Wednesday, July 29, 2009

First Bounty

We have been enjoying the fruit of our labor in the vegetable garden enjoying our yellow squash, basil and green beans. But the biggest news is that I picked a few ripe tomatoes last evening. The number of green fruits is amazing, I think we'll do much better than last year in terms of yield. Above all else this is what we look forward to all summer -- fresh, organically home-grown tomatoes.

We've enjoyed our squash grilled and also fried in EVOO with fresh basil and Parmesan. We've had steamed green beans with a little butter and also in a pasta salad. There was pesto pizza and creamy pesto raviolis. Tonight's menu includes the first ratatouille of the season with just-picked eggplant, squash and basil. But I can't wait for the BLTs, Caprese salads and salsas yet to come.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Finally Fruit!

While slightly out of focus it is still ample proof that we are finally getting tomatoes. I know many California gardeners both in the north and south who have already had tomatoes starting to ripen and in some cases ready for harvest, we got a later start. I was trying to be patient and heed expert advice to wait until the soil was indeed warm enough for setting out the garden. (I almost never wait this late -- we planted May 10 -- but with the late rains, things didn't get going as fast as I would have liked.)

With the recent weeks of almost coastal-like weather we've been having, I have been seeing more tomato blossoms fall than set. Skies have been partly cloudy for more than a week, temperatures have remained about 10 degrees below normal only reaching the low 80s and a 10 mph breeze blows throughout most of the day.

So this morning I was pleasantly surprised while taking a look at how things are progressing to find this specimen, about one-inch in diameter, it is a Mr. Stripey. Further inspection resulted in a find of two smaller fruits on the Shady Lady. I had resigned myself to not seeing fruit until temperatures were well back into the normal range of upper 80s to low 90s.

With the weather expected to heat up late in the week I am hoping for many more similar sightings. Now I just have to figure out how to keep those pesky scrub jays away once they begin turning red.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Of Cucumbers, Radishes, Carrots and Sunflowers

I mentioned last post that the cucumber had set fruit. These are Spacemaster, a bush variety that I have planted in an old recycling tub.

This week the lettuce and alleged spinach made it into the compost bin and carrots and radish seeds went in their pots. The carrots are Romeo Round Baby Carrots, radishes are Easter Egg II Rainbow. Not sure if it may be too warm for these crops so it's definitely an experiment.

A watermelon seed I had planted earlier that hadn't germinated came up near the bell pepper I put in its place. I gently dug it up and placed it in a tiny pot but I'm not sure I have room or a sunny enough location for it.

There are lots of zinnia and cosmo seeds coming up and I am diligently attempting to keep the birds and snails away from them by keeping overturned berry baskets over them until they get big enough to defend themselves.

I am eagerly awaiting germination of of the sunflower seeds, a Mammoth variety, that I finally planted after deliberating where to put them. I was hoping to find another packet of Strawberry Blonde sunflowers that I planted last year. I purchased them at Target but didn't see any when I looked there yesterday. I may try another Target store because these are very pretty, described on the package as "a beautiful soft lemon yellow brushed with rose-pink." A few seeds I had left over went into the ground earlier this year but either did not emerge or were taken by snails. Unfortunately, I never did get a photo of these in bloom last year.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Garden Update

The vegetable garden is thriving even after a late-season storm early Thursday morning that dumped nearly a half inch of icy rain. Typically Sacramento’s rainy season is October through April so this was different for us. This storm was also unusual in that it included nearly continuous lightening flashes and thunder so loud it shook the windows and activated car alarms all over town. Primarily I was worried it might hail. So when I heard a heavy downpour shortly after midnight I went outside to feel the precipitation. It had a slushy feel to it but I don’t believe we got hail in our area and the garden survived intact. A retired National Weather Service meteorologist described the event as “the most impressive display of lightening I have ever seen,” according to The Sacramento Bee. The storm lasted at least two hours as I was awakened after 3 a.m. by similar storm characteristics.

All of our tomato plants have grown considerably since planting on May 10 (top photo). Heights of the plants range from 12 inches to about 27 inches (lower photo). All have blossomed as have all the pepper varieties, the eggplant, zucchini and cucumbers.

Green Beans!

The green beans and the zucchini were the first to produce fruit. These are Derby, a bush variety I purchased as a nursery start.

Curiously Bitter Lettuce

I haven’t had much luck growing lettuce. On April 12 I sowed some lettuce seeds in a large container. While several seeds germinated they began as compact heads and more recently have grown tall. The taste was so bitter I couldn't even swallow it.

