How Much Do Beans Like Biochar?

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By now I’m sure you’ve heard all the buzz about adding biochar to your garden soil. But, I thought, how much difference could it really make? I’ve been working for years on the soil in my garden. It’s full of organic matter from homemade compost and carefully mulched. I fortify it with kelp and fish meal. The worms seem to love it.

In order to test it out, I planted ten seeds of ‘Black CoCo’ beans in each of two identical slightly raised 3′x3′ beds that held onions until July. I added compost, fish meal, kelp meal, and a small cupful of Sure Start to each bed. Then I added a quart of Soil Reef to only one of the beds. (Just for the record, I have no connection with Soil Reef, or it’s makers. And Soil Reef does contain compost and worm castings along with the biochar.)

In each of the beds 8 of the 10 seeds I planted germinated over a span of 12 days or so, The young plants did well in both beds, though the Soil Reef beans seemed perhaps a bit greener than the untreated bed. Then it got really hot and dry and I got very busy with work and couldn’t water nearly as much as I wanted to.

Black Coco Beans in Drought Conditions
The smallest of the seedlings died and the others lost several of their leaves. In the regular bed, that is. Both plantings were lightly mulched with straw before germination and then more straw was added to retain moisture after the seedlings were up. This was not enough to sustain the beans planted in my usual soil mix very well through the drought. And the Soil Reef patch? A leaf or two was lost there as well, but the plants are bigger, greener, and much more vigorous.

Coco Beans with Soil Reef BiocharThese two pictures were both taken today. I left the toe of my shoe showing in both shots to give you a size reference. The leaves you see on the bottom left corner of the Soil Reef patch are sweet potatoes. And they present our second potentially confounding factor. Both bean patches are adjacent to a large rectangular sweet potato bed, in my standard soil mix. And it just so happens that the end of the sweet potato bed nearest the unhappy CoCo beans is not growing as well as the end near the happy, Soil Reef CoCo beans. There is also a large sunflower near the sad bean patch, which may be hindering the growth of both the beans and the sweet potatoes.

Even with the usual confounding factors found in the average urban garden, this experiment looks well worth repeating to me. What about you? Are you adding biochar? What sort of results have you had with it?

Five Fiery Fall Favorites for Pepper Perfection

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Heirloom ‘Matchbox’ Peppers Grown from Hudson Valley Seed Library Seeds

It’s almost the end of October, so that must mean I finally have peppers! And this year has been extremely satisfying in the pepper department. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t actually know how to measure a “peck of peppers” but I am willing to bet I have a least one.

Along with the several sweet peppers that were kind enough to perennial-ize themselves from last year, and our usual ‘Ancho-Poblano’ and ‘Spanish Spice’ varieties, this year we added several new additions to the pepper patch. This ‘Matchbox’ pepper was started from Hudson Valley Seed Library seed on Valentine’s Day. I didn’t notice fruit setting until seven months later in September. Today, October 23rd, the first pepper is finally ripe. I was so happy to see it that only its Scoville Unit rating of over 30,000 saved me from popping it straight into my mouth. It may not be a Habanero, but I’ll still be wearing gloves when I pick and cook with these little beauties.

Ethiopian Brown Berbere Pepper

I’m also looking forward to the ‘Ethiopian Brown Berbere’ peppers. I plan to start drying them in the next few days to make the Ethiopian spice paste called “Berbere” for a nut and seed mix recipe that I like. These peppers are a beautiful chocolaty brown, though I have heard their final ripened coloring is a brighter red. Since the plant has been prolific, I plan to harvest some of the peppers brown and dry them now, then if the rest ripen to red, I will dry those and we’ll be able to compare the flavor. I expect these peppers to be pretty hot, in the 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville Unit range.

These Berbere peppers are also said to have a rich, smokey flavor that’s good for making chili powder as well as rubs and BBQ sauces. I may have to fight my husband for them to get enough for the nut mix.

‘Red Cherry Bomb’ Pepper

One pepper we will certainly have plenty of is the ‘Red Cherry Bomb.’ This was the first of our hot peppers to produce fruit and here in late October it is still covered in deliciously bite-size bright red peppers. It’s on the milder side, good for fresh salsa, diced on pizza, or tossed into omelettes to get you going for the day.

