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.

Five New Onions for the Holidays

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It was 59 degrees and sunny in the garden today, at the end of December. I couldn’t resist planting something and the onions were first in line. I saved seeds from last year’s onions, several different varieties of them–all in the same grocery bag. I didn’t even realize my mistake until I wanted to get the early white onions started. Oops. Turns out seeds for white onions look pretty much like seeds for every other kind of onions. I forced myself to make a trip to the local garden store for seeds I could identify. ;-)

Planting onions from seedI chose ‘Walla Walla Sweet’ from Nichols, even though I probably should have planted them much earlier for overwintering. They will still be delicious even if they are small. Mike the Gardener sent me some ‘White Sweet Spanish’ onion seed. It’s a long-day variety, and my garden is pretty much on the dividing line where you should grow short-day onions south of my house and long-day onions north of my house, so I figure I might get away with either one. The ‘Ailsa Craig’ onions from Seed Savers Exchange are another long-day variety that I’m hoping will work for fresh eating through the summer. I’m also trying ‘Yellow Granex’ from Botanical Interests. It’s a short day onion that should have been planted in the early fall, but some years that just doesn’t happen. I’m going to try it anyway and see how it fares compared with the ‘Walla Walla Sweet’. Hopefully one of them will be happy enough to bulb.

I’m also experimenting with ‘Copra Hybrid’ storage onions. The seed is old, packed at Territorial Seed for 2009. No hard feelings if it doesn’t sprout. I know onion seed isn’t supposed to keep well. The other storage onion I’m thinking about trying is the ‘Gold Princess’ onion, but it’s a cipollini onion and they seem to need space around them to develop well. I’m going to wait until things warm up again before making a good spot for them.

What’s the first thing you’ll plant for the 2012 garden? I think my next project will be beets, then it’ll finally be time to get some of the tomato and pepper seeds going.

How Much Do Seeds Really Matter?

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When I grab a ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato seedling from the nursery, I look to see if it’s been grown organically but I have no idea where the seed used to grow that seedling came from. And I never gave it a thought—until this year. This year, seeds and where they come from has felt a lot more urgent. And I’ve tried to make sure that all the Dirt to Dinner seeds came from companies not involved with GMOs, the more local and more independent the better. In order to support the Safe Seed growers I have found, I bought seed of my favorite varieties from more than one source. I have ‘Cherokee Purple’ seeds from four different companies growing. I think I ended up with ‘Lemon’ cucumbers from at least five different places.

Which got me thinking, “How much does it really matter where my seeds come from?” Of course it matters in terms of voting with your seed dollars for the kind of practices you want to see in the seed industry, supporting local economies where possible and to the folks who grow and distribute safe seed. But does it matter in my garden? Does it matter on my table?

Turns out, I think it matters a whole lot more than I ever imagined. In late February, I started seeds of ‘Principe Borghese’ tomatoes for drying from Tomato FlowerBountiful Gardens and Victory Seeds. I planted them under the same conditions in the same flat. All the BG seed was sprouted a week later, with less than half the VS seeds up. Final germination was BG 100% and VS 75%. I eventually thinned to the best four plants from each seed house and on April 16th I planted them in the same warm and cozy growing bed. The tallest, strongest, plant, which is already flowering, is one of the Victory seeds. And the only seedling that didn’t do well in the transplant process? It’s also from Victory. Though maybe I should have more thoroughly thawed the salmon heads before I stuffed them in the bottom of the tomato holes. If that poor seedlings roots were scrunched up against frozen salmon eyeballs the first day or two, that’s hardly the seed’s fault! I plan to measure the amount and weight of tomatoes produced and to dry each batch separately in case there is a difference in taste. If it doesn’t eventually taste good, who cares which day it germinates?

The day after I started the tomatoes, I planted ‘Scarlet Ohno’ turnips from High Mowing and Bountiful Gardens. The BG tops are taller and earlier, Scarlet Ohno Turnipswhich, if you are growing for turnip greens, could make a big difference. But the roots are different as well. The Bountiful Gardens ‘Scarlet Ohno’ is a vibrant, almost-beet red. The High Mowing root, though the same size, is clearly more pink even though the two turnip rows are growing in the same bed, with the same soil, water, everything.

I’ve been surprised by the amount of variation in some of the varieties. I tried ‘Canellini’ beans from three different sources and one variety didn’t even come up at all!

