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Use Cover Crops to Improve Soil

By the esteemed Barbara Pleasant!

Cover Crop Pleasant Crimson Clover Batchelor's Buttons

Colorful companion cover crops such as bachelor’s buttons and crimson clover will not only improve soil, they’ll beautify your garden beds [and feed the bees].

Intro! Legume cover crops are more than pretty, they improve your veggie garden soil, a lot! There are informed choices to be made. Cover crops are in the same categories as Living Mulch and Green Manure.

I’m copying the beginning of Barbara’s wonderful post and will link you to the rest. She says…

There are three main ways to improve soil: grow cover crops, mulch the surface with biodegradable mulches, and/or dig in organic soil amendments (such as compost, grass clippings, rotted manure or wood chips). All have their advantages and none should be discounted, but cover cropping is the method least likely to be practiced in home gardens. There is a reason for this: Information on using cover crops is tailored to the needs of farmers who use tractors to make short work of mowing down or turning under cover crops. But when your main tools for taking down plants have wooden handles and you measure your space in feet rather than acres, you need a special set of cover crop plants, and special methods for using them.

How Cover Crops Help

A cover crop is any plant grown for the primary purpose of improving the soil. Since the early 1900s, farmers have used cover crops to restore fertility to worn-out land. In addition to helping bulk up soil with organic matter, cover crops prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and create and cycle soilborne nutrients using the power of the sun. Recent advances in soil biology have revealed two more ways cover crops can improve soil.

Rhizodeposition is a special advantage to working with cover crops. Many plants actually release sugars and other substances through their roots. They are like little solar engines, pumping energy down into the soil. With vigorous cover crop plants, this process goes on much more deeply than you would ever dig — 6 feet for oats and rye! If you are leaving your garden beds bare in winter, you are missing the chance to use cold-hardy crops such as cereal rye or oats to solar-charge your soil. Thanks to this release of sugars, the root tips of many plants host colonies of helpful microorganisms, and as the roots move deeper, the microbes follow.

But so much for scientific talk. If you’ve experimented with cover crops, perhaps you have dug up young fava beans or alfalfa seedlings to marvel at the nitrogen nodules on their roots, or watched a stand of buckwheat go from seed to bloom in four weeks flat. Or how about this one: It’s April and the soil is warming up and drying out. After loosening a clump of fall-sown wheat with a digging fork, you pull up a marvelous mop of fibrous roots and shake out the soil. What crumb! The soil’s structure is nothing short of amazing! These are the moments an organic gardener lives for.

Cover Crop Root Channels for New Plant Roots Bio-drillingBio-drilling is what happens when you use a cover crop’s natural talents to “drill” into compacted subsoil. For example, you might grow oilseed or daikon radishes as a cover crop where their spear-shaped roots will stab deep into tight subsoil. Bio-drilling action also takes place when deeply rooted cover crop plants penetrate subsoil and die. Then, the next crop grown may actually follow the rooting network mapped out by the cover crop. Maryland researchers were able to track this process using special camera equipment (a minirhizotron), which took pictures of the interactions between cover crop (canola) and crop plant (soybean) roots. As the canola’s deep roots decomposed, soybean roots followed the trails they blazed in the subsoil, hand in glove. In addition to reduced physical resistance, the soybean roots probably enjoyed better nutrition and the good company of legions of soil-dwelling microcritters, compliments of the cover crop.

Dozens of plants have special talents as cover crops, and if you live in an extremely hot, cold, wet or dry climate, you should check with your local farm store or state extension service for plant recommendations — especially if you want to use cover crops under high-stress conditions. Also be aware that many cover crop plants can become weedy, so they should almost always be taken down before they set seed.

How to Take Cover Crops Down

Speaking of taking down…  Continue reading!

From here, Barbara talks about how to take the cover crops down, then, which cover crop to use, what time of year to start it in which zone, the pros & cons of each, her experiences, research.

Or, you may not want to take down your cover crop. If you planted a short ground cover type legume, late in the season you may simply want to remove the larger plants, open up spots in the living mulch and put in winter plants! Your cover crop will keep on working as the older plants die naturally and feed your soil.

Two for one and save time and money! If you choose edibles as a cover crop under larger plants, you get living mulch and food! If you choose legumes, they are working at the same time you are growing your large edible plants! I do hope you consider this 100% natural organic method of restoring or improving your soil, improving space you won’t be using right away! You will have less disease, less pests, less amendment expenses. Plant with flower combinations like Crimson clover to make habitat for wild bees/pollinators, and beneficial predatory insects, for simple beauty!

  • Spring and Summer, cover crops also act as living mulch while feeding your soil. Toss seeds around and under bigger plants.
  • In SoCal and southern areas, Fall and Winter, use cover crops as green manure to restore and improve your soil for spring ~ summer planting.

The better your soil, the more handsome your harvests. To your health and happiness!

See also Living Mulch! When, Which and Why?!

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The Green Bean Connection newsletter started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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Labor Day Weekend is upon us! Perfect time for fall planting!

Companion Planting - Carrots with Cabbage

Planting faster growing carrots among slow growing cabbages is pure genius!
Beautiful image – From Dirt to Dinner, Julianne Idleman

Take a look at this DigitalSeed Vegetable Planting Schedule – This table lists the recommended times to sow vegetable seeds for the typical Southern California climate (Zones 23-24). When buying transplants, remember to adjust for the age of the plant (about 1-2 months).

Notice August is not their favorite planting time, yet many consider that to be the first SoCal plant-from-seed fall planting month.  Others say it is just too hot and there is often a hot time at the end of August and Labor Day weekend!  If you want specific varieties, you plant from seed.  Plant them in a ‘nursery’ area in the shade of finishing summer plants, and it’s the law to keep them moist.  If you plant successively, and started in August, to keep fresh table supply, a batch every month or so, then do your second planting now in September!  Likely days will start cooling, but you are taking advantage of a fast start because your plants will grow quickly in the warmer weather than later on.  Notice, in the list above, the big difference between Sep and Oct!  Oct is when to plant from transplants – hopefully you started your favorites you can’t get from the nursery from seed!  If not, then get what you get from the nursery – try special ordering if they don’t have what you want on hand.

