Daniel Leonard, Horticulture Agent at UF/IFAS Extension Calhoun County, answers commonly asked questions about raised bed gardening. In the video he discusses construction materials, the type of soil to use, fertilization, crop rotation, cover crops, and smaller container gardens.
In my ongoing search for low-maintenance vegetable varieties that perform well in small spaces, like my raised bed garden, I decided to try a newish Eggplant variety called ‘Patio Baby’ this summer. Developed by PanAmerican Seed and winner of the 2014 All-American Selections Vegetable- edible category, I was drawn to ‘Patio Baby’ due to the advertising claims made that it was a true miniature variety, perfect for growing in containers, only reaching 20” or so in height and producing both “early” and abundant fruit. I’ve been very pleased with the performance of this extremely unique variety so far in my informal backyard trial and definitely think it deserves consideration in your garden too!
‘Patio Baby’ fruit ready for harvest in September 2020. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
The first observation when seeing a mature ‘Patio Baby’ is how small the plant is, leaves, flowers, fruit, everything. Compared to a standard ‘Black Beauty’ variety, ‘Patio Baby’ plants measure maybe a third as tall and wide. Where a “normal” eggplant fruit might be slightly larger than a softball and often have spines on their calyxes (the green part that connects the purple fruit to the stems), ‘Patio Baby’ fruit are roughly the size of a large chicken egg and totally spineless! I find this smaller plant and fruit size to have several perks. Vegetable plants that grow 2’ tall and wide are just about perfect for raised bed gardening. If you don’t require a large quantity of eggplant, you won’t have to sacrifice an entire bed’s space to ‘Patio Baby’ like you would with the standard varieties. Also, ‘Patio Baby’ fruit won’t bend or break branches and are held strongly on the plants, with no need for staking, another bonus when space is at a premium. Finally, I find it much easier to harvest, handle and prepare the small, spineless ‘Patio Baby’ fruit in the kitchen. Think of them as a “personal pan” eggplant. As I’m the only one in my house who eats much eggplant, I waste a lot less fruit cooking these little guys!
‘Patio Baby’ mature fruit. Standard house key used as a size reference. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
‘Patio Baby’ Eggplant also lives up to its reputation of being exceedingly easy and quick to grow. I purchased a packet of ‘Patio Baby’ seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in June and planted three in a 20” diameter decorative pot next to my raised bed garden during the first week of July, behind summer squash that had recently expired in the heat of late June. After sprouting, the plants grew strongly and, true to form for most Eggplant varieties, were bothered by no serious pest or disease issues other than the normal stinkbugs and occasional caterpillar that plague summer gardens in Florida. Around 8 weeks from sowing seed in the soil, cute, egg-shaped fruit were ready for harvest! Over the next three or four weeks, my single plant produced around 50 of the cute little fruit. More than enough for me and plenty to share, the goal of my gardening endeavors.
‘Patio Baby’ produces lots of fruit in a small package! Photo courtesy of Daniel Leoanrd.
If you’ve run out of space in your raised bed garden, just want a single plant for your back porch or simply want to try a novelty vegetable variety, my experience this summer deems ‘Patio Baby’ Eggplant is an excellent option! For an eggplant that is space-efficient, very early and heavy producing, and comes in a more easily harvestable, kitchen-friendly package, try ‘Patio Baby’. For more information about raised bed gardening, vegetable varieties or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy Gardening!
2020 has not been the most pleasant year in many ways. However, one positive experience I’ve had in my raised bed vegetable garden has been the use of a cover crop, Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)! Use of cover crops, a catch-all term for many species of plants used to “cover” field soil during fallow periods, became popular in agriculture over the last century as a method to protect and build soil in response to the massive wind erosion and cropland degradation event of the 1930s, the Dust Bowl. While wind erosion isn’t a big issue in raised bed gardens, cover crops, like Buckwheat, offer many other services to gardeners:
Buckwheat in flower behind summer squash. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
Covers, like Buckwheat, provide valuable weed control by shading out the competition. Even after termination (the cutting down or otherwise killing of the cover crop plants and letting them decompose back into the soil as a mulch), Buckwheat continues to keep weeds away, like pinestraw in your landscape.
Cover crops also build soil. This summer, I noticed that my raised beds didn’t “sink” as much as normal. In fact, I actually gained a little nutrient-rich organic matter! By having the Buckwheat shade the soil and then compost back into it, I mostly avoided the phenomena that causes soils high in organic matter, particularly ones exposed to the sun, to disappear over time due to breakdown by microorganisms.
Many cover crops are awesome attractors of pollinators and beneficial insects. At any given time while my Buckwheat cover was flowering, I could spot several wasp species, various bees, flies, moths, true bugs, and even a butterfly or two hovering around the tiny white flowers sipping nectar.
Covers are a lot prettier than bare soil and weeds! Where I would normally just have either exposed black compost or a healthy weed population to gaze upon, Buckwheat provided a quick bright green color blast that then became covered with non-stop white flowers. I’ll take that over bare soil any day.
Buckwheat cover before termination (left) and after (right) interplanted with Eggplant. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard, UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension.
