14 March, 2007

WHAT TO DO AND WHEN TO DO IT: A Southern California gardening primer

Any of these actions might well be the wrong action if you do not understand your own soil and the microclimate of your garden. My own actions are predicated on the fact that I have a sandy soil, practically devoid of nutrition, on the coast in Sunset’s Zone 24. The first information you must gather on your garden is your soil composition and your Sunset Zone, adjust these recommendations accordingly. Also, I have confined my focus mostly to a vegetable garden. Ornamental and herb plants may not neatly conform to this schedule, but it can be used as a guideline to begin to work with them. Gardeners in pots may also use it as a guideline for Southern California, being especially vigilant about watering when we have warm and windy weather – the Santa Ana winds we experience here, for example, are tough on plants – especially if you are in a canyon.

By the way, this is copyrighted, 2002 by David L. KIng. Please ask for permission before using it.

If you have fruit trees, you need to begin to contemplate their pruning needs. Order a pruning handbook from University of California’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Division (ANR) or purchase a pruning book from a reputable source. This is the dormant season to purchase deciduous fruit trees, apples, apricots, grapes and ornamentals such as roses and wisteria, to name a couple of my favorites. If you are putting perennial herbs in the ground (sage, rosemary and thyme – parsley is a biennial, sorry to say…), this is the best time to put them in the ground – even though you may plant them here year round.) Buy them from a good local nursery to insure you are getting plants that will produce in your neighborhood.

When I prune the deciduous stone fruit trees (including peaches, apricots, plums and apples, on the other hand, citrus, which are evergreen, can be pruned at any time of the year, but they are best pruned when there is nothing better to do and the day is not too warm, so the person doing the work doesn’t overheat), I finish the job by spraying the trees with dormant oil. Of all the pesticides, this pesticide, with it’s low toxicity to mammals and its 100% effectiveness on pests is even listed for organic gardens. There is no reason to miss the opportunity to use it while the tree is dormant. It is a valuable addition to controlling many pests of these kinds of trees. You can even search out an oil made for this purpose that is not a petroleum product being distilled from a vegetable oil. I’ve not used it, but it’s rated as effective. These oils, diluted further than for dormant spraying, can be used on evergreen trees – like citrus – as well with the same benefits. Truly, they are your best bet for insect control on trees and many shrubs, food plants and ornamentals anytime you feel you must use a pesticide.

We have to keep our eyes out for Santa Ana winds – sometimes hot and sometimes cool, but always dry and desiccating to garden plants, and plants in pots suffer all the more. If your skin is crawling, it’s best to get out there with a hose and help your irrigation system keep up – you’ll enjoy your garden more – the “best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow.” Still.

Are you ready to think about summer yet? You mean you never stopped thinking about summer? You mean broccoli and cabbage aren’t your thrill a minute? Now is the time the new seed catalogs come rolling in by the truckload and they all have wonderful photos and mouth-watering, irresistible new varieties that I must try, some call it "vegetable porn" and it's an apt description… and all I have is a 10’ square bed. If you aren’t getting these free catalogs, a quick jaunt through any gardening magazine will net you half a dozen 800 numbers or you can get web addresses from which to order - the catalogs are free (even though a lot of them have a price on the cover, I've never paid for one, and I'd suggest you follow the same thought - I'll post a list of my favorite catalogs one fine day when I've run out of things to do... don't hold your breath though, that shade of blue won't suit you -unless you're a smurf...)

What will it be this year? Eight different sweet peas, half a dozen different lettuce plants? Look at all those tomatoes for sale and how about the dozen different violas from Thompson and Morgan? And if I knock down the neighbor’s garage, I think I could grow some squash and pumpkins….

Valentines Day is my traditional weekend for starting my tomato crop for the coming year. One method is to use fluorescent tubes about 6 inches above the pots for the beginnings of tomatoes – I have also started them outside with a heating mat to keep the soil warm; with enough sun that works well enough. Peppers and eggplant are started about 2 weeks later.

Basil. We must plant more basil. Is there such a thing as enough basil?

And then I think “baseball”. (“Wait until next year”, is the universal call among gardeners and baseball players everywhere.) Spring training in Florida and Arizona starts next month. Win or lose, I’ll be out in my garden soon, radio in hand. Something about that baseball optimism that dovetails nicely with my gardening optimism. You don’t have to “think baseball”, but I do and it lifts my spirit.

