What’s going into Erica’s garden this year?

I have ordered (and received) my seeds! I may end up with more, at seed swaps and from friends, but I’ve made the basic purchases to fill in needs. For the first time in ages, I didn’t order any tomato seeds–I know, shock, horror–but I still have plenty and I’m going to cut back on the number of tomato plants this year in favor of peppers and other summer crops. Will everything I’m thinking of planting actually fit, either in my community garden plot or in containers at home? Only time will tell.

Anyway, I thought I’d give you all a glimpse into the reasons I chose a few of the plants I plan to grow. Below I will profile Amara Ethiopian Kale, Yellow Cabbage Collards, Dario Cocozelle Zucchini, Zipper Cream Cowpeas, and Nadapeño Peppers. I’ll link to the companies I ordered them from so you can read more, but doing so is not an endorsement by University of Maryland Extension.

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Plants not behaving as expected: vegetable garden edition

Two of the vegetable crops I grew this year are known for loving the heat: okra and eggplant. I grow eggplant in pots on my deck, to avoid flea beetle infestation, and okra directly in the ground in my community garden plot. Both of them produced adequately over the summer. Now it’s fall; we’re having days in the 70s and nights in the 50s, and there are fewer hours of sunlight in the day. Time to pull the summer crops, right?

Except – boom! Both the okra and the eggplant are going gangbusters. More flowers, more fruits than in the hot summer months, by far.

‘Bride’ eggplant on a cool autumn morning

So why aren’t these plants following the rulebook? Do they not know how to read? Or have the rules changed?

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Squash vine borers and squash bugs: two garden villains!

My squash and zucchini have been breeding grounds for these two garden pests in past years. They also have confused me because I tend to conflate the two or have mixed up which one I’m searching for information on online. This year, despite taking more steps to combat both of these evil-doers, my garden still took major hits from this duo.

In anticipation of this insect onslaught, I took the following extra steps:

  • I kept the young squash and zucchini plants under floating row cover until they flowered. I uncovered then so that pollinators could get in and do their thing. I potentially could have kept them under cover longer if I manually pollinated, but the plants were growing beyond the cover structure I made, so it was time.
  • I wrapped foil around the lower stems of the plants as HGIC suggests to prevent egg-laying.
  • I searched for and removed more regularly squash bug eggs found under the leaves.
  • I planted these crops in a bed that had NOT yet been used for squash or zucchini and therefore hopefully would not contain overwintering vine borers in the soil.
  • I planted yellow squash, zucchini, and, HERE COMES A NEW CHALLENGER: TROMBONCINO SQUASH! The tromboncino variety is supposed to be vine-borer resistant.

The following is my garden’s tale of woe, and my future plans for growing a squash bug and squash vine borer-free garden.

Let’s start with the one that has been the most visible to me, the squash bug.

Squash bug

For the past few years, I’ve been seeing these guys’ eggs on the undersides of my squash, zucchini, and cucumber plants. When I find them, I tear off the small section of the leaf, smash ’em between my fingers, and chuck them away. I kept doing this, but kept finding more this year. I’m sure tons of the eggs got past me.

Confirming that notion, I did later catch these nymphs having a party on my plants.

Squash bug nymphs
Squash bug and eggs

In my garden at least, I don’t believe the squash bugs are the main villain destroying my squash and zucchini crop. I saw some stippling on the leaves here and there, but nothing that seemed to do severe damage.

Squash bug and stippling on leaf
Squash bug and stippling on leaf – this was about the worst damage I saw like this.

One of my later tromboncino fruits had a ton of superficial damage on it. My guess it is from the squash bugs. They didn’t touch any other tromboncino fruits, and this particular one was closer to ground level, while most of the rest of my tromboncino crop was high in the trellis. Are these guys afraid of heights?

Squash Vine Borer

Previously, in my gardening efforts, I’ve had zucchini and squash plants succumb to the squash vine borer, and I took several steps to avoid them again this year, but to no avail. I’m sorry to say, both our zucchini and squash plants grew large and healthy, produced a round of solid fruits, then quickly wilted and died within a couple weeks of each other.

Tromboncino squash on trellis
Tromboncino squash climbing up it’s trellis, making fruit, and not worrying about any bugs.

I did not see any adult vine borer moths, but I found a big fat larva in the dead plant’s stem. I tore out the dead/dying plants.

While yellow squash and zucchini were out for the count, the tromboncino kept on truckin’ and had no issues so far with either of the nasty bugs other than the one damaged fruit.

