BARE ROOT FRUIT TREE TIPS
All temperate zone(non-tropical) fruit needs a resting period of cold to flower and produce well. This resting period is referred to as "chill-hours." How chill hours are calculated is complex, but generally speaking, they are hours of cold below 45 degrees. Coastal regions tend to have mild winters and for this reason many fruits do not do well in the Bay Area--it is neither cold enough in the winter nor hot enough in the summer for many varieties of peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples (those crisp fall apples you east-coasters love, for example, are impossible to grow here). So when you select fruit trees make sure to check out the chill hours listed on the tag and make sure that number is doable in your area. Sadly, many nurseries, especially the less expensive ones at big box home improvement stores, carry a generic selection, so before you go tree shopping check with other local gardeners to find out which varieties do well in your region.
For the East Bay west of the hills (Richmond, El Cerrito, Berkeley, Oakland) and San Francisco you want fruit that needs 500 chill hours hours or less--the lower the better. There are many varieties of apples, pears, plums and figs that fall into that category as well as a few apricots, the occiasional cherry and pluots. In the berry category raspberries, strawberries and blackberries will thrive. Some varieties of low-chill blueberries may do OK and for a fun native try a huckleberry. IN Marin County and over the coastal range in Orinda, Walnut Creek and Moraga you may succeed with some varieties that need more summer heat.
Another thing to pay attention to in selecting fruit trees is whether they need another tree of the same or different variety to pollinate them. For a small yard look for varieties that are "self-fruitful." Another option is to plant two trees that pollinate each other into one hole and prune them accordingly. This will work well with plums and pluots.
When you bring your bare root plants home unwrap them and let the roots soak in water for a few hours. Then dig a a hole big enough and deep enough to spread the roots out, place the plant in, refill with dirt, tamp down well and water. You can apply some compost and mulch around the base of the tree, but keep it about 6 inches out from the trunk, otherwise pests and rot will tend to get into the trunk. Also, in most cases, bare root trees should go directly into your native soil without a massive amount of amending. When you amend it creates a little island of soft soil where water can get trapped and rot the roots. Plus you want your tree to acclimate to the soil you have, so it will send it's roots far and wide.
While you are waiting for the nights to warm up enough for fair weather plants like tomatoes and carrots you can take advantage of the moisture in the soil provided by intermittent spring rains (they are great for germinating beds of cutting greens as well). The perfect time to weed, loosen and amend your soil is when the soil is not completely water logged, but also not completely dry. When the moisture content is just right, even clay will crumble in your hands. If it is the first time you are breaking ground, you might consider double digging, to open up the soil structure up to 24 inches down. If you've already been cultivating for awhile it may be enough to just fork through the top layers of soil. I weed out the major weeds, pulling them from the roots and add them to my compost pile. I do an initial loosening by pushing my fork in and lifting or twisting every 6 inches or so. Then I spread a 1"-2" layer of compost over the entire bed. Next I work with my fork more intensively, pushing it in as far as it will go with my foot and pulling up the clods of dirt. I use the back side of by fork to break the big clumps apart. Then I work any remaining clumps with my hands. I repeat this process 2 or three times, until all the clumps are gone, then smooth out the surface with my hard rake or hands. I may finish by sprinkling some worm compost over the top of the bed and there you go! Ready for planting!
Food security and food justice are dependent on good, accessible seed stock. Corporations know that they can control the world if they control the source of food. They have made major plays to privatize ownership of genetic material, control farmer's access to seed, prevent seed saving through legal and genetic means such as terminator genes. There is increasing legislation to control and limit who can sell organic seed and some would have seed saving outlawed altogether! So it is increasingly important to know how to save and start out own seed and to protect biodiversity.
Seed saving is gaining ground arouns the country. Here in the East Bay where I live we have accessto several seed saving projects and libraries. There is BASIL (Bay Area Seed Interchange Library, housed at the Ecology Center on San Pablo Avenue. It is a walk-in year round seed swap. They also host classes and seed swap events. Seed Folks are a new educational seed group and there is the Richmond Grows Seed Library as well. For those of you outside the bay area, try a search for seed libraries in your town, or consider joining the Seed Savers Exchange . As an SSE member you get their three annual publications--2 hefty newsletters with really great articles (I often read it cover to cover) and the yearbook which currently lists over 13,000 unique varieties of heirloom seed, saved and offered by members. If you save and offer seed yourself you get a discount on ordering seed from other members. They also have a great online/in print commercial seed catalog http://www.seedsavers.org/
Other great seed catalogs
Many of these seed companies are involved in foundation work and projects to protect bio-diversity and promote seed saving and organic practices.
Medicinal Herbs ~ Horizon Herbs
Potatos ~ Ronniger Potato Farm
Onions ~ Dixondale Farms
Garlic ~ Filaree Farms
Peaceful Valley cover crops, meadow mixes and gardening supplies
Bountiful Gardens started by John Jeavons and the Grow BioIntensive folks
Native Seed Search Co-founded by Gary Nabham, one of the first to eat locally for a year and live to write about it.
The Living Seed Company Started by puppeteer friend Matthew Hoffman
SEED STARTING PRIMER
1. Use clean pots and sterile soil. If you reuse pots, wash well with warm soapy water and sanitize with a mild bleach solution or oxygen cleaner (like oxybrite).
Use a freshly opened bag of seed mix, mix your own, or sterilize by setting in the oven on the lowest temperature ( about 160 F) for 10 minutes or more. Purchase high quality seed mix or make your own: 3 parts peat moss or coconut coir 1 part perlite or vermiculite 1 part earthworm castings (optional)
3. Fill seed flats or six packs tamping down lightly.
4. Plant seeds as deep as they are long.
5. Put in a warm, well lit spot. This can be outdoors under a “cold frame,” in a greenhouse, or on a seed mat under artificial light.
6. Keep moist!
7. The seed has enough food storage to germinate and put out the first two leaves, called “cotelydons.” After this you will need to fertilize with a dilute, balanced, low numbers fertilizer.
8. Once the plant has it’s second set of leaves, you may want to transplant it into a larger pot, with regular potting soil.
