Archive for the ‘garden’ Category

I’ve been helping some friends learn to garden this year. I absolutely love getting other folks hooked on gardening! Recently someone sent me the following question:

Iā€™m doing pretty well finding info in my Sunset Magazine books and on the Internet. There is one question not in the books and no one seems to agree on the Internet. What are the parameters for when to water? I know Iā€™m not supposed to water in the afternoon on a hot day, but can I water in the afternoon on a cool day? Afternoon on a warm day? How about 6 pm on a warm day?

Watering, ah, always complicated! It’s one of those things you set guidelines for, and then kind of muddle along learning by trial and error. To help things along, let’s talk about the overall theory of watering plants, so that the novice gardener can get a feel for why and how watering is vital, and how plants respond to watering. Armed with that knowledge, you can then reason things out and generate common sense rules for watering.

So, what about plants and water? Not enough water and you get cell damage and stunted growth. Too much water and you deprive roots of the air they need to do their job, and you risk opportunistic infection by molds, mildews, and fungi. What’s a gardener to do? Well, let’s look at what plants do.

Plants transpire, emitting water as vapor through pores (stomata) in their leaves. They do it to cool themselves and also as part of photosynthesis. Plants are capable of closing the pores in their leaves tightly to minimize water loss on hot or windy days. Not only does this limit water loss, it will physically cause their leaves to droop so that they present less of a target for the sun.

The answer is to tailor watering to the overall conditions. When you water a plant, even at the roots without hitting the leaves, the pores on the leaves open up from a physiological response. This is why it can be bad to water on a windy day or a really hot day– you are tricking the plant into leaving its pores too open and ‘panting away’ its water. The leaves can also get physical burns from water droplets on them acting like a magnifying glass in full sun! On the other hand, you also want the water on the plant and at the base of the plant to drain and dry, so watering at night is usually undesirable– it also attracts snails and wildlife to your garden.

The best times to water are in the morning before 10am and in the evening about 2 hours before sunset. The hottest part of the day is over (or not started), it’s ok for the plants to open their little pores for a couple of hours, and the watering will have dried up and things gone back to normal before any conditions of extreme heat or cold.

If you know you have been watering regularly, and see droopy plants on a hot day, *especially* don’t water right then. Some plants, like tomatoes and squashes, are so good at sucking up their pores that their leaves get really really droopy and they look very bad. In the early evening, they should have perked up and look better. If they don’t, then water the heck out of them, including misting the foliage so they can take water directly in via the stomata (pores).

Also remember, especially if you have plants in containers, that the first 1 – 3 inches of the soil should be primarily dry, so that the roots are getting enough air. Too much water in the soil can prevent your plant from getting the building blocks it needs to grow. It can also provide standing water for algae or anaerobic bacteria to grow and damage your plant. So you want the soil about 3 – 5 inches (or more) below the surface to be damp, but not wet.

Always love to hear other folks’ watering tips and observations, please feel free to comment!


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It’s here, and it’s in full swing. The past month has been kind of like that song on the radio, “you’re hot and you’re cold”. We went from some early March days in shirtsleeves to a couple of weeks of cold-n-rainy, then some nice daytimes with back down the mid-40’s at night. This weekend it’s supposed to get into the mid-80’s. My lettuce is CONFUSED, I tell ya.

Things I’ve been doing, some of which may be things to think about doing in your garden:

Greens, greens, greens!

  • Harvest the first crop of spinach, Catalina Baby, (outer leaves only), and hope I didn’t take too much
  • Plant more spinach, this time a heat-tolerant variety, Oriental Giant (a spinach-alike, really) and a quick to mature type, Nobel 45-day.
  • Harvest rainbow chard, cutting it all way back to some inner leaves. No leaf miners (yet?) this year, for which I’m grateful.

Peas on Earth, Goodwill to Munch!

  • Check on your peas every couple of days– they may need a boost grabbing onto their trellising. I find myself patiently helping them grab the trellis instead of throttling each other. Hmm, sounds like kids!
  • Pick the first few pea stragglers and eat them as snap peas, whether they are conventional or snap peas. Don’t let your pea plant produce full-grown seeds and then think it is done for the season.
  • Dress their roots with a good layer of compost. In addition to keeping the soil moist, this helps keep it cool. Peas with cool feet will produce longer and be less prone to mildew.
  • Now that the weather is getting hotter, make sure that you don’t spray the pea vines themselves when watering if you can help it, and when you water, do so with plenty of time to dry out before the heat of the day. Once mildew takes hold, it can spread pretty quick.

