09 July, 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.
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.