The good news is that I am no longer behind in getting all my seeds and plants started or into the garden. The bad news is that I’ve started a new writing gig and I’ve fallen behind in blog posting instead. So here is the garden update for March, posted in April.
Onions, Garlic, Leeks
I ordered onion plants from Johnny’s in February. The variety is Patterson, a yellow onion, and they come in a bundle in a box in the mail. This is the same variety I grew last year, and they’re a good onion — they grow into big bulbs that keep a long time. I like mail-order onion plants a lot; they are easy to put into the ground (make hole, drop onion into hole) and seem to reliably take root and grow on their own.
I also bought a 6-pack of red onions when I was at the garden center, and planted those next to the yellow onions. There were more plants than I thought there were going to be in the one 6-pack, so I guess I’ll have a lot of red onions. I also impulsively bought a 6-pack of leeks on another garden center trip (I visit the garden center a lot at this time of year) and those need to be planted in this same bed as well. I don’t really eat that many leeks, but if I have leeks I’ll find a use for them. (I didn’t eat that many shallots either until I accidentally grew 20 lbs of them last year).
The garlic is still doing well and the garlic plants are now about a foot tall. I also filled up the remainder of the garlic bed with a couple shallots and some left over onion plants that I’ll use for scallions.
Broccoli & Other Brassicas
Last year’s broccoli has stopped forming little heads and the ones it does form go to flowers almost immediately. It’s time to pull those plants out and give them to the chickens. I got pounds and pounds of broccoli out of these plants right up until last month, so I’m OK with letting those go.
I never got around to planting broccoli seeds this year, so I bought some started plants on one of my garden center runs. I planted two varieties: Gypsy and Green Magic, both hybrids. I had 6 broccoli plants last year and nearly too much to eat, but this year there are 12. I’m figuring on freezing a lot.
Right now these plants are looking really purple, and I’m not sure why. My friend Google would indicate either a nutrient deficiency or it’s just been too cold. These plants are due for a dose of seaweed fertilizer and the weather’s getting a lot warmer, so we’ll see if I can’t green them up.
I did seed some brussels sprouts earlier last month and they came up very well, I planted those into the garden at the same time as the broccoli. Brussels sprouts are kind of troublesome for me — I can grow huge plants but get really small sprouts, and they’re plagued by bugs. But hope springs eternal and we’ll see if I can’t coax some real sprouts out of them this year.
I’m not growing cauliflower or romanesco. We eat a lot of cauliflower, but it needs a lot of space and water and you only get one head per plant. You also have to cover it in order for it to be white, and it has a lot of bug problems, and it’s picky about the weather. Too much trouble, better to just give over the space to more broccoli and buy cauliflower in the store.
Roots & Shoots
I’m still eating carrots and beets from last year (I planted too many of them, and have not been eating them fast enough). The carrots are starting to sprout flower stalks, and some of them are a good three inches across at the crown, but they’re still edible. (they are especially good as ginger pickles) The beets are large and woody but the greens are still good.
I started planting this year’s carrots and beets a week ago. These will be multicolored carrots (orange, white, purple), as well as chioggia (pink striped) and yellow beets.
I planted peas in just about every bed as a cover crop, to add more nutrition to the soil. Peas are a nitrogen fixer, which means they suck nitrogen out of the air and store it in little nodules in their roots. If you cut down the pea plants you get the benefit of that extra nitrogen in the soil, and you can compost the greens. I haven’t been very good about cover cropping in the past and it’s something I want to try to improve — it’s always better to grow better soil in place than to add stuff every year to improve it. I probably won’t get any actual peas out of these plants before I cut them down, but every little bit of benefit to the soil counts.
I also planted snap peas, but either they did not sprout or they did and birds got them. Could go either way. I’m thinking of planting more seeds but it’s getting late in the season — Snap peas don’t do well when the weather is too warm.
Sometimes when I read other people’s garden blogs I get depressed because it seems like everyone else has fabulous gardens and everything they plant grows well and looks terrific. It finally occurred to me that no one posts about their failures, so you get a rosier picture. So. I planted a whole bed full of spinach seeds and watered them and protected them from birds and none of them came up. This happens every year. I don’t know why everyone says say that spinach is one of the easiest vegetables to grow. I suck really hard at spinach.
Kale and chard are started and ready to plant, but I haven’t put them in the garden yet.
Vegetable seed shopping is always a hazardous time of year for me. I have a bit of an obsessive collector’s urge about seeds, and I always spend too much money on things that look interesting or things that look like they might be improvements on what I already have.
I prefer seeds that are that are heirlooms (older varieties) or open-pollinated (sets seeds and breeds true), but I’m not a fanatic about it. I will happily grow a hybrid seed if it works better than the open seed. “Better” can mean better disease resistance, or bigger and more fruit or other edible parts. In any given year I’ll probably grow 50/50% heirlooms to hybrids.
