Comopost, Compost, Compost

As if I didn’t need a reminder of how important compost is to a vegetable garden, note the tomato above. It’s on its way out, but it grew with no supplemental water in hard-packed clay soil contaminated with lead and zinc in a hot side yard. Why did it do well while the rest of my vegetable garden did not do as so good this summer?

Homemade compost.

I didn’t have enough compost for the rest of the veggie garden so I bought some at a nursery. The homebrew compost obviously had much more life in it. 

And life is the point. Soil is a living thing. Plants, particularly vegetables, need microbial life to thrive.

For more on the importance of microbial life read the USDA’s soil biology primer written by Dr. Elaine Ingham.

Don’t be so quick to clean up

A lot of magic happens in the “dead” parts of a garden. Flowers gone to seed feed birds. Dead stalks support important insect life–from spiders to pollinators. Fallen leaves and sticks give habitat to lizards and toads and mushrooms and myriads of invisible creatures.

Yet dead growth is not attractive to the human eye, and around about this time of year we’re all itching to make a clean sweep of all that brown stuff. I know I am, but this morning I was grateful that I’ve procrastinated thus far, because I saw a flock of tiny little gnat catchers (adorable!) feasting on whatever tiny bugs live on the scraggy stand of fennel standing in our front yard, and a couple of hours later I found a flock of house finches enjoying the withered heads of our long, long dead sunflowers. I almost cut those stalks down yesterday, and am so glad I didn’t.

It’s a balancing act. If your garden is in your front yard you pretty much have to be tidy to appease the neighbors. If you have a small back yard, like we do, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to clear the decks, because everything is right in your face. Blessed are those with big yards, because they might have the option to keep the areas closer to the house tidy while allowing the “back 40″ to go to seed.

I guess all you can do is keep the little creatures in mind and put off the clean up as long as you can. Leave dead leaves and sticks on the ground year round. Designate small corners as wilderness. The more you support all levels of life in your garden, the more your garden will thrive.

New Zealand Spinach is the New . . . Spinach

Spotted in a neglected corner of our backyard: New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides). What’s interesting is that it self-seeded and grew with no supplemental water in the middle of summer in lead and zinc contaminated soil.  We’ve never been able to grow regular (and unrelated) spinach here. But there’s no stopping the New Zealand spinach. Due to the heavy metal problem we won’t be eating this particular specimen, but when I build our new raised beds you can bet I’ll sow some New Zealand spinach for next year.

Quebec Kitchen Garden Saved

From BoingBoing, an update on the Drummondville, Quebec kitchen garden, seen in the time lapse video above. City officials have backed down on asking for the garden to be removed.

Drummondville town officials announced the decision [Link is in French] this week during a special session of the Municipal Council to discuss the case. The decision could create a ripple effect in other cities worldwide as zoning laws are a constant debate in urban environments. Roger told us, “The Drummondville case was one of the highest profile examples of a local municipality challenging the right to grow food in one’s own yard. While it took place in Canada, it quickly attracted international media attention because of the garden’s beauty and productivity. The win is significant because it helps establish a precedent that other urban and suburban gardeners can refer to when similar challenges arise in other parts of the world.”

Tomato Report: Indigo Rose

Another tomato I got to taste on my trip up California’s central coast was the striking, nearly black “Indigo Rose”. The Indigo Rose tomato was bred conventionally by Oregon State University specifically to have high levels of antioxidants. Those antioxidants are in the tomato thanks to a class of flavonoids called anthocyanin, substances which also give the fruit its dark color.

According to Oregon State,

Indigo Rose’s genesis began in the 1960s, when two breeders – one from Bulgaria and the other from the United States – first crossed-cultivated tomatoes with wild species from Chile and the Galapagos Islands . . . Some wild tomato species have anthocyanins in their fruit, and until now, tomatoes grown in home gardens have had the beneficial pigment only in their leaves and stems, which are inedible.

The size is somewhat bigger than a cherry tomato. The inside of the tomato is a dark red. The taste? Good, even though the one I tried had not matured yet. I’m going to consider growing these next year.

You can find out more about the Indigo Rose on the Oregon State Extension Service website.

Indigo Rose seeds can be purchased through Johnny’s Select Seeds.

Tomato Report: Blush

I think I’ve tasted my new favorite tomato variety: Blush. I got to tuck into a box of these delicious tomatoes at the farm of Shu and Debbie Takikawa near Los Olivos. Yellow with red streaks, Blush tomatoes have the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.

The blush tomato was developed by geneticist and tomato geek Fred Hempel and are available via Seeds of Change.

Due to a series of gardening blunders that I’ll blog about at some point, we’re not going to have many tomatoes this summer from our yard. Thankfully I can visit Shu and Debbie’s stand at the Altadena Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays.

If you’ve grown Blush tomatoes please leave a comment and let us know how they did.

Front Yard Vegetable Garden Update

One advantage of living in a slightly rough-around-the-edges Los Angeles neighborhood is that nobody gets bent out of shape about front yard vegetable gardens. Indeed, they are  a tradition in immigrant neighborhoods.

The picture above is an update of one of the front yard gardens Kelly blogged about back in May.

It looked like this when she first blogged about it. Not sure exactly what’s growing here. It looks like beans from a distance, but up close they’re not any bean variety that I’ve ever seen. There are also bitter melons and hot peppers growing on the front fence.

Looking nice, and food will be on the table soon.

Chop and Drop: Leaving Plant Residues in the Garden

Image from California Agriculture

Since 2004, University of California scientists have been studying “conservation tillage,” a suite of techniques that includes practices such as reducing tillage and leaving crop residues in the field after harvest. Leaving crop residues, in permacultural lingo, “chop and drop,” it turns out has a number of important benefits.

