Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Preventing Powdery Mildew on Cucumbers and Squash

It’s been a while since my last post (this summer has gone by in the blink of an eye!) so I thought I would address my ongoing battle with powdery mildew. Powdery mildew and I have a history. Saying that I don’t like it is too passive—it’s more of a profound feeling of hatred! For whatever reason it seems particularly virulent here, and every year it completely wipes out my cucumbers and squash by August 1st or so. Any type of resistance I offered in the form of sprays and treatments was completely futile. When you smile while reading the description of a powdery mildew product because it states that the spores’ cell walls rupture upon contact (fungus can feel pain, right?), you know it is getting to you! This year I was determined to turn the tide, and I might have finally found a cheap, safe, and fairly effective solution.

Last summer's sad cucumbers... Powdery Mildew 1, Me 0
The first thing to realize is that 100% effective treatment/prevention methods do not appear to exist. The mildew will come if you are in an area where it is prevalent. It’s just a given around here. With that in mind, the goal becomes control and mitigation, so that whatever mildew you end up getting in the garden can be treated without killing the plants.

My approach this year was to begin prevention measures as soon as the plants got true leaves. Do not wait until you see the white spots on your plants’ leaves! When it comes to powdery mildew, not letting it become established is key. After reading hundreds of articles and websites about preventing powdery mildew, I kept coming across the now fairly well-known milk and water spray. Given that there aren’t very many commercial products that a home gardener can buy (or would want to apply to a crop that is going to be eaten) I thought I would give it a try. I admit I was skeptical, since many of these organic solutions turn out to be useless or even harmful. But given the utter futility of growing cucumbers here in past summers, it was worth a try.

This year's cucumbers... much better!
Here is my regimen. I sprayed once a week with a 50/50 mixture of skim milk and water. I used skim simply because that’s what we use, so we always have it on hand. Also, the milk fat adds nothing to the preventative nature of the spray, and would leave behind a nasty residue that would spoil in the sun. I sprayed with this mixture until the plant was completely soaked, making sure to spray the undersides of leaves as well as the tops. Interestingly, many of the sites recommend spraying on a sunny day, as there is something about the milk and sun that causes a chemical reaction that results in a strong fungicide. I just wouldn’t spray on a very hot day (you could wait until early evening to avoid leaf burn). I began using a handheld mister bottle, but that quickly became a pain as the plants became large, so I switched to a handheld pump mister bottle (about $6 at Home Depot).

I found that this mixture was pretty effective at keeping powdery mildew away. I sprayed the three types of cucumbers I am growing (all in different containers) as well as the green and yellow zucchini. Effectiveness varied as seen below. Please note that this is just my unscientific (but reasonably accurate) guess as to how effective the spray has been, based on experience in previous years.

Plant Type

Effectiveness (% reduction in mildew)
Straight 8 Cucumber
Lemon Cucumber
Bush Champion Cucumber
Yellow Zucchini
Green Zucchini

Notice the Bush Champion number. I am only guessing on this one, since this is the first season that I’ve grown it, but it still had a pretty bad case of powdery mildew. Perhaps it would have been completely killed by it had I not sprayed; I’m just not sure.

Mildew in the Bush Champion container... EVIL! Evil I tell ya!
Either way, the milk solution kept it at bay on the other plants pretty well for the most part. Only having about 15-20% of the mildew I would normally have has meant that the plants are still alive and producing in August! It also makes manual removal of affected leaves a viable option, since it doesn’t involve stripping the vines.
Still, I was looking for a knockout blow. I researched a great many alternatives to employ, and I came upon two: neem oil, and a product called Green Cure. Green Cure is tough to find, and the only nursery around here that had it was closed on Sunday, which is the one day I had free this week to spend any amount of time messing with spraying plants. It’s also the one that mentioned exploding spores, so I will definitely be picking some up for my next spray. Still, for the time being I went with neem oil. I sprayed it in place of my normal milk mixture this week, and it seems to have killed about 80% of the mildew on the Bush Champion cucumber (I  manually removed the affected leaves on the other plants, but I did spray them as well as a preventative measure).

