Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tomato Turmoil

Hovering over my treasure, I beamed as I revealed the latest garden loot to my husband.  “Know what these are?”  I asked. 
“Tomatoes” he replied nonchalantly.  Clearly, he wasn’t picking up on my infectious enthusiasm.
“Yes, but not just ANY tomatoes.  These are {pause for emphasis} Our First Tomatoes.”
He gestured towards a pile of rosy red spheres on the opposite counter.  “So what are those?” 
“Those are from Wanda’s garden.”
“And those?” he asked, pointing to a colander of bright orange cherry tomatoes. 
“Those are from Alicia.” 
“Mmm hmm.”

What my husband failed to recognize is the monumental significance of today’s garden haul.  I’ve spent the last two weeks wringing my hands over an entirely unripe tomato crop.  A plentiful harvest that refuses to ripen is more insulting than one lost to bugs or disease.  I should know…I’ve lived through all three forms of frustration.  With August well underway, I was beginning to suspect that I was falling victim to another green tomato tragedy. 

Gardeners are cut from warm and generous stock; the orange and red produce scattered throughout my kitchen bore testimony to that fact.  Unfortunately, they set off a little alert in the gardening cortex of my cerebellum.  “Why are everyone else’s tomatoes ripe?”  I had planted at least 5 different varieties, from two different sources, and spread them throughout the backyard.  None of them had shown so much as a shy blush until this morning.  Hence the hand-wringing.

Tomatoes, I am told, will ripen, given a long enough growing season, which Illinois certainly has.  The complex biochemistry percolating in those plant cells can be a touch sensitive, though.  Tomatoes prefer air temps below 85 degrees.  Any higher, and the plant shuts down its carotene and lycopene production, two components essential to the ripening process.  Resist the urge to fertilize: failing to ripen is not a nutritional deficiency.  Adding fertilizer could actually force the plant into a vegetative state, further slowing your fruit maturity.  No, the only solution is to wait.  I hate waiting.

But none of this emotional rollercoaster registered with Tall, Dark and Handsome.  Aside from enjoying a slice on his cheeseburger, he’s not a tomato enthusiast.  For him, tomato season brings the pleasant tidings of salsa kisses and dragon breath emanating from his sweetheart and the onslaught of fruit flies in the kitchen.  Considering these enticing prospects, his response may be justified.  There is not, I’m sorry to say, much I can do about the salsa breath.  I write it off as collateral damage.   Homemade salsa for supper does not fresh morning breath make.   Add to that, salsa for breakfast and lunch as well, and sweet exhales are gone with the wind.

I have, however, had some success in controlling fruit flies this year.  After a particularly produce-laden purchase at Sam’s Club, I discovered a very effective homemade fruit fly trap.  In a cup, I put an apple slice and some vinegar.  I cut a small corner out of a sandwich bag and secured it over the cup with a rubber band.  It didn’t take long for the flies to find their new favorite restaurant.  Only trick is, finding their way out was considerably harder than finding their way in.  There are suggestions all over the internet for ‘fly enticements’.  Apparently the little drunkards like beer or wine, and heated apple cider vinegar draws them effectively as well.  This summer, don’t let those buggers put a damper on your harvest.  Bring on the tomatoes!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Milky Spore

Ah, August.  The season of sharpened pencils, shiny shoes, and first-day jitters.  And the harbinger of the collective germ pool shared amongst all those willing learners.  From the water fountain to the pencil sharpener, bacteria has a hey day.  With three grade-schoolers, I’m in the thick of germ warfare.  A daily lecture circuit escapes semi-unconsciously from my mouth:  “Wash your hands.” “Use a tissue!” “Stop licking your brother.”  Does it do any good?  Do they listen?  I don’t know.  We get our fair share of stomach viruses and strep throat.  I always say what we don’t pick up from the community basketball in P.E. we get from the shopping cart at Aldi’s. 

But thank goodness I’m not a grub mama.  As those little baby grubs wriggle off from home into the pitch-black underworld, they’re exposed to every imaginable germ.  How they can see what they’re eating?  Who knows?  And there’s clearly no hand-washing before meals.  One soil-borne germ in particular, milky spore, is deadly to grubs.  Oh, those poor mamas, the sleepless nights they must endure with such dangers lurking.  You may be more familiar with the parents of grubs these days: our iridescent summer visitor, the Japanese Beetle.  What?  Not feeling sympathetic?  I can relate. 

A creepy Grub family tree

I suppose beetles can’t help their behavior.  They’re just doing what comes naturally.  It isn’t their fault that we’ve planted all these delicious Linden trees and hollyhocks, roses and beans around our properties.  After all, if the tables were turned, would we behave differently?  If Willy Wonka’s dream came true, would we leave the candy grass, gumdrop flowers and chocolate river alone simply because they looked lovely?  One whiff of that cocoa current and my self-restraint would be taking a hike.  This, however, isn’t Wonka World, and I’m not here to make excuses for Japanese Beetles.  We have crops to grow and plants to protect from the appetite of these destructive creatures, which brings me back to the milky spore germ.

It’s important to clarify what Milky Spore (Bacillus popillae) is not.  It is not a quick fix.  Yes, I know you’re worried about the marigolds the beetles are currently feasting on, but Milky Spore is not that kind of a fix.  It does not instantly kill beetle like Sevin.  This is a gradual population-control product.  I know I lost most of you on the word “gradual”, but hear me out.  This bacteria attacks the future generations that will be overwintering in and emerging from your soil next spring.  It’s like taking out an airfield instead of just shooting bombers out of the sky.  You’re hitting them at their population source.  Milky spore is applied in one season, and the resulting control can last upwards of 20 years. 

The product works like so: after being eaten by a grub, the bacterial spores have nothing short of a cataclysmic orgy.  The resulting exponential growth results in billions of new bacterial spores.   And we thought rabbits were bad!  The inner fluid of the grub, or hemolymph, is so saturated with spores by the time it dies that it turns white, hence the milky nomer.  Therein lies the catch-22: for the bacterial population to grow, it requires live grubs to percolate it’s population.   Meaning, if you don’t have a good infestation of Japanese Beetle grubs, the product won’t flourish well.

Milky spore is available in a powder form in most garden centers.  Spread it on your lawn while temperatures are still warm.  Spore development is optimized when the soil temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees farenheit.  I found a 40 oz package of powder for $70 on Amazon.  Certainly not cheap, but if you divide the cost of the investment over the span of 10-20 years, it’s a bit easier to swallow. 

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