30 September, 2010

The Garden In October

Seedlings in terra cotta pots getting ready to be transplanted into slightly larger containers. On the left, broccoli and cabbages have two seed leaves while the two pots on the right must be onions or leeks because they only have one seed leaf each.

In all the books from back east and England, you'll find fall as a season of 'going to rest,' 'putting the garden to bed' and other allusions to 'sleep' and restoration. It is not true for us! We are in our other Spring and this Spring is really closer to the Spring that other parts of the world experience. This is our shot at carrots, peas, and other cool season plants. We either have all our space filled with plants, or we've just got a part planted with big plans (dreams) for the rest. So the Winter garden is in full swing. Later this month, if I have grown any green manure cover crops I will cut them down, leaving the plant material in place and cover with a thick layer of mulch. I would like to allow this to “mellow” (meaning I want this material to begin breaking down into nutrients the plants can use) for about 2 weeks or more before placing the next crop in.

I tried to plant one chard plant because I only need one to provide me with enough chard for all my needs, but there are so many colors to choose from, I feel a need to grow at least three: yellow, red and I love the orange. These plants provide continuous chard over a long season, obviating the need for succession planting. Almost everything else benefits by being sowed at intervals throughout the season, a process called 'succession sowing' or 'succession planting.'

A person plants a garden to get to eat the very freshest of food – you don't pick your veggies and put them in the fridge to age before you eat them – well, at least, that isn't the intent. So, to the degree possible, only plant enough of what can be eaten in a reasonable amount of time. As a single person, I have found that an eighteen inch row for most things is the perfect size to grow enough to supply fresh carrots, beets, parsnips, cutting lettuces, for any given time. A typical planting schedule for me might look like this (the words in parenthesis name the varieties I like):

Week 1 – carrots (maybe Yaya, an F1 Hybrid) Week 7 - lettuce (Black Seeded Simpson)
Week 2 – beets (Golden) Week 8 – carrots (Yaya)
Week 3 – parsnips (Hollow Crown) Week 9 – beets (Red Ball)
Week 4 – carrots (Mokum also an F1 Hybrid) Week 10 – spinach (Space)
Week 5 – beets (Chioggia) Week 11 – turnips (Purple Globe)
Week 6 – turnips (DeMilano) Week 12 – beets (Golden)

Quickly you see that, though I do eat parsnips and turnips, I don't eat nearly as many of them as I do carrots or beets. Your situation might be different in that you could care less at all about ANY parsnips, but spinach is near and dear to your heart so you would have spinach in the rotation much more than I do.

Another way to do the same thing, for a larger family, is to plant three different things per week – carrots, beets and spinach in week one; turnips, lettuce and parsnips in week two; carrots, beets and parsnips in week three. Or spinach planted in one row every week all cool season long. Tailor the program to your needs! You might also find that you need longer rows – I wouldn't imagine that an 18” row would suffice for a family of four! Play around with the scheduling and the row length and the mix of plants you grow until you find what your family needs. At which point, their needs will change, but you'll have a lot more data with which to figure out the new schedule.

In our smaller gardens there is no room for the proverbial 50' row of carrots, so succession planting of a given vegetable is one of the staple strategies for stocking your larder. Another good point about putting in many smaller plantings of crops is the ability to harvest these vegetables at a smaller size, which is just the ticket for a garden in pots. Don’t get suckered into the “bigger is better” routine. A huge cauliflower might serve as a great subject in a “look what I grew” contest photo, but the cauliflower you pick at half the size will be the one your tastebuds will reverently remember.

A mark of the very good gardener is one who has his/her succession sowing down to such a science that allows them to place fresh vegetables on the table without lag time or a concentration of over-abundance and the attendant wild fluctuations leaving you with nothing from the garden for intervening weeks. Learning how to do this well has been the work of a lifetime for many and, as for me, I still find it a moving target. But at least I know what I’m shooting for!

Direct sowing of seeds gets far too much mystical billing. It’s easy. The hard part, in our busy world, is staying disciplined enough to keep them watered. Remember, the seed wants desperately to grow, that is its only “job.” If you provide enough water for the seed to break its seed coat, you will see a little pair of leaves soon above the soil. These are called cotyledons and, if there are two of them, you have what is commonly referred to as a 'dicot' (“di” meaning two). There is only one other kind of flowering plant we would be concerned with in a vegetable garden and that has only a single seed leaf and is called a 'monocot' (one-leaf). Monocots are all the grasses, which includes grains like corn, wheat, rice and barley.

