For anyone who missed my recent 90 minute webinar on GOURMET COMPOST, the webinar has been recorded and is available for $35 on-demand from Oct. 1st, 2020 until Oct. 8th for $35. The webinar covers options for compost bins, feeding your compost “pets, monitoring progress, what can go wrong and how to right it, when is compost “finished,” and making the best use of your compost. Click below to pay almost by any of a number of ways. Thank you.

Putting Summer in Jars

I’m hunkering down for winter, which includes capturing what I can of summer’s bounty in jars and dried and frozen garden produce. With this year’s hot, sunny weather, tomato plants yielded plenty of fruit — until cut short with a few nights of freezing temperatures about a week ago. Still, I have over two dozen shiny quart jars lined up on a shelf in the basement.

This year, San Marzano, which I (and most of Italy, where San Marzano canned tomatoes are labeled as such) consider to be the best-tasting canned tomato, got segregated into a number of jars all by itself. Other pluses for San Marzano is that it’s an heirloom variety, so I can save my own seed from ripe fruits, and it bears heavily over a long season on healthy, stocky vines.

A past neighbor of mine used to begin his process of canning tomatoes by alternating layers of tomatoes with salt in tall, half-bushel baskets. Other gardeners begin by peeling, perhaps seeding, their tomatoes.

Me? I opt for the quickest method possible, which is: Cut off any bad spots and drop the tomatoes into a large pot with just a half inch of water in the bottom. After being brought to a boil, the tomatoes get simmered until the volume is reduced by one-half, with less reduction for San Marzano’s because of their low water content. Then, a thorough blending with an immersion blender.

New guidelines call for keeping the acidity of canned tomatoes below pH 4.6 to prevent growth of Clostridium botulinum, aka botulis bacteria, by adding 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid per quart. This is because of lower acidity of some modern tomatoes. I do so just to make sure even though my tomatoes’ acidity measured below 4.6. Finally, the canning jars go into the pressure canner for processing for 10 minutes at 15 pounds pressure.

I figure that I can chop up and sprinkle in any flavorings for sauces or soups later, in winter, when I have more time and I know the jar’s end use.

(House) Plants on the Move

I’m a little late this year in readying my houseplants for winter. I know from seasons past that when they come indoors, so do occasional pests. The pests that are most troublesome, the only ones about which I need to do something, are scale insects.

Scale insects aren’t always in evidence now but I know they are there on my citrus, bay laurel, orchid, and staghorn fern plants. By early winter, the pest becomes more obvious as occasional, small brown nodules on stems and leaves. That’s the protective “scale,” beneath which the scale insect is happily sucking away plant sap. 

Scale insects have never killed my plants but do weaken them and – perhaps worse – exude a sugary “honeydew” as they suck sap. This sticky honeydew gets all over floors, furniture, or whatever is beneath the plant. And then a fungus arrives to feed on that honeydew, giving leaves a dark, smoky, haze.

Hard-shell scale on staghorn fern

Hard-shell scale on staghorn fern

My tack for scale insects is to line susceptible plants up in my driveway, then spray them with some relatively benign insecticide such as Ced-o-flora, horticultural oil, neem oil, or pyganic. I’ve been doing that for the past few weeks in an effort to get the young scales before they find shelter beneath their protective shells.

With the last spray finished, in come all my houseplants. Windows are still open at least some days so indoor air is not too different from outdoor air, easing the environmental transition for the plants.

Squirreling Away

Black walnuts are one of my favorite nuts and they’re conveniently abundant and free for the picking, at least around here. Perhaps too abundant. Once there are a couple trees, they beget more and more as squirrels start “planting” them everywhere. My vegetable garden, with it’s soft, rich soil is a favorite spot.

Admittedly, the nuts aren’s so convenient to eat. Their messy husks need to be removed. Then the nuts have to be cured in a dry, cool or cold, squirrel-proof space until around New Year’s Day, And finally, the very tough nuts need cracking. I recommend the ‘Master Nut Cracker’, in my opinion the best nut cracker for those tough shells.

Last year black walnuts were raining down all over the place here and in town. This year, probably because of last year’s overabundance, the crop is light everywhere. How are the walnuts doing where you are?

I’m lucky. One tree here on the farmden that provided most of our nuts in years past, is bearing heavily. Up to a few years ago it was useless, bearing nuts whose innards were almost always spoiled or shriveled. That  might have been because of hurricane Irene back in 2011, when the nearby Wallkill River flooded its banks to wash over here and rise about four feet up that tree’s trunk.
black walnuts in jar
I cracked a few of the nuts this year to see how the nutmeats look. They’re well-filled and a nice, white color inside. But not edible, as I wrote, until they’re cured. Until January, we can enjoy what’s left of last year’s nuts.

