Saturday, January 30, 2010

Seed Starts and Alternatives

I wrote a post yesterday about artichokes, and mentioned that you could start them from seed or cut off the suckers and root those as new plants. Commercial growers have relied almost completely on suckers because they could count on plants from those off shoots as being exactly like the parent plant. Plants grown from seed were less reliable. We have had Violetto plants grown from seed that looked more like wild thistles than artichokes, though that outcome has been rare. I am a home gardener, not a botanist, so I speak from experience only - and I can tell you that artichokes grown from seed have become much more consistent in appearance and production over the years that I have been starting artichokes from seed. I am told that more commercial growers are starting new plants from seed than ever before because the seed starts are more reliable and it is far less labor intensive to start plants from seed than from side shoots.
We have a system and most all of our seedlings are started the same way. We use 200 cell plug trays in 10 X 20 inch trays. We plant the seed into the tray by hand and, depending on the seed, either on the surface, slightly below the surface, or deep to 1/4 inch. The trays are then set on warmed shelves to 78 degrees, kept moist, and protected from cats (see photo of seedlings behind bars) and mice (who love to eat the new tender leaves). Once they have germinated and have a good set of cotyledons (primitive leaves, replaced soon by true leaves), the trays are moved to cooler levels of shelving. All seedlings receive 14 hours of fluorescent light each day. When two sets of true leaves appear, the seedling tray is moved into the greenhouse where the plants will be potted up into 3" containers and set on warming tables which keeps the nighttime temperature above 50 degrees. Daytime temperatures, even in this dreary January/February climate, may reach 80 degrees and the light is far better than the fluorescent light they experienced as seedlings.
Some plants just can't be started from seed and some can, but barely.
Those that cannot be started from seed include French Tarragon. Those we start from root divisions in spring. French Tarragon is a sterile plant that does not create seed. African Blue Basil is another sterile plant that cannot be started from seed, but is easily started from stem cuttings. Lemon Verbena develops tiny seed but is started more easily from stem cuttings. Stevia is a plant that flowers frequently and develops fertile seed, but the seed has a short life span. Rather than taking a chance on seed that may be too old to germinate, it is more reliable to take cuttings. Scented Geraniums are propagated easily from stem cuttings that are clones of the parent plant.
I still make mistakes, even though I have been doing this for many years. I started a plug tray of three types of plants, neglecting to notice that one of them required light to germinate. That meant the seeds should have been set lightly upon the top of the soil, and only slightly tamped down. I buried them to 1/4 inch and wondered why they didn't germinate - then I reread the seed packet and realized what I had done. I replanted them with great success.
The moral of this story - celebrate the variation of seed requirements for germination. Read the seed packets for the unique requirements of these seed: Do they need light? What temperature is best for germination? Do they need total darkness? Do they need to be chilled before they are planted? Do they need to be scraped with a knife to open the seed shell? Some seeds love to be soaked in water for a day.
It's a challenge and a thrill to see seeds emerge and then quickly take on the characteristic of the lovely plant they will soon become. Enjoy the experience.

Friday, January 29, 2010


I had never seen, nor heard of, an artichoke until I moved to New Orleans in 1970. The artichoke just wasn't a vegetable found on the Midwestern table. I learned to love them as I found them on Rampart Street in the French Quarter, in the refrigerated dairy case, stuffed with bread crumbs, parmesan and pecorino cheeses, and chopped spicy sausage or shrimp. Cold, room temperature, warm - it didn't matter. They were delicious and each leaf came away with a big chunk of the stuffing. The center was a gold mine of stuffing and tender artichoke heart.
I like artichokes simply boiled and served with a side of butter, mayonnaise or aioli. Plant them and forget them until they start to send up their flowers. Then harvest before the bloom opens and you have an artichoke for your table. The plants are perennial in our climate.

Artichokes are easy to grow if you have a lot of space available and a temperate climate. The plants themselves are quite large and need about three feet between plans for vigorous growth. They send down a deep tap root that enables them to survive drought - so they don't do particularly well in containers. If you have driven by the artichoke fields south of Castroville, then you know that the plants thrive in a cool, coastal climate with frequent fog. Artichokes do not thrive in hot, sunny and dry locations.
Early in the spring, the plants send up large stalks with the flower bud that we call the 'choke' on top. The first ones are the largest and subsequent stalks present smaller blooms. It's important to harvest them before they begin to open if you plan on eating them.
If you have planted the artichokes for their knock-your-socks-off purple blooms, then let the plants march to the beat of their own drummer, and you will have amazing flowers soon. The flowers can be dried for exotic flower arrangements.
The utter freshness of your own artichoke is reason enough to grow then plant.

Green Globe is the classic artichoke and the one we typically find in grocery stores and the farmers' markets. they can be grown as an annual in colder climates or as a perennial where winters do not bring freezing temperatures. Violetto is similar, but has a purple cast to the artichoke and the stem. This is the plant that can be found depicted in early Italian Renaissance paintings.
Violetto matures later then the Green Globe and is smaller. We have found the Violetto be be a little less reliable from seed, so you may end up with a wild thistle that has few if any artichokes. It is worth the risk, though, because this is the most tender of chokes.