According to a research paper in the April-June 2012 issue of California Agriculture,

In two field studies comparing no-tillage with standard tillage operations (following wheat silage harvest and before corn seeding), we estimated that 0.89 and 0.97 inches more water was retained in the no-tillage soil than in the tilled soil. In three field studies on residue coverage, we recorded that about 0.56, 0.58 and 0.42 inches more water was retained in residue-covered soil than in bare soil following 6 to 7 days of overhead sprinkler irrigation. Assuming a seasonal crop evapotranspiration demand of 30 inches, coupling no-tillage with practices preserving high residues could reduce summer soil evaporative losses by about 4 inches (13%).

While this study is about commercial agriculture, much of its findings apply to home gardens as well, in my opinion. Leaving residues from the previous crop as a mulch layer saves water and builds soil. It does, of course, make it harder to direct sow seeds, but this is one of the reasons I like to work with transplants.

So don’t keep that vegetable garden too neat!

Introducing Nancy Klehm With Tips on Growing Jerusalem Artichokes

Photo by Ann Summa

We’re very proud to welcome to the blog our good friend Nancy Klehm. Nancy is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Most importantly, unlike Kelly and I here in Los Angeles, she lives in a place subject that odd meteorological condition called “winter”, namely Chicago. We asked her to write posts for us for on gardening in a four-season climate and to add her expertise to Root Simple. Nancy’s website, where you can find listings for her upcoming classes and events is http://spontaneousvegetation.net/.

She keeps a garden in her yard, an empty lot next to her house and on her roof in addition to lots of indoor seedlings. She has 5 chickens (one is rooster) and 7 quail (5 bobwhite and 2 coturnix). She also grows and gathers in her neighborhood and maintains a half acre food forest west of the city. In her first post for Root Simple Nancy introduces her climate and offers some tips on growing Jerusalem artichokes:

Welcome to Zone 5
I live in what is known by the USDA as Cold Hardiness Zone 5. Chicago is 5B and my food forest is in 5A. If you don’t know, the map is based on minimum average temperatures and helps as a guideline for first and last frost dates: http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html. In the Midwest, where winter is a serious endeavor, a zone 5 growing season’s frost dates are May 15 and Nov 1, meaning that is the bracket for growing more tender annual plants such as basil, tomatoes, melons, etc. We have had a mild winter and a very early Spring this year – almost a month ahead according to any record. As a true farmer said: ‘This is the warmest April on record.’ And it was still March when he said it.

In the past 10 days, dodging rain and wet soil, I have planted out potatoes, asparagus, peas, collards, chard, kale, radishes, carrots, beets, turnips, salsify, and cress. I have many vegetables, fruits, culinary and medicinal herbs sown and growing under lights indoors that have weeks ahead of them under 14 hours of artificial sun. But thankfully, I have already been eating out of my garden which is a loose collection of the cultivated and the forageable: asparagus, stinging nettle, dandelion, chickweed, dock, wild and French sorrel, parsley, pea shoots, garlic mustard, ground ivy, wild onion, horseradish leaves, wild carrot, hawthorn flower and burdock root. The hops are almost four feet high, the fruit trees are in heavy bloom and my pawpaw birthed 14 blossoms for the first time since I planted its seed seven years ago!

The problem with this early spring is that it is likely to freeze between now and may 15. Everyone I know who grows tree fruit commercially is a bit worried about the fast blooms so early in the season. We could lose our fruit if the weather snaps to 30 degrees.

Jerusalem artichokes – PLANT NOW!
I was given a lunch bag full of dirty Jerusalem artichoke roots a handful of years ago and now I have a stand that is at least 500 square feet. It is in the center of my food forest. The stand acts like a giant sponge to absorb the extra water that floods my growing area now that the natural hydrology has been interrupted by a nearby housing developer. The stand provides shade for toads and in wet times, muddy crayfish tunnel into the mud around its tubers. In August, the flowers are 10 feet tall. Every spring, I dig out 30-50 pounds of chokes from my ever expanding bed to keep them from overwhelming my young quince and apple trees, which they would if I didn’t.

Muddy chokes and a few worms.
Chokes are a delicious wild perennial food. Darn easy to grow, but can be a lot of work to dig and wash and are really tough to store well. They either mold or dry out quickly once out of the ground and, even if I keep them nice and muddy, I haven’t had the luck or skill to store then over two weeks. In other words, use them or process them immediately.

Washed chokes and wild carrots drying.
I almost broke my mother’s Kitchen Aid when I tried to make Jerusalem artichoke flour, an answer to my father’s diabetes and new anti-gluten faddists. I sliced them, dried the slices and then tried to use the Cuisine Art to chop them up. Wrong tool, so I went to the mixer. It beat on and on for 10 minutes. I threw a towel over the top of the entire machine to keep the fine clouds of dust down. I got flour as well as some hard bits which I sifted out. It was tasty, but given the work I had to do, I had to think of another approach. And this is coming from someone pretty intrepid athlete with food processing. Making sunchoke flour takes second place for me just after creating my own dried pectin from wild crab apple skins.

Note from Kelly for folks in dry climes: Jerusalem artichokes grow in LA, too. We blogged about them here, where you can see a picture of one growing (they look like small sunflowers on enormous stalks). Our patch didn’t grow for more than one year because we decided we didn’t want to water them.  I believe in a wetter place they can grow without inputs–indeed, they’re hard to stop once they get going!– but in a dry climate they do need some water.