by Norm Budnitz
Squash that bug. Stomp that spider. Squish that worm.
Well, sometimes ‘yes,’ sometimes ‘no,’ and sometimes ‘maybe.’
Many true bugs (stink bugs, squash bug, harlequin bugs, etc.) are bad guys in the garden. They stick their piercing mouth parts into a plant and suck out its juices. ‘Yum’ for the bug; ‘grr’ for the gardener. An infestation of squash bugs can leave your butternuts looking like limp lumps. But there are some good guy bugs—predatory bugs. These insects attack other insects, often harmful ones.
Most spiders are good guys (mostly gals, actually) in the garden. These arachnids (not insects) spend their lives eating lots of the bad guys. So don’t kill spiders, just wiggle their webs a little and they will move out of the way and hide for a while. It’s true that when humans get bitten by spiders they may be in for a bit of pain or sickness or even death in rare cases (the proverbial black widows and brown recluses). But most spiders, including those two dangerous ones, would much rather scurry out of the way when a big old mammal wanders by.
The common garden spider (Argiope aurantia) is a big beautiful female who often sets up shop in or on the edge of the garden. Her web is quite a large affair—a circular orb, 1 to 2 feet in diameter, suspended by strong, straight strands of silk that can be 5 feet long or more. She is striking with her black and yellow abdomen about the size of your thumb. And she reinforces her web with bright, thick strands of silk that she lays down in a zigzag pattern that sometimes seems to spell out things (MMMM in the picture here). The male garden spider is a thin, lanky little brown guy who builds a smaller web. His sole job is to eat enough to get the energy to breed with a female, after which he dies, sometimes being eaten by his mate.
Tobacco hornworms, Manduca sexta (pictured here feeding on a pepper plant), and tomato hornworms, Manduca quinquemaculata, are big green caterpillars—not worms in the sense of earthworms. They have white slashes along their bodies, a horn on the tip of their butt, and can get up to 3-4 inches long. Hornworms feed on members of the nightshade family—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tobacco, and potatoes. In spite of their names, both of these species will happily eat any of these crops. They are quite impressive beasts and can eat a lot of foliage in a short period of time. Bad guys in the garden!
Here’s the good guy (gal, again)—a wasp called a braconid. When the female braconid is ready to lay her eggs, she goes in search of a hornworm. She has a long ovipositor (egg depositor) sticking out of her abdomen that she sticks into the caterpillar. The eggs are laid inside the hornworm where they hatch into larvae and grow, eating the caterpillar from the inside. The hornworm stops eating and eventually dies. After the larvae have had their fill, they turn into pupae and build a cocoon around themselves when they emerge from the hornworm. In the picture here, the hornworm has lots of little rice grain sized cocoons sticking to it. Eventually, each one of these pupae will undergo metamorphosis like a butterfly. But instead of a big, beautiful butterfly, it will become a wasp—beautiful in its own right—that will go on to parasitize another hornworm someday.
As for the hornworm, it’s not all bad either. True, it’s a bad guy when it’s eating a lot of tomato leaves. But if it pupates successfully and undergoes metamorphosis, it will emerge as a sphinx moth or hawk moth, sometimes even called a hummingbird moth. Its job in the garden is to pollinate flowers while it gathers nectar. No pollination, no fruit. So the larvae may eat the leaves, but the adults help to make the tomatoes.
by Norm Budnitz
I’ll say it flat out, “I like okra!”
Some people say it’s too slimy. Others simply say, “Yuck!” The methods of cooking okra for long periods of time that result in a mucilaginous goo leave me wanting something different. I don’t mind stewed okra and tomatoes, just like I’m willing to tolerate eating other veggies that are cooked for a long time, if there’s nothing else available. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are quick and easy ways to cook okra that are simply delicious. As it is, I spend enough time with my okra in the field; I want short and sweet and eat in the kitchen. Read on, recipe at the end.
Okra is a tropical plant in the mallow family, related to cotton, cacao, and hibiscus. I’ve seen it growing profusely in roadside ditches in Madagascar. It thrives in our North Carolina clay soils and hot, hot, hot summers, so long as it has sufficient water. By summer’s end, some plants will be 10-12 feet tall with stems as big around as your wrist! Frost, of course, does them in. They are tropical, after all.
Okra flowers are beautiful. They are 3-4 inches across, bright yellow, with deep red or purple centers. The plants typically bloom in the morning, the flowers fading as the day wears on. One flower lasts one day and results in one okra pod. My job is to pick them before the pods get too big. Perhaps one of the reasons for the tradition of cooking okra so long is because when the pods get big, they get tough and fibrous. I don’t like that. So I try to pick our okra no longer than 3-4 inches. The problem is that the plants seem to know that. They seem to wait till I’m not looking and suddenly produce pods that go from about an inch to as long as an ear of corn in almost no time at all. I argue with the plants, but they don’t seem to listen. They just grow taller and make bigger pods as soon as I turn my back.
