05 November, 2013


I don't need a sign to tell me this is garlic, but I am grateful to tell everyone else.  What I would like is a sign telling me what kind of garlic it is!  If you're growing the same thing you get in the grocery store, Stop it!  Get some good garlic.  I’ll tell you  all about it!

On the coast, the winter plantings we started back in September and October can continue right up through March. The only months that are really hard on winter veggies as close to the Pacific as we are in Sunset magazine's Zones 22 and 24 is July through September. In some years, October can be hard for plants to handle too; there is often at least one week or so of very hot weather, caused by Santa Ana winds, that dries out our new winter plants and is extremely hard on freshly transplanted lettuce. If you are putting on extra hand cream, think about extra water for your plants.

But in most years, by this time of the year, we ought not have any extended heat spells and cool weather should be very much ensconced. Now I want to make certain I have a good stock of all the alliums laid in – garlic, onions, leeks and shallots all have a place in my heart – and stomach – so I plant a lot of them.

Shallots and garlic are mostly grown from bulbs. I often plant them in containers around all my container planted roses with garlic because of its reputation as a good companion plant. And according to folklore at least, garlic has a good reputation for discouraging insects. I’m not sure this is proven yet, but I think the garlic plant itself is good looking as a part of a planting and I love having that upright element in containers as well as in ornamental beds. . You can't really plant enough garlic and shallots. And leeks also serve those purposes, design wise and culinary wise, just as well.

This year, I am in my second year of planting onions and shallots from seed. Last year, shallots were a whopping success – except I felt completely out of my league when it came to cooking with them. I felt I needed to affect a French accent when tossing them into a soup – they seemed so foreign to my English and Irish roots (the pun was accidental). The onions ran a distant second at growing which saddened me – I am much more familiar cooking with onions than shallots. But, I'm trying again and learning more about cooking with shallots – I find it strange that shallots, easier to grow, are so much more expensive than onions. Go figure!

I have purchased onion plants from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (www.groworganic.com) for several years. They carry several different varieties, but the one I love is Italian Red Torpedo Onions. Unfortunately, for me, over the last two years, I have missed getting plants because they have sold out. In revenge, I have learned to grow my own from seed. The plants you can buy in nurseries are really only baby plants that someone had to start from seed, so someone had to do it. If someone can do it, I ought to be able as well. It's a little harder than I thought. The plants come up looking like grass and seem to take forever. Maybe that's why buying plants is so universally accepted. Because they do 'take close to forever,' they need to be started earlier than I usually begin to think about the fall garden, like late July.

Water in your garden hopefully becomes much less of a challenge by this point, although, as noted earlier, those darn Santa Ana winds might come flying through and send everyone scrambling to keep the soil moist. Mulch. The more the mulch, the less work. You can mulch containers too – add a layer of something to the top of the pot – cocoa shells make a lovely mulch and smell good. I have heard folks say that dogs will eat the shells which are poisonous to canines, but I've had cocoa mulch in garden beds around three different dogs and not one of them has taken bite out of it, so I don't know but what that's just a popular urban myth. Still, “your mileage may vary.”

Mulch is a term that I use a lot, but needs to be defined. Mulch is anything put on top of the soil that interdicts the sun's rays and raindrops (or 'sprinkler-drops') from hitting the soil. It can be rocks, sheets of plastic, or some organic material – even compost.

As a vegetable gardener from way back when, I disdain the non-organic mulches. They can be expensive and they don't do a thing for the soil. Most organic mulches are cheap and many can be found for free. Organic mulches, unlike rocks, plastic or other non-organic mulches, feed the microbes that live in the soil, which improves the soil and adds fertility, the Holy Grail of gardening.

As I plant more of my winter plants, I'll keep adding more compost as mulch around the base of my plants. One thing to take note of as the days get cooler and hopefully wetter, is an explosion of slugs and snails. This is the kind of weather they prefer and they multiply like crazy right now. Because they are migratory creatures, you can never be rid of them completely. If you did manage to clear your garden on Tuesday of all slugs and snails, by Wednesday evening, you have a whole new group on hand that wandered in from the neighbors (or hatched out while you weren't looking).

The only real solution is constant vigilance. I have a friend who walks through her garden with a pail of water with dish soap in it and every snail and slug goes for a fatal swim. Another friend tosses them towards the street. Another crushes them underfoot. (Gardening is not for the squeamish or faint of heart.) I do all three at different times depending on how I feel. You should have seen how I felt loosing four rows of baby lettuce in one night. I never found that culprit, but I have wrecked revenge on every slug and snail I've seen ever since.

