The Vegetable Garden





Life on Distant Hill Blog ... Grow Better Vegetables

By Leaving a Dead Log Near Your Vegetable Garden?

A female Ichneumon centrator wasp.
A female Ichneumon centrator wasp.

It is hard to believe that leaving a log or downed tree in the woods might help you grow better vegetables, but it might just be true. It turns out that there are a number of parasitic wasps of the  Superfamily Ichneumonoideathe, Braconid and Ichneumon, that are important parasites of other insects. 

This tobacco hornworm, who was feedingon the leaves of a tomato plant, is being eaten alive. It is covered with cocoons of pupating braconid wasp larva.
This tobacco hornworm, who was eating a tomato plant, is now being eaten alive by the pupating larva of a braconid wasp.

The adult female of the Ichneumon centrator wasp, shown above, hibernates for the winter under the bark of downed trees and logs on the forest floor. The females are impregnated before hibernation and will develop eggs in the spring when warmer weather returns. This subfamily of wasp, Ichneumoninae, with over 120 species native to North America, are all parasitic and lay their eggs in mature caterpillars - species of caterpillars that are often pests in the vegetable garden.

Charles Darwin was a bit repulsed by these parasitic wasps. In 1860 he wrote, "I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."





Life on Distant Hill Blog ... Hornworms on Tomatos

Nightshade Nemesis

A tobacco hornworm, the caterpillar of a Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta) feeding on a tomato plant at Distant Hill Gardens.

This is a photo of a tobacco hornworm, the caterpillar of a Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta) feeding on a tomato plant at Distant Hill Gardens. The tobacco hornworm, is closely related to, and often confused with, the very similar tomato hornworm. Both feed on plants in the Nighshade Family. The tomato hornworm is the caterpillar of the  five-spotted hawk moth (Manduca quinquemaculata). 



Note the Red horn at the tail end of the caterpillar, and the seven diagonal lines on its side. These identify this as a tobacco hornworm. The tomato hornworm has a Black horn, and eight V-shaped markings in place of the diagonal lines. 


To view a larger version, click on the image.

This is the same tobacco hornworm seven days later. It is covered with cocoons of Cotesia congregata, a species of parasitic braconid wasp. They lay eggs in the bodies of tobacco hornworms. The eggs hatch inside the hornworm and the larva feed internally, later to emerge from the body to spin their cocoons


If you find a hornworm with these white cocoons, just let it be. Young wasps will soon emerge from the cocoons and lay their eggs in other unsuspecting tobacco hornworms.


Note: The insect on the body of the hornworm is not a braconid wasp. I'm working on getting a positive ID. Do you know what the insect is?





Life on Distant Hill Blog ... Potatoes and Dandelions

Plant Potatoes When Dandelions Bloom

Plant potatoes when the dandelions bloom.
Plant potatoes when the dandelions bloom.


A gardening rule of thumb in New England is to plant your potatoes when the dandelions bloom. We usually plant four varieties of organic potatoes every year at Distant Hill Gardens Rio Grande Russet, Red Sangre, Yukon Gold, and my favorite French Fingerling.



The French Fingerling is by far the most prolific variety in our garden. We have harvested as many as thirty pounds from a single pound planted. The yield for our other three varieties is about ten pounds per pound planted. Another common name for the French Fingerling is "Nosebag". Legend has it that the name "Nosebag" resulted from the way in which the tubers were smuggled into the U.S. from France- in the nosebag, or feed sack, of a horse.


Which Variety of Potato to Use in Cooking?

Here is a handy list excerpted from 'The Cook's Thesaurus' showing which varieties work best for the many different cooking methods possible:


Best for baking:   russet potato

Best for potato salads: Yellow Finn potato, new potato, red-skinned potato, white round potato, and purple potato 

Best for mashing:   russet potato, Yukon gold potato, Caribe potato, and purple potato 

Best for soups and chowders:   Yukon gold potato, Yellow Finn potato, red-skinned potato, white round potato, and purple potato 

Best for pan-frying:  red-skinned potatoes, white round potatoes, new potatoes, and fingerling potatoes

Best for French fries:   russet potato, purple potato, Bintje potato

Best for purees:  fingerling potatoes

Best for roasting:   new potatoes, Bintje potatoes (and IMO fingerlings)

Best for steaming:  new potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes

Best for potato pancakes:   russet potato, Yukon Gold potato


Interesting Facts About the Dandelion

  •  The word Dandelion comes from the French name for the plant dents de lion. This means teeth of the lion and refers to the jagged edges of the leaf of the plant.
  • The other French name for this plant is pis-en-lit, in English this means wet the bed. Dandelions deserve this name because their greens, when eaten, remove water from the body. So eating the greens could cause someone to well… you can guess the rest. Not recommend for a bedtime snack.
  • The dandelion first came from Asia but it now calls the entire planet home!
  • Each year fifty-five tones of coffee substitutes made from roasted Dandelion roots are sold in England, Australia and Canada.
  • The Dandelion provides an important food source to bees. The pollen from this plant helps bees out in the spring because it flowers early and the flowers continue through to the fall providing constant food. In fact no less then 93 different kinds of insects use Dandelion pollen as food.
  • The Dandelion seeds are important food to many small birds.


The above facts thanks to NatureWatch






Life on Distant Hill Blog ... Lettuce

The First Lettuce is Planted

Michael transplanting lettuce seedlings into the vegetable garden at Distant Hill Gardens.
Michael transplanting lettuce seedlings into the vegetable garden at Distant Hill Gardens.


We planted four different varieties of lettuce this week; six plants each of Merlot, Red Sails, Plato II and, my favorite, Sierra. The seedlings were started on March 9 in our home's sunspace.

After planting the lettuce, we covered it with a floating row cover called Agribon+ AG-19.


After planting the lettuce, we covered it with a floating row cover called Agribon+ AG-19. It can be used to protect plants from insects or, in this case, from the cold. The material offers about 4 degrees of frost protection. But, even without the row cover, hardened lettuce plants should survive 20 F. We keep it on until the danger of frost has past. Then we replace it with a shade cloth to protect the lettuce from the hot summer sun.


The link above for the row cover Agribon+ takes you to a page on Johnny's Selected Seeds website. They have a much better and more informative website than Fedco Seeds, the supplier we bought the row cover from. Fedco's price of $13.00 for a 83" x 50' roll beats Johnny's price of $21.95 by quite a bit. 


We are 'Fans of FEDCO' here at Distant Hill Gardens

We purchase all of our seed from Fedco Seeds, a company based in Waterville, Maine. It is one of the few seed companies in the United States organized as a cooperative. Because making a profit is not their primary goal, their prices are much lower than most seed companies. And they offer much more than just seeds. Fedco has five divisions:

They all publish annual catalogs. Nothing fancy with no glossy color pages, just black and white. But with lots of useful information and great prices. And they offer many certified-organic varieties of seeds and tubers. They recently started selling lifetime memberships in Fedco for $100 and Distant Hill Gardens joined as soon as we heard about it. 


More than half of the ornamental plantings at Distant Hill Gardens were bought from Fedco - many of our bulbs, perennials, trees and shrubs. We should really change our name from Distant Hill Gardens to 'FEDCO Gardens.'