Take note of all the little cotyledons of the plants you grow and soon you will be able to tell them from the weeds. This is somewhat important. If you can rid yourself of weeds before they get really big, you have a much easier job of it; if you rid yourself of all the wrong plants because you mistook the lettuce for dandelions, you'll be a very disappointed and frustrated gardener! I have done this, I am not too proud to say. It's one reason that there is a section in this book that lists all the plants I write about and has a picture of each one's cotyledons. I believe in starting things from seed wherever and when ever possible.

Composting is one of the more essential parts of gardening. Gardening is a life cycle and composting is that part of the cycle that returns nutrients and fertility to the soil. In our culture, we don't like the smell or the thought of decomposition, yet a knowing gardener loves the smell of rich compost; that smell, incidentally is from actinomycetes, a fungus that is in the same group of organisms as penicillin.

Somehow, fall always reminds me of composting probably because I grew up in those colder climes where fall signals the oncoming winter and so marked the end of the growing season. And that leads to thoughts of composting. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

You can get absolutely nuts trying to build a scientific compost pile, but let me offer that I don't do all that. Decomposition just happens. Simply leave some veggies in your fridge too long and tell me they did not begin to decompose. And you didn't have even think about carbon to nitrogen rations (c:n). You do want to understand the process – especially if you don't have the space to leave something sit for 9 months, which is what I used to do – to get usable compost in less time that it takes to grow a decent cabbage.

Remember you have 'browns' and 'greens,' names that are somewhat misleading. 'Browns' refers to carbon material which is mostly brown. This is dried leaves or woody pieces. 'Greens' are those materials full of nitrogen – usually represented by grass clippings, but all of your table scraps are nitrogen sources too and they too are classed as 'greens' regardless of their color. While we can specify the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio, achieving it is always a meandering attempt to meet an approximate target. And you never have composting materials in the right amounts to achieve an ideal c:n ratio. So, add as much of the green and the brown as you have. Mix well and water – keep moist. Make a pile that is at least three feet by three feet by three feet. Keep moist. Turn the parts that are inside, outside and the parts that are outside, inside. Keep moist. Not soggy, but moist. In about 9 weeks of warm weather, you'll be able to use fresh compost. Sift out the big honking pieces and return them to the pile (they will help get the pile off to a better start) and build it again.

Honestly? I usually dig a trench about one foot across and two feet deep and as long as it needs to be to handle what I have to compost. I pick a part of the garden I won't use for a few months and I add the compostable materials, covering with soil as I go. I add to the trench any day I need more room for my compostable materials. Eventually I'll simply plant right into that soil. No big deal and it works without a lot of reading. Or thinking.

You can find the composting technique that thrills you. The important part is that none of these rich materials, food or garden waste, gets thrown into a land fill! That is unconscionable! All of the plant wastes from the kitchen and table are the best components for a rich garden and they are free!

However, for apartment dwellers, condo owners and others with no easy access to land, vermicomposting is the answer you are looking for! And you didn't even know you had the question! It's easy, the result can be used on plants in pots and your garbage need never grace the entrance of a landfill ever again!
You will need

  • 10 gallon bin or 20 gallon bin

  • 1 lb or so of worms (you can start with fewer, the population will expand to account for what you feed them)

  • Cardboard or newsprint
  • Kitchen waste
OSH sells two storage bins that work very well for vermicomposting.  The smaller bin is a 10 gallon container by Rubbermaid called Roughneck Storage Bin #2214-08. It’s dimensions are 9” x  21” x 15” , comes with a lid and is available in various colors.  This size works well for a family of two. 

A worm bin can be made of wood, but plastic seems to work better longer because it won't rot. Your bin must be tightly covered – worms cannot live in light and you don't want them to escape! Punch or drill holes around the top third of the vertical walls to allow air to circulate – punching them with a nail is best because any larger of a hole will be an escape hatch for the explorers in your worm population. You should do the same thing with the lid. Oxygen in the bin will allow the breakdown of materials to proceed aerobically, which means it won't stink and your worms won't suffocate.

