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05 October, 2012

October in The Southern California Garden


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 in the Mediterranean Climate! 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 the orange really knocks socks off. These plants provide continuous chard over a long season, sometimes even 'over-summering,' obviating the need for succession planting. Almost everything else though, 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 (St. Valery) Week 7 - lettuce (Black Seeded Simpson)
Week 2 – beets (Golden) Week 8 – carrots (Scarlet Nantes)
Week 3 – parsnips (Hollow Crown) Week 9 – beets (Red Ball)
Week 4 – carrots (Dragon) Week 10 – spinach (America)
Week 5 – beets (Chioggia) Week 11 – turnips (Purple Globe)
Week 6 – turnips (DeMilano) Week 12 – beets (Albino)

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, of course,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 which means succession planting of a given vegetable is one of the staple strategies for your daily grub. 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 containers. 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” photo contest, 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 that fluctuate to nothing to eat for a few weeks in between. Learning how to do this well has been the work of a lifetime for many and is still a moving target. But at least I know what I’m shooting for... and now you do too.

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 moist. Remember, the seed wants desperately to grow, that is its “job.” If you provide enough water for the seed to break the seed coat, you will soon see a little pair of leaves 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), horticultural shortcut word for dicotyledon. 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, meaning 'monocotyledon,' are all the grasses, which includes grains like corn, wheat, rice and barley. And a lot of your weeds!

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. Learn them quickly to forestall the sadness of hoeing up your own plants.

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 ever so slightly 'sweet' 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 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 tend to do – to get usable compost in less time than 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, or usually, 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 a moving and approximate target. Believe me, you'll never have composting materials in the right amounts to achieve an ideal c:n ratio, which is considered to be 25-30 parts per brown to 1 part of green. So, add all the green you have and scrounge around to dig up enough brown to make it work. You can add newsprint or cardboard to the pile to bring up the carbon level ('brown') if you have those around, Mix well and water – keep moist. Make a pile that is at least three feet high by three feet long by three feet wide; this is the minimum size to create a working compost pile. 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 next 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 add the compostable materials, covering with soil as I go. I add to the trench each day I have more to compost. Eventually I'll simply plant right into that soil, starting in the oldest part of the compost ditch. No big deal and it works without a lot of reading. Or thinking. I did this when I had a small garden and kept working compost into the soil in this pattern. On the Plus side, it's not a rodent attractor and it's no muss, no fuss. It's perfect for a single or two person household that doesn't produce a lot of compost. It would also work as an overflow method for folks using worm bins as their # 1 composting method.

You can find the composting technique that thrills you. The important point is that none of these rich materials, food or garden waste, ends up in a land fill. All of the plant wastes from the kitchen and table are the best components for a rich garden and they are free! The benefits of composting for your garden and keeping valuable material out of the landfill are a double whammy of 'why this is important!' You don’t need to worry about doing it perfectly... everything rots eventually.

If you are building a compost pile, you don't need to buy a black plastic container or any other kind of device. The black plastic composters were probably designed back east and made black to absorb more heat; we don't need it here, having plenty of heat (usually) to go around. A simple thee feet by three feet by three feet pile will do. One thing to be careful about is to keep your kitchen scraps covered with some 'carbon' kind of material or you may attract rodents. Just the simple precaution of burying food scraps under a decent layer of dried leaves will help prevent a mouse problem.

A smelly compost pile has too much water. Hold off watering for a few days, work in some dry carbon material without more wet and soon it'll be OK.

Rodale's book on composting is listed in the notes section. Get it, it's a great resource.

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
Most home stores sell 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?

In planting seeds, please note that root crops are never planted in containers to be transplanted later. There is a really good reason for this: they do NOT transplant well. Onions, and onion family members are the exception. Carrots and parsnips abhor being transplanted and beets and turnips suffer so much shock it is not worth the trouble.

While I often start lettuce in six packs in a sheltered location, it can sown in the soil directly as well. I like to do both, when a plant will let me do both because they each have advantages and drawbacks. Plants that are transplanted will suffer some shock in the transplant and that will slow them down a bit. However, plants grown directly in the garden are often subjected to harsher conditions that can overwhelm a small plant; a hard rain, pests that consume the whole plant while it's small. If you can, start plants both ways to maximize your chance a good harvest. Fava beans, garbanzo beans, lentils and peas can also be grown either in containers or directly sown.

