Happy “Nose Twist,” Sad Tomatoes

Nasturtium In Its Element

It’s nice to see that at least someone or thing enjoys the current cool, wet weather. My eight ducks, for instance. As I open the door to “duckingham palace,” each duck pads out onto the slurpy ground as happy as a lark (a lark on a sunny day, I assume). DucksAlso enjoying this awful weather are the oat cover crops that I’ve sown in some of my vegetable beds. The oats are especially lush and green, as is your and my lawn grass. The same goes for beds I recently planted with lettuce, radishes, arugula, turnips and other cool weather vegetables.

Nasturtium flowers, which I planted back in May, went hardly noticed all season long. But now they are lush, their red flowers boldly staring out against the background of their round disks of bluish green leaves.

The plants’ present prominence comes, first, from the weather. Native from the cool highlands of Mexico down into Chile and Argentina, the plants feel right at home, and show it with their luxuriant growth, when I’m beginning to feel chilly. They also have come into prominence because some of their neighboring plants — marigolds, cucumbers, and tomatoes, for example — are waning.

Nasturtium offers a lot of bang for the buck, so for many years, each May, I’ve dropped the seeds into holes I poke into the ground. Mostly I plant them near my garden gates but also, some years, along the wide, main path at the head of each of the vegetable beds. The latter planting was an emulation of painter Claude Monet’s well-known nasturtium plantings that softened the wide path beneath his long arbor. The plant isn’t really a climber, but may be called a clamberer; that’s how it makes its way partway up nearby gates and wire fences.Nasturtiums on post

Nasturtium seeds germinate readily once the soil warms sufficiently and then are care-free all summer long. The large size of the seeds and their quick germination make them fun for children to plant and watch.

Sometimes the plants are so care-free as to need some discipline. The ones I planted along my path required pruning to keep them from meeting in the middle and obliterating the path.

Nasturtium offers more than just beauty. All parts of the plant are edible. The leaves add a pungent pizazz to a sandwich, the flowers add pizazz and eye appeal to a salad. The immature seeds can be pickled as stand-ins for capers. One nasturtium species, called mashua in some parts of the world, is a perennial producing edible tubers. This one is an actual climber rather than a clamberer.

And Now, for Nose Twist

Nasturtium got its common name because of its similarity in taste to watercress, which is botanically Nasturtium officiale. The word “nasturtium” comes from the Latin words nasus, meaning “nose,” and torqueum, meaning “twist,” which is what the peppery flavor of watercress or nasturtium does.

Despite one plant sharing its common name with the botanical name of the other, nasturtium and watercress are not in the same family. They do, however, share certain flavor profiles (which is why both are nose twisters). So much so that the cabbage white butterfly will feed on nasturtium as well as its namesake, cabbage. But not with great enthusiasm. The caterpillar phase of the cabbage white butterfly will only feed on nasturtium if it did so from birth; try feeding it to the second or third instar of this insect, and it would rather starve, literally!

The genus for nasturtium is Tropaeolum, the “trop” part related to the word “trophy.” Founder of plant taxonomy, Carl von Linnaeus, assigned this name because the clambering flowers and leaves reminded him of the helmets and shields of the vanquished which were draped on tree branches following battles in his day.

Tomatoes Exit

In contrast to the nasturtiums, my tomato plants are not at all happy with the weather now — or for much of this summer. Humid conditions have fostered diseases, the usual leaf spotting diseases (early blight, late blight, and septoria leaf spot) as well as anthracnose.Diseased tomatoes

Anthracnose is particularly vexing because apparently sound tomatoes develop the sunken, rotting lesions from this disease after only a day or so on the kitchen counter.

A thorough cleanup of all tomato leaves, stems, and fruits, covering the ground with compost, and moving tomato plantings to new locations should help limit disease next year. Also, wearing red shoes and clicking my heals together three times before planting might help.

The passing of tomatoes isn’t all that bad because they don’t taste that good in this weather. And we do have a reasonable amount broadcasting their richness through the sparkling clear glass of canning jars.


