Tomato Roulette – August Update

My tomatoes are coming in – I have had at least one from every variety I planted, except the Brandywine, which is always late and therefore not my favorite.

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Tomato log – notes on flavor and production
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Tomato records – variety, harvest date and number, size

I already love the 4 of July variety. While they are small – between the size of a golf ball and a billiard ball – they were indeed early and have a nice flavor, a bit acidic, with a good skin – not too fragile or tough.

The loser far is the so-called “Better Boy” which has produced few fruit, and most of them are malformed, like this one:

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I have no problem with ugly produce, but I do want some normal tomatoes too. The plant only has a few other fruit on it. They taste OK – nothing special. Definitely won’t plant this again. Better Boy, my butt!

The king tomato was Big Beef – almost a one-pound fruit so far and several more on the vine:

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The other two varieties – Big Boy and Brandy Boy – also were very good. They were pretty similar really – in a taste test Brandy Boy seemed a bit sweeter, with the delicate skin of a Brandywine. We’ll see what else we get for the season.

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Damn You, Aphids!

When you’re a gardener, you stop and smell the roses. All the time. And all the other flowers, too. I mean, you plant them to bring you joy, right?

So it feels like someone’s stabbing me with a knife, when I peruse my flowers one day and find this:

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A metric fuckton of aphids.
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Sucking the life out of this heliopsis

I don’t begrudge a few aphids to a few bits of my garden. The birds, ladybugs and ants often take care of them anyway, and their damage won’t kill a plant most of the time. I usually let them be, or I pick off a few infested leaves by hand and throw them away. But this was a serious infestation, that left several heliopsis plants wilty and in peril. Time to take action.

If you Google “how to get rid of aphids,” you will get a lot of advice. Here’s what I tried and how well each approach worked:

  1. Spray them off with water. This is the #1 recommendation. “Just fit your garden hose with a high-pressure stream of water and spray away,” I was told. “Most aphids can’t fly, and they are too small and weak to climb back up on the plant. If they don’t die from being blasted off the plant, they’ll die of starvation.” Sounded good to me. I blasted the plants with water thoroughly, taking care to also hit the undersides of the leaves, where the little suckers congregate. I noted, with satisfaction, thousands of aphid corpses on the ground. The next day, a conga line of red aphids covered the stems again. THIS METHOD DOES NOT WORK. Maybe for a few aphids, it would do the trick, but it does nothing to stop a major infestation.
  2. Spray a solution of water and dish soap. This #2 recommendation assured me that the soap would kill the aphids by suffocating them, yet it would not harm the plants or the bees. I mixed a solution of water and dish soap in a squirt bottle and sprayed away, again with special attention to the undersides of leaves. I noted with satisfaction many aphid corpses on the plant a few hours later. I also noted with agitation many alive aphids. I sprayed again. And again. I tried adding garlic and cayenne pepper to the mix. Still no dice. I’d kill some aphids, but more would appear, and some seemed temporarily stunned but not dead. THIS METHOD DOES NOT WORK EITHER.
  3. Rely on natural aphid predators. Many experts advise releasing ladybugs into your garden to watch nature at work. When I first noticed the aphids, I also noticed several ladybugs feasting on them. When I tried remedies #1 and #2, I shooed away the ladybugs so they wouldn’t suffer collateral damage. They did their part, but we’re talking tens of thousands of aphids vs. a few dozen ladybugs. How many aphids can a ladybug eat in a day? 50 or so, I read. How nice. Maybe I could try this sometime, before an infestation gets out of control, but I am not going to pay $30 and wait a week to get mail-order ladybugs when things are this bad. JURY’S OUT, BUT I AM MOVING ON.
  4. Live and let live. I found some gardeners who noted that there’s always an “aphid season” and if you just wait it out, the aphids go away on their own. SORRY, NOT HAPPENING.
  5. The best defense is a good offense. Aphids prey on weak plants and won’t attack healthy plants, I was told. To put it another way, if you have aphids, it’s your own fault. Accept the consequences and take better care of your garden. This seems unfair to me. These plants have been well-tended, fertilized and watered. SCREW YOU.
  6. Use an insecticide. No one but the insecticide makers recommend this. The gardening world is full of people who will tell you that some combination of remedies #1 through #5 will solve the problem. Maybe with a mild outbreak, sure, but with a full-scale infestation on my hands, I opted next for the nuclear option. I cut off all the flowers so that no bees would come by. Then I mixed up some concentrated pyrethrin spray, donned a mask and gloves, and let loose. Two quarts of spray later, I had a full-scale aphid massacre on my hands. I declared victory. The next day, I noted a few live aphids, but not many. I figured the insecticide residue would get them. It didn’t. It rained. The next day, a few more appeared. I squished them with my bare hands. I got the insecticide on my skin and enjoyed a numb sensation for a few hours. I marveled that the insecticide affected me – a 155-pound mammal – while teeny aphids lived on. A week later, the infestation was as bad as ever. INSECTICIDES ALONE DO NOT WORK.
  7. Scorched earth. At this point, I was beyond angry. I decided to literally cut the aphids off in their tracks. The plants would die – or at least be very sickly – anyway, and the aphids would spread elsewhere, so I might as well go scorched earth on their asses. The aphids clustered on the soft new growth while leaving the tougher old woody growth alone. I pruned the plants back to the woody growth, taking most of the new growth and all the flowers with it. I also weeded all around the base of the plant. Here’s what I had at the end of the job:
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Pruned back heliopsis, next to one not pruned but infested.

