Late summer vegetable garden and Monarch butterflies

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The potager after yesterday's rain is definitely in transition.

The potager after yesterday’s rain is definitely in transition.

The vegetable garden is in transition. It’s late summer, and all the tomatoes were taking over, so I removed most of them keeping only those plants that were still producing heavily and seemed healthy. Most of my tomato plants have leaf diseases now, but still provide more tomatoes than I can eat. My gardener friends in Oklahoma are surprised I had so much tomato success this year. All that rain and manure were good for those planted in the potager. I’ll have to move them next year though because of root knot nematodes. I can’t plant tomatoes, eggplants and peppers in the same spot two years in a row. Next summer, they’ll be back in the big garden again.

Some of the tomato harvest.

Some of the tomato harvest. Yes, that’s a fly swatter above. We had tons of flies this year. Wonder why.

Most of our summer temperatures were in the 90s except for a hot spell in August that lasted about two weeks with temperatures over 100F. I just tried to keep everything wet and mulched in order to keep it cool. During those days, the tomatoes stopped setting blooms, but revved back up as soon as the mercury went below 100F again.

Zinnias were about the only happy plants in the large vegetable garden.

Zinnias were about the only happy plants in the large vegetable garden.

As for the large vegetable garden, it was pretty dismal. I live on a hill, and the rain just kept coming for weeks and weeks. That’s the thing about a prairie climate. The weather always comes in extremes. All of my seeds slid downhill, and the germination rate for many varieties was very low. I replanted my okra twice, and I finally got enough the other day to fry some. I planted bush beans three times. I still await a harvest.

The one good piece of news in the veggie garden–other than the zinnias and sunflowers–was the ‘Glass Gem’ corn.

In frustration, I turned half of the large veggie garden into a cutting garden of cosmos, zinnias, amaranth, celosia, hollyhocks and nicotiana. It performed much better than the vegetables and became a way station for butterflies and other pollinators. I took my best butterfly shots with most of them posed on the zinnias.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Zowie Hybrid zinnias, one of my favorite types of zinnias.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Zowie hybrid zinnias, one of my favorite types of zinnias.

I think butterflies love zinnias because the blooms are flat and make a great staging area. Next to the zinnias, I planted two yellow milkweed plants, Asclepias tuberosa, for any Monarchs that might stop by. I have aphids of course. Irritating creatures. I keep washing them off after checking for Monarch eggs beforehand. I don’t want to wash off any precious Monarch eggs. Buying milkweed plants is complicated because so many nurseries and box stores use Bt. or Neonicotinoids on plants. If applied recently, these pesticides will kill your caterpillars. Ask your nursery what’s been used before you buy. This fall I bought seeds for three milkweeds native to Oklahoma, A. incarnata, rose milkweed, A. sullivantii, prairie milkweed and  A. hirtella, tall green milkweed. After soaking the seeds for a few hours, I sowed them in three different spots in the garden. Yes, it’s a lot of seed, but I’ll thin out the plants, and I wanted a better chance at germination.

Soaking milkweed seeds.

Soaking milkweed seeds.

It’s my hope that the seed will break down over winter with small seedlings emerging next spring. If this works, I will know for sure that my milkweed is safe for Monarch caterpillars. When people are discouraged about disappearing Monarchs, I think of all my friends who are working diligently to bring their numbers up again. If you’d like to learn more from these dedicated gardeners, join The Beautiful Monarch discussion group on Facebook. Two other great groups are Oklahoma Friends of the Monarchs and the Monarch Initiative of Tulsa. My friend, Kylee Baumle, at Our Little Acre works very hard, and she’s inspired me this summer with her beautiful photographs and Monarch tagging and raising. When I get discouraged, I remember, it was backyard birders who helped bring back the Eastern Bluebird from extinction. I think we can do the same for Monarch butterflies. I haven’t seen more than three Monarchs in my garden this year, but I’m planting milkweed so that they will come. Kylee was kind enough to share her photos of a Monarch caterpillar and chrysalis so I could show you since I’ve got nada.

Monarch caterpillars are things of beauty. I took them for granted until they were nearly gone.

Monarch caterpillars are things of beauty. I took them for granted until they were nearly gone.

Aren’t they beautiful? That gold on the chrysalis always gets me. To learn more about Monarch butterflies including where they got their royal name, head over to Monarch Watch’s FAQ.

Monarch chrysalis hanging from a leaf.

Monarch chrysalis hanging from a leaf.

Last week, I planted some cold weather vegetables for my fall garden. I have beets, broccoli rabe, chard, kale, turnips, rutabaga, two kinds of lettuce and spinach. I piled leaf mold on top of the garden soil to keep veggie seeds cooler so that they would germinate. A cool front finally moved through the state yesterday. I also watered everyday until I began to see seedlings popping up through the mulched leaves. You can also soak seeds overnight, but I didn’t take that extra step. I sowed parsnip and carrot seeds in my cold frame including ‘Cosmic Purple’ carrots. Have you priced rainbow carrots in the store? Outrageous. I’ll just grow my own.



The great tomato palooza

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Tomatoes, garlic, eggplant, corn and a few potatoes are all stacked on the kitchen counter.

Tomatoes, garlic, eggplant, corn and a few potatoes are all stacked on the kitchen counter in one great tomato palooza.