9. If the plants has been started indoors, it will need "hardening off." This is the process of gradually introducing it to sunlight a few hours a day so that it doesnt burn.
VEGETABLE STARTS, BUYER BEWARE!
They are so tempting...those happy hot-house tomato starts beckoning from the stands at Home Depot in the middle of February. Even in March the nights are generally too cold for them to do much except freeze their buns off just surviving til things warm up. And some of those happy starts will never do well in our cool east bay summers. After 20 years I should know better than to buy sweet peppers or melons,...but every couple years I give in to their seductions. Big box nurseries, and even some better local ones, make good business off people's lack of knowledge and experience. selling things in the wrong season or that won't thrive in our region. Soheed these suggestions for buying starts with confidence.
1. Buy things when it is appropriate for them to go in the ground! Do the research to know if it is the right season to start them. Peppers and tomatoes need nights above 50 degrees.
2. Read the label! Know how much space, sun and water the plant will need and purchase appropriate to your space and watering capabilities.
3. The plant should fit the container. It should neither look too small--swimming in a sea of soil, nor too large or tall, as if it has already outgrown the pot.
4. Avoid plants that are leggy (stems overly long so that they are falling over or trailing on the ground), wilting or tortured looking in any way. If the plant looks stressed out, it probably is and won't transplant well.
5. Avoid plants that are root bound or flowering. If they are already flowering, it is likely they are also already root bound. We want our vegetables to establish more roots when we put them in the ground as that will give a good foundation for fruit production. A plant that is already flowering is 2/3 of the way through its life cycle. It has turned from root growth to fruit production. It may still produce, but it is likley that it will be far less than if you had bought a younger plant.
6. Don't buy things that don't thrive here. I have already mentioned sweet peppers and melons...eggplants, peaches and yams are also iffy.
7. Finally, don't be seduced into buying more than will fit in your garden. Think through where each plant is going to fit as you select for purchase. Do you really need six packs of 5 varieties of tomato?
A "volunteer" is a plant that comes up somewhere in the garden without our having specifically planted it there. Although you could think of weeds as volunteers, usually we don't, as a weed is usually a plant we do not want. A volunteer, on the other hand is a plant we are happy to see, perhaps a mullen, borage or california poppy, a random unknown tomato that pops up and thrives or the bachelors' buttons that re-seed year after year. Sometimes volunteers can be a nuisance--especially if they are too many, such as the Shingiku (edible chrysanthemum) that reseeded so heavily that I have hundreds growing in a square foot. But others such as the carrots that popoed up when I composted seed heads I thought not viable or the random lettuce that comes up can be a boon in the garden. If you don't mind your beds being mixed up, volunteers are a wonderful opportunioty to work less.
Volunteers grow because the conditions are right. They get well established early in the season and flourish without much extra care. Volunteers tend to be hardy and well acclimated to our climate. And they're free! So what to do if you get some nice volunteers but you need to till the bed they are in? If you catch them at the right time, voluntters can be temporarily transplanted to pots, or simply set to the side and replanted once you have tended the bed. Be sure to dig them up carefully so as not to damage the roots and water well after transplanting, whether in pots or back into the ground.
CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOIL
"Feed the soil, not the plant," is the mantra of organic gardeners everywhere. But why is that and how do we do it?
Healthy abundant topsoil is vital to every level of the food chain. Topsoil, the upper, outermost layer of the soil, has the highest concentration of micro-organisms and nutrients. Just one gram of healthy soil contains 100 yards of mycelium, 100 million bacteria, tens of thousands of protozoa and 2000 nemotodes. This is far from dead material! Plants rely on this abundance of life to help them uptake nutrients and grab nitrogen out of the air.
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient, which plants use to create amino acids and proteins--the building blocks of life. Healthy living soil is also vital to the plants immune system, much as having good flora in our own guts can help protect us from invaders and bacteria out of balance. Applying chemical pesticdes and fertilizers can easily upset the balance in the soil and start a vicious cycle of chemical inputs. Continuing to take from the soil without replenishing it is also the worst kind of pyramid scheme, ecologically speaking.
Topsoil is fragile. in the natural world it can take 500 years to form an inch. Through heavy tilling, intensive ranching, and urban expansion we are loosing topsoil through erosion 20 times faster than it can be replensihed. And evern where we are not loosing soil to erosion, we are loosing the living matrix through heavy pesticide use. Building topsoil is one of the most forward thinking, revolutionary acts of our time.
As in nature, soil needs a regular infusion of dead or dying plant materials to stay healthy. Think of leaf litter on the forest floor, or the grass land that dies in place to replenish itself. Think also of the myriad other life forms living and dying and eating and pooping in place. All of these activities add organic matter to the soil. On our own small plots we can mimic these natural processes in several ways. Besides the simple act of adding generous amount of quality compost, cover cropping with legume family plants does a double duty in helping the soil help us. Plants like fava beans, vetch, buckwheat and clover fix nitrogen from the air with the help of bacteria in the soil. If you grow these plants you can cut them down before they get woody or go to seed and that nitrogen will stay in the soil for other plants to use. Then you can dig them under to feed the living soil as they decay or use them as green mulch on top of the soil, when they will help hold moisture in the ground.
When we take nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil in the form of fruits and vegetables it is important to return what is left over for the next generation. We have to close that loop, with poop! In the absence of practical composting systems for human poop, we can turn to animals to help us. Farm animals also do us a double duty. They transform simple plant sugars and amino acids into complex protein in the form of eggs, milk and meat...and they give us ample source of natural fertilizer. Putting manure into your system helps replenish what you've taken out. Chicken, cow and horse manure are "hot" and must be aged in compost piles before they can be returned to the soil. Rabbit and goat poop are "not" and can be added directly to the soil (unless they have a high concentration of urine, in which case they should also be further composted). Does it sound like a puzzle? Indeed it is. Plants and animals evolved together in a complex dance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, catalyzed and supported by a host of micro-organisms. As organic gardeners we do our best to understand these magical forces of nature and support them to do what they do best right here in our back yards.
