A Surprise Treasure in our Garden!

While topping the Brussels sprouts* on Wednesday evening, I happened upon an odd, exotic-looking object that was attached to the main stem of one of our plants.  It looked like something that would fit right in on the set of the movie Alien!  However, as I examined it more closely, I realized that it is something that is very good to find in one's garden -- that is, an ootheca, (i.e., egg case), from a mantid!  In our case, (no pun intended!), based on its size and shape, this egg case is from a Chinese mantid (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis). 


Ootheca (egg case) from a Chinese mantid, on a Brussels Sprout Plant

[photo - Susan Doctrow]

The Chinese mantid is the world's largest mantid, often reaching over four inches in length when fully grown.  They are brown, with green or yellow stripes on the sides of their wings, and they are widely sold through garden catalogs and garden centers because they are carnivorous predators that will often feed on other insects and creatures that are garden pests.

See our earlier post for a photo of the adult Chinese mantid that we discovered on our pole bean trellis:


Here's a Chinese mantid creating an egg case: 


And here's a mantid egg case actually hatching: 



*  We learned, this season, that topping Brussels sprouts and flower sprouts when they are 3-4 weeks from harvest leads to bigger, more-consistently sized sprouts at harvest time.


Carrots: Lessons Learned This Year

carrotsThis year's early-season carrots struggled through an infestation of Asiatic Garden Beetles, a nocturnal garden pest that needed to be painstakingly removed from the soil during thinning and weeding. The early crop took a bit longer than expected to mature, but the beetle-busting efforts paid off with truly lovely carrots.

When our late-season carrots got off to a rocky start, we began to worry. We seeded an area vacated by fava beans on July 7th. Germination was good, the seedlings began growing, but then they all died. All except a few that had been in the shade of the mature carrots at the ends of the rows. We're not certain, but it may be that the seedlings became too dry at a critical period and quickly withered in the mid-July sun. They were replanted and the second carrot crop now appears to be on its way to greatness. But for my part, I'd like to document a few carrot lessons we've learned this year.

1. Favor varieties with short growing seasons. Two crops divides the season into mid-April to mid-July and mid-July to mid-October, giving a generous 91 days for maturity. Yet, carrots grown in the peripheries of the season take longer than the predicted 75 days.

2. Plant the rows close together. The carrots shared a bed with salad turnips this year, dividing one 6' x 9' planting bed into two beds 3' wide. We planted five rows 6 inches apart and the spacing was excellent.

3. Sow plenty of seed. Carrots take their time germinating (1-3 weeks), so they don't allow much opportunity to infill seed bare spots without paying a heavy price in lost time.

4. Keep the newly-seeded soil moist. We used shade cloth after re-seeding in July and left it in place until the seedlings had a good roothold (at about 2" tall). This may be less of a problem for the early crop.

5. Lightly thin the seedlings each week. Successive thinning doesn't take long, and it results in the best seedlings surviving to maturity at the ideal spacing of around 1 inch apart.

Another Beneficial Insect Spotted at Robbins Farm Garden!

Locust Borer BeetleOn Saturday, September 8, 2012, I spotted this unusual insect gathering nectar from our garlic chive blossoms.   At first glance I thought it was some kind of wasp, but upon closer inspection, I decided that it was some kind of beetle.  (This type of visual imitation, by the way, is called biomimicry.  In this specific case, this beetle evolved to resemble a wasp as a deterrent to possible predators.)  After some online research, I discovered that what we had here is a Megacyllene robiniae  --aka a Locust Borer Beetle.  [Photo credit – Alan Jones].

This convincingly camouflaged beetle shouldn't be a problem in our garden, as this native insect only lays its eggs on, and then subsequently damages, black locust trees.  It was on the chive blossoms simply to feed, and, coincidentally, to pollinate.  So, as far as we are concerned, this is another beneficial insect helping to tend our garden!

For more info on this insect, see http://www.cirrusimage.com/beetles_locust_borer.htm


This Day in the Garden - September 8, 2012

Our first harvest of sweet potatoes, leeks and rhubarb, and the last of the watermelons. None of the watermelons this year have made it out of the park - it's just too much fun to share them on the spot. Those eight big sweet potatoes were from just one plant! We'll wait a few weeks to dig the rest, after the plants start dieing back.

Michael spotted a special visitor on the pole beans:  Our mantid friend is a Tenodera aridifolis sinensis, aka a Chinese Praying Mantis.

See http://speciesofjabin.blogspot.com/2010/08/savanna-chinese-praying-mantis.html

A praying mantis is a voracious predator, (i.e., a "beneficial" insect), and its favorite munchies are insect & bug pests that we don't want in our gardens!  Isn't it nice to know that Mother Nature is helping us out?  (And kudos to Alan for the excellent click!)

Praying Mantis

Mildew Strikes Back!

This past Saturday, the mildew had spread across the patch of summer squash.  While *we* had been careful to avoid watering late evening, to avoid water sitting on leaves not drying off, Mother Nature had no such qualms.  For a week she rained on and off as she pleased, day and night, throwing in a few thundershowers for good measure.  Plus with the high humidity, and therefore a high dewpoint, we surely had leaves soaked in dew every night.

