Summer's harvest from last year include these gorgeous peppers (what did I plant last year?) and San Marzano tomatoes. Both were prolific and delicious. When summer is over, I don't want to touch another tomato, but by February, I'm gearing up for a fresh BLT where I've raised the T and L and baked the bread. Someone else has to take care of the B.
The short days of winter are getting perceptibly longer. We are half way to the Spring Equinox, which is half way to the Summer Solstice. These dates were vitally important in an agrarian cultures and as one gets more involved in gardening, it is easy to see the reasons that made these dates important to people dependent on agriculture. Knowing what to do and when to do to it in their garden was necessary to avoid starvation.
Valentines' Day marks my traditional weekend for starting my tomato crop for the coming year. I've become accustomed to the need to sow my tomatoes a bit earlier each year in recent times (global warming?), but whenever I do my main crop of tomatoes, I sow plenty of basil seed at the same time – they grow well together as much as they eat well together. I have been seduced into starting an earlier crop of short-season tomatoes, lately. Territorial Seed Company has a list of 'ultra-early' tomatoes with names like Glacier and Northern Delight and sport 'Days to Harvest' declarations of something like 56. These plants top out about 18 inches high and produce tomatoes about 2½” in diameter – what I call a 'saladette' tomato – that are very tomatoey and tangy – more tangy than I like, but for the first tomato of the year, who's going to bellyache about that? I've even started these little fellows around the first of January! Whenever you start tomatoes, and whatever tomatoes you use, the procedures are about the same. Just remember that most tomatoes, with these ultra-early tomatoes being the exception, don't like to be planted into cold soil so wait until your soil has warmed (to about 65° at minimum!) before setting most tomatoes into your garden.
One method of starting tomatoes I have done in the past used fluorescent tubes about 6 inches above the pots for the beginnings of tomatoes. This is opposed to starting them outside with a heating mat underneath to keep the roots warm and, with a sunny spot, I have found this works well enough. Peppers and eggplant, needing more heat, are started about 2 weeks later in the first week of March. All seedlings cannot be allowed to dry out and must be protected from predation, it doesn't take even a small critter (like snails and slugs or tomato hornworms) many bites to remove an entire plant when they are as small as this. More on the seed starting indoors shortly.
About a week after Valentine has shot his arrow, start the first summer squash (zucchini and the crooknecks) seeds. I usually also start a couple plants of cucumbers right about then too. I wait until the Ides of March before starting winter squashes (the hard skin type that are best eaten after being stored for time). These first plants may struggle if the ground hasn't warmed, but that's OK, we'll balance that out by starting a few more of each later.
Most of these big-leaved, vining plants like squash and cucumbers get a whitish powdery look long before they are done producing. This is called 'powdery mildew.' It is a fungus that gets on almost all of these plants and causes them to live a shorter life than they would without it. This is a common as cell phones around here, so close to the ocean. Until I find varieties that are resistant to it, I simply grow another plant to fill in when the first one succumbs. I don't spray for it because it seems a waste of time to me; if you spray, you must spray constantly and I just don't see it as being efficacious. I accept that the plants will get mildew and will die because of it and I make plans accordingly: Zucchini #1, funeral on July 8th. Zucchini #2, funeral on August 29th. Clear your calendar for composting service. Frankly any more zucchini than that is more than any person ought to have.
Come February, I start thinking “baseball,” which will be right around the corner. (“Wait until next year”, is the universal call among gardeners and baseball players everywhere!) Dodger Spring training starts next month and I'll begin to reacquaint myself as to who is with us and who has been traded and is now agin us. Win or lose, I’ll be out in my garden soon, radio in hand. Something about that baseball optimism that dovetails nicely with my gardening optimism. Youdon’t have to “think baseball,” but I do and it lifts my spirit in this slight lull before the summer garden gets up to bat. It's one of my favorite traditions.
