01 September, 2018

I Can't Believe It's September Already!!!

Can you? Fall is almost or already here. This is really a busy time for a gardener even with the evenings coming sooner and mornings later. I mean it's really a crunch – there is harvesting from the Summer garden and planting for the Winter garden! But if you find time now, you'll reap rewards later in the year.

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.

My friend Joy Sun grew this amaranth - a plant we are harvesting this time of year - beautiful with the lablab bean flowers around it.
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.

This is an exciting time to be gardening. Grab your imagination and take it to 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 stop the car when parking or forget to go to get breakfast in the morning. Death by inattention can be reformed – it's simply changing your patterns. Be kind to yourself and you'll learn. It's all good.

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 like the idea of planting a perennial crop that will assist in nourishing the soil – these are sometimes called cover crops or 'manure crops' if they are planted in the beds. My method is a little different, because the crop is allowed to stay in the paths, like any one of several clovers or an alfalfa 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 without a gas powered lawn mower – the clippings can be put right back into the beds or added to a compost pile for more green material. Unfortunately, for those of us 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 digging them out of the pathways. Not having perennial paved paths is another compromise one makes in community gardening.
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. Protecting the soil from wind and rain is imperative and bare soil fares the worst. Having some plant there with roots in the soil makes all difference in keeping soil – especially on a slope – in place.

Once you've built good garden soil, you don't want it to leave. We work hard to make our soils the kind of soils our gardening friends will drool over. But one hard rain, or a Santa Ana event on bare soil, even really good soil, can ruin all that work.

Green manure crops have been a time honored way of helping the soil regain lost fertility. Farmers have known for centuries that bean crops add nitrogen to the soil and bulky plants add to the tilth of the soil. Alfalfa is prized for its extensive root system that breaks up the hard subsoil and bring nutrients trapped out of the reach of other plants into its leaves – adding them to the soil or compost pile brings all that into an area where it can be made available to your veggies.

Clover, as well as alfalfa, creates nitrogen – what is called 'fixing nitrogen' and is beneficial to most garden plants. Clover, as a member of the bean family – the Legumes, they are called – has a symbiotic relationship to a bacterium in the soil. The bacteria invade the bean plants roots and the plant feeds the bacteria – the bacteria return the favor by taking atmospheric nitrogen – which plants can't use – turning it into a form that plants can use. Growing fava beans, lentils, peas, or garbanzo beans all will add nitrogen to your soil – whether you harvest the beans or not. Whenever you think you need fertilizer, consider using a green manure crop instead. It takes longer, but the results are much more gratifying.

Once you have begun to work on your soil, never leave it uncovered to the wind and the sun. Those elements will destroy your soil and will not help your garden's production or water/nutrient holding capacity. It is best to use a cover of plant material, even weeds if you have nothing else! Pull the weeds, leave them in the path with their roots exposed to the sun and within 24 hours, they'll be toast and you can spread them along your paths or even place them near your plants (this is also a good thing to do with your cover crops – while it's better to put them in your compost (as greens), you can also pull the cover crop, lay them on the path to dry and use them as your pathway mulch.

In a different world, where the perennial weeds are kept at a minimum, a wonderful path planted of cover crops is a gift that keeps on giving. The green manure crop produces nitrogen that will eventually help your garden plants out, it's pleasant to walk on an almost lawn – even barefoot if you are so inclined. And kept up, looks positively divine, darling! We cannot do this at The Learning Garden – too many perennial weeds!

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



Garbanzo beans

Garlic (bulbs)

Shallots (bulbs)


*You must grow root crops in the ground from the very beginning because they transplant poorly, even if you are spectacularly careful in transplanting, very few will avoid having ugly deformed roots – it just is not worth the effort!

You can begin planting right now between the dying, dismal plants of summer – just get right in there and sow your seeds or transplant your little baby plants!

Good luck!  

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