I had originally envisioned that while under stay at home orders that I would catch up on everything in my home garden. Usually I'm out working in other people's gardens all day and by the time I get home I don't have a lot of energy left for my own space. In the summer and fall it is often so hot at the end of the day I can't imagine spending any more time outdoors than I have to for work. In general things are set up to be relatively low maintenance so that we can spend time enjoying our garden instead of working in it. Yet there are always changes I want to make, things to be trimmed back and new things to plant.
Initially I dove in and spent hours catching up on weeding. The late rains brought a new crop of weeds for me to work on. By far the biggest "weed" I have these days is chickweed. Through careful management I have managed to reduce the amount invasive grasses and other more common weedy plants. In their place I have allowed more useful plants to thrive. I once dug up a bunch of nettles and actually brought them home to plant. Now I have nettles popping up every year. I do harvest some to cook and this year I dried a good deal for tea. Though I still had more nettles than I wanted and had to dedicate a few hours over several days to carefully pulling them. I like to add nettles to my compost because they are good nutrient accumulators. The chickweed is similarly both edible and medicinal. The thing is that I don't really use much if any of it. It turns out that just because I could eat something doesn't mean that I will. There is usually a spring green salad or two that includes some chickweed and maybe I nibble some as I'm working. But the stuff has spread enough to become quite a nuisance. Pulling it certainly kept me occupied during the early days of the stay at home order. We had another late rain and that strengthened the remaining chickweed and other less desirable plants so you would hardly know that I had spent so much time cleaning up the garden.
I did plant some bean seeds and they are just sprouting.
Last year I bought up all the seeds for black and dark colored flowers that I could find. I planted seeds of some of the varieties last fall. Now my Black Magic bachelor's button are blooming and thriving! They aren't a terribly deep color but they are very pretty nonetheless. And this ladybug approved.
The garden may not be looking as tidy as I imagined it would all those distant weeks ago. But it has provided a balm to the anxiety of living in times of a pandemic. Plants give us something to look forward to. I look forward to watching these beans grow. I'm excited to see how many tomatoes I can cram into our modest yard this summer. I'm watching the plums and nectarine tree set tiny fruit and watching them grow. I'm continually amazed at how the compost pile continues to break down and shrink no matter how much green waste I pile onto it. I'm grateful to have this space and the time and strength to tend it.
Potting Up Tomato Seedlings
I'm continuing to work on the little home nursery. I started a variety of tomato seeds on March 2nd, before COVID-19 was really on my mind. I just wanted to start some seeds with the idea of having some extras for friends and neighbors. I'm glad I planted as many seeds as I did. Now everyone wants edible plants and we are all planting Victory Gardens in our battle against the virus and our own boredom. Food security is an issue too but personally I feel that the therapeutic benefits of working in the garden and growing your own food are very important right now.
Today I transplanted some of the babies into bigger pots. I had planted several varieties of tomatoes and some of the seeds were fresher and had a higher germination rate than others. Seeds are alive and thus have limitations on how long they can be stored and still germinate. I found a packet of black cherry tomato seeds that I had saved from my own tomatoes back in 2010. I may be lackadaisical about many things but I do at least always remember to put the date on the seeds I save. In the picture above you can see that the seeds on the left, the Mallorca, had better germination or are at least more plentiful than the Brandywine on the right. Both of the seed packets were a few years old and I figured I may as well plant all of the seeds. To be fair, I think the packet of Mallorca had a lot more seeds in it to start off with. I'd been busy potting up and transplanting other varieties ahead of these and they were a bit overdue to be separated out and planted into bigger pots. The purple tinge they were starting to develop is a sign of nutrient deficiency, signaling to me that they had used up the nutrients available to them and were ready for more space and fresh soil.
Press soil down around the stem of the plant. I like to think of it as tucking the plant in. I want the soil in the container to be firm enough to hold the plant upright. Usually I hold the seedling with one hand while I sprinkle and tamp potting soil around it.
Seed Starting Basics Part 2
Growing vegetables from seed is relatively straightforward. However I thought I might provide some pro tips on how to plan your plantings so that you can experience the joy of growing your own but also actually harvest enough to eat.
