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.

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