Thursday, July 31, 2014

Isolation techniques

I walked into a nursery a few blocks from my home and talked to the lady who orders the seeds. She said that heirloom plants were a fad and would fade out in a few years.

I said "Not for me."

There are a number of reasons that people buy heirloom seeds and plants. They are generally a bit more expensive, but they are GMO free (so far), have more variety, and you can save seeds with the assurance that you'll get the same thing next year.

Or...not quite.

If you plant two heirloom varieties of squash close together you might get a hybrid the next year. A pumpsquash maybe, or a waterlope. :) Just kidding.

While tomatoes and peppers, peas and beans, are generally not pollinated by insects (they're self-fertile and most blossoms pollinate themselves) there is still a possibility of a mixture.

There are a number of ways to make sure you get the same variety, mostly determined by the way the particular plant is pollinated.

The simplest is distance. Do not plant wheat, for example, within half a mile of any other strain of wheat. They will mix. Corn is also wind pollinated but the pollen is heavier--plant different varieties of corn about fifty feet apart.

The second option, which relies on the experience of the gardener, is to plant different varieties at different times. This might be as simple as planting each variety in an alternate year, or it might mean planting them a month or two apart. It depends on how long the flowering season is for each variety and how long it takes the seeds to mature. This won't work for some types of plants.

The third, and the one I prefer for most things, is isolation. From a seed bag (scraps of gauze with yarn woven around the outside to make a drawstring bag) to a tent over an entire plant, isolation makes sure that only you can get to the blossoms to pollinate them. Done with a paintbrush, a q-tip, or some other similar item, isolation is the only way to completely verify that you're getting the pollination you want.

It's a learning curve. If you accidentally end up with something unintended, try again next year. That's part of why I always plant only a small portion of the seeds in any one year. I always have something left over from the last batch so I can start over if necessary.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The hazards of driplines

We finished converting our garden to driplines this year. This means no overhead sprinklers. We're using about 20 to 30% less water (an important thing, in a desert) and the plants are doing fabulous.

Except...some of them aren't.

A month or so ago my winter squash wilted. Just a little, and I wasn't concerned because it was really hot (into the hundreds) and they were getting plenty of water.

The next day the whole plant was dead. Of course it took a while before the green leached out of it (we currently have a winter squash skeleton sprawled over a quarter of the garden) but it was really that quick. No sign of wilt prior. We checked the leaves for insect damage and found nothing. No white scum or other signs of disease. Completely fine one day, and gone the next.

It wasn't gradual, as I would expect with most squash pests, and it was the whole plant at the same time. Most squash pests will kill one part of the plant, or the leaves will die and the fruit continue to grow, etc. This was sudden, and complete.

We did what we could to save it. Shaded the root ball during the day, extra water, special fertilizer, and we put soil over the root nodes in the hope that it would put down more roots.

Too late.

Since nothing else in the garden was affected, we let it go. A fluke, right?

Last week one of our zucchini showed a hint of wilt. The next morning...

This time we were proactive. We took all the fruit and blossoms off it first thing, shaded the whole plant and put soil over the nodes. It's currently struggling.

When that happened I went into detective mode. I dug up the root ball of the winter squash. Normally these things are two to three feet across, with a tap root that goes four feet into the ground. Getting them out in the fall is a major chore. The tap root was maybe six inches long, with a handful of spindly little roots sprawling limply about six inches from it.

No wonder the thing died! With 200 feet of runners, dozens of blossoms and a dozen developing fruit, it simply didn't have the root capacity necessary!

It's possible that something ate the root—we do have gophers—but as I said, we finished up the drip lines this year. I was careful to space the plants right under the driplines, we've been watering twice a day (10 minutes, morning and evening) and to add insult to injury I surrounded all the plants with 4 to 6 inches of mulch to keep weeds down. Evaporation is lower.

I took good care of my plants—too good. They didn't have to stretch to get what they needed, so they didn't have the root mass necessary when they started producing. When we pulled the fruit off the sick zucchini, it had five good sized zucchini and three starting. The winter squash had about the same. Too much for those tiny, shriveled roots to support.

Last week we dropped watering back to once a day. We'll drop back to once every other day if necessary. The zucchini plant is starting to come back—maybe. It's poking a few new leaves up. We'll see if it survives, but you can bet that next year I won't be so careful.

I'll plant between the drip rows so the plants have to strain for the water, and water less.

It makes an interesting parallel with taking good care of human beings, but that's a rant for another time.