Below are are series of condensed posts that Austin vegetable expert Patty Leander has done for The Masters of Horticulture. You can scroll through them here or click on the following links to be be taken to the original, un-edited blog posts. Enjoy!
Heat Loving Veggies for the Texas Garden
We endured a hellacious drought last summer – not our first, not our last – yet winter and spring have brought much anticipated renewal, for both garden and gardener. The drought has reminded us of the importance of mulch, efficient irrigation and planting the right plant at the right time. It’s not even a bad idea to think of summer as a dormant time in the vegetable garden, but for those who are not deterred by rain deficits, sun, heat and sweat I’d like to highlight a few Texas-tough vegetables to fill the summer gap:
Okra – This quintessential heat lover is first on my list. Smooth, ribbed, long, short, green or red, I have never tried a variety that I didn’t like. Okra seed can be planted once the soil has warmed (70-80º), usually April or May in Central Texas. It will reach maturity (4-6 feet tall) in approximately two months and picking will be easier if you space it at least 2 feet apart – and once it starts producing you will be picking almost every day! In fact the secret to tender okra is to check your plants daily and harvest pods when they are only 3-5” long. And unlike those temperamental heirloom tomatoes, heirloom okra varieties grow like champs without much coddling or cajoling at all. ‘Clemson Spineless’, ‘Emerald’ and ‘Hill Country Heirloom Red’ are available from Baker Creek Seeds (www.rareseeds.com). I know of two open-pollinated varieties with Texas roots that deserve mention. ‘Beck’s Big’, a giant okra with fat pods, introduced in 1968 by organic trailblazer Malcolm Beck of San Antonio, and my personal favorite, ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’, a smooth, dark green variety carefully selected over several years for branching and productivity by two of my favorite gardeners, the late George and Mary Stewart of Houston. Both okras are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com). Okra plants have tiny, mostly inconspicuous spines that cause an annoying itch, so be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting pods.
Southern Peas – These legumes go by many names – cowpeas, field peas, black-eyed peas – but no matter what you call them they can take the Texas heat. They also taste delicious, produce beautiful blossoms, and can be used as a cover crop to build nitrogen and organic matter in the soil. Two old-fashioned varieties for summer cover crops are ‘Red Ripper’ and ‘Iron and Clay’. For fresh-eating I am partial to ‘Purple Hull’ and crowder peas (so called because the peas are crowded in the pod) such as ‘Mississippi Silver’ and ‘Colossus’. Heavenly Seed (www.heavenlyseed.net) is a small, family-owned seed company located in Anderson, South Carolina, that offers a superb selection of southern peas.
Asparagus Beans – Also known as yard long beans, this heat-loving relative of the cowpea is popular for use in Asian stir-fries. Most varieties are vigorous vines that require a sturdy fence or trellis. Harvest when pods are about 15-18” long, before beans begin to swell. ‘Red Noodle’, available from both Baker Creek and Heavenly Seed, produces long, burgundy pods that can be sliced and sautéed or stir-fried.
Molokhia and Malabar Spinach – Lettuce and other greens thrive in most of Texas from fall to early spring, but home-grown salad greens are hard to come by as summer approaches. As the days grow long and hot many gardeners turn to Malabar spinach as a warm weather salad green. Another summertime option is a popular Middle Eastern green called molokhia, sometimes referred to as Egyptian spinach. The nutritious, grassy tasting leaves are plucked from fast-growing, multi-stemmed plants that grow 4-6 feet tall. Young leaves and shoots can be added to salads or sandwiches and older leaves can be cooked or sautéed and added to soups or casseroles. A reliable seed source for both of these greens is Kitazawa Seed Company (www.kitazawaseed.com).
Leaf-footed Bugs: these grayish brown bugs with the flattened hind legs are a common pest of tomatoes. They have what entomologists call “piercing-sucking” mouthparts, and that is exactly what they do to tomatoes. They pierce the skin, inject an enzyme to dissolve the juices, and then suck the juice out, leaving small, hard, white spots or lesions on the surface of the tomato.