I do save some seeds from year to year, if it’s easy, which mostly means tomatoes and green beans. A lot of the stuff I grow in the garden readily cross-pollinates and produces weird mixtures (squash, peppers), or needs a full two years of growing to set seed at all (all the broccoli-types, carrots, kale, chard). Neither of these things are ideal for my garden, so I just don’t bother. Seeds are pretty cheap as far as hobbies go, even if I do get carried away.
The seed catalogs (“seed porn” as Eric calls them) come out in late December, which are always fun for browsing over breakfast in the dark days of the year. But since I like to start some seeds in January, I try to get my orders in earlier than that.
I usually order from three stores:
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply: Good, basic organic heirloom seeds at good prices. They also carry Renee’s Garden seeds which have more interesting varieties.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co: Huge variety of heirlooms, including really unusual and rare varieties. They also usually give you an awful lot of seeds per packet.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds: More expensive, but the best source for high-quality hybrid seeds in large garden or semi-professional amounts.
This year’s seeds arrived last week:
Here’s the list of stuff I got for this year, in no particular order:
Beet Mammoth Red Mangel – huge beets, the chickens eat them
Beet Golden Detroit
Rutabaga Helenor – hybrid
Onion Evergreen Bunching
Onion Ruby Ring
Brussels Sprouts Hestia
Broccoli Di Ciccio
Lettuce Mix Allstar
Squash Sweet Meat
Watermelon Hopi Yellow
Sorrel Green De Belleville
There’s not much going on in the garden right now, given that it is so late in the year and the garlic is in. We’ve had a few frost and freeze days, which have killed most of the summer plants, although I still have some peppers holding on. It’s really not the prettiest time of the year for garden photos.
Usually this month I cut down and clean up all the old plants, stack and store the big tomato cages and other trellises, mulch all the beds, and get ready for next year. If I were better organized and did not pack the garden full to the top every year I would take the summer plants out earlier and put in cover crops. But in December it is usually too cold and too dark to be able to start anything growing — not even cold-tolerant, fast-growing peas or favas.
I did manage to plant some green beans late in the Fall, and those plants sprouted and grew and began to bear very quickly during our typically warm fall days. Green beans don’t like the cold, though, and they’ve been looking increasingly unhappy in the last few weeks. Today I pulled them all out and harvested a handful of green beans. Enough for a side dish. Now that I know I can plant beans this late, I’ll plant more next year.
I also picked all the brussels sprouts and cut the sprouts from the stems today. I haven’t been all that lucky with brussels in the past — it’s a really big plant, and it needs to go in pretty early in the year to be big enough to set sprouts. The plants I put in this year in March didn’t grow very big sprouts, but I had enough plants to harvest a couple pounds’ worth. I also learned this year that snapping or cutting the sprouts off the stem is a huge pain in the butt. All these issues make me want to re-examine whether I need to grow brussels again. It’s a lot of space and a lot of work for a vegetable that is not all that expensive already picked and packed in the store.
Left in the garden now are the cold-weather greens (kale, collards, chard), a whole lot of broccoli, a bed’s worth of carrots and beets I will harvest over the winter as I need them, a small bed of lettuce and salad greens, and the plant formerly known as cauliflower that looks like collards. None of these plants will grow a lot at this time of the year, but they can survive the cold weather just fine.
This dark time of winter is sometimes called the Persephone days, after the greek goddess who was imprisoned in the underworld during the winter months. It’s the time of the year when daylight falls below ten hours a day — at my latitude that’s from about November 20 to January 20. It may be longer if you’re in a more northern area (November 10 to February 2, in Boston), or not exist at all in the south (Houston day length never falls below 10 hours).
Plants don’t like to grow during the persephone days, entirely because of the lack of daylight. Even in a mild climate (which I have), or in a very warm winter (which I’ve often had), or in a greenhouse where you can control the warmth (which I don’t have….yet), everything goes dormant during the persephone days. Some farmers with greenhouses supplement with extra light and warmth for extra early vegetables, but I like to have a break and take some time off. Also: no greenhouse (yet).
24 hours after breaking the garlic bulbs into cloves and setting them to soak, it’s time to plant the garlic in the garden.
I actually started soaking my garlic on Sunday, and it’s Tuesday now. So it’s been more than 24 hours, and I am once again behind. Things will still be fine. Planting and gardening is not really a precise science.
Spacing The Garlic
Looking back at my garden journal, in the past I’ve planted garlic as tightly as three inches apart, and as far as eight. The closer you plant the cloves the less room they will have to grow into big bulbs, and they’ll need more water. Farther apart and you’ll need to weed more, and it’s not like the garlic will grow a foot wide if you give them that much space. Four inches seems to be a happy medium, and what I’ve used most often in the past.