Nevertheless, we benefited significantly from using potassium bicarbonate (couple teaspoons mixed in a few quarts of water -- we didn't add soybean oil because that gummed up the sprayer) to prevent mildew.  Indeed, the cucumber leaves were still free of mildew, and we've had a much more abundant crop of cucumbers this year than last.  The winter squash along the fence showed some mildew encroachment, which by today according to our Thursday waterer had spread entirely over that patch.  Interestingly, the winter squash under the beans and corn was still free of mildew. Perhaps yet another advantage of growing the Three Sisters together!



Fresh-from-the-garden Chili

If you garden, you know the question: How do I make the most of the seasonal selection of vegetables from the garden tonight? In this case, it was finishing up several small Onions, five random Tomatoes in various states of ripeness, a few green Peppers, a half-dozen Tomatillos and some charming little Hot Peppers.

fresh from the garden chili

The answer was Chili. I chopped the Onions, Peppers (green & hot), Tomatillos and skinned Tomatoes, adding them sequentially to a sauté pot with a small amount of oil. When the veggies were all in, I added a standard can of rinsed beans (in this case, butter beans), whole cashews and some chili seasoning. The result was three very hearty servings of my best chili ever!

Boffo bush beans

Somehow, I gravitate toward harvesting our bush beans, and a couple of weeks ago, I thought I noticed that they were slowing down, and might be done for the season. 

I mused likewise out loud, suggesting to Elisabeth, one of our chief gardening officers, that perhaps we should pull them and get something else out of the raised plot before it was too late.

Purple, yellow, and green string beans.

Boy, was I wrong. Saturday, I spent more than an hour in that bed, harvesting plump, robust yellow, purple, and green string beans. Yellow has been the star by far this year, IMO, producing the most and the prettiest beans of the trio. Purple seems to produce a lot, but not of great stature, and the greens have just been so-so.

I don't know how much longer they have to go — my recollection is that they kept producing last year even after our pole beans began bearing fruit. If so, we probably have a few more weeks, since the latter are climbing, but I haven't noticed an flowers yet.


We've got a few "tassel-ears" growing in our cornfield. A tassel-ear is a small, fully-formed ear of corn growing out of the top of the plant, without any husk to cover it. Looks a little wierd, but apparently isn't that unusual. You can find out more about tassel-ears here: http://corn.osu.edu/newsletters/2012/2012-24/201ctassel-ears201d-in-corn. I'm guessing some bird's going to be real happy to find it.

Why We Grow Soybeans - 2012 edition

I picked 107 pods from this one soy plant - that's about 321 delicious little edamame beans. I noticed that the roots of this plant were particularly loaded with nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Examining other plants, it was consistent that the largest plants with the highest yield had more nodules on their roots. Do more nodules make the plant healthier, or do healthier plants support more nodules?

How does your garden squash grow?

Squash growth, 4 daysWe know that summer squash grow so fast that if you miss one during harvest you'll find a Moby Zuke in a few days. But I'm a left-brained geek who likes numbers, so I planted some reference sticks next to a young Zephyr on Saturday, August 4 and checked it four days later on August 8. It had just about doubled in length and more than tripled in girth, well on its way to blimpness. That's how fast a summer squash can grow. I picked it immediately before it could scare any dogs or small children.

Onions can walk...?!? Whaaaaat!?!

Another very interesting plant that I want to recommend that we grow next season is the Egyptian Walking Onion.  They are also commonly called tree onions, top onions, or topsetting onions (Allium cepa var. proliferum ).

A field of Walking Onions 


Bulblets forming at the tops of the stems

This hardy perennial onion, unlike most other types of alliums, grows bulblets (small bulbs) at the tops of its leaves.  These bulblets can be eaten (they're very mild), or they can be planted just like onion sets to produce more walking onions.  The term "walking" refers to the fact that if the bulblets are left on the plant, they eventually get big and heavy enough to cause the stems to bend to the point where the bulblets come into contact with the soil, at which point the bulblets take root and start new plants.  Thus, these alliums can "walk" their way across your garden (if you let them).

For more on this amazing and alluring allium:





More on fermenting

Just like my Sue, my sister of the soil, I've just made my first-ever batch of sauerkraut, which spent four days on the counter before moving to the well-known "cool, dry place," which in my house is the fridge. Its base was Napa cabbage from the garden, and the secondary ingredients included both carrot and parsnip from the same source.

Honestly, I don't really like sauerkraut — it's "sauer!" — but I had my reasons to try it. First, is the locavore reason — what good is a bumper crop if your only choices are to give it to the neighbors or put it into the compost? 

Secondly, I was writing a story about natural fermentation, the centuries-old method of food preservation, for the Boston Globe, and wanted to have a feel for what I was talking about. It's one of the privileges of journalism, to learn and experience more than I would if I didn't have a need to know.

Anyway, the story was published this morning. Though it didn't make the print version, the online presentation includes a tips box from Dan Rosenberg, founder and co-owner of Real Pickles, a Greenfield, Mass., company makes about a dozen products using only local produce and natural fermentation.

If remember to, I'm going to bring my kraut to the garden Saturday morning for a tasting. C'mon by!


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