Monday, July 16, 2007

Monsters of the Garden

Certain plants meander along fitfully until midsummer . . . and then take over the entire garden once they hit their stride. I am speaking, naturally, of squash, melons, and cucumbers, but especially of the squash.

When I planted buttercup squash again this year, I had little hope for the long-term survival of the big, flat seeds that I pressed into the open earth. Last year’s plants, which I had started indoors in peat pots, were vigorous, thick-leaved, and about a foot and a half long when I planted them out in the garden, but they soon shriveled and yellowed in the inhospitable mulch. I kept them alive for a few weeks with successive applications of artificial fertilizers, but then the squash bugs laid eggs on them, and the young nymphs sucked all the juices out. It was the first time I’d ever dealt with those insects. In Colorado, where I grew up, I had never seen any such problem, though my family grew far too much zucchini every year.

This year, I never got around to planting zucchini. I didn’t want to plant two kinds of squash close together, because (according to the venerable Edward C. Smith) large groupings of the same kinds of plants make a sort of one-stop shop for marauding insects. I meant to prepare another flowerbed for zucchini, but I’ll admit, the motivation wasn’t very strong (not that there’s anything wrong with zucchini).

Perhaps sensing an opportunity to impress in the absence of its super-productive cousin, the buttercup squash has outgrown every other plant in the garden. Its vines have climbed sideways on my supposedly rabbit-proof garden fence, and as of this morning, the longest vine spans the length of the fence on one side. That means it’s at least ten feet long—and since it’s climbed up diagonally, it might even be longer. The two squash plants on the far side of the fence have been excellent producers, as well. There are at least four developing squash fruits, and the largest one has grown to the size of a softball.

I’ve had very little trouble with insects, except for the squash vine borer that killed one of the plants on the side of the garden nearer to the house. I’ve killed three or four adult squash bugs, but so far, I’ve seen no signs of their leathery, red-brown eggs, which they like to lay in several angled rows on the undersides of young leaves. The yellow-and-black cucumber beetles, which came by the hundreds last year, have been nearly absent—I’ve seen one striped beetle and one spotted beetle. The nasturtiums I planted next to the squash and cucumbers might be at least partly responsible for these insects’ absence, as their repellent effect is advertised nearly everywhere I’ve looked for information, but I think the general health and better nutrition of the plants also has helped. The gardening manuals say that weaker plants tend to attract heavier infestations of pests.

The watermelon and muskmelon plants have made similar advances across the flowerbeds, but the progress of the muskmelons has been checked by my archenemies, the infernal, unstoppable rabbits. The plants are too big to be seriously damaged by the nighttime nibblers, but nearly all of the ends have been clipped off with the greatest efficiency. An untutored eye, roving over those plants, might assume that the gardener herself had decided to prune those vines to keep them under control. This gardener, however, operating under the assumption that larger plants will support healthier and more numerous melons, would far prefer to have the vines wander at will.

So far, dressing the vine tips with cayenne pepper-laced vegetable oil has provided temporary relief for the plants, but the oil seems to cause the leaves to scorch in the sun, and the cayenne washes away each time the plants are watered or rained on. Gazing at last night’s damage (after a heavy rain), I felt rather hopeless. I’ll continue apply the mixture just to the ends of the plants, and I’ll stick some of the other growing tips inside the chicken-wire cages that I used to cover the young peppers and eggplants.

It pleases me to see my monsters grow over wide swaths of soil and fence, to try to train the unruly cucumbers up their trellis, and to watch the bees compete for places inside their bright yellow flowers. A few of the cucumbers are almost ready to pick. They appeared beneath the vines almost by magic and seemed to grow overnight from the size of a piece of chalk to nearly a foot long and an inch and a half in diameter. On the muskmelon plants, I have observed three swelling, furry, oblong objects, the largest of them about the size of my fist. None of the watermelon plants have produced viable fruits of any size as yet, though I see a few marble-sized objects that look promising.

Important though these fruits will be at harvest time, the expanding leaves—the many fingered, rough-looking leaves on the watermelon; the broad, slightly rippled leaves of the cantaloupe; great, smooth squash leaves approaching dinner-plate size; and the roughly triangular, dark-green, furry cucumber leaves—are what bring me joy right now. These ramblers and climbers take a lot of space and a lot of effort to grow, but every garden should have at least one monster to support the gardener’s ego and to impart to the entire project the luxuriant, almost decadent, appearance of success.

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Blogger blaineandmeryl said...

Awesome that your veggies are growing so well! Alas, the squash bugs have attacked my pumpkins something horrible this year....

August 9, 2007 at 12:12 PM  

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