This variety is definitely a keeper–maybe. It was sold to me as an open-pollinated heirloom. But I have seen other posts around the garden blogs saying that it does not grow true-to-type. If you have more information on this pepper, please share in the Comments!

‘Manzano Orange’ Pepper

Another mystery for us this year is the ‘Manzano Orange’ Pepper. Still no fruit set, but look carefully. I am pretty sure we’re about to see what it will make.

This pepper is intended as a perennial. Trade Winds Fruit calls this pepper, “a rocoto tree pepper relative” and says it, “is noted for its cold hardiness, as it naturally grows on Andean mountain slopes, this pepper will survive several degrees below freezing. Plants grow to 2-6ft, can live for many years.” At the end of next month I plan to surround the roots with a layer of compost and then mulch heavily with rice straw and hope for the best. It’s very unusual for us to have freezing temperatures but anything can happen with the weather these days!

Heirloom ‘Fish’ Pepper Plant
Click image for larger view

No post on our favorite peppers would be complete without the African-American heirloom ‘Fish’ pepper. Great for seafood and gumbo, I also dry the light-colored peppers to make “white” pepper for added heat in cream dishes where I don’t want the red coloring that usually accompanies this spiciness. (Think Chicken a la King, for instance.) The red and mixed-color peppers that aren’t eaten fresh are dried for pepper flakes and get added to everything from pasta sauce to bacon frittata.

Color Variation in ‘Fish’ Pepper Fruits

The colorful variety on this plant is also a fun surprise in the garden. I have gotten ‘Fish’ peppers in green, yellow, white, red and even some with stripes. And the plant itself has beautiful two-toned leaves with bold white splashes across whole sections of the plant.

How did your peppers do this year? If you have a favorite, please share it with us in the Comments.

Beaning In the New Year

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Home grown dried beansIt’s done! In honor of the New Year I have finally shelled, frozen, sorted and stored all the beans from the 2011 growing season. Well, all the ones we didn’t eat, that is. We’ve already made chili with 2 cups of the ‘Scarlet Emperor’ beans and had baked beans out of another cup of the ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ beans.

We grew a mix of pole and bush drying beans, runner beans and garbanzo beans. What you see here is ‘White Emergo’ at twelve o’clock, with cut-short greasy beans to their right. The top right corner are ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ pole black beans and below them are the ‘Scarlet Emperor’ runner beans we like so much. The big pile in the center is ‘Yellow Indian Woman’ bush beans. I want to try them in this soup recipe. The black beans on the left are ‘Black Coco’ bush beans from Bountiful Gardens. I wanted to try them because Carol Deppe talks about them in the Resilient Gardener. I’m planning to eat half of them and save the other half for seed, unless we don’t like them that is.

I also managed to save a few of lots of other kinds of beans, though it took me a while to sort them all. I’ve been trying to see which types would do best in our climate–whatever that is these days! The ‘Cannelini’ did well, though I’ll have to plant a lot more of them to have enough for dinner. This year I didn’t have much luck with ‘California’ black-eyed peas, ‘Hutterite’ soup beans, or the ‘Borlotti’ beans I wanted for a family recipe.

Here they are matched up with the rest of the harvest. Let me know if you have a favorite drying beans that grows well for you.

Dried Bean Varieties

Just 80 Pounds of Potatoes to Go

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20 Lb Box of PotatoesThere was certainly no danger of me winning the 99 Pound Potato Challenge with this year’s ‘Rose Gold’ crop even though it is a new Personal Best for us here in the Dirt to Dinner garden. In 2010, we harvested 20 lbs of potatoes from a fifteen square foot raised bed and this year we managed the same weight of harvest in only nine square feet. That’s almost an extra pound of potatoes harvested per square foot in 2011. And this patch of potatoes also produced flowers and potato berries that were harvested so that we can experiment with growing from seed.

The ‘Rose Gold’ potatoes were planted March 29th and harvested July 19th, 112 days later. They were planted in new ground that started out as a compost pile and was covered in a layer of rice straw and top soil. Potatoes were hilled to just over 24″ with alternating layers of straw and potting mix. They could have been hilled much deeper. Vines were over four feet tall and some stolons grew at least two feet long. With their excellent taste and this respectable harvest, ‘Rose Gold’ potatoes will probably gain a spot in our deep hilling trials this fall or next spring.

