Planning the Summer Garden

We are this close to harvesting winter greens out of the garden, and rain is in the forecast for this coming week, which means things will warm up and get extra-hydrated and that should help. Meanwhile, like gardeners everywhere, I'm longing for spring and the planting that will be done then. I don't get many seed catalogs here as I prefer not to use the paper, but I'm just as guilty as anyone at lusting over the selection offered by some of my favorite seed houses.

I'm very excited to start ordering seeds and vegetable crowns, but before I do, I had to figure out my space and what I have room for. I'm going to grow a lot of the same things I grew last year, though I'll try different varieties of many of them. Plus, we have a new garden to build and plan! But more on that later.

First, I dealt with the regular planning of the North and South Gardens. I used to make these all colorful, but now I'm all about just getting it done, sorry.

North Garden
The North Garden will again have corn, sweet potatoes, sweet and hot peppers, all kinds of tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, and delicata squash.

A couple of notes on the tomatoes: I'm going to grow less cherry and more paste tomatoes, plus I'm going to give them more room; i.e. last year I grew four plants per 4x4 bed, this year I'll plant 4 plants per 4x8 bed. I'm reading Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier of Seed Saver Exchange fame, and he recommends this. Also, we have two very large pots by the chicken coop, in which I've tried many different flowers, none of which are terribly happy there. It's a very sunny and dry spot. So I've ordered two small Arbequina Olive trees to put in those pots and I'll get those started there as soon as they arrive.

South Garden
The South Garden will have potatoes, pole beans, both slicing and pickling cucumbers, shelling peas with an underplanting of summer greens such as collards and orach, acorn squash, and butternut squash.

That's all pretty standard fare, though I'm going to trench and hill the potatoes rather than grow them in a tower, and we'll probably do more pickling cucumbers than slicing. Having just read The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, I'm keen to do more pickling using a fermentation method rather than vinegar. One new vegetable that I'll be growing is orach, which was recommended to me by Michael at Dissident Potato. He says it does well in summer heat, and I'd be glad to have more greens during that time. I may also try New Zealand Spinach if I have room in the Understory Garden.

But hey! I haven't mentioned that yet. The Understory Garden will be in our new sheet-mulched space, which is bordered by a large chitalpa tree and a large magnolia tree. Hence, it's dappled with regards to light, except early morning and late afternoon, in the summer, when it will get direct sun for an hour or so.

Understory Garden
This garden will be planted with mostly perennial edibles. The large square in the middle will be 6x6, and the triangles at the sides will be 4x4x4. The triangles will be planted with both annual and perennial herbs. My big 'herb spiral/hugelkulture' has become flat and overrun with mostly mint. I decided to let that go to mint (although there are still many other herbs which I'll let live as well). We use a lot of mint so that is an ok thing. Also, I think now that it's flat, it's getting peed on quite a bit by passing dogs, as it's right at the edge of our driveway. So! The less we use that area for edibles, the better. (Though - side note - it's extra nitrogen and it's sterile, so no big deal - just have to wash everything carefully.)

The center square of the Understory garden will have some stepping stone paths to prevent compaction in other areas, and the center will be planted with citrus. I'm going to plant one each of a mandarin, lime, and lemon, probably all in the same hole. I've been reading a lot about this method and I think it makes sense for this area. The trees will have to remain small, and of course I'll have to do regular pruning, but planting them this way will naturally help keep them a reasonable size.

Under the citrus and next to the paths I will plant many varieties of lavender, for both beauty, scent, and their long-lived forage for pollinators.

On the edges of the 6x6, I intend to plant perennial edibles that we use a lot, but haven't grown before. I'm going to try rhubarb, horseradish, ginger, and lemon balm. I think all will grow well, but the one wild card is the ginger, which is a tropical plant. I'm hoping the close plantings of everything in this area will provide enough humidity, but I may need to spritz over there once in a while in the hottest summer days. It also won't like frost, but I'll have to protect the citrus during frost anyway, so I'll cover the ginger as well.

We'll probably start building this new area fairly soon, as the rhubarb will need to be planted in late winter/early spring. Maybe over President's Day weekend. Meanwhile we'll let the mulch and cardboard start to settle and kill the grass and weeds.

The mulch pile is very small now, I still have one area of the garden to cover, and likely just as I get that pile moved, we'll have a pile of good composty dirt delivered to fill the new beds and top off the old beds. There's always a pile of something to be moved around here.

If any of you has grown ginger or horseradish before, or tried the permaculture method of planting many orchard trees in one hole, I'd love to hear from you.

