Tag Archives: edibles

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.

Bees- Pollinators for a Bountiful Harvest

Pollination or the transfer of pollen in and between flowers of the same species leads to fertilization and successful seed and fruit production in plants. Pollen can be carried from flower to flower by pollinating animals such as birds, bees, bats, moths, beetles or by the wind but bees pollinate approximately 1000 plants worldwide including apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds and tequila. Clearly we need our bees- both native bees and honeybees.

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honey bee pollinating African blue basil- photo courtesy of Gaylon Morris

Honeybees aren’t native to the United States. The colonist brought them here in the 1600’s to pollinate apple trees and for their honey and wax for candles. They are loyal to the plants they feed on and that makes them valuable to farmers and orchard owners. It works this way. When a worker bee leaves a hive in search of food it will feed on on one type of flower- whichever type it tasted first on that trip. Unlike other insects that might go from a cucumber blossom to dandelion to squash flower the honeybee sticks to one thing. That way it picks up and deposits only one type of pollen making honeybees particularly efficient in pollinating crops.

We know that honeybees are having a hard time of it due to diseases, parasites and pesticides. Planting flowers that bees like can increase the chances of bees’ survival as will cultivating native plants, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators.

Bees eat two things: nectar which is loaded with sugar and is their main source of energy and pollen which provides proteins and fats. Some of the common native plants that are recommended for the ecological region of our California Coastal Chaparral, Forest and Shrub Province by the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign to attract bees of all types include yarrow, columbine, California poppy, coral bells, silver lupine, penstemon, ceanothus, toyon, big leaf maple, mahonia, monkey flower, buckwheat, western azalea and purple sage.

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honey bee on echium wildpretii

Common garden plants that can attract bees to your landscape and vegetable garden are herbs such as African blue basil, oregano, mint, catnip and cat mint, borage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, dill, comfrey and fennel. Edibles that attract bees are blueberry, pumpkin, squash, sunflower, blackberry, hazelnut, artichoke, beans, cucumber and peas. Crabapple, iris, lavender, salvia, sunflowers, monarda, aster, butterfly bush, sweet alyssum, alstroemeria, red hot poker, gloriosa daisy, scabiosa, coneflower and echium also attract bees of all types.

In your own garden an abundant and healthy population of pollinators can improve fruit set, quality and size. Crops raised in California depends on both domestic honeybees and native bees for pollination of almond, blackberry, cucumber and artichoke crops.

We can all help honeybees and other pollinating animals by being more mindful of the way we tend our yards. Reduce the amount of lawn you have and plant natives and flowers that will attract them. Use organic pesticides carefully and only if absolutely necessary. Buy local honey and support beekeepers. Honeybees and other pollinators need help to survive and we’re the ones to provide it.

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.

Do I Really Need to Dormant Spray and Prune my Fruit Trees?

Gummosis canker on dwarf nectarine- Photo courtesy of Sherry Austin
Gummosis canker on dwarf nectarine- Photo courtesy of Sherry Austin

A Facebook friend recently posted a picture of gummosis on her dwarf nectarine. While pruning her fruit trees she found the sticky stuff and shared her plight. While some folks post pictures of babies and political opinions on their Facebook page, my friends post pictures of plants and their fruit trees. Yes, if you haven’t already done so, this is the time to winter prune fruit trees and apply dormant spray to fend off diseases and insect pests. With rainfall expected throughout the spring this is not the year to omit this important task.

Why prune your fruit trees in winter? The reasons to prune fruit trees are to increase fruit production, develop strong 45-degree branch angles to support fruit load, remove limbs that grow down or straight up, maintain tree size and maintain fruit spurs. The dormant season is the best time to train a fruit tree during its first three years. Pruning trees during the dormant period tends to have an invigorating effect on the tree. Good for a young tree, not so good if you are trying to control size.

Gummosis on plum in summertime
Gummosis on plum in summertime.

Pruning of dead or diseased branches can be done anytime, however, the sooner the better. And don’t prune suckers in the winter. This insures they will grow back in the summer. Over zealous winter pruning can result in waterspouts so go easy at this time of year. Summer pruning, done in June or July, decreases size and vigor which helps to slow the growth of a tree.

