Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lemon Renaissance

The little potted Meyer lemon tree is finally coming into its own. There is a noticeable difference this season in size and abundance.

We acquired it by mail order in February 2009. It arrived in a cardboard box with the largest quantity of Styrofoam pellets I've ever encountered. It seemed to take forever to scoop them out and slowly uncover the tiny tree with two huge yellow lemons dangling like gaudy oversize earrings from twigs that could barely support them.

We gathered about five lemons the first year which I picked too soon in my eagerness, and none the second year because they kept falling off while still dark green and the size of a fingernail.

Whence this bumper crop? Maybe the time is right; it does take fruit trees a while to get going. Or perhaps it's the effects of compost tea and rock powder.

Each winter it needs protection from the frost. I've been watching the weather carefully and covering it sometimes when the forecasts skirt too close to 32 degrees. We've had no freezes yet. Will the lemons keep ripening even when frost-kissed? The label says it produces flowers and fruit year round in USDA Zones 9 and 10. We are Zone 10 so here's hoping for a Christmas harvest. B. says just to be safe we should bring it inside and make it into our Christmas tree. For one thing, it's already decorated!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Barnival" at Green String Farm

There's another crop of interns at Green String Farm. Last Saturday they put on their community event, so after I filled my cloth bags with lettuce and potatoes from the farm store -- there's no gardener's guilt in buying produce here to supplement our home-grown fare -- I wandered out to the "Barnival." This event was aimed at little kids so all the big kids were in costumes. Or maybe it was the lingering influence of Halloween, which is an over the top event in these parts.

Passing up the cider press (too much sugar) and the petting zoo (too crowded) I found myself at the transplant booth. Two interns (secretly dubbed by me as Sam Gamgee and Galadriel in honor of the little box of magic dirt that Galadriel bestowed on Sam) were giving away lettuce seedlings to any children who would do the transplanting themselves, right there at the booth. They kindly made an exception for a senior citizen.

With Butter lettuce seedling in hand (and secretly promising to do justice to this magic dirt), I continued my journey and found myself in the cavernous old barn which was lending its name to the event. The last time I was here, in August, this was a lecture hall. Now it was transformed into a huge storage area for the storable crops.

Admiring the ample bins of winter squash, threshed grain, and potatoes, I was glad all over again about discovering this local cornucopia. Well done, winter interns.

Monday, November 7, 2011

In Which I Discover an Ootheca

I was quietly watering the newly installed bed of fava bean seedlings that runs in a narrow strip along the back fence, when I noticed an odd protuberance from one of the fence boards. Our neighbor put up the fence just a few months ago so it still has the blond coloring of unfinished lumber. The strange little outcropping was the same color as the wood and could easily have been a knot hole or imperfection, but something about it made me look closer. It reflected light with the subtle luminosity of something alive.

To the touch it felt delicate and vulnerable -- not like wood at all, more like very fragile Styrofoam. Oval, about an inch long, with fine ridges and a large ridge down the middle like a zipper, it was firmly attached to the fence. Ahh, a new backyard mystery. What could it be?

Touching it triggered some long dormant memory of the praying mantis egg cases we kids used to find back in Virginia, along with a comical image of my mother flapping a dishcloth at swarms of tiny mantis nymphs that had just hatched out in our kitchen, hanging in wiggly green streamers from the cupboards and window ledges. We never found the egg case or figured out how it ended up in the kitchen. Clearly, an egg-laying mantis is resourceful.

The egg cases of memory were rounded and usually discovered adhering to a twig. This modern California version felt the same but looked quite different. Perhaps mantis resourcefulness includes adapting the shape of the egg case to the available surface.

On the hollyhocks only a few feet from the spot on the fence, I had recently seen a large pale green mantis with characteristic folded front legs, elongated body, narrow triangular face and bulbous eyes. The first one I had ever seen in this yard, it was gone by the time I came back with a camera.

On the internet it didn't take long at all to find photos of mantis egg cases that look exactly like the mystery object. As a bonus, I acquired a new word and a bit more insight into the whole process. The case is called an ootheca from the Greek roots for "egg" and "purse" or "pouch". It's the kind of word that carries a built in exclamation. "Ooooh, look at that, an ooooootheca!"

The mama mantis extrudes a lot of soft foamy goo to enclose her eggs. The goo hardens and becomes the ootheca, which keeps the brood safe through the winter until spring comes and hatching occurs. Evidently she can do this several times, so I am keeping my eyes open!!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Sad Story of Spider Mites

Years ago I saw an episode of the X-Files in which Scully and Muldur were dispatched to the Pacific Northwest to investigate the mysterious disappearance of several forest rangers. After the discovery of mummified remains and the usual series of nail-biting close-calls, the culprits were revealed to be clouds of tiny, alien, insect-like creatures descending from the tall evergreens to engulf unwary passers-by in cocoons of gossamer webbing. Once engulfed, the hapless victims were slowly relieved of their vital juices until nothing was left but a dessicated husk.