Their eggs are laid in long chains along the stems or leaf midrib; after hatching the nymphs, with their orange bodies and black legs, congregate together making them easy to spot. Do not be deceived – the nymphs may not look like adult leaf-footed bugs, but they will in approximately 30 days after morphing through five instar stages.
These soft-bodied orange nymphs cannot fly, they can only scatter, so this is the preferred stage to treat them with insecticide, squish them or drop them into a bucket of soapy water. Also destroy any egg cases that you find. Spinosad and insecticidal soap may be effective against the nymphs, but nothing seems to bother the adults – they just glare at you and fly away. Handpicking is the best way to get the adults, but beware – they are a type of stink bug and when you squish them it is not pleasant.
Early Blight: Alternaria solani, a common fungal disease that attacks tomatoes, especially during rainy periods. Foliage starts to yellow at the base of the plant and then gradually moves upward. Ideally we should prevent this disease by providing adequate spacing and air circulation, mulching below the plants and avoiding overhead watering that wets the leaves.
Once the disease takes hold it can be treated with an approved fungicide; if early blight is a perennial problem it’s best to start treatment early in the season, to prevent spreading of the disease. Serenade and neem oil are organic controls and Daconil (active ingredient chlorothalonil) is a conventional fungicide that is effective in combating early blight. Using these products on an alternating schedule may give better results. Even though Daconil is not organic, it requires approximately ½ teaspoon per quart of water and the solution can be judiciously directed at foliage, not fruit.
Spider Mites: a nuisance in most spring and summer gardens, this tiny pest inhabits and feeds on the underside of leaves, causing a stippled effect on the surface of the leaf. If left untreated spider mites can quickly destroy a crop. It is amazing how many teeny tiny mites can be on the back of a leaf, they are just near impossible to see without magnification. Their numbers usually increase in hot and dry conditions, but I am already seeing huge numbers of spider mites on my tomatoes even though we’ve had more rain than usual this spring and the temperatures have been mild.
Spider mites are difficult to control, but my first line of defense is to wash the mites off using a strong spray of water directed at the underside of the leaves every 3-5 days. My favorite tool for this purpose is the Mite-Y-Fine Sprayer™ – a tool that my engineer brother built for me. It is a long-handled tool with a high pressure nozzle that allows me to wash mites off of leaves efficiently and without stooping – it’s such a useful tool I told my brother he should make more and sell them – and he is! They are made of quality materials, hand built by him, his wife and their son. I use mine almost every week during the spring and summer growing season. See www.miteyfine.com for more information.
Insecticidal soap, neem oil and wettable sulfur are labeled as miticides and can be sprayed on leaves to help control mites. Many gardeners swear by a weekly seaweed spray to keep them at bay though I prefer to use the Mite-Y-Fine because I like to eat tomatoes off the vine while standing in the garden, and I’d rather not spray them with anything.
Tomato Hornworm: prevention is the best control here. A single tomato hornworm can defoliate a tomato plant in short order if left unchecked, so it’s best to scout the plants for signs of damage (large chunks of missing leaves and moist, dark green worm poop on the soil or in the branches. These large caterpillars usually show up as an army of one, rarely do I see more than two on a plant. When there’s only one or two it’s easy to pull them off and toss them into your neighbor’s yard, or do as one lady told me – she just goes after them with a pair of scissors (ugh).
Nematodes: if your healthy tomato plant begins to gradually decline, turning yellow, drooping, losing vigor and/or wilting without reviving by the next morning then you may have nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic worms that get into the roots and form small galls or knots in the root, blocking the uptake of water and nutrients and causing the plant to gradually decline. Once a plant has nematodes you might as well pull it up as there is no treatment and leaving it in the ground will only allow the nematodes to increase in numbers. When pulling an infected plant be careful not to fling nematode-infested soil to other parts of the garden.