30 January, 2019

Lots Goes On In A SoCal Garden in January!

Rain on a broccoli, the photographer and his camera. We are grateful for the rain - even if it is just so-called 'negligible precipitation.' Lack of water is our plague and we need to garden in ways that keep moisture in the ground. These little showers are precious even if they aren't the be-all and end-all for us.

One of the wonderful things of living in Southern California, this close to the Pacific Ocean is the delightful, mild weather we enjoy. This is both a blessing and a curse. Further inland and on almost all of the North American continent, 'gardening' this time of year means looking in the seed catalogs that have begun to fill your mailbox. If you aren't getting seed catalogs on a regular basis, you haven't been gardening a long enough – they will come like aphids to new growth.

One of the truisms I try to practice is to 'garden with passion and gusto.' Gardening to me means growing it yourself from seed to final product and learning what works and how it works. At the beginning of the year, with all the promise of newness and resolutions, this is an exciting time for me in the garden. On days it isn't raining, the cool weather makes some of the more strenuous work a little less onerous and on warmer days it is usually not severe enough to make such work too difficult.

So this is the time to do more than simply think about a general garden cleanup and get busy if you haven't done it already.

It is still time to look after the plants of perennial food growing in your garden. If I haven't yet, I begin to prune my fruit trees. This is one of 'those jobs' I tend to procrastinate as long as I can.
If you have no experience at fruit tree pruning, do your trees a favor and order a pruning handbook from University of California’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Division (ANR)1 or purchase a reputable pruning book. Remember that these trees will live a lot longer than a typical pet and we wouldn't treat our cats or dogs with the indifference many people show trees. Pruned correctly, an apple, plum or peach will produce luscious, tasty fruit for many years. It's actually harder on you (and the tree) to prune incorrectly, so find out how and do it as right as you can in the first place. There are very few 'professional' gardeners who actually know how to prune fruit trees. Some trees will only fruit on old wood and some only on newer wood. If you or the person you hire doesn't know this, you could ruin the tree for many seasons to come. Get someone who knows fruit trees and pay them or learn how to do it yourself! Make the cuts with clean and sharp tools and follow a few simple rules.

This is the tail end of the 'dormant season' when one typically purchases deciduous fruit trees, apples, apricots, grapes and perennial ornamental plants such as roses. If you are putting perennial herbs in the ground (sage, rosemary and thyme – parsley is a biennial, with apologies to Paul Simon), this is the best time to put them in the ground – even though you may plant them year round here. Buy your trees or vines from someone who knows where you live in order to insure you are getting plants that will produce for you. A local neighborhood nursery will only carry plants that will do well in your climate whereas a big box outlet will carry things that are more likely to grow over a much wider area. You'll also find the selection at most big box stores to be woefully short and the staff indifferent, at best, to your needs.

Mail order suppliers are excellent venues for purchasing trees. One of my best finds was from a mail order nursery. I called and talked to one of the staff asking a few questions. There is no replacement for a person with knowledge. Based on where I was gardening, he suggested I try my luck with Dorsett Gold apples. I took his suggestion and have been blessed with a delicious, sweet and crisp apple that has wowed visitors to the garden ever since.

In the past, when pruning fruiting trees, without fail, I followed the pruning by spraying the tree with 'horticultural oil' which was what I was taught back in those days. Horticultural oil is highly refined petroleum oil that pests have never developed immunity to. It is deadly stuff. At one time, everyone was taught to spray this stuff whether you needed it or not on all your fruit trees to prevent future infestations. After doing this for a number of years, I opted to not spray. Guess what. Most of the time, I found I was wasting my time, labor and money on trees that did not develop problems in the following year.

Well, what happens when you don't spray and the tree gets the ickies? Nothing really. Any insect you spray for is not going to kill your tree, it will, at worst deprive you of a crop, but not usually. If anything, you might get a smaller crop of apples or get apples with scab or some other non-fatal disease. The only disease that will kill your tree (fireblight) is not phased one iota by any spray.

When I began to spray on as “only as needed basis,” I learned that more than 90% of the time I was merely throwing my money and time away. I don’t need to do that, do you? If you get a problem that needs spraying, read a different book. I'm done with spraying anything.