Something similar is happening in our garden this summer. Not to worry: we haven't lost any friends or family members. So far, thank goodness, the only victims are the beans and the zucchini.

I know it's just spider mites, not an alien invasion, but there is a sense of helpless horror in seeing the bean vines covered in webbing and slowly succumbing to a lethal infestation.

The whole crop of Kentucky Blues is a lost cause. They've been watered well and sometimes I follow the standard advice to hose them down to wash away the minuscule mites. It hasn't done a bit of good.

The first sign of trouble was a tell-tale stippling on the leaves. The mites -- not insects, but arachnids related to spiders and ticks -- live in colonies on the undersides of leaves and stick their mouth parts like little straws right into the cells of the leaves and suck them dry.

We've had this problem before but not so severely, just some spotting here and there. This year the leaves are so thoroughly stippled they change color and slowly dry out before dropping off.

The Green Bush zucchini, which was on its way to a very productive season, has been stopped in its tracks. The oldest leaves are dying and the new young leaves will no doubt get paler and paler before perishing like those unfortunate rangers in the fictional forests. Where are Scully and Muldur when you need them!

It's hard to believe that a creature barely visible to the naked eye can do such damage to the huge zucchini leaves, not to mention the entire bean crop. But in good times, such as the hot dry days of a California summer, a spider mite can go through its whole life cycle in a week. The population explodes exponentially. When one plant can no longer support the horde, the female mites float on a strand of webbing to a new adjacent plant with its as yet unmolested leaves. And, to make things worse, they can overwinter in mild areas like ours, ready to come right back next season as soon as conditions are right.

I can't quite remember what Scully and Mulder did to save the day -- I think it had something to do with shining bright lights on the alien beings, who only appeared in the dark of night. But something needs to be done.

My plan is to try compost tea and rock powder. Build the soil; save the plants. We'll see.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Better Boy!

Strike up the band! Sound the horn! Beat the drum! Notify the press! Our backyard is fiiiiiinally yielding some ripe tomatoes. Well, one, single, glowingly ripe Better Boy tomato, to be more exact, on this happy summer day of August 26, 2011.

I planted out two Better Boy seedlings on May 9, so it has been a long wait. The plants, with abundant round green fruit, have grown to the top of the eight foot support poles and are poking through the roof trellis. As VFNT hybrids (i.e resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes AND tobacco mosaic virus) they are looking pretty good -- although there are a few brown spots on the lower leaves and some leaves are thickened and curled into themselves.

For years, these have been our workhorse must-have tomatoes. They are harder to find now because of the craze for heirlooms, but I did manage to locate a mail order online nursery in the Midwest (Garden Crossing) that carries them. B. insists on them, and, indeed, they have provided us with many a year of abundant harvests for freezer tomato sauce that gets us through the winters (ah, the grueling Northern California winters).

Better Boys were developed many years ago by a former employee of Burpee, John Peto of PetoSeed. He took with him from Burpee some seeds of a large pink beefsteak variety called Teddy Jones -- which had been one of the parents of the hybrid Big Boy -- and used them in developing his own new hybrid. So I guess the idea is that Better Boy is better than Big Boy, or something like that. Better Boy is -- or was -- a very popular variety with home gardeners and has a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most productive: one plant yielded 342 pounds of rich red lusciousness.

From the Burpee web site I learned some more factoids about tomatoes in general: They originated in the Andes Mountains of South America and spread throughout Central America and into Mexico. In the sixteenth century they were found by the invading Spanish growing in Aztec king Montezuma's garden. The Spanish brought them back to Europe and the rest is history, some of it occurring in our backyard.

Muchas gracias!!!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Green String Farm

Green String Farm nestles against the leonine flanks of Sonoma Mountain in the southeastern corner of Petaluma. It is just a short drive down the highway, right where Adobe Road takes a sharp curve east through the hills.

I can't remember exactly how I stumbled on this local treasure. It was recently and it was on the Internet, of course, venue for most of my explorations these days.

Searching for something or other about sustainable agriculture I followed a series of links which ended up at a Web site with news of unexpected riches right here in southern Sonoma County. Green String Farm and Green String Institute have been operating for nearly a decade and co-founder Bob Cannard has been an icon of the organic movement -- a famed purveyor of highest quality vegetables and fruits to Alice Waters herself -- for more than thirty years.