You may be excited about tomatoes but you aren't going to harvest any tomatoes for several months after you plant. Radishes on the other hand can be ready to eat in a matter of a couple of weeks. The good part is there is no need to choose one or the other. If you plan the timing and harvests and consider the space available, you can plant both tomatoes and radishes and some greens too.
First, let us consider the timing from planting to harvest.
On the left we have a packet of carrot seeds. It says that the number of days to maturity (or harvest) is 75-80 days. Now, here's the thing- you can eat carrots at pretty much any stage. You can eat them when they are babies, just slender little sweet things, or when they are larger and more robust. Most root vegetables and leafy greens are similar. You can eat them throughout their growing stages and somewhat stagger your harvest in that way. On the right side we have a packet of tomato seeds. Those say 75-90 days to harvest. For tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and eggplant you are harvesting the fruit of the plant. It takes more time to develop the fruit and you are generally not eating other parts of the plant. In the center photo are French style pole beans ready to harvest in just 60 days.
I might plan on planting carrots in an open area of ground while planting beans on a trellis or other structure. Both the carrots and beans would be direct seeded. Meanwhile I would start seeds of the tomato in pots and transplant them out to the garden in a few months. Just as the tomato plant is starting to get really big and taking over the whole area I would harvest the beans and pull the plants out or cut them off at soil level. The carrots I would harvest over a long period. First I would thin them out and eat some as itty bitty carrots, probably straight from the soil, just brushing them off on my shirt. Then I would eat a few the following week and so on. Thus I am not only prolonging the time of my carrot harvest but I'm creating more room for the remaining carrots at the same time. Crowding will reduce the size of any root vegetable so leaving them enough space to develop is crucial if you want to have a few get big enough to look like your familiar supermarket veggies.
Tomatoes are by far the #1 edible plant for home growers. They outsell all of the other veggies by far. But if you really want to grow more of what you eat or provide for your family's food security you should think about growing a variety of crops. For beginners I highly recommend radishes and lettuce. Both are easy and quick. Squash are another easy to grow, high satisfaction plant. Generally I would wait until May to plant my squash so no rush on those. Another word of wisdom from an experienced gardener is don't plant too many squash plants. You really only need one or two zucchini plants, tops.
If you have a really large space you can always grow more and plan to give away your surplus. You can 'plant a row for the hungry' and dedicate a certain amount of space for food you plan to donate to a food pantry or similar organization. The future is certainly uncertain right now and there will continue to be a need for donations and gifts of fresh healthy food. So plan ahead and then go out and get planting!
What better stay at home activity for springtime than sowing seeds?
While many may look to grow their own food simply for food security purposes I feel that the joy of growing is an equally valuable aspect of gardening right now. Starting seeds gives you something to look forward to. In a time of anxiety and stress, when we can control little in the outside world, we can find joy in watching seeds sprout. There is something about seeing a new shoot of life come out of the soil that rings a bell of happiness in our primal lizard brains.
I wish that I could wave a magic wand and stop this illness. Alas, I can only do my part and stay home.
I can also offer my years of experience as a gardener to help advise anyone looking to start an edible garden right now. If you want to grow some veggies or even just flowers to brighten your mood, here are the basics to get started.
Right now it's the beginning of April. We just passed the Spring Equinox and the days are continuing to lengthen. Here in California and other mild climates, cooler nighttime temperature may slow things down a bit but we can plant a wide variety of vegetables right now. To catch the tail end of the cool season we can still plant lettuce, cabbage, beets and leafy greens. We can also plan ahead and start planting warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers. I'd recommend holding off on squash and melons for another month.
Direct Seeding vs. Transplanting
Direct seeding implies that you are planting seeds directly into the ground or the soil of a container you will be growing in. Root vegetables in particular do best when direct sown. Beets, radishes and carrots should always be sown directly into the soil. I usually make a little trench with my finger, sprinkle the seeds in and cover them up again. Meanwhile, plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant will always do best when started in a container and later transplanted out into the garden when they are robust enough to fend for themselves. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant all have small seeds that are easily lost in the soil and they also all prefer warm, cozy spaces to get their start. I have seedlings started on a heat mat indoors right now.
