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Archive for January, 2009

Informal poll results on preliminary strategies in selecting garden veggies / Multiple answers are OK

Informal Twitter poll results on preliminary strategies in selecting garden veggies / Multiple answers are OK

Looks like the “Refrigerator Method” is the most popular approach that gardeners use to determine which veggies to plant, based on our last post.  Interesting that the “Anti-Pesticide Method” came last.  Perhaps we haven’t really thought much about it, or just assume (and rightly so!) that anything home grown is healthier and tastes better than the commercially grown stuff in the produce section!

“Other” included the contrarian (what don’t most people plant?), landscape (what looks great and fits well in the total landscape plan?) and “master of” (e.g. specializing only in heirloom tomatoes).

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We use a combo of Frugal, Tiny Garden, Fridge and Native Methods

We use a combo of Frugal, Tiny Garden, Fridge and Native Methods

People often ask us,

So what vegetables should I grow in my garden?”

Invariably, the response will be a long list of questions like climate, soil, what they like to eat/cook, etc. that borders on interrogation –  mouths agape, eyes glazed, head bobbing up and down, trying to take it all in.  Yes, it can be tedious to think about these things!

So to make it a little bit easier, here are several preliminary approaches you can take in deciding what to plant.  You can certainly follow more than one strategy, keeping in mind your climate, soil, acreage, and personal tastes.

  1. Refrigerator Method. Open your fridge and think what has been in it over the last 12 months.  What are things you will always find and what are “one-offs”?  If you have a good climate for growing vegetables, this is the best method because you know you will use what you grow.
  2. Native Method. If you already know what grows in your area, then focus on what grows well.  Don’t grow artichokes if you have hot summers.  Don’t grow carrots if you’ve got heavy, clay soil.
  3. Frugal Method.  Grow vegetables that are expensive at the supermarket.  Think of short shelf life, high consumption veggies like lettuce, or lower production volume but delicious cherry tomatoes that can cost $3 for just a half quart!
  4. Anti-Pesticide Method.  You may want to grow certain vegetables that have the highest pesticide load, such as sweet bell peppers, celery, lettuce, spinach, potatoes, carrots and green beans.
  5. Tiny Garden Method. If you have limited space to grow, then you may find herbs and vegetables that don’t take up much space to be your favorites.  You may also like the Square Foot Gardening techniques by Mel Bartholomew.
  6. Squirrel Garden Method. The opposite of the Tiny Garden Method and may require a large area.  If like a squirrel with its acorns, you want to stow away vegetables for the winter, then think about setting aside garden space for storage vegetables like potatoes, onions and garlic.  Think of what can be dried (beans, herbs) or canned/frozen (tomato sauce).  We highly recommend Yin-Yang beans!
  7. Impress The Neighbors Method.  Ok, so I am guilty of doing this with our purple artichokes that grow next to the sidewalk (purple anything is a great conversation piece). Go through your seed catalogs until you say “What the heck is that?” and then if it grows in your area, grow it in your garden.  Grow it in your front yard to befuddle neighbors walking by with their dogs.

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Some kids like broccoli!

Some kids like broccoli!

“Mom, can I munch on this onion?”

You get the picture.  Some veggies just aren’t ideal crops for a kid’s first garden.  Children love to graze, and you’ll want to encourage them to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  Although there will be exceptions for some kids who really love broccoli or spinach, for first-timers, have a look at our Top 10 Veggies for Kids to Grow.

To help maintain your child’s enthusiasm for the “stuff” that grows out of her garden, here’s a list of edibles that you might want to OMIT from your kid’s first garden:

  1. Asparagus – can take 2-3 years before produces a strong, harvest-able crop
  2. Cabbage – not munchable, often susceptible to cabbage worms
  3. Cauliflower – high maintenance (blanching), often susceptible to cabbage worms
  4. Eggplant – slimy
  5. Hot peppers – some have oils on the outer layer that can irritate the skin
  6. Okra – fuzzy, spiky, slimy
  7. Onions and garlic – yuck, Mom!
  8. Spinach – can be chalky, though we’ve enjoyed good varieties
  9. Turnips – best to stick to radishes
  10. Zucchini – thorny/prickly, though can equip the neighborhood with baseball bats

For specific projects like pizza gardens where the objective is to harvest ingredients that go into making a finished meal, some ingredients in the list above would not apply.

