September 26, 2012

Three Confidence-Building Veggies for Central Valley Gardeners

There are a few veggies in my garden that do well every single year no matter what, and always make me feel like a successful gardener regardless of what the rest of the homestead looks like. It's hard to go wrong with them, and they do a lot to boost my confidence at times when other veggies are letting me down (I'm looking at you, tomatoes!) Here are my favorite sure bets for a Davis summer vegetable patch:

1) Armenian Cucumbers

These guys produce and produce...and keep on producing huge, tasty cucumbers all summer long without fail. These cukes form the basis of my go-to summer meal, the Greek chop chop salad.

Armenian Cucumber

People joke about giving away zucchini, but in my yard it's the Armenian cukes I'm constantly distributing around the cul-de-sac. Lucky for me, I have a neighbor who absolutely loves them and will always take the excess! I've grown Armenian cucumbers for at least the last four years, and they've never let me down. Always prolific, never bitter, and not fussy. All you have to do is keep the ground moist for them. Even if the leaves start to show signs of cucumber plant diseases, like mosaic virus, the cukes keep coming. In fact, if you don't stay on top of it, you'll be overwhelmed by the amount of food produced by just one plant.

2) Cherry Tomatoes

If you want to know the thrill of growing an abundance of your own tomatoes, plant a cherry tomato. Even in a bad tomato year, I can always count on the cherry plants to deliver loads and loads of fruit all summer long. They are the first tomatoes to ripen in the garden and they continue to hang on practically until the first frost.

Ever dependable cherry tomato

My plants consistently grow 8-10 feet tall, even in soils that haven't been amended very well. If I end up with too much fruit--not likely given the many different ways cherry tomatoes can be eaten--it goes to the chickens, who go absolutely mad for cherry tomatoes. I like to spoil my chickens, so this year I grew an extra plant just for them.

3) Basil

Plant basil early (April or May) to give it a chance to get established before the worst of the summer heat, and you'll have basil all season long. Put it in a spot where it'll get a little bit of filtered shade in the hot afternoons, or make your own basil shade structure to give it a break from the scorching sun. I'm sure on the coast or in the Pacific Northwest basil does just fine in full sun, but here in the Central Valley, it appreciates a break. Not many pests will bother my basil plants, except for the occasional batch of whiteflies which are easily removed with a spray of water in the morning. Clip sprigs of basil as you need it in the kitchen rather than harvesting the whole plant all at once; the plants will keep growing and giving you pesto ingredients until the cold weather kills them in the fall.


None of these veggies are super fussy about soil nutrients and will still produce even if you've accidentally neglected your soil. If you're feeling frustrated with your gardening results this summer, or if you're just starting out and thinking of putting in a new or bigger garden next season, I strongly encourage you to try out these winners next spring. I've found that in Davis, it's hard to go wrong with them.

What are the confidence boosters in your garden?

September 24, 2012

Mystery Bean Bug

One of the things I've enjoyed about paying closer attention to my garden this year is the wide variety of new bugs I've encountered. It's amazing what you can find when you're really looking. Yesterday I came across this pretty little bug as I watered the green bean bed. The bed is mulched with rice straw and as the water flooded underneath the mulch, this guy came crawling out.

Mystery bug in the bean bed

He was about 1/2 a centimeter long, or half the size of my thumbnail. I wouldn't have noticed him, except that his bright green color stood out starkly against the yellow straw. There were two of them, actually, and I expect I'd find more hanging out under there if I pull back the mulch.

I've never seen anything like this bug in the yard before. At first I thought maybe it was the one causing the little, round holes in my bean pods, but a little bit of research on the What's That Bug? website tells me this might be some kind of treehopper, in the Membracidae family. Treehoppers damage plants by sucking their juices and making slits in bark in order to lay their eggs, not by chewing perfectly round holes out of pods. In any case, a pest.


My guy looks a lot like a Buffalo Treehopper--pictures here and here--but those seem to have little horns on the top where this guy does not. The Buffalo Treehopper on the UC IPM site doesn't have horns, but looks much darker and also larger. Mine also looks like the one pictured here and labeled Atymna helena, but my guy's "helmet" seems more pronounced.

In spite of the resemblance, two things cause me to seriously question the treehopper idea. For one thing, the one that emerged from my straw mulch didn't hop. He happily climbed onto the stick you see him sitting on in the photos, and just sat there for a picture as long as I kept the stick out of the bright sunlight. Maybe he was just waterlogged and not ready to hop around.

