Cucumbers and the Gardening Nincompoop

My little cucumber!

My little cucumber!

I definitely still consider myself a novice gardener. I would never presume to give any kind of advice on gardening, but I do like to write about my experiences with the hope that other beginners can learn from my mistakes and incredible ignorance (and give experienced gardeners a good laugh at my expense). So with that being said, I’m happy to say I finally have some real bonafide cucumbers growing in my little garden!

I’ve been trying to grow cucumbers for well over a year now and have had one set back after another. The first time around, I was still in my “black thumb” stage where I just killed all plants in my presence with no effort whatsoever. The next plants burned to death in the scorching Florida heat (and I shamefully admit I forgot to water them quite often). Then I decided to try again and at that point I actually got some decent looking plants going. Hooray! And then the aphids came. They ate. And they destroyed.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m fairly persistent, so I planted more cucumber seeds. This time around the plants grew and grew. I did have a small aphid invasion, but I fought back and saved my plants. And then the plants continued to grow and grow. I started to see those gorgeous little yellow flowers bloom. Yet I saw no actual cucumbers. I was perplexed, but in my ignorance I just assumed that someday little cucumbers would just start showing up and then grow into big cucumbers.

My little spikey thing

My little spikey thing

About two weeks ago, I thought that day had finally come. I saw this adorable, spiky looking little green thing with a yellow blossom on the end. Woo hoo! Cucumbers! …NOT! Several days after my little spikey thing appeared, it shriveled up and fell off. I was heartbroken. Why did my cucumber die? A day or two later, I happened upon an article about cucumbers that someone posted on Twitter. I read the article and it was interesting, but when I scrolled to the bottom of the page I saw an advertisement for another article that had to do with the difference between male and female flowers on the cucumber plant. What?!? Male and female flowers? Was this something I needed to know about? Why yes, yes it was.

Female flower - you can see the beginnings of a small cucumber at the base of the flower

Female flower – you can see the beginnings of a small cucumber at the base of the flower

I took biology in high school and college. I learned about pollination. I even planted some flowers in my garden specifically to attract bees, you know, those small, buzzing creatures that pollinate. It just never occurred to me that the plants would have male and female flowers and that pollination would have to occur for cucumbers to grow. Dumb rookie mistake. After a little research, I learned the difference between the two flowers and also researched how to pollinate the flowers myself.

Male flower - just the stem is present at the base (receptacle) of the flower

Male flower – just the stem is present at the base (receptacle) of the flower

Even though I have some lovely zinnias and cosmos growing, I haven’t really seen any bees. So I found that if your garden is lacking in natural pollinators, you may have to do it yourself.

I went to the craft store, spent way too much time examining each and every paint brush, and then bought a small soft bristled paint brush for my pollination. I followed the suggested directions and lightly turned the tip of the paint brush in several male flowers to make sure I got a good amount of pollen on the brush. Then I gently twisted the tip of the brush in the center of the female flower. After that, all I could do was wait. I’ve been checking my spikey baby cucumbers every day and they are still there and still growing!

Retrieving pollen from the male flower

Retrieving pollen from the male flower

The yellowish dust on the tip of the brush is pollen from the male flower

The yellowish dust on the tip of the brush is pollen from the male flower

Some of you are probably wondering why I’ve been trying so hard to grow cucumbers. They’re easy enough to find at any grocery store. One reason is that I love cucumbers. I love the taste. I love the smell. They’re wonderful. I also always have them in the house because I have some very picky birds. Cucumbers are one of the only types of produce I can get all three of them to eat. They are also one of the only types of produce (besides greens) that I can get my lizards to eat. The lizards don’t need them, but I like to throw a treat in their food dishes every now and again. And the tortoises love them. As I’ve said before, I don’t feed the tortoises fruits and veggies too often, but as with the lizards, I like to give them something extra special once in a while. Cucumbers are also not quite as heavy in sugar as some other types of produce. High sugar fruits and veggies are not good for the tortoises (please see my “Happy, Healthy Eating” post for more info). I even give my turtles some cucumbers to snack on once in a while. So basically everyone in my house eats them except the frogs and the tarantula.

Another future cucumber!

Another future cucumber!

