Saturday, April 24, 2010

Scented Geraniums

It isn't this lovely flower that brings the fragrance to your garden; it's the leaf. And these plants aren't geraniums - they are pelargoniums. Scented geraniums have a few things in common with geraniums; they do well without abundant water and they don't need a lot of care. In our climate, scented geraniums bloom for many months each year and most will not only survive the winter, but will thrive during most of it. Frost may burn the outer leaves and you should leave those be; they are protecting all the lush new growth coming up from below. Wait to give them a good pruning in late spring after the danger of frost has passed - about NOW! - and your plants will experience an immediate growth spurt and bloom.
I have to make a confession. I love these plants because they can survive in our world of neglect. We have so many plants to grow for sale, that we have little time left for landscaping or garden plants. If scented geraniums thrive is this brutal environment; little water, poor soil, nearly total neglect - then your plants will look terrific! (Note: When you take them out of their pot, you should see a large tap root. This is the root that enables this plant to survive drought.)
There are so many varieties and frankly, I can barely tell them apart - aromatically - after a while. The mint geraniums are obvious, the apple and nutmeg are unique, the lemon is apparent; but all the rest smell like rose to me. Most are in the rose geranium category; Attar of Rose, Capitatum, Clorinda, Velvet Rose, Rober's Lemon Rose, Little Gem, and so forth. It really doesn't mater - they all smell good! Find ones that you like the looks of. Some are very weird and, of course, those are the ones I really like. Gooseberry is chaotic and fascinating. Strawberry can be gangly and arrogant; yes, arrogant. Fingerbowl Lemon is upright and parsimonious - and one of the old Victorian types. Put the leaves in fingerbowls on your table to scent the water that refreshes greasy fingers. French Lace, great name! Not one of the prettiest but nice variegated leaf and sweet little pink flowers. Apple is nice; a satin finish to the leaf and slight, ever so slight, apple scent. Nutmeg is overwhelmed by its own little but abundant flowers. And I will always love the Peppermint Tom with its huge fuzzy leaves, tiny flowers and robust fragrance. (One of our customers told me she throws a leaf in the dryer.)
There has to be room for one, two or more scented geraniums in your garden. Bees love them; hummingbirds are interested, butterflies stop by, kids like to wallow in them and you can always crush the leaves into sugar to spice it up. Put them in containers, plant them amidst the herbs in your garden, fill a backyard slope, or keep one on your window sill. You will enjoy these plants; large or small.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Gardening in Foggy Coastal Climates

If you live along the Pacific Coast and want to grow vegetables to eat in summer, then you might want to do the following:

1) Buy or borrow a copy of Pam Peirce's book GOLDEN GATE GARDENING.

2) Think small.

3) Think fall.

GOLDEN GATE GARDENING by Pam Peirce is subtitled: A Complete Guide to Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coastal California. It's all there and is based on her real experience maintaining a garden on the western side of San Francisco, in The Avenues, not the Sun Belt of the Mission District. She knows all about fog, wind, salt spray, and cold spring and summer days.
Since most of us - including me - behave as if we are still gardening in Ohio and since most seed packets carry instructions that assume we are gardening in Ohio, then we have a skewed notion of what to plant and when to plant it in this lovely Mediterranean climate that we have here. Vegetable and herb gardening is not just a springtime activity. It is a year round activity and one that can provide you with unimaginable amounts of fresh produce. But sadly, probably not those big, luscious Brandywine tomatoes that you love.
So read her book and revise your thinking about what to plant and when to plant it. There is a great planting calendar in Chapter 3 - What You Can Grow.
By "think small" I mean think of varieties of vegetables that are smaller in size than their larger brethren. For example, you probably won't have enough sun to provide the energy that a Brandywine or Big Rainbow needs to make that big tomato. But you probably do have enough sun - or light - to power the tomato plant that sets smaller tomatoes such as Stupice, Pink Ping Pong or any of the sweet and productive cherry tomatoes. Melons can be very disappointing to the home gardener in cooler climates. But if you use a solar mulch, put a drip system under the mulch (melons need a lot of water) and select varieties that do well in cooler climates (Hale's Best cantaloupe and Crimson Sweet watermelon) you stand a good chance of harvesting sweet, albeit small, melons in late summer.
By "think fall" I mean think of the plants that grow well in early spring and late summer. The kinds of plants that people in sunnier climates plant in fall will do well for you all summer. You can grow all the cool weather lettuces, for example, and your kales, chards, collards and mustards will provide terrific salads for you while other are limited to two kinds of garden lettuce. Basil, peppers, eggplant and other heat loving plants can be tricked by planting in raised beds, planting close to a south facing wall, using plastic mulch to hold heat in the soil, and barriers to keep the foggy wind off the plants. Large containers make good homes for these plants, too, and have the added advantage of being movable if they are on wheels. Container plants need more water, especially in windy environments, but if you clump the containers together, use thick black plastic pots, and - dare I say it? - use a controlled drip system, you can be more economical in your water use. You may not have warm enough soil to plant green beans, but you can grow and harvest peas throughout the summer.

