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!

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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.

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.

How To Stop Powdery Mildew

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My winter squash has what Mud Baron once described as “jock itch for plants:” powdery mildew. I’ve tried all kinds of notions and potions in the past, but this year I decided to see what the science says about powdery mildew. Our climate where I live in Los Angeles is, unfortunately, ideal for producing this vexing fungus.

IPM
Let’s begin with some condensed advice from UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management page:

Preventative measures:

  • grow resistant varieties
  • find a sunnier spot for the vegetable garden
  • back off on nitrogen

Non-chemical approaches

  • sprinkle plants with water mid morning–add soap for more effectiveness
  • remove infected leaves promptly and dispose of them

Fungicides:

  • apply horticultural oil, neem oil or jojoba oil if the temperature is under 90° F. Do not apply any of these oils if you have used sulfur.

DIY Options
For home remedies I turned to advice from Washington State University horticulturalist Linda Chalker-Scott.

How about milk, widely touted as a powdery mildew treatment? According to Chalker-Scott the answer is yes it might work, but you may need to apply milk before powdery mildew appears. And the studies were done with whole milk, so the effectiveness of other kinds of milk have not been tested. Milk has not worked for me in the past, probably because I applied it too late.

How about baking soda? Chalker-Scott is skeptical. Baking soda has never worked for me.

Compost tea? I hate to bring it up as the topic is insanely controversial. I discovered a tempest in a compost tea pot when I tried to write a non-partisan magazine article about it. Let’s just say I ended up leaning towards the skeptical side when I looked at the evidence. Let me know if you think I’m wrong on this, especially if you can leave a link to a peer reviewed study.

Conclusions
What has definitely worked for me in the past is seeking out resistant varieties. I wasn’t smart enough to remember this fact so I’m going to try the soapy water approach and step up to something stronger if I have to. Part of my problem might also be too much nitrogen–my infected squash is in our straw bale garden and I had to apply a lot of blood meal to get it going. More sun would also help but that would involve cutting down a very large tree. I’ll update this post later in the season.

Let’s hear from you . . .
What powdery mildew treatment have you tried and how did it work? Leave a comment and join the conversation!

And I put the question out on the Root Simple twitter feed and got a few divergent opinions:

Christopher Kennedy ‏@ckpfunk Bonide’s Copper Fungicide for organic gardening. I spray every 14 days this time of year instead of every other w/ baking soda.

Alec ‏@Alec I’ve tried horsetail tea, sea-crop, baking soda, compost tea, and neem oil on mildew, but none compare to milk.

Alissa Walker ‏@gelatobaby I just sprayed with a baking soda solution seems to have done the trick so far. And removed all damaged leaves.

Alex Mitchell ‏@alexmitchelleg give the plants some air, water the ground not the leaves. Could spray diluted milk with water on leaves – never worked for me

Straw Bale Garden Update: Success!

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Ladies and gentleman, straw bale gardening works. I left town for a week earlier this month and, during my absence, the vegetables in the straw bale garden exploded in size. The Tromboncino squash on the left, is threatening to envelop the entire yard.  The tomatoes are equally vigorous and covered in ripening fruit.

straw bale garden zucchini

Zucchini is on the menu.

While it takes an input of outside resources in the form of straw and fertilizer, straw bale gardening is a great solution for beginning gardeners or for those cursed with bad soil. And the skunks that have decimated my previous vegetable gardens are unable to get up on the bales.

I’m considering trying another straw bale garden during our winter season. And I’m also pondering building boxes to put the bales in to make the garden look a bit neater.

Compare the straw bale garden to the depleted raised beds in our front yard:

depleted vegetable bed

I’ve talked to a lot of people about straw bale gardens since we started ours. Some things I’ve heard from other gardeners:

  • Some straw bales may be contaminated with herbicides. Do a bioassay before planting. Here’s some instructions (scroll down to the end of the article).
  • One gardener I met did not know that the bales need to be prepared by adding nitrogen–you can’t just plant straight in the bales.
  • Once the bales have been prepared you need to add fertilizer periodically. I’ve been adding fish emulsion every two weeks.

