Kicking Into a New Gear

The garden was starting to move in the same direction it has moved every year in the second half of July and August. Plants were dying back and really struggling to survive. Production slowed down drastically. Leaf footed bugs and stink bugs were infesting the tomatoes and peppers, and army worms were eating up the leaves of the tomato plants, the New Zealand spinach, the cucumber plants, and the cantaloupe plants, and causing them to turn brown and die.

The pattern is that the plants do great until the sun’s rays are at their most intense, and then they become stressed out and become the target of a lot of destructive insect activity and diseases. At first I thought the stress was caused by the heat, but now I think that it’s not the heat but the intensity of the sun that is causing the stress. But that is just a theory.

I have been trying out a couple of products that are new to me, and so far I have seen very good results. Surround crop protectant is made with kaolin clay and is mixed with water for spraying on plants and fruits. The Surround forms a protective coating that deters bugs from wanting to mess with the plants and/or fruits. It also reduces the plants’ core temperature because it creates shade from the sun, and protects the plants from the most intense rays of the sun.

The other product is neem oil. This is supposed to suppress insects by acting directly on the insect, particularly in the larval stage.

I mixed up a batch of Surround with neem oil and some insecticidal soap, and sprayed it on the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and watermelons, both the plants as well as the fruits, and on the New Zealand spinach. I’ve been bug hunting in the people garden almost every day for several weeks. The populations of leaf footed bugs and stink bugs have diminished to almost nothing, but I still find enough of them hanging around to do damage to a lot of tomatoes and peppers. The army worms usually can’t be seen in the daytime, although I did find quite a few in the tomatoes for a while and I dispatched all of the ones I found. The cantaloupes and cucumbers were completely destroyed by the army worms. It looked like the watermelon was going to suffer the same fate, but I sprayed the plants and melons with the Surround mixture and the damage appears to have been arrested.

Most of the tomato plants seemed to respond very well to being sprayed with this mixture, although some of them were probably too far gone to be helped. But where there was massive die back and the plants had essentially stopped producing, there is now a lot of new growth and quite a few new blossoms. I need to reapply the mixture because the new growth and fruits are not protected. And some of the protectant has washed off in the rain. But mixing it with the neem oil appears to be helping the residue to remain on the plants and fruits to a fairly large extent even after a rain.

I didn’t have these products in time to spray the corn with them, and this year, my first growing corn in this part of the world, there was a lot of stink and leaf footed bug activity in and around the corn plants and ears, and there were quite a few corn ear worms in the ears themselves. I will apply the Surround mixture on the plants and ears of future corn crops.

Another new thing I’ve done is make compost tea using worm castings. This is supposed to be incredibly good for the health and strength of the plants. I think that if the heat and sun didn’t stress the plants out here in this part of the world, providing nutrient support would probably be enough to deter insects from showing interest in and causing damage to the plants. After applying the worm casting compost tea, when heat and sun are not an issue, I notice a big change in the health and vibrancy of the plants. But because of the heat and sun stress, additional help is needed in the hottest part of the summer.

I will also be adding liquid algae and liquid fish emulsion to future plant feedings. I don’t know how much help they will be, but I’ve decided to give them a try.

Next year I will also be starting the tomatoes even earlier than I did this year. I’m finding that the bigger the plants are when I put them in the ground, the earlier the tomato crop is, and the less likely it will be to suffer heat and sun related stress and consequent insect damage. I will be getting a heating pad for plant starts, because the tomatoes need their soil to be above a certain temperature in order to germinate properly. The greenhouse doesn’t keep them at an appropriate temperature without supplemental heat at the time I need to plant in February.

I like the garden arrangement I had this year, although I need to have fewer tomato plants and space them further apart. I’m finding it’s much easier to control the insect populations and also to spray the plants properly when the foliage is not too dense. I will also be pruning the tomato plants a lot more severely in future years than I have in the past for the same reason.

I still have a lot of planting to do for the fall garden. I’ve just recently planted the fall cucumbers and pole beans in the back garden. They are doing well and the pill bugs and sow bugs so far haven’t shown any interest in those seedlings. If they do, however, I will spray the seedlings with the Surround and see if that helps. Someone told me that neem oil can kill seedlings, so I might leave that out of the mixture for these plants. I also need to plant broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower in the same area, and also some sugar snap peas. I got some seeds for tomato plants that are very small and I hope to be able to keep them going in containers all winter. I’m also thinking about maybe trying to keep some miniature cucumbers going all winter. I haven’t bought seeds for the cucumbers yet.

I don’t think I’ll grow potatoes in the greenhouse this winter. They take up too much room for too little reward. But I will probably grow beets, carrots, parsley, and cilantro in the greenhouse again this winter.

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