7.09.2011

plant diagnostics (how to grow a green thumb)

I love the popularity of gardening right now and it breaks my heart when I get emails from people who feel defeated or overwhelmed at the process of getting a seed the size of a comma to grow into a snack for their kid. Seems like there are many of you who want to garden and feel like you have bad luck. I know that feeling, the supreme disappointment in dedicating so much time to nurturing something and ending up with a failed crop. It happens to everyone. Don't throw in the gardening gloves just yet.

Here's a secret: Green thumbs aren't genetic, they're learned. I don't believe in bad luck. You've got this.

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In our small backyard plot: garlic, cauliflower, carrots, kohlrabi, bush beans, parsnip, tomato, cucumber, pea, lettuce. Strawberries and raspberries not in view. The bed on far right is the beginnings of a late planting of arugula and chard.

I am going to talk specifically about diagnosing problems but feel compelled to mention that there are things that should happen first to reduce problems. Just like humans, healthy plants with proper care are stronger and more productive. Pick good placement, rotate crops every planting (a good rule: leaf, root, fruit), test soil, learn what grows well in your climate and what grows well next to each other (companion planting). Practice prevention by keeping plants healthy and strong. Learn about watering timing and technique, weed, prune correctly, remove and destroy diseased plants etc. I list a few books at the end of this post that can help you with all of this.

OK, back to the problems. I get a lot of questions that go something like "Something is eating my tomatoes. What can I do to fix it?" and that question is like asking a doc, "I feel off. Can you prescribe something?" Thing is, a diagnosis has to happen to help the problem. I don't know much when I see sad broccoli but I can figure it out and fix it. It is very empowering. You can too. It's a snap, a matter of learning a process and using tools that are free and easy. I'll show you.

I use organic gardening methods. It is really important to me to use the least toxic, least harmful spray. A diverse insect population and healthy soil microbial activity are the key to sustainable gardening and healthy food.

I am using two real examples from my garden this year:

ONE: Cauliflower

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little cauliflower heads just this week!

TWO: The entire left half of my front bed (spinach, squash, beets).

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Photo taken June 13


  • Identify the plant that has the issue. Different bugs like different plants; different plants host different bugs. You need to know the plant with the issue before you figure out which bug or virus or whathaveyou is affecting the plant. My plants with the issues:

    • Cauliflower
    • Spinach, squash and beets (all in one bed with similar symptoms).


  • Study the plants and record the symptoms.You get to play doctor, beginning with taking a look. Is the problem with the leaves? Stem? Fruit? Roots? Is there yellowing? Holes? Brown spots? Write down what you see and take a photo to reference.
    • Cauliflower: I see small and large holes on the leaves of my plants. Color looks good and growth isn't affected. 
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    • Spinach, squash and beets: small growth, stunted plants. The older leaves are yellow, the newer leaves are green but puny. 
  • Look up the plants in a plant diagnostic tool. I have my master gardening manual that I reference a lot (I highly recommend this class to anyone who wants to learn more about growing plants). I also love my local Missoula County Extension Office Plant Diagnostics Database that is online and I check in there all the time (click on links below on the different veggies to read what I read in that database).
      • Cauliflower: I quickly learned that it was either Cabbage Worms or Cabbage Loopers.
      • Spinach, squash and beets: This was trickier as it was still early in the season. Since those three plants don't have many insects that would feed on all of them (remember, not all bugs like the same plants), I decided it wasn't a bug and maybe a fungus or virus. But again, I read through all the possible symptoms and nothing really matched my problem. Yellowing on older leaves can mean a nitrogen deficiency so I decided to start there.
    • Create and implement a plan to address the problem. Again, different things kill different bugs and different fertilizers have different effects. Spraying insecticidal soap doesn't kill cabbage loppers so spraying it would do nothing. And applying a general fertilizer won't give me enough nitrogen so using it would be futile. You have to use the right tools. 
        • Cauliflower: I went back out to my plants and started searching for bugs. It's hard because the dudes blend in really well. Every time I am diagnosing a bug I have to stare at the same leaf for a while and then the critter will snap into focus. Once I see one, others are easier to find. I found a green worm and wasn't sure which it was so I watched him and he didn't move at all and had a faint yellow stripe. Cabbage Worm it was. Also, look at this page and see what other plants host this bug. Thankfully, none of those plants are near my cauliflower so these worms are only on the cauliflower and no risk to the neighboring tomatoes, parsnips and beans. However, my kohlrabi isn't far away so now I know to keep my eye on the kohlrabi. BUT THEN! I found a different looking green bug. One that moved quickly and had lots of babies. I had Cabbage Loopers too. I read about them in the book and online database. I could spray BT but because I am only dealing with six plants, I decided to scrutinize every nook and squish every looper and worm I could find. Also, I watered with an intense spray to knock of any stragglers. I applied a general fertilizer to give the plants a boost. I learned that the eggs and larvae are fed upon by birds and insects so I am happy I have a healthy ecosystem in my plot with lots of bugs and birds to help me keep this in check.
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        • Spinach, squash and beets: I read about good sources of immediately available nitrogen. By "immediately available" I meant that nitrogen would release quickly instead of slowly, over the course of weeks. I decided on blood meal. So I bought some from my local nursery and followed the directions for application.
        Photobucket same squash plants on June 26 and July 7

