Sunday, December 27, 2009


It's loved by many, disliked by some. It is a cabbage run amok, ad it's the flower that we eat, though the stem is also tasty. This food crop has been known for many centuries, dating back to Roman times, but it came late to the United States. It took a while to find its place on our table, but has enjoyed growing popularity since the 1950's.

Fresh, healthy broccoli picked fresh from the garden is sweet and succulent, and that alone is a good reason to keep a few plants in your garden year round. It is easy to grow, thrives most of the year in the garden, and is very, very good for you.

REASONS TO GROW BROCCOLI: You can grow broccoli most of the year here on the Central Coast of California. You can harvest specifically to encourage sprouting, so you can pick handfuls of florets when the main crop is gone. You can control pests in organic ways and avoid the heavy use of pesticides that are often used on this crop in fields grown conventionally. And even in the smallest garden, you can set out a couple of transplants every month to make sure you have the right amount, but not too much.


DeCicco is a standard variety that can be harvested in about 50 days if direct seeded. This one provides a long harvest period of side shoots.

Your favorite seed catalog will offer many varieties of hybrid broccoli plants; some that tolerate warmer weather, some that do better in cold. Here at Cole Canyon Farm we offer Packman and Windsor, two types selected because they are good performers, have a good temperature tolerant range, and hold well in our 3" containers. These plants are a big seller for us, so you can expect to get young, healthy seedlings ready for your garden from February through November.


Broccoli does best in a garden environment. You can direct seed most of the year and transplant in the winter. Transplants may need a bit of staking while the roots get settled in. Some of the dwarf varieties of broccoli will do OK in containers if they have a minimum of 10" root space. The standard varieties, especially DeCicco, will not be happy in a container. They will take far too long to flower and give off an unpleasant odor that may not be appropriate to your deck or patio.


Put in transplants in February and March, direct seed after that into August, then transplants again into November. Most hybrid varieties will be ready to eat in about 60 days, whereas the older varieties may take longer.


Broccoli is packed with Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, C and A. Minerals include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc; all in significant amounts. Testing shows that broccoli also contains a substance called isothiocyantes that is a potent anti-carcinogen, thought to protect us from various forms of cancer in the digestive system.


The tender broccoli can be eaten raw (tray a broccoli slaw by mixing grated stems with shredded carrots, parsnips and cabbage) or warmed and tossed into pasta or rice. The stems need to cook a little longer and love to be sauteed with garlic and onions. We often throw stems into the roaster and add the florets about five minutes before pulling the pan out of a 500-degree oven. Coat all vegetables with a little grape seed oil in an oven that hot. Broccoli can be steamed or par-boiled, served hot with butter or drizzled with hot sesame oil.


You can juice broccoli into a variety of concoctions that provide hight levels of vitamins and minerals. Here's one that really tastes good.

Cruciferous Surprise, a nutrient dense, calcium-rich drink loaded with Vitamin C and carotenes.

2 - 4 kale leaves
1/2 cup broccoli florets with stems
1/2 head of cabbage, cut into wedges
2 carrots
2 apples

The Complete Book of Juicing by Michael T. Murray, N.D.
100 Vegetables and Where They Come From by William Woys Weaver
Grow Vegetables by Alan Buckingham
Golden Gate Gardening by Pam Peirce
Edible Container Gardens by Michael Guerra

Saturday, December 19, 2009

New for the New Year

The Cole Canyon Farm website was originally designed with an "On The Truck" feature that was meant to enable our customers to know which plants we would be bringing to market each week. It was a good idea since ours is a mobile nursery business. In practice however it was unwieldy. Especially in early spring when new tomatoes, peppers, squashes, cucumbers and eggplant came on in droves each week. Things move too fast for us around here to find the time to sit down at the computer and send off a list to our web - guru - guy.
And as our web - guru - guy reminded me when we discussed this, this Blog thing and this Facebook thing didn't really exist when we developed the website. So here is what we are going to do:

If you want to know what is on the truck in general, it is best to check in to this Garden Under Cover Blog. A prompt will be on our Facebook page, so if you aren't a Fan of Cole Canyon Farm on Facebook, now might be a good time to do that. Or, sign up to be on our email list and we will be sending out newsletters once a month in the spring. It's all so electronic, I know, but once you have the plants you want in your hands, you can go to your garden, dig in the dirt, and forget all about computers, email and facepages. Thanks and stay tuned.

Monday, September 28, 2009

When customers as us "can I grow this in a container?" we often say yes, because we read somewhere that it was possible or other customers have told us they grew it in a pot. This year, we turned a significant portion of our deck into a container garden. We planted tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, beans (in a bean planter with string trellis not show in this photo), herbs of all types, radishes, lettuce, eggplant, arugula and cilantro. Let me tell you, this was very hard work. Much harder than the house garden where we usually grow these plants. The good news is, we got a lot more peppers and eggplant because it was very hot. The bad news is we spent twice, maybe three times as much water and the time involved in keeping the plants well watered. We used big - 3 - 5 gallon - plastic containers for the tomatoes, squash, and Manzano peppers, and 3 gallon EcoForm pots for most of the other peppers, eggplants and herbs. I understand a lot more about what patio gardeners go through in keeping their plants healthy. Next year, we will only grow peppers and eggplant on the deck and keep the others in the garden, where they can survive one, two, sometimes three or four days without watering if there is fog. Good experiment, though.

