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05 December 2009

The Garden in December, Part I

Baby beets coming along just like they're supposed to do in the Winter – the garden can snip leaves of some of the plants for salads while leaving the remaining plants to grow big roots – they'll need more space between them, but the discards will make lovely additions to salads. 

Who has time to garden? The days are so short, it’s hard to get out to the garden. As December comes rumbling through your life, make sure you have batteries in your flashlight because, Lord knows, I (and I doubt I'm alone) have done more gardening by flashlight than I want my mental health provider to know! At least, the cooler temperatures (we hope), keep plants from growing too fast.
The main thing is to keep up successive sowings, especially of salad greens, beets and carrots. You might include radishes and other root crops too. You might find yourself picking peas, fava beans, garbanzos, harvesting small heads of cabbage, broccoli, leaves of kale and chard. The more you pick, the more you will get so don't be shy. Pick and give it to friends and neighbors (who will become friends) and find ways to keep the harvest. 
I try to sow 3 foot rows frequently rather than longer rows less frequently, unless I am planning on putting a crop up. Pickled beets and pickled beans are easy and a favorite way to keep some of the harvest through the year. I vow I'm going to learn how to pickle carrots like the ones you find in Mexican restaurants, but so far I have no good recipes. Of course, if I grow carrots in the winter and peppers in the summer, how will the two ever get together in a pickled carrot jar? Carrots can keep, but I don't have a place to keep them until the peppers are ready – like most Los Angeles homes and apartments, I do not, as yet, have a root cellar or even a pantry that would do the word justice. So there's a challenge.

For gardeners who have been at it for awhile the catalogs have begun to arrive and with it the challenge to not buy several hundred pounds of lettuce seed or tomato seeds.

I grew up in NE Kansas and all through my childhood, spent winter months with the Burpee catalog. I would read all the descriptions of the vegetables and compare them over and over again. Grandpa, who saved his seed, had no use for 90% of all they sold, so I rarely got to see any of my multitude of lists even purchased let alone grown. Burpee went out of business for a while and had a bumpy few years, now is back, but really is only a shadow of its former self offering a rather paltry selection of seed that usually isn't much for the home gardener. However, many other catalogs (from seed companies or seed savers) have taken up the slack – I've written elsewhere on my favorite catalogs. But how was the year just past?

Of course, in LA, we've got the current winter garden just planted, but for LAST winter, here's some of our results:

Artichoke: I know I'm teasing the rest of the world, but I pay rent in Los Angeles so I figure I'm due my share of teasing. We had a great harvest last year of artichokes – mostly Green Globe Improved. They all produced big beautiful chokes with abandon. We had respectable harvest from Violetto which I love, but it wasn't nearly as productive.

Beets: Burpee's Golden and Chioggia - both are dynamite and steady producers year in and year out and both are usually from Pinetree although I have been known to get seed from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply too.

Broccoli: Nutribud is an OP of respectable performance; earliness is right up there with the hybrids and the size is comparable. As the name suggests, it is reported to have a higher percentage of glutamine. I add in a few plants of Premium Crop or (less often) Bellstar because I hate to rest on one crop, but I really expect most of my broccoli to be Nutribud.

Brussels sprouts: Bubbles was the hybrid we grew – someone had given me a couple of plants. They got whitefly bad and I couldn't see cleaning each little sprout thoroughly enough; although a friend did and sent me back a lovely dish of them (thanks Mary!). Between cabbage and broccoli, I think I get enough of this family to skip Brussels sprouts.

Cabbage: A good year for cabbage for us. We were donated a pointy headed hybrid, whose name has been lost to prosterity, produced huge 10 pound heads and was successful wherever we planted it, but was not any better than Danish Ball Head which is an OP heirloom. Both were huge solid heads and we ate and ate and finally learned how to ferment cabbage to be able to eat it the rest of the year (I still have some and this year's cabbage is in the ground !)

Carrots: I grow Mokum and Yaya, both hybrids. Yaya is the winner, but I can't always find the seed at a good price – I think I have gotten it from Abundant Life Seeds. And while the seed was expensive (by my standards), but it was a sure winner in less than ideal soil. Mokum, from Pinetree, is always a dependable, decent carrot. If you decide to plant some of the different color carrots, you'll be able to grow open pollinated seeds. However, if you have some deep soil (loose down about 18 inches or more) you can try some of the non-hybrids which includes several of the non-orange varieties that have been repopularized recently. In the 1800's, carrots were a number of different colors – it has only been fairly recent that carrots were 'supposed' to be only orange.

Cauliflower: Mark Twain is supposed to have said that 'cauliflower was cabbage that had gone to college' and I can't afford the tuition, so I stick to cabbage. Cabbage is easier to preserve and broccoli will give successive cuttings from one plant. Cauliflower is more work and less results.

Celeriac: First year with this and I like it. I don't grow celery because it's a hard plant to grow and home grown celery has always tasted bitter to me. Celeriac, on the other hand, was easy to grow and produced well. You can't smear a hunk with cream cheese or peanut butter and have the same delightful appetizer, but it does a marvelous ballet in soups. Large Prague was our selection and I've not had experience with anything else.

Chard: (I'm dispensing with the 'Swiss' part, feel free to join me!) We had seed from Seed Savers Exchange of Five Color Silverbeet and seed of Pinetree's Orange Fantasia. Both were incredibly productive – although I've never known chard to be unproductive, so I'm not sure that's saying a lot. Someone gave us a few plants of Sea Foam and that one has spectacular production. Still, I like the red chard more and I think the orange is one helluva show stopper!

Fava beans: Windsor is my favorite and we get pounds of beans from each plant. In fact, I've given up on peas preferring to grow favas, garbanzos and lentils because I don't feel like I get enough to eat from peas.

Garlic: I love Spanish Roja and Music - hardnecks are supposed to not like warm climates, but I have great luck with them. Last year, the crows got to them. They don't eat the garlic, but they pull them out of the ground. After three or four go rounds with this (they pull, I replant), the cloves were hopelessly intermixed so which one was the better producer is anyone's guess. I'm starting with fresh seed garlic this year: Music, Spanish Roja, and Red Toch!

Kale: Redbor works for me. I had some plants of Dwarf Blue, but felt like that was a very stupid idea – same footprint for half the plant. What WAS I thinking?

Leeks: King Richard is my usual dependable producer but last year was a really so-so harvest. I think I ignored it too much.

Lettuce: I'm one of those who can't get through the lettuce section of a seed catalog without ordering four or five more packets! I could supply a large army with lettuce if I were given the land to do it. Marvel of the Four Seasons, Brown Winter, Red Winter, Deer Tongue, Buttercrunch, and on and on and on.

Onions: I buy plants from a local organic farm supply, but they sold out so I had NO onions. Disaster. But usually I grow their Italian Red Torpedo – a delicious onion that is absolutely stellar on the grill. Onions, unlike almost every other veggie we grow is 'day sensitive.' Most onions offered in the States will not bulb in LA because they are 'long day' plants and we need to grow 'short day' varieties. So most folks will not be able to compare to our experience.

Potatoes: We gathered leftovers from bachelor friends (they sprout in the pantry and we just plant them) - I don't know the varieties but we had a good harvest.

Shallots: Wow! I had never grown shallots before, but I have found they are easier to grow than onions and more productive! I planted seed from Pinetree and I was so impressed, I'm back for more! Olympus and Bonilla were both good performers.

All in all, this was one of the very best harvests we have ever had. We put up food, donated several tons to the Westside Food Bank and still ate like kings! It was all that compost, I tell you. The rain wasn't any great shakes (about 10” - less than our normal 12”) and there were several devastating hot spells in November, December and again in January. In fact, the winter garden last year got killed outright by a hard couple of weeks of Santa Ana winds that sent the thermometer soaring into triple digits several times and ruined numerous plantings. Oh, and I can't forget the mouse in the greenhouse that ate all the starts in January. Thank God for a long growing season!


