Corn standing tall in the garden promises good eating right around the corner. As a boy in Kansas, I knew my grandfather's goal every year was to harvest sweet ears by July 4th. He and his neighbors might bet hard earned money on who would harvest their crop first. Most years he was the surely the winner! Since corn takes a lot of room, many Los Angelenos will need to purchase this treat at their local farmers' markets.
hot weather. Finally.
Now is the time to get a cool drink and
say hello to summer in our Southern California gardens.
this reason alone, 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, even 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.
is most important to have water at the roots of plants – spraying
water into the air to fall on the soil, is not very efficient. A
lot of that water can be blown away from your plants (on to the
neighbors!) and a lot evaporates off into the air. It is not very
efficient at all. But there are other ways to to water that are
better. All these other ways involve putting the water close to the
root zone. The two ways to do this include some of the newest
technology and some of the oldest technology. The newest technology
is drip irrigation; the oldest is called an 'olla' – pronounces
OYE-ya. Variations of ollas are found in several different ancient
cultures and there is a move to put them back into gardens today.
before we get to that, we need to know some things about water and
how it moves in the soil. First of all, water 'sticks' to itself.
If you over fill a glass of water to where it is actually higher than
the edge of the glass, it often can hold together and not run down
the side of the glass. The tendency of water to stick together is
one of the qualities that make water so valuable a part of our world.
So as water moves, it pulls other water along behind it.
moves down in the soil because of gravity. Water moves up and out of
the soil into the atmosphere because of evaporation. Water moves
sideways in the soil when pulled along by plant roots pulling water
molecules out of the soil, which drags other molecules along behind.
Water fans out from the point it drips into the soil to a more narrow
or wider 'fan' depending on the composition of the soil; sandy soil,
with it's large pore space allows the water to move more downward
than outward. Clay soil, on the other hand, with small particles
tightly packed causes water to expand outward much more dramatically
than sandy soil.
on to getting water to your plants' roots!
irrigation has gotten a lot of attention over the last twenty years.
A number of people who have played with drip, myself included, have
come to feel it is less than 'as advertised.' In the first place,
drip irrigation is a lot of plastic parts. Compared to an
underground irrigation system that are very expensive and difficult
to install, drip systems are cheap and easy!
on the other hand, that means they are also relatively impermanent.
Plastic can be easily broken – and therein lies the tale of drip.
The plastic seems to develop a magnetic attraction for shovels and
other sharp instruments, which means it must be repaired constantly.
Wild animals also find the plastic tubing an easy source for water –
just make the hole a little larger and there is another repair
awaiting your attention. Anyone who depends on a drip system, soon
learns to observe the entire system while it's running at least once
a month. The observation, done more with one's ears than one's
because you can hear the water making noises that it would not make
if the system was still working properly. Furthermore, the pattern
of wetness in the soil made by drip is not ideal for a number of
plants. Plants did not evolve to gather water from a single spot
with no water before or after that spot. For some plants, this is a
problem – especially the 'drought-resistant' plants.
of their strategy is to find water over a much wider range than less
drought tolerant plants. As a consequence for a lot of the drought
resistant plants, drip irrigation is a problem more than a solution.
This is particularly difficult for the California Native plant
palette than it is for plants that have been in the care of humans
over the past hundreds of years. California Native plants tend to
not do so well with drip irrigation.
every replanting of a food crop, requires the drip lines to be rolled
up to facilitate preparing the bed and planting. This is a
cumbersome project at best and is a disaster for the drip system at
has a lot of drawbacks although it does deliver water to the roots
with relatively little loss of water to the atmosphere and does
reduce water waste. There is one other recent change that updates
drip to what is called a 'leaky pipe or hose.' This technology has
most of the good qualities of drip but is easier to deal with and the
leaky hose sweats water all along its length which means there is a
zone of wetness in the soil, more closely approximating natural
conditions and the hose is less of a hassle to repair or move. It's
not perfect but this is a reasonable choice for non-permanent
on the other hand, are a lot more permanent and are not made of
plastic. Made of clay, an olla (Spanish for 'pot,' as in 'soup pot.'