Strawberry Fields (and Containers) Forever

  • Strawberries are flowering now; have you fertilized them since tucking them in for fall? This is a really good time. If you wait until the first crop of berries is ready, they may need a long break to absorb nutrients before putting out lots of replacement flowers.
  • Mine are everbearing, which produce a berry here and there all summer, but if yours are June-bearing, it’s doubly important to fertilize as soon as they start greening up and forming flower buds. You’re only getting the one shot with the berry crop!
  • Before you fertilize, especially if you’re using compost, carefully pull out all the winter-killed foliage. You don’t want rotting vegetation under that compost– the crowns need to breathe and get good air circulation. This will help prevent fungus problems.
  • Be careful what you are pulling on, and either snip out the old foliage at the stem, or grab only a stem or two at a time and give a quick sharp yank. It’s too easy to pull out the crowns!
  • If your strawberries are in a container, like mine, check the crowns. The soil levels drop as organic matter is used up, and you may have little strawberry castles raised up 2 or 3 inches above the soil. Fill in with enriched potting soil, or regular potting soil mixed 50% with compost. Be careful not to cover the crowns themselves– err on the side of caution, because if you cover them, you are very very likely to have fungus or mildew problems.
  • Container strawberries are sensitive to minerals, too– be sure to sprinkle some greensand and bone meal or eggshell into your containers annually. Now is fine, it’s not too late at all.

Gracious, where did the time go? I guess I’ve been a bit busy in the garden lately. We haven’t even talked about the runner bean seedlings, the tomatoes and peppers, and the squashes. Next time!

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I’ll try to follow up with pictures.

Cilantro is going strong, all over the place. Batavian Nevada, which I’m starting to suspect is merely a fancy name for Black-Seeded Simpson, ditto. Some Merlot and Cimmaron Romaine have come up in the beds, but most are outside the beds. I’m letting them keep going, but have pointed them out to Mike as “take these first”. I think I should start another patch of the romaines. The hard rain either washed away or buried too deeply most of the first set.

The favas are about 2 feet tall, and the some of the beets I put in behind and between them are just showing a pair of seed-leaves.

Two square-foot areas of Baby Catalina Spinach are coming up– one almostly completely, the other lagging severely. Cascadia snap peas on one trellis are about 2.5 feet tall and starting to climb– the volunteer peas I mentioned in my December update turned out to be Sweet Peas, not edible peas.

I planted a batch of either Cascadia or Alaska (curse my “I’ll remember, no need to label” mentality) at the foot of one of the carport posts, and they germinated 100% and are about a 6 inches tall. I need to get them onto wire or string asap, and didn’t get to the hardware store for a trellis this weekend.

The little pak choi mostly didn’t emerge, so I resowed and have a half dozen tiny seed-leaves showing. This afternoon, Mike and I dibbled a long, long row of onion sets, half yellow and half red, along the little front decorative fence. I put a set of shallots in the corner, and am figuring out where to put the other set.

A broccoli has come up in the square planter, let’s see if it thrives. The Bright Lights chard is still with us, but hasn’t taken off yet, is only about thumb-size. Something feathery is up and tall in the back corner, but I can’t tell yet if it’s a bronto carrot or a small fennel; there are several of them.

Oh, and I dug out my seedling heat mats, and picked up (lazy this year!) a bag of potting soil. Usually I make my own, ain’t gonna happen with my current work schedule. Time to start tomatoes and peppers indoors. Maybe time past, but at least I’m starting now. šŸ˜‰

Much, much, MUCH weeding done this weekend, and a little earlier in the week– the soil is so saturated that even Nasty Things with Taproots are coming out nicely. My problem children, aka the bunchgrass, come out in big clumps, and the stitchgrass in patches like sod. All into the compost pile!

Some of my mystery flowers are coming up, too– there are definitely poppies, and there may have been some earlier that I mistook for dandelion-ish weeds (wups). Something reddish-greenish that looks almost like a zinnia is coming up in 3 places– I think it might ge the clarkia, which I’ve not grown previously. And some cute little exuberant green bursts of teensy leaves, which I weeded out in a few spots in the main bed are also showing up in my flower planter. Wups. I wonder what those are. I will leave alone any more that show up outside of the planter.

