Thursday, August 23, 2018

Garden Battles--fighting for my tomatoes (and roses)

In my imagination, a garden is a place of tranquil enjoyment where people move about slowly, smelling the roses and picking the fruits of their labor. Many public gardens are like this—well-tended spaces where visitors can soak up the atmosphere in comfort.

Not so in my backyard.

The problem isn’t with the work of gardening. Digging, planting, pruning, composting—I’m comfortable with those. I’m also okay with the fact that gardening takes time. I plant a fig and wait… and wait…three years now, and no fruit. But some day it will get there, I’m sure, as will the still-flowerless pomegranate bush. I’ve got time.

The problem is the pests. The four-footed pests, the six-footed pests, and those that have no feet at all.

The largest of the four-footed pests is the deer. Suburban deer are more and more numerous all the time. They are the main reason my landscaping is relatively boring. The back yard has plastic fencing attached to the chain-link to raise the height to nearly eight feet, but the front and sides of the house are undefended. As a result, my choices are limited. No hostas (deer candy), no roses (thorns will not stop them), no zinnias, no coneflowers. Even the azaleas get nibbled and so flower poorly. So I depend on rosemary, lavender, and irises where there is enough sun, and ferns and lamium in the shade.* The rest of the plants are restricted to the fenced backyard.

The fence doesn’t keep out other four-footed pests, though. The worst of these are the squirrels and the voles. The squirrels help themselves to my fruit before it has even ripened, running off with strawberries, green peaches, and half-ripe tomatoes. No fence will keep them out—I would have to cage my garden in chicken-wire to do that. 

While the squirrels attack from above, the voles attack from below. They leave neat little holes where plants once were. Sometimes I find a plant suddenly wilted and discover it no longer has any roots. I have lost whole rose bushes to voles, as well as tomato starts.

I haven’t included moles on my list of garden pests because they don’t eat plants and may in fact be snacking on the grubs of a different garden pest, the Japanese beetle. The Japanese beetle is certainly one of the most annoying of my six-footed pests, since it particularly likes the unopened buds of roses. Grasshoppers do damage to the leaves of plants, as does a mysterious brown beetle that only comes out at night. And then there is the tomato hornworm with its voracious appetite. It’s easy to pick off, though, so the worst thing about it is coming upon it unexpectedly when handling a tomato plant. (Shudder.)

Weeding is part of gardening, and I actually have fond feelings for the weeds that our guinea pigs used to enjoy: chickweed, wood sorrel, purslane, and dandelions. But sometimes a weed goes too far. I had just one summer of not being able to weed, and now the stiltgrass (Microstegium) is threatening to take over my entire yard. I am not kidding here. Naturally I would also like to be rid of the Youngia japonica and the mock strawberry (which does indeed mock me with a strawberry-like fruit that doesn’t taste like strawberries), but at least they aren’t growing knee-deep and dense enough to hide anything on the ground, from the garden hose to a yellow jacket’s nest.

The tiniest pests of all still make themselves felt in a big way.  I’ve lost rose after rose to black spot, a fungus, and a different fungus contributed to the deaths of two very well-developed apricot trees. I was afraid to replant apricots, lest the new ones go the same way, so now there is a fig in that spot. So far the fig is serenely unbothered by pests of any kind.

I have saved the very worst pest for last. This creature doesn’t eat, infect, or otherwise harm a single plant, but it has a bigger impact than any of the others. It is the mosquito. I can’t stay out more than ten minutes without long pants, long sleeves (in summer!), and DEET on all remaining exposed skin. Mosquitoes not only make it difficult for me to pull weeds, pick off bugs, and remove diseased leaves, but they also prevent me from enjoying my garden—which was the whole point of gardening in the first place.

And I can’t fence them out.

Till next post.

*Actually, I also have catmint, chives, thyme, sage, aromatic aster, assorted mints, and a pomegranate outside the deer fence. So far, they have not been eaten.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Sugar, Sugar, Everywhere--the many names and kinds of sugars in our food

Years ago, a woman at my daughter’s daycare commented favorably regarding some sort of fruit-leather-ish snack, “And it doesn’t have any sugar.” At the time, I thought, “I seriously doubt that,” suspecting she just hadn’t recognized some form of sugar in it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good moment to delve into the actual ingredients and discover just what sort of sugar was actually involved, so I let it pass.