Yes, there are predatory snails that feed on the common garden snail, but they are also migratory and seem like an iffy proposition to me. I don't like adding potential pests (that cost money too!). Besides, if they ever did completely eliminate your common garden snail, leaving themselves with nothing to eat (not very likely), then they would turn on your garden as well. Seems like that is a lose/lose/lose proposition. I'll pass.

There are also several products in the marketplace that work and are organic. Es-car-go® and Sluggo® are two products that are organic and safe around pets and other wildlife because the active ingredient is an iron phosphate, a soil component that is lethal to mollusks like snails and slugs. I understand both products are rated OK with an organic garden, but it goes against my grain.

Still, the least expensive way to deal with them was to kill them directly as mentioned above. I imagine if this makes you queasy now, after some valuable crops or hard work becomes a midnight snack several times, you will find yourself a hardened snail and slug murderer like I am.

This is also THE very time to begin to think about fruit trees; you won't actually buy them until December or January, but. I urge you to think about fruit trees for a while before making the dive because they are a big investment, not so much in money, but in time and patience. Once one has planted a fruit tree, some will take several years to come into full production – if you find the fruit unsatisfactory, or you have a variety that doesn't fruit well for you, all that time is wasted.

Gather as much data as you can in order to choose the tree that is right for you. Here are some sources you will find helpful – I suggest you go online and order the printed catalog because you'll want to cross check facts and types with each different nursery before you commit.

Trees of Antiquity, www.treesofantiquity.com, is the place where we purchased most of the trees at The Learning Garden over the years. I found them extremely helpful and very knowledgeable. It was they who suggested Dorsett Golden as our apple and it is truly one of the finds of a lifetime for a Zone 24 garden.

Raintree Nursery is where we place ongoing orders for propagation supplies that happen in late January and early February. Their selection is lovely and their catalog is chock full of fruit tree information that makes it worth a read. A lot of their varieties are not suited for Southern California as they are servicing a clientele from the colder northern climes. Trees of Antiquity (above) and Dave Wilson nursery are good web sites from which to learn about fruit trees. Dave Wilson does not sell to the public directly, but you can find retailers that carry their products for you to purchase.

Dave Wilson Nursery was the nursery that popularized the idea of planting three or more fruit trees in one hole that went around a couple of years back. I was skeptical to begin with and that skepticism has deepened over the years. I have seen many failures and little success with the idea. The idea was you would dig one hole in the ground and plant up to four trees in that one hole. As the trees grew, they would naturally bond together and you'd get four different varieties from the same space as you normally would have gotten one. Great idea, but on the whole it didn't work. Usually the three weaker trees died and you were left with one. No harm, no foul perhaps, but a good deal of heart ache at losing 3/4's the trees you planted.

My old standby, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, is a great supplier of trees and fruit bushes, but their selection isn't nearly as complete and their catalog isn't a detailed as these others. Still, if you are already ordering something from Peaceful Valley and they have the variety you want, I have never gone wrong with them. Shipping costs are the hard part. Let's organize a caravan and drive up and pick up one huge order! Yay! I'll drive!

The University of California has gotten in on the backyard orchard with a website, The California Backyard Orchard is a wonderful web site for a lot of answers about growing fruit trees in our climate. It also promotes the UC ANR publication, The Home Orchard, a highly recommended book if someone is going to go into this as deep. This is my 'go-to' book for orchard information. Other books will not have the correct data to understand what we need in our Mediterranean climate. Varieties that need a higher number of 'chill hours' do not produce fruit here – we cannot grow cherries reliably and only a select variety of apples and pears. Other fruit trees are more amenable to our warmer world, but even then, not checking can be a huge mistake. Imagine growing an apple for several years, loving it, caring for it, only to learn it will only produce fruit spottily, if at all, and offer very meager eating. I did it (Fuji apple) and I do not recommend going down that road; get something proven to perform in our climate and have loads of fresh fruit in a couple of years to enjoy.

Some Fruit Varieties That Do Well Here:

Apples -
Dorsett Golden – as mentioned above, is a heavy cropper in our climate. It takes about 3 years to really settle in (although it will bear fruit, they are tiny for the first three or so years with full sized fruit beginning to show up in year three). We have Dorsett Golden on half size fruit stock and it's a fair sized critter.
Gala – we have this on a dwarf rootstock – she's about five feet tall at this point and not likely to get much larger. Lovely apples with crisp texture and that is what I prize in an apple.
Fuji – one of my all time favorites, but the one we have in the garden is a 500 chill hour plant and in three years I have harvested one small apple. It WAS good, but it wasn't worth all that time. Sadly, ours will have to be replaced. (There are newer Fuji trees that have less chilling requirement and I may buy one of those.)