Working the Market

It's been a while since I've actually worked a farmers' market by myself out of the big van. I've been doing a few markets out of our little Honda Element, but that is way too easy. The van carries hundreds of plants, heavy trays of well watered 5" herbs, six big tables, five small tables, a canopy, and an umbrella. In order to get ready for the Campbell Market, I get up at 4:30 AM. (Imagine that, those of you who knew me in a previous life.) I do a few chores are around here - feed the dogs, the cats, the chickens, release the geese, in the dark, and hope the dogs will keep any predators away during those dangerous pre-dawn hours. In the van and off to Campbell, enjoying NPR and the sunrise. I pull into my space on the corner of Central and Campbell Avenue at 7 sharp. Many vendors are already there and most all of the artisans because their spaces are first come, first served. The certified vegetable, fruit, plant, and flower folks have reserved spaces. It took me a full two hours to set up. I had forgotten the moves, the order, the outline of our space. I didn't really know what plants were even on the van, so I wasn't sure what went where. I was set up and ready to go at 9 AM, when the market opened, but by that time, I felt like I had been there for hours. Actually, I had. It was an OK market, a little slow for us, but typical for this time of year. Saw many, many old friends and that was good, and lots of people inquired about Shaun, where was he, the wonderful young man who had done that market for us all summer. That, too, was good. By noon, the temperature was rising and I was busy. Or maybe there were just a lot of people who wanted to stand inside the canopy, out of the sun. At 1 PM, when the market ended, I was totally exhausted and thanking my lucky stars for Gary (pictured) who sells newspapers on my corner and helps me load up. It's hot - 92 degrees, I am very tired, and Gary's help loading tables is greatly appreciated. A couple of people tried to purchase plants after they were loaded back into the truck. Sometimes that is possible, sometimes not. This week, not. Too hot and I was too tired. I am sorry about the lady who wanted dill, I thought I was being polite when she asked if we could unload the plants for her and I asked her to check back with us next week, but she said I wasn't polite and she would wait til that nice young man who was there last week returned. Oh, well.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ours are not really greenhouses. They are hoop houses; covered in plastic with earthen floors. We don't grow anything in the ground, all of our plants are sitting up on tables. A weed or two shows up underneath the tables, but mostly we throw Sweet Alyssum seed to attract beneficial insects, especially hoverflies to the greenhouse. It IS a sweet smelling little flower, and totally drought tolerant so we don't have to think about watering it. One less thing to water.

These covered spaces, we call them 'rooms', are special indeed. Especially at dawn. No sound at all; no helpers, no hoses pumping water, no dogs racing through, nothing. Well, maybe a cat wishing for a hummingbird, but those guys stay very high as do the phoebes, who flip through to catch flies now and then. We often forget to close the doors at night, and wonder why the deer, who pass by so closely, choose not to enter the enclosed space where all the tasty items are. But they do not, knock wood.

So we celebrated Labor Day by laboring little. A little watering, of course. I actually spent a few hours getting plants gathered for the weekly tasks; assembled the Tea Herbs on one table, the Mediterranean Herbs on another, the Women's Health Herbs on another - ready for a presentation next weekend. The plants look good and seem to have enjoyed this extra round of heat that was put upon them last week. It was almost too much for us; the greenhouse thermometers ran to 105, 108, and then we left. Stepping outside did wonders. Turning on the fans did wonders as well, but we don't like them. Too noisy.

The frogs are happy, too. The heat and the moisture from a stepped-up watering schedule makes these little guys feel downright tropical. They love it and I can only hope that it boosts their appetite for aphids and spider mites, and whiteflies and the few other insect problems that we have. And we have very few. Insect problems. Perhaps its because we are good people? Or because the plants live in one place for a short time? Or because we don't use any pesticides so we never kill the good guys? I don't know; but other than a brief problem with powdery mildew under a too too dark shade cloth over the mint, and an awful yucky problem with onion maggots in chives that lasted for about a week, we have been blessed, and I say again, blessed with healthy happy plants that fend for themselves.
Every year we talk about installing a few lights in the greenhouses so we can visit after dark, work after dark, find things after dark. It doesn't happen. It could happen. But - on moonlit nights - it's blazing bright in there, so who needs it. Moonlit nights we need, and you couldn't find a better place to spend an hour on a night of the full moon, than a greenhouse filled with healthy, vigorous plants. Does photosynthesis take place after dark?

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Is everyone in California originally from Ohio? Ai, yi, yi, yi !
It just isn't true that our growing season here on the Central Coast of California is over on September First. Just the opposite - in fact, we have more warm sunny days ahead of us than my old cousins back in Dublin, Ohio had starting in May! We have an incredibly long growing season and, even though we don't have those weeks and weeks of balmy nights, we do have weeks and weeks of frost free growing. So, forget everything your old Midwestern daddy taught you and believe nothing you read on the back of seed packets - plant NOW!
Plant lettuce. It loves cooler climates and sweetens up when the frost sits upon its shoulders. Not freezing weather, but frost, yes! Wonder why we keep lettuce in the refrigerator? It LIKES it!
Plant beets. They get a good start going right now and then those lovely roots sit nicely in colder soil, just waiting to be picked and eaten.
Plant cabbage. You can ignore those monster cabbages that take up all of your garden space and plant the mini-cabbages very close together. Harvest and eat when they are softball sized.
Plant bunching onions. Because you can, year round. Same goes for Chard, Cilantro, Kale of all types, Collards, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts (long season AND short season), Kohlrabi, Cauliflower - all those brassicas that sweeten in cold weather.
Plant peas - if they grow and produce, fine. If not, they will in spring.
Plant fava beans as an overwintering crop, with garlic, shallots, Walla Walla onions, and Stockton Red onions.
Did I mention Spinach, Chinese cabbage, any and all mustards, Asian greens...
Arugula grows great in winter, so does Cilantro. All the perennial herbs overwinter as do many pepper plants.
Now is NOT the time to stop gardening.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Local Nurseries

