Month: August 2011

Respect your Ellmores!

For those of you who have perused our blog, you can see that we have come across several obstacles in the development of our glorious garden. In our last blog post, Mae documented our battle (and subsequent triumph over) the powdery mildew on our squash. HOWEVER, we didn’t mention that our squash also had these little swarms of white flies that emerged when you disturbed the plant. They also seemed to be spreading to our tomato plants. They didn’t bite, they just landed (disturbingly) on your clothes and hung out for a while before returning to the jungle-like squash.

Anyway, I was confused as to whether the white flies were related to or separate from the powdery mildew on our squash. Yet again, Googling was not very helpful, and so I contacted Professor George Ellmore in the biology department at Tufts. Professor Ellmore has been extremely supportive since the inception of the student garden, from providing many a word of wisdom to letting us start the plants in the greenhouse. I hope he will forgive the sad attempt at a pun in this post’s title.

This is what he wrote:

I can share some of how I’ve seen gardens behave in this area. Overall, vegetable plants tend to look good in June and July, but after they produce lots of tomatoes, zukes, or other produce, they weaken and become more susceptible to insects and fungi. So an August garden tends to look a bit bruised, no matter how well you treat it. August also brings humid warm weather that favors fungal growth just when the vegetable plants are slowing down. In other words, the fungi and insects you notice are completely normal for this time of year in a productive vegetable garden.

Squash has certain mildews that attack it (after it has produced some squash), and tomato plants will resist fungi from May-July, but finally show it in August. While the tomato leaves may curl up and go yellow and brown, the *tomatoes* will continue to ripen, so do not remove the plants until you harvest all the tomatoes you want.

The insects you describe sound like whiteflies. They are small clouds of white gnat-like flies that are annoying in the garden, but tend NOT to cause significant harm. Whiteflies are attracted to tomato and eggplant (both members of the tobacco family:  Solanaceae).

When these things happen in my vegetable garden, I let it go. The plants are in decline, but still yield good tomatoes. Whiteflies will disappear when nights get cool.

Don’t you just love when knowledgeable people tell you exactly what you needed to know? Thank you, Professor Ellmore!

So to the people working on the garden: keep enjoying the delicious tomatoes while you can! We have already begun the transition into fall; the last time I was at the garden, Mae and co. had planted brussel sprouts! Yum.

If you would allow me to rhapsodize for a minute, I am so gratified to have worked on the garden this summer. Despite the temperamental fences, gargantuan tomato plants, powdery mildew on squash, misplaced garden maps, the shed that took forever, or “BUNNY RABBITS AAARRRGHHHH!!!!!”, this summer has been full of discovery and challenges for all of us. Many of my favorite garden moments this summer were simple; on the way back from Davis Square, I would often stop at the garden, perch on the bench, eat a tomato (or two), and simply savor the rare quiet and solitude that our garden offered amidst the rest of bustling Somerville. So THANK YOU to all my fellow gardeners and the gardening goddess Mae Humiston for their hard work and dedication! Here’s to many productive seasons to come!

A most productive day

We did so much today! Sometimes you just need to commit yourself for hours on end… the results are stunning!

Suzanne with a patch of squash under siege from powdery mildew

Sadly, our squash fell victim to powdery mildew. (Powdery mildew is a fungus of the order Erysiphales that lives on the surface of (and gets its nutrients from) the leaf.)

It’s pretty gross/sad/fearsome. Suzanne did some research on it which she’ll post later. What I learned from her:

  • when watering squash, don’t just spray over the leaves, aim under the leaves and get the dirt. This limits the amount of water sitting on the leaf that allows gives the mildew an environment in which to grow and spread their spores.

    Powdery mildew.

  • it spreads easily, but can be combatted with a milk spray (which also sounds gross. Milk sitting out in the sun on plants… can’t smell too awesome. But what do I know.)
  • don’t compost the infected individuals. The spores can stay alive in there.
  • it REALLY takes over. And it’s not just squash, it’ll go for your cucumbers and melons too. It likes those vining fruiting plants!

So we ended up pulling out a few of the really affected plants to 1. open up space for some cold-hardy crops and 2. hopefully curb the spread. We’ll see how it works.

Suzanne pulling out a really mildew-y squash. Don't put them in the compost.

So that was part of today. It took a lot of work because the squash were so intertwined with each other it was hard to figure out which plants deserved to die. (Just kidding, but seriously, they had to go.) It would also probably be best if we had gotten rid of them all, but it’s hard to let go, so we’re going to try to salvage the remaining plants.

You may think it looks pretty (the bees do) but it's evil.

