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.