The peppers in the greenhouse are ripening; coloring up through the pepper rainbow from green to black to purple to red with some yellow and orange phases in there depending on the type. They make a colorful addition to an otherwise muted pallet of herbs and young vegetable plants. Green; dark green, light green, grey green, yellow green, variegated green - but mostly green.
I took three trays of Prairie Fire peppers, in full pepper regalia, up to Roger Reynolds Nursery and Carriage House today, along with some flats of onions, basil, cilantro, sages and a few other things. While I was there a much bigger delivery truck pulled in, unloading racks of flowers and bedding plants. Not a huge nursery, but one considerably larger than ours, and it was nice to chat with the driver, who was also be the co-owner of the business, about plants and greenhouses and delivery vehicles and how much we like Maria at Roger Reynolds and how he just said, "Yes, ma'am" and got along with her fine. I was proud of the plants I was delivering. We drive smaller trucks, bring fewer plants, but we appreciate the niche we have at this nursery and greatly appreciate the fact that Roger Reynolds, and many other local nurseries, support local growers small and large. Roger Reynolds is celebrating its 90th birthday/anniversary this next month, and will honor its suppliers and its customers. If you live in the Palo Alto/Redwood City area, I urge you to pay this fine nursery a visit and enjoy the tremendous variety of plants that they have on hand, as well as the lovely gift shop called The Carriage House.
Back on the road, I drove on up to San Francisco to the Ferry Building to make a much smaller delivery to a much smaller shop selling herbs, succulents and orchids. The Kingdom of Herbs sells our organic herbs and we deliver fresh ones each week. There are lovely gift items in this tiny shop, but very little light which is a challenge for them and the herbs they display. The plants sell quickly though and their new owners - I hope - take them home to a brighter place.
Certified Farmers' Markets continue to be the best place for us to sell our little plants; but having additional retail outlets like Roger Reynolds and The Kingdom of Herbs is a terrific addition for us and for our customers.
We only have four hours each week at our Farmers' Markets; so if you think of us between markets and need a plant or two, pay a visit to these outlets and, as always, support your local nurseries.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Break Time

There are days when you just don't want to work. Today was one of those. We 'culled' the chicken flock yesterday, put some of them in the freezer as stewing hens, buried some that were just too old. Dispatched some goslings and reduced the flock to four - two breeding pair. That is a very hard thing to do but for all those out there who think it would be fun to have a few chickens, the day will come when they are too old or injured or sick and need some intervention. It's not fun, but hopefully kindly in the long run. It's been many years since we purchased strange meat; meaning meat from an animal that we didn't know or know it's owners. I'm always impressed when the young people who work here show up on days when we butcher, because they understand the necessity. And their own personal need to participate. Unless you are a vegetarian, then you probably should at least witness, if not participate, in the harvesting of the meat that you eat. But it is an exhausting business and no one did much work around here today. The plants got water, but not much transplanting took place. The vultures circled most of the day; their intense scenting ability knowing exactly where the offal was buried. The dogs went crazy barking at the vultures, but even their noses couldn't detect the deep graves, the lime added to decrease the scent. Why am I writing this on a blog about gardening; no reason. Except it is part of the farm experience and probably should be more a part of the life experience that we all share. The good news is we have a healthy foursome of geese, a small flock of chickens, two vigorous dogs, seven interesting cats, a passel of useful part time employees whose youth is infectious, and multiple greenhouses full of lovely, healthy plants. And today, we had trees full of bush tits! Thank you, St. Francis!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Every season we go through the discussion again about whether we should sell cilantro seedlings or not. The good news is that it is very popular and customers buy it week after week, nearly year round. The bad news is that beginner gardeners have a less than satisfactory experience with it. And it's not their fault. Cilantro, or Coriander, is easy to grow. But transplanting it further shortens its already short life cycle.
The commercial value of coriander was, historically, in the seed. So it was selected to go to seed quickly for financial reasons. Now, more and more people want it for its tasty foliage, but they have to be quick about it or the plant bolts, sets seed, and turns bitter.
If you love having cilantro in the garden, buy some seeds, harvest often and plant it frequently, directly into the garden. If you would rather buy seedlings, select the youngest ones available, preferably those without true leaves. If it looks like cilantro, it is probably too old to transplant.
Yes, we will continue to sell cilantro. And we will continue to sell it as a really young plant and encourage our beginner gardeners to purchase some of their own seed and plant it directly. And we will encourage you to try using other herbs in its place, such as young parsley, chervil, and rau ram (Vietnamese coriander); these plants are not the same, and it is their very difference that makes them so enjoyable.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Container Gardening - Fresh Food on the Deck

