Pimp My Cold Frame

While the climate here in Los Angeles is exceedingly mild–it rarely gets much below freezing–springtime can, some years, be too cold to get good germination of summer vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. This was the case in 2010 when I was not able to get a single tomato seed to germinate until late May. To head off another seedling crisis I built a simple cold frame.

In order to prevent the cold frame from becoming a solar cooker (it can get over 80°F during the day this time of year) I pimped it out with an Univent Automatic Greenhouse Vent Opener. The Univent uses no electricity. As the temperature gets hotter a small piston thingy forces open the window you attach the Univent too. As the temperature cools in the evening, the Univent closes the window. It was easy to install, though the directions it came with seem to have been translated back and forth between several European languages before materializing into English.

The price on Amazon seems a bit steep at $50. I got mine on sale from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, but they no longer seem to carry it back in stock here.

I’m fully aware that my cold frame, with it’s plastic cover, would be way too flimsy for places with real weather. Nevertheless, I can imagine the automatic vent opener being useful in many climates.

ETA: Mrs. Homegrown here: I just wanted to add a clarifying note. This cold frame is The Germinator ™, one of our recent garden improvements. Ordinarily it is covered with wire screen, which lets sun in but keeps critters out. Erik’s plan is to swap out the plastic sheeting with the wire screen as needed.

Advances in Gardening Series: The Perennial Herb Bed, Patience and Plant Spacing and Breaking Your Own Rules

No, this is not a pile of weeds. Someday it’s going to look good.


Mrs. Homegrown here:

One of the big lessons of gardening is patience. One way gardening patience is expressed is in planting perennials: buying leeetle teeny plants and planting them vast distances apart and then waiting with your hands politely folded until they grow to full size. A very common landscaping mistake is to go out and buy a bunch of gallon-sized landscape plants and plant them close together, just so the yard looks good right away. This practice has probably worsened with all those “overnight transformation” type TV shows.

Two things are questionable about this scenario. First, it makes both financial and horticultural sense to plant young, small plants. Small plants are cheaper, they catch up with the gallon-sized perennials in no time at all, and will probably be healthier in the long run.

The second is a question of spacing. Perennial plants used in landscaping tend to be bushy things, plants which will need some room when they grow up. Too often they don’t get the space they need and end up looking pathetically smushed together within a couple of years. They can’t express their natural shape, and different plants end up intertwined and melded together like conjoined twins, then forcibly sculpted to size in odd box and muffin shapes.

In short, when planting perennials, you have to place them in reference to their full size. And that size always sounds impossibly big, but in fact, it is is true.

My perennial herb bed above does not follow this advice on conservative spacing. You can’t see from the picture, but this area (which is about 9′ x 6′) is planted with a rose geranium, culinary sage, white sage, yarrow, rosemary, lavender, aloe, lots of thyme and a sick native rose which is probably not going to make it. The spacing between the plants is not quite what it should be. Erik looks at it and shakes his head and does that thing with his mouth which means his lordship does not approve. But I’m holding my ground on this one. This is a working herb garden, not a perennial border. I wedged more plants in there than I should have because I fully intend to be harvesting from each of the plants regularly. If I fail to do that, yes, the bed will look too tight.

Right now, crowding ia the last of my problems. Even if the plants aren’t quite far enough from each other, they are still small, and there is a heck of a lot of bare dirt between them. Ordinarily I’d recommend to anyone in a similar position to fill in all that empty space with a thick layer of mulch. It represses the weeds, saves water, and makes the area look nice. Again, though, I’m not following my own advice.

See, I feel bad about our recent leveling of the yard. Our bug balance (predator bugs vs. problem bugs), had been really nice for the past few years, but now I fear it’s going to be all wonky. Helllllooo aphids! To counterbalance that, I want as many insect friendly plants going as possible in our yard this year. So instead of mulching, the space between the perennials is seeded with all sorts of random stuff. Borage and California poppy and nasturtium are predominant right now, but that will change as the year progresses.

