Growing Good Food in Bad Air

It is Thursday, October 1st and the air in SF is filled with smoke again today, as it has been, off and on, for weeks. While I am glad not to be in the path of a fire, the smoke pollution is disturbing. Most of news coverage of the pollution concerns its effect on human physical health, which is, of course important. Air pollution causes lung inflammation and reduces our lung capacity. It is particularly dangerous for older people and children. Now, as the coronavirus is on all of our minds, and some of us try to go out less to reduce the chance of infection, the smoke is more disturbing than ever because it reduces our chance for outdoor exercise. For more on human health effects, see Washington Post on air pollution harm to health

While we need cloth masks now, due to the coronavirus emergency, I have learned these do not protect against air pollution. The only protection is an N95 mask or an N95 respirator mask, which most of us do not own.

Gardeners have special concerns. First, we are hesitant to garden in this bad air. I wanted to check apples for ripeness and harvest some that are ripe today, but may not do it as I look out the window and use online sources to confirm what my eyes tell me. Last month I was two days late in watering my community garden. (Fortunately, I didn’t lose any crops, but some of my lettuce was starting to droop.)

I have also had two questions concerning the plants I am growing. The first is what air pollution is doing to them, the second is whether they are safe for me to eat. The answer to the first question is that the effects of air pollution are not good—more on this in a minute. The answer to the second question is one of the only bright spots in my research: pollution does not affect healthfulness of a crop. If the food you harvest has ash or grime on it, wash it off. For good measure you can agitate it in a tablespoon of vinegar in 6 cups of water, then rinse it in plain water. (White vinegar is fine—no need for anything fancy.) You can’t wash off other smog, but plants damaged by it are perfectly safe to eat.

1543 Ash on tomato leaf

White ash on tomato leaf in late September of 2020. I washed it off to let more light in. (Tomato leaves, which are not edible, are hairy, so they trap more ash than smooth leaves would, or than the smooth-surfaced tomato fruit.)

Back to the effect on plants. Days of smoky air and falling ash will result in a coating on upper plant surfaces. The main effect of this is reduced photosynthesis, since less sunlight can reach the chloroplasts. This will reduce growth of the plant. After a bout of smoky air, it’s a good idea to hose down your garden plants to knock the stuff off of them.

Worse for plants is the more common components of smog, such as oxides of nitrogen or lower atmospheric ozone. (Unlike the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, ozone near the earth surface is harmful.) These and other polluting gases can enter the chambers in leaves where the plant carries out photosynthesis and interfere with the chemical process. Ozone is particularly harmful. At best, pollution damage will slow the growth of plants. They will make fewer leaves, and will have a smaller root system. This means our food crops won’t produce as much food or as produce it as fast as they would in clean air. At worst, susceptible plants will show symptoms, starting with tiny dead spots on leaves and progressing to dying older leaves. Susceptibility varies among crops and varieties of specific crops. Peas and beans and leafy crops are generally most susceptible, and one study found summer crops more affected than cool-season crops.

            (Please note that we are here thinking about pollution of the air, not the soil. If you are worried about soil pollution, you should have it tested for lead and cadmium, and follow the lab’s instructions for what you can grow in it. Also, don’t grow food in a garden that is immediately adjacent to a busy road, especially where vehicles often brake.)

When it comes to air pollution, there is another concern that we should be aware of. When air pollution prevents a plant from photosynthesizing, either by blocking sunlight or interfering with the chemistry of the process, it will reduce the amount of CO2 that plant is removing from the air. This means that pollution-challenged plants are making our excess atmospheric CO2 problem just that much worse. It means that air pollution creates a negative feedback loop, making global climate change happen just that much faster.

Happily, we can safely eat and enjoy any food we succeed in growing in our gardens in polluted air, and are probably not so dependent on our garden that the little bit less production is a problem, but remember agricultural production is also threatened. Our understanding, as gardeners, of what increased air pollution means, not only for humans, but for plants, gives us an early distant warning, and more reason to act, and encourage others to act, to reduce the pollution of our air.

Where and when is air pollution a problem?

Large urban areas across the earth have bad, sometimes chronically very bad air, but it is also a problem in many places we think of as “pristine.” So, for example, Denver has a problem, but so does Rocky Mountain National Park.

One of the worst pollutants is lower atmospheric ozone (O3). It forms when oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) interact in sunlight. The warmer the day, the more ozone forms, so it tends to be worst in afternoons and later in the summer season (just when we are counting on harvesting summer crops).

Where do the components of air pollution come from:

--Well, obviously from fires. And one of the scariest results of recent fires has been the understanding that when modern structures burn, not only is it a horrid loss to the owner, but some of what is released into the air is toxic compounds from the many synthetic materials we use today in building, furniture, and other objects in our homes.

--The biggest other sources are electricity generation (if the plant doing the generating is coal or petroleum-fueled) and gasoline-fueled transportation.

