Thursday, June 25, 2009

Trying Again with the Pumpkins

Remember when we were pumped about our pumpkins? Me too... Let me summarize our little pumpkin adventure thus far.

We saved the seeds from the bigger of our two Halloween jack-o-lanterns and planted them indoors in late winter, mostly just to see if they were still alive. They germinated all right and, as spring wore on, became quite gangly little vines on our bedroom windowsill. They even began sprouting blossoms.

But indoor winter weather just isn't ideal for vegetables—the sunlight isn't quite right, the air and soil are stagnant, the little cups holding them are small. We started these seeds way too early. So we planted a few more later. These, too, germinated and sprouted quickly, stretching toward that sunshine just out of their reach outside our bedroom window.

About half of the oldest seedlings eventually pooped out and died. We gave most of the others away. When the danger of overnight frost was gone, we finally planted our two remaining vines outside. Within days, someone or something nipped them off at the base of the stem.

I planted six more seeds in a shallow tray of seed-starter mix on our front porch. It dried out so quickly, I couldn't keep up with the watering, and only two of these sprouted. They promptly died while we were on vacation.

In a fit of frustration, I dumped the tray of seed-starter mix right onto the spot where we had planted those first two seedlings. I spread a handful of seeds around in it, making sure the seeds were just lightly covered with the soil. I watered it every morning (except days it rained).

Just a few days later, voila! Cute, aren't they?

Upon closer inspection, however, I gasped in horror at this creepy crawly discovery: Roly-polies were everywhere, and they were eating my precious seedlings! Just look at that guy munching the leaves of that poor baby pumpkin plant.

Web forums on the subject of protecting plants from roly-polies (a.k.a. sow bugs, pill bugs, wood lice) were mostly useless, mostly just hosting debates on whether or not these formerly endearing crustaceans actually do eat living plant matter. Guess what? They do. I was watching them chew.

So what to do without using insecticide? I mixed up some olive oil and hot pepper flakes to brush or spray onto the leaves, thinking the bugs might not like the spiciness. But I have not tried that remedy yet. I'll go back to it if my first line of defense doesn't work. I cut plastic drinking straws (See? We rinsed and saved those straws for a good reason!) into segments the length of the seedlings stems. I cut a slit down the side of each piece of straw, so I could slip it onto the little stems—it looks like the seedlings sprouted right out of the straw. Then I pressed the straw segment into the soil just a tad, to hold it in place and to give the seedling a tiny bit of protection under the surface. I also skipped a day of watering, since roly-polies love that ever-moist soil.

Today, it seems there are fewer roly-polies. So far, the seedlings are in good shape. I will, of course, keep an eye on them and adjust my battle plan as necessary. I'm saving the hot pepper oil just in case.

And, I'll have to thin out the bunch soon. (You saw how many there were!) I never liked thinning out my plants. It feels like killing something, wasting potentially good produce. At the same time, I understand that if I don't thin them out, leaving only the very few strongest seedlings, the growing vines will be fighting for soil and sun and water and space. In our tiny yard, even one vine would be fighting for space.

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