Summer of the Cucurbits

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When the California Rainy Season stopped almost as soon as it started last winter, I got serious about researching ways to keep the garden going thru yet another year of drought. There has been a lot of talk of water usage cutbacks, voluntary and otherwise, and I wanted to be ready. I changed everything from the way I started seeds to how much and what I compost. And I discovered that this is the perfect time to explore the many Cucurbits I have been interested in growing.

Baby-Luffa-2The “Gourd Family”, Cucurbitaceae, includes muskmelons, watermelons, cucumbers, summer squash, and winter squash and pumpkins. It’s sometimes referred to as the plant family with the most varieties grown as food for humans. This family also includes luffa, which can be grown as food or sponges, or both. (I’ll have to remember to plant some of those.) Cucurbits need warmth, sun, space, and many of them are call ‘heavy feeders’ but luckily for me, the one thing they don’t need all that much of is water. Cucurbits like to grow in well-drained places in soil that is sandier than it is clay. In wet years or humid places these plants tend to suffer from fungus or bacteria.

That makes this the perfect year to try out as many members of this family as I can find room for. I began with cucumbers which I love in a quick Asian-inspired marinade or tossed whole into the juicer. I put in ‘Persian,’ ‘Armenian,’ and ‘Homemade Pickle’ which was the first to produce a cucumber this year. And I just started seeds for a second planting of the ‘Armenian’ cucumbers in case the early plantings get ahead of me and an unpicked fruit or two stop them from producing.

I also started seven different varieties of squash. I even mapped out the different squash varieties so I could still save seed. I am growing ‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato,’ ‘Lakota,’ and ‘Spaghetti’ in the front garden, with ‘Candy Roaster Melon’ squash, ‘Sugar Pie’ pumpkins, ‘Rugosa’ butternuts, and ‘Green-Striped Cushaw’ in the back garden. That keeps the C. pepo, C. moschata, and C. maxima squash from crossing. And leaves me one spot still open in case I want to grow more cushaw-types or find another C. argyrosperma I want to try. I like the look of this ‘Tennessee Sweet Potato.’ Then I could compare it to the ‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato’ and the other cushaw-type and see what works best.

Trellised Watermelon

2009 ‘Rainbow Sherbet’ Icebox Watermelon

And then there are the melons. Last year we did not have nearly enough watermelons, and the year or two before that the kids all-too-quickly ate through what ‘Amish’ melons we had, so this dry year is a good excuse to try a few more varieties and see if we can find at least a few that will produce well for us. I’m trying the ‘Amish’ again, even though the ones I started too early are half dead. I was taking a chance that the early warm weather would stay with us, but the cool nights were too much for them. Now that it’s almost June I’m adding ‘Crimson Sweet’ to the ‘Hopi Yellow’ watermelons and ‘Kajari’ melons that are surviving. I’m trying two additional great-fleshed melons, ‘Eden’s’ and ‘Sakata’s Sweet’, one large, and one small–though in this dry year, it won’t surprise me if all the melons are small. I added one F-1 ‘Cantaloupe’ to the mix just to have something to compare against and because it was growing so nicely at the nursery, and some ‘Charentais,’ I also plan to try adding in a Tuscan heirloom as soon as the seeds come.

Do you have some favorite cucurbits in your garden? I’d love to hear which ones do well for you.

Vegetables that Flower in the California Drought

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SalsifyThis year it’s all about what can survive in the very low-water growing conditions we’re experiencing on the left-side of the country. In the Dirt to Dinner garden a lot of my growing is focused on squash, cucumbers, melons, and a few other drought-resistant crops. Which apparently includes salsify and  artichokes. I just have two artichoke plants near one another in a corner of the garden and they are feeding my family and two others with all the artichokes we need and some of the buds have still flowered and gone to seed. It’s a hot, dry spot, surrounded on two sides by sidewalk, and, honestly, I have not been very attentive to the patch this year–at all. Maybe the roots are feeling the drought pressure and sending out as many buds as possible to insure survival long-term? I honestly don’t know, but please pass the Hollandaise.