Cornflowers coming up well in the expected places, and many unexpected ones. Have moved a long line of the out-of-place ones onto the front fence, keeping my fingers crossed that they take. They seem ok so far!

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Welcome, Weekend Herb Blogging readers!

Not only are winter greens easy and fun to grow, they like to surprise you now and then by deciding that Spring must be here. With all the recent (relatively) warmer rain, some of my asian stir-fry greens seem to have decided to Go For It and see about flowering. Hmm, can you spot the joi choi who is thinking it’s Spring?

Fortunately for us, these flower spikes are not only quirkily charming, but are also a special, nutrient-packed treat. Eat flowers? Isn’t that just for fancy salads and goat cheese? Nope! For instance, most of us have eaten this edible flower, broccoli!

Broccoli has many tasty cousins to enjoy. There’s Italian broccoli raab, and a number of friendly flower spikes that often go by the name Chinese broccoli but which can be anything from flowering choi to various mustards. Here’s some tsatsoi that has decided to reach for the sky.

Along with the cultivated greens, we have some tasty stir-frying options mixed among our cover crops. The early flower clusters of culinary seed mustard, such as this lovely example in my side tomato bed, can be snipped and added to other greens, or tossed daringly in a cream sauce over pasta. Yum!

It’s not only little Ralphie’s mom in Rabbit Hill, always making peavine soup, who can appreciate winter peas extravagant growth habits. The tender tops, not yet in flower, are delicious steamed or gently toss-cooked in light olive oil, with or without matchstick ginger and a little garlic.

Plant some extra peas to snip periodically for the table, or just snip bits here and there for a special treat– not too much if you want a good crop of pea pods. I think I still have some slack left on the main pea-patch. Thinning them out a bit also helps prevent powdery mildew when the weather gets warmer, but it’s not going to be warm enough for that for quite a while yet!

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This year I’m proudly displaying our winter squash as they cure, rather than lining them up along the wall or countertop as clutter. Our printer stand makes a great little pantry for the squashes. Yes, that’s a face on one of them. I offered to decorate some pumpkins for someone on Craigslist, and did a sample on a handy squash!

The two squashes in the foreground are both interesting. The big one is part kabocha, and I believe part banana squash. It was saved from a kabocha I bought in a farmer’s market. There is a typical-looking small kabocha ripening outside from the same vines, and it is the same lovely gray-green as the very tip of this squash.

Right at that tip you’ll see a tiny ridged squash. That is a Black Futsu, a Japanese squash with an unbelievably intense flavor. It starts out a green so dark that it almost looks black (hence the name), and then turns a dusty orange in storage. The parent squash was also small, but at least double the size of this one. There’s another tiny one on the vine outside. I hope that they’re edible– one reason they could be so tiny would be that they crossed with some kind of gourd.

I’m starting to think that, while seed saving from the farmer’s market is fun, I might want to plant more ‘official’ seeds next year and get a more consistent harvest. Since I don’t have room for more than a couple of plants of any large cultivars, like squashes, a packet of seed lasts me several years and is a good investment. Ironically, I have an unopened packet of Black Futsu that I didn’t plant, preferring to use the saved seed instead (as this packet is vacuum sealed).

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This is the time of year when we take apart the garden and put it back together for winter gardening. We were so busy doing that, and getting sticky and dirty with sap, compost, mud, etc, that we forgot to take pictures! So I did catch-up pictures of the items left over, minus a couple of big stir-frys. This is the time of year when we have the funkiest-looking veggies, as we clear everything off the plant when we take it out of the garden.

As usual, we got a lovely return on our beans. I think beans are one of the great gifts to gardeners. I plant a couple of dozen beans of various types and harvest a quart of dried beans, plus eating several meals of fresh young whole beans. The plants themselves are great nitrogen fixers, and can be shredded and mulched in place on the garden beds at the end of the season, or composted.

This year we added Painted Lady to the runner bean collection, growing it separately on a carport support. The plants quickly climbed up to the roof, and were claimed delightedly by a couple of the local hummingbirds. The Painted Lady beans are white with black squiggles, in contrast to the pink and black Scarlet Runner beans. I’ve picked out a batch for next year’s planting (and for sharing!), from the longest and best-formed pods. Here the harvested beans are drying a bit more on the shelf, along with previously harvested peppers.