Three final points:
First - Don't complain about your fog and wind. You live in one of the most glorious locations on earth and a little fog is a small price to pay.
Second - temperatures increase dramatically for every mile you travel inland. So make friends with one of those market gardeners who come to your farmers' market from Hollister or Salinas - they can bring all the big luscious vegetables you can't grow and they are only a few miles away.
Last, you have traded a cool climate for a very long growing season. In Ohio, they have from late May to early September to fill their larders. Here, we start in February and keep our gardens going through December (if you don't count all those garlic plants, walla walla onions, beets, fava beans, cabbages, chards, sweet onions, and lettuces that are overwintering!) So enjoy your cool climate and remember, strawberries HATE 90 degree temperatures.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Relax - There's Plenty of Time

Some people plant tomatoes in March. Others wait til May Day. Doesn't really matter - you will all get your tomatoes at the same time, anyway. In this climate, that means September and October. Soil temperatures are still in the 40/50 degree range. Don't even think about planting beans til the soil temperatures reach 60 degrees. Eggplant and peppers should wait, too. But remember; we live in paradise. There are many, many things to put in the garden now; peas and onions and lettuce and broccoli and kales and mustards, radishes and carrots. Tomatoes, too. Most of our summer squashes will do OK in the cooler spring weather, but they may lose that first set of blossoms. More will come. Our growing season is very, very long - from February to December, so gardening isn't just an April frenzy. It is a year round activity that can provide loads of fresh produce that is seasonal and delicious. No rush. There's plenty of time. Those tender little cucumbers can wait a week or so. Be patient. You will be rewarded!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

It' Spring. Time to think about Winter Squash!

Squash
Winter
Rich
Creamy
Sweet
Filling

Now is the time to think about where you will plant your winter squash. Because soon it will be time to plant your winter squash if you want to have carving pumpkins for Halloween and lots of luscious, rich, deliriously gorgeous winter squashes for wintertime soups, stews, and as a terrific roasting vegetable. Don't wait til August. Plan for them now and plant them in May or June. Many of the larger pumpkins take 100 - 120 days in our climate. Plan for a four month growing period. If you plant in May, then the plants will be ready to harvest in September. And they can sit on the vine for a month or two after that. My rule of thumb, plant winter squash when I plant bush beans; they both appreciate a warm soil and consistent watering. Many squashes are prone to powdery mildew and there isn't much you can do about that. Feed the soil to keep them healthy, spray with a diluted milk mixture (the mildew doesn't like the lactic acid), and keep the plants consistently moist like a cucumber. Not too wet, just moist. Store the pumpkins and squash in a cool, dry place and use as needed. This is a very tasty, attractive, nutritious and versatile plant that will delight you and all the children around you.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Cucumbers

Perhaps I write about cucumbers more than I should. But I love them, and I want you to love them, too. They are fairly easy to grow in the garden, but even easier in containers on a deck or patio, especially if they have a trellis they can climb. The Little Leaf Pickling Cucumber is the first one we start because it is tolerant of cold weather and is small and compact. It grows well in a 2 - 3 gallon container. The cucumber tastes good fresh and also makes a good pickle. There is only one 'trick' you need to know to make a good cucumber and that is consistent watering, or consistent moisture. This is one garden plant that really benefits from a timed drip system. Growing it in a container on the deck or patio ensure that it can be closely monitored for sun and moisture. Pick the cucumbers when they are small and dense whether you need them or not; they will do better stored in the refrigerator than left on the plant. There are a lot of simple pickle recipes that do not require a pressure cooker and/or lots of canning equipment. These are refrigerator pickles and they DO NOT KEEP FOREVER. So, keep track of the dates when you brined and stored them. That's it for now. I'll post some information soon about the incredibly expensive ROCKY cucumber and why it's worth the price!