Reviewing the Summer's Plant Choices

As I put the very last batch of tomatoes into the oven for roasting today (they'll go in the freezer rather than be canned), I thought about the varieties that I grew this summer. Afterward, I made some notes about it, so that I can make different choices next year.  As I've written before, it's hard to know how much the drought and sandy soil affected our garden; however there are intrinsic things about each vegetable that I think came through, regardless of our issues.


Paste: I chose 'Amish' and 'Baylor.'. The 'Amish' variety did a better job, but neither of these was stellar. I'll look for other choices next year, though I might give 'Amish' another try. They were large and meaty. I did manage to make 8 half-pints of tomato paste from these tomatoes and had plenty more for fresh eating, just not as many as I wanted. And they looked diseased from the start, which isn't necessarily the fault of the variety, but rather either the fault of the seedling, or perhaps my soil.

Cherry: We chose 'Black Cherry,' 'Yellow Pear,' 'Dr. Carolyn,' and 'Isis Candy.' The 'Yellow Pear' definitely wins the prize for best producer, and the tomatoes were sweet and delicious. I liked the 'Black Cherry' for it's dark color (better nutrition), but it was a feeble producer in my garden. 'Dr. Carolyn' was a light yellow tomato that I didn't like as much as the 'Yellow Pear,' and 'Isis Candy' was a dark orange variety that was fine, but I would have preferred a dark red variety. I'll do the 'Yellow Pear' again for sure.

Slicing: I chose four, but only remember the names of three of them: 'Bloody Butcher,' 'Cherokee Purple,' and 'Italian Heirloom.' 'Bloody Butcher' was the earliest producer, but the tomatoes were quite small - again, maybe the fault of the drought and our poor water conditions. 'Cherokee Purple' was a gorgeous tomato, thick and indeed a reddish purple, with many ovaries, a classic heirloom. I'll grow this one again for sure. The other two I bought were completely nondescript, barely producing and unmemorable.


We grew one variety, 'Luscious Bicolor.' It was simply ok. The ears were quite small, and while they tasted good, there just wasn't enough of it. I'll try a different kind next year, probably a yellow variety, for better nutrition.

Pole Beans:

We grew 'Blue Lake' and 'Rich Purple Pod.' Neither were our favorite. Both were better when picked quite small, as they got very stringy and leathery when even medium sized. The purple ones were beautiful, though. I'll choose different varieties next year.

Winter Squash:

I grew 'Delicata' and 'Climbing Honey Nut (butternut).' Both were wonderful - good growers and producers. The 'Delicata' is delicious for fresh eating as it ripens, and this variety of butternut was small, which makes it easy to peel and roast, and store in the warm garage fridge. I'll grow both of these again. A note, however - the butternut didn't really climb - it sprawled, as all squashes seem to do.

Sweet Peppers:

All four of these varieties were prolific producers, however many of them did not change into the rich colors that were promised, even over a very long season. We had millions of 'Jimmy Nardello,' which are a small, thin, red variety. They were delicious but hard to seed due to their thinness. 'Marconi Red' were wonderful long red peppers but many of them never turned red, so we ate them green. 'Sweet Sunrise' was the only pepper I grew that had a 'bulb' shape, which I liked a lot, but only two of the many we harvested were orange. 'Olympus' was nondescript and I won't grow it again. I'd like to grow more 'bulb' shaped peppers that have an early harvest date; we might get some better coloring that way. Plus the bulb shape seem easier to cut and seed.

Hot Peppers:

These were the undisputed star of our garden this year, producing like crazy, so much so that we couldn't keep up. Right now there are at least 20 jars of canned hot sauce on the canning shelf, as well as 10 jars of pickled jalepenos. We also have jars upon jars of roasted peppers in the freezer for wintertime salsa. Next year I think we'll stick to 'Jalafuego Jalepeno' - delicious - and 'Serrano Hot Rod.' The 'Ancho Poblano' didn't produce nearly as much as the others, and they were quite a bit smaller than we would have liked. 'Padron' was fun, but not as well-liked as the others.

Sweet Potatoes:

I made my own slips from the Japanese sweet potatoes sold at Whole Foods. The vines were glorious, but the harvest meager. I'd like to try a different variety next year, something with more of a deep orange color, plus something that might be able to be started earlier, as this is a very long-season crop.


We chose 'Moon and Stars,' and it was a beautiful variety with speckled leaves and fruit. Unfortunately it was also incredibly speckled inside - very very seedy - though delicious. We'll try a less-seedy kind next summer.


