What we’re growing

What we’re growing

Remember when you were a kid, and the holidays or your birthday rolled around? Remember that excitement about looking through the catalogs and sales flyers, circling the toys you just had to have? And then the excitement as the gift-receiving day got closer and closer, the wonderfully delicious wondering of what would be wrapped up for you?

I think the closest thing to that hopeful anxiety is the feeling gardeners get as they spend the winter months pouring over seed catalogs and making endless lists of what they want to plant this year, and then waiting for the seeds to arrive.

I polled our dedicated staff about what plants they were really excited about growing this year. Proving they’re also eager as children awaiting Christmas, they all got back to me right away with a great list of plants that I knew I just had to share with you all as well!

Something new:
O’Henry Sweet Potato
Kristee: These white-fleshed sweet potatoes are intriguing. Originally grown in the Southeast as an alternative to regular potatoes, they are becoming popular with folks who aren’t big fans of orange-flesh sweet potatoes. Their texture when baked is often described as “creamy.” They’re also less stringy, which means they make wonderful mashed sweet potatoes.

Trieste Finocchio
Bobby: I recently got the Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian cookbook which features a recipe “Finocchio al Burro e Parmigiano” (fennel with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano). I decided to give this Italian favorite a try. WOW. The bulb’s anise-like flavor becomes slightly mild and nutty when cooked with butter, a perfect match for the Parmesan cheese melted over the top. I can’t wait to try this recipe with fennel bulbs fresh out from the soil. Fennel has no serious pests or diseases and is so well adapted to San Francisco that is actually a weed in abandoned lots and gardens throughout the city.

Romanesco Italia
Brittany: I am obsessed with this plant. It is so cool! I can never find it at my local Farmers Markets so I’m just going to grow it myself!

Louisiana Purple Pod Beans
Karen: I usually grow a couple varieties of pole beans every summer, like Rattlesnake & Purple Pole Beans. When I saw that these are drought-resistant, I decided to give them a try. With our Mediterranean climate here in Sonoma County, it’s important to save water in the summer. Plus, as a Louisiana-native, the name cinched it.

Sunny Supersett Crookneck Summer Squash
Bobby:
 San Francisco’s cool foggy summers makes it a perfect environment for plant diseases. One disease in particular, Powdery Mildew, is a common problem for Cucurbits in the area. Sunny Supersett is resistant to Mildew and it is very early to mature, making it a perfect crop for San Francisco’s cool foggy summers. I grew them last summer in a large container and the plants were really productive, providing the usual glut of fruit that summer squash are known for. The nutty flesh of the fruit is at perfection when grilled with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Rainbow Sweet Inca corn
Kristee: This beautiful multicolored corn is sweet, and when cooked fresh,while the colors are still very pale it has a delicious corn flavor. It is also a great variety for grinding into colorful corn meal. And the dried ears make lovely autumn decorations.

Sub Arctic Plenty Tomato
Frank: One of the hardiest tomatoes, I want to try getting very early tomatoes this year.

Sorrel
Brittany:
 I really want to make the classic french Sorrel sauce, so I’m going to grow some Sorrel this year to do it. I also only have a container backyard garden so it’s perfect for my small space.

Salad Burnet
Brittany: 
A cucumber-like flavor. I love cukes, but can’t grow them in the chilly, foggy summer in SF. I’m going to grow this instead and see if I can make things like tatziki/raita taste the same.

Blood Shot Pumpkin
Carl: A fun ornamental pumpkin with white flesh and orange and red “veins” that make it look like a blodshot eye. Hence the name. It’s very unusual, and not easy seeds to come by, but I picked some up at a seed swap and can’t wait to grow some!

Old favorites:
Dark Green Italian Parsley
:
Bobby: Whether or not I have access to land, I always grow Italian Parsley in a container outside the window of my 5th story apartment. Parsley is really hardy and isn’t bothered by the brisk seasonal winds that blast over my roof from the ocean, plus it’s delicious on almost anything you put it on. It’s a must for salads, soups, meat dishes and is even good for some desserts. A little bit of chopped parsley goes surprising well with a slice of apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The plants will produce for a really long time if you make sure to cut off any parts of the plants that try to bolt. I’m still harvesting from my parsley plants that I sowed last spring.

Hill Country Heirloom Red Okra
Karen: As a kid in Louisiana, I did not like okra. But something weird happened as I grew up: I developed a love of okra in soups and, of course, in gumbo. Buying okra here in California is hit and miss, so I figured it’s time to grow my own. I settled on this variety because the color looks beautiful, and the plant is drought-resistant.