Another crop doing especially well this year is the runner beans. Runner beans are happily perennial in my climate, but they don’t last forever. Most years they all die back to the roots for the winter and in the spring it’s normal for a Front Runnersfew not to regrow. I don’t have them tagged by year, so I can’t tell you what their life-span should be, but under my high-stress growing conditions I’m pretty thrilled with the return rate. This year they were especially early, growing new vines and leaves by early April. And now, in spite of the unusually cool spring temperatures and cloudy (but rainless!!) days, they are beginning to flower. This year I have added in additional patches of ‘White Romanian’ runner beans, which I understand will have fully white flowers, instead of the lovely, hummingbird-attracting plain-red, red-and-white, or red-and-pink flowers most of my other beans grow. I like runner beans for their usefulness at all stages of bean production, their beautiful flowers, and the big, fat dry beans they give me for chili or soups all winter. If they are also able to produce in spite of the lack of moisture I will have just the excuse I need to collect even more of them. ;-)

I am also surprised and pleased by how well the potatoes are doing with very little water in their tall beds of straw. Potatoes probably should not be your first choice as a sustenance crop in an arid climate, but I love them and started them as early as possible this year to take advantage of what moisture was available while the weather was still cool and as of Memorial Day weekend, I have to say I am encouraged. The soil around the stems is dry and dusty, but the plants look healthy and have moved through their Sleep, Creep, and Leap stages pretty much on-time. The ‘Ozette’ fingerling potatoes in the back garden are slower-growing than I would like. I don’t know if that’s the variety or the conditions. Since they are often referred to as the oldest variety in commercial cultivation, I am willing to bet they are widely adapted and will do their best in their mulch pile on their own schedule.

LaRouge Potatoes

Two Ways to Grow Squash for Seed Saving Even in a Small Garden

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There are a few varieties of squash my family cannot do without. We require spaghetti squash with sage and browned butter in the summer, pumpkin for pies in the fall and if there was no butternut squash with bacon crumble for Thanksgiving, there would be a riot at the dinner table. And don’t forget Grandma’s zucchini bread. So, how do I save seeds without the squash crossing until they are all one inedible warty squash mutant?

Lazy Gardener Methods

Kakai PumpkinIt’s easier than you might think even though the fat, black Carpenter bees in my garden love squash flowers and will happily mix pollen from one flower into another all day long. There are four main species of edible squash. The ‘Rugosa’ Butternut squash I favor is from the species Cucurbita moschata. To keep it from crossing all I need to do is keep it away from other squash I want to grow that are in the same species. For us that means the ‘Tromboncino’ that we often use in place of a true zucchini needs to be as far away as possible from the “Rugosa’ patch.

I can grow the spaghetti squash that we like right next to the “Rugosa’ because the spaghetti squash is a Cucurbita pepo. But it can’t be near the pie pumpkins because they are also C. pepo. As long as you know which species of squash you are growing, you can separate them enough to prevent most cross-pollination. I do this by growing one variety of each species in front of the house and one behind. You could plant on either side of a hedge or other windbreak and do a pretty good job of keeping your variety breeding true. Or you can separate the plants with time. If I put in my spaghetti squash very early from transplants, or under a row cover, or both, and I don’t plant out my pumpkins until the spaghetti squash have each set a few fruits, then I can grow the pumpkins right beside my developing squash and pinch off any extra flowers that try to develop on the spaghetti squash plants once the pumpkins start to flower.