Wet a sheet of cardboard or a section of newsprint – soak thoroughly and wring out to where it is as moist of a well wrung sponge. Worms will use this as bedding, and eventually you'll need to replace it
as time goes by.

Red wigglers will reprocess kitchen waste such as: vegetables, fruits, eggshells, teabags, paper coffee filters, shredded paper towels, and coffee grounds. They particularly like pumpkin, watermelon and cantaloupe. Avoid citrus fruits because they are too acidic for them. If you pamper your worms by cutting food scraps into small pieces, the worms can finish them off that much faster. I am not, however in the business of making life wonderful for a bunch of worms – I throw my stuff in whole and they take care of it sooner or later. Burying the food scraps into the bedding will help you avoid fruit flies and adding meat or fish to the bin is not advised for many reasons.

Feed the worms your scraps as you have them available -ideally, no less than twice a wee – however, I have gone on vacation for a week and fed my worms nothing in that time and did not come back to a hell hole of a worm bin. Don't stay up nights worrying about them. These worms prefer a pH of something close to 7 and the temperature needs to be between 50 and 84 F. Don't let the bin dry out – keep it moist like the compost pile.

Harvesting the vermicompost can be done several ways, but the way that is easiest and therefore my choice is called 'side-harvesting.' Feed the worms on only one side of the bin for a few weeks which will cause the worms to migrate to that side. You can then begin to harvest the worm compost from that unoccupied side of the bin where you will eventually, once you've finished harvesting (over a few weeks), begin to add fresh bedding on that side causing them to migrate to the new bedding and allowing you to harvest from the second side.

You can make a it lot more complicated than this, but you have better things to worry about, yes?


20 September, 2010

Pesto Madness Pesto: The Recipe

Basil in the field, lush and fulsome, just before picking time.  As promised, this is the recipe we use to make our almost world-famous pesto.  Remember, fresh and quality ingredients are the key!  
Make sure to cover the pesto tightly or store in an airtight container immediately after making it. The top layer will discolor faster than the rest you can keep a thin layer of oil on top to stop oxygen from getting to the pesto and causing discoloration, but this will add more oil to the pesto each time you use it. Some of us think this is not a problem. It is, however, only discoloration; the pesto has not gone bad and is still edible, especially if you're eating by candlelight!

2 cloves of garlic
1½ Tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
¾ cup plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all the ingredients, except the ½ teaspoon olive oil, in a food processor and process until a puree forms, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Transfer to an airtight container and pour the remaining ½ teaspoon of olive oil over the pesto, covering completely. Cover and refrigerate until needed (the pesto keeps for a long time, tightly covered, but loses it’s bright green color after the first day).


14 September, 2010

Basil Season Is Almost Over - It's Time For Pesto

It's time for the basil harvest, which, in my book, means it's time for pesto!  Time to rummage around and find those taste buds and shine 'em up!  Here comes pesto!  I know this doesn't seem like it, but this is just one plant!

Perhaps now is not the time to be telling you how to grow basil because it really is one of our summer crops, but at this time of year, as we begin to consider the harvest for pesto, it's the time I reflect on growing basil and therefore, the topic is on the tip of my tongue, err, fingers. 

First of all there's the variety.  There are dozens of basil varieties to choose from, but I prefer an Italian strain, Genovese, or Genovesa among other names.  I have planted it long before the seed was common, but I see you can buy seeds from many sources, I have been getting mine from Bontanical Interests - their button is in the upper left of this page.I have had friends choose to grow the Lettuce Leaf basil, "leaves as large as lettuce leaves" is how it got its name, but their harvest paled compared to mine - of course mine was pampered a bit more, but still my harvest was so much better, there was no comparison. 

But I'm not growing Genovese Basil simply because it is larger - that's not the way I think.  I grow basil for the flavor and I think Genovese is by far and away the best tasting basil I've ever worked with.  I think its aroma is spell-binding and from that aroma, one's taste buds are ready to wrap around the sensuousness of basilness.  You can almost feel me drooling through the monitor...  

