29 December, 2008

It's Still Winter in The Garden

One of the Learning Garden's volunteers, Carolina, shows a handful of carrot seed prior to sowing them on a prepared bed and covering with screened compost. Thoroughly watering the freshly planted seeds is last step.

It’s still Winter in the Garden and we are still very much planting winter vegetables – while in the catalogs we are looking at summer veggies, we are still planting winter’s crops. We won’t begin to sow summer seeds, until the end of January – and even then, we are pushing the envelope – I want to get early tomatoes in especially early so our high school gardeners can harvest a ripe tomato before they leave for the summer (it seems like a long way away, but our foggy, cool coastal climate slows tomatoes down to a crawl until July through September when we get some real heat).

Today in the Garden we were sowing carrots. We could have also sown beets, parsnips, radishes, and turnips, but we were fixed on carrots today. I lost a baseball bet with Mike McGrath, infamous from a variety of horticultural pursuits, including currently hosting WHYY’s “You Bet Your Garden.” Mike is a rabid Phillies fan - but then, there is no other kind, they're all 'rabid,' and I am a Dodger fan, so when the Dodgers faced the Phillies in last year’s National League Pennant Championship Series, I challenged him with a bet of five pounds of carrots – somehow he figured that I was already growing five pounds of carrots, but I had no intention of losing.

Thus it was that we sowed carrots – a lot of carrots to fulfill payment to the winning Mr. McGrath, and we transplanted cabbages from starter pots in the greenhouse out to the garden. We have baby plants of lettuce, broccoli, more cabbage and celeriac in pots a few weeks away from setting out in the garden. He can gloat with his victorious baseball team, but I wonder what he's planting two days from New Years?

After setting the cabbages out in the garden, we sowed more seeds of lettuces (four different varieties – including Red Deer Tongue, Green Deer Tongue, and two others) for setting out in the garden in the next month. We will still start more seeds of broccoli, cabbage and lots more lettuce – I’ll keep starting lettuce up through May although I’ll switch to varieties described as “heat resistant” like Summertime and Jericho and I’ll plant them in dappled shade – and I’ll be direct sowing more seeds in the garden of beets, parsnips, and other root crops in spots here and there. Here and there, I might also sow a short row of arugula, spinach and other greens that don’t like heat.

We did get some rain last week and the soil is soft which makes for pulling weeds easier than normal so we’ve also been doing some good weeding too. Even the really long rooted mallow plants come out more easily – as long as they aren’t above belt high and then you need to inspire them with a hand grenade or something to free that tap root from its hold on the soil. (On the other hand, these plants do bring up nutrients from the subsoil and make a wonderful addition to a compost pile.)

It’s a gorgeous time to be a gardener in Los Angeles; this is one of our premier times in a Mediterranean garden. Grab a cup of coffee and come on out into the Garden – it’s like a Monet painting.


28 December, 2008

Instead of A Bomber...

Venice High School students grow a variety of winter vegetables in their gardens at The Learning Garden, including broccoli, cabbages, chard, kale, lettuce and peas.

In 2002, volunteers from the community gathered to create a garden at Venice High School on the unused portion of a garden site that was being used as a dumping ground by the high school. There were a few gardening classes, but their efforts only used a small portion of the almost one acre site, with the rest of it untouched.

The community volunteers, led by David Crow and Julie Mann, both educated in the traditions of using plants (herbs) as medicine, formed a not for profit, 501 (c) 3, called The Learning Garden. From that day forward, the portion of the garden not used by the high school students has been transformed into a vibrant and lush little Eden in that part of Los Angeles called Mar Vista.

In the six years The Learning Garden has been around, we have brought a considerable amount of resources to bear on this corner at Walgrove Avenue and Venice Boulevard. The Garden boasts one of the most eclectic collections of Chinese Medicinal plants in any public garden, as well as plants from the Ayurvedic and homeopathic herbal traditions. We have planted over 50 fruit trees and have a beautiful succulent garden and a California Native garden, both curated and cared for by one very dedicated volunteer.

The garden sends all excess produce to the West Los Angeles Food Bank – in many weeks we take over 20 to 40 pounds of food – we always include fresh herbs as well as the vegetables and occasional fruit because all food, even food for people in need, should taste good. Most of the food we send over is excess grown by high school students or by the volunteers – our goal is for nothing to be wasted.

We have worked hard to create not just a garden, but also a community. Almost every month the Garden has an event, ranging from our big gala whoop-de-do, Pesto Day, to other, more low-key events like Valentines’ Day where we make the valentines from plants and objects found in the Garden.

Now in it’s sixth year, the Garden is no longer funded. We hold plant sales which pay for potting soil and other incidentals but there is no more money for staff. The one single reason this Garden has been a success when so many others like this have failed is that we have had an on-site garden manager (the Gardenmaster) who has coordinated the efforts of all the volunteers and has been there to water the plants when volunteers didn’t come through. At this time, the Gardenmaster is an unpaid volunteer who shows up as much as he can while finding work to pay bills like rent, food and little things like that.

So now, the Garden struggles forward. As a gardener, I cannot plant as though there is no tomorrow; the only way to steward the land is to act as though we will be still be here and working this soil a year or more from now. I helped plant carrots today. There will be no carrots to eat for better than 75 days, that’s two and a half months. And they might not even be ready then if we have a colder than normal winter/spring. However, in order to garden, I am required to think in this kind of time line and of the future. It is said, “there will always be hope as long as seed catalogs are printed.”

In moments like these, I remember the old Vietnam War era slogan, “What if the Air Force had to have a bake sale to buy a bomber?” recalling our government’s fascination with funding wars and war making and not funding benefits for the citizens and their children. Truly, one day in Iraq could do an awful lot of good here in our own country towards ameliorating poverty and feeding everyone good, clean, healthy food.

Some of us are blessed to do the work they were called to do. Having been the Gardenmaster in charge of this project, for the last six years, I have been one of those so blessed. The time I have spent with The Learning Garden has been an economic challenge, but I would not trade one day at the Garden for a paycheck from behind the desk. The lives that have been touched by this project cannot be calculated – from pre-schoolers, to elementary students, to high school students from several different schools, and the adults that volunteer and the students of UCLA Extension and other adult schools.

Every school needs a learning garden. But it is not a priority among the brass at the LA Unified School District – and probably at very few schools. Still, we, as a society, cannot forget where our food comes from and ought not forget how it’s grown. Remaining somewhat connected to the earth aids our society in ways large and small, though we might not see it for a decade or more. Our detachment from nature in a world of cement and shopping malls and gang violence can be ameliorated with the presence of a garden in a school that gives respite to the students and teachers and provides an object lesson in the ever changing canvass of life.

Funding opportunities exist! Will you help us keep the gates to The Learning Garden open? Contact me and I’ll put you in touch with our treasurer; all donations are tax-deductible – might be better karma to help fund The Learning Garden instead of another bomber.


20 December, 2008

Towards a Healthier Food System

Any document signed by Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Bill McKibben, and Alice Waters bears a considerable look over. Such a document does exist appended with some fourteen thousand other signatures online at http://fooddeclaration.org/.

The document opens with the following paragraph:

We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time. Behind us stands a half-century of industrial food production, underwritten by cheap fossil fuels, abundant land and water resources, and a drive to maximize the global harvest of cheap calories. Ahead lie rising energy and food costs, a changing climate, declining water supplies, a growing population, and the paradox of widespread hunger and obesity.

And the rest of the document reads just as poignantly.