--Agriculture and industrial processes add some to the mix. One study, in Colorado, found that plants making fabrics added significant pollution, because it used petroleum as a fuel and because polyester is a petroleum product.

--Volitile organic compounds (VOCs) come from products like paint or paint thinner, asphalt, oil and gasoline.

What can we do to reduce air pollution:

--Drive less, keep your car well-tuned, keep tires inflated properly, and buy automobiles that burn less gasoline—fuel efficient, hybrid, electric.

--Avoid idling car motors unnecessarily.

--Avoid using other gas-operated motors as much as possible—for example by using an electric lawn mower.

--Avoid using products that add VOCs to the air. Check paint cans and labels of other suspect products for an indication that they are VOC-free.

--Avoid toping off of gasoline tanks when filling them at a gas station. (When you smell gas, it is going into the atmosphere.)

--Do yardwork that might add to pollution in the evening, so pollutants can dissipate before the warm part of the following day.

--Try to reduce the amount of petroleum-source materials you use in your life, for example plastic, polyester in clothing, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Eliminate their use if you can, reduce, reuse, and recycle if you do use them.

--Spread the word about what causes air pollution and encourage others to reduce their contributions to it.

Here are two links you can use to learn more:

To check air quality: purpleair.com. Zoom in on specific locations using their world map.

To learn about ozone gardens that assess damage to plants, watch a video on ozone pollution and a lecture by a researcher who studies ozone damage:  Ozone Gardens and Ozone Pollution


Gardening in a Crisis--Resources

If you have a food garden these days, while we are sheltering in place, I know you are grateful for whatever it produces. I am harvesting lettuce and other salad greens (including miner's lettuce and some mesclun), Swiss chard, collards, parsely, cilantro, wild onions, and still have some maggot-free radishes too. I have on the way: globe onions, carrots (still tiny seedlings), mustard greens, snap peas, peppers, and tomatoes. 

One issue for many gardeners right now is where to find seedlings and soil products. I have just discovered that the Garden for the Environment has a new blog and one of their entries is where to get garden supplies. They have information on hours, curbside pickup and delivery for several nurseries and hardware stores. It was posted on March 25th.

https://www.gardenfortheenvironment.org/growing-gardeners-archive/2020/3/25/garden-supply-delivery

There are other useful topics to explore on this blog. 

Hope your garden is going well and that you are staying safe!


Grow Mesclun for Delectable Mixed Greens

Often the crops you can grow in a garden turn the price calculations of the grocery shopper or the restaurant customer on their heads. Mesclun is one such case. The mixes of baby greens that are used to make a pricy salad or elegant stir-fries are fast and easy to grow.

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Use scissors or flower shears to cut sections of mesclun greens an inch or so above the ground. Let cut sections regrow before you cut it again. 

            Mesclun, a word from the old Provençal language, literally means mixture. It hails from the days when gardeners of Southern France and Italy did not always separate out seeds of leafy vegetables and plant them in rows, but sometimes sowed mixed seeds of different kinds of greens closely together, then cut sections of the resulting plants when they were still very small and threw them into a bowl to make a salad of the baby greens.

            Related terms are used in the marketing of mixed greens. Supermarkets sell “spring mix.” Restaurants serve “field greens.” There is no set list of component greens for these mixes, though some may be marketed as if there were.

            As a gardener, you will find seed packets of mixed lettuces, or of lettuce and greens with a more robust flavor, or only of the stronger-flavored greens. They may be labeled “mesclun,” or something else. I found one that is called “Quick Stirfry Blend,” consisting of various mustards and kales. Choose the seed mixture you like, depending on your preference for mild or robust flavor, and whether you want to serve them raw, in a salad, or cooked, in a stir-fry. (Be aware though, that plants that usually have strong flavors, such as chard or red mustard, will be fairly mild when they are eaten this young.)

            What all of these mixes have in common is that they are meant to be scatter-sown so that plants will come up close together, probably too close to grow into large plants, and then cut a half inch to an inch from the ground when they are 3 to 7 inches tall. You should be able to cut the plants and let them regrow several times. The ideal mix will include greens that grow at a similar rate, so you can have all of the varieties in the mix each time you cut.

            When seed marketers choose plants for these mixes, they usually include at least one red-leaved kind, for visual interest, and leaves with different shades of green, different shapes, and degrees of curliness. Some popular components are mizuna, a spiky-leaved mild mustard; tatsoi, an Asian mustard with thick white stems and small dark green leaves; arugula; and frisée, an endive with curly green leaves.

One plant that is not to be found in seed mixes for mesclun is radicchio, a red-leaved chicory. If it is in a grocery store’s “spring mix,” it was added separately, since the plant only forms the wonderful deep-red, white-veined leaves when it has made a mature head. Young radicchio leaves are green. So if you like this “green,” you will have to grow some separately.

