Category Archives: vegetables

Growing Great Vegetables- Part 2

I know many people who wait until the beginning of May to start their vegetable gardens for the summer. Conditions may not be right for them to grow cool season vegetables like beets, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, unions, radish and spinach. Those plants don’t mind cold soil and chilly weather. But it your’ve been waiting for the perfect time to plant those scrumptious tomatoes you crave- wait no more. And if you plan your garden right you can still grow some of the cool season crops in the shade of your other sun lovers.

Indigo Rose tomatoes

Crops that prefer night temps of 55 degrees and over are tomatoes bell peppers, corn beans, squash, cucumber, muskmelon and pumpkin. Distinctly warm weather, long season crops that need temperatures in the 70’s are watermelon, eggplant and chilies.

Rotate the beds when planting your vegetables to avoid a build up of diseases and insects that can survive in the soil or on plant residue. Don’t plant the same or closely related vegetables where they grew in the last 2-3 years.

Pay attention to the watering needs of each kind of plant, otherwise you might plant high water use vegetables beside ones that need need less water. This can not only waste water but can actually harm plants. A good guidelines is to group plants by how big they get and how fast they grow. The bigger and faster they grow, the more water they’ll use. Plant heavy water users at one end of the garden, light users at the other.

Raised vegetable beds

For instance, plant shallow rooted beets, bush beans, carrots, lettuce, spinach, radishes and other greens together as they grow at about the same rate and use similar amounts of water. Corn, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes and squash combine well as they all grow rapidly and need lots of water. Another tip is not to mix new (successive) plantings of carrots, lettuce and other crops with existing ones as water use changes as the plants mature.

Calico Indian popcorn

Vegetables at maturity that root over 48 inches deep are tomatoes, watermelon, pumpkin, winter squash, asparagus, sweet potatoes and artichoke. When watering wet your soil to this depth to keep them happy. Moderately deep rooting veggies -36-48 inches- are beet, beans, carrots, chard, cucumber, eggplant, muskmelon, peas, pepper, summer squash and turnip. Shallow rooting -18 – 24 inches – veggies include broccoli, cabbage, celery, corn, garlic, lettuce, onion, parsley, potato, radish and spinach. Water less if your plants aren’t full grown yet.

Vegetables in containers are a great solution if you don’t have much space in the ground to devote to them. Pots warm up quicker in the spring, too. Just about anything that grows in the ground can also grow in a pot or half barrel. This includes vegetables, herbs and even small fruit trees.

Small plants like lettuces, spinach, Swiss chard and herbs grow nicely in smaller pots near the back door while large edibles like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, cucumbers and melons need more room like a half barrel or large 7 or 5 gallon pots.

It’s important to use fresh planing mix in your containers each year. Heavy producers need fresh nutrients and deplete the soil by the end of the season. Also feed your containers for the best tasting fruit and vegetables and water on a steady basis. Skip a day of watering when larger plants are at their peak and you can lose your crop. There’s no such thing as dry-farmed tomatoes in a container. Growing plants is containers is low maintenance. No weeding required and one of the easiest ways to success.

Growing your own Food for Health & Happiness

I don’t grow enough of my own healthy organic food so I rely on the kindness of strangers and several friends. I do manage to harvest a few handfuls of my own strawberries and cherry tomatoes but that’s about it due to lack of sunlight. Fortunately I have the farmer’s market for other fruits and vegetables and friends that keep me supplied with their overabundance of delicacies like plums, guavas and persimmons.

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Veggie boxes- July 2016 All photos courtesy of Gaylon Morris

I enjoy reading about the gardening exploits of a Facebook friend as she keeps me posted on the progress of her garden. She’s an inventive cook so there’s no shortage of recipes and pictures of the meals she creates from her daily harvest.

Being involved with the food we eat is a sure way to the road to health. My friend Chandra Morris raises chickens in a coop she affectionately calls Fort Clux and includes eggs in many of her recipes. She and her husband Gaylon designed the coop to exclude any raccoons or other predators and it’s state of the art as far as chicken coops go. Then there’s the raised veggie boxes designed and built in an odd-shaped triangular section of their yard. Utilizing every possible square foot for edibles it’s downright inspirational.

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Pink Lemonade blueberry

This is the second season for these raised veggie boxes. Healthy plants need good soil to grow. With this in mind the boxes were originally filled with an organic veggie mix from a local supplier in Aptos that included organic dairy and chicken manure, organic one earth compost, grape pumice, gypsum, organic 4-4-2 fertilizer and humic acid from molasses, seaweed and yucca extract and bentonite clay. The strong healthy plants that Chandra grows attest to the richness of this soil mix.