Perhaps more importantly, though, he wasn't in a tree. Treehoppers are supposedly tree-dwelling bugs that feed on trees and don't often descend to the ground. So, I'm still not sure exactly what this is and am going to do a bit more research. Thoughts? Ever seen one in your yard?

September 21, 2012

Death by Dog Urine?

I think one of my Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash plants is dying a slow death by dog urine. I have two of them located on a trellis in the front yard garden, and I suspect that my neighbor's dogs are regularly peeing on the plant closest to the driveway. For one thing, I've actually seen one of the dogs raise its leg in a salute to my trellis. Secondly, when our own dog (who doesn't usually have access to this part of the garden) walks by the corner post of the trellis he wants to stop and pee on it--a sure sign that something's been marked by another dog.

Here's what the plant looks like:

Dog urine overdose?

The one right next to it looks fine and has produced one beautiful looking squash (the other buds were attacked by aphids). The low production could definitely point to a lack of enough fertilizer at planting time and throughout early growth, but why would one plant look fine and be producing fruit, while the one a couple of feet away looks like this? Too much direct nitrogen and/or urea in the form of dog pee is the only explanation I can come up with.

Pale leaves

Thoughts? Does this look like fertilizer burn to you? Or does this look like some other nutrient deficiency I'm not considering (unlikely, since the plant next to it that is not taking a direct hit looks much better.) Any ideas on how to deter dogs other than building a small fence? Of course, I will talk with my neighbor, but that won't help prevent other dogs that happen wander into my garden from depositing a bit of their stuff on the plants. I suppose that's one of the inherent risks of front yard gardening, but yuck!

September 18, 2012

Monsanto Protest in Davis

I awoke early yesterday to the loud whomp, whomp, whomp of an unidentifiable helicopter hovering directly above my house and then circling the neighborhood for about 30 minutes. The last time a copter lingered over our neighborhood, the police were engaged in a standoff with an armed gunman about three streets over. A few years ago, it was a suspect who'd fled on foot and was roaming the neighborhood while being chased by a helicopter spotlight. Since I was about to send my daughter out the door to school on her bike, I called the police non-emergency line to make sure it was nothing dangerous this time.

Turns out it wasn't a police helicopter at all, but KCRA TV's Livecopter 3. KCRA was covering the one-year anniversary Occupy protest at Monsanto Corporation's Davis location about 1/2 a mile from our house, which started at 6 a.m. Given that the early photo on the KCRA website showed exactly seven protesters and no traffic issues whatsoever, the event certainly did not warrant helicopter coverage. (Sorry, but hovering news helicopters are a pet peeve of mine.)

"Biohazard Bob" and "Miss GMO" creations

After taking advantage of the relatively cool morning hours to double dig a raised garden bed, I hopped on my bike and peddled over to check out the protest. It was still going strong at 1pm, with a diverse assembly of about 50 or 60 protesters on the scene. It seemed to be a mix of general Occupy movement folks who may or may not know a lot about Monsanto, and people who were there specifically to protest Monsanto's policies and development of GMO crops, including a crew staffing a Prop 37 information table.

Some were standing at the edge of the sidewalk facing the traffic and holding signs with messages like, "No More Frankenfood". Then there was a contingent of folks standing in front of the company's driveway admiring their chalk sign and passing around some pretty skunky-smelling cigarettes. Finally, there were a handful of people dressed in all black with hats and bandanas covering their faces, either to protect their identity or to prepare for the possibility of being pepper sprayed by authorities.

Monsanto GMO protester

Speaking of authorities, I saw only one Davis Police Department patrol car, parked across the street in the school maintenance yard parking lot, and one private security person standing in front of the entrance to the Monsanto building, which seemed an appropriate response to the peaceful protesters. A couple I talked with said the police officer had walked over and talked with protesters about not blocking the busy bike path, but otherwise there hadn't been much interaction and there were no arrests. At that point, there had been no communication from anyone at Monsanto and the protesters thought Monsanto must have told its employees to stay home.

Chalk drawing in front of the company driveway

I'm not a fan of Monsanto myself and I support the protesters' right to be out there making their voices heard and raising awareness of important food and agricultural issues. Even if you aren't concerned about Monsanto's Roundup and GMO products, you have to question why a company that talks a lot about solving the challenges of world hunger through agricultural technology pays its CEO a $145 million dollar, five-year compensation package. That sure would buy a lot of food for hungry people around the world!!