Finish Squash

    “Zucchini bread is for people who don’t have compost piles.” That’s what I told Deb after she suggested, first ratatouille, and then zucchini bread, as vehicles for our excess zucchini.
    Most years I make an early, too large planting of zucchini (about 6 plants), and then, six to eight weeks later, make another sowing of only a couple of plants. The first planting puts enough zucchinis into the freezer for winter, as well as leaving enough for eating. The second planting is to yield an occasional zucchini for fresh eating through summer after plants of that initial planting have succumbed to squash vine borer, cucumber beetles, bacterial wilt, and any of the other maladies that usually do in the plants a few weeks after they begin bearing. Usually and thankfully do in the plants. But not this year.
    Almost every time I check that early planting of zucchini, a new fruit has swelled at the end of a vine now trailing beyond its bed beneath stalks of popcorn in an adjacent bed. I feel no obligation to eat zucchini, whether in zucchini bread, ratatouille, or any other concoction.

Where Are the Insects?

    In all my decades of gardening, I’ve never experienced a season with so few insect pests. A few Japanese beetles reared their ugly heads back in July; they were the only ones who showed up, except for an occasional straggler. Likewise for bean beetles. Eggplants hosted the few requisite flea beetles, but never enough for concern. (I did spray a few times with horticultural oil; judging from other gardeners’ flea beetle-less experiences this year, doubt that the effect was from the oil.)
    Cabbageworms, always requiring some late summer action on my part in the past in the form of one or two sprays of the biological insecticide Bacillus thurengiensis, have let me occupy that time with other things.
    Spotted wing drosophila, known non-affectionately as SWD, showed up, as usual, in sufficient numbers in early August to warrant a spray of spinosad, an extract from a naturally-occuring bacteria found in the soil of a defunct rum factory in the Virgin Islands. That one spray, along with some experimental traps from Cornell, was sufficient to keep the buggers from using my blueberries as nurseries in which to raise their young.
    As is so often the case with complex systems, in this case involving the vagaries of this season’s weather, the biology and the chemical and physical make-up of the soil, interactions between garden plants as well as between garden plants and weeds, timing of plantings . . .  what I’m trying to say is that I have no idea why the year was so auspicious, as far as insects.

Here Are the Diseases

    That was insects. Diseases are another story. Don’t look at my tomato plants.
    The tomato plants started the season neatly and decoratively trained as single stems up bamboo poles, soon clothing those poles in lush, green leaves and red or orange tomatoes. Now? Stems are pretty much bare from ground level up a couple of feet, with some shriveled, brown remnants of leaves dangling downwards. The disease is not fusarium or verticillium, to which so many modern tomato varieties are touted for being resistant.Diseased tomato plants
    The affliction is leaf spot disease, which is actually one or more of three diseases: early blight, septoria leaf spot, and/or late blight. The worst of the three is late blight, which makes us gardeners and farmers especially nervous after a severe outbreak ravaged a large swath of the Northeast a few years ago. Air currents and humidity have not been favorable this year for late blight to hitchhike up from the South, where it overwinters, and any that might have reached here couldn’t get footholds with this season’s hot, dry weather.
    Thorough cleanup of old leaves and stems, which house early blight and septoria leaf spot through the winter, and planting tomatoes where they haven’t been plant for the previous two years, was supposed to keep these diseases in check. Perhaps it did, but not enough.
    I have two vegetable gardens, and next year I’ll plant tomatoes in the one that housed no tomatoes for the past couple of years, putting more distance between overwintering disease spores and my plants. Clean up and distance should also quell one other disease, anthracnose, responsible for sunken, rotting areas that develop on some of the fruits.
    Diseases notwithstanding, plenty of glass jars filled either with sparkling red, canned tomatoes and dull red, dried tomatoes line shelves to bring some essence of summer into through the dark months ahead.

Pepper Heaven

    Tomatoes may be the essence of summer for their ubiquity in gardens; for me, though, ripe, red peppers more represent a summery flavor. My peppers rarely experience insect or disease problems. The challenge, this far north, is ripe, red peppers in abundance.

Italian Sweet peppers

Italian Sweet peppers

    My favorite variety for flavor, earliness, and productivity, especially this far north, is Italian Sweet. I put in many plants this past spring, and the harvest is prolific.
    Unfortunately, dried or frozen peppers offer only wan hints of the fresh peppers’ summery flavor and texture.