        That's it! Then you wait and see if it works. And, if it doesn't or something else pops up, start over at step two. Both of my diagnoses were correct.


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        Front bed on July 9. My favorite part is the hippie strolling down my sidewalk playing the banjo. Maybe it had nothing to do with the bone meal and everything to do with stringed instruments?

        I continue to check the cauliflower and kohlrabi for worms and loopers. I pulled one particularly sad cauliflower plant and fed it to my chickens. The squash and beets greened right up and started to grow and set fruit. But my spinach never did well. I think it is because the plants were stunted when the weather was just right. Once they had the nitrogen they needed, it got hot so they leafed out and bolted. Bummer.


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        looking mighty fine, kohlrabi

        :: RESOURCES & TOOLS ::

        My two favorite gardening books:
         The Vegetable Gardener's Bible
        and The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food.

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        They regularly come with me into the garden as evidenced by the water damage and dirt. The latter is new to our library, a copy sent my way for review this year. And, since I am now listing it in my top two favorite gardening books, you can glean that I like it a lot. The book is simply organized and contains so much information. It is a beautiful, accessible encyclopedia that gives me everything I'd want to know about what I have growing in my yard. There is also a juicy, informative section titled organic remedies that outlines best practices and troubleshooting tips. It's a great book.

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        bush bean forest

        A few insecticides I have on hand that work really well for some bugs: insecticidal soapneem oil and pyrethrin. Purchase these after you have determined what is eating your plant and then read the labels to see if these will help your hungry bugs. I also have a pump sprayer for easy application.

        Things happen all season.  I feel like I kind of know what I am doing and I still struggle with crummy crops every year. Last year I harvested a puny pile of potatoes because of blight. The year before that I couldn't recover my spinach from a leaf miner explosion. But most of the time, I can fix it! Especially if it is caught early. I know it is tempting to pull your pathetic carrots and make yourself a cocktail but try instead to figure out what's wrong and take a stab at fixing it. And then make yourself a cocktail in celebration. I think you'll be surprised at how green your thumb is.


        How is your garden growing? If you have a question, I'll do my best to help out here in the comments. Or, post your question over at the Virgin Harvest page and get a thread going! 



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        all photos taken with a Canon Digital SLR from Vanns.com

        7.06.2011

        hump day nuggets: firsts

        hump day nuggets: little bits of the season in photos and words about the last week


        Everything is growing like crazy from my peas to my kids. It's bananas. I am continually experiencing a first something.

        Turns out, given sun, water and love? It grows. And then it is all about observing, interpreting, evaluating and making choices. Oh the inner dialog in my brain about spinach and siblings. So much consideration I give to the things I grow.