The little perennial herbs are in danger of getting lost under all those boisterous feral flowers. I’ll have to make sure they don’t get smothered. In the meanwhile, nothing is big yet, which means the weeds are popping up like crazy. I hate weeding. Usually I do everything in power to arrange things so I have no weeds. In this case, though, I’m weeding because I want my flowers. And you know, I don’t mind it so much because I know it’s for a cause.

Advances in Gardening Series: A Progress Report

Yes, you’ve seen this before. But Erik looks so bad ass with his sledgehammer, I just had to put it up again.

Some of you may remember that back in November we ripped out most of our back yard, redesigning the layout to maximize our growing space, and accommodate interests we have now that we didn’t have when we put in the original plantings.

We’ve learned from this experience that you should never be afraid to change your garden. Stuff grows back. Too often we get in a rut and are unable to see the potential of our own familiar spaces. Beyond that, we get attached to plants, even if they’re doing very little for us or the yard, i.e. : “But that shrub has always been there!” I don’t know if we’re even attached to the plant itself, but rather to the idea of permanence.

Anyway, our yard looked like it had been bombed flat for a couple of months, but it’s starting to green up now, so I thought I’d share a few progress pictures.

One of the features I wanted in the new yard was a rotating bed to produce medicinal herbs and flowers, lots of them, enough to dry and store in bulk. I tore out my old, tangled herb bed and laid out what I call The Fan of Pharmacy.  Here’s the area in November, with drip installed and some tiny seedlings in place. Chaos reigns in the background:

Now below  you can see a new pic of the fan from a similar angle. The plants in this rotation are calendula, chamomile and poppy. The calendula and chamomile are just starting to bud and flower. In the left foreground you can see The Trough of Garlic ™ and to the right, The Germinator ™, both of which are also part of the redesign. The birdbath has always been part of our yard, but it used to sit somewhere else. In the background you can make out The Screens of Discretion (tm) and two raised vegetable beds. Right now they’re mostly full of salad stuff. That’s the chicken coop in the rear left. In the dead center is what I call The Hippie Heart (and yes, that’s tm’d too.). I’ll come back to the heart:

I like the view better from the other direction. In the center foreground you can see twig with a label tied to it. That’s one of our brand new fruit trees.:

This below is a pretty uninspired picture of The Hippie Heart, a raised bed which is about 5 feet across, made by simply digging up and mounding earth–and adding some compost and other stuff. This bed came about because we had an open space in the center of our yard, and heaven forbid we have any unused space in our yard!:
The original idea was that we’d just mound up a raised circle, and allow natural pathways to evolve around it, sort of like a roundabout in the center of the yard. But a circle didn’t really fit the space. What fit was sort of bean shaped. While working on it, I realized the shape was closer to a heart than a bean. Now, we’re cynical big city types, and aren’t likely to put large valentines in our yard, but the thing wanted to be a heart and I saw no way to stop it. Besides, I like having a heart in our yard that looks up at the constant helicopter traffic.
I’ve deemed this bed as my experimental work space. I’m curious about growing plants out of things I have in my cupboard: seeds, spices, etc.  The center of the heart is planted with bulk bin flax. The edges are planted with lentils.  Since I have no idea about the origins of the seed, I’m not sure what it will produce, but it’s fun to find out. In the summer, I’m going to switch it out for sesame and cumin and chickpeas.
Next up in Advances in Gardening, what happened to the rest of the herbs.

So I had this dream

Here I am, with the soon-to-be-forgotten worms and a fantastic class of Waldorf kids

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So last night I had this dream that I was sitting at a kitchen table with someone (don’t know who it was) and I noticed something that looked like a dried out worm coiled on the edge of one of the dishes. I pointed it out to this other person, and she reached out and crushed it with her fingertip. It crumbled to pieces on the tabletop. I laughed and said, “I sure hope that’s not one of my worms!” She laughed, too, and mischievously blew the crumbs in my direction.

And thus does one’s subconscious work. I woke with a start, remembering that, after showing off my worms to class of visiting school kids, I’d left the bin out on the back porch for a night, and day, and half of another night. Usually the worms live in the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and brought them back in.

The problem with worms is that they’re so darn quiet.