This was all totally new to me, local gardener for lo these thirty-four years.

I didn't waste any time in checking out this new-found cornucopia. As it happened they were having an open house so I was able to get the whole story in person.

First off, the farm store deserves a mention. Open throughout the year, summer and winter, every day except major holidays, it offers up heaps of "Beyond Sustainable" produce along with eggs, cheese, and dried and canned items produced on site -- all for affordable prices. Part of the farming philosophy that shapes this enterprise is the intent to grow good food at reasonable cost for local markets. No shipping pricey organic fare for thousands of miles.

Wonderful, I thought, as I wandered through the charmingly rustic open air displays admiring baskets of bright red cherry tomatoes, piles of dark green zucchini, bins of golden peppers: If it's good enough for Chez Panisse, it's good enough for us home folks.

Along with its fabulous food, Green String Farm is also growing a new generation of organic farmers. That's where Green String Institute comes in. The open house was put on by the most recent crop of farm interns: an eager band of young people who had been selected to spend three months living and working on the farm while attending daily lectures by Bob Cannard about his unique approach to farming. The Institute, too, operates year round. There are new groups of interns coming in each season -- summer, fall, winter, spring -- and each group plans and organizes an event for the local community.

So, on a late August Saturday, with the sun beating down out of a cloudless blue sky, I went from booth to booth getting a crash course in "natural process farming." One of the interns demonstrated a very simple set-up for brewing compost tea in a five-gallon bucket full of water. With just a small amount of compost starter suspended like a tea bag, a little molasses, a pinch of flour, an air pump and a bubbler, you can launch an aerobic process for growing lots and lots of micro-nutrients that will give your plants a power diet.

There were other booths describing soil biology and plant health, the importance of adding igneous rock powders to boost soil minerals, and mug shots of all the different types of crucial soil critters. The displays and demonstrations were clearly aimed at encouraging us to try out the Green String methodology in our own gardens. It was like a science fair of smart motivated kids all presenting different aspects of the same experiment.

An intern led a tour up the hill and out into the wide summer fields dotted with fruit trees and patterned with long dark rows of vegetables. We got to see where the cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers had come from.

Our group seemed even more interested in finding out where the interns had come from. The guide, an eighteen-year-old college graduate from Florida, patiently answered lots of personal questions: Are you going to be a farmer? Yes. What are you doing after this program? I'm staying on here to do some research. Are you a brainiac? Hmmm, if you say so. . . . Look over here at this nice field of chard . . . .

Interns come from all over the country (e.g. Florida, Michigan) and from other countries (e.g. Serbia) to spend three months living together in an old farmhouse, planting, tending, and harvesting the crops, running the store, and studying natural process farming as a business as well as a labor of love.

(People, there might be some hope for our common future if the cool careers are now out in the fields rather than on Wall Street.)

Some of the fields looked like what you would expect on a farm. But these were in transition and not fully representative of the "natural process" approach.

A cabbage patch gave a better idea of the technique. It looked like a weed patch, overgrown with tall seeding heads of what is in fact a companion cover crop that will be left to mature in place and eventually die back to form a thatched ground cover.

The field seemed alive, rustling with subtle motion. Suddenly a flock of birds swooped up out of the weeds to swirl and twitter in the air and then settle back down for more feasting on the plentiful seeds. The cabbages seemed almost like an afterthought, tucked in among the natural pasture. The principle is: A crop for the people, a crop for the soil (and the birds, and the insects). This is how Mother Nature does it, with plenty to go around.

A large field of tomatoes was even more striking -- it looked like it was made up of long tidy rows of weeds. You couldn't see the tomatoes at all until you were right on top of them.

The plants were not staked and sprawled along the ground amidst the weeds. The tomatoes will go to the farm store, the weeds will die in place and be dug back into the ground to enrich the soil. The argument is that this approach builds a complete, thriving soil biology which supports healthy plants with complete nutrition and full flavor.

The highlight of the day was listening to Bob Cannard talk about healthy soil and healthy plants. A tall, intense man in well-worn jeans and work boots, he strode into the capacious old barn filled with folding chairs, running his hands through short spiky grey hair. Completely covered with a fine film of dust, he seemed to have materialized out of the earth itself.

"OK, where do you want to start?" Barely waiting for the first tentative question from the group he launched into a long rambling discourse describing the natural processes that build soil wherever Mother Nature has a free hand. It all starts in the mountains with the rushing freshwater streams that gather up particles of rocks, plant debris, animal remains -- whatever is there. The streams bring this rich brew of "mountain tea" down into the flat lands where unencumbered annual flooding spreads it out and deposits the nutrients into the soil. That's the way it used to be everywhere.