My thinking on the DigitalSeed list:

  • Unless you are in a hot spot, and have plenty of space to accomodate a bad weather ‘error,’ planting even bush beans, summer squash, is chancy in Sep.  At least plant earliest in Sep, hope for an Indian Summer.
  • Beets, Broccoli, Brussell’s Sprouts, are a big yes!  And carrots, celery, leeks!
  • Colorful Chard is the ‘flower’ of your winter garden!  Mid August is one of the best times, Sep certainly is good too!  Marigold don’t mind cool days; lovely on a dark day.
  • Plant more heat tolerant lettuces.
  • It is so easy to sprout peas! Dampen the paper towel, spray the towel to keep it moist.  Pop them into the garden by the trellis – if it is hot, devise some shade for them.

September is Seed Saving time!  Keep watch so the birds don’t get them all first!
Make notes on how your plants did, which varieties were the most successful.
Make your fall planting beds extra yummy – add compost, worm castings, manures.  We want rich soil for those big plants.  We want lots of those marvelous leaves for greens.  Winter plants like brocs, collards, cauliflower, chard, are heavy producers, need plenty of food.  BUT NOT CARROTS!  Too good a soil makes them hairy and they fork.  And, over watering, irregular watering, can make them split.
Build your beds up so they drain well, are above the coldest air that settles low down.
Plant your September seeds outdoors a tad deeper than you would in spring; soil is moister and cooler an extra inch or two down.
Keep letting your strawberry runners grow for Oct harvest.
Plant Sweet Peas for Christmas bloom!  Plant gift plants or bowls or baskets for the holidays!

I like what Better Homes & Gardens has to say – ‘Sown in September, sprinters such as arugula, mustard, spinach, turnips, and crispy red radishes are ready to pick in little more than a month.  Also try pretty Asian greens, such as tatsoi or mizuna, which grow so fast that you will have baby plants to add to stir-fries and soups just three weeks after sowing.’  If you would enjoy a quick payback on your table, select the earliest maturing varieties available.

Brassica Companions (that’s your broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, B-sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, collards, turnips):  Aromatic plants like sage, dill, chamomile.  Carrots, chard, beets, peppermint, rosemary, celery, onions, potatoes, spinach, dwarf zinnias.  Brassicas are helped by geraniums, dill, alliums (onions, shallots, garlic, etc), rosemary, nasturtium, borage.  Dill attracts a wasp to control cabbage moth.  Zinnias attract lady bugs to protect plants.  Avoid mustards, nightshades, strawberries.  Notice there are contradictions – potatoes are in the nightshade family.

COMPANIONS!  Cabbage babies need to be planted 12 to 28″ apart!  A healthy plant will take up much closer to that 28″.  They take a long while to grow, head, head tight!  Plant carrots, or other fillers, that mature sooner, in the space between them. You can do this at home amongst your ornamentals, and/or in containers too!  Fillers can be onion/chive types to repel Bagrada Bugs, beets.  Short quickest growing winter radishes can be among the long slower growing carrots among the slowest growing, your cabbages.

Brassicas are the very favorite of Bagrada Bugs.  Keep a keen watch for them and for aphids.  Lengthwise curling leaves, and lots of ants, are the giveaways for aphids.  They come in fat gray or small black.  Avoid over watering that makes for soft plants, tender leaves that aphids thrive on.  Spray the aphids away.  Get up under those leaves, and fervently do the tender growth tips.  Do it consistently until they don’t come back.

Favas?  Oh, yes!  They are a legume and put Nitrogen in your soil.  Plant them where you had summer’s heavy feeders like corn, eggplant, summer squash, tomatoes or where you will plant heavy feeders next summer.  Delicious favas are loCal, high in protein, iron and fiber. The tender tops are a wonderful steamed green. They become green manure when you chop them when they first flower, and till them into your soil. They are a great winter cover crop, producing one of the highest rates of compostable organic material per square foot!

Pests and Diseases  Drench young plants, ones you just transplanted, with Aspirin solution to get them off to a great start!  Add a quarter cup non-fat powdered milk to the mix too!

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Grow absolutely Superlative Tomatoes!Two Tomatoes

Wilts, Fava, Coffee Grounds! Favas for Nitrogen, add a tad of coffee grounds, wilts prevention practices! Here are some super tips on how to grow superlative tomatoes!  Prevent diseases, give them gourmet soil!