How is your straw bale garden?

And thanks again to Michael Tortorello whose article “Grasping at Straw” inspired us to try straw bale gardening.

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials

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The artist Sandow Birk once did a show depicting a fictitious war between Northern and Southern California. If that war were to be fought by plant nurseries, the forces of Northern California would have us, down here in the Southland, badly beat. There’s a few good native plant nurseries here, but that’s about it. There’s nothing quite as spectacular as Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, located in Richmond on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay.

Entrance display. Photo: Annie's Annuals and Perennials.

Entrance display at Annie’s. Photo: Annie’s Annuals and Perennials.

Annie’s was one of the stops on the Garden Blogger’s Fling, where we got to hear Annie Hayes herself talk about her business. She noted that most retail nurseries get their stock from distant, centralized wholesale nurseries. An outbreak of late blight disease in tomatoes back in 2009 demonstrates that centralized nurseries are a great way to spread plant diseases over wide areas.

Annie’s specializes in riotous color. Many of the spectacular gardens we visited on the Fling sourced their plants from Annie’s. And in addition to unusual and rare ornamental plants, Annie’s has a great selection of edibles. It’s first time I’ve ever seen Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) outside of a book.

I had to keep a tight grip on my credit card to prevent myself from buying plants I had no way of getting home on my bike. The good news is that Annie’s does mail order. And she’s got a bunch of tutorial videos covering topics such as container planting and plant combinations. As we begin version 4.0 of our back yard garden, I have a feeling we’ll be ordering plants from Annie’s.

Disclosure: we’re always happy to write about businesses we like and support. We did not get any compensation or free items from Annie’s.

Watering 101

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This is watering 101. Those of you who have been gardening for a while have probably learned this the hard way. Those of you just starting out may find it helpful.

Soil lies.

It looks wet, but it’s bone dry a fraction of an inch beneath. Or it looks dry on the surface, but it’s actually quite wet below. Or it’s wet, but only for one inch down.

The only way to find out if you’ve watered your garden enough is to stick your hand into the soil and make sure. You can’t garden without getting your hands dirty.

This is one reason why one of the most common questions, “How much do I water?” is one of the hardest to answer. The answer will vary, depending on your soil, the weather, the method you use to water, how often you water, and what you’re growing. In the end, you just have to use your hands and your common sense to figure it out. There is no formula.

In the picture above, you see the surface of the soil in one of our raised beds. This is imported soil, the kind that comes in bags. It doesn’t hold water in pools like clay soil does, it doesn’t sink in fast as it would in sandy soil. It’s actually pretty tricky to water because it seems like it should sop up water well, but I think all the organic matter in it actually slows absorption.

At any rate, I’d been watering this bed for some time with a sprinkler hose, waving it back and forth until I got bored. The water sunk in at first, then started to pool on the surface, and the pool lasted for a long time. At this point, a beginner might think she’d watered enough, but I’ve been fooled often enough before.

I reached down into the bed and scraped at the soil. A fraction of an inch beneath the wettest area, the soil was still perfectly dry. That’s what I tried to capture in the picture below–see all that dry soil? It was just beneath the surface of the puddle.  I wasn’t done watering.

dry dirt under water

In general, you need to be sure that the soil in the bed is evenly moist.  Not soggy and soppy, not dry, but pleasantly moist and springy. Over-watering can be problem as much as under-watering. If you know your soil tends to hold water, it may pay to dig before you even start watering. You may find you don’t need to water at all.

In a regularly watered bed, the deeper you dig, the more retained moisture you are likely to find, but the first few inches dry out fast. Older, deeper rooted plants don’t mind this so much if the top dries out, because they can reach deep for water, but if you’re dealing with young or shallowly rooted plants, you have to be very careful with the first five inches or so. Don’t trust your eyes. Trust your hands.