Monday, June 21, 2010

The Summer Solstice and Strawberry Moon

Today is the longest day of the year, Litha, the Summer Solstice. This Saturday is the full moon of June, the Strawberry Moon, because it's strawberry season (though it has been since about April or May). I probably view this day differently than my European ancestors did, maybe closer to how they saw the winter solstice, as a relief. In this case it's a reminder that it won't be this hot forever. We've now gone into the typical Texas summer very boring weather pattern where it's in the mid-90's and sunny every single day, and only gets down to the mid-70's every night.

I prefer calling this day "Midsummer" rather than how the weatherman calls this the first day of summer. As far as I'm concerned, it's been summer since May, and now summer is at it's full strength. Every day the dog day cicadas buzz away (also known as the "annual cicada", our species of cicada come out every year, unlike farther north where they're famously on 13 or 17 year cycles), and at night the loud calls of katydids now drown out the frogs, owls, and chuck-wills-widows I heard earlier in the summer.

Today's pictures were taken in the middle of the afternoon so you can see that even though I rewarded my plants for their hard work by giving them a good watering last night, they are still wilted during mid-day. Even the notoriously heat-loving sweet potatoes in the foreground droop in the sun. The cushaw squash is in the background. This mid-day wilting isn't a big deal, though. The plants are just closing up their stomata in the leaves to conserve water. As long as they open up again every evening, they're fine.

Even the newly planted corn shrivels up a bit in the middle of the day, despite using the more efficient C-4 photosynthesis. Corn, of course, is a warm-season grass native to Mexico, and most warm-season grasses use C-4. Cactus have a different water-conserving photosynthetic method called CAM photosynthesis, but most plants use C-3 photosynthesis and have to shut down all photosynthetic activities when they close their stomata in the middle of the day. In the top left of the picture you can also see my chard, which has still not bolted. All the other winter greens are long gone. This is much hardier stuff than I thought. It needs to bolt some day, right? I am out of chard seeds and wanted to save some.

The yellow crookneck squash are almost all gone from squash vine borers. This is a tricky little pest that I didn't have problems with before when I was a kid. Then our squash always got squash bugs, a bug that sucks the leaves of the plant. Squash vine borers are a different animal, a moth that lays its eggs on the plant, then the caterpillars bore into the stems and eat the plant from the inside out. Since they're inside the plant, they're very hard to get rid of with any organic means. Anything sprayed on the outside won't affect them. I think I'm going to go ahead and pull up what's left of my plants and then do something to try to kill the borers which now should be buried under the soil pupating...

Here's a bed I've already covered up with clear plastic, in this case to kill Bermuda grass. I'll see if it helps with squash vine borers too. This is a piece of dropcloth from the paint section of the hardware store. The area was well-watered and then covered with the plastic weighed down with rocks. I'm going to leave it on there until it's time to plant fall crops. Leaving the plastic on over the summer should bake the soil and kill any weeds, weed seeds, and insect pupae underneath. It's a nice, non-toxic way of dealing with these pests, aside from the fact that you need to leave a bed "fallow" for a few months in the middle of the summer for the plastic to do its work.
On the other hand, not all the cucurbits are having trouble. This is a Tromboncino squash, which is in the same species as butternut squash (C. moschata), and is borer-resistant, but unlike its cousins, it's eaten young like zucchini. However, I'm letting this one mature so I can save seed from it. The mature squashes are supposed to get up to three feet long!

This is not a watermelon, but a cushaw squash. Unfortunately, it seems to be the only fruit my plants have put out yet. I thought cushaws were supposed to be prolific (and I also thought they were supposed to be more pear shaped rather than round like this one). I went ahead and gave them some organic fertilizer and a good watering, so hopefully they'll set some more fruit in time to ripen before winter.

This IS a watermelon! Not having trouble with them setting fruit. I've found at least five so far. This guy is a little bigger than softball size. The variety is Blacktail Mountain, which is advertised as being good for northern climates. It doesn't seem to mind the heat here, but I mainly got it because the fruits are small. Maybe some day I'll try to grow big watermelons, but since this is the first time I've tried, I thought the small ones might be easier.

I recently planted one last squash variety, Queensland Blue. This might have been a bad idea, but I thought I'd give it a shot with just three plants. They seem to be doing ok so far. The picture on the packet was of some beautiful blue pumpkins.

The okra are also doing well. I just wish I had more of them growing. I almost have enough to make gumbo. Aren't okra flowers pretty?

The pole beans still haven't put out any pods, not even the Kentucky Wonders. Maybe I planted them too late and now it's too hot for them. They keep growing longer vines and even put out a few flowers, but no pods. Bummer.

The bush beans are doing better, and I'm also getting green beans in my CSA bag. These are some of my Dragon Tongue Beans. Not bad for a French variety that I was afraid couldn't take the heat. It's a flat, yellow bean, with purple stripes. Too bad the purple stripes disappear when you cook them.
The jalapenos, the only peppers I had that are thriving, are setting fruit too. I need to make salsa soon because I'm also getting a good crop of tomatoes.

Well, I leave you with a shot of the sunflowers that are coming up along the back fence. I'm not sure if these are here because birds were carrying seeds from a bird feeder and dropped them, or if they're here by some other means, but they are pretty and perfect for Litha. Overall, it seems that on this longest day, the summer harvest is in full force, though there are signs that heat stress is starting to get to some plants. Just like how the coldest weather is not until about a month after the winter solstice, by the next full moon I expect the garden will be more like an oven than a lush sanctuary.


  1. I wish I could plant edible plants in my back yard (but it's small and heavily shaded . . . I have trouble with the San Augustine).
    Curious though. Covering t bit of ground with plastic during Summer will kill off the grasses, but does it not also kill off the soil bacteria? My limited experience is that it takes several months for the soil to recover from that kind of "burning."

  2. I thought of the bacteria (and things like earthworms... I hope they can escape), but I decided to go ahead and try it anyway since Bermuda grass is so awful. "Solarizing" is, at least according to the stuff I've read, the only effective organic way to get rid of it.

    I figured it was worth experimenting with, and I'm also only doing a couple of my 15 plots, since the rest have crops growing in them. Maybe when I take the plastic off in August or September I'll mix in some compost to repopulate my bacteria.