GOOD FUNGI AND BAD INSECTS

Fungi I Like and Bean & Japanese Beetles (Don’t Like)

Where once scorned or appreciated only after being sautéed in butter, fungi have finally come into their own. If you’re among those who isn’t awed by fungi except when they’re sautéed, swallow this: each gram of soil (the weight of a paper clip) might house over a million fungi, or anywhere from 10 to 100 pounds of them in the top 6 inches of a 1000 square feet of soil. And most of what they do — for plants and soil, forget about your taste buds for now — is beneficial.

I recently heard of a project using fungi as a building material. On exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s PS1 in New York City is Hy-Fi, a cylindrical tower built our of bricks made from fungi that have been fed cornstalks, the fungi’s fine, thread-like hyphae growing to create dense bricks. An organically grown building! Among the benefits touted were that a building made of fungi could be recycled.

I’m not so sure that a building that can be recycled is a good thing, but one statement by the architect did raise my hackles: that the building could be made of waste materials, such as cornstalks. The same argument could be or has been used for ethanol production, which could be made from the same waste material.

Corn stalks might be waste material in the sense that we don’t eat them, perhaps not even always feed them to animals. But corn stalks, wheat straw, and other so-called “waste materials,” as the architect perhaps inadvertently pointed out, are a gourmet delight for fungi. Also good food for bacteria (3 million to 500 million per gram of soil), actinomycetes (1 million to 20 million per gram of soil), as well as protozoa, nematodes, and other soil creatures. And don’t forget about earthworms (2 to 22 pounds per 1000 square feet of ground). There’s a lot of hungry creatures down there.

So these materials are not waste; they are food for soil life. They are what put the “organic” in organic gardening and farming. (They are “organic” in the sense that they were once living, and that they contain carbon compounds, mostly combined with hydrogen and oxygen.) They confer a range of physical, nutritional, and biological benefits to soil, plants, and, hence the animals, including humans, that feed on them. Depriving the soil of these organic materials is what led, in part, to the dust bowls of the 1930s.

Corn stalks as well as other organic materials too often considered as waste should be returned to the soil, either directly or after being first run through a compost pile. One measure of soil quality is the amount of organic material it contains. 

Waiting Out Japanese Beetles

Japanese beetles have not come into their own; they have never been and continue to NOT be appreciated. The swarmed in a few weeks ago to make lace of the foliage of a whole host of plants. Grapes are among their favorites, evident by merely looking out on the landscape and picking out the hole-y grape leaves. (The leaf veins typically remain intact.) Although roses are also a reputed favorite, the beetles left mine unscathed. 

Kiwi foliage made lacy by Japanese beetles

Japanese beetles made lacework of just this hardy kiwi’s foliage

Most interesting is the beetle’s effect on my hardy kiwifruits, specifically the super-hardy sorts (Actinidia kolomikta). I have four plants, 3 females — Krupnoplodnaya,  Aromatanya, and Sentayabraskaya — and one male. Of all those plants, only the Sentayabraskaya plant was attractive to the Japanese beetles, dramatically so. Looking up, I can see sky through almost every leaf.Japanese beetles ravage just one hardy kiwi plants.

Japanese beetles are hard to keep in check. For a few plants, hand picking into a can of soapy water (the soap so they don’t just fly out after a quick bath) is effective. The biological insecticide milky spore disease, applied to lawns to kill the grub stage in the soil, is sometimes effective, especially in more southerly locations. Of course, beetles emerging from the soil in summer can fly, so milky spore is useless unless done on a neighborhood scale. Neem is a relatively benign repellant and insecticide that’s somewhat effective sometimes; it would require too much spraying, especially for something with such an iffy effect.

So I just wait the beetles out. Plants can tolerate a certain amount of damage and the beetles typically wave goodbye to go burrow into the soil and lay eggs sometime in August. The wait was especially short this year, with most of the beetles departing by the third week in July. Thank you guys, and gals.

And Where Did Mexican Bean Beetles Go?

A Mexican bean beetle threesome

A Mexican bean beetle threesome

Other pests also come and go. Mexican bean beetles, mentioned last week, still are keeping to themselves, wherever that might be but not in my garden. Tomato hornworms, which are large caterpillars with voracious
appetites, stripping leaves from tomato plants in the matter of hours, turned up in a friend’s garden. Fortunately, piggybacking those beetles were what looked like grains of rice. They’re actually cocoons of a braconid wasp, which will kill the hornworm. Leaving parasitized beetles alone lets the parasite live to attack more hornworms.

