Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Trials of a Gardener

I adore gardening. I really love putting tiny seeds into soil and watching and tending them all the way through their journey up into stout, food-producing plants. I love playing in the dirt, getting my hands dirty, and knowing I am making the earth more healthy by enriching the soil and decreasing my carbon footprint by growing produce ten steps from my back door. I love the feeling of productivity I get after an afternoon of gardening, when I look at my tidy, weed-free plot, with unruly peas woven gently back into the fencing I am training them to climb, chard sprouts thinned, and new starts tucked safely into the ground. And I love the point at which I get to go out in the evening with a basket and fill it with fresh greens and radishes for a salad I will eat five minutes later! This year has been particularly rewarding, as I was able to grow almost everything in my garden from seed, and see the whole journey through.

And yet. Gardeners and farmers, no matter how much work and care they give their plants (or animals) and no matter how technologically advanced they may be, are always at the mercy of nature. As happy as I am with my garden, and as proud as I am of it, not everything is going according to plan. In point of fact:

1. There is a veritable festival of slugs going on in my backyard. All of my greens have holes in them, and when I went scouting at dusk yesterday, I found little slugs on almost every kale and bok choy plant. Most of my lettuce and cilantro sprouts haven't made it past a half inch tall before being eaten into oblivion. I don't really mind eating holey greens, but when my sprouts can't even grow to a size where they aren't killed by some nibbling, something needs to be done. Unfortunately, slugs are endemic to the pacific northwest. We have exactly the nice moist climate that they love. So I'm now on a mission to collect eggshells to break up and use in creating a border around new plantings. From what I can find out, this is the best way to go. Matt suggested the old saucers of beer trick, but I really don't fancy trays of dead, beery slugs all over my garden. So I'm going to try the eggshells first.

2. My squashes and cucumbers are dying. Two of my winter squash plants just totally wilted and died outright.

One of the two Straight Eight cukes that I planted into the garden didn't make it (the other one is thriving...), and both of the Straight Eights that I planted into a big pot by the house both died in the last couple of days.

They were all doing great until I transplanted them outside. I've been reading about the toxicity of Black Walnut trees, and I think this may be the answer, as there is a huge walnut tree at the back corner of the yard next to the compost bin. I'm not certain it is a black walnut and haven't been able to key it out to identify it properly, but this is my best guess so far. Most of the literature says that squashes can handle the toxic juglone that is put out by the tree's roots (and other parts), but maybe it's dependent on the variety of squash? Has anyone else had this problem, or have any suggestions as to what other factors might be? There was no sign of insects or rodents damaging these plants, they just wilted and died. Everything around them seems to be growing fine.

3. My basil is not coming up. I planted two rows about two weeks ago, and there's still no sign of sprouts. For a week after I planted it, we had lots of sun and warm temperatures and I've been watering regularly, so there's something else at play. I've been checking for sprouts often, so I feel like this isn't a case of sprouts coming up and then being immediately eaten down by slugs or insects- they just haven't made it out of the ground yet. My best guess is that this is another case of the soil in my garden being pretty dense, but nothing else has had a problem sprouting so far, and my experience has been that basil is pretty hardy, so I'm not entirely sure what's going on. I'm bummed, because I really really want lots of basil for pesto and salads, but so far it's looking like that won't happen. I may try planting in a container, but I'll wait a few more days to see if they make it out into the light.

4. About a million aphids have been having a party on my pepper plants. I've been hardening off these plants and hope to get them in the ground this week (I'm waiting for the weather to let up- we're currently experiencing a bit of a gale that has come in from the coast). So they've been inside at night, outside during the day, and these aphids went absolutely nuts on them, so some of the leaves started to become malformed and discolored.

I tried the (slightly gross) method of smashing of aphids with my fingers and then rinsing the plants down with water to wash all the bugs off. This worked for about a day before the little green dudes showed back up. Not wanting to use pesticides or anything, I did a little research on the interwebs and decided to try the following: put one teaspoon of mild dish detergent (I use a Seventh Generation one) in a spray bottle, fill the bottle up with water, shake, and then spray the underside of every leaf. This drowns the aphids and makes it difficult for them to regain their footing if they do survive, without harming the plant. So far, it seems to be working really well. Once they are out in the garden, the local ladybugs and other insects should have it under control.

What obstacles or tribulations are you experiencing with your garden? Do you have any tricks or cures for the problems you encounter?


Kate said...

Liz- a lot of people I know have trouble with basil in the ground in Oregon..being a lazy gardener I plant mine in containers without trying to solve the dilemma and they are doing fine. Let me know if you solve the problem!
I can't convince my nasturtiums (in the ground) to sprout. This makes me feel silly because who can't grow nasturtiums?? But we've had a lot of almost but not quite freezing nights here in Ashland so..I think that's the problem and not me being a doofus. My tomatoes, peppers and chiles are sitting patiently (some nights under a snug covering) waiting for summer to actually show up. Do you have sunflowers? Mine aren't up yet but I read somewhere that they attract aphid-eating insects.
The ghetto apartment I moved into had three layers of black plastic and gravel covering the (tiny) yard. I tore it all out and was astounded to find the soil still alive. Hooray for gardening!

Liz said...

Hi Kate! I am not growing sunflowers- I couldn't really fit them into my crowded plot, but for sure in the future when I have a larger garden! I am also reverting to planting basil in containers- plus it's more slug proof!

Debbie, Ontario, Canada said...

Came to you via Down to Earth Blog post of your kitchen. Cozy set up by the way.

This comment may be a little late as you may have noticed this already but your Basil may still appear.

I find that it takes more time for Basil seeds to sprout than what is claimed on the package. I planted my Basil on May 8th weekend and I've just now started to see small sprouts from those seeds. Lots of rain in the last week seems to have done the trick. Hopefully your basil has now started to sprout too.