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Kids love veggie gardening together!

Kids love veggie gardening together!

There are many benefits in introducing children to grow their own food.  Parents and educators may wish to help develop responsibility, a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the home, as well as give kids the opportunity to see the magic of watching something grow.  Your motivations will be your own, but I encourage you to grow vegetables with your kids.

We came up with a list of “kid-friendly” veggies that

  • Kids enjoy – nothing beats picking something and eating it right on the spot
  • Are easy to grow – something you’re pretty sure will be successful

You’ll need to consider these suggestions in light of what grows best in your area.  For instance, melons don’t do well in our cool, foggy summer climate, so alas, we don’t bother growing them.   Lastly, make sure your kids have ease of access to their gardens – either in containers or narrow beds.  Remember they’ve got more limited vertical and stretch reach.  It isn’t much fun having to bushwack your way to get to a bean!

Early season harvest:

1.    Radishes
2.    Sugar Snap Peas
3.    Strawberries (ok, this is a fruit, but so is a tomato! You get the idea.)

Mid-season harvest:

4.    Carrots
5.    Pole or Bush Beans
6.    Cherry Tomatoes

Mid-to-late season harvest:

7.    Corn
8.    Melons
9.    Potatoes
10.  Pumpkins

Root crops like radish help break the top crust and is a good companion to carrots.  Kids may not swoon over the taste, but radishes grow quickly, and allow your little ones to quickly make a contribution to the dinner table.  Carrots are an age-old favorite which kids can munch on as they learn to thin the rows.

Sugar snap peas, strawberries and cherry tomatoes are wonderful “pop-in-your-mouth” food right off the vine or with a quick rinse of water.

Pole beans are fun to trail along teepees, and delicious raw and cooked.  We grow a purple variety (“Royal Burgundy”) that turns green when steamed – a “doneness” indicator!

Fresh, sweet corn can’t be beat (even munching it straight off the stalk), but it takes lots of nitrogen.

Harvesting sunflower seeds

Harvesting sunflower seeds

There’s nothing like the sweetness of home-grown melons, if you’re lucky to have both the space and climate to grow them.  They will require lots of water, but little ones will love harvesting their desserts!

Tall, majestic sunflowers are impressive to little kids.  The hour or two to harvest seeds is a great bonding opportunity on a balmy Indian summer day.

Carving their home-grown pumpkin!

Carving their home-grown pumpkin!

When it’s time to dig out the potatoes, our son invites his neighborhood friends to find the “Easter eggs”.

Pumpkins and gourds can take a lot of room in a garden, but if you’ve got a spare patch that can be left to cultivate the fruit over 4 months, your kids will love to show them off to their friends and schoolmates!

Next up, the “Top 10 Least Desireable Veggies For Kids To Grow” !

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Territorial Seed Co.'s catalog provides valuable seed info

Territorial Seed Co.'s catalog provides valuable info

There’s a pile of seed catalogs on my desk (or “littered around the house”) but only a few are useful as gardening books/tools, and it’s not always because of the company reputation as you’ll read below.  Ed Smith, author of “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible” and promoter of “W-O-R-D” (wide rows, organic methods, raised beds, deep soil) System, devotes a section in his book (pp. 32-35, paperback 2000 edition) on how to decipher seed catalog lingo and assess which ones are keepers.

Top three reminders:

  1. Source seeds from a company in your geographical area (if possible).  These companies often test the varieties they sell and can provide more in-depth information specific to your region.
  2. Be wary of what the catalog does NOT say. For instance, if the description focuses on disease resistance, yield, and firmness, (supermarket produce characteristics) that particular variety may be wanting of flavor.
  3. Pay attention to description lingo.  Is it “sweet-tasting” vs. “nectar-sweet winner of all our trials” ?  Do you sense from their language that they stand behind their products and are intimately knowledgeable of that particular variety?

