08 May, 2013

May in Our Southern California Gardens

Winter chard next to summer cucumbers is May's garden in a nutshell.  The Winter crops are coming out faster now and soon will be a memory while we enjoy Greek salads of cucumbers and tomatoes with some olive oil, wiping our brow and remarking how refreshing this is. These common cukes aren't usually the ones I prefer, but I remember this plant as being profusely productive!  

The cool of Spring is likely to be a sweet memory before this month is out.  It will be time to host the proverbial summer garden party,  later this month.  Longer days with a marine layer are nothing like the warmth of Summer and Fall, but the diffuse sunlight through the 'June Gloom' does make it warm enough to get your summer plants surging ahead.  This growth time is important for a full harvest. If you can't get things in the ground this month you will not have as big a harvest as you might have had. Besides, working in the garden in May is so much sweeter than doing all that back breaking work in June and July. Save yourself and your plants. Strike while May's picture is still on your wall calendar!

I am planting the following from seed: corn, cucumbers (you can set out cucumber plants if you have snail and predation problems, but it is faster to sow them directly), squash mostly of the summer kind – the zucchinis and crooknecks – and beans, while setting out plants of basil, tomatoes, and peppers. I am still
putting out lettuce seedlings and still sowing short rows of beets, radishes and spinach in one small area, where I can shield them from too much sun. Sowing all of those without the screening of larger plants could be a recipe for disaster; even with that screen, it's a bit of a crapshoot, but then isn't that the essence of gardening? If we have a hot May, with too little 'June Gloom,' these plants may well fail, but in most years, they will produce enough to make the effort worthwhile.

You may grow all of these in pots as long as you get smaller versions – most nurseries and all the seed companies will help you find plants that will grow in pots.   It is possible to buy tomatoes and cucumbers bred to live in a hanging basket, but in our climate, think of all the attention you'll have to give their watering needs! Put such a plant in a container with enough soil to not need watering every thirty minutes. While you can grow smaller varieties of sweet corn, it is a wind pollinated crop and
important to grow a substantial number of plants to get a viable crop. You can learn how to help the corn have sex, and it sure does make a statement – even a small amount of corn can be pretty impressive. You might have fun doing a Native American themed pot with a couple stalks of corn, a sunflower, and pole beans climbing up. But don’t plan on it to feed a dinner party; it would be mostly a decorative piece. Containers limit the size of a plant's root system, so you get less food.  If you don't have a choice in the matter, they are one way to add truly fresh food to your diet.  Just keep a very close eye on their water needs as they will dry out with too much sun and any breeze, but especially a hot breeze. Containers are best for those plants with smaller root systems, like the leafy salad greens and small versions of cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers.

In addition, now is the time for melons, eggplant and okra,
if you have room for melons and actually like okra and eggplant. Okra needs the most heat of any vegetable under discussion here. Put it the hottest corner of your garden, perhaps in front of a west facing white (or light colored) wall. If your eating plans include the likes of borage, chervil, chives, lavender, lemon grass, lovage, marjoram, mint (be certain to get a good culinary one as there are many that are not) Greek oregano (Origanum heracleoticum NOT O. vulgare, big difference in taste although vulgare is a lot easier to find), parsley, rosemary, sage and tarragon, you could set these plants out into a border convenient to your kitchen. Or plant them in pots. These perennial plants are fine being planted now.  They are hardy in the heat and will take a lot more drought than the annuals.  These are all Mediterranean plants, which is the type of climate we have in LA. They are not as hardy as the California Natives. Our drought is typically nine months long, while  theirs is closer to six, but they run an edible second. Most perennials are planted in fall, but these Mediterranean plants are fine being planted now.

This is the
second big season in California for planting perennial crops. While for us, Fall is the better planting season, many people with East Coast or Midwest “roots” simply cannot prune themselves from the “Spring = planting time” mentality. It is so pervasive that even local nurseries, who ought to know better, often carry a better selection of transplants (some inappropriate, like broccoli and cabbage) in spring. Our part of the country seems so divorced from manual labor with the soil that such things are not the strangest occurrences that happen in horticulture here. Adding further confusion, a good number of the chain stores have their plant selections made somewhere back east by someone who has no clue what we should be growing here. You will find roots of artichokes, rhubarb, potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic and asparagus offered for sale which should have been planted before February. I'd skip these if you can discipline yourself. It is much better to purchase all of these from mail order suppliers. You'll get better plants and they will arrive at a better planting time, late fall and early winter, which is where I offer my ideas on planting them. One of my favorite suppliers, and fairly local too, is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. Their website, GrowOrganic.com is not one of the easiest to use, but their paper catalog is fantastic. Use the website to order the catalog. I have used their paper catalog as one of my texts for teaching organic gardening. The main catalog comes out in January with seeds, tools and general supplies with seasonal supplements throughout the year – not a ton, but three or four in a timely fashion. 