  • Plant tomatoes where you had dense fava patches. This year I was smarter, learned to chop the favas down for green manure while easy to chop when they started flowering. You can see all the Nitrogen nodules on their roots! Last year tomato plants I grew where the favas were, were robust and resisted the wilts longer. As the one reference online suggested, I cannot say they prevented the wilts, but they did feed the soil beautifully. I’m now letting some of the favas seed out for next year’s plantings.
  • At planting time, I added a good dose of animal manures and compost, and my usuals – a huge handful of bone meal, a handful of non-fat powdered milk, worm castings, a tad of coffee grounds to the planting holes. This robust combo works well. As they decompose, coffee grounds appear to suppress some common fungal rots and wilts, including FUSARIUM! Go VERY LIGHTLY on the coffee grounds. Too much can kill your plants. In studies, what worked well was coffee grounds part of a compost mix, was in one case comprising as little as 0.5 percent of the material. That’s only 1/2 a percent!
  • Plant on raised mounds, with a well on top, for drainage. Make the bottom of the well above the level of the surrounding soil so it drains and dries well. Fungi need moisture; don’t give it to them. Plant only plants that need less water nearby.  That means your basil, an excellent tomato companion, that likes lots of water, goes nearby, but not beside your toms.
    Special Soil Berm Basin Level for Tomatoes and Cucumbers
  • Top the area with a one inch layer of compost, then cover with a thin layer of straw mulch to prevent the splash factor. When water splashes up from infected soil onto the lower leaves, the plant is infected. Straw has air flow through its tube structure, allowing the soil to be drier even though straw is a mulch. Deep mulch keeps the soil cool and damp. No. Use only the thin 1″ layer of straw that allows more air flow, the soil to heat a bit. Replenish the straw monthly. Tomatoes like it hot!
  • Plant resistant and tolerant varieties.
  • Plant far enough apart so when they are mature their leaves don’t touch. It’s hard not to be greedy and jam them all together thinking you will get more per your space. But often that doesn’t pay if there are infestations or disease that spreads through the entire patch. Not only is it sad, but, ugly. And, it can reduce production since they shade each other out. When you struggle to harvest through dense foliage, breaking the foliage, those damaged areas are also then susceptible to disease and pests.
  • Plant alternately, tomato, a pepper or two, tomato, a couple eggplants, tomato…. You see? That keeps diseases and pests from going from one plant they like right onto the next. Instead of monocultures, work the biodiversity principle. Take that further, and do separate plantings, two or three plants here, a couple over there, and a third group or plant in yet another place. That can save them from gophers too if you haven’t installed barriers.
  • Trim the lowest splash-susceptible leaves away religiously, even if they have tomatoes forming on them. It’s a small sacrifice in behalf of the health of your plant, in favor of continued vigorous production. Remove infected leaves promptly.  Don’t expect to stop the wilt, just slow it down, a LOT.
  • Instead of long living indeterminate varieties, plant determinate faster producing varieties successively. Plant new plants in other areas when the previous plants start producing. Remove infected plants when production slows down. Sick plants will sometimes suffer along with low production, but replacing these plants is more effective and less disease is spread. The wilts are airborne as well as soil borne.  Consider the prevailing wind direction in your area. Plant downwind first; work your way upwind with your clean healthy new plants.
  • You can plant later. Rather than put young vulnerable plants in cool fungi laden soil, depending on the weather, you can wait until late May, even June, when the warmer soil is drier. In the past I have had volunteers come up in July and gotten healthy plants with good crops late August into September!

If you don’t have wilts in your soil, hallelujah! And pray you don’t bring any home on transplants from the nursery or it blows in from a neighbor. Keeping a clean crop is one good reason to do seed saving, buy organic seeds from a reliable seed house, and grow your own! If you are not a tomato eater, ok. If you are, enjoy every ‘licious bite!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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Reporting on the Great Fava Versus Wilt Experiment!

Some of you have been following my fava experiment, that, per John Jeavons, favas counteract the tomato Fusarium and Verticillium Wilts fungi, hoping it would work. Issues for me were lower leaves, humidity, low spots, nearby plant water needs. I religiously watered only nearby plants. But that was still a problem because the neighboring plants needed a LOT of water, and the toms were in low spots. The fava ring, planted around each tomato, grew really well and was so bushy I forgot to reach in and trim the lowest ground-touching leaves off my tomatoes. The favas created a humid environment, blocked air flow. They got the wilt first, kind of like a trap plant. But then it spread to the tomatoes because I had planted them closely, not knowing how far apart I should plant them. Perhaps I should have removed the favas at first signs of the wilt?

I didn’t give up on favas.

  • As per the long-term plan, I decided where I would plant some of this summer’s toms, and put in dense fava patches in those places. They are now ready to be used as green manure.  Tip!  Cut them down just as they begin to flower.  When they flower, the energy of the plant no longer goes into making leaves, but production.  And the stalks get tougher the longer they grow – harder to chop up.
  • At planting time, I will add a good dose of animal manures and compost, and my usuals – a huge handful of bone meal, a handful of non-fat powdered milk, and worm castings, and a new item, a tad of coffee grounds (see below), as well, to the planting holes.
  • I’ll plant in wells/basins on slightly raised mounds for drainage, and plant only plants that need less water nearby, ie no basil.
  • I’ll top the area with a one inch layer of compost, then cover with a thin layer of straw mulch to prevent the splash factor. When water splashes up from infected soil onto the lower leaves, the plant is infected. I will replenish the straw monthly. Straw has air flow through its tube structure, allowing the soil to be drier even though straw is a mulch.
  • I’ll plant my resistant and tolerant varieties far enough apart so their leaves don’t touch, and trim the lowest splash susceptible leaves away, remove infected leaves promptly. I don’t expect to stop the wilt, just slow it down, a LOT.
  • Instead of long living indeterminate varieties, I’m going to plant determinate faster producing varieties successively, removing infected plants when they finish producing.
  • I’m going to plant later. Rather than put young vulnerable plants in cool fungi laden soil, depending on the weather, I’m going to wait until late May, even June, when the warmer soil is drier. In the past I have had volunteers come up in July and gotten good crops from them late August, September!

Coffee Grounds: Myths, Miracles or Marketing?!

Here’s some study results adapted from the Washington State U report! Disease suppression As they decompose, coffee grounds appear to suppress some common fungal rots and wilts, including FUSARIUM! In these studies, coffee grounds were part of a compost mix, in one case comprising as little as 0.5 percent of the material. Researchers suggest that the bacterial and fungal species normally found on decomposing coffee grounds prevent pathogenic fungi, like Fusarium, from establishing. Currently, disease suppression from coffee grounds has only been demonstrated under controlled conditions on a handful of veggies, bean, cucumber, spinach, and tomato. Their efficacy in gardens and landscapes is unknown, as is any protective activity on other plant materials such as trees or shrubs.

Not all get a jolt – Weed Suppression
Not all plants get a jolt from coffee grounds. Seed germination can be inhibited by water leached through coffee grounds. Growth of crops such as Chinese mustard (Brassica juncea), komatsuna (Brassica campestris) and Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) were all inhibited by coffee grounds, as was that of ornamentals including inch plant (Tradescantia albiflora), geranium, and asparagus fern. One investigator speculated that toxic substances released from decomposing coffee grounds were responsible for their inhibitory effect. This effect also reduces weeds, and perhaps in a landscape dominated by large shrubs and trees, only germinating seeds and seedlings would be injured. But as there has been no experimental research on coffee grounds and woody plants, this is only speculation, says the author.

