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Showing posts from 2010

Arugula, the Gourmet's Fancy, Grows Easily in California Backyards

i've always been crazy about arugula.  The peppery tingle it gives your tongue is as far from iceberg lettuce as it gets.  Discovering it in chi-chi restaurants, I always envisioned it as a hot house plant.

On a recent trip to Italy, it was everywhere.

Rocket, roquette, rugula and rucola -- it's all arugula. Scientifically, it's called Eruca Sativa.  Not surprisingly, it's a member of the mustard family. It natively ranges the boundaries of the Mediterranean from Portugal and Morrocco to Lebanon and Turkey.

The nutritional data for arugula is astounding: 2.5 calories for a half-cup serving!! with high doses of vitamins A and C, folate, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and potassium to boot.

The Romans grew arugula both for its leaves and its seeds.  They used the seed to flavor oil and empower aphrodisiacs.  It was a convention of Roman meals to offer a salad of greens such as arugula, romaine, chicory, mallow or lavender seasoned with a cheese sauce.

Can Worms Save My Relationship with Composting?

After a few too many brushes with anerobic decay in my kitchen compost pail, my passion for composting is cooling. I'm quite sure that my carbon footprint for toting a small pail of fresh compost a couple of miles to the Fink Farm compost bin more than exceeds any benefit to be gained from returning green waste to the ground.

An alternative currently has me firmly in its grip: kitchen vermiculture. To describe this in simple terms, you take a set of stacked, ventilated trays and add 1,000 red worms (Eisenia foetida), bedding materials, a little water and up to five pounds of food waste a week. The worms digest the waste, creating casting that are rich in nitrogen, phosphates, potash, calcium and magnesium. The castings can be put in the garden. As the worms finish the waste, they crawl up into the next level of the bin.  The lower tray can then be emptied into the garden.

The worms can process fruits, vegetables, stale bread, old rice or pasta, coffee grounds and dryer lint.  You …

To Till or Not to Till. That is the Question.

As summer ends, Fink Farm is covered in a mulch-like layer of used bunny straw, coffee grounds and heat-melted plants.  As we discuss fall plantings, a question looms unspoken: Do we dig holes for individual seedlings that we sprout outside the garden first or do we rip out the by-gone plants, prime the rototiller and grind, chop, rotate and mix it all into the soil.

Once upon a time, my philosophy would have been: if you have earth-moving equipment, use it.

But reading Amy Stewart's book, The Earth Moved; On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, makes me unsure. For example, Stewart writes:

"Add up the number of earthworms and other soil-dwelling creatures like mites, springtails, ants, and spiders, and there may well be more living things in one of my four-by-four vegetable beds than there are humans in all of rural Humboldt County where I live.  Include the nematodes, and the population of one of those vegetable beds starts to rival that of the state of California . . …

Scattering Our Favorite Soil Amendment

Lately, we've returned to collecting and gathering our favorite soil amendment: used coffee grounds from Starbucks.

When we're consistent enough, Karen's whole backyard smells like a double expresso.  The cats appear to dislike that odor so they go else where to do their business.  It also appears to help keep pests away.

Hoes Replacing Lawn Mowers as Favorite Tools for Front Yard

Maybe it's the water restrictions.  Maybe it's the shaky economy. Dotted through our neighborhood are houses where lawns have been replaced by vegetable gardens.

According to Time magazine, the trend was sowed in the summer of 2005 by Los Angeles architect Fritz Haeg. He saw the manicured front lawn as an American icon that cut across politics, social classes and economics.  But he also saw it as out of date.

Red Cabbage Revive Summer Tradition

A cabbage harvest in July?

In California, it works.  (We planted late in a mild winter.)

That means just in time for out door dinners, we have the basic ingredient for coleslaw.

But with this gem-like vegetable sitting on my kitchen counter, I couldn't bear the thought of traditional coleslaw: cabbage shreds drowned in mayo and sugar.

Hand-Knit Trellis Now Ready for Climbing Foot-Long Beans

Just as the "June" gloom is starting to burn off, I finished my knitted trellis for the garden.

It completely surrounds one of our bamboo tripods, with space at the bottom for tending the romaine lettuces growing within the tripod.

It's knit out of nylon twine on US 35 needles. While the nylon has no stretch (the way a wool yarn does), the huge gauge has loads of give. The piece was knit flat with ties attached along one edge.  It is tied to the tripod along one leg.

One some early samples for a knitted plant trellis, I experimented with lace patterns.  They look lovely, but I realized two things. One, once the plants grow up the trellis any knitting pattern is lost. Secondly, the plants and leaves need space to grow in and out of.

I used a pattern for a shawl: k1, yo, k2tog and then repeat. I got lost a number of times: the yarn-overs drifted over other stitches on occasion. As this was a speed project that won't be visible ones the beans grow over it, I didn't w…

Getting Water Where It's Needed

Getting water to the plants in our garden in a timely way is a constant challenge.