All in all, I found the milk spray to be very effective in preventing powdery mildew, understanding that 100% prevention is unrealistic in this area. Also, the milk is mostly a preventative measure—not curative. It creates an environment on the leaf that is not hospitable for powdery mildew spores to take hold. However, once they set in you need to call in the reinforcements! Manually remove the most affected leaves (being careful not to strip your cucumber vines of too many leaves) and then spray with a fungicide as needed.

Lemon cucumbers! August and still going strong!
If I have had reasonable success using these methods, I would assume that anybody can. I had never seen powdery mildew before I began trying to grow cucumbers here. I don’t know if living in the city makes it worse, but there are houses down the street with bushes in front that are completely white by mid-August with the stuff. Still, my squash is nearly mildew free, whereas it would normally be completely white with not just spots but full-blown leaf coverage by now. The fact that it is August 6th and there are still green, healthy cucumber vines on the porch is a major victory in itself.
Until next time, happy gardening, and have no mercy on powdery mildew!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Photo Tour of the 2013 Garden!

It's been a while since my last update, and the garden has been busy!

One thing I enjoy is that I started everything in the garden (with the exception of the mint and chives) from seed this year. Petunias were the toughest for me last year, but this year they came up with a vengeance!

We recently harvested our first few cucumbers and two dinners worth of cooking greens (one bunch of rainbow chard and one bunch of kale). Both were delicious, and if you like kale there is nothing better than fresh, tender, garden kale. I grew the dwarf blue variety and it not only stands up to the heat very well, but also lacks the bitterness that other kale varieties can develop in the heat of summer.

Speaking of cucumbers, I'm growing 4 types this year in an attempt to find a variety that can stave off the mildew plague we get every summer. I'm growing an heirloom called delicatessen, straight 8, lemon, and bush champion. So far I've harvested 3 straight 8, 2 lemon, and 1 bush champion (see picture below).

Rainbow Chard and Straight 8 Cucumbers

Kale, Tuscan Kale, jalapeno, and 3 types of cucumbers (from left to right): straight 8, bush champion, lemon
As I mentioned, I have struggled mightily for years with powdery mildew on my cucumbers and squash. This year, I've been spraying the plants with a mister bottle once a week using a 50/50 mix of skim milk and water, and so far it has been kept 95% at bay. I say 95% because powdery mildew is a bit like Michael Jordan: you can't stop it; you can only hope to contain it! Also, you must begin spraying long before you see any signs of mildew, as it is more of a preventative measure than a curative one. So far so good in that department, as I've only noticed a few spots here and there on isolated leaves, which I prune immediately. For comparison, by late July last summer I had lost all of my cucumbers and squash to the mildew, which covered the entire plants and eventually killed them. For whatever reason, this is a major problem in Western New York, so it's a battle you have to keep up with by spraying every single week.

Without further ado, here is a quick photo tour of the garden! Everything is doing well, even the plants in my homemade soil mix. Until next time, happy gardening!

Looking one direction
Looking other direction 

Bush champion

Bush champion

Petunias... the seeds came up this year!



Anaheim peppers

Long eggplants


Roma tomatoes

Abe Lincoln tomatoes

Green zebras

Sweet 100s

Purple tomatillo

Roma tomatoes 

Basil trio

Mint and Rosemary

Bush champion and lemon cuke, chard

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Rainy Day Garden Update

It’s been an incredibly busy month (thus the lack of updates lately) but the garden is starting to really grow in now! If it stops raining for 5 minutes I hope to get all the tomato cages in before the plants get too wild.