Plant varieties with a wide range of fruiting times which will extend the harvest.

Apricot -
Goldkist – hands down, the best apricot I have ever eaten! A self-pollinated variety, this one tree stands out as the best fruit in our garden. While Royal Blenheim is the touted variety for our climate, I just love Goldkist and have no desire to look beyond it.

Pear -
Seckle is usually the only one suggested for our area of the European pears. We have one, but it ended up in a neglected area and I've got nothing to report. Although, I don't think a ripe pear can be beat for shear hedonistic eating!

Figs -
Violettte de Bordeaux – AKA 'Negronne' is our tree that has been a champion for five years. It bore fruit the first year and it has not stopped since. A deep black skinned fruit, the flesh is a gorgeous red and has a smoky richness that is heavenly.
White Genoa – is an Italian variety that took forever to fruit. Once it finally put on a crop by which it could be judged, I began to appreciate its lighter and sweeter amber flesh. A really lovely fig. But not a heavy producer. Still, yum!

The Learning Garden has acquired over five other varieties that I am eager to get into the ground and report back on – as a Kansas born and bred boy, I had never had a fresh fig until sometime after I was in my forties. I've got a lot of lost time to make up for.

Nectarine -
Double Delight – not to be confused with the rose of the same name, this is a yellow fleshed freestone nectarine, heavily bearing and needs a LOT of thinning – we almost lost several branches because it fruits so heavily. I know Peaceful Valley calls it 'sensational' but I think that's a little over the top. It's good and with vanilla ice cream it's really good. But not 'sensational.' It is self-fertile.

Peaches -
Red Baron – this is one of our two peaches – this is a yellow freestone and a very good producer of large fruits. The other one is a clingstone and I like its flavor better, but I can't find the record on it and don't know which variety it is. The importance of keeping good records is not to be overlooked.

Plums -
Santa Rosa – this is one of the thousands of plants that Luther Burbank created (he lived in Santa Rosa and gave us the Burbank potato, the Shasta Daisy among many, many more) and I find this to be the best and most prolific producer of any tree in our gardens today. It makes a fabulous sorbet, delicious jam and fresh eating cannot be beat. There are several other plums that will do well in our region, but I haven't got past this one.

If you still have empty space to fill in your garden beds, refer back to October – you can still plant all things mentioned there from October through January. Try to keep a few extra plants of that which you like best on hand in containers to be popped into your garden to fill little holes that appear as plants are harvested or those that fail. I like to keep a six pack of a variety of lettuces to pop into the garden as the cool months roll by. They are reliable and fast! And they hold well in a six pack.

Keep up with the rotation planting which can persist right into March if you live on the coast – those of you inland will need to begin to scale back on it before the end of February.

It gets dark so early these days it's hard to find a lot of time to be in the garden. But do get out there as much as you can – California gardens look so inviting in these short days with the golden sunlight playing off the plants! It's one of my favorite times to be in the garden despite fall's sense of melancholy.

As a child, I watched the garden preparations for Winter snow and keenly felt the end of working outside. After the frosts of fall, I would be only gardening in my mind with the seed catalogs that flooded the mail. Most of them wouldn't arrive until after the first of the year, and school, at which I did not excel, was the only thing to occupy my time until those catalogs came to spark my imagination and delight me for hours of reading and rereading. Obviously I was destined to be a seedsman from a very early age.

I made huge lists of the seeds we would need in the spring, embracing every new item and every scrumptious photo of the latest hybrid offered by W. Atlee Burpee, Shumway and all the other old time seed houses. Sadly many of them have folded or have turned into hawkers of the hybrid seeds exclusively – seeds that are not bred for and do not perform well in the gardens of homeowners. Hybrids are bred to be planted by farmers, grown with the use of lots of inputs, like fertilizers and pesticides and will be uniform in the field so they can be harvested at a single pass. These are not qualities you will value in the garden, especially when they are offered to you in place of good taste and natural disease resistance. You'll want to do what my Grandfather did: ignore the lists of your headstrong grandson and pull out the seeds you saved from last years harvest and plant those. Grandpa was a seed saver and I wish I had learned more about this from him – it's a tradition and art I am now learning from books.