What else can I do?

There are more means of combating these bugs if I decide to do battle with these villains again:

For squash vine borers (info mainly from the HGIC page):

  • Adjust the timing of planting. Planting early or late in the season to attempt to avoid the life cycle of the vine borer. Or, plant in succession; stagger when we plant so if some crops get taken out, you still have another coming along with more fruit and another chance at success.
  • Do surgery on the stems of the plant you fear is infested, rip out any larva, and mound up dirt over wounded stems to induce supplemental rooting.
  • Spray lower stems with spinosad or pyrethrum.
  • Spray lower plants stems and base of plant with pyrethrins when adults are flying (mid-late May). Repeat 14 days later. Or sprinkle diatomaceous earth on lower stems. 
  • Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or beneficial nematode Stinernema carpocapsae can be injected into wound to kill borers.
  • Seal up infested vines in plastic bag before larvae pupate (break life cycle).
  • Plant resistant crops: Butternut and cushaw are resistant; yellow crookneck is less susceptible than zucchini. (I went for the tromboninos).

For Squash bugs (info mainly from the HGIC page):

  • Neem, horticultural oil, and insecticidal soap are effective when sprayed directly on nymphs. Adults are very difficult to kill with the insecticides available to home gardeners.
  • Trap adults and nymphs by placing boards near host plants under which they will hide. Lift boards and destroy bugs in the morning.
  • Bugs also hide under mulch. When numbers are high, mulch may need to be removed.
  • Removing all plant debris at the end of the growing season is essential.
  • Check seed catalogs for cultivars of summer and winter squash that are resistant to squash bugs.

What will I actually do?

I’m gonna give up!

This is at least the third year in a row with a similar story for the yellow squash and zucchini in my garden, and I think I’m done with regular yellow squash and zucchini for a bit. There are more things I could do to mitigate the problem, but I’m tired of providing food for these buggers, and I’m not into high-maintenance gardening, so I’m gonna call it quits on those crops for now.

Besides, the vine-borer-resistant tromboncino squash crop I tried this year has excelled, and it cooks and eats pretty much like its susceptible cousin crops. I plan to keep going with tromboncino. Maybe a year or two without fodder for these bugs will break the cycle and allow them time to die off or move elsewhere.

Here are two great videos on both of these problem bugs:

Feel free to take a look at my posts from last year’s growing season.

Dan Adler
HGIC Web Support and Video Production

‘Costata Romanesco’: A zucchini that will make you smile

If you like zucchini, I think you’ll love ‘Costata Romanesco.’ If you don’t like zucchini, please keep reading. It may change your life.

I became acquainted with this extraordinary summer squash many years ago, and it’s the only zucchini I plant each year. Will Bonsall, well-known Maine seed-saver, and farming/gardening guru reportedly mused that it’s “the only summer squash worth bothering with, unless you’re just thirsty.” Although its Italian name is beautiful, I will refer to it as CR to save space.

Large zucchini flower
‘Costata Romanesco’ flowers are large and can remain attached for some time.

Two zucchinis
Late-season ‘Costata Romanesco’ fruits.

CR is a stunner with alternating dark green and light green stripes with white flecking, like ‘Cocozelle’ and some other Italian varieties. “Costata” means rib in Italian. Fruits develop 8-10 prominent ribs which give cross-cut slices a unique and fun look. It has a dry, meaty texture, not unlike eggplant, that holds up when sauteed, baked, broiled, steamed, or grilled. It has a distinctive flavor described as sweet, nutty, and earthy. In addition to shredding it for cakes and breads I find it makes the best zucchini fritters (see recipe below). This year, I’m freezing loads of shredded CR.

Grate, bag, and freeze extra-large zucchini fruits.
Grate, bag, and freeze extra-large zucchini fruits.

Tips for getting the most from CR:

  • This is a large plant that can easily fill a 4 ft. x 4 ft. space. Some of the sprawling stems will flop to the ground where they will root, even through an organic mulch. These additional stems increase fruiting and allow the plant to survive a squash vine borer infestation in the main stem.

Crowded garden
‘Costata Romanesco’ plants need elbow room.

Roots from a zucchini plant stem that grew into the soil.
Roots from a zucchini plant stem that grew into the soil.