The garden last weekend
Since I started the dill and cilantro early, I am already starting new cilantro and dill seeds, as both plants have started to flower. It’s always a good idea to re-seed cilantro every couple of weeks as the season goes on so that you always have a nice supply. Once it turns “dilly” and flowers it loses most of its taste. You can still use it, but it will lack the punch it once had. 

Swiss Chard!
In other garden news, it appears that my recycled soil mix is working just as well as the Miracle Grow! The peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, flowers, herbs, and squash are in the recycled mix, and all are doing very well. Now we just need some warm temperatures and sunshine.

Eggplant in the recycled mix
Speaking of temperatures, I usually like to wait to fertilize until a day or so before a nice warm and sunny spell, which has proved difficult lately since it has been about 65 degrees, cloudy, and rainy just about every day lately. Hopefully things will dry out a bit so I can apply some more Tomato Tone sometime in the next few days. Also, I plan on being very aggressive in battling powdery mildew this year by spraying the cucumbers and squash with a 50/50 milk/water spray. More to come on that soon though!

I finally got petunias to grow from seed this year!
 Until next time, happy gardening!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Misadventures in Making Potting Soil: It's All Fun and Games Until a Plant Loses Its Nitrogen!

Well, it’s been a while since my last post, and as you are about to read, it’s been a busy few weeks!

Let me start from the top. Container gardening, like any hobby, has its levels of dedication. I began two years ago at the bare minimum: empty Tidy Cats containers filled with the cheapest potting soil I could find (read about that here). Having learned some lessons from that, I moved on to larger, nicer containers and a much better potting soil last summer. The results were good, but I was bothered by the end rot and some other issues with the Sta Green mix. This year, I decided to up the ante a bit more and make my own potting soil.
Supplies ready to go! How could this go wrong?
It seemed simple enough. The 5-1-1 formula (pine bark-perlite-sphagnum moss) is fairly well known in the container garden world, and it seemed like a cheaper, higher quality, and all around better mix for my beloved flowers and veggies. And it would be, if the main ingredient was readily available.

This brings me to the “busy couple of weeks” part. The formula often cited calls for “pine bark fines.” I soon learned two things. The first is that they are impossible to find as a finished product (at least here in Western New York). The second is that most garden associates will look at you like you’re asking for lunar topsoil if you ask them whether the store carries pine bark fines. In short, you probably are not going to find them in a bag ready to go.

And yet there are legends… Rumors of a garden center that has bins full, ready for the scooping (at least, in years past). Images of pine bark mulch bags that seem to exist only in the imagination (or on the West Coast). People who can get you in touch with a guy who knows a guy who works for a lumber mill. You get the picture... The long and short of it is that pine bark fines are the white whale of many a would-be potting soil maker. The other two ingredients (sphagnum moss and perlite) are readily available in large quantities at pretty much any garden center you can imagine. The container garden gods were taunting me!
So what could I do about this? Surely I wasn’t about to let the garden gods sit there on Mt. Olympus all haughty and triumphant. Instead, I applied some logic. If “pine bark fines” would work, then why wouldn’t pine bark mulch? True, there were some bigger chunks, but those would just make a nice, fluffy mix. Plus, I decided to re-use my potting soil from last season and add it to the mix. That should mitigate the water losses from the chunks being too big. With this plan in mind, I went to the local orange hardware superstore (not the blue one), and bought 6 bags of the finest, non-died pine bark mulch I could find, a bale of the moss, and a huge bag of perlite. Hold the ambrosia: I was ready to mix!

The original mix... Lots of large chunks
And mix I did—by hand. For hours on end. The result was a fluffy, good-looking mix that seemed to fit the bill, aside from some large chunks of pine. I proudly took some photos, and then went online just to reconfirm my brilliant work by Googling images of the pine bark mulch that others successfully used in their mixes. I soon found a mulch that looked similar to the one I used, so I clicked the associated Garden Web forum link and read 6 chilling words that someone had posted in response to the original author (who had asked about the suitability of his—and by extension my—pine mulch). Those six words were “it will shut your peppers down!”