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        Thing is, I misunderstand an issue with potatoes and I get puny spuds. But, with kids? Well. Last Friday, at a dinner party, I explained that day where everything was hard. Like, brutal. A full spectrum of emotion bursting out of Margot like a bi-polar alien made me want to cram myself into the chicken coop. But I was telling struggle to my friends excitedly because I did a good job. I explained how I ditched agenda! I empathized with my daughters! We found a new stride that was better and awesome! And then I told my friends how Margot (with Ruby in tow) locked me out of my bedroom and that brilliant, even, compassionate mom vaporized and became tight-jawed-YOU-OPEN-THIS-DOOR-RIGHT-NOW mom.

        Ruby, Margot and I muscled our way through the day. Lots of talking about feelings, lots of frustration and sighs, raised voices and hugs. It really was brutal, one of my top five hardest mom days. And then it ended. Not the day, but the brutality. It just ended and we were as we mostly are. We went to a dinner party where my two girls played happily with six other kids, the men gathered around the grill and I talked in the kitchen to girlfriends about how I can feel like a great mom one moment and an inept lump the next.

        Parenting really is so much like gardening. So many firsts. Sow, nourish, love, tend, grow, troubleshoot, harvest, learn. Be better next time. The next first time.

        first nuggets today.

        :: First hike through lupine so cloudy-thick and fragrant it was disorienting.

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        :: First squash who are so happy yellow and abundant that I am quite certain they were formally an award-fetching high school cheer squad.

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        :: First time imagining my cats as an old, in-love married couple in a favorite recliners.

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        :: First peas of the summer.

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        :: First pests of the summer. I have been getting a lot of questions about diagnosing and treating disease and bugs in the garden. I can help and am working on a post about it!

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        flea beetles on tomatoes, cabbage worms on cauliflower

        :: First time harvesting dinner and preferring, loving that it never made it to plate.

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        :: Not the first time I've witnessed my daughters following their dad on a trail in the woods. But every time is as notable as the first.

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        :: First time trying to seriously impart the reality and awesomeness of wildlife (mountain lion den near our friends' cabin) without instilling insane fear. A challenge, I think we did it.

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        The caution was lost on Alice.

        Also, there's the bee thing. Since the stings, any buzzing ignites an anxious state in our kids. Dang, I look forward to the first time Margot and Ruby are cool with bees after their stings.

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        calendula

        In the meantime, both girls believe being held renders them indestructible. I am happy to be a bee shield.

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        :: First bowl of warm, honest strawberries this year. Holy hell.

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        :: First papery tomatillo jacket.

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        :: First time you consider hula hooping every day! Welcome back to tart, a sponsor I personally adore. Tart is a Montana business based in Bozeman that specializes in "pretty things made by Montana tartists." Artist-owner Anna is so wonderful and her shop is like the inside of a tulip. Everything there is poppy, fun and made with love by our neighbors. Lots of items for every occasion, every wallet.

        PhotobucketA few of my favorites: nevermore mobile, riveting oval earrings and diaper changing pad.

        And, you can win a hula hoop! Yeah baby, a handmade collaspable puppy that'll knock your socks off. Leave a comment and tell us, What fun thing are you doing this summer? I bet a hula hoop would amp up your fun. Thanks, tart!

        :: First icy blended items of the year.

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        We toss a bunch of stuff in the blender for a smoothie and then pour the rest 
        in popsicle molds for freezing.

        :: First bike for Margot. 

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        Homegirl has maxed out her tricycle and never took to her balance bike. I about burst from her excitement over picking out a bike just like mom's. We were biking around the block last night and she started laughing. I asked what she was feeling and she said, "Oh. Just a little bit proud."

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        The bike she picked is bedecked in bee decals and is called the 'Stinger'

        :: First time dad sculpted a horse.

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        :: First screen we found at Home Resource ($2!) fits the sandbox perfectly. Margot measured it and announced, "It's perfect. Thirteen inches and a pound. Let's buy it."

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        :: First camping of the summer, even if only in the backyard. Read about our make believe adventures in this week's mama digs: alone, together at sea.

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        :: First time I've ever woken up next to hens.