Rodent Teeth Marks?Unfortunately, I was not the first one to harvest the ‘Rose Gold’ patch. Just the other day the dog was chasing something and digging along the edge of the patch. I shooed her away and went back to watering the tomatillos. But today in that corner, I found at least six potatoes that were very strangely shaped and clearly no longer at their full weight when it came time for the count. Do squirrels eat raw potatoes? Who eats raw potatoes, can climb the fence into the yard and is faster than a streaking Labradoodle? Those potatoes started fist-sized, if you have small hands like me, and a good chunk of them has definitely been chewed off!

Potato vines starting to die backThe ‘Rose Gold’ potato vines were brown and fallen over and mostly dried up so I knew they were ready to harvest. I might have liked to allow the potatoes a few weeks undisturbed in the soil to harden their skins for storage but I pulled the patch before any more unauthorized feasting took place. I have two more patches and several potatoes in bags growing in that area. The patch shown here was planted April 6th and contains a broad mix of varieties for the Great Potato Grow Out Project.  The bulk of the varieties still have lots of mostly upright, green vines. They wilt in hot weather but with water and evening cool they stand most of the way back up again.  Except for the plant in the bottom right corner.

Potato vine finished dryingPotato varieties grow for a unique number of days before they finish setting tubers and the vines die back. Some early varieties are ready in as few as 75 days. The ‘Red Thumb’ potatoes have been the first in this trial to be ready for harvest at about 90 days. This vine is a ‘Caribe’ potato that is done growing and I plan to pull these potatoes very soon before anyone else starts to harvest them for me!

56 Is the New 64: Tomato Germination Tests

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Tomato Germination Test‘Cherokee Chocolate’ 88%
‘Orange Heirloom’ 88%
‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ 100%
‘Green Zebra’ 100%
‘Pruden’s Purple’ 100%
‘Black Sea Man’ 100%
‘Pineapple’ 100%
‘Old Kentucky’ 25%

It didn’t matter that the ‘Orange Heirloom’, ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ and ‘Pruden’s Purple’ seed was from 2009. Or that the ‘Green Zebra’ seed was from 2010. OK, it might have mattered a little bit that the ‘Orange Heirloom’ seed wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, but I’d be willing to bet that tray position had every bit as much to do with slightly lower germination rates in both the varieties on that side. Was that the problem with the ‘Old Kentucky’ seed? Maybe not, since the two cells that did sprout seeds were the ones on the very outside. I’ll probably try to sprout another four seeds in a flat as a test just to see.

Sprouting Pepper SeedsPeppers are another thing entirely. They do not leap out of the potting soil the way the tomatoes did. The tomatoes were planted 3/6 and by 3/11 all of them that were going to sprout were sprouted, except the ‘Old Kentucky’ twins who didn’t show their heads until the 13th. Peppers dawdle. One comes up over here, the next day maybe another one over there. Or not, maybe they wait a week or two.

I started the pepper seeds on March 1st. The first pepper out of the ground, more than a week later, was a lone ‘Golden CalWonder’. When it was still alone the next day, I re-potted it to go under the lights and returned the rest of the cell packs to the incubator where they would stay warm and moist.

If you enlarge the photo I hope you’ll be able to see that two weeks after planting, several of the seeds are just now emerging, and there is no sign yet of some of the varieties.

Golden Purslane SeedlingsOne thing we do have germinating is ‘Golden Purslane.’ I thought I winter sowed a patch but when they didn’t come up where I expected them, I started a small pot of seeds to be sure. Right now all you can see are the tiny seed leaves with red stems and red around the edges of the leaves. But in another week or two I’ll be pricking them all out of the pot and wishing I had been more careful with my winter sowing!

Tomato Math: How Many Seedlings Does 64 Tomato Seeds Make?

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Heirloom Tomato SeedsIt nearly killed me, but I have managed to wait until March 6th to start my main season tomato plants. The early drying tomatoes, Principe Borgheses, are out in the garage under lights already. But this year I am following the planting schedule recommendations from the Common Ground Ecology Action Planting and Gardening Guide and it really does say to start tomatoes in flats in March. If truth be told, the printed version actually says, “Tomatoes, Early” under the Start in Flats column for March, but I am gardening to the south of their location in Palo Alto, so I am taking this gardening license.

