Archive for the ‘Vegetables’ Category

Another in a series of posts to bring you interesting garden-related stories. This week we have links to a few articles we think you’ll like and news about events in Southern California.

A Plan to Turn Brooklyn’s Unused Acres Green: This article is about a truly great idea that a group of Brooklyn gardeners called 596 Acres (the total of unused public acres in Brooklyn) had to find and cultivate all the unused lots that dot the city. LOVE this idea!

Humans aren’t the only ones making things grow. Apparently the male Bowerbird, who builds elaborate bowers to attract a mate, is responsible for a lot of new plant life.

Here’s a lovely tribute to a lovely woman and an amazing gardener, Bea Grow. I had the pleasure of meeting her and visiting her beautiful garden a couple of years ago. Bea died last December and is sorely missed by the O.C. gardening community.

Click the link for a round-up of all the O.C. garden tours. Should have gotten this link to you sooner for all the April tours, but there are plenty on the list for May. One I highly recommend is the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour. It’s free (donations encouraged) and it’s fabulous — this weekend, May 5 – 6.

There will be a workshop on Edible Gardening in Small Spaces by my fellow Master Gardeners at the Orange County Great Park this Saturday. Here’s the description: Limited space? Master Gardeners are here to show you the ins and outs of getting a great yield from little places. Choose your favorite vegetables and learn how to make the most of them.

And finally a few words about a great event that I was a part of last weekend at the Orange County Great Park; the Artisan Food and Arts Festival. It was an all-day celebration of artisan food, sustainable gardening and art.

Chef Linda Elbert (of The Basement Table) and I collaborated on Seed to Plate: Cooking from the Garden, a presentation about growing your own vegetables and preparing them. I really enjoyed sharing organic growing tips with our audience.

Afterwards, I was able to spend time taking in the other chefs’ demos, the restaurant booths, sampling the food from the food trucks and seeing the art exhibits. Some of the art is still up. I highly recommend that you go see Tom Lamb’s exhibit of aerial photography called Marks on the Land: The View From Here.

The entire event was so much fun — kudos to my friend Maya Dunn and the Great Park staff for a fabulous job of pulling it off in grand style. Let’s hope that it comes back next year!


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I’ve been in my house for most of the time that I’ve lived in California — 19 years. And in all that time I’ve missed having the big, productive vegetable garden that I had in Pennsylvania. There are a lot of reasons that I haven’t been growing vegetables here; too little time, not enough sun, etc., but the big one is the really crappy soil in our area.

Soil is so very important for growing veggies. Of course light, water and nutrition are key elements, but you can have all of those and still not be able to grow much in the way of vegetables if your soil is lousy.

My soil is compacted and low in organic matter, a result of building practices in developments such a mine. Builders come in and level the ground, bulldozing away the fertile topsoil. Add the fact that the soil in this area is full of heavy clay, which stops tiny little roots dead in their tracks, and you have very inhospitable veggie growing conditions.

The solution is to build raised beds that you can fill with beautiful, fertile soil and loads of compost. Which is what I did last week.

This project is pretty easy. In spite of having only the most basic woodworking skills, I had no problem getting good results. I started with plans, which I modified it to match my needs, that I found on Sunset Magazines website. Now some of you may laugh at how little mine is (4′ x 4′), but I have only one tiny spot that gets enough sun for growing anything but part-shade plants.

I decided on a smaller version than Sunset’s also because this is test run that I didn’t want to sink a lot of money into. If it works, I’ll get some of the eucalyptus trees that surround my yard trimmed or removed (Have you priced this kind of job lately? Yowzers!) and redo my landscape to accommodate larger beds. In the meantime, this project cost me about $90 and took about 4 hours. Here’s how I did it.


