26 June, 2009

Vote for Your Favorite Farmers' Market!

love your farmers market contest - help your market win $5,000 - vote today!

I voted for my local farmers' market, the Sunday West LA Farmers' Market on Sunday because they know that locally grown music is a part of the same wave as locally grown produce! My band, Lost 'n' Found, plays at the WLA market the first Sunday of almost every month. But even if we didn't play there, the management at this market work hard to make it a part of our neighborhood.

But don't let me influence you - just vote!


06 June, 2009

The Garden in July

Corn high in the garden promising good eating right around the corner. As a boy in Kansas, I knew my Grandfather's goal every year was to harvest sweet corn ears by July 4th. He might have even had money bet with a neighbor or two who would harvest corn first and I'm sure in most years he won! Corn takes a lot of room though, most of us will have to buy our corn at farmers' markets.

(The 'What To Do and When To Do It' class will not meet in July - the first Saturday of the month falls on the fourth and The Learning Garden will host their third annual Fourth of July Ice Cream Social. If you can come to the Garden in the afternoon - 2-5, we'll be making ice cream from the Garden's harvest and you get al you can eat for a mere $5. You are invited to bring a pie, fool or crumble to slather some vanilla ice cream on. Everyone bringing a 'baked good' will get a free rose from our nursery.)

July means we are speaking of hot weather, so now is the time to get a cool drink and say hello to summer in our Southern California gardens; I insist that no garden should be created without seating for the gardener to glory in the work that has been done. This is not the month to do a lot of planting, if you can help it at all. Water is what your garden wants along with some weeding and harvesting. Don’t just pour water on your garden without exercising your noggin! Monitor the 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 listening to the owls... Stick a finger in the soil up to the first knuckle – better yet, turn over a small spot of soil with your trowel. It should be slightly moist down about an inch or so. The surface of the soil can be quite dry and that's fine. A gardener is more concerned with the moisture level in that part of the soil where roots live.

Check the mulch level this month – insure it is deep enough to keep roots cool and prevent evaporation of the precious water you are putting down. I don't use ANY fertilizer, which means my plants are never over-fertilized, except I am cautious about using really good compost that might have a lot of nitrogen in it on tomatoes or other members of that plant family (peppers, eggplant, potatoes and deadly nightshade, for example). They tend to use up all the nitrogen you give them by growing very large and healthy looking plants and not setting fruit. For our climate, this isn't a disaster, you just have fresh tomatoes in October and November. But if you don't want to wait, skip fertilizer or good compost. Save it for corn which is a notoriously heavy feeder.

I know I said this isn't a good planting month, you and I both were supposed to get all that done last month, but we probably didn't, so listen up: With care, it is still possible to sow beans and, for those of us with the room, corn. If you need it, it's also possible to sow another planting of summer squash. Some of the real heat loving veggies can be set out, like more peppers 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 transpire 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.

Other experienced gardeners have disagreed with me so this is purely my own call, seen with my own eyes, but I don't think corn works well once the Summer Solstice has passed (June 21 or so). As the days get shorter (Wait! Weren't they just getting longer? What happened?), corn “realizes” it has to set seed before the cool months of fall and winter and so it flowers and sets seed as fast as it can. I've seen corn seedlings at six inches high fully tasseled out and trying to produce ears of corn. The ears they did produce were so small you needed a 10x jeweler's loupe to see them! Not a lot of corn to eat. Gardening will disabuse a person from believing that California doesn't have seasons! The plants know seasons better than we do.

In our climate, especially in that part of the west coast that gets a lot of Pacific Coast influence, growing the cucurbits can be a challenge because the moisture in the air allows mildew to grow and kill these plants. The cucurbits are cucumbers, squashes, melons and pumpkins (which are really a squash) and they are particularly susceptible to getting mildew. It can be hard, in some years with heavy 'June Gloom' to get a good crop. There are some remedies for mildew but I haven't tried any yet. I get rid of the infected plant and simply grow another. It's usually only a hassle with winter squash.

Summer squash is called that because you eat it in summer. Summer squashes include zucchini, patty pans, crooknecks, and all the squashes the British call 'marrow' and 'courgettes.' They are characterized by soft skin and will rot if you keep them around too long without refrigeration.

Winter squash, which includes pumpkins, are so named because they would keep for many months and provide families with food over the winter months. It is their hard outer shell that allows them to be a part of a winter diet in a world without refrigeration and the ability to transport food over thousands of miles. Our ancestors relied on the keeping ability of winter squashes to hold starvation at bay. Keeping winter squashes edible for a long period of time in Southern California is a challenge because we don't have root cellars to store them cool and dry. Many of us can't really grow a lot of winter squash because of the space they take up.

The avalanche of ripe harvest should begin to worry you before July is halfway through. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, beans, corn, zucchini, stone fruits and others will begin to overwhelm a gardener. Keep the harvest coming by picking when ripe promptly and finding ways to keep the produce for later.