See those yellowish wood chips? EVIL! Evil I tell ya!
But why? I then began several hours of reading up on the topic. Not liking the answers I was finding, I did what any good internet searcher would do: I searched some more, hoping to find someone who said “awww shucks, don’t worry! I used that stuff and everything was terrific! Here are the pictures of all my big peppers!” No such luck. It seemed that my hours of mixing were about to become more hours of something else. I wasn’t sure what yet.

It turns out that the problem with having so much sapwood (the non-bark portion of the mulch) is that it will compost in the container. As it composts, bacteria break it down. Those bacteria enjoy a diet rich in sapwood, and unfortunately for whatever plant happens to be planted in the pot, nitrogen. Theoretically you could continuously put a nitrogen source like urea in the pot to compensate, but the bacteria tend to view large influxes of nitrogen as an invitation to multiply and do their work even faster.

Suddenly, I had a good hundred gallons or so of this disaster waiting to happen on my hands, and I needed to find a solution. I really had three choices, two of which were not viable. One was to use it as is. As outlined above, not doable. I love peppers and tomatoes, so I wasn’t about to have them “shut down!” The other non-viable choice would be to trash all the dirt and just buy new stuff. Too cost prohibitive, for the number of containers I have.
I chose a third, time consuming and labor intensive option. I knew that I could not remove all of the sapwood. Luckily, I wouldn’t really need to. What I did need to do was to get the large chunks out of the dirt. I bought a ½ inch hardware cloth (which is like a pre-cut rectangle of chicken wire) and used it to screen every single container full of the previously homemade dirt mixture. This was a hot, dirty, and very time consuming job. However, at the end, I had a fluffy, light, very good looking mix that only contained small shreds of sapwood. I ended up losing about 50% of my original mix.

I did save some of the original mix to grow certain herbs and flowers in. I figured that I could mix it 50/50 with my new sifted mix for the flowers, fertilize as needed and see what happened with it.

I was still a bit worried about my new sifted mix, so I bought 4 large bags of Miracle Grow for the tomatoes, and filled their pots with completely new mix. Tomatoes, being the VIP, are getting the VIP treatment! However, that got expensive quickly, so I took the remaining MG and topped off a few of the pots with the screened mix.
On the left: my mix after sifting...on the right: Miracle Grow
Interestingly enough, my 2 step, 8-9 hour mistake mix looks a lot like the Miracle Grow, so it can’t be too bad! I did add a little garden lime (for calcium and ph) and a scoop of Osmocote controlled release capsules (the little “balls” of fertilizer that are always in potting soil) to my frankenmix, and so far the broccoli seems to enjoy it, as does the chamomile that popped up everywhere and got transplanted to its own pot. I’m thinking that the peppers, eggplant, and squash will also enjoy it, especially when they get their dose of Tomato Tone, which I absolutely LOVE after it vanquished my blossom end rot issues last summer.

To make a long story short, this was an adventure I do not intend on repeating. I do intend on saving all or most of my potting mix from this summer (whatever sapwood there is now will be long composted by next year) and just screening it and fortifying it next spring. I look at it this way: I got a really nice workout scooping and mixing by hand, an education on potting soil, and it only cost me about $30 in wasted materials. The other $30 I spent on my mix is still out in the garden to use.

If you’re lucky enough to find the pine bark fines, it might be an experiment worth trying. It is a lot cheaper-- especially for a large container garden--than buying an equivalent amount of decent quality potting soil. The savings get even more significant as your container garden gets larger. But if you cannot find them, save yourself the aggravation and just buy a decent potting mix. You’ll be glad you did!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rosemary and Pablano Update

Well, it has been a very busy couple of weeks. Yesterday we finally had some spring-like weather here, so things are starting to perk up outside. Still, it is amazing how far behind everything is from last year. Or maybe it’s just where it ought to be, since last year was an unusual case.