I felt obligated to attempt a container garden this year, in addition to our 'house' garden and our test garden. So many of our customers are limited to containers on their deck, patio, balcony, that I felt I needed a little more experience with this. Since this photos was taken, two bean boxes with string trellises were added for pole beans. This was put together in June and we have had the best luck with the cucumbers; Rocky, Suyo, Little Leaf. The tomatoes - I planted Stupice and Sun Gold Cherry in 5 gallon pots - are just now starting to produce. The Zephyr squash looks lovely, but didn't do much zucchini-wise. I don't think it got enough sun. I planted two small pots with radishes and one pot produced quickly as radishes are wont to do, but the other Japanese variety which was said to need 45 days, hasn't produced at all. The eggplants and peppers look great and are setting fruit right now. They are all in 3 gallon containers. We haven't had too many pests, a few white flies, but we also have a lot of hummingbirds who love white fly, so there you are.
I made a big mistake with the pole beans. As soon as they came up from seed, they looked diseased. And, as it turns out, they are not pole beans at all, but a bush variety of Red Noodle. I must pull them up and plants snow peas for the fall. Not shown in this picture, is a big wine barrel filled with lettuce, chard, sorrel (red veined) that has struggled a bit with leaf miners and heat, but by and large look and taste great. Those are keepers for a year round deck garden.
Our deck is a brutal place. Even though our house is painted dark green, there is a lot of reflected light and heat. And wind. So the plants dry out quickly and have to be watered more frequently than if they were in the garden. The area of the deck I chose is somewhat protected from the wind but also gets less light, and I think that is what stymied the squash.
It was a good idea, though, and makes the deck a more livable and attractive place. It's fun to go out and grab a cucumber for the supper salad.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tourism: It's like a Bus man's holiday, I suppose, visiting farmers' markets in other places just to see how they are alike, how different. We just returned from a whirlwind trip to the Midwest to visit family. In the few hours that we had to ourselves, we took off to visit the markets; one in Olde Worthington (Ohio) and one in downtown Columbus, the North Market. The Olde Worthington market was a typical weekend market with vans and trucks, 10 X 10 canopies, and lots of summertime color in the fruits and vegetables. The differences were notable. The vendors were all alike - meaning there were no Latino, no Hmong no Asian vendors. Not surprisingly, there were no fish vendors. The other difference I noted was that there was far less specialization; nearly everyone was selling sunflowers, cut flowers, zucchini and tomatoes no matter what their primary commodity. There were at least three vendors selling grass fed beef and pastured poultry - but it is the Midwest and there is nothing if not green grass everywhere you look.
The North Market is another thing altogether. A permanent structure with a long history as a market place. It's not fancy, something like Pikes in Seattle. There was a standard farmers' market outside on the Saturday when we visited, but that is a once a week activity. Otherwise, the North Market is open seven days a week, year round. Lots of variety and one of the best purveyors of meat that I've seen in ages; fresh duck, duck fat, duck confit, whole rabbits, stewing hens, organic chicken feet, lamb AND mutton and goat - a terrific selection. In addition to all the seasonal vegetables and fruits, there were bakeries, cut flowers, a sushi bar, an organic coffee bar, kitchen wares - and chocolate. If you would like to know more about it, Google North Market Columbus and you will be there instantaneously.
It's fun to visit farmers' markets when you are away from home. Give it a try next time you are visiting far away lands.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Herbs for Summer Tea

You've seen them, the Storey Country Wisdom Bulletins. They are small, about 30 pages and the subjects have to do with self-sufficiency. How to can a tomato, neuter a bull, kill a coyote, dress a goose - that kind of thing. They are succinct, to the point and helpful. I happened upon one recently entitled 15 HERBS FOR TEA by Marian Sebastiano. I paid my (still a bargain at) $3.95 and rushed to find out what are the 15 herbs for tea. I am now going to tell you what they are according to Ms. Sebastiano: Anise Hyssop, Basil, Calendula, Catnip, Chamomile, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Marigold 'Lemon Gem' and 'Orange Gem', Lemon Verbena, Mint, Mondarda (aka Bee Balm), Pineapple Sage, Rosemary, Sage, and Scented Geraniums. I have all those plants. And I would add a couple more to this list, specifically Mexican Mint Marigold (Texas Tarragon), Oregano and Thyme.
Usually it is the leaf that you use - though lavender and chamomile flowers are used most often. Bruise the leaf and steep it in hot water til it reaches the strength that appeals to you. Sweeten with honey if you care to. For iced teas, use more herbs for a stronger tea (to accomodate the ice cubes) and add drama with edible flowers such as borage or lavender frozen in the ice cubes.
The photo above is of a container of herbs which includes Lemon Gem Marigold, Lemon Verbena, Golden Sage and Thyme - all of which make wonderful teas. Use the leaf and the flower of the Marigold, the leaf of the others. I would sweeten teas made of these herbs, though you may choose not. Experiment. Combine herbs in creative ways. Garnish with edible flowers and selected leaves. Enjoy!

August Farm Reading

More about this lull business. Take advantage of this quiet time in the garden to pick some luscious herb leaves for a sun tea, fill a tall glass and rest awhile with a good book. Here are a couple that I have just read that made me very happy. The first is FARM CITY: The Education of a Urban Farmer. It's published by The Penguin Press and is written by Novella Carpenter. It is a charming and often funny odyssey into urban farming. The writer and her fine fellow rent a house in one of the more rambunctious neighborhoods in Oakland, CA largely because there is an empty lot next door where she imagines she can put in a squatted garden. And, she can and does. Not enough, though, she orders the Homesteaders' Delight from Murray McMurray - one of the finest purveyors of mail order poultry, and receives her box of day old chicks, ducklings, goslings and, yes, poults (that's baby turkeys). It is a lovely moment as we watch her unpack her babies, dunk their beaks into sugar water, and set them free into their new brooder box. She graduates from poultry to rabbits and pigs, all the while gardening her empty lot, keeping bees, feeding the mostly poor neighbors, and sidestepping those who might mean to do her harm. It's satisfying book by a creative and energetic young woman that you will want to read and pass on to good friends.
WICKED PLANTS: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities is by Amy Stewart. I love the feel of this book; its size and shape and the fact that it has a golden ribbon sewn in to hold your place. It is illustrated - with etchings by Briny Morrow-Cribbs and drawings by Jonathon Rosen - terrific images of the plants and editorial images. You will find some old familiar wicked weeds, and you will meet some new ones that you might have thought were friendly (corn) but which can be deadly. I have suddenly developed an insatiable curiosity about Old World Herbs and this book was a must for my learning curve, and quite amusing, too. The book is based on scientific fact (it is mentioned in Scientific American as an Also Notable recommendation) but it is fun to read and enlightening. You must forever beware the squirting cucumber!