Precision Gardener Methods

Hubbard Squash

A Mother of a Hubbard

If you are determined to maintain a squash variety with maximum purity, you have several options. You could alternate years of growing for varieties that are in the same species. Year One I would grow ‘Rugosa’ squash and then can or freeze what we would need during Year Two when I would be growing the ‘Tromboncino.’ But even then, a bee from a neighbors garden could stop by and ruin things inadvertently. You could alternate days, or even weeks, when you “cage” one of the varieties or the other. Large sheets of row cover are best for this with squash and you would have to be sure you tucked in the edges and laid a board or something heavy over them to make sure they didn’t blow off exposing both varieties to insects at the same time.

Or you could hand-pollinate, which sounds fussier than it actually is. You have to keep an eye on your squash blossoms as they develop and know which are male and which are female. And you will need to tape the female flowers that you want to hand-pollinate shut to prevent them from opening on their own, ideally the night before they would have opened. You pollinate that flower with pollen you know came from a male flower of that same variety and then you tape that flower shut again and tag the baby squash behind it so you can save the seeds only from the tagged squash. If I’m making this sound complicated, check the videos or instructions available on the Internet. This is the best method if you are preserving a rare variety, a family heirloom, an unusual squash where you won’t be able to easily get more seeds, or if you are saving seeds for trading and sharing.

If you have favorite seeds saving methods for squash, we would love to hear them. Please share in the Comments.

5 Ways to Get Your Food Garden Through the Drought

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As farmers in California fallow more and more acreage, and water restrictions come to us in the cities, there are a lot of things that can be done to keep urban gardens going.

#1. Compost Everything. The best thing you can do to help your soil hold moisture is to mix it with composted organic matter. So no more tossing potato peels into the disposal. (Like you’ve got water to waste running the disposal anyway.) It is time to compost everything you can get your hands on. Food scraps, newspaper, junk mail, dryer lint, coffee grounds, egg cartons–the works. If it’s organic matter and it will break down, there’s a spot for it in the pile. And that pile needs to be in a shaded and/or covered spot where the sun and wind will steal as little of the moisture that goes into the pile as possible. Toss the dirtier grey water you should be saving from inside the house over it when you can but avoid adding soaps to the compost pile as they can inhibit the bacteria working their magic inside the pile. Build one pile and then start a second one while the first pile ‘cooks.’ As soon as it is ready, work it into the top layer of soil, just under your mulch layer.

Chipping Delivery#2. Mulch Everything. And I mean everything. Paths, empty patches where nothing is growing, all of it. Use a light-colored material if possible to keep the soil cooler. I started with a couple of truckloads of fruit tree chippings. Tree companies will dump them for you for the asking as it saves them paying to put them somewhere else. My entire yard is covered in a thick layer of this mulch that has been breaking down for a few years now. In the growing areas, I cover as much as I can with rice straw. It’s light-colored and it’s light-weight material that doesn’t compact the soil underneath and air still circulates well. And if it starts to break down too much, or if there is leftover straw that doesn’t get used, it goes right into the compost pile.

Ollas in the garden#3. Water Through the Soil–Not Through the Air. I use a combination of ollas and Plant Nanny wine bottle-style terracotta watering stakes to put moisture straight into the ground without spraying it through the air. This allows the soil to draw the water that it needs through the unglazed terracotta, so it’s never wasted. You can fill the ollas and wine bottles with grey water from the house and the clay will even provide a bit of filtering. And, if the top inch or even two of soil dries out, plant roots can still get water from the moist soil at the bottom of the ollas or Plant Nanny. I use brightly colored clay birds to top my ollas so that I can find them in the mulch to fill them again.

Rice straw mulch in the vegetable garden#4. Lower Raised Beds. If raised beds increase drainage and allow the soil to warm more quickly, well, that is exactly what we don’t want this year. In several spots in my garden I am growing in-between what would normally have been my beds. I took up the mulch from the paths between the raised beds, added compost and some of the nice fluffy soil from the taller beds, and planted in the low spots that used to be my paths creating ‘sunken beds.’ It is my theory that these will reduce drainage and slow the drying of the soil. I laid wide stones on the raised bed section so that I can walk on them with minimal compaction and go back to growing in them for the Rainy Season, should we get to have one this year.