You may, of course add to your salad the leaves of any other crop you have on hand. If it is winter, you may have some of the round leaves of wild miner’s (or Indian) lettuce, or the small, tender shoots of wild chickweed. Or you may want to combine a robustly-flavored mix with some mild lettuce you have purchased or have grown separately. Mix the ingredients you will enjoy seeing and eating together.

The best way to grow mesclun or other seed mixes to cut and use as baby greens, is in a container, in potting mix. This makes sure you are not growing any weeds along with your greens. While wild dandelion leaves and other wild plants were a part of some traditional mescluns, you will not want to cut something you shouldn’t eat.

I suggest that you make a 1 1/2 x 1 1/2-foot wooden box, 6-8 inches deep (with a few drainage holes drilled, and couple of 1 x 1-inch runners on the bottom to further help drainage). Sow the first seeds in all of the container space in about February, and resow as long as the weather is cool. (For coastal gardeners, this may mean from February well into fall. Inland gardeners will find summers too hot, but can catch a crop again in cooler fall weather.) Cut sections as needed, letting plants regrow as you cut another section. If you have two such boxes, you can have two different mixes and/or can stagger planting times for a more continuous supply.


How to "Know Your Onions"

 

Old farmers would say of a farmer they admired: “He knows his onions.”

Old farmers are few and far between these days, as is any urban gardener who knows his/her/their onions. In addition to the basic knowledge needed, producing globe onions (also called bulb onions) in California Bay Area gardens is complicated by our many microclimates. But with a little planning, we can harvest the big, sweet and pungent globe onions that we see in grocery stores.

Before you start, there are two factors to understand: The first is why you shouldn’t plant too early. Onions should be planted in fall or winter. But if by December, the stem of an onion plant is thicker than a pencil, the plant is likely to flower in the spring, and thus form no bulb. (In fact, it won’t form much that is edible, and then will produce seed and die. Not what you had in mind!)

The second factor is that onion plants start to form bulbs in response to the day’s length. At our latitude, even the longest day, June 21, is not long enough to stimulate a long-day variety to form bulbs, so avoid planting them. Short-day varieties start forming bulbs as early as the third week of January. Chances are the plants will be so small when they get the “bulbing signal” that the resulting bulb will be rather small.

So what are we to do? The key is to look for varieties labeled “intermediate day” or “day neutral” (such as 'Candy' or 'Red Candy Apple'). Then plant seed as early as you can (more on this below) without letting any seedlings grow to have stems thicker than a pencil in your garden in our coldest months, which are December and January. Not every seed source tells the day length adaptation of their onion varieties. If you are not sure, ask the supplier.

In the previous paragraph, I wrote “as early as you can.” That sounds vague, but it is determined by your microclimate and you can learn it quickly by trial and error. If you are inland, the colder winters will slow the growth of onion seedlings, so you may be able to start seeds in the fall and have them still be so small by December that they will form bulbs in the spring rather than bloom. Try September. Near the coast, with a milder winter, the seedlings might grow bigger, so the safest idea is to wait and plant seed at the start of February.

Alternatively, in any microclimate, you can plant out onion sets or transplants. Onion sets are little bulbs that have been forced into dormancy and then are sold in packages at the nursery. (If you buy them in advance, store them at room temperature to avoid providing the cold that would stimulate any that are already thicker than a pencil to bloom.)

You can grow your own transplants, starting seeds a couple of months before you plant them in your garden. If you grow them indoors on a windowsill, they will not get the winter chill they would get outdoors, so when you plant them out, in February, even if they have pencil-thick stems, they should form bulbs instead of blooming.

You can also buy bundles of bare-root seedlings from a nursery (local or mail order) to plant at the right time.

Green onions (scallions) are the same species as globe onions. You can pull any young onion plants to eat as green onions before they form bulbs. Some gardeners sort the sets, then plant the smaller ones to make globe onions and use the larger ones — which might be big enough to cause them to bloom — to grow green onions. (If you know which you plan to harvest as green onions, plant them a bit deeper, for a longer white base.)

While correct variety choice and planting time will take you far toward success, make sure the soil is fertile, keep weeds down (the narrow onion plant has little defense against shading by weeds), water regularly until the bulb is formed and lower stem begins to flatten, then stop watering to reduce the chance of decay.

Vegetable scans onion 029

When the stems near the ground allow it, bend the plants over; this will help the plants go dormant, so the onions will last longer in post-harvest storage. When the stem and leaves are all brown, dig the bulbs and keep them in a cool, dry place.

May you “know your onions,” and may they be big, juicy and delicious!


Scarlet Runner Beans--and the White-Flowered Variety Too

Want to grow plants that produce lots to eat, are ornamental and grow well in cool microclimates? Try runner beans. You can eat the young pods as a green bean (a.k.a. snap bean or string bean) or you can harvest older pods when the beans have formed inside them, shell out the beans to cook and eat, or harvest mature, dry beans later. The flowers are big and bright, attract hummingbirds and are also edible.