Battle for Figs: Victory

Some History

I don’t know the score over the years, but this year’s victory is mine. The battles have been with scale insects, both armored scales and their cousins, mealybugs (but rarely both in the same year), on my greenhouse fig plants.
Eating a fig
Those fig plants are planted in the ground in a minimally heated greenhouse, where winter temperatures can sink to about 35°F. The oldest of these plants have trunks 8 inches in diameter. They thrived for years without any pest problems, scale of otherwise. A few years ago, the insects made their appearance, sometimes ruining almost the whole crop.
Over the years I fought them in various ways. One year it was spraying the dormant plants with alcohol. Another year it was, more aggressively, scrubbing trunks and stems of dormant plants with a toothbrush dipped in alcohol. Ants herd and protect scale insects, so another year I fenced the ants off the plants with a band of masking tape coated with forever (almost) sticky Tangletrap around the trunk of each plant.

An expensive but short-lived success was the two releases of the predatory ladybird beetle Cryptolaemus montrouzieri and the parasitoid wasp Anagyrus pseudococci.

Mealybug destroyer

Mealybug destroyer

These biocontrol helpers ended up valuing each fig at about a dollar, still worth it. I screened all openings in the greenhouse, hoping to perennialize them inside. (It was not effective.)

Battle Plan, Done

So this year I tried a multipronged approach.

The biggest change was, rather than growing the figs as bushy trees, training them as espaliers. Espalier is the training of plants to an orderly, usually two-dimensional form both for beauty and, in the case of fruit plants, for good production of high quality fruit. For my figs, an additional benefit would be that each plant would only have one point of contact — its trunk — with the ground. IA band of masking tape coated with Tangletrap would be a roadblock on the ant highway. (Plus the look of the plants always elicits a “Wow” from visitors.)
Rabbi Samuel fig, espaliered in greenhouse
The fig plant growing near the greenhouse endwall has a short trunk that, after rising to about 18 inches from ground level, bifurcates into two, self-supporting horizontal arms extending parallel to the wall in opposite directions. At the head of each of the south beds, a fig tree is planted each of whose trunk is terminated by just a single, self-supporting, horizontal arm reaching down the bed to the sidewall. With just a trunk and one or two arms, thoroughly scrubbing down the dormant plant with alcohol is a relatively quick job. Quick enough to prevent 2 or 3 scrubbing before plants resume growth in early spring from becoming tedious.

Another nice feature of this training system is that pruning the plants at the end of the season is a no-brainer. Vertical shoots that rise up from the horizontal arms are thinned to keep neighboring shoots 8 inches apart and helped along in their vertical growth by being trained to pieces of bamboo attached to the greenhouse roof. (Yes, an ant could walk up the wall and across the roof of the greenhouse and then down the bamboo to get at the plants but they are either not that smart or energetic; it hasn’t happened.)
San Piero fig
A little later in the early part of the greenhouse growing season I gave the plants some dowsings with neem oil. I’m not sure how effective the neem component is but “horticultural oil” itself is effective in fighting off scale insects.

A ring of cinnamon around the base of each plant provided further disincentive to the ants, who will not cross a cinnamon line. The cinnamon and the Tangletrap did need renewal once per season.

As new fig shoots soared skyward near the greenhouse roof, I used a pole pruner to prune out the top of the growing shoot. Side branches, of course, then grew, and I periodically had to to hack them back also.

Uh Oh, But All Still Good

Everything was copacetic and we were harvesting figs, which formed along the vertical stems at the juncture of almost every leaf. Then, in late August I noticed some mealybugs on one plant. Time for Cryptolaemus montrouzieri again. I released them in early September and we were back in business, harvesting large handfuls of three different varieties of delciously sweet figs — San Piero, Brown Turkey, and Rabbi Samuel — daily.

And then, just today, I noticed armored scales on the plants, and a few ants! I’m not sure how the ants are getting onto the plants, but one possible “benefit” of the armored scales is hardly any mealybugs. Perhaps they can’t coexist.
Fig scale
All the measures I took against mealybugs should also be effective against the armored scales, except for the Cryptolaemus montrouzieri. Their predator Aphytis melinus, also known as the Golden Chalcid, has been effective against armored scales.

I’m not taking action. With less sunlight and cooler temperatures the figs trees have slowed down, running out of new stems on which to hang fruit. No matter; it’s been a good season of fresh figs.