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Faithful readers may recall the earlier plans I published here for a Three Sisters garden of corn, squash, and beans. With my usual cheerful abandon, I ignored various bits of online advice on when and how to plant it. Consequently, things are now somewhat out of control. A normal day in my garden! W00t!


To begin with, the vines you see creeping along the edge of the garden bed actually belong to the squashes planted about halfway down the bed, not the ones that are ‘supposed to’ be there. The little Black Futsu winter pumpkins don’t tolerate chilly weather as well as the robust kabocha types, so they are still dainty rosettes of fuzzy green leaves with a blossom or two, and haven’t really taken off yet. Meanwhile, the Hokkori is coming up in the outside lane to steal their thunder!

In this aptly-titled photo, we see the tomato cage trying to resist the encroachment of vigorous squash vines, kind of like trapped shoppers in a mall in a zombie movie. I came to the rescue, but it wasn’t pretty. While looking at the small squashes starting to form on the vines, I noticed that the vine giving the tomato cage the most trouble was also the one which was not breeding true to type.

This should be an ebisu-delicata hybrid “Ebicata 2007” that I saved and am planting out. I had banana squash growing nearby, and clearly some happy-go-lucky bee went to more than one squash party on a crazy summer afternoon. I’m not a huge banana squash fan (too bland) and this is the wildest and wooliest of the vines, as well as the primary instigator in the Tomato Cage Invasion. Part of growing stuff out is knowing what to get rid of and what to keep! I trimmed the vines, and then cautiously took out the whole plant and added it to the compost bin, saving the couple of soap-bar sized squashes to eat as summer squash.

This is what they should look like, and the plant sharing that garden section, grown from the same batch of saved seed, has delivered the goods. These are about baseball and table-tennis ball sized, respectively. More where I’d expect them to be this time of year, instead of the huge one just down the row from them.

I didn’t try tracing the vine to see if the big one is from the same plant, though it could well be. This one is already at close to mature size of 8 – 10 inches across. Early adopter! I won’t pick it until it is mature, otherwise it won’t keep well. The stem will be rock-hard and brown-dry, and the rind of the squash will be tough enough that it doesn’t casually dent to a fingernail.

This kabocha is new to me, though I think I’ve enjoyed it from the farmers’ market. It’s Hokkori, a dark green kabocha offered by Oakland importer Kitazawa Seeds. They’re a great source for all kinds of awesome Asian veggies, especially freaky cool greens like chrysanthemum that I haven’t learned to eat yet. These juvenile Hokkori are grapefruit and mandarin-sized. How come nobody describes citrus fruit in kabocha terms? Maybe they do in Japan!

This Hokkori is about softball sized. One thing I did while visiting the garden to water was to wipe the dirt off the bottom of each of the little squashes and put a piece of scrap plastic under it. Otherwise the pill bugs start eating the rind where it touches the dirt. If you don’t do this, the rind stays light colored and soft where it touches the dirt. When the pill bugs finish with it, the squash looks like it survived some kind of hideous medieval plague, and at worst they break thru into the main part of the squash and ruin the whole thing.

See you on the flip side: it’s two minutes to Blogger maintenance, so I’d better finish up! Oh yeah, the sibling rivalry– the beans are getting shaded out by the kabochas. They weren’t as cold tolerant, and the kabochas went in FIRST, because I started them from seed TOO SOON. Lesson here!

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Someone browsing my FlickR stream commented on this picture of one of last year’s hydroponic fence planters and asked, “what are the steps involved in starting an eggplant hydroponic growth system?” I wrote a quick answer, and then realized that there are probably readers of this blog who’d like to know, too!

Get yourself a pot with a water reservoir (or make your own), some substrate material (I use perlite), and figure out what you will use for nutrient solution.

I use a commercial mix from the local hydroponic store (ignore all the mixes about “Big Buds”, sigh– they are not for veggies, and they are high-nitrogen anyway so you would get more leaves than fruit). Dry mixes are best, followed by concentrated liquid mixes that you dilute. Don’t bother with a premixed solution, you are paying a lot for water!

