Garden Notes

Strawberry: Photo by Susan Safford
This season, unfavorable weather has made it difficult to find flavorful Island strawberries. Photos by Susan Safford

Missing strawberries

By Abigail Higgins - July 6, 2006

The bullfrogs in a nearby pond are bellowing a raucous happy chorus these nights - and even days - and satisfied they should be, with all the recent rain. Less happy are strawberry growers, who have had to contend with spoiled mushy fruit lacking flavor, diseases like botrytis and mildew, and the depredations of insects, slugs especially, on account of the weather. There are always the deer too, with their uncanny ability to mount a blitzkrieg attack on the strawberry patch at the ripening moment. Missing even a single strawberry season in a lifetime seems like a small loss of minute but tragic proportions: no sunny days of tending, picking, and eating right out of the garden; no strawberry shortcake with whipped cream, no strawberry-rhubarb pie a la mode.

For the future you might want to consider re-working your strawberry bed. Is the location getting good sun and airflow? Though I want to encourage gardeners to garden without resorting to the fossil fuel matrix, using black plastic mulch may help. The drawbacks: its inevitable deterioration, and rooting the offsets. It is generally recommended that strawberries be grown on a warm, light acidic soil that is free-draining (what is "free-draining" in a monsoon June?) while at the same time moisture retentive. Even gardeners who do not utilize the raised bed concept often create one especially for strawberries, which can then be more easily covered against birds and deer.

Daisies: Photo by Susan Safford
The reliable daisy continues to ornament the season.

For now, try the top-down approach to make your soil light while simultaneously enriching it, by scratching in clean sand and well-made compost. If they haven't taken root already, you can lift all the offsets on one side and do the side dressing, then do the same on the other side. A pine needle mulch can do wonders. (Straw is also recommended for mulch; on the Vineyard I think it is actually easier to come by pine needles and they may be superior, too.) Take a trash bag and hunt down a cache of clean pine needles; mulch by tucking these around and under each plant. Ideally, you can mulch the entire strawberry bed. Remove diseased leaves and plant parts: burn or otherwise destroy them and do not compost.

My library contains an old but still useful book entitled "Successful Berry Growing" by Gene Logsdon (Rodale Press, Emmaus PA, 1974) with more information than I can supply here on successfully growing all soft fruits. Look for a used copy online, or google "strawberry culture."

Protect your cukes

Cucumbers are coming along and I have received several inquiries about controlling striped cucumber beetles. Some gardeners are experiencing them in destructive numbers. They are attracted to squashes, melons, and pumpkins as well, and are sometimes found on ornamentals. In addition to their actual damage, cucumber beetles transmit something worse, wilt and mosaic diseases. Floating row covers are a good investment. They do need to be installed with no chinks available through which the cucumber beetles can enter. If your cucumber patch is a small one, handpicking early or late in the day will be a practical approach, as the beetles are active flyers at midday. Look for the beetles and their eggs under the leaves and around the flowers. Dusting with ground limestone is often effective as a physical deterrent for sucking/chewing insects but only good until the next rainy spell.

Spray applications include several non-nuclear approaches. Insecticidal soaps can assist with the control of pests on vegetable crops. Apply early or late in the day, or in overcast conditions. Rotenone/pyrethrin preparations applied with a sprayer can be used, with caution. Though of "natural," i.e. plant-based, origin, they are no longer considered innocuous and destroy beneficial insects as well as having implications for human health. Use a spreader/sticker product for increased adherence and to extend the effective life of the application.

Cucumbers are said to like a soil pH of about 6, a little lower than the typical 6.5 of many vegetable crops. They generally thrive in a rich, fertile soil, so prepare the area with manure or compost. It has often been observed that plants occurring on compost piles grow lustily, having few of the usual garden-plant problems, so that is another thought. In our garden we trellis cucumbers, or that is the goal anyway: just now we have runaway vines in need of training. This year they are sprawling on the ground and spurning the nice rebar and reinforcing wire mesh trellis we provide; but once trained to go up they usually "go for it." This method has the advantage of less soil contact, insect control, and ease of picking.

Colorado potato beetles are here too. Look for them on eggplant, which they seem to like as well as potatoes: a half-inch, rotund beetle with a tannish orange front section and black-and-grey striped wing covers. The adults are not particularly fast moving, so squish them with your fingers or between two pebbles.

Gypsy Moth caterpillars: Photo by Susan Safford
Dead Gypsy Moth caterpillars dangle from the trunk of a Beech tree.

Caterpillar optimism?

It is never clear sailing - there is always something, isn't there? While the inchworm-type caterpillars of cankerworm, spanworm, and winter moth are going along into pupal mode and are now presently out of sight and mind, the big ol' hairy gypsy moth caterpillars are approaching two inches long and are very prominent in the oak woodland of Christiantown. They are covered with dark hairs and show a bit of red in each segment. The head has what appears to be a face, looking something like a death's head.

What is encouraging however, is the numbers of mummified, lifeless gypsy moth caterpillar corpses I have seen dangling off of vegetation and structures: they are under the control of an active parasitoid. A Vineyard Haven reader kindly wrote to describe how he vacuums up pupating caterpillars with a shop vac, then disposing of the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag. However, he failed to specify what kind of caterpillars to which he did this, and when in the season this worked.

Another particularly lovely, encouraging development is the scarlet tanager/ Baltimore oriole solution. At Sunday brunch we watched what looks like two pairs of orioles (possibly a pair and an extra male) and a male scarlet tanager working the oak treetops. Interestingly, the Sibley bird guide does not go into what these species eat, so I googled it. The answer is - ta-da - caterpillars, and in particular the forest tent, both caterpillar and pupal stages. Hallelujah!