You may put out deciduous fruit trees and fruiting vines, but they are best planted in Fall like other longer lived food plants. In Fall, you will have the chance to plant bare root trees which is easier on the tree and will help you get an established tree sooner (and therefore more fruit sooner!). The only thing you can find in the stores at this time of year are trees potted in10 gallon or larger pots, but these are more expensive than the Fall bare-root plants, and they will not establish nearly as quickly as bare-root plants. It is much better to patiently wait until next Fall to plant deciduous trees.

This is a good time for citrus to go in as well as kiwi and sapote because they are more tropical and will love the coming heat while they get established. These plants do not go dormant so they are always sold in pots. Dig a hole no larger than the pot the tree came in, and do not bother adding all kinds of compost, mulch or other organic matter to the soil you fill in around the rootball. I know you've heard or read differently, but current research shows that all that effort is pretty much a waste of time. Get the soil all around the roots and press it down with your foot in order to make sure it's firm. Put a garden hose on 'drool' and leave it be for as long as it takes to wet that area thoroughly. Keep citrus trees moist – especially in their first year – and soon you'll have more lemons, limes or tangerines than you know what to do with! Nature is abundant if we work with Her and not against.

In setting out your tomatoes and other vegetables, you'll want to choose the part of the garden that gets the most sun.
We have all been told that all vegetables must have all day sun, but that isn't necessarily so. Even in dappled sun, or in areas that don't get sun all day long, I have grown tomatoes and peppers. Sometimes the crop yield is somewhat compromised and the fruits mature measurably later, but I've still had good eating from plots others said would not produce at all. One does invite more preying insects because the lack of sun stresses the plants a little more, but with a little vigilance and industry, those shortcomings can be mitigated.

Tomatoes will set roots all along their stem, so setting them into the ground deeper than they were in the pot is a standard practice. Other transplanted vegetables should be set in the ground no deeper than they were in the container. Allow one foot between peppers and eggplants, 2½' between most tomatoes – unless you know the plants are the short season early tomatoes – like Siletz, Stupice, Prairie Fire or Glacier, to name a few. These tomatoes are almost all determinate tomatoes that give you one crop in about 60 days from setting out and will set fruit in cooler/wetter conditions. T hey can be 18” apart and usually don't need staking although they will benefit from some.  Other, and larger, tomatoes do need something to keep them off the ground.

If you find aphids on your plants, wash them off with a stream of water – at worst, hit them with a little soap solution, although you will pay for that soap solution down the road if you inadvertently kill off the eggs or nymphs of beneficial insects – which is why I simply won't use it. Unless one is gardening in deep shade or the plants are stressed some other way, aphids should only pose a minor problem and all one needs to do is to help the beneficial insects keep them in check. Keep a border or some pots of herbs or flowering ornamentals near the vegetable beds – beneficial insects may use their nectar for a food source when aphids aren’t present. I have a lot of nasturtium flowers all over the place, they provide nectar for beneficial insects while also being a 'trap crop' for the bad bugs.

I really try to avoid all pesticides and fertilizers-- even the organic ones. I believe in the old organic maxim to “feed the soil and not the plant.” The addition of all fertilizers and pesticides hurts the flora and fauna of the soil. If the soil has a healthy ecology teeming with bacteria and fungi, then this healthy soil will provide the building blocks for my plants to use in photosynthesis. Pesticides are designed to kill. Organic ones, in some ways, are worse than the chemical kind, because organic ones are wide-spectrum killers - eradicating every critter they touch. It is true they don't persist very long in the environment, which is the reason to use them instead of the chemical pesticides. But for any pesticide to be efficient, you have to spray enough to cause it to drip onto the soil and those drops are fatal to soil biota. If you do use pesticides, at least admit to yourself you've been outsmarted by a bug. Once you have fallen on this conundrum, you know why organic gardening is no laughing matter – this stuff takes thought!

If you cultivate the ecology of the soil, you won't need much in the way of fertilizers in your garden. It might take a few years, but with a little patience, you can raise the fertility of your soil. Plants
that aren't thriving are probably not victims of a lack of nutrition (except nitrogen, which plants need in good supply at all times); it's much more likely a water problem (too much or too little). Southern California soils are notoriously low in nitrogen, but the way to get it is from the microbial action in the soil breaking down the mulch and compost you've been piling on top – they will provide a gentle long term source of nitrogen over a longer period of time – for almost zero money too! And they'll aerate your soil for you at the same time. Allow them to flourish by not using fertilizers and pesticides. Short term losses will provide you with long term gains.

