06 January, 2012

January's Garden

Rain on a broccoli, the photographer and his camera. We are grateful for the rain - even this so-called 'negligible precipitation.' A drought is predicted, but since when have 'they' been right?

One of the wonderful things of living in Southern California, this close to the Pacific Ocean is the delightful mild weather we enjoy. This is both a blessing and a curse. Further inland and on almost all of the North American continent, 'gardening' this time of year means looking in the seed catalogs that have begun to fill your mailbox. If you aren't getting seed catalogs on a regular basis, you haven't been gardening a long time.

One of the truisms I try to practice is to garden with passion and gusto. Gardening means growing all of it yourself and learning what works and how it works. At the beginning of the year, with all the promise of a newness and resolutions, this is an exciting time for me in the garden. On days it isn't raining, the cool weather makes some of the more strenuous work a little less onerous and on warmer days it is usually not severe enough to make such work onerous. So this is the time to do more than simply think about a general garden cleanup and time get busy if you haven't done it already.

It is still time to look after the plants of perennial food growing in your garden. If I haven't yet, I begin to prune my fruit trees. This is typically a job I will procrastinate as long as I can without actually doing. If you have no experience at fruit tree pruning, do your trees a favor and order a pruning handbook from University of California’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Division (The book I have used a lot from ANR is Home Orchard: Growing Your Own Deciduous Fruit and Nut Trees Publication Number: 3485, Author: C. INGELS, P. GEISEL, M. NORTON ISBN-13: 978-1-879906-72-3 Copyright Date: 2007) or purchase a pruning book from a reputable source. Remember that these trees will live a lot longer than a typical pet and we wouldn't treat our cats or dogs with the indifference many people show trees. Pruned correctly, an apple, plum or peach will produce luscious, tasty fruit for many years. It's actually harder on you (and the tree) to prune incorrectly, so find out how and do it as right as you can in the first place. There are very few gardeners who actually know how to prune fruit trees. Some trees will only fruit on old wood and some only on newer wood. If you or the person you hire someone who doesn't know this, you could ruin the tree for many seasons to come. Get someone who knows fruit trees and pay them or learn how and do it yourself! Make the cuts with clean and sharp tools and follow a few simple rules.

This is the tail end of the 'dormant season' when one typically purchases deciduous fruit trees, apples, apricots, grapes and ornamentals such as roses. If you are putting perennial herbs in the ground (sage, rosemary and thyme – parsley is a biennial, with apologies to Paul Simon), this is the best time to put them in the ground – even though you may plant them here year round. Buy your trees or vines from someone who knows where you live in order to insure you are getting plants that will produce for you. A local neighborhood nursery will only carry plants that will do well in your climate whereas a big box store will carry things that are more likely to grow over a much wider area. You'll also find the selection at most big box stores to be woefully short and the staff indifferent, at best, to your needs.

Mail order suppliers are excellent venues for purchasing trees. One of my best finds was from a mail order nursery. I called and talked to one of the staff asking a few questions. There is no replacement for a person with knowledge. Based on where I was gardening, he suggested I grow Dorsett Golden apples. I took his suggestion and I have been blessed with year after year with a delicious, sweet and crisp apple that has wowed visitors to my garden ever since.

When I prune the deciduous stone fruit trees (including peaches, apricots, plums and apples,) if I have had problems with insects in the trees, I finish the job by spraying the trees with dormant oil. But only 'IF' – there is little to be gained by killing off the flora and fauna of your trees by spraying willy-nilly. I know this is not what other books say, but I argue that healthy soil will help your trees survive better than killing off a few supposedly harmful insects. Besides, it kills off beneficial insects as well as the harmful ones.

Having said that, of all the pesticides, horticultural oil, with it’s low toxicity to mammals and its 100% effectiveness on pests is one of the best that is listed for organic gardens. If insect infestations are of concern to you, this is the best time to spray because the tree is dormant, not actually growing. A dormant oil spray can control many pests in these kinds of trees. However, take precautions if you feel you must spray. Follow the directions of the package very closely – using pesticides in ways not described on the label is against the law and usually defies common sense. Look for formulations that are not petroleum based and you'll at least have a more 'sustainable' poison to spray.