With any amount of luck, February is our rainiest month which means we won’t need to be watering all that much. I have more or less permanently built up beds with paths between them, so walking through a wet garden isn’t that big of a deal. If your garden isn’t laid out like that, take care not to walk through the parts of the garden you intend plant when the soil is thoroughly soaked. Your footprints will compact the soil and cause needless grief later when the soil has dried out. Especially in clay soil.
February is the last month we will want to prune dormant fruit trees. One cannot plan that they won’t have broken dormancy any later than this. See flowers? Or leaves? That’s “broken dormancy” in a nutshell, the sap is running inside the tree and pruning after once you see leaves or flowers will drain more of the tree's vitality – mind you pruning late won’t kill your tree, some folks do this kind of pruning regularly – it’s my preference to do my pruning with the least harm to the tree and for me, that means before the sap begins to run and that means December or January in my Zone 24 climate. I have learned over the last few years that my nectarine and peach trees break dormancy first and I need to consider pruning them in late November/early December. But I've proven that procrastination has its benefits! I find I can use the flowering branches for bouquets without causing a shortage of nectarines! I'm thinning that tree incessantly, even with a hard pruning to prevent too much fruit from weighing down and breaking the branches. Lateness in pruning hasn't stopped any tree I know from producing nor has it ever killed a tree. “There is slack in the universe,“ a teacher of mine used to say.
Don’t forget to deal with slugs and snails. In these wet, cooler months, these destructive little mollusks multiply with alarming proficiency and can present huge problems. You cannot get rid of them forever. They are migratory, so even if you could rid yourself of every single one in your garden on Tuesday, you'd have a whole new supply by Friday from next door. And more on Saturday. It can be a discouraging thought! However, the only real way to deal with these transients is with persistent effort. You deal with today's snails today and leave tomorrow's snails to tomorrow. Sounds like something I heard before, maybe in yoga class?
Some gardeners keep a five gallon bucket on hand with soapy water in it (one of those plastic buckets you see in a hardware store's paint department – cheap and rust free) and drop the critters in for a quick death. Others put a board down with one end slightly raised. Slugs and snails will congregate there over night and can be simply crushed with one swift footfall in the morning. Good for the soul. And soil. A fairly new product, 'Escar-go' is on the market and is non-toxic to mammals (you, your children and dogs and cats etc), and actually benefits the soil. Slugs and snails eat it and die. Probably not as humane as crushing them, but more acceptable in polite society.
No matter what you do, you will probably always have problems with snails and slugs in our climate unless you are fortunate to have a possum on hand. These homely, if not downright ugly, members of the rat family (look at the tail) consume slugs (mostly) and will resort to snails if hungry enough. I am fortunate that The Learning Garden is blessed with a possum or two that have negated any need to bait or board for snails and slugs. I also avoid growing the Oriental cabbages and greens (sheer delight for snails and slugs) and savoy cabbage; slugs, more so than snails, love to live in between the crinkles in these plants and it can take gallons of water and lots of time to remove all that extra protein from dinner before you serve it (I have found doing this after you serve it to have undesirable repercussions!)
Broccoli is being harvested, along with cauliflower, cabbage (clean those slugs!), peas, scallions, carrots, radishes, beets, new potatoes, chard, kale, and lettuces by the bushel. The garden looks stellar at this time of year, it is bursting with produce of deep green, blue green, punctuated with red and yellow (chard and beet) flags. Heads of broccoli and cabbage show off their refulgent harvest, while the tops of carrots and beets peek out from their cool soil homes. Peas hang delightfully from those bright green plants, with colorful poppies in outrageous bloom and the honey scent of sweet pea flowers in their lovely pastel colors wafting on cool breezes across the garden. Freesias are towards the end of their bloom cycle (there's another heady scent!) and the first of my climbing roses (which are not pruned as hard as shrub roses) are beginning to show off in the Southern California garden.
Don't stop planting lettuce; I will continue to start seeds of lettuce right up through May. I have it easy being so close to the Pacific Ocean – here, cool season plantings can stretch through all months except late July through late September. Warm season crops aren't nearly so flexible because our night temperatures don't get all that high – the soil is cool and hardly gets warmed up enough for the summer crops until July.
