Sunday, December 9, 2012

Has It Really Been 2 1/2 Years?

What can I say? Once my friend Connie turned up conspicuously late to work and I asked her why. She said "I was busy". That's my answer too. I was busy. Now we are in a new house starting a new garden. It is both exciting and daunting to start over. The first task was to decide what trees and shrubs to keep and what to remove. With the help of arborist Rebecca Latta we identified 16 trees to be removed. These were not always easy decisions, because some trees I would have loved to have in my garden were damaged or infested with borers. Many trees had been topped, or girdled and some were intertwined with a chain link fence in such a way as they would never be healthy. After checking to see that the chips from these trees would not spread any disease, I had the workers grind the branches for wood chip mulch. Many big chunks of a large Ash tree made a circle of stumps like the one we so enjoyed in our last home. I also removed about 100 shrubs that had been placed in random rows were very congested.
Once your garden space is cleared of unwanted plants the next step is to start the soil on the road to health and vibrancy. My soil was generally of good structure, a little too rocky, but lacking any signs of life. While using the stump grinder it became apparent that the whole back yard was mulched about 6 inches down with black plastic. Every time the grinder was lifted it pulled up a ragged black volcano. This would explain why the soil was dead. I couldn't find a single worm or sign of fungal life. No air. The water must have been running off and only seeping through the odd tear. I wondered, would the worms return on there own or would I have to bring some in? We started by spreading 10 truckloads of Craptonite (horse manure and wood shavings) from Zeke the Sheik the Guru of Poopoo. The wood chips from the tree removal were spread in the front yard where there is a beautiful old olive and a magnificent Deodar. Then came an alfalfa cover crop in the back. Warning: there are perennial and annual versions of alfalfa. I bought annual, but was sent perennial. This is going to take work to cut back because each deeply rooted plant will have to be cut below the growth point or it will keep coming back.
This is my first time dealing with gophers and I have a lot to learn. I am not opposed to trapping but finding the tunnels and setting the traps is an art. I purchased many "gopher baskets". These 1 and 5 gallon stainless steel baskets are made in such a way that the mesh will spread as the tree roots grow. This is a problem when using chicken wire as a gopher barrier, because the twisted wires of poultry mesh can be unyielding to growing roots. I recommend the web site "Gophers Limited" for wire, baskets, traps and information. Here I can see that my basket has kept the gopher from my newly planted Saijo Persimmon. Kazi, 1. Gopher, 0.
Now, after 4 days of gentle rain that soaked well into the ground worms have returned, along with a rainbow of bizarre and beautiful fungal life. The soil is coming alive again and I can see the long white strands of Mycelium when I turn any soil. It's just a beginning on the long road to vibrant and healthy soil, but it is very satisfying to see. Here are some examples:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Friday, July 2, 2010

Summer Woes and Wonders

Early summer is a wonderful moment in the L.A. garden. Even if June gloom (our foggiest month) stalls the garden for a few weeks, as it almost always does, there is something so exciting about the burst of young energy in the vegetable bed. This June was unusual. There were very few foggy days and the beautiful weather made the garden particularly verdant.


I never plant the summer garden as early as my friends, not for any gardening reason, but because it works best for my family’s summer schedule. This year I planted even later than usual because ALL my seedlings died. All of them—maybe 200. I’ve thought a lot about why this might have happened and there isn’t an easy answer. They started beautifully under my lights in late March and early April. They sprouted in a timely and vigorous way, and I potted them from 72 cell trays into paper cups. I used to use Styrofoam cups but switched to paper because I didn’t like buying and throwing away all that plastic. This year when my seedlings were potted up they totally and completely stopped growing. Completely. For 2 months. And then they died. Part way through this, when I realized there was trouble, I switched some of the tomatoes to 4” nursery pots. Some of these made it, were planted in the beds and are now an amazing 4 or 5 inches tall. Wow. Spectacular growth for 3 months! Not.