The other reason is that it was also a matter of pride I suppose. I’ve always heard that cucumbers are easy to grow and I was unsuccessful so many times. My pride was wounded and I felt like a failure. I needed a win. So I hope this will help some beginners out there. Even if you’re not growing cucumbers specifically, at least understand that you shouldn’t give up. Growing your own garden is so rewarding. Regardless of whether you’re growing flowers, fruits, vegetables, etc., you will eventually get to see the fruits of your labor (sorry about the pun, but it was right there). It will give you a sense of pride to grow something so beautiful, possibly tasty, and good for the environment. As always, good luck with your garden!

Aphids: The Bane of My Garden’s Existence

Infested hibiscus blossom

Infested hibiscus blossom

Aphids! BAH!  I’m sure that almost every gardener, no matter the size of the garden or the experience level of the gardener, can feel my pain.  Earlier this spring, I lost nearly all of my plants to these little devils.  I had beautiful straight eight cucumbers blossoming and within days they were completely destroyed.  My green beans suffered the same fate.  My hibiscus was so infested I decided I had no other option but to basically cut the infested branches off and dispose of them far, far away from my dying garden.  Now please remember that I am still a novice gardener, so I didn’t immediately recognize the signs during the first attack.  This is part of the reason why I couldn’t save most of my plants the first time around.

Once I finally did realize what was going on, I decided that because my plants are meant for food consumption, I did not want to use any heavy duty pesticides.  I stay away from everything with pyrethrins, not only because of the tortoises consuming the plants, but also because I have cats.  My days as a vet tech have completely turned me off to all things pyrethrins.  Though pyrethrins are used in many flea and tick preventatives, they can be extremely dangerous, especially to cats, causing tremors, grand mal seizures, and in extreme cases, death.  Having spent most of my vet tech-ing days in emergency animal hospitals, I have unfortunately had to witness cats (and even some dogs) having adverse reactions to this poison and it’s heartbreaking to say the least.  Unknowing pet owners are trying to do right by their pets and end up causing severe harm.  So, I don’t want to even present an opportunity for my cats to be exposed to anything containing pyrethrins. Moreover, pyrethrins are highly toxic to bees.  I specifically planted certain flowers in the garden to attract bees.  I’m certainly not going to spray something that’s going to kill them.

I wanted to keep it natural.  A friend suggested using neem oil.  I gave it a try on the plants that had been completely infested.  I shamefully admit that I did not read all of the directions.  I went about spraying neem oil on everything, including my hibiscus.  The following day, by the time I came home from work, the hibiscus looked like a few sad little sticks.  All of the leaves had shriveled and fallen off.  Had I read all of the directions, I would’ve read the part about not using neem oil on certain plants like hibiscus (way to kill your plant dumbass!).  Additionally, I was apparently a little heavy handed with the neem oil on the rest of the plants too.  So not only did I have a hibiscus that was rather reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, I also had a bunch of other half eaten, half burned plants.  In a nutshell, it was an epic gardening fail.

Garden 065

Brown snail making its way toward my greens

I had to dispose of everything except some chicory, which might I say, is one hearty little green.  I also decided to keep the hibiscus and hope for the best.  Believe it or not, the hibiscus actually survived and eventually began providing the tortoises with some pretty tasty snacks.  I also planted lots of new crops which started out with a bang.  And then all of a sudden, those nasty little critters appeared again and this time they brought reinforcements – SNAILS!  UGH!!

What’s an inexperienced gardener to do?!?  Luckily, I caught the attack much earlier this time, but having the two armies unite against me was more than my poor plants could bear.  Armed with my neem oil (with ALL directions read) and a lighter spraying hand, I went on the defensive again.  I caught the infestation much earlier this time around and my counterattack seemed to have some effect on the aphids, but not as much as I would’ve liked.  And I still had those pesky little snails to deal with.  So I took to the internet to do some research.

