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.

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.