I’ve spoken to many gardening friends about this. Various possible reasons came up: some kind of plastic coating on the cups was toxic to the plants; the cups were white and let too much light into the root area; the soil mix, which I’ve used before, had changed formulas; I should have used a sterilized mix even when potting up; too much bottom heat; too much water. I’m stumped. Next year I will use a sterilized mix and seed directly into 4” nursery pots. It was clear towards the very end that many plants succumbed to “damping-off,” but that was only the final straw for already weak plants. Sometimes you do something the same way for years and then all of a sudden it doesn’t work.

I went out hunting for tomato, eggplant and pepper plants in mid June to replace all my losses, but the wide variety I had started by seed can never be replaced commercially. I will miss my Bulgarian Carrot, Czech Black and Aji Dulce peppers, and Senryo eggplants among many others. Most of the nurseries around me seem to get their peppers and eggplants from a single source, and I found very little stock difference at the places I looked. One friend gave me 10 fabulous tomato varieties, and I happened upon a good selection of eggplants one day, but peppers were a problem. While even OSH is carrying heirloom tomato varieties, it seems that the world of commercially available chiles is reduced to Jalapeno, Serrano, Hungarian Yellow Wax, Habanero, Anaheim and Cayenne.


I order sweet potato starts in the mail from a wonderfully quirky and admirable organization, Sandhill Preservation. This year I have the “Rainbow Collection” with purple, orange, white and yellow varieties. There is something incredibly satisfying about digging these up in the fall. They are so crisp when you cut into them, in the same way as spring new potatoes but at the end of summer. This is my first time with the varied colors, and later I will report on their successes. They make such a beautiful plant and flower in the summer garden.

The Hickory King dent corn I planted is well on the way to its 15-foot height. It is in the front yard. One of my best memories from last summer was standing at the kitchen sink and hearing someone on the street in front of the house hit the brakes. I’d look up to see them backing up to look at the giant corn plants. Trailing around it this year are Musquee de Provence pumpkins, giant blue Hubbards, Australian Butter squash and a bright orange turban squash. I know I love the Butter squash and the Musquee. The other varieties I planted for their fun color and shape, and if I’m lucky they will taste great, too. At the base of each corn stalk are Italian Avellino beans. An international three sisters.

I’m trying a new way of trellising cukes this year. I took a 3½ x 5 ft. trellis and laid it on its side on some concrete piers. The idea is that the cukes will hang down from the trellis, they will be easy to spot, not lie on the ground, and will have extra air circulation in the hopes of slowing the onset of powdery mildew, an inevitable visitor in late summer.

This is looking like a great year in the orchard. My donut peaches were abundant and delicious. It’s easy to see why they are so rare and expensive in the stores. Don’t look away from your bowl of peaches, because when you turn back they will have gone from perfectly ripe to perfectly rotten. The other peaches and plums have wonderful crops on them. The brown rot that ruined so much of last year’s stone fruit crop is only minimally present.

And last of today’s wonders is the incredible 2010 avocado crop. The Fuerte tree has been unbelievably generous and is nearing the end of its season. It will soon drop the rest of its crop. I have images of Eva on the roof of the little barn with the picker extended maximally and Jose sitting in a high crook of the tree with a fruit picking bag slung over his shoulder, trying to balance the picker, the bag and himself to get as many as possible. Now we will move on to the Haas crop as the season progresses and the fruit gets oilier and richer. Yum.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Talk of corn

Recently, on one of my online vegetable growing discussion groups there was talk of corn and the Three Sisters (not the mountains in Oregon).
Three sisters is a traditional American Indian planting of corn, beans and squash together. The beans climb the corn and the squash wanders through the corn patch, insulating the soil and helping conserve water.
Last year I planted Hickory King dent corn (the tallest corn—reaching 15ft.), scarlet runner beans, and Australian butter squash. I enjoyed growing cornmeal corn, and the butter squash, which is a variety fairly new to the seed catalogues, was delicious, and stored well. The scarlet runner bean goes on my list of “veggies more people should be growing”.

I thought this exchange on the discussion group was interesting and worth sharing. I like hearing individual success stories/methods and this one, with a few of it’s responses, is informative.