As we look ahead, some of us see the future increasingly fraught with the difficulties observed in the document. Signing this document is valuable, although it is only a small step in a very long journey. (I can’t help but wonder about the the folks who signed as ‘anonymous;’ how much more anonymous do you need to be than simply your name in a list on the internet? That really shows some heady determination of support – I’ll be sure to count on them!)

The document’s intent is to influence the future of the United States agricultural policy. Our food policy, as dictated by our so-called "Farm Bill," has been misguided over the past fifty some odd years and I doubt that an internet document will help change it. My name is there, but it didn’t take long to put it there and I think it will have about as much affect on the policy wonks. It may influence a number of citizens to become more aware of the harmful policies of our government that enable obesity and diabetes in children, destroy farming communities and a farming ethic, ruin the economies of the family farm and wreck the environment all for the profit of larger corporations. The farm policy of the United States is one of the most harmful policies our government has ever promulgated. Because it is known as the “Farm Bill” many Americans pay it no mind; however, should it be called the “Consumer Bill” because there is no reason to farm without the end consumer, as has been suggested, then perhaps more of us would sit up and pay notice.

We need to change and do a lot more than simply sign an online petition. Fundamental changes are necessary but what you do will be defined by your own situation, still everyone can contribute to the solution rather than the problem. I know when I first looked at this problem, a friend of mine had purchased a Prius and was all on about her righteous contribution to the solution. I felt oppressed. I couldn’t buy a Prius and because I need to haul things, I needed my SUV. I felt guilty. I couldn’t do what I thought I needed to do to be a part of the change.

That was the wrong approach. I had to get used to the fact that I couldn’t do those things and once I did overcame my feelings of impotence, I could seek out the things I really could do. One of the first ones that came to my attention was to drive the speed limit because that saves fuel and puts out less greenhouse gas than speeding – I am not known for a light foot on the pedal. It is still a battle, but I’m working on it. I hadn’t planned on having to deal with some feelings about being the old man in the slow vehicle holding up traffic. I never expected to be that guy!

But what can we do about FOOD? That is the big question and that is where we can all start to make a fundamental shift that would make the above petition superfluous.

Each of us can do something to change the way America eats by changing the way we eat and the emphasis we put on our own food.

If I want to eat clean healthy and fresh food, I need to find out how I can get it. The first way is to grow it myself, but like millions of Americans, I can’t grow all of my own calories on my patio and I won’t be able to supply even most of them with a plot at a community garden. But I can grow some and some of that can be a valuable contribution to my spending plan and to my caloric intake. Next, what I don’t grow, perhaps I can trade with a fellow gardener at the community garden. If I have too much basil and they have a yellow tomato I covet, perhaps an accommodation can be made.

But there are squashes and other land intensive crops that we simply won’t grow in a 14 foot square plot. The next stop is the farmers’ market. Here in Southern California, there is a market within striking distance almost every single day of the week, with three or four or more available close at hand on Saturday and Sunday. Almost all the basic vegetables are available in season (and what long seasons we have!) from farms producing locally. Not all are within the 100 mile diet limit, but most are and those that aren’t are pretty darn close, and if opposed to the 1500 mile figure applied to most supermarket food, they are plenty close enough!

If those methods fail, then one can choose to do without or go to the supermarket. If we diligently apply this model to our food consumption, most of the damage done to the environment by food production and shipping will become financial unsustainable – we will be able to see it getting more expensive as time goes on at any rate. I propose this set of guidelines rather than trying to adhere to the hard and fast rules of the 100 mile diet and Plant Animal Miracle proposal of Kingsolver’s wonderful book. Those certainly do point us in the way to go, but for many city dwellers, they simply ask too much of most consumers.

Whatever it is you can do and are willing to do, please do it now. As we make our choices towards a different future, the other choices, the next steps, will become more apparent and more palatable, while also becoming ever more effective. We have to start here, where we are because we can start no where else.


17 December, 2008

Veggie Porn: The Seed Savers Exchange Catalog Arrived

Another page of nekked tomatoes! Who will stop them?
Probably not yours truly...

The seed catalogs keep coming and they are all devoured with gusto – I’ve not only already ordered from Pinetree (see a previous post), I’ve gotten the seeds and some of them are already planted (onion and shallot seeds needed to go in ASAP because they really are a little late). The Seed Savers Exchange catalog arrived a couple of days ago and I got to feast my eyes on this year’s beautiful edition of offerings. So gorgeous are the photos of all their delicious vegetables, I find myself drooling and fantasizing about the harvest I’m going to realize when I buy all these seeds: folks, I submit that these catalogs cause such visceral reactions in gardeners that there is no way to avoid calling them “vegetable porn.”

Not that I want to denigrate Seed Savers Exchange; their catalog is one of the highlights of the winter months. The photos are stunning and well done – if you get the catalog, may I refer you to their famous photo of a wagon load of many different squashes spilling out to the ground with a red barn as the backdrop. If you don’t get their catalog, go online and order it – whatever Seed Savers Exchange wants for it is cheap – that one photo alone is worth bankrolling.

But the reason Seed Savers Exchange is important goes much deeper than the gorgeous vegetable photos in their catalog – and if you are not a member, I urge you to consider it. Kind of like, beauty, in this case, is more than skin deep.

Before the modern time, seeds were passed down from generation to generation – a single person or family, might have raised a tomato on that parcel of land for twenty years or more, each year selecting the best, or the earliest or the most disease resistant. As this was done over all those years, the genetic composition of this tomato gradually changed and became more adapted to just that area. This occurred over the entire agricultural world and by the early 1900’s gardeners were privy to a veritable smorgasbord of different varieties of many different vegetables. These varieties were stable hybrids that became what they were over a long period of time, they are open-pollinated and represent a genetic diversity that is one of the truly great treasures of human kind; we now call them 'heirloom' seeds. The world was blessed with thousands of such tomatoes and other vegetables. However, the richness of these differences began to be lost soon thereafter.

On one hand, our food supplies were being put in the hands of larger farms with shipping over longer distances and the operations were being carried by larger corporations and machinery was replacing hand labor as fast as inventors could come up with machines to do the work. The qualities valued were of consistency, uniformity, and shipping and holding ability. And productivity above all else. These qualities were the qualities of modern plant breeding and most seed breeding (especially in the US) was done for the benefit of these large corporations to put veggies in our local supermarkets.

Not only did our vegetables begin to taste like cardboard, which was not important to the large corporations wanting uniformity and shipping ability above all else, the many different regional varieties, with their rich diversity of genetics began to disappear. Losing this genetic diversity is as frightening as leaving our food supply in the hands of a few huge corporations that have nothing more than their own profit as their guiding interest. The potato famine in Ireland, though exacerbated by the politics of the day, had a lack of genetic diversity in potatoes grown in Ireland at that time as a root cause. Once the blight had made landfall on the island, it romped through the entire country without stopping because the two major varieties planted there shared a genetic susceptibility to the blight. Other potatoes, not grown in Ireland, and ignored for food production at that time, were not susceptible to the blight and it was these other potatoes that provided the genetic material for Ireland to be able to resume growing potatoes to feed their population.

On one hand, governments have established seed banks filled with seeds of commercial crops kept in very cold and very dry conditions to preserve some of the genetic diversity for future generations. Every so often, a seed is selected and grown out to provide more seeds for the seed bank. Though expensive, it is one way genetic diversity can be preserved. Typical of a governmental operation, it is expensive and a large, capital-intense operation.

