Battling Nature: Heat, Deer, Hornworms and Ignorance

After much pick-ax, shovel, and screening work, about 450 plants are finally in grow bags or large pots.

There are another 120 or so plants that I would really like to get in grow bags, but I’m afraid I’ve pretty well run out of time (and perhaps patience and energy?)


Here is an example of the stark contrast of two plants of the same variety that were the same size 15 days earlier:

The fortunate one I potted up into the 7-gallon grow bag at just the right time, the other is stuck in the confined space of a 6″ pot, about 0.8 gallon.

There as been almost zero fruit set over the past few weeks, particularly among the giant tomatoes in the 20-gallon pots. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of blossoms have formed, opened, produced no pollen, then withered and died. It’s been rare to observe any pollinators at all. For the past several weeks, I’ve been spending about an hour every morning with an electric toothbrush and black plastic spoon, attempting to assess whether the the tomatoes are even producing pollen and pollinate blossoms whenever pollen does appear.

On most mornings, maybe 1 in 100 blossoms produces any pollen. The plants are covered with dead and dying blossoms.  Here is the remnant of the promising megabloom on Epstein’s Potato Leaf which was profiled in the June, 2020 blog post:

For the most part, only the tiny-fruited varieties have been setting fruit. Most disappointing of all is the variety Domingo. I have 8 healthy vines growing, including one from a seed from the 9.65 lb. world record. Among these 8 vines, only one blossom has set fruit, and that wasn’t even a megabloom.

What’s going on? Some possibilities –

1. Temperature – Some growers suggest that daytime temperatures above 86° will result in poor pollen production. The high temperature for 37 of the past 45 days has been between 86-100°. Nighttime temperatures have all been well below that 75° threshhold. During this same 45 day period, nighttime lows have been between 30 and 68°

2. Humidity – Tomatoes do best with moderate humidity. It has been extremely dry during this time period, with only one significant rainshower (<0.1″) and a couple of light sprinkles.

3. No pollinators – zero honeybees seen, a rare bumblebee, an occasional mason bee or fly or other native pollintor. Maybe the Western Kingbirds are eating the pollinators? There are dozens of House Sparrows and House Finches in the area, but they are only insectivorous secondarily.

4. Ultraviolet radiation – I’ve not read about this, just a hypothesis. Maybe the increase of UV-B (280-315 nm) rays at this higher elevation negatively affects pollen production? At 6,200′ elevation, UV-B radiation is about 25% higher than at sea level.

5. West Flower Thrips (Frankliniella occidentalis) – When attempting to find pollen, I almost invariably dislodge at least one and up to 20 thrips per blossom. Perhaps they are eating the pollen before the flowers even open?

6. Nutrition – Perhaps not enough phosphorous? I’ve collected soil samples but have not yet submitted them for analysis. Is a big bag of bone meal in order?

Perhaps patience is what’s needed – in a couple of weeks, high temperatures will gradually start to decline. Problem is, after fruit set, tomatoes need 50-60 days to ripen. That puts us well into October and well into real danger of fall frost.

No sign of Curly Top Virus this season – a very good thing! But tomato hornworms have been wrecking havoc. I’ve removed at least 40 over the past two weeks and am now finding them them rarely.

Mule deer have been a significant problem, especially with pepper plants.  I’m starting to view these deer as feral goats – running wild and eating almost indiscriminately.  Check blog posts in prior years for my battle and opinion about goats and gardens!

I’ve seen several robber flies in the area, and now I have confirmation that they are doing some good – devouring a destructive cabbage white butterfly!

I’ve put in some extra time and $ to put a taller structure around the grow bags, with two tiers of poultry netting. I’m planning to cover the top also, since birds are still coming in and damaging or destroying small fruits, including a small watermelon of the rare variety Jeremiah the Bullfrog.  I ran out of space inside the structure (about 80′ X 10′) so put a row of tomato plants outside.

Here’s a recent video (July 28th):

First fruit of the season: a very delicious Pineapple ground cherry on July 13th.

Plus a few tomatoes are finally starting to ripen. First up, on July 17th, the first ripe Totuska fruits. That’s 122 days from seed sowing – at least a month longer than I would have expected. Unfortunately, two Totuska fruits produced only one seed between them.

Other early tomato varieties have also started ripening over the past week:

Uralskiy Ranniy – 131 days from seed
Lime Green Salad – 133 days

1884 – 111 days, but both fruits with bad blossom end rot
Domingo X Libanaise des Montagnes – 111 days, also with BER
Stupice – 137 days
Sub-Arctic Maxi – 138 days
Bursztyn – 139 days, set fruit that ripened in 3-1/2″ pot!

Still far from starting construction on the planned high tunnel.  Taking down this Siberian Elm tree is a daunting task: 10’8″ dbh and surround by wires, the house, a shed and a fence.

A one-day rental for a lift is about $650 – needs to go to around 70′ high.  What else could I purchase with $650…

The front yard is cucurbits, gradually displacing the weeds:

Tons of male blossoms, very few female blossoms, and almost zero fruit set among the melons and squash either.  At least I’m getting some squash blossoms to supplement breakfast:

I was planning to participate in the local farmers market this year.  But with no fruit set, what will I have to offer?  Two summer squash plants have set fruit at least.

What is abundantly clear is that I need about $10,000 worth of good, rich, deep topsoil with lots of organic matter, earthworms, etc.  And lots of plants to attract and retain pollinators. Getting the garden from what it is to a beautiful, ecologically diverse, resilient, productive mini-farm is just going to take some time and a lot of investment of energy and organic materials.  A few hundred bags of leaves this fall should be a good start!