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03 September, 2011

The Garden In September

Lettuce is one of our winter crops in Los Angeles – this red lettuce, Merville des Quatres Saissons (Marvel of the Four Seasons) is more like Marvel of the Two Seasons here – our summers are way too hot to grow this lovely French belle, but in cooler months this is a true delight that is as tasty as it is beautiful – and it's really beautiful! Alongside it, not as gorgeous, but still a very good choice for salad is Tango, a reliable and tasty companion in the garden and on the plate!

As the Summer crops begin to decline, we now get ready to see the seasons change in a dramatic fashion. The plants that have given you tomatoes all summer, are mostly a heap of sad, brown vines. If there has not been any difficult diseases, I prefer to leave the vegetation where it lays. I chop it up using my trusty pruners or a machete – or a shovel, if it is handy and will do the job. The cut up plant debris is left where it lies and fresh mulch is piled up on top of it – to three or four inches deep. The paths are filled with wood chips if I don't have a clover or other green manure crop growing there. The old vegetation will break down and composted right where it lies.

These plants have drawn nutrients from the soil and, by leaving them in place, we allow some of that nutritional value to be returned to the soil. When we harvest a tomato, we are really harvesting the soil's fertility that has been converted via the sun's energy into the vegetables from our garden. Putting the tomato plant back into the soil, without the tomatoes you harvested, represents a net loss for the soil. That's where the additional mulch and wood chips come in – we try to replace the stuff we ate with organic matter that will allow the soil to recreate its bevy of nutrients to nourish the next season's garden. It is not sufficient, in the long run, to just add fertilizers – we need to add things that will provide sustenance for the fungi, bacteria and other critters living in our garden's soil; a thriving soil ecology will provide better nutrition to your plants without spending needless dollars on fertilizer, most of which will only become pollution in our ground water.

In a garden where perennial weeds are not a huge problem, I encourage everyone to plant a perennial crop that will assist in nourishing the soil. I like any one of several clovers or alfalfa or whatever else that will take mild foot traffic and will do something to add to the fertility of the soil. If this crop is mowed in a sustainable manner – like with a hand sickle, for a small area, to a scythe for larger areas – the mowings can be put right back into the beds next to where it was cut. 
 
Some kind of soil regeneration must be happening all the time or the soil will eventually not support food crops.

Unfortunately, growing in most community gardens, control of perennial weeds is only as good as the worst gardener reducing the efficacy of a perennial cover crop in the pathways.

One portion of the garden needs to be left fallow in every season. 'Fallow' means it is not growing a crop to harvest – usually what we call a green manure crop. For gardeners in Sunset Zone 24, that means a part of the garden can be left without growing crops to harvest every single month of the year. In areas where there is not a huge problem with perennial weeds, the paths supplement this soil enrichment by growing something like clover year round that improves soil viability. In any growing season, it is better to have the soil covered with some crop – even a crop of weeds is better than leaving the soil barren, if you can keep them from going to seed and making your weeding chores sheer hell.

I've had a great crop of peppers this year – which, I find a tad disturbing, because this year was lousy for eggplants this year due to a lack of consistent heat, and if it didn't get hot enough for one, I'd think it'd not be hot enough for the other. But I have a lot of peppers. We pickled about 5 pints of the Sweet Banana peppers so far this year, but the jalapeños, I'm letting stay on the vine until they turn red so I can dry them until crispy to then grind them into powder for a teentsy little zip in some recipes over the coming months.

One thing to remember when working with hot peppers: either wear rubber gloves or make very sure to wash your hands thoroughly before you touch your face – especially your eyes – the juice in hot peppers are just about one of the most painful solutions you can get into your eyes. Or other sensitive fleshy parts of your body.

Measurements of heat in peppers are in Scoville Heat Units (SHU's), which is based on the amount of capsaicin in the pepper. Here is a chart comparing the different peppers and their varying amounts of capsaicin. If you know the SHU of a pepper, you can avoid blasting the top of your head off. But, remember, right after the note on keeping capsaicin out of your eyes, if you dry peppers, the heat increases by a factor of ten. That's an increase worth remembering!