) is porous and water 'leaks' out. The olla is buried in the soil,
filled with water which then seeps into the soil, spreading out into
the soil to water nearby plants. How far the water moves in the soil
is different according to the soil's composition, and is not clearly
understood at this time, but one can make some educated guesses in
short order. Ollas are not a good candidate for trees and perennials
with woody roots. They are also somewhat fragile, but not as much as
drip parts and they are not made from oil like plastic. Ollas do not
have to be moved to plant a bed, as long as you are not tilling the
soil in any way, and, of course, in my style of gardening, that isn't
done. Ollas are fabulous in planted containers.
do take steps to find ways to control the amount of water that is put
in your garden – and no matter how you get water to the roots, make
sure you mulch the beds thoroughly and save the water you do put down
from evaporating off into the atmosphere.
|Olla with a tomato plant in a container - a good use of ollas: they are good in the ground, but an olla in a container is perfect! Photo by El Traspatio, who also sells the olla...
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 fertilizer, which means my plants are never over-fertilized
and with the constant use of compost and mulch, they are well
supplied with all they really need to thrive.
I am cautious about using really good
compost that might have a lot of nitrogen in it on tomatoes. 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 September and October. But if you don't want to wait
that long for tomato season to start, skip fertilizer or so-called
'hot' compost. Save it for corn which is a notoriously heavy feeder.
I mentioned this isn't a good planting month. There was that
huge list of all I was supposed to get all done last month,
remember? I probably didn't and you might have a few things to wrap
up too. With
care, it is still possible to sow beans and, for those of us with the
room, corn. It's
also possible to sow another planting of summer squash and if the
pickle gods smile on you, more cucumbers. Some of the real heat
loving veggies can be set out, like more peppers or tomato plants.
If you enjoy
eggplant, you might set out another plant or two at this time, they
will extend your harvest. But remember these late plantings will
need extra water (try to plant them in the late afternoon – and try
very hard to minimize root damage when you transplant them). 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, 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. 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
productive adulthood. With tomatoes, a little pruning of leaves from
the plant will cut down on the water loss and the plant will put the
leaves back on as soon as its root system can handle it.
the weather cooperates and you are lucky beyond all expectation, I
would suggest that getting summer plants in the ground after the
Summer Solstice is more likely than not, a waste of time. I have
done it and won. I have done it and lost. But before you begin to
plant a lot of summer stuff after June 21st
or so, you might want to consider holding off for a couple of months
and starting with a winter garden.
In our climate, especially
in that part of the west coast that gets a lot of Pacific Ocean
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. Perhaps this is year I’ll actually try a baking soda and
water mixture on mildew and report back to you later. Up to now,
I've simply gotten rid of the infected plant and grown another. It's
usually only a hassle with winter squash which take longer to ripen,
summer squash, the yellow crooknecks and zucchinis produce a lot of
food quickly, so a replant will keep you up to your ears in zukes, if
you don't get enough from the first harvest.
Summer squash is
called that because you eat it in summer. This includes all those
zucchini, patty pans, crooknecks, and 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, on the other hand, which includes pumpkins, are so
named because they can keep for many months and provide 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 be
transported easily 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 in a cool and dry place.
Gardeners with small gardens have trouble with most winter squashes
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 or share your abundance with neighbors, friends or send it off
to a local food bank – there are many who can't grow their own food
and can't feed themselves and their families good, clean (sans
pesticides) nutritious meals. No one should be forced to consume
'instant' food just because they are poor.
summer squashes are a special concern. A four inch squash on
Tuesday will resemble a caveman's club by Friday and won't be as
tasty and tender. Any summer squash will do that.; only
neophyte gardeners will brag about how big their zucchinis get, they
get that big whenever you don't pick them in time – it's not
something to brag about, but something to be embarrassed about! The
ones we call 'zucchini' are
the quickest to grow to laughable sizes.
It's the reason for a million recipes for Zucchini Bread, Zucchini
Casserole, Zucchini Lasagna. (I
have even eaten a Zucchini Crumble, brown sugar, butter and cinnamon,
which was pretty good as long I avoided the bites with zucchini
pieces.) Once zucchini get much beyond the four to six inch
size, they aren't all that tasty and begin to get woody. Harvest
them early and often. Like voting in Chicago!