The bottom heat provided by a heat mat helps spur seeds to germinate more quickly. They are relatively inexpensive and widely available online but really not necessary for just starting a few things. I actually bought my heat mat originally to make homemade tempeh, but that's another story. You can also improve the humidity by making a mini greenhouse by simply draping a plastic bag over your seedlings. However, it's important not to let the plastic touch the surface of the soil. It can hold too much moisture and allow fungi to grow that can kill the seeds. I usually use chopsticks or craft sticks to prop up the plastic around the plants.
When starting seeds in containers to later be transplanted out into the garden you need a soil or planting media that hold moisture but also provides adequate air space. You can buy seed starting mix at nurseries or online. I make my own by blending coconut coir, perlite and compost and sprinkling in a teeny tiny bit of all purpose granular fertilizer. It's less expensive for me to make my own but I also am a professional and compulsive gardener so I go through a significant quantity. It may make more sense for you to buy the bagged seed starting mix. Regular potting soil is usually okay for starting seeds but it tends to not have enough aeration and holds too much moisture for my taste. I may lighten up the potting soil by adding perlite or vermiculite. Sand can also be added to potting soil to improve aeration but it is significantly heavier.
The rule of thumb that I go by on how deep to plant seeds is two to three times as deep as the seed is long. That means little seeds like kale or tomatoes are only like a quarter centimeter deep. I just sprinkle my seed starting mix over the seeds gently. Planting too deep is a common beginner mistake. And it's disheartening to watch and wait for your babies to pop up and they never do because they were planted too deep. A seed is an energy nugget. From the time the baby plant emerges from the seed until it can reach above the soil and start to photosynthesize and feed itself, it is dependent on the stored energy from the seed. If you plant it too deep it will run out of food (energy) before reaching the soil surface. For kids I would recommend to start with larger seeds like peas, beans and squash. Their bigger size makes them more forgiving about planting depth.
More detailed instructions to follow soon! Stay home, stay safe and stay strong.
Covid-19 Garden Journal Day 1
All of a sudden my life as a horticulturalist has new meaning. I've been a gardener, both professionally and as a personal hobby, for many years. With many people now having to work from home or simply laid off and with time on their hands, everyone is interested in gardening. I'm not working much these days myself. I'm trying to lay low and help flatten the curve by leaving the house as little as possible.
This is encouraging me to finally tackle long delayed projects in my own garden. I've been weeding, trimming and planting up a storm.
Today's surprise harvest: an artichoke!
Artichokes can be perennials here in California's mild climate. This plant is three or four years old I would guess. The plant had sprouted up new shoots at it's base and I had neglected to thin them. Thus, the main plant is more narrow and not as robust as it should be. Nevertheless I was happy to find this gorgeous choke waiting there for me. A pro tip for artichoke harvesting is to always put your artichokes in a pan or bowl of water when you cut them. For some reason bugs love to hide under the scales of the bud. They will crawl out into the water. Trust me, its much better to get them out this way than discovering them when you go to cook your artichoke.
I also managed to turn my compost today and pull out a lot of ivy that crept over the back fence from the neighbor's.
Southern California has its own unique history and personality. Our landscape reflects the diversity of people and cultures that have cultivated land here, both agriculturally and in domestic settings. It also reflects their visions, wishes and memories. A plant brought as a cutting from the home country, a few seeds in a pocket when moving westward, a tree chosen because it symbolized status or reminded one of the tree they grew up with back East. Our landscapes can be delightful and diverse. Yet the reigning paradigm of how we plant and care for our landscapes in Southern California is too often heedless of its environmental impacts and underutilizes the potential for landscapes to improve the local ecology.
I could summarize the current paradigm as 'plant too much, add a lot of water, add a lot of fertilizer, plants grow quickly, cut them back too much, repeat.' This is of course my own biased view from what I see in the industry. Even spaces planted with "low water" or "Mediterranean" plants are often subject to this same paradigm. A property owner wants a more mature looking garden and they put in too many plants for the space. Then they water them a lot so that the plants grow quickly.