Sugar Loaf Chicory
Frank: When grown to perfection the blanched heart of this relative of radicchio is one of the very best salad plants. It is also perennial and very hardy.

St. Valery Carrot
Kristee: These sweet, tender carrots are one of our favorites. We eat them straight from the garden, sliced in salads, or lightly steamed, and have been known to rinse the soil off and snack on them while harvesting other veggies.

Baby Pixie cabbages
Carl: These are smaller heads than the great big ones you get on regular cabbage plants, which makes them perfect for cooking up as a quick dinner for two people. These plants are especially well suited to a Midwestern garden, since they can handle both extremes in temperature we get here.

White Beauty Radish
Karen: We grow radishes year-round here. These all-white radishes are lovely sliced into a salad, but are also mild enough to eat by themselves as a snack.

Fairy Tale Eggplant
Carl: These cute little striped eggplants are prolific producers and have a great flavor!

Papalo Papaloquelite
Frank: This member of the daisy family tastes a lot like cilantro, but is very heat tolerant and grows like a weed.

Smart Squares

Smart Squares

The Smart Gardener Team listens very carefully to your feedback. Many of the Smart Add Ons we have, and will continue to offer, are in direct response to your remarks and comments. While keeping the basic product as clear and simple as possible, Smart Add Ons let you personalize Smart Gardener with additional functionality and content that is specific to your garden, growing conditions and interests. One of our newest Smart Add Ons, Smart Squares, was created in response to your feedback and requests for Square Foot Gardening capabilities.

Smart Squares is based on a square foot model for French intensive gardening. The Add On converts all appropriate plants to the standard Square Foot Gardening layout and measurements. In some cases where plants are grown vertically, we’ve changed plant heights and necessary structures in the Smart Garden plan. The biggest advantage to using the square foot method is growing more food in smaller spaces, but there are other benefits like using less water and less weeding.  If you have limited space for a garden, or just want an abundance of fresh garden goodies without too much extra work, this one is for you!

Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

If you are completely new to vegetable gardening, one of the first things you need to think about is where to put the garden.

In a small garden you usually don’t have many options. It has to go where there is room. Don’t make the mistake of putting it where it won’t work though. If the best place is already occupied by an ornamental bed or a garden shed, it may be necessary to rearrange things to make room for the vegetables. In some situations you might have to remove sources of shade, such as a tree, in order to get enough sunlight.

In a large garden you’ll have many more options. If you have several choices you should try to take advantage of any favorable microclimate, such as a south facing slope. Ideally the vegetable garden should be fairly low down on a slope to avoid high winds and to get better soil with more moisture. However it should not be so low that it is in a frost pocket. In a dry climate you might put the vegetable garden in any area with naturally moist soil. A flat area often isn’t as warm as a south facing slope, but it is generally easier to work with.

There are certain conditions that all food gardens must meet in order to be productive. Consider the following before you start digging:

    • The most important factor in growing a garden is sunlight. More sun means more plant growth. In fact, the majority of crop plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to grow well. So your first objective is to put the vegetable patch where it will get the most sun.

A garden's optimal orientation to the sun

  • A fertile soil is also a big help, but it is less important than sun because you have the power to improve the soil through your gardening activities.
  • Good drainage is important because plants won’t grow in waterlogged soil. This is particularly important in spring because you should never dig wet soil (it will damage the soil’s structure). And waiting for the soil to dry out can cause delays (wet soil also warms up more slowly than dry soil).
  • If your garden is exposed to strong winds, you will need to think about shelter. Strong winds can batter plants, cool winds can chill them and dry winds can increase evaporation. If there is no natural shelter you will have to think about a windbreak (without creating shade however).
  • You should never put your vegetable beds on the north side of tall objects such as buildings, walls, trees or shrubs where they will get little sun. You should also keep them well away from any trees or shrubs, as their creeping roots will move into the fertile and well watered soil and extract most of their available nutrients (this would drastically reduce your crop plant growth).
  • Consider the proximity to the house. The closer the food garden is to the kitchen the more you will use it. Ideally the garden should be within 100 feet of your kitchen door so it is easy to nip outside and harvest while cooking. If it is further away you tend to limit your trips out there , so the harvest becomes more sporadic. Someone once estimated that the harvest declined by 30% when the garden was over 100 feet away. A garden that is close to the house gets tended more conscientiously, not only because it is more convenient, but because it is so visible. You make more effort to keep it looking good because otherwise it would be embarrassing every time someone came to visit.
  • Finally it’s nice if the vegetable garden is in its own area and isn’t on the way to somewhere else. If it is right in the center of a play or entertainment area then plants may get damaged by passing children, dogs and wheelbarrows; and those tempting ripe tomatoes will keep disappearing.