  • One 16-foot long 2 x 12 cut into 4 equal pieces (ends up being a tad less than 4′ each due to the saw cut)
  • One 8 foot long 2 x 4 cut into 4 16-inch pieces with some left over
  • A box of 2 1/2″ decking screws – you’ll only need 12 of them though
  • One roll of 1/4″ hardware cloth (I had to get a 3′ x 10′ roll — a 4′ x 10′ would have been better)
  • Five 1 cu. ft. bags of organic topsoil
  • Three 1.5 cu. ft. bags of organic planting compost (total topsoil + compost should be 9 – 10 cubic feet)
  • 2 cups organic Tomato & Vegetable food
  • One small Jack Russel Terrier, optional

I went to Lowe’s (wish there was a real lumber yard in the area) and bought top grade pine. You can use pine, redwood or cedar. The latter two will last a while longer but there are sustainability issues with the cedar. DO NOT BUY TREATED WOOD even if they say it’s the new, safe kind. I don’t believe any of it is food-safe and it’s certainly not organic.

When you are selecting the wood look down the length of the board to make sure it’s not warped. A tiny bit bowing or twisting is ok, but it should be very, very slight. Also eliminate any lumber that has more than very minor splits on the ends or lots of knots.

Lowe’s will cut any lumber you buy to your measurements for no additional charge — good thing because these boards would never have fit into my car, nor could I have managed the larger piece by myself.

Some of the changes I made to the original plans were: I used 12″ lumber for the sides because I couldn’t see any reason to use two 6″ boards as they did in the Sunset plans. And I switched out their recommended 4″ x 4″ corner posts for 2″ x 4″ because my bed is smaller and I thought it wouldn’t compromise the sturdiness factor — besides it saved a little $$. I didn’t add the piping for the row cover hoops because it never gets that cold here, however my resident bird population may cause me to regret not being able to float some bird netting.


  • Electric or battery-powered drill, plus a screw driver bit and a drill bit that is slightly smaller in diameter than the decking screws
  • Carpenter’s square
  • Metal snips or shears

I assembled the bed upside down right where I was going to place it. In retrospect this was probably a mistake that accounted for my not getting the box perfectly squared. So I recommend assembling it on a flat surface like your patio, deck or garage. I did the whole thing myself, but if you can recruit a helper (one with opposable thumbs) so much the better.

  1. Lay down two of the 2 x 4s and place one 2 x 12 on top of them so they are right angles, lining up the 2 x 4s at opposite edges.
  2. Drill pilot holes to prevent splitting the wood. Use 3 decking screws for each end. Screw through the 2 x 12 into the 2 x 4s.
  3. Repeat for one more side. You should have two sides with legs and 2 sides without. (As you can see I switched out my little battery-powered drill which didn’t have enough torque for my electric drill)
  4. Attach one plain board to one board with legs, making sure that the corner is square and the legs face inside the box. Be sure you place the screws so they go into the wood and not the gap between the side and the leg.
  5. Attach the second legged board to the opposite side.
  6. Attach the final side.
  7. Next you should try to get the site as close to level as you can. 
  8. Then turn the bed right side up and mark the soil where the legs will go.
  9. Dig holes four inches deep for the legs.
  10. Place the legs in the holes and fill them in tamping the dirt around the legs.
  11. If there are slight gaps under the sides, take some dirt and mound it along the sides to fill them.
  12. Cut the hardware cloth to fit and lay it on the bottom. This is important if you live in an area with moles and gophers.
  13. Dump the soil and compost in and mix thoroughly using the shovel and the cultivator. Soil should come to within 3 inches of the top.
  14. Add the organic fertilizer and mix that into the top 4 -6 inches.
  15. Using the bow rake, level the soil
  16. Gently spray water to moisten soil.

Now you’re ready to plant!

It is little, but I’m very excited to have a vegetable garden again — no matter how small. Now Emmie needs a nap and so do I!
Update: I should have mentioned that you can increase the size of this raised bed by at least two feet in length with no issues. I wouldn’t recommend increasing the width. For raised beds 3′ to 4′ is as wide as you’ll probably want to go. It makes it easier to reach into the bed for weeding, planting and harvesting.

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Or we might have titled this post “Why Bees Are So Important.”

In January the press reported that scientists had noticed a significant decline in bumblebee populations in the U.S. — first it was the honeybees that were disappearing and now it’s bumblebees too. Scientists are not sure why just yet, but one thing they can agree on is that this is not good news because bumblebees pollinate about 15% of all crops in the field — blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, squash and watermelon; and in the hothouse — tomatoes, strawberries and peppers.

