Friday, December 31, 2010

Call in the Clean-up Crew

So much for having a La Nina year – this season has felt as wet as any El Nino year that I can remember, at least so far. My Midwestern relatives laugh, “how can just a couple inches of rain cause such a ruckus?” Well, this is Southern California, we don’t drain, we flood.  Despite road closures, cliff collapses, and downed trees in many parts of the county, the Victory Garden has weathered the storm mostly unscathed.

In the days between storm fronts, Hubby and I spent a couple of hours a day cleaning up. Hubby spent his time in the eastern side yard where we have our fruit trees. The tangerine tree, while vigorously producing fruit, was being pulled down by the weight of its own branches. One branch had started breaking and was cutting into the heart of the plant with a vicious split. Hubby cut off the heavy branches and mended the painful split in the trunk. We do not have space in the garbage cans for all the branches, but I hope that our neighbors will help us harvest and eat the fruit at least. For the time being, he piled the branches on the concrete pad adjacent to the tree. Hubby also trimmed back the pink heather, jasmine, and pomegranate. After spreading the newly shorn mulch around, he was ready to call it a day.

Meanwhile, I was completing massive amounts of weeding. I pulled buckets of thick stemmed dandelions out of the soil, still wet with the previous day’s rain. I have to admit, the tactics I used in Putting the Garden to Sleep didn’t work for weed abatement.  The cover I used was semi-opaque and allowed enough sunlight for the weeds to successfully germinate. Oh well, you live, you learn. Next year I will change tactics and use sheet composting and nitrogen enriching cover crops (more on that later). By the time I finished with the last bed I was wet, muddy, and my back ached from stooping over to pull weeds. I saw some really good signs of healthy soil – earthworms galore, many of them still young and small. I covered them back up with dirt to protect them from the birds.

I rounded out the day planting some more seeds in my butterfly garden: foxglove, black-eyed susans, butterfly flower, and yarrow. I know it is a bit early, but the seeds will germinate when they are ready, hopefully before the monarch return in their northward migration. I then planted more peas, radishes, lettuces, and nasturtiums. Seed planting is such a joy, like painting with spade rather than brush and with the lovely anticipation of what will pop out of the ground with the warming of the spring earth.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In Memorium and Best Wishes

2010 was a rough year for my family due to illness and loss of loved ones. My grandmother’s health seriously deteriorated after the recurrence of her colon cancer. Throughout her convalescence, I would bring her beautiful and fragrant sweet peas hand-picked from my garden. In her honor, I have planted a new batch seeds, decedents of the plants that brought color from the world outside to her sick room. They are poking their green shoots out of the loamy ground; I hope to have blooms by late winter or early spring.

We also lost two faithful kitty companions, Lona and Mossy. Lona loved her ‘nip and for her memory I have let the gone-to-seed catnip infest the cracks in the patio and the vacant flower beds. The neighborhood cats love it and my kitty clan loves the herb as a special treat. Cats on catnip are always great for a laugh! My mind plays tricks on me in my parents’ garden and I think I see my sweet Mossy, my quiet ghost kitty. I continue to look for her even though I logically know she is not there.  In her memory I feed and watch the birds, but thankfully they have much less to fear from me.

Best Holiday wishes from the Victory Gardeners! May your soil be fertile, your sunshine and rain ample, and your harvest bountiful!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Peggy's Pumpkin Bread

I thought I'd try another component to garden blogging - a recipe share! Since we are in the home stretch of Christmas preparations, I wanted to share the family recipe for my Grandmother's pumpkin bread - my holiday favorite. I thought this recipe was lost forever, and lo, it fell out of an old cookbook as a piece of loose leaf paper. I figured the best way to preserve it is to share it!