I know this is a common problem especially in areas where temperatures can soar well into the 90-degree range – and we’ve had a few days in the upper 90s already. I think I’m giving up on lettuce for now. There are so many great varieties available at local stores.

The variety I planted is Salad Bowl from Burpee. As you can see by the picture it is beginning to bolt. I plan to compost it this weekend.

Curious Spinach

I planted spinach seeds this year for the first time. Curiously, what came up looks nothing like the picture on the packet. I chose Catalina, a baby-leaf spinach from Renee’s Garden. The illustration on the seed packet shows rounded smooth-edged leaves. What I have is definitely pointed at the top of each leaf with a more ragged edge. Could these seeds possibly have been mislabeled? Curiously, a variety called Summer Perfection shown on the company's website (just below the Catalina) looks more like what I have. I suppose it's possible the seeds found their way into the wrong packet.

Either way, it is bound for the compost bin as it was quite bitter tasting. Now I've just got to decide what to replant in the pot.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Tomato Steroids

On Sunday while out doing some shopping I stopped by Capital Nursery to pick up some fish emulsion for the garden. In the past I have used this type of fertilizer exclusively with the exception of compost at planting time. But this year I spotted this adorable little bottle.

Earlier in the weekend I had asked a grower at the farmer's market what the secret is to growing Brandywines. He mentioned that often they grow lush foliage but few flowers. The secret he said, is calcium. While compost is excellent fertilizer he continued, it is very high in nitrogen which encourages foliage growth. Calcium is what helps tomatoes flower and therefore fruit, he said. I've also read that lack of calcium contributes to blossom-end rot, a problem I have confronted many times.

With this advice in mind I scoured the nursery shelves for a fertilizer that is easy to apply and was high in calcium. Most did not even list calcium as an ingredient. Dynamite Mater Magic was therefore my pick as it contains 4.5 percent calcium according to the product label. In a few days when the garden dries out from its last watering, I will apply the granular mix and top dress the garden with some fresh potting soil and water it in.

In the meantime, the cute bottle sits on the kitchen counter and my youngest son expounded incredulously the other day, "You bought tomato steroids, Mom?"

Monday, June 01, 2009

Speaking of basil... can never have enough. The leaves are great on turkey sandwiches, with good mozzarella and vine ripened tomatoes and of course in pesto on pasta. With just a few dollars left and a sack full of strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums and apricots at the farmer's market Saturday, I picked up another basil start and a green bell pepper. The grower said an average bell will produce between a dozen and fifteen peppers. Since these are one of my youngest son's favorites I figure if we want any for cooking we needed another one. I placed the basil and pepper in the spots where I had attempted to start two watermelon varieties. The seeds were old and only one of each variety sprouted but within days of emerging the tender seedlings were plucked and disappeared. I blame the mischievous scrub jays that nest in the Redwood trees in our backyard. After contemplating I decided the location was probably not sunny enough for watermelons anyway.

Baby Zukes

As could be expected, the zucchini will likely be the first to produce edible fruit.

Although I did see two baby green beans on the nursery transplants I put in a few weeks back. Since I had only purchased two, I picked up a packet of Burpee Bush Blue Lake seeds and three more plants have sprouted already. I have never grown green beans before and look forward to a plentiful harvest.

I also picked up some Genovese Basil seeds from the Burpee rack and have two pots sprouting as well.

Pork Fat Rules

Last time I shopped at Trader Joe's I saw a package of pork chops prepared as seen here. Pshaw, I said, I can do that. Note the fresh, home-grown, rosemary. After grilling, the meat was pleasantly seasoned with a distinct rosemary flavor. And yes, that is bacon holding it all together. Mmmmm...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From Successful Gardening to Weight Loss, Does Moon Phase Matter?

Familiar with the notion that some gardeners transplant and set out seeds according to the lunar calendar I decided to see how, according to where in the cycle I put in my garden this year, my crops might fare this year.

Moon gardeners believe plants do better when set out at the right time. The phase of the moon determines whether energy and nutrients are directed above or below ground. (Fine Gardening magazine)

Turns out according to proponents of this method I may have missed the ideal planting period by as little as one day, perhaps close enough? I set out garden transplants on Sunday, May 10. This month’s full moon appeared Saturday, May 9. In fact, May’s full moon was known as the “corn planting” moon by early Native Americans.

The theory is during the waxing period of the moon, the phase when the moon is becoming fuller the earth receives the plants readily and will develop roots easily. They are also ready for the increasing moisture that follows during the waning period when the moon is becoming smaller. We all know the ocean’s tides are controlled by the moon’s gravitational pull. It isn’t hard to conclude then that underground water tables react similarly.