I’m using a 3-foot by 8-foot garden bed this year for the garlic. Four-inch spacing means 24 rows of 9 cloves. That’s room for 216 cloves in this single bed, and that is a lot (a LOT) of garlic. The two pounds of garlic I cleaned and soaked a day ago gave me 106 cloves. They’re also extra large cloves, so I’ll loosen up the spacing a little more so the cloves have room to grow — 4 inches between cloves, and 5 inches between the rows. That will fill a large portion of the bed with the cloves that I have, with some extra space as well.
Garlic doesn’t care if it’s planted in neat orderly rows, or squares, or diamonds, or spirals, or smiley faces. You can stuff it into the ground roughly 4 inches apart and it’ll grow. I like rows because nerd. It’s more organized that way.
To keep track of spacing for planting my beds I made this enormous ruler. One side is marked in 2, 4, and 5 inches, and the other side has 3, 6, 8, and 12. It’s eight feet long so it fits neatly into the bed for measuring, and helps keep the rows straight.
This is a garden tool called a dibble or a dibbler. It is useful for poking holes for planting individual seeds — or planting garlic cloves. I have marked it in 1-inch increments so that I know how deep to make the holes.
(Technically, this is not a dibbler at all. This is actually the pestle from a cooking sieve called a chinois, which I got in a random box of old kitchen stuff I picked up somewhere ages ago. But I use it as a dibbler.)
I use the dibbler first to mark the planting locations in rows for the garlic, and to make sure I have my math right for the spacing. I’ll use it again to actually put the cloves into the ground.
Interlude, with Turkeys
While I was marking rows in the garden and taking pictures for this post, this flock of wild turkeys came by to watch. I did not know they were there until they suddenly all gobbled at me at once. I was so startled I think I lost a full year off my life.
Planting the Garlic
The garlic has been soaking in the baking soda and seaweed solution overnight, or in my case for close to two days. Drain the garlic in the sink. You’ll notice that the skins are really loose on the garlic cloves, and may have come off altogether. That’s OK; you can even plant the cloves without the skins at all and they’ll still do fine.
Part two of the soaking strategy involves rubbing alcohol for a final short disinfection. I haven’t ever done this before, so I have no idea if it will make a difference at all, but I’m willing to try.
I put the garlic back into the soaking container, add half a bottle of rubbing alcohol and water to cover. Shake to distribute, leave for a couple minutes, and then drain again. Now we’re ready to plant.
I haven’t done anything special to the soil in the garden bed to prepare it for garlic. Garlic likes loose soil, and it likes some extra phosphorus. If my soil was in poorer condition I would have added bone meal and a bunch of compost when I dug the bed. But this soil came from another bed in the garden, and it is already in good condition and pretty fluffy.
You can plant garlic anywhere from 1 to 3 inches deep, depending on the size of the cloves. If you’re planting smaller cloves and your soil is fluffy you can just press them into the soil with your fingers. (The first joint on my thumb is almost exactly 1 inch, which is awfully convenient.) Because these are big cloves I used the dibbler to poke 2-3 inch deep holes and then dropped in the cloves.
You do want to plant the cloves root side down, and pointy side up. These cloves have very obvious root sides and pointy sides, but sometimes with some softneck garlic cloves it can be harder to tell. If you plant them upside down or sideways they will grow but it’ll take longer for them to figure out which way is up, and you’ll probably get smaller bulbs. This somewhat unfortunate picture that looks like something else entirely shows the root end of the clove.
After all the garlic is planted, I press down the soil lightly to make sure that there is good contact between the soil and the cloves. You can just use your hands for this, but I use a rake.
Mulching the Garlic
The final step is a thick layer of mulch on the garden bed — two to three inches of mulch. The mulch helps preserve moisture in the soil, protects the new garlic shoots from the freezing over winter, and also prevents marauding birds from noticing that your garlic is sprouting, mistaking the sprouts for worms, and yanking all the cloves out of the ground. (Don’t ask me how I know this happens.)
For mulch I’ve used leaves, straw, pine needles, or compost, depending on what’s available in my yard at the time. This year I used some composted chicken litter (I have a LOT of chicken litter) and a layer of straw. The chicken litter is high in nitrogen and will help fertilize the garlic as it grows, and the straw is just mulch. All you have to do is lay it on, and water it down.
Normally when I plant garlic I also put in the irrigation lines, underneath the mulch. If we get rain this year I won’t need to water the garlic until the spring, but it’s good to put in the lines before anything sprouts and makes it more difficult. Putting the lines under the mulch helps preserve water later in the year. However, this is a new bed, and I haven’t run any of the lines at all yet. I’ll have to do that later on in the Fall or Winter when I get around to it.