Often I’m asked whether to paint a wound with sealing compound after pruning. This is no longer recommended as it encourages wood rot. A tree is best protected by proper pruning technique and timing. With this in mind, don’t prune during late spring or fall as a tree is most vulnerable during those times. When you cut away part of a plant, a would is left, susceptible to pests and diseases. To avoid trouble always prune so as to make small wounds, rather than large ones. Trimming a bud or twig produces a smaller wound than waiting until it is a large limb. Rubbing off a sucker bud leaves a smaller wound than if you want until it has a year’s growth or more.

My friends sticky amber gum oozing from her dwarf nectarine branch is the tree’s reaction to stress. Cankers or sunken lesions covered with gum may be caused by mechanical injuries, such as lawnmowers or pruning, insects, winter damage, sun scald, herbicide injury or various fungal or bacterial infections. Practice good sanitation by removing and destroying cankered limbs.

You can prevent or control many diseases and overwintering insects by applying a dormant spray this month. This can be the most effective spray of the season. Fungal diseases such as peach leaf curl, fire blight, scab and anthracnose as well as insects including aphids, San Jose scale, bud moth, leaf roller, coddling moth and whitefly larvae, mealybugs and mites can all be controlled.

There are several types of dormant sprays and all three types are considered organic. Lime-Sulfur or copper can be mixed with horticultural oil which smothers overwintering insects and eggs. This spray is good for all fruit trees except apricots which should be sprayed in the fall with copper and this month with horticultural oil.

Apply dormant spray when the temperature is above 40 degrees. Make sure you cover every nook and cranny of each branch and trunk until the tree is dripping and spray the surrounding soil. Spray only plants that have suffered from pests or disease. Sprays, even organic, can kill beneficial insects as well. Even though they’re organic, dormant sprays can be irritating to skin and eyes, Wear long sleeves and gloves and eye protection.

I hope I don’t find any pictures on Facebook of your plant pests or diseases but post away if you something wicked your way comes and I’ll try to help.

Bare Root Fruit Trees- What, When and Why?

Autumnalis flowering cherry blooming in January
Autumnalis flowering cherry blooming in January

I have an Autumnalis flowering cherry tree that blooms year round. The last blooming cycle started in late November and it’s still blooming now despite heavy rains. This tree came into my life 20 years ago as a bare root tree. We’re old friends. Now is the time to add ornamentals and edibles like fruit, nuts, berries and vegetables while they’re available in bare root form. They are easy to plant, economical and establish quickly.

Every year there are more fruit tree varieties available in bare root including delicious time honored heirloom varieties as well as modern favorites. It’ll be hard for me to decide which ones I’ll recommend for edible gardens I design this year.

Several years ago Orin Martin, the manager, master orchardist, horticulturalist and

Apple variety
Apple variety

teacher extraordinaire at UCSC Alan Chadwick garden visited a group of fellow landscape designers bringing with him a bag of his favorite apples. As he cut slices of each for us to sample his highest praise went to Cox’s Orange Pippen, Golden Delicious, American Golden Russet, McIntosh and Mutsu apples. Plant these varieties and you could be eating apples from August through October. Did you know that at one time in American history russet apples were the most desired and wages were actually paid in cider made from russet apples?

Bare Root Fruit Trees in bins with sawdust
Bare Root Fruit Trees in bins with sawdust

If it’s peaches you crave, Renee of Mountain Feed & Farm Supply shared with me some peach leaf curl resistant varieties they carry. Listed by UC Integrated Integrated Pest Management Program they include Frost and the Q-1-8 white peach. The Frost is a medium-sized, freestone yellow peach with a delicious flavor. It has showy pink flowers in the spring. They ripen in July and require 700 hours of winter chill. The Q-1-8 peach ripens in July also. This white-fleshed, semi-freestone peach is sweet and juicy like Babcock and has showy blossoms in late spring. Peaches are self-fruitful and don’t require another peach to pollinize them.

What fruit tree varieties can you grow here in the mountains? Well, almost everything. Most of us get 700-900 chilling hours per winter. What does that mean? Well, many fruit trees, lilacs and peonies need a certain number of hours during dormancy where the temperature is 45 degrees or less. You can give the plant more chilling in the winter and that’s just fine but not less. Those in coastal Santa Cruz can grow Fuji apples as they require only 300 hours of chilling but not Red Delicious. We can grow both.

What if you don’t get full sun where you’d like to grow fruit trees? Apples, pluots and plums are good choices for an area that gets some sun- at least 5 hours- every day during the growing season. The ideal is full sun but these trees will still set and ripen some fruit in partially shaded conditions. With peaches, nectarines or apricots it’s a different story. These fruits need hot sun to develop sweet, tasty fruit. Too little sun and they will not deliver anything close to what you have in mind.