While not sure if it is folklore, old wives’ tale or scientific fact the Farmers’ Almanac tells me in its astronomy section that one of the best days to start a diet to lose weight is May 13. In that vein, I’d like to officially declare today as the first day of my weight-reduction effort.

For more on planting by the moon phases, read this New York Times article.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Seed Sowing

Seeds planted Saturday, May 9

Crimson Sweet Watermelon
Sugar Baby Watermelon

Seeds planted Monday, May 11

Italian “Gigante” Parsley
Slow-Bolt Cilantro

Berry Basket Cutting Zinnias
Chartreuse and Purple Mix Zinnia
Knee-high Cosmos Sonata Mix
Mini Sun Hybrid Sunflower
Strawberry Blonde Sunflower

Easter Egg II Rainbow Radishes

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Officially Up and Running

Today we finally made it to the nursery for our vegetable starts. I sketched out on paper where I wanted to put what and we piled in the car. Here’s what vegetables we bought followed by some details on each:

First the peppers:
Ixtapa – a mildly hot jalapeno
Habanero – legendary hottest of all peppers from the Caribbean
De Arbol – a red, slender pepper, originally from Mexico
Tiburon – Poblano Hot Pepper for makinh chili rellenos
Oriole – a sweet hybrid tangerine orange Bell Pepper

Next, tomatoes:
Brandywine – the classic heirloom
German Johnson – an old time heirloom from the Carolinas
Box Car Willie – heirloom with good resistance from disease and cracking
Mr. Stripey – clearly defined yellow-orange stripes, mild flavor, low acid
Shady Lady – ample foliage provide excellent coverage for the fruit, preventing sunburn, hence the name Shady Lady
Patio – a bush variety and good choice for container growing

Admittedly, we chose several tomatoes simply for their whimsical names. The abundance of these two vegetables reflects our penchant for homemade salsa.

We also planted:
Derby – a stringless Bush Bean that produces all season
Gold Rush – yellow zucchini summer squash
Yellow Submarine – a yellow-skinned, seedless cucumber
Satin Beauty – Eggplant

Friday, May 08, 2009

To Ban or Not To Ban

When you first start gardening you try it all, anything you think might grow in your humble garden, you pick up off the seed rack. Sunflowers are easy enough. “I absolutely must have seven or eight varieties, to start,” you muse. Zinnias – now there’s a favorite of mine, and they are so easy. Zinnias I like because they come in almost every color of the rainbow. There’s even a lovely one called Green Envy, Elegans in Latin, how could you turn your back on that? (More on back turning later.) The Envy isn’t actually green per se, but rather a pale, yellowy-green…spring green – if you will, in Crayola terms.

But early on I was attracted to, for a reason that escapes me now, Nasturtiums. They’ve been around for centuries, so I’ve heard, and once they are in your garden, they magically reseed themselves and come back year, after year, after year.

“If you are looking for a plant for your garden that will spread like wildfire, produce decorative foliage, have an ocean of brightly-colored blossoms, and be tasty to boot, there is only one that will fit the bill: Nasturtiums.”

Thus writes Linda Gilbert a Bay Area freelance journalist, cooking class instructor, and co-owner of the Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.

“Nasturtiums are a gardener's dream,” Linda expounds.

“They are virtually carefree once established. Snails don't seem to be interested in them. They will even self seed and come back the next year in mild climate.”

Now in the beginning of your gardening career, a flower with that much staying power is miraculous to you. “It actually plants itself?” you marvel. You’re standing in the garden the following spring pounding your chest like Tom Hanks in Cast Away: “I. Have. Made. Flowers,” you bellow aloud to no one in particular (since you haven’t a gardening equivalent to Wilson... yet).

And they do double duty…you can even eat them.

“Their sweet, peppery taste (both in the leaves and in the flowers) adds to the enjoyment,” Linda continues.

“Take advantage of this spicy flavor as well as the decorative color. Use both leaves and blossoms in salads. Try adding them to spinach salads for a dramatic effect. Nasturtium's spiciness is also a winning addition to cheese spreads. Both the leaves and the blossoms look and taste great in tea sandwiches. For a stunning look, pair orange nasturtium blossoms with violets on open-faced cucumber sandwiches on white bread.”

And on and on. Year, after year, after year. Thanks Linda, but I think I’ll pass.

The flowers are pretty enough. And I do still revel in wonderment when they return year and again without effort on my part. But here’s the thing: All those years ago, I grabbed a pack labeled “Jewel Mix.” Now these are listed as a “customer favorite” and received a “5 out of 5 average customer rating,” on Burpee’s website.