COMPOST COMPOST COMPOST
By now we all know that plants, like people, do better when given a good inputs of healthy organic material. Good compost not only has decaying plant matter, but is rich with living things--bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms, many of which are necessary to help plants uptake available nutrients. Because compost provides a wide spectrum of micro-nutrients and living bacteria it is a much more effective than chemical fertilizers. The nutrients are in the form plants most recognize in nature--this is much like the human body, which utilizes vitamins and nutrients from food more readily than from vitamin pills (this has been argued both ways and we won't get t too far into it here, but to me this is just common sense). Good food, for both plants and people boosts the immune system, reduces stress and promotes productivity.
If the only compost you have access to comes in plastic bags from the home depot, by all means, this is better than nothing. This compost will have some good decaying matter, but will be functionally dead in terms of the spectrum of nutrients and living things it can offer. If you can buy a better quality compost that includes various guanos, kelp meal, earthworm castings and the like, go for it. For larger amounts of compost, such as you might need for a sheet mulching project, you might purchase by the yard at American Soil or at the Davis Street Transfer Station (the dump). The latter is made from the waste that goes into our green bins, so can't be assumed from 100% organic materials. I have heard that quite a bit of garbage goes into it--yet it is cost effective and I have used it extensively with no apparent negative impacts on myself or the garden. I believe Berkeley also still offers their free compost at the Berkeley Marina the last Friday of the month (also from green bins). Be prepared for crowds!
Make Your own!
Of course the best compost will be the compost you make yourself. You will know exactly what has gone into it and it will be teaming with life. There are many ways to go about producing organic amendments on your own property and a diversity of amendments will offer your plants a wide range of nutrients. To offer a description of all the options would take a book, but here is an overview of some methods you might consider.
Pile method: This is most effective if you have a large space and if you can build your pile all at once. Layer carbonaceous plant materials (dry stuff like grass clippings leaves, straw etc) with nitrogenous materials (wet gooey kitchen scraps) in alternate layers 2 parts to 1 part. The finished pile should be about one square yard. Turn every 2 - 6 weeks for fastest production.
Additive method: This can be done in an open pile or in a bin. Add your kitchen scraps and cover each time with double the amount of carbonaceous material ( dry stuff). Turn regularly. Keep moist.
Worm Bin: This is nice because you don't need as much dry stuff. In a wood or plastic container with some drainage, layer "bedding" (shredded newspaper) add kitchen scraps and introduce worms. Details on creating and harvesting worm compost can be found extensively on the web. Worm castings are extremely rich and can be diluted for tea or used for containers and raised beds as well as garden beds.
Commercially available hi-tech bins: A few students swear by these, excellent for those with money but no time http://www.naturemill.com/products.html
Animal Manures: Goat and rabbit droppings without a lot of urine content may be put directly onto garden beds. Chicken, horse or steer manure must be aged. Of course it is again best to get your manure from your own property, however chicken and steer manure is quite inexpensive in bags and horse manure can be gotten for free by request from any stable ( they are usually quite happy to see it go! Be sure to take from the oldest part of the pile and beware! Compost from stables con sometime import noxious weeds to your garden, the worst f which is bindweed, which is virtually impossible to get rid of once it arrives.
Compost Tea: Compost tea is easily made, enhances soil life and is useful as a foliar fertilizer to boost your plants immune systems. Put a gallon of fresh compost into a bucket and top with water. Add 1/4 cup of molasses. Use an aquarium pump and waterstone (available at a pet store for under $10) to aerate the mixture. After 2-3 days it should smell fresh and earthy ( if not, dump and try over). Strain and use immediately.
Micronutrients from "waste:" Crushed eggshells, wood ash, a few rusty nails stuck into the ground around your fruit trees can offer calcium, iron, phosphorous, potassium and magnesium to your plants.
NB: Given enough time ALL organic materials will break down, inclusing meat, bones, hair, pits, cobs, etc. Different composters will tell you not to put some of these items in. This is beacuase some of them will attract city pests, such as rats, but also because things like bones and pits need a really hot compost to break down and not every pile will get hot enough to deal with these things effectively. The warning against citrus in the pile is a myth. Most gardeners find that some amount of citrus actually boosts compost function.
Compost tea can help boost micro-organism populations of your soil, increasing beneficial interactions within the soil and between soil and plants. Applied to soil around plants it can both add nutrients to the soil and increase plant uptake of nutrients. It can be sprayed onto sheet mulch to aid the breaking down process and can also be used as foliar spray to both protect the plants and fertilize them. Also great for container garden situations to boost microbial interactions in the otherwise sterile potting soil.
To make it you'll need:
5 gallon bucket
1 gallon mature compost or worm compost
1 aquarium pump
1 long waterstone or a gang -valve and several hoses
3 feet aquarium hose
1. Set up your pump and waterstones. Try it with just water first to see that you get some good bubbling. The microorganisms need air to proliferate.
2. Add compost to the bucket
3. Fill with non-chloraminated water* to within 6 inches of the top * Chloramine will wipe out the beneficial bacteria you are trying to help proliferate. Use spring water or rebalance tap water by using a chloramine removal product (for fish tanks, in the same section you get the aquarium pump) or a teaspoon of powdered vitamin C.
4. Add ¼ c molasses
5. Start the pump
6. Let it brew 2-3 days. Stir occasionally
7. Strain the tea. It should smell sweet and earthy. Do not use it if it smells rotten! Put it back on your compost pile.
8. Use immediately. Spray directly onto plants and water around the base of plants. This process can be repeated every two weeks or more irregularly as desired.
A PEST BY ANY OTHER NAME
People visiting my garden often ask what I do about garden pests. The truth is that I don't do much, because I don't need to do much. The key to pest management is good soil and healthy plants. Plants, like humans, are more susceptible to disease and parasites when they are too small or too stressed to fight them off. Just like children, young plants immune systems are not yet fully formed, plus they are tiny and tender compared to those who would devour them. So finding ways to protect your little ones is key. Older plants can be stressed by too little or too much water or a lack of healthy soil and nutrients.