Rice-like granules attached to tomato hornworm are parasites

Parasite attacks tomato hornworm; winner: parasite.

Also worth ignoring are the pimples that have been appearing on leaves of many pin oaks. Those pimples — hemispheres about 1/2” across — are galls. Plant galls are abnormal growth made in response to an irritant such as a bacteria, a fungus, or, most commonly, an insect. A few galls here and there rarely do a plant harm.

Oak galls decorate pin oak leaves.Those oak leaf galls are pocking almost all the leaves on my pin oak. Still, I’ll ignore them or admire them; they sort of liven up the look of the tree. It’s too late, anyway, to do anything about them.

Farmden Health Club & Basil

Rei-King, an Ancient Exercise?

Among the many benefits of gardening is the opportunity it offers for enjoyable, productive exercise in the great outdoors. And now we can add an exercise called rei-king to boot camp, pilates, zumba, kick boxing, cardiofunk, and other ways modern humans build and maintain sleek, fit bodies. Or so I told my wife, Deb.

Deb rakes mown hay.

Rei-King by Deborah as Sammy looks on.

As with some of those other exercise routines, equipment is needed, simple equipment in the case of rei-king. Basically, the equipment is a pole, perpendicular to and at the end of which is a length of wood or metal, attached in its middle to the pole. From the lower side of the length of wood or metal are teeth, each a couple of inches apart and a couple of inches long.

Now for the exercise. You lift the pole just enough to bring the head off the ground, reach forward, and pull it towards you. For balanced exercise, it’s advised to occasionally switch which arm is most forward.

Resistance is the way to build up muscle and endurance. That resistance comes in the form of friction from material lying on the ground. This time of year, that material might conveniently be mown long grass or hay.

And Sie-Thing

I sometimes practice rei-king; more often I choose another exercise that complements Deb’s rei-king. I practice sie-thing (pronounced “sigh-thing”).

Like rei-king, sie-thing entails using one piece of equipment, a sie. The sie also has a single pole, in this case with two handles attached, one at the upper end and one about halfway down. A metal weight is attached at the bottom of the sie. The metal is a couple of feet long, curved, and sharpened on its inside edge. Muscle tone and strength is created by putting the left hand on the upper handle, the right hand on the lower handle, flexing the spine to the right and then unwinding it to the left while trailing the metal weight just above ground level.

Scything the meadow.

Here I practice the ancient art of Sie-Thing.

Again, sei-thing can be made more rigorous, in this case by passing the sharp metal through tall grass or meadow plants. The taller the plants, the denser the plants, and the older plants, the more the resistance.

A side benefit of all this sie-thing is that grass or meadow plants get mown during the exercise. The fallen material drops right in place, providing an opportunity — for me or, more usually, Deb — to then practice rei-king.

By the way, either exercise is most enjoyable early in the morning. At that time, plants are turgid so the sharpened metal of the sie pops plant cells as it is drawn along. And the fallen plants, best for rei-king after lying on the ground a day or two to wilt, cling together nicely when  heavy with dew. The cool morning air is also conducive to exercise.

Basil for Winter?

Many years ago I grew the few varieties of basil that were available and then wrote about them. My conclusion, at the time, was that taste differences between the varieties were minor, so the choice of what to grow should perhaps be on the fun of saying their names, which put Genova Profumatissima, Syracusa, and Fino Verde Compatto at the top of the list. What fun to wave my arms and speak their names!

Or, a variety could be chosen for the size or color of its leaf, whether for decoration or culinary use. “Spicy Globe basil, planted close together, makes soft, green mounds resembling a miniature boxwood hedge,” I wrote. Now we have yet another decorative form: Bonsai Basil.Bonsai basil plants in pots.

To create a bonsai basil, a variety such as Spicy Globe — perfect, with its diminutive, closely spaced leaves — is grafted onto a special rootstock. That rootstock is another variety of basil, one chosen, in perfect world, to impart to the grafted plant vigor, disease resistance, and hardiness. Periodically shearing such a plant keeps up appearances even as it provides basil for flavoring. Over time, the trunk even turn woody.

