AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: A truly "green" truck DATE: 1:21 PM ----- BODY:
Dale Dougherty spotted this at the California State Fair. I'd love to dress up the shell of an old van in a similar fashion as a cozy garden bungalow. Put an old desk in there and you have a sheltered potting bench or writing nook. [Link]

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: The haul so far: Meager at best DATE: 10:07 AM ----- BODY:
As we sense the nights cooling - even here in steamy Kansas - I begin to wonder if I'll end up with anything significant from the garden. It's been a weird year. Between hailstorms, tornadoes, and torrential rain, watering has rarely been necessary, but the deluges haven't helped as much as they've hurt, perhaps.

Some things have grown well and produced aplenty, e.g.- basil, thyme, sunflowers, and the ever-loving arugula monster twins. Other crops have been abysmal failures, and I don't have good answers since I've had good luck with the same seed or variety in previous years. Here's a list of the failures, with some speculation on what went wrong:
I'd be curious if anyone has had similar experiences in this region, or might have an inkling about what might be wrong.

Not all is lost, the eggplant are producing beautiful fruit, and there are many in the works. Wish the tomato were mine. It's just a prop, grown by our CSA farmer, who thankfully is a more diligent gardener than I.

Oh, and this manly shot is for fellow Gardenaut Joshua. He was right. (See the comments to this post.) If you're stuck with excess arugula, stick it in a slice of pizza and enjoy. It's delicious.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Borage and ladybugs DATE: 7:36 AM ----- BODY:
Beautiful borage

My borage looked pretty for awhile. Quaint blue star-shaped flowers among the pebbly-textured leaves. But after the flowers faded, it went down the crack pipe and FAST. Now it's a skeleton completely covered in aphids. Aphids on the buds, on the stalks, more aphids than I've ever seen.

I was not always as you see me now

But phenomenally, the ladybug population it supports is almost equally huge. I've found ladybug eggs on almost every fifth leaf.

Orange Ladybug Eggs amidst a sea of green aphids.

The image above is of an adjacent plum tree leaf. I don't know why the green and black aphids seem to prefer different plants. The ladybugs however eat all aphids without prejudice.

On closer examination of the borage infestation, I realized the almost one out of every five of the black aphids is actually a ladybug baby. They're only differentiated by some white stripes on the insect's back, whereas the aphids are solid black.


Look carefully at the black aphids in the above photograph (if you dare) and you'll find the hungry baby ladybugs (white stripes on back) here almost outnumber the true aphids.

In the past, I've thought of ladybug larvae as rare, precious things. But here their numbers are astounding. That such density, such a crowd could be sustained, is eye-opening. I feel like I'm seeing New York City for the first time after spending most of my life in an Alaskan mining village.

I can barely handle the borage now without getting covered in brown insect goo. But after seeing such biomass, so much like a mature rain forest, I can hardly hack down all the borage and feed it to the chickens along with that parade of aphid larvae. So I carefully pick off the ladybugs, eggs and larvae and place them strategically among my nasturtiums, pumpkins and cardoons. And don't tell anyone, but I'm even seeding them with a few aphids. Just to make sure there's something for the adolescent ladybugs to eat.

A hungry adolescent ladybug and his mama.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Nice surprises DATE: 8:42 AM ----- BODY:
Well, I promised to post on everything I was growing this year, even those I'm growing unintentionally:

These guys showed up after a day of rain last week, but they haven't gone away. I wanted to try sauteeing them in butter, but Rob said that was too dangerous a gamble.

Surprise Number Two: Remember that vine?

We now have 8 or 10 fist-sized fruits and another dozen or two blossoms. Now I'm going to have to find out how to dry gourds. Everyone's getting bird feeders for Christmas!

The last small miracle was found under the canopy of our vociferous irises and expansive hydrangea:

Yes, our pennyroyal is alive, despite all evidence to the contrary. It looks like I'll have to move it again. It spreads alarmingly fast when it has light and lots of sun, and the leaves smell heavenly - a mix of lemon and mint.