But the other way of preserving this genetic cornucopia is for gardeners all over the world to grow them and keep the genetic lines vibrant and alive – and even creating more diversity by growing different varieties in their own gardens – or even doing their own crossing and coming up with their own stable hybrids. And enjoying the produce in the meantime! Not nearly as expensive while being more diverse and a lot more fun.

A ‘lite’ version, is to purchase from Seed Savers Exchange and allow them to continue their efforts at growing out the seeds – or join Seed Savers Exchange and be a more integral part of their effort. I support Seed Savers Exchange; investigate them and I think you’ll find their efforts essential too.

At $35, it's not that expensive and would make a wonderful holiday present for someone on your list!


09 December, 2008

Gourmet Garlic for The Masses

Garlic in my garden, planted in October, doesn't really need a sign to tell us what they are, but the sign blends right in with our rustic style.

It’s a bit late, but I finally got around to cleaning up last year’s garlic harvest. It’s a jumble, but there are three varieties of garlic in the bag and not a one of them is available at any local supermarket, although a fortunate soul may find them at a farmers’ market from someone who specializes in garlic. These are hard neck garlics and are not favored in the mass-production/consumption world for several reasons, none of which should deter the home gardener from planting them with abandon.

Hard neck garlic has a reputation of being harder to grow than the more common soft neck garlic. I have not found this to be true. They have grown fine for me in every garden I’ve grown them (three, since I stated this journey) and the payoff in flavor makes any additional difficulty well worth any extra effort.

The main reason supermarkets give for avoiding the hard neck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) though is the fact that they do not keep as well as soft neck garlic (Allium sativum var. sativum). The ‘soft neck’ collapses at the top of the garlic bulb sealing in the flavor and keeping the moisture level perfect for long storage. In addition, the soft neck garlic has more wrapping layers and so are a lot less inclined to spoil while in transit or waiting to be sold, the main consideration of our food marketing system in the US. Flavor is not a factor in the decision-making process for the providers of the American diet and the supermarket garlic is almost always ‘California Early’ or ‘California Late,’ reliable producers, reliable keepers; just lame on real garlicky flavor.

Hard neck garlic, to my taste buds, is as different to the common garlic as a fine cabernet (with a date, no less!) is to a box of red wine. Some of the garlic one can find in this category include: Chesnok Red, Spanish Roja, Killarney Red and Romanian Red, all with a robust flavor that puts the supermarket garlic to shame.

We can still plant garlic here in Southern California gardens, although prime planting time is usually from late September to late November. My garlic is up about ten inches, right now, but with our moderate climate, garlic planted even this late will still provide a lovely harvest – once you’ve gotten towards planting in January though, the bulbs wont’ have time to size up nicely before July/August’s heat and lack of water. Garlic is usually ready to pull in late May and June.

It is easy to plant and to grow.

The garlic bulb is broken into the individual cloves which are then planted pointy end up (you can tell the blunt end is the end where roots were once attached and the pointy end is the end with the leaves), about six inches apart. They are pushed into the ground only as deep as the clove – if some of the clove is still sticking above ground, that’s ok. I know most books (and websites) would have you plant them much deeper, but they are helping you avoid frost damage. Los Angeles hasn’t had a frost in ages so it is not necessary to plant our garlic that deep (it’s also why you can still plant garlic this late in the season!). Garlic does not need a lot of water, but if we have no rain, water it like you would most vegetables, or a little less.

Garlic’s only problematic feature is that it must be allowed to dry out before harvesting – in fact, water should be withheld in the last month or so before pulling the garlic so that it begins to form reasonable wrapping layers that allow it to store. If it is planted near plants that will continue to need water through May and June, this can be hard on those plants or the garlic – you choose.

Garlic can be pulled without the benefit of drying out in the soil, but this does not promote long term storage and hard neck garlic is not well inclined towards long term storage under the best of conditions, so plan on eating your garlic sooner rather than later. That isn’t necessarily a problem for eating it, but it makes saving bulbs for next year’s planting a game of chance.

You can purchase garlic at an organic market (just to make certain its not been treated with something to inhibit sprouting) and plant that, but why bother? It probably won’t be as flavorful of a garlic as one where you buy a named variety as noted above, and if something is available locally there is less incentive to grow it yourself.

Finding seed garlic can be hard at this time of the season, but a quick check on the web will net you some folks with garlic still to sell. If you haven’t done so yet, do it now and you’ll be very pleased with the result.

‘Gourmet’ is within your reach!


06 December, 2008

Seed Catalogs: A Fine Tradition

Casey inspects winter vegetables: quality control at its most effective!

By now most of us have been pretty inundated with the host of shopping catalogs, a problem year round nowadays, but as the year wanes away they are more ubiquitous than chiles at a TexMex cookoff. However, in the midst of all the consumer crap, don’t miss the truly valuable traditional catalogs of this season: the new years’ seed catalogs.

In Southern California, we don’t have the stark seasons that mark the months in other climes. We do have seasons, let no fool tell you we don’t – they have confused ‘weather,’ of which we have very little, being bathed in sunshine for over 350 days a year, with ‘seasons’ which all gardeners know we do have – just try to grow tomatoes in winter – or carrots in summer. But it was in these other climes that the tradition of seed catalogs got established and, being a boy from Kansas, I’m here to tell you that the annual photographic orgy of new seeds still warms my heart with memories.

In the winter months of my childhood, the garden was frozen over and buried under a blanket of snow and my youth was preoccupied with keeping my feet warm. My feet were invariably frozen from the first of November through the end of March and it made me miserable. I never learned to sled or skate because I did not want to venture from the warm house for recreation. I did learn a ferocious game of chess and became somewhat skilled as a cat herder in attempting to get them to stay on my cold feet for warmth. A few cats got the message and were delights – I wouldn’t say they were ‘trained’ but they did spend considerable time ameliorating my suffering.

The other blessing of those winter months were the seed catalogs. We were mailed catalogs from Burpee, Henry Fields, Gurney’s and others, which all came at the time of year when gardeners throughout the frozen world were depressed and undone. With their analgesic daily efforts in the earth ripped from their clutches and the beauty of the garden hidden by ice and snow, these people were prime targets for pictures of blooms in rich glorious color, eggplants hanging seductively from gorgeous green plants, sweet corn ears with the husks teasingly parted to show the heady sight of fresh kernels bursting with milk and flavor. Yes, folks, vegetable porn has been a problem with much deeper roots than you would have imagined. It’s amazing that the Kansas attorney generals, with so much free time on their hands to reconsider Darwin at length and other such superficial pursuits, did not at one time take Mr. Burpee to task for his wanton display of plant sexuality.

But, let me tell you that it was probably those very pictures, added to the experience of cold feet and the sting of losing yet another game of chess to my grandfather that has warped my mind completely and is the real purpose you find me writing here today. Those seed catalogs were not my problem, but my salvation.

Burpee’s was the best because the layout afforded bigger pictures than the others and the printing quality was top notch. Near the fireplace, I spent hour after hour reading all the descriptions of the multitude of varieties, my mouth watering, my fingers aching for dirt under my nails and my clean knees begging to be covered in moist, brown earth. I circled hundreds of choices which I showed Grandpa, not understanding that he would not order a tenth of what I had circled. He saved seed from year to year and thus had little interest, or need, for the gorgeous pictures that had seduced me. He ordered a little here and there, but it was not the ones I drooled over.

Still, a young man, when confronted with a ripely red strawberry, fresh corn, peas and potatoes, does not quibble that this is not the one that helped him survive his depression in the middle of winter. The eating was always good.