02 December 2009

Holiday Shopping? Here's Book List for You!

Chard makes a lovely holiday gift, but I tend to give books much more frequently.  Something in these chards (maybe the color?) says "HOLIDAY!" 

 As you make up your holiday gift list, take a look at some of these books, they will make good gifts, raise awareness and you'll be acclaimed a wise person for selecting such an astute gift!  Or by them for yourself and be careful patting yourself on the back.  Following are some selections that I have found fascinating and readable. Next year I hope I'll have one of mine on the list!

A Nation of Farmers by Sharon Astyk et al © 2009 New Society Publishers
Sharon Astyk is one of the premier writers of this decade. She is a sharp, critical thinker, who writes form a personal style and experience. She has her facts and she isn't afraid to use them. In fact, I think the desire to be thoroughly based in reality has lead to a few more facts than I like, the specter of the future this book shows can be the difference between a bleak desperate holocaust scenario, or it can be one of abundance and peace. How we will do that rests in a large way on how we grow the food we eat. A new prospective that is enlightening and thought provoking – if not 'action-provoking.' I read Sharon's blog almost daily because she has a lot of important things to say.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, et al © 2007, Harper Collins
One of the more accessible books on eating locally. While some folks can afford new hybrid cars, and some folks can put up solar collectors and commute by computer, the majority of us will have to take other steps to lower our carbon footprint. The Kingsolver family model how eating is a global statement – what is on the end of your fork has more to do with global warming than the car you drive. Or how fast.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by J. Hertzberg et al © 2007 Thomas Dunne Books
You like fresh bread? Who doesn't? This book gives you a way to come home from work and have freshly baked bread from your own oven with dinner. It is very good bread. I have made loaves of this bread for my class and for many potlucks. It is wolfed down with gusto. This is good bread. This is easy. Do you need another reason?

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan © 2009 Penguin Books
There is nothing written by Micheal Pollan that I have found wanting, but this book is the most powerful force to change lives that he has written. Pulling on the same research that brought us The Omnivores' Dilemma, he brings the lessons to our dinner table. Excoriating the nutritionists and the fads of modern American eating, Pollan is a voice of reason in the insanity of our supermarket abundance of empty (or worse!) calories.

Independence Days by Sharon Astyk © 2009 New Society Publishers
This is the most recent Sharon Astyk to hit the stands. An important book of directions to real independence – independence is not won with a gun or massive buying power, but in being self-sufficient in your food. How do you do that? This is the manual and it makes so much sense. The security we often seek in vain can be found in these pages – we don't need a world undone to need independence – the loss of a job or an injury can force us to face difficult choices. As Katrina showed us in New Orleans, counting on the government might not be our wisest choice.

Oak, The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan © 2005 W. W. Norton & Co.
I know this may seem a little out of place on this list, but I got to admit, Logan's book was one delightful read. Page after page has some new tidbit to teach me and another tale of wonder about these magnificent trees that populate every continent in the Northern Hemisphere. You cannot open this book without learning some little tidbit that will surprise and amaze. This is a well-written and fast paced book of many surprises. I really recommend it.

Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods, by Gary Paul Nabhan © 2008 Chelsea Green Publishing
Nabhan's research into Native American foods (beans and corn, to name a few) gives him the special insight to understand their value to the world and how we can feed more Americans and the world if we only take some time to enjoy a good meal – if we will save food plants, we must grow them and eat them. Can't think of a tastier preservation project myself, can you? As usual Nabhan's writing is first rate.

The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Buhner © 2002, Chelsea Green Publishing
If someone you know is into alternative medicine and they have not yet read this book, they are only dimly aware of what they are doing. This book profoundly explores the depth of our disconnection with plants, specifically the healing herbs, and brings a sense of ecology and connectivity to a medical practice that few modern healers are more than slightly aware of. Opens eyes, hearts and calls a thinking person to action.

The Omnivores' Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan © 2007 Penguin Books
How do we get what we eat and does it matter? This is Michale Pollan's quest as he opens the book. Looking at how modern America gets its food from farm to table is a fascinating tale that often discourages one from some of the things we often eat for granted. This is the same research that brought us In Defense of Food although the focus is different. Here Pollan looks at how our modern food has compromised the very essence of food in a never ending race to the lowest bottom line and the lowest selling price. How come sodas are so cheap?

Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine by Gary Paul Nabhan (c) 2008 Shearwater Publishing
Nikolay Vavilov was a Russian scientist who did more seed collecting than any other scientist in the history of mankind. Convinced that diversity was the key to ending starvation by famine, he sought out indigenous plants from expeditions all over the world. Unlike the modern model of filling the world's bellies with food of the First World, he sought out Third World plants and looked to them as being the most important living things on earth. Vavilov died, ironically, in a Soviet prison of starvation, but his legacy overshadows groups like Seed Savers Exchange and other work to preserve the diversity of the world's food.

Do you have books you'd suggest for gifts for others (or for yourself?).  I read a lot and I'm always looking for new titles that need to be better known.   

Happy Holidays!  


07 November 2009

The Garden In November

I don't need a sign to tell me this is garlic, but I am grateful to tell everyone else it is.  Can a fellow grow too much garlic?  
 I don't think so....

On the coast, our winter plantings can continue right up through March. The only months that are really hard on winter veggies as close to the Pacific as we are in Zone 24 is July through September. In some years, October can be hard to handle too, but this year's one week or so of very hot weather is much more common. It was hard on our lettuce and young plants in the garden, we had to add some extra water by hand. And we did loose a few.

But now, by this time of the year, we ought not have any extended heat spells, the cool weather should be very much ensconced. Now we want to make certain I have a good stock of alliums laid in – my garlic, onions, leeks and shallots all have a place in my heart – and stomach – so I plant a lot of them.

Shallots and garlic can be grown from bulbs, so I will plant them in pots and I crowd all my roses with garlic. Garlic is a good companion plant because, according to folklore at least, it is good at discouraging insects. I’m not sure this is proven yet, but I think the garlic plant itself is worth a look so I love having that upright element in pots as well as in ornamental beds. And you can't really plant enough garlic and shallots. Come to think of it, leeks would serve that purpose just as well.

This year, I am in my second year of planting onions and shallots from seed. Last year, shallots were a whopping success – except I felt completely out of my league when it came to cook them. I felt I had to copy a French accent while cooking with them. The onions ran a distant second, which saddened me – I am much more familiar cooking with onions than shallots. But, I'm trying again.

I have loved to purchase onion plants from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply for several years. They carry several different varieties, but the one I love is Italian Red Torpedo Onions. But for the last two years, I have missed getting plants because they do sell out. So, in revenge, I have sought to start them from seed. The plants you can buy in nurseries are really only baby plants that someone had to start from seed, so someone had to do it. I figure if someone can do it, I just as well ought to be able to do it. It's harder than I thought. The little plants come up looking like grass and seem to take forever. Maybe that's why buying plants is so hot.

Water, hopefully becomes much less of a challenge by this point, although a Santa Ana might come flying through and send everyone scrambling to keep the soil moist around my plants. Mulch. The more the mulch, the less the work. You can mulch pots too – in permanent (more or less) plantings like a rose, caper bush or bay leaf tree.

Mulch is a term that I use a lot, but needs to be defined. Mulch is anything put on top of the soil that interdicts the sun's rays and raindrops (or 'sprinkler-drops') from hitting the soil. It can be rocks, sheets of plastic, or some organic material – even compost.