Even better, carry on the fun and the flavor through winter. Basil is perennial in the tropics but generally does not fare well in the cool, dry air, and relatively dark conditions of a northern home in winter. All of which calls out for a vigorous, disease-resistant, hardy plant. A grafted basil. Grafted basil, even more than grafted tomatoes, are very much the new kid on the (grafted) block.

A few weeks ago I was given a couple of grafted bonsai basil plants and I’m planning to grow them as perennials. It turns out that my plants are on a rootstock called Nufar which is resistant to fusarium disease. My soil doesn’t harbor basil fusarium disease, so that rootstock is of no benefit in that department. Perhaps it will help get the plant through the long, dark winter indoors anyway.

New rootstocks that could impart vigor and hardiness to help get a bonsai basil through winter — indoors, of course, around here — are on the horizon.

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Ah, fusarium. Reminds me of last week’s patting myself on my back about my conquest of pea fusarium, which has plagued me for years. Well, between last week and this week, fusarium has again reared its ugly head and the vines have yellowed. I did get a decent crop, however. Looks like management rather than conquest will be the key to annual harvests of peas.

Peas Please Me

In some gardening circles, a gardener’s worth is measured by how well he or she grows peas: how soon the first pea gets to the table, the crop’s abundance, and, of course, the flavor.  Sad to say, I haven’t been able to grow peas well for about 10 years.

Pea pods on vinePeas require a humus-y, moisture retentive soil and early planting, all of which I provide. But about 10 years ago, just as the crop was coming on strong, vines began to turn yellow, leaves would flag, and plants would die. The probable cause was fusarium wilt disease (caused by Fusarium oxysporum). This soil-borne fungus invades plant roots and then clogs up the vascular system.

(You may have heard of fusarium wilt of tomatoes and other vegetables. Fear not spread of fusarium among these vegetables, because different vegetables have their own fusarium subspecies. Cucumbers have F. oxysporum f.sp. cucumerinum, canteloupes have F. oxysporum f.sp. cubense, and peas have F. oxysporum f.sp. pisi. How cozy.)

Fusarium wilt probably never made it past my garden gate. It was probably already in my soil at some low level. Over the years, I’m guessing that it built up to a critical mass and was inadvertently spread — by me — on trowels, boots, and tellising. Which leads to one way to keep the disease in check: Clean trowels before planting peas; clean hoes before hoeing peas; and clean or torch the chicken wire trellises and metal support posts that keep the vines off the ground.

Some pea varieties are resistant to fusarium disease. But there are a few races of the disease. A variety resistant to one race may be susceptible to another race. Planting a resistant variety one year did not ratchet up my “good gardener rating.” The plants succumbed to the disease as in other years, and understandably so since I did not know which fusarium race I was up against, and variety descriptions for wilt resistant peas don’t always specify to which wilt race the variety is resistant.

Fusarium conquered(?)

This year I’m back in the game again with peas — and an excellent harvest it is: abundant, early, and flavorful! (These are shelling peas, which take longer to mature than snap peas or snow peas, but also taste better even if they do need shelling.)

peas on trellis

One thing that I did this spring — the thing that I’m touting as responsible for my good crop — was to plant the pea seeds in my south vegetable garden, where I haven’t grown peas for the past 6 years. My wan efforts over the years have been plantings in my north vegetable garden, and they have been consistent failures.

F. oxysporum f.sp. pisi survives from year to year in the soil as spores, very hardy spores. So hardy that the recommendation is frequently made not plant peas again, ever again, in tainted soil. Other recommendations are to wait 5 or 10 years before replanting. In either case, of course, it’s necessary to be very careful about spreading the disease again on tools, boots, or trellises.

And again, the ideal would be to plant disease resistant varieties.

Good rotations

People sometimes ask me if I rotate my crops each year. Crop rotation does not involve twirling plants; it’s moving certain plants — be they in a botanical family or part eaten — to different parts of the garden each year.

Sammy, the pup, guarding garden beds

Sammy, the pup, guarding garden beds

In the case of plant families, it’s a way to reduce pest problems because family members may host the same pest (clubroot disease of broccoli, cabbage, turnips, and radishes, for example). A pest that overwinters in the ground will eventually starve if a suitable host is not on hand on which to feed. A pest that flies or that shoots spores far and wide can travel some distance to find a host, but that, fortunately, is beyond the capacity of many pests.