Moral of the story is go lightly, only 0.5 % in your compost – that’s a 1/2 of a %!
That’s very little! Just as our soil only needs 5% humus, over composting is not helpful, so is too much coffee grounds. When I first started gardening, I laid some grounds down as mulch. Bad beginners move. The plants there died, and that area grew plants poorly for the following two seasons.
May you and your tomatoes have a happy summer!

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15 Super Tips for a Productive Summer Veggie Patch!

Asymmetrical Design

Whether you are tucking things into niches between ornamental landscape plants, planting a patio patch like in the image, setting up a first time summer garden patch, or replanning your annual garden, here are some great ideas to increase your production!

1. If you have space, and are creating a back, or front, yard food forest, always start with your tree placements first! Determine which veggies grow well with each kind of tree. Santa Barbara Mediterranean Food Forests

2. Keep in mind veggies need sun! 6 to 8 hours, preferably 8! They are making fruit, and often many! That takes energy.

3.  Put tall plants to the north (see image below), so they won’t shade the shorties. If there is a partially shaded area, plant your tallest plants on the shaded side so they can reach up to get some sun; put the shorter plants in decreasing heights, in front of them so all get as much light as they can. When you are planting rounds, another batch every few weeks, start in the north or the ‘back’ – the shaded area, and work your way forward.

4. Trellises and tall cages are terrific space savers and keep your plants off the ground out of harm’s way – pests, diseases, damage. Your veggies will be clean, and have more even ripening. Cucumbers, beans, tomatoes. Squashes and melons can be trellised if you provide support for heavy fruits. Even Zucchini can be grown up through cages leaving a lot of ground space for underplantings. Harvesting is a lot easier and certain when those fast growing zuchs are up where you can see them!

Inefficient Single Row Planting

5. There are rows and there are rows! Single row planting wastes space! Compare the images. If you do rows, plant 2 or 3 different plants in side by side rows, then have your walk way, then another 2 or 3 plants together. Whether you do 2 or 3, or even 4, depends on plant size, your reach, and ease of tending and harvest. Plant taller or medium size plants, like peppers and eggplant, by twos so you can reach in to harvest. Plant shorter smaller plants like lettuces, spinach, strawberries together since they are easy to reach across to harvest. If plants in the rows are the same size, plant the second row plants on the diagonal to the first row plants. That way your rows can be closer together and you can plant more plants!

Attractive Multi-row Veggie Amphitheatre around the Eden Project restaurant!

6. Rather than rows, biodiversity, mixing things up, confuses pests, stops diseases in their tracks, because they can’t just go from the same plant to the same plant down a row. Since we are not using tractors, there is no need for rows at all, but they can be lovely. The curved rows in the image are behind the Eden Project restaurant outdoor seating! Truly garden to table!

7. If you need only a few plants, rather than designating a separate space for lettuces and littles like radishes, tuck them in here and there on the sunny side under bigger plants! When it gets big enough, remove the sunny side lower leaves of the larger plant to let light in.

8. Plant what you like, and will really eat along with some extra nutritious chards, kales.

9. Plants with the same water needs are good together. Like a salad patch – lettuce, arugula, spinach, bok choy, bunch onions, radish, chards. Putting the things together that you will harvest together saves time! Put carrots at the foot of pole beans.

10. Overplanting can take the fun out of things. Too many zucchini in hot summers, and you are going crazy trying to give away the over large ones you didn’t harvest soon enough. Too many green beans are labor intensive harvesting, takes forever. Planting green beans too close together is hard to harvest, and they mildew more with low air circulation. Overplanting is delicious when you plant lots of lettuces, carrots then harvest what you thin out! That’s baby kales, chard, mini carrots. These are the eat-on-the-spot-in-the-garden types!

11. Traditionally, and if you lived in the North with cold winters, you planted the garden all at once in spring! If your parents did that, you are unthinkingly likely to do it as well. In our SoCal Mediterranean climate, we plant all year though there are warmer and cooler veggie seasons. But each of these seasons are longer, and overlap! It is easy to get 3 plantings in succession IN EACH SEASON! Some plants will grow all year, mostly the ‘winter’ plants in our coastal gardens, for example, beets, broccoli, onions and cabbages. It takes strength to leave open space for successive rounds. But you can do it. Mark that space off, plant temporary fast growers, nitrogen-fixing fava, or lay down some soil feeding mulch like seedless straw. That space will be super productive when its turn comes.

12. Pole plants, have a lot longer production period than bush, like beans! Indeterminate tomatoes are true vines, can last all season long, but are susceptible to Fusarium and Verticillium wilts/fungi diseases. Might be better to plant determinates, limited growth varieties, in succession. That’s plant a few, then in a few weeks a few more, and so on. Let the determinates produce like crazy all at once, pull them when they show signs of the wilts. If you have only a small space available, or want to do canning, then bush plants are for you!

13. Plants that act as perennials in our climate are smart money plants! Broccoli’s for their side shoots, continuous kales and chards.

14. Special needs or companions!

  • Eggplants, though heat lovers, love humidity, but not overhead watering. Put them among other medium height plants.
  • Basils are great on the sunny sides of tomatoes, and go to table together.
  • Corn needs colonies – plant in patches versus rows! Every silk needs pollination because each produces a kernel! The best pollination occurs in clusters or blocks of plants. Consider that each plant only produces 2 to 3 ears, usually 2 good ones. How many can you eat a once? Will you freeze them? The ears pretty much mature within a few days of each other! So, if you are a fresh corn lover, plant successively only in quantities you can eat.

15. Consider herbs for corner, border, or hanging plants. They add a beautiful texture to your garden, are wonderfully aromatic, repel pests! Remember, some of them are invasive, like oregano, culinary thyme. Sage has unique lovely leaves. Choose the right type of rosemary for the space and look you want.

Please be CREATIVE! You don’t have to plant in rows, though that may be right for you. Check out this Squidoo Vegetable Garden Layout page! Check out the Grow Planner for Ipad from Mother Earth News! They may make you very happy! This is a perfectly acceptable way to play with your food.