And it’s not just the many different variety of bees (honeybees, bumbles, carpenter bees, mason bees, metallic sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, ground-nesting bees, and various localized native bees) that pollinate flowers. There are many other creatures that do this work like ants, beetles, moths, flies, birds, butterflies, wasps, bats, and even a few mammals that transport pollen as they make their rounds.

Which is kind of the long way round to the question of problems with fruit set in squash, melons and cucumbers. Several people have asked why the flowers on squash and cucumber plants have been falling off. There are several reasons.

The first thing you should know is you might not have a problem. Squash, melons and cucumbers belong to the cucurbit family and they all have a unique flowering habit. Each plant bears male and female blossoms. The female blossom has a miniature fruit (ovary) at the base of the flower. Male blossoms don’t have this swelling. The male flower’s only job is to provide pollen to fertilize the ovary in the female flower and they depend on bees to do this. If the pollen isn’t transported from male to female flower fruit set will never happen.

Early flowers tend to be mostly male and these will fall off with no sign of fruit set. Not to worry, this is normal. On certain hybrid varieties of summer squash the early flowers are mostly females that don’t get fertilized and they will drop as well.

When the plants start producing both male and female flowers at the same time things should start clicking — unless there are no bees around. Cucurbits have sticky pollen and need bees to transport it from male to female flower. If your garden doesn’t have enough bees to pollinate the female flowers you will not get fruit.

In the absence of bees the only option is to hand pollinate. Get a small artist brush and pick up the yellow pollen that you will find inside the male flowers. Take the pollen-coated brush and paint it onto the stigma in the female flower. It is important to do this to only flowers that have just opened as they are only receptive for a single day.

It would be so much easier to have bees do the work! Without them crops will fail, plants won’t thrive, and we will be hard pressed to find solutions to this growing problem.

How can you help? Rule number one is to NEVER use pesticides in your garden. No matter how careful you are you will almost always kill at least a few bees. Rule number two is to create a garden that will sustain bees and all the creatures that help us grow food and the other plants we love. You can find tips on creating bee-friendly gardens in this post and by clicking some of the links on our resources page.

One last note, though we always recommend lots of mulch for your garden beds be sure to leave a few small areas bare for ground-nesting bees. Mulching is thought to be one of main reasons that this type of bee population is diminishing.

Save the bees!

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Our gardens are starting to take off this month and we’re really excited to see how it’s all going to come together as our plants begin to fill out. Don’t forget to make notes in your journal about what you’re doing. (Where did I put that journal???)

Water and Weed

  • It’s been hot and dry lately on Block Island (and will be soon in SoCal) so make sure plants have enough water and plenty of mulch. Mulch will slow water evaporation, keep weeds down, and keep soil temps more consistent; all of which will make your plants happy and less stressed.
  • Keep ahead of the weeds. Removing them before they have a chance to set seed or spread too far will make your job easier later in the season. Weeds consume resources that should be going to the plants you want to grow.
  • In heavy clay soil it’s so much easier to weed right after you water.

Feed and Prune

  • Roses should be fed with an organic fertilizer like Rose-tone or fish emulsion. Kellogg also has a good organic fertilizer for roses. (In SoCal it’s rose slug season again. If your leaves are beginning to look like skeletons, it’s a good bet that these little buggers are feasting. Spray with spinosad to get rid of them, but be sure to do it in the early morning when the wind is calm and before the bees and other beneficial insects are out and about. Here are links to posts about rose slugs and spinosad.)
  • Feed fuchsias, camellias, ferns, tropicals, and all your other annuals and perennials.
  • Take care of your container plants, including succulents, by keeping them well watered and fed with a light solution of fish emulsion.
  • Deadhead flowers to encourage new growth. The first spring flush is just about done for a lot for plants, but you can keep many of them going by snipping off the dead blossoms. Feed them a light solution of fish emulsion when you’re done.
  • Deadhead lilacs after they bloom so they won’t spend their energy producing seed heads. (Give me a moment to mourn lilacs and peonies — two favorites that don’t grow in SoCal. Miss them so!)
  • Pinch asters, chrysanthemums, and Montauk daisies back to encourage bushier plants and more flowers for the fall.
  • Pinch off growing tips of fuchsias for bushier plants.
  • Divide iris every 3 years after they bloom. Make new beds for your extras or offer them to gardener friends. I’ve had fun leaving extra plants on my curb with a sign telling folks to help themselves. Some have even brought me plants in exchange.
  • Cut lavender blooms in the morning while the aromatic oils are the strongest.
  • Tie up clematis during their growth surges, the new growth is fragile and will break off in the wind.
  • Feed staghorn ferns by tucking a banana peel behind the fronds every couple of weeks, or drench with diluted fish emulsion (per package directions).

Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables

  • Feed citrus and avocado; both are heavy feeders. Use a good organic fertilizer formulated especially for these trees and follow package directions.
  • Stake or cage tomato plants. Keep tying them up as they grow.
  • Plant herbs and summer vegetables and side-dress with a good organic compost.
  • Make sure your plants are getting enough water and mulch them well. Drip irrigation works especially well in the vegetable garden.

When planting or transplanting Mary Beth and I have had great success in reducing or eliminating plant shock by watering with a diluted solution of 1 tbs fish emulsion + 1 tsp Stress-X, or 1 tbs kelp/seaweed extract to a gallon of water.

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Ah, weeding. The bane of many a gardener’s day. I hate it, you hate it and, yet, it needs doing. So what’s the secret to effective weed control in the garden? Let’s start off by saying it is most definitely not synthetic chemicals, especially if you are growing food crops. The simple answer is in this post’s title — hit them early and hit them hard. But for all its simplicity this little phrase begs for an explanation that’s just a bit more complicated.

Let’s agree that a weed is any plant that’s growing where you don’t want it to grow. And let’s also, since weeds and weeding can morph into a rather large topic, limit the discussion to weeding in established beds.

Weeds aren’t just are annoying, they’re competing for resources — space, food, water, sunlight — with the plants that you’re trying to grow. Left in your vegetable gardens, they can stunt the growth of your crop plants and reduce the amount and quality of your harvest. They can also harbor pests.

Weeds are programmed to survive very harsh conditions. They tolerate drought, heat, floods, and some have developed a resistance to herbicides. Their seeds can lay dormant for a very long time. I’m sure you’ve noticed when cultivating a new bed that lots of weeds spring to life after you’ve disturbed the soil. That’s because you woke the little suckers from their long naps.

So, how do we get rid of them? There are three primary methods of controlling weeds: cultural, mechanical/physical, and chemical.

Cultural control refers to things like providing good growing conditions for your plants — proper watering; healthy, fertile soil; planting the right plants in the right place; planting ornamentals that fill in quickly, leaving little room for weeds; planting ground covers; rotating crops; and once your beds have been prepared not cultivating too deeply, only an inch or so, to prevent disturbing more of those pesky dormant weed seeds.

Mechanical or physical methods like hoeing, cultivating and hand-pulling are the best methods of controlling weeds in your garden. You can also covering bare soil with barriers like landscape fabric, newspapers, black plastic, and mulches. Just remember that when you use a barrier (landscape fabric, newspapers, etc.) for weed control, you’ll need to use a liquid-based fertilizer so it can get through to the soil.

And finally, chemical controls. Wait, you say, chemical controls in an organic garden? Well, yes there are such things as organic chemical controls. One good one is a strong solution of vinegar, either a 5% solution like you can buy in the grocery store or a stronger 9% solution that you can find sold as pickling vinegar. The Sunset Western Gardens book recommends a solution of 1 tablespoon liquid soap + 1/4 cup salt + 1 quart of vinegar. Spray only on the weed you want to kill (it will kill what it touches) preferably on a warm, sunny day.

But the real secret for keeping many weeds from flourishing in your garden is to know when to weed. Most weeds, particularly annual weeds, will grow in a first flush in the spring or when you cultivate a new bed. Remove this first flush as it begins to germinate in the early stages of growth before pollination. You really must do this BEFORE it gets a chance to set seed, because once that happens a whole new round of weeds begins to grow. After the first flush is gone you’ll get a smaller second flush which you should also remove before they get pollinated. Finally, after you remove the third flush you should have only a few stragglers to deal with for the rest of the season.