With any amount of luck, this is our rainiest month. Hopefully, that means I won’t need to be watering too much. I have permanent built up beds with paths between them, so walking through a wet garden isn’t that big of a deal. If your garden isn’t laid out like that, take care not to walk through your garden when it’s thoroughly soaked. Your footprints will compact the soil and cause needless grief later when the soil has dried out. Especially in clay soil.

February is positively the last month to dormant-prune fruit trees. One cannot plan that they won’t have broken dormancy any later than this. See flowers? That’s “broken dormancy” in a nutshell, the sap is running inside the tree and pruning after that literally drains more of the vitality of the tree – mind you pruning late won’t kill your tree, some folks do this kind of pruning regularly – it’s my preference to do my pruning with the least harm to the tree and for me, that means before the sap begins to run, that means December or January in my climate.

Don’t forget to snail bait. If you have vegetables, make certain you buy only snail bait rated for food plants – Corey’s Snail and Slug Death (sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it?) and a new product only available by mail order called Escar-go! Never underestimate the power of a gardener to be corny beyond all measure and to buy products with names cornier than anything a sane or normal person can come up with. For many years, Corey’s was the only product available for vegetable gardens. It is not safe with children or pets, whereas the Escar-go stuff is. The primary ingredient in Escar-go is a naturally occurring mineral that is, better than just ‘not harmful,’ actually beneficial to most soils.

This is the last reliable month to get winter vegetables (see my carefully prepared list for which ones are “winter” and which veggies are “summer”) in. Although leeks are usually considered a winter vegetable, I have had good luck with them year round – as I have had with fennel. And, for me, those are two vegetables that deserve to be year round.

If I can’t wait for a taste of summer, I can plant a couple of my short rows of Royal Purple Pod beans – this is the only bean variety that will germinate in cooler weather and >>poof<<>
I have been known to set out tomatoes and basil and other summer heat lovers into the garden as early as March. It is, at best, a crap shoot. Some years, luck will side with a gardener and a heat wave will hit settling these plants in nicely – other years it isn’t so. Do you feel lucky today? Or do you have an insider report from the Weather maker, Himself? Herself? If yes, give me a call!

The summer garden is in the little starter pots right now (vaguely reminiscent of training wheels on a bicycle) really begging to be transplanted up to larger pots. The main bean crop can be sown in about now and ambitious gardeners – especially those inland from me – will want to get their tomatoes and cucumbers in. Better time for cucumbers in my book than tomatoes, but, some lucky gardener will beat Mother Nature. After all, isn’t that a big part of what it’s all about?

If you have any fallow beds (any spot where you are not growing an actual crop or plants you want – fallow means “left unplanted”) from now until warmer weather, put in a stand of buckwheat for a couple of weeks. Buckwheat grows quickly and adds lots of good organic matter to your soil when you spade it back into the ground. Sown thickly enough, it smothers weeds. It’s cheap and adds a good deal in the way of tilth (“state of suitability of land to grow crops” – straight from Webster’s to you) to your garden. It is important to keep a high rate of biological activity in the soil. The very critters breaking down this buckwheat will die and their bodies become part of the nutrition your plants will use for their growth. The decomposition of the buckwheat also helps loosen compacted soil by putting larger pieces of material between the minute particles of clay that compose a compacted soil.

How about growing buckwheat or any of the small grains in pots? You can get conversations like this: “What’s that?” “Oh, a pot of Durham wheat – when I harvest it, I’m going to make a macaroni…” If someone actually did that – one would have a whole new appreciation for life before Kraft and automation brought this stuff to our tables by the wheelbarrow full. I have threshed wheat. It’s work of the most grueling order, but, boy, what an experience! Threshing wheat is a good task for hyperactive children. Or teenage boys with overactive hormones.

I am planting from seed, corn, cucumbers (you can set out cucumber plants, but I have learned they dislike being transplanted so much it is faster and more certain to directly sow them, just keep the snails at bay), squash of all kinds – summer, winter, zucchini, acorn, all of them! - (in fact, you could have planted most of them last month, but you are reading ahead aren’t you?) and beans, and setting out plants of basil, tomatoes, and peppers. I am setting out lettuce seedlings and sowing short rows of carrots, beets, radishes and spinach, with an old screen standing by to shield them from too much sun. (It is easier to grow cool season crops in the Summer on the coast than it is to do the reverse and my major goal in life is to grow a complete salad – tomatoes with my lettuce and vice versa! I have an annual tradition of the First BLT of the season, wherein, I’ve grown the T and the L and usually baked my own bread.) It is also effective to plant them in a shadier part of the garden.