To be fair, sugars come in so many varieties and are known by so many names (sometimes the same sugar has more than one name) that it’s hard to keep up with them all. So I’ve been doing a little research (mostly online) so I can present a list of different kinds of sugars and a little information on each, as well as some information on common sweeteners such as honey and corn syrup.

First, there are the simple sugars. I’m not a chemist and this isn’t meant to be a chemistry lesson, so I’m just going to say that the simple sugars we’re interested in have six carbon atoms and some hydrogen and oxygen atoms in various configurations, and other sugars are built from them. The simple sugars we typically hear about or see listed are the following:

Glucose: Diabetics have to keep track of the levels of glucose in their blood. Glucose that is added to foods sometimes goes by the name of “dextrose”. Glucose is somewhat less sweet than sucrose, apparently.*
Dextrose: See glucose.
Fructose: Known as fruit sugar, it is commonly found in fruits, but is also used as a sweetener sometimes. Sweeter than sucrose.
Galactose: I’m listing this one mostly because it is a component of lactose. Less sweet than sucrose.

Second, there are the disaccharides, which are sugars made up of two simple sugar molecules bonded together. Here are some of interest:

Sucrose (white sugar, table sugar): Made of a glucose molecule bonded to a fructose molecule.
Lactose (milk sugar): One glucose molecule bonded to one galactose molecule. Some people no longer have enough of the enzyme to break it down, in which case the lactose gets used by bacteria much farther down the intestinal tract with uncomfortable results. Lactose is apparently only mildly sweet, which maybe explains why lactose-free milk (in which the lactose has been broken down into glucose and galactose) tastes sweeter than regular milk.
Maltose: one glucose bonded to one glucose. Maltose is apparently significantly less sweet than sucrose, but sweeter than lactose. I should add that the properties of substances made of two or more sugars depends a lot on how the sugar molecules are bonded together—longer chains of glucose, depending on length and kind of bond, can be starches or cellulose. More on those later.
Alpha-gal: One galactose molecule bonded to another galactose molecule. Some people have a tick-bite induced allergy to alpha-gal, and react to beef and other meat from mammals. As far as I know, alpha-gal doesn’t get used as a sweetener and I have no idea if it tastes sweet.

Finally, there are longer chains of sugar molecules. In particular, there are starches and cellulose.
Starches are long chains of glucose molecules. Our bodies can break these down into glucose when we eat them.
Cellulose, on the other hand, we cannot break down. Cellulose molecules are very VERY long chains of glucose. They are found in plants and help give them structure. They also provide us with “fiber” as they go right through our system. Cows, rabbits, termites and other animals that have a diet heavy in grass (or wood)  have systems that can break down cellulose. I think most of these systems involve special bacteria.

So what sugars are actually in the various alternative sweeteners out there? I had to look this up, as I have never really been sure what is in honey or maple syrup, let alone agave syrup.

Honey: Apparently it contains both glucose and fructose, but separate from each other, not bonded together to form sucrose. At least, that was my understanding from what I read.
Maple syrup: Sucrose. Okay, that’s simple.
Corn syrup (not high fructose corn syrup, but Karo corn syrup that you cook with): Glucose. It sounds like this is roughly the same as the “glucose syrup” that shows up in British recipes.
High-fructose corn syrup: This is the one that gets added to a lot of processed foods. It contains both glucose and fructose. Hmmm, does that make HFCS a lot like honey, except for the flavor? Or does honey contain other interesting things that change how it affects us? I do not know. They sound pretty similar, sugar-wise. Another interesting thing: The HFCS industry is trying to persuade people that since high-fructose corn syrup contains the same molecules as sucrose, they should be no more concerned about it than they are about sucrose. But since how molecules are bonded together sometimes makes a difference in how they affect us, I’m suspicious of this reasoning.
Agave syrup: Apparently this is very high in fructose.

Also, concentrated pear juice and concentrated grape juice are sometimes added to foods for the purpose of sweetening them. These may have high levels of fructose.

I didn’t list stevia because it is something else entirely and not made of sugars.

To repeat, I’m not a chemist (I took organic chemistry in college, but that was more years ago that I care to admit). So if I have said something misleading by mistake, please comment with a correction.

Till next post.

 *I wasn’t able to find out if the comparisons of sweetness were weight-for-weight, or by volume (unlikely) or for comparable concentrations of molecules. I don’t think this information is very useful without knowing this. I’m guessing it was weight-for-weight.