We've been relying on a series of soaker hoses attached end to end and snaking through the vegetables.  It keeps the water close to the ground and roots without losing it to evaporation. We have a timer set at the faucet that allows us to periodically override it and manually set it to water for about 30 minutes.

Away With Holey Leaves: Offing the Pests

I can't stand the tell-tale signs of garden pests: the leaves with holes, the failure to thrive. I believe in early assault with organic deterrents. Kate has great faith in plants' commitment to survive.  She considers holes in leaves to be a mere cosmetic blemish.

Like politics and religion, getting rid of pests in a garden is sure to cause a community donnybrook (or at least rapid words over ice water in the lounge chairs).

To do organic warfare against pests means using one or more of these tools:

Finding Community in a Garden

Next to composting, I'm entranced by companion plants. These are plants that when sowed together keep away pests that are harmful to one or the other of the companion plants. They are indispensable to the organic gardener.

One of the best known pairings is marigolds and tomatoes. Marigolds keep away those monstrous horned, green worms that so love tomatoes. When you use companion planting, you never have to worry about whether the plant got entirely coated with pesticide or was washed off in the last rain.  Companion plants work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No worries about getting poison your harvest either.

They work in a variety of ways from smell to chemistry to having mutually beneficial waste products or impacts on the soil.

Here are some other common combinations for a companionable garden:

First Tomato Sighting of the Season

Our first green tomato is visible under the leaves inside the tomato cage.

It always amazes me how quickly and dramatically a gardener can go from impatient waiting to an avalanche of harvest.

Tomatoes especially arrive as genteel newcomers and grow into sprawling monsters. When the first crop of tomatoes start greening up, it seems almost scandalous to pick them for fried green tomatoes (or baked, which we discovered we preferred last year. 

When they start turning red, there's no end to them. Until you start trying to can them or turn them into sauce.  Then it seems as if we should have just plowed up the entire backyard and planted "Fink Tomato Farms."

This year, I've promised myself that I'm going to scout out the perfect tomato sauce recipe.

New Acreage Sowed at Fink Farm

Well, maybe not acreage . . . but a very nice flower bed, indeed.

Along the wall of the house, we planted hollyhocks and sunflowers.  If they grow as hoped, it will shade that wall this summer, keeping the den cooler.  But the wild cards in this vision are the fact that the sunflower seeds were old and the hollyhock seeds harvested from dead heads found along the streets on a dog walk last summer.

The next row has zinnias and gallardias,which have never grown before at Fink Farms.  The zinnias are quick sprouters though.  We also planted a pot of coreopsis and a six pack of  gazanias.  We added in one small dill plant which seems to love its new location.

Kate had a chance to use her favorite piece of gardening equipment, the Mantis tiller. An amazing chewer of soil, it is. She started down another piece of land on the north side of Karen's house, but there are mighty tree roots in that bed that will need more attention than we had Sunday.

Meanwhile, the cabbages are slowly balling…

Order in the Garden

The first year that Fink Farm was in operation, we devoured Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening.  A 10-foot by 12-foot plot isn't much.  We pegged off one-foot measures on two adjoining sides, and rolled some pebbled pavers into position to give us places to stand amongst our soon to be thriving garden.

But then things started spinning out of alignment.

For starters, it became clear that running string across the dirt in one-foot increments was going to create one nasty arrangement for digging on any scale at all. All I could envision was a broken ankle from hopping over all that string.

Heirloom Tomatoes: The Next Generation

Kate can't resist a garden center.

A trip to CostCo. to use a coupon for printer toner for me ended up with a sharp left into the garden center. Before I could say, "Whoaaaaaa . . . " Kate was cradling a pack of three gallons of heirloom tomatoes and crooning to it.
Last year we planted the common tomatoes that I remember from the Oklahoma summers of my childhood -- round, regular and red. Better Boy, Big Beef -- who knows what the plants' marketing names were.

The tomatoes that Kate fell in love with are labeled heirlooms* -- Shady Lady, Bobcat and Monica.

I've always loved the concept of heirlooms.  These are tomatoes that have pollinated in a natural way in an open garden. The gardeners who originally grew them, selected their seeds for specific desirable characteristics -- color of the fruit, flavor, disease resistance, productivity, etc. They often share the seeds with others. An heirloom tomato seed can easily have a documented provenance, just like a wor…

Summer Heat's a Coming

The cabbages are balling. The scallions are bulging. The red chard is bolting.  The volunteer yellow grape tomato plant is filling out with tiny green tomatoes.

Kate just put in some strawberries. The first distinctive leaves and tendrils are rising to attach themselves to the bamboo trellis we have for peas and beans . . .  It's a beautiful day in the garden.

Down to the Dirt At Last

All keyboard and no dirt makes Jill a very dull girl indeed!