But human activity has put streams underground and interfered in thousands of ways with natural soil fertility; so the farmer or gardener has to make up the difference by supplying the missing nutrients. Hence, natural process farming.

With words and ideas tumbling out almost faster than he could articulate them, his talk began to seem like one the roiling bubbling streams he was describing.

Here's a small sample from my scribbled notes, which are cryptic clues to a wholly integrated philosophy I as yet see only pieces of:

Use igneous rock powder from quickly cooled volcanic rock -- has 80 essential elements. Is para-magnetic, not di-magnetic or magnetic, which are low energy. (???) Supplement with calcium, also sulfur, which are lost in steam from hot lava.

Plants are meat eaters, consume bacteria protein, protoplasm.

"Fixed air" is what the plant fixes out of the air into its body, source of carbon. (?)

Too much nitrogen means a plant drunk, on crack -- a weak, sick, fat, "water-body" plant that attracts pests and disease. Natural process farming is very low nitrogen method.

Majority of soil food comes from cover crops. High diversity. (?) Allow them to come to fruition, produce their "seed babies" and die of mature contentment. Over time this develops a unified soil culture.

The gist of it all is that foods grown on soils alive with the full spectrum of nutrients are incredibly tasty and maximally nourishing.

When his time was up, he invited everyone present to stop by the farm store on the way out and pick up a free basket of cherry tomatoes. If there was any chance I hadn't been convinced by the speech, one mouthful of a little bright red cherry bomb of flavor exploding across my palate closed the deal.

What I took away from the day is that natural process farming tries to replicate Mother Nature's own methods of soil replenishment through compost tea, rock powders, and cover crops left to decompose in place.

I can hardly wait to try some of it in my own backyard. Even with no eager interns on hand to do the heavy lifting it can't be terribly arduous to sprinkle compost tea and rock powder on everything and throw out some seeds for cover crops. And, to fill in the gaps for what our yard doesn't manage to produce, it's really good to know that just down the road is an all-year every-day farm stand.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Grafted Tomatoes: An Update

It's mid-August: time to check in with the experimental, grafted heirloom tomatoes. They have almost caught up with the hybrids, which were set out three weeks earlier (May 9 versus May 29). The Japanese Black Trifele plant is the most robust, vining upwards nearly to the top of the six-foot support poles.

The hybrids, for their part -- one Sungold and two Better Boys -- are filling out their eight-foot support tee-pees and have nearly reached the trellis roof. (And I must say that the tomato-guild assortment of companion plants at their base has done well too, forming a living mulch of basil, parsley, marigolds and nasturtiums that glows with variegated shades of green, orange, and yellow in the bright summer light.)

If all the pear-shaped fruit hanging on the Black Trifele plant ripens, we will have the best harvest ever of this smokey-flavored heirloom tomato with its rich, buttery texture. That alone would make the experiment worth the extra cost and effort!

Although there are some minor dead spots along the edges of a few lower leaves, so far this Black Trifele is the most successful heirloom we have grown.

The San Marzano Gigante 3, an Italian paste tomato with a portentous name, is also doing just fine, thank you -- festooned with long, pointed fruit, some of them almost as gigante as my hand.

The lower San Marzano leaves have a fair amount of the brown spots along the edges that appear sooner or later on all the tomato plants we have ever tried to grow in this garden. Eventually the whole leaf turns brown and shrivels up. So far it's hardly noticable unless you peer worriedly into the tangle of marigolds, basil, etc., at the base of the plant -- which of course I do constantly.

Big Beef is also looking good with clusters of mid-size green fruit. This is one of the varieties being tested by Amy Stewart of Garden Rant, and other garden bloggers as well, in controlled trials matching the performance of grafted versus non-grafted versions of the same variety. The preliminary results seem to be encouraging overall, although Amy's right in wanting to wait for the actual eating of the harvest as the last and final measure of success.

Meanwhile, I continue to peer anxiously at browning leaves, my personal measure of tomato perfection or lack thereof. The Big Beef plant has some dead branches but they are at the base and don't seem to be spreading upward in any great hurry.

Brandywine is another story. There are just a few small fruits on a stunted plant that has stopped growing at about three feet in height.

Whole branches are dying off completely. It started on the larger, upper leaves, some of which turned brown all at once and then shriveled. No slow spotting on the edges of lower leaves. No need to peer into the undergrowth. It's a major problem right out in the open. I've never seen this before and I sure hope it isn't contagious! I will remove the whole plant and hope for the best.