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Harvest, Replant, Maintenance, Spring Preps, SEEDS! 

Keep harvesting!  Plant consideringly.  That means, summer planting starts in March.  January, February are generally cold, so slow growth though day length is getting longer.  Keep in mind what space you want available in March for the March starts.  If you are a winter plant lover gardener, one way to do this is to plant another round of your favorite winter plants, then in March designate a ‘nursery’ area, and start your summer seeds there.  Transplant the babies to their permanent locations as the spaces become available.  That in mind, plant more broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chard, kale, kohlrabi, potatoes.  Plant an understory of all year favorites – beets, carrots, parsley, radish, and turnips, on the sunny sides of taller plants.  And LETTUCES!  They love January!

January IS bareroot month!  Start bareroot artichokes, short day globe onions, strawberries (if you missed November), asparagus, horseradish (Be warned! Invasive).  Depending on the weather, strawberry flowers may appear shortly after planting.  Remove them so more energy goes into root development.  Seascape, developed by UC Davis, is an everbearer strawberry that produces well in our moderate coastal climate most of the year. Sequoia is an large berried everbearer; Chandler is a June bearer – produces May/June, then done.  For those of you at home, plant bareroot cane berries, blueberries, roses, deciduous fruit trees!  Visit Bay Laurel Nursery in Atascadero!

Clear overwintering pest habitat, debris; weed.  Turn top soil to aerate and let the bad fungi die, pray for the good ones.  Sidedress your producing plants lightly – add some fish emulsion with kelp.  Sprinkle and lightly dig in cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal or fish meal.  Keep a weather watch; keep those old sheets and coverings about in case of hard freezes.  Farmers’ Almanac on Frost   Weather.com Frost Map  Make this one your home page during cold winter months.  No mulch this time of year; it keeps the soil cold.  Rain Tips!  Secure peas and tall plants.

If you have been growing favas, time to secure them from winds, rain.  Pop in a few stakes and tie them with that green stretchy stuff, or some twine.  If they have too much shade, water or fertilizer, they will go to leaf and no bean pods.  If that happens, pinch off the growing tips.  Take ‘em straight to your kitchen for steaming or stir fry!  Back at your garden, side-dress with a sprinkly organic box fertilizer or fish emulsion with kelp, or whatever your choice is, water well!  Takes about a week for the beans to appear.  Let them get 5 to 8 inches, filled with beans, and their yours – tasty and high in protein!  If you are growing for seed, let the pods blacken and dry.  Black?  Yep, I know, counter intuitive.

Make compost, start preparing your soil for spring planting.  Make raised beds.  Plan your spring garden; get seeds, wait until March to start planting your summer veggies.  Wait for it.  Plants planted out of season struggle with weather, day length, temps, and are susceptible to pests and diseases they aren’t naturally able to fend off.  Now, if you have a greenhouse….

No greenhouse?  Start Seeds Indoors – we are now the prerequisite six to eight weeks away from March!  Start tomatoes, marigolds, peppers, cosmos, zucchini, impatiens, salvia, basil, and others.  Especially start peppers!  They take longer than other veggies.  Otherwise, wait until all chance of freezing temperatures have passed and buy transplants at your favorite nursery.  I’ve seen zucchini started in the ground in January thrive.  If it doesn’t come up, no problem!  Put some more seeds in soon again!  Keep planting.  I haven’t seen it work with tomatoes, but Marshall Chrostowski of Pacifica Institute’s Garden starts his toms in January for late March picking!  He uses heat transmitting black row covers on the ground, and floating row covers above.  That’s clear plastic with holes over hoops.  They make the soil 15 degrees warmer, with 15-20% warmer air!  You can buy floating row covers at your nursery.  Give it a try! Eating garden fresh organic tomatoes late March?! Yum! Row covers will speed up your notorious slow-grower peppers too! Not only do floating row covers warm things up, but they keep flying pests away from your plants! Check out Digital Seed’s Planting Schedule!

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Time to start compost for spring planting!   

Did you make rich fall soil?  If so, your bin and sheet composting is really paying off now!  If you have more compost available now, incorporate it with the soil in your new planting places, and plant another round!  Keep ‘em coming!  Now it is time to start the cycle again for your spring garden – start some more fat compost!  SOIL!  I’m always talking with you about soil because it’s the legs of your horse!  Can’t run without it!

When you restore, recondition soil, you can imagine how much the ground must be welcoming you, screaming up to you in its own way, how grateful it is to be so lovingly fed, organically to boot!!!  You are going to have wonderful soil, and very soon!  Just the act of planting adds life, the plant roots busting through, little creaturelets thriving!

There are so many ways to build wonderful soil!

  • Tuck kitchen trim in the top 6” of your soil, where the microbes and buglets are hard at work!
  • Make piles and fill bins with compost from kitchen trim, cuttings, leaves, straw for aeration.  Whack it up!  Smaller pieces, thinner layers decompose faster and fluffier.  Dry brown on the bottom, then up and up, alternating layers.  1 green wet, 2 dry brown, 1 green wet….
  • Sheet composting – build your compost in place, no moving later!  Lay down straw, cover with green and wet waste like kitchen trim, cover with straw.  That would be the simplest of all.  If you can, keep layering, up to 18” deep if you are starting raised beds, because you know that stuff is gonna sink down!  2 brown dry to 1 green wet is the formula.  Inoculate it with soil microorganisms by flinging a few handfuls of nearby soil onto it every couple of layers.  If you have them, put some red wriggler surface feeding worms in there.  They will chomp about and add their castings for free!  If you are seaside, chop up some seaweed for trace minerals!
  • Plant Nitrogen fixers – fava, peas, beans, clovers and other ground cover legumes.  At home plant Leucaena trees!  Not only do they fix N, and are drought tolerant, but the young pods are edible!  Be warned though, they grow FAST, and can be invasive – if you aren’t ready for that, like burning them for firewood, not a good choice.
  • Let your local livestock, goats, chickens, bunnies add their part!  Horse manure has more N than cow manure.  For excellent info and fun reading, check out the scoop on poop, Manure Matters! by Marion Owen, Co-author of Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul.

