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.