Search This Blog

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 jalapeƱos, 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.


The Calendar of Events At The Learning Garden