Margaret Frane, President of the California Rare Fruit Growers, reminds us, ‘FEED THE SOIL, AND THE PLANT!  When planting a garden, especially a fruit garden, don’t just focus on individual plants; remember the importance of looking after your soil.’  She further says, ‘…let the soil provide the nutrients. Don’t fertilize your plant; feed the soil and the soil will feed the plant. And for the most part, everything you need to feed your soil is already on your property!’

Frane says:  Trees benefit most from the nutrients available in their own leaves. Most leaves beat manure for mineral content; when incorporated into the soil, they add nutrients, improve aeration and soil structure and encourage earthworms. So don’t rake leaves up and throw them away! Leaves are not garbage, they are an important food for your soil!

Planting immediately and directly in your sheet composting, lasagna layers?  Of course!

Are you doing seeds? Ok, a little preparation is needed.  Time for a little potting soil.  It’s good to get the seedlings started – it has the water holding capacity they need – just like the little transplants you get at the nursery, which they feed, probably daily, kelp, fish emulsion mix, other concoctions.  After that, seedlings have to hit something with real nutrition in it, like a mix of compost and soil.  Most seeds are planted directly in soil, just like Mother Nature does the job.  That’s where they immediately get the most nutrition.  I would get a deep bowl, a bucket, put in ½ soil, then compost, mix it up.  Put the mix in the planting hole, make a little hole for the potting soil, and put your seeds in that.  No more potting soil than if you were filling up one of the little transplant containers.  Obviously, not a lot would be needed.  To keep the soil from falling through the lasagna layers below, you could line the hole with two or three sheets of newspaper, saturate them.  That will keep things where you want them until it all decomposes together, the newspaper, the lasagna.  It won’t hurt your drainage, and little roots will poke right through!  And you are only going to lightly sprinkle, water, your seeded areas, right?  You don’t want your seeds to wash away, get buried too deep or uncovered.  It’s a good thing to check seedlings after a rain.  Recover or rebury anyone who needs it.  If you are doing transplants, you just won’t need any potting soil.  Make your compost/soil mix and pop your cute little transplant right in there!

In the biggest sense, “We are part of the earth and it is part of us … What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.” — Chief Seattle, 1852

Take good care of yourself…and your soil.

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Mediterranean Understory & Guild Plants for Food Forests – Part 2

Please SEE Part 1 before you read this list!


Here is what a young Food Forest can look like in a part of your urban yard!

Linda’s List here is intended for a Mediterranean climate like coastal Southern California has, one of only 5 in the world. The list in your area may be different. Check out your local gardeners’ successes, check with your local nursery. This list is not tree specific yet. We’re working on that!

More than a list of plants, Linda’s List gives tips for good growing, eating, and usage!
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Once our fruit trees are planted in their water-saving basins in a budding Mediterranean food forest, it’s now time to think about what else to plant in these usually moist wells and swales. Or up the trees? Or nearby? We need these companion plants to increase our food and medicine yield, and also to enrich the soil, provide habitat, pull up minerals and other nutrients from deep in the earth, draw nitrogen from the air and bring it into the soil, attract beneficial insects to control pests, create shade for delicate roots — and to provide beauty, a critical psychological and spiritual yield in every garden.

Thanks to the members of the Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Organic Garden Club for their ideas and input. Additions and corrections are welcome.  Please email lbuzzell@aol.com. Especially welcome would be input on what plants do best under specific fruit trees – so far I don’t have much information on that.

BERRIES
Blueberry. To grow well here, they need acid soil, so a container is often the best solution, since Santa Barbara soil and water tend to be alkaline. One gardener we know waters hers with a very dilute solution of white vinegar, plus puts pine needles, coffee grounds around the plant. Best in Mediterranean climates are the low-chill varieties like ‘Misty,”O’Neal,’ ‘Sharpblue’
Cane berries. Upright cane berries are fun to pop in here and there as understory plants and they take some shade. But we found out the hard way that you probably don’t want to put in sprawling, thorny berries (especially blackberry) that sucker underground – they pop up all over the yard and are hard to eradicate. When we buy new berries we limit ourselves to thornless varieties and our current favorites are ‘Navajo’ and ‘Apache,’ although the thorny varieties that still linger in our garden – and will probably be there for hundreds of years as they’re ineradicable – taste best. So we live with them and enjoy the berries.
Elderberry. Shrub. There is a California native variety. Produces edible fragrant white flowers (used to make elderberry syrup and wine) and edible small blue berries that the birds love. Ripe berries are safe to eat but leaves, twigs, branches, seeds and roots are toxic. Has medicinal uses. We use our elderberry as a sacrificial plant attracting birds away from other fruit trees.
Lemonade Berry (native). Rhus integrifolia. Can also control erosion.

BULBS AND ROOT CROPS
Placement of these may take special care, as you don’t want to plant them too close to delicate tree roots.
Carrots
Edible canna. Canna edulis –Achira. Flowers are smaller than most cannas and the root is edible, can be chopped and sautéed like potato.
Onions
Potato and sweet potato

EDIBLE FLOWERS (note: most fruit trees, veggies and herbs also have edible flowers. Always triple check the safety of any flower before eating!
Daylilies. Hemerocallis species. Buds are used in Chinese stir fry, Petals in salad.
Nasturtium (flowers, young leaves and buds that may be pickled like capers) Let the plants die back in place. They will reseed and form a straw mulch.
Roses (yield petals for salads, sandwiches, syrups, desserts; rose hips for tea, syrups, jam)
Scarlet runner bean
Scented geranium

HERBS (most have edible flowers in addition to other uses)
Borage
Chili peppers, including tree chili
Cilantro
Garlic
Italian parsley
Lavender
Lemon balm
Lemon verbena. A drought tolerant shrub with delicious leaves for tea.
Mint. Some fear its vigorous, spreading roots, but we welcome it into drier areas as ground cover, autumn bee food and a source of fresh leaves for cooking and tea.
Mustard (young leaves can be stir fried, flowers are edible, plus seeds for making mustard)
Pineapple sage (leaves and flowers make delicious herbal tea)
Oregano
Rosemary
Sage

SHRUBS/Understory trees
Guava. Psidium Tropical shrubs native to Mexico, Central and South America that yield white, yellow or pink fruit. Not to be confused with Pineapple Guava (Feijoa) Psidium guajava (apple guava) is one tasty variety. Also try lemon guava and strawberry guava.