The worms are fine. They’re tough, and our weather is mild. But I was a little worried about them  because they are house-worms, acclimated to room temperature, and I’d left them out in the open, on concrete, and in a shallow bin.

See, worms can take care of themselves just fine if given the room and resources they need to cool themselves down, warm themselves up, and regulate their moisture. However, when they’re in a shallow little bin, they just don’t have much latitude for adjustment. It’s our responsibility as worm keepers to regulate their environment.

Luckily for us and our forgotten worms, even though it was unseasonably warm yesterday,  the sun is low on the horizon, so our back porch wasn’t baking in the western sun, like it does most of the year. Otherwise, the worms, being unable to hide deep in the soil, might have steam cooked in the bin during that long, forgotten day. 

Of course, worms can be kept outdoors in all but the most extreme temperatures, but their bins need to be sited correctly–kept in nice shady spots, protected from the rain, and elevated from cold-conducting cement surfaces. (Maybe some of you folks who live in snow country could chime in on what you do with your worms when it’s freezing out?)


Bare Root Fruit Tree Season is Here!

Yet another Internet “un-boxing.” This time fruit trees.

Our bare root fruit tree order just arrived from Bay Laurel Nursery. We ordered:

  • Tropic Snow Peach on Nemaguard rootstock
  • Panamint Nectarine on Citation rootstock
  • CoffeeCake (Nishimura Wase) Persimmon
  • Saijo Persimmon (pollinator for CoffeeCake)
  • Flavor Finale Pluot on Myrobalan 29C rootstock
  • Santa Rosa Plum on Citation rootstock (pollinator for the Flavor Finale Pluot)
  • Flavor Delight Aprium on Citation rootstock

The plan is to follow the Dave Wilson nursery’s backyard orchard culture guidelines which we blogged about in detail here. In short, you plant trees close together and prune the hell out of them to keep them small and manageable. We also used Dave Wilson’s handy fruit and nut harvest date chart to, as much as possible, assure that we have some kind of fruit ready to eat during most of the year. All of the varieties we chose have low chill hour requirements since we live in USDA zone 10.

Los Angeles Fruit Tree Pruning Workshops

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Growing fruit trees has obvious rewards. You can eat the fruit at its peak, straight off of the tree, full of flavor, aromatic and juicy. And the sight of an apple, peach or other deciduous tree in bloom is an ephemeral yet breathtakingly beautiful sight. But many of these trees will not bear good fruit without proper pruning. Good pruning encourages stronger limbs able to hold heavy fruits, prevents limb breakage, improves air circulation and light penetration and overall makes for a more attractive tree. Improper pruning or sheer neglect can mean weak, spindly limbs, a chaotic looking, ugly tree and puny fruits.

But how do you know what to cut? I’ll be teaching two workshops this weekend for the locals. The first is this Saturday, January 15th at The Learning Garden in Venice. The workshop will run from 11 am-12:30 pm and there is a suggested donation of $25. The Learning Garden is at the southeast corner of Walgrove Avenue and Venice Blvd.

Then on Sunday, the 16th at Milagro Allegro Community Garden in Highland Park at 1pm as part of their ‘Organic Sundays’ series I’m teaching another one.

And for those of you who aren’t local, the Homegrown Evolution team is going to work on some web based stuff for you. I’m going to teach Mr. Homegrown how to prune (in exchange for help baking bread, which I’m terrible at) and we will take photos for a blog post explaining the basics of fruit tree pruning.

More Medlar Mania

We blogged about the medlar, a rare fruit that tastes kinda like perfumed apple butter, last week. We left out a few bits of medlar trivia and linkages.

First off that Caravaggio painting above, “Boy with a Basket of Fruit.” Please note the medlars:

In other breaking medlar news:

The fine folks at Winnetka Farms, responsible for this outbreak of medlar mania, have in-depth medlar factoids on their blog.

Graham Keegan, who went on the medlar harvest, shot some glamorous photos of us and, of course, the medlars:

Want to buy a medlar tree? Check out the selection at Raintree Nursery–enter “medlar” in the search thingy.