I found all kinds of information on beneficial insects to address the aphid problem.  I also found some natural remedy suggestions for the snails.  As far as the beneficial insects went, I read that the larvae of lacewings and ladybugs are actually the most voracious.  So I ordered some lacewing larvae online and when I received them, I read the directions (all of them) and placed them in my garden to go to war.  Much to my disappointment the larvae thing didn’t work.  By the next day, I couldn’t spot a single larva on any of the plants.  I did, however, see a bunch of ants.  Now, I’m not really schooled in the way of entomology so I really have no clue if the lacewing larvae disappearance was a coincidence or if the ants were behind the whole thing.  And as for the snails, I opened up a bottle of beer, poured a couple pans full, and strategically placed them in the infested areas as suggested.  Apparently the snails in my garden do not have a taste for brown ales.  So after days of trying unsuccessful remedies, my garden was once again on the brink of extinction.  I reluctantly resorted to an organic snail and slug repellant which worked well.  The aphids eventually left once their meal ticket was gone.  And the battle was lost.

Now, I’m not really sure if I’m optimistically persistent or just insane, but I decided to try my hand at gardening again.  I planted more seeds, cut off more braches, and kept a vigilant watch for the first sign of any unwanted guests.  This brings us to my current situation.  Those scheming little monsters are back again!  This time I spotted them quickly.  As soon as I spotted them, I started spraying neem oil again.  I didn’t spray as heavily, but I made sure to spray each and every leaf of my cucumbers, both top and bottom.  The first round went to me this time!  When I checked my plants the following day, almost all of them were dead!  For those few that survived, I shot some more neem oil on them for good measure.

Some of the dead aphids on a cucumber leaf

Some of the dead aphids on a cucumber leaf

For the most part they seem to be kept at bay right now.  Unfortunately, we are getting the typical daily South Florida summer rain showers, so I’ve been lightly spraying every day or two just to make sure they don’t think I’m slacking off or something.  Additionally, since I built the raised garden bed, I haven’t spotted any snails.  I’m not sure if it’s because they can’t get to the plants or if it has something to do with the linseed oil I treated the wood with or if it’s entirely coincidental.  But whatever the reason, I’m certainly not complaining.  This war is a constant one for which I will have to continue to try different plans of attack.  I’d like to give the beneficial insects a try again.  I’ve planted some flowers with the hope of attracting some to the garden so that I don’t have to buy any more.  I have a bunch of reptiles and amphibians in my house, so I have enough bugs to buy already (for food).  I don’t need to add ladybugs and lacewings to the list too!  At this point, I’ll just have to see how it goes.  For those of you having the same troubles, stay strong and keep gardening!!!

Garden Expansion: Part 2

Completed Garden Bed

Materials Used:

6 ea – 1″ x 6″ x 8′ common boards (long sides)

6 ea – 1″ x 6″ x 25 ¼” common boards (short sides)

4 ea – 4″ x 4″ x 2′ posts (legs)

2 ea – 4″ x 4″ x 15 ¾” posts (inner support posts)

4 ea – 3″ heavy duty wheels

100 ea – #8 x 2″ wood screws

16 ea – #12 x 2″ wood screws (for wheels)

1 can of boiled linseed oil

1 old sock (any cotton rag can be used to apply oil)

jigsaw

electric drill

Phillips head screwdriver

tape measure


When I purchased the lumber, I had the stores cut some of the wood for me.  Usually they will do this for free.  I had them cut the plywood in half lengthwise giving me two 2’ x 8’ pieces.  I had them cut the 4” x 4” posts into the two different sizes needed.  And I had the common board cut in half from 16’ to 8’ in length.  To make the smaller pieces of common board, I used my jigsaw at home and cut some of the 8’ boards into the size needed for the short sides.  Garden Box 005I also used the jigsaw to cut the corners of the plywood.  The corners need to be cut out so that the 4” x 4” legs can come through the bottom.

Putting the garden bed together only took me a few hours in total, but I had to build it over the course of three days.  The South Florida heat was a bit much and I had to wait until about 6:30 pm and work until dark so that I wouldn’t suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I plan on expanding even more, however, it will have to wait until the temperature is a little cooler.

Once all of the wood was cut into the appropriate sizes, I started by treating all of the lumber with a coat of boiled linseed oil.  I used an old sock (cut in half) to rub the oil onto the wood.  You should apply the linseed oil going with the grain of the wood, just as you would if you were applying a stain or polyurethane.  Again, please follow all directions on the can of linseed oil for proper handling and disposal.  It is highly combustible and we want to avoid any serious injuries from occurring.  I allowed the wood to dry for about an hour.