VEGGIES (there’s no way to name them all – it’s fun to experiment to see what likes the soil under and around your fruit trees. Our favorites are those that overwinter and/or reseed themselves)
Artichokes. Plant away from tree roots, in baskets as the gophers love them.
Brassicas like broccoli, kale, collard greens.
Chard.
Dandelions. Leaves are great in salads and so good for us. Small birds like the seed heads.
Fava beans and other beans.
New Zealand spinach.

VINES
We often forget about vertical space in the garden, but it’s nice to increase your yield by growing edible vines up fruit trees, on walls and over arbors, fences and hedges.
Grapes. Note: the Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara has a separate list of recommended table and wine grapes for our area. Contact lbuzzell@aol.com for details
Passion Fruit. A garden member says “mine is simply rampant, productive and trouble-free; gets little to no supplemental water.” The juice can be used to make a spectacular salad dressing (served at Los Arroyos on Coast Village Road in their tropical salad).

MISCELLANEOUS
Bamboo. Use clumping instead of running kinds to avoid it taking over your garden. Bamboo shoots are a delicacy in Asia.
Pepino melon.
Sacrificial plants. In permaculture designs we often plant trees, shrubs and other plants that are nitrogen-accumulators, “nurse” plants or fruit-providers for animals that might otherwise eat our crops. When they have performed their function, we “chop and drop” them around our fruit trees as a nutritious mulch.
Yucca. We’ve read that yucca yields edible fruit and flower buds. Anyone have more info on this?

BENEFICIAL ATTRACTORS AND NUTRIENT ACCUMULATORS
Ceanothus. Shrubs and ground covers that fix nitrogen in the soil.
Salvia, ornamental. These are treasures in the Mediterranean forest garden.
Tagetes lemmonii. Golden color is lovely in fall.

GROUND COVER
Easy-to-grow succulents can provide temporary ground cover for delicate roots. They can act as a living mulch until other plants take over that function. This crop is often free, as gardeners who have ground-cover sedums always have too many and are glad to share.
Pelargoniums and lantana are other easy, colorful ground cover that can be removed as needed.
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#1 Home Permaculture book in the world for seven years!

Per PatternLiteracy.com, Toby Hemenway’s home site, Gaia’s Garden has been the best-selling permaculture book in the world for the last 7 years. The enlarged, updated 2nd edition is the winner of the 2011 Nautilus Gold Medal Award.

The first edition of Gaia’s Garden sparked the imagination of America’s home gardeners, introducing permaculture’s central message: Working with nature, not against her, results in more beautiful, abundant, and forgiving gardens. This extensively revised and expanded second edition broadens the reach and depth of the permaculture approach for urban and suburban growers.

Treat yourself and your land to this incredibly efficient way of gardening. Wisely use ALL the space available to you in a good way. Nature is the Master Gardener – follow her lead.

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Happy Winter Solstice/Yule, Dec 21st!

I like this saying I found at the Old Farmers Almanac:  Old Frost, the Silversmith has come:  His crisping touch is on the weeds.  – Charles Dawson Shanly

And, bless him, his touch will soon be on our veggies!  Some will love it; kales are said to taste better after a good frost.  Basils, some peppers and other tender plants will fold and die.  Gather seeds while you still can.  It’s tuck & roll time –  ready a stack of covers in case we get some hard freezes.  Keep a diligent weather watch.  Watering the evening before an anticipated freeze will help your plants withstand damage.

December is winter’s June, harvest time! 

Brocs, cauliflowers, peas, are all coming in now, especially if you planted in August, September!

Lettuces are thriving, keep plucking the lower leaves.

Keep harvesting your chard and beet leaves to keep ahead of the leafminers.  Don’t over water making the leaves too soft and inviting.

Cabbages take time to get to the stage to form that super head of tight fitted leaves.  Don’t despair, they are working on it.  Lay down Sluggo or do slug/snail maintenance around your cabbages to keep the pests from damaging your beauties.  Can you imagine what the plant would look like if the leaves were spaced out on a stalk?!  Pretty tall.  Feed lightly during winter to make Nitrogen easily available.  It’s cooler, so uptake is slower.

Your favas are busy gathering Nitrogen from the air, putting it into little nodules on their roots.  So are your peas, both legumes.  They do that!  Little to no feeding for them, they make their own N.

If you tuck in kitchen veggie trim, don’t be surprised if a few potatoes (they look like tomatoes, same family) pop up here and there.  If you like ‘em, let ‘em come if you have space!

If you have everbearer strawberries you may have few berries after a few warm days.  Even a single berry is such a treat!

Collards, kohlrabi and kales are very happy, providing excellent nutrition.  You can eat the leaves of all your Brassicas – brocs, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, and, of course, cabbages!

Carrots are coming!  Plant another round near your peas!  All kinds!  Mix the seeds up for surprises later!

Yes, you can still plant!  Start a new garden with or put in successive rounds of artichoke (give them 3’ to 4’ space), arugula, asparagus – Pat Welsh (Southern California Gardening) recommends UC-157, beets, brocs, Brussels sprouts, bunch onions, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, garlic, kale, kohlrabi, head and leaf lettuces, mesclun, peas, potatoes, radishes, and turnips!  As soon as one is done, plant another!

Put in some little bunch onion patches here and there but not by your peas!  Plant some of those little  Italian red ones – so pretty in your salad!  How about some garlic chives?  Mmm….