We grew 'Melone Regato Degli' and it was a beautiful, small, not-too-sweet fruit. I might try this again, or try a larger variety.


I grew 'Starica' and 'Jeannette' - both were wonderful and tasty. Succession planting and plenty of space is the key to a long season of delicious large carrots.


'Genovese' was a star producer for us and kept us (and the neighbors) in bushes of basil all summer long. I'll definitely grow this again.


I've always grown 'Green Flash' in the summer, and they do well here. This year we had a lot of aphids and cabbage white butterflies, which did a lot of damage. I like having some sort of green in the hot months, and collards are the only ones that don't bolt in the heat of summer. I'll try again.


I grew 'Yukon Gold' and we had a very nice crop, though not as big as I had hoped. This winter I will grow them in rows rather than in towers, and we'll see how they do. (I'm also growing two different varieties.)


I grew pelleted 'Green Towers' this summer, and it was a stellar producer up until mid-July. I'll definitely grow this again. Nice large, crisp heads - perfect for Caesar salad.


While we were able to make many, many jars of pickles, our cucumbers weren't the best for fresh eating. I grew 'Endeavor' pickling and 'Straight Eight' slicing. I'll try different varieties next year.  I do think the drought made them taste a bit more bitter than usual.


I used Seed Savers organic seed this year, and it was wonderful. However I always forget to sow it later in the season rather than at the beginning.


I grow peas in both the winter and summer here, and they do ok until about late July. I used 'Sabre' this time around, they were ok, but not fabulous.

Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, Blackberries:

I have many different varieties, all from Stark Bros. They all have performed marvelously. The trick is to order a type that will do well in your climate. There are limited berries that I can grow in our Zone 9. Even so, it's a little hot for these guys, and I get a smaller yield then someone in cooler temps.

And, we had two artichokes from our one plant (with many more blooming), lots and lots of late season spears in the asparagus patch (next year we can actually eat them!), and countless springs of herbs from the perennial herb garden. Our peach and apple bore well this year, though the peach needs more chill hours (hoping for that this winter), and we'll see how the new plum and cherry trees do. The quince, which I tried to murder, has returned. So I'll have to figure out what to do with those guys next spring.

We'll likely start planting winter crops in two weeks.

Tomatoes ready to go in to the oven for roasting

October in the Garden

Things have been a little busy here at Poppy Corners, and not in the garden way, which is unfortunate because, as all you gardeners know, fall is an important time in the vegetable beds! Both Tom and I have been working more, the kids have a ton of activities, and we spent last weekend at Camp Okizu, celebrating, as we do annually, Adam's recovery from cancer. So not much has gotten done in the yard. But that's life, you know? Part of being an urban gardener or farmer or do-it-yourselfer is that regular life just happens. So we plug on, making lists during the week (sometimes lists that bleed in to other lists) and getting done what we can get done in the extra time we find.

What that means in practical terms is that big projects, like the chicken tractor, are stalled halfway through construction.

this thing takes up half the patio

We hope to finish this soon so that we can put the chickens to work ripping out the bit of (dead) lawn we have left.

Small projects can get done whenever we have an entire weekend day, or even a weekday afternoon, free. Today, our first free weekend day in quite a while, a LOT is getting done. As I write, Tom is taking the hot peppers he harvested this morning and creating hot sauce and pickled peppers. I've harvested tomatoes, sweet peppers, the last of the green beans, cantaloupe, and a lone fig, with plans for making canned crushed tomatoes, roasted peppers for the freezer, and canned dilly beans later this afternoon or tomorrow. I've frozen a dozen eggs for the winter, removed the green bean crop from it's bed, and deadheaded the pollinator gardens. Later today or tomorrow I need to hoe the beds that are clear and add a cover crop of buckwheat, plus cut down flowering buckwheat in another part of the garden and add soiled chicken straw to those beds. We've fences to mend, weeds to pull, the bee hive to open and check (varroa season is upon us, though my bees look happy enough in the garden at the moment), paths to sweep, compost to turn and dig out... you get the picture.

The garden just keeps pumping out produce, even though much is going awry. Everything looks incredibly dry and dusty in the sunny areas, and in the shady areas we have a doozy of a case of powdery mildew. Chalk it up to wacky weather and a lack of regular temperatures or water. All I can say is, I'm tired of hot weather, and I'm ready for a real autumn. I know it's coming, because nighttime temperatures are low and the mornings are cool. That's heaven. Soon we can plant winter crops.

powdery mildew in the pumpkin patch...

