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posted: 8/25/2012 10:05 AM

Corn smut, drought and insects: tales from a community garden

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  • Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas has logged many hours this summer in her plot at the Community Garden in Geneva.

       Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas has logged many hours this summer in her plot at the Community Garden in Geneva.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas works in her plot at the Community Garden in Geneva.

       Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas works in her plot at the Community Garden in Geneva.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Corn smut is one of the challenges Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas encountered at her community garden plot in Geneva.

       Corn smut is one of the challenges Daily Herald staff writer Susan Sarkauskas encountered at her community garden plot in Geneva.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Green beans are one of the crops grown by Susan Sarkauskas in her community garden plot.

       Green beans are one of the crops grown by Susan Sarkauskas in her community garden plot.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Tomatoes thrived in Susan Sarkauskas's "tomato jungle" in her community garden plot.

       Tomatoes thrived in Susan Sarkauskas's "tomato jungle" in her community garden plot.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Smut. Drought. High winds. Infertility. Ravenous insects.

I've battled them all this summer in my plot at the Community Gardens in Geneva.

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And I've heard from other gardeners, who saw their squash and cucumber plants killed by vine borers, and their cabbages riddled with worms.

They have complained about having to haul bucket after 45-pound bucket of water; the only reason I wasn't complaining was because my plot is right next to one of the hydrants. Still, during the height of the heat and drought, it was taking me 40 minutes to thoroughly water my vegetables, one 2-gallon can at a time.

The tomatoes

When I planted my 16 tomato seedlings, I thought I was so smart. I assumed some wouldn't survive the shock of transplant. I also spaced them about 4 feet apart, so I would have room to get in between rows to pick the fruits.

Hah.

All 16 plants survived. Nay, they thrived, even the runts of the litter. And two July storms, with winds of 60 and 70 mph, toppled many of the support cages, including the sturdy $10, 48-inch tall ones made of galvanized steel. It's not a tomato patch, it's a tomato jungle.

So I crawl in to retrieve my goodies. It's good for my quadriceps, all that squatting. It's not been good for my arms, as I'm getting a rash from the tomato vines.

Did I mention I forgot to label my plants, and that somehow I've ended up with about 10 prodigious Beam's yellow pear plants? But at least bugs haven't been a problem, other than the one time I came upon the dreaded tomato hornworm, a huge thing that looks like it could co-star in a horror movie.

The popcorn

Did you know plants have sex? But corn smut has nothing to do with it.

The drought affected the popcorn plants, in that the plants don't like to release pollen in extremely high temperatures. And if that pollen doesn't hit the corn silks shortly after release, kernels don't develop on the ear. If the plant has put out an ear at all, given its tendency to conserve energy when it is under stress from heat and drought. So when I did see ears, I gave Mother Nature a hand, shaking the plants so the pollen would fall.

The smut is another thing. It's a fungus that attacks ears. Supposedly, it's a delicacy in Mexican cuisine, akin to eating mushrooms. All I know is, it is really ugly. Like, glove-up-to-pull-the-plant-ewww-gross ugly.

The beans

It's been a tempestuous affair between me and the beans. First, a whole row of beans didn't sprout. Did I hallucinate that I planted them? So I replanted.

Then came the bugs: spider mites and leafhoppers of various kinds, chewing up the young leaves. I found myself spraying organic insecticidal soap, and then stinky organic miticide, on all sides of the leaves. A really tedious chore, which ended when I forgot to tighten the cap on the miticide bottle and it leaked all over my gardening-supplies bucket in the back of my car.

I had big, beautiful plants by early July -- but no beans. Fed up one Saturday, I scolded the plants.

"That's it! No more special love for you! No more trimming the dead leaves, no more insecticide!"

Turns out it wasn't the plants' fault. It was, again, those pesky upper 90s and plus 100-degree temperatures. The minute the temperatures dropped below 95, boom: hundreds of green beans. I have now picked more than 2,000 green beans.

The charity

All this produce, for a single gal.

Fortunately, the Geneva Park District had a plan from the start.

Gardeners have been donating their surplus to the Northern Illinois Food Bank. We just leave it in banana boxes in each row, and the park district hauls it over to the food bank's headquarters in Geneva.

As of Aug. 22, almost 1,000 pounds had been donated.

Trish Burns, the Peck Farm Park manager, also oversees the Community Garden.

"Everybody is loving them (the plots) so far. Even with the crazy weather," she said.

And while people complained about having to haul water by hand, others told her they enjoyed the exercise.

The district has room to add plots, but won't do so until 2014, due to budget constraints, she said. Come January, current plot tenants will get to exercise a right of first refusal to rent plots for next summer. And there are already 10 people on a waiting list for any unwanted plots, Burns said.

I will likely be back, despite all my whining. Gardeners are optimistic pessimists and gluttons for punishment, who will commiserate with any gardener who will listen, even one they have just met in the pesticide aisle at the store.

There's not much financial reward on investment for the work, the supplies and the risk, the bug bites, the sunburns, the disappointments of seeds that don't sprout or plants that succumb to disease or predators. Not when you can get green beans at the grocery store for 99 cents a pound.

But you will have to pry my trowel out of my dirty, cold, dead hands.

When she's not gardening, Susan Sarkauskas covers Geneva, Batavia, Elburn, Sugar Grove and North Aurora. Email her at ssarkauskas@dailyherald.com.

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