My Garden is a Killing Field

11 May

I like to think I’m a good person. I try to be kind to children and small animals. And I kind of believe in karma.

It was therefore highly distressing when I saw bugs on one of my zucchini plants this morning. Lots of bugs. The bugs were gray and black and were actually kind of pretty (bugs don’t creep me out), but I suspected they weren’t a good sign. Sure enough, they are, appropriately named, squash bugs.

Apparently there is no viable organic option to getting rid of them other than picking them off and killing them by hand.

I discussed the problem with Michael. I really don’t like killing anything, even bugs. I’m the woman who carries out spiders by one leg and flings them out the back door without flinching.

Michael’s solution: put the bugs in a plastic container and carry them down the alley and let them go. (Don’t worry, no one else around here is crazy enough to try and garden in Texas.)

I liked his idea. Donning latex gloves, I carried my small, clear container to the garden. It was worse than I thought. The bugs were on both zucchini plants and on three acorn squash plants. Even worse, some of the leaves had squash bug eggs underneath.

Nature is cruel. I’m a part of nature. The bugs were killing my zucchini.

I started squashing them.

I did the best I could but there were a lot of bugs–and a LOT of eggs, which I tried to smush off the leaves as well. The eggs were strangely fascinating, bronze colored and uniformly laid.

It only took about five minutes after the carnage for the guilt to set in. I had just killed, with my latex covered hands, living things.

My only justification is knowing that last year all three of my zucchini plants died within two days. Their deaths were swift and their loss was strongly felt in my kitchen. And my stomach.

Call it revenge if you must.

I have a feeling I haven’t seen the last of the squash bugs. I know I didn’t kill them all or destroy all the eggs. And though I write about this in jest, I actually do feel guilty for killing the bugs. I realize if I resorted to chemicals to get rid of them it would be the same thing, but there is something not right about smashing a tiny creature between your fingers and killing it, even if it is for the greater good.

Michael just laughs at my guilt and tells me we wouldn’t have anything to eat if we let the pests take over.

Who knew gardening could cause such guilt and a moral dilemma, forcing me to choose between the things I planted and the insects who depend on them for life, and turning my fecund haven of nourishment into a killing field of unwanted pests?

Frustration in the Garden

24 Apr

It’s been a very busy past two weeks. After a weekend in Houston and a weekend in Oklahoma–meaning very little time spent in the garden–and a few rain showers, the garden was a mess. It’s taken us two full weekends of work to get it back in shape. It’s been a frustrating two weeks.

If I haven’t said it before, gardening is backbreaking work. I run 20-30 miles per week, walk around 10 miles a week, and do yoga almost daily, but nothing makes me more sore than squatting, bending over, and digging and hoeing in the garden.

The arugula is blooming--and thriving

The first weekend of garden reconstruction we did nothing but pull up weeds and grass. The grass has been unrelenting. We had an extremely mild winter and above average rainfall this spring, and the weeds have also been ferocious.

In addition, the bugs are out of control. We had some pest problems last year, but nothing like this. Something has ravaged the okra seedlings, chewing off half of each leaf. A few flower plants in the front garden have also been decimated, all their blossoms completely eaten off at the stalk and the leaves chomped up. It happened overnight, and I have yet to actually see what it is that’s eating everything.

Michael's pride and joy

Last week we had our first small zucchini appear on one of the plants. I have six zucchini plants with multiple blooms, but only one was actually producing a fruit. I checked on it one morning, and in the afternoon Michael asked if I had seen that something had taken a bite out of it. Sure enough, you could see a groove where two teeth had taken a bite. Four days later I noticed the same plant was wilted, and when I checked on it the entire plant had been sawed off in two.

Argh.

I’m going to make a guess that it’s cutworms doing the damage and put a ring of aluminum foil around the base of the plants.

After Michael inadvertently stepped on the two largest, healthiest okra plants, we moved the remaining poor half-eaten seedlings to another area of the garden to receive more sunlight. They look pretty distressed by the move, and the fact that their leaves are half eaten, but I have faith they’ll bounce back.

Could anything look more sad than this transplanted, munched up okra seedling?

Michael also transplanted all his pepper seedlings into the garden. We have one empty row of garden space left, to be filled with something that hasn’t been determined yet.

The tomato plants are tall and healthy and . . . barren. So far. None of the previous blossoms produced any fruit. Again, this was not a problem I faced last year. There are new flowers now, so hopefully some of them will produce tomatoes.

On top of all this, there’s a rogue chicken who has been roaming the neighborhood. I can’t help but wonder if the chicken is the culprit, especially in the front garden and the decimated flowers. And remember, we live a mile from the heart of downtown Dallas, so it’s not common at all to see chickens strutting around your front yard. And it’s not your average, run of the mill chicken either, it’s an ostentatious black and white speckled chicken that’s showy and noisy.

If I ever hear that chicken clucking in my front flower garden, all bets are off . . .

It’s only April and I’ve already had my first mosquito bite, but on a good note the fireflies have started to come out in the evenings. It’s strange, because I remember fireflies being a late summer treat from childhood. Fireflies in April already?

We do have one huge success: we’ve already had our first harvest of green beans. Other than lettuce, I can’t think of anything easier to grow than bush green beans. They’re like the gift that keeps on giving.

As for my front flower garden, it is thriving. It looks lovelier than it ever has. Last year I planted three delphinium plants. All three grew, but did not produce flowers. This spring the plants are HUGE and all three have big, beautiful stalks full of flowers. Best of all, the flowers are three different colors: white,¬† red, and pink. These things have quadrupled since last summer, and I’m pretty sure they will take over the entire flowerbed if I don’t stay on top of them.

