Accidental Garden Design: Pomegranate and Prickly Pear

Can good garden design be taught or is it something you’re born with? If it’s inherited I didn’t get that gene, unfortunately. But at least a garden can sometimes put on a good show despite the gardener’s lack of design sense. Above, the view out our front window of our pomegranate tree (Punica granatum ‘Wondeful’) against our overgrown prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica).

These two plants have a lot in common. They both produce abundant and nutritious food in a dry climate with little or no attention other than yearly pruning. They combine beauty and free produce with no work. Both are rich in symbolism. I could go on, but the photo says all that needs to be said.

Our Winter Vegetable Garden

Favas n’ peas

It’s a blessing and a curse to live in a year round growing climate. Winter here in Southern California is the most productive time for most vegetables. It also means that there’s no time off for the gardener or the soil. In the interest of better note keeping, what follows is a list of what we’re growing this winter in the vegetable garden. We’ll do an update in the spring to let you know how things grew. For those of you in colder climates these would be “cool season” vegetables and it’s never to early to start planning.

For just about the tenth season in a row we’ve sourced all of our seeds from two venerable Italian companies, Franchi and Larosa. Why? You get a ton of seeds in a package and they’ve always, without exception, germinated well and yielded beautiful vegetables most of which can’t be found in even the fanciest restaurant in the US. Frankly, every time I try another seed source I’m disappointed. I also like Italian cooking with its emphasis on flavorful ingredients prepared simply–no fussy sauces or complicated recipes.

Salad Makings

First off an endive and escarole mix from Franchi Seeds recommended and sold to us by our friends at Winnetka Farms. Looking forward to this one.

“Cicoria Variegata di Castelfranco”
A  bitter and beautiful chicory, also recommended by our Winnetka pals along with:

“Lattuga Quattro Stagioni”
A butterhead type lettuce.

Arugula “Rucola da Orto” from Larosa seeds.
You can never plant enough arugula, in my opinion.

Greens

Rapini “Cima di Rapa Novantina”
I grow this every year. It’s basically my favorite vegetable–much more flavorful and easier to grow than broccoli.

Spigariello broccoli.
A large plant resembling kale. You eat the leaves and flowers. Used in “Minestra Nera” or “Black Soup,” which consists of this vegetable and cannelini beans. More info here.

Fava and bush peas
I’ve rotated in legumes in the bed we grew tomatoes in during the summer. The fava came from seeds saved by the Winnetka farm folks and from our own garden. The bush peas are “Progress #9″ from Botanical Interests.

Chard “Bieta Verde da Taglio”
A tasty, thick leaved chard from Franchi seeds.

Dandelion greens, “Cicoria Selvatica da Campo”
A truly idiot proof vegetable. Bitter and easy to grow.

Parsnips “Prezzelmolo Berliner”
The first time I’ve ever tried to grow parsnips.

Radishes “Rapid Red 2 Sel. Sanova”
Mrs. Homegrown complains that I never plant radishes. This year I addressed that grievance.

Beets “Bietolo da Orto Egitto Migliorata”
A repeat from last year, these are tasty red beets.

Buck’s horn plantain also known as “Erba Stella”
An edible weed.

Stinging nettles
One of my favorite plants. It’s begun to reseed itself in the yard. Useful as a tea and a green.

For more information on when to plant vegetables in Southern California, see this handy chart. And let us know in the comments what you’re growing or plan to grow during the cool season.

Advances in Gardening: The Trough of Garlic

Remember a while back I posted a picture of Erik in a manly pose, whomping our patio with his sledgehammer? He took out a strip of concrete and built this over the hole: a new planting bed.  That’s the Germinator on the right, butting up to it and my Fan behind it.  When we’re done with all this redoing, we’ll clean everything up and take some wider shots so it all begins to make sense. For now–believe me–it’s better to keep to limited views!

Right now,  as its name suggests, this new bed is planted with garlic–and a few shallots. Rather as I had with medicinal herbs, for years I’ve been tucking garlic in here and there all over the garden. And while that’s a fine strategy, especially if you believe in its use as a companion plant, it’s a real treat to be able to plant a ton of garlic all at once.

