The Genetic Diversity of Watermelons

Navaho Watermelon

Damn those supermarket watermelons! Every one I’ve bought this summer has been mealy, old and tasteless. Why? Yet again, the folks who sell us our food have decided to grow only a handful of the over 1,200 known varieties of watermelons.

The one pictured above is a Navaho watermelon I picked up at the National Heirloom Exposition. Note the vibrant (and tasty) red seeds. Navaho watermelons are sometimes called “winter melons” since they can be stored for a few months.

Another watermelon I tasted at the Exposition was a yellow fleshed variety called Orangeglo. It was probably the sweetest and tastiest watermelon I’ve ever eaten.

The problem with supermarket watermelons is not due to the seedless vs. seeded issue. Seedless watermelons are created with a complex genetic process you can read about here. What’s more relevant to taste is how early watermelons are picked, how long they’ve been sitting around and the limited varieties commercial growers plant.

The Heirloom Exposition eloquently demonstrated the benefits of genetic diversity with its watermelon display and tasting. And that diversity is something we can all address in our gardens, if we have one, by planting unusual seeds. You can bet I’m going to try growing watermelons in next summer’s straw bale garden.

What kinds of watermelons have you grown and what’s your favorite?

Tips on growing great garlic

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This week I’m at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California. Kelly is at home, tending to our herd of milk cats. Yesterday I learned a lot about garlic.

Garlic is one of those crops well worth growing if you’ve got the space. Why? unless you know an heirloom garlic farmer, the stuff you buy at the supermarket is one of just three bland varieties. According to garlic expert Jeffrey Nekola, who spoke yesterday, garlic has twelve times more information in its DNA than we humans do. Meaning, that garlic is a plant capable of vast biodiversity.

Cultural needs

When I asked a garlic farmer I met yesterday how to grow garlic he said, “It’s like giving a credit card to your wife . . . you’ve got to give her all she wants.” When I asked him to clarify, he told me that garlic requires as much compost, nutrients and water as you can spare. Nekola said he doesn’t even plant garlic unless he’s prepped his beds for at least two to three years and noted that one of the best heads of garlic he ever grew took root accidentally in a compost pile.

Pull the garlic cloves apart (leave the skins on) and plant them in the ground with the pointy end up. Nekola suggests planting them with a tablespoon of soybean meal (found at feed stores as animal feed). Nekola also recommended mulch. Let the garlic sprout first, but then pack down at least an inch of straw. Lay your drip tubing under the straw.

When to plant varies by location but it’s usually sometime in the fall. For us in Los Angeles the farmer I spoke to suggested October 1 as a planting date, but noted that he “usually screws up” and doesn’t get the garlic in until October 9. No doubt I will screw up even worse and not get the garlic in until November 1.

Thereafter, it’s a waiting game. Garlic takes a good six months to mature. You harvest most types of garlic when the stalk is nearly brown. And don’t forget to pick off the flowers if they appear. The flowers pull energy from the plant that is better spent making big cloves. The flowers are also edible: some farmers are actually making more money selling the flowers as culinary exotics.

Growing garlic in hot climates

I’ve had mixed success growing garlic in Los Angeles. It turns out I was growing the wrong varieties. Most garlics appreciate cold weather, including some time spent under a blanket of snow. For hot climates you need to grow Creole garlics that, come from the Iberian peninsula. Pictured above are some of the Creole garlics on display at the Expo.

One quirk with Creole garlics is that the cloves don’t develop until the last second. Nekola cautioned about picking them too soon. You have to really wait until the stalks are almost totally dead. And Creole varieties take a very long and sunny growing season.

For more information on garlic varieties, Nekola maintains an encyclopedic garlic website at:  http://sev.lternet.edu/~jnekola/Heirloom/garlicFAQ.htm

Gardening Mistake #12: The Annual That Ate Your Backyard!

squash and lavender

Is that a lavender bush cowering under the monster squash leaves?

I just thought of another mistake: allowing annuals, whether they be volunteers or valued vegetables, to overrun the garden and smother your perennial plants. This happens to us more than we’d care to admit.

It’s really easy to miss. In the spring, you’re so happy to see lush growth erupting all over your yard, that you’re not looking at it with a critical eye. Also, plants are sneaky. One day they’re nowhere near that little sage seedling you planted, the next day, they’ve swallowed it, and you’ve forgotten it was even there– and you won’t remember until you find its sad, withered skeleton when you’re cleaning out the faded annuals at the end of the season.

Generally, our worst culprit is the rampant nasturtium. This year, though, the serial killer prize goes to our meandering squash plants, which are doing their best to cover everything in our yard less than knee high with their 15″ leaves.

This morning I wanted to cut back a squash vine which had done some damage to a patch of yarrow and was reaching for my succulent zone. Erik threw his body across it and said I’d have to prune him first. As we all know, he’s a little crazy when it comes to squash.  I want a plaque inscribed above the garden gate: “Perennials Before Annuals. That is the Whole of the Law.”