Tomato Seedlings#5. Start All Your Seeds Inside and Transplant. I know beans and squash and melons don’t care for being transplanted, but it is so much more efficient to water a small flat or a tray of seed starts than it is to water a whole bed with only a dozen or so plants coming up in it. And the even temperature and protection from wind inside the house will also help. I move peas and beans outside as soon as they have true leaves because their roots quickly extend through the bottom of even my deepest redwood flats. Once you have seedlings outside and are watering anyway, you could seed some companion lettuce or other greens nearby to germinate in the moisture available from around the seedlings.

What are your plans for food gardening this year? Please share your drought-survival tips with us all in the Comments.

Seed Starting for a Crazy Climate

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Lag-Behind-BorgheseMother’s Day was the traditional tomato planting day when I was growing up. “In the cold, late springs of Kentucky and the mountains of Tennessee…old-time gardeners reverentially plant their cold-tolerant Irish potatoes on Good Friday,” but for tomatoes, beans, and squash, you had to wait until Mother’s Day. Over 3,000 miles and quite a few years from those rolling hills of Kentucky, this makes no sense, even in a “normal” planting year–if there still were such a thing. Now, I am watching for two things; soil temperature and perennials. My hope is that the Runner beans, fruit trees, vines, and bushes in the garden know better than I do what the weather will be like.

This year the bean planting “OK” signal arrived at the beginning of March when my ‘Scarlet’ Runner beans, which never had died down to the ground during the winter as expected, started putting out tiny new leaves. As soon as I saw that I popped ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Contender’ beans into the soil. I did the same thing with some small tomato plants as soon as my neighbor noticed he had volunteer tomatoes coming up. Why the rush? The push-pull of growing your own food in Northern California right now is taking advantage of the warming temperatures while there is still ground moisture. Sure, it will be warm enough to plant beans in June, July, and August, but there will be no water to grow those beans. I’ll be hauling grey water from the house outside to keep the ollas filled. If I put in as much of the garden as I can now, while the soil still has a moisture reserve from the cooler weather and the little rain we did get, I can get most crops finished in time for the driest, hottest part of the year and start again as soon as it starts to cool, or, please, please, please, rains again in the fall.

Rattler BloomsThis is why I am planting my potatoes and my tomatoes closer to St. Patrick’s Day than Good Friday or Mother’s Day. This is a good strategy for anyone gardening in an uncertain climate. I will have something to eat no matter which way the weather goes. If it is a cooler than usual spring, as my husband predicts, the potatoes, lettuces, and spinach will love that. If it is warmer than usual, as my Runner beans, and the National Weather Service are calling for, the lettuce will bolt and the potatoes might be small, but the tomatoes, beans, squash, and melons should come on nicely.

I’m also choosing varieties that I know have done well in this spot in different kinds of weather. ‘Rose Gold’ potatoes have produced good crops for me in cool years and in warmer ones. The ‘Principe Borghese’ tomato is nearly indestructible even in the driest years and I’ve seen it flower and set fruit between April and November. The ‘Rattlesnake’ beans were extremely productive last year during a harsh, dry and windy summer. They can only do better this time.

We are also testing four varieties of melon hoping for one that will like whatever it is the weather brings this year. ‘Amish,’ ‘Hopi Yellow,’ ‘Crimson Sweet,’ and something I think is called ‘Mickylee Ice Box’ melon.

What’s your strategy for growing in an uncertain climate? What works well in your garden? I hope you’ll share tips and tricks with us in the comments.

Refreshing the Splash Zaiger Pluot Guild

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Guild CloserMany of the fruit tree guilds started this spring are doing very well right now. The grouping around the ‘Eva’s Pride’ peach still has summer leeks, carrots, basil, a ‘Rugosa’ squash, lettuce, and the last remains of the chamomile all growing nicely. The squash is not as vigorous as the one planted nearby that doesn’t share space with other plants that close, but it’s producing squash.

