs to mildew or a sprawling zucchini plant has to be flung onto the compost pile.

So light up those Jack-O-Lanterns, folks, and lift a glass of cider to the turning of the year.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Would Mendel Do?

Conducting field trials of peas has never been on my lifetime list of must-do endeavors. In fact, growing peas shows up repeatedly on the "tried-it-and-it-didn't work" list. Yet in the garden one thing leads to another in unpredictable ways.

To start with, this year's pea crop was, by previous standards, a success, meaning we ended up with enough peas at one time to build a meal around them. One cup of Caseload Shelling Peas was harvested and one fabulous dinner of Peas Alfredo was enjoyed.

Then I forgot all about the pea patch until the space was needed for something else. While pulling out the dried up vines I discovered that the plants had made one last desperate effort to leave something for the next generation -- which, from their point of view, is their reason for being. There were several well-rounded pale beige pods with wrinkled seeds inside.

It seemed rude not to collect them. So I did.

When storing the gathered peas I noticed there were still some seeds left in the original packet from Natural Gardening -- larger, more uniform, and shapelier than the ones I saved. This was the parent generation of the plants I had pulled out.

Hmmmm, wouldn't it be interesting to see if one set would do better when planted out? The time was right, the space was available, why not try it?

So I divided a bed down the middle and planted my homegrown Caseload peas on one side (to the left) and the leftover Natural Gardening seeds on the other. The seeds were planted out on September 11.

The Natural Gardening seeds were older, of course, but they had been professionally grown and looked a little better. My seeds were younger and might have an advantage from being more adapted to this particular growing space. Let the trial begin!

The photo above shows the bed on September 26. In general, more of the homegrown seeds came up and appear to be growing faster.

Here's what the bed looked like on October 24. Both sets are growing well, but the homegrown seeds on the left are still ahead.

The tallest plants from the Natural Gardening seeds have cleared the third wire of the support frame. They are nice looking and would count as a success by previous standards.

The plants from homegrown seed have cleared the fourth wire and there are more of them, making a nice lush row such as I have seen and admired in other people's gardens. Criteria for success will have to be adjusted.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Confederacy of Worms

The first time I encountered solider fly larvae in my compost bin it was as a slowly heaving mass of damp leaves. The whole surface of the bin was creepily undulating up and down. When I used a trowel to push aside the thin layer of leaves, uncovering the recently added kitchen scraps, I saw the huge, whitish, maggoty creatures pictured above. Ewwww! Backing slowly away from the bin with a sick feeling in my stomach, I ran into the house and googled "huge maggots in compost!!!!"

That's how I found out about BSF, the black soldier fly, a great friend to lazy composters everywhere, we folks who never turn the pile, just add new layers and let it sit. Now, instead of recoiling in horror, I gaze fondly on the hard-working worms and urge them on.

BSF, you are my BFF.

The black soldier fly is an attractive large flying insect that looks more like a wasp than a fly. It has no mouth parts and lives briefly in order to mate and lay eggs. It does not bite, swarm, come into houses, or carry disease. The eggs are laid in wet, organic matter in the first stages of decomposition -- such as the layer of kitchen scraps in my compost bin.

The eggs hatch in just a few days into ravenously hungry larvae that start chewing their way through any nice juicy stuff they can find. They work so fast and wiggle around so much, aerating the pile where they are working, that there is no time for nasty smelling bacteria to get a foothold and create bad smells which attract the less desirable kinds of flies.

What's not to like? No smells, no flies, and very fast breakdown of organic matter, including materials usually not recommended for compost piles, such as dairy products.

They will eat anything, including manure, sewage, roadkill, etc., and are being studied for use in municipal waste systems. Although the thought of acres of undulating worms going after a city's worth of discarded organic matter is a bit nightmarish, it doesn't diminish my admiration for these first responders of Mother Nature's breakdown team.

When the larvae are ready to pupate, they crawl away from their feeding grounds, leaving behind a dark residue that is just right for the next set of responders.

Red wiggler worms like their organic matter a bit more aged than the greedy BSF larvae. When I see masses of red worms in my bin, I know the breakdown process has moved into the next phase. When the numbers decrease then it's time to add the compost to the garden beds. If I'm impatient to add some fertility ASAP I can use the compost at the red worm stage, adding some extra organic nitrogen to make up for the nitrogen needed to fuel humus making.

When the garden variety earthworms appear, it's a signal that the compost has now become soil. I have never seen earthworms in the compost bin, only in the garden. These worms, honored by Darwin for their soil building capacity, go after the tiny broken down bits of remaining organic matter and transform them into the castings that nourish good green growth.

This confederacy of worms works together to produce the rich medium needed for continuous vegetable production in our backyard.