Grow any of these in pots as long as you get smaller versions – most nurseries and all the seed companies will help you find plants that will grow in pots – you can even buy tomatoes and cucumbers bred to be in a hanging basket. And while you can grow smaller varieties of sweet corn, it is a wind pollinated crop and it is usually considered important for a gardener to grow a substantial number of plants to get a viable crop. Still, it sure makes a statement – even a small corn stalk is pretty impressive – one could do a Native American theme pot with a couple stalks of corn, a sunflower and pole beans climbing up them. But don’t plan on it for a dinner party!

In addition, you might want to try melons, eggplant and okra, if you have room for melons; and actually like okra and eggplant. Okra needs the most heat of any vegetable under discussion here, put it the hottest corner of your garden. In addition, if your eating plans include borage, chervil, chives, lavender, lemon grass, lovage, marjoram, mint (be certain to get a good culinary one, there are many that are not) Greek oregano (Origanum heracleoticum NOT O. vulgare, big difference in taste and snob appeal), parsley, rosemary, sage and tarragon, you could set these plants out into a border convenient to your kitchen. Or in pots.

This is the 2nd big season for planting perennial crops. And while Fall is better, many people with East Coast or Midwest “roots” simply cannot prune from themselves this “Spring = planting time” mentality. It can be so pervasive that even nurseries themselves often evidence a better selection of some things at this time of year. We live in a part of the country so divorced from manual labor and the soil that such things are not the strangest occurrences that happen horticulturally here. Just to add confusion, a good number of the chain stores have their plant selections made somewhere back east by someone who has no clue that fall is the better season here.
You may also put out deciduous fruit trees and fruiting vines, but they are best planted in Fall (in fact, look there for planting instructions). This however is a good time for citrus to go in as well as kiwi and sapote because they are more tropical and will love the coming heat while they get established. (Even though I am coastal, I wouldn’t plant deciduous fruit trees now because they would be happier planted when cooler weather comes upon us. But then, I can be somewhat fanatical about this stuff too.)

If you are on the Coast, the weather will forgive you for most of your transgressions, if you are more inland, you are cutting your production seriously if you do not have the bulk of your summer plants in the ground. On the coast, if we have a typical summer, you have until the end of the month to get any of the cool season items out of the soil. You should wait until September before you take another crack at cool season. This is the warm season vegetable’s finest hour.

Do all that is listed for May if you haven’t done so yet, but do so with the thought that you’ll need to be more attentive to your plants’ water needs, and if you are inland, the later in the month it gets, the more stress your plants will be under to get their roots established in the ground before really hot weather hits. If you haven’t gotten your slower growing heat lovers in by now, it would serve you better to wait until next year. I’m thinking of some squashes and pumpkins – the big ones. The bigger the squash or pumpkin the longer it takes for them to get ripe; some of these take 100 days to harvest time, check it out, that’s over three whole months!, and will not ripen under anything but the hottest of conditions.

And speaking of hot weather, now is the time to welcome it to our Southern California gardens. This is not the month to do a lot of planting, if you can help it at all. Water is what your garden wants and water is what you should be giving it. Don’t just pour water on your garden without exercising your noggin though! Monitor your soil moisture and apply water as needed – but before plants begin to wilt. Try to water when less will be lost to evaporation – early in the day or late in the day… At night under the full moon…

Check the mulch level this month – making certain it is deep enough to keep roots cool. I might also sow beans and corn and, I might also sow another planting of summer squash if my initial plants have succumbed to mildew, which they often do. I might also set out more pepper or tomato plants. If you desire that foul taste of eggplant, one might set out another plant at this time. But these guys will need extra water (try to plant them in the late afternoon – and try very hard to minimize root damage). The problem with planting now is that the leaves can easily transpirate much more water than the small root system can take up. If these plants have been growing in the same amount of sunlight that they will get in the ground into which they have been transplanted, they stand a much better chance of survival. But wilted leaves the following afternoon suggest the root system is not keeping pace with the lost moisture and unless your little darlings put on enough roots quickly, or you can do some judicious, temporary shading, your crop might not make it to a thriving adulthood.

Side dress those Solanaceae plants at this time with a tomato fertilizer according the package instructions. A “tomato” fertilizer, besides saying so on the label, will have less nitrogen (the first of the three numbers on the package).

Isn’t it nap time? Yes, I’m sure of it…

Anything sown in August is an act of desperation. Those who didn’t get in the ground back in June, now, are the frantic gardeners with the hardest work – and the hottest.