SmartGardener.com creates a Smart Garden Plan for you which automatically and optimally orients all your plants in relation to the sun – so you can get out into the garden!

Smart Gardener Beta launches! The free online tool that lets you simply grow great food.

Smart Gardener Beta launches! The free online tool that lets you simply grow great food.

From plot to plate. The easiest way to plan, grow and harvest a successful organic garden.

It’s for all of us busy people, novice gardeners and even seasoned gardeners who want to integrate growing food into our lifestyle.

Smart Gardener is the simple answer to “Where do I start?” “How much should I grow?” “What do I do next?”

Here’s what SmartGardener can so for you:

Get an optimized garden plan so you can get out in the garden.
Smart Gardener combines your selected plants, garden layout, and household size with complex planting variables, to create a Smart Garden Plan just for you.

Makes it easy to find the right plants, so you can’t go wrong.
With over 500 organic seeds and starts to choose from (and buy), Smart Gardener offers personalized recommendations, along with super simple ways to select plants, suited to your taste and growing conditions.

We track all of your gardens “To Dos”, so you don’t have to.
SmartGardener calculates and tracks all your gardens “To Dos”, from prepping to picking. View To Dos at a glance and get email reminders when it’s time to get in your garden.

We manage a dynamic Journal that tracks, collects and shares.
Smart Gardener keeps your Journal, so you don’t have to. But go ahead, enter notes, and photos too. It’s also dynamic, meaning it tracks and displays all others’ entries about the varieties you are growing.

Share a garden or start one by selecting a Signature Garden.
Your garden’s plan, growing conditions, and Journal are all part of a unique “playlist” of plants. Share it or use a garden from this growing gallery of templates, ideas, and inspiration.

Link to SmartGardener to get started.

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Making your own fertilizer mix

Making your own fertilizer mix

Making your own fertilizer mix has several advantages over buying a pre-packaged mix. That’s why it’s a basic component of Smart Gardener’s approach to organic gardening. Here’s a couple reasons why we like it so much.

1) Simplicity. It makes the whole question of “Which fertilizer do I use?” much simpler. It reduces the amount of boxes, bags and bottles of lots of different fertilizers you have to buy and store.

2) Less costly. It can save you quite a bit of money (as much as 50%), which you can then use for other gardening purposes.

3) Easy. It doesn’t take much time or effort to mix the various materials together, though it can be a bit dusty and the bulk bags are fairly heavy (they usually weigh 50 lb).

4) More flexibility. You can alter the recipe to better suit individual crops and can avoid materials you don’t like (for ecological, ethical or other reasons).

5) Buying bulk and sharing. If you buy the ingredients in the large bags. it’s great for community or school gardens, as well as sharing with neighbors or friends.

Where to buy

Generally the cheapest place to buy your materials is from a farm supply or feed store (a rule of thumb says that it’s cheaper to use materials sold as animal feed rather than fertilizer). If you don’t have a local feed store or farm supply,  then your next option is a garden center. These are set up for home gardeners so everything is in one place and it’s easy to compare materials and prices.

Choosing the ingredients

A complete fertilizer mix will include a source of each of the primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as the secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium and sulfur) and trace elements. The materials you choose depends not only on their nutrient content, but whether your priority is cost, organic purity (the cheaper amendments are mostly waste products from commercial agriculture and may contain pesticide residues or GMO’s) or ethical concerns (we won’t use products from industrial livestock raising).

How much to buy

Some ingredients are used in much greater quantities than others, so if you simply buy one sack of each material you will run out of one ingredient before any of the others. The next time you go to buy ingredients, you will only need to buy those that are in short supply.

Mixing

For convenience you can mix all of the ingredients at once and store it in a cool dry place (though it’s probably best not to store the mix for too long). You can also store them separately and mix as needed. We use the white 5 gallon plastic pails with lids.

The recipe uses proportional quantities so you can use any container (whether a gallon pail or a teaspoon) to make as much as you need. I usually put all of the separate ingredients into a wheelbarrow and mix them thoroughly with a shovel (wear a dust mask as some of the finer ingredients are pretty dusty). It’s not a bad idea to do this over a clean hard surface, so you can recover anything you spill. For smaller quantities, a gardening bucket or pail works well.

Storage

I store the prepared mix in a plastic bin, though you could also use the paper sack the amendments came in. Some of these amendments are edible, so if you have rodent problems you will have to store them in a secure metal or plastic container, otherwise they may get eaten (and you may have a rodent explosion). They also need to be kept dry of course, otherwise they will rot.