... but pumpkins keep on growing...

... and gourds, too.
Butternut squashes are incredibly prolific....

... and we're still getting plenty of delicata squash as well.
We're still getting the stray cantaloupe if I can get to them
before the squirrels do. (that's buckwheat growing
behind, where the watermelons used to be.)
I harvested the last of the beans and took the vines out
and to the compost bin. 
The sweet potato vines are loving the heat. No
flowers yet. I'm wondering if they'll get a chance to
flower and set fruit before frost. Hope so.

basil has been one of my most successful
crops this year. I've made enough freezer pesto
to last us the whole year. Neighbors come harvest
basil whenever they want to, and we use it freely in
recipes and in the chicken coop as bedding. 

Hot peppers just keep on coming...

... as do the sweet peppers...

... and we're still getting plenty of tomatoes, of all kinds.
The north pollinator garden keeps producing flowers,
mostly tithonia and cosmos...

... and so does the south pollinator garden, with a variety
of California fuchsias, sages, and daisies along with
sunflowers and tithonia
Here in zone 9, and in our city of Walnut Creek, our first average frost date is December 15. October is usually a pretty warm (even hot) month, so I can wait until the beginning of November to plant winter crops. I've got seeds and tubers and cloves lined up, and supplies for more floating row cover tunnels, so we're all ready to go. If October changes course and things get cooler more quickly than usual, I'll get the crops in sooner. Meanwhile I figure I'll let the tomatoes, peppers, squashes, and melons continue to produce until then.

So, back in to the garden, and back to chores. Hope you're having a wonderful Saturday with lots of outside time, too!

A Weekend (mostly) in the Kitchen

Tom and I spent most of the weekend working through the produce available in the garden. We eat something fresh every day (often more than once), but we have more than we can eat and we don't want it to go to waste. Frankly I wish we had more tomatoes to preserve, but meanwhile I'm preserving all the extras I have. Today I made a couple of quarts of crushed tomatoes. This is a messy job, and rather than just showing you the beautiful result, I wanted you to see the spattered counters, the many pots on the stove, in short not just the product but the process.

most of my drought-starved tomatoes are tiny,
which makes for a lot of fiddly cutting. Note that I
have to use a pasta fork as a slotted spoon, because
I broke my slotted spoon.

blanched tomatoes, waiting in ice to be peeled
a juice-splattered counter; one bowl of peelings and seeds
for the chickens, one bowl of tomato 'meat'

canning uses a lot of pots and a lot of water; we save it all
and take it out to the yard and water potted plants
The end product is indeed beautiful
I also took down the hot peppers that the kids and I strung about a month ago. They've been hanging on the canning shelf ever since; some of the serranos turned red, some of the padrons turned orange, and everything is drier - however not everything is dry enough, and when I put it in the blender, I don't want to make a paste, I want to make pepper flakes. So I spread it all out to dry on a towel outside, and that should take care of any lingering moisture.

Pretty, aren't they?

Tom worked on making homemade cultured butter. Last night he warmed cream on the stove, added mesophilic culture, then let it sit on the counter overnight. This morning it was the consistency of yogurt and he put it in the fridge.

At night after it was in the fridge all day

Tonight he churned the cream in our food processor. It was fun to watch it go from thick cream to butter + buttermilk.

This buttermilk will be used for pancakes tomorrow morning.

Tom also pickled jalepenos....

... a process which made us sneeze and cough, no matter where we were in the house, for a couple of hours.

I picked yet another huge batch of basil, put some in the chicken's nesting boxes, and made the rest into pesto. We have more pesto than we'll ever eat (I think) in the freezer.

There's still plenty of basil in the garden, which I think I will now let bloom for the bees. We have basil in several places so there's enough for random tomato dishes (we use a lot of fresh basil in tomato salads and sauce).

Speaking of flowering, the buckwheat cover crop I put in a few weeks ago is starting to bud.

And we're starting to get mini-pumpkins forming!

Although remember when I sprayed a vinegar solution on the leaves to kill the powdery mildew? Well, I killed the mildew. I also killed the leaves.

The cantaloupes look closer to harvest...

And some of the sunflowers are finally opening.

Chocolate Cherry Sunflower
Since we've got the day free tomorrow, I've got lots of projects lined up. I need to rake the chicken coop, turn the compost, cut the water sprouts off the apple tree, pull out the watermelon vines and sow buckwheat in that bed, and harvest green beans (an every-other-day chore). Oh yes and look for cucumbers hiding under leaves. And maybe trim up some unwieldy plants. Glorious!