06 October, 2013

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 jalapeños, 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)


Refer to the text for exact dates.

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.

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