Young Runner Beans in the Author's Garden with spring cabbage, and the flowers Cineraria (right rear) and Malcolmia maritima (in front). 

This bean (Phaseolus coccineus) is a Central American native, and a different species than other garden beans. Its name means “red-flowered bean,” though there are varieties with pink-and-white or white flowers. Its native home is in tropical uplands, which gives it an ability to produce where summer days, and summer nights, are cool. This trait makes it well adapted to much of the Bay Area.

For a food crop, choose from varieties listed among vegetables rather than those sold among the ornamentals. The flowers will be just as pretty, but the pod and bean production is likely to be greater.

The most common varieties have bright red flowers with beans speckled purple and black. The white-flowered variety has pure white beans.

Runner beans are popular in Britain and Canada, where they are most likely to be eaten as green beans. The dry beans are popular in many parts of Europe; the white beans, which are especially popular in Spain and Greece, are sometimes called gigantes. The red-flowered variety is grown in mountainous parts of Japan and used both for its green pods and its dry beans. 

Growing Runner Beans

Plant runner bean seeds directly in your garden in April or May. Plant three seeds at the foot of a 6-foot pole, or set seeds 3 to 4 inches apart along a trellis. As with all beans, for best germination, plant on edge, with the flat side down.

An ideal trellis for climbing beans will be sturdy, 6 feet tall and roughly 4 feet wide with uprights every few inches for the plants to twine on. An excellent material for making it is a fencing called hog wire, which has openings that measure 2 inches by 4 inches. Beans will also climb a chain-link fence. Just be sure the trellis openings are large enough for the stems of the twining beans; chicken wire won’t do as the openings are too small. If you have room, you could grow climbing beans on a bean “teepee”: Set several tall poles in a circle and fasten them together at the top.

Snails may damage the young plants. You can use row cover to protect your seedlings, or cover them at night with a quart yogurt container or similar cover. Later in the season, hunt for snails on the plants and remove any you find.

Remove the dead vines before the following spring, but spare any that seem still flexible, as they may be still alive and ready to sprout new leaves in April of next year.

Eating Runner Beans

Eat the green pods when they are about ½- to ¾-inch wide. Wider pods become unpleasantly fibrous (the length of pods will vary and is not important). Use them as you would any green bean. They have a fine, sweet, bean-y flavor.

You can shell the not-yet-hardened beans out of larger pods to cook them, or let the pods ripen on the plants until they are dry and crisp and the beans are hard and dry. (Once you let any pods mature dry beans, the plant will make fewer new pods, so it is best to wait until late in the season before you let some pods ripen and form dry beans.) You can store the mature, dry beans to use later or for replanting.

These big, fat beans are delicious in soup or chili. They can be used wherever dry beans (including dry favas) are called for.

I often use equal amounts of the big runner beans and a similarly colored small bean together in a recipe.

Other Ideas for Cooking with Runner Beans

Small Green Pods: Roll them in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast at 450 degrees for about 17 minutes, or until they have brown but not black areas.

Dry Beans: A traditional use for gigante (white runner) beans is to marinate the cooked beans in a savory vinaigrette or in tomato sauce. In a less-traditional option, a friend uses the dark-seeded runner beans to make a vegan snack by boiling them until nearly tender, then reducing the amount of water and adding sweet sherry and soy sauce, plus ample chopped fresh ginger; then boiling again until they are tender. Refrigerate marinated or flavor-infused beans. 

 


Some Soil Basics--Soil, Potting Mix, Amendment, Compost

What is soil? What is potting mix? What is Compost? When to use each and why.

Soil contains 5 ingredients: Mineral particles, water, air, living creatures, and dead organic matter. What plants need to get from soil is: minerals (from dead organic matter and sometimes from the mineral particles), water, oxygen (because every living cell respires, using the air’s oxygen and releasing its carbon dioxide), and sometimes symbiotic relationships with living creatures (such as mycorrhizae—which rarely need to be purchased).

The mineral particles in soil range from tiny clay particles to the larger sand particles, with the in-between-sized silt particles. The best for plant growth is a mix of the three, with more sand than the other two, such as sandy loam, though other mineral particle proportions can be improved by adding organic matter.

The nutrients plants need to get from organic matter are largely nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, which are released from dead organic matter as it is digested by soil creatures, including soil-dwelling bacteria earthworms, fungi, and actinomycetes. Plants don’t need the complex molecules of organic substances, just the simple elements.