Monday, July 27, 2009

August Lull

August is a quiet time in the garden. The cucumbers have been picked and the new plants are just beginning to bud. The squash plants look tired. Lots of green tomatoes but it will still be a week or more before they come on strong. The tomato spiders even look slow. The green onions are gone, the radishes are gone, the lettuce has gone to seed, and the chard is burned. And I am tired. I need a break from gardening. So I think I will take a break, leave town for a week, have someone else water and weed for a time. And THAT is the August lull. There will soon be plenty to do - pick out the old plants, refresh the soil, plan for the fall crops and decide how many overwintering plants will go in this year; garlic, Walla Walla onions, fennel, peas, and some fava beans, of course, for so many reasons.
I am thinking about some new plants to try; some Old World herbs with mysterious pasts; many with names that end in 'wort' - St. John's, Mug, Mother, Rupture, Salt, and many more worts. It's time to give the seeds a try and see what works, what looks good, smells good, is safe to grow in your garden, and connects us happily to our ancient past.
And it is time to Blog - catch up with this idea of writing and thinking about plants for the garden in new ways. Glad to be back - stay tuned.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

CUCUMBERS: What do they want?

If I could grow one plant only it would be a cucumber.  Cucumbers are my favorite food.  I like them cold, or at room temperature, fresh or pickled, skinny or round.  I love to dip them in yogurt or hummus, slice them into salads, eat them with sweet butter and bread.  This is very good food, indeed.
The plant is short lived so you may need to grow more than one.  Better yet, plant one or two now, and then fresh plants in early summer and again in late summer.  Keep them well watered but not swamped to avoid bitterness.  A little mid-day shade works, too, though they can take full sun.
There are many varieties of cucumbers and most people prefer the type with no seeds.  These are also known as 'burpless'.  To achieve a seedless cucumber though required a certain magic that you pay for when you buy the seed or the fruit.  The most expensive seed we buy is for the cucumber plant Rocky.  I think it is worth is.  The cucumber is a Persian type with delicate skin, minimal seed and a sweet, crunchy flavor.  We planted some late in the summer in the greenhouse in five gallon tubs and had a cucumber a day from each plant til Thanksgiving.  
Another favorite for garden growing in Suyo Long.  This is a Chinese variety that has a slightly drier texture.  The skin is rough but edible and the flesh is crunchy.  Left on the ground, they can grow a little curly; on a trellis they are straighter.
Diva is a hybrid plant developed by Johnny's Selected Seed.  It incorporates all the best features of the Japanese and English cucumber and produces dramatic fruit on a substantial plant when trellised.  The flavor is terrific and it is easy to grow.
Lemon cucumbers look like lemons, though I don't taste any lemon in the flavor.  These do well in smaller containers (3 gallon or so) and, if picked small, are very sweet and flavorful.  If you let them get too big, they develop large seeds and are a little bitter.  Their fans are very devoted.
The Armenian and the Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumbers are not really cucumbers; rather, they are members of the melon family.  You need a lot of nighttime warmth to grow the Armenian types.  The Mexican Sour Gherkins is tiny, about the size of a quarter, and has a sourness that is very refreshing in summer salads.  We grow ours in small hanging bowls and pick as needed.
If you only want a cucumber like the waxed kind you find in the grocery store, you will probably be better off buying them at the grocery store.  If you want fresh, sweet, crisp cucumbers with unique flavors and textures and delicate, edible skins, then try growing your own.  You may become addicted.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

In Search of the Best Zucchini

Most of what we read on the backs of seed packets is irrelevant to the gardening calendar we need to use here on the Central Coast of California. First of all, we have few frosts and the soil rarely freezes, so timing seed starting to coincide with planting two weeks after our last frost is meaningless.  Our last frost may have been in December.  What matters more to us is soil temperature, water retention, and nighttime air temperatures.  Lettuce that does well in cool weather is typically grown in early spring and later summer 'back East."  We can grow lettuce year round and may find that our cool, foggy July nights are perfectly suited to growing lettuce but not to the quick ripening of luscious tomatoes or big Italian eggplant.  While our climate is temperate, we lack the soft warmth of summer nights so beloved by basil and peppers.
So I say to you, think differently about planting your garden.  You needn't rush into a full planting on May Day because we have a long, long growing season.  You don't need to plant a whole row of broccoli - you can plant two every other week or so.  You can engage in succession planting to insure a continuous harvest of good food from February through December.
There are a variety of tomatoes, for example, that produce very early, mid-season, and very late.  An early planting of a hardy determinate in a large container in a protected area means you might start getting tomatoes in June.  The large heirlooms like Brandywine take longer and can be planted later for a crop in September and October.  And there are many plants that will ripen easily between those months.  If you plant carefully, you have have home grown tomatoes six months of the year and longer if you have a small greenhouse, cold frame, or lean-to.  The same can be said of cucumbers, squash, eggplant, peppers, onions, salad greens, peas and beans.
Herbs are incredibly hardy and can be planted out most any time.  Many are perennial and one or two healthy plants will provide you with ample oregano, thyme, rosemary, chives, sage and marjoram.  
Those of us in the seedling business what to provide you with pants that are ready for transplanting into your garden or container at the appropriate time.  We have experimented in our own gardens and had successes and failures that we are happy to share.  I have planted many a tomato plant in March.  Some have thrived and blessed me with early harvests but some have succumbed to horrid diseases caused by cold winds and saturated soils with a hailstorm or two thrown in for good measure.  If you are unsure about your soil, garden location with regard to drainage, wind and sunlight hours - start with the hardiest plants like kale and broccoli.  Invest in a soil thermometer and bring out your tomatoes when you soil is at a consistent 55 degrees and cucumber seedlings when the temperature rises to 60 degrees.  Talk to your neighbors and others who garden in your area - they will be more than happy to share their experiences.  But nothing beats your own.  Remember - you don't really want to have the biggest zucchini on the block.  You want to have the best zucchini on the block.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It IS Worth It!