Formal protests have their place in the political process and I thank those who participate. For me, though, I will continue to protest with my money, my vote and my garden tools. I think many times people don't realize just how much power they have to affect change in seemingly entrenched agricultural systems and food policies, but there are some simple things you can do:

1) Use your wallet. Perhaps the easiest way to protest corporate control of the food supply is to refuse to buy food products invented by mega corporations, made with ingredients you don't recognize, and shipped half way across the country or even the world. So simple! Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store where fresh, organic produce is sold and look for local options where available. Better yet, shop your local farmer's market.

2) Use your voice. Your vote is your voice--use it to express your opinion at the polls when there are opportunities to provide direct input on food and farming issues. (Learn more about Prop 37 here.) Also, pick up the phone and call your representatives to ask their positions on specific bills and tell them how you feel.

3) Use your soil. Plant a garden and opt out of corporate Frankenfood by growing your own fruits and veggies. Start small and expand your garden as you have time and gain knowledge. It's addictive--you'll see! You could even go one step further and start saving your own seeds, or visit the Davis Seed Library and check out some of theirs.

If you're interested in learning more about U.S. food and agricultural policies and the effect of GMO crops on our food supply, I'd recommend the Food Democracy Now! website. Food Democracy Now has been supported by Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Marion Nestle, among others, and describes itself as a "grassroots community dedicated to building a sustainable food system that protects our natural environment, sustains farmers and nourishes families."

For news coverage of yesterday's event, see the Davis Patch article here or the Sacramento Bee article here.

September 13, 2012

It's Harvest Celebration Time!

There are soooooo many harvest-themed events of interest to area gardeners, foodies & homesteaders this fall. It's a busy time, but it's always worthwhile to get out to at least one food-focused celebration if you can.

Hoes Down

Some are free & others require tickets, some are fundraisers for local farms & others are raising money for nonprofits that help get fresh food to area kids, some are in Davis & others are scattered throughout Yolo County and beyond, and all are family friendly. Check out the list and see if there's something that appeals to you! Events are listed in chronological order.

Grain-to-Bread Workshop for Kids at the Farmer's Market, September 15

Eat Real Fest (Oakland, CA), September 21-23

~ Street Food Rodeo at 6th & G in Davis, September 21

Fall Seed Swap, hosted by the Davis Seed Savers Alliance, September 22

~ Autumn Equinox Celebration at Soil Born Farms (Sacramento), September 22

Eat Local Faire & 40th Birthday Bash at the Davis Food Co-op, September 28

Capay Crush 2012 - a Capay Organic/Farm Fresh to You event (Capay, CA), September 29

Crush Festival 2012 - nine wineries at the Old Sugar Mill (Clarksburg, CA), September 29-30

Hoes Down Harvest Festival (Guinda, CA), October 6-7

~ Delta Wine and Art Faire (Clarksburg, CA), October 7

Know of a September or October local, harvest-related event I forgot about? Send me an email and I'll add it to the list.

September 12, 2012

Lesson Learned: It's All About the Soil!

I know..."Well, duh!!", right? Of course raising food is all about the soil! As someone who's been gardening her whole life and who grew up across the street from an esteemed UC Davis soil scientist (Omund Lilleland), I did already know that. But I had forgotten that growing veggies really is ALL about the soil--whatever comes out of the ground is almost secondary, even if it's the main reason you're gardening. As Gene Logsdon says, "I don't know which of those two goals--enriching the soil or raising the food--you consider more important, but it makes little difference. In accomplishing the first goal organically, you achieve the second automatically."

If you start taking your soil for granted or get lazy about soil fertility at all, as I did this spring and summer, you will notice it. If you're like me, after kicking yourself for making such a stupid mistake, you take immediate action to fix it and refocus your attention on the all-important dirt. So, as one of my all-time favorite literary characters, Hermione Granger, would do, the first place I went in order to solve this problem was the good 'ol library. In the last month I've read two great books about soil, both available through the Yolo County Library. The first is the relatively new book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

Reading this 200-pager, I learned loads about soil structure, the difference between bacterially-dominated and fungally-dominated soils, the bazillions of bacteria and fungi (and other creatures) that inhabit our soils and especially compost, and finally what to do in the garden to encourage beneficial soil life and a healthy soil food web. The book is written in accessible language (i.e. not overly scientific, which is a risk given the subject matter) and is filled with all kinds of fascinating information, like, for example, the fact that earthworms can live to be 15 years old. Who knew?