The plants do best in a temperate clime and can be stressed by heat and dryness. if you have a warm sunny location and, like most of us, no rain during the summer months, this is a plant you should water occasionally and deeply. The best soil is sandy and well-drained.

If you plant your seedlings in late fall, you can expect a harvest in spring. Commercial growers plant to get two harvests, with a second in late fall. Many believe that artichokes that have experienced a frost, develop a better flavor.

If you don't load your choke with stuffing, butter and mayonnaise, you are eating a nutrient dense vegetable with only 25 calories. The vegetable is high in fiber, vitamin C and folate. Artichokes have no fat and no cholesterol.

100 Vegetables and Where They Came From by William Woys Weaver

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Seascape Strawberries


This is one of the easiest fruit plants to grow in the home garden. You will need to set aside a portion of your garden to maintain this perennial plant; planting your bare root or seedlings between 8 - 12 inches apart.

Seascape is the variety of strawberry plant that we sell, and it is grown extensively in the Pajaro Valley in commercial fields and private gardens. We receive our bare root stock in November and begin bringing them to market in December. This is a perfect time to plant them for the earliest harvest. Depending on the weather, you may begin to see flower bud clusters shortly after planting. It is best to remove those early buds to encourage root development. Later in the season, the plant will send out runners. It is also best to cut those back to encourage more fruit. In late fall you may allow the runners to grow and develop new plants for the following season. You can pull the older plants out every two years as the strawberry patch matures.

Seascape was developed by UC Davis as an ever bearing strawberry plant that produces consistently throughout the season (March - October). It does not require a lengthy dormant period or intense chilling so is more productive in our moderate coastal climate. And the berry tastes really good!

Strawberries like a rich, loamy soil with good drainage. If the soil is too sandy, add mulch to hold moisture during the dryer summer months. The plants do not like soggy soil, so avoid planting in clay soils. Keep the plants well picked and do not allow old or moldy fruit to stay on the plant for any length of time.

For urban gardeners, strawberry plants do well in large containers like half wine barrels or three to five gallon pots. Full sun is critical to fruit production so make sure you have a good sunny location before investing time and energy into container gardening. There are so many ways to enjoy strawberries that I couldn't really decide on just one. My favorite way to enjoy strawberries? Eaten warm in the garden!


Some memories just won't go away. Remember pickled beets from a can served in elementary school? I do. And I didn't eat beets for decades after that. And then I started growing them in the garden. I don't know why, exactly, but they thrived there and I was able to grow many kinds: Golden Beets, Bull's Blood, Chioggia, Detroit Red, and the theatrical Golden Mangel (may grow up to 10 pounds!).

Suddenly, the beet was just about my favorite vegetable.

HISTORY: Our modern beet developed from a wild beet that grew on the Mediterranean coast. the plant was selected for its thick root and was cultivated in a form similar to our standard carrot. White or yellow beets were most common. Chard developed from this beet type and the red beet is first documented in Constantinople between 500 and 511 AD. The beet is not indigenous to the Americas and was most likely brought here by the Italians. Thank you, Italians.

REASONS TO GROW: Beets can be grown nearly year round in our climate. They can be started directly from seed or transplanted when small. The seed is actually a fruit that may contain more than one viable seed so, if you plant directly, you may want to thin or harvest some of them when very small. Keep the beets about 3 - 4 inches apart to allow plenty of room for the beet to develop.

VARIETIES: The best reason to grow beets is the variety available to the home gardener; red ones, striped ones, deep red ones, yellow and white ones as well as that amazing 10 pound mangel. All of these beets have edible stems and leaves. The beets themselves have varying flavors and textures (the Chioggia is the sweetest!).

WHERE TO GROW: Beets have a deep root system so don't do well in containers. Plant them in the garden with a well-worked, loamy soil with a pH of over 6.0. Consistently cool temperatures are best for developing flesh color.

WHEN TO GROW: We offer beet seedlings in spring, late summer and fall. You can plant seedlings every three or four weeks for a continuous harvest. Beets will tolerate light frost.

NUTRITION: Beets are a rich source of Potassium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus and Copper. Calcium, Sodium, Zinc and Selenium are present in small amounts. Beets have been found useful in the treatment of Colon Cancer. Beets are a natural cleanser which removes toxins from the body.

EATING: Baby beets may be eaten raw, but beets are usually boiled or roasted. The skins slip off easily once the beet is cooked. Red beets 'bleed' and may color other foods on your plate whereas golden or white beets do not.

Spring Salad: Mix sliced golden beets with pitted black olives, baby fava or lima beans and heart of palm with a tangy vinaigrette. Serve at room temperature.

JUICING: Better Red Than Dead
This juice has a high carotene content and may, if taken often, give you that "George Hamilton Look".

1 beet including top
1/2 medium sized sweet potato
3 carrots


The Complete Book of Juicing by Michael T. Murray, N.D.
100 Vegetables and Where They Came From by William Woys Weaver