The basil crop this year has been an 'issue.'  In the coldest summer in Los Angeles I can remember, the basil plants did not do well.  We had a couple crop failures by setting out plants and getting a cold snap that ruined them.  And then, uncharacteristically, I did not have back up plants - it was a busy spring and summer...  Usually, I would have a whole second crop growing as back up, but I didn't and now I'm paying for it.  Last year, we had over 50 fully mature plants to use for pesto.  This year, I don't have a complete count, but I'm thinking it's only 35 or less.  And only a few of them are full big and bossy plants.  There are some plants so small we'll pull the whole plant, chop off the roots and throw the whole thing in the blender because they are so small.  

Basil needs heat and good soil.  Basil likes more sun vs. less.  Basil is not a heavy feeder, but will do better with lots of compost.  Basil is supposed to be a good companion crop for tomatoes, which makes perfect sense to me.  

I have told you my favorite for pesto.  I do grow other basils, but for other reasons.  The only basil I grow is the Genovese for pesto and I make a pretty standard pesto in that I stick to the traditional recipe and eschew walnuts, or almonds or any combination of ingredients I hear folks mention.  I'm sure they are all good, but in my book, they are 'pesto-like' and not pesto.  I'll post my recipe sometime soon.


09 September, 2010

A Gardening Manifesto

Patience may well be a virtue for the general populace, but for a gardener, it is essential.

I have been a successful organic gardener in Southern California for the last twenty five years with a good deal of success on the mid-West plains before that. 

I have evolved a style of gardening that works well in Southern California and is 100% wholly organic and sustainable. I am writing what will be the only book written for Southern California organic food growing. This is important because there is no other climate in the United States like Southern California's and any information you gain from one of the books written for elsewhere has to be translated to work here.  Or you can find a book written for our climate that is not truly organic or sustainable. I intend to write the book that is both and as such, fill a vacuum becoming an essential addition to the libraries of Southern California gardeners who wish to grow organic food.

The principles that I use as my guide in gardening, and the basis for this forth coming book, are quite simple. 
My Manifesto
1.  No fertilizers. In fact, I maintain, the fewer things you buy for your garden, the better off you will usually be. Our system of capitalism rests heavily on people buying things, whether or not they need them. It is the task of advertising, with which we are constantly bombarded, to create the desire for a thing. I am here to tell you that a few packets of seed, a couple of really well made tools and patience are all you need to grow good, nutritious, uncontaminated food. The scientific community, as far back as 1936 was aware that fertilizers, organic and chemical, were harmful to soil biota. This understanding was deliberately not popularized because you won't buy something if you've already got it. No, you don't need fertilizer – you DO need compost and lots of it, but you don't need fertilizer. (When a plant is in a pot, you must use fertilizer because it is an unnatural habitat for most food plants.
2. No pesticides. In many ways, chemical pesticides are better for the world than organic ones because the chemical pesticides at least target the species that we wish to deal with while most organic pesticides kill everything they come in contact with while they are active. The key to a healthy, pest free garden, however, is not through war of any kind, but through cooperation with nature. The entire key is to attract more insects to your garden – not less.  
3.  Continuous cropping. Our gardens are small and the idea of crop rotation can be a little ludicrous. We need to have as much diversity in our gardens as we possibly can have – this means interplanting species and using legumes and other plants to keep the soil fertile for continued cropping. 
4.  Composting. Compost everything that can be composted. Everything rots and ends up somewhere; if it will break down, compost it. If you lack space, vermicompost.  
5.  Mulch. Three inches (at least!) in planting season, twice a year. This is the key to the soil's fertility and vitality, pest control, water conservation and an armful of other benefits. 
6.  Garden for yourself. Plant the foods you will eat or the foods you eat that are expensive or unobtainable in the market. Do not plant what the books tell you to plant if you don't like it. Exception: you must plant some kind of legume –  a member of the bean family and their allies.  
7.  Insure the survival of pollinators. In this world of uncertainty, the roll played by pollinators will become more and more critical – plant your garden intending to provide for their well-being. And provide a source of water. 
8.  Diversity in your garden. No matter how small your garden, you have room to plant a variety of species: take advantage of that!  
9.  Saving seed to plant next year. Which necessarily means allowing some of your harvest to go to 'waste' in that some of your cabbages will flower, some of your lettuce will bolt and some of your tomatoes will rot. These are investments in your future. This also means eschewing hybrid varieties.  
10.  Grow your own plants from seeds. Don't buy transplants from the nursery. Buy seeds and plant them yourself – there are substantial reasons to do this and the fact that it saves you money is just one.  
11.  Don't stop learning . After you read this book, go buy my next book. Better yet, write your own book! Join a club, find a website, subscribe to a magazine. 
In this book, I will flesh out these concepts and make them usable. 
Remember that gardening is an old art – an old science, too, but an old art first and foremost. There is no one holy way to do everything. I will show you what I do, and often will present alternatives. Keep trying different things until you find what works for you. Do not become sucked into any program that is THE way to garden – there are several out there that believe they are. All in all, find what you need and what is useful and leave the rest. Make sure you adopt the gardening ideas that work for you – if the plan calls for lots of radishes and you hate radishes, move on. 
This is my manifesto, at 2:00 AM on Thursday the 9th, 2010.  Do you have some ideas to add to this?  As a member of a twelve step program, I'm somewhat annoyed to have only eleven points; can you help me come up with another so I will have an even dozen?  I'd be even happier with the 'bakers' dozen' of thirteen.  
Thanks for your input!