Some "pests" are neccessary for bio-diversity and balance in the garden system: If you have no aphids, there is no reason for the ladybugs to visit. In a balanced system there is some loss to pest damage but in most cases the worst result of the pests is a few nibbled leaves. I for one, don't need "perfect" looking produce and am glad to share with the bugs, as long as they don't devour each and every little start I put in the ground. So what to do when they do? The first answer is to grow lots of garlic and arugula and other things not favoured by the pests while you work on getting your topsoil healthy. For some of the major Bay Area bugs, there are some simple fixes that will help until your system comes into balance.
Slugs & Snails These are probably the worst garden pests, with no natural predators. They proliferate when are water-wise and add mulch to your gardening practice and they can mow down a bed of starts in an evening. With a concerted effort you can dminish the population and dissuade them from eating your starts:
1. Go out with a headlamp at night when they are active (especially effective during the rainy season) and hand puck them off your plants. This is most effective when done every night for a couple weeks. You will significantly diminish the population and interrupt their breeding cycle. The best depository for those collected is he chicken run, but if neither you nor a friend owns chickens, you can kill them by slating them and dump them in the green bin.
2. Use copper tape. Since slugs live in the soil, even putting round your raised beds may not work. I have had the best success protecting individual starts. Cut rings from plastic yogurt containers and galon size plant pots. Adhere the copper tape to them ( often comes with sticky back) Push them into the soil around tender starts.
3. Crushed eggshells. Crumble the dried egg shells around the base of the plants.
4. Chickens love slugs and snails. If you have chickens, let them run in the garden for an hour before dusk. they will focus on eating the bigs and leave the plants alone.
Aphids cluster in masses around the tender parts of the plant and suck the sap. They are fond of brassicas in the warm season when they are stressed and are also farmed by aphids. I find them often on my artichoke plants.
1. Sometimes a hard stream of water is enough to knock them off and they don't return.
2. A homemade spray of water mixed with crushed garlic and cayenne pepper. Of course you don't want to spray this on your lettuce or other greens as it will have the same result on you as on the bugs--bleh!
3. Brassicas are particlarly susceptible to aphids once the weather warms up. The solution: Plant brassicas in the winter and eat so much of them that it is a relief when the hot weatehjr comes and you dont have to eat so many! Aso just washing them off usually works.
Leaf curl, black spot and rust These diseases are best treated in winter when fruit and rose plants are dormant. Spray a mixture of horticultural oil and sulpher lime ( follow the directions on the bottles for mixture strength) three times through the dormant season: at leaf drop, mid winter and before the leaves bud out.
Scale: Spray dormant oil, wait a few days and then rub off the plant with a finger nail or toothbrush. prevent ants from farming by using tanglefoot or other sticky substance on the base of the plant.
IT'S HARD TO KEEP A GOOD WEED DOWN
California costal winters, rain followed by periods of crisp sunshine result in massive amounts of weeds in our gardens. I spend days upon days weeding out what is unwanted and it seems there is always more. Plants are opportunists of the best kind and their seeds will slip into small bits of dirt and widen cracks in sidewalks. They find their way to distressed soil, where the more pampered horticultural plants would never think of settling. They are tough survivors with strong constituents and tenacious roots. They know how to do a lot with few resources. The type and amount of weeds you find in your yard tell a story about your soil. Making your soil better doesn't necessarily cut down on the weeds--probably the opposite, but as your soil health improves the type of weeds that proliferate will also shift. Plants that thrive in highly compacted, low fertility soils are different than what will grow in your well amended, extra-fertile garden beds. Of course the dreaded Oxalis pes-carpe will grow anywhere.
As an example: In my hard-to-amend front strip, which is sticky, soggy clay in winter and hard-pan in the summer, plantain proliferates as it does nowhere else in my yard. In my nicely amended vegetable beds I get fields of cress, purslane and scarlet pimpernel. Whether your soil is clay or sand, boggy or dry is probably pretty obvious to you, but weeds can also indicate soil pH and nutrient levels.
For a simple list of weeds as soil indicators see here: http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/tcweeds/weeds/fact-sheets/weeds%20as%20soil%20ind.pdf
For a more comprehensive chart which include indications of nutrient presence or dearth look here: http://oregonbd.org/Class/weeds.htm.
For help identifying weeds, let one grow out a little and take it to a garden center or experienced gardener. Don't try to describe it ("you know it is green, with leaves"), bring the actual plant or a clear close up photo with you. If it is flowering, more the better. Here is a nice little pdf with some good drawings of the most common Bay Area Weeds--I see all of these from time to time in my garden: http://www.greenbelt.org/downloads/resources/curriculum/chapter2.pdf
And by the way, when you weed try to pull the whole plant, including the root, as many weedy plants have tap roots that will simply spout new growth if left in the ground.
Of course, not all weeds are bad and some traditional folks even see weeds as important companion plants, "guardians of the soil;" not just opportunists but filling important niches and offering soil reparation. Check out chapter six, "Weeds as Mother Crops" of this longer article championing weeds: http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/weeds/WeedsToC.html. Besides assisting in re-greening distressed areas, where no other plants would, many plants we call weeds are useful, edible, medicinal or both. Here are a few you might want to consider keeping from time to time:
Edible: Cress, Purslane, Dandelion, Plantain, Chickweed, Mallow. Young leaves can be great additions to spring salads.
Medicinal: Mallow, Dandelion, Plaintain, Dock, Chickweed, Yarrow, mugwort, Cleavers (uses too lengthy to go into here)
SUMMER FRUIT TREE PRUNING
(With Molly Bolt, arborist and IUH Instructor)
Once your fruit trees have given their fruit, it's time to think about pruning. While most people think of pruning their fruit trees in winter, late summer or early fall pruning, after fruiting but before the trees have lost their leaves , has many advantages. Like winter pruning, this is a good time because the pruning wounds (and the tree's energy towards healing them) won't conflict with the tree's growth, reproduction or storage functions. In addition, summer pruning is great for small urban orchards, where you might wish to limit the growth of your trees.