Though they make those pretty flowers and growing stunningly quickly, the plants have a dark side. It seems that they don’t like people. I learned this the hard way. I had one of those one-trial-learning experiences. On a hot, sunny day, I decided to pick okra bare-handed in a short-sleeved shirt. May I humbly recommend that you DO NOT do this. The pods are often deep inside the plant near the stem, so I dove in with my bare hands, bare arms, and bare face. Okra leaves are covered with tiny hairs (I guess you could call them bristles) that cause many humans to itch, particularly me. The stinging and itching were unbelievable—on my arms, hands, cheeks, forehead, and even my neck. Now, even if it’s 90° and 90% humidity, I wear my long-sleeved ‘picking shirt,’ rubber gloves, and a hat. And I do not stick my head into the okra patch.
In spite of okra’s defensive tactics, I love these plants. When they are young, I have to bend over to harvest them. Oh, my aching back. When they are old and 10 feet tall, I have to reach up and pull the tops down in order the clip the pods. Oh, my aching shoulders. But still, I love them. And here’s why:
Roasted or Grilled Okra
by Norm Budnitz
Or perhaps more appropriately, rotation, rotation, rotation.
Closely related plants tend to be susceptible to similar diseases and insect pests. For example, the caterpillars that eat cabbages are quite happy to gnaw away at cauliflower as well. Both of these crops are members of the mustard family (the Brassicaceae, for the vowel lovers among you), along with kale, broccoli, kohl-rabi, Brussels sprouts, collards, turnips, and radishes.
The fungus-like organism (Phytophthora infestans, for you consonant lovers) that causes ‘late blight’ was responsible for destroying the potato harvest in Ireland in the 1840s, resulting in part in the Great Irish Famine. That same organism attacked tomato plants in the eastern US a couple of years ago. Potatoes and tomatoes, along with peppers and eggplants, are members of the nightshade family, the Solanaceae. But so are belladonna (aka deadly nightshade), jimson weed, mandrake, and a number of other plants that produce some chemicals that can be quite toxic to humans. Tobacco is also in this family. I’ll let you decide into which group to put it.
Here at Four Leaf Farm, we grow lots of crops from both of these families. And there is a third family well-represented in our gardens as well, the Cucurbitaceae—squashes, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, gourds, and even luffas.
It is good farming practice to move these crops around in our gardens, so that no member of a given family grows in the same spot where another member of that family just finished growing. For example, it is not a good idea to grow tomatoes in a section of the garden where we have just dug potatoes. Or if we have grown squash in one section this year, next year we will grow them in another section. In other words, we ‘rotate’ our crop families.
So here’s a puzzle for you. On Norm’s land, we cultivate 4 plots of garden space (about 1/8 acre each). We mostly grow members of the 3 families described above (cabbage relatives, squash relatives, and tomato relatives). The cabbage family crops like cool weather, so we grow them in one whole section in the spring and in a different whole section in the fall (never in the same section). Potatoes like it cool, too, so they get a whole section to themselves in the spring as well. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants like it hot, so they go in for the summer, one whole section, but not where potatoes have grown recently. Squash do their own thing, get a whole section in the summer, and they can follow either of the other two families.
Three families. Three seasons. Four sections. How would you set up the rotation? Oh, and by the way, we also squeeze in a couple of rows of other crops, too—okra (mallow family, along with cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus), edamame or green soybeans (legume family, along with peas and other beans), and sweet corn (a grass, like wheat and oats). And if we have some time between plantings, we put in a cover crop like buckwheat or ryegrass.
So how would you set up the rotation? I dare you to try.
[FUN WITH WORDS. For those of you who like to read out loud in your heads, you may be wondering how to pronounce the ‘-aceae’ ending on those family names. Here’s one way: a (as in ‘hay’), suh (as in ‘yes, suh’), ee (as in ‘seed’). “Yes, suh. I’m a hay seed, suh.” ‘aceae’—a suh ee. Try it. You’ll like it. Try the names above. Then try these: Chenopodiaceae (the ‘ch’ has a ‘k’ sound, these are things like beets, chard, and spinach); Scrophulariaceae (snapdragons); and my personal favorite, Bignoniaceae (trumpet vine).]
by Norm Budnitz
Red Thumb, Red Gold, Yukon Gold, French Fingerling, Purple Peruvian, Austrian Crescent, Kipfel. These are some of the potato varieties we are growing this year. And what a joy that is.
Each winter, Tim and Helga go through the seed potato catalogue and pick and choose the varieties we will grow. We have our standbys, but Tim almost always gets tempted by something new like Purple Majesty or Purple Viking.