I used to see these flowers when I lived in Switzerland. They didn’t bloom there until late July.

Seeds sown this past weekend: poppies and giant sunflowers, lettuce, and basil. Keep your fingers crossed.

Hopefully things will start taking off in the vegetable garden soon and the frustrations will end. I’ll be in Portland, OR next week running a half-marathon and visiting my daughter, and I’m expecting the garden to be a cornucopia of good eats when I return.

Surviving the Weather

6 Apr

Between last week’s temperatures hovering around 90 degrees and this week’s scary outbreak of numerous tornadoes, our garden has already been through a lot–and it’s only the first week of April.

Gardening in Texas certainly has its challenges.

Green beans are ready to blossom

Thankfully, we didn’t get hit by any of the 15 or so tornadoes that touched down in the Metroplex, but we did get pounded by a deluge of rain and some serious lightning. We were also lucky enough to escape the baseball sized hail that hit other areas.

Tuesday was an experience unlike any other I’ve ever had. It was scary, surreal, and a harsh reminder that Mother Nature is always in charge.

I don’t know if it’s a result of the storms, but the tomato blossoms I photographed last week have all fallen off, with the exception of two. This same thing happened early in the spring last year, and I think it’s mainly the result of the high temps and humidity we’ve had these past two weeks. Hopefully, with more reasonable temps expected this week, we’ll get more blossoms and fruit will set.

Have I said that gardening in Texas has its challenges?

Our first bell pepper

One more okra seedling has made an appearance, which brings us to a total of nine plants.

And the mystery seedlings? Two are definitely zucchini, and they are thriving. The other plant, which was blown over in the storm but not killed, is still unknown.

No mystery here: the mystery seedling is most definitely a zucchini plant

I’ve pulled up most of our winter lettuce, which has now shot up to waist height. About six lettuce plants were snapped in half by the high winds from the storms the other day. Better the lettuce than our trees. I’m pulling up about six plants a day, cutting off the top leaves for salad, and pulling the bottom leaves and cutting up the stalks for the compost bin.

I hope to plant some of my new varieties of lettuce this weekend.

The Brussels sprouts haven’t handled the heat well at all, and the small sprouts hidden under the leaves have grown too quickly and opened up. It was a good learning experience for us, and maybe we’ll try again in the fall.

All in all, we have much to be thankful for this week, when so many people lost their homes in the tornadoes. While gardening in Texas does have its challenges, at least our little patch of dirt is still in one piece.

(Just in case you missed it above, my post about the tornadoes: In Dallas, April Showers Bring . . . TORNADOES)

Flower Power in the City

1 Apr

Springtime in Texas is short, which makes it all the more precious. My flower gardens come alive like no other time of the year and remind me why I love growing flowers.

Two summers ago we dug up our entire front and back yards. We re-leveled the ground, added subsurface drip line irrigation, new grass, and planted some flowerbeds. Last summer we started a vegetable garden.

We did everything ourselves. Growing flowers became my personal project, and I added plants that are perennial and hardy enough to survive our harsh summers.

The flowers have become a continual work in progress. Two winters ago we had two significant snowfalls and a week of extremely cold temperatures, and some of the flowers didn’t survive. Last summer we had the longest, hottest summer on record, and this spring I’m seeing exactly how many plants we lost. Quite a few plants are not resprouting.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it means I get to plant something new.

When my children were younger, we used to spend every summer in South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. The kids used to tease me and roll their eyes every time I’d stop on a hike to take another wildflower photo. Now my grown daughter admits she does the same thing.

Though I love growing my own food and bringing things to life from seed, I think I love the flowers most of all. Each of our two lavender bushes attracts hundreds of bees, and beautiful butterflies flutter through all summer long. It’s a truly magical day when we unexpectedly spot a hummingbird from the front porch, feeding from one of the flowers. They come and go so quickly.

If you had told me a few years ago that I would love gardening so much, I would have laughed and shook my head. Too hot, too much work, too back breaking.

I have to admit, it can be all of those things, but there’s something about taking a tiny seed and giving it everything it needs to come to life that satisfies the soul. Knowing you’re doing something that man has done for thousands of years, whether it’s growing your own food or bringing something beautiful to life, is both stunning in its simplicity and deeply moving.

These days it’s so easy to feel removed from nature, especially living in a city. I’m happy that my small gardens give me the chance to reconnect with the earth and remind me that I’m a part of nature, too.

Our Brussels Have Sprouted!

30 Mar

I did not become a love of Brussels sprouts until I was an adult. As a child and young adult, anything cabbage related made me gag. Even cauliflower made me shudder.

Now that I’m older and wiser, there’s nothing more delicious than roasted Brussels sprouts. Michael often adds it to our vegetable stir fries, and it’s just not the same without them.

Last year we bought some Brussels sprouts in the grocery store and they were still on the stalk. Neither of us had ever seen them sold that way, and had no idea that’s how they grew.

We knew we had to try and grow some ourselves. We planted three plants in our winter garden last October, not really knowing what to expect. All winter they sat there, getting taller and wider, but it wasn’t until a month ago that we detected the sprouts growing under the leaves and noticed the stalk getting taller.

I’m not really sure if we’ll get a good crop or not, especially now that the temperature has climbed into the 70′s and 80′s–and possibly the 90′s this weekend. It may be too warm for them grow much more, and I suspect the higher temps could make them taste bitter.

I love the way they sit nestled under the leaves of the plant. There’s something poetic about the sight of all that goodness hidden under the leaves.

Even if we can’t eat them, I loved growing them.

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