I had a brief conversation with the teller at the bank last week.  It wasn't about banking.  It was about gardening.  She explained to me why it just wasn't worth it.  She explained that the tomatoes in her garden ripened at the same time that tomatoes became very inexpensive at the local Safeway.  So, to her, it just wasn't worth the time and effort to grow her own.
I suppose a lot of people feel that way.  I wanted to explain to her that by starting tomato plants early and late, by planting different varieties, she could have tomatoes from July well into November.  I wanted to describe the difference in flavor between a chilled Roma that has been shipped from the Central Valley and/or gassed in King City to a lovely, plump San Marzano picked in her own garden minutes before slicing. I wanted to wax poetic about the variety of sizes and shapes, tastes and textures, the delicate skins on tomatoes available in the home garden.  I wondered if she had ever stood by a trellised cherry tomato plant and popped succulent little sweeties into her mouth right off the vine.
A book came out a year or so ago called The $63 Tomato.  The writer kept close tabs on the cost of putting in a garden and he ended up evaluating the cost of his tomatoes at the rate of $64.  the tomatoes I grow cost far less than that.  But them, I have a garden with good soil.  It is fenced to keep out dogs and geese,, it is wired to keep out gophers, and the soil has been enriched over the years with the addition of various composts, manures and cover crops.  We do not yet pay for our water because we have a private well.  The time we spend in the garden is not considered work, so we don't assign an hourly wage to ourselves.  The cost of seed is small and, because of the line of work we are in, we have an ample supply of free transplants.  So, in many ways, our tomatoes are free.
I am always amazed at how much food we can grow in our little 30 X 15 foot garden. We supplement it with barrels of cucumbers on the deck, a bean trellis out by the well, and large containers of lettuce by the back door.  Perennial herbs are grown in the landscape and the delicate ones are picked fresh from the greenhouse when needed.
I know that to start a garden from scratch is a time consuming and expensive endeavor.  But you should only have to do that once.  After that, it's all free.
Native Americans planted corn, beans and squash (the 'three sisters') in the spring and then left it to grow on its own.  They returned from time to time to do a bit of weeding perhaps, but it was a low intensity project that provided a considerable amount of food. Gardening can be extremely time consuming or kind of laid back, depending on your nature.  Plant, weed, water and reap the rewards.  It IS worth it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Basil Rant

If I had a dollar for every time someone asks me when we will have basil, I would have enough dollars to up another greenhouse (my fondest wish!). Alas, basil is a warm weather plant that thrives in sunny days and balmy nights.  It seems to know when the days are too short for it to flourish, so resists wintertime tricks in heated rooms on sunny windowsills.  It just seems to know.
I actually started two trays of basil yesterday - a sweet summertime Genovese and a hardier Siam Queen.  They will both germinate nicely on the heated shelves and will thrive under grow lights that stay on 14 hours each day.  When we transplant them, they will take up space on heated tables in the greenhouse for a couple of weeks.  Then we will bring them to the farmers' markets and admonish our customers not to buy them. They will be hideously expensive and probably will not thrive.  But people will buy them anyway and some will have very goo luck with them - especially if they are potted up into larger containers and put into another greenhouse or solarium.  I think it is better to wait til May when the soil is nice and warm to put it in the ground, but we will have it on our market table much sooner than that.
There are many kinds of basil and some tolerate cooler temperatures better than others.  The favorite sweet basils, like the Italian Genovese, are the most tender.  But the spicier Thai and Cinnamon basils do better in early spring and late fall.  Two varieties that are not considered culinary - African Blue Basil and Holy Basil (Tulsi) - are perennial in our climate, though they will not survive a hard freeze.  Both can be grown in large pots and brought inside during the coldest part of the winter.  The African Blue Basil is a sterile hybrid that flowers continually but does not set seed.  Bees and hummingbirds love it and it has a terrific sweet basil scent.  Some people do use it in cooking, though its flavor is a little too sharp for eating fresh.
An anecdote:  A couple of years ago I got a couple trays of basil ready for the farmers' market early in March.  I left the house a bit before sun up with my basil and the first, ultra early tomato seedlings and a load of spring peas, greens, artichoke plants and other things and headed up the road. As the morning light appeared, I noticed it was very white out and when I got within five miles of the Aptos market at Cabrillo College I realized it was snowing.  And I had basil and tomato seedlings.  I made $87 dollars that day, and I will never forget it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Learning To Garden