Garden Box 006For the construction, I started by nailing the long common boards to the 2’ post pieces (legs) to construct the long sides of the bed.  Next, I attached the bottom of the bed to the long sides.  Then I attached the short sides of the bed.  Before turning the bed right side up, I attached the wheels to the legs of the bed.  Lastly, once the bed was turned over, I attached the 15 ¾” pieces of the 4” x 4” post on the long sides of the bed on the inside to give some extra support.  Garden Box 002If you are making a smaller bed, the extra support probably isn’t necessary, but I would recommend adding support for any size bed 8’ or longer in length.

Once the garden bed was constructed, I filled it with a mixture of organic raised garden bed soil and organic potting soil.  I chose to do a mixture because I’ve had really good luck with the potting soil in the past, but never used the raised garden bed mixture.  It was a bit of an experiment, but I wanted to see how the mix would work.  Garden Box 004Finally, I transplanted some mesclun mix greens, cucumbers, and green beans that I had growing already and also planted some new seeds.  I hope these instructions and tips help you either get a new garden started or expand the garden you already have.  Good luck!

Garden Expansion: Part 1

I’m not a carpenter by any means.  In truth, unless it comes in a box from IKEA, the odds of something being constructed correctly by me are pretty slim.  But, the tortoises are growing and so are their appetites.  My little red pots simply aren’t enough anymore.  So living the apartment life with no yard, I decided to construct some raised garden beds for my patio.  I am very fortunate to have a large patio, so I have space to make bigger beds.  To prepare for my project, I did a little online research to see how other folks built their raised garden beds.  There were so many great garden beds out there so I borrowed ideas from a few different sources (see below for links) and drew up a diagram of my own basic design.

Choosing the type of wood to use was probably the biggest decision I had to make with this project.  Cedar would have been my first choice.  It is strong, looks beautiful, and is least likely to succumb to mold, rotting, and pests.  However, I’m on a budget and cedar is at least 2 – 3 times more expensive than my other options.  I looked into other woods such as pine, oak, and poplar as well.  In the end though, I decided to go cheap since this was my first DIY garden bed.  I didn’t want to spend a lot of money and then find I didn’t like the design or make a mistake during construction (odds were high for the latter scenario).  So for the sides, I purchased common boards made of spruce.  To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea what type of wood the post & plywood are made of, but they were fairly cheap too.

I also did some price comparisons.  Be sure to shop around for the best prices.  Because I spent a little extra time doing this, I ended up saving a significant amount of money.  For example, at Store A I was given a quote of $43.92 for the 4”x4”x8’ post I used to make the legs of the bed.  I was told that 4”x4”x8’ posts that are untreated are uncommon and that it would have to be special ordered.  However, when I went to Store B, I found an untreated 4”x4”x8’ post for $8.77.  Yes, it was that big of a price difference and apparently they’re not as uncommon as I was told.  There was a big price difference in the common board also.  At Store B (where the post was cheaper), common boards measuring 1” x 6” x 8’ were $15.12 each.  At Store A common boards measuring 1” x 6” x 16’ were only $10.99, giving me twice as much wood for about $4.00 less per board.  There was even a $10.00 price difference in the plywood from the two stores.  It’s definitely worth your time to do some price checking.

As I’ve said in previous posts, one of my main reasons for starting this garden was to eliminate, or at least drastically decrease, the possibility of chemicals in my food.  For this reason, I chose to use untreated wood for the garden box.  After a little research, I found that treating the wood with boiled linseed oil is suggested as a natural alternative to using treated wood or stains as a protective coating.  Linseed oil won’t protect the wood as well, but it will help and it does bring out some of the natural color of the wood.  If you do use boiled linseed oil, please follow all directions carefully.  Linseed oil is HIGHLY FLAMMABLE and can cause combustion if not handled and stored properly.  So while I have the advantage of having a natural protective coating on the wood, I have the disadvantage of higher risk of rotting wood.  This was another reason why I didn’t want to spend too much on the materials.  It’s likely that in a few years, I will have to replace the rotted wood.