I thought I would update two of the projects I had going on in the seedling room. It turns out that the rosemary propagation method I tried (putting the stems directly into soil) didn’t work out well, as all of them dried up and died.

Sticking with the water this time around...
Not to be deterred, I decided to try putting new cuttings in water. I have rooted several plants in this way (purple passion in particular) and it has always worked. I’m happy to say that after about a week in the water the rosemary cuttings are just starting to show tiny roots, so in another couple of weeks they should be ready for dirt. If successful, I’ll likely do another batch so that I can dry some rosemary and leave one plant for fresh cuttings all year round.

On another note, I am happy to say that the poblano seeds that I sprouted on top of the Bunn coffee pot (which is always warm) have caught right up to the rest of the peppers despite being planted a solid 6 weeks later! After going in quite skeptical, I can say that I’m a believer in the plastic bag method. The backup poblano seeds that I planted just in case on the exact same day right in the potting soil have yet to sprout.

Pablanos have caught right up!
In other seedling news, the tomatoes are just starting to get a few true leaves. It’s amazing comparing 2012 to 2013 in terms of how far along things were last year. I think the major difference has been the lack of warmth, which has made the seedling room significantly cooler for most of the “spring” so far. This might be a blessing though, since I don’t foresee putting everything out in the first week of May this time around. Better to have smaller plants to transplant than massive juggernauts!

April 16, 2013
April 15, 2012
 Until next time, happy gardening!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Propagating Rosemary

Rosemary has always been one of my favorite herbs to cook with, and it’s also a very pretty and fragrant plant to grow. It can also be difficult to start from seed, so last year I planted an entire seed packet of it. I ended up with a very nice, productive container of rosemary that I brought inside for the winter.

I started this plant from seed last year
It has done remarkably well, and is continually generating new growth and branching out in the seedling room window. I really enjoy fresh herbs, but I also like to use dried rosemary for things like oven baked potato wedges, where fresh rosemary often burns. However, I wanted to keep my happy plant (rather than cut it and dehydrate it like I did with the other herbs).

Given this dilemma, I decided to try my hand at rosemary propagation via cuttings. That way, I could have one container of rosemary for drying at the end of the season, and one to bring indoors for fresh rosemary (and further cuttings). Luckily, propagating rosemary from cuttings is easy (or so “they” say) and far easier than growing it from seed.

Cuttings and root powder ready to go!
I began by cutting 5 branches from the plant. Since I had plenty of both, I tried a mix of woodier and fresh growth, just to see if it matters which one you pick. Then, I dipped the cut ends into a rooting powder (which you can buy at any garden store or nursery). Finally, I planted the cuttings in peat pots filled with seed starter mix. Below is a photo of the planted cuttings.

planted cuttings (they look good so far)
From what I’ve read, they should take root in a few weeks. Then, I plan on potting them up into a fresh container. If it works, I’ll probably repeat the process a couple more times, as herbs are a focus of my garden this year. Since I use a ton of them in my cooking, I really want a large harvest to dry in the fall. The food dehydrator works wonders for this (far better than hanging them to dry in my opinion). It takes 5-6 hours for most herbs, and it keeps them bright green and prevents dust from getting into them, which happened to my dill that I left hanging.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful Easter weekend! Spring is just around the corner…

Friday, March 29, 2013

Seedling Table Update

The seedling table is taking its sweet time this year, partially due to the colder temperatures, which have made the back room where the seedlings are quite a bit cooler than last spring. I inadvertently made the problem worse by putting a fan in there to toughen up the seedlings, a mistake I’ve since rectified. I’ll put it back once the temperatures rise into the 50’s during the day on a consistent basis, because I do want to toughen the plants up for our windy upstairs porch.

marigold seedlings
As far as the seedlings’ progress, the peppers are finally starting to pop. We have 7-8 California wonders, a handful of jalapenos, and two Anaheim chilies. Each day more peppers are coming up, so it won’t be long until they are all up now.