As a vegetable gardener from way back when, I disdain the non-organic mulches. They can be expensive and they don't do a thing for the soil. Most organic mulches are cheap and many can be found for free. Organic mulches, unlike rocks, plastic or other non-organic mulches, feed the microbes that live in the soil, which improves the soil and adds fertility without a lot of extra expense.

As I plant more of my winter plants, I'll keep adding more compost as mulch around the base of my plants. One thing to take note of as the days get cooler and hopefully wetter, is an explosion of slugs and snails. This is the kind of weather they prefer and they multiply like crazy in it. Because they are migratory creatures, you can never be rid of them completely. If you did manage to clear your garden on Tuesday of all slugs and snails, by Wednesday evening, you have a whole new group on hand that wandered in from the neighbors (or hatched out while you weren't looking).

The only real solution is constant vigilance. I have a friend who walks through her garden with a pail of water with dish soap in it and every snail and slug goes for a swim. Another friend tosses them towards the street. Another crushes them underfoot. (Gardening is not for the squeamish or faint of heart!) I do all three at different times depending on how I feel. You should have seen how I felt to loose four rows of baby lettuce in one night. I never found that culprit, but I have wrecked revenge on every slug and snail I've ever seen since.

Yes, there are predatory snails that feed on the common garden snail, but they are also migratory and seem like a pretty iffy proposition to me. Besides, if they ever did take out your common garden snail and left themselves with nothing to eat (not very likely) then they would turn on your garden as well. Seems like that is a lose lose lose situation. I'll pass.

There are also several products in the marketplace that work and are organic. Es-car-go® and Sluggo® are two products that are organic and safe around pets and other wildlife because the active ingredient is an iron phosphate, a soil component that is lethal to mollusks like snails and slugs.

Still, the least expensive way to deal with them was to kill them directly as mentioned above. I imagine if this makes you queasy now, after some valuable crops or hard work becomes a midnight snack several times, you will find yourself a hardened snail murderer like I am.

This is also THE very time to begin to think about fruit trees. I urge you to think about fruit trees for a while before making the dive because they are a big investment, not so much in money, but in time and patience. Once one has planted a fruit tree, some will take several years to come into full production – if you find the fruit unsatisfactory, or you have a variety that doesn't fruit well for you, all that time is wasted.

Gather as much data as you can in order to choose the tree that is right for you. Here are some sources you will find helpful – I suggest you go online and order the printed catalog because you'll want to cross check facts and types with each different nursery before you commit.

Trees of Antiquity, is the place where we purchased most of our trees here in The Learning Garden. I found them extremely helpful and very knowledgeable. It was they who suggested Dorsett Golden as our apple here and it is truly one of the finds of a lifetime for our area.

Raintree Nursery, invariably is where I place my ongoing orders for my propagation class (that starts in January) because I need rootstocks for the class, but their selection is lovely too and their catalog is worth a read.

My old standby, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, is a great supplier of trees and fruit bushes, but their selection isn't nearly as complete and their catalog isn't a detailed as these others. Still, if you are already ordering something from Peaceful and they have the variety you want, you can't go wrong with them.

Dave Wilson Nursery has one of the most extensive websites around on fruit trees. It is really worth a good solid look, chock full of data.

The University of California has gotten in on the act with a website, The California Backyard Orchard, that is a wonderful web site for a lot of answers about growing fruit trees in our climate. It also promotes the UC ANR publication, The Home Orchard which I recommend if someone is going to go into this head over heals – like I want to!

After looking through these catalogs, one might have narrowed their purchase down to a few trees. Once you get trees, these following sources are lovely to have in your library:

The Backyard Orchardist: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruit Trees in the Home Garden, Otto, Stella, © 1995 Ottographics This is the oldest book in this list and probably the smallest too, so it isn't as chock full of data as the other two, but then it would be the least expensive as well. Otto covers a lot more, obscure, fruits and so this is a book for the adventurous and those who don't want to spend a lot of money. It is a gem of a book and she does not intimidate the reader.
The Home Orchard, Ingels, C. et al, © 2007, University of California, Agriculture & Natural Resources One of the very best books for learning about the home orchard. Well written, easy to understand, good photos, this one has it all. No shortcuts, I like this book. It is available through the address above (and on sale as of this writing – which means a new edition might be on its way out – because of the sale, it is cheaper from ANR directly than it is from Amazon).
The Organic Apple Grower, Phillips, Michael, © 2005, Chelsea Green Publishing Although written for the New England area of the country, he introduces tools of the trade with a flair and his way of doing things IS organic. Might be one to check out from the library, but you will find plenty of good information and lots of lovely reading about organic apple production. (And his description of finding a flat-head apple borer makes my fulminations over slugs seem very, very tame.)

Some Fruit Varieties That Do Well Here:

Apples -

Dorsett Golden – as mentioned above, is our heavy cropper. It takes about 3 years to really settle in (although it will bear fruit, they are tiny for the first three or so years with full sized fruit beginning to show up in year three). We have Dorsett Golden on half size fruit stock and it's a fair sized critter.
Gala – we have this on a dwarf rootstock – she's about five feet tall at this point and not likely to get much larger. Lovely apples with crisp texture and that is what I prize in an apple.
Fuji – one of my all time favorites, but the one we have in the garden is a 500 chill hour plant and in three years I harvested one small apple. It WAS good, but it wasn't worth all that time. Sadly, ours will have to be replaced. (There are newer Fuji trees that have less chilling requirement and I may buy one of those.

If I had known better, I would have planted more varieties with a wider range of fruiting times to extend the harvest – as it is now, we get a ton of apples in late June/early July and then we are done for the year. Although, a quick look at the literature I have at hand shows that I have few apples to choose from that will fruit here at all.

Apricot -

Gold Kist – hands down, the best apricot I have ever eaten! A self-pollinated variety, this one tree stands out as the best fruit in our garden. While Royal Blenheim is the touted variety for our climate, I just love Gold Kist and have no desire to look beyond it.

Pear -

Seckle is usually the only one suggested for our area of the European pears. We have one, but it ended up in a neglected area and I've got nothing to report. Although, I don't think a ripe pear can be beat by much for shear hedonistic eating!

Figs -

Violettte de Bordeaux – is our tree that has been a champion for five years. It bore fruit the first year and it has not stopped since. A deep black skinned fruit, the flesh is a gorgeous red and has a smoky richness that is heavenly.
White Genoa – is an Italian variety that took forever to fruit. Once it finally put on a crop by which it could be judged, I began to appreciate its lighter and sweeter amber flesh. A really lovely fig.

Nectarine -

Double Delight – not to be confused with the rose of the same name, this is a yellow fleshed freestone nectarine, heavily bearing and needs a LOT of thinning – we almost lost several branches because it just over set fruit. I know Peaceful Valley calls it 'sensational' but I think that's a little over the top. It's good and with vanilla ice cream it's really good. But not 'sensational.' It is self-fertile.

Peaches -

Red Baron – this is one of our two peaches – this is a yellow freestone and a very good producer of large fruits. The other one is a clingstone and I like its flavor better, but I can't find the record on it and don't know which one it is. The importance of keeping good records, where you can find them is not to be overlooked. (I do have this all written down and saved in a computer file from 2003, but I can only find files back to 2005 right this second.)

Plums -

Santa Rosa – this is one of the thousands of plants that Luther Burbank created (he lived in Santa Rosa and gave us the Burbank potato, the Shasta Daisy among thousands of others), and I find this to be the best and most prolific producer of any tree in our gardens today. It makes a fabulous sorbet, delicious jam and fresh eating cannot be beat. There are several other plums that will do well in our region, but I haven't got past this one.

This is just the highlights of the common fruits. I will take on some more later in the month.


28 October 2009

The Garden in October, Part II

Lettuce from seed looks beautiful in the late winter sun!  A romaine lettuce like this is easy to grow and will look good no matter where you plant it!  