The real summer garden begins to take shape next month...
Tomatoes and cucumbers. However you say it, cucumbers and tomatoes are the number one plants gardeners think of when they think “Summer Garden.” There are more varieties of tomatoes than there are potholes in the greater Los Angeles area. These days I could say, there are more varieties of tomatoes than potshops in the greate Los Angeles area, too. Just check out the offerings of the members of Seed Savers Exchange: They list page after page of tomatoes. Tomatoes come early, mid-season or late. Tomatoes are cherry, saladette, plum and beefsteak as well as black, cream, green, red, striped, yellow and many shades in between. Tomatoes come as plain ol' tomatoes or heirloom, and (had enough choices?) determinate and indeterminate. It's a complete overwhelm of choice. Determinate tomatoes are similar in growth to bush beans, giving you short plants that bear all at once (more or less), while indeterminate are like pole beans that bear over a long stretch and get quite large to boot.
Here are a few common varieties I've grown for you to consider:
Cherry Tomatoes (all cherry tomatoes are indeterminate)
Sweet 100 – a great productive and sweet little red tomato that is as dependable as a beach day in July.
Orange Sunshine – lots and lots of very sweet little tomatoes! As of this writing, only available as a hybrid, which I usually try to avoid, but I hear some folks are working on breeding it out to an open pollinated variety.
Yellow Pear – a lot of folks like these, but I think they are mushy. Very productive though.
Golden Nugget – a ton of cream colored little guys that are sweet with low acid – always a bonus in my book.
Ultra-early Tomatoes (less than 65 days from transplant to fruit, under good conditions and all are determinate)
Glacier – sounds like an odd name for a tomato, but it's one of several bred to grow under non-tomato conditions – cool and wet. Produces a saladette sized tomato that is punchy tart but tastes more like a tomato that most the hybrids in the store.
Northern Delight – as above and I've had good production with it. Look also for Beaverpole Lodge tomatoes, bred to grow in Canada! A great way to get the jump on tomato season.
Saladette (some are determinate but most are indeterminate – marked with a D or an I)
Jaune Flammee (I)– a lovely bi-colored tomato (give it something to climb on!) that is red outside and gold inside – good tasting and beautiful!
Green Zebra (I) – yup, it's ripe when it's green. I think they are little too acidic, but plenty of my friends like 'em.
Moonglow (I)- Solid orange meat, few seeds and wonderful flavor. A favorite of any one who grows it.
Black from Tula (I) – not really 'black,' but a very deep red. Delicious, though not a heavy producer – the skin is so thin I think it's best to take your plate and fork to the garden and eat it right at the plant!
Stupice (D)– a small early plant that is worth growing because they also taste good and come in quick!
Plum (AKA paste tomatoes, my favorite! And all are indeterminate)
Black Plum – almost a mahogany tomato – tasty and meaty, an indeterminate tomato that produces quite nicely
Cream Sausage-A unique colored variety with creamy white to light yellow sausage-shaped fruit, very productive bushy plants do not require staking; a really different tomato sauce!
San Marzano – the most productive of the paste tomatoes and the biggest plant in this class of tomato – a very good, standard production tomato for paste tomatoes.
Striped Roman – a beautiful tomato on the vine and on your plate! Rich red flesh with streaks of gold in it. I've not made a paste with this one yet, they didn't last that long! But look for me to say more about them in the future!
Brandywine – the taste that everyone is looking for in a big tomato, winner of many different taste tests. We can't really grow them very well in West Los Angeles because they need 85 F through the night as well as the day. Pasadena and other points inland can grow them, though.
German Johnson – a large pink tomato that is really juicy and yummy.
Mortgage Lifter – there's a great story about the name of this tomato I'll tell you at a cocktail party one of these days. For now, I'll say it tastes great and is not less filling, a lovely juicy tomato that rates.
Persimmon – this is the largest tomato I've ever grown in West Los Angeles. One sliced tomato could fill two dinner plates with meaty orange/yellow slices. However, the six foot plus plants only gave me one tomato each! Way too much space even though they were the sweetest and tastiest tomato I've had the pleasure of growing.
