Category Archives: Learnings

Exotic Crops: Burdock

2014 Spring final bed pic

I’ve learned a tremendous amount from other people’s experiences in growing crops. And so I thought it would be useful if I shared my own stories from this past year, especially because I grew a lot of different varieties on my small space. This year, as usual, I tried some crops that are uncommon in backyards.

Burdock

Kinpira Gobou

Kinpira Gobou

To be clear when I say “Burdock” I mean what in Japanese is called Gobou, or ごぼう. I’ve heard there are American wild varieties of Burdock that just aren’t the same. In any case I’m thinking “tasty, shredded, with carrots, as an appetizer.”

I actually started my burdock late last spring, around May of 2013. It struggled, maybe because of poor soil in that particular spot, and never got that big. I left it there over winter, and nothing much happened. It was still small, still struggling. I was thinking of giving up and pulling it come May of 2014, when it mysteriously started to grow–a lot–and developed huge leaves. It was amazing.

Gobou 2013And so needless to say, I let it grow through summer, and the plants thrived. The roots also got very big, and by the time I went to dig it out, I’d estimate they were at least 2.5 feet deep, if not deeper. I didn’t have the energy or the space to thoroughly dig out all of the gobou roots, and so I got what I could.

This year I have a smaller gobou in the ground, Salada Musume from the Kitazawa seed company, and it initially did well. One interesting observation is that even though I’m struggling through an attack of Bagrada bug, which eats Brassica family plants (like Cabbage and Broccoli), my gobou plants have in the past gone completely untouched. Indeed, gobou are of a different plant family, Asteraceae. However the Salada Musume were perhaps too tasty to be passed up, and something ate them.

A learning here is that different varieties can have different rates of survival. So it is worth trying varieties and discovering which ones work best in your space.

 

 

 

 

 

Process Learnings from Summer

2014 Spring final bed picOn the one hand, this year’s growing plan was in many ways a lot more intricate and ambitious than last year’s. On the other hand, because last year was my first year at the new location, there was absolutely a ton of infrastructure to build and soil to prepare for the first time. So I actually found this year to be a lot easier in various ways, although I still wouldn’t call it “effortless.” I’m working towards that.

Goals

Going into this growing season, as with every year, I chose several objectives regarding what I wanted to explore and work on. One of my bigger picture goals has to do with developing the process and know-how to make growing a lot of food–sustainably–a fairly routine and straightforward thing. Of course it’ll never be as easy as driving to a Farmer’s market and trading paper money for food (how easy we have it!). But growing food also doesn’t need to be arduous, mysterious, or otherwise unattainable.

 Process

I’m convinced that with careful focus and experimentation, I can refine the processes I use to grow food so that it takes a lot less time than it does now, without taking much more resource or equipment. I have a clear goal to reduce my “dependency chain” as much as possible when it comes to growing food, and so using anything that contains a computer processes or relies on precision machined parts is what I’m trying to get away from. So that leaves me with my hands and a desire to develop know-how.

Here are process goals I set:

  • Successful direct planting of grains, as opposed to transplanting to save time.
  • Layout to allow stirrup hoeing between plants to simplify weeding.

Planning

There was so much to do last year that I didn’t have much time to think ahead. I started the year behind because of when I received my new space, and spent the rest of the year catching up. Then I was taken by surprise when my Spring potatoes matured, and I didn’t have a plan for what to put in the ground next. The soil went unused and uncovered, which is bad, and so I decided to do a much better job this year.

  • Have a plan to keep the soil working w/ no more than a 2 week gap in between crops.
  • Plan ahead for fall, and even next spring, so I can optimize timing and placement.
  • Plan ahead for when to put fertilizer crops on much of the garden.
  • Move my paths around for simplicity. And also to take advantage of the fence as a trellis.

Crops

  • Lima beans
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Dryland Rice

 

 

 

Sneak Peak: 2015 Spring and Summer Garden Plan

2015 garden plan sneak peak

Believe it or not, I’m trying to keep things simple this year. With the new job I don’t have nearly as much time as I used to, and so this year will be a test of how well I can keep the garden happy, while still showing up to work.

Here’s my thinking on this year’s plan:

Grains
First of all, in order to have a sustainable garden that builds soil, rather than just chews it up, I need to grow a lot of grains. In fact for the whole year, 60% of my garden needs to be growing grains. I do more in the winter than in the summer, but it’s still important for me to get a lot of grains going in the summer.

I have experimented with all of the grains you see on this year’s plan, in addition to others such as Pearl Millet, Oats, Amaranth, and Triticale. They all have their pluses and minuses. This year I’m going to back the “winners” from previous years:

  • Quinoa is an amazing crop to grow. After starting out very small, and seemingly not doing anything for a few weeks, it gets happy and grows vertical so quickly you can almost see it. I’ve gotten more than enough quinoa to eat each of the past two years, from relatively little space.
  • Sorghum is a hardy, easy to grow, low maintenance crop that can give you grain or syrup, depending on the variety. The stalks make fantastic compost, and the extensive roots put great organic matter in the soil.
  • Wheat, and in particular Ethiopian Blue Wheat, is a strong, satisfying crop that doesn’t get too tall. It actually does have a blue tinge when it’s close to maturity.
  • Japanese Millet is a fast growing grain that I’ll cut before it goes to seed. This one is specifically for compost material, and is one I’ll cut and let regrow several times this spring.
  • Cereal Rye is a holdover from winter, that I’ll let grow for part of spring, to nurture the soil for my second potato crop.

Low Water Crops
So we’re in the midst of a serious and potentially long-term drought. Being that I grow in a community garden on the edge of a park, I have access to city water. Nonetheless I am super interested in trying several varieties of crops known to grow well with limited water. I will be getting these seeds from the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH which has many seeds from Arizona. There is an area at the back of my plot that is hard to water, and will be a good test ground for these crops.