Spraying has ramifications to honey bees – an insect we cannot do without. Simply not spraying for them, makes more sense than spraying for whatever prophylactic reason. Please consider not spraying at all. We are counting on our trees for food, so we will want to be proactive in their care, but we also need to be intelligent in our use of killing agents in our environment, and in particular around our food. Much of the problems we face in our world today are the result of mankind's irreverent and reckless use of “-icides” of all types and over using them 'just in case we might get an insect” instead of only if and when absolutely needed.

Somehow, our culture has become convinced that warring with nature is a fight we can win. We are foolish when we spray “just because.” If you have pests, deal with them as the year goes along – and deal with them in ways that avoids all “-icides.” We can be a lot more intelligent in our dealings with the critters that compete for our food supply; spraying admits we have failed to deal with something in a more positive fashion.

We were talking about pruning, right? So, on the other hand, all of your citrus fruit trees are evergreen and therefore can technically be pruned at any time of the year when they are not in flower or actually fruiting (some lemons you just have to look for a slow production time because stopping is not in their vocabulary). These trees are best pruned when there is nothing better to do and the day is not too warm, so the person doing the work doesn’t overheat.

This may be a cold month and, if we are blessed, rainy. But we still have to keep our eyes out for Santa Ana winds – sometimes hot and sometimes cool, but always dry and desiccating to all garden plants, and plants in pots suffer even more. If your skin is crawling and you need more skin cream, or lip balm, you can bet your plants need more moisture too! It’s best to get out there with a hose and help your irrigation system keep up – you’ll enjoy your garden more – the “best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow.” Still.

Are you ready to think about summer yet? You mean you never stopped thinking about summer? If you are like me, you are completely overwhelmed with seed catalogs and drooling over their wonderful photos and the several hundred new mouth-watering, absolutely irresistible new varieties that all must be tried… in your one10’ square garden bed. If you aren’t getting these free catalogs, you haven't ordered from one yet. What have you been waiting for? Go to the list of seed houses (Appendix A) to make your day! Maybe your month!

Of course, you could skip buying seeds altogether and join with your neighbors in creating a seed library. Like a library of books, a seed library lends seeds, all 'open pollinated.' You allow some of the plants to flower and set seed and at the end of the growing season, return to the library the same amount you borrowed. It is a win/win situation in many ways (The Seed Library of Los Angeles, which I had a hand in starting, is described in Appendix B is one of them and it's for free! Well, $10 for a lifetime which is pretty close to free! Doesn't get a lot better than that. )

So, what will it be this year? Eight different sweet peas, half a dozen different lettuce plants? Look at all those tomatoes for sale and how about that new radish? If I knock down the neighbor’s garage, I think I could add some squash and pumpkins…. do you think they'd mind too much? Probably not if I give them the chance to eat some...

In the Garden, we are still putting out plants of broccoli and cabbage, chard and Brussel sprouts and we can still sow seeds of beets and carrots. Lettuce, the golden child of our winter gardens is the great hole-stopper – whenever any plant has to come out, have a six pack of lettuce on hand – preferably of different colors of lettuce – and plop one in the hole. One of my favorite tricks is to use red lettuces with green lettuces – or different shades of red and green to make a colorful food garden. Lettuce should be a top selection on everyone's list of border plants! Merveille des Quatre Saisons (about the only French I can say without sounding foolish, a marvelous red/green butter lettuce that performs well all through Fall to late Spring), next to Black Seeded Simpson (a very light green leafy lettuce) make a stunning color combo – but I also like Merlot, very dark wine red (aptly named!) alongside Black Seeded Simpson or Parris Island Cos, the quintessential Romaine lettuce. Color and shape, texture and form all come together in the lettuce patch – I swear I can't get through a seed catalog without ordering one or two more packets of lettuce seed. It is an addiction for me! The lettuce loves of my life right now are Merveille des Quatre Saisons, Black Seeded Simpson, Drunken Woman Frizzy Head (I'm not lying!), Parris Island Cos, Red Yugoslavian, Rossa di Trento, Tango and Winter Density. All I have to do, however, is look through a new catalog and I'm easily swayed into the leaves of another. And as if all that wasn't enough, I even like homegrown head lettuce; it's not nearly the garbage found in stores – the ribs are thick and filled with water making a marvelous refreshing salad for a warm day.

No one, no matter what kind of soil you have, should ever step into a garden bed. We want to keep the soil in these beds as fluffy and light as grandma's meringue (not my grandma! Some theoretical really-good-baking grandma!). Adding lots of organic matter will do that for you, but you must stay out of the beds – your footprints will ruin the 'fluffy' we are hoping for our roots.