In one large bowl (Kitchen Aid mixing bowl works well), mix the following ingredients:
3 cups sugar
3 1/3 cups of flour
1 cup vegetable shortening
4 eggs
2/3 cup of water
2 cups canned pumpkin (Libby's is the best)
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
2 teaspoons of baking soda
1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves
1 cup walnuts (optional)

Mix components together slowly in Kitchen Aid mixer. The batter will be thick and heavy, so make sure the mixer and the bowl are anchored securely. Grease 6 mini-loaf pans or 2 larger loaf pans and cook at 350 for approximately 45 minutes. Check the bread at 30 minutes and test with toothpick at the 45 minute mark. Cook another 10-15 minutes as needed if batter is still gooey. Let cool for about 20 minutes. Refrigerate after cooling. Mini-loaves can be wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen if desired.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Benign Neglect (December Bloomday)

For the past couple of weeks, I have left my garden to its own devices, a type of benign neglect necessitated by shorter days and cooler weather. During this time, Southern California had enough rain to keep the winter vegetables watered. Left to their own devices, the winter vegetables have flourished. I reap a large bowl of salad greens once a week that fulfills the needs of my lunches.

I have even pulled some radishes out of the ground; they are delicious yet milder than their store-bought cousins. Now, if only I planted more – good thing there is more time yet!

Weeds have been a problem . . .

And has the orange rust infection of my Mother of Pearl roses.

My plum and fig trees are losing their leaves

While the pomegranate tree leaves are yellowing beautifully.

The tangerine is being pulled downward by the weight of its own fruit. Time to harvest some sweet early winter fruit just in time for the holidays!

The neglect must now end as I slowly but surely begin cleaning up: pulling weeds, trimming back the roses, harvesting tangerines & pomegranates, and removing dead foliage. There is also research and subsequent planning to keep me busy during the winter months. Thankfully, it doesn't (usually) get too cold not to be in the garden.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Over the years that I have been keeping a garden, I have never made an effort to plant or maintain a winter garden. Not being much of a morning person (my wife and children will certainly attest to that), I do most of my gardening work in the evening after work. That doesn’t work very well in the winter when it is dark by the time I get home. What I do work on during the winter months is the improvement of my garden’s soil.

In real-estate, the mantra when buying a house is “location, location, location”. When growing a garden and especially growing tomatoes the equivalent advice about gardening is that “it’s the soil, soil, soil”. In San Diego, unless you are extremely fortunate or you live where someone else has amended the soil, lurking under that first few inches of topsoil is the nastiest, hardpan clay that when mixed with the right amount of water is nearly as good as cement. For the untutored, tomatoes do not grow well in cement.

I have been growing tomatoes for a number of years, and when friends and acquaintances find out about my avocation they ask what are the “secrets” for growing good tomatoes. I can talk to them about buying plants or growing from seed, what fertilizers to use, how to spot insect or disease infestation, but in the end, it always comes down to what is the condition of your soil. Sometime this winter, try this experiment. Put on some boots or heavy soled shoes, get some gloves, a shovel and pick a spot in your garden where you would normally plant tomatoes. Dig a trench approximately 6” to 8” across and 18” to 24” deep for a length of about 2’-3’.

Generally, and certainly in 99% of San Diego back yards, you will dig to a depth of 4” to 6” and you will begin to encounter a hard substrate. This is that nasty clay I spoke of earlier. You will find that your shovel does not cut through the clay as it is too dense and hard. At this point you will need a pick axe. I didn’t tell you about the pick axe earlier as I did not want to scare you. A quick note about tomato characteristics is that a fully developed tomato plant will have a root system that will extend 2.5’ to 3.5’ below the tomato plant. Roots will extend in a rough circle approximately 18” to 24” around the plant. Now I have a question for you. If you could not penetrate the soil of your garden below 6” to 8” with a shovel, how do you expect your tomato plant to do so?

The best advice I can give to anyone contemplating growing tomatoes is to enrich and amend your soil to a depth of at least 24” and 36” if possible. I speak from experience when I tell you this is hard, back breaking sweaty work whether you do it yourself or hire someone to amend the soil. The bottom line is that there is no better way to ensure good tomatoes than improving the soil they grow in. In future blog posts, I will provide some tips about amending your garden’s soil. Remember, “it’s the soil, soil, soil”.