My tomatoes are producing well, and shockingly, the squirrels have left them alone, except for the rotting ones that we pick and leave in the yard for them as a sort of peace offering/distraction. the I have come to realize that I really should have staked them earlier and more sturdily, but at least we're getting fruit, and lots of it.

I'm curious about the dry, black spots that have formed at the bottom of most of the paste-variety tomatoes (most clearly seen on the orange one). Anyone know how or why this happens?

We had a couple of loads of yellow wax beans, but they appear to have stopped producing. And my lettuces are officially flowering. I'm trying to save seeds, plus keep the soil healthy. We'll see how successful that is!

I really am happy with this experiment. So what if everything doesn't work out? The surprises more than make up for it.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Good times in the melon patch DATE: 6:18 AM ----- BODY:
Inspired by a surprising volunteer cantaloupe in last year's garden that produced three nice-sized fruits we decided to expand our garden efforts this year by starting a melon patch. We chronicled the actual process of starting the patch back in May on this blog.

Since then we planted watermelon, pumpkins and two types of cantaloupe. Oddly enough I don't like watermelon, pumpkin, or cantaloupe, with the exception of Diane's pumpkin cheesecake bars, but growing them has been a hoot.

I had hoped to get plant some daikon radishes with the idea that their penetrating roots would help break up our clay soil, but that didn't happen. Fortunately our plants did very well anyway.
Our seeds sprouted nicely and the plants took off as you can see in this photo:

We've had a lot of fun searching through the foliage looking for ripening fruit. The first things to fruit were the watermelons. We planted Sugar Babies - a smaller variety that produces round fruits that are dark green. They are supposed to get up to eight pounds, but ours probably topped out at about five or six. Not too bad for our first go at it. Here's a pair on their way to ripening.

When we sliced open our first melon I was stunned at the number of seeds inside. Another lesson was that we need to harvest a bit sooner - many of the seeds had actually started to germinate inside the melons, which I thought very unusual. I'd never seen this in any fruit or veggie, but perhaps it's more common than I realize.

Slicing into our first melon - the tomatoes are from our garden too. I don't know where the dirty dishes came from:

See what I mean about the seeds?

My wife reports that the fruit was quite sweet; seedless varieties would give us less to pick out, but some flavor is typically lost as a trade-off. These look a little "rindy" to me - as in there's more of the white part than I'm used to seeing, but maybe that's because I'm used to seeing storebought melons.

The cantaloupes were next to ripen. Unfortunately most of them seemed to ripen at the same time, which happened to coincide with our beach vacation. When we got back a lot of our cantaloupes were goners. Here are young versions of our two cantaloupe varieties:

I didn't really know how to tell when they were ripe, but my dad suggested that they were ripe when they fell off the vine. He is not a gardener so I don't know how he knew that but he was right. When they're ripe they literally fall off the vine right into your hand. The variety in the top photo, we'll call this one the non-lobed variety, ripened first and I hear they were quite tasty. Mr. O ate a bunch of them almost by himself. When we got back from vacation we had a couple of the lobed fruits that weren't rotten but we haven't had a chance to slice into them yet.

The landmark achievement in this year's summer garden is the production of real, honest-to-god pumpkins. After many years of unsuccessful efforts we have finally grown bona fide pumpkins. We don't have a ton and they aren't going to win any ribbons at the state fair, but just having orange pumpkins in the garden is a major success. Unfortunately when we got back from vacation I noticed that one of them was covered in squash bugs. With each new success comes new challenges.

Upon closer inspection I noticed that several fruits were hosting young squash bugs. To try and deal with these things I cut several fruits from the vine, gingerly carried them into our chicken coop and brushed the bugs off into the chicken's litter where they were immediately gobbled up. Unfortunately a lot of the bugs escaped either as I was cutting the fruits or as I was carrying them to the coop.

I had actually seen squash bug eggs and some adult mating action going on in other parts of the garden, but at that point I wasn't sure what these critters were and whether or not they were beneficial. Now I know and next year I'll hopefully be able to deal with these things before they get out of hand.

