Ray's Garden Rows: Curtain begins to close on gardening season

Ray Mueller, Correspondent

With the onset of freezing temperatures and the rapidly diminishing amount of daylight, the gardening season is drawing to a close. But what a season it was for productivity and the relatively small number of problems.

My attention was divided throughout much of the summer by having to oversee not only my garden plot on my cousin's farm about 10 miles from my home but also the new garden site at my step-daughter's residence just four blocks from home. First, let's review the highlights from the new site, which was converted from lawn space in 2015.

Spaghetti squash

Spaghetti squash were certainly the stars of the summer. The colony of only five plants had vines that grew to lengths of 25 feet and produced more than 30 specimens weighing between 5 and 12 pounds.

In addition to being numerous, the squash have excellent quality. They are so good that even our 13 year-old house cat has taken a liking to them after they are baked. Maybe I've found a cheap way to feed her.

The eggplant that my stepdaughter grew were also very productive into October. I've never succeeded in growing them.

Production highlights

Among the garden plants which thrived in the new seedbed were four varieties of potatoes (red, yellow, and blue), the tomatoes, the peppers, the green peas and my stepdaughter's leeks. A few watermelon plants supplied five wonderfully tasteful fruits.

Two plantings of green beans, for summer and autumn harvest, were also a highlight. In addition to harvesting for farmer's market sales and storage in the freezer, the beans are providing seeds for subsequent years. I now have saved seeds for six varieties of beans, including yellow and purple.

We also succeeded in establishing 24 black raspberry plants, representing three varieties. They should be productive next summer. Four elderberry plants are also in place at that site.

After mid-summer, heirloom golden and Chioggia beets were planted. They were ready for harvest in September and October.

Spaghetti squash weighing 5 to 12 pounds apiece were one of the highlights of a very successful 2016 gardening season.

Prodigious growth

As was the case with the spaghetti squash, the amount of foliage on all of the plants was amazing. The tomato plants were huge, the eggplant and peppers were quite tall, and the pea vines stretched to more than four feet.

I attribute the vigorous growth to a combination of the best soil in which I have ever grown garden plants and to the more than adequate rainfall during most parts of the growing season this year. No fertilizer has been applied to this new site which was a lawn for 80 or more years. We have filled a compost barrel as a future source of organic matter and nutrients.

Only one pest

Except for a squadron of mosquitoes, what continues to be amazing in that backyard garden, which now covers 1,900 square feet, has been the absence so far of most of the pests which are often found in gardens. For instance, there haven't been any Colorado potato beetles yet.

In early August, there was a hint of mildew on the spaghetti squash leaves, but that didn't persist. Another amazing phenomenon was that the tomato plants did not exhibit any deterioration or have any diseases before they were removed in late September and early October.

The only pest problem was the intrusion by the neighborhood rabbits. They dined on the peas, green beans, beets and even morning glory plants before we put protective fencing up. We're going to have to fence the raspberries during the winter and put a temporary fence around the entire garden next year to keep the rabbits out.

Out on the farm

On my cousin's farm, where I've been gardening for nine years, the potato crop was again challenged by the resident population of Colorado potato beetles. In lieu of trying to applying an insecticide frequently, it took a fair amount of time to nab egg layers early in the season, remove egg masses, collect larvae via the shake in a bucket method and catch some of the mature beetles that would be the egg layers next spring.

I also grew three varieties of green beans and the purple beans there. Even with the excess of rain, it was still possible to collect a good supply of seeds.

Despite a slight intrusion by either rabbits or groundhogs, my patch of commercial field variety green peas fared very well. I was also able to collect lots of seeds for next year and even beyond.

Raspberry patches

Red raspberries, the autumn Heritage variety, are the highlight in the garden on my cousin's farm. There are two separate patches, one of which has some summer raspberry plants. Pollination is provided by bumble and honey bees — even into October on some late developing canes.

Because I didn't cut all of the previously bearing canes of the Heritage variety before last winter, some of them were producers during the summer but not to the extent to the late season productivity. Ordinarily, the Heritage bear on canes that emerge in the spring but there was an awful lot of similar new cane growth this autumn. I wonder what that means for next year.

For the Heritage variety, the productive season was typical: mid-August to the second week of October. What was quite different this year was the number of insects that were dining on the berries. I'll take that as a sign that the raspberries were good.

Variety of insects

There were at least seven different insect species that sampled the raspberries. I achieved fairly good control of the spotted wing drosophila by using apple cider vinegar as bait (one of the methods advised by the Extension Service) and they were not a factor in the latter half of the picking season.

The yellow jacket hornets persisted to the end. Other insects which appeared during at least part of the harvest period were the black picnic beetle (the vinegar bait caught some of them), grasshoppers, large black flies, a green beetle that I believe to be the northern corn rootworm beetle, the Asian lady beetle and a few ants. Combined with the rot caused by excessive rain and nights of heavy dew, about 20 percent of the berries were not suitable for harvest.

Slow progression

Although it was planted in early May, my Swiss chard didn't fare well during the summer. But the plants survived and then provided wonderful harvests in September and October.

Much the same was true for the pepper plants at my cousin's farm. They stood idle during the summer before one of them produced two huge specimens that I still hadn't taken in early October and the others didn't set fruits until September. They might be candidates for digging before the first freeze and indoor protection during the winter.

This year is also one of the few during which I enjoyed a good emergence of carrots. They were still in the ground in mid-October as I waited for an improvement in the taste compared to what I detected on the few that I had sampled earlier. There were pleas for carrots by a few patrons at a farmer's market, but I wasn't going to sell mine if I couldn't attest to their quality on the basis of taste at the time.

For the first time in several years, the groundcherry plants reached close to their growth potential in both garden locations. But about half of the plants died early, and even many of the fruits on the plants that survived to the end of growing season were not ripe enough for proper taste before they fell off the plants.