Monday, November 15, 2010

November Bloomday

The garden is looking a little thin. I have my one vegetable bed that is filling in with more lettuces, radishes, and cauliflower (as long as I can keep the slugs away). I still have beautiful plumeria and rose blooms thanks to the sunny, warm weather. I've successfully nursed my geraniums back to health. The fig, plum, and pomegranate trees are dropping their leaves slowly but surely. The truly bright jewels I have in my garden this month are Humming birds. They buzz by me as fast as their wings can carry them, not caring a wit about the human in their presence. I have tasty treats for them - Mexican Sage and fuchsia. Lastly, I am really excited about my Anna Apple blooms - will there be apples come early spring?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

In the Zoro Garden

Past the Ruben H Fleet and beyond the dramatic Bea Evenson fountain, off the beaten path of El Prado, visitors will find the maze-like grotto of the Zoro Garden. As the elevation descends, so does the temperature, the foliage providing cooler pockets of air in between patches of sun. The garden is historically and presently a tactile tease, for the visitor is tempted to touch what the garden rules have deemed forbidden fruit.

Like the Alcazar Garden, the Zoro Garden was also constructed for the 1935 - 1936 Pacific International Exposition. But rather than showcase fountains and plants, the Zoro Gardens was marketed and portrayed as a Nudist Colony. Ever popular and scandalous, many peeped through the garden fence to get a glimpse of the comely women nudists cavorting in their “natural environment.” See pictures.

The Zoro Garden is now a butterfly garden, providing sanctuary to migrating monarchs on their way to Mexico. It has multiple varieties of plants that serve as food as well as shelter for transformative chrysalises. There still exists that tactile temptation to touch one’s surroundings or even a brave butterfly that ventures too closely. Park signs forbid it: Do not touch butterflies, caterpillars, cocoons, or disturb the winged wildlife in any way. The visitor must be satisfied to run a hand over the uneven mortar and stone that forms the meandering pathways of the garden.

While we missed the migrating monarchs, we followed the paths toward the central amphitheater, noting the remaining autumn blooms, white milkweed, purple salvia, and yellow cone flowers. The dappled sunlight was unmoving in the still air, providing relief from the late fall heat.  The tall ferns further augmented the sensation of tropical coolness.

I hope to revisit the Zoro Garden in early spring to experience the northward monarch migration. Perhaps if fortune favors me, I will be blessed with the light, feathery touch of butterfly wings.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In the Alcazar Garden

Winter dormancy has reduced my garden to one small winter vegetable bed that may or may not produce as planned. In the interim, I will take a tour of the senses in the beloved and beautiful public gardens of Balboa Park, the crown jewel of planned public parks in the San Diego area.

As visitors stroll across the Cabrillo Bridge, they hear the hum of the busy freeway below and the sounds of auto traffic proceeding into the park.  Little do some know, as they follow the thoroughfare of El Prado, the din of modernity dissipates into the tranquility of a Spanish style garden through the archways to the south.  This is the Alcazar Garden, originally constructed for the 1935 - 1936 Pacific International Exposition.

We walked into the garden after the chimes of the California tower struck noon; they continued their tune, drowning out the buzz of traffic nearby. After the ringing of the chimes, the most noticeable music was that of the two brightly tiled fountains, bubbling in the dry autumn heat. The fountains were recently renovated in 2008. Previously, unsightly damaged tiles and empty basins greeted visitors.  Skate boarders were accused of the destroying tiles, for it looked as if a skate boards had landed on and smashed the tiles.  Ugly, caged-like bars attempted to protect the remaining tiles, further marring the landscape. In an ironic twist, renovating workers discovered that moisture had seeped through the grout causing the cracking and decay, rendering the ugly cages obsolete and necessitating an apology to the skate boarding community.

The Alcazar garden was designed to mimic the more famous Alcazar Gardens in Seville, Spain. Besides the tile fountains, it has a shade pergola and numerous benches for taking in the tranquil scene.  It is a formal, structured garden with boxwood hedges and adjacent pathways that separate six large central plots, showcasing multi-colored annual flowers and eight plots encircling the garden with more permanent water-wise and butterfly friendly selections. At this time, the two largest central plots are planted with perennial lavender and impatiens, allowing the garden to retain its Mediterranean theme, while providing a water-wise solution for the dry seasonal heat.

