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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!  


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