Come spring, as soon as the soil is dry enough to till, we prepare the beds. The seed potatoes (actual potatoes, not seeds) are cut into pieces with one to several eyes in each piece. After the cut edge has had time to ‘heal’ for a day or so, these pieces are planted. Dig a hole, drop in a potato piece. Dig the next hole putting that dirt in the first hole, drop in the next piece. Again and again and again. This year we planted ten 100-foot rows.
After a couple of weeks, the first sprouts appear. These sprouts are a bit tender, so if frost is predicted, we go down the rows with a hoe and cover each sprout with dirt. Once the soil warms and days become springtime mild, the plants take off. They have coarse, dark green leaves, and they are pretty tough. Colorado potato beetles can wreak havoc, but that’s about it for insect pests in North Carolina. An organic insecticide called spinosad can keep them under control—harmless to humans, lethal to beetle grubs.
Sometime in late May or June, flowers start to appear on the plants. Flowering coincides with the growth of the tubers underground. The little baby potatoes form on and along special underground stems (not roots) called stolons. And now the fun begins.
First of all, Helga’s mouth begins to water. Helga is Danish, and potatoes and Danes go extremely well together. Next comes the exploratory digging. When the flowers have gone by and a plant looks big and bushy, it’s time to get out the digging fork to test the output. If the potatoes are still small, no harm. Helga will still be happy with these delicious morsels. But if they are big and full, it’s time to go at it. And here’s the surprise part of surprising spuds. Digging potatoes is like digging for treasure. There is simply nothing quite like loosening the soil, turning out a big healthy potato plant, and finding a veritable treasure trove of spuds.
White ones, red ones, gold ones, purple ones. Round ones, oblong ones, finger-shaped ones. Large, medium, and small. Oh, so good. Some will look ‘normal,’ but some will simply make us laugh. They will have ‘legs’ or ‘arms’ or ‘heads’ on bulbous bodies. Some will be long and skinny and some will be round and plump. Some will get pierced by the fork and will be greeted with cries of anguish followed by murmurs of inner joy. The staff gets to eat those.
Freshly dug spuds are a treat that grocery store shoppers rarely have access to. Their skins are papery thin and delicate—no need to peel them. Their flesh may be melt-in-your-mouth soft with a hint of sweetness or firm, waxy, buttery, even after cooking, perfect for potato salad. All will have that wonderful potato flavor that is just mouth-wateringly special. A surprising, special, springtime treasure, indeed.
by Norm Budnitz
To grow, or not to grow, that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to accept volunteer tomatoes,
Or to take arms, and by opposing end them.
To grow; to kill.
To kill: to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural hopes
That flesh is heir to.
To grow: 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.
Would that we could consume
The succulent red flesh of that bulbous accidental nightshade.
To grow? Perchance to dream.
Ay, there's the rub.
With all due respect to Shakespeare, this is indeed a question to contend with. Last year we had so many different varieties of tomatoes—red, pink, yellow, round, oblong, heart-shaped, fleshy, juicy. So many, we couldn’t eat them all. Some were tasted by squirrels; some went on the compost; some simply fell to the garden floor. And now there are hordes of volunteer tomatoes coming up everywhere. Is this your conundrum? What is to be done?
To answer this question, you need to consider many factors. Let’s take a look:
Did you plant hybrid varieties last year? If so, think back to Gregor Mendel and what you learned (and promptly forgot) in high school. When hybrids reproduce, they may or may not produce offspring just like themselves.
Did you plant non-hybrid, heirloom varieties? A particular variety could breed true if it didn’t cross pollinate with another variety. Did you really gamble your whole investment in tomato culture to just one heirloom variety? Unlikely. If you planted multiple varieties, would they randomly cross pollinate? Likely. These hybrids could produce the newest, most succulent, flavorful tomatoes known to modern horticulturists. Or not.
What is your garden space like? If you’ve got lots of room to spare, volunteer tomatoes can usually be transplanted quite easily. Dig them up, maintaining a nice root ball, and move them to the spot where you want them. If space is limited, then you are faced with our false bard’s dilemma. Will the plant in your precious space produce rich, round, red, juicy fruit or wizened, tough-skinned, little orange prune-like objects best used for target practice.
Years ago, when I was on a meager student budget, I used to let the occasional volunteer tomato do its thing—particularly if it happened to come up in about the right part of the garden. Was I ever satisfied with the result? No. Not once. Nary a time. Never. But I only tried a few times, so it was a small sample size. I quickly decided that my space, time, and energy were in limited supply. I’ve never been much of a gambling man. I truly love a good, home-grown tomato. So each spring, I opened my wallet and sprung a few bucks for tomato plants that would give me the best odds of being able to bite into a luscious red fruit that would overwhelm my taste buds and leave me with juice dripping down my arm and running off my elbow.
So. To grow or not to grow. You Hamlet (or Hamlette) must choose for yourself.
Norm Budnitz can be reached at email@example.com
Volunteer tomato plant among the planted savoy cabbage