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”.