I don’t actually understand enough about the seed industry or plant genetics to fully get why this would be. I’m heading back to Carol Deppe’s Breeding Your Own Vegetable Varieties to see what I can figure out. And I’m going to keep experimenting with side-by-side trials like these to see what else I can learn with the kids in the garden this summer.

18 Kids and 42 Kinds of Potatoes – Now That’s an Earth Day Project!

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Yukon Gold Potato Grow Over-winter by Traditional MethodsPerhaps you’ve already noticed we can get a little intense here at Dirt to Dinner.  Our Great Potato Grow Out for Spring 2011 is  no exception. What started out as a personal interest in growing a few of the potato varieties Carol Deppe mentions in The Resilient Gardener, has turned into a full blown research project searching for the ultimate urban gardening potato varieties staffed by no less than 18 (and still counting) smart and curious kids. And the project now involves testing at least 42 different potato varieties.

The ‘Yukon Gold’ potato shown on the left is one that was grown by traditional methods (in the ground, hilling, etc.)  except that it was grown over the winter. At harvest in April, it measured roughly 16″ from seed potato to leaf top. Because I tried to grow it through the coldest and darkest time of the year, it made an unimpressive number and weight of potato tubers. This particular plant set stolons, those little ‘umbilical cords’ that potatoes grow on the end of, along the first six inches of stem that grew up from the seed potato. But, identifying a potato variety that produces lots of potatoes vertically on a tall stem could allow thousands of urban gardeners to reduce their environmental footprint and produce more of their own food at home in small spaces.

Low Yield of Yukon Gold potatoesSo, how do you find that potato? It’s gotta taste good. It’s gotta grow well in a variety of conditions. It’s gotta be tall. And it’s gotta set stolons for a lot farther up it’s stem that the six inches that ‘Yukon Gold’ used.

That’s where Tom Wagner and New World Seeds and Tubers come in. Tom is the go-to guy if you want to try your hand at the potato varieties Carol Deppe mentions in her fascinating book. If you’re feeling adventurous, Tom will even send you an 8-pound sampler box, with anywhere from 5 to 20 different varieties of potatoes represented in those 8 pounds. That’s plenty to start your search. We even asked him to start us out with some of his tall-vined favorites.

But, if it’s really your lucky day, the generous folks at New World Seeds and Tubers will accidentally fill your order twice and then tell you to go ahead and keep the extra package! That kind of bounty begs to be shared, so I took the search to the Dirt to Dinner kids. So far 18 students have volunteered for the research project to grow out Tom’s rare and experimental potato varieties searching for the best potential vertical growers.

There’s now even a site on WePay where you can support the kids research in the next stage of the project to propagate and share with urban gardeners around the world. The Great Potato Grow Out team will be recording potato growth rates, height of stolon set, amount of potatoes produced, weight of potatoes produced and, of course, how their potatoes taste.

Got a favorite potato recipe? I’ll be collecting them to try during our Taste Test in 100 days or so!

4/23 Update –

Our WePay Earth Day project “Potatoes Grow Up” was the winner of the Earth Day donation. Thanks for your support and generosity!

Growing A New World Potato Sampler

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Toro Dude Potato for SeedIt takes a special sort of person to see the beauty in a Potato Sampler box from New World Seeds and Tubers. My husband, for one, just didn’t get it. If he’s gonna look at a potato he wants to see it buttered and already on his plate. But I know beautiful when I see it and, to me, these guys all look gorgeous.

I chose the 8 pound sampler which promised 5 to 20 different varieties “from around the world, special breeding lines that are available only from us and a few classic varieties” of potatoes to try. I specifically asked for any they thought would do well growing vertically, since I wanted them for the 99 Pound Potato Challenge. I was also interested in trying some of the types Carol Deppe mentioned in her book, The Resilient Gardener.

Seed Potato SamplesWhat arrived was a broad sampling of the possibilities of potatoes, twenty-one different clones and nearly forty individual potatoes, many I had never heard of before. In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, William Woys Weaver says, “Growing heirloom potatoes presents special problems for the gardener because old varieties are not as resistant to disease as modern ones. Futhermore, potato varieties predating the advent of the blight in the 1840’s are to be found only in gene banks or in special botanical collections.”

I honestly don’t know where Tom Wagner finds all of his potatoes, but I am certainly glad that I found him. And I couldn’t wait to start getting these potatoes planted. One of the varieties specifically marked for the vertical growing project was Guisi, a potato I think is named for a Peruvian potato researcher killed tragically near one of his experimental fields.