You'll notice I didn't include any of the Best Boy or Early Girl or other common hybrids. It is true they are productive and will give you a good crop of bright red fruits, but I think they are too acidic and have tough skin, so I don't grow them at all. Also, with multi-national corporations buying out seed companies (read 'Monsanto' here), many of those hybrids are now owned by companies that sell genetically modified plants. These old hybrids are NOT GMO, but the profit made from home gardeners buying seeds from Monsanto goes towards their GMO research. No thanks. Besides, there are so many delicious tomatoes in this world, to stick to those few seems silly to me. I grow my standards (San Marzano, Jaune Flammee, Black Plum and Garden Peach) but I always experiment with some new tomatoes every year! Plant lots of basil and marigolds at the same time you plant your tomatoes as they make good companion plants and help deter insects.
So right about now is when you want to begin to start seeds for your summer garden, if you have a protected place to sow the seeds. You don't need a greenhouse or a cold frame, though both of these can help. It is possible to start seeds in an apartment without any decent balcony space. I did it for a good many years as I bounced from tiny apartment to tiny apartment. Come February, I religiously put seeds of my regular tomato crop and lots of basil under the lights.
By the way, it is a law of nature, Lord knows I don't make this stuff up I merely report it, but if you need one plant of something, start seeds for six! If you start one seed, it will fail – might be loneliness, I don't know, but it absolutely will not survive. However, if you grow six, they will all live. Give the other five away, you'll make other people happy and there is no better way to make yourself happy. Works with other things too, not just plants.
If you have a little space – when I started I didn't have much! – you can start seeds on a table indoors. All you need is an inexpensive 'shop light' fixture – usually you can find them for right around $20 – add a couple of cheap 'cold' fluorescent bulbs – you CAN pay more, even more than $20 for 'full-spectrum' bulbs, but you don't need them for growing seedlings. If you were growing plants under the lights to full maturity, springing for the extra oomph of bulbs that have more of the light spectrum is useful, but for the quick trip your seedlings will have before they go out doors, getting more expensive lights is a waste of money. The cheap bulbs are called 'cold' light because they have a preponderance of cold – blue spectrum – light. They will need to be close to your seedlings, but that won't be a problem.
I used bricks to prop the lights up to the height I needed for my seedlings – you might find other, more attractive solutions. My choice was based on what I had lying around for free and bricks it was. To raise the lights required adding a brick to each end – it wasn't “pin point” control, but it worked.
Florescent lights do not distribute light equally along their length. The center has the most light and the ends the least. They also begin to loose effectiveness as soon as you start to use them. I think three years is all you can get from a florescent bulb even though it will still be putting out light. Your seedlings will get leggier when the bulb fails to put out sufficient light and it's a sign that it's time to move on. When I installed a fresh tube, I would record the date with a Sharpie on the light so I had an idea when to replace it. Our eyes cannot clearly tell the diminished output, but the plants suffer.
The surface where this is placed needs to be waterproof. In addition to watering my plants, I frequently misted mine (sometimes I got them twice a day; which was my goal, but I made that goal infrequently). One of the hardships we place on indoor plants is the lack of humidity in our homes. Misting helps mitigate that. In addition, some of your watering will inevitably spill over making a waterproof surface essential – or, if not waterPROOF, at least water-impervious. You don't want to warp an antique dresser or something.
Set the lights as close to the plants as you can and raise them only just before the plants begin to touch them. I had my lights on a timer that turned them on at 6:00 AM and off at midnight. Why so many hours of 'sunlight?' Because the bulbs are so much less bright than sunshine, they need to be on a long time to fulfill the plants' needs.
In addition, I provided my plants with a small fan. It was one of those oscillating fans which would blow on the plants as it swept back and forth the length of the trays. This accomplishes several things. It makes for stronger plants; swaying in the breeze builds a stronger stem and helps create a stockier plant. The circulating air also kept fungi at bay – especially the fungus called 'damping off.' This is a killer of baby seedlings that has broken a lot of gardener's hearts. You say goodnight to your babies that are lovely little sweeties in the evening and come back to say 'good morning' in the dawn only to find your little darlings all 'cut' off at the soil surface.