You might be able to use a combination of conventional minerals, like dusting greensand into the medium, and some bone meal, and then using an off the shelf fertilizer like VF-111 or a concentrated fish emulsion (Alaska, Atlas). I haven’t really tried that yet, since the little container of the dry hydroponic mix I have has lasted 3 years already for me, with only a few 4-foot long planters a year and a teaspoon of mix into each weekly. As you can see, it grew some nice eggplants for me! Thai Lavender (long) and Fairy Tale (short, variegated)


I recommend reading up a bit on the net on hydroponics. It’s really pretty simple if you are doing it at home, rather than trying to automate it in a commercial greenhouse to produce bumper crops at timed intervals. Sure, if you get the mix too weak, your peppers might take an extra week or two to ripen. No big deal at home, a real big deal if you have a quarter-acre of them in hoop-row greenhouses and a contract to deliver them to some restaurant chain. 😉

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corn at my community garden plot The corn is as low as an elephant’s toe? Just 2 or 3 weeks ago, it was about 70 centimeters and still going strong!

I saved a draft of this post a couple of weeks ago, and really want to get it out there for my garden buddies who may just be getting started on corn. I wish I’d known some of this stuff last year when I tried growing some flour corn in my tiny backyard garden! I didn’t take the right kind of care of my corn– too close together, didn’t hill it, and interplanted too heavily with squash– so I got only a few ears due to aphid infestation and not enough spacing for good pollination. But I still really loved growing a bit of corn of my own, and the first batch of corn flour was worth all the trouble. The difference between fresh-ground home-grown corncake and stuff made from even good organic commercial flour is amazing.

I can’t plant flour corn in the community garden, as it would mess up everybody else’s sweet corn, so the advice below is mostly about sweet corn. However, except for the staggered-harvest advice, it’s all applicable to flour corn as well!

yellow blue cobs Typical blue and yellow painted corn, in a midsummer harvest pic from 2007.

When planting sweet corn in a small plot, you want 2 – 3 per foot, with about a foot between rows. You also want to plant the northernmost row first (so it won’t shade the rest), and then when those plants have a good start, say a handspan above the ground, put in the next row, and so on. That way you’ll have sweet corn in small batches. This was another case of “reading after planting” on my part– I planted the whole little stand of corn in one shot. Well, I’ll have plenty to share, I hope!

Two corn tips that I’ll be trying this year, courtesy of a very savvy gardener who’s been growing in Sunnyvale for over 30 years. The first is that he has great luck starting carrots, notoriously sensitive to drying out during germination, in his corn patch. The shade from the corn keeps the soil from drying out, and carrots apparently sprout and grow readily. I’ve had really poor luck with carrots, so I’m going to try this!

brightly colored corn cobs I saved kernels from some decorative corn purchased in 2003, and in 2007 planted primarily red and orange ones in one stand.

The second tip is how backyard growers can keep those pesky raccoons from pulling down all your sweet corn. Hold up your hand and look at where your thumb meets the hand. If somebody were to pull down hard on your thumb, ow! That kind of pulling is how raccoons pull ears of corn off the plant. Our local garden sensei uses twine, or sometimes even tape, wrapped around the stem and halfway up the cob: about where your knuckle is on your thumb. Do this when the ears are full size but before they ripen– when all the silk is still green, even at the tips. Without the leverage, the raccoons can’t pull the ear off. They may eat a low ear right off the plant, but won’t be able to ravage through your little corn patch, pulling a pile of ears off and ruining them. I’ll be really interested to see how this works!

colorful maize Wonderful color but odd pollination due to adverse conditions.

My third corn tip is one that I hadn’t known, and that I’m glad our garden coordinator told me. You can’t have both sweet corn and field corn in one garden. They’ll cross-pollinate like crazy, as corn is primarily wind-pollinated. So that’s why I have sweet corn at the community garden, rather than the Mandan Red or Hopi Blue flour corns I had been eagerly waiting to plant there. Because it’s all for one and one for all, when it comes to corn. Maybe I can convince everybody next year to try flour or dent corn, but I kinda doubt it. I’ll have to see if I can tuck in a tiny patch of flour corn again in our backyard, but the way I set things up this year, it doesn’t look good. Dang!

colorful maize Red and orange cobs from my 2007 tiny maize plot.

