Five times it hailed this season, sometimes driven by wind. Five times the garden recovered. I can only guess how it would’ve looked sans hail; it’s a jungle out there.
Possibly because of late frosts last spring, many fruits didn’t set on. It was hard to find mulberries at all, and my gooseberries, currants and jostaberries just produced nice canes, no fruit. Grapevines likewise took the season off. So-called “schwartzenberries,” wild solanaceous plants, did set their little black berries, but only a German would care. (Not all that tasty, says I.)
Sand plums and elderberries were silent too, as usual. The nursery catalog advised planting two varieties of each fruit to ensure pollination. Then they sent me "paired" varieties — which bloom about a month apart. Once, just once, they synched up and blossomed simultaneously. Lots of plums that year. Guess I’ll need to collect and transplant some wild specimens.
My two main garden patches feature about 75 different species, some represented by multiple varieties. Five kinds of carrots, for example, including “Black Nebula,” which looks black and tastes like formaldehyde, but provides an intense purple dye.
The tomato crop has been great, thanks to early rains that provided more water than I’d have delivered through the drip hoses. My neighbor Gary loaned me some homemade cylindrical wire mesh “cages” to support the plants. I usually build a running A-frame.
I wrapped the lower segments of the cages in Reemay fabric, a very light cloth which provides shade against sunscald, and a buffer against wind and hail, while allowing moisture and air to circulate. A profuse production ensued, with unusually large tomatoes. Vines are now spilling out of the cage tops, and still setting on.
Two “heirlooms,” Tie-dye and Cuori di Bue, offer complex flavors and textures, while a seed-sample variety, Warrior, sets numerous smooth big, globular fruit.
I used a “solar tunnel” to protect the hot peppers throughout the season. First, a vented plastic cover enclosed them entirely, creating an instant greenhouse about 30 feet long. Later, I replaced the plastic with a Reemay “awning” that covers the top of the double row and hangs down a foot on each side. Clothespins secure the fabric to the rebar wickets that support them.
Our son Frodo is a true hot-pepper aficionado; these peppers are for him. I always wear gloves when picking Reapers, the current heat-record holder. Reaper-pickers are advised not to pee, at least for a couple days, unless someone is available to assist. You can spot careless pepper-pickers by the way they walk — painfully.
I preserved last year’s “ghost peppers” and Scorpions fresh-frozen, smoked-frozen and smoked-dried. These are so hot that even seasoned palates can barely tolerate them. I figured last season’s supply would cover a couple years at least, so I asked Frodo if I needed to grow them again this year.
Yes, definitely, he said. He pointed out that at my age, I could keel over and die at any moment. In an instant his sole source of fresh, organic, primo peppers, which he could never match elsewhere, would vanish forever. So yeah, grow a bunch of ‘em.
I could not fault his reasoning.
Good year for corn too, maybe thanks again to those early rains. Corn worms have been a problem every year, so I’ve tried different solutions. One suggestion, spritzing the early silks with mineral oil, didn’t work. Neither did Bt, bacteria that make caterpillars lose their appetite and starve.
This year I used spinosad, sprayed it on silks twice, once early and again midway through. The worm population plummeted.
Spinosad is made from a soil microbe. When a susceptible insect touches or eats it, the bug develops muscle contractions, expels watery Trump, and dies within a day or two. Any human toxicity is rare and mild, while pets and birds seem safe too.
If sprayed directly on a bee, spinosad would kill it. However, once it dries, bees can touch it safely. Beneficial insects aren’t hurt, though using large doses over time could move enough spinosad into the ground to bother earthworms. Such large doses are neither necessary nor useful. We can eat treated veggies as soon as 24 hours after application.
I use very few chemicals in the garden, even these “natural” ones. For the most part, keeping the plants healthy and watered deters bug attacks. I can pick off potato beetles and tomato worms by hand, and pick off grasshoppers with my BB gun (hint: aim for the head). Even the hardiest bugs evacuate the area when I wear the same unlaundered garden clothes for an entire season. It’s frequent washing, not wearing, that degrades clothes, says I.
An exception to my general non-chemical policy is the infamous squash bug. Hordes of those little grey bugs can emerge overnight and devastate squash plants while I’m only out of town for a weekend. A biodegradable nicotine solution will work, though one must take care not to get it on blossoms visited by bees.
To obtain nicotine, this year I planted some Turkish Black tobacco, which has become a garden star. Lush leafy stalks tower 7 feet, topped by clusters of pink flowers. I’ll use some to make an aqueous solution for the bugs, and maybe try my hand at rolling a cigar.
It’s natural, so it must be healthy, right?
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired
family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.