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
More of the cabbage family!
Cabbage family members from early September

Fava beans
Fava beans



Other green leafy vegetables



Refer to the text for exact dates.

Apple Pie

Two pie crusts

6-8 Cups of Apples ( I prefer Granny's or McIntosh) half peeled, cut in half, seeded and then sliced fairly thin (¼") pile the apples really high.
½ - ¾ Cup Cane Sugar
1 Tablespoon Cinnamon
2 Tablespoons Minute Tapioca
3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter

1 Egg Yolk blended with 1 Tablespoon H2O to "lightly" brush on top of pie before baking (optional)

1. When ready to bake, mix sugar,tapioca, and cinnamon together in a bowl and set aside.
2. Wash apples, peel entirely or leave some skin on, and cut in half. Then core, and slice 1/4 inch slices. if you want to you can set them in a bowl of water with a little lemon juice to keep them from browning. This is not necessary if you work quickly.
3. Preheat the oven to 375° degrees.
4. Line the bottom of  pie pan with pastry , be sure that the dough overlaps a little. Then start to layer apples, cinnamon/sugar, apples, cinnamon/sugar until you run out. Top with a little cinnamon/sugar and dots of butter, placed evenly

5. Place the top layer onto the pie and press around the edge of the pie inside the bottom crust,then flip the overlap of the bottom crust back over the top crust and run your finger along the outer edge to press and form a pattern around the pie. Use your own method for that. At this point you should slice a few vents into the top crust with a knife.
6. Brush the top of the pie with a thin layer of egg wash, using a brush.
7. Bake at 375° degrees for approximately one hour. If the pie seems to be cooking too quickly then cover it with foil lightly and turn the temp down to 350° degrees.
8. The pie is done when the center tester goes in smoothly. Cool and serve.


06 October, 2013

What To Do and When To Do It: 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 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 and 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 a twelve 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 (Yugoslavian Red)
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
Cabbage family members from early September
Fava beans
Fava beans



Other green leafy vegetables


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 the oven or, in warm Southern California weather, on a grill until tender.

Toss the hot squash into a bowl and scatter the pecans throughout, 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.

What To Do And When To Do It: 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, those who say there are no seasons in California have not really taken notice of a garden here in September. 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 will be composted in place. Diseased foliage is removed and placed either in trash or in the compost pile. Some diseases, like mildew, I accept and simply deal with year in and year out – other diseases, like Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) have to be taken – carefully – off site.
To the degree I can, though, those plants that are healthy and have drawn nutrients from the soil are left in place, allowing 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 compost come in – we try to replace the vegetables we have eaten with organic matter that will allow the soil to recreate its bevy of nutrients nourishing our 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 or vaporize off into the atmosphere.

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 clippings can be put right back into the beds or added to a compost pile for more greens. Unfortunately, growing in most community gardens, control of perennial weeds is only as good as the worst gardener. If one gardener doesn't keep them in check, perennial weeds will infest the pathways and there is no good way to get rid of them without shredding the ground cover as well.
Keep in mind that some kind of soil regeneration must be happening all the time or the soil will eventually not support food crops. It is better to do this regeneration little by little in our smaller gardens. Folks with larger areas, or a long vacation coming up, can plant cover crops to increase the soil's fertility over a season. For gardeners in Sunset Zones 22 and 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 to improve the soils vibrancy. 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. Although it would be ideal if you were to get rid of the weeds before they began to go to seed. Just sayin'....

I've had a great crop of peppers this year – which, I find a tad disturbing, because this year was lousy for eggplants due to a lack of consistent heat, and if it didn't get hot enough for one, I'd think it wouldn't be acceptable for the other. Still I have a lot of peppers, go figure. We pickled about 5 pints of the Sweet Banana peppers so far this year, but the jalapeƱos, I'm letting stay on the vine until they turn red so I can dry them until they are crispy. Then I want to grind them into powder for a teentsy little zip in some recipes over the coming months. A little bit will go a long ways, so I might have settled on some holiday gifts for this year without even trying.

One thing to remember when preparing or cooking 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 very sensitive 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 a selection of 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, along with 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
Red Savina Habanero
350,000 ~ 575,000
Smoked Jalepeno (Chipotle)
Bell & Pimento

About half-way into the month, 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 all later in the month. 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. If you ignore my advice and try to sow root crops for transplanting, you will find 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 unless you are incredibly meticulous and then it's just not worth the time.