I still look through the seed catalogs in winter. The names have changed, Burpee is no longer a respected name in the seed business having forgotten the home gardener and catering pretty much to the hybrid, ‘bigger is better’ crowd. New names have appeared, like Native Seed/Search, Pinetree Garden Seeds (my favorite), Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, Seed Savers Exchange and Nichols in Oregon. I eschew the big names – even Cook’s is no longer a family enterprise. I want the seeds my grandfather saved and not the big fancy hybrids that produce luscious, tasteless fruit that ships well and sets pound after pound of uniformly shippable quasi-food.

My Pinetree catalog was in the mail a week ago, buried among ten others of dubious value hawking electronic goods made in China that help depress our economy (why do we think that the problem is that we are not buying enough vs. not producing enough?) and oppress the Chinese workers to the profit of the very people the American taxpayer is bailing out (not that I have any feelings on any part of this subject), and within the week I had a seed order of $30 off to them. The cover is already ripped from the catalog proper, it’s been abused so badly. Not only have I gone through it several times in as many hours, I spent a memorable afternoon with someone I love very much going through the pages and noting her preferences in the margins so that I may properly plant her summer garden too.

The other catalogs are instantly recyclable, I say. Keep the seed catalogs – they entertain, they inform, they are a tradition of an agricultural society and they have proven as efficacious as Playboy for keeping at least one young man out of harm’s way.


04 December, 2008

"Community Garden"

In the Learning Garden, we try to stay focused on building community. Evidently, according to the news I hear, we will all have the opportunity to face some unprecedented challenges over the coming years. No matter what we have to face, if we can face it as a community, there is a lot of reason to hope. If we will continue to persist to apply old solutions and try to maintain the old individualistic American "gunslinger" mentality ("I can do it myself") tough times only get tougher because no individual is smarter than a group.

What will get us through - not only 'get us through,' but provide the consummate vehicle - is community; sharing ideas, and reaching consensus. Most of us felt a new huge sense of community when we learned the results of our presidential election on November 5th. No matter how one voted, upon hearing the results, we all knew we were witness to history. In the half a century I’ve been alive, the only other times we have come together this way was after some disaster. Here was something we could rejoice about connecting us into a larger group.

Those who volunteer at The Learning Garden are committed to bringing that feeling into this Garden and making it permeate our vision of a community built on plants and sharing the healing and wealth of nature.

Yes, a garden such as our Garden, or any of the community gardens over the world, is about plants, but it doesn't end with plants. In fact, our Garden and others are more about the people who tend them. In that sense, we all grow so much more than plants: A Garden that depends on volunteers and community needs to remember that it is more about ‘growing’ people than plants. So many get involved in a community garden and think that growing food - just because you need food - should be the focus. My experience shows me such an approach is short-sighted.

This is the start of a change. We plant a row of carrots and weed the row, water it as needed and sooner or later get some carrots we can eat. But that is just a part of the woof and warp of this enterprise we call The Learning Garden. We also get to remember the high school students who come through the garden to grow their own carrots, as well as the ones that only get to look through the fence while they wait on the bus: knowing where food comes from cannot always be taken for granted now days. The gulf of missing knowledge about how to live in this world is writ large on some of them. “I don’t want to eat that carrot because it’s been in the dirt,” I heard one student say one day. It would be interesting to see what would happen to his diet if he could see the whole journey his Big Mac made before getting to be his lunch. While we are at it, I wonder where those French fries came from?

Who will grow our food? Where will it come from? Will we outsource it all to foreign countries? How will the cost of food change as the price of oil increases if we have to ship all our food from thousands of miles away? These are legitimate questions that will have to be answered in the very near future. I have my answer.

Here we have a Garden and a community. This world needs both.

27 November, 2008

My New Blog

I would like to invite all readers of the LA Garden blog to view the new The Beautiful Food Garden blog. LA Garden has rather degenerated into a collection of handouts for my classes while the focus at The Beautiful Food Garden will be more lasered in on food gardening and creating food gardens that feed the soul as well as the stomach. Each week should feature something to do in an LA area garden, one article on The Learning Garden and one rant/recipe/story or whatever else comes to mind. At least, as I start using that site, this is my initial focus. Drop by and see what happening and I hope you'll find it interesting enough to subscribe.


Thanksgiving Between The Raindrops

When the rain finally did come, it was a long time after I had gotten those seeds in the ground. It was a gentle and soft rain – perfect for dry soil because it can take some time for the soil, once it has thoroughly dried, to accept water again. After a time, we were deluged, but not for very long – most of the rain was the soft gentle kind. The hillsides that were just burned by wildfires did not collapse into mud slides which is further evidence that this was a gentle rain.

Still, gentle rain or not, any rain at all can play havoc with a picnic and today, Thanksgiving, was the Garden’s main ‘picnic’ of the year. The Learning Garden staff and volunteers invite the staff and clients of the Program for Torture Victims out to the Garden for a Thanksgiving feast and we have no indoor facilities to accommodate a large crowd so you see how interested I have been in the weather over the past 72 hours or so.

But I am a gardener. I am a betting man and an optimist; qualities that make for a miserable life in a casino – and sometimes out as well - but essential qualities for someone who plants seeds in the hope he'll eat something from them, at least it’s not the only food I plan on eating, but still, to plant seeds in September hoping to eat salad in November requires a certain degree of hopefulness. So it was that, after listening to the news, reading the weather reports on Weather Bug and at iGoogle, plus a liberal scanning of the skyline at 7 AM, I determined we were good to go for the day.

The Learning Garden had over 50 people on our patio to enjoy a fine feast for the day. We had the whole Thanksgiving experience from cranberry sauce to sweet potato pie and it was good. The people that show up at the Garden day in and day out are some of the best cooks I know and I don’ think there was a bad dish among the many we had out there. We had gravy, mashed potatoes, apple pie, pumpkin pie, salad (all the leaves came from the Garden) and we had turkey and stuffing and yams and pickled beets and garlic bread and chocolate and olives and a host of vegetarian main dishes as well. With our good ‘rain karma,’ the clouds parted away for the whole morning, leaving the celebration in brilliant sunlight for the whole four hours (basically from 10 to 2) and not a cloud darkened the sky for the entire event. As people were leaving and we were cleaning up, a rather ominous cloud overtook the skyline and someone said, “Almost on cue!” The cloud only passed over and that was as close as we got to rain today.

In getting ready, I turned to a young lady who was volunteering for the first time and asked her to pick some salad for the day. She looked confused, “You want me to pick up the salad?” she asked. Well, no, not really.

I gave her my trusty wire basket and we went out into the gardens and found lettuce plants and I instructed her to pick one leaf from every lettuce plant she found – many of the lettuce plants are being grown by high school students and it would not be kind to take their whole plant, but a leaf from each won’t even be missed. She was able to harvest from Black Seeded Simpson, Red Oakleaf, several different Romaines and too many others to list. It was a bushel of salad leaves. A more experienced volunteer picked leaves from the many beets in the Garden so we could add that to the lettuce. This was all washed, some nuts and other fun things got tossed in and two huge bowls of salad were put out for everyone to enjoy. There isn’t a way to have a fresher salad for fifty people unless you turn them out to graze.

My salad picker was so enthusiastic and so happy to have been picking leaves off lettuce plants. It was the first time she’d ever done anything like that (and she’s in her twenties, I’d guess). So besides being host to over 50 grateful people, the Garden fulfilled its role as The Learning Garden in yet another way.

That’s just a snapshot. So many other moments in the day were worth writing down, and I suppose I’ll take the time to do so in my journal. But there’s a hint of life at our Garden for all to enjoy.