Direct sowing of seeds gets far too much mystical billing. It’s easy. The hard part, in our busy world, is staying disciplined enough to keep them watered. Remember, the seed wants desperately to grow, that is its only “job.” If you provide enough water for the seed to break its seed coat, you will see a little pair of leaves soon above the soil. These are called cotyledons and, if there are two of them, you have what is commonly referred to as a 'dicot.' There is only one other kind of flowering plant we would be concerned with in a vegetable garden and that has only a single seed leaf and is called a 'monocot.' Monocots are all the grasses, which includes grains like corn, wheat, rice and barley.

Take note of all the little cotyledons of the plants you grow and soon you will be able to tell them from the weeds. This is somewhat important. If you can rid yourself of weeds before they get really big, you have a much easier job of it; if you rid yourself of all the wrong plants because you mistook the lettuce for dandelions, you'll be a very disappointed and frustrated gardener!

Composting is one of the more essential parts of gardening. Gardening is a life cycle and composting is that part of the cycle that returns nutrients and fertility to the soil. In our culture, we don't like the smell or the thought of decomposition, yet a knowing gardener loves the smell of rich compost; that smell, incidentally is from actinomycetes, a fungus that is in the same group of organisms as penicillin.

Somehow, fall always reminds me of composting probably because I grew up in those colder climes where fall signals the oncoming winter and so marked the end of the growing season. And that leads to thoughts of composting. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

You can get absolutely nuts trying to build a scientific compost pile, but let me offer that I don't do all that. Decomposition happens. Just leave some veggies in your fridge too long and tell me they did not decompose. And you didn't have even think about carbon to nitrogen rations (c:n). You do want to understand the process – especially if you don't have the space to leave something sit for 9 months, which is what I used to do – and get usable compost in less time that it takes to grow a decent cabbage.

Remember you have 'browns' and 'greens,' names that are somewhat misleading. 'Browns' refers to carbon material which is usually brown. This is dried leaves or woody pieces. 'Greens' are those materials full of nitrogen – usually represented by grass clippings, but all of your table scraps are nitrogen sources too and they, though a different color, are classed as 'greens.' While we can specify the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio, achieving it is always a meandering attempt to meet an approximate target. And you never have composting materials in the right amounts to achieve an ideal c:n ratio. So, add as much of the green and the brown as you have. Mix well and water – keep moist. Make a pile that is at least three feet by three feet by three feet. Keep moist. Turn the parts that are inside, outside and the parts that are outside, inside. Keep moist. Not soggy, but moist. In about 9 weeks of warm weather, you'll be able to use fresh compost. Sift out the big honking pieces and return them to the pile (they will help get the pile off to a better start) and build it again.

Honestly? I usually dig a trench about one foot across and two feet deep and as long as it needs to be to handle what I have to compost. I pick a part of the garden I won't use for a few months and I add the compostable materials, covering with soil as I go. I add to the trench every day I need more room for materials. Eventually I'll simply plant right into that soil. No big deal and it works without a lot of reading.

You can find the composting technique that thrills you. The important part is that none of that rich material gets thrown into a land fill! That is unconscionable! All of the plant wastes from the kitchen and table are wonderful food for the garden and they are free!

However, for apartment dwellers, condo owners and others with no easy access to land, vermicomposting is the answer you are looking for! And you didn't even know you had the question! It's easy, the result can be used on plants in pots and your garbage need never grace the entrance of a landfill ever again!
You will need
10 gallon bin or 1 20 gallon bin
1 lb or so of worms
Cardboard or newsprint
Kitchen waste
OSH sells two storage bins that work very well for vermicomposting.  The smaller bin is a 10 gallon container by Rubbermaid called Roughneck Storage Bin #2214-08. It’s dimensions are 9” x  21” x 15” , comes with a lid and is available in various colors.  This size works well for a family of two.

A worm bin can be made of wood, but plastic seems to work better longer because it won't rot. Your bin must be tightly covered – worms cannot live in light and you don't want them to escape! Punch or drill holes around the top third of the vertical walls to allow air to circulate – punching them with a nail is best because any larger of a hole will be an escape hatch for the explorers in your worm population. You should do the same thing with the lid. Oxygen in the bin will allow the breakdown of materials to proceed aerobically, which means it won't stink and your worms won't suffocate.

Wet a sheet of cardboard or a section of newsprint – soak thoroughly and wring out to where it is as moist of a well wrung sponge. Worms will use this as bedding, and eventually you'll need to replace it
as time goes by.

Red wigglers will reprocess kitchen waste such as: vegetables, fruits, eggshells, teabags, paper coffee filters, shredded paper towels, and coffee grounds. They particularly like pumpkin, watermelon and cantaloupe. Avoid citrus fruits because they are too acidic for them. If you pamper your worms by cutting food scraps into small pieces, the worms can finish them off that much faster, I am not, however in the business of making life wonderful for a bunch of worms – I throw it in whole and they take care of it sooner or later. Burying the food scraps into the bedding will help you avoid fruit flies and not adding meat or fish to the bin will help prevent cats and dogs from investigating the bin.

Feed the worms your scraps as you have them available -ideally, no less than twice a wee – however, I have gone on vacation for a week and fed my worms nothing in that time and did not come back to a hell hole of a worm bin. Don't stay up nights worrying about them. These worms prefer a pH of something close to 7 and the temperature needs to be between 50 and 84 F. Don't let the bin dry out.

Harvesting the vermicompost can be done several ways, but the way that is easiest and therefore my choice is called 'side-harvesting.' Feed the worms on only one side of the bin for a few weeks which will cause the worms to migrate to that side. You can then begin to harvest the worm compost from that unoccupied side of the bin where you will eventually, once you've finished harvesting (over a few weeks), begin to add fresh bedding on that side causing them to migrate to the new bedding and allowing you to harvest from the second side.

You can make a it lot more complicated than this, but really, you have better things to worry about, yes?


05 October 2009

The Garden in October, Part I

Seedlings in terra cotta pots getting ready to be transplanted into slightly larger containers. On the left, broccoli and cabbages have two seed leaves while the two pots on the right must be onions or leeks because they only have one seed leaf each.

In all the books from back east and England, you'll find fall as a season of 'going to rest,' 'putting the garden to bed' and other allusions to 'sleep' and restoration. It is not true for us! We are in our other Spring and this Spring is really closer to the Spring that other parts of the world experience. This is our shot at carrots, peas, and other cool season plants. We either have all our space filled with plants, or we've just got a part planted with big plans (dreams) for the rest. So the Winter garden is in full swing. Later this month, if I have grown any green manure cover crops I will cut them down, leaving the plant material in place and cover with a thick layer of mulch. I would like to allow this to “mellow” (meaning I want this material to begin breaking down into nutrients the plants can use) for about 2 weeks before placing the next crop in.

I tried to plant one chard plant because I only need one to provide me with enough chard for all my needs, but there are so many colors to choose from, I feel a need to grow at least three: yellow, red and I love the orange. But these plants provide continuous chard obviating the need for succession planting, but almost everything else benefits by being sowed at intervals throughout the season, a process called 'succession sowing' or 'succession planting.'

