My Favorite Lettuce Mix

Earlier this week when I decried the sorry state of our winter vegetable garden, I neglected to mention the one big success: lettuce.

We grow lettuce mixes almost every year and we’ve never been disappointed. Homegrown salad greens are much better than store bought. Plus, at least where we live, they are easy to grow. We just sow the seed directly and water them in. We thin by eating the seedlings. Judging from the crowding in the photo above, we need to eat some more salads soon. There’s never been pest problems save for the edible, and aggressive, fennel seedlings you can see amongst the lettuce (memo to self: cut down fennel before it goes to seed this year!).

And, at the risk of repeating myself, I pretty much grow Franchi seeds exclusively. It’s a family run Italian company that dates back to 1783. This year I grew their “Misticanza All Lettuce” mesclun mix. It’s astonishingly beautiful and flavorful. Best damn salads I’ve ever had.

Last year I grew their Misticanza da indive, described in the Seeds from Italy catalog as a mixture of ten or more endives and escaroles. It is also well worth growing. Franchi has several other mesclun mixes that I’m looking forward to trying.

Unlike other seed companies you get a lot of seeds on one package–enough to plant a farm. I’ve had good luck with germination, as well.

In the US, Franchi seeds are available through Seeds From Italy at www.growitalian.com.

On why our vegetable garden is such a disaster this year . . .

One of the front beds–soil problems, I think, are causing the gap in the middle of the bed.

I’m having my annual gardening-caused mental meltdown. When it comes to vegetables this winter (the best time to grow them here in Los Angeles) if it could go wrong it did. Vegetables are needy, fussy plants and we’ve not had much luck with them recently. So I thought I would list the factors, natural and human that went into this year’s lackluster veggie garden in the hopes of preventing future bouts of veggie neurosis.

The aesthetic disaster that is the new keyhole bed. And let’s not even talk about the skunks.

Acts of Nature

  • Bad weather—a freakishly hot fall planting season–lost the first round of seedlings despite using shade cloth.
  • Soil issues–clearly time to do a soil test in my raised beds or just bite the bullet and get some new soil. Something is out of balance.
  • Mammals–I’ve never had so many midnight skunk raids. Someone tell me if skunks are edible.

Looking better than last year, but the backyard still needs some design help.

Oh, the humanity

  • Fatigue and frustration–the double knockout punch of skunks and the hot weather left me on the ropes with little enthusiasm for ongoing gardening maintenance.
  • Ego–forgetting that urban homesteading is not about self-sufficiency—to chase self-sufficiency is a fool’s errand. I should be happy just to have a few good salads and be thankful that I can buy good vegetables at a local farmer’s market. I don’t think self-sufficiency is a good goal even on a large piece of land. We humans are meant  to work together, hang out in groups and share goods and knowledge. I’ve got some talented vegetable growing neighbors. Perhaps it’s time we put our heads together and help each other garden. We’ve talked about it in the past, but somehow never got around to it.
  • Lack of engagement with the garden. For me this is the most critical issue and I think it is related to dissatisfaction with the design of the garden, particularly the backyard. I don’t want to hang out in the backyard because it just reminds me of how much work I’ve got to do. This becomes a vicious cycle. I then don’t put in enough work to get plants going. Time to come up with some new design ideas–perhaps the neighbors can help here to.

So how are things shaping up in your gardens? If it’s winter where you are, what are your plans for the coming year?

What To Do With Old Vegetable Seeds

In short, throw them around.

We’ve got a lot of expired seed packages sitting in a shoe box. And I’ve been reading a newly published translation of a book by the late, “natural farmer” Masanobu Fukuoka (review coming soon). Fukuoka inspired me to distribute those old seeds around our micro-orchard to see what comes up.

Fukuoka has some tips in his book The Natural Way of Farming for creating a semi-wild vegetable garden:

  • Include nitrogen fixers (in my case some clover seeds)
  • Use daikon and other radishes to break up hard soil
  • Sow before weeds emerge

Scott Kleinrock has used the same strategy at the Huntington Gardens. Here’s what his semi-wild vegetable garden, growing in the understory of some small fruit trees, looked like in January of this year:

And there you have it–vegetable gardening with a fraction of the work.

Bird Netting as a Cabbage Leaf Caterpillar Barrier

UPDATE: This idea is a complete failure–see the ugly details here.

Last month I sang the praises of floating row cover as an insect barrier. The only problem is that floating row cover retains heat, and so when our fall and winter days turn hot, as they so often do, it gets way too hot and humid inside the “tent.” So as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.” Specifically, bird netting.

I’ve got an untested theory that bird netting is enough to keep out the white butterflies that give birth to the dreaded cabbage leaf caterpillar, the only serious pest for us at this time of year. So far the bird netting seems to be working. I’ll note that it would be important to keep the leaves of plants well away from the netting so that butterflies can’t lay eggs through it. The best way to do this is by planting arches of wire or tubing over your garden bed, and stretching the cover material over those arches– like a covered wagon.

Netting has advantages over row cover: you can see and water through it and it’s more readily available.

I’m curious what you, our dear readers, think of the idea?

  • Mrs. Homegrown chimes in:  I’ll add that in the past readers have said they use tulle material as an insect barrier– you know, the stuff used to make tutus.

Row Cover as an Insect Barrier

It ain’t pretty but it works.

As one would expect, cabbage leaf worms love cabbage and nearly every other member of the brassica species.  Which  is why I’ve become a real fan of row cover material as an insect barrier.

The perp in question.

It rarely freezes here so I use the thinnest row cover possible, specifically a product called Agribon-15. If you live in a cooler climate and want to use row cover for frost protection you would use a thicker product such as Agribon-30. Johnny’s Select Seeds carries Agribon row cover in lengths as short as 50 feet–plenty for an urban or suburban garden. I’ve used both PVC pipe and chain link fence tension wire as support. I secure the row cover down with pieces of rebar and bricks to keep out skunks.

What cabbage worms become.

It’s not a plug and play solution, however. If it gets hot I have to remember to pull the row cover off. And the added humidity can cause outbreaks of aphids. But overall, it works great. I’ve found that I just need to use it when tender seedlings are getting established. Once they have a fighting chance against the cabbage worms I can pull it off.