Three out of four ain't bad.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Seed-Saving for Dummies

In the backyard, tall tufted wands of lettuce seed stalks are waving in the August breezes. The Bronze Arrow plants, a highly touted American heirloom oak leaf variety, were grown from seeds saved in the autumn of 2010. Out of several varieties, these are the most prolific: luxuriant with seeds ready to take off on their little white parachutes. I have been cutting off the puffy tops and dropping them into a brown paper shopping bag labeled with as much information as possible: collection date, variety, source (i.e. grown from saved seed, purchased seed, or nursery starts).

I used to happily collect seeds from whatever plants in the garden made it through their full life cycle. Then, as I learned more, it became clear that not all seeds are created equal.

The biggest factor for a backyard gardener to be aware of is that some plants are inbreeding and self-pollinating. They don't rely on bees or insects and don't need pollen from other plants. Everything happens right at home in self-contained flowers on a single plant. These are the garden introverts: lettuce, peas, beans, and tomatoes are examples. They have "perfect" flowers, meaning they possess both male and female structures in the same blossoms on the same plant. The blossoms of peas and beans are often pollinated from within before they even open because the stigma (pollen receiving structure) and anthers (pollen producing) are very close together and mature at the same time. Inbreeding plants evidently have the remarkable ability to produce vigorous offspring generation after generation without outside infusions of genetic material.

The garden extroverts -- such as chard, broccoli, and zucchini -- are outbreeding and cross-pollinating. They like to attract insects to carry their pollen around and fertilize the nearby blossoms of plants in the same species. Beet pollen will fertilize chard blossoms and vice versus. Different varieties of broccoli will gleefully co-mingle, as will zucchini. (Now I understand why my carefully gathered Romanesco broccoli seeds gave rise to plants which sported odd, purplish, lumpy heads instead of the gorgeous lime-green, laser-sharp, Fibonacci-spiraled heads I was expecting. Purple sprouting broccoli, I'm looking at you! These cross-bred plants had the less desirable features of both parents -- very few side shoots and small shapeless heads).

Inbreeding seeds, on the other hand, left to themselves (as they prefer) are likely to produce a plant that resembles its parent -- because it usually has only one parent. They breed true.

I have now realized that I am a complete neophyte at understanding the mysteries of plant genetics and will simplify my seed-saving habits, sticking with the easiest, most predictable types, such as lettuce.

Still, there are complications, even at the beginner level of seed-saving. It's important to make sure that the seeds you are gathering come from non-hybrid plants. Hybrids are new varieties created by combining two plant lines with distinct features into one line that joins the best of both. Hybrid plants grow well, but, even if self-pollinating, they produce seeds that revert to the separate, less desirable features of the parents. If you grow hybrids, there's no point in saving the seeds; you have to keep buying the seeds or seedlings to keep the defining characteristics. (Often, it's well worth it: the fabulous Sungold tomato, for instance.)

Fortunately, it seems like most of the lettuce seedlings I pick up at the local nurseries happen to be non-hybrid heirlooms.

Australian Yellow is a tasty heirloom with crinkled, chartreuse leaves. The seedlings were part of an All-Star mix from Cottage Garden nursery. These seed stalks, despite being chomped by deer, have grown back and are almost ready to be harvested.

The Garrison lettuce -- a dark-red oak leaf variety grown for its attractive baby leaves which are a popular addition to mesclun mixes -- also came from Cottage Gardens. These seed stalks, too, were chewed down by deer. They are still in the blooming stage.

There's plenty of material here for further adventures in seed-saving, even for beginners.


Sources of information used in this post:

Daughter of the Soil

Seed Savers Exchange

International Seed Saving Institute

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Survey of Summer Bounty This Year and Last Year

Over time, these blog posts are becoming data points in an ongoing record of one backyard in early 21st century Northern California. I've heard that climate change scientists are using ordinary garden journals, from as far back as they can find, to search for anecdotal evidence of major changes in weather and growing conditions from one century to the next.

So, in the spirit of our collective human enterprise of staying alive on Planet Earth, here's a small contribution of photographic evidence from our garden in 2010 and 2011.

The photo above shows the garden gatherings from July 30 of this year, 2011. Below is a photo from the same day last year. Can I learn anything from the similarities and the differences? First, let's explore the data.

Above, clockwise from the top of the photo, are:

Three kinds of zucchini: Zephyr, Cocozelle, Black Beauty. We've been harvesting a fair amount over the last several weeks and there's almost enough accumulated to make the first batch of summer green soup. Hooray! It's barely in the nick of time because I just used up the last of the winter green soup from the freezer. Unfortunately, all three zucchini plants suffer from yellowing leaves of unknown cause, as well as myriad tiny speckles which are the tell-tale sign of spider mites. It could all be the result of a lingering cool spring/early summer -- While the rest of the country bakes, we shiver -- or it could be that the beds are simply overworked and don't have enough fertility. Or a combination. Or something else entirely.