A person plants a garden to get to eat the very freshest of food – you don't pick your veggies and put them in the fridge to age before you eat them – well, at least, that isn't the intent. So, to the degree we can, only plant enough of what you can eat in a reasonable amount of time. For me, being a single person, I have found that an eighteen inch row for most things is the perfect size to grow enough to supply fresh carrots, beets, parsnips, cutting lettuces, for any given time. A typical planting schedule for me might look like this:

Week 1 – carrots (maybe Yaya)
Week 2 – beets (Golden)
Week 3 – parsnips (Hollow Crown)
Week 4 – carrots (Mokum)
Week 5 – beets (Chioggia)
Week 6 – turnips (DeMilano)
Week 7 - lettuce (Black Seeded Simpson)
Week 8 – carrots (Yaya)
Week 9 – beets (Red Ball)
Week 10 – spinach (Space)
Week 11 – turnips (Purple Globe)
Week 12 – beets (Golden)

Quickly you see that, though I do eat parsnips and turnips, I don't eat nearly as many of them as I do carrots or beets. Your situation might be different in that you could care less at all about ANY parsnips, but spinach is near and dear to your heart so you would have spinach in the rotation much more than I do – you can, of course, plant three different things per week – carrots, beets and spinach in week one; turnips, lettuce and parsnips in week two; carrots, beets and parsnips in week three. Or spinach planted in one row every week all cool season long. Tailor the program to your needs! You might also find that you need longer rows – I wouldn't imagine that an 18” row would suffice for a family of four! Play around with the scheduling and the row legnth and the mix of plants you grow until you find what your family needs. At which point, their needs will change, but you'll have a lot more data with which to figure out the new schedule.

In our smaller gardens there is no room for the proverbial 50' row of carrots, so succession planting of a given vegetable is one of the staple strategies for stocking your larder. Another good point about putting in many smaller plantings of crops is the ability to harvest these vegetables at a smaller size, which is just the ticket for a garden in pots. Don’t get suckered into the “bigger is better” routine. A huge cauliflower might serve as a great subject in a “look what I grew” contest photo, but the cauliflower you pick at half the size will be the one your tastebuds will reverently remember.

A mark of the very good gardener is one who has his/her succession sowing down to such a science that allows them to place fresh vegetables on the table without lag time or a concentration of over-abundance and the attendant wild fluctuations leaving you with nothing from the garden for intervening weeks. Learning how to do this well has been the work of a lifetime for many and, as for me, I’m still finding it a moving target. But at least I know what I’m shooting for!

More later in the month.


01 October 2009

The Garden In September, Part II

These ARE the 'dog days' of summer. Baseball season is winding down and the playoffs loom just ahead. Fall seeds need to be ordered soon and planted. It's time to deal with the end of the summer produce and look into the cooler months ahead. This is my faithful friend, Casey, also known as 'the Gardenmascot,' a proud Scottish Terrier who is in his waning days as well. Sorry this post got put up so late - it's been a jam-packed month.

I've had a great crop of peppers this year – which, I find a tad disturbing, because this year was lousy for eggplants this year due to a lack of consistent heat, and if it didn't get hot enough for one, I'd think it'd not be hot enough for the other. But I have a lot of peppers. We pickled about 5 pints of the Sweet Banana peppers so far this year, but the jalapeños, I'm letting stay on the vine until they turn red so I can dry them until they are crispy to grind them into powder for a teentsy little zip in some recipes over the coming months.

One thing to remember when working with hot peppers: either wear rubber gloves or make very sure to wash your hands thoroughly before you touch your face – especially your eyes – the juice in hot peppers are just about one of the most painful solutions you can get into your eyes. Or other sensitive flesh parts of your body.

Measurements of heat in peppers are in Scoville Heat Units (SHU's), which is predicated on the amount of capsaicin in the pepper. Here is a chart comparing the different peppers and their varying amounts of capsaicin. If you know the SHU of a pepper, you can avoid blasting the top of your head off. But, remember, right after the note on keeping capsaicin out of your eyes, if you dry peppers, the heat increases by a factor of ten! That's an increase worth remembering!

Pepper Type Heat rating (in Scoville heat units)
Pure Capsaicin 16,000,000
Naga Jolokia 800,000 ~ 1,041,000
Dorset Naga 800,000 ~ 900,000
Red Savina Habanero 350,000 ~ 575,000
Habanero 200,000-300,000
Red Amazon 75,000
Pequin 75,000
Chiltecepin 70,000-75,000
Tabasco 30,00-50,000
Cayenne 35,000
Arbol 25,000
Japone 25,000
Smoked Jalepeno (Chipotle) 10,000
Serrano 7,000-25,000
Puya 5,000
Guajillo 5,000
Jalepeno 3,500-4,500
Poblano 2,500-3,000
Pasilla 2,500
TAM Mild Jalepeno-1 1,000-1,500
Anaheim 1,000-1,400
New Mexican 1,000
Ancho 1,000
Bell & Pimento 0

I'm afraid my Kansan heritage precludes eating most of these. Anything above Jalapeno would not be found in my kitchen! And yet, I've dried Jalapenos. That's just a little scary - the only use I have for the final dried Jalapeno powder will be to add a pinch to my famous Hot Chocolate That Kills, served at the Learning Garden for Dios de los Muertas and again at Valentines Day. Other than that, I'll keep it tightly capped and show the container to some things I'm cooking just to make them THINK about being warmer. :-)

About half-way into the month, it usually becomes cool enough to sow arugula, beets, carrots, lettuce, peas and turnips. My leek and fennel seedlings ought to be ready to transplant out, as should broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard, endive, kohlrabi.

As September wanes, probably the most productive time in the Southern California potager begins. If you are eating from your garden, now begins the time you can really feast for awhile, the last of summer – peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, okra, sweet corn, basil – is still out there to eat and the first root crops or lettuce will be big enough to munch a bite or two. I enjoy eating BLT sandwiches and for a brief moment in spring and another brief moment at this time. I make my own bread, so the tomato and lettuce come from my garden and the only parts I buy are the bacon and the mayo. It's almost a mystical experience for me, especially when the bread is still warm from the oven. Finish it off with a dessert of figs heated on the grill or in a broiler, drizzle honey on them and a dollop of some fairly stout Greek yogurt on them. Oh is that to die for! Not some store-bought fig shipped in from far away, but a fig that got ripe on a tree in the back yard or from a local farmer's tree that you found for sale in a farmers' market.

Fava beans, lentils and peas are in season now, too. All of these grow best in our cooler winters. Fava beans were the only bean in the Old World before the Americas were discovered; all the other beans are American in origin (as are tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes among others – one wonders how in the world the Italians and French survived long enough to arrive at a culinary tradition!). Fava bean plants, as well as lentils and peas, make a marvelous addition to any soil building program and favas, when combined with artichoke hearts, make a Mediterranean stew so delicious that my taste buds flutter just to remember.

To have sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) flowers for Christmas, they must be in the ground by the first weekend of September. Please note that 'sweet peas' refer to a flower, while peas (Pisum sativum) are a food plant. The sweet pea flower (which I think has the most divine aroma!), is strictly an ornamental as the seeds are poisonous. Not smart to confuse the two – gives a whole new scenario to the “no TV for you until you eat your peas!” line.

If you don't start your own seeds, find broccoli, cabbage, kale, chard and onion plants in a good nursery. Don't scrimp on your plants – if they have been cared for with indifference (like one might find at a big box store with minimum wage employees who may even hate working in a nursery) you might not get the quality plants that will produce the best (or the most) food. You are going to invest considerable time in growing these plants before they will be your dinner. Buying a cheap plant might be 'penny wise and pound foolish.' If you have to hoard some pennies, skip a couple cups of coffee rather than buy cheap plants.

I think it's better to start your plants from seed, instructions are easily available, if you can, find the seminal seed starting book, The New Seed Starters' Handbook by Nancy Bubel. That was the book that started me on the road to starting almost all my plants from seed and is still the best book on the subject. I see if sells for about $14.00 on Amazon; I got my second copy (the first went a-wandering) from a close out bin in Borders for $3.00.

Starting from seed, as you saw if you went to any of the web sites from last month, offers you the most diversity in what you have available to plant and you control over when you plant as well – which is a delightful way of keeping your garden looking its best. Mind you, this takes patience and time – but the rewards are equal to those investments. Isn't that the way of everything, though?