Our melon experiments were much more successful this year than last. We also discovered that a local squirrel or rat likes melons (grr!). Despite losing a couple of melons, our mini-melons did very well in the self-watering planters. We got a couple of tiny yellow watermelons, some mini-charentais, and a couple of a variety I’ve forgotten. I think all of these were supposed to be larger. I don’t know if our soil wasn’t amended richly enough, or if the cold snaps in the summer did it. I skipped the usual midsummer composting, being away, and I feel that was a big mistake.

Yes, we’re being cute here. Still, we find cardboard egg cartons to be a good place to store veggies that we don’t like to refrigerate. They allow good air circulation and are handy. I’m thinking of finding some small wire baskets on drawer gliders and hanging them under my kitchen cabinets over the countertop, which would be less cluttery than the egg cartons, and would be safe from countertop spills. There were several Ichiban long purple eggplants in this carton, too, but they went into the frypan before the picture was taken. Really like the Ichiban and the Fairy Tale (shown here) for tenderness and no trace of bitterness.

I’ve left our big Early Girl tomato plant alone, but the Green Zebra is history, as is the Pineapple Beefsteak and the Persimmon, so we have plenty of green tomatoes ripening up. The startlingly dark one is the Purple Russian; they never got more than a pale pink outside before something four-footed harvested them, or we did in self-defense. I had great hopes for a complex, smoky flavor in this, as is supposed to be true of many black or dark tomatoes, but I found it actually rather bland. Purple Russian tomato won’t be returning to my garden next year. I’ll try Black Krim or Black Prince, and rig netting so that I’ll have a chance of ripening them on the vine.

When you’re picking green tomatoes for later ripening, especially if you’re pulling out the plant, take a good chunk of stem along with them. The ripening tomatoes will pull sugars from the stem, which slowly withers and hardens. The resulting tomatoes are almost as sweet as vine-ripened, certainly far and away better than supermarket tomatoes, even hothouse ones.

Our plans for a bountiful potato harvest were dashed by the construction of new fence between our property and the neighbors’ in the back, as we didn’t find out it was coming in until the workmen were already there. They dug out my potato patch to put in a posthole, and I was only able to salvage the area where I’d laid down the standing plants straight out from the fence and covered them with dirt for an extended harvest. That led to a nice batch of small new potatoes, about half of which are pictured here. They were delicious! They are mostly Russian Banana, with a few Russets here and there.

A few larger potatoes survived the shovels of the fence-builders. They’ll be chowder someday soon!

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Summer is clearly coming to a close here in Silicon Valley. Breezy days in the high 70’s wind down to chilly evenings and cool nights. I’ve got floating row cover over our peppers already and one of the eggplant beds.

Our roses are blooming again after a severe pruning in early August. The ultra-hot weather didn’t do them any favors, even though I cut back on watering them to try to stave off any mildew or fungus problems. I’m participating in the Apartment Therapy 8-Week Cure, and one of the first things that comes up is to bring in fresh flowers. OK, they say ‘buy’, but I can just go out front right now, so I did.

Normally I’d have cut dahlias, but mine, alas, were just destroyed this past weekend by workers putting in a fence replacement. They might come back for the season or they might not– they were completely uprooted. I reburied them and watered; worst case, they die back for this season. I’m planning on moving them this winter anyway. Still, there were a LOT of blooms left, and I’m sad about that.

What I think will be the last of my squashes are in now; I planted the ebicata kabocha too late, and it got hit with powdery mildew during our hot spell and hasn’t set fruit yet. Too bad! But the red kuri / kabocha cross came through very well, and I may get another straggler from my Waltham butternut.

When the nights get cold, the squashes toughen up and get ready to pick. If you still have some ripening, be sure to gently lift them off the ground and make sure they’re clear of little pillbugs or other critters trying to eat into the rind. Use a piece of old potshard or a tile to get them off the ground, or even rest them on the vine itself. There are two primary signs to look for in squashes. The first is that the stems will start to get hard, and may turn tan or shrivel up. Butternuts typically need a pair of bolt cutters to snip off the vine! The other sign is that the skin hardens to the point where it is difficult to mark it with a fingernail. Store fresh-picked squashes on a screened porch or on an open, well-ventilated shelf for at least a week or two to let them shed excess moisture. I keep mine on an open shelf as decoration, and gradually use them up in winter.