No matter how circumstances find you today, I pray you had at least one thing you could be grateful for. By concentrating on what I love in my life, I believe I multiply it and by not dwelling on that in my life that bugs me, I believe I diminish that. It is my hope that you found much to cheer you on this wonderful fall day of Thanksgiving.


25 November, 2008

Planting Before a Rain

Rain comes rarely in Southern California. We net something like twelve inches per year on average and almost all of that falls in the months of January, February and March. There is usually one small shower in July and October without any appreciable accumulation, and a shower or two in November and December that are a little more beneficial. Right this second, our gardens are really dry and we will be grateful, with or without Thanksgiving, for any and all rain showered upon us.

Rain is forecast for the next few days, and we hear from folks about a mile away that it’s heading towards us right now. Just in time, I’ve run wildly through the garden trying to take advantage of this by sowing seeds of carrots, beets, parsnips, spinach and lettuce. (I think the plural of lettuce is ‘letti’ despite the protestations of my spell check that insists lettuce has no plural. Obviously not composed by a gardener…)

Normally I plant small, short rows of these and I sow them every several weeks in an attempt to provide myself with some fresh produce consistently through the season. I am single – I don’t need a forty foot row of carrots or beets or of anything else – I don’t even have forty feet of garden from any direction anyway! I use a garden stake, about 1” square, that was sold with a vine wrapped on it. Originally about six feet long, I’ve cut this down to a two foot length. By turning it on edge, looking at it from one end, it’s a diamond shape, I have an edge I can press into the soft soil where I want to plant, as shown above. This creates a perfect two foot trough in which I can sow my seeds. For carrots, and carrots only, I do not cover the row with soil. Our soils in Southern California oftentimes crust over when they dry and that crust can be too hard for the little carrot seedlings to push through. Other seedlings aren’t as delicate and can break out of the ‘earth jail’ so they don’t get the treatment. Although the vermiculite does mark the row quite nicely.

But, with rain coming and a gathering supply of old seed, I have decided to let ‘er rip! We have carrots from last year and spinach and lettuce that’s older than I want to admit so we’re sowing them out thickly. The rain comes through, waters these seeds for us and, if we get good germination, they’ll be a bonus. I would like a large amount of beets and/or carrots at once just for pickling. I have a great recipe handed down from my Mother for pickled beets and I want very much to try a good recipe for those spicy pickled carrots one finds at Hispanic restaurants – if you know of a recipe like that, send it on over.

Just a note on germination. Seeds vary in the length of time they can be kept before the germination percentage drops off, from carrots which seem to last just about a year before they’re no better than dust, to tomatoes which can keep for about seven years without much loss of vigor. Seeds kept cool and dry will last longer than those kept under more difficult conditions and I'll explore that topic one of these days on down the line.

I see raindrops… is this it or just false advertising?


16 November, 2008

Worm Composting Resources on the Web

The following sites have information on worm composting that might prove of interest:

The one I like the most comes from the University of Washington for a cheap and easy compost bin you can make yourself.

Journey to Forever's website has a good introduction here and a bin full of worm composting resources.

And, as of this writing, there are several compost bins available on eBay, including a white pine compost bin that is certainly classier looking than the ones from above - however, I don't know if it works any better. Still, for forty whole bucks, it would be worth trying.

Yes, one day I will... All I need is another pet.


10 November, 2008

Worm Suppliers/LA County

From Yvonne Savio, head of the Master Gardeners Training in Los Angeles County, here is a list of worm suppliers for LA:

Chris Jung
(818) 472-2593
Fax: (818) 899-2541
E-mail: majjj@aol.com
Glendale, CA 91202

Golden Wiggle Worms

Steve Gottlieb
(818) 993-6613
E-mail: goldenwiggleworms@socal.rr.com
18745 Lassen St
Northridge, CA 91324-1963

Peach Hill Soils

(805) 529-6164
Fax: (805) 386-2632
E-mail: phsoils@aol.com
P.O. Box 158
Moorpark, CA 93021
Site address:
10765 New Los Angeles Ave,
Moorpark, CA 93021

Oasis Worm Farm

(805) 944-6199
Fax: (805) 944-6198
8254 East Ave T
Littlerock, CA 93543

Worm Diggins

(818) 367-8388
E-mail: david.smith483@verizon.net
14643 Nurmi St
Sylmar, CA 91342

I have never dealt with any of these folks and so have no experience with them - this is not a recommendation, but is provided for your convenience.



Chard can be prepared in many different ways, and in this respect it closely resembles its cousin, spinach. One of the ways that chard shines is in braises and stews.

This dish might seem to have daunting ingredient list. But don’t be put off; enough of the ingredients will already be lurking in your kitchen. And, if you leave out any one of the spices, it will probably still turn out well. In contrast to some meat tagines, which take hours to prepare and cook, this dish can be made from start to finish on a weeknight. And the flavor is a lovely mélange of spices, slight sweetness from the raisins, and savory flavors from the chickpeas. Serve with rice or quinoa for hearty vegetarian dinner.

• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• ½ sweet onion, minced
• 1 teaspoon paprika (sweet or smoked according to preference)
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• ½ teaspoon turmeric
• ¼ teaspoon thyme
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ¼ cup golden raisins
• 1 tablespoon organic tomato paste
• 1 bunch chard (about 8 ounces) washed, center ribs removed, and chopped
• 1 cup cooked chickpeas plus 1 ¼ cups of their cooking liquid, or 1 can organic chickpeas with liquid plus ½ cup water
• 1 teaspoon hot sauce or ¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)

Add the olive oil, onion, and garlic to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or 3-4 quart pot, and turn the heat to medium. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, then add the paprika, cumin, turmeric, thyme, salt, and cinnamon. Stir together and cook for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the remaining ingredients, cover, and turn the heat down to medium-low.

Be sure to stir every 3-5 minutes to ensure that the bottom does not burn and that your ingredients are evenly combined. You can add a tablespoon of rice flour if you like your stew thicker. Remove from the heat after 20 minutes. Enjoy!

09 November, 2008

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

Any actions might well be the wrong one if you do not understand your own soil and the microclimate of your garden. The first information you must gather on your garden is your soil composition and your Sunset Zone, then adjust these recommendations accordingly. This mostly addresses the needs of a vegetable garden. Ornamental and herb gardeners may use it as a guideline if they understand the nature of plants. Container Gardeners may also use it for Southern California, being especially vigilant about watering when we have warm and windy weather. The Santa Ana winds we experience here are tough on plants – particularly in the canyons. These actions that follow are predicated on the fact that I have a sandy soil, practically devoid of nutrition, on the coast in Sunset’s Zone 24.


As the Summer crops begin to decline, I clear them away and toss them onto the compost pile where they can break down and become organic matter (OM) for future crops. In areas where heavy feeders have been planted, I hope for the luxury of sowing a cover crop. At this time of the year, I use the cover crop mix from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, sown with a little rock dust for future mineralization.

About half-way into the month it hopefully becomes cool enough to sow arugula, beets, carrots, lettuce, peas and turnips. Leek and fennel seedlings ought to be ready to transplant outdoors, as should broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard and endive. As September wanes, probably the most productive time in the Southern California potager ensue, some summer crops are still producing (tomatoes) and the fall/winter crops in the ground promise more bounty as they poke their little heads skyward.

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. One wonders how in the world the Italians and French survived long enough before their discovery of the “New World” to arrive at a culinary tradition! Favas 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 at the memory.