This is an exciting time to be gardening. Grab your imagination and look at where you planting. Think about the eventual size of what you are planting – it's OK to make mistakes – that's how we learn! When I'm teaching a class, the truth of it is, I have probably killed more plants than anyone else in the room and yet, they are the ones saying “I have a black thumb.” That's probably not true at all. The big difference is when I kill a plant, I usually know why it died and sometimes it isn't my fault. And when it IS my fault, it's usually because I wasn't paying attention. Death by inattention isn't a 'black thumb' issue unless you do things like forget to turn your car off; or forget to go to work in the morning. Death by inattention is reformable – it's a changing of your patterns.

Be good to yourself and it'll change.


08 September 2009

The Garden In September, Part I

Lettuce is one of our winter crops in Los Angeles – Merville des Quatres Saissons (Marvel of the Four Seasons) is more like Marvel of the Two Seasons here – our summers are way too hot to grow this lovely French belle, but in cooler months this is a true delight that is as tasty as it is beautiful – and it's really beautiful!!

As the Summer crops begin to decline, we now get ready to see the seasons change in a dramatic fashion. The plants that have given you tomatoes all summer, are mostly a heap of sad, brown vines. If there has not been any difficult diseases, I prefer to leave the vegetation where it lays. I chop it up using my trusty pruners or a machete – or a shovel, if it is handy and will do the job. The cut up plant debris is left where it lies and fresh mulch is piled up on top of it – to three or four inches deep. The paths are filled with wood chips if I don't have a clover or other green manure crop growing there. The old vegetation will break down and in the process will become composted in place.

These plants have drawn nutrients from the soil and, by leaving them in place, we allow some of that nutritional value to be returned to the soil. It's true, when we harvest a tomato, we are really harvesting the soil's fertility that has been converted via the sun's energy into the things we eat to live. Putting the tomato plant back into the soil, without the tomatoes you harvested, represents a net loss for the soil. That's where the additional mulch and wood chips come in – we try to replace the stuff we ate with stuff that will allow the soil to recreate its bevy of nutrients to nourish our next round of food plants. It is not sufficient, in the long run, to just add fertilizers – we need to add things that will provide sustenance for the critters in the soil – a thriving soil ecology will provide better nutrition to your plants without spending needless dollars on fertilizer, most of which will only provide pollution of our ground water.

In a garden where perennial weeds are not a huge problem, I encourage everyone to plant a perennial crop that will assist in nourishing the soil. I like any one of several clovers or alfalfa or whatever else that will take mild foot traffic and will do something to add to the fertility of the soil. If this crop is mowed in a sustainable manner – like with a hand sickle, for a small area, to a scythe for larger areas – the mowings can be put right back into the beds next to where it was cut. Some kind of soil regeneration must be happening all the time or the soil will eventually not support food crops. Unfortunately, growing in a community garden, control of the perennial weeds is only as good as the worst gardener and so a perennial cover crop on the pathways isn't always a practice we can use.

One portion of the garden needs to be left fallow in every season, 'fallow' means it is not growing a crop to harvest – usually what we call a green manure crop. For gardeners in Sunset Zone 24, that means a part of the garden can be left without growing crops to harvest every single month of the year. In areas where there is not a huge problem with perennial weeds, the paths can supplement this soil enrichment by growing something like clover year round that improves soil viability. In any growing season, it is better to have the soil covered with some crop – even a crop of weeds is better than leaving the soil barren, except they'll produce more weeds if they go to seed.

More September later in the month!


12 August 2009

The Garden In August; Part IV: A Short List of Seed Houses

I've started a new blog called "The Learning Garden - Almost - Daily," and this photo of some lettuce seed trials appears in the very first post there. These are so-called 'summer lettuces' that we're trying to ascertain how well they will do in the Southern California summer heat.

Following, I list a few of the seed houses I order from consistently. I tend to order most of my seeds from Pine Tree Garden Seeds simply because I rarely need the quantities of seed per packet that I get from the other companies. I pay less, I can experiment with different varieties and I have less seed left over at the end of the season. What's not to like? Their listings include almost all the main varieties I want to grow.

BOUNTIFUL GARDENS; 18001 Shafer Ranch Road; Willits, CA 95490; 707.459.6410 This is a good source for open-pollinated seeds and often have varieties not found elsewhere. They also sell packets of grain seed – grow a little wheat, some oats or rye? Don't dismiss this out of hand – I had a wheat field in my front yard once. It is a good thing to support organizations that do credible garden research.

FEDCO SEEDS; PO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903; 207.873.7333; A very funky catalog, that makes me think of the Trader Joe's Frequent Flier, provides good quality open-pollinated seeds. While their focus is on 'cold-hardy, short season' seeds, we can use a lot of them here. As of August 31, they will no longer take orders for 2009. They begin to prepare for 2010's growing season. Their prices are really low - puts places like Seeds of Change to utter shame. And they are all open-pollinated.

PEACEFUL VALLEY FARM SUPPLY; PO Box 2209; Grass Valley, CA 95945; 916.272.4769 A fair priced purveyor of more than just seeds. This is the company to order cover crop seeds and tools as well as veggie and flower seeds. Their catalog is so chock full of data on pest control, fertilizing, cover crop seeds and irrigation; I have used it as a text in my organic gardening classes.

NATIVE SEED/SEARCH; 526 N. 4th Ave. Tucson, AZ 85705; 520.622.5561;; Like Seed Savers Exchange, this is a non-profit organization that exists to save seeds that have been grown for generations and represent a genetic diverse collection that mankind cannot allow to fall into obscurity. Their efforts are centered on the Native American seeds of the desert climates of Arizona and upper Mexico, which, despite the challenge of desert conditions still represent a disproportionate portion of our modern food crops.

PINETREE GARDEN SEEDS; PO Box 300, Rt. 100; New Gloucester, ME 04260; 207.926.3400 This is THE catalog where I order most of my seeds – they are the least expensive. How? The packets are smaller, fewer seeds. And that makes good sense for us with smaller sized gardens. If I want more, I can order more packets – but usually I order several varieties with which to experiment.

SEED SAVERS EXCHANGE; Rt. 3 Box 239; Decorah, Iowa 52101; 563.382.5990 Membership fees $25. Free brochure. This is the other main source of seeds for me. I have been a member for over five years because I believe in the work they do saving the rich heritage of heirloom seed varieties that might well be a thin green line between us and the Monsanto's of this world that are striving to control our food supply. I urge you to order from the Exchange and to become a member; we NEED these seeds.

There are many other seed catalogs out there, some of them quite fun. I used to love to look through all of them and indulge dreams of acres of land on which to grow vegetables until I learned that subsidiaries of Monsanto were buying up some of the old Mom and Pop seed houses and keeping the cute old names. Seminis, Monsanto's seed supplier also lists some of my old favorites as sellers of their genetically modified seeds. Firms like Burpee, Parks, Cooks Garden, Nichols Garden Seeds are listed on the Seminis site as dealers for Seminis. I have changed my recommendations to these few that clearly state they do NOT sell genetically modified seed.


10 August 2009

The Garden in August Part III: Some Suggested Varieties for the Fall/Winter Garden

Seeds of this onion will soon be harvested so we can sow them for onions next year's crop. We don't save seeds of everything and those we need to have for fall planting must be ordered now. Here are varieties I have used with success, but it shouldn't limit you! Plant as many varieties as you have space to allow! In some years one will do good and the next year not so good, so hedge your bets and try to plan for a longer harvest by planting varieties that mature at different times. This is a good strategy for almost all vegetables - especially our fall crops! Some suggested seed houses will be published later this week!