Zucchini and summer squashes are a special concern. A four inch squash on Tuesday will be 9 inches and will resemble a caveman's club by Friday. It won't be as tasty and tender. Any summer squash will do that, with the ones we call 'zucchini' being the quickest to grow to laughable sizes fastest. It's the reason for a million recipes for Zucchini Bread, Zucchini Casserole, Zucchini Lasagna – I have even eaten a Zucchini Crumble, which was pretty good as long I could avoid eating any of the zucchini in it (which means eating the brown sugar, butter and cinnamon around the zucchini slices). Don't let that happen – once they have gotten much beyond the four to six inch size, they aren't all that tasty and begin to get woody. Harvest them early and often – just like voting in Chicago!

Melons are a challenge. Cantelopes and honeydews should have wilted tendril at the stem end of the fruit and should smell ripe (mouth waters when smelling). Watermelons are much more difficult to tell; I have a very funny story about being fooled by a watermelon when I was twelve, but that's for another day. I only know to thump them, listening for a dead, almost hollow sound to determine ripeness.

Cucumbers are not so much a challenge – as soon a cucumber is big enough for you, snag it. There are many different varieties of cucumber and it would be impossible to list each and every one because they all come in different sizes and shapes. Suffice it to say that Japanese cucumbers and Armenian cukes are able to get quite large and be edible – not just edible, but delicious! Not so much with other varieties. I know everyone gets goo-goo eyed about 'Lemon' cucumbers, but I don't share the love on them. Some say you have to wait until they turn yellow before they are good to eat. I think they are never THAT good to eat no matter how long you wait. I'll go with the Japanese or Armenian cucumbers – highly productive and delicious!

The harvesting of corn is another that begs exploration. The first time I saw city folks trying to choose ripe corn in the market, I was completely blown away! I had never seen people pull back the shuck (the leaves covering the ear) to see if the corn had filled out the cob or to see how large the kernels were. Although, I suppose if you hadn't picked it yourself, these things would be suspect. I had learned to merely feel through the leaves to 'see' what was underneath. Corn sold in markets – even farmers' markets – is usually picked after it's past the optimum stage – and non-gardeners are likely to prefer it. It is a 'more = better' kind of thinking. But corn kernels that have gotten big and fat are not as juicy and not nearly as tender. Smaller kernels are better.

The tassel on a corn plant are the 'boy flowers' and the silks are the 'girl flowers.' The pollen falls from the tassel onto the silks and that causes the kernels – really the seed of the next crop of corn – to grow. Each kernel has its own silk – if you find a cob with a vacancy (no kernel where there should be one), that is one silk that did not get pollinated. When the silks begin to dry out, they have been pollinated. If you have experienced worms in your corn, as soon as you can see silks, put a couple of drops of mineral oil in the spot where they emerge from the shuck. The worms will find that an impassible barrier and you'll have worm free corn! To harvest, feel the ear – it does take some training, but after a time, your tactile explorations will enable you to feel the ripe (and full ear) and leave the underdeveloped still on the plant. Grab the ear firmly and pull slightly out and down in one compelling motion and liberate it from the plant. The up and down ends will need trimming to find the actual ear in all that you have in your hand. Here again, you can find it by careful touch.

In this season of heat, don't neglect yourself when you are in the garden. The sun we experience today is not the same sun our grandparents faced. With ozone depletion, it is much easier to have to face skin cancer, so take steps to avoid having to deal with that. I know the popular method to avoid overexposure is to slather on lots of sun screen, but I don't find that a realistic alternative for a person in the sun almost every day. In the first place, I'm concerned that all that goop eventually gets washed off our bodies and goes into the waste stream and I know there is no provision for what happens to it after that – it isn't one of the substances ameliorated by city sewage treatment and so flows out into nature where we don't have a clue what it does. It's just another human pollutant and no one has bothered to investigate if it's harmful or benign. Dealing with our environment, we should always assume the worst and take exceeding care to not damage the only world we have. I know this is a contrary view.

I continue to wear long pants and long sleeved shirts even on hot days. I have several that are quite light and let the breeze flow through. It is one way to avoid harmful rays and avoid having to purchase goop on a regular basis – the pores of my skin aren't clogged up with questionable solutions and I am as comfortable – or as uncomfortable – as the next person. I also strongly suggest a hat – not only for the interdiction of the sun, but a way of shielding my eyes and keeping cooler. And besides, a straw hat is the epitome of fashion!