Have you lost plants to rampant annuals?

squash vines in front of door

And by the way, I’ve given up on entering our back shed ’til harvest.

Make that 11 Vegetable Gardening Mistakes

inconsistent watering

In my post, Top Ten Vegetable Gardening Mistakes, several readers and Mrs. Homegrown pointed out that I left out “inconsistent watering.”

I plead guilty. I would also suggest an “absentminded” watering category, such as setting up a irrigation system on a timer and not adjusting it throughout the season.

And those of us in dry climates could also be better about selecting and saving seeds for drought tolerance. Gary Paul Nabhan and the folks at Native Seed Search are working diligently on this problem.

Now excuse me while I go check on my drip system . . .

Top Ten Vegetable Gardening Mistakes

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Not ready for Martha Stewart: our front yard vegetable bed.*

Some of the worst meltdowns and temper tantrums of my adult life have their origins in failed vegetable gardening projects. I thought I’d list off my top ten vegetable gardening misadventures  so that you don’t have to repeat them.

1. Not paying attention to soil fertility
This is my number one mistake. Most vegetables suck up a lot of nutrients. They need lots of compost and a source of nitrogen (fertilizer, manure or a rotation of beans). The difference between our prodigious straw bale garden, which got a lot of blood meal and fish emulsion to get it going, and our obviously depleted front yard raised beds highlights this common error. I  have to do more soil tests and remember to add nutrients (most likely nitrogen) before even thinking about planting veggies.

2. Planting at the wrong time of year
It took us awhile to find the right sources of information to guide us as to when to plant in our quirky Mediterranean climate (see this calendar and this book if you’re in SoCal). Seed package directions are useless here (what’s a frost date?). But, in fact, all climates have their quirks. Even two sides of the same town might have different planting dates. You have to find experienced gardeners and sources especially in places with either year round growing seasons or very short growing seasons. Ultimately, all gardening advice is local.

3. Planting things that don’t do well in our climate
Yes you can grow almost anything here, but that doesn’t mean you should. Carrots don’t like clay soils and warm temperatures. Cabbage gets lots of pests here. Some veggies are best to outsource to the professionals at the farmer’s market.

4. Not having a plan
My brain, to put it politely, is non-linear. If I were to overcome that cognitive flaw and plan out how much and where things should be planted I’d have both a steady supply of produce as well as a more attractive garden.

5. Not labeling plants
What kind of okra is that? I have no damned idea. Too bad when I want to plant it again next year. All it takes is a sharpie and a plastic knife to fix this problem.

6. Not keeping a garden diary
The two most important things to know are when something was planted and when the first and last harvests took place. With this data you can plan out next years garden more easily. Some other things to note: how did it taste and were their any pest problems?

7. Not staggering planting
I guess this is why canning was invented, but it really would be nice to have a continuous supply of veggies rather than a ton all at once. Stagger planting by two weeks, for most vegetables and you won’t have the feast or famine effect.

8. Growing things we don’t like to eat
We had a hell of a lot of turnip gratin one winter.

9. Missing the harvest
This is the most heartbreaking for me. Suddenly there’s a bunch of tasty heirloom vegetables ready to harvest. But . . . I’m going on a trip, or I’m too busy to cook . . . or I’m just too lazy to cook form scratch. It reminds me of a quip beekeeper Kirk Anderson made about beekeeping. Beekeeping, Anderson said, is like going to the bathroom, “When Mother Nature calls you’ve gotta go.”

10. Meltdowns
Vegetable gardening requires the patience of the Buddha. Crap is going to happen and you just have to accept that. Bad weather, bug infestations, marauding skunks and absentmindedness will intervene in even the best planned vegetable garden. I have at least two major meltdowns a year. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to change.

Did I leave anything out? What mistakes have you made in your vegetable garden?

ETA: See Rule 11

*A note from Mrs. H. re: the top photo: Argh! Erik likes to be melodramatic with the pictures. Let me explain. This bed was indeed not a success. It needs soil inputs, and perhaps is hosting nematodes, so the seedlings didn’t thrive. This we realized way back in the spring. So we decided to just let that bed go for the rest of the summer and focus on the straw bales. That photo above is what a bed looks like after sitting neglected all summer long–it’s not the fruit of our best gardening efforts, or even the result of a pitched struggle. (But it did make a few tomatoes, bless it!) As soon as it cools down here I’m going to attend to that soil and bring it back to life.

Karp’s Sweet Quince Update

Karp's Sweet Quince

Several years ago I planted a variety of quince called Karp’s Sweet Quince, named after local pomologist and writer David Karp. This variety comes from Peru and is unusual in that it can be eaten fresh.

But my quince tree has struggled a bit. The soil it occupies is not the best and it’s been plagued with fungal issues. But I can report that you can, indeed, eat the fruit fresh. The texture was not the best, but the fruit I ate was damaged and immature so it was not exactly a fair sample.