Artichokes (a perennial)
Green Globe – one of the more productive varieties, Green Globe is usually one of the varieties available in the farmers' markets and groceries.
Violetto – is not so often seen in the market. Not quite as productive but still quite acceptable. Like the name implies, it has a good splash of purple in it. Each leaf tip possesses its very own, very sharp spine. But I think they are worth it!

Burpee’s Golden – there was a time when 'Burpee' was synonymous with seeds for the home gardener. While this is no longer true, way back there in that faraway time, Burpee bred a lot of wonderful crops that we still find useful today. This beet has lower germination rates than other beets, but boy oh boy! They are worth it! From the mere fact that they don't bleed red beet juice all over your fingers (and clothes!), Golden beets are very sweet. Sauté in orange juice.
`Chiogga – another heirloom. Very productive and sweet, not as sweet as the Golden, but running a close second. One of these beets, cut in half before being cooked, reveals alternating rings of a light red and white. They keep those alternating rings when roasted.


Premium Crop (62 days) and Early Dividend (43 days) are two of the better hybrid broccoli varieties. If you are gardening in pots, Early Dividend is a great selection.
Nutribud (58 days) and Waltham (85 days) are the heirloom varieties available today. Of these two, Nutribud is the one for container gardening. The days listed behind each variety is the 'days to harvest' from the catalogs. This refers to an approximate day by which you may expect to harvest the broccoli heads from the day you set them into the ground (transplanted out). It is an estimate only – weather conditions and other factors speed it up or slow it down, but in these four varieties above you have the idea that Early Dividend will come in first and Waltham last, all other things being equal.

Brussels Sprouts
Bubbles – 88 days. Brussels Sprouts are a largish plant but have the added advantage of providing a rather continuous harvest over many weeks. They also can be a pain if they get aphids or whitefly because they are very difficult to police.


Danish Ballhead – A late season cabbage – not so good for containers, but a reliable producer for those who wish to preserve some of their cabbage. Note that all these cabbages are not savoyed cabbages. Those crinkled leaves of the savoyed variety hold dirt and also make very opportune homes for slugs – and one gets a lot of slugs in long season cabbage anyway.
Point One – An early cabbage that is a delight. The 'early' cabbages are usually smaller headed and more useful in succession planting and for containers as well.
Surprise – Another early cabbage – like the name implies, this is not a round cabbage, but forms a pointy little head of cabbage.
Ruby Perfection – For those who want a red cabbage. Small heads and early. I've found red cabbage much more difficult to grow.


Little Finger – A small carrot that is good for containers – an early harvest and you haven't had a carrot fresh from the garden, you don't know what you're missing! Sweet!
Mokum – This has been my number one carrot over the past five years. Productive and delicious.
Thumbelina – Little round carrots that are considered THE container carrot, but I like Little Fingers better thinking they are more sweet. Still, many folks will plant these and be perfectly happy.
Yaya – This may well be my new number one carrot. Bright orange six inch blunt roots, with a great flavor and will hold in the ground for a long time – which means I don't have to sow carrots in succession.

There are many different colors of carrots to think about growing as well – Pinetree Garden Seeds sells a carrot mix that includes a number of different varieties and colors!

Early Snowball – is an open-pollinated and is the earliest and tastiest of all the cauliflowers available. Other varieties are out there that are tasty but I think this one takes less work and compares well with the others. There are, though, several varieties that are quite colorful, Green Harmony is, of course, green; Graffiti is purple and Cheddar is yellow. Not sure how I feel about them, but then I'm not a huge cauliflower eater.

Large Prague Celeriac – I'm not even going to list celery. In our climate, I don't think it's possible to get a sweet celery that isn't as tough as a sisal rope! Celeriac, on the other hand, has that delicious celery taste, is easy to grow and works as well as or better than celery in soups and other dishes. You can't fill it with peanut butter or cream cheese like you can celery, but how healthy is that anyway? And if that's the only advantage, stick with celeriac!

Five Color Silverbeet – All the chards taste about the same to me, so I like to plant this chard to get all the different colors – some of them are quite wild. (Australians call chard “silverbeet” which is a nod to the fact that chard and beets are the same exact species of plant.) Dependable and beautiful, you can't beat this one in the garden or the kitchen.

Delfino – A new variety that puts the old 'Slo-Bolt' to shame. Holds better than older varieties in heat (cilantro does not like to grow in heat) and the plants are a little larger for a better and longer harvest.

Fava Beans
Windsor – Though not the only fava out there, this one is probably the premier fava bean for a home garden. Not for those of us with very little garden space, a typical fava plant can get to be four and half feet tall or more. One plant, happily tended, will provide enough fava beans for two folks unless they really intend to chow down on favas! (Fresh grated parmesan cheese on fresh raw fava bean seeds marks you as a dedicated fava eater and you will need more than one plant!)

Florence Fennel (bulbing)

Fino – Usually used raw or cooked in Italian cuisine for its sweet, anise-like flavor, don't let it go to seed or you'll have this all over your garden as well.

Garlic (this is a long season crop, plant in Fall harvest next Summer)
Chesnok Red – The three varieties listed here are all heirloom varieties. This variety doesn't store so well, but the taste it holds even after cooking is worth the trade off!
Music – A slightly spicy, incredibly flavorful garlic, this is one of the most popular types around.
Spanish Roja – I grew this hard neck garlic for years – one of the finest flavored garlics I know. Not just hotter, the subtle tones that weave through the taste allows this garlic to compare to the common garlic in the supermarket equal in flavor as a fine Cabernet compared to a 'box of wine.'


Dinosaur – Also called Tuscan Black Palm or Lacinato. A unique kale with very large, rounded, well filled, meaty leaves. Plants are large, hardy, and vigorous, and the flavor, if you like it is 'bold' and if you don't like it, it's 'overwhelming.'
Nero di Toscano – A three feet tall plant with dark, meaty, puckered leaves, the color of a blue spruce. The striking ornamental leaves have a fine flavor harvested young and cooked simply in olive oil.

Carina – Leeks have been divided into 'over-winter' and 'summer' leeks. Over winter are usually larger and take something like 110 to 130 days. In cold climates, these leeks stay in the frozen ground to be harvested out from under a blanket of snow. We usually don't have to dig them out from under the snow, but the slower growing leeks are larger.
King Richard – A 'summer' leek, this one grows nicely in our winter and quickly makes a decently edible leek in something like three months. To get a longer white part of the root, bring up the soil around the base of the plant – even though the catalogs say we don't need to do this, if you do, you will be rewarded with more usable root.

more varieties than you can shake a stick at – or grow a mix! There are many different colors and types, get as many as you have room for! Ha! I usually can't keep myself to less than 10 varieties at a time!

Onions (also a long season growing; find “short-day” varieties)
Italian Red Torpedo – Peaceful Valley Farm Supply has these as 'sets;' young plants to set out. This is my very favorite onion. Onions are difficult to grow by seed unless you plan on taking two years to get a good onion.

Italian Flat Leaf – A brighter, more intense flavor.

Super Sugar Snap – I admit that I've mostly given up on peas. They take lot of space and don't exactly overwhelm a person with production, they get mildew and croak early and I'd rather grow another row of fava beans which are much more productive.

Yukon Gold – A ton of varieties are available, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply will have seed potatoes available in mid-October.

French Breakfast – The standard radish for dependable crops. All radishes are easy to grow and are very quick to harvest – usually around 20-25 days.
Easter Egg – A fun radish that is great for children (and the young at heart!) with white, red, purple and intermediate colors between those.
Purple Plum – A lovely purple skin with white flesh – milder than most of the rest.

Bonilla – Onions are a hassle (and don't really cost that much in the market), shallots are easy to grow and replace the expensive shallots one would need to buy at the store. This hybrid shallot is quick and easy from seed. I got a remarkably good crop with little effort in my first year to grow them -even though I got them in rather late! Dried, they make a good long term storage item.
Olympus – Another easy to grow shallot from seed. This one is white and also stores well.