What if we forgot how to grow food?  Maybe that wouldn't matter so much if others were willing to grow it for us.  If others were unwilling, though, or became distracted or if catastrophic events made it necessary to return to the practice of gardening and farming our own food, then it would be a pretty good idea to know how to grow our own. 
Michael Pollen has observed that hundreds of thousands of acres in our most fertile Midwest is now dedicated to growing an industrial corn product that is essentially inedible.  Land that could bring in copious harvests of rice and beans and wheat and vegetables is out of service.  Land that could be used to pasture beef and swine and poultry is unavailable. We should cherish our knowledge of gardening and our richest farmland.
I learned how to grow food from my father in Ohio.  That experience was reinforced in my grandmother's mammoth vegetable garden (she called it a 'patch'), and in helping my Uncle Johnny harvest for market.  Then I 'forgot' gardening and returned to it much later in life.  It came back pretty quickly, after I made a few longitudinal and climatic adjustments.  In the interim, hundreds of great gardening books have been written, experts have emerged, technology has changed, and the internet offers guidance, advice, scholarly papers,tools, equipment and seeds galore.  You can even subscribe to weekly podcasts about gardening from people in every American climate zone.  You probably won't get a PhD in gardening, but you would certainly benefit from any of the Master Gardening classes offered through county extensions in every state of the union.
There are some essentials.  You do need a patch of ground and some sunlight.  You can arrange pots and containers to mimic a garden in the ground, but sunlight is pretty hard to fake.  And you will need water.  Probably less than you think, but water nonetheless.  If you are a rank beginner, a mentor would be good, or a good book with pictures.
I like to recommend THE ALL NEW SQUARE FOOD GARDENING by Mel Bartholomew and GOLDEN GATE GARDENING by Pam Peirce.  Both of these books address the challenges of the smaller garden and, in the case of the Golden Gate Gardening book, challenges of the coastal climate.  My fathers' garden was enormous and planted with the goal of putting food by for the winter.  Since we can garden most of the year here, storing food isn't quite so important; having fresh food from the garden year round is.
If you are new at this gardening business, give it a try.  Start small, start with easy plants that provide quick gratification.  Grow radishes!

Friday, January 16, 2009

PEAS Be Warned

Keeping a blog, or blogging, is akin to journaling, or keeping a diary.  Starting seeds for our little nursery business becomes such a frenzied activity in the spring that we sometimes lose track of when we start what.  I kept better records last year and recorded that my first batch of Snow and Sugar Snap Peas were started on January 26th.  I didn't record the temperature that day, or make any notation about the weather but I should have.  A warm sunny day sparks illogical thought followed by reckless behavior.  Staring peas is pretty safe, though, unless we are inundated with a prolonged period of rain and darkness which would create a terrific environment for molds, an unspeakable aberration on a petite pois.
These past weeks have been unusually warm and bright so I could hardly contain myself.  Abracadabra!  There are now 16 trays of jumbo six packs of peas on the shelves.  
And now for the disclaimer.  You really shouldn't transplant peas.  You really shouldn't transplant beans, either, and there are other things on that Do Not Transplant list which I will go into at another time.  By that I mean you should put the seeds directly into the ground where you want them to grow and therefore bypass the transplanting phase.  Peas don't like it.  They grow too fast.  They don' want to have their roots meddled with.  They prefer to germinate and get right to the business of setting roots and stems in situ.  BUT.  If you must buy pea plants from folks such as us, wily purveyors of puny pea seedlings, then buy truly puny ones.  If they look like pea plants they are probably way too far gone in the container, too confused and highly unlikely to ever really be a flowering, pea-podding plant.  What you want are pea 'sprouts' - tiny little plants that have just emerged from their pea seed and are still too young to know much about their own impending life cycle.  Buy them, take them home, and pluck them quickly form their little six-pack cell and drop them into the ground.  Don't shake the dirt off, don't try to observe the roots, don't do anything but get them in the ground. Give them a little water and walk away.  Forget about them.  They don't need you and won't need you at all unless there is a terrible drought in which case they will dry up and die and definitely won't need you.
The peas is an ancient plant that has survived much worse than you are likely to dish out.  They know how to grow and climb and flower and make peas.  You will pick them and eat the pods before the peas mature (snow peas) or when the peas are very small (sugar snap peas) or  when they are full to bursting from the pod (shelling peas).
Finally, peas are happy in cold weather and do best when planted in early spring for spring harvest or late summer for fall harvest.  Summer peas harvested in hot weather tend to be a little tough and tasteless.  So celebrate the cool weather pea!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's Pepper Time