Pepper Type
Heat rating (in Scoville heat units)
Pure Capsaicin
16,000,000
Red Savina Habanero
350,000 ~ 575,000
Habanero
200,000-300,000
Pequin
75,000
Tabasco
30,00-50,000
Cayenne
35000
Smoked Jalepeno (Chipotle)
10000
Serrano
7,000-25,000
Jalepeno
3,500-4,500
Poblano
2,500-3,000
Pasilla
2,500
Anaheim
1,000-1,400
Ancho
1,000
Bell & Pimento
0

I'm afraid my Kansan heritage precludes eating most of these.  Anything above Jalapeno is rarely found in my kitchen although I have dried Jalapenos.  I find them just a little scary - the only use I have for the final dried Jalapeno powder will be to add a pinch to my famous "Hot Chocolate That Kills," served for Dios de los Muertas and at my annual Valentines Day party.  Other than that, I'll keep it tightly capped and show the container to some things I'm cooking just to make them THINK about being warmer.  :-)  

About half-way into September, it usually becomes cool enough to sow arugula, beets, carrots, lettuce, peas, parsnips and turnips. My leek and fennel seedlings ought to be ready to transplant out, as should broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard, endive, kohlrabi. Lettuce is one plant I’ll usually direct sow in the garden AND start in six packs to set out – there are advantages to both and so I’ll use both. Root crops – carrots, beets, radishes and turnips – must be sown where they will grow. Beets, radishes and turnips will produce a crop, but they are so set back by the transplanting process it really isn't worth it – carrots and parsnips simply do not perform at all.

As September wanes, probably the most productive time in the Southern California potager begins. If you are eating from your garden, now begins the time you can really feast for awhile, the last of summer – peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, okra, sweet corn, basil – is still out there to eat and the first root crops or lettuce will be big enough to munch a bite or two. I enjoy eating BLT sandwiches and for a brief moment in spring and a second brief moment at this time; the homemade BLT becomes an annual ritual. I make my own bread, so the tomato and lettuce come from my garden and the only none homemade items are the bacon and the mayo. It's almost a mystical experience for me, especially when the bread is still warm from the oven. Finish it off with a dessert of figs heated on the grill or in a broiler, drizzle honey on them and add a dollop of some fairly stout Greek yogurt. Oh this is to die for! Not some store-bought fig shipped in from far away, but a fig that got ripe on a tree in the back yard or from a local farmer's tree that you found in a farmers' market.

Fava beans, lentils and peas are being planted now, too. All of these grow best in our cooler winters. Fava beans were the only bean in the Old World before the American plants became part of the European pantheon; all the other beans are American (as are tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes among others – one wonders how in the world the Italians and French survived long enough to arrive at a culinary tradition!). Fava bean plants, as well as lentils and peas, make a marvelous addition to any soil building program and favas, when combined with artichoke hearts, make a Mediterranean stew so delicious that my taste buds flutter just to remember.

To have sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) flowers for Christmas, they must be in the ground by the first weekend of September. Please note that 'sweet peas' refer to a flower, while peas (Pisum sativum) are a food plant. The sweet pea flower (which I think has the most divine aroma!), is strictly an ornamental as the seeds are poisonous! Not smart to confuse the two – gives a whole new import to the “no TV for you until you eat your peas!” line.

If you don't start your own seeds, find broccoli, cabbage, kale, chard and onion plants in a good nursery. Don't scrimp on your plants – if they have been cared for with indifference (like one might find at a big box store with minimum wage employees who may even hate working in a nursery) you might not get the quality plants that will produce the best (or the most) food. You are going to invest considerable time in growing these plants before they will be your dinner. Buying a cheap plant might be 'penny wise and pound foolish.' If you have to hoard some pennies, skip a couple cups of coffee rather than buy cheap plants.

I think it's better to start your plants from seed, instructions abound and you can learn it easily enough! If you can, find the seminal seed starting book, The New Seed Starters' Handbook by Nancy Bubel. That was the book that started me on the road to starting almost all my plants from seed and is still the best book on the subject. I see if sells for about $14.00 on Amazon; I got my second copy (the first went a-wandering) from a close out bin in Borders for $3.00.

Starting from seed, as you saw if you went to any of the web sites from last month, offers you the most diversity in what you have available to plant and you control over when you plant as well – which is a delightful way of keeping your garden looking its best. Mind you, this takes patience and time – but the rewards are equal to those investments. Isn't that the way of everything, though?

These really are the dog days of summer!
This is an exciting time to be gardening. Grab your imagination and look at where you planting. Think about the eventual size of what you are planting – it's OK to make mistakes – that's how we learn! When I'm teaching a class, the truth of it is, I have probably killed more plants than anyone else in the room and yet, they are the ones saying “I have a black thumb.” That's probably not true at all. The big difference is when I kill a plant, I usually know why it died and sometimes it isn't my fault. And when it IS my fault, it's usually because I wasn't paying attention. Death by inattention isn't a 'black thumb' issue unless you do things like forget to turn your car off; or forget to go to work in the morning. Death by inattention is reformable – it's just changing your patterns.


Be good to yourself and you'll learn. It's all good. 

 david

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