Melody – A semi-savoyed spinach. Most of the spinach we remember from way back were all savoyed spinaches, but savoyed (wrinkled), holds dirt better than smooth so I'm all for leaving the savoyed spinaches behind.
Space – A smooth spinach that is easily cleaned and has that taste of fresh spinach I didn't like until adulthood. Now I love it.

DeMilano - A lovely flattened turnip – the best for container garden and very productive.
Purple Top White Globe – Will get to be the size of a small foreign country if you let them, but they are better when small.

You can also plant perennial herbs and perennial flowers. Try some fun annuals like calendula, larkspur, poppies (bread, California or Iceland types), sweet peas, and venidium.


02 August 2009

The Garden in August; Part II

It's not enough to grow the stuff, you also got to decide what to do with it! Six pounds of Sweet Banana Peppers and what to do? I think I can make some decent pepperoncinis with them - just need to find a recipe.

At this time, a gardener also needs to keep the green and yellow beans picked (they can be pickled as well) or they’ll stop producing. Keep using the basil, continually pinch their tips – flowers and the first pair of leaves and throw into whatever you're cooking or a salad - the flowers are as edible as the leaves. Next month, you can harvest whole plants and make pesto and this constant pinching will cause the plant to grow into a vigorous small shrub! Share the abundance of all your produce with friends, relatives or a food bank. Nature isn’t stingy so carry on that tradition and share too. We all need a fresh homegrown tomato now and then to remind us how blessed we really are.

Anything planted into the garden in August is an act of desperation. Mind you, you CAN plant, but it isn't going to be a cakewalk for you or the plants. You'll both need extra water and you both will chance a sunstroke that could kill them much more readily than you. You, at least, should have the sense to move into the shade if you notice symptoms of hyperthermia. Plants, on the other hand, have to stay put. If you do plant on a hot day, it is not a bad idea to find someway to shade your little darlings. A stick propping up a black nursery flat, with the flat covering from the south of the plants is a tried and true way for many gardeners to provide shade for their newly planted starts.

What to plant in the coming months is a great game gardeners play, wiling away long, insufferably hot hours in the shade. It is best to write down some of the ideas you're having for next summer's garden now. while this year's experience is fresh, otherwise the harvest of knowledge could be wasted. Of all the ways to learn gardening, the most sure and least expensive is to keep a garden journal. It is so easy now days and can be very inexpensive. If you have a computer, a digital camera and a word processing program you are set up. It can be a cheap camera (find a used one on eBay) and a free word processing program (I'm using Open Office Writer to do all my writing nowadays), and your thoughts will be preserved for the next year's garden. If that's not your bag, get a paper notebook, draw your plans, paste in pictures from catalogs and write your observations in a multitude of colors. Or use a combination! The point is to write down things so you'll remember them and to find a way to write them down that will give you enough pleasure to insure you'll do it. A chair or bench in your garden is the most perfect place to do this. Haul out a few catalogs, something cool to drink, sit down in the shade with your notebook (computer or paper) and think about the year gone by. It can be a meditation that is almost as good as eating from your garden. See below for a few catalogs to consult in preparing your next garden.

But don't throw all your attention in to next summer's garden. Spend some time now to consider what you will grow in our mild winters. I'm looking through some catalogs looking for cabbage, broccoli, onion, lettuce and other seeds. If I order them soon, I'll have them by the end of August and I'll be starting little pots of seedlings that will be going out into my garden by the beginning of October. Below, I've listed a few of the vegetables I want to grow along with some varieties that I like. I'll order seeds to start now, and, to save on postage, I'll order seeds that I'll be using a little later on.

However, no matter the state of the present, August is the time to contemplate the fall and winter garden; I’m in my seed catalogs already dreaming of my next great adventure in the garden. Soon, in sheltered locations, I’ll be starting seeds of broccoli, cabbage, kale, leeks and onions. I’ll plant several different heirloom varieties of sweet peas – maybe some blends of antique varieties, two seeds per pot. I’ll pour very hot water over the seeds the night before and leave them to soak until I actually stick them in their pots. It is amazing to see how much they have swollen from absorbing water because of that treatment. Don’t worry, pouring even close to boiling water on them won’t kill these seeds because the seed coat is too hard and the hot water will help the seed inside to break free.


31 July 2009

Book of The Moment: Animal Vegetable Miracle

I would imagine that many of you are familiar with Sharon Astyk's writings (Casaubon’s Book; Sharon Astyk’s Ruminations on an Ambiguous Future). I am an avid reader and Sharon has recently commenced a daily blog entry on the books she suggests for our edification. The title of the posts are, "365 Books #___." Sharon is a prolific writer and a farmer in upstate New York. I cannot believe she finds the time to write all that she writes AND farm(!), but, in plentiful evidence in her writings, she reads a whole lot too.

I only have an acre to keep up with and a couple of writing projects, so I am a little envious of her time management skills (and should go looking for anything she has written on the subject), but I will emulate her after a small fashion. I will post one book review every so often and over any amount of time, build a library of the books I suggest. These will be mostly garden books, but every so often, I will add in books that have changed my life in ways that have contributed to me becoming the gardener I am today.

So here we go with the first book, a 'why' book more than a 'do' book.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver, Steven Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

Publisher: Harper
ISBN-10: 0060852569
ISBN-13: 978-0060852566
Cost: $14.95 Paperback

“At its heart, a genuine food culture is an affinity between people and the land that feeds them.” Barbara Kingsolver

A lot of books a person finds in the bookstore are eager to tell you what to do, sometimes with a rather shrill tone. Kingsolver, with her husband and two daughters (one was too young too sign a publishing contract), tell us what they did, acting on their conviction that they had to change their participation in the way they ate and participated in the American food chain.

Most of us are probably more than a little queasy about the modern American food distribution system. No other culture has had the luxury of food choices that we enjoy and the productivity of our agriculture staggers the imagination, still at no other time in mankind’s history has a civilization faced such an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Something is terribly broken with the way we eat.

The Kingsolver/Hopp clan do not intend to preach to us about what we could do, but quietly set off on their own private revolution and simply confide in us what happened. They chose to become “localvores” (also written as “locavores” by some), eating only food produced within a 100 mile radius of their home in Southwestern Virginia. Each family member was allowed to chose one item from a further realm (Steven Hopp, obviously a man of vision, chose coffee), but beyond that, the commitment they signed on for was to eat locally for one whole year.

Most Americans would think of eating seasonally as a little too “quaint” – something akin to foregoing indoor plumbing – if they thought of it at all. But when one chooses to eat locally, one is also choosing to eat seasonally in some degree as well. This alone would be a shock to most of us, used to, as we are, strawberries any month of the year, or peaches, asparagus, or any of our common fruits and vegetables. In fact, it’s probably a point of pride for our culture that we can eat these things at any time of the year.

But what has the cost been? Our farmers are as bankrupt as the taste of the food from the local market. No preaching, but plenty of common sense guides the family through the year as they learn how to provide a lot of their own food and how to get the rest from local sources. Not only is the family empowered, but those they work with locally are also empowered. Not only do they not starve, but they eat well. In fact, their year long experiment has changed by year’s end from experiment to lifestyle.

Along the journey, the “Miracle” in the title seems to morph as the book progresses. In the beginning, filled with the fear of throwing her family’s diet to the winds, the “miracle” seems to be they might really be able to eat through the year. By mid-book, the “miracle” becomes this tastes so good, even though it is a lot of work. By the conclusion, the miracle is the transformation that will inspire many others to try this as a way of life and the hope that Kingsolver and clan clearly offer the rest of us.

The Kingsolver family maintain a blog site that has more to tell about their year of food 'freedom.'


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