Here it is:

Yes, you can use the SFG (Kazi’s note- this is the Square Foot gardening method — a popular and successful backyard gardening method that works well for people with unworkable soil) of closer planting in heavily amended soil (lots of compost). I generally plant my corn on 7" x 7" spacing in a patch, not rows. If you step carefully, you can get to the interior of the patch while the corn is young ... but it is dense enough to keep most weeds from sprouting ;-)

This does make it a problem for adding pole beans to the corn, tho ... so I plant bush beans around the outer edge of the corn patch, and plant watermelon or cantaloupe and let the vines run through the corn patch. There will be a significantly cooler environment under the corn stalks.

I also weave a soaker hose through the patch when it is knee high ... at that time, I hill the corn, side dress with compost, lay the soaker hose, and mulch with grass clippings. Until tasselling, this is generally the last 'hands on' care the corn needs.

At tasselling, I go out in the early morning when the wind is at it's lowest and brush through the patch to make sure the pollen falls into the corn, and not blown away on the wind.

The next time I do anything for the corn is to apply SevinDust to keep the corn borer caterpiller out of the ears when the kernels are starting to fill in. I only apply it once.

The last time I do anything to the corn, is HARVEST! Woohoo!

a response:

If Sevin dust gets on the tassels, it can kill bees that are gathering pollen.

You can also control earworm without affecting bees, by using a dropper to put a drop or two of mineral oil on the silk where it emerges from the husk, just as it is drying out after pollination. This will suffocate any earworms inside.

and another:

Hilling means mounding up the soil.
Because corn stands tall, it is quite vulnerable to going down in a wind, especially in soft loamy or sandy soils. Hilling the corn helps support it better. It also helps drainage in poorly draining soils.

and one more:

Pollination is easy with corn. When the tassles form, pollen will begin to shed. The silks should be light green and fresh looking. When they get dry and start turning brown, it's too late.

It can be as easy as walking the row knocking each stalk with your elbow, so it spreads pollen on adjacent plants. Or you can be more purposeful and bend the tassel over the silk of adjacent plants and shake it. If you have low sun (early morning) and the sun is behind your tassel, you can see the pollen in the air.

And early morning is the best time. If it gets hot and dry, pollen will die.

For small patches or windless seasons, I would always help out the corn as an insurance policy. Many of the big corn growers of the Midwest don't trust to luck either. They hire helicopters to fly up and down the rows, just above the corn.

thanks to those who share their knowledge.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Snarky bees

Here's the beekeeper Bruce tending the hives last night. I got stung twice- once on the ear. Not the way I had hoped it would turn out, but I always want to get close to watch him and I sometimes pay for it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


One of my beehives swarmed today.

When the hive gets overpopulated and raises a new queen it will divide and part of it will take off to a new home. The swarm was hanging in my tangerine tree. I called the beekeeper, but before he could get here to capture it, it went away. I wish I knew where it went. Unlike the horror movie image of a swarm, it is actually not dangerous. The bees carry a food supply with them and their bellies are so distended with honey that they could not arch their backs to sting you if they wanted.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hybrid or Heirloom?

As home vegetable gardening has become so much more common in the past few years more and more people come to me for advice or ask to see my garden. A kindergarten class is coming in a few weeks, the local Junior College has asked me to get involved in their new permaculture garden, a film maker wants to film my garden to try and raise money for his upcoming documentary on urban farming, a young couple in their new home heard me on the radio and want to look at my 100+ fruit trees to help them decide what to choose for their new yard, and the occasional neighbor shows up at the door with questions about this or that.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently is about hybrid and heirloom seeds. Actually it doesn't take a question to get me started. A simple comment might set me off. I admit that the controversy between these two types of seed is a pet peeve of mine, because they have become buzz words, bad and good, and there is a lot of misinformation. What is an heirloom seed? It has become a confusing term. It is a seed type that has been around for a long time, usually one that has not been maintained or developed by contemporary seed companies. Many of them have been collected from very small areas around the world where a neighborhood, or even a family have been saving their favorite vegetable variety seed for generations. These seeds are "open—pollinated," which means they will produce the same kind of vegetable in the next generation if the seed is saved properly. No one company owns these seeds, and heirloom vegetables have added an unbelievable richness of variety to our gardens and tables in recent years.