And that’s the job done. Other than peeking under the mulch occasionally the winter to see if things are sprouting, there’s nothing else to do with the garlic until sometime next Spring.
Garlic in Northern California is sometimes called the holiday vegetable. You plant garlic on Halloween, fertilize on Valentine’s Day and harvest on July 4. With fall-planted garlic the bulbs sprout and grow all through the winter with no trouble (they can even freeze solid and keep going) and get a good head start when things warm up in spring time.
I’m running a little late with my garlic, but I’ve planted as late as Christmas and still gotten good results, so I’m not that anxious about it. The delay was because I was putting in this lovely new garden bed and filling it with soil:
I’ve experimented growing both softneck and hardneck garlic over the years, and I’ve found that for me hardnecks grow better (larger bulbs), but softnecks keep longer after harvesting. Normally I try to grow both kinds so that I can have garlic for cooking year-round.
Softneck garlic is the kind you buy in the store and may be the only kind you’ve ever seen. Most varieties of commercial garlic is either California Early or California Late. Although I live near Gilroy, CA, the garlic capital of America, I have had no luck at all with growing either of these varieties. For softneck garlic I usually grow an heirloom variety called Lorz Italian, originally from the Pacific Northwest. This variety grows well for me, keeps well, and tastes great.
For hardneck garlic I grow Music. The Music variety is really reliable and can grow monstrously huge if the conditions are right. I’ve grown other hardneck varieties over the years but Music performs so well that I’ve given up on everything else.
Normally I save some of my own garlic to plant every year, but last year I had trouble with root rot in the plants. Root rot is caused by a fungus in the soil. I don’t want to replant my old bulbs and possibly spread the fungus all over my garden, so this year I bought two pounds of certified disease-free new garlic bulbs. I often buy my garlic from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, my favorite online garden store, although they don’t carry the softneck Lorz Italian I like. Rather than seek out a second garlic supplier I got lazy and this year I am planting my entire bed with Music.
Preparing for Planting: Separating the Cloves
The day before I want to plant garlic (yesterday, in this case), I separate the cloves from the bulb and give them a good soak over night in an anti-fungal solution.
This is what a Music bulb looks like on the inside. With the hardneck garlic varieties there is a stiff stem in the middle of the bulb, and then just 6-8 large cloves all the way around. Softnecks, in comparison, often have little skinny cloves in the heart of the bulb. Although you can plant those skinny cloves, you’ll end up with smaller bulbs as a result. Start with the largest cloves to end up with the largest bulbs.
The end result from the 2lbs of garlic bulbs I bought: 106 cloves, which is less than I expected — the Music bulbs were especially large this year. The bed I’m planting these in will hold 200 cloves, so I’ll have some extra space.
Preparing for Planting: An Overnight Soak
For years I just stuck my garlic cloves into the ground immediately after separating them from the bulb, with no problems. But since I have had fungus issues in my garden beds over the last few years, I soak my garlic overnight before planting in an anti-fungal solution. It doesn’t cure the fungus (which is resident in the soil), but it can help the garlic resist having problems if the fungus is there.
The general soaking advice for garlic I found online when I started doing this is 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 1 tablespoon of liquid seaweed to a gallon of water. The baking soda is for anti-fungal properties, and the seaweed provides a small amount of fertilizer. It creates this lovely dark-brown soup.
I weight down the cloves in the solution to keep them submerged and leave the container out on the back porch overnight. In 20-24 hours the garlic will go into the ground and start on the path to being next year’s food.
It’s November, and the weather in the bay area just this week turned cold and damp and dark, which means the end of the summer garden is coming up fast.
But then sometime in January I pull some pesto out of the freezer or pop the lid on a can of tomatoes, and we eat a little bit of summer for dinner.
Many of my east coast gardening friends put their gardens to bed weeks ago, but the growing season in Northern California is long and mild. I’ve had years where I was still pulling red tomatoes off the vine well into November, and once or twice even up to Christmas.
This is not one of those years. It’s been a dry summer after a series of very dry years, and I’ve been trying to water the garden as little as possible, which means smaller plants and less yield. With little else to eat this Fall the birds have been raiding the tastier bits of the garden. The tomatoes and cucumbers and melons and green beans are long gone, and as the nights turn colder the squash dies back and the basil gets a bitter taste.
What’s left now in the garden are vegetables that thrive in cooler weather: kale and chard, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, spinach, and peas. All of these will continue growing through the winter, and sometimes well into next year. I have a handful of pumpkins and winter squash that still need to be picked and cured and stored alongside the onions and garlic in the barn.
But even as the summer garden closes, I’ve already started the garden for next year. This week I have an open bed in the garden to weed and dig and compost, and then more than 200 cloves of garlic will go in for next year.