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.

Are Those Peas or Beans?

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Cow Peas and FriendsThe cowpeas are starting to fill out but it’s hard to get a good picture of them in the midst of so much garden diversity. They are there, right in the middle of the lower half of this shot, but they are surrounded by California poppies in the front, marigolds to the left, some perennial kale on the right, and flanked by one of my ‘Principe Borghese’ tomato plants. There are very few monoculture section in the garden this year!

Because of the extended record drought in California, now in it’s third year, I am trying a lot of cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) which are supposed to be more drought tolerant than regular beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). They are closely related so I hope they will fill the same spot in the kitchen and the garden. Some of the members of the genus Vigna used to be classified as Phaseolus, but apparently the two turned out to have a different biochemistry. A true pea would be a member of the Pisum genus. All three are part of the Leguminosae or Fabaceae family. What that mostly means to me is they are a good source of protein and they contribute nitrogen to the soil around them.

Wikipedia calls cowpeas “one of the most important food legume crops in the semiarid tropics… A drought-tolerant and warm-weather crop, cowpeas are well-adapted to the drier regions of the tropics, where other food legumes do not perform well.” Global warming hasn’t made Northern California part of the tropics–yet–but we have plenty of drought and hopefully enough warm weather to make at least some of the cow pea varieties happy. So far I am trying a nice-looking black and white ‘Tohono O’odham’ cowpea, ‘Peking Black’ cowpeas from my friend at Thyme Square Gardens, and ‘Monkey Tail,’ ‘California Blackeyed’ and ‘Red Ripper’ from Baker Creek.

Runner MagicNot that I am giving up on my fascination with perennial runner beans. This year, even after the unusually dry winter, they are back better than ever, flowering and setting pods on 8′ vines. The new ‘Sunset Runner’ has a peach blush on its flowers that has won me over, though I haven’t tasted any of the beans it makes yet. I like the idea of adding one or two runner bean plants to each of the fruit tree guilds in the front garden. That will give the other members of the guild a reliable nitrogen source and in years to come the beans won’t  climb the fruit trees and try to take over until the fruit harvest is already done. (In my plans, at least.) The largest patch of runner beans was under sown with carrots early in the year to help break up the clay, make good use of the space, and to provide some shade for the re-sprouting young beans. They also have Borage, squash, and sunchokes as companions happily growing in and around them.

Rattler BloomsAnd, of course, I broke down and tried a few new varieties of regular snap beans even though it’s another drought year. I got some ‘New Mexico Cave’ beans in a seed trade and planted half a dozen or so of them as a trial. I also got a handful of ‘Rattlesnake’ beans in a seed swap at the local Urban Farmers Coop and couldn’t resist trying them. I especially love their beautiful purple flowers and can’t wait to see the mottled pods they make. So far the most vigorous growers have been the patch of ‘Cargomanto’ beans I put in very early in the back garden. They were supposed to be 30″ tall, but I stopped measuring around 7′. They do not appear to have the drought tolerance vegetables are going to need around here this year though and I’m still waiting to see what their flowers and beans will look like. The site where I ordered them calls them a “Heat Loving Rare Heirloom” and suggests planting them where the sun gets to the stem of the plant. I wonder if our cool nights that the runner beans seems to love so much are a bit too cool for our new friends from Columbia? Of course, as these are the same folks who told me the plants were going to be 30″ tall, maybe we better watch closely and see what happens. Right now our evening lows are just barely warm enough to ripen tomatoes, 55 to 57 degrees. Next week is predicted to be much warmer, so I’ll get out the watering can and the camera and let you know how they do.

Squirrels Love Nectarines

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photo (36)I watched from the stairwell window as a black squirrel pulled a nectarine free from the tree with its teeth, leaped down onto the fence, and sat on the fence post flicking his tail and enjoying his treat. That’s how I knew it was time to bring in this year’s nectarine crop. Two weeks ago I had picked some of the larger fruit on the sunny side of the tree and bagged them with a large apple to encourage ripening. They don’t taste quite as good as the few fruit from the tiny ‘Double Delight’ tree in the front garden, but whatever these yellow nectarines are, they are still pretty tasty with excellent texture. I also love the “free stone” quality they have, coming cleanly away from the pit while you are eaten or preparing them.

When I took this picture, I had already pulled out the best and largest fruit for fresh eating. These two baskets are for nectarine jam, pies, nectar, or cobblers. Got a favorite nectarine recipe I should try? Leave it for me in the comments!

I don’t know the variety of this tree. It’s almost ten years old now and it hadn’t been pruned well until two years ago when a large branch broke from the weight of fruit. Now it gets groomed carefully every winter with the other trees around the garden. This winter it was “cut back hard” for the second year in a row and it’s fruiting well now and looking in much better shape. The ‘Double Delight’ set it’s fruit earlier than this one, which I hope will extend nectarine season for us next year and beyond. Even if this tree didn’t make delicious fruit, it would still make a great ornamental. This is what it looks like in the spring:

NectarineBlooms

 

Cherry Red Potato Harvest

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Cherry-Red-ResultsThis year I grew a trial patch of five ‘Cherry Red’ potato plants from January 27th through June 13th. A crazy-early start, even for Northern California. And 137 days is a long time to wait for “new” potatoes. But the plants did well, grew very tall, and flowered even though they suffered some water stress in the spot where they grew. The harvest was well over 5 pounds. I didn’t include the weight of some of the potatoes because their eating quality was spoiled by growing too close to the surface.