Fripapa and H98-316 Seed potatoesI got blues, reds and golds. I got fingerlings and smooth rounds, big bulbous blobs and delicate tiny tubers. But some of them don’t even have names! This hefty spud arrived with a number hand-written on its side. A quick Google search turned up an entry from the United States Potato Genebank that looks like H96.316 is an improved variety from the International Potato Center in Peru. Who knew there even was a United States Potato Genebank?

The Fripapa shown here had a hollow center, so I set it aside to research whether or not I should plant it. A potato with a hole in its heart would never pass the Carol Deppe rogue test. She cautions readers to eliminate peculiarities as something that might indicate a disease or a growing problem. Though none of the other potatoes I have cut for planting looked unusual.

Planting potatoes in raised bedI set the potatoes 15″ apart, which gave me room to plant 16 potatoes in a 5’x5′ bed. This bed started out as a compost pile last year and grew favas through the winter. I amended it with my favorites from Happy Frog to deepen the soil level as much as anything else, since I anticipate soil fertility to be pretty good. Then I covered the seed potatoes with several inches of planting mix and watered the whole thing in. Depending on the weather, I hope to see at least some of the potatoes sprouting in the next week or two, though I understand it could take some of the varieties longer than that.

Map of Potato Varieties PlantedThe trick is, how do you keep track of which potatoes are which varieties when you are growing 16 plants of nine different varieties in one raised bed? To start with I got a stack of the really big plant markers from Common Ground so I can actually find them when I want to know who is who. I noted on the row marker how many plants of that variety are in the bed. For example, the ‘Guisi’ marker says (4) because the four plants closest to the marker should all be ‘Guisi’s’. I also drew myself a quick map, just in case something happens to the giant plant markers. Now I can refer back to this when the plants come up and remind myself that there should be two ‘Satinas’ and four ‘Guisi’s’ but only one of the ‘Skagit Lock’ and ‘Red Thumb’ plants.

Now, if I could grow a sour cream plant, I’d be all set!

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!

Fresh in February: 22 Things We’re Eating Right Now from the Family Food Garden

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It takes some planning. And, depending on your growing zone, it may take some straw, row covers or cold frames. But it really is possible in most USDA Zones to eat something out of your garden year round.

That’s easy for me to say, I live in Northern California and garden in Zone 9b. So, don’t take my word for it. Grab The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. He’ll tell you everything you need to know to grow through the winter—and he’s farming in Maine!

Peas, Spinach and ParsnipsOur favorite snap pea, ‘Sugar Daddy’, is delicious this time of year, sweet, crisp and productive. It’s growing alongside ‘Catalina’ spinach which is producing a surprising amount of salad greens and stuffing for omelettes. In the bed behind, you can see the tops of parsnips ready for pulling. Get your digging trowel ready though, those roots are deeper than they look.

One of the joys of winter food gardens is that the wet weather waters for you. Try to be sure that you position plants that are sensitive to too much moisture, like these peas, in raised beds with good air circulation around the plants so you don’t have to fight mold for the delicious pods. Even though pea plants will grow happily when crowded, consider spacing the seeds a bit farther apart in the winter to give them good air circulation and also so they are better able to share the available sunlight.

Kale, spinach and collards prefer the cool winter weather. The spinach that I am growing will not do a thing for me in warm weather even when I shade it with tomato plants. But it grows well in the winter and doesn’t fall apart when exposed to a light frost. The ‘Dwarf Siberian’ kale and ‘Vates’ collards actually improve their flavor after exposure to colder temperatures. Most of the red cabbages growing among them have been ripped apart by slugs, but the green cabbages are doing much better and providing us with slaw and sauerkraut galore.

Here are the 22 fresh foods we can eat out of our yard this February:

1. Spinach
2. Mustard Greens
3. Snap Peas, Snow Peas and Shelling Peas
4. Chard
5. Parsnips
6. Cabbage
7. Collards
8. Carrots
9. Rutabagas
10. New Potatoes
11. Beets
12. Fava Beans
13. Arugula
14. Celery
15. Lettuce
16. Radishes
17. Turnips
18. Bok Choi
19. Green Garlic
20. Broccoli
21. Cauliflower
22. Kale

Do you have a favorite winter-grower in your food garden? Let us know about it in the comments section. We’d love to hear what works for you and give it a try next year.