YOU CAN GROW TOMATOES

OMG! I can't remember how to grow a tomato! This is probably not your problem. In fact, I think growing tomatoes is in our genes; the plant is one of the most forgiving plants in the garden. We have seen tomatoes fallen over from gophers munching on their roots come back and produce beautiful tomatoes. They seem to do fine in bondage; trellised or stake. And they are ok with sprawl. But you want the best and the most - so here are a few refresher tips:

1) SELECT VARIETIES THAT DO WELL IN YOUR ENVIRONMENT
There are so many varieties
to choose from that you will surely have success if you pick the right tomato to begin with. If your nights are cool, choose a cold hardy variety such as Stupice or Oregon Spring. If you have limited sun exposure, choose a cherry tomato that can develop with a little less light, or a determinate (see below) that can be planted in a large pot on wheels and may be moved into the sun.

2) DO NOT OVER FEED OR OVER WATER YOUR PLANTS
Too much nitrogen makes lots of pretty foliage but few tomatoes; too much water invites disease and makes mushy fruit. Cut back water sharply once plants begin to bear fruit. I'm sorry I can't be more specific about the amount of water but that has everything to do with the type of soil you have, how much fog, wind, temperature and general health of the plant. My best advice is this: If you think it needs water today, wait til tomorrow to water it. Try to water the soil, not the foliage, and early morning watering is best.

3) PRUNE TO CONTROL SHAPE
I admit, I do not do tis. Many people who grow on trellises prune judiciously. The argument for pruning is that you encourage he main stem and discourage side shoots for better production. We just let ours roam on the ground and get more tomatoes than we know what to do with.

4) STAKE OR TRELLIS
This is mostly for your benefit making for easier harvest and keeping fruit off the ground. The plant doesn't care. Now here is where I could go into a lengthy discussion of the annual tomato challenge that my Uncle Chauncy laid down at my fathers' feet. Chauncy trellised, Dad did not. Chauncy grew beefsteaks, Dad grew Rutgers all purpose tomatoes. It didn't matter in the long run. They both had bragging rights every year.

5) UPSIDE DOWN?
You might choose to grow tomatoes in the Topsy-Turvey upside down hanging planter bags. This works well for commercial growers but is a little difficult for home growers to manage, especially with regard to water and nutrient application. There are many good articles abut this on the internet, so do a little study before you try it. Personally, I think if you want to stress your plant to get more tomatoes, just remember to reduce water when they start to set fruit.

6) DETERMINATE OR INDETERMINATE
Determinate type tomatoes are usually hybrids developed for the commercial canning industry. All the tomatoes ripen at the same time as the plant dies back; putting all its energy into tomato production. These plants are smaller and more compact so do well in containers. (They are not good candidates for upside down growing, however, because they won't set a vine down from above.) Indeterminates are usually heirloom varieties and will produce smaller amounts of fruit over a much longer growing period. If you have the space, plant both types to get a big harvest early and a few big ones continuously through the season.

7) REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
The first time I grew a Brandywine Pink tomato, I only harvested four tomatoes of a huge plant. I was very disappointed - but those four tomatoes were wonderful! I now know how fortunate I was to get any tomatoes of that large heirloom plant in my cool growing climate.

You CAN grow tomatoes! No mater where you live, there is a tomato plant that will work for you. (A friend of mine grows cherry tomatoes in her north-facing bay window in San Francisco.) Of all the vegetable plants we offer, nothing says summer like the tomato plant. We notice the tomato aroma from the tiny seedlings that come up in our seed room in January. And it is an aroma that is full of hope. I hope these few tips will help you harvest the best possible tomato - and that is the one you grew yourself!