While pesticide labels will allow you to spray in the morning or in the evening, please only spray in the evening. Do NOT spray ANY pesticide in the morning ever. Spraying in the morning can allow the pesticide to kill off honey bees which we desperately need – while spraying in the evening will insure the bees have returned to their hive for the night. Organic pesticides, including horticultural oil, are only effective when they are wet and, when sprayed in the evening, are dry by the morning. Honey bees have been having a hard time of it lately and should be one of any gardeners' biggest concerns: Please only spray any insecticide in the evening.

However, if you don't have pests to begin with, please consider not spraying at all. We are counting on our trees for food, so we will want to be proactive in their care, but we also need to be intelligent in our use of killing agents in our environment, and in particular around our food. Much of the problems we face in our world today are the result of mankind's irreverent use of “-icides” of all types and to use them prophylactically instead of only if and when needed.

Somehow, our culture has become convinced that warring with nature is a fight we can win. I believe we are foolish when we spray “just because.” If you have pests, deal with them as the year goes along – and deal with them in ways that avoids all sprays, all “-icides.” I think we can be a lot more intelligent in our dealings with the critters that compete for our food supply and spraying is just admitting we are too stupid to deal with something in a more positive fashion. This does not mean I NEVER spray. But when I do spray, I do think I've just not figured out a less destructive way to solve the problem. Better people than I have called me stupid so, yes, sometimes I do think I might have done better.

On the other hand, all of your citrus fruit trees are evergreen, so they can technically be pruned at any time of the year, but they are best pruned when there is nothing better to do and the day is not too warm, so the person doing the work doesn’t overheat. You cannot spray citrus with dormant oil sprays because they are never dormant. (Something that is 'evergreen' doesn't go dormant – basically 'evergreen' means, no dormancy.) A recent innovation has been the formulation of lighter oil sprays that are called 'summer oils.' They do the same thing as dormant oils with a much less heavy hand and so can be sprayed when the days are warmer and on trees with living leaves. They work well, perhaps not quite as well as dormant sprays, but they are pretty effective. Their drop in effectiveness might be that they are used on trees with leaves and therefore the spray doesn't reach all the insects rather than any lack of killing power on the part of the spray; I don't know if research has been done to show it one way or the other.

As above, though, if you don't HAVE to spray, please don't. A healthy garden is shared among many critters – insects, birds, fungi, bacteria, mammals and humans. By introducing poison to your garden, you run the risk of killing off more than just your target species. Try to find an intelligent way to solve your problems. Read up on the pest. Find it's enemies and make friends with them. Your garden will be healthier and so will you.

This may be a cold month and, if we are blessed, rainy. But we still have to keep our eyes out for Santa Ana winds – sometimes hot and sometimes cool, but always dry and desiccating to all garden plants, but plants in pots suffer even more. If your skin is crawling and you need more skin cream, or lip goop, you can bet your plants need more moisture too! It’s best to get out there with a hose and help your irrigation system keep up – you’ll enjoy your garden more – the “best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow.” Still.

Are you ready to think about summer yet? You mean you never stopped thinking about summer? You are completely overwhelmed with seed catalogs and drooling over their wonderful photos and several hundred new mouth-watering, irresistible new varieties that must be tried… all in a 10’ square bed. If you aren’t getting these free catalogs, a you haven't ordered from one yet. What have you been waiting for? Go to the list of seed houses (Appendix II) to make your day! Maybe your month!

Of course, you could skip buying seeds altogether and join with your neighbors in creating a seed library. Like a library of books, a seed library lends seeds, all 'open pollinated.' You allow some of the plants to flower and set seed and at the end of the growing season, return to the library the same amount you borrowed. It is a win/win situation in many ways (more on this elsewhere) and it's for free! Doesn't get a lot better than that.

So, what will it be this year? Eight different sweet peas, half a dozen different lettuce plants? Look at all those tomatoes for sale and how about those new violas? If I knock down the neighbor’s garage, I think I could add some squash and pumpkins…. do you think they'd mind too much? Probably not when they get the chance to eat some...