The progress of Chandra’s vegetables has been remarkable and I’ve been able to track it since May 15th when she posted a picture of the garden at 95% planted. After a couple weeks a picture showed up depicting an afternoon snack of 4 kinds of radish, cherry plums from her tree and a pea pod that “wasn’t ready but I couldn’t resist.” Then came the late June posts showing pea pods ready for harvest on a trellis, then in a colander on the kitchen counter for dinner that night.

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Indigo Rose tomato

I asked Chandra what some of her favorite vegetable varieties are. She said she grows Pink Lemonade blueberry because it’s supposed to be more resistant to birds as it isn’t blue. Blue lake pole beans are a classic she likes but she also grows Royalty purple pod bush beans. Her very favorite tomato is Green Zebra. Runners up are Pink Berkeley Tie Die, a psychedelic-colored beefsteak-type. Chandra describes Chocolate Cherry as “the best cherry tomato I have ever had with a silky texture.” She also grows Indigo Rose so there’s no shortage of tomatoes on the Morris family dinner table.

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Calico corn- a gourmet popcorn variety

I commented on the vigorously growing corn and was told it’s Calico Popcorn, a gourmet heirloom variety. In the middle of each corn circle she plants Christmas lima beans, a speckled butter bean with a rich, mellow chestnut flavor, winter squash and a 4th sister”- Bright Bandolier sunflowers. Growing three different crops in one space is a Native American tradition. The Iroquois coined the term The Three Sisters although they weren’t the only tribe to use the method. It’s a circle of interdependence based on giving and receiving.

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Four Sisters

The three plants work together. Sister Bean fixes, or makes available in plant form, nitrogen from the air. Sister corn provides the support for Sister Bean’s trailing vine. Sister Squash provides ground cover to hold moisture and maintain a healthy soil environments as well as deterring animals invaders with it’s spiny stems. The fourth sister can be Sister Sunflower or Sister Bee Balm. This sister supports the beans, lures birds from the son with her seeds and attracts insect pollinators.

Besides eating fresh from the garden, Chandra is also a good cook and posts lots of good recipes to go along with her harvest. From sauces, to peppers to pickles to soup the list is endless on all the ways she utilizes her harvest of organic fruit, vegetables and eggs in a healthy diet.

A Walk on the Wildside: The Ongoing Saga of the Hillbilly Gardener

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Fourth of July roses

Many years ago I was invited by a Scotts Valley resident to visit their garden. This was no ordinary garden I was to learn during my visit and each spring I look forward to seeing what’s new at Doc Hencke’s garden. From his roots in Oklahoma and Texas he describes himself as the “Hillbilly Gardener” but with his extensive knowledge of trees, vines and just about anything that grows he is one of the most successful and enthusiastic horticulturists I know. I wore my walking shoes and we started talking about what changes he’s noted in his landscape the past few years of drought coupled with this winter’s rains.

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Straw bale veggie garden with Joe Ghio bearded iris

First stop- the straw bale veggie garden. The soil in this part of the garden is blue hard sub soil so this above-ground method of cultivation has been a real success. Richard told me that when the bales were first put in place a couple years ago he watered them thoroughly to start the fermentation process. Using a meat thermometer he determined by the internal temperature when fermentation was complete. He then soaked the bales with liquid organic fertilizer and applied some blood meal to augment nitrogen. The straw bales are decomposing each year but he’s going to use them once more this season. His crop of kale, lettuces and chard looked robust and happy.

Nearby a bed of Joe Ghio hybrid bearded iris were in full bloom. “It’s been a great year for iris”, Richard said. Not so good for peach leaf curl. The rains this winter set the perfect stage for the fungus to proliferate. He joked that the birds get the peaches anyway.

Richard is redoing his pond this year. He’s tired of fighting the raccoons and algae. Steeper sides will deter the raccoons and deeper water will help to prevent algae growth. He was forced to remove a curly willow that shed leaves into the pond as their natural salicylic acid was poisoning the pond.

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Succulent collection with blooming kangaroo paw

Last year a new succulent bed was planted along the back of the house and patio. His Sticks on Fire all died over the winter from the cold and rain but the aeonium ’Zwartkop’, echeveria ’Sunburst’, kangaroo paw and various sedums were filling in nicely.