  • Try planting in mid-June to avoid cucumber beetles and squash bugs. That strategy has worked for me if you also delay planting of cucumber and melon.
  • CR produces large, sturdy male flowers if you are into stuffed blossoms. Even when the fruits get overly big, 12-16 inches long and 3-4 inches in diameter, they remain tender. Larger fruits can be shredded.
  • A variety of bees cross-pollinate the flowers, especially squash bees and bumblebees. Plant annuals and perennials to feed bees through the growing season. Interestingly, one small Cornell University study in 2013 showed that CR was somewhat parthenocarpic (produces fruits without cross-pollination). Of 19 bagged CR flowers in the research study, 58% set marketable fruit without bee pollination.

Saving seeds:

  • CR is open-pollinated. With a little bit of planning seed saved this year will produce an identical crop next year (unlike hybrid cultivars).
  • Avoid cross-pollination with non-CR pollen by not growing any other members of Cucurbita pepo, a species that includes yellow summer, acorn, scallop, and spaghetti squash and most pumpkins. Cross-pollination may still occur if these squashes and pumpkins are growing in neighboring gardens.
  • Or, you can hand-pollinate female flowers.
  • If possible, save seed from multiple fruits and multiple plants. Harvest fruits when they become very large with a hardened rind that starts to turn yellow. Allow seeds to mature inside fruits for 3-4 weeks. Cut fruits open and remove, clean, and air-dry seed at room temperature. Store seeds in a sealed container in a cool, dry location. They will remain viable for 5-6 years.

Zucchini cut in half
Seeds being saved for 2021.

Zucchini fritter recipe

2 lbs. shredded zucchini

1 medium onion finely chopped (can substitute scallions)

2 eggs

1 cup panko

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. black pepper

1 ½ tsp. turmeric

1 ½ tsp. paprika

Shred the zucchini and either squeeze out excess water by hand or allow it to drain in a colander.

Mix all ingredients and shape into patties. Fry in vegetable oil until brown on both sides. Makes 15 fritters. Serve with plain yogurt.

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist. Read more posts by Jon.

Semi-novice Gardener – Raised Bed Vegetable Garden Adventure (vol. 3)

Hi all!  It’s time for check-in #3 on my summer gardening efforts.  Overall, things are going well, but there have been big ups and downs.

The new raised bed we built is doing well.  Krysten planted corn in the center one, and a couple cucumber seedlings in the rightmost one.  The cucumbers have been slow to develop and grow.  I think this is because of the extreme heat.  In the last week or two, one’s growth has accelerated and it’s finally growing one nice cucumber.  I may harvest it and slice it up to use as an ingredient in a nice summer cocktail drink tonight (It’s Friday as I write this draft!). Do a web search for “porch swing” cocktail recipes.

Since we got the fencing up that encloses the whole space, we have had 0 evidence of animals munching our crops!  Huzzah!  However, we DID see one deer in our yard and it was eating our hostas elsewhere on our property (and has continued to; the hostas are mostly gone now).  So, we DO have deer, but they haven’t been interested in our vegetables (yet).  I wonder if they don’t like walking on the gravel we have down?

Tomatoes

We have been harvesting a lot of tomatoes! One of our plants grew very large and tall and ended up flopping over the tomato cages we built in the last update.  We needed something taller!  We were worried that the tropical storm in the first week of August was about to topple the biggest one completely, so we hurriedly built an extension.  We found some scrap wood in the garage, attached it vertically to the sides of the raised bed, and strung twine around nails in the boards back and forth from board to board.  This seems to hold it up well and while the tropical storm wasn’t too bad here, there was no damage afterward.  We need to do the same for our second largest one this weekend.

Taller tomato support
Taller tomato support

The early blight issue I spoke about in the last update has seemed to be controlled by pruning more heavily and keeping air flowing.  However, our smaller tomato plant has been slow to fruit and has some holes/spots on the leaves.  After perusing the HGIC site, my guess was that it was Septoria leaf spot which is a fungal disease, however as a couple knowledgeable HGIC coworkers proof-read this post, they said it was actually most likely from flea beetles. It may sound like I’ve got the inside connection with experts, but everyone can send in questions to our Certified Professional Horticulturists for help like this!

Septoria leaf spot on my tomato plant
Flea beetle damage on my tomato plant

There are prevention and control directions on the HGIC page for flea beetles, but since the damage isn’t large at the moment, I think we’ll leave it as-is now, and plan to clean up and remove garden debris to reduce overwintering sites for the beetles when we wind down the growing season this year.