As September wanes, probably the most productive time in the Southern California potager begins. If you are eating from your garden, now is 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 is one of my rituals. I bake my own bread, and the tomato and lettuce come from my garden so the only non-homemade items are the bacon and the mayo. It's almost a mystical experience, 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, drizzled with a bit of honey on them and a dollop of some fairly stout Greek yogurt. Oh, 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 at your 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.

If you missed starting sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) last month, you can still try to have these deliciously scented flowers earlier than anyone else, 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) refers to the 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 succeed with your early sweet pea flowers, I don't want to hear about it. It'll take years off my life to have been beaten in this category.

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 is flat out '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 it sells for about $14.00 on Amazon; I got my second copy (the first went a-wandering) from a close out bin at Borders for $3.00. Oh gosh! Remember Borders?

Starting from seed, as you saw if you have browsed any decent seed catalog, offers you the most diversity in what you have available to plant and 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? Mind you, as well as giving you the ultimate control over what goes in your garden and giving you access to twenty or thirty times the varieties available at all your local stores combined, it is way less expensive and way more productive! With so many reasons why growing from seed is preferable and the only reason to not grow from seed is 'I'm too impatient, ' which way are you going to swing? Gardeners, start your seed catalogs!

This is an exciting time to be gardening. Grab your imagination and look at where you are 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 the biggest lie they can tell me. When I kill a plant, I usually know why it died and sometimes it isn't my fault. 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 simply changing your patterns.

 These really are the dog days of summer!

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

I know that traditional 'Dog Days' of summer are July through August, but a case can be made for our Dog Days to come from August through September. Usually our cooling trends don't begin until September 15th or thereabouts. Often, just to make life a little harder on the gardener, you'll find a hot, dry dog day coming between two rather cool nights – or worse, two cool twenty-four hour periods. Planting your cool season seeds (especially carrots) will net you a big fat nothing but a lot of extra work if the days come back too hot. You might be able to mitigate it by watering them a bit in the early afternoon every hot and dry day. Seeds of all plants must be kept moist until they have germinated. This is especially true of carrots and lettuce and other small seeds.

But by mid-September, we ought to be OK – cooling should be in the wind and evidence of yellowing leaves start showing up signaling imminent leaf drop and the season of Fall. Take advantage of the cooler temperatures to be in your garden more this month. The days are appreciably shorter and soon, those of us with day jobs, will be gardening in the evening with flashlights. Those of you who just laughed, be warned: Gardens require attention and don't stop having weeds and water needs just because the sun isn't up in the sky! Flashlights and headlamps – styled after the miners' lights – are effective tools that help a poor gardener through the shorter days of winter. If you think this is the raving a lone, lunatic (and I use that word judiciously!) gardener, keep gardening. One evening, you'll do it too. If you don't end up trying to cure insomnia one early morning in your pj's first. Gardeners who have a few seasons under their thumbnails are nodding and smiling in agreement.

Here's a recipe to help you with some of those extra tomatoes. I use the 'roma' or paste tomatoes in this recipe, but any tomato will do – the fresh eating tomatoes, the “non-romas,” will probably be better served to cook a little longer and get rid of some the extra water. Right now I'm sold on San Marzano Roma tomatoes although the less productive Golden Romas make a sweeter, and golden sauce from this recipe.

One summer, I had so many tomatoes, after I had eaten all I could stand and had filled my freezer with sauce (a lot of which I gave away), the final tomatoes of the year were left on the vine. I had too much of a good thing!

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
All cabbage family crops
Fava beans
Any cabbage family plant big enough to survive.
Potatoes (tubers)
Fava beans

Fava beans

Shallots (seed)

Garbanzo beans

Garlic (bulbs)

Shallots (bulbs)


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Roasted Tomatoes

2 Table spoons, olive oil (to cover the bottom of the pan)
1 Medium Onion, Finely chopped (or 2 or 3 leeks)
3 Cloves Garlic, Finely chopped
8-10 Plum Tomatoes, halved lengthwise (to fill the pan)
2 Tablespoons chopped parsley (or basil or thyme or oregano)
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon sugar

Note: The amounts on all the above ingredients may be varied; substitute liberally! Peppers and other vegetables of a similar size (and cooking time!) to the tomatoes may be added as well.

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  1. Layer in a baking dish, slathered with olive oil, in the following order: tomatoes, olive oil, onion, garlic, parsley (or other substituted herb) then salt, pepper and sugar. Bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  1. Use as vegetable side dish or puree roughly and (freeze too) use as sauce for pizza, pasta or whatever.