The guild toward the very front corner of the garden where it is hotter and drier because of the nearness of the sidewalk on two sides has not done as well. Unless you are very fond of Morning Glory which seems not to need water or attention in this climate. There was one ollas set in the ground near the ‘Splash Zaiger’ pluot, which turns out to be less than half of what a bed that size requires with no rain.

Permie Plan 2014Today I pulled all the Morning Glory I could get my hands on, the spent onions and other small plants lost to the drought and refreshed the bed with compost and some Eden Valley Blend Organic Garden Soil, which I’ve never tried before. It’s nice to work with and doesn’t smell up the car too badly. Normally I would have used FoxFarm Ocean Forest soil but the nursery was out. I added a second good-sized ollas to the opposite corner of the bed and seeded in some new guild members. This time I chose cumin, beets, ‘He Shi Ko’ bunching onions, ‘Glorious Gleam’ nasturtium, ‘Dolico’ bush cow peas, and “Petis Pois’ bush peas. (Surely one of the legumes will be happy with the weather if the other is not.)

Fruit Tree Guild in Summer

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Fruit Tree Guild with OllasThis is the first year I have tried to create guilds of plants in the garden. I added a dozen young fruit trees to the front this year, and I started each of them off with growing companions suggested by folks who know a whole lot more about permaculture than I do. Each bare-root tree was planted with something that would help fix nitrogen, like the peas pictured here, something deep rooted that would help accumulate minerals, a root crop to help break up the clay soil, use the space well and provide leaves for eating, shade, and mulch, and something from the Allium family.

Each guild also has it’s own ollas for irrigation since we’re in an arid climate in yet another drought year and evaporation is not our friend. You can see the top of the terra cotta ollas sticking up. The white stopper on top helps stop evaporation and keeps lizards and slugs out of the water. Lots of compost and mulch was added around the growing area, but not up against the trunk of the young tree. They apparently need some breathing room where the trunk meets the soil.

Guild in SummerNow that it’s July, the guilds have shifted from peas to beans for nitrogen, and from compost to a green mulch of leaves from squash, cucumbers, melons or sweet potatoes. I have also added an “aromatic pest confuser” to each guild. This is usually an herb that has a strong scent, something I like in the garden anyway, and which can be used to essentially hide the plants damaging insects may be looking for. Each of my young squash plants is mulched twice in the spring with rosemary cuttings for this same reason. It may seem a little weird, but no squash borers have turned up to call me on it. ;-)

This young peach tree has basil, carrots, leeks, chamomile, squash, and a lettuce plant in it’s guild. I am going to add perennial runner beans to fix nitrogen. Behind the tree, you can see the long, flat leaves of the horseradish patch. I may see if I can encourage the horseradish to expand away from the tree roots, but for now, they all appear very happy together. This tiny tree even produced three gorgeous fruit this spring. I expected it to take several years before I got to taste these peaches, so that was a very welcome surprise and I’m taking it as a good sign.

If you want to start a guild of plants around any of your trees to create a supportive growing neighborhood, it’s very easy to get started:

1. Choose a perennial nitrogen fixer, like a runner bean, or add annual nitrogen fixers such as peas in spring, beans in summer, peas again in fall.

2. Choose root crops or deep-rooted herbs that will reach down into the subsoil and help bring nutrients up to where the other plants in the guild can share them. Comfrey is a perennial favorite of permaculture fans. Borage is another one that requires no work at all to grow.

3. Choose aromatic pest confusers, herbs that you will want to smell and maybe eat yourself that help keep pests away from your guild. I like Lemon Balm, oregano, basil, and thyme.

4. Grow a living mulch that will contribute food for you as well as shade and leaves to mulch in place to keep the soil moisture consistent for the guild.

5. Enjoy!

What are your favorite plants to use in guilds or as companions for other crops in your garden? I would love to hear about them in the comments.