When trees go deciduous, they store starch in their wood to use for growth in the next season. By pruning excess wood from robust trees while they still have leaves, we reduce this starch and thus subsequent sprouting and the need for more pruning. If your plum, cherry, apricot, apple or fig puts out tons of branches every spring, consider switching to a summer routine. You should find that watersprouts and all vertical shoots are reduced. For an especially vigorous tree, consider pruning in both winter and summer for a few years. A tree which is old, damaged, diseased, producing poorly, or otherwise needs extra energy shouldn't be pruned in the summer, as loss of starch can cause more problems on a stressed tree. So if your tree has health concerns, stick to the more traditional winter pruning
Having our fruit close to home means getting to know the seasons and needs of the trees. If you've been enjoying pies and canning this summer, have a look in the yard and consider getting out your pruning saw!
HARVEST AND STORAGE
Traditionally, and mostly in regions colder than our own, mature root crops, fall fruits and even greens were pulled out of the ground around the time of the first frosts and stored carefully in a root cellar. Root cellars, sunk under ground level, stay more evenly cold throughout the winter season, averaging 35 - 50 degrees. Here in California, even if you have a garage or basement, temperature spikes in November and January can bring your root crops out of dormancy and induce them to start to grow again. It is nothing short of a bummer to go downstairs to fetch some potatoes and find your entire crop shriveled with long stringy white stalks sprouting from them. So the two best options for storing root crops in the bay area are in the fridge, where potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips and other roots can store fine for months if they are protected from drying out, or in the ground, where they can be plucked bit by bit through the season.
Here is a brief list of crops to be harvested and stored in the coming months:
Carrots, potatoes, turnips, beets, rutabaga, parsnip: leave in the ground and harvest as needed or store in the refridgerator. For fridge storage be sure the crops are mature and dry. Store in tupperware or plastic bags, or in the crisper section of your in cloth bags.
Beans: When pods are fully dry on the vines, pluck, shell and store in glass jars
Onions: When the tops fall over and start to wither, pull them from the ground. Hang in bunches out of the sunlight in an area with good circulation. When the stalks are completely dry, cut the off, clean, clip roots and store in a cool dry area.
Apples: Apples need signifigant cold to store well. Best is around 32 - 35 , so a refrigerator is your best bet. When impractical, preserve them as canned apples sauce, frozen slices or dried slices.
Winter Squash & pumpkins should be left on the vine until fully mature (they will undergo a change in color and the skins will become too hard to puncture easily with a fingernail). They can withstand storage at a higher temperature than root crops and so can be stored in a cool dry spot, inside your house.
SEED SAVING BASICS
In this era of corporate patenting of DNA and round-up ready beets, saving open-pollinated, heirloom seeds is vital to our cultural heritage and genetic diversity. It is also an age old tradition hailing to the days before the seed catalog when farmers saved seed out of necessity, maintaining and improving their crops from year to year. As urban gardeners the boon in saving seed is in saving money and closing the seasonal loop. Seeds are timeless and never-ending, with a little bit of history and a little bit of the future packed into one tiny suitcase. Seed saving does require that you know a little bit about the the plant whose seed you are saving, and a wee bit of botany. Where did the plant orginate? Is it open-pollinated or hybrid? If you grew the plant from purchased seed, it will say which it is on the packet. Hybrid varieties, crossed in a lab, are sterile or will not produce offspring true to the parent. If you dont know where the plant came from, you can take your chances or try again next year, making sure your plants come from known sources.
Next it is important to know what family the plant is in,to know what you need to do to successfully save seed. Plants in the same family will act similarly. The easiest seeds to save are plants that are self-pollinating and which do not cross easily with other plants in their same family group. A few of these are plants in the bean, sunflower and nightshade family. Other plants will need isolation or special hand pollination techniques so that they do not produce something inedible. All cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons), brassicas (kale, broccolo, cabbage) and corn cross easily and need special techniques to ensure seed purity. When you are ready for that step, look for a copy of Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Once your seeds are completely dry, pack them into small paper or plastic envelopes or glass jars and label well with the variety, year, source and harvest location. Keep them in a cool dry place. Seed viability varies from plant to plant. Some delicate seeds like lettuce may keep two years if you store them very carefully, others like some beans can last a decade or more.
Here is a list of plants with seeds that anyone can easily save.
Bean family All beans, peas, lentils, garbanzos, fava, sweet, pea, buckwheat How to Save: Let the pods dry on the plant. Shell and store.
Sunflower Family Sunflower, cosmos, marigold, lettuce, endive, chicory chrysanthemum, batchelor’s buttons, calendula How to Save: Allow plants to flower and collect dried seeds
Nightshade Family Tomato, pepper, tomatillo, eggplant. How to Save: Allow fruits to fully ripen (peppers and eggplant will change color). For tomato & tomatillo squeeze seeds and pulp into a jar add a little water and let ferment for a day. Rinse and let dry on a towel. For pepper & eggplant, scrape seeds onto a towel and let dry.
TIME TO START THINKING FALL GARDEN (July/August)
Even though summer has not yet peaked it is time to start thinking about your Fall and Winter vegetables. "Winter Squash" actually needs to be planted no later than August 1st, to produce fruits that will ripen for harvest season. If you are starting from seed, you definitely want to get your fall crops into flats or six packs sometime in July. You can also direct seed (straight into the ground), but you may battle colder nights and lack of moisture. So unless you have a drip system, you will need to hand water your direct seeded plants, as well as any starts you put in to the ground at least once, if not twice a day, until the seeds germinate or the starts get established.
In terms of timing, nothing grows in the Bay Area in December and January. Nothing dies either, but just hangs on in a sort of stasis, waiting for sun and heat to return. So plants need enough time to mature and be harvestable by the beginning of December, or to get their roots and leaves established enough to hold on until early spring. This is where reading your seed packets or start tags can be useful. 80 days to maturity? That means plant no later than September 10th to be ready before December 1. Things like peas and broccoli, asian and european greens that go into the ground in September, will be harvestable through November and even December. Similar crops that go into the ground in late October, early November will produce for early spring. One trick that works only some years is to broadcast your lettuce mix right around the time of our first autumn rains. If the weather cooperates, you'll have baby greens through the winter.
