Edible and Tasty Arugula Flowers

arugulaflowers

Our winter vegetable garden is just about finished. This week I’m going to tear out most of it and plant tomatoes and a few other summer veggies.

I may keep some of the arugula that has gone to flower a little longer. Why?

  • arugula flower taste great in salads
  • bees love them
  • arugula self seeds readily

The flowers, which taste like the leaves, are a reminder of my favorite time of year: arugula season. Each year I curse myself for not planting more arugula.

Do you have a favorite edible flower?

Straw Bale Gardens

straw bale garden by Tasha Via

Tasha Via’s straw bale garden.

Michael Tortorello (who profiled us when Making It came out) is one of my favorite writers covering the home ec/gardening subjects we discuss on this blog. He had an article last week in the New York Times, “Grasping at Straw” on straw bale gardening. We’ve very tempted to give the practice a try in our backyard. Why?

  • We have lead and zinc contaminated soil so growing veggies in the ground is questionable.
  • We live on a hill and it’s easier for us to drag a straw bale up the hill rather than bulk or bagged soil.
  • Straw bale gardening is an old and tested practice.
  • Straw bale gardening comes with the endorsement of horticulture professor and noted garden myth debunker Linda Chalker-Scott.
  • The practice has been tested in dry climates like ours.
  • After the bale has decomposed you get compost you can use elsewhere in the yard.
  • I suspect that skunks will be less interested in digging in a bale (please correct me if I’m wrong here).

Now, if we had good soil I wouldn’t bother with the extra work of buying and prepping a straw bales garden. But, given the idiosyncrasies of our situation, it seems like a good solution. Frankly, I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner. Our thanks go out to Michael for reminding us of this possibility with his article.

The biggest possible downside with this method is that the straw may contaminated with a persistent herbicide, like Dow Chemical’s Clopyralid. This is a type of herbicide that is not broken down by composting. It’s not even broken down in an animal’s digestive track. It can linger in organic matter for a year or two, stunting the growth garden plants. (See Killer Compost).

Despite this risk, we’re going to go ahead and grow some food in bales anyway and see what happens. We’ll also be testing our straw.

So, off we go into another gardening adventure/research pit!

So have any of you tried, or are considering trying, straw bale gardening? How did it work?

Some resources on the topic:

strawbalegardens.com–the website of Joel Karsten, profiled in Tortorello’s article and the author of a book and a downloadable pamphlet on straw bale gardening.

Some tips from an experienced straw bale gardener at The Gardener’s Pantry

We’re going to bioassay (that is, test ) the straw from our local feed store. The Compost Gardener has good instructions for this. In our case, we’re doing the method where you plant beans in soil, and water them with tea made from the straw.

Washington State University–instructions for how to start a Straw Bale garden.

Tracking the Mood of the Gardener

Swiss chard--January 2010

Swiss chard from the winter of 2010

A Root Simple reader I ran into this weekend took issue with my assertion that fall is the best time to start a vegetable garden in Southern California.

Thinking about it some more I think she may have a point. Some of you may have noticed that we have a new feature on the blog–if you click on an individual blog post you’ll see a list of related posts at the bottom. Looking at some of those older posts showed that I have an annual vegetable gardening freakout around November. Why? Two factors: freak heatwaves (that are common here in the fall) as well as skunk activity which is related to applying compost (they are digging for grubs). So it may be, in fact, better for us to delay planting by two months, at least in our central Los Angeles microclimate.

The moral of the story is that it’s valuable to keep records for your vegetable garden, specifically:

  • Planting
  • First and last harvest
  • General observations–taste, flavor etc.
  • Mood!

Gardening and human consciousness are very much intertwined. Our thoughts effect what happens in the physical world and vegetables are heavily dependent on our interventions. Looking back at old blog posts as well as reader comments have led to many insights. If you don’t already, keep a gardening diary.

So what kind of records do you keep?

Anne Hars’ Top Ramen Keyhole Vegetable Garden

keyholewide

“I call it my Top Ramen garden,” says gardener, Root Simple neighbor and artist Anne Hars, “I planted things that go well in Top Ramen.” Hars is referring to her keyhole vegetable bed that she created this winter. With the keyhole, Hars has made good use of a very small front yard with a dense planting of Ramen friendly veggies including bok choi, three kinds of kale, sunflowers, carrots, peas, garlic, radishes, spinach, romaine lettuce, cilantro and parsley.

keyholeanneanebill

Anne with husband Bill and Petra the chihuahua.

She was inspired by a video by the British charity Send a Cow that shows the construction of a keyhole bed in Uganda. Keyhole beds are raised, circular vegetable gardens that contain a compost pile in the center. The compost pile provides nutrients and worm habitat. The keyhole form is said by permaulturalists to maximize space and ease of access.

Hars’ keyhole bed replaced two square raised beds that were made out of wood. “Gardens have to be rethought every couple of years and I feel less guilty then I did when I was using wood,” says Hars referring to the straw wattle she used to edge the keyhole. Straw wattle is a (mostly) biodegradable material made out of rice straw and plastic netting. You can find it at irrigation supply stores and on order at Home Depot. It comes in 25 foot lengths.

Soil for the bed came from the ground, from bagged soil that used to be in the wooden raised beds and from compost that Anne makes herself.

keyholeuta

“I’m going to plant things under things,” says Hars. As the winter garden reaches maturity Hars plans on putting warm season crops in under the winter greens. “It will be a lazy summer garden.”

Ute, one Anne and Bill’s two chihuahuas, agrees.

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.

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.