To have sweet pea flowers for Christmas, they must be in the ground by the first weekend of September. And even then, you’ll need ‘just right’ weather to get them to flower on cue; just enough heat to make them grow, just enough cool to keep them happy and enough moisture to accelerate growth, but not too much to cause excessive mildew. I really hope for red sweet peas around Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day, but it’s really a challenge I have yet to master.


Things for the winter garden are in full swing. Later this month, if I have planted a green manure crop (a ‘green manure crop’ is a plant I’m growing to turn back into the soil – I’m using the plant’s themselves as one uses manure to increase the fertility of the soil), I might spade that under or wait until later if I don’t need that space just yet. I want to allow the overturned plants to “mellow” (meaning to break down into nutrients the next crops can use) for about 2 weeks before planting. 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 if I keep it picked, so there is no succession sowing lined up for that. But everything else benefits by being sowed at intervals.

One of the good points about putting in many little plantings of veggies is the ability to harvest your vegetables at a smaller size. Besides, it’s just the ticket for a garden in pots. Don’t fall for “bigger is better.” 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 taste buds remember.

A mark of the good gardener is one who has his/her succession sowing down to the science that places fresh vegetables on the table without lag time, avoiding a concentration of over-abundance fluctuating wildly with nothing to eat for intervening weeks. I’m still shooting for it; it’s the kind of goal that can take a lifetime of refinement. Sometimes it’s a moving target because you can’t control the weather and that has a big impact on all that a gardener does.


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 (in addition to the ground!) 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 that’s 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 might become less of a challenge, although Santa Ana winds often 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 roses, a caper bush, bay leaf tree or citrus (some of our favorites in Southern California), 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 because it feeds the ecology of a productive soil.

I’ll be planting more winter crops, it’s more of the succession game. Whatever fertilizing I do, I will do it more lightly 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 way to get essential elements into the plant quickly.

But I’m not really in love with fertilizers at all. I think they might well be more destructive in the long run than we’ve realized. A little fertilizer, and not nearly to the strength suggested on fertilizer packaging, might not be an awful thing, but a lot of fertilizer cannot be a good thing. The real object is to cultivate the soil’s flora and fauna that is the essence of a lasting and sustainable fertility that doesn’t need constant inputs of fertilizer. Mulch and compost are the tickets for a soil fertility that doesn’t require purchased inputs of fertilizer.


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 try to keep up with successive sowings, especially of salad greens, beets and carrots. I sow short rows frequently rather than long 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 you don’t readily find them in a super market – well, at least not as good as the ones you can preserve at home.

Besides, there are holiday parties to attend to and a fireplace with a good book is calling my name. Watch for Santa Ana winds and continue to sow carrots, beets and other root crops, if you need them, and set out cabbage family members (cabbage, broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts). Don’t work the soil when it’s wet – should we actually get some rain, especially if it’s a clay soil. You’ll be squashing the air pockets out of the soil and creating something close to adobe that you (and your plants) will need to contend with down the road. In southern California, we have enough days of only blue skies and sunshine to get things done – save the wet gray days for something else. You say there is nothing but gardening? Even I, have other things to do that I love and when the soil is wet, now’s the time to do them.


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. Prune them now when the sap flow is at the lowest – at least, if it’s as cool as it should be, that will be the case. Yes, if it’s warmer than usual, there will be more sap flowing than not, but it won’t be so awful as to hurt the tree – this is just the best time, usually.

The deciduous stone fruit trees, including peaches, apricots, plums and apples, 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. (On the other hand, citrus, which are evergreen, can be pruned at any time of the year.)

I finish the job by spraying the trees with dormant oil. Of all the pesticides, dormant oil (and it’s summer counterpart, ‘summer oil’), with a low toxicity to mammals and 100% effectiveness on pests, is accepted in organic certification. 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. You can even search out an oil made for this purpose that is not a petroleum product. Though distilled from vegetable oil, it’s just as effective as its crude counterpart. Lighter oils, called “summer oil” or “horticultural oil” can be used on evergreen trees – like citrus – and plants with softer tissue (like perennials) with the same benefits. 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. They will kill ALL insects, so please be really careful around beneficial insects – especially bees which are having a tough time (I suggest spraying in the evening hours when bees will not be around until the next day and by then the pesticide has dried and is no longer effective on our buzzing buddies).

In this, the dormant season, now we purchase deciduous fruit trees, apples, apricots, grapes and ornamentals such as roses and wisteria, to name a couple of my favorites. Buy them from a good local nursery (if you can still find one!) to insure you are getting quality plants that will produce in your neighborhood, or find an online provider that specializes in the fruit trees or other plants you are buying. Most of these companies have knowledgeable staff that can help you find the varieties that will perform the best. 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.

We have to keep our eyes out for Santa Ana winds – sometimes hot and sometimes cool, but always dry and desiccating to garden plants. 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 say you never stopped thinking about summer? 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… all in 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 find web addresses from which to order.

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 (they don’t use it much, in my opinion), I think I could make room for 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 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 from the gloom of too many short days and long nights. I’m ready for summer sunshine and ripe tomatoes by now!

With any amount of luck, this is our rainiest month. Hopefully, that means we won’t need to be watering too much. I have permanent beds built up 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 and even then might be too late. 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 which translates into January in this climate.

Don’t forget to snail bait. If you have vegetables, make certain you buy only snail bait rated for food plants – a new product called Escar-go is on the market and is really a safe product to rid us of snails and slugs. 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 Slug and Snail Death (a little harsh, don’t you think) was the only product available for vegetable gardens, but it was never safe with children or pets (which makes you wonder how ‘safe’ it really is), whereas the Escar-go stuff is totally non-toxic. 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. Kale and Swiss chard will also perform year round, but at this point, I’ve had so much kale and Swiss chard that I’ve hit a wall. I’ll give you all you want.

If I can’t wait for a taste of summer, I can plant a couple of my famous “short rows” of Royal Purple Pod beans – this is the only bean variety that will germinate in cooler weather and >>poof<< just like that, the summer potager is started. Already! Most of what I’m doing is moving the seeds I’ve started in a sheltered location in little pots (I re-use the six-packs that come from the nursery over and over again for my seed starting) into bigger pots and tending them. Harvesting the last of the Winter crop is also on my agenda. I spend the most of my garden time in this month, actually counting the buds on my rose bushes and trying to guess which one will provide me with blooms first. It’s a big deal for me; better than a soap opera and, better yet, no commercials!

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!

One gets the real sense of how difficult it must have been in those days where a failure of a crop to produce as predicted could mean disaster – if not starvation. Not only do you have to outsmart the critters and understand the life cycle of everything you grow, you have to have a certain amount of weather cooperation. Growing food is a dicey business, so when you see a good harvest coming in, it’s no wonder that we have a national holiday called Thanksgiving!


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 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 seem to 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 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 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. At this point in my life, I don’t qualify for either group.


From seed sown in the garden directly, I am planting 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 direct sow, 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 the tail end of my lettuce seedlings and sowing short rows of carrots, beets, radishes and spinach, with an old window screen waiting in storage that I will use to shield these little cool weather fellows 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 or on the shade side of taller vegetables – you don’t have to have an old screen lying around.

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 live 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! If you have enough spare time on your hands, corn can be hand pollinated, but you’re doing this for show and not to eat. Right?

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 several 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 from the “Spring = planting time” mentality. It can be so pervasive that even nurseries themselves often evidence a better selection of transplants at this time of year, especially the chain stores which will gladly sell you things you neither need nor can use. We live in a part of the country so divorced from manual labor and the soil that plants for sale in the wrong season are not the strangest horticultural occurrences happening here.