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Weeping leptospermun

Below the patio the golden Mexican marigold and blue Pride of Madeira were in full bloom along with a gorgeous stand of Weeping Leptospermum. “Magnificent this year, just look at this plant. Can you imagine what it’s going to look like in another 15 years?”, he said. Pointing out the visual boundaries he creates with flowering vines growing up into the trees, Richard observed that some are going better than others. Sound familiar in your own garden? Even this expert propagator is sometimes stymied by Mother Nature.

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Richard and his giant China Doll tree

I love to hear Doc Hencke’s stories as he shows me around. Stopping at a China Doll houseplant that has now grown into a tree he tells me he thinks it’s one of the tallest specimens ever. His giant bird of paradise flower pod opened last week. I’d never seen their enormous blue, prehistoric-looking flowers before.

Richard’s new desert garden along the driveway is growing in nicely with the aloe plicatilis blooming for the first time. Also the yucca he and his brother dug up inTexas is finally blooming. “I’ve only waited 52 years for it”, he laughs.

There are so many stories that come with each and every plant in Richard’s collection. It’s always a walk on the wild side.

The “Chicken Palace”, Shade Veggies and UCSC Arboretum Visit

aster-like_flowers_UCSC_arboretumWe humans used to be mostly foragers and obtained our nutrition before the end of the last ice age by being hunter-gatherers. According to David Christian in his book ‘This Fleeting World’, agriculture arose independently in multiple, unconnected areas of the world in roughly the same historic timeframe. Foragers, he says, lived comparatively leisurely lives with good nutrition, working just a few hours each day, while those in agricultural communities toiled almost ceaselessly and had comparatively poor nutrition. What happened to make us the agricultural society we are today?

Christian points out that the end of the ice age occurred at the same time that foragers migrated around the globe. Warmer, wetter and more productive climates may have increased populations in some regions with increased population pressure. It may explain why, in several parts of the world, beginning about ten thousand years ago, some communities of foragers began to settle down.

The rest is history. Many of us are returning to growing and producing our own food whenever we are able. Even on a small scale, a garden, a few fruit trees, a chicken or two or three, all help to put healthy, nutritious food on our table.

The other day I was in a garden I helped create and saw the results of her edibles mixed chicken_palace.1600in with ornamental plants and fragrant flowers that attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators to the garden. Her “chicken palace” would be the envy of every chicken in the county. Annie, the dog, was more than happy to show me how it was made with boards from the old barn, new corrugated iron siding along with some new wood. Their palace keeps the chickens safe from predators and sheltered from the elements. The best feature is the roosting spot near the top which can be easily accessed from doors that checking_for_eggs.1600open at deck level to check for eggs. On this morning two of the girls were “working” so we didn’t disturb them.

Earlier in the week, I visited a garden where the only place available to grow vegetables was a little shady. Huge cottonwood trees shaded much of the area and even when thinned the trees would always block some of the sun. We decided she could grow cherry tomatoes that ripen even in part shade on the east side as most of the sun that reached the area fell from mid-day on. Also she likes green beans, so a bush variety would conserve space and not block the sun to other vegetables. There are so many bush beans available. She’ll pick from 8 different organic varieties available from Renee’s Garden Seeds. With mouth-watering names such as Royalty Purple, Tricolor Bush,
the favorite of gourmets, Nickel Filet, and the French yellow Roc D’Or she’ll have a hard time deciding.

Other vegetables that will produce without sun all day long include spinach, bush peas, kale, chard, lettuce and root crops like beets, carrots, potatoes and radishes. They may take a bit longer to mature without full sun so be patient.

I rounded out the week by visiting the UCSC Arboretum. Regardless of the time of year, Fremontodendron_californicumwhenever I pass by this jewel of a garden I always stop by to see what’s blooming and what the birds are up to. I had dropped by in February before the rains came and was a little concerned that the December freeze compounded by the lack of rain had stressed the plants. They were in survival mode and it didn’t look like they were going to be putting on their usual spectacular spring display. It was happy to see that the rains came in the nick of time and everything was now blooming away. Vivid lilac, aster-like flowers absolutely covered some low shrubs.

California flannel bush or fremontodendron californium were covered with bright yellow flowerss in the California Natives garden. A low growing species that may have been Pine Hill from the Sierra was also in full bloom.  All daisy-like flowers_UCSC_arboretumwere breathtaking.

Before I left I also enjoyed a stand of arcotis-like pink daisies that bordered the South African and New Zealand gardens.  With no name tags to help me identify them I could only enjoy their beauty but then isn’t that what it’s all about?