But this isn’t a dedicated garlic bed. Remember, in gardening, you have to keep your crops circulating. Repeated plantings of the same veggie in the same place is just begging for trouble. After the garlic harvest, we’ll add the bed to the rotational schedule. Perhaps next it will hold Swiss chard, or carrots. When you’re trying to rotate crops in a small yard, every new bed helps. Even small ones. This is one reason we squeezed this one out of our patio.

Note that like The Fan, The Trough is also covered with hoops and netting to keep skunks and squirrels (and chickens) out until the plants get established.

Grow Your Own!

If you haven’t grown garlic, it’s super easy. Just break up a head of garlic and plant the individual cloves pointy end up under an inch or so of soil, about six inches apart. You’ll want to use only big fat cloves, not those skinny ones that sit in toward the core.

You can use regular old organic garlic that you’d buy at the store or the farmers’ market. Some warn against this, saying the heads might be treated with anti-sprouting agents, but I’ve never had a problem. Diseases of different sorts may also be a problem, now that I think about it. And I don’t like to think about it, because I love shoving random garlic from my kitchen into the ground. It’s just plain fun. But if you plan ahead, you can order safe, untreated garlic from seed companies, and even better, you can choose from a wide variety of heirloom and gourmet varieties suited to you individual climate.

Too late for us this year, a friend gave us an enthusiastic recommendation: a variety called Music. Check it out. Perhaps we’ll plant this one next year.

Here in LA, we plant garlic in the fall, between Halloween and Thanksgiving for a spring harvest. You’ll have to check local wisdom to find out when you should plant yours, but we’ve heard that in cold winter climates you also plant garlic around this time–the only difference being that the bulbs overwinter under the snow and sprout in the spring. Ours are already sprouting, sped up, I think, by our insane hot/cold weather cycles this fall.

One last tip: garlic likes mulch. In the bed above, you’ll see the straw mulch covering most of it. The shallots are on the far, bare end. We’ve never grown them before, but apparently they don’t like mulch.  Everybody has to be a diva.

Should you really want to become a garlic expert, there’s a book on the subject: Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers.

Advances in Gardening: The Screens of Discretion

When our friend Tara helped us reconceptualize our back yard, one of the first things she did was wave toward our compost pile and chicken supply zone, and say, “You’ve got to screen off all that crap.”

Of course! We had to take control of the view. Ahhhhh…..

So Erik built this screen. He started using a pre-made trellis material, but tricked it up.  Behind it you can see the massive compost pile. The structure on the left is the end of the hen house. We’d been stacking straw bales and wood chips there. Now we can hide all that behind the screen–and maybe there will even be room for that ugly steel can back.

It’s a shady spot, but Tara thinks it gets enough light to grow raspberries. If you look close you can see two tiny raspberries planted at the foot of each screen.

Aesthetic improvement + new growing space for food = pretty cool

Advances in Gardening: Introducing the Germinator™

I’ve built a kind of seedling Guantanamo which I’ve dubbed the “Germinator™.” Why? Two reasons:

1. Damn squirrels and chickens. Both have gotten into my seedling flats in the past and wreaked havoc. This is why the Germinator™, for most of the year, has a wire mesh top. That wire mesh also takes down the harsh Southern California sun a notch so the flats don’t dry out.

Univent Greenhouse Automatic Vent Opener2. During the cooler spring season, I can trade out the wire mesh for a translucent plastic top and I’ll have a cold frame. Last year my tomato seeds failed to germinate due to cold weather. I’ve vowed not to let that happen next year.

I’m going to trick out the hinged top of the Germinator™ during the cool months with a Univent Greenhouse Automatic Vent Opener, a gadget that promises to automatically open and close the top. The Univent requires no batteries or power and aims to maintain a temperature range between 62-73 F. We’ll review the Univent when we try it next year.

So far the Germinator™ has worked well, providing a safe haven for our winter seedlings: artichoke, spigarello broccoli, nettles, sweet peas, white sage, Italian dandelion, chard and more. We could sow directly in the ground but, due to construction of our new garden infrastructure, starting seedlings in flats allowed me to get going ahead of time.

Advances in Gardening Series: The Fan

Yet another heat wave slowed our backyard redesign project, but the weather is looking more cooperative at last and things are coming along. What we thought we might do over the next few days is share some of the new things we’ve put in, and how/why we built them, just in case any of it might be useful to you.

Everything is pretty rough and ragged right now, but it will be fun to report back in a couple months and do a compare/contrast.