Quince is not the only tree I’ve been having trouble with. Thrips took out our crop of nectaplums and damaged our nectarines. I’ve vowed this winter to pay more attention to the needs of our fruit trees. Towards that end I’m reading Michael Phillip’s book The Holistic Orchard. If you have an idea what the damage on my quince is caused by I’d appreciate a comment. David Karp thought it might be brown rot with some insect damage.

If you live in the Los Angeles area, Weiser Family Farms should be selling a small amount of Karp’s Sweet Quince at local farmer’s markets. But you’ll have to beat away the artisinal jam producers and celebrity chefs if you want to get your hands on some.

Root Simple Video Podcast Episode 4: Straw Bale Garden Tour

In the forth episode of the Root Simple Video Podcast we take a tour of our straw bale garden as it appears this week. The vegetables varieties you see growing are Tromboncino squash, Lunga di Napoli squash (growing up into a native bush), Matt’s Wild Cherry tomato, Celebrity tomato, eggplant and Swiss chard. And just to take down my smugness a notch I also included a shot of an unsuccessful cucumber plant. Other than the cucumber, though, this is one of the most productive vegetable gardens I’ve ever planted. I’m now a big fan of the straw bale method.

The music is by Karaoke Mouse–”Shanghai Reggae.”

A downloadable version of this video is here. And note to anyone who has subscribed to our video podcast–I’ve been having some technical problems with the RSS feed and the last episode did not shown up in the iTunes store. I’m working on the issue.

LA’s Parkway Garden Dilemma: Not Fixed Yet

parkway garden on Sunset Blvd.

A parkway vegetable garden on Sunset Blvd..

The City of Los Angeles’ crackdown on parkway vegetable gardens made international news thanks to an article by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez was reporting on two parkway gardens that were issued citations by the LA Bureau of Street Services. This crackdown came two years after Ron Finley was busted for being a vegetable gardening outlaw.

Over the weekend I started seeing articles, Tweets and Facebook posts (some of which I’m guilty of spreading) stating that the city council had approved parkway vegetable gardens. This is not technically correct. The city council has just suspended enforcement of parkway planting regulations while they await a report from the Bureau of Street Services.

While I suspect the council will ultimately allow vegetables in the parkway (it’s political suicide to oppose healthy food, after all), we also have to remember that the devil is in the details. I’m willing to bet that the Bureau of Street Services will allow “edible” plants but leave in place their short list of ornamentals as well as their requirement to keep those ornamentals mowed unless you apply for an expensive permit.

While I’m all for vegetable in the parkway, I also think that the city should be encouraging the planting of native and Mediterranean plants. My advice for the Bureau of Street Services for their new regulations:

  • Consult the community: activists, landscape architects, non-profits and individuals like Ron Finley. If you had done this the last time we would not be wasting time and money to re-craft the parkway regulations.
  • Throw out your plant lists. There are a lot of species of plants on the planet! Why can I plant Achillea millefolium but not Danthonia californica?
  • Avoiding plant lists also goes for using the word “edible.” Most “weeds” are edible. Marijuana is edible (but would probably not last long in the parkway!). A lot of plants are “edible” but not necessarily something you’d want to eat. If a neighbor complains about my set of parkway plants can I just make a salad to prove they are “edible?”
  • Allow growing plants over 4-inches without permit fees. If plants are not allowed to go to flower they have little benefit to pollinating insects and birds. And we don’t need more lawn mowers and leaf blowers in this city.
  • Get rid of the permit fees. Why should someone be charged to do the right thing, i.e. plant an attractive set of either edible or drought tolerant plants? There’s currently no permit fee to plant a water hungry lawn that needs to be “mowed and blowed” every week.

It gets down to the simple fact that a human being has to decide what is a “nuisance.” Untended Bermuda grass with a couch and busted up bookcase: that’s a nuisance. But you can’t specify in the municipal code what a garden should look like. All you can do is offer suggestions. To that end I would suggest that the Bureau of Street Services collaborate with the community to come up with a web site showing some good examples. But, again, let’s back off on the lists and permit fees.

And a suggestion for those of us on the receiving end of these future regulations. We have to pay careful attention to what they are crafting. If we don’t like it we need to press back. If the city council goes ahead with another set of ridiculous guidelines we need to actively ignore them. That is, if they let us plant edibles but not drought tolerant plants without a permit, we need to plant a lot of drought tolerant plants until they realize that our neighborhoods belong to us, not the paper pushers in City Hall.

And if you haven’t seen Finley’s Ted Talk yet, please get with the program.

Before and After Permaculture

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An aspirational alternative to the future of jetpacks and space colonies I blogged about yesterday, came to me via the folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead. Noting that I said I was going to sit in on Larry Santoyo’s Permaculture Design Course (PDC), Suzanne of Petaluma Urban Homestead sent me before and after photos of her backyard saying, “This is what happened after I took my PDC!”