Despite the learning curve of understanding new crops and new pests our first-year melon patch has been a great success.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Tomatoes Get Somewhat Organized DATE: 3:00 AM ----- BODY:
Anarchy.

This spring, my tomatoes fell into anarchy. Normally, I'm known as a relentless pruner when it comes to taming that New World beast. But after allowing them to know such freedom, I couldn't bear to give them the mid-summer hacking. Practically speaking, they'd invested so much energy into those skinny, desperate tendrils. I feared cutting into their yield. So, I met them halfway.

The illusion of control.

I strung up what I could, leaving a dense, tangled mass at the bottom of the trellises. And it's a mess in there. Older leaves, yellowed with age, shading out young healthy leaves. None of the air flow I like in my tomato bushes, so I suppose they're more vulnerable to blight. But I've decided to show them a little more respect this year. Let them dream big.

I'm feeling generous after harvesting this very ripe tomato.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Volunteers of America: A Follow-Up DATE: 4:04 AM ----- BODY:
The transplanted volunteers are happy in their new home. Here's a pretty good photo from a few weeks ago showing the results of a transplant:

Basically, our yarrow was starting to take over the bed it was in, so I started yanking out strands that had wandered too far into the irises for my taste. I trimmed the stalks to a few inches and replanted them in the new beds. Now the new growth is coming up from the roots to form a new plant.

Cool!
----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Bootie failure DATE: 3:00 AM ----- BODY:
Make your apples look like Hannibal Lecter's Christmas Ornaments

Around Seattle, organic gardeners use nylon booties to keep pests like Apple Maggots and the Coddling Moth out of their apples. I'm not sure which is the dominant pest here, but invariably apples left untreated on trees are infested with one of the bugs.

I'm guessing there's a whole lot of something crawling around in there.

This year is the first real fruit-bearing year for our espalliered apples, so I set up a ladder and bootied all one hundred or so fruits. Unfortunately, I experienced a massive bootie failure.

If you look carefully, you can see munch holes in this bootie.

Tell-tale signs of insect penetration blemish almost every apple. What did I do wrong? Should I have tied the booties closed, despite advice that this is not necessary? Did I apply the booties too late (mid June)?

Last year we had only one apple. It had a worm of course. I cut it out, ate the apple anyway. It was still delicious. I guess we'll just be eating oddly carved apples this year. Or lots of applesauce.

But I may get a reprieve this year: An expert gardener suggested the brown spots might be scab! That's a fungus that marrs the peels. If she's correct, it's an aesthetic problem, not a creepy crawly problem, but it wouldn't explain the nibbles in the nylons. But perhaps the crop can be saved! Hooray!

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Seeking good arugula recipes! DATE: 3:00 AM ----- BODY:
Does anyone have suggestions for how to consume pound upon pound of arugula? Earlier this season, I wrote about the two arugula plants that survived the Kansas winter. Not only did they survive, they have decided, in this wet and productive year, to go absolutely insane. Behold the insanity:

I've had hearty arugula before, but this is so much more than anything I've ever seen. I've harvested literally pounds of arugula, giving it to anyone who will take it, and have even taken to using it as thick garnish beds, e.g.- plates of deviled eggs and have even mulched other plants with it on the theory that no sensible bug go nears the stuff.

Unlike what you might expect from something that wintered over and is growing in the intense Kansas summer heat, the leaves are delicious and not at all bitter. The plants have gotten a few hair cuts, where a pair of kitchen shears literally shape it like a topiary, partly to get them off their neighbors, and partly to cut of bolting shoots.

So, please share your favorite arugula use with me!

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: They don't call them Mammoth for nothing DATE: 3:00 AM ----- BODY:
As a man who read comic books as a teenager, I'm pretty attuned to mutants and how they got their superpowers. Can anyone tell me how this sunflower got its superpowers?

It's a volunteer that was transplanted, no less, something I heard that sunflowers don't typically tolerate. It nearly died, but since then has grown to about 13-14' with a stem (perhaps trunk is a better word) so thick you could use it for a baseball bat or fence post. It's a dehybridized Mammoth, I think, which explains the size and the fact that it's just a big green plant with tiny flowering heads that have yet to open.