The first batch consists of ‘Cherokee Chocolate’, ‘Pruden’s Purple’, ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’, ‘Green Zebra’, ‘Pineapple’, ‘Old Kentucky’, ‘Black Sea Man’ and ‘Orange Heirloom’. Eight varieties in all. Because I’m only starting a few of each type I chose not to use flats but to start the seeds in Fiber Grow Coir 8-packs I picked up at Common Ground. I planted eight seeds of each variety, two to a cell. Because the seed is from different years, germination may not be consistent, but I am hoping for at least two nice looking plants of each type. One for the Dirt to Dinner garden, and one for a friend we are starting tomatoes for this year.

Seedling IncubatorThe soil in the planted coir 8-packs was well misted, then I set the tray of all 64 seeds onto a covered heating mat, which I am hoping will keep them between 72 and 78 degrees. The temperature of the area was 68.8 degrees when I covered the heat mat. Then I covered the whole thing with a plastic storage bin to keep in the heat and moisture. An hour later the center section registered 74.7 degrees. Now, I just have to remember to keep the moisture right and wait for yet another week. When this group of tomatoes moves into the garage or cold frame, depending on the weather we get, it’ll be time to start the paste tomato varieties and the ‘Cherokee Purple’ trial. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

Turnip Testing 2011

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TurnipsWe didn’t have enough turnips in the Dirt to Dinner garden in 2010. Or in 2009 for that matter. When I was growing up in the 70′s in the suburbs around Cincinnati, no self-respecting kid would have eaten a turnip. Today, in California, I know kids who will happily eat raw, pickled, braised or stewed turnips without complaint. So, I guess we really are making progress. It just takes a long-range perspective to appreciate it.

Because the turnip is a popular vegetable around here, and we have an unexplainable deficiency in the radish growing department, we’d like to identify a turnip variety that does well in our conditions, grow a lot of it, save our own seed, and maybe even further improve or adapt the variety in the future.

This is probably a bad idea for several reasons:

#1. Turnips are biennials. They won’t even make seed until after they have been in the ground over the winter. Which means they are going to take up their space in the garden for a long time.
#2. Turnips are out-breeders so even if we grow only one turnip variety we could still have our seed accidentally crossed by a bee visiting from a neighborhood garden growing a different turnip variety we didn’t know about. But how many neighborhood gardens are going to have turnips laying around long enough to go to seed, you say?
#3. Well, it’s not just the turnips we have to worry about! Turnips are classified as Brassica rapa and could potentially cross with mustard, rutabagas, Chinese cabbage, Chinese greens or those radishes we can never seem to grow! On the up-side, Ecology Action’s booklet #13 “Growing to Seed” says we only need to keep seed from five plants to maintain enough genetic diversity in the line.

Not one to be deterred by facts, I went ahead and started Phase 1, which is growing several varieties in order to choose one to work with in the fall or next spring. This part just involves growing and eating. We have identified six types of turnip seed to trial, four of them were planted today and after the next storm front passes, we’ll add ‘Tokyo Market’ and ‘Tokyo Cross.’

2/23/2011 We seeded two 2.5′ x 2.5′ beds with turnips separated by a North-South running strip of ‘Petit Pois’ peas saved from 2010.

Bed A is ‘Scarlet Ohno’ from Bountiful Gardens vs. ‘Scarlet Ohno’ from High Mowing Seed. I’m hoping they aren’t both repackaged seed from the same farm! At the very least we should see some landrace variation. The Bountiful Gardens package says, “Greens are smooth and hairless, excellent for greens. Roots for fresh use and pickling, not keepers.” High Mowing adds, “Hot pink skins with white, mild and crunchy flesh. Excellent for baby roots or greens with a signature pink streak.” 50 days. The Bountiful Gardens pack is marked for planting in May-August, but I’m guessing that’s either not right or not for our area. Seems odd when everything else says, “As soon as soil can be worked,” or “4 weeks before last expected frost.”

Bed B is ‘Gold Ball’ side-by-side with ‘Orange Jelly’ with the same separating strip of ‘Petit Pois’ between the varieties. The Sustainable Seed package for ‘Gold Ball’ says, “…perfectly shaped 3-4” amber globes…never woody…perfect storage turnip for the root cellar.” ‘Orange Jelly’ is also recommended for its storing ability and says flavor is improved by frost. Might be nice to try these two again in the fall.

By about mid-April we should be munching, marinating, fermenting and baking our different turnips and picking a winner. Do you already have a favorite turnip that does well in your area or a favorite turnip recipe to share? Leave us a comment!