I had a nice paper sack of aphids after that. Some managed to escape the bag, only to die on the curb. Ha ha.

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Sack o’ aphids

I sprayed more pyrethrin to kill off any stragglers.

Three weeks later, behold:

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VICTORY!

I still see a few aphids, and a few ladybugs, so I figure things are in balance, finally.

So, what REALLY works? Simply this – removing the aphids – physically – from the plant. Cut them off. Spray a little too, just in case. A healthy plant will grow back. You may lose a few flowers or fruits, but you will not lose your mind.

Tomato Roulette

Gardeners in New England tend to judge our short growing season by one crop: tomatoes. It was “a good year,” “a bad year” or an “OK year.” Sure, the cucumbers might delight for months and the blueberries, packed in the freezer, might get you through the winter, but nothing beats a juicy summer tomato, fresh off the vine and warm from the sun.

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Tomatoes, settling in for a summer of growing

The past few years have been blah for tomatoes. I think the soil in my raised beds was to blame. Even though I rotate the tomato crop between two beds and liberally supplement the soil with my own compost, raised-bed soil loses its oomph after a while. So this year, I’m trying four strategies:

  1. Replace about half of the soil. I had several yards of clean, screened topsoil dug in with the old soil. The result was a richer soil, but the screened stuff got mixed in with the actual ground soil, full of small rocks that have irked New England gardeners since Colonial times. So I will need to rescreen next year. It’s fine for this year.
  2. Plant further apart. I’ve tended to overbuy tomato plants because of all the fascinating varieties you can get nowadays. The plants tend to crowd one another by midsummer, and inevitably tomatoes rot on the vine because I can’t find them through the dense foliage. This year I followed the directive to plant each 2 feet away from the next.
  3. Skip most of the heirlooms. Many lesser-known tomato varieties provide fabulous flavor and gorgeous looks, but a paltry harvest, less disease resistance or other drawbacks. I have labored with these tomato varieties many times and have concluded that while they’re fun, they’re really not worth the trouble to invest in heavily. Hey – if you’ve got the time and patience, go for it. But I have wasted too much time and money on plants that succumb to disease and insects,  or that produce only a few tomatoes late in the season, to get excited anymore. For heirlooms, Brandywine is our favorite, so I planted a few.
  4. Try a test garden for commercial varieties. Many common varieties produce bushels of tomatoes, but they might not win beauty contests or pack as much flavor as heirlooms. I decided this year to try out several common commercial varieties, in search of two I can rely on year after year for volume with decent enough taste and reliability to be my “go-to” tomatoes. . I’m trying these:
    1. Big Boy – the granddaddy of big-ass backyard garden tomatoes
    2. Better Boy – a variety derived from Big Boy that produces more, but smaller, fruits with a slightly shorter growing season
    3. Brandy Boy  – a hybrid of Brandywine and the “boy” varieties
    4. Big Beef – Big Boy crossed with a traditional Beefsteak tomato
    5. Fourth of July – An early variety that produces loads of smaller fruits

Finally, I planted go-to cherry tomatoes, Super Sweet 100s, and tried a yellow cherry variety, just for fun.

Gratuitous Garden Photos

It’s rained so much in New England this spring that people are joking that it’s like “Old England.” I’m not complaining, especially when I see the results of this wet weather and milder temperatures.

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Perennials having their moment – with a weeping cherry and Japanese lilacs for company in the back
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More perennials – Shasta daisies, phlox, bee balm, coreopsis, veronica and red yarrow showing off.