Our favorite, bedside-worthy, “all-purpose” catalog excellent for the West Coast is the Territorial Seed Company based in Oregon.  As the photo above shows, their catalog provides detailed, useful information (germination, fertilization requirements, pests, diseases, area coverage given seed packet amount, etc.), relevant in our part of the country (i.e. generally mild winters).  We buy from other seed companies, but as catalogs go, Territorial’s is an excellent resource.

Specialty seed companies like Ronniger Potato Farm, based in Colorado, have great tips on growing and storage in their catalog.  Plus they’ll carry more exotic seed types that larger companies may not have available.

Probably the least useful catalog in our pile is from Burpee (sorry, guys), which offers little beyond impressive photographs and the latest trends in what national seed companies are now trying to peddle (e.g. heirlooms).

Most seed companies now have downloadable catalogs via the Web or you can just browse their selections on-line.  If you’re fed up with catalogs, we’ve successfully halted most of ours through http://www.catalogchoice.org/.

So which seed catalogs do you keep for bedside reading?

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Hibernating Ladybugs in CA redwoods

Hibernating Ladybugs in N. California redwoods

Seeing a ladybug or ladybeetle in our garden always elicites an “Awww …” or  “Ooohhh …”.  And when we spotted these hibernating ladybugs on a  Purissima Creek Redwoods hike, it was like discovering the mother lode of natural pest control!

hibernatingladybeetles_2

More hibernating ladybugs in Purissima Creek Redwoods, CA

“Holy smokes, there must be at least a thousand bucks worth of ladybugs here!” my wife utters within earshot of the ranger.  She grins with a “Oh, don’t worry, that was meant to get a reaction from you.”

We have, in fact, purchased ladybugs to control aphids and other pests.  However, these ladies and gents love to fly around and explore the neighborhood – not an issue if you have a large property or farm.  If not, your investment often ends up right in your neighbors’ properties.  Hmm …  There must be a better solution, we thought.

After some research (google these insects and you’ll find many commercial sources like GardensAlive! on the Web), we discovered green lacewings, also known as “aphid lions”.  These voracious eaters appear to be more effective than ladybugs in controlling pests, but only at their larval stage. (1-3 wks).  They do like to “stay local” and have reappeared in our garden the following year.  We’ll talk more about lacewings some time in the spring.

What’s been your experience using ladybugs to control pests in your veggie garden?

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Our very first dry shelled beans

Our very first dry shelled beans

We’ve always planted bush and pole beans (esp. for their nitrogen-fixation benefits), but late last summer, I decided to take a chance and grow plants that produced good, dry shelling beans that we could store for the winter.  I chose one with a very unusual pattern, fondly known as “Yin Yang” calypso bean, and which I’d never seen in supermarkets.

The bean plants thrived and produced beautiful seeds just like what you see on catalogs.  What I found interesting was that:

  • I got an excellent harvest even though they were planted late August (maybe our Mediterranean climate)
  • The harvested dry beans are about 2X the size of the bean seeds used to sow the plants!

I shelled them in the fall and stored them in a coffee can, slyly placing it right next to the coffee machine until my wife got fed up and tucked them away on top of the fridge where she’d never see them again.  Suffice it to say that the association of the words “beans” and “Roy” motivate her to pack her bags for a distant country.

Luckily, she recently discovered a bean soup recipe in Jacques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way.  Recalling how much she missed a hearty chili soup in the winter, and feeling insipired by the photographs, our calypso beans were finally put to work.

Our calypso bean harvest for soup and salads.

Our calypso bean harvest for soup and salads.

Some references indicate you do not need to soak these overnight (just 1 hour in very hot water), but it’s become a habit to do so, as well as change the water every few hours.  Also, you should always change the water before you cook the beans.  (This  practice has kept our marriage intact, BTW.)

The result was a delightful, rich, meaty bean that you can use for bean salads, soups and baking.  That coffee can of beans is now sitting on our kitchen counter and will be empty by the week’s end!

Let us know if you’d like more info on growing these beans.

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