What to grow? The following can be started in flats or 6 packs right now: peas, broccoli, chard, beets, bok choi, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale, spinach, lettuce. These can go in the ground as starts anytime between now & the end of october. Roots and sensitive crops to be started in the ground are carrots, parsnips, turnips, radishes and winter squash. Other things that are worth a try if you get them started within the next week or so: Pole beans and potatoes. Of course your allium crops are always planted in the Fall:onions and leeks in September/October, garlic & shallots in October/November. Next Month: Seed Saving & Root Crop Storage.
FALL GARDEN WORK (October, November)
Now is the time of year to start pulling dead plants, to sheet mulch and start the process of winter clean-up. For those of you just getting started with your garden, I cannot stress enough the glory of sheet mulching as a way to jump start weed eradication and soil amelioration. Sheet mulching gets nature to do most of the work. You just throw cardboard, compost and mulch on top of the mess you want to amend and the worms and bacteria do the rest. A few hours of work with a wheelbarrow this Fall can save hours of time breaking east bay clay in the spring. If you wanna have a go at it click th sidebar linke for "dirt" for the more descriptive recipe.
The one thing that pretty much has to be put in the ground in the Fall is Garlic. In the Bay Area the best time to plant is between October 1st and November 1st. Garlic likes rich loamy open soil. It may grow in denser soils, but bulb formation will be inhibited. Amend your East Bay clay with lots of compost and a clodbuster. You can use any garlic from the store or order specialty garlic from Filaree Farms. The two main types are softneck, which grow more reliably and hardneck, which are generally smaller and more fussy but have a huge variety. The softneck varieties are the more common. They can be braided and stored longer. For a first try, just use a nice big head from the grocery store.. In general it will be a softneck variety, probably California Early. Break your garlic heads into cloves and plant the fattest, prettiest cloves with their skins on, pointy end towards the sky, an inch into the soil and 4" apart in every direction. Cover the bed with straw or some other readily avaialble mulch. You should see the green tips in a week or two, They are ready for harvest when the outer leaves start to die back in June. Stop watering for two weeks before pulling them from the ground and afterwards let dry completely before storing or they will get moldy.
When most people think of harvesting rainwater,they imagine tanks or barrels that catch water from rainfall on the roof. and assume this water would be used for summer watering,. In the Bay Area on a small lot, the limiting factor for this type of harvesting is generally space. A 55 gallon drum doesn't go far towards watering your garden, when we have 7 months without rain. A 1000 gallon tank takes up quite bit of space. and even that may not last more than a month into our annual drought.
For rainwater catchment, the best time to use the water is during the rainy season for indoor uses like toilet flushing, dishwashing and clothes washing. In some cases the rain water may also be potable. Unfortunately the pump and infrastructure to do this is still expensive and hardly ever done. But fortunately there are other ways of harvesting the rainwater and preventing toxic run-off by "catching" the rainwater where it belongs--in the landscape and before it collectis toxins from our city streets and washes into storm drains. Many local townships are promoting the prevention of run-off since it floods sewer systems and forces raw sewage into waterways. Methods include permeable pavements, cutting curbs, and earthworks. Earthworks include digging shallow basins to create "rain gardens" and creating areas where water can pool in bogs, ponds or human-made vernal pools. To learn more go to http://www.plantsf.org/, http://greywateraction.org/rainwater-harvesting and http://www.harvestingrainwater.com/.
If you missed this
TIPS FOR CONTAINER GARDENING
For those of you with limited space growing food in planter boxes or pots may be the best option. Here is a quick and dirty tip-list to get you started:
1. Use the best potting soil you can afford or blend your own. Most native soils will not work in pots. When blending you can start with an inexpensive potting soil and add 20-30% sand and 10-20% compost.
2. Make sure your containers will be big enough for the full grown plant. While I can't give you a formula, most vegetables need at least 12" -1 5" root space. Generally a 5 gallon pot is the minimum size for growing food successfully, though a dainty compact lettuce needs less depth than a wandering 5' high tomato. . Herbs and some other plants may succeed in smaller containers.
3. For the most successful container gardening, tend to your container soil as you would your ground soil. Container soil can get compacted and tapped of it's nutrients. Loosen the soil between plantings, top dress with worm compost and change out the soil completely every year or two.
4. Container gardens need smaller, more regular waterings, especially during our long dry summers. If the soil in the container gets too dry, the water will run out along the sides and never get to the roots of your plants. One way to deal with this issue is to mulch around the plants with straw or bark. If the soil is kept from getting a hard dry crust in this manner, waterings will be more successful.
5. On decks use saucers to protect your deck. This will also help to keep mositure in the soil.
WINTER RASPBERRY CARE
Raspberries are a great crop for the Bay Area. With a little care they will produce for many years. If you are putting in new berries, try to get a variety that produces two crops a year--a spring crop on last years canes and a late summer/fall crop on the years new canes. Winter care can happen any time after the plants go completely dormant. Here's how:
1. Cut all the canes to about should height and knock off last years growth, leaving just an upright cane with the next seasons buds along it.
2. Take out any dead canes.
3. Thin the canes. In each group take out all but the best 2-4. In doing so, first remove the oldest (second year) canes. You can tell which they are as they look woody and usually have some cracking in the stems. Then remove the weakest of this past seasons canes.
4. Top dress around all the canes with compost and/or mulch. Just throw it down and mush it around.
5. That's it, you're done!
SPRING ON THE WING: IT'S SWARM SEASON!
Although there is still rain to come, change is afoot in early spring in a healthy Bay Area bee hive. After a period of quiet inside the hive, where populations dwindle to as little as 5.000 -10,000 bees, the colony starts to prepare for what they hope will be a bounteous spring: the nectar flow! In order to take advantage of early season blooming the bees start to buildup their population of workers. A healthy colony with high hopes for good resources will also produce some males or drones, getting them ready to mate with new queens when they emerge. An experienced beekeeper can determine from the population and type of young in the hive, what type of season it will be.
