Sow There!: When weather makes your crops wither, 8-31-17

There are many things to admire about the humongous hungry hornworm, but not when it is devouring your tomato plants.
There are many things to admire about the humongous hungry hornworm, but not when it is devouring your tomato plants.Photo by Heather Hacking

This summer was not an especially delightful time for my squash plants. When I returned from Costa Rica I found two zucchinis the size of small ballistic weapons. Perhaps these big beauties robbed the soil of calcium. After the tremendous zucchini achievements, the plants became duds. Many fruits looked promising, but shriveled like carved apple dolls.

Last year the same thing happened and I learned that a lack of calcium could have been the culprit. Earlier in the year I added lime granules to the soil, lime being a source of calcium. Later I learned its best to add granules in the fall.

For another opinion, and because I like the vintage place, I stopped by Northern Star Mills and chatted with owner John Growdon. He returned with a bottle of calcium concentrate in liquid form. The little bottle promised everything I wanted to hear, including “correction of calcium deficiency on tomatoes, peppers, apples and other crops.”

John suggested a foliar feeding, which means I dumped a few ounces of the calcium liquid into a two-gallon watering can. Next, I doused the big squash leaves with the mixture.

The next week, I harvested two zucchinis and one crookneck squash.

Is that proof that the elixir cured all my problems?

No, because there many other variables.

When I saw my squash shrivel, I also started pollinating each new flower by hand. This was also the week when the weather was just a bit cooler. Bees like it better when it’s not blazing hot.

We could also do a cost/benefit analysis. The bottle of calcium was $10. I used about $2 worth of product. According to my value system, two zucchinis and one squash from my own garden is worth two bucks in the bottom of my purse.


In case anyone was wondering, my seed planting lesson with third-graders was a resounding success. As of last week, I am a student-teacher at a local elementary school. To introduce myself to the class, my magnanimous mentor teacher suggested I show the class how to plant seeds.

Students learn from their mistakes. In this case, I learned a lot.

I was too excited and “taught” too much. I should have never asked 8-year-olds to read the fine print on a seed packet.

Yet, wearing the white lab coat for the science lesson was a huge success. The science outfit was my teacher’s idea. However, the kids don’t know that. Instead, they can remember me as the super cool student teacher who pauses for a costume change.


We planted Oregon Sugar Pod II seeds, also known as snow peas. The plants go from seed to harvest in 68 days. Students had a huge decision to make. Would they plant one seed, and risk that their single seed did not grow? Or would they plant two or three seeds, knowing they would need to choose just one to grow to maturity.

I was proud of their thoughtfulness.

With the leftovers, I raced home and planted as many as I could along my cyclone fence. Maybe, just maybe, there will be a good harvest before Halloween.

August certainly is not the traditional season for planting summer vegetables by seed. However, some plants are so fast growing gardeners might squeeze out one more harvest before the days become extremely short and cold.

Read what the SF Gate has to say on this same topic:

If you like planting seeds, another option is to wait until mid-September or October to sow lettuce, spinach, kale or broccoli.


During the peak of summer, tomato production will slow because everything slows down when it is miserably hot. The same goes for squash, cucumbers and the sale of electric blankets.

Now that the days are shorter, it’s still miserably hot. However, the days are shorter so the plants are miserable for fewer hours each day.

In my yard, this means I have a big batch of tomatoes on the way.

If you find yourself with too many tomatoes, you can easily freeze them. You do not need to remove the outer skin. When you defrost the tomatoes for eggplant stew or tomato sauce this winter, the skin will easily pull away.


While you’re on the hunt for tomatoes, don’t overlook the hidden hornworms.

So far, I’ve had the pleasure of killing two hornworms with my pruning clippers. Tomato hornworms turn into sphinx moths, which are amazingly beautiful creatures, four inches across and furry like a small animal. Yet, those sphinx moths lay eggs, which could mean more hornworms next year.

There’s no need to douse your plants with chemicals for hornworm control. Simply locate the dark green globs of hornworm droppings on the leaves of tomatoes or other plants. Next, look in that general area for leaves that have been nibbled down to the stem. You’ll need to look very, very carefully because hornworms are the exact same color as the leaves of the plants.

Now that I am looking more closely at children’s books, I can’t help but consider the similarities between hornworms and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” The reason they do not have a children’s book titled “The Horrible, Humongous Hornworm,” is because that particular story would end badly, at least in my garden.

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