Overall though, we’ve been harvesting more tomatoes than we know what to do with, so we’re happy with our tomato efforts here! I’m considering making a whole lot of sauce.

Tomato harvest
Tomato harvest

Squash and zucchini

In the last update, I mentioned I suspected squash vine borer larvae to be killing my zucchini plant from the inside.  I did the surgery and discovered I was right.

Squash vine borer larvae in zucchini plant
See the white larvae in the center, lower third of the image?

I remember reading on the HGIC site at some point that in general with cucurbits, you can cover parts of the plant that grow above the soil with soil, and they will begin to root.  I cut the plant to disconnect the borer-infested segment (which was pretty much down into the roots) from the good parts.  I ripped out the roots and infested stuff, then planted the remaining stuff back in, mounding soil over it.

For a few weeks, things seemed promising.  Most of the large leaves did not make it, but some younger and new leaf sprouts were growing strong, and a small fruit started growing.  This suggested to me that after some time, we’d likely have this zucchini plant back from the dead and producing again.  However, that little fruit died and rotted, and the leaves and stems suddenly showed damage.

Our squash had been doing great.  It kept producing great fruit at a rapid pace, and kept expanding.  It was healthy; not showing damage from squash vine borers or cucumber beetles like the zucchini had.  It expanded outside of the raised bed and sometimes those leaves would appear wilted.  We assumed it was because of the extra heat from the gravel and the hot sun.

All was going well until a few days ago – it began wilting everywhere and wasn’t recovering.  Fruit production stopped.  We took a closer look, and we’re seeing the same squash vine borer type damage we saw with the zucchini!  Noooo!  It looked pervasive.  I wasn’t about to do more larvae extraction (it was gross, and squash isn’t my favorite vegetable).

So, we called it on both the zucchini and the squash plants.  2:35 pm, Friday, August 10th, 2020.  We ripped them out and tossed them far from the garden.  We’re making space for some sort of cooler season crops (the planning hasn’t started yet).

Next year, we are absolutely taking the following prevention steps (taken from the HGIC page on squash vine borers):

  • To prevent egg-laying, wrap a collar of aluminum foil around lower stems or dust or spray lower stems with spinosad or pyrethrum.
  • Cover plants with floating row cover until flowering.
  • Plant early to lessen injury. Use transplants instead of seeds. Or, plant squash seed mid-June.
  • Butternut and cushaw are resistant; yellow crookneck less susceptible than zucchini.

Green beans

We’ve been harvesting a few green beans from the mature plants that survived the rodent massacres that happened before we got the fence up, but it wasn’t enough to make a meal out of.  Several weeks ago, I planted more seeds to replace the eaten ones and those have grown and should be fruiting soon.  I hope that we can have some dinners with roasted green beans soon; they are my favorite of our garden veggies after tomatoes (and since tomatoes are fruit, I could say that green beans are my favorite veggies).

The zinnia we planted in the center of the green beans has gotten large and is crowding them.  We will likely try to tie it up to keep it more vertical than horizontal.

There are a couple bean leaves with holes munched out of them from some insect, but nothing to be too concerned about yet.

Moving forward

We’re still having fun with the garden.  It’s great to be done building for the most part.  Krysten has been adding a few pots on the outskirts with flowers in them which makes the space look nice.  I think in the next season, we’ll probably add more flowers in pots and save the beds for the vegetables.  The flowers have overcrowded vegetables in some instances in the raised beds, and we should be able to attract pollinators close enough to the vegetables via potted flowers.

I’m looking forward to more tomatoes and our first meal with green beans.  Perhaps in the next update, I may present our plan for cool-season crops.

View previous updates:

Dan Adler
HGIC Web and Communications Manager

Semi-novice Gardener – Raised Bed Vegetable Garden Adventure (vol. 2)

I’m back with a big update on our raised bed vegetable garden efforts!  It’s been eventful: wildlife has eaten some of the plants, we built a whole new raised bed from scratch, and we’ve begun harvesting some of our first crops.

Tomatoes need support!

Our three tomato plants have been growing up well.  We procrastinated on adding support because I wanted a better solution than those flimsy conical wire doodads you can buy at the hardware store.  I eventually located some old lengths of wire fencing and just set them around each plant in a cylindrical shape and then attached them to a single metal garden stake to keep them steady.  I criss-crossed some twine back and forth which will give the tomatoes something more to grab onto and keep the support from bending outward.

Somebody is munching my plants!

Wildlife and insects have been having a feast on our garden, unfortunately. Continue reading