And while we are on this tangent, consider your number one tool set in the garden: your hands. This is one set of tools you can't replace or upgrade so it's best to take good care of them at all times. For gardeners, the feel of earth in their fingers is one of the true joys – and feeling of connection – a gardener can experience. However, the hands can also get injured easily in a garden so take a few steps back and consider how to protect them. When doing repetitive tasks that abrade your skin, wear gloves. Have more than one pair: one for moist work that has a moisture barrier of some kind, one for light work (goatskin gloves are marvelous to the touch – they contain a lanolin that works wonders on your hand while you work) and a heavy leather pair for hard work. The goatskin and heavy leather gloves can now be replaced by some non-animal products that are almost as protective. You will find good selections of gloves from your local nursery and your local big box store – mail order gardening companies' catalogs show you the full range of whats available. There is no need to settle in your glove choice – never buy a glove you find uncomfortable. In the first place, you don't need to and in the second, it will discourage you from wearing that pair as often as you might need to.

One more thing: is your tetanus shot up to date? Talk to your doctor – this shot should be renewed every several years and you should strive to remain current. I'm not a doctor and I can never remember how often it is now recommended (they changed it several times and I'm not sure which figure is right anymore). It was seven at one time, now I think it might be ten. So, talk it over with your doctor. You don't have to garden on a former dump site (which is what The Learning Garden once was) to be surprised by a nail or broken piece of glass. And while soil is one of the safer substances in its natural state (penicillin was concocted from a soil mold), soil in the city might not be in its natural state!

In the evening, grab some lemonade and contemplate your garden. You are awesome – you are growing food you can eat. Aren't you glad you put a seat in your garden? When you are done with your reverie, go inside and write me an email about how happy you are. I also accept checks.

05 June, 2009

The Garden in June

These nectarines are only one of the fruits that are beginning to ripen in a coastal California garden this month. There are also peaches, apples and apricots. Close behind we will see ripe figs, avocados, plums and other peaches and apples. Not too shabby a reward for the little bit of work done back in January! The one in the middle was eaten about three minutes after this photograph was taken.

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 that out, that’s over three whole months!, and will not ripen under anything but the hottest of conditions.

The mulch around your plants needs to be up to at least four inches – provided of course that it is a plant taller than 6 inches, as most of summer's crops are. Add any kind of organic matter at all. It matters little what it is, but add it and don't be stingy with it. The worms will come up from the ground in the night and pull bits of the mulch down into the soil, creating air pockets as they come and go and depositing their castings all through the soil. This is what they do and you make them an important and viable part of your soil ecology by allowing them to do what they are born to do – besides it saves your back and makes for a much more enjoyable garden all the way around. And that's what we all want to do – enjoy the garden!

Garlic planted last fall will begin to come due soon. Racambole garlic – the hardneck kind of garlic that I prefer – will begin to grow a hard center stalk that will eventually have a small group of bulbils on it. The hard neck grows up to almost even with the leaves and begins to make an elongated “Q” shape. Once this shoot begins to make its sweeping turn, begin to hold back water.

Other garlics are a lot less dramatic, their leaves will show signs of turning brown on the tips. Hold back on the water. As the leaves begin to turn fully brown, you can pull the garlic bulbs, shake the soil from them as best you can and leave the plants in dappled sunlight for a few days until really dry to the touch. You can then braid the softneck garlics and tie the hardnecks into a bundle. Hang them in a cool dry place, I know, like we have those in Southern California, but do the best you can.

Remember, if you have planted both kinds of garlic, though the hard necks will often have a more garlicky taste, they will not keep as well as the soft necks. The soft neck allows the bulb to be sealed more effectively from the air and so helps it last longer. Eat the hard neck garlics first, then, keeping the braids of soft neck garlic until later in the winter. Onions are much the same way – if you have good sized bulbs and the tops are not turning brown, you might need to knock them over at the very top of the onion. This will cause the onion to 'seal' off the bulb from the stalk and will help the onion last longer in your pantry.

This is my first year growing shallots and I imagine they'll take the same care as onions – except at this point I have no bulb to speak of which causes me to wonder if I didn't get them into the ground too late? One of the draws of gardening is that no matter how long you do it, you'll never learn all there is to learn about it. So this is my year to learn how to grow shallots. I understand they are easier to grow and provide a more reliable harvest than onions. And, while you can buy onions rather cheaply, certainly the same cannot be said about shallots! So, dollar for dollar, shallots are a more tempting allium to grow. Look for October's chapter to find out how to plant garlic and shallots.

Have you staked up your tomatoes yet? If you haven't, you may well find yourself resigned to having free-range tomatoes this year! Once plants reach a certain size, it is more destructive to try to corral them into a cage than to let nature have its way with them. You may escape with the best harvest ever, but, as much of a risk taker as I am, that's one bet I don't place. Even a lone bamboo pole at the back is better than nothing. Use some soft ribbon or old rags to tie them up – string or twine will damage the plant.