In nature, organic matter enters soil when plants or animals die or when animals urinate or leave manure. Most organic matter falls on the surface, then earthworms and other creatures carry it underground. Burrowing animals also produce some organic matter when they die or defecate underground, though animal burrows are also relatively near to the surface. Nutrients from this organic matter seep deeper with rainfall or artificial watering and are also left behind in deeper soil when plant roots die there. In nature, plants expect a gradient between the amount of nutrients from organic matter and the amount of oxygen, from greater amounts at the surface to lower amounts in deep soil. (There are fewer living creatures in deep soil, simply because there is less oxygen, so if organic matter is down there, nothing will digest it to provide plants with nutrients.)

Organic matter helps the soil hold onto more water longer and still have air spaces. All organic matter provides some nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace minerals. Not all organic matter is rich in nitrogen, which is the nutrient most likely to be low in local soils. For growing vegetables, we want to add more nitrogen than, say a for a shade tree or an ornamental shrub, because we want vegetables to grow big and grow fast. Some organic materials are so low in nitrogen that soil creatures will not be able to digest them unless they also use some nitrogen from other materials in the soil, such as nitrogen fertilizers we have added. Low-nitrogen organic materials include sawdust and shredded bark. These are high in complex plant carbohydrates, such as cellulose or lignin, for which we use the shorthand “carbon.” Others are high in nitrogen. If an organic material does contain plenty of nitrogen, we consider the organic matter to be fertilizer, however we need to be careful not to use too much of high nitrogen materials, since they can burn plant roots.  

When we consider organic matter for adding to soil, we speak of the carbon/nitrogen or C/N ratio. Ideally we want to dig in some organic matter that is about 30/1. This will improve the water and air capacities of the soil as well as providing nutrients. The C/N ratio of sawdust or shredded bark is in the range of 200/1 to 700/1. That of garden wastes is 25/1 to 80/1, depending on whether it is fresh and green or dry and fibrous. That of kitchen scraps is about 17/1 and fresh animal manure is also quite nitrogen-rich. A good way to balance these widely varying materials is to compost them—mix them up and let them rot together for a while. Ideally, we’d mix materials to aim for a finished C/N ratio of 30/1. (We call mixtures of aged organic matter compost no matter what the end C/N ratio might be, but what went into it will determine how high the nitrogen content of the finished product can be. When a compost is made of only garden waste, which is modest in nitrogen content, you probably will need to dig another source of nitrogen into your soil as well.)

If you want to increase the organic matter in your soil, buy materials that are labeled “amendment” or “compost” and dig a layer into the soil surface along with any fertilizer you might be using. (You can also spread organic materials on the soil surface as a mulch. For vegetables you want to use s small-particled mulch, or something that will decay relatively fast, not big bark chunks that must be raked aside before you can replant.)

Potting mix, container mix, landscape mixes and similar products are often labeled “soil,” which they are not. They most often get their bulk from sawdust or shredded bark, that low-nitrogen stuff. (And plants don’t really need that much organic matter of any type. Three percent is usually plenty.) Potting mixes may also contain mineral particles that are inert or nearly so as far as the plants are concerned, such as perlite, pumice, or even pea gravel. They may contain small amounts of aged manure or worm castings, which is a good thing, but which does not make them adequate to use as garden soil. They are typically sterilized, so as purchased they do not contain any living creatures. This is fine if you are growing houseplants, but not ideal for garden soil. They may also contain chemical fertilizers or even pesticides—read the label carefully.

If you need to fill an empty garden bed or raise the soil level in your plot significantly, the best idea is to raise it using plain soil, such as sandy loam, then dig some compost and, if you like, other organic fertilizer, into the top 6-8 inches of the soil. (or you could stop adding soil at 8 inches from the top, dig a couple of inches of compost in, then add 8 more inches and dig in twice as much compost as you just did.) This imitates nature, in that the bed will have more organic material and higher fertility near the surface, less deeper in the soil. . (If you are making a Dearborn garden bed much deeper than it was, or just adding soil to raise its level in the bed, it would be best to take out the old soil, which someone has been amending and fertilizing for years, add the fresh sandy loam, and then put the old soil back on top, and then dig in some amendment and fertilizer.)

Potting mix or container mix are best used in a container 2 feet or less deep, the kind with one or a couple of holes for drainage. They are great for this use, water-retentive and providing good drainage. However, after a while, container mixes collapse. This is when the wise gardener will repot the plant in fresh mix. Potting or container mix are not designed for beds with bottoms open to the soil, or for any use that is over 2 feet deep. When a potting mix is used in a deep raised bed, a problem will ensue in a year or two when the stuff collapses.  The plant roots will then lack air, and the bed will need lots of fertilizer to supplement the carbon-rich wood products that remain. The gardener may spend a lot of money adding more potting mix and fertilizer, or dig it out and start all over with fresh potting mix or, better idea, soil. There are so many names of products sold in bags now that it becomes confusing, but if you stick with potting mix for containers two feet or less deep, and, for garden beds open to the soil beneath them, use soil with organic matter (well-made compost, soil amendment, maybe some extra fertilizer) dug into the top 6-8 inches, you can't go wrong.