Kentucky Blue green beans. They have come on strong in the last week. This is the third dinner-worthy picking. But the bean plants, like the zucchini, are struggling with an onslaught of spider mites. Leaves are speckled, with the bottom leaves turning yellow, then brown, and then dropping off. The beans seem smaller than last year (though it's a different variety). Again, it could be the weather or it could be a soil problem.

Italian Broadleaf parsley. It's doing fine as a companion plant in the tomato beds. This is the first picking from seedlings set out in May and all of it will go into the green soup.

Summer lettuce: A mix called Summer Salad Blend and a micro-green variety called Barbados (the small curly leaves at the bottom of the photo). These plants are doing fine, supplying our nightly salads. The bed received a lasagna gardening upgrade before the seedlings were set out on June 27, so the soil should be in good shape. The plants are starting to lengthen out and are are clearly getting ready to send up their seed stalks, which seems too soon. We've had a few runs of hot days but it's barely a month since they were planted. Why are they rushing on to the next stage of their development? Perhaps these varieties are less bolt-resistant than the summer lettuce I've planted in the past. Anyway, it's time to start preparing the next bed to insure a continuous supply of salad.

Genovese basil. The token amount pictured above is not really a harvest, just a handful of clippings of the flowering stalks. The plants want to make seeds as Mother Nature intends, but we want them to focus on producing flavorful leaves. So I have to keep cutting them back. Despite B.'s worries, we have an ample supply for as much pesto as the two of us can possibly consume -- solely from the companion plants in the tomato beds. They are mostly doing fine but I did have to uproot about six of them which had begun to curl over and wilt, even when well-watered. I believe this is the basil version of the verticillium wilt which afflicts tomatoes, but don't have a definite diagnosis.

Poblano peppers. Two smallish ones are the first harvest. The plant is still small but seems healthy.

Sungold tomatoes. Two token offerings to the sun god from a plant that is growing quite well with plenty of still-green fruit but shows some dying off of the bottom leaves.

Satsuki Midori cucumber. One very tiny first fruit from a struggling plant which has sent up one thin vine that's less than three feet tall, marked by some dying leaves at the base. Too bad, this is supposed to be an especially delicious variety.

Pimientos de Padron peppers. A fine couple of handfuls of these yummy Russian Roulette peppers (it's said that every tenth one is so hot your head will explode, though we've never had that experience and we've eaten plenty of them.) They come from a healthy plant that appears to be gearing up for a long season.

Hansel eggplant. The two first fruits from a plant that shows yellowing leaves and spider-mite speckles. It's loaded with beautiful lavender-colored flowers, though. I hope the flowers win.

My general sense of this season's July 30 harvest is that it's running behind and is less lavish than last year.

Left to right, the harvest pickings from a year ago on July 30:

Three kinds of summer lettuce: Salad Bowl, Red Sails, Endive. As I recall, these plants were very productive, with large ruffled, furled, and feathered leaves, more abundant than this year's smaller plants. I don't remember how long they lasted before bolting but am inclined to think it was more than a month.

Two kinds of cucumbers: Armenian, Lemon. The Armenian cuke produced two delicious fruits (my favorite cuke for flavor) and then pretty much died off. I uprooted it. The Lemon, as in previous years, was lavish with fruit. We ate them in salads through the summer, gave plenty away, and made lemon cucumber pickles in early October. This year's poor little Lemon cuke is a thin single vine with a few flowers and no fruit as yet. Both cucumber plants this year are in the strip along the southeast facing fence. Perhaps it's too hot there. Or perhaps it's the soil, or the cool spring, etc., etc.

Green Bush zucchini. Although the harvest for this particular day last year is about the same as this year's, I remember the three zucchini plants to be larger, healthier, and more productive than this year's. And I think the first batch of green soup was earlier than this year because there was an overlap of winter soup and summer soup in the freezer.

Hansel eggplant: The two plants last year were in self-watering containers along the back fence. I put a lot of liquid kelp fertilizer in the water compartment of the container and the plants seemed to like it. They had the usual yellowing leaves on lower sections but grew large and bushy with lots of fruit.

Early Girl tomato (?). I'm not sure what kind the lone tomato pictured might be. Last year I grew, or tried to grow, Early Girl, Constoluto Genevese, Black Trifele, Sungold, Yellow Pear. None of them did noticeably well except the Sungold. We had to buy tomatoes at the farmer's market to make sauce for the freezer. What is this tragic love affair we have with homegrown tomatoes? No matter how they treat us we keep coming back. I think it has to do with the simple gorgeousness and yummyness of the harvest when you bring it into the house and put it on your plate. All trouble and worry is instantly forgotten.