Melons are a
challenge. Cantaloupe and honeydew melons should have a wilted
tendril at the stem end of the fruit and should smell ripe (read as
“mouth waters when smelling”). Watermelons are much more
difficult to tell; when I was twelve, one infamous melon outsmarted
me, my grandfather and the judges at a county fair by winning a blue
ribbon and being as green as the proverbial Martian. I only know to
thump them-- listening for an almost hollow sound, to determine
ripeness, and despite that aforementioned melon, I have been really
good at since I was eight. One miss in almost fifty years of
thumping is a better record than any baseball pitcher you can
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 come
in different sizes and shapes. Suffice it to say that Japanese
cucumbers and Armenian cukes are able to get quite large and still be
Not so with other varieties. I know a lot of folks get goo-goo eyed
about 'Lemon' cucumbers, but I don't share the love. Some say you
have to wait until they turn yellow before they are good to eat. I
think they are never that
good no matter when you pick them and they are stupendously big and
rangy plants. In
addition, the smaller the fruit you have to peel, the more work it is
to get it on the table. I'll go with the
Japanese or Armenian cucumbers – highly productive and
The harvesting of corn is another that begs a few
words. The first time I saw folks in Los Angeles 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
points might be suspect. As a child on a farm that sold sweet corn
all summer long, I 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,
as is often the case with vegetables, is better.
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, that is where
one silk that did not get pollinated.
you experience worms in your corn, or you fear you will although I
don't know how you can see into the future, 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.
may take some training, but after a time, your tactile explorations
will enable you to feel the ripe (and full ear). Leave
the underdeveloped still on the plant. Grab the ear firmly and pull
slightly out and down in one compelling motion to
liberate it from the plant. The top and bottom ends will need
trimming to find the actual ear in all that you have in your hand.
As above, 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 contract
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 where there is no provision to deal with. 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 to
determine it's harmful or benign. In my world, I prefer to deal with
our environment, by always assuming the safest course of action and
take exceeding care not
to damage the
only world we have.
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
I am as
comfortable – or as uncomfortable – as the next person.
course, I strongly
suggest a hat which you see me wear daily, not only for the
interdiction of the sun, but as a way of shielding my eyes and
keeping cooler. Besides, a hat is the epitome of fashion! Almost
all good gardeners wear them!
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 cannot 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
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 display
the full range of gloves that are available. Never
buy a glove you find uncomfortable. It
will discourage you from wearing that pair as often as you might need
to. Keep your gloves pinned together when not wearing them or you'll
end up with a glove for one hand and another glove for the other
hand, or worse, all the same hand will be missing! I use a an
electric cable 'alligator' clip to which I have attached a piece of
wire in an 'S' shape to slip in my belt loop – other friends use a
simple clip clothespin. Find out what works for you, but have your
gloves on hand (sorry) for your gardening adventures.Is
shot up to date? Talk to your doctor – this shot should be renewed
every 5-10 years and you should strive
to remain current.
about this, change over the years, like most other medical advice, so
talk it over with your doctor to see what course of action you should
don't have to garden on a former dump site to be surprised by a nail
or broken piece of glass. So while soil is one of the safer
substances in its natural state (penicillin was concocted from a soil
mold), soil in the city are often troublesome.
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. Enclose a check...
at June if you want to try to plant anything, but my advice? Try to
avoid planting in July if you can.
Honey Ice Cream
It's time to cool down! At the
Learning Garden we have a 4th of July Ice Cream Social and
this is one of our annual favorites – I can't wait to supply the
honey for this ice cream from one of my hives!
INGREDIENTS (for 2 quarts):
1½ cup honey
2 sprigs of fresh lavender
2 cups half and half
4 cups of whipping cream
6 egg yolks
Warm the honey with the lavender in a
non-corroding saucepan. Taste after five minutes to check the
strength of the lavender flavor and leave a little longer if
necessary, until the flavor pleases you.
Heat the half and half and cream in a
non-corroding saucepan and whisk the egg yolks in a bowl until they
are just broken up. Whisk in some of the hot cream and return to the
pan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture
coats the spoon. Strain into a container and stir in the flavored
honey. Chill thoroughly.
When you are ready to freeze the
mixture, remove the vanilla bean pods. Freeze according to the
instructions of your ice cream maker.