They are not really 'cut.' They have been attacked by the damping off fungus (which is actually any of about seven different fungi) and the stem, just where it emerges from the soil, has been turned to mush, hence the seedling keels over as though it was cut off and lies there with no chance of resuscitation. Sad to say, your plant children are goners. In your mind, hear Taps being played.
All for the want of that little fan that would have helped mitigate the fungus. You don't NEED the oscillating type – if that proves to be expensive or difficult to find in the size you want, the kind that doesn't oscillate will work as well. You will need to turn it on and turn it off a couple of times in a day to approximate the oscillating. You want the stems to 'work against' the wind to build strength. And the on/off, though a little more time consuming, does work.
Another part of seed starting is to use a potting mix that favors the seedling. I have found a simple combination of peat and vermiculite (very fine perlite works too). One part of peat for each part of vermiculite gives a person a very lovely seed starting mix that will hold a lot of water and get the seeds sprouted. It is not wise to leave them in this water-retentive mix much beyond their first true leaf stage if you can help it. If you are not doing a lot of plants from seed, you can also use a regular good potting soil and get out any big chunks of anything by sifting it through a riddle. Really fine seeds like snapdragons may require you to screen the potting soil down to a very fine size, but most seeds can survive pretty good in only a coarsely sifted potting soil.
By starting your own seeds at home, you will have a staggering number of choices for all your garden plants! The ones offered by the nursery pale in comparison to what you can have – and you will have access to all the new varieties before your neighbors will because the seeds are often introduced before the plants. Nurserymen don't like to plant millions of a new variety of anything that hasn't proven successful all over, where seedsmen will want to have their seeds trialed all over the country. It's fun to be able to show off what you grew THIS year to your neighbor who won't have access to the same plant in a nursery for at least one year, if not more! Purple and yellow cauliflowers come to mind. As does my Genovese basil which I was growing for almost ten years before everyone realized that this was one of the best basils for pesto.
Starting your own plants at home is also a better ecological choice. 2009 was a tomato disaster in the eastern United States. The problem stemmed from all tomatoes for sale in all eastern seaboard nurseries were started in the south eastern US and somewhere down there, at least some of the plants became infected with a fungus called “Late Blight.” From the initial infected plants placed in the nurseries alongside other plants, quickly most plants were infected. This caused the highest mortality among the tomato population seen in recent years. Those folks that grew their own plants avoided complete devastation. One friend started all his own plants from seed and could see a good harvest coming along. He had a few empty spaces in his garden and, on a whim, bought a couple more plants from a chain store nursery to fill in. Those purchased plants died fairly soon after being transplanted – and some of his healthy home-grown plants got infested before he realized what was happening. A good gardener and a quick thinker, he destroyed all the infected plants and was able to prevent the spread to the few remaining uninfected plants. He still got some tomatoes, but many of his neighbors had complete failure. Growing your own saves that from becoming an issue. Maybe with a little extra effort you could provide seedlings for your neighborhood?
Growing plants from seed is not hard. Most books and seed packets will tell you the depth at which to put the seed making it sound like they have access to the Holy Grail of seed planting. Most of that is something akin to hogwash. There are many different depths at which to plant a seed depending on a lot of factors so ignore those depths. Let me tell you, in containers, the rule is always, better too shallow than too deep. If you plant too shallow, you can always add more potting soil around your little guys, or plant them deeper when you transplant, but if you plant too deep, you'll never see them again. Sowing seeds in the ground is a little more complicated, I’ll get to that!
With your shallowly planted seeds, it is imperative that you keep that top layer of soil moist. It need not be wet, but consistently moist. This is very different from how you will water your regular garden, which should be much less frequently and much more thorough.