I explored the web site of Lyngsø Garden Products (in the SF Bay Area) which is where we have obtained the turkey manure-based compost for the past couple of years. They sell sandy loam, and have a very nice explanation of what it is and what it’s for. They also sell many other “soil” products. I noted that some of them were a lot cheaper than sandy loam—probably because they contain so much sawdust or shredded bark. They also sell Organic Diestel Structured Compost, the turkey-manure-based compost. It’s very pricy, and worth it I think. Lyngsø sells by the bag or will deliver as little as a cubic yard of material for a flat fee of $85. They are in San Carlos. 

Now let us consider for a minute how volume of these materials is calculated. Soil, amendment, compost, etc. are sold by the cubic foot or cubic yard. Bags of soil, compost, etc. for outdoor use contain 1 or 2 cubic feet. Any more and you could not lift them. There are 27 cubic feet in a cubic yard (3’ x 3’ x 3’).

A bed that is 8 x 8 feet and 2 feet deep requires, as an example, 128 cubic feet, or about 4.74 cubic yards of soil to fill, or a bit less to give yourself headroom and room for some amendment, say about 4.25 cubic yards.

A final tip: When adding a material different from what is below it, it is always wise to add a layer a few inches thick first, and mix it with the layer below it, then add the rest. This avoids having an abrupt transition, which water may not readily pass through.

At Lyngsøgarden.com:

Sandy Loam is $62.00 a cubic yard, $3.50 /sk (sk, for some reason, means cubic foot bag)

Organic Diestel Structured Compost is $145.00 a cubic yard, $6.50 /sk

Note that the information about filling garden beds with soil, not potting mix is also explained in the soils chapter of my book Golden Gate Gardening,


Making Soup Stock From A Garden

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Illustration: Soup stock being made from backyard garden ingredients, including wild onion, parsley, oregano, and thyme, with a purchased bay leaf.

Soup stock, that deliciously flavored liquid we use as a basis for soups and sauces, is a natural for the gardener-cook. The beauty of it is that most of the ingredients can be scraps of vegetables, or over-produced ones we would otherwise probably not eat up. Let the cooks with no gardens go to the grocery and buy carrots, celery, onions, and other vegetables to flavor stock. We have it already if only we know what to use. No matter if the ingredients are a bit tough or strong-flavored, they are perfect for broth. They will be strained out and discarded anyway.

An important starting concept for the gardener who would make soup stock is that most stocks include plants from two different botanical plant families: the carrot and the onion families. Use at least one of each, add a few herbs, and you'll have a very nice stock. 

Carrot Family 

In the carrot family are parsley, Japanese parsley (Mitsuba), celery, fennel, and, of course, carrot. The easiest plant of this group to grow in quantity in a small garden is parsley. Once you have it, you can let a couple of plants of it reseed and save as many seedlings as you want, transplanting some when the plants are still small to places you want it to grow. Japanese parsley is a perennial plant that grows best in shade. If you like its delicate flavor and have a shady, well-watered place for it, you can have it for harvest most of the year.

Celery is not as easy to grow as parsley, so most small space gardeners don't grow it. (If you buy celery, do save the leafy parts to use in stock.) Some gardeners do grow Chinese celery, which has narrower, less-tender stems. It is easier to grow and most useful in soup or other cooked dishes. If you are growing it, you will have plenty of leaves for use flavoring stock. 

Fennel loses its anisy flavor when it is cooked, having instead a distinctive sweet flavor. It is not for every stock, but can be very nice in some. (I have used it as a second carrot family ingredient, with parsley or carrot tops as the main flavoring.) Most gardeners will not have fennel growing, but if you are growing even one plant for its tender, white bulbous leaf bases, you will have plenty of green stems and leaves that could be used in stock. (The fennel in vacant lots, a weedy variety, rarely has enough tender leaf base to be useful, but I imagine its stems and leaves would flavor a stock just as well as those of domestic Florence fennel varieties. And if they are tough, no matter, since stock ingredients will be strained out anyway.)

Carrot leaves are a fine addition to stock. If you grew too many carrots to eat up, of course you can add the root too, but most gardeners don't grow that many, so would prefer to save the roots for eating raw or adding to the soup later.

Onion Family

One of the best onion family crops for use in making stock is the leek. When you buy leeks, you may not realize that up to three of feet of leaves have been chopped off, leaving at most a foot of green leaf on the white lower stem that we think of as "the leek." All of that leafy part is great for making stock. If you had purchased the leeks, you'd just have a few inches of green leaf, but in the garden, there is plenty of it. And, should the leek sit in the garden over winter and you forget to use it up by late March, it will surely form a flower stalk, becoming tough in the process. If this happens, cut up the entire plant for stock. 