Cal Wonder peppers. These were good little salad additions, but the plants never amounted to much. There were two plants in self-watering containers, like the eggplant, but they didn't thrive.

Nickel French Beans. One of the winners from last year's garden: two beds worth of lush, heavy bearing bush plants. I put some of my scarce homemade compost in those beds, so maybe that helped. We never got tired of eating the flavorful, long thin beans lightly steamed with almonds and a little butter. This year's first planting of seeds didn't come up -- the soil was still too cold, I think. The second planting didn't do much better. I ended up adding some pole beans to the bed. All the plants are showing the same signs of heavy spider mite action, but haven't started losing leaves yet. They have flowers but no beans so far.

Plums. Ahhh, the plums. Now there's an interesting contrast, one year to the next. Last year we had as much as we wanted to eat and I was starting to research how to make plum leather or something that would preserve them without added sugar. This year most of the crop seems to have been eaten by the tree rats. I saw one, one evening, silhouetted against the darkening sky as it ran along one of the branches. I can hear them sometimes rustling and squeaking in the undergrowth and the overgrowth. All I can say for sure is that in June the trees were heavy with visible fruit and now there is nothing. Maybe the long wet spring with ample green growth led to a bumper crop of tree rats. I sure hope the pesky little critters (they look like large mice) don't like pears!

Yard Chard. Some stray leaves from volunteers that pop up all over the yard wherever there is a water supply. There are a couple of plants like that this year, but they are out of the way and don't get watered enough to be useful.

The Bench. Ahhh, the bench. It looks so nice in the photo, and always made a perfect setting for harvest photos. Now it is no more. One of the locust trees fell over in June during an unseasonable burst of rain and wind and broke the bench in half.

A broken bench, disappearing plums, struggling plants: my subjective impression is that this year's garden is more troubled and less productive than last year's. However, after looking at the photos it seems like the similarities outweigh the differences. There are the same kinds of plants in pretty much the same amounts, with some slight differences in varieties, timing, and quality. From one year to the next there is plenty of fresh produce coming into the house to be marveled at, shared, and consumed with delight.

Nonetheless, as I learn to keep better records maybe I can start to figure out why some crops thrive and others struggle.

And, like the garden diarists of previous centuries, one never knows how or when humble efforts might be useful in the grander scheme of things.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Daytime Nibblers

At 9:30 in the morning a couple of days ago, while rushing around trying to leave for work, I saw a mother deer and her two young ones nibbling leaves in our exceedingly leafy front yard. I had to stop and watch the quiet scene.

Luckily the camera was right at hand. The photos of that fleeting moment were taken through the screen door, lending them a dream-like quality which captures my wonder at this brief incursion of wildness into my time-to-get-going mindset.

The mother noticed movement or saw light reflecting off my camera. By the time I pressed the button she was heading out of the yard with her more alert child right behind.

Little Clueless kept nibbling until he finally noticed he was all alone. "Hey, where did everybody go?"

"Wait for me!"

The little family group headed across the street to nibble undisturbed in our neighbor's yard, closer to the creek that serves as a handy boulevard for local wildlife. And we all continued with our daily rounds.

Friday, July 15, 2011


These little beauties, the first of the season, added some sparkle to tonight's salad.

They are a feast for all the senses. Translucent orange eye candy, sweetly tangy on the taste buds, with a haunting fragrance that could be marketed as perfume (I always forget, year-to-year, how good they smell, until I find myself going out to the garden just to bury my nose in the fruiting plants again) -- they also feel nice to the touch, smooth and perfect like golden marbles. Do they sound good too? Well, to me, the evocative name falls poetically on the ear: Sungold!

For the record: This year's one Sungold plant was an organically grown, hybrid F1 seedling from Natural Gardening, set out on May 9 with marigold, basil, and parsley seedlings, plus a few nasturtium seeds poked in the ground here and there. The days-to-maturity was given as 57 days, which is a couple of weeks earlier than this plant's first fruits -- but the DTM is always an estimate.

So far, all the companion plants are doing well, too. The only problem to date is that the lower leaves on the tomato plant are showing the brown spots and progressive deadening that appears every year no matter what I do. But, right now, I don't feel like quibbling about the details. Let's just admire the results.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Grafted Tomatoes: An Experiment

Grafted tomatoes? Grafted fruit trees make sense, of course, because they last for decades. But why go to the trouble of joining a vigorous, disease-resistant rootstock to the delicate stem of a coveted variety in an annual that will be pulled up after a few brief months? In the photo above you can see the join where two different tomato plants, rootstock and scion -- the top part -- have been painstakingly bonded together through a lengthy process which requires highly specialized growing conditions.

