A series of timely rains has graced gardeners hereabouts. I usually try to provide just enough water to keep the plants alive.
When the sky drained, gave the plants as much as they could drink, they manifest their full potential. Heavy mulching keeps the water in the ground between rains.
For some reason, though, this year’s yield included an impressive variety of caterpillars, many colors, sizes, shapes. Nearly every plant harbored a few, from tiny hump-backed worms that pose as twigs to avoid predators, to fat grey worms excavating holes in tomatoes and corn.
Spinosad spray really worked to protect the corn ears, misted onto the developing silks a couple times during the season. Even the foot-long ears of Hopi blue corn were clean to the very tips. Worked for cabbages too.
I forgo insecticides entirely on most crops, inviting some losses, but the yields were so plentiful that it didn’t matter. Save the spiders!
One caterpillar category went AWOL this year — the swallowtail larvae most prominently, but other butterflies and moths as well. Usually the fennel and dill are full of fat worms striped with green, black, white, and yellow. They’re late and few this year. When last fall’s Indian summer encouraged a late bloom of butterflies, I worried that many would be unable to find places to form a chrysalis or cocoon before the first frost simply wiped them out. I still enjoyed the late explosion of flutter and color, vaguely apprehensive that it was too much, too late. Suspicions confirmed.
One caterpillar was all too plentiful this year, the dagnab bagworm. In typical years we see some of their little sacks dangling from cedar twigs, but they don’t hurt much, and I haven’t had to spray them.
This year their population went nova. Bags crowded cedars more thickly than usual, but also began to show up on metal house siding, mulberry trees, spruces. The book says that June is the best time to spray for bagworms, so I reluctantly sprayed the cedar group around the greenhouse. Twice. (Collateral damage: the agonized screams of dying spiders still haunt my dreams.)
I left one small, isolated, and “dispensable” cedar untreated, as a control. We saw a substantial reduction in active bag numbers among the sprayed trees, though some live worms persisted. I gave them a final treatment in early August, probably too late for optimal effect, but it did appear to snuff most survivors.
Eliminating all sources for next year’s bagworm crop is impossible, but we can hope that this year’s odd weather facilitated an atypical bloom, and that they’ll revert to previous numbers come Spring.
I’m experimenting with my own insect deterrent — fresh green tobacco leaf and wild variegated milkweed, blenderized in alcohol and water, then strained.
Nicotine is biodegradable, and won’t persist in the environment like the commercial “neonicotinoids” that can kill bees. I routinely avoid bug-killers; where the bee sucks, there suck I. (OK, so I suck. It’s Shakespeare, my dear.)
The thick white latex of milkweed might prolong the life of other flowers when both are used in bouquets. The water in the vase turns milky, but takes a lot longer to “spoil.” Although the blossoms service many pollinators (monarchs sip the nectar, but don’t stay to lay eggs), I’ve never seen it affected by insect damage. Even if it lacks bug-icidal potency, I’m hoping the diluted sticky latex will serve as a “sticker-spreader,” enabling the sprayed-on solution to adhere to slippery leaves.
As usual, I’m growing some novelties. One is purple millet. Sporting beautiful glossy purple leaves and tall cattail-like heads, it makes a striking border or background. The seeds are edible.
When this cultivar appeared in seed catalogs some years ago, they charged a dollar a seed. Apparently this is because they only got to sell it once — the plants’ seeds breed true, don’t lose vigor, and produce heavily for us seed-savers. I hung the dried heads in a hot shed, and forgot them.
Those mistreated seeds still germinated well years later. I sowed them thickly and barely thinned them, but crowding didn’t stunt their growth.
“Job’s Tears (coix lachryma) is a chest-high grass that produces glossy, hard seeds shaped like plump teardrops, grey, white, black, striated, maybe three-eighths inch long. The stem-scar’s dimple in one end makes it easy to poke a needle right down the central axis. The seed makes a durable, attractive bead for necklaces and other crafts. My dad grew them 60 years ago.
Viable Job’s Tears seeds were hard to find online. Sometimes pearled barley is labeled as Job’s Tears. Other offerings, intended solely for use as beads, are not fertile.
I finally found a good source, grew a test plot last year. This year rains sustained the main crop. Good timing.
You might’ve seen goji berries in healthfood stores, usually sold dried. They’re another exotic curiosity marketed as — ooh! — an antioxidant powerhouse, a superfood.
Eh. The fresh berries are bland, with a touch of bitterness. I botched growing goji before, but this year a new plant is thriving, spreading slender tendrils loaded with multicolored flowers and a few berries. Definitely a work in progress.
But I have surpluses. If any readers want to grow purple millet or Job’s Tears, email me — free seeds! Maybe come have a look at the garden; you might see something else you’d like to try.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton
and lives outside Hays.