What’s not to like, you’re asking yourself, right? This is the rub…I’m not crazy about, okay I’ll just say it – I hate their colors. There I said it. Petty? All flowers are beautiful just like all babies are cute you’re thinking, right?

So I am left wondering, is it okay to prohibit, say all, orange flowers from your garden, or all yellow flowers? In the beginning you’re so happy, thrilled and overjoyed by the fact that you have made flowers that the thought of removing them once they have established themselves is illogical, absurd, ridiculous even.

Now that I’ve been through the garden gate a few hundred times or so, I have read my share of gardening books, magazines and blogs to have heard more than once, that one can do whatever one pleases in their own garden. As in most aspects of life these days, anything goes. Wear white after Labor Day? Once, unthinkable. Sip white wine with filet mignon? Years ago, it simply was not done. Leave the house without lipstick? Previously, unconscionable. Now, all matters of personal preference.

Thanks to modern science, Nasturtiums do come in softer palettes these days. One of my favorite seed companies, Renee’s Garden, offers a custard-colored “Vanilla Berry” or the orange-sherbet-and-vanilla-hued “Creamsicle” is somewhat pleasing. But these I have found pale not only in color but hardiness as well compared to their heirloom ancestors, including “Jewel Mix.” They didn’t take well in my garden and those that did grow didn’t hang around long let alone return spontaneously the following season.

As a novice gardener my neighbor told me she had such a distaste for it, she simply never included orange in her borders and beds. I stood there, speechless. I was reminded of when handed my tightly-swaddled newborn son for the first time, I was so awestruck I never, until hours later, thought to unwrap him and adoringly examine him from head-to-toe. What I was thinking in both instances: I can do that?

The conundrum remains though for me. How awful would I be if I ripped out all those orange and worse, goldenrod, Nasturtiums and started over with some soft pink… maybe... well anything else really?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Seed Sowing

Today was beautiful, sunny and warm so in between loads of laundry, I got some work done in the garden. I decided I’d take a look through my stash of seeds from seasons past.

I never can seem to use up a full seed packet. I just don’t have the garden real estate. So today I did an experiment of sorts. I planted several types of seeds that were a year old or more. I’ve had success with second-year germination before but some of these dated back three years. I also tried a couple of squash seeds I’d saved myself from two seasons ago if I remember right. So here’s a list of went into the ground or large pots, accompanied by their source and “packed for” dates:

Slow-Bolt Cilantro/Renee’s Garden/2008
Spacemaster Cucumber/Lake Valley Seeds/2006
German Giant Radish/Burpee/2008
Garden Babies Butterhead Lettuce/Renee’s Garden/2008
Strawberry Blonde Sunflower/Sean Conway for Target/2008
Mini Sun Hybrid Sunflower/Burpee/2008

So I guess most of them are not that old. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and wish for success. I also planted some marigold seeds that I had saved. I really should date those little zip-top baggies. The squash is probably a green variety. They seemed flat, not meaty as you would expect so they were probably the biggest gamble.

I had planned to plant some Jalapeno seeds that were also dated 2006 in my half-whiskey barrel but found that it was infested with ants. A few other containers were also housing rather large ant colonies. I’ll have to dump out all that soil and start over I guess. Sometimes it seems like Elk Grove is built on one big anthill. I should be happy they are in the garden and not the house I suppose.

Next week my husband and I will head to our new favorite garden center, Green Acres Nursery and Supply. We went there last spring for pepper and tomato starts and were very impressed with the selection.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Maria follows Michelle's lead: Sacramento's capitol gets Victory Garden

Just days after Michelle Obama broke ground for a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, California’s first lady announced that Sacramento is getting a public edible garden too.

See more details here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Too early yet for Early Girls, tomato grower cautions

by Bill Lindelof
The Sacramento Bee

In the spring, a gardener's fancy turns to tomatoes.

The itch to buy tomato plants at the local hardware or nurseries can be overwhelming. The siren call of Early Girls and Better Boys beckons.

That might be particularly true this week as the National Weather Service forecasts sunny skies and daytime temperatures in the low- to mid-70s. Nighttime lows are expected to range from 44 to 50 degrees in Sacramento.

But hold on there, tomato lover. It's still too chilly to plant delicate seedlings. That's according to Don Shor, noted gardener and owner of the Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis.

Sure, he stocks tomato transplants in his store – but that doesn't mean he approves of planting them outside quite yet.