But removing those couple of squash plants opened up the garden considerably. It feels much more organized now. And we can move around in the garden! So we were able to cut out some of the bindweed (evil) that took over the fence-line, open up the view, let some little plants see the beautiful sun, clear some paths and reach some formerly unreachable corners…


Lydia building a path from salvaged tiles

Earlier this summer I was looking on Craigslist for free/cheap gardening supplies. I didn’t find any but I found out that there was a woman living near Tufts giving away old kitchen floor tiles. I offered to take a few off her hands, knowing we’d find SOMETHING to do with them. So today, when I had to take a break from priming the shed and inhaling fumes in the heat, I took a few of the tiles into the garden and laid them down in a spot where the grass was wearing away and getting muddy. AND IT WAS SO CUTE! Suzanne came over and we deemed it a good idea. So Mariah, Lydia and myself took turns digging up the dirt where the path goes and then we pressed the tiles into the dirt and packed them in.

A tile we unintentionally broke by stepping on it.

Some of the tiles were broken, some were whole, so we used our creative whims and used broken pieces to create “whole” stepping stones. We’ve also (accidentally) broken a few whole ones by stepping on them when they are not fully supported underneath but the effect is cool, so no worries! Ultimately, we want the “sidewalk” to reach what will someday be the official entrance (the gate closest to the shed). I also think it would be neat to keep salvaging tiles over the years and filling in the empty spaces with them. Every generation could add their touch!


And less exciting progress: The shed has been completely primed and is ready to be beautified (perhaps an event during Freshmen Orientation? I won’t be here but I know Mariah will!) We’re also hoping to finally get the roof on and the door straight this week. Once that happens, we can put shelves and hooks inside and start storing our tools there!

Also, since the fence is kind of ghetto-fabulous (it falls every which way on most days) we’ve lined part of it with some concrete blocks. We’ll remove those when we get the fence to stand up on its own (is that possible?) I’m thinking maybe making a raised bed out of the concrete blocks when we’re done using them as props? It could be cool.

But not as cool as this kid.

ohhh yeah.

The garden had come to this

The garden had come to this, had reached this pitch of green uproar in the few short weeks since May, when I’d set out seedlings in a considered pattern I no longer could discern. The neat, freshly hoed rows had once implied that I was in charge here, the gardener in chief, but clearly this was no longer the case. My order had been overturned as the plants when blithely about their plant destinies. This they were doing with the avidity of all annuals, reaching for the sun, seizing ground from neighbors, fending off or exploiting one another whenever the opportunity arose, ripening the seeds that would bear their genes into the future, and generally making the most of the dwindling days till frost.

-Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire

The squash has made the most of the dwindling days. And now space to move is what dwindles.

Summer and Winter Squash

Anyone who has seen our garden recently has also seen a whole mess of squash. Our plants are running wild! and I’ve been feasting on the outcome. We seem to have many varieties of squash (one which was identified as Costata Romanesca squash by Suzanne in a previous post) and I’ve been pretty mystified by lots of them. Though I can’t identify all of them, I do have a pretty surefire system for dividing them into two groups- summer and winter squash- which should dictate the way to cook them!

I visited my grandfather, a seasoned gardener, last weekend in Connecticut and picked his brain for information on the difference between summer and winter squash. I’d been kind of baffled by the names, because 1) it’s summer and 2) we clearly have both summer and winter squash in the garden. Turns out, the name has nothing to do with when the squash is grown- it has to do with whether it can be stored.

The main distinction is that summer squash have soft, edible rinds and should be eaten when the squash is still immature (this group includes the Costata Romanesca squash and other familiar faces like zucchini and yellow squash). The winter squash, on the other hand, takes its time to mature (usually 70-120 days after planting) and has a hard, inedible rind and hard seeds (so, you’ve got your pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash, kabocha, delicata, etc). It can be stored for a while after harvesting, while summer squash should really be eaten soon after it’s picked.

So, if you can pierce the squash’s rind with your thumbnail, it’s a summer squash and you can eat the whole thing (and soon)! I recommend slicing them into stir-fry, grilling, and even grating into baked goods. If you’ve got a winter squash on your hands, you’ve got some time to try and figure out what recipe you want to try. You can peel the rind and cut up the flesh and roast the pieces or roast the whole thing (I recommend pricking it several times for ventilation and putting it in the oven at 350 for about an hour, depending on its size). You can then scoop the flesh out (it’ll be nice and soft) and use it in almost anything- mixed with potatoes in a puree, added to soups, on it’s own with some brown sugar and cinnamon (that’s especially good on butternut squash), the options are pretty endless!

So, go forth and harvest our ridiculous amounts of squash! I might not know their names, but they’re all going to taste delicious.