In addition to the wood, I also purchased 100 wood screws (#8 x 2”), 1 can of boiled linseed oil, 4 heavy duty 3” wheels, and a new jigsaw (my new toy!).  I also had a couple items that I used from home.  I used an old sock (cut in half) to apply the linseed oil, 16 #12 x 2” woods screws for the wheels, an electric drill, and my trusty Phillips head screwdriver that my dad passed down to me.  Once I had all of my materials I was ready to build!  Check out how I constructed the garden box and see pictures in part 2!

Thank you to these folks for giving me some ideas and tips for my garden beds:

Garden Plans Free

almanac.com

growmakegive.com

How The Tortoise Garden Grew

I’m an animal lover to the core.  I always have been.  Even as a child I preferred the company of animals rather than that of people.  Growing up I had dogs, cats, turtles, gerbils, and mice. I didn’t have the pleasure of having tortoises in my life until adulthood.  In fact, the first exposure I had to tortoises was at The Baltimore Zoo (now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore) where I volunteered in the education department back in 2001-2003.  To be honest, they weren’t my favorite animals, but at the time I was not into herps in general (stay tuned for more on that in later posts).  Over the years, as a vet tech, I saw them as patients, but very rarely.  I also cared for them while working for a pet store chain (I’ll eventually get into that as well).  I still didn’t see the big deal.  Then in 2011, I came to The Palm Beach Zoo where I had the opportunity to work with three amazing Aldabra tortoises and well, I fell in love.

The gentle giants quickly became a favorite of mine and I spent every spare minute I had in their exhibit with them.  For me, spending time with them allowed me a little bit of peace in an otherwise chaotic and exhausting life.  With my new found love of tortoises, I began reading up on them as much as I could.  I spent hours searching for any information I could find from basic information, to ideal habitat conditions, to enrichment ideas, etc.  I couldn’t get enough of them.

Every August I attend the National Reptile Breeders’ Expo in Daytona Beach, FL. In 2013, I walked through the doors at 10:00 am when the doors opened and by 10:15 am I had two newborn Sulcatas in tow.  I was elated!  They were so ridiculously cute I couldn’t stop looking at them.  I want to be clear – I DO NOT ADVOCATE IMPLUSE BUYS when it comes to animals.  Though I was not planning to buy these little ones, I was very well aware of what I was getting into when I did decide to take them home with me.  That being said, I still had A LOT of research to do when I came home.  I had spent my time at the zoo caring for tortoises that were native to grasslands and swamps.  I now had a desert species with different needs.  So that’s how I got to where I am now.

Obviously, it’s more than a little difficult for most hobbyists to reproduce the exact habitat conditions of wild Sulcata tortoises.  So, with captive bred animals, herpers have to improvise.  I’m very fortunate that I live in sunny South Florida where they can get natural sunlight all year long.  But, when it comes to food, I don’t really have access to many of the native African plants that these little guys would make a meal of.  Sulcatas are herbivores, known for munching on pretty much any plant they can reach.

My babies, Kada and Tambara, were only about two days old when I brought them home (they both still had their egg tooth).  I happily fed them greens and hay like a good tortoise mom should.  But, over the weeks and months I began to wonder about store bought produce and pesticides. So I began buying organic greens for them.  Now, like most animal people, I am not made of money so as the tortoises began growing (rather rapidly) so did my grocery bill.  I started playing with the idea of starting my own garden so that not only could I decrease my weekly grocery bill, but also so I could know exactly what types of chemicals were being used or not used on the food that these tiny little animals were ingesting.

What’s the big deal about starting a garden, right?  Well, for me it was a very big deal.  You see, some people have a green thumb.  Plants flourish under the care of an elite group of people.  I was not one of the elite, not even close.  In fact, I always told people that I didn’t have a green thumb, but instead a black thumb.  Plants generally died if I so much as looked in their general direction.  I could nurse an animal back from the brink of death, yet suck all of the life out of a thriving plant with one touch.  It was quite remarkable, but something I was not proud of.  So for the sake of my tortoises, I decided to sacrifice a few good plants and try my hand at gardening.  It was a pretty rough start, but over the last year and a half I’ve managed to learn a few things and even grow a couple veggies in my tortoise garden.

So I guess you could say my blog is about tortoises, gardening, and the lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning) from both.  Enjoy!