Bulb onions are not the best crop for a small garden, and are not always successful in that if the timing is wrong, they will form poor bulbs or will flower before they bulb. If you do grow bulb onions, remember that any bulb, leaf, or flower stems you don't eat can flavor stock. That goes for onions you have purchased as well--any trimmings, even dry skins, will flavor stock. (if you do plan to grow bulb onions, the surest ways to do it are to plant onion "sets," small bulbs you get at a nursery, in February, or grow seed of "day neutral" varieties in early to mid spring.

Wild onions that grow in Bay Area gardens are a culinary secret worth learning. They are Allium triquetrum, a Mediterranean native that is a perennial plant. The bulbs are dormant in summer, grow in fall, and make useful greens and flowers all winter and early spring, dying back in April. If you have it as a weed, you may as well be eating it. The entire plant is tender and nicely flavored enough to use in salads and cooking, but if you have a lot of it (it tends to be weedy) you will find it flavors stock nicely as well. (Search for it by scientific name on this blog for a photo and more info on identifying it and managing it in you garden.)

Trimmings from a Grocery

While I am writing this primarily for gardeners, I should say that when produce workers put out vegetables, they often chop off the very parts you'd use for stock. I have come across workers removing leafy parts of celery, leaves of leeks, and carrot tops as they set out the vegetables, putting all the "scraps" in a box to discard. So even with no garden, one could frugally and deliciously make broth from these tasty discards.)

Herbs

You will want to add some herbs to further flavor your stock. Add a bay leaf or two. I think the best idea for most of us is to buy some already dried. Bay trees get big and make a dense shade, so are not the best choice for most small gardens, but I have seen them kept small in a large pot or half barrel with some success. If you do have access to a larger bay tree, harvest by pruning to shape. Remove the leaves and press them in newspaper under books until flattened and dried, then store in a jar. (Be aware that the California bay is a different species than the Mediterranean one, with harsher-flavored, most think inferiorly-flavored leaves.)

A number of Mediterranean herbs are easy to grow in Bay Area gardens. The best to have handy in a small garden for stock are probably oregano and thyme. Grow them in the ground if at all possible, giving them room to spread their roots and make good plants. Add fresh sprigs to your stock.

Making the stock

To make your stock, add all of the ingredients to a large soup pot at once, adding plenty of water. You can also add salt and pepper, but I usually don't at this stage, leaving decisions about them until I am using the stock for making a soup or sauce. (If you eat meat, add soup bones too, marrow bones or boney parts of chicken.) 

Boil all of the ingredients 30 minutes to 2 1/2 hours--use the longer time especially if you have included meat. If only vegetables and herbs were used, you can just strain them out in a fine-mesh strainer and you have your stock. (If bones were added, you will probably want to refrigerate the pot overnight, then use a spoon to skim off any fat before you strain.)

Once the stock is strained, you can use it immediately to make soup, or you can put it in containers in the refrigerator for use in up to a couple of days. Or, if you have too much to use fresh, put some in containers and store these in the freezer for later use. Write the kind of stock and the date on a label affixed to the containers. 

May the soup be with you!

 

 

 


Popup Perennial Edibles Sales

If you are looking for a single fruit tree or a entire edible landscape, you may find what you need at one of the periodic plant sales being held on the grounds of the Bay Natives Nursery at  10 Cargo Way in San Francisco. There will be one April 22 and again on May 13. On both days, at 1 p.m., there will be a talk on Edible Backyard Gardens by Mike Boss, Plant Ecologist and Garden Maker.

Available at the edible perennials sales will be trees, shrubs, vines, and non-woody perennials--everything from artichoke plants to unusual citrus. 

While you're there, check out the natives at Bay Natives, as well as their lively flock of chickens. Penned next to the nursery is a small herd of goats, also fun to watch. 

 


Spring Bloom in Fall--It's a Problem

In today's SF Chronicle (January 1, 1917), I wrote about plants that bloomed last fall in San Francisco that ought not to have been blooming until spring, caused by continuing climate change.

While it's true that we typically have our warmest "summer" weather from mid-September to mid-October, this weather has been lasting longer than usual. Last fall, the warm days and mild nights lasted until near the end of November. We celebrated time spent outdoors in nice weather, but some of our garden plants reacted by blooming and leafing out as if it were spring. This is a problem for the plants, which put energy and physical matter into doing this, so that when spring really does come, they have less stored matter and food energy to do it all again. This weakens the plant, leaving it more susceptible to all kinds of setbacks.

Case in point is my apple tree, which has borne bountiful crops of delicious apples for 30 years. But recently it has been trying to bloom in fall. Then, because winters aren't quite cold enough, it blooms later than usual in the spring. And, because of the energy it used up in fall, it blooms more sparsely. Two years ago, it had practically no fruit.

Last year it did better, though not as well as it used to do. The photo below, which I sent to the Chronicle, but they didn't use in the paper, shows my tree last November, with a few last apples and last leaves till hanging on while blooms and new leaves opened all around them. Now, on January 1, all the new leaves have succumbed to cold, wasting all that effort.