Remember, this is THE time to be planting your largest garlic cloves – they need twice the fertilizer, so make a super rich soil for them.  If you are so inspired, many plant on Winter Solstice day, Dec 21!  Plant skins on, or for more mojo, quicker sprouting, here is the way to prep your cloves Bob Anderson style:

  • Soak in water and baking soda for 16-24 hours before planting.  Soak separate strains separately. (One T soda to 1 gallon water, or a half teaspoon in a cup of water).  Remove the skins – start at the bottom being careful not to damage the growing tip OR the bottom, because that’s where the roots grow from!
  • Just before planting soak nude cloves in rubbing alcohol for 3-5 minutes and plant immediately.

SideDressing – seedlings up 2 to 3 inches get hungry!  Liquid fertilizer once a week is quick and easy for them to uptake.  Feed your other plants every 6 weeks.  That means, sprinkle fertilizer around your plants or down a row, and dig it in a little, especially before a rain!  Water it in.  Use ½ the strength of your summer feedings.  We don’t want a lot of tender new growth that a frost would take.  Some people love their manures, others love Island Seed & Feed’s Landscape Mix, and some love their stuff that comes in a pretty box!  Plants love a fish/kelp mix.  Try the powdered version for a little less stink.  If you decide to do foliar teas, pick a warm, dry, or breezy morning so your plants will dry well before evening.  Do what makes you and your plants happy!  If you haven’t been fertilizing, think about how hard your plant is working.  Big brocs, for example.  When it starts to head, when plants start to produce, that’s your cue to help them along.

Gophers.  You can still put in wire protective baskets or barriers, especially now while the soil is softer after the rains.  If you see a fresh mound, trap immediately.
Aphids?  Watch for curled leaves, squish or wash any or the colony away immediately.
White flies.  Flush away, especially under the leaves.  They are attracted to yellow, so keep yellowing, yellowed leaves removed.
Slimy Slugs, Snails.  Sluggo before they even get started, right when your seedlings begin to show, when you put your transplants in!  Once stopped, there will be intervals when there are none at all.  If you notice tiny children snails, lay down another round.

Make Organic, Sustainable Holiday Garden Gifts!  Plants themselves make wonderful gifts!  Start perusing catalogs for your Spring planting!

Happy Holidays, of all kinds, to you and yours! 
Garden Blessings, Cerena

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Healthy Summer Feeding, Watering, Disease & Pest Prevention!

Feeding.  It’s heating up, your plants are growing fast, they’re hungry and need more water!  Give your leaf crops like lettuce lots of Nitrogen.  Don’t overfeed beans, strawberries or tomatoes or you will get lots of leaf, no crop!  If you do, did, give your plants some seabird guano (bat guano is too hot sometimes).  Fertilizers high in P Phosphorus bring blooms – more blooms = more fruit!  Get it in bulk at Island Seed & Feed.  It’s easy to apply, just sprinkle, rough up your soil surface, water in.  Go lightly with your applications to young plants that could get burned.  When blooming starts, give your plants phosphorus fertilizers once a week, a month, as the package says, as you feel, to keep the blooms coming!  Foliar feed your peppers, solanaceaes – toms, eggplant, and your roses with Epsom Salts!  Only 1 Tablespoon per gallon of water does the job!

Water deeply.  Poke your finger down into the soil to see how deeply your watering has penetrated.  Get one of those gurgler devices to keep the water from blasting a hole in your soil; put the hose under your veggies.  Try to remember to keep moving it.  That’s the main reason I don’t do that myself, I just get carried away with weeding or tending, or harvesting, chatting, and, uh oh, woops, forget, and it’s flood time.  Maybe I’ll carry a pocket sized timer and experiment with the right timing per water flow?  Still, it’s a nuisance to have to keep moving the durn thing.  The advantage of standing there watering is you notice what’s happening in your garden and think on what to do next.  Flooding isn’t good because it drowns your soil organisms, and your plants drown too, not able to get their oxygen quota.  What’s weird is that some wilting plants, like chard, may not be needing water at all!  Some plants just naturally wilt in midday heat.  They are doing a naturely thing, their version of shutting down unneeded systems, and watering them isn’t what they need at all!  Also, flooding kinda compacts your soil as the life is washed down the drain so to speak, natural healthy soil oxygen channels cave in.  You see, it’s the balance you need.  Water underneath rather than overhead to keep from spreading diseases like strawberry leaf spot.  Harvest first while bean plants are dry so you don’t spread mildew, then water.  Wash your hands if you handle diseased plants, before you move on to other plants.

Disease & Pest Prevention

  • Ok, May is one of our mildew months.  Get out the nonfat powered milk, throw some in your planting hole.  Drench your plantlets, especially beans, melons and zucchini, while they are small, maybe every couple of weeks after that with ¼ Cup milk/Tablespoon baking soda mix, to a watering can of water.  Get it up under the leaves as well as on top.  That gives their immune system a boost, makes unhappy habitat for the fungi.
  •  Sluggo for snails/slugs –  put down immediately upon planting seeds, and when transplants are installed!  Remove tasty habitat and hiding places
  • Trap gophers (or do what you do) immediately before they have children
  • Spray off black and gray aphids, white flies – get up underneath broccoli leaves, in the curls of kale leaves.  Spray the heads of broc side shoots, fava flower heads.  Remove badly infested parts or plants. NO ANTS.
  • Leafminers – remove blotched areas of the leaf or remove infested leaves from chard, beets. Don’t let your plants touch each other.  Except for corn that needs to be planted closely to pollinate, plant randomly, biodiversely, rather than in blocks or rows.  If you are planting a six-pack, split it up, 3 and 3, or 2, 3, 1, in separate places in your garden.  Then if you get disease or pests in one group, they don’t get all your plants!  Crunch those orange and black shield bugs, and green and black cucumber beetles (in cucumber & zuch flowers).  Sorry little guys.
  • Plant year round habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators – lacewings, ladybird beetles, hover flies.  Let some arugula, broccoli, carrot, cilantro, mustards, parsley go to flower.  Plant Borage.  Bees love its beautiful edible blue star flowers, and they are lovely tossed on top of a cold crisp summer salad!

 Love your Garden, it will love you back!

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