Hybrid, on the other hand, has become a bad word. Some people seem to believe that there is something to be avoided in hybrid seeds and advise others not to use them. This is ridiculous. All heirloom seeds ARE hybrids. Plant hybridizers back to early agrarian man and great great Aunt Mabel on the farm in Kentucky have all done exactly the same thing. They have grown successive generations of the same plant variety and chosen seeds or cross-pollinated for characteristics they want to emphasize. A tomato variety has to be around for many years for the breeder to stabilize the seed and produce true to type in following generations. The F1 (first generation) hybrid that may have been developed recently will not reproduce true to type. In many respects the terms heirloom and hybrid represent phases of a variety's development. Some of the tomatoes that Aunt Mabel had high hopes for did not improve and stabilize and were discarded. Some of todays new hybrids may stabilize in time. Also, the seed companies, seeking more ways to make money, have patented some of their varieties. One of my long time garden favorites and most prolific vegetables is Burpee's Butterbush—a compact Butternut squash that thrives in my garden. I can only get it from Burpee and this does not bother me. I hope that their plant hybridizers continue to come up with more varieties for us to try. Do you eat Pluots?? Or Nectarines? or Tangelos? These are hybrids, developed by the same type of scientist that is working on vegetable varieties for fun or profit. Do you like sugar snap peas? or stringless green beans? Every single food you eat is a hybrid, as are you yourself.

Agri-business has been working very hard to make money with patented hybrids and GMOs. We've heard the stories of GMO seeds that wander onto neighboring farms resulting in lawsuits and farmers who can't save seed from their corn because it is patented. This stuff scares me. But let's keep big agribusiness and backyard vegetable growing clearly separated in this particular area. It's agribusiness' job to hybridize for longer shelf life, crops that ripen all at once, travel well, can be picked early and stored long, loaded into big trucks and have seeds that the companies can maintain control over. That's where the money is. It's true that flavor is way down their list of priorities. But let's not assign the word hybrid to this set of goals. Radiator Charlie developed and controlled his now beloved heirloom Mortgage Lifter Tomato for a long time to make money— thus its name! Different hybridizers have totally different goals for totally different reasons. The folks at some of our home garden seed companies are working to create new varieties for you and me to use in our backyards, where a tomato that tastes like heaven and has a shelf life of about 20 minutes is not a big problem.

Are you going to save seed from your heirlooms or let your seed supplier do it for you? Do you have the space to isolate varieties from each other? Do you know that different varieties of tomatoes have to be different distances away from their neighbors to get seed true to type? These are important details in seed saving. Get William Woys Weaver's incredible book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening and you will be inspired to try many varieties and techniques in your garden. Or join the Seed Savers Exchange. I have chosen not to save seeds for now and continue to buy my open pollinated varieties fresh every few years.

Each year I plant some old favorites and some new varieties. I love trying heirloom varieties. But my success with them has been very inconsistent, even sometimes dismal, and my gardener friends say the same. I love the colors and rich flavors. But I would never plant a summer garden without my favorite modern tomato hybrids. I love Early Girl both for flavor and its unbelievable fecundity. Once a couple of summers ago I picked 50 pounds off 2 Early Girl plants within about 15 minutes. I canned whole tomatoes and made sauce and paste. I have never had this level of productivity with an heirloom tomato. Maybe you have. How does your microclimate and garden soil and water chemistry interact with all these varieties? You find this out by trying and trying again. And again. It's hard to read a catalogue like Tomato Grower's Supply, where the hundreds of varieties are described in such glowing terms (they are trying to make money too). How do you choose? My most successful heirlooms are replanted every year- like Black Prince, White Queen and Persimmon tomatoes. And I keep trying different heirlooms and modern hybrids to give me the most chances for variety and abundance. They both have their place in my yard and have served me well.