Plants in containers are in a different world. Those plants are placed in a most abnormal position. You must fertilize them – especially nitrogen. I use fish emulsion.  It stinks, I know, I know – but it's still my favorite fertilizer. 
Apart from the odor, it is mild in its reaction with plants. Their roots readily take it up and results are visible quite quickly. Even sickly plants can handle fish emulsion, whereas many of the other more powerful fertilizers are too hot for plants that are stressed and can keel right over when hit with the stronger solutions. I use all fertilizers diluted nearly twice as much as suggested on the container, even fish emulsion or other organic fertilizers. I would rather have a weaker solution used more often than a full strength solution recommended by the people that make their living off fertilizer sales.

I mentioned nitrogen as being the one nutrient your plants need all the time. Signs of nitrogen shortages are yellowing older leaves on your plant. Because plants can move nitrogen inside their bodies, they will transfer their limited supplies of nitrogen from the older leaves, which don't work as well to their newer leaves in order to maximize the use of the nitrogen. If your plant has green new leaves and yellowing older leaves, it's probably a lack of nitrogen. You see this frequently in citrus trees in the winter months, because nitrogen moves slowly in the soil and yet it is still needed. Fish emulsion is the answer for this problem.

The other chlorotic appearance common on plants is similar to nitrogen, but with iron chlorosis all leaves begin to yellow. Plants cannot move iron around like nitrogen and and they are stuck with all leaves lacking iron. Citrus also gets this a lot especially in containers, but at any time of year. Use some iron sulfate – just a few tablespoons full in a large container and water it in. Wait a few weeks and see if that does the trick. Repeat if it doesn't.

In the garden, plant beans for free nitrogen! All members of the bean family attract a special kind of soil bacteria to their roots with which they form a symbiotic relationship. The plant photosynthesizes nutrients it shares with the bacteria. The bacteria pierce the roots of the plant and so are able to feed off these nutrients. In return the bacteria can change nitrogen in the air into a form that plants can use. The roots of the bean plants always contain more nitrogen, so harvest your beans and when the plants are ready to give up, cut them off leaving the roots in the soil for the next season's garden.

The only plant in our food gardens that should not be given lots of nitrogen are tomatoes. Left to their own devices, with additional nitrogen in the soil, tomatoes refuse to grow tomatoes but invest all their efforts in making big beautiful (very green) plants. You can't eat the plants which makes a bum deal for a gardener. In climates with shorter growing seasons than Southern California, this becomes a disaster because inhospitable temperatures will come before the plant burns up all that extra nitrogen and the plant finally begins to make tomatoes; throughout most of our glorious climate the tomatoes will simply arrive later. Tomatoes need temperatures around 85º throughout a 24 hour period to reliably set fruit; the bigger the fruit, the pickier they are about getting that 85º before fruiting. This makes our coastal garden, with onshore flows a bad candidate for those big ol' beefsteaks that folks seem to crave. The large tomatoes we can grow reliably are the paste tomatoes. In the photo above, at about the 8:00 spot there is a Striped Roman tomato which is one of our reliable paste tomatoes we frequently grow here.

May is the last month good month to get your summer garden in, after this it gets hotter and drier and it's tougher on you and the plants. It's lovely outside – you want to be outside anyway – get out there and get busy! Waiting will make your job harder and the plants less happy. The time is now! Carpe diem!

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
Look at last month's list -
but they'll be going into
the ground in the heat of
Summer! Frowny face.



Zucchini and winter squash
Refer to the text for exact dates.

David's The Greek Salad

It might be a bit early to think of the tomato harvest, and my admonitions to not 'count your tomatoes until they are on the plate;' oh what the hell... It's so close we can almost taste it, right?

Close to equal amounts of fresh tomatoes and fresh cucumbers. Do not slice neatly, but quickly and crudely chunk them into more or less bite sized pieces. I will be using San Marzano tomatoes and Armenian cucumbers for most of these this year. I love it! Greek salad with Italian tomatoes and Armenian cukes! Life in America.
Olive oil – enough to generously coat each bite, not so much as to float anything
Pepper to taste
Small slices of red onion for a some zing (the Italian 'Torpedo,' or Tropea onions are one of my favorites) – I'm just doing some 'zing' here. The onions should not be the main attraction.
Crushed dried oregano (I like the Greek oregano, remember?)
Homemade or a really good store bought feta cheese also cut into chunks.
Mix them all together with laughter; the actual order things are placed in the bowl is not all that important, it's a forgetful, or disorderly, cook's dream!

Serve with:
Homemade bread
Herb tea or lemonade
Good friends
Change it up as availability of ingredients dictates.
Eat till you're full and take a nap in the sun

*In a protected, shaded, location.

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