Just about the time the apple trees are in full bloom, honey bees will start to swarm. Contrary to popular belief a bee-swarm is not an angry mob! Rather, the swarm is a natural way for a colony to reproduce. When conditions are good, the workers will raise a new queen from a female egg, by feeding copious amount of royal jelly. Before the new queen is born, the old queen takes to the wing with a portion of the colony to start a new hive elsewhere. The bees gorge on honey to survive the journey, which may take several days. They are so weighed down they can hardly fly. They fly out and land on a branch, clumped around the queen and then send out scouts to look for a suitable home. Once they find one, the worker bees move in and start to build new comb, while the queen gets to work laying eggs. to build up the population.
While it is quite intense to stand in a cloud of swarming bees, this is the time when bees are most gentle. First of all, they are so full of honey, they can barely fly. But most of all, they have nothing to defend--no home and no young. They are focused only on getting to the new location. Once the bees have landed in a clump, this is the time intrepid beekeepers can "catch" the swarm, by simply bushing them or shaking them into a box. If the queen is captured and the box is suitable, the bees will stay. Just for a sense of how non-aggressive they are, my neighbors and I caught a swarm clumped high in a tree. As we swept the bees into our bee box, some missed and poured down my neighbors bare head, face and chest and inside her shirt!. She remained calm and NO one was stung!
All across the nation, the chicken craze is well underway...people are almost shocked when they discover I don't have them. I considered carefully for several years which animals I would like to have here before settling on rabbits. I am happy I did and am surprised that more people don't jump on the bunny bandwagon. Rabbits are the perfect small-scale urban farm animal for a number of reasons. Here are my top ten favorite things about rabbits:
!. Rabbits are quiet
2. Rabbits prefer a shady spot in the yard, where perhaps nothing grows anyway.
3. Rabbits make great poo that can go directly onto your garden beds without aging.
4. Rabbits taste good
5. Rabbits are a great teaching tool for learning about the cycles of life, birth and death
6. Rabbits can help us relearn what it means to look our dinner in the eye.
7. Rabbits are excellent at converting grain & green to lean protein.
8. Rabbits are great composters.
9. Rabbit care is minimal.
10. Baby bunnies are adorable!
Sounding better all the time? Of course I understand that many people shudder at the prospect of killing something as seemingly cute & cuddly as a bunny. This was a question for me as well. Before I got my rabbits I pitched in on a day of butchering to see if I could do it. I was surprized at how quickly and humanely the animals can be slaughtered and at what a good life they can have leading up to that point. Of course killing is still probably my least favorite farm chore ( as it should be). But as a meat eater it is a fine ethical choice to take responsibility for every phase of the creatures life and to start to grasp more deeply what life ( and death) is all about.
MEDIATE YOUR MEDIA WITH A DOSE OF DIRT
I was recently in New York City for a few days and had the uncommon priviledge of having an all-access pass at a Big Rock Show. Sitting in the lighting booth as the show began I had a singular experience... As the floating 96 panel video screen raised to reveal the band and the music crashed over a gigantic 30 foot tall speakers I was greeted by a sea of tiny led screens, as far as the eye could see People no longer simply experience the spectacle, they experience it through the lense of a camera...or handheld video recoder,....or a telephone. The event has become the recording of the event.
Now sure I think some amount of media is fun, I am no luddite! Computers have revolutionized the ease and speed with which we connect. But it has also erroded the quality of that connection. The root of the word media means to come between; media is second hand, not direct or immediate (immediate = not through media). It filters our experience - compressing five or more senses into one or two. Facebook replaces face time and watching videos of reality replaces reality. Our brains are asked to process more and more flat images without directly interacting with them. In some ways experiencing through media is like eating processed foods. It looks and smells like food, but there are some nutrients missing. Overuse of media can result in a subtle feeling of emptiness or isolation. The soul is hungry. The antedote? Get real!
When your head is spinning, your eyes are weary from the screen and the constant beeping of the many handheld devices, take yourself outside. Treat your eyes to the lushness of a patch of spring flowers or growing greens, your nose to the wafting scent of a honey bee hive. Plunge your hands into the messy aliveness of dirt, each tablespoon teaming with a hundred billion organisms. Working the earth, even a small window box is one of the most real activities available to us and the results are clear. Sprouting seeds and watching things grow, infusing a neglected patch of dirt with new life give us a feeling of pride and satisfaction. Adding care for animals to the mix and the energy buzz goes up a hundred fold. Interacting with the most basic miracles of the living world gives meaning to why we are here. OK. Nuff said. Stop reading already and get out there!
CHEESY ZUCCHINI CHIPS, YEAH!
I don't know about you, but my zucchini, which I planted in March, is still turning them out, two or three honkers, every couple days... Finally here is a viable and actually yummy way of preserving all that extra Zucchini--it even works with the ones that get a little too big.
Zucchini is tough--it produces like crazy but you can only eat so much. Frozen or canned it turns to a fairly unappetizing mush. I would eat it if I were starving, but it would never be the first thing I would pull from the shelf or deep freeze. So yesterday I tried my hand at dehydrated cheesy zucchini chips and I have to say, I could eat them by the pound! Heres how:
Soak Cashews--Maybe about a half pound. Put them in the cuisinart (or Vitamix if you are so lucky to have one) with a red bell pepper (roasted and skinned unless you are a deciated raw foodie), a chopped tomato (optional), a few heaping tablespoons of brewers yeast. Start it up and dribble in lemon juice until it gets to a nice creamy consistancy. salt to taste. Slice your zucchinis into rounds and mix the sauce in to thoroughly coat it. Place into dehydrstor and dry until crisp. The sauce is also amazingly deliscious on it's own and could be used as salad dressing or dressing for steamed veggies if you have any left over at the end!
TIPS FOR TOMATO SAUCE
If you want to make pasta sauce the type of tomatoes to plant (or purchase) are paste tomatoes. They are generally oblong and their water content and seed mass is much smaller than that of regular slicing tomatoes. It is not a crime to use heirlooms for sauce, though their delicate flavors are best appreciated fresh and you would spend many more hours cooking them down to reach a good consistency for putting on pasta. The most common pastes are called Romas, though there are a many other varieties, especially if you are starting from seed: Genovese, San Marzano , Sheboygen, Baylor...the list goes on.