Finally, if you’re growing flour or dent corn, hilling your corn is really worth doing! I’d thought that hilling corn meant planting it on a mound, for drainage or something. OK, good thing ya can’t see me blush! Growing painted corn last year, I noticed the stalks changed color as they got taller, and developed little knobby growths about 20 – 30 centimeters off the ground. Turns out that those are additional roots– that is, if you hill up the corn when they start to show! Pile up additional soil and those roots will dig in, anchoring the corn more firmly against wind, and maybe getting you an extra ear or two!

An easy way to do this is to actually plant corn in a slight trench, and pile up the soil between rows. When the corn comes up about shoulder high, hill it in (and add some nice compost!) by pulling in that extra soil. I’ve gotta try that on my next flour corn planting.

gorgeous patterned kernels I’d love to be able to stabilize this color! I’ll be carefully saving from this ear, for sure.

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The bee and butterfly garden is coming into full bloom, just a few paces away from our garden bed.

I really love working in the community garden, and even more so now that we have our own garden bed. For the first year or two, I didn’t really want a bed because I have some garden space in our backyard. But enough beds go idle, or neglected, that I didn’t feel bad finally going on the waiting list, and this year, the 3rd year of the garden, we got our bed in the January lottery. It was baked hard in the sun, and needed some TLC, but we dug in (literally) and it’s a happy, happenin’ little place now.

Low-growing plants dominate this third of our community garden bed, so as not to shade the rest of the bed.

The garden beds were laid out east-west, so that they get full sun along the south all day. Terrific! One of the many tips in the mandatory new-gardener class is to arrange your plants so that taller plants are to the north and east. We followed that advice, putting corn in the eastern third of the garden bed and our tomatoes and peavines along the north edge along the bed.

We wanted a lot of sun for our peppers, and some low vines along the south side of the bed. I’m hoping that the tomatoes and corn will also act to filter some of the hottest sun, so that mid-summer won’t fry our peppers. We can always rig some sunscreen, though, if that fails.

An icebox size watermelon may or may not make it: the stem has been half-eaten by those darn pill bugs! We’re told that ashes from a wood fire or all-wood charcoal are an effective deterrent for these pests, but found out too late for it to do any good for us.

The eye-catching red of this merlot lettuce gives way to bright green at the base of the leaves, so it looks flashy, not weird, in the salad bowl.

Peas and peppers and beans for the middle!

After a slow start, Cherokee Wax and Blue Lake beans are now thriving in the middle section of the garden. Time to start another row or two of beans or soybeans there, to spread out the harvest.

Happy squash plant!

Just a little gal now, this Big Mama kabocha is a bush-type, rather than vining, winter squash– ideal for smaller spaces. Of course, I planted two of them too close together, because I thought they were vines. Wups. This is why you should read the packages when you start seeds, not when sorting seed packs after transplanting.

The eastern third of our garden bed: corn!

The last third of our garden bed is mostly sweet corn, with some bush beans and dwarf sunflowers around the edges. There’s one gorgeous Purple Queen bush bean plant there, which I neglected to get a picture of this time (wups!) and one or two tiny ones coming up. The pill bugs ravaged them and not all of them made it! There’s always a lot to say about corn, so I’ll save it for next time. Just remember: it’s not too late! You can put in 65 – 80 day sweet corn, or even 90 – 120 day dent corn, all the way into June here in the SF Bay Area’s mild climate.

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Nobody has moved into any of my fence birdhouses yet, alas. I will try putting a few up under the eaves in the shade. Cornflowers came up nicely this year, though!

We had another of our spring heat waves this past week, with daytime temps in the high 90’s (F) and daily watering to try to save young plants. The timing was spectacularly bad: traditionally US Mother’s Day is the time to set out tender plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Many seedlings had only a few days in the ground before the heat slammed into us. This meant that their root systems weren’t necessarily developed sufficiently to support the plant during a time of great stress.

More seedlings waiting for kinder weather, or for me to finish preparing the other beds.

I had to spot-water my teensy pepper seedlings in the mornings all week, and hope that providing water directly at the plant would provide a margin of safety. I lost a couple of them anyway, but the majority are good so far. The peppers I transplanted a few weeks earlier into my hydroponic trays, however, adored the hot weather and doubled in size during the past week!

A pair of sweet pimiento peppers flank a ping tung long eggplant.