I've burrowed into my gardening bag and liberated the seeds I harvested last summer on my morning dog walks. Little twists and packets of newsprint enclosing wilted blossoms and loose seeds: "8 ft hollyhock" is the scrawled ballpoint label on one packet; "rasp. small carnations"; and "mixed bachelor buttons."

Straw spears, woodland confetti, flattened blossoms -- all enfolding the magic of botany and blossoms.

Of the three of us, I think I'm the one who most craves flowers.  Flowers were what we grew in the gardens of my childhood: hollyhocks, my father's favorites; zinnias, marigolds and nasturtiums, the ever reliables; and bachelor buttons, which are bouquets within a single blossom.

Most of our first year efforts at flowers were a bust. Ancient gerbera seeds -- a luncheon favor that Karen had saved for years -- retired in the soil. The marigolds we planted to keep bugs off the toma…

New Garden Equipment Abounds

This may be a form of profiling, but I always had the image of composting vegetable gardners as being of the anti-consumerism, recycle and simplify-simplify-simplify persuasion.

But in the space of six weeks, our gardening equipment has expanded in size, type and sophistication.

We were given a baby tiller; a big, stacking compost bin; and a chipper. We found a deal on a folding, tough nylon wheel barrow. We bought the industrial pooper scouper to clean up after our dogs and the neighborhood cats who think of our garden as a the Kohler of the earth.

Kate macerated 75% of the garden plot, pausing long enough to transplant a volunteer tomato plant. She has the BunnyLuv waste straw carefully piled as mulch. She's been fondling saw blades and looking up at the termite infested branches of a tree leaning over Karen's garage.

The longer she looks the more termite and rot infested the tree becomes and the more necessary it is going to be for her to climb up on the roof of the garage a…

A Race with the Sun

The first year we tilled Fink Farms, I input into my iCalendar all the planting dates and when the first harvest could be expected according to the seed packets.

Nothing grew as expected. Sowed seeds eschewed seeking the sun. Dozens of seeds produced two sprouts. Sprouts moped about unresponsive to their seed package PR.

This is Southern California.  Planting "after the last frost" is not a functional instruction. Heat settles in like a yenta for a cup of tea and gossip. [We're still trying to grow cabbages, which those in the know call "cool weather" plants.]

Gardening feels like a race against the sun at this time of year. My potting soil has been long gone.  My seedling pans like empty.  And the guilt mounts . . .

Busy Bees Make Gardens Fruitful

Bees are the unthanked field help of a garden. Many people -- including my fellow gardener, Karen -- can't stand them and don't want plants that attract them in a garden.

On a recent dog walk, I saw a swarm of bees. It was an awesome sight. One bee is one thing, hundreds are something else.

Then this came across the potting bench:

"Unlike honey bees, Mason Bees create nests in hollow spaces like reeds and holes in wood and 'pad' them, as their name suggests, with mud from the surrounding garden.  Because mason bees will settle in and colonize in a friendly environment, you can encourage them by providing them a pre-built home like the Blue Orchard Mason Bee Nest available at High Country Gardens."

The nest looks like a piece of clay pipe with straws inside.  It has a natural, functional look that would go well in any garden.

From the Composting Pit

As Thomas Friedman dourly notes in Hot, Flat and Crowded, the eco/green movement is less a movement than it is a block party.

Karen and I (Jeannette) drifted into the party a few years ago when we dipped our toes into composting. We went to a Department of Public Works composting workshop at Griffith Park, which was a hilarious presentation with an interesting audience.

Thinking that it was better to give it a try before we sunk a lot of money into an official composter, we purchased two black garbage cans and spare utility knife blades. We cut the bottoms out of the cans and cut triangular holes all around the sides (triangles were the easiest shape to cut).  We dug two holes in her yard utility area and put the open ended cans into the dirt. Voila, a duet of composting.

Composting is challenging when it's fed from from the kitchens of two single women. Karen can walk her compost out the back door. I collect mine in a lovely can with charcoal filters in its lid on my kitchen coun…

The Adventure Begins

Actually, the adventure took root a year ago in a 10-foot by 12-foot plot in Karen's backyard. Karen and I (Jeannette) have spent a couple of years nurturing a pair of recalcitrant DIY compost bins, always believing that one day we'd move the compost over to the plot and start a garden.

Karen had been intensively cultivating yarrow in the plot. She spent a spring digging and amending the plot. We'd both planted a few things that hadn't survived snails, summer heat and erratic watering. But last year, the whole thing came together. Karen's gardener rototilled it.  Kate, Karen and I dug up wandering yucca plant and magnolia tree roots. We added steer manure and a variety of soil amendments as they tickled our fancies.

Soon we had a tomato jungle, climbing beans, Turkish eggplants, mutant carrots and three radishes. Until we put in nasturtiums and zinnias, all efforts at flowers failed.  (Perhaps decades old seeds aren't viable . . . )  Our most productive plant w…