Slower growing small plants, though, really do benefit from growing in a sheltered location. In this group, I put broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. These are also plants that one should set in the ground lower than they were in the original container, so transplanting them makes great sense.

This is a busy month – and the more you do early, the happier you will be! As the month rolls along, sunset gets earlier towards an unreasonable hour and you'll regret the missing outdoor light.

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
More of the cabbage family!
Fava beans
Beets
Carrots
Cabbage family members from early September
Lettuce
Fava beans
Fava beans

Garlic
Leeks

Lettuce
Onions

Other green leafy vegetables


Turnips

Refer to the text for exact dates.

Winter Squash With Pecans And Bleu Cheese


4-1/2 pounds winter squash
3 tablespoons olive oil 
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme 
1 cup pecans 
1 cups crumbled Roquefort or other bleu cheese 

 Heat the oven to 425°F. 

Halve the squash, leaving the skin on, and scoop out the seeds, then cut into 1-inch cubes; you don't need to be precise, just keep the pieces uniformly bite sized or so. 

Throw into your oven until tender. 

Toss the hot squash into a bowl and scatter with the pecans, crumbling the cheese over, all and toss together. This can be a wonderful side or you can get more involved and create a main course dish from it. 

 david

7 comments:

  1. I've finally started prepping my garden for fall planting (this time using your method of putting on a nice, thick layer of mulch topped with homemade compost instead of spending several backbreaking weekends digging and massaging cinder block-sized clods out of our massively heavy clay dirt -- thanks!!), and might try starting some plants in pots this year. I gave up on that a couple years ago since I don't really have the infrastructure for it and have had such absurd problems with trying to start plants indoors.

    Anyway, I'd like to know your thoughts about using those little peat pots and setting the whole works pot and all in the ground once the plants are big enough. Does that really work?

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  2. Hi Fiddlerchick
    Good luck with your garden - I hope you have as much success with my method as I have!

    The peat pots are OK as long as you take some care with them. While they are out of the ground, they dry out FAST so keep an eye on them. Lettuce plants (and there might be others) can't seem to get their roots out of a peat pot, so I've come to ripping the bottoms off of lettuce plants in peat - otherwise expect some stunted growth. I can only remember doing lettuce and cabbage families in peat, so I don't have a full tally on what to expect. Keep an eye on them. And lastly, when you set the plants in the ground, don't leave the edge of the peat pot above the soil surface: It will act like a wick pulling moisture away from the roots of your plants up to evaporate! I know, surprised me too.

    Other than those considerations, I've had decent luck with them. They are something you have to repurchase every time, but if the convenience outweighs the expense for you, go for it.

    david

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  3. Thanks David!

    I was planning on trying starting some brassicas indoors this year (various coloured heirloom cauliflowers, broccoli, cabbages & kale) since they did so abysmally when I tried direct sowing them the past couple years.

    Also, awhile ago you posted a great piece with a lot of detailed information about how to set up a plant starting station (lighting, fan, etc.) and I thought I'd saved the link in my now too big and disorganized index of gardening links, but I can't find it. Can you post it here?

    Thanks again,

    Brenda K

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  4. Sure, Brenda, I'll repost that one as soon as I can find it... I might only be marginally better organized than you! I heartily recommend Nancy Bubel's book, The New Seed Starters Handbook - it's available cheaply on Amazon and it was the book that set me off on my way. The only difference between her system and mine is that mine is really LOW tech while her's is fancier...

    When you start your seeds, use a sterile mix and really water it well, but don't keep it soggy and don't plant too deep - remember, if you go too deep you'll never see them, but if you go too shallow, you can always add some soil to the top - even repot the seedlings so they can go deeper.

    david

    ReplyDelete
  5. I miss you mr. king!
    -jasmin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mr. King misses you too - as does the garden!

      david

      Delete
  6. Thanks again! I'll be picking up a copy of that book too :)

    ReplyDelete