Other heat-lovers included the basil in my new blue herb planter. It’s an ordinary strawberry pocket planter, which I populated with kitchen herbs rather than strawberries. I moved it into ‘bright shade’ during the heat wave, as the herbs were planted only a couple of weeks ago and I wanted to be sure they didn’t cook in the planter. I really recommend making a planter like this, so you won’t have to constantly police your herb bed to keep some of the busy herbs like sage or oregano from crowding out and overshading others. My tiny 2 square feet of herb bed had sprawled to over 9 square feet through the fall and winter, and I had to cut it WAY back a week or two ago to get good access back to the fence.

Dual pockets of basil, plus sage, marjoram, italian oregano, and a crown of english thyme.

Normally I’d have beans by now, but I was late to the game and didn’t plant my usual Monte’s Italian heirloom (a variety of borlotti bean). The pill bugs, aka “The Eaters”, have been wreaking havoc on bean seedlings of all kinds, eating away parts of the stem until the leaves hang by a tiny thread. Of a dozen bush bean seedlings, only two have survived so far, and they seem to have gotten 4 of the 6 Monte’s Italian that I planted a week or two ago. I need to get some diatomaceous earth and hope that slows them down. I should also be ‘baiting’ with melon rind, or a saucer lid, or other thing they can hide under so I can remove them. Gotta get on that!

At least my painted lady runner beans came back on their own, an annual that goes perennial in this mild climate. They stopped setting flowers during the week of insane heat, but should get back to it now.

It wouldn’t be a garden update if it didn’t have a shot of our Garden Helper, usually found napping on the job. It’s better than sitting by the bird watering area, thinking impure thoughts, so I won’t complain.

Hey, when you’re this gorgeous, you need to really max out on the beauty sleep!

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Recently someone commented on an older posting of mine that some of last year’s veggies seemed to have no flavor. I think my reply may be of general interest, so I thought I’d post it instead of just replying privately.

Hi Raqui,

The discolored bean leaves I would say are cold damaged. The plant should recover.

For veggies with flavor problems, hmm. The seed being old is ok and won’t affect flavor. If it germinates, it’s got all the goodies. 🙂

Some varieties of veggie are bred for ripening at the same time, or being drought/cold/heat hardy, etc, rather than flavor. If you feel you were using a good variety, though, the next thing to look at is your soil diversity. Trace minerals account for a lot of the flavor, as well as nutrition, in food. It may be time to get a multi-mineral supplement such as greensand or some custom organic preparation, to enrich your soil.

Just like you can make bread with only flour, water, and salt, you can grow a lot of veggies with only NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) but they’ll be pretty wonder-bread bland!

One reason that composting is such a good idea is that you’re returning minerals from the non-edible parts of the plant into your soil. We were putting our plants into the city compost bin and picking up free city compost until last summer. Then we realized we were swapping our huge peavines and tomato plants for grass clippings and who knows what. Wups! So now we have a leaf-shredder that we use to shred garden waste, and our own compost bin.

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The warm weather continues to draw up delicious flower stalks from my Asian greens. I harvested a large colander full of tsatsoi leaves and flower spikes, as well as spikes from my joi choi in the hydroponic fence planters. The choi in the ground-level planters is barely starting to form central buds, as it gets less sun.

I did a very nice stir-fry with some Trader Joe’s gyoza (they have both chicken and veggie, btw) in garlic and ginger slices, then added some leftover red rice and red quinoa. I rinsed the stalks and made sure there was plenty of water on them, and put them on top to steam, covered. When they turned bright green, then started to deepen in color, I added the tsatsoi and choi leaves, also dampened, with a little extra water. Another 2 or 3 minutes of steaming and everything was done beautifully. The stalks are substantial, but not crunchy or mushy, and the leaves are still squeaky.

And now for the surprise– ripe tomatoes! I pulled my poor dead Costulato Genovese tomato bush a couple of weeks ago, as a windstorm had blown off the floating row cover and it had gotten obviously frost-bitten. I harvested the tomatoes still on it, and brought them in to fry up green. After a couple of days, though, they were clearly ripening! So I left them alone to go at it, and they ripened up beautifully. I just had a couple last night over brown rice with yellow split-peas, with broccoli and soy sauce and cheese. Yum! A nice taste of summer from the garden, long before time.

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