The second book was Gene Logsdon's The Gardener's Guide to Better Soil, published in 1975 by Rodale Press. This book, too, is a combination of technical information about soil--in this case, a focus on the various types of soil across the country--and practical information on how to manage and build fertile soil. While the first book was fascinating and well worth a read, Logsdon's book is the one I'll buy and put on my own homestead reference shelf. Aside from all the practical info, I like his more opinionated, personal writing style and he has a definite environmentalist bent, which I appreciate. (I also own and love Gene Logsdon's new book Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, but that's another post.)

Both books stress the importance of compost, for all the reasons we already know compost is essential to improving the soil and growing fantastic veggies. The part I didn't know was exactly how much bacterial and fungal life is in homemade compost and how critical it is to inoculate and regularly amend all your garden soil with all that life. (There's a lot less of it in the sterilized, bagged compost you find at the nursery.) I have many compost piles going throughout the yard, so I'm all set there. Both books also devote a chapter to mulching, with Logsdon calling mulch "a kind of minor miracle" and noting all the reasons it's critical in the garden. Again, while I already knew the importance of mulch, I will admit that not all my beds were mulched this season, proving that everybody needs a reminder once in a while.

The one major topic on which these two books disagree is breaking up the soil. Lowenfels and Lewis argue strongly against the practice of disturbing the soil structure through tilling and deep digging, quipping, "Sure, the soil is fluffy after rototilling, but that's a dog's name, not a soil description." Logsdon, on the other hand, suggests cultivating for the purposes of preparing a firm seedbed and controlling weeds, and includes instructions on deep digging by hand or using a rotary tiller in a larger garden. Of course, this book was written almost forty years ago and it's possible his views on tilling may have changed, but there are plenty of other vegetable gardening experts who still recommend the practice of double digging (John Jeavons comes to mind first.)

So, I now have all kinds of new information about managing soil to put into practice on the Banyan's End homestead. I will be paying much closer attention to what the soil is trying to tell me through the vegetables that are growing out of it, and I will report back on the blog as I take steps to increase soil fertility and organic matter content. And finally, a few more words of wisdom from Gene: "We will learn how to take care of our soil...and our soil will take care of us." I am dedicating myself to that learning in earnest, starting right now.

September 10, 2012

The Seasons They Are a-Changin'

First of all, where did the first week of September go?? I guess it got gobbled up by the blur of end-of-summer and start-of-school time, not to mention dealing with the transition from a summer to fall edible garden. Having kids and being teachers ourselves, this is always a busy time of year, both in the garden and in the home.

Developing white mini pumpkin

Mr. English went back to work a few weeks ago already (Vacaville schools start even earlier than Davis), the kids are getting to know their new teachers and classmates, and I'm spending most days outside. Many of the vegetables are in peak production now, causing a mad rush of food preparation and preservation. But it's also a time of transition for the plants. They're getting used to shortening days and cooler nights, in addition to slightly cooler daytime temps. Meanwhile, I'm getting used to the return of homework and the flurry of activity that comes with Back to School--music lessons, dance rehearsals and performances, art classes, Sunday School, etc. Seems as if family activities are ramping up just as the garden is about to wind down.

Of course, that's by design. Agriculture is the reason why kids have historically had long breaks from school, at least in rural areas. Traditionally, kids were available on the family farm during critical planting and harvesting times, and returned to their studies once things quieted down on the farm. Society is not on ag time anymore, at least not in suburban Davis, so our kids go back to school right in the middle of peak harvest and garden work time. That's a bummer for us mini-farmers, who could still really use their help.

Basil waiting to be picked and turned into freezer pesto

September in the garden finds me seeding a host of fall & winter crops (beets, carrots, kale, chard, lettuce, bok choy, spinach), ordering garlic, preparing space for peas and onions, building compost piles all over the place, pulling spent crops and improving the soil in the raised beds, planting cover crops to increase organic matter, and protecting young cabbage and broccoli plants from cabbage butterflies. Whew--no wonder the first week of September went by so quickly! And that's to say nothing of prepping and preserving all the zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, beans, and peppers that are filling the harvest baskets daily.

The weather is beautiful and it's a good time to be out and about on the homestead, so I'm not complaining, but it will be nice to have a bit of a break when fall officially arrives later this month and the rush of the harvest is over. Meanwhile, I'm headed back into the kitchen to make some pesto!