In the Garden, we are still putting out plants of broccoli and cabbage, chard and Brussels’s sprouts and we can still sow seeds of beets and carrots. Lettuce, the golden child of our winter gardens is the great hole-stopper – whenever any plant has to come out, have a six pack of lettuce on hand – preferably of different colors of lettuce – and plop one in the hole. One of my favorite tricks is to use red lettuces with green lettuces – or different shades of red and green to make a colorful food garden. Lettuce should be a top selection on everyone's list of border plants! Merveille des Quatre Saisons (about the only French I can say without sounding foolish, a marvelous red/green butter lettuce that performs well all through Fall to late Spring), next to Black Seeded Simpson (a very light green leafy lettuce) make a stunning color combo – but I also like Merlot, very dark wine red (aptly named!) alongside Black Seeded Simpson or Parris Island Cos, the quintessential Romaine lettuce. Color and shape, texture and form all come together in the lettuce patch – I swear I can't get through a seed catalog without ordering one or two more packets of lettuce seed. It is an addiction for me! The lettuce loves of my life right now are Merveille des Quatre Saisons, Black Seeded Simpson, Drunken Woman Frizzy Head (I'm not lying!), Parris Island Cos, Red Yugoslavian, Rossa di Trento, Tango and Winter Density. All I have to do, however, is look through a new catalog and I'm easily swayed into the leaves of another. I do like homegrown head lettuce, it's not nearly the garbage found in stores – the ribs are thick and filled with water making a marvelous refreshing salad for a warm day.

No one, no matter what kind of soil you have, you should never step into your garden beds. We want to keep the soil in these beds as fluffy and light as grandma's meringue (not my grandma! Some theoretical really good baking grandma!). Adding lots of organic matter will do that for you, but you must stay out of the beds – your footprints will ruin the 'fluffy' we are hoping for our roots.

If you have clay soils, be especially careful to not step in your garden beds. Make paths around the beds and make the beds small enough to reach the center without stepping into the bed – if you have the opportunity to collect tree chips from an arbor company pruning a tree nearby, see if you can collect a couple of large trash cans full of the stuff. Spread it three or more inches deep wherever you have to walk while gardening. You will need to replenish this every so often, but you'll find it so helpful as it will keep weeds from growing in the paths near your garden beds and provide you with the opportunity to walk all around your garden beds without getting mud on your shoes no matter how wet the day! Under the top layer of mulch, the wood chips will be breaking down 'growing' really lovely soil through the years.

Each chapter will have a chart like the one below. I indicate the month, or months, I believe are the best for starting different vegetable seeds. “Start These in Containers” means you will plant the seeds in some kind of pot held in a sheltered location (hopefully away from pests) to later “Move to the Ground from Containers.” The remaining seeds will be stated directly in the ground where they will grow to maturity. Some seeds can be done either way and, if that's the case, I will usually do both. The ones started in containers and moved to the garden will often will mature later than the ones started in situ. A gardener can have two different harvest times and the two different strategies may also pay off if one of the plantings gets hammered by a weather event or insects.

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
Ultra-early tomatoes
Cabbage (early)
Fava beans
Fava Beans
Fava Beans





There will be a recipe for every month. Here is the one for January, when chard and chickpeas (garbanzos) are in season:

Moroccan Spiced Chickpeas & Chard

Chard should be in abundance right now and that often leads to 'chard overload,' how many times can you steam chard and hit it with lemon juice and still wolf it down with glee? I'm limited but this recipe never seems to fail to satisfy.

The ingredient list only looks daunting. Most of that list is simply a plethora of spices and you will find you already have a lot of them and need to use them up sooner rather than later. I have made this missing a spice here and there and missing raisins (don't make it without raisins if you can help it they really add a sweetness). It doesn't take long to make and the flavors run the gamut from sweet to savory and it is a delightful mélange. Serve with rice or quinoa for a satisfying vegetarian dinner.

• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• ½ sweet onion, minced
• 1 teaspoon paprika (sweet or smoked according to preference)
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• ½ teaspoon turmeric
• ¼ teaspoon thyme
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ¼ cup golden raisins
• 1 tablespoon organic tomato paste
• 1 bunch chard (about 8 ounces) washed, center ribs removed, and chopped
• 1 cup cooked chickpeas plus 1 ¼ cups of their cooking liquid, or 1 can organic chickpeas with liquid plus ½ cup water
• 1 teaspoon hot sauce or ¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)

Add the olive oil, onion, and garlic to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or 3-4 quart pot, and turn the heat to medium. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, then add the paprika, cumin, turmeric, thyme, salt, and cinnamon. Stir together and cook for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the remaining ingredients, cover, and turn the heat down to medium-low.

Be sure to stir every 3-5 minutes to ensure that the bottom does not burn and that your ingredients are evenly combined. You can add a tablespoon of rice flour if you like your stew thicker. Remove from the heat after 20 minutes. Serve with rice or quinoa.


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