Now that I’ve convinced you of Buckwheat’s raised bed cover crop merits, let’s talk technical and learn how and when to grow it. Buckwheat seed is easily found and can be bought in nearly any quantity. I bought a one-pound bag online from Johnny’s Selected Seeds for my raised beds, but you can also purchase larger sizes up to 50 lb bags if you have a large area to cover. Buckwheat seed germinates quickly as soon as nights are warmer than 50 degrees F and can be cropped continuously until frost strikes in the fall. A general seeding rate of 2 or 3 lbs/1000 square feet (enough to cover about thirty 4’x8’ raised beds, it goes a long way!) will generate a thick cover. Simply extrapolate this out to 50-80 lbs/acre for larger garden sites. I scattered seeds over the top of my beds at the above rate and covered lightly with garden soil and obtained good results. Unlike other cover crops (I’m looking at you Crimson Clover) Buckwheat is very tolerant of imperfect planting depths. If you plant a little deep, it will generally still come up. A bonus, no additional fertilizer is required to grow a Buckwheat cover in the garden, the leftover nutrients from the previous vegetable crop will normally be sufficient!
Buckwheat “mulch” after termination. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard, UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension.
Past the usual cover crop benefits, the thing that makes Buckwheat stand out among its peers as a garden cover is its extremely rapid growth and short life span. From seed sowing to termination, a Buckwheat cover is only in the garden for 4-8 weeks, depending on what you want to use it for. After four weeks, you’ll have a quick, thick cover and subsequent mulch once terminated. After eight weeks or so, you’ll realize the plant’s full flowering and beneficial/pollinator insect attracting potential. This lends great flexibility as to when it can be planted. Have your winter greens quit on you but you’re not quite ready to set out tomatoes? Plant a quick Buckwheat cover! Yellow squash wilting in the heat of summer but it’s not quite time yet for the fall garden? Plant a Buckwheat cover and tend it the rest of the summer! Followed spacing guidelines and only planted three Eggplant transplants in a 4’x8’ raised bed and have lots of open space for weeds to grow until the Eggplant fills in? Plant a Buckwheat cover and terminate before it begins to compete with the Eggplant!
If a soil building, weed suppressing, beneficial insect attracting, gorgeous cover crop for those fallow garden spots sounds like something you might like, plant a little Buckwheat! For more information on Buckwheat, cover crops, or any other gardening topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy Gardening!
August is awful. Its heat makes one miss the relative cool of July. Its rain is so sporadic that it invokes nostalgia for the rainy afternoons of early summer. But if there is a silver lining in August for gardeners, it is the simplicity that it brings. The weaker spring crops, tomatoes, squash and the rest, are all gone now, destroyed or rendered fruitless by insects, disease, and heat. This leaves only the hardened, usually pest and disease-free survivors Okra, Pepper, Sweet Potato and Eggplant. I say usually because, this year, my eggplant bed is under attack by a new-to-me pest, the False Potato Beetle!
I’ve dealt with Colorado Potato Beetles (CPB) before. Those orangish, black-striped terrors often attack my spring potato crops and occasionally bother early tomatoes. However, I’ve never seen them in late summer on Eggplant. This raised suspicion. Also, I spotted unusual, round, whitish purple creatures munching on leaves from the same plants; these appeared to be the larval stage of the unidentified beetle. A little digging led me to identify these garden pests as the lesser known, lookalike cousin of CPB, the False Potato Beetle.
False Potato Beetle munching on an Eggplant leaf in the author’s garden.
False Potato Beetle (FPB) looks nearly identical to its cousin in the adult stage. They are similarly shaped and colored, though a close look reveals subtle differences between species. While both have yellowish-orange heads and pale-yellow backs with dark stripes, the FPB’s back is slightly lighter hued, more of a whitish, cream color. Also, the CPB’s underside and legs are a very dark orange to brown, with the False Potato Beetle having lighter colored legs and underside. If you’re saying, “These old eyes will never be able to tell the difference, County Agent. Cream and light-yellow look the same to me.”, I get it. Fortunately for those of us with poor vision, the larval stage (babies) of the two beetles looks very different and is the key to correct ID! FPB larvae are larger and have a whitish coloration. CPB larvae, in contrast, are a similar burnt orange color to the adult beetle. I promise, the difference is very distinguishable!
False Potato Beetle is considered a minor garden and agronomic pest as they typically only bother Eggplant, and they don’t usually destroy entire plants. However, if you get a FPB outbreak in your Eggplant garden, they can still be pretty destructive. These beetles feed in the same manner as caterpillar pests, chewing away entire sections of leaves and stems. Unchecked infestations can defoliate entire sections of plants. So, if you find these little beetles eating away at your eggplant garden, what can you do?
False Potato Beetle larvae. Photo courtesy of the author.
First, if you scout regularly, you’ll notice the beetles and their larvae in relatively small numbers before outbreaks become widespread. I had pretty good success this year just catching infestations early and picking off the beetles I saw and squishing them. Continue scouting and squishing for a few days and pretty soon, the population is reduced to a manageable level. However, if squishing makes you squeamish, you also have some common pesticide options at your disposal. I normally encourage clients to start their chemical pest control strategy with “softer” products like Pyganic, a pyrethrin make from an extract from the Chrysanthemum plant. Pyganic works great but is a little harder to find; you may have to order online or ask your local retailer if they can get it for you. If you are unable to find Pyganic or it doesn’t perform for you, the old standby products with carbaryl or pyrethroids (Sevin, Ortho Bug-B-Gone, and others) also work well.
False Potato Beetle can be a late summer garden pain, but with regular scouting, proper insect ID, lots of squishing, and maybe a timely pesticide application or two, you should be able to continue to harvest eggplant deep into fall! If you have FPB in your garden or have another horticultural question, give your local UF/IFAS County Extension office a call! Happy Gardening!