A word about composting weeds. There are some that you can compost with no trouble. Others won’t come back to haunt you if your compost is hot enough to kill the seeds. But the there are some, especially the creeping perennial weeds like bermudagrass and woodsorrel (oxalis), that you should throw out with the green waste because no amount of heat that you can generate in a home composting situation will destroy their ability to reproduce. And I’m quite sure the last thing you’d want to do is reintroduce weeds into your beds when you amend the soil next fall.

So, long story short, here’s the plan:

  • Weed as soon as you see the first flush of green — before pollination and seed set.
  • Do it two more times to eliminate most of the annual weeds.
  • Keep pulling or killing perennial weeds, you’ll eventually get rid of most of them.
  • Don’t cultivate or disturb the soil too deeply (only and inch or so) once you get your beds and soil prepped to keep dormant seeds from coming to the surface and sprouting.
  • Crowd out weeds with desirable plants.
  • Keep your plants healthy so they can compete successfully.
  • Mulch to a depth of at least 2″ to keep weeds from sprouting and to make removing them easier.

I’d say happy weeding, but that’s pushing it. At best it can be that kind of soothing and contemplative activity that’s made all the more delightful by the idea that you will be soon be getting the upper hand!

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Ah gardening! It’s all so simple, and yet it can get so freaking complicated, so quickly. Planting seeds for instance. The simple question is, “When can I plant seeds?” And the answer is…well, there are many answers depending on many factors, but let’s try to make it simple.

The simple story about seeds is they need the right soil temperature, the right exposure to light, and the right amount of water to germinate. Sounds easy and it is, kind of. If you follow some basic guidelines you’ll get a pretty good germination rate, not 100%, but good enough.

Here’s where we can make it complicated. This chart that shows the “practical” soil temperature for planting seeds to get a good crop versus the “optimal” temperature for seed germination.


From Gardener's Supply Company

I found it very interesting that the optimal soil temperature where you can expect almost all the seeds to germinate for corn or cucumbers would be 95 degrees. Really! My soil never gets that warm and I’m betting yours never does either. So ignore the optimal temperature and focus on the practical temperature.

Now the next question could be how in the heck do I know what my soil temperature is? And the answer is that there are a couple of ways to do that. One would be to get a soil thermometer to test your soil (a little complicated), or you might go to your local extension’s website and find a record of soil temps (still a little complicated). Or you could say, “It’s late March/early April in Zone 10 (when, generally speaking, the soil temps should be good) and that means it’s time to plant.”

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay attention to your soil temperatures. (In fact, if you regularly have trouble with a particular crop seed, this might help you figure out where you’re going wrong.) It’s just that you don’t have to be so precise.

A good rule of thumb is to plant warm season crops when the soil temps are between 50 degrees and 60 degrees and the daytime/air temperature is between 65 degrees and 80 degrees.

Most of the veggies on the following list are warm season crops, but a few are cool season crops that need a long time to grow before they are mature. Still others can be grown all year round in our zone. But let’s just make it as simple as possible to avoid further confusing anyone. Here’s your list of vegetable seeds to plant right now in coastal Southern California (USDA Zone 10/Sunset Zone 22, 23, 24) in late March/early April.

Seeds to plant in March/April

  • Beets
  • Bush Beans
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Collards
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Jicama
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leaf Lettuce
  • Lima Beans
  • Okra
  • Parsley
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Radish
  • Snap Beans
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Summer Squash
  • Tomato
  • Turnip
  • Watermelon
  • Winter Squash

Planting tips:

  • Nothing short of full sun is going to cut it for most plants. Make sure you place your veggie garden where it will get at least 8 hours of sunlight.
  • If you have heavy clay soil, do yourself a huge favor and build a raised bed. The truth is that unless you have perfectly loamy soil, you will have much better results with a raised bed.
  • Raised beds are absolutely the way to go if you are in an urban area where your soil is likely to be contaminated with lead and other pollutants.
  • If you have gophers, nail 1/8″ – 1/4″ hardware cloth on the bottom of your raised bed frames to keep them out.
  • Use topsoil in your raised beds, NOT potting soil.
  • Amend with a good organic amendment.
  • Keep you seeds evenly moist until they sprout – use a hose sprayer or a sprinkler.
  • Install drip lines. Ditto on the success factor with drip watering for vegetables, plus it will conserve water.
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch. Conserves water, keeps soil temperatures moderated and plants happy (i.e. not stressed), and cuts way down on weeds.