Anduhrew has a post on his blog about medlars, including Shakespeare’s shout-out to medlars in Romeo and Juliet.

And, lastly, CRFG Operative left a comment on our blog about growing medlars in San Diego with a warming about fire blight:

I was able to grow medlars down here in San Diego county with no problems. They were grafted on a pear tree and eventually fire blight killed the limbs they were on so I lost them. We are in a colder spot but still are only about 15 – 20 miles inland from the coast. If you have an existing pear tree you may want to graft medlar onto that so you don’t have to plant a whole tree to see if they will do well in your area. Make sure you sterilize pruning tools and grafting knives between cuts and do not share infected scion wood. This will help to control fire blight. If it does develop cut it out a couple of inches down into non-infected wood before it takes further hold.

The Barrier Method

Over the years we’ve lost countless plants to digging, chewing, trampling and sucking critters, mammals and insects both. We finally got smart. It makes sense to invest a little extra time and money to protect your crops and your livestock with physical barriers.

This practice started sort of piecemeal around here, with us only exerting ourselves over particularly problem-prone situations. Nowadays protection is standard for every bed we plant, for our seed starting boxes, and often for new perennials in the ground. The result is peace of mind, better results…and fewer gardening meltdowns from Erik (Squash Baby excepted).

We’ve written about all this before in various posts, but here’s some photos to give you an overview of some of the possibilities:

Our seedling trays are now contained within The Germinator ™: a large screened box. Prior to this invention, we arched chicken wire over our seedling trays to keep squirrels and loose chickens out.

All of our beds, whether raised or in the ground, are spanned with arches of wire which hold up aviary netting. The netting is held down around the edges with a variety of anchors, anything from bricks and boards to U shaped wire stakes. This keeps critters like digging skunks and birds out–but not insects.

Sometimes we cover our veg beds with a very light floating row cover (Agribon 15) instead of aviary netting. This not only keeps out critters, but also blocks many insects, particularly the cabbage worms that harass our brassica crops. It’s not pretty, but it keeps the plants pretty within. Heavier gauges of row covering can be used to ward off frost, or help jump start plants in cold weather.
Our chickens have a very secure coop. Connected to it is some extra play space, bounded by picket fence. This doesn’t protect the chickens from much, but they only use it during the day, when predators are few. It’s more to protect our garden from them. But I hope you can see the twine that stretches from picket to picket. These discourage the hens from flapping out of their run, and keeps hawks from swooping down on them.
We often protect newly planted perennials with circles of chicken wire staked to the ground. This young berry is protected from anything digging it up or stepping on it.  If I wanted to make sure critters couldn’t nibble on it, I’d pinch the top closed as well.

Medlar: The Best Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

This week we were luck enough to tag along with Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms on a jaunt to the hills near Tehachapi to help harvest an allusive fruit called the medlar.  Erik and I were just extra hands–the plan was hatched between Tara and Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. See, Craig has a place up in those hills, and just happened to know his neighbors had a little grove of medlars, and these neighbors agreed to sell them to Craig and Tara, provided Craig and Tara picked them. For us, it was a great excuse for a trip to the mountains with a bunch of friends for some laughs, fresh air and gorgeous fall scenery. Also along for the medlar hunt were Joseph Shuldiner and Graham Keegan. As a group we gathered 100 lbs of medlars in a couple of hours of easy work, which are going to be sold to foodies, rare fruit enthusiasts and perhaps some enterprising chefs at this weekend’s Santa Monica Farmers Market. There’s an article about medlars and this particular expedition in todays’s LA Times.

What is a medlar, you ask? It‘s Mespilus germanica, a small deciduous tree and member of the rose family. In fact, to me, medlar fruit look exactly like giant rosehips. The fruit is smallish, ranging from about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and ranging in color from rosy rust to dusty brown.