This marks the second year for these perennial beds that line a walkway from the driveway to our back door. I am pleased with how it turned out, with a few issues. A few things didn’t make it over the winter, and a few things grew differently than my expectations.

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Coreopsis crowding out the veronica

When I bought the coreopsis and veronica plants, for some reason, I thought the veronica would be taller. Maybe it’s stunted from crowding or not enough sun. Anyway, it’s fun to see the purple spikes try to break through the sunny yellow coreopsis crowd. I’ll move them to the front of the bed in the fall.

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Phlox and red yarrow

Here’s another unusual color combo – pink phlox and red yarrow. I think the blue undertone of the phlox makes it work with the red. I also like the contrast in flower shape and structure. Even if it clashes, who cares?

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Poppies… you are getting sleepy…

The poppies have been gone by for a few weeks, but I couldn’t resist a photo anyway,

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Jake photobombing the roses

My roses really went to town. I didn’t get around to pruning them all – a few bushes to one side of the garden were left to their own devices. See what a difference pruning makes?

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Pruned roses
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Unpruned roses

Even my little yellow climbing rose is putting out.

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After years of frustration with this yellow climber, I decided to just let it do what it wants. It will never really climb onto the trellis. I will always need to tie it. Boo. Look at the flowers though!

Trees are also loving all the water. This redbud is a stunner:

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Eastern redbud with its variegated pink and green leaves

I have lots of peaches in my future:

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Elberta peach

And even my reluctant Cortland apple is putting out for a change.

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Cortland apple

And with some luck (and defense against birds) buckets of blueberries are in the future.

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Early Girl blueberries

I never water plants as much as I should. I mean, I will water annuals and my vegetables, and anything in pots or planters. But that’s it. I leave perennials, bushes and trees to their own devices. Seeing this year’s bounty makes me realize I ought to water everything more often, if Mother Nature hasn’t.

A Year in Review

I happy that I scored a few accomplishments in 2018 in my distaffian pursuits, besides sewing. In no particular order, here they are, plus some recommendations in case you’re interested in knowing more.

Survey Research and Statistics

survey

I enrolled in a graduate program in survey research. I took an intro to survey research class in the spring and a statistics class in the fall. I recommend that everyone gets to know a little about surveys – how they’re conducted, what a good one looks like, what a bad one looks like, how the math is done and how to interpret results.

There are so many surveys these days. I estimate I get a request to take a survey at least twice a week – mostly marketing and customer service surveys where companies want to know why I bought or  didn’t buy something or what my experience was like. Sometimes a pollster calls me for a public opinion survey or a political poll. I used to say “thanks but no thanks” to surveys, but after learning more about them, I participate more often.

A couple of takeaways:

  • People like to harp on surveys that are “wrong,” but they rarely are wrong. Most 2016 US presidential polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win by a slim margin. Most Brexit polls predicted the UK would vote to “remain,” by a slim margin. Those surveys were not wrong. A slim margin is still a margin – the margin represents the likelihood that the outcome would go the other way. It’s unlikely, but it does happen, as we know all too well.
  • Innumeracy is a problem. Many people do not understand simple statistics and random chance. For example, if you flip a coin, the chance it will be heads is 1 in 2 (expressed mathematically as 0.5). If you flip a coin twice, the chance it will be heads twice in a row is 1 in 4 (0.5 times 0.5 = 0.25), but the chance is will land heads on each individual flip is still 1 in 2. The odds reset with each flip of the coin. If you flip a coin 9 times and it comes up heads 9 times, what’s the chance it will be heads on the 10th flip? Still 1 in 2. Every slot machine ever was built on peoples’ inability to understand this.
  • All surveys contain some kind of bias, no matter how well the pollster controls for it. For example, some respondents will modify their survey responses depending on the gender or race of the person asking the question. Some people will misunderstand a question. Maybe a question is poorly worded. The person asking the questions may not be clear or understand a response. Many other things can go wrong.
  • Survey fatigue is a problem. As more and more surveys are conducted, respondents are getting better and better at evading them. This makes it harder to get a decent response rate, which increases the cost and time it takes to do a solid survey. The old random-digit telephone dialing methodology doesn’t work well when so many people have cut the cord, and most young people have never had a land line at all. New technologies are needed to combat this.
  • Internet polls are useless. Seriously, don’t ever pay attention to what an Internet survey says.

These two college textbooks were pretty well written and approachable:

Elementary Statistics in Social Research by Jack Levin et al.

Survey Methodology by Robert Groves et al.