This approach might make more sense than seems evident at first. Grafted vegetables of all types are common in Europe and Asia and are in use among commercial growers in this country. There are notable advantages to strong, healthy, high-yielding plants that can adapt to changing weather and produce lots of the tender heirloom veggies we love to eat.

I first learned all these fun facts about grafted tomatoes last summer from Amy Stewart of the seminal, rabble-rousing blog Garden Rant. It was too late in the season to do anything more than scour the internet for additional information and vow to track some down for 2011.

Our particular Sonoma County micro-climate allows for growing good tomatoes. However, our particular backyard has boggy black clay soil which is very fertile but doesn't drain well and harbors disease. Tomatoes seem especially susceptible. Every year our plants are gradually afflicted with thick curled leaves marked with brown spots. The process starts with the bottom leaves and works slowly upward. It never reaches more than a third of the way up, doesn't kill the plant, and we pick plenty of tomatoes, but it's sooooooo discouraging to watch helplessly as it climbs inexorably, leaving dead branches behind. It affects heirlooms most but doesn't spare the hybrids and doesn't seem to be controlled by rotating the beds each year.

So, when the Territorial Seeds catalog arrived earlier this year from Oregon, with -- surprise! -- a page full of tempting grafted varieties, I ordered six plants, admittedly a bit of a splurge, because the grafted seedlings are about twice as much as regular vegetable starts. Like most backyard tomato growers, I lose judgment when rainbow visions of green vines heavy with jewel-toned heirlooms float before my eyes.

Due to this spring's prolonged chilly, wet weather on the West coast, the plants arrived a couple of weeks later than planned and did not look very good when they got here. All of them were spindly with pale stems and curled, pale leaves; a couple had grown too tall for the shipping box and were broken off at the top. Dilemma: should I send them back and call off the experiment? No. Why wait another whole year to make the trial?

Now I'm grateful to myself for the decision to forge blindly ahead.

I planted out four seedlings and gave two away to a good home. The Brandywine and Japanese Black Trifele pictured above went into the ground on May 29.

Here they are today, a month later. Looking good!

Here are Big Beef (on the left) and San Marzano Gigante 3, planted out at the same time. All of the grafted tomatoes are now about two feet tall and thriving. My friend who took in my two leftover seedlings says his little foundlings are doing just fine.

The grafted tomatoes are running behind our other tomatoes planted on May 9, three weeks earlier: two Better Boy hybrids from Garden Crossings mail order nursery in Michigan (the only place we could find our tried and true favorite workhorse tomato), and the can't-do-without organic Sungold (an F1 hybrid) from our local Sonoma County mail order nursery, Natural Gardening. These "control" plants are now about four feet tall with flowers on both varieties and tiny first fruits on the Sungold. They are also showing the first tell-tale signs of leaf thickening and curling, with accompanying brown spots, just a few here and there on lower leaves.

It's a pretty informal, haphazard experiment. Fortunately, others are conducting much more organized trials.

Amy Stewart is back with an account of a sponsored test she is running in her yard. The wholesale nursery Log House Plants sent her a grafted Big Beef and a non-grafted version. They are set up in identical containers, ready for the grow-off.

I will be following her reports with interest, and watching what happens in my own yard.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Zucchini Flatbread

We noted with pride the first zucchini blossom of the season, and the first harvest. Here's the first zucchini feast! A stunning Zucchini Flatbread, courtesy of Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

The process is even simpler than growing way too much zucchini. Place a baking stone in the bottom third of your oven (of course you have a baking stone) and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. The stone should heat up slowly along with the oven.

Pull out your favorite saute pan. Pictured above is a mixture of one Cocozelle zucchini grated up and simmered in olive oil and garlic with green onions sliced thin, plenty of chopped parsley, some cashew pieces (the called-for pine nuts are too pricey) and a couple of handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

While the zucchini is softening and soaking up flavor, prepare the dough. If you are following the Five Minutes a Day system -- as we are -- this step consists of pulling the current container of dough out of the fridge, pinching off a grapefruit-sized piece, forming a ball, and rolling it out as evenly as possible to about 1/8 inch thickness. You can roll it out right on your oven peel (of course you have an oven peel) if you have enough counter space. If not, use your available rolling-out surface and then slide the round onto the peel.

Spread the warm zucchini mixture artistically over the top of the dough, carefully slide the dough and topping onto the heated up baking stone, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes before checking for doneness. If necessary, let it cook a little more until nicely browned.

We had this for dinner tonight with a garden salad. Outstanding.