2014 Gardener’s New Year Resolutions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI plan to turn over a new leaf in 2014. I’m talking about gardening. The rest of my New Year’s resolutions are too numerous to list here!  I wish I could tell you that I’ll never put in another plant that might freeze during the winter. I wish I could tell you that I’ll really start that compost pile this year and duke it out with the raccoons. I wish I could tell you I’ll make more garden journal entries and not rely on sketchy memories. But the reality is gardening shouldn’t be so much about regrets. It’s about the delight we get from coaxing plants from the earth. A garden reflects our lives- always room for growth as well as reflection.

We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree or a seed or a garden? I have viola_Etaingrown wiser as the years go by and although a few things froze this month, most will grow back come spring. Some might require a little more patience than others but by April or May most will be looking great. If there are some new transplants, for instance, that suffered because they didn’t have time to establish a strong root system before the deep freeze, I’ll look at it at an opportunity to fill that space with something even better.

I was able to visit some very unique gardens this year and see beneficial insects and beneficial plants at work. When I design a garden I now include even more pollen producing flowering plants to attract beneficials.  This way I keep the good guys around longer to deal with the bad bugs and aid in pollination. Knowing what the good insects look like is important in helping me identify a problem that may be getting out of control.

I’ve kept a garden journal since 1994. In the spirit of full disclosure, some years I do pretty good with it. I add photos and seed packets and lots of info about the weather and how everything did. Other years I’m more hit and miss with my entries. But without the journal most of what happened would be forgotten if not for these scribbled notes. Reading them over returns me to the quiet pleasures of mornings in the garden, of first bloom and the wonder of a hummingbird hovering at eye level.

This year record what does well in your garden.  Were the fruit trees loaded with fruit as you’d hoped?  How many times did you fertilize them?  Did they flower well?   How many bees did you see pollinating them?  Should you add more plants to attract them?  Insect or disease problems?   Room for more?  What kinds would extend your harvest season?

Make notes of what other edibles you want to include in the garden this year.  Bare root season starts in January making it easy to plant grapes, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, artichokes and asparagus.

Make notes about how productive the tomatoes and other veggies did this year. Did you add enough compost to the beds to really feed the soil and the microorganisms?  Did you rotate your crops to prevent a build up of insect and fungal problems?

Think about how the perennials in your garden fared last year – the successes and not so great results.  Make a note if there are any higher water usage plants among the drought tolerant ones.  Come March, move them to a spot you’ve allocated a bit more water.

I wish I could tell you that I would die happy if I could grow a dry farmed Early Girl tomato next year that tastes like summer. That’s my fondest wish for 2014. Doesn’t sound impossible, does it? Enjoy your garden. Set realistic goals. After all, who cares if there are a few weeds here and there when you’re sitting under a shade tree with an ice tea next July. Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will be there tomorrow.

Happy New Year from The Mountain Gardener.

Growing Cover Crops- Part I

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese knew how to protect their soil from erosion and increase fertility by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants 3500 years ago also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. I learned this and also how to protect and improve my soil from Orin Martin, manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden at a cover crop workshop recently on the campus.

aster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048“It’s all about the biology of the soil”, Martin said. “You grow the soil that helps you grow the plants”. A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward, he explained. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.

Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume.

Cover crops are also called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring lettuces_after_cover_cropping.1024before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.

From late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil however as you can ruin the structure of your soil.

The Chadwick Garden, Martin explained, originally was heavy red clay. 35 years of soil building with bell beans and vetch cover crops and compost have established a level of fertility that now supports several acres of vegetables, fruit trees, berries and beneficial flowering plants. Fall-sown, spring ploughed-down cover crops are the sole fertilizer used for the better part of the last decade.

Soil_builder_cover_crop_mix.1600Martin explained that recent research now recommends planting a tandem of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch which are the best legumes for our area grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.

There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but no where near as efficiently as bell beans.  Crimson clover seed is also more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.

A question came up about using inoculants on legume seed. Martin explained that our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.

We all followed Martin out to the cover crop trial plots to see how the different types were growing. Bark chips will soon be applied to the paths. All of the gardens are mulched several times per year with wood chips. A 10 year study, Martin explained, demonstrated the amazing benefits of ramial chipped wood which is the type the tree service companies provide for free.

We watched him work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds were already cleared but Martin said this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area was raked again lightly 1-2″ down and covered with 3-4″ of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything, he said.  Water in lightly.

There are 3 ways to fertilize, Martin said. You can buy chemical fertilizer which is expensive and doesn’t do much for the soil. You can apply compost, which being carbon based, ramps up beneficial fungal organisms in the soil. Or you can cover crop or grow green manure which increases beneficial soil bacteria. Orin Martin has proof of the benefits of the last two methods.