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.