If you have clay soils, be especially careful to not step in your garden beds. Make paths around the beds and make the beds small enough to reach the center without stepping into the bed – if you have the opportunity to collect tree chips from an arbor company, collect as much of the stuff as you can use or keep to use. Spread it three or more inches deep wherever you have to walk while gardening. You will need to replenish this every so often, but you'll find it so helpful as it keeps weeds from growing in the paths near your garden beds and provides you with the opportunity to walk all around your garden beds without getting mud on your shoes no matter how wet the day! Under the top layer of mulch, the wood chips will be breaking down 'growing' really lovely soil through the years.

Each chapter will have a chart like the one below. I indicate the months that are best for starting different vegetable seeds. “Start These in Containers” means you will plant the seeds in some kind of pot in a sheltered location (hopefully away from pests) to later “Move to the Ground from Containers.” The rest we start directly in the ground in the place they will grow to maturity. Some seeds can be done either way and, if that's the case, I will usually do both. The ones started in containers and moved to the garden will often mature later than the ones started in situ. This way you have two different harvest times if all goes well, but if not, the different strategies may pay off if one of the plantings gets hammered by a weather event or insects.

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
Ultra-early tomatoes
Cabbage (early)
Fava beans
Fava Beans
Fava Beans






Here is the recipe for January, when chard and chickpeas (garbanzos) are in season:

Moroccan Spiced Chickpeas & Chard

Chard should be in abundance right now and that often leads to 'chard overload,' how many times can you steam chard and hit it with lemon juice and still wolf it down with glee? I'm limited but this recipe never seems to fail to satisfy.

The ingredient list only looks daunting. Most of that list is simply a plethora of spices and you will find you already have a lot of them and need to use them up sooner rather than later. I have made this missing a spice here and there and missing raisins (don't make it without raisins if you can help it they really add a delightful sweetness). It doesn't take long to make and the flavors run the gamut from sweet to savory and it is a delightful mélange. Serve with rice or quinoa for a satisfying vegetarian dinner.

• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• ½ sweet onion, minced
• 1 teaspoon paprika (sweet or smoked according to preference)
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• ½ teaspoon turmeric
• ¼ teaspoon thyme
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ¼ cup golden raisins
• 1 tablespoon organic tomato paste
• 1 bunch chard (about 8 ounces) washed, center ribs removed, and chopped
• 1 cup cooked chickpeas plus 1 ¼ cups of their cooking liquid, or 1 can organic chickpeas with liquid plus ½ cup water
• 1 teaspoon hot sauce or ¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)

Add the olive oil, onion, and garlic to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or 3-4 quart pot, and turn the heat to medium. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, then add the paprika, cumin, turmeric, thyme, salt, and cinnamon. Stir together and cook for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the remaining ingredients, cover, and turn the heat down to medium-low.

Be sure to stir every 3-5 minutes to ensure that the bottom does not burn and that your ingredients are evenly combined. You can add a tablespoon of rice flour if you like your stew thicker. Remove from the heat after 20 minutes. Serve with rice or quinoa.

1The book I use is sold by UC's ANR: Home Orchard: Growing Your Own Deciduous Fruit and Nut Trees Publication Number: 3485, Author: C. INGELS, P. GEISEL, M. NORTON ISBN-13: 978-1-879906-72-3 Copyright Date: 2007

01 January, 2019

My Diatribe Against Fertilizers!

January is always associated with new beginnings simply by being the first month in our current calendar. So we go with the flow.

Most gardeners the world over are stuck inside looking at seed catalogs – which conventionally  arrive about now – because the ground is frozen solid or at least cold enough to kill almost every seedling for a few more months! Having been raised in the mid-West, I have sat by the fire with a stack of seed catalogs next to me and proceeded to create orders of hundreds of seeds which, of course, Grandpa never ordered (he saved most of his own seeds and ordered parsimoniously – he lived on Social Security and whatever he could sell from his three acre garden. His bottom line and my expensive orders didn't mix. However, the seed companies trained me well for as soon as I was in charge of my own finances, I have ordered too many seeds annually with regular precision!