Also, the statistics posts on DrMath.com and the LinkedIn courses by Eddie Davila are good.

Easy-Does-It Gardening

I finished my perennial beds this year. A few things didn’t do so well, but all in all, I am happy with how this turned out. I am glad I spent the money to have the old bed dug up and new beds created.

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New perennial beds

I have learned the hard way not to engineer a perennial bed that closely. Maybe some gardeners are OK with fussing over everything, but I lack the money, time and energy for any high-maintenance plants. They have to grow with little love or supervision, or they’ll take their chances. That means no delphinium, which need constant fertilizer, or Asian lilies, which get eaten by bugs.

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Asters (blue) and false sunflower (yellow)

I didn’t design these beds but instead adapted a sample bed design from the book “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch. Not all of the plants were available in the varieties and colors the book suggested, but I was able to find decent substitutes. A friend gave me this book years ago. There’s a new edition out that has updated recommendations for plant varieties.

I’ll revisit the plan in the spring, as some plants likely won’t survive the winter. I wanted some white phlox, but I couldn’t find any – will seek again in the spring. Also, I think the design overall has a few too many “daisy” shaped flowers – I’d like more shape variety.

The vegetable garden turned out pretty well, considering the soil in my raised beds needs replacing. I augmented it heavily with compost – bought some in addition to what I made. As usual, I planted too many tomatoes.

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There is such a thing as too many tomatoes

And I really messed up with the seedlings I bought from a roadside stand. I will always go to a reputable garden center from now on.

Modular Cooking

In 2018 I discovered the joys of modular cooking. In brief, my husband and I cook and prepare a variety of proteins, veggies, starches, salads and soups that can mix and match into meals.

For example, in the summer I do every week a big mixed grill of vegetables, and in the winter I do a big pan of roasted mixed vegetables. The mixes are seasonal and vary a bit week to week.

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Mixed grill of summer vegetables

This mix above has bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and yellow squash. Alongside this grill wok we cooked several chicken breasts and a few ears of corn. We get these meals out of it:

Meal 1: Chicken and veggies with corn on the cob

Meal 2: Chicken fajitas with the veggies, plus salsa and tortillas, with corn salad on the side

Meal 3: Pasta primavera with the veggies and the last of the chicken, plus some Parmesan cheese and a tossed salad on the side

Meal 4: Omelets with the last of the veggies, plus cheese, bread and salad

Winter takes on this concept start like this, with a whole roasted chicken and roasted root vegetables.

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Modular cooking in fall and winter

Dinner 1: Roasted chicken with sweet potatoes and roasted carrots and parsnips

Dinner 2: Chicken pot pie with some of the leftover chicken and roasted vegetables, plus a gravy and a pastry crust

Dinner 3: Stuffed sweet potatoes with leftover chicken, plus some nuts and dried fruit

Dinner 4: Chicken noodle soup, with broth made from the chicken carcass, plus pasta and the rest of the roasted veggies

This method of cooking is a revelation for me. For this to work, you have to be OK with leftovers, admittedly. Often as the week goes on, the more flavorful dishes appear. Hot sauce is my new best friend.

 

Garden Fail

We had a cold spring, and I was on vacation during prime spring planting season. So those are my excuses for why my vegetable garden looks like crap this year.

I usually buy seedlings at a suburban nursery about 1 hour roundtrip from my house. This year, already behind and short on time, I bought my seedlings from a pop-up store along the roadside.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Red bell pepper, Italian frying pepper, same thing, right?

This plant was marked as broccoli. It’s kale. And not the good kind of kale that makes a nice salad. This is the tough stuff that requires a half-hour in a pressure cooker to be edible.

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Also, because I was so late in planting, a few volunteers got started without me. I figured what they hey – fewer plants to buy.

I thought this was a cucumber plant, based on the leaves. It finally revealed itself this week as a butternut squash.

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Another plant with cucumber-vineish leaves turned out to be what I thought was a cantaloupe. We ended up calling it a “cantanope.” As in, is “It a cantaloupe? Nope!”

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It looks like a cantaloupe on the outside, looks like a honeydew on the inside, and has absolutely no flavor. I had to bust some myths – there’s no such thing as a canta-cumber, for one. And yes, it was “ripe.” It must have crossed with a honeydew, although I can’t imagine how as I have never planted one.

Finally, one volunteer did good. A cherry tomato, of course.

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Sometimes I think I should just plant cukes, cherry tomatoes and lettuce and be done with it.

Well, at least there’s a farmer’s market in the park on Sundays.