You may also put out deciduous fruit trees and fruiting vines, but they are best planted in Fall and Winter (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.


If you are on the Coast, the weather will forgive 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 they 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… I like that idea, but you know how I like to garden at night anyway…

Check the mulch level this month – making certain it is deep enough to keep roots cool. I might also sow beans 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.

Be cognizant that the days are getting shorter now that the solstice is over. Some plants simply will not grow according to Hoyle when the days are getting shorter. Not all, but some varieties of corn will begin to flower the instant they are stressed if they begin to grow now and there is little chance of a good crop.


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 their plants in the ground back in June, are now the frantic gardeners with the hardest, hottest work.

If I am caught up August for me is the time to contemplate the fall and winter garden; I’m in my catalogs already dreaming of the next great adventure in the garden. Under lights – out of the heat– 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 for 24 hours before I 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 makes the boiling water useful. Perhaps I’ll plant seeds to grow some new artichoke plants for the coming year if I don’t think I have enough baby plants from last year’s plants.

This is the time to harvest your summer produce in spades – so to speak. Keep the beans picked or they’ll stop producing. Keep using the basil and tomatoes; just keeping up with the production 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.

And learn about putting food up for later. Food can be frozen, canned, pickled or dried and so be stored for the days when it’s “kale or Swiss chard” on an endless basis. Don’t get me wrong – I LIKE them, I just don’t want them every day for weeks on end.

This is all just to get a person started. Gardening is local and personal. If you don’t like carrots, don’t plant them. You will notice a complete lack of mention of radishes. Although they are a popular enough root vegetable, fast growing and very satisfying to the short attention span, I decided a long time ago that radishes were a waste of my time; they remained uneaten in the garden.

Grow what you want, but I think there are some guidelines about what to grow. I wouldn’t grow things that are exclusively used dried: lentils or drying beans. To arrive at a decent crop takes more land than I have. I won’t grow items that easily available in markets. To me, this means tomatoes because a store-bought tomato is sawdust to a home-grown tomato. There are European varieties of plants one can grow at home that are never found in the market – or if they are in Whole Foods nowadays, the sticker price is shocking.

So grow your own. Indulge your culinary fantasies by growing what you want, cleanly, without pesticides and environmental degradation.

26 October, 2008

Gardens For Gourmets: Food Gardening, Shrubs, Vines, Trees and Perennials




Blueberries (Southern Highbush, low chill) – to about 4 feet, prefer acidic soils and lot’s of water. Other than that, easy to grow
Ribes sp.

Vines/ Brambles

Berries/Rasp and black, boysenberry, currants, Gooseberry
Passion fruit


Apples, crabapples

The following herbs are perennial as well:

Anise hyssop
Some basils
Burnet, salad
Lemon Verbena
Sweet marjoram
Oregano, Greek (Origanum heracleoticum)
Tarragon, French


Gardens for Gourmets: Resources for Perennial Food Gardening

The Home Orchard, published by University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources is a very accessible source of information and it absolutely must reading for anyone who wishes to be involved in growing food on trees. You can find their catalog with this book and many others at their site, here.

Sylvia Thompson’s The Kitchen Garden discusses some of these plants, but it’s just an inclusion in a general gardening text.

The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture by Lon Rombough is a beautifully illustrated and succinct guide to all things relating to grapes – not only wine, but also for eating.

Online sources include, but are not limited to (!):

From UC Davis:
Fruits and Nuts Research Center

And the appropriately named The California Backyard Orchard, also from UC Davis.

The Home Orchard Society (not our climate, but …)

California Rare Fruit Growers – I am a member and my Propagation class and my Home Orchard class will attend their meetings (next West LA meeting is on persimmons on November 8th), their breadth of knowledge and commitment to growing tree crops is astounding! I heartily recommend them.

Some general information from the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Cooperative Extension.

A commercial site with a lot of really good reference material:

Dave Wilson Nursery

And my favorite place to buy fruit trees, a very helpful and knowledgeable staff:

Trees Of Antiquity


16 October, 2008

California Plants in Container Gardens


Theodore Payne Foundation


Tree of Life Nursery

go to Information: Sage Advice

Home-Made, Non-Toxic Pesticides

Some common materials that can do double duty as non-toxic pesticides:
- uncoated aspirin to fight mildew, black spot and more. Dissolved in water.
- baking soda (really useful!) prevents fungus spores from invading plants.
- boric acid or borax wipes out ants, roaches and more.
- canola oil works to smother insects and as a surfactant but any vegetable oil that isn’t too heavy will work – I like Trader Joe’s grape seed oil
- chili powder is used as a pesticide and a repellant
- cinnamon powder is useful as a an anti-fungal and anti-ant
- corn gluten meal inhibits seed germination (or at least it has in studies)
- Epsom salts provide a shot of magnesium and help promote growth of flowers and foliage
- essential oils, when mixed with water, help defer feeding and work to eliminate pests
- fish emulsion & kelp wonderful organic fertilizers that promote healthy plants
- flour, white but not self-rising, can be sprinkled on plants plagued by grasshoppers
- honey is a sure-fire lure for ants
- isopropyl rubbing alcohol, the 70% stuff, desiccates and destroys insects – if a bit tedious to apply
- molasses, good ol’ blackstrap or horticultural grade, jumpstarts microbial action and feeds beneficial insects – can be used to attract harmful insects into traps
- petroleum jelly can be used as a sticky barrier (around a tree trunk for example) to prevent access for undesirable insects
- liquid soap – NOT detergent! (almost all “dish soaps” today are really dish “detergents” and they are more harmful to plants and not as effective as insecticides – you will have to seek out Dr. Bronner’s or any other pure castile soap) can be used as a surfactant or as the active ingredient against many pests, insects and fungi alike; liquid soap is the basis of many home-made pesticides because it works to allow other ingredients to blend together (emulsify). You can have a bucket of soapy water in the garden in which to dump insects and help them die in the cleanest of ways.
- Tabasco sauce can be used as a pesticide and repellent (I like to tell about the time Grandpa used a syringe to inject Tabasco sauce into the watermelon closest to the road, it works to repel even human pests!)
- vegetable or mineral oil destroys insects and can also double as a barrier
- vinegar, either apple or white, buy whatever is less expensive, fights fungus gnats, can be used to kill some weeds and destroys pests – I use a solution 50% vinegar with water to kill ants when they invade my home or the greenhouse, as they often do.
- white glue is very useful to seal pruning cuts – especially roses against the rose borer which is a significant pest around here

GENERAL NOTES ON HOME-MADE PESTICIDE APPLICATION (also valuable for commercial sprays)

 Test your spray first on a small portion of the plant before applying it to the entire plant. I mean, it should go without saying that you’d rather knock the pests off and not kill the plant.
 Always, always, always use soap not detergent – you may not know the difference but your plants will.
 Spray early in the morning, on a foggy day or, if you’re not an early riser, later in the day. (Early morning IS the best, but if you, like me, just can’t seem to get around early enough, late evening might be your only opportunity.) Do not spray when the temperature is at, or soon will be at, 85 or higher.
 Wear rubber gloves when spraying – especially those sprays containing peppers, alcohol, citrus concentrates, mint oils or any other material that could irritate skin.
 Do not spray when the wind will not allow you to control the destination of your spray.
 Thoroughly examine the plant to be sprayed right before spraying it, specifically looking for beneficial insects or their eggs.
 Most mixtures will require consistent agitation to keep the ingredients evenly mixed, so shake as you go. So to speak.
 Make sure all of your solutions get on to the leaf undersides as well as the tops.

