Jennifer StackhouseThe vagaries of vegies

There’s a man drought here and I don’t know what to do. I don’t think eHarmony has the answer, nor RSVP. This particular man drought has struck in the vegie patch, where my yellow button squash are producing nothing but female flowers. I have five plants and they are all laden with flowers but there’s no maturing fruit.

femalesquashflowersWhen a male bloom burst open on the nearby butternut pumpkin I used the pollen on the female squash flowers in a bid for cross-pollination. The two plants are closely related and I felt it should work, but so far I’ve had no success – although that could be down to the heavy rain.

I have read it is possible to keep pollen from male flowers by storing it in the fridge so I am planning that as insurance against future man droughts. In the meantime, while I eagerly anticipate a male bloom, I am not letting that immature fruit go to waste. I am harvesting the tiny fruitlets and lightly steaming them as a vegie. They add colour if not much else to the dinner plate.

Female squash flower

Female squash flower

Growing edible plants is a real roller coaster as I am sure gardeners are discovering. And no two years seems to bring the same results.

This year for example we had no peach leaf curl on the peaches but also no fruit. Flowering was poor, fruit set even poorer and what did set, was eaten by fruit bats long before it became mature.

Back in the vegie patch cucumbers, tomatoes and rainbow chard have all been prolific as has the rocket, basil and oregano, but I had a disaster with the climbing beans. I think a rat was eating the small beans and flowers as the vines produced nothing at all then, after the recent heatwave followed by heavy rain, they gave up dropping all their leaves. I pulled them out and I am trying again with bush bean.

The lettuce also got off to a rocky start. It was slow to germinate and then the first crop became rabbit food. On about I think the third attempt however it grew and prospered and we’ve been eating lots of lovely lettuce.

powderymildewladybird1So it’s been salads, pickled cucumbers and pesto with an occasional mound of steamed rainbow chard on our menu this summer. I wonder what autumn has in store!

Oh, and as a bit of a postscript there’s something else interesting happening with the squash. Early on yellow ladybirds appeared among the plants. They appear to be thriving on the powdery mildew on the foliage. They are a great example of biological control at work.

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Jennifer Stackhouse

About Jennifer Stackhouse

Recently Jennifer Stackhouse made the big move from Kurmond in NSW to a Federation house in the little village of Barrington tucked beneath Mt Roland in northwest Tasmania. With high rainfall, rich, red deep soil and a mild climate she reckons she's won the gardening lottery. She's taken on an acre garden that's been lovingly planted and tended for the past 28 years by a pair of keen gardeners so she is discovering a garden full of horticultural treasures. Jennifer is the author of several gardening books including 'Garden', which won a Book Laurel for 2013, as well as ‘The Organic Guide to Edible Gardens’, ‘Planting Techniques’ and ‘My Gardening Year’, which she wrote with her mother Shirley. She was editor of ABC 'Gardening Australia' magazine and now edits the trade journal 'Greenworld' magazine and writes regularly for the Saturday magazine in 'The Mercury'. She is often heard on radio and at garden shows answering garden queries.

12 thoughts on “The vagaries of vegies

  1. Isn’t it interesting where a post will take you! I have just been checking out that ladybird and found out that it is called “The fungus eating ladybird (Illeis galbula)” and here I have been thinking it is the dreaded 28 spotted ladybird (shows I should put my glasses on 😉 ). Lucky I have only been spraying my powdery on my zucchinis (also very few male flowers this year in Tassie…maybe its a “girl” year? 😉 ) with milk preparation. Interesting about the pollen in the fridge? Might spend a bit of time researching that too :). All of my pumpkins were eaten by possums that had been driven out of the bushland nearby because of the lack of food thanks to the bushfires. The wallabies and small roos are also invading and although our veggie patch is fully enclosed, they have some ingenious ways of pinching vegetation. The possums reach in through the bird netting and grab everything green (I now have a cube of beans rather than a wild tangle of leaves) and the wallabies and roos lean on the wire and push it in and eat anything that pokes out. This year we are building a massive ediface to human ingenuity to keep them out permanently! Cheers for an interesting and informative post 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback. The 28-spotted ladybirds are light orange with more spots (may be 28 but definitely more than my little yellow friend). They have orange eggs which are laid under the leaves and distinctive larvae – small, yellow-orange, segmented bodies with a spike of hairs. The larvae eat like there’s no tomorrow so keep an eye out for them and squash any you see. Also remove eggs.
      And the good news is that since posting that blog I’ve had lots of male flowers and even harvested some lovely big squash. Jennifer