In the case of rotating by part eaten, such as leaf, fruit, or root, the idea is to balance nutrient uptake. Leafy vegetables are hungry for nitrogen, root vegetables for potassium, and fruiting vegetables for phosphorus.

It’s generally safe to rotate vegetables on a three year cycle. That is, not to return a vegetable in the same family or with the same part eaten to the same place sooner than within 3 years. Planting in beds makes this easy because once the garden is planned out, you just move the crop to the next bed, or two beds away for further distance, each year.

Garden bedsDo I rotate my crops? You betcha’. With peas, I’ll try the 3 year rotation in the south vegetable garden. And I’ll wait at least another 5 years before planting them again in the north vegetable garden, then giving the south garden a “rest” from them. It’s good to again be unzipping green pods and scooping out the sweet peas within.

SALAD TUNNELS & COLDFRAMES, AND INDOOR “PINE”

Cold has yet to throw a wrench into salads fresh from the garden — even though December 16th saw a night-time low of 12°F. Yes, the lettuce would be mush if unprotected but under the sheltering clear plastic and wooden sides of my 5 foot square cold frame, the plants are barely scathed. Just a few leaves wilted at their edges. Spinach that I sowed between the lettuce plants, for harvest after the lettuce is finished is still looking spry.
Plastic tunnels supported by wire hoops are offering almost as much cold protection over 3 garden beds. Beneath them, mustard greens, endive, and arugula don’t exactly thrive, but do survive.
A few fresh greens are even surviving out in the garden without any sort of protection whatsoever. That would include some arugula that was never covered as well as kale, what’s left of it, and mâche, the most cold-hardy of all salad greens.
Once temperatures plummet or the ground is blanketed with snow, fresh salads will come from the greenhouse, which, with night temperatures never allowed to drop below 37°F., is packed with lush greenery as if it were May.
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Update: Lettuce in the cold frame is flagging after a night-time low of 8° a few days after that 12° low. Unprotected out in the garden, only mâche and kale survive.
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The holiday tree, only a half a foot tall and ornamented with 3 silver balls, is cute as a button. It’s a Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), a free gift I received a couple of weeks ago from a mail-order nursery. This tree will green up the darkest days of the year for year after year because it’s a tropical species that does well in the eternal warmth and somewhat dry air, in winter at least, of any home.
Over the years, the tree will lose its impishness and develop a straight, upright trunk off of which will grow relatively widely spaced, whorled tiers of horizontal branches, all clothed in green needles. With age, the plant becomes quite majestic. Too majestic, in fact, for any home. I have seen the spreading branches of this tree towering 40 feet or more over the tiled roofs of homes in tropical climates.
So what’s a gardener to do with such a plant, after years of nurturing it and watching it grow? One option, of course, is to bite the bullet and walk it over to the compost pile. Or it could be gifted to a friend with a higher ceiling, but that just shifts responsibility and puts off the inevitable. How about giving it to grandma for her front lawn in Florida?
A natural inclination for any real gardener in this situation would be to try to keep the plant going, not as its original self but in the form of a cutting. The rooted cutting, then, is genetically the same as the original plant, only a smaller version. Norfolk Island pine does root from cuttings especially, as with many conifers, if the cuttings are taken from young growth.
This plan has one problem: fixed plagiotropism. This botanical mouthful signifies the tendency for a horizontal shoot of certain plants to always retain its horizontal growth habit. Put more simply, if a cutting is rooted from one of Norfolk Island pine’s horizontal stems, that stem will always grow sideways to creep along a windowsill or wherever else the plant is growing. 
The solution to this problem is to take a cutting from the leading, upright stem. It the mother plant isn’t destined for composting, though, cutting out that leading stem does ruin its form. Also, because young cuttings root best, you might end up with only one cutting, perhaps two, from that short length of young, leading stem. Not much insurance for a plant that doesn’t root all that easily.
The leading, upright stem, of a plant can have the opposite inclination: fixed orthotropism, a permanent, upright growth habit. With other plants, their plagiotropism or orthotropism may be temporary.
Not so for Norfolk Island pine’s plagiotropism. I’ll figure out how to cross that plagiotropic bridge, or not, when I come to it.
(For further discussion of topophysis, which encompasses plagiotropism an orthotropism, and related topics on plant growth, see Plant Form: An Illustrated Guide to Flowering Plant Morphology by Adrian Bell and Alan Bryan.)