(On a side note: I need carrots for an upcoming workshop and after trying four times to get my carrot seed to sprout, I looked at the package and it was completely out of date. Take it from me, having learned it yet again, carrot seed isn't worth its weight in dust after 18 months. So I took to my catalogs. I ended up ordering Nantes Carrots from Pinetree Garden Seeds, of whom I've written before. Let me tell you, I have NEVER gotten a seed order this fast in my life! I'm thinking they've hired a clairvoyant and knew the order was coming two days before I ordered it. If I ever need something fast every again, you can guess who I'll be dealing with! Kudos to Pinetree Garden Seed!)  And as I've noted before, their packages are the best sized for us without forty feet rows. The selection is great as well.

Nantes Carrots from Pinetree Garden Seeds
Note the blunt ends, more of the carrot is
usable, and one of my reasons for choosing this variety.
But in Southern California, we just keep on trucking, all year round! Not only do we have some of the finest soils in the world, we have weather that allows us to grow much more variety than most of the rest of the planet! I am complaining about my carrots (above), but in what percent of the United States does one get to make that complaint in January? It's amazing what we can do here.

In January, as a part of a year long quest for knowledge, I want us all to consider on how we can limit fertilizers in our gardens. Most of the fertilizers we put down on the ground are wasted. Sometimes that's because the way we applied them was faulty or improper; sometimes it's because the soil already has enough of that fertilizer and cannot use anymore; sometimes it's because we diagnose our plants' problems improperly.

In Southern California, especially in Los Angeles county, the part of California I am most used to, I would easily bet that your soil has enough of all nutrients to grow plants except Nitrogen. This is true for a lot of California soils. You will have to supply Nitrogen to your plants. I don't use fertilizers at all. But I have to be certain my plants have Nitrogen to grow. How do I get those two ends to meet?

Before explaining that, note this: science considers Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium to be the three “Macro-elements” that are in the most demand by the plant for growth. We know we are missing N (the symbol for Nitrogen) without even looking for it because most California Flora are adapted to live in soils without N – if the plants needed N, the soils they would be the dominant species would have lots of N. Our soils don't. The lesson is clear and you don't have to be a clairvoyant to figure that out – just do a thorough inventory of what is there! But our veggies are not from California and they have evolved not only use Nitrogen, but lots of it . Most of the other minerals science says we need to grow good plants are found in good supply in our soils. Now, I know that's a huge generalization, and it doesn't substitute for a soil test, but that would be my assumption until proven wrong.

In my garden, we do not use Nitrogen fertilizer. Yet our plants are supplied with enough N to perform. We made this happen by planting plants that are said to “fix” atmospheric Nitrogen in a way that makes that N available to plant roots. These are crops from the different bean and pea families and we grow a lot of them. If I were growing my own garden, I would love to have pathways of clover, which also fix Nitrogen. This N, done the way nature does things, is in good supply in our soils. Nitrogen from commercial endeavors is frequently gassed off into the atmosphere serving our plants very little and putting more carbon in the air. However, if we use peas and beans we are sequestering that in the soil – which, by the way, is where it should be!

While this true for Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium are not a part of the atmosphere and so do not present that kind of problem. However, they are usually found in our soils with abundance.

Don't add more to what is there already. Again, these are broad generalizations, it comes from Southern California and it is based on my experience.  A soil test is the only way to tell absolutely what is in your soil. At one point, my garden was tested (a long time ago) and so I know I'm right, but this is my overall recommendation until you do get a soil test.

There are many more elements needed for a good garden soil, but they are no way needed as much as these three. (We talk about these other minerals in another chapter...)

Ideally, for our Nitrogen fix, we would grow beans and when done, cut them off at the soil surface, leaving the roots in the soil to decompose, but, while that does give one more Nitrogen, I don't often do it, because I'm ready plant something else there already and I can't wait. You will still get N in the soil, not just as much. Don't make yourself nuts trying sequester ALL the N in the soil, it's not worth it. Get some in and keep getting some in.

One big ol' Exception to the rule of Nitrogen: Tomatoes do not produce well with lots of Nitrogen in the soil! Do not follow beans or peas or any other N fixing plant with Tomatoes. For some reason they plants will grow and grow until the Nitrogen is used up. Then they will finally set flowers and begin to make tomatoes, but not until then!

Happy New Year to all of you! My Scottish Terrier, Mr Tre', and I wish everyone a Happy and Prosperous New Year! Here's to great harvests, befuddled pests and lots of home grown food!  Thanks for reading...