I think it is the perfect place to while away a pleasant, balmy day, listening to the music of falling water. But Hubby would rather chase butterflies . . .

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Re-Seeding the Winter Garden

I started seedlings for a late fall harvest back in July in the hopes that I would be harvesting root and leaf vegetables around this time. FAIL! Despite a cooler summer, most of the seedlings either burned up in the sun or died during the transplant process (a temporary black thumb effort on my part). A small group of broccoli, cabbage, and snap peas survived only to be eaten by slugs. Some hardy lettuces have sprouted as well as arugula from plants I allowed to go to seed last winter. 

My next experiment in is to re-seed now and have a harvest in late winter/ early spring. Using a pen, I poked holes in the still damp dirt in 2.5 foot rows. I deposited two nursery-bought seeds in each hole and covered gently with my weeding tool. I did not water the seeds to allow them to sink and find root in the soil. I'll let the rain and existing moisture water the plants until the soil dries out completely. To top it off, I added a fine layer of nitrogen-rich vegetable fertilizer. My re-seeded vegetables are radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, red cabbage, arugula, romaine, leeks, carrots, yellow onions, and snap peas.

  For my flowers, I used seeds that I had gathered and dried at the beginning of summer. I planted them in a similar process, but instead of rows, I planted the nasturtium at random to fill in spaces in the butterfly garden. I planted the sweet peas in their own separate bed surrounding the base of over-turned round tomato cages. The cages will act as supports as the plants grow. These two types of flowers have also popped up on their own, re-seeding themselves from last year's flowers.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Season's End

I approach autumn with a degree of ambivalence that builds slowly into apprehension. On one hand, I am happy to have the opportunity to work on other projects and goals and not be so tied to tending garden. But as the golden sun spend less and less time in the sky, I grow uneasy with the coming winter: cloudy skies, shortened daylight, plant dormancy or (gasp!) plant death. As it currently stands, I only have an hour of light to tinker in the garden when I come home from work. When Daylight Savings Time officially ends in November, there will be no light left for garden tasks. Although I planned my garden’s winter dormancy ahead of time because of my foot surgery, I feel like the last 3 weeks of weather and light have been stolen from me. Tending garden is my meditation, my retreat from the world that both keeps me grounded and connects me to my roots.

Perhaps this is the time to refresh and renew, to seek out new inspirations and new vistas to help find next season’s purpose. Also, I have many other goals to complete; they cannot be neglected because they do not bring me as much pleasure as growing the perfect tomato.

Hubby contemplating the waves from Self-Realization Fellowship Garden in Encinitas, CA

Friday, October 15, 2010

October Bloom Day

Its been three weeks since foot surgery and I'm doing well all things considered - I just need to get that toe joint moving so I can avoid physical therapy. Before going out on garden leave, I planted cyclamen, sunset orange snapdragons, and winter lettuces. These have successfully taken root and are growing nicely. I can't say the same about my chrysanthemums, but I am treating those as annuals anyway. Rounding out the pictures are my Double Delight Roses, still going strong after some TLC, and Hubby's precious pomegranates.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tomato Plant Timing or "When do I see "red". By Papi Tomato

This is a Sprite.

First of all, I wanted to thank Rosie Tomato for the opportunity to fill in while she recovers from her foot surgery. Sources close to Rosie tell me she is recovering well with a prognosis for full recovery.

My first post will deal the timing for planting tomatoes. Most varieties of tomatoes will mature and fruit in approximately 90 days. There are some fast developing varieties for colder climates that mature and fruit in 60 days or less. Other varieties that can be north of 100 days, but as a rule of thumb, you can count on 90 days as a good estimate. Any good seed catalog will provide the days for a particular tomato variety to mature.

Rosie planted most of her tomato plants from mid March to Mid April (think Clairemont Garden Show). If you add 90 days to those planting intervals you start seeing red (as in red tomatoes) sometime around mid June to mid July. However, there are other matters to consider. Soil temperature and ambient temperature in March and April are not what they are in the summer, but the temperatures are sufficient to allow tomato plants to grow, albeit more slowly. Also, this summer in San Diego was gloomy and cool. This will also affect the amount of time tomatoes will take to mature and fruit.

