Posts Tagged ‘bell peppers’
Shooting obliquely through a window at dusk and zoomed to the max, I captured some poor-quality photos of this cardinal after it plucked a hornworm from my tomato plants. While the image is sketchy, there’s no mistaking the shape and color of the delicacy in the cardinal’s beak.
Birds seem to love my small kitchen garden, so I’m rarely surprised to see some flitting about when I glance out the window. Sometimes I look up while working in the vegetable bed and there’s a catbird or goldfinch poking about within 15 feet of me.
This year, for the first time, I noticed a cardinal showing great interest in my plantings. Oddly, during dinner one evening, a cardinal alighted in our lilac bush and then made its way cautiously onto our deck. There, about eight feet from our dinner table, it snooped around the tomato plants growing in a deck planter. What, I wondered, was so alluring about my tomato plants?
The Cardinal Scores a Hornworm
The next evening, near dusk, I glanced out at the garden and saw the cardinal on the fence near my tomato forest. The cardinal hopped onto the plants out of sight and I watched as the leaves and trellis trembled until the cardinal emerged and landed back on the fence.
The cardinal had something in its beak! What did it grab from my tomato plants? I needed a binocular to answer the question: The cardinal had scored a tomato hornworm! (A link in a tweet from @wormsway since has demonstrated that this was a tobacco hornworm, not a tomato hornworm.) I hadn’t yet spotted any hornworm damage on my tomato plants, but there was the cardinal chowing down.
What an awesome sight! I had no idea cardinals eat hornworms much less that they know to hunt among tomato plants. Goodness, hornworms grow so large, I’d think they could choke a chicken … and a cardinal’s throat must be much smaller than that of a chicken. Hornworms are hard to spot, and you’re not likely to find one until there is tell-tale damage to your plants. I’m so glad to know that at least one cardinal has assumed ownership of hornworms on my tomato plants.
Hornworms on Peppers
The day after the cardinal snagged a hornworm, I noticed one of my sweet pepper plants looked ragged. Rain was falling, and I wanted out of the rain, so yet another day passed before I could examine the plant. The photos tell the story and give you a pretty good idea of why you might want a hornworm-eating cardinal to hang out in your small kitchen garden.
I noticed that a huge amount of one of my lilac bell pepper plants was missing; clearly the work of a creature that chews on leaves.
I was suspicious that perhaps a hornworm was involved with my pepper plant; after all, peppers are in the same plant family as tomatoes. Then I saw that someone had eaten a large chunk of one of the peppers! I’d never known a hornworm to eat a tomato; would a hornworm eat a pepper?
Then I saw the poop pineapples. These are unmistakably output from a tomato hornworm. I promise, if you grow tomatoes insecticide-free for enough years, you will come to recognize hornworm poop. Where oh where was the hornworm? (A tweet I spotted after posting this story pointed out how similar tomato hornworms are to tobacco hornworms. It turns out, this particular hornworm is a tobacco hornworm – apparently, both like plants related to tomatoes.)
Knowledge I gained in the past week: It’s a lot easier to spot a hornworm on a pepper plant than it is to spot one on a tomato plant. First, my pepper plants are way smaller than my tomato plants. Second, a hornworm had converted at least a third of this particular pepper plant into hornworm poop so there wasn’t a lot to examine. I got down low, bent a few leaves this way and that, and there was the culprit!
My very well fed tomato hornworm (actually a tobacco hornworm) was longer and fatter than my index finger. I must have turned a blind eye for my pepper plant to host such a “worm” from cradle to monster (a hornworm isn’t a worm; it’s the caterpillar phase of a hummingbird moth). Woe to the cardinal that tries to gulp down something as big as this. Still, perhaps if I can explain to the cardinal that peppers and tomatoes are in the same plant family, the cardinal will keep my whole garden clear of hornworms.
Have you seen these flexible plastic buckets in your local department or gardening store? I did some math and found that they hold up to severn and a half gallons. They seem to be sun-tolerant, and the handles make them easy to move around on a deck or patio during growing season.
I’m always experimenting with low-cost, simple ways to extend my small kitchen garden. One of my greatest frustrations has been the expense of buying or building planters to handle vegetables with large root systems. Cheap, durable planters that hold five or more gallons of soil typically cost $15 or more, and it’s common to find prices over $35.
Thankfully, lower-cost products have emerged in recent years. Grow Bags are “pots” made out of material that resembles plastic garbage bags. Depending on how many you buy at once, you could pay as little as 20 cents apiece for these bags in the five-gallon size. They are free-standing and hold their shapes when you fill them with soil.
Slightly Upscale Plant Containers
I appreciate the low cost of Grow Bags, and might use them for gardening in spaces where there isn’t a lot of traffic or where I can hide them from view. A company called The Seed Keeper Company produces a “burlap girdle” you can wrap around a grow bag to provide some eye appeal, and you’ll have a five gallon planter that costs under $10… not bad.
These flexible plastic buckets are water-tight, so I drilled five quarter-inch holes in mine before I filled them with potting soil.
But three years ago, I started noticing flexible plastic “all-purpose” buckets (with handles) in local department stores. In season, these usually go for $5, and they hold seven and a half gallons if you fill them to the rim. One display for these containers showed them holding canned or bottled drinks in ice, or tools for gardening… but typically there’s just a stack of nested buckets with that $5 price tag. In early winter, our local Walmart usually drops the price to $4.
I’ve bought three buckets to try as planters and they work pretty well.
Gardening in a Bucket
Clearly, whoever manufactured this $4 bucket didn’t intend it to be a planter; it doesn’t have drainage holes. Before I planted, I drilled five holes in each bucket using a ¼ inch bit. I filled each bucket with commercial potting soil, and planted as I would in a garden… one planter received five bell pepper plants, and another I planted with carrot seeds (I’ll tell the carrot story in an upcoming post).
The buckets spent most of each summer day in direct sunlight—when there was sunlight (it was a very rainy year). They performed as you’d hope for a seven-gallon planter, and looked pretty much unmarred by the season. In October, the buckets were flexible and strong; I was able to lift them by their handles without trouble. Based on that experience, I would recommend them to anyone looking for a vaguely attractive low-priced container for deck or patio plants.
Five bell pepper plants in six gallons of soil might have been pushing it a bit; I’ve found a two-gallon planter is pretty good for a single pepper plant. So, next season I might plant my flexible plastic buckets with only three pepper plants apiece. Incidentally: If you want to get an early start on peppers, set seedlings outside in containters three or four weeks before your last frost date, and lug them into your garage, back hallway, or garden shed when overnight lows head toward freezing.
But there’s more: Last week I carried one of my buckets across the yard and dumped stuff out of it. With the bucket empty, I dropped one handle so the weight of the empty bucket transferred entirely onto just one handle. At that moment, the bucket snapped off of its handle and fell to the ground!
What changed from October until now? The temperature dropped. Apparently, when these flexible plastic buckets get cold—I’m talking about 24F degrees cold—they get brittle.
For now, I’m sticking with the recommendation: for $4 or $5 apiece, these utility buckets make great planters if you put holes in the bottom. I did some research and found that they come from a company in China called Ningbo Bonny E-Home Co, and chances are you won’t find a brand name on the bucket itself. Bonny apparently makes the buckets out of recycled plastic which makes them more appealing to me. I’ve found them at Walmart and Big Lots, and I suspect they’re available at other department and garden stores as well.
If you decide to try some of these flexible plastic buckets in your kitchen garden, try not to use them when the temperature drops.