Tomatoes, tomatoes everywhere! It’s more than an abundant harvest at this Oklahoma red dirt ranch. It’s a tomato palooza, all because the head gardener and planner made a rookie mistake even though she’s gardened for 30+ years. You would think that someone who wrote The 20-30 Something Garden Guide: A No-Fuss, Down and Dirty, Gardening 101 for Anyone Who Wants to Grow Stuff wouldn’t have fallen for the oldest trick in the world, but she did. I confess. I overplanted, and here’s how it happened. I always start seeds for tomatoes, peppers and eggplant along with flowers I can’t find locally in the spring . I also buy two or three tomato plants from my local nursery, like ‘Rutgers’, ‘Big Beef’ and ‘Supersteak’, proven varieties that perform especially well in Oklahoma. So, I usually plant about twenty tomato plants in total, some are determinate and others indeterminate. That way, I get a good crop of tomatoes all at once which makes my mother happy, and I also get a steady harvest from the indeterminates over the entire season.

'Black Krim' tomato sliced and ready to eat.

‘Black Krim’ tomato sliced and ready to eat.

However, this year, I got sucked into the happy neurosis of seed starting by names like ‘Pink Furry Boar’, ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Sherry’s Sweetheart.’ When all these young plants I’d nurtured from their first days grew into larger seedlings, I managed to whittle things down to three plants apiece. You can only imagine how hard it is to cull seedlings, one-by-one, but I did it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Here are the varieties I grew this year excluding the three or four plants I bought at my local nursery. I’ll give you my quick reviews next to each variety. First, the cherry tomatoes:

  1. ‘Black Cherry’–Absolutely delicious. Makes larger fruit than some of the other cherry varieties and a little less yield, but cherry tomatoes always produce too much anyway.
  2. ‘Sungold F-1’–Still one of the best yellow tomatoes ever produced. Delicious sweet flavor. Beautiful color.
  3. ‘Sweet 100 F-1’–Classic tomato flavor. Red fruit. Huge yield.
  4. ‘Sweet Gold F-1’–More orange than golden once ripe. Larger fruit than on ‘Sungold’ and sweeter. Delicious.

Then, there are the oddities:

  1. ‘Pink Furry Boar’–Super cute, medium-sized pink tomato. Taste is pretty good and skin is delicate. Not my absolute favorite tomato though. Probably won’t grow it again.
  2. Sherry’s Sweet Heart‘–Red fruit is distinctly pointed on the bottom and somewhat heart shaped. The taste is good. I might grow it again. However, ‘Lumpy Red’ tomato will probably win out next year.
  3. ‘Purple Dragon’–Prettiest tomato I’ve ever grown. When ripe, it’s purple near the stem and golden yellow on bottom. See below.
'Purple Dragon' tomato is the size of a medium egg and is the prettiest tomato I've ever grown.

‘Purple Dragon’ tomato is the size of a medium egg and is the prettiest tomato I’ve ever grown.

The Heirlooms:

  1. ‘Rutgers’–After some research, I see that the ‘Rutgers’ I’m growing may not be the one I grew a few years ago. It’s done okay anyway. Nice, round red fruits with a good acid balance. I like slightly acidic tomatoes. You may like super sweet ones. Pick accordingly. I’m also making a note here to try Ramapo‘ next year. I wonder if it will become another favorite. It’s considered the true Jersey tomato.
  2. ‘Black Krim’–Huge fruits that are black to pinkish when ripe. ‘Black Krim’ has really outdone itself this year producing a ton of fruit. The taste is very good and sweeter than I usually like. However, it’s a beautiful tomato and performs well in hot summers.
  3. ‘Abe Lincoln’ –Consistently round, medium sized, red fruits. Excellent producer. Fruit has slightly tough skin, but delicious and acidic. Old-time tomato taste. It’s an heirloom and indeterminate so expect fruit over a long period.
The perfect weekend breakfast, two slices of whole grain toast, two poached eggs and a 'St. Pierre' tomato sliced.

The perfect weekend breakfast, two slices of whole grain toast, two poached eggs and a ‘St. Pierre’ tomato sliced.

Basic tomatoes:

  1. ‘Roma’–Very disappointed in this one. It has consistently had blossom end rot where none of the other tomatoes have. I won’t be growing the plain ‘Roma’ anymore. I’ll replace it with another Italian tomato.
  2. ‘Super Sioux’–Good, basic slicer. Taste is very good. Nice round tomatoes, medium size. Plants are considered semi-determinate. I can attest that this tomato does perform well in hot and dry conditions. I often grow it.
  3. ‘Saint Pierre’–Wins hands down as the best tomato I’ve grown this year. It is a French salad tomato, and I bought the seeds from Franchi Seeds of Italy. I can’t say enough nice things about this wonderful red tomato. It’s isn’t a huge slicer, but the flavor is good and production is superb. The fruit is on the smallish side, but don’t have a tons of seeds and would be good for canning.

Now, add to this three or four tomato plants I couldn’t resist at the store. You see what happened. I have five rows with eight tomatoes each. That’s a lot of plants so it’s a tomato palooza at my house right now, and I don’t even mind. I’m giving fruit away, and I’m freezing some for winter too. This post is part of our Dear Friend and Gardener Virtual Garden Club series. Join us if you’d like. Link back to the badge, and I’ll add you to the clubhouse. Meanwhile, Carol at May Dreams Gardens has a postcard from her garden. Just check out the vegetable haul she had.