Most of my tomato plants went into the garden around the June 1st. I started seeing ‘red’ on some plants mid August with good overall production at the end of August and first part of September. As of this post (October 5th) I still have two or three tomato plants producing tomatoes. The plants look rather ‘long in the tooth’, but they will maintain tomatoes for some time if you continue to water. I was able to pick over two pounds of red San Marzano roma tomato this past Sunday to make spaghetti sauce. Yesterday I picked nearly a pound of Sprite, Fiorentino and Black Pearls.

Normally, I plant about 1/3 of my tomatoes April 1st, May 1st and June 1st respectively. This usually gives me three months of garden tomatoes for consumption, cooking and gifts. The photos below were taken in my garden toward the end of September. As you can see, there is still a lot of ‘red’ there.

Miscellaneous plants.

This is a Fiorentino

Black Pearl (I am so a fan of Pirates to the Caribbean)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Introducing my Guest Blogger!

I will be unable to tend garden for the next couple weeks due to foot surgery and consequently, it is time for me to hand over blog writing to my very worthy proxy. He has over 30 years of lawn and garden care experience and approximately half of that time has been spent growing and tending heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and other assorted vegetables. His other specialties include care of citrus and avocado trees and cymbidiums (orchids). He has successfully amended poor clay soil into fertile vegetable beds, keeps a seed library to continue the propagation of old heirloom lines, and cooks gourmet cuisine from home-grown fruits and vegetables.

Welcome, Papi Tomato! I look forward to your insightful contributions!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Flights of Fancy

My dear friend, Kelly, inspired me to start a butterfly garden. I already had the beginnings of one with butterfly friendly plants such as lantana and lavender, but I wanted to have more and better selections for monarchs during their annual migration. Selfishly, these beautiful and perennial monarch-friendly flowering plants continue to bloom through fall and live through the seasons, providing my garden with some much needed color and filler around my brick patio lounge/ entertaining area.

Hubby helped me clear out my overflow vegetable bed of long-in-the-tooth cherry tomatoes and dig holes for the incoming plants. We then placed our compost green machine in a corner of the bed so it will get full sun and will be closer to the kitchen for green waste dumping. This amended re-placement will help me start another goal for next season’s garden, composting kitchen and yard waste and using the compost to replenish nutrients to the soil in my main vegetable beds.

I placed the two Echinacea (orange and pink cone flower) nearer to the compost machine, the Purple Salvia, Dark Knight Bluebeard, and Starla Pink Pentas in the middle nearer the Anna Apple, and three Achillea (Yarrow) closer to the Mexican Sage. Interspersed between the plants are six deep pink alyssum for ground cover. Lastly, I placed a small, shallow dish of water on the ground as a butterfly bath. It looks a little thin right now, but it shouldn’t take long for the plants to fill in beautifully. The welcome mat is out! Hopefully the guests will show up soon!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September Bloomday

As we head towards true fall, the garden continues to both burst with color and begins to fade into the obscurity of impending winter. My list of garden clean-up chores from last post is nearing completion. I am so excited to have a guest blogger recruited to carry the torch of garden writing while I recover from foot surgery. Look for his posts towards the end of September!

All my tomatoes are gone, except for the cherry and Sprite plants. I don't even like cherry tomatoes; I grow them to give away to Hubby's co-workers. They can't get enough of them; it is such a simple thing to garner such good will.

The lantanas are attracting the Monarch Butterflies, but I wish there were more of them stopping by. Time to plant a true butterfly garden?

The final surge of rose blooms

Coleus, cool season greens, and lemon verbena

More Plumeria - I know I always include the plumeria, but I am so proud of it. I have never seem such specimens in any other private garden. I know that the former home owner, Mildred, used to sell their cuttings to people as far away as Japan! 

I consider the plumeria good luck and their scent reminds me of a dear fried who has passed from this earth. I miss you, Jack: I know you are swimming to the quarter mile buoy in the next reality.