Standard Mix

This is a mix of various amendments intended to supply all of the nutrients plants may require. It is usually incorporated into the soil prior to planting. The mix consists of:

4 parts cottonseed meal (this is high in nitrogen and relatively inexpensive)

2 parts colloidal phosphate or bone meal (for phosphorus)

2 parts wood ash or 3 parts greensand or granite dust (for potassium)

1 part dolomitic limestone (to balance pH and add calcium and magnesium)

1 part kelp meal (for trace elements)

Mix these together thoroughly. You can do this all at once, or you can store them separately and mix as needed.

Optional extra:

2 parts of sifted worm castings (This adds microorganisms and micronutrients). I prefer to store this separately and add shortly before using.

Custom mixes

You don’t have to use the recipe above, you can customize it to better suit the crop you are growing. Conventional wisdom recommends giving additional nitrogen to leaf crops, potassium to root crops and phosphorus to seed or fruit crops, so you could add extra of these as required.

 

The Winter Vegetable Garden

The Winter Vegetable Garden

As the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, many gardeners move indoors for the winter. But for those of us who live in a mild climate where we can grow late autumn and winter crops, we can keep right on growing as long as we pick the right crops, get them in the ground early enough and provide them with the proper protection.

Crop Selection

Some cool weather crops are much better suited to growing in autumn than in spring. Often by the time it’s warm enough for plants to mature in spring, longer days will cause short-day crops (spinach and oriental cabbage) to bolt. The warm temperatures adversely affect their flavor as well. If you plant these crops in late summer, they’ll grow quickly to start and then mature more slowly in the shorter colder days that follow.

For cold weather growing, stick to the tried and true hardy crops:

•    Broccoli
•    Brussels Sprouts
•    Cabbage
•    Carrot
•    Cauliflower
•    Chard
•    Citrust
•    Cornsalad
•    Horseradish
•    Kale
•    Jerusalem Artichoke
•    Leek
•    Mustard Greens
•    Parsnip
•    Turnips

It is important to use the right crop variety at this time of year, as hardiness varies considerably within a crop.

When to Plant

Fall and mild winter crops commonly take longer to mature because the sun is weaker and the days are shorter. To determine the right time to plant a fall crop, figure out the number of days it takes for it to reach maturation (adding extra days to allow for slower growth in autumn). Then determine the day you want them to mature (in areas with frost, this is normally just before the weather turns too cold for good growth). Subtract the number of growing days from the maturation date and you have the sowing date.

It’s a good idea to plant a few successions at this time to make sure you get at least one crop before the frosts and possibly more if the frost is later than expected. If you rarely have frosts, you may be able to continue growing these crops through the winter.

Where to Plant

The beds for winter crops should receive all of the sunlight they can get, so make sure they won’t be shaded. A south-facing slope is the best choice as it gets extra heat from the sun. You might shape your shape winter beds so they tilt slightly to the south to give them a little extra solar gain.

The beds should be well protected from cold winds. Don’t plant the winter garden in a low-lying area, as it might be a frost pocket and much colder than a more elevated slope. The soil should also be well drained, as dampness is often as great as enemy of winter plants as cold is (much of the value of cloches and cold frames is due to their protecting plants from moisture).

Season Extension

The simplest season extending technique is to protect the tender crops from the first occasional autumn frosts. If protected, the plants can sit in the cold garden in an edible state for weeks before having to be harvested. The hardiest autumn/winter crops will continue bearing until temperatures drop down into the 20’s.

The first frost may be followed by several weeks of good growing weather before the next one, so the simple act of covering your plants for a night or two may reward you with several more weeks of harvests.

A quick freeze will do a lot more damage to plants than a gradual decline in temperature (which gradually hardens them off). Happily you can get advance warning of an oncoming frost and act to protect your plants. Almost anything will give protection from a light frost:

•    cloches
•    cold frames
•    old blankets
•    row covers
•    plastic sheeting
•    hay or straw mulch

Cold frames and cloches can even protect plants from more severe frosts. Tall plants such as tomatoes can be unstaked and laid down on the ground for easier protection.

If your unprotected plants are hit by an unexpected frost you may be able to revive them by washing the frost off with a spray of water. This must be done before the sun hits them and thaws them out too quickly. You can also follow the example of commercial citrus farmers and leave a slow sprinkler going all night (don’t turn it off until all ice has melted). But this wastes a lot of water.

You should protect the tender crops for as long as there is good growth in the daytime. It isn’t worth protecting them once the days get cold, as they won’t thrive. It is better to replace them with hardy crops. Or maybe you do want to take a break for a month or two and hibernate. If you’ve been diligent and canned, dried or frozen some of your earlier harvests, you can enjoy the fruits of your own garden until you’re ready to start preparing again for the spring.