This is a link to an awesome UC ANR chart that shows when to plant vegetables in all California regions, how to plant them, how much to plant for a family of 4, and how to preserve your crops.

Folks in cooler planting zones should be starting seeds indoors for planting when the air and soil temps warm up. For Durango and all other zones — find out from your local extension or nursery when the soil temps will be 50 – 60 degrees and plan on getting seeds or seedlings in the ground then.

Mary Beth will be writing about Durango area planting in the coming weeks.


Good planting.

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Hello? Tink, tink, tink — anybody out there? Activity in blog-land is at a near standstill and we feel like we’ve been talking to ourselves the past couple of weeks. Of course everyone is busy with the holidays, but still…it’s a little lonely in here.

We thought we’d share a bit about the past gardening season — successes and failures, plants or plant combos that excited us. This kind of review is very helpful for planning for next year’s garden.

Mary Beth: This was my first growing season back in Colorado after 5 years on Block Island. I enjoyed reconnecting with my poor, neglected garden.

My vegetable garden was mostly successful with lettuce, strawberries, beets, herbs, tomatillos, and radishes all doing well. The exceptions were kale, chard and squash, which grew to two inches and then, for reasons unknown, stopped. In spite of that little glitch, I was so pleased with how well the vegetable garden did that I put in more beds with about twice the amount of room for veggies this coming season. I also had great success with the potted vegetables (tomatoes and peppers) that I grew on the deck.

I noticed that our Colorado garden had a lot of pinks and blues. So to remedy this I bought some plants in different colors towards the end of the season. I also divided and moved many plants into new and existing beds this fall. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will all come together.

Plant combos I can’t wait to see when they fill in: new bareroot Basye’s Purple rose from the Rose Emporium planted next to the Iceberg climbing rose. The orange butterfly weed combined with Jupiter’s Beard. The one flower the butterfly weed had in the fall looked amazing with the Jupiter’s Beard, very hot color combo. Agastache ‘Desert Sunrise’ combined with Russian Sage and a soft pink rosa rugosa and miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ that I placed in a new bed next to the pond. This coming season I plan on adding more white, silver and flowing grasses to all the beds.

Barbara: I’m still fighting the idea that I have a shade garden and am frustrated that the low light prevents me from growing any vegetable but lettuce. Still my tomato jealousy was at an all-time low this year because all the gardeners in this coastal region of Southern California had a less-than-ideal tomato season. The weather was too cool and overcast for these sun- and heat-loving plants.

I did find a bit of sun in which to plant blood butterfly weed, Asclepias curassavica, (similar to the one MB planted) with Mexican sage. It looked great. Soon I’ll move them even closer because if I can get them to intertwine a bit I think it would look even better. These are also plants that hummingbirds, and of course butterflies, love. We’re always thinking about the birds and the beneficial insects as we plant.

The coffeeberry — Rhamnus californica ‘Eve Case’ — I planted this spring is doing very well. It’s a handsome plant with large cranberry-to-deep-purple berries (for the birds) and grey-green leaves. I want to get a couple more.

In the next few weeks I’m going to start moving plants around. I’ll give a few of them a second chance in different locations. And I’ll “shovel prune” the ones that didn’t perform.

In my clients’ gardens I had great success with giant blue scabiosa. I just planted Convolvulus cneorum ‘Snow Angel’ in another’s garden. (Click here for a “beauty shot.”) I hope it does well because I’m in love with its sweet white flower and silvery, soft grey leaves.

As we get ready to celebrate a brand new year, we’re looking forward to the growing season ahead of us and to sharing our experiences with all of you. Thanks for coming to visit. We appreciate each and every one of you!

Wishing you a healthy, happy and prosperous 2011!

Barbara & Mary Beth

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