02 September, 2010

Honey Bees In Peril Means Less Food For Us!

A simple five frame bee box that beekeepers call a 'nuc' (the 'nucleus' of a hive can be established in this small box), is home to a swarm of feral bees that needed a place to stay.  Situated near a plant in the Garden that attracts honey bees in mass,the box was a natural home for them to adopt.  

At the end of the old millennium, scientists believe that up to 95% of the feral bee population of North America disappeared as well as over 50% of the human tended bee population. This decimation of bee populations was more than just alarming: it was catastrophic because of the horrific implications it has on food production. As much as every third bite of food we Americans eat is the direct result of pollination carried on by the honey bee. Without those bees pollinating our fruit and vegetable crops, we could have devastating famines. Every component of the natural world devoted to growing food has to work or we don't have food.

This is, in part, why many of us see modern agriculture's 'anti-nature' stance so troubling. There is no way that mankind is ready, or nearly smart enough, to try to control nature. The idea of raising herbicide resistant crops via genetic engineering is the epitome of hubris, thinking we can imagine, let alone control, all the ramification of such processes. In the United States, encumbered as we are with a government on Monsanto's payroll, there is no recourse but to take matters into our own hands.

At The Learning Garden, we don't wish to engage in politics, but we do feel the right to good clean nutritious food is everyone's right. That is why we set out this honey bee hive. We are very happy to report that a swarm took up our offer of residence and now we have at least one swarm of bees that has not been sprayed by folks who are unaware of the catastrophe we face if we manage to spray all the honey bees out of existence. Honey bees have a good chance of survival in the city, oddly enough, because there are no genetically modified crops being grown in the city and fewer flowers are sprayed with toxic chemicals – and if they are sprayed, it's with less toxicity than is used on most farms today. We, of course, don't spray any chemicals at all on any of our crops and that means there is lots of wonderful forage to sustain this colony and many, many more bees that visit the Garden from off campus.

Often when the topic of raising bees comes up, someone will express that they are allergic to bee stings. This is a very serious condition and is not to be trifled with. However, it is less prevalent than these conversations would lead one to believe. In my experience, one out of every five people will say they are allergic, when the national statistic is more like one in five hundred. Maybe a lot of them live in Southern California. Or maybe, there is just a lot of hysteria about a swarm of bees living in your vicinity. The truth is that the fewest stings occur from human kept honey bees, according to bee experts. Wasps and hornets, much more aggressive players in their encounters with humans, are the main culprits with other bees and feral honey bees making up the vast majority of stings.

Several cities have recently changed their ordinances to make beekeeping legal including New York and Salt Lake City. Efforts are underway in Santa Monica and Los Angeles to change the laws to reflect the desperate reality of the honey bee plight.

With the danger of losing our honey bee populations so very real and immediate, city laws must be changed to allow bees to be kept in urban areas. The concern is so real that many folks are accepting their place as scofflaws just to insure that the honey bee populations receive all the help we can offer. This is where we come down: the survival of the honey bee, and the honey bees place in our agricultural endeavors to feed ourselves, trumps 0ther concerns. All that can be, must be done to insure the honey bee continues her work in our fields, in our gardens and even in those gardens in our cities.