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        So many firsts. So many seconds that are more like firsts. So much to study and absorb. I wonder what firsts will happen today? I wonder...

        happy hump day out there

        ps Randomly selected B&D PlantSmart winner:
        Rhett said...Your peas are so much bigger than mine and I can't be more than a couple miles away! Things are coming along with our garden but we sure have had a slow start. Thanks for the tip with the blood meal! The yellowed leaves are greening up. This is our first year having a real garden since moving here 2 1/2 years ago from a VERY different climate. We have lots to learn. Nice photos!
        Congrats! Email digthischick at gmail dot com.

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        all photos taken with a Canon Digital SLR from Vanns.com

        7.04.2011

        Independence Day

        We are enjoying our long weekend feeling quite exploratory, patriotic and warm.

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        Mama digs is on holiday today and will be up with nuggets on Wednesday.

        To "illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other" (as John Adams predicted this day would be celebrated in a letter to his wife in July 1776),
        dig

        ps Still time to throw your name in for the giveaway.

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        all photos taken with a Canon Digital SLR from Vanns.com

        7.01.2011

        strong, fast, sexy and smart

        How do you feel about self-portraits?

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        It's funny because I did a lot of them, most a bit dark and introspective, when studying art in college. I was an evaluative, self-reflective twenty-something realizing I didn't know shit, on the heels of thinking I knew everything. I carved rough chunks of wood to look like my elbow. I took photos of torso. I stared myself in the eyes for hours, pencil in hand. It was a whole new world to look at myself.

        And then that was that. Now, I have a blog and I write about and post photos of lots of things I think are beautiful. And, every rare time I post a photo of myself I feel a little silly. There is already so much of me here and my thirty-something ego usually feels like self-portraits are too too and I backspace. When I am in the photo, I don't  just consider concept, feeling and craft, as I do all other photos I share. I am harder on myself, not overly self-conscious but I feel too look at me! or something.

        However.

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        However, I love thinking back on the exploration and experimentation of those college self-portraits (don't get dirty with that sentence!). And I think about how different I now am. I was sucked into one of those weird late-night internet hop-arounds that landed me on this great blog post about self-portraiture (and I am pretty sure I found that post through this creative lady) that quieted my concerns and gave me the permission I needed, wanted to go, whether I share them here or not.

        The photographer, Vivienne (which was nearly Margot's name) shared a warning about about self-portraiture:

        You might dance like no one is watching. You might find your voice. You might come to a place of peace with your reflection...You might stand at the shore of your potential and conclude that you are worth sticking with both the ebb and the flow. The biggest danger is this. You might see your beauty and document your truth.

        These words I read just before my head hit pillow have come back to me many times over the last few weeks. And then I was by myself taking photos of lupine, hail, rain, mud, mountains and sky feeling a lot so I turned the camera and had so much fun doing all the things Vivienne said I could do.

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        I got this killer bathing suit from new sponsor, Popina, and this is what I said over email: OK, but I will not be posting a photo of me in a bathing suit and the kind, awesome, Portland people were just fine with this. But after meditating on what self-portraiture can be I thought, what if I could? What if I pushed myself to see my beauty and document my truth?

        Also, I have to say I have never, ever in my whole life liked a bathing suit. Never wanted to move around in one, never wanted a photo of me in one. I have always tucked boobs into ill-fitting compartments and tugged at wonky seams. So in my 34th year I decided I wanted a suit I liked, for myself and for my daughters who learn from me. I don't want to be twitchy in swimwear. Is it possible? I set out to make one, had a pattern drafted and fabric selected and the whole nine. But swimwear boutique Popina kept popping up here (available locally at Betty's Divine) and there (on my friend's blog) and then I snagged this opportunity and now I am publishing photos of myself in a bright red bathing suit on the interweb. Because I am strong, fast, sexy and smart in this suit.

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        This small west-coast business sells retro swimwear and vintage swimwear.  My suit is a Jantzen bathing suit. Thank you, Popina!

        So, I dare you to take a photo of yourself feeling strong, fast, sexy and smart and share it. If inclined, post wherever you'd like and share the link in the comments here.

        Wishing every last one of you a wonderful weekend.

        xo,
        dig

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        all photos taken with a Canon Digital SLR from Vanns.com
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