Soil is put in the six packs and pressed down, not so hard as pushing it out the bottom, but don't be faint on it either. I want it in the cell up to about an eighth of an inch from the top and just barely springy. For smaller seeds, like tomatoes, basil, peppers, eggplants and even up to okra (planted in late March), I will put up to five seeds per cell of the six-pack, putting one seed in each corner of each cell and one in the center. If the seed is not fresh, I might even put in more. Using a light pinch of soil I cover the seeds only after I've made out a plant tag for the six pack. The tag should read with the date across the top (i.e. 02/04), then turn the tag counter-clockwise and write the type of plant (i.e. Tomato) and underneath, the variety (Glacier – an ultra-early tomato and why I can start it on 02/04).
If you write your tags this way all the time you will find it easier to look at what you've grown consistently without your head tossing back and forth to make up for tags written clockwise, followed by counter-clockwise. And if you ever work in a nursery, you won't be fired the first day for being backwards.
Little seedlings do not need fertilizer, in fact fertilizer can damage them. Not until after they have their first true leaves do you need concern with any fertilizer. At that point, I would use a solution of fish emulsion at about half the strength the directions say. Don't over do it.
Once your plants have sprouted and are beginning to put on their second set of true leaves, you must begin to harden them off. Place them outside in a protected location – in fairly deep shade of a tree, for example, and move them slowly closer to full sun a bit at a time, getting them into full sun in about a week. If you don't have a tree like that, the other choice is to put them out in full sun for two hours on the first day, four hours on the second, six hours on the third and so on until they are out in the sun for the whole day. Or, you can put them under some shade cloth and begin to move the cloth back a little of each day until they are completely exposed. Any one of these three methods will work – which one you will use will depend on your circumstances. If none of those will work, you are on your own; use your creativity and you will be able to figure out what you need to do that will work for you.
Let's take a second to discuss this 'true leaves' thing. The first leaves that come out of a seed were already in there, waiting for the right conditions to shed the hard seed coat and start growing. Water acts on the seed coat to soften it and the first set of leaves (two leaves, for most of our food plants – some, like onions, have only one) come out. They often look different, sometimes very different, than the regular leaves, so we call them the 'seed leaves' – or, in botanist speak, the 'cotyledons.' Plants with two seed leaves are, botanically-speaking, dicotyledons, or for us common folk, just 'dicots.' Grasses (which include bamboos, onions, lilies, and irises) have one leaf and are called 'monocots' for monocotyledons. Those of us growing from seed, need to learn what the cotyledons look like or we'll be weeding out our baby plants. Tomatoes, spinach, and all the cabbage family have quite distinctive cotyledons with not a whit of resemblance to the regular plant leaves. All the leaves after those first baby leaves will look more or less like what you'd expect, only smaller than a full-sized plant.
The summer garden, which most of us still think of as THE garden because our desire for the heat loving veggies, is coming fast! Hurry up, check your seed inventory. Now's the time to put your seeds into six packs or other containers! Summer will be here before you know it!
Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
Any left over transplants still hanging
Regular tomatoes (about the 14th)
around – although you won't get the best yield, if you have the plants and
Basil (same time as tomatoes)
Carrots (short season)
the space to put them in the ground, do it!
Cucumbers (later in the month)
Summer squash (later in the month)
Refer to text for more exact dates.
Hot Chocolate That Kills
I know you probably don't have chocolate growing in your garden, but it's that time of year – you might need some fortifying. This Hot Chocolate, pronounced to be “Adult hot chocolate,” by one young taster, is not be trifled with. The caffeine of the coffee and the chocolate make this a picker-upper and the cayenne pepper makes a person say 'yowser, baby!' It's all good in my book.
1 cup very strong coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup sugar (or less)
3 oz. Bittersweet chocolate
⅛ teaspoon cardamom
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
3 cups whole milk
Bring coffee to a boil in a sauce pan, add vanilla, sugar, salt, and other spices. Simmer for a minute and add the chocolate in chunks. Whisk until it thickens from the melted chocolate; add milk and simmer for another minute to warm throughout. Whisk it to froth and serve at once to your Valentine. It's a winner.