Why do people eat green bell peppers when they are so much tastier at the red or yellow or orange stage, a stage also known as 'ripe?'  
It is always hard for us to choose which pepper seeds to start first.  It would be wonderful if we had the space to start all our peppers in the very early spring, but that cannot be.  So we select the ones we think our customers will be the most eager to buy for transplant in late April or early May.  In general, those are bell peppers (thick walled), Italian frying peppers (thin walled), and the basic salsa peppers such as Jalapenos, Serranos, Anchos and Fresnos.  Once we get a good inventory going with those, we branch out into the hot peppers such as habaneros, Thai and Indian varieties, and the really rare and unique ones like the Zimbabwe Bird, Fish, Pequin and many more.
Pepper plants are very pretty in the garden and as part of the landscape.  Some of our gardener friends plant the ornamentals as border plants.  They do well in raised beds or in containers where they can be kept warm and a dark mulch helps hold the heat in the soil.  They like a little more attention than a tomato - a little more water, slightly richer soil, more consistent heat.  There are some types of pepper plants that have adapted to higher elevations and the lower temperatures consistent with our coastal climate.  The Manzano is an example of a unique, hot pepper that grows very well in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas. It is also known as rocoto and is common in Ecuador and Peru.  The pepper is apple shaped with a thick wall and unique black seeds.  Most are red though there are orange and yellow varieties.
As peppers begin to ripen, they need to be picked to encourage more productivity; in the same manner as cucumbers and eggplant. If you have a pepper plant that does well in your microclimate, it is useful to save seeds for future generations.  This only works if the plants is well away from another pepper plant that flowers at the same time; peppers cross pollinate easily and often.  This year's Pimiento de Padron may more resemble last year's Red Hot Mama or Biker Billy if they were within 300 feet of one anther when they flowered.
A lush, healthy and productive pepper plant is a source of great pride to many Bay Area gardeners.  It is a dramatic, often elegant plant that produces a fruit that lends spice to favorite recipes.  It is cool to grow your own.  

Monday, January 12, 2009


I just put about a thousand onion seeds in a plug tray to grow for spring sale.  Some are bunching, some are purple, and some are cipollinis.  And there are leeks, shallots, Walla Walla, Stockton Red and Egyptian Walking Onions coming along.
Onions are easy to grow, take up very little room in your garden, cohabitate well with other plants (except peas), and come in many shapes, styles and flavors.  As long as your soil is well drained, you should have no trouble growing onions.  The other great thing about onion plants is you can pick them when you want them - or leave them in the ground for later.  No rush.
But we don't sell many onion plants.  I think there is something just a little confusing about onions.  Seed, plants or sets?  Long day or short day?  Bulbing or bunching?
Onions are slow.  And they can be interrupted.  If you want simple green garden onions (bunching, scallion, or 'green'), start seeds inside for transplant or buy little plants for transplant as soon as you can work the soil.  You can plant them in a row or in little bunches or in pots - they don't really care.  Harvest whenever they reach the size you like.  
Most onion seeds and sets are adapted to grow anywhere from Carmel north to Seattle so don't worry about your latitude (30 - 50 degrees).  My latitude here in Aromas, California happens to be 36 degrees - the same as Tunis, North Africa.  Florence, Italy is  a little further north.  (You can look up your exact latitude on Google's Latitude Finder.)  Regarding onions, latitude is only important because it influences day length and those big bulbing onions need a longer day to develop size. There are specific varieties known as short day onions that will produce a bulb in Austin, Texas.
Since we have a long day and a long growing period, we can start onions in the fall and leave them in the ground over winter.  They will rest a bit during the dark days of January and then continue with their work when the weather warms and the days lengthen.  Onions sets - those little immature dried bulbing onions - are more for people who have cold winters - though they do well here if you are in a big hurry.  You can even grow your own sets by starting a thousand little seeds in a gallon container, let them go until fall, then separate and cut the tops down to 3 inches, trim the roots to about an inch, and store in a cool dry spot until the next spring.
Homegrown onions taste good and are mighty convenient.  I had an Uncle Johnny who was what used to be called a 'truck' gardener.  He was happiest sitting on a three legged stool in his garden, munching on green onions pulled right from the ground while he watched his nieces and nephews pick peas for the market.  Give it a try.

Monday, January 5, 2009

LETTUCE: A Rugged Delicacy

When I first started growing lettuce I tried to find the varieties I was familiar with from the grocery store.  That was an impossible quest and rightly so.  The typical grocery store lettuce is a rugged plant that is bred to withstand field conditions, harvest, bagging, boxing, shipping over significant distances, display and an hourly 'rain' on the grocers' shelves.  The lettuce that we can grow in our gardens needs to withstand a little leaf picking or 'mowing', a gentle wash and then being tossed into a salad hours, if not minutes, after picking.  Our homegrown lettuces come in a mind-boggling assortment of plant and leaf shapes, colors, flavors and growing habits. They have distinctive names like Flashy Trout's Back, Frizzy Headed Drunken Woman, Merlot, Outredgeous and Black Seeded Simpson.  They all prefer cool weather, can tolerate light frost, and thrive in partial shade.  Some varieties stand the heat of summer better than others.  There are romaines, leaf, lollo, bibb, butterhead, and crispheads - just to name a few types of lettuces.  Most all of them can be cut back or have leaves pulled off when they are young, and they will continue to grow.  We call those 'cut and come again' types.  At some point, though, you should let them go and harvest the entire plant when it reaches maturity.  
Lettuce in general has a modest root system and will grow as big as the space will allow.   That is why they do so well in smaller containers on our deck or patio.  If the roots are kept cool, they will thrive to a size consistent with their environment.  A half-barrel in a corner that receives some sun and a nice breeze makes a great habitat for lettuce.  You can also under plant lettuce seed so that the little seedlings are just coming along when you pull up the larger plants.
We are planning to make a lot of salad and lettuce bowls for sale at the early spring farmers' markets.  So today I started about 1600 seeds of many varieties.  They will emerge quickly and be transplanted into single pots, six packs and a variety of bowls.  The cool weather is fine with them as soon as they have germinated and - as an added bonus - their mortal enemies (slugs, snails, aphids) are dormant this time of year.
If you haven't grown lettuce before, give it a try.  The plants are hardy and the leaves are tasty.  They transplant easily and will thrive in a limited space.  They come in a wide assortment of colors and shapes and make a gorgeous display - almost too good to eat.  But eat them, please - they will grow back.