  2. Jennifer, To solve your male flower problem you might try growing Romanesco zuchini as the fruit grows to a decent size without pollination. This can be good early in the season. It is a fairly aggressive variety and once they are pollinated the fruits grow very rapidly. Mike

  3. Hello Jennifer

    prior to the arrival of ex-cyclone Oswald, I had a ‘woman drought’ in the vegie garden – particularly with the pumpkins. The unseasonal hot dry weather resulted in a lack of female flowers in many gardens in south east Queensland. Following the wet weather we had female flowers galore. I think I will have a pumpkin glut in a few months time.

    Every year is different with vegetables. I think the only solution is to grow a wide diversity. Something will do well. As they say, feast or famine.

  4. I enjoyed your blog post re the ‘man drought’ in the vegie patch, made me smile.

    I’ve also previously experienced a man drought (in the zuchini patch). But I was happy to experiment with cooking zuchini flowers, as they are so expensive in the shops.

    I’ve previously grappled with whether my yellow lady bugs were ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’, so thanks for that info also.

    I found out about your blog through RN this morning, and learned that the milk you use to combat mildew must be full cream (cause it needs the fat to work)

    • Thank you for the feedback and glad to hear you found the site. Hope you continue to enjoy our offerings. The cross pollination has worked now and I have been harvesting some lovely squash – unfortunately the rain of the past 24 hours or so probably means the current lot of blooms (good number of males and females) will fail to form fruit as the flowers are full of water. I did try to do some pollination and cover the flowers to keep them dry but I don’t feel very confident!

    • Interesting! I’ve quizzed a couple of insect experts here who seem to think the information you are linking to isn’t correct. While I am sure the ladybirds would spread the mildew as they would pick up spores while feeding, my observation of this insect in my garden was that it devoured much of the mildew. It was quite obvious where the insects had been feeding!
      Here’s a comment from insect expert and photographer Denis Crawford from Graphic Science, who has researched the topic more thoroughly.
      He says:
      “I have heard this story before but it is not supported by any scientific literature I can find. Here is an excerpt from a paper (one of the few) which examines the biology and behaviour of the fungus eating ladybird Illeis galbula:
      ‘Feeding behaviour is remarkably uniform, both larvae and adults graze fungal spores and hyphae from surfaces of leaves. When Oidium sp. is dense, they feed on a front and visibly clear large areas of the leafs white fungal covering ; if infestation is light, both larvae and adults search leaf surfaces at random and if nothing is found, adults fly off.’
      “It is possible that the beetles spread the fungus as would any other insect which walks over the spores and then moves to another leaf, as would water drops, wind etc. The ladybirds almost certainly do more good than harm.”
      Thanks Denis!
      I’ll keep looking for more information and welcome input from other readers and gardeners. As we are near the end of these mildew-prone crops observations may have to wait until next spring and summer.

  5. Thanks for the info Jennifer, that’s really interesting. I got my info originally from “Backyard Battlefield (Random House NZ, 2005) by entomologist Ruud Kleinpaste, who says:

    “Sadly, observing these elegant creatures [Illeis galbula] in my veggie garden I think I have gathered enough evidence to accuse them of spreading the fungus from leaf to leaf and plant to plant. You see, these guys are just like us – they cultivate their gardens!”

    So, observation, but at least it was scientific observation. I haven’t heard that he’s changed his mind since writing the book, but will now keep an ear and eye open.

    • Update on the powdery mildew eating ladybird. Denis Crawford has an article in the current (May 2013) issue of Hort Journal (see about the little critter which makes really interesting reading. He has also located some research from the US which says: “There was no difference in PM transmission rate or severity over time when uninfected plants were exposed to infected plants either with or without the presence of a small population of P. vigintimaculata “. Doesn’t get much clearer than that adds Denis! By the P. vigintimaculata is the US version of the PM eating ladybird.

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