Then before you know it everything has to be cut back a lot. All of that green waste gets hauled off to the away place (more on that at another time) and the leaves are blown off and removed from every surface upon which they fall. The soil life is poor because no organic matter is being allowed to decompose upon it. Without the natural cycling of organic matter one must purchase compost from the store and bring in fertilizer to keep plants growing fast and furiously.
Stop the insanity! This system works well for people selling goods and services. But what does it do for the land, the air, the water and the birds and the bees? In the bigger picture I'm pushing for a paradigm shift where we learn to embrace the seasons and the climate. Maybe things shouldn't be a lush green in August in L.A.? And please, please, let us stop paying people to brutally hack trees. That's not pruning. It's cruelty to nature.
Let's start with water. Many of the plants brought from other places grow here only with the help of a good deal of additional water. Now I think we should be able to grow a wonderful variety of plants. If you want to grow fruit trees or grass or even establish a new native garden you are probably going to use supplemental water. We should be thinking more about capturing rainwater and using grey water where appropriate. I will be so bold as to suggest that if you are going to use potable water that it should be for something you LOVE. Water use should never be thoughtless. And all too often an automated irrigation system allows water to be used without us being aware of it. I encourage people to just go out and spend more time in their landscapes and really learn to look. Check the irrigation timer every few months, make seasonal adjustments, turn the thing off if it is going to rain.
After rethinking our watering we need to look at green waste. How much material comes off of a garden every week? Lots of water= lots of plant growth. Once plants are established they can be watered less often. This will slow their growth and means that less green waste needs to be cut and disposed of.
If possible we should be composting and mulching our green waste. I like the 'chop and drop' method where you chop up your prunings into mulch as you go. This look isn't for everyone but I recommend it for those who want to be serious about their waste management.
If you have a lawn you should be mulching the lawn with the grass clippings. We need to return more organic matter to the soil. Lawn clippings and fallen leaves are organic materials- they contain carbon, nitrogen and all sorts of nutrients that plants need. Having a layer of mulch on the surface of the soil helps retain moisture and feeds the good microbes in the soil. I like to sweep walkways and hardscape and leave the twigs and leaves to decompose on the surface of the soil. Bougainvillea flowers make the most delightful pink mulch! The cult of tidy must be displaced with a celebration of the beauty of nature. And of course, this organic matter we are leaving on the surface of the soil adds carbon back to the soil and makes our healthy, living soil a carbon sink. Look at that, tackling climate change literally in our own back yards. And all we had to do was not blow away all the leaves.
Lazy gardening is green gardening my friends.
Beyond water and waste there is the big picture of what we want and expect from our landscapes. Wealthy European aristocrats created pleasure gardens as a way to display their wealth. Look! I'm so rich I don't have to grow my own food! To utilize land purely for aesthetic and recreational purposes was a luxury. The neatly clipped hedges and tidy beds of flowers were a way to show how they could afford to also employ people to work in their pleasure gardens. What an indulgence. But this is not France circa 1825. Yet, whether we are aware of it or not, these values have helped to shape our ideas about gardens and what they should look like. At the same time, people coming from tropical countries in Asia and Latin America may be used to a more lush and green landscape more appropriate to wetter climates. Where we are from and our cultural backgrounds do play a role in what we appreciate in a landscape.
In order to shift our landscape paradigm we need to examine some of these expectations. There is room for a lot of variety and self expression in our gardens. However we need to adapt to where we are. Our water future is unknown. We will have wet years and dry years. Our landscapes should be designed to be resilient in the face of drought. But we should also shift our expectations and learn to love the changing of the seasons and what that brings. Summers in California are brown. Let's love having a little more brown in summer time and celebrate the return of green shoots with rain in the autumn. Let us appreciate the ephemeral beauty of flowers that appear only after a heavy rain and marvel at the resilience of the plants that manage to flower or stay green even in the most intense heat. By matching our expectations to our climate reality we can create more beautiful landscapes than we had previously imagined.