I have my tomatoes planted with two basil plants and one pepper plant for every tomato plant. I'm doing companion planting to discourage pests and to not drain the soil of the nutrients needed by one plant. I could have planted more tomato plants closer together, but all those plants would draw on the same nutrients through the soil. By planting different plants near by, I am using the same ground but perhaps not pulling nutrients of the same exact profile from the whole bed. There will be slightly different nutrients used by the basil and pepper. This helps me keep my soil more fertile – you know I eschew the use of all fertilizers. I think they end up being harmful to the soil in the long run. Even the organic ones. 'Organic' heroin is just as bad as chemical heroin.

Beans and corn can be grown as succession crops in summer. Corn probably is a bad choice because it takes so much room – in fact, if you have enough room to do a succession planting of corn, you probably don't live in Southern California. Corn, as we observed last month, has to be grown in fairly substantial blocks to allow for good pollination. So, 'beans can be grown as a succession crop in summer.' You can put in several different kinds of beans all through June – just make sure you don't fail to water the young lads on the hot days. They'll need more water than the rest of the garden, so pay them special attention.

Also try to keep a lettuce plant here and there on the shady side of taller plants – like corn and tomatoes. Some of the lettuces to try for summer are: Bronze Arrowhead, Gold Rush, Jericho, Mascara, Pablo, Rossa di Trento, Rossimo,Tango, Red Velvet, Reine de Glaces, Slobolt, Summertime, Sunset and Yugoslavian Red Butterhead. All of these promise to be “slow to bolt” or “hold well in heat,” but often that heat is 'heat' as in Maine and not 'heat' as in Los Angeles! Marvel of the Four Seasons (Merville de Quartre Saison) is only Marvel of the Three Seasons in Los Angeles!

If you have cabbage, broccoli or other cool season crops still in your garden, you'll probably have to kiss them goodbye soon unless this is a cooler June than usual. Even with “June Gloom,” the temperatures are usually too high for good tasting food from those cool weather plants to mature at this time. If you have a cabbage or a broccoli close to being fully grown, watch it very carefully lest it bolt suddenly on a warm day. Broccoli will begin to show the yellow of the flowers. Once you can make out a pronounced yellow in the head, you cannot procrastinate picking it. If some of the buds do open, all is not lost because you can still eat the ones that haven't. However, you are living on borrowed time as far as that head of broccoli is concerned. Get it sooner rather than later.

Once cabbage has formed a head, it is acceptable to pick it. If you want the most cabbage for your square foot of land possible, feel the head. If there is give to the leaves, you have a ways to go. A fully grown cabbage will be hard – there will not be space between the leaves and the give will be gone. At this point, you need to pay attention to it. Once you see the outer leaves on the head begin to curl back on the edge, the cabbage is about to split open and the flower stalk will emerge. Once the head has split, you've not got a good eating cabbage on your hands. There went all that slaw and kraut!

If you do miss them and they do go to flower, leave them in the garden. Beneficial insects will find them a happy addition to their diet. It will advertise to your friends who garden that you screwed up, but swallow your pride and allow the beneficial insects to have a good thing to eat. If this is not a hybrid crop, look into learning how to save your seeds for next year. Just as well get some good out of it!

Keep your garden moist – a tough trick as our world heats up. Your mulch will help. Try to water in the cooler times of day – early AM or late PM. If you have troubles with mildew and other fungus problems, try to stick to the early mornings; any moisture on the leaves will have a chance to be wicked away and will less likely cause problems. However, if you, like me, are crunched for time, late in the evening is better than not at all!

It is better to avoid over head watering if at all possible because the amount of water lost to evaporation and wind dispersal. If you can get one, a 'leaky pipe' hose that sweats the water out at very low pressure is the way to go and is fairly inexpensive to boot. Turn the water on very slightly and, once the hose is full of water it will bead out of minute holes all along the length of the hose. Allow it to run for a very long time and you'll get water soaking down into the roots of your plants which is where you want it. Use it much less frequently than you would an overhead sprinkler.

Overhead watering can also encourage problems with mildew on plant leaves. You get a whitish sheen on your leaves that eventually kills the plant. There really is no way to avoid getting it on your plants this close to the ocean. For some reason all our squashes and many other plants just seem to get mildew and it shortens their production something fierce. I've never found a solution to it, but if one grows squash, the 'work-around' is to grow your cucurbits fast, get a crop and if that wasn't enough start more plants to keep the harvest coming. Of course, the ones you can't really do that with are the winter squashes and pumpkins. Their growing season is just too long to start over again and you really only get one crop. Still, grow them (if you have room) with plenty of light and plenty of air circulation and if you're lucky, you'll get a crop. In most years, you'll be OK, although you'll never harvest those record-setting pumpkins you can read about from points further east – like Kansas, Kentucky and Connecticut, for example.

Marina de Chioggia squash produced a lovely crop for me last year even in a relatively shady bed! So go figure. That not withstanding, if you want a good crop of winter squash, I still advise you to put it in an area with abundant sunlight.