I didn't even fertilize this bed that I can recall, so who know what its root found down in the soil. It has been a great growing season, with copious rain and lots of sun, so perhaps it's just all natural goodness. Kansas is the sunflower state, after all; surely there's a reason for that.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Announcing a ZRecs Network Newsletter, and big prizes for subscribers DATE: 10:38 AM ----- BODY:
We're starting up a newsletter for what we're calling the ZRecs Network, which will offer a recap of the best content of the month on all ZRecs sites, offers and discounts from ZRecs advertisers, and news about what we're up to. Every month we'll also be giving away a pretty awesome prize to a U.S.-based subscriber over the age of 18, drawn at random from our subscription list.

This month's prize is a Britax Frontier car seat and booster, which we reviewed (and loved) a little over a month ago. See the Z Recommends review of the Frontier to learn why we're so fond of this seat and of what Britax is doing generally in advancing car seat safety.

On September 1 we'll draw a winner at random and contact them via the email they signed up with. You can sign up for the ZRecs Network newsletter here. You'll be able to unsubscribe easily at any time, and will receive one email from us each month. And if you live in the U.S. and are 18 or older, you'll have a chance to win a great prize every month without lifting a finger!

If you are a ZRecs advertiser or have a product that has been reviewed on one of our blogs and would like to be a part of our newsletter, contact us at editors@zrecs.com.

Stay tuned for more exciting news about the ZRecs Network in the days to come!

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Everything is growing so fast DATE: 3:00 AM ----- BODY:
The gardens this year are coming along so well I'm sort of stunned. It seems like for the last few years we've been thwarted from having the garden of our dreams (year 1: extremely time-consuming employment, year 2: wedding and honeymoon, year 3: international travel during the summer) and now we are in year four: new baby. But I have not let it stop me! Don't get me wrong - the baby does seriously alter my time usage. But I was back in the garden within 10 days of giving birth, and the gardening has been awesome.

We planted potatoes late this year (May 30th instead of May 1st), but the potatoes did not get the memo on that, and they are thriving.


Tater holes and soaker hoses in place, May 30th

Taters getting big and shrubby, peas climbing the fence in the back left, July 30

I attribute some of our potato success this year to sifting our soil. You can see in the first picture that the holes are vastly bigger than what you'd guess for planting a single spud. Well, the soil there has been compacted in past years, so this year we made a giant sifter with 1/4 x 1/4 inch woven wire mesh, a few fence staples, and some old boards. All the dirt we pulled out of these holes was shoveled onto the sifter and then raked across it. We then were able to refill all the tater holes with finely sifted, uncompacted, de-rocked earth and voila! Excellent potato growth.

The established xeriscape in the front yard, which I gaze out at from my home office, has taken off. With some nice fir mulch and a wet spring, it is gorgeous out there and getting nicer all the time.

Sometime in early June, just after mulching

Late July, flowers are blooming!

I'm happy to say that the xeriscape thrives on its own, now that the perennials are well rooted. Mulch, occasional thorough watering, and a few weeds pulled now and again are all this garden requires. That is the joy of using native plants, and drought-tolerant plants, in our climate. No muss, no fuss!

Last but not least, my baby is growing like a weed. He spends a lot of time in the shade of our sweet peas and dill, which create a nice cool baby micro-habitat.

Isn't he cute?

My sweet peas and dill were planted at the same time, and the dill grew faster than the peas, so they acted like each other's best friends. The peas are making healthy soil, and the dill creates a trellis for the peas to climb. It's pretty great.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: A Martha Stewart Moment DATE: 4:30 AM ----- BODY:
My parents' new blue Salvia needed a little help getting through a heat wave this summer. So I harvested some dead leaves from this palm-tree thing growing in their yard and wove a shade mat for it. The idea was to shade the ground, helping conserve moisture on this South-facing bank above a concrete retaining wall. But best of all, it's 100% biodegradable.

Family members advised me to sell these.

I think they were teasing.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: What our garden needs DATE: 9:07 AM ----- BODY:
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