What I’m Growing this Winter

Rucola Coltivata sel Ortolani K

Winter in our Mediterranean climate is when we grow cool season vegetables. It’s my favorite time of year here. The hills turn green, the smog blows away and we have that phenomenon called “rain” (hopefully).

As usual, I’m planting seeds from an Italian seed company, Franchi. Here’s what I’m growing:

Arugula “Coltivata Sel. Ortolani”
One can never have enough arugula. It’s my favorite vegetable. This year I’m trying Franchi’s arugula “Coltivata Sel. Ortolani.” Franchi sells both “cultivated” and “wild” varieities of arugula (confusing, since the “wild” varieties are actually cultivated). Cultivated varieties tend to be milder and less sharp in taste. I like them both. Franchi highlights certain varieties by featuring them as “Selezione Speciale” which is why I chose this particular arugula.

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Chicory “Pan di Zucchero”
I chose this chicory on the recommendation of Franchi’s West Coast distributor The Heirloom Seed Store, who had a booth at this year’s Heirloom Exposition. The owners of the Heirloom Seed Store, who run a farm in the Santa Cruz area, raved about this particular chicory. It’s a large-leafed variety that can be used in a salad or cooked.

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Radicchio and Chicory Mix: “Misticanza di Radicchi”
I’ve never gone wrong with Franchi’s salad mixes. The best damn salads I’ve ever had in my life have been made with these mixes.

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Mache “Valeriana Verte de Cambrai”
This is my first attempt at growing this cold tolerant weedy vegetable.

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Portuguese cabbage
I’m usually hesitant to grow cabbage due to pest problems. But I thought I’d give this unusual variety, that does not form a head, just for the novelty factor. It’s the primary ingredient in a traditional Portuguese soup called caldo verde, or “green broth.” This cabbage variety is also heat tolerant as it’s from southern Portugal which has a climate similar to ours. I’m hoping the open leaves don’t provide as much slug habitat as normal varieties.

If you grow during the winter (or are in the Southern Hemisphere) let us know what you’re planting this fall.

Dramm’s Breaker Nozzle: My Favorite Watering Implement

Dramm Breaker Nozzle

I can’t count how many cheap watering implements we’ve gone through since we bought this house fifteen years ago. Big box store watering widgets seem to last just a few weeks before heading to the landfill.

I think I’ve found a solution. During the Garden Blogger’s Fling I attended back in June there was a demo by a Dramm Company representative. What impressed me most at the demo was Dramm’s simplest products, the Heavy-Duty Aluminum Water Breaker Nozzle combined with their Aluminum Shut-Off Valve.

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The breaker nozzle provides a gentle shower, much like a Haws Watering Can and would be appropriate to use on seedlings and vegetables. The shut-off valve is extremely durable. Neither item has plastic parts. They are sold separately.

While a lot more expensive than those plastic watering wands at the big box store, I have a feeling that these two high quality Dramm components will last a lot longer.

A Hinged Cover for a Raised Bed Vegetable Garden

hinged raised vegetable bed

What’s another way of describing a raised bed vegetable garden? How about “feral cat litter pan,” “Skunk feeding troth,” or “Dog exercise pen?”

The solution to these problems? Netting or row cover. The problem is that vegetables need a lot of tending so you’re always pulling off and on the cover. And, inevitably, you forget to put it back on one evening and that’s the night a skunk goes on a grub hunting party.

This year I decided to create a hinged cover for one of my raised beds so that I can easily access vegetables without having to remove the bird netting or row cover each time I want to access the bed. I’ve found that I can remove the netting once the vegetables have matured.

To create the cover I made a frame with some 2 x 2 inch lumber and bent some electrical conduit pipe (and a piece of leftover copper pipe) for the hoops.  I put some gate hinges on the back, stood back and named my creation: Vegetable Guantanamo.

Eight Things to Consider When Saving Vegetable Seeds

seed saving

The directions for seed saving in our last book, Making It, almost got cut. Perhaps we should have just changed those directions to “Why it’s OK to buy seeds.” The fact is that it’s not easy to save the seeds of many vegetables thanks to the hard work of our bee friends.