Apple 11-17-16 Sq IMG_8892 copy

If you are growing other temperate plants in the Bay Area, such as cherries and plums (ornamental or fruiting), magnolias, lilacs, or azaleas, you may be having the same kind of problem. What's to be done to save our plants? Obviously continue to work against climate change, a movement in which California in general is doing well.  But we can also join an effort to record the changes, in which our regional data will provide extremely valuable evidence.

More data about how climate change is affecting plants in our region is especially important so that we are represented in a system that has so much more data from cold-winter regions.

There are two organizations that are seeking citizen science data. One is the National Phenology Network (www.usapn.org/), sponsor of the National Phenology Project. It studies both plant and animal species. Another, Project Budburst (budburst.org), is studying only plant responses. Phenology is the study of what plants and animals do in response to seasonal changes.

Sending records to these databases is easy to do online. Log in, choose a plant, and tell them what it is doing on various dates. Children can do it at home and school classes can do it. Both web sites have curriculum information to help teachers fit the work into classes. It teaches observation, appreciation of plants, climate science, ecology, and how science is done

So as our new, and rather unnerving, year begins, please help observe and record what is going on with nature. Your reports will be powerful.


Open Source Seed Initiative

 

OSSI flags april 17 2014 event

Photo by Jack Kloppenburg

Have you purchased a plant and found that the label says it is illegal to propagate the plant? Illegal to make cuttings, divisions, or to to save seed? Increasingly, when plant varieties are being patented, making it illegal for a customer to get them without purchasing them from a certain company.

A separate issue affecting gardeners who want to save seeds is the increase in the market of F1 hybrid varieties. These are bred to display a certain set of desirable traits in the first generation, but not in subsequent generations. There is no law against saving F1 hybrid seed to grow, but if you do so, the positive traits will break apart in the next generation (the F2), some appearing in some offspring, others in other offspring. A certain number of the plants that grow from the seed won't have any of the positive traits of the first generation.

Older plant varieties, the so-called "heirlooms," are not F1 hybrids. This is because throughout human history, farmers and gardeners didn't know how to breed plants to create those hybrids. They just saved seeds from their best plants from year to year. (Another word for these non-hybrids is open pollinated. So all heirloom seed is open-pollinated.) The heirloom seed movement has been finding these old varieties and selling them through their seed catalogs. 

Besides this salvaging of old varieties, certain plant breeders, university researchers or public-minded private individuals, have been breeding new open pollinated varieties with positive traits that rival the hybrids. They may "grow out" a hybrid, saving the best seed from several post-F1 hybrid generations until they obtain seed that will stably reproduce the best traits of that hybrid. Or they may make crosses themselves, transferring pollen of a plant onto the female part of the flower of another, hoping to create offspring with the best traits of both parents.

In my San Francisco Chronicle column of January, 2016, I reported on some open-pollinated sweet corn varieties that carry the supersweet gene of some hybrids. Then, in my July column, I reported on some new open-pollinated vegetable varieties that will be useful in cooler gardens near the coast. (You can access my column at sfgate.com, with a search for Pam Peirce.)

However, in my research to locate these new varieties, I came across a new initiative that gardeners should know about. This is the Open Source Seed Initiative. Some of the new breeders of open-pollinated varieties are registering them with this initiative. By doing so, they are stating that they will not patent the seed of the variety, nor can it, or other varieties that are bred from it to be patented. Here is their logo:

Cropped-ossi-logo-words

 

You will start to see this logo in seed catalogs. If you are viewing a catalog online, you will often have the option of sorting the offerings to just show the ones registered with the Open Source Seed Initiative. You can also read more about the organization that registers the varieties at osseeds.org.

One of my favorite varieties covered by the initiative is 'Flashy Butter Oak' lettuce. It is a looseleaf lettuce with broad, oakleaf-type leaves, speckled with maroon. I find it to be sweet and nonbitter even when it is mature and about to form seed, and that it grows well in cold or warmer weather. (I garden in San Francisco, so my definition of warm is not what it would be inland.)

Flashy Butter Oak copy2

Photo by Pam Peirce

This lettuce was selected or bred by Frank Morton of Lupine Knoll Farm at Grant's Pass Oregon. At my last reading of catalogs, you could buy seed at Bountiful Gardens (bountifulgardens.com), Territorial Seed Company (territorialseeds.com), or Wild Garden Seed Company (wildgardenseed.com). (I have also been saving seed to donate to the Seed Library at the Potrero Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, but they will not always have it, as my donations may not be large enough to meet the need.)

Frank Morton has released several other nice open-pollinated varieties, several of which are under the Open Source Seed Initiative, and you will see his name listed next to his  varieties in seed catalogs. So that you can have a face to associate with these varieties, I offer his photo, collecting lettuce seed. Thanks Frank!

Morton download copy

Photo by Karen Morton