If you haven’t grown your own squash, don’t worry– the ones at the Farmer’s Market are perfectly lovely. Buy them now, when the markets are fairly swimming in them, and store them yourself at home for later. Don’t wash them, but if they’re dirty or mucky, you can polish them off with a barely damp cloth. Treat as you would your own fresh-picked, and let them cure a while before putting in a cupboard.

The rest of the garden is still busy turning out, as Mike’s late grandmother would say, “a bissel of this, and a bissel of that”. A friend of ours came over and we responded to the plethora of ingredients by making ratatouille, a perfect solution to lots of ingredients in quantities too small to make any one of them the centerpiece. OK, there are always huge quantities of zucchini; we balance them off against the rest of the ingredients that way!

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September harvests usually end up to be something of a mish-mash, and this one is no exception. Fortunately, the best veggie stir-fry has lots of different kinds of veggies, and we’re definitely getting good material for that!

Time to round up the winter squashes and bring them inside. Make sure there’s plenty of airflow where you store them, and let them ‘cure’ for a bit in the open air before putting them into a cupboard. Butternut squashes may drip slightly from the stem for a day before settling in, so make sure they won’t drip on another squash.

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No joke, unfortunately. The light brown apple moth (LBAM) from New Zealand could disrupt California agriculture very badly, and has recently been detected in the SF Bay Area. Not just big agriculture, our backyard gardens too, whether flowers, veggies, fruit, or a mix of all three. This little moth’s caterpillars love a lot of plants here, and have no native predators to keep them in check. The official How You Can Help against Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM) brochure (PDF) says:

This includes but is not limited to: oak, willow, walnut, pine, redwood, eucalyptus, apple, pear, citrus, peach, avocado, roses, jasmine, strawberry, table and wine grapes, berries and other ornamental shrubs, bushes and trees.

The brochure includes detailed pictures of the male and female moths, the caterpillars, and coccoons, as well as the sample traps being placed in California counties to detect the spread of the moth.

If you see rolled up leaves on your plants, pluck the leaf and stomp it to a smeary green spot, or put in a ziploc bag and dispose in the trash. Notify your county agriculture commission with your address, date, and the type of plant. Contact info for Santa Clara County. Not in Santa Clara? Choose from list of California counties.

A quarantine zone has been established. If you live within a quarantined section of the county, please don’t share plants with people outside the zone. If you live outside the quarantined section, please don’t buy plants or accept them from individuals or stores inside the zone. The moth got in via plants, fruit, and cut flowers from NZ, parts of the UK, and Hawaii. Be cautious about importing plants or flowers from sites mentioned on the quarantine pages. Light Brown Apple Moth Quarantine Maps (PDF) for SF Bay Area, by county.

Now if only somebody could quarantine MY garden against “the Eaters that come in the night”. Generally snails, slugs, or earwigs, many a promising 3 – 4 leaved seedling has vanished, leaving only a green stem. Time to replant teddy bear sunflowers, this time in larger, transplantable pots rather than a 6-pack where I have to set out tiny seedlings. Bah. And they got several of my eggplants, too! Just when I thought it was warm enough to start taking the recycled-plastic-bottle cloche caps off of them! Actually, several years of hand-picking snails in the garden is paying off, as their numbers have been drastically reduced. But it only takes ONE hungry slug or earwig to clear out a single-seedling buffet. šŸ˜¦

A tip for folks making cloches– I was using 2-liter soda bottles, because they are clear plastic. I have switched to translucent milk jugs, after discovering the hard way that seedlings protected at night will fry during the day and wither outright. Doh. So unless you make a habit of going out and taking off all those little caps early in the morning, use translucent, rather than clear, plastic.

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fracked-up weather

We broke weather records today, with a high of 80 F at Moffett Field, just a mile or three from our place. I hope that this week of bizarrely warm weather won’t result in my existing cool-weather plants all bolting and going to seed. Seems to have taken at least one cilantro plant up an additional foot in 24 – 48 hours, ugh.

On the other hand, I just started a LOT of seeds in a flat outside on the patio; some peppers, a bunch of basil, various flowers. So those may come up this week and do well.

Worst case– the cool-weather green stuff all bolts, and the seedlings thrive but then die off when normal March weather comes back (low 60’s day, low 50’s or high 40’s night).

Oh, and I have been taking guafenesin all day to loosen up this JUNK in my chest; it’s gone from clear to light yellowish, and I slept most of the day– no more Mr. Nice Grrl, started the antibiotics tonight. :-/

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