That being said, Shannon Carmody of Seed Saver’s Exchange gave a lecture at this year’s Heirloom Exposition with some tips for ambitious gardeners who want to take up seed saving. Here’s some of her suggestions:

1. Maintaining varietal purity
Is the vegetable open pollinated or hybrid? Hybrid seeds don’t produce true to type. You can’t save and regrow the seeds of hybrids, at least not without a lot of complicated multi-generational outcrossing in order to create a new variety that produces true to type. [I'll note that I'm not anti-hybrid. The increased vigor of hybrids can be advantageous if you're having trouble in your garden.]

2. Know how the vegetable is pollinated
It’s much easier to save the seeds of self-pollinating vegetables such as beans, peas and tomatoes. Remember that bees can fly for miles–anything pollinated by insects have to be isolated or caged to prevent cross-pollination. And many vegetables have weedy cousins. Try to save the seeds of carrots without caging and you may get a carrot/Queen Anne’s lace hybrid that won’t taste good. And some supposedly self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes have rogue varieties that can be cross pollinated by insects.

3. Consider your climate
Bienneals require two years of growth in order to set seeds. If you live in a cold climate that could be a problem.

4. Population size
Serious plant breeders often plant a minimum of sixty plants so that they can choose the most vigorous for seed saving. And they’ll often plant just one variety to reduce the risk of crossing. One way around the population size requirement is to crowd source the problem and get a bunch of friends to grow the same vegetable.

5. Space requirements
Some biennials get really big in the second year. You’ll need to make sure they have space and won’t shade out other plants.

6. When to harvest
Fruits harvested for seed may need to stay on the plant for a long time. For example, eggplants that you want to save seed from need to be harvested well past when they’re still edible.

7. Prepping seeds
In general, seeds harvested when dry, such as lettuce need to be air dried before storing. Seeds harvested wet, such as watermelons, need to be washed with water before drying and storing. Tomato seeds need to be fermented in water for a few days before drying.

8. Storage
Moisture is the enemy of seed storage. Those packs of desiccant that come with electronic gadgets can be recycled and used in your seed storage boxes.

There’s no shame in buying seeds

In our small garden it would be nearly impossible to save the seeds of readily pollinated vegetables such as members of the Cucurbitaceae family. But it would be great to have varieties of vegetables adapted to our dry Mediterranean climate. Most seed saving operations use lots of fertilizer and water and the result is vegetables that are adapted, unsurprisingly, to requiring tons of fertilizer and water. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a notable exception. But we need more regional seed saving groups run by trained horticulturalists. In the meantime I buy seeds and stick to saving just the easy ones–beans, peas and tomatoes.

If you want more information about seed saving the bible of the subject is Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed.

How have your seed saving endeavors gone? What seeds do you save? Have you ever gone through the trouble of bagging seed heads or caging plants and hand-pollinating?

Vegetable Garden Note Taking

A page from Thomas Jefferson's garden diary.

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s garden diary.

My worst mistake in the fifteen years we have been gardening here in Los Angeles has been my shoddy note taking. Even though we don’t have frosts to contend with, it still can be tricky to figure out when to plant vegetables.

In a lecture I attnded at the National Heirloom Exoposition, Sonoma County gardening guru Wendy Krupnick had a simple suggestion for what to take notes on in your vegetable garden:

  • variety
  • planting day
  • first harvest
  • last harvest
  • comments

She suggested a minimum of three years of note taking.

If only I had this data! If there isn’t one already, someone should come up with a social note taking app for vegetable gardening that would aggregate information for each local microclimate. Leave a comment if such a thing exists.

And for more great gardening advice from Krupnick, check out iGrowSonoma.org. Most of the info is relevant even if you don’t live in Northern California.

How to save tomato seed

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Seeds fermenting in water. Not pretty, but pretty important! The jar got shaken up while walking it outside for its photo op., so it looks a little cloudy and messy. In your jar, you should see a layer of scum on top of the water.

I can’t believe we haven’t posted about this before–it seems like we have, but I can’t find the post if this is so. Perhaps we wrote about it in one of our books…the old brain is getting foggy.