The old-school way to prep the tomatoes was to blanch, peel and core each one. This process starts with dunking the tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds to loosen the skin, then peeling, taking out the belly-button with a knife, slicing and removing the seeds with a spoon or dedicated seed removal device. In my short-cut-urban-farm-wife method I skip most of that. The tomatoes are simply quartered and thrown in a blender or cuisinart and pureed until very fine. If you are using a blender, leave a bit of the blended tomatoes at the bottom each time you pour it off so that it is easier to keep going and you don't have to start fresh each time. I think the consistancy is great and so far no one has complained ( or even noticed).
Then it is time to start cooking it down. If you start with 20 pounds of tomatoes, you should end up with 8-10 pints of sauce. It can take 2-4 hours for the tomatoes to cook down and this is an important step! If you are not patient with this step you will end up with your pasta floating in a watery soup with little chunks of tomatoes floating it it. Yuck!
Now, at any point in the process you can add your"stuff." What you add will depend on whether you are canning, freezing or eating right away. For canning: You can add any amount of spices and herbs, wine, a dash of sweetener, salt and pepper. If you want to add other, non-acid ingrediants (common additions are garlic, onion, mushrooms, bell peppers), you may, but the total of these must be no more that about 5% by volume of the total at the beginning. Theses extra ingrediants must be chopped finely so the acids of the tomatoes soak in and they may be sauteed, but for a 20 pound batch no more than 2 tablespoons of oil can be used, since oiil can increase the possibility for botulism by encapsulating the botulism spores so that the acidity of the tomatoes can't get at them. Never add cheese if you plan to can your sauce. Official US canning organizations will also reccommend that you add lemon juice to any canned tomato products. This is because tomatoes are borderline acidity for canning in a boiling water bath on the stove. However I have tested the ph of my suaces for many years and never found them to be in a danger zone in terms of their acidity.. Of course, do not can low acid tomatoes and if you are concerned, add 1 tablespoon lemon juice to every pint you can. For specific canning instruction refer to http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/
Freezing or eating immediately: Here you can add any amount of any ingredient you wish! Common additions are mushrooms, bell pepper, broccoli, zucchini ground beef, sausage, parmesan. remember that frozen goods are best eaten with 12 months so do label the container you put them in ziplock freezer bags work well or dedicated freezer tupperware, which is usually available near the canning supplies.
PERMACULTURE VS HOMESTEADING, WHAT'S THE DIFF?
Permaculture,, developed by Australian Bill Mollison and now a worldwide movement stands for "permamant + culture" and is a series of principles that can be applied to any human activity to make it more sustainable. Permaculture is modeled on the natural world, a permanant, self-sustaining system in which there is no overspending and no waste. Although fairly new as a system, many of the permaculture principles and practices are ancient. Permaculture is governed by three core ethics: Earthcare, Peoplecare and Fairshare--the latter referring to placing limits on consumption and using resources in ways that are equitable and wise. Because of this people often come to permaculture from a political or environmental backgrounds, out of a desire for a healthy planet and a good quality of life for all creatures great and small.
Urban Homesteading is many things to many people coming from different backgrounds. Some of us want to change the world, others are into self-reliance, do-it-yourself culture or foodie-ism. Many urban homesteaders have awareness about political and environmental issues, some just think it is a fun thing to do. Urban Homesteading could be considered the practical hands-on side of permaculture for urbanites-- it contians many of the same practices as permaculture--raising and preserving food, working with water, energy and other resources, compiosting, recycling and so on. However without the principles behind it, homesteading is just a collection of DIY projects. If you are ready to take the next step, to understand designs systems and put it all together, you may want to consider attending a Permaculture Design Course. It is an investment of time and money, however it will blow your mind and change how you look at the world. I did my course at OAEC (see below) and loved every minute of it. However there are other options both more local and better suited to a working persons' schedule and budget.
Some options for Permaculture study
The Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC) Site, instructors and food are amazing!!
Regenerative Design Institute (RDI) Wonderful site, outdoor kitchen and camping, they do a 2 week intensive or a fours seasons course that meets four weekends through the year.
Merritt College Local, once a week and only the cost of 3 units ate the community college (about $150). Merritt has lots of other cool courses in their landscape hort department as well.
Common Circle Education 12 consecutive Saturdays.
Can't change the world? Change yourself!
A list of 50 things in 5 important areas of human activity that you can do to step up to the movement towards sustainability.
FOOD: Eat out less. Wean yourself of packaged foods. Grow your own food. Share your extra. Save seeds. Trade seeds. Raise animals for meat, eggs & poop. Eat food close to it's source (local unpackaged, raw, unprocessed, organic or better etc.). Wild Foods. Gleaning.
WATER: Use your water twice. Greywater, constructed wetlands, bathtub siphoning. Low-flow showerheads. Front-loading washers. Rainwater catchment. Flush with your shower or sink water. Potable rainwater catchment. Depave. Downspout diversion.
WASTE/MATERIALS: Ask your favorite take-out to use cardboard/aluminum foil instead of plastic/styrofoam. Carry your own container & utensils. Compost Your Poop. Use your pee to fertilize. Buy second hand: clothing, tools, cars, computers and more. Make it yourself. Use cloth bags, refuse plastic ones. Trade goods and services. Compost or worm bin. Fix it if it's broken.
ENERGY: Walk, bike, scooter or motorbike. Biodiesel or electric vehicle. Powerstrips to turn off stand-by function on appliances. Low energy bulbs. Turn off lights. Solar clothes drying (line drying). Solar Oven. Water-on-demand heater. Solar shower. Wind or solar generator.
THE WORLD AROUND YOU: Create habitat for bees & other wildlife. Know your native plants and animals. Scatter seed. Teach. Meet Your neighbors. Make a plan. Watershed education. Share resources. Impact legislation by writing, calling and showing up at their meetings.