Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gardening Update: Everything is Terrible

How the mighty have fallen.

When we last checked in, I was riding high on fresh air, smugness and self satisfaction. But as everyone knows -- as even I know -- mixing "I'm invincible" with "screw you" is a recipe for inevitable disaster. And that brings me to today's update.

I don't even know where to begin. I guess we'll start with the tomatoes.

Things were looking good for a while there. The plants were lush and covered in plump green tomatoes that, in my opinion, seemed to be taking forever to ripen. But I was willing to wait. Then, one evening as I was doing my daily check-in, I spotted something that looked sort of like spider webs stretching across some of the leaves. Unsure what to make of it, I didn't give it much thought. In fact, I think I figured it was most likely an actual spider web as my entire yard is overrun with spiders anyway. Over the next few evenings, it seemed like the webs were growing. By the weekend, the plant looked sickly and the webs had gotten out of hand. I looked closer and closer and finally spotted the cause of the problem: teeny little red bugs.

I turned to Google, which auto filled "tomato plants red bugs" pretty readily, then turned up search results for "spider mites." One gardening site described them as "microscopic, spider-like red or brown bugs that form webs on plants, commonly tomatoes." This seemed about right, except for the microscopic part. So either the author of that piece was being hyperbolic or I have incredible eyesight. Either way, I could most definitely spy with my little eye the critters that were ruining my life.

Though, I think if viewed under a microscope they would look something like this.

I took comfort in reading that there was little I could've done to prevent this plague. Although apparently it doesn't help matters when the plant is too dry. I had felt like it was looking dry, but every experienced gardener kept insisting that tomatoes don't want to be watered every day, so I kept trying to not water them every day. Now I feel like it's a conspiracy to keep would-be superior gardeners like myself from ever achieving full potential.

At any rate, I fought back against the bugs by spraying them with neem oil (a natural pesticide), and also tried to help the plants out by giving them a bit more water. For a couple of weeks I'd use the hose to rinse off all the webs, then spray the neem oil. Then I'd come back a few days later to repeat the treatment, and be discouraged to see all the bugs and webs had returned, completely undeterred.

Meanwhile, my tomatoes were finally starting to turn red. But just as they were about to be the useful, delicious fruits I'd envisioned when I planted their seeds months earlier, little brown cracks appeared. They started at the stem and stretched down in vertical stripes like a beach ball. This really pissed me off.

Back to Google. This time I learned that tomatoes crack because they receive uneven amounts of water, causing them to grow at uneven rates. The inside starts to suddenly grow rapidly, but the outer skin might not be able to contain it all. And congrats: cracks. So let's say some common-sense, well-meaning, beautiful gardener notices her tomato plants look a bit dry. To help them out, she begins giving them a little more water. It seems like the right thing to do, doesn't it? Instead, she's actually ensuring their destruction.

Whereas the bugs felt random, this felt plain unfair.

Between spider mites and cracks, my tomato plants seemed to be doomed, but that didn't stop me from fighting the good fight for a little while. Then one morning, I had to admit defeat. The spider mites had completely taken over and compromised the leaves.

The cracked tomatoes were an invitation to even more bugs, not to mention pretty unappetizing.

The whole scene was just a nightmare and in a fit of rage I ripped both plants out of the ground and threw them out. Forget it. Just forget it.

Trying to stay positive, I turned my energy to my thriving pumpkin patch.
 With enormous green leaves and delightful blossoms.

I'd put my tomato murdering days behind me and focused instead on the crop of wonderful pumpkins I could harvest just in time for my favorite holiday, Halloween.

Then, over the weekend, I discovered my perfect pumpkins had pesky problems.

The leaves were turning white. Some just had white spots, while others were entirely white. Some actually were turning yellow underneath and wilting. As I stood, hands on hips, pondering the white dusting, my neighbor showed up and distracted me, informing me that he tried one of my jalapeƱos and it wasn't spicy at all. So there's also that.

To be honest, I forgot about the white leaves for the rest of the night. I woke up Monday morning at 6, unintentionally, but was wide awake. My mind wandered to the pumpkin plants and I began to research what was going on. The answer was crystal clear. Powdery Mildew. A fungus.

Just terrific.

I quickly tried to read up on some cures, but it turns out the best solution is to prevent the fungus from forming in the first place. Is that some bullshit or what?

Once again I was forced to acknowledge the ways I'd failed as a result of my own ignorance. Apparently pumpkins shouldn't be watered at night. Oops. Especially not in hot climates. Double oops. Well, wait, does it count as a hot climate if the average afternoon temperature is 101 degrees? It does? Oh, then yeah double oops.

How was I to know there were all these gremlin-like rules for pumpkin care? Fungus forms in humid conditions, and the hot night air mixed with freshly watered soil makes for a fungus fiesta.

Now, the most I could do was chop off the affected leaves and try to stop the fungus from spreading. I could also apply a fungicide spray, but wouldn't you know it,  even that's said to work best when used before any signs of fungus appear. WHY IS EVERYTHING LIKE THIS?

And that's how I began the work week; outside at 6:15, still wearing pajamas and hacking away at my precious pumpkin patch. By the time I'd removed all of the bad leaves, and two whole plants that were beyond hope, the garden was decidedly lame. The plants all cascaded out in one direction like a side ponytail.

Making matters worse, the fungus spores had drifted over to the main garden, clinging on to some of my squash plant and, even more heartbreakingly, my cucumber plants. After such a rough start it was miraculous I even had cucumber plants, let alone flowering ones. But now we'll have to see if they survive this fungus.

By the time I got home form work, I noticed that many of the leaves on the remaining pumpkin plants were withering and sinking to the ground. I can't make sense of this other than to assume I must've misunderstood the tangled mass of vines and accidentally severed some vital artery. I still can't actually see where I went wrong. But I guess that's why I'm not a surgeon. No other reason. Just that one. Otherwise I possess all surgeon-like qualities. Patience. Focus. Refusal to give up and half ass things.

In the coming days, I'll sadly observe the pumpkin plants to see if they are able to recover from the fungus outbreak. Though I have to admit the withering leaves are typically not a good sign.

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