1 t Tabasco sauce
 t liquid soap
Shake mixture well and decant into sprayer.
Tabasco, straight, can be used to discourage rabbits and other omnivores from chowing down on tender shoots. Test to make sure the tender shoots won’t themselves be “prevented.”

1 hand full fresh basil leaves and stems
1 large glass jar – at least ½ gallon – with water
Put the basil in the jar of water and set in the sun for a few days; strain out solids and store (out of the sun) in a capped container until you need it. When using it, decant into a sprayer and add  teaspoon liquid soap and shake well before using. A poor use for basil in my book.

2 T red pepper
6 drops of liquid soap
1 gallon water
Allow the mixture to brew overnight. Stir thoroughly before spraying. Repeat about weekly to protect the Crucifers – cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower - from destructive critters.

¼ cup buttermilk
2 cups wheat flour
2 ½ gallons water
Shake the ingredients all together thoroughly and spray on plants infested with spider mites.
2 garlic cloves
1 quart water
 t liquid soap
For plants with fungal or bacterial disease and rash outbreaks of vampires in your garden, puree the garlic in a blender on high for a minute. Slowly add the water and continue blending for about six more minutes. Strain, into a storage container adding the soap (adding the soap while blending is NOT recommended) and cover tightly.

To use, mix one part garlic soup concoction with ten parts water in a sprayer. I have read that scientists have discovered that garlic leaves can be used in place of the garlic bulbs and do the same duty; so you can use two handfuls of leaves and keep your bulbs for eating.

1 ½ t baking soda
1 T canola or other light oil
½ t liquid soap
½ cup white vinegar
1 gallon water
While this says “hollyhock” it is useful to spray on any rust-prone plant – and in our area that includes roses. Blend the ingredients and decant into a sprayer. Shake thoroughly before and during applications, applying weekly to the whole leaf on susceptible plants. If you have diseased foliage, remove it and send it away – do not compost unless your are certain your compost is hot enough to kill the spores.

2 uncoated aspirins dissolved in one quart of water can be used as a foliar spray to deal with fungus infections, which include black spot, mildew and rust – all popular here.

1 T canola, mineral or other light oil
1 t baking soda
1 gallon water
Cornell published this as a remedy for fungal blights on tomatoes and potatoes. Shake thoroughly before using.

2 t baking soda
2 quarts water
½ t liquid soap
Keep handy in sprayer and shake before using – this is especially useful with powdery mildew or black spot – two fungal infections almost all roses get in Southern California.

12 October, 2008

A Related Link for Some Interesting Reading

The title on this article links you to an article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times. Pollan is one of my favorite writers on food and the reasons to grow your own food and be careful of selecting other sources for food. Some thoughtful reading.


Suggestions For The Cool Season Border

Beets – Burpee’s Golden have a wonderful leaf! Other beets have a wonderful reddish leaf in varying sizes and varying strengths of red.
Bok choy – harvest early for tenderness, bolts easily. Attracts snails like no other - you have been warned.
Cabbage – white/green, gray and purple/red – some need to be mid-border – if it’s listed at over one hundred days to maturity, you have a honker on your hands and putting it further back in the crowd will do you proud
Carrots – nice ferny foliage
Celery/Celeriac – you know what celery looks like…
Cilantro – a parsley like leaf – but much quicker, bolts readily in heat, self-sows
Garlic – a wonderful companion plant – slow growing! BUT, it has to be allowed to dry out if you wish to harvest bulbs that will store for a few months.
Lettuce – a quick crop can go in almost any empty spot of any size, comes in a fascinating multitude of colors and shapes – a marvelous addition to any border and meal; try to keep lettuce seedlings on hand just to be able to pop one in here and there
Marjoram – a lovely oregano look-alike
Onions – unobtrusive and provides a nice upright shape
Oregano – a perennial; if you can find the Greek oregano, it’s better – a lot better
Parsley – a short lived perennial – great intense green
Parsnips – slower than parsley but similar foliage and an annual – edible part is a long earthy root
Poppies – bread seed poppies are not only beautiful mauve flowers, but have wonderful seed pods afterwards, and then, almost as an afterthought, there’s the eating too!
Radishes – quick and fun – usually 28 days to maturity – don’t sow a lot of them, but one here and there is a delight
Sage – the culinary sage is a lovely low spreading perennial
Shallots – like onions, but take longer an d mostly more worth it
Spinach – quick although can be finicky – does NOT like heat at all
Strawberries – a lovely little plant with runners – a few plants can be propagated into a larger number of plants, a few plants will net berries for two bowls of oatmeal several times in a season. If planted correctly, strawberries are not hard.
Thyme - Many different varieties, some with silvery foliage, some golden, all with the thyme taste - choose one that matches your other plants.
Turnips – looking a little like radishes only a little slower and somewhat larger - like radishes, they are also a quick crop
Venidium – a sunflower like little darling – look for Zulu Prince


Broccoli – there are purple heading varieties
Calendulas – lovely and edible too, also called ‘pot marigold’ although I don’t know why
Cauliflower – they come in white, orange and purple – there are easier things to grow
Catnip – a wild thing with somewhat blue flowers – ‘spreads joyfully’ as they say
Chard – comes in pink, white, red, yellow and orange – a brilliant display!
Dill – ferny, feathery
Florence Fennel – gorgeous foliage – especially the ‘bronze’ fennel!
Larkspur – a lovely upright, purples and pinks with a lacey enticing foliage; this flower is an annual relative of delphinium, a wonderfully regal plant that is rarely at home in Southern California, but larkspur gets happy here and can self-sow, which is one of my favorites because it’s free plants year after year.
Leeks – stunning allium flower that can get to 8” diameter or more
Mustard (red) – really a red leaf, really, really! Rosy – but very spicy if that’s your bag
Potatoes – a little floppy, needs something to lean on, adds interest, edible roots after flowering – the size up only as the plant dies so it can look really ratty for a few weeks before harvest.
Rosemary – several different forms available – some are upright, some are prostrate and some can’t make up their minds as to one or the other and so possess qualities of both – still, a fabulous perennial especially in our climate!
Wheat – a fabulous upright annual grass – several different varieties are extremely ornamental – if you want to use it, threshing is a hassle unless you have a large supply of teenage angst energy to stomp and beat the berries free. Some wheat would be more back of the border so check the projected height.


Artichokes – a perennial that is huge, but boy is it impressive! Um, and tasty.
Brussels Sprouts – a slow, large Cruciferae (cabbage family)
Fava Beans – great black and white flowers and impressive when pods ripen.
Hollyhock – upright old-fashioned flower – some are used for dying. Can get rust…
Kale – very colorful and interesting shapes – the edible kale gets much larger than the little cute ornamental kale you find in the nursery
Edible peas – given something to climb on they produce a white flowers which turn into pods – if you grow the edible pod kind, it takes fewer plants to get a meal. Fresh peas and new potatoes is one of the most remembered meals of my youth, it doesn’t get much sweeter than that! But, in our climate, with our soils, neither of these are tremendous producers and you may well want to stick to fava beans here. Add artichoke hearts and you have a California Mediterranean meal that could well be a remembered meal for next year!
Sweet peas – give them something to climb on – don’t much care for heat and if you want that great sweet pea scent, grow older named varieties and be prepared to be patient!

In addition, there are a number of woody perennials to look into for the back of the border – I would encourage looking into a variety of ornamentals that can fill up the back of the border quite nicely.