starting to look like something...
The eggplants are doing great. I think every single Black Beauty seed germinated, so we’ll have some extra plants to give away. If you’ve never grown them, they are incredible if you love eggplants. Last summer I ended up with one plant from a mix package (which I’ll never use again for reasons I explain in this blog post. It ended up in a 6.5 gallon container crowded with two other plants, one round white and one long. Even from this small, crowded plant we ended up with several large, delicious, eggplants the size of a loaf of bread. This year I plan on treating them better, giving them more space, and hopefully reaping a larger harvest.

Black beauty from last summer
Tomatoes are all up and doing well, with the exception of the purple tomatillos and the sundried tomato variety (Principe Borghese). Germination rates for these have been extremely low. I did re-seed the pots, so we’ll see if they come along in the next few weeks. We do have two plants of each, but that’s about a 30% success rate. It could be the cold, though. Time will tell.

Petunias are in the foreground, in front of forget me nots
Finally, I’m excited to say that we have petunias! Last year I planted an entire seed packet of petunias and got one tiny little plant that promptly died. This time around they look great, so I’m hoping they continue to develop well. I love petunias, but buying them from the nursery can be expensive (especially for the unusual colors). This is a mixed color pack, which was the only type of petunia seed they had at the nursery. I also got some Chinese forget me nots, which look similar to other forget me nots, but bloom continuously all summer rather than just in the spring. Those seem to be doing well, as do the marigolds and zinnias.

 Until next time, happy gardening!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Getting Peppers to Germinate Faster

I know I said it last week, but what a difference a year makes in the weather. Last year most of the fruit trees were flowering and many of the hardwoods were budding. Some of the shrubs had full leaves by now. Granted, that was early and a bit freakish, but this year is the polar opposite. It is snowing and we have a “special weather statement” for snow. Will winter ever let go?

On a better note, it’s been a week since my poblano experiment began, and I’m happy to say that we have germination! I’ve read about the paper towel/plastic bag trick many places before, but I’ve never tried it. Well, after falling in love with poblano peppers at the inopportune time of mid-March, I needed a way to get them jumpstarted quickly for this year’s garden. Luckily, the old paper towel method was simple and effective.

The flash makes this look like foil but it's just a paper towel inside of a plastic bag
If you’re not familiar with the trick, it’s pretty simple. I’m not really sure it qualifies as a “trick” but given the eternity it usually takes my peppers to germinate I’m calling it that. I began by soaking a paper towel with warm water. Then, I placed 10 poblano seeds in between the moistened layers of towel and folded it over. I placed the damp paper towel in a plastic bag, labeled it, and set it on top of our Bunn coffee pot (which is always warm). One week later… presto! We have 2-3 seeds with shoots starting and the rest are swollen and look read to pop. Cable boxes, tops of refrigerators, and other warm spots would work just as well. 

We have sprouts!
Next up is planting them in seed starting mix, which I did today. Interestingly, they will be caught up with many of the peppers that I planted back in February, which are just starting to sprout now. I think it’s the cold in the back room where the seedlings are that kept them dormant for so long. The poblanos had just barely sprouted, so they aren’t above the dirt yet, but I know they are well on their way. I suppose I could have waited a day or two longer, but I’ve never tried this and I didn’t want the seedlings to die in the plastic bag.

They've lost most of their purple hue (the leaves were very dark and almost purple last week!)
Speaking of the cold, I ended up turning off the fan for now. Not only were seeds taking forever to germinate, but the tomato seedlings were turning purple. If that happens, don’t despair: they are just chilly. Once the environment gets warmer they’ll turn green and happy once more (mine have already lost their purple hue so I don’t have a picture). It doesn’t take long, and it doesn’t have any long-term effect on the plants they will turn into later.

Until next time, happy gardening!