Luckily, high stolon-set is a characteristic I love in a potato variety and this one may have everything we look for in red-skinned urban farm growing conditions. It’s a tall plant that sets stolons high on the stem. The stolon length is among the largest I have seen with potatoes growing over 2 1/2′ from the main stem. The potatoes sized up nicely, are very clean, show no signs of scab or other problems. And five seed potatoes crammed into a 3’x3′ planter all managed to do well and produce a pound of potatoes each. With more space and water, this potato could be a strong contender. Cherry-Red-HarvestI also like that the ‘Cherry Red’ flowered and produced true seed. That means we can try crossing them with some of our other red-skinned, yellow-fleshed contenders and see if we come up with an even better variety in the future.

The ‘Cherry Red’ is a fairly new variety bred from the cross (ND4750-2R x LA1858). Released jointly by the Colorado, North Dakota and Texas Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1999. These potatoes are recommended for boiling or baking, so I think I will whip up some potato salad to try them out. The kids like this recipe from Rachel Ray that uses potatoes, green beans, scallions and Balsamic vinegar. And since my husband was very sick the last time he ate regular mayo potato salad, it might be best to give him something different this time just in case.

 

June 14, 2014

After simmering in salted water for 15 minutes, these potatoes have an excellent “potato” flavor with just a hint of bitterness in the skins. The flesh breaks apart easily and has a dry, baked potato texture. They could be described as crumbly. There’s a very slightly metallic after-taste from the skin of these potatoes that I could do without. The Balsamic vinegar in Rachel Ray’s recipe wipes it out nicely.

Boiled-Reds

First 2014 Potato Harvest

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February 16th I planted a number of bags of potatoes because it was an unusually warm early spring for us here in Northern California. The usual Rainy Season hadn’t ever shown up and there wasn’t much precipitation in the forecast. Normally, I would plant the early spring potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, a month later, when the rains are starting to subside.

Volunteer RedsI plant each potato bag with three 2-3 oz. egg-sized seed potatoes. One of the red potatoes must have been dug out of the bag by one of my local rodent garden re-decorators, because by April, there was a nice potato plant growing between two of the bags and this is what I found when I collected all the potatoes yesterday. Even more of these reds had grown underneath the blue bag.

The full bag of potatoes, if they had all grown together in one bag, would have produced a harvest of 1 pound, 8 1/2 ounces.  I plant somewhere between 6 and 9 ounces of seed potatoes in each bag. If we call it half a pound of seed potato planted, getting back the equivalent of just 3 pounds of potatoes for each pound planted is a disappointing yield. I keep reading tales of 10 pounds grown for every pound of seed potatoes planted. Is anybody really getting that in grow bags?

Deep BluesI also grew some unnamed “Blue” potatoes that delighted me by producing true seed pods and over 2 pounds of good sized, oval potatoes with a deep purple-black flesh color. If we assume again that I planted roughly half a pound of these seed potatoes, they yielded, under the same weather and growing conditions as the reds, the equivalent of four pounds, six ounces. Still not enough to consider it a high-yield potato if grown in bags and started in very dry conditions. But if these guys taste good, I’ll be growing them again because I like the potatoes they produced. I just wish I knew more about who they are! I bought them in a bag of seed potatoes that was literally marked “Red, White, and Blue Potatoes” with no other indication of variety and I was very surprised to see the seed pods after flowering. A quick look thru “The Complete Book of Potatoes” gives me some hints. The flesh is as dark as ‘Purple Peruvian,’ but the shape is wrong. The light-colored ring of the ‘All Blue’ is absent in these potatoes. They are darker in both skin and flesh tone than the ‘Adirondack Blue’ which leaves me closest to ‘Purple Majesty’ assuming these were one of the commonly farmed types.

TDH Potatoes Over-WinteredThe ‘Tall, Dark, and Handsome’ blue potatoes we have been growing for several years now were over-wintered from 10/21/2013 to 5/30/14 and still didn’t produce as well as the probable ‘Purple Majesty’ bag. The seed potatoes were very small, but there may have been as many as five of them in the bag with only 1 pound, 12 ounces of potatoes harvested. An equivalent yield of 3 pounds, 8 ounces per pound of seed potatoes planted. Not horrible for an over-wintered potato, but still not ideal.

We keep growing these potatoes because they produce long stolons high on the stem and we want that characteristic for vertical growing in small spaces. This variety has to be a close relative of the ‘All Blue’ though it does have an unusually pronounced white center spot in this particular potato. I’ll have to check again to make sure there were no ‘All Blue’ potatoes in the original grow-out.

The first group of potatoes we trialed in the spring of 2011 was selected by Tom Wagner of Tater-Mater fame for their potential suitability for vertical growing success. Read about how the Great Potato Grow Out project got started here. This year, one of the plots where some of the original Grow Out potatoes grew produced a strong, tall volunteer. I don’t know if this grew from a mini-tuber left behind or perhaps even from a seed pod that dropped into the soil and finally germinated after the cold winter we had? It’s been three years, so I can’t honestly be sure that it’s from one of Tom’s original experimental varieties. But I can’t wait to see what sort of potatoes it produces. I grubbed around a bit in the compost surrounding the plant hoping to find some hint of what it was producing with no luck today. The plant has over three feet of stem sticking out of the soil even though it has been hilled up several times. Whatever it does produce could be regrown to test for stolon set high on the stem which might give us a whole new variety to add to our further trails. That’s an exciting idea for us here at Dirt to Dinner!

Tall Potato from Tom Wagner?

Tall Potato from Tom Wagner?

 

Sunflower Shorty

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This sweet little volunteer turned up in the bean patch. It’s maybe two-and-a-half feet tall–at the most. I have never grown sunflowers this short, or grown any hybrid sunflowers that I know of. This one must be a gift from one of the local squirrels who love to dig in my back garden.

Sunflower Shorty