It’s easy to save seed from your favorite tomatoes. Seed saving in general is actually a little tricky. You can’t just save the seed from any old vegetable in your garden and hope that it will yield plants like the parent. Cross-breeding is an issue. Professional seed savers use all sorts of sacks and screens and boxes to ensure that busy bees or flirtatious winds don’t make romance happen where it ought not. Otherwise you get acorn squash crossing with melons and who knows what not. It depends on the type of vegetable you want to save seed from–as well as what else you’re growing around it.

Tomatoes, however, are a pretty safe bet for seed saving. They are self-fertile, and the structure of their flowers makes cross pollination difficult. Our seed saving Bible, Seed to Seed, says that there are only three types of open pollinated tomatoes that you can’t save seed from (without putting them in isolation):

  1. Currant tomatoes (L. pimpinellifolium)
  2. The potato leaved varieties of L. lycopersicum
  3. Any fruit born from double blossoms on Beefsteak-type tomatoes. Double blossoms are prone to cross-pollination.  You can save seeds from fruit that came from a single blossom

Odd, but simple! You can basically save seed from almost any heirloom/open-pollinated variety you’re likely to  be growing. You cannot save seed from hybridized plants. These are the type you are most likely to find in the nursery–plants bred for performance, not seed saving. This would include popular breeds like Early Girl and Better Boy and Sun Golds.  If you’re not sure if your tomatoes are hybrids or not, just Google the name. The Internet is wonderful that way.

The process of saving tomato seed is simple. All you have to do is rot off the protective gel sack which surrounds each seed. This gel inhibits germination, keeping the seeds from germinating while still in the tomato. In nature, the gel rots off while the fallen tomato sits on the ground. Here, you will speed the process along with some water. In addition to removing the gel sack, this fermentation process also kills many seed-borne tomato diseases.

How to Save Tomato Seed

  1. Choose your best, tastiest tomatoes for seed saving.
  2. Scoop out the seed pulp and drop it into a jar. Or just squeeze a whole tomato over the jar.   It’s best to just squeeze cherry tomatoes. (You can use food processor, too, if you’re doing big batches.)
  3. Pour a little water over the pulp. It should cover the pulp by say, 2-3  inches or so.
  4. Cover the container and let it sit for a few days (3 days, roughly–weather makes a difference), until white or grey mold forms on the surface of the water. If you do a big batch, you will smell the rot. Don’t worry about it–just keep the dogs away! Watch for the mold to form and continue on to the next step. The mold may be impressively fuzzy, or it may just be a slight opaque slick on top of the water. Don’t let it sit in this state too long, or the seeds will start germinating in their bath.* If you’re in doubt as to whether it is ready, it’s ready. Far better to stop a little early than to let the seeds accidentally germinate.
  5. Pour off the moldy water, reserve the seeds.
  6. Add clean water back to the seeds and give the water a swirl. Let it settle. Any bad seeds will rise to the top. If they do, pour them off.
  7. Strain the seeds with a fine strainer (a teas strainer is fine for small batches) and spread them out to dry. They need to dry on something which will wick water away, because it is important that they dry quickly–otherwise they might germinate. Coffee filters work well, as do pieces of window screen, or paper plates. Tomato seeds stick to paper towels, so if you use those you may end up having to plant the seeds on their little bits of towel.
  8. Once they are bone dry, transfer to envelopes or glass jars for storage. Be sure to label!

*I just lost a batch to germination. I blame the heat. It didn’t seem like they’d be fermenting that long, but after I drained my seeds I saw the tiny little white nubbins poking out of the seeds. Now I have to begin again. This is one reason why you should not wait ’til your last tomato to think about saving seeds. Also, this is a reminder to keep a close eye on your projects!

ETA: We’ve had some comments from what I’ll call the Paper Towel School of seed saving, and I thought I’d amend this post to point out that another method is to just spread some tomato pulp on a paper towel and let it dry out. The seeds will stick to the towel, so you store the whole towel and when planting time comes next year, you tear the towel into tiny pieces and plant the pieces. This does save steps. The method described above is the Official Method, and the method I’ve always used. I’ve not tried the paper towel thing myself, but it seems sensible. However, as  I understand it, the fermentation process in the water bath method kills diseases, so it is considered good etiquette to put your seeds through this process if you plan to share them with others.

Also check out the comments for more on the mystery of cross-pollinating tomatoes!

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 . . .