The Concept:

Above you see the bones of my herb fan (and lots of chaos beyond). This space used to be my herb patch, which consisted of a bunch of random plantings, some perennial, some seasonal. It somewhat useful and occasionally attractive, but  didn’t earn its keep. So what I’ve done is split my herb production into two categories: kitchen and medicinal.

The kitchen herbs are going to live in a smaller planter box, all compact and tidy (because really, how much marjoram do you need?). This new bed, The Fan, is for medicinal annuals, because I need more space to produce them in useful quantities. For instance, you need a good number of chamomile plants if you want enough to put away for tea and a little more for salves. With this in mind, I’m going to rotate “large” crops of annuals through this space, one variety per wedge.

This winter’s fan is planted with, from left to right, Calendula, chamomile and bread seed poppies. I started the Calendula and chamomile in flats ahead of time, simply to get a head start, then transplanted them into their wedges this week. Poppies don’t like to be transplanted, so I sowed those seeds today.

The original herb garden was a rough quarter circle. We kept that footprint, but used spare bricks to divide the shape into 3 smaller wedges. The bricks give me a way to walk between the wedges without compacting the soil. 

The Process:

To prepare the ground…

I first forked the original soil, because while it’s not bad soil, it was compacted. Poppies have deep taproots. Like carrots, they need loose soil, so I really worked their wedge deep. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have done the same for all the wedges. Then I spread 1″ of good homemade compost over the whole area and a bit of alfalfa meal and forked that in about 3 inches deep. Then I watered deeply to prepare for planting.

By the way, I made a mistake at this stage. While merrily amending and forking the soil, I forgot that chamomile likes crappy soil.  With chamomile, hard conditions yield many blossoms. So by putting my chamomile in a deluxe bed, I may have guaranteed myself lots of foliage and few flowers. We’ll see. The lesson? Pay attention. Don’t garden on autopilot.

Next I coiled drip tubing in each wedge…

pinning the tubing down with bent wire. Erik did the heavy lifting in setting up the drip system a couple of years ago. Now when we want to irrigate, we just have to move the tubes around or switch them out as necessary. You can see the tubing snaking around in the photo. Soon as the plants get a little bigger it will become invisible. The mainline tubing is visible at the bottom of the photo–this is where all the little tubes plug in. That will also be obscured later.

The final step is to protect newly planted seeds and seedling from marauding critters.

We do this by stretching bird netting over wire hoops. Bird netting, also called aviary netting, is a super light, fine plastic netting that can be bought at most nurseries. You can drape trees or garden beds with it to protect them when in fruit, or when plants are tiny and tempting.

Erik says he’ll do a whole post on the wire hoops one day, but right now can’t remember the name of the wire. But he gets in the chain-link fencing section of the Home Despot. But basically, it’s a sturdy galvanized wire. Because it’s sold in circular bundles, it’s easy to cut off a piece and use it as a hoop. The cut ends get thrust in the ground and the netting is spread over the arch. We weigh the ends down with bricks or boards. You can see the bricks on the far left wedge above–if not the netting itself.  This system isn’t elegant, but it’s temporary, and it works.

Now all I have to do is top water…

until the plants get roots deep enough to take advantage of the drip. It’s nice to have the chamomile and Calendula so far along. These seedlings are too big for bugs to bother, and should do fine. The poppies I planted by simply sowing the seed thick on the surface of the soil, and patting them down a bit.  When they germinate, there will be tons of teeny sprouts, and I’ll have to thin them ruthlessly so that each poppy has lots of breathing room. I’ve made the mistake in the past of planting them too closely. When you do that, they get spindly and sad.

And that’s that. I can hardly wait to see the beds fill in.

Tune in next time for… The Germinator!


Grow a Fence

Image from Mother Earth News

Why build a fence when you can grow one? Permaculturalist Harvey Ussery has an article, “Living Fences How-to Advantages and Tips” in the latest Mother Earth News that describes several plants and strategies for creating living barriers that do more than just keep the livestock in. Hedges such as Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) provide fodder as well as fencing. Others, such as black locust fix nitrogen into the soil. For  USDA zones 8 to 9 Ussery suggests Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba). I’ll add that prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) also makes a nice edible fence in warm and dry climates.

Read this article and more on the voluminous Mother Earth News website.