Shor said that before tomatoes are planted, the nighttime temperatures should consistently be above 50. Soil temperature should be 60 degrees.

"The key is soil temperatures," said Shor.

He suggests the "butt test." To do that, go outside and plant your rear on the ground.

"Put on some shorts, sit on the ground and if you are uncomfortable, the tomato plants will be, too," said Shor.

Shor is less concerned about tomatoes being planted too early than he is about peppers and eggplant. Put in a tomato too early, and the plant will turn purple and get phosphorous deficiency.

"They will sit there and sulk," he said. "Things that want to eat them will eat them. Then, when it warms up, they will start to grow. But put peppers and eggplant in too early, and they will be stunted all season. The peppers you plant in May always do better than the peppers you plant in April."

The rules with peppers and eggplant are night temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees and a soil temperatures of 70 degrees. Shor said that some gardeners use seedling blankets or plastic "walls of water" to warm plants. "Or you can do like I do – just wait," said Shor.

At times, his nursery has put up a sign near the tomato seedlings saying "It's too early to put these in the ground." That entertains customers, he said.

"I got my first request for tomatoes on Jan. 17," he said. "There had been a good frost on the ground."

Some gardeners like to buy small plants early on and shift them into larger pots for later planting. Going by the calendar, Shor suggests waiting to buy tomatoes, eggplant and peppers until May 1. "People often wonder when it is too late to plant tomatoes," he said. "You can plant them into June. We have a long season here."

What really helps warm the soil is a raised bed. Out in the open field, soil can linger in the low 50s, while the city gardener's raised bed is a toasty 62.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ethel Glove Giveaway -- I Won!

What a thrill! I've won a pair of Ethel Gloves through one of my favorite blogs, An Alameda Garden!

I am looking forward to trying these out. So often I rip my gloves off in frustration and go without due to poor fit. I hate not being able to feel what I'm doing.

These gloves are made especially for women so no more over-sized gloves for me. Thanks, Claire, for this great opportunity to give these gloves a try.

Stay tuned for a full review after I receive and test-drive the gloves.

White House Kitchen Garden

Michelle Obama and more than two dozen Washington-area fifth-graders broke ground Friday for the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden during World War II.

Read about it here. And here’s a great diagram of the proposed layout.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Garden Inspiration

As the weather begins warming, trees start budding and early bloomers begin emerging from the earth, my thoughts naturally turn to gardening once again. Although here in Northern California’s mild climate, year-round gardening is possible, inevitably each fall I give up the ghost. By late August, the most vigorous crops -- tomatoes and peppers -- have slowed production, started looking haggard and bedraggled, and are seemingly as exhausted as I am. So I put the garden to bed and head back indoors to endure the less physically demanding seasons of fall and winter.

Then each spring, like most gardeners who live in less temperate climates, my thoughts turn longingly and eagerly to getting back into the garden and looking forward to the bounty and satisfaction of growing my own produce.

Today I started surfing the blogs again and naturally started with Angela’s “Garden Bliss” where I not only enjoyed her garden rants and musings but followed several links to some other great gardening blogs.

I came across this post of a granddaughter remembering her grandmother on the day that would have been the elder woman’s 76th birthday. The grandmother it seems had a major influence on the writer’s interest in, and love of gardening. It was a touching post that inspired reader’s to comment on their own remembrances. So here I am heading back Through the Garden Gate and it feels great.

While many people stereotypically associate gardening with women, usually older women, In my family it was notable that the men were gardeners. My earliest gardening remembrances are of my grandfather among his tomato plants searching for the perfect specimen and then later standing at the kitchen sink with a saltshaker enjoying a huge, utterly ripe, beefsteak tomato while catching the juicy drips falling from his chin. To this day, without a doubt, that right there -- that to me is the taste of summer.

When I think about what specifically draws me to the garden, it is the tranquility one finds there and the silent appreciation of reveling in the literal fruit of your labors. When I am tending the garden, tension recedes, stress floats away. I am perfectly alone with my thoughts and a deep sense of nurturance acquired by the satisfaction and pride in myself that I have created something so wonderful.

The garden is where I retreat to after a long day at work, a long day of tending to my children’s needs. While I’ve heard it said that sharing this joy with my offspring is supposed to be a spiritual feeling, and could be a breeding ground of significant, lasting memories, I cannot help not feeling guilty when I shoo them back in the house to leave me be among the greenery. The garden is my Calgon.

Perhaps that peaceful calm is what my grandfather sought as well, all those years ago.

Where do you find inspiration to begin gardening anew each spring and who originally inspired your interest in getting your hands dirty?