Shop for your plants in January or February while they are still dormant. Once leaves emerge or flower buds start to swell tree roots have already started growing. You want your tree to start developing new permanent roots in their final home. Stone fruits such as apricots, peaches,

Bartlett pear
Bartlett pear

plums and cherries are going to start waking up first so they are best put in the ground soon. Fruit trees like pears and apples wake up later so you can wait a bit longer to plant those varieties.

With this in mind be wary of spring sale bare root stock. Also trees in packages may have had their roots pruned to fit inside or the packaging material may have dried out or become soggy. Better to see the roots for yourself before you bring your new addition home.

When May rolls around I’ll be anxiously awaiting the first cherries, apricots and peaches. Then the early nectarines arrive, sweet and juicy followed by the plums that ripen next. Later in the summer apples, figs and pears make their debut as well as late ripening plums and peaches. With a little planning you can have fresh fruit 7 months of the year.

By growing your own fruit you’re not at the mercy of mechanical harvesters and shipping practices. You can grow fruit and harvest it when the time is right. Homegrown fruit is a world apart from agribusiness and much less expensive than the Farmer’s Market.

Celebrate May in the Garden

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Valthemia bracteata

May is the month for you if you make a note when your favorite plant starts to bloom. May is the month for you if you count the number of hummingbirds at the feeder everyday. May is the month for you if you’ve been waiting for the soil to warm enough to plant melons and peppers and winter squash.

A friend gave me a blue Hokkaido squash last fall and I saved the seeds. I’ve been waiting patiently to plant them. It’s one of the best tasting, beautiful squash you can grow. I’m looking forward to harvesting my own this fall. They store for quite a while, taste great and look stunning in a Halloween display along side orange pumpkins. I can hardly wait.

Plants are growing like crazy this month preparing to reproduce at their given time. The birds, bees and even those pesky tree squirrels are finding lots of food and nectar to feed their young. We know the dry months of summer are coming and are preparing by modifying irrigation systems to conserve water and mulching all bare soil. I think we deserve to set a little time aside between gardening tasks to enjoy the wonder of nature and our own gardens.

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Honey bee collecting pollen

Here’s a task that requires no work at all but the benefits are huge. Set aside a small area of your yard, say 10% or so, and leave it uncultivated. Let it grow wild and see what native plants and wildlife show up. This would be a good spot to plant milkweed and let it self sow for the Monarch butterfly.

Don’t push yourself and bite off more than you can do in the garden at a time. Landscaping doesn’t have to be done all at once. Maybe choose a new tree or a couple low water use shrubs to plant and care for this summer. Choose something that looks good year round to provide interest. Or take one corner this year and another corner next year to redo or install. This won’t break your water budget or your back.

Food gardening is hard work. Maybe this year grow just those edibles that taste so delicious freshly picked from the garden. Edibles like strawberries, blueberries, herbs, lettuces, chard and arugula are ornamental, don’t take up too much room and are easy to grow. I was disappointed with the way my tomatoes tasted last year. They were OK but no where near as tasty as the dry-farmed Early Girls at the Farmer’s Market. This year I’m only going to grow cherry tomatoes. One of life’s simple pleasures is picking and eating your own fruit as you work in the garden. Beside my favorite Sungold I’m going to try growing local heirlooms like Chadwick’s Cherries, and Camp Joy.

Don’t get me started on the weeds this year. With those early fall rains everything you don’t want in the yard is going nuts. I have actually been gaining ground on controlling many of the annual weeds around my house. The soil is soft and the smaller root system is more likely to let go so as I walk around I pick a few or as many as don’t seem like work. Each plant can produce so many hundreds of seeds that I think of it as free exercise.

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Azalea blooms

When the last flowers of your rhododendron, azalea, camellia, weigela and spirea have finished it’s time to prune them. If you prune just before the plant blooms you risk removing that year’s flowers. If you prune several month after flowering your risk removing the flower buds forming for next year. Basically it’s best to prune a bit each year to shape and thin the plant. The rules apply to most plants. Prune to the next whorl or set of leaves. There’s no need other than looks to deadhead old flowers.

It was great to get a bit more rain last week. Plants appreciate the moisture especially during spring. Come summer everything slows down to survive and that’s a part of our unique climate here, too.