If I am caught up August for me is the time to contemplate the fall and winter garden; I’m in the catalogs already dreaming of my next great adventure in the garden. Under lights – out of the sun – 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 boiling 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 boiling water on them won’t kill them, the seed coat is too hard. In fact, the seed coat is so impermeable, that’s the reason to use the boiling water. In addition perhaps I’ll plant seeds to grow some new artichokes for the coming year.

This is the time to harvest your produce. Keep the beans picked or they’ll stop producing. Keep using the basil and tomatoes; keeping up with that side of the garden at this point is the big challenge. Pinch the basil’s flowers to keep the plants producing. Try drying some of your produce as well. This can be the hardest work of gardening: finding a home for all the produce before it goes to waste. Share the abundance with friends, relatives or a food bank. Nature isn’t stingy, carry on that grand tradition and share too. We all need a fresh homegrown tomato now and then to remind us how blessed we can really be.

As the Summer crops begin to decline, begin to clear them away and spade their mulch into the ground, this becomes the organic matter (OM ) for the coming crops. In areas where heavy feeders have been planted, I like the luxury of sowing a cover crop. At this time of the year, I like to use the cover crop mix from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. I would sow it with some sort of nitrogen fertilizer – or an all purpose fertilizer – and some of the rock dust, maybe some greensand.

About half-way into the month, hopefully, it 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.

Don’t overlook fava beans which 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, most peppers, potatoes and peanuts, among others – one wonders how in the world the Italians and French survived long enough to arrive at a culinary tradition!) The plants make a marvelous addition to any soil building program and the beans, when combined with artichokes, make a Mediterranean stew so delicious that my taste buds flutter just to remember.

To have sweet pea flowers for Christmas, they must be in the ground by the first weekend of September. AND the weather must coooperate by giving us a warm fall, easing us slowly into winter. Otherwise - and this happens frequently - the sweet peas grow with fantastic reserve and lack of enthusiasm and won't flower until sometime in March no matter how hard you plead and implore.

Things for the winter garden are in full swing. Later this month, I might spade my green manure cover crops under after sprinkling in cottonseed meal, about 1 ½ cups per 10 foot square area. It would be my intention to allow this to “mellow” (meaning I want to allow this material to begin to break down into nutrients the plants can use) for about 2 weeks before placing the next crop in. This area could well become home to my heirloom garlic crop, or to onions, leeks, later broccoli or cabbage. The one chard plant set out last month will provide me with enough chard to regret, so there is no succession sowing lined up for that, but everything else benefits by being sowed at intervals; seeds are sown in a bed with a finer soil.

One of the good points about putting in many little plantings of crops is the ability to harvest your vegetables at a smaller size, besides being just the ticket for a garden in pots. Don’t get 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 remember.

A mark of the good gardener is one who has his/her succession sowing down to the science that allows them to place fresh vegetables on the table without lag time or a concentration of over-abundance fluctuating wildly with nothing to eat for intervening weeks. I’m still shooting for it. But at least I know what I’m shooting for!

If I have not done so already, I will 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. I put shallots and garlic 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 worthy of note and I love having that upright element in pots as well as in ornamental beds.

Water becomes less of a challenge, although a Santa Ana might come flying through and send me 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, the mulch might be some small decorative stones, but usually, planters mix, fallen leaves, shredded bark, or something along that line is the mulch you’ll want to use.

I’ll be planting more winter crops. If it is a warmer winter, I might side dress my broccoli and cabbage with some cottonseed meal, if cooler, I might side dress with some fish meal, alfalfa meal or an all round vegetable fertilizer. If it is really a cold and rainy winter, I might just skip it altogether. Whatever fertilizing I do, I will do it lightly and more frequently than is done in the summer. Plants that look desperate for nutrients will get fish emulsion, making certain to get liberal amounts of the smelly stuff over the leaves as plants can absorb nutrients that way as well – in fact, in colder conditions, this can be the only alternative to get essential elements into the plant quickly.

Who has time to garden? The days are so short, it’s hard to get out to the garden (although I admit, I have done more gardening by flashlight than I want my mental health provider to know) and the cooler temperatures (we hope), keep plants from growing too fast. I do try to keep up with successive sowings, especially of salad greens, radishes and carrots. 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 among some of my favorite home canned vegetables. And things you don’t readily find in a super market – well, at least not as good as the one’s I do at home.

Besides, there are holiday parties to attend to and a fireplace with a good book is calling my name.


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