Medlars are native to Southwestern Asia and Southeatsern Europe. They were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, doted on by Victorians and mentioned by Shakespeare. I believe they are still popular in their native lands, such as Iran and Turkey. However, they’re almost unknown in the U.S. today, primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that they have to be eaten when almost rotten–a process properly called “bletting”–similarly to how you have to wait for Hachiya persimmons to soften before you can eat them. This leads to reason #2, because medlars have to be eaten when bletted, they either have to be eaten right off the tree, or they have to be picked early, then put aside for a few weeks to blet. Then, when they’re finally bletted, they’re have to be eaten immediately. There’s not a huge window of edibility. This level of persnickety-ness just doesn’t jive with our industrial food distribution system.

Beyond that, when they’re ready to eat, they look like they’re ready for the compost heap–brown, squishy, a little wrinkly. It takes some getting used to–well, it takes about as long for you to eat your first one before you figure out rotten=darn good.  I’d describe them as tasting like really good apple butter. People will describe them as holding delicate notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, wine, etc. I don’t know about that–I just tasted really, really good apple butter, delivered to me in a convenient skin instead of on toast. The flesh even looks like apple butter. Of course, like all persnickety fruits, they have a few big seeds that you have to work around as well–sort of suck clean and spit out later. It’s worth it, though.
 
We can’t grow medlars here in Los Angeles–it’s too warm. Otherwise I’d plant one right now. Medlars need hot summers and cold, frosty winters. If you live in a place like that, I’d highly recommend you plant a medlar. It’s a small, attractive tree, topping out at about 10 feet, and can be kept bush size. The ones we were harvesting were only 4-6 feet high. They are not widely available, but Raintree Nursery has a selection here.

After the jump is a little photo gallery from our trip:


Craig sorting medlars in the grand countyside

Is this bletted? Tara giving the medlar an evaluating eye
Medlars have beautiful fall foliage, and the fruit remains on the tree after the leaves fall, which is quite striking


There’s me. I’m shaking a branch. We picked up good looking ground fall, gathered what would fall when the branches were given a gentle shake, and picked any fully bletted fruits off the tree. The rest wait for a second harvest. 
Graham, looking more stylin’ than me as he works.


Here’s Joseph. He’s writing a cookbook. Notice how the trees are kept small for easy picking.
All sorted. Getcha medlars here!

medlars to market

Is Peat Moss a Sustainable Resource?

Two very different views on the ethics of using peat moss: one from garden writer Jeff Ball via Garden Rant,

Here are the simple facts. Canada has over 270 million acres of peat bogs which produce peat moss. Each year the peat moss industry harvests only 40,000 acres of peat moss mostly for horticultural use. If you do the math that comes to one of every 6,000 acres of peat moss is harvested each year. And here is the cherry on top. Peat bogs are living entities. The peat bogs grow 70% more peat moss each year than is harvested. With that data I consider peat definitely a renewable resource.

But Ball’s single source for these facts seems to be the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association. Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University in an article, “The Myth of Permanent Peatlands” (pdf), writes,

Peatlands degraded by mining activity do not revert to their former functionality; changes in hydrology and physical structure are hostile to Sphagnum re-establishment. Recently, degraded peatlands have been restored through the blockage of drainage ditches, seeding with Sphagnum, and application of a mulch layer to reduce water loss. When degraded peatlands are restored, the ability to hold water is improved but CO2 continues to be released by high levels of bacterial respiration, which represents the decomposition of mulch and other organic matter. It takes a number of years for the photosynthetic rate of new peatland plants to outpace the respiratory rate: until this happens, even restored peatlands represent a net loss of carbon to the atmosphere and thus contribute to greenhouse gas production.

Chalker-Scott goes on to list a number of peat moss alternatives including composted bark, coconut coir and paper sludge to name just a few. I use peat moss as part of a homemade seed starting mix. Reading Chalker-Scott’s article has convinced me that this is not an ethical choice.

The peat moss alternative I hear most often suggested is coconut coir. But I’ve heard an equally contradictory argument on the ethics of coir. And this study shows poor results for coir as a peat moss alternative in a seed starting mix. I tried my own comparison last summer and came up with the same results as that study. Oh, how this all gets so complicated!

So, I’m going to throw this open to you, our dear readers. I’m interested in hearing your opinions on peat moss. I’m also interested in hearing if any of you know a good peat-less, homemade seed propagation medium recipe, preferably from a reliable source. Leave some comments!