Calorie Crops
As much as I love Kale, it won’t keep me alive and kicking. It takes calories to do that, and so in addition to being a “carbon farmer” (for the soil) I need to be a “calorie farmer” and be smart about what I grow.

The best known calorie crops, that give a lot of calories reliably, quickly, in a small area, are tubers. I’ll be doing traditional potatoes again this year, as my main calorie crop. I’ll also be continuing to grow two varieties of Andean tuber, Mashua and Yacon. I am not going to grow Oca again this year–it didn’t do well last year, and the tubers I did get were too small; Oca simply lost out.

One tip on growing several varieties of potatoes is that if you want to track yields, your life will be much easier if you plant very different looking varieties next to each other. Last year I did purple, white, and red potatoes and that worked really well. No more squinting at the difference between a Norkotah and a Burbank.

I will also not being growing sweet potatoes again this year. In 2013 I got the plants to grow, but planted them too late to get any useful yield. Last year I got the timing right, and added heat via a black plastic mulch, but the yields were still lackluster. We have enough to enjoy a few meals, but nowhere near the yields I’d hoped for. In future I may track down short season varieties that should do better around here, especially since we don’t get the heat that sweet potatoes crave.

Kitchen Crops
In my early growing seasons I tried growing everything and anything, to see what would happen. It was fun and suspenseful however we sometimes ended up with crops that weren’t much use in the kitchen. Bushy Salsify, anyone?

Thus now we grow things that we know we’re going to want in the kitchen. The big winner here is onions. The trick with onions is that they can be a pain to grow from seed. I have two strategies I’m using this year to deal with that:

1. Grow “walking onions.” There is a variety of onion that propagates itself, by growing the new crop off the top of the old crop. I’m not kidding. In nature the new ones separate and plant themselves (hopefully) next to the old crop. So as you can imagine, it’s very easy to help the new seedlings along by hand.

2. Buy seedlings. Yes, I said that out loud: buy seedlings. I will be sourcing organic seedlings this year, to save me the drama of growing onion seedlings. I get a bit better at it every year, but I still have a ways to go to get the hit rate that I want. Given my time constraints this year, I will throw in the towel and buy from my local garden shops. The good news is that you get a surprising number of seedlings in one container.

I’ll also be doing carrots, which are a pain to transplant (and yes, it CAN be done), and are challenging to germinate, to boot. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try this year.

Root Crops
Parsnips are interesting because the deep root structure means that in properly tended and shield soil, they don’t need much water at all. Also they can stay in the soil for a long, long time and still be good eating. They give a lot of calories in a small space, too. Beware that they are slow germinators, but if you do it correctly, they’ll grow for you. The secret is consistent moisture.

I like to grow beets year round, in part because I can, in part because they are very tasty, and in part because of my Ukrainian heritage. I grow a variety of giant yellow beet that’s called a “Mangel” that has a subtle, sweet flavor. Beets are very strong growers, and are easy to germinate.

Beans
I have yet to have a stellar bean crop, but I will keep trying until I get it right. I’m doing big beans, Lima, and maybe some Soy beans specifically for making tofu.

Berries
When they are working, strawberries are a very happy crop to have in the garden. But they are a fickle lover: rain at the wrong time can ruin everything. Last year an oddly timed rain resulted in a disease the full die off of my Seascape strawberries. They were great while they lasted. The Sequoia are still kicking, though. It is important to cut off the runners, if you want lots of berries.

I planted a white strawberry called a “Pineberry” last year, and got a few fruit. It’s true; it is like a cross between Pineapple and Strawberry. Rest assured that it isn’t *literally* a cross, though. This year I should get a real crop of Pineberries, which I’m very excited about. Strawberries typically don’t yield much in year 1, from what I understand, and besides, the Pineberries went in late last year.

I have several types of raspberries and blackberries along the back fence. Some of them are going to go nuts this year–let’s help the Ollalieberries are among them. I’d love to grow Tayberries but can’t find the canes.

Stuff everyone else grows
Yeah, I do grow some “normal” stuff. Tomatoes because they are tasty, and why not? I saved some seeds from farmers market tomatoes, but will probably buy Master Gardener seedlings this year.

There is a specific variety of Squash, Fordhook, that John Jeavons recommended and so I’m going to grow those.

We like eating cucumbers so hopefully we’ll get a decent crop this year. I haven’t had much luck in the back right of the plot, so we’ll try more upfront this year.

What now?
I hope this rundown has been useful for you. I haven’t yet finalized my plan, but it’s pretty close. I need to do some calculations (hello Excel) to make sure I have my 60/30/10 Grains/Calorie Crops/Everything else dialed in properly. And then I need to consult my notes from past years to finalize crop placement. And finally, I need to figure out how to make this as year’s garden as simple as possible!

If you have any questions, contact me.

Successful Direct Planting of Grain Crops

sewn cereal rye established 20141106_131102For Grow Biointensive, the system of growing that I’m using, it’s critical that I use ~60% of my growing space to grow grains such as Wheat, Sorghum, and Corn. The short version of the story is that grains are a fabulous way to build and ensure lasting soil fertility.

But here’s the thing: the Grow Biointensive folks are a lot more energetic than I am, and they put in the time to grow their own grain seedlings, and then transplant them one by one into garden beds, with optimal spacing. On the one hand, their garden beds look beautiful and they get optimal yields. On the other hand,  based on calcs I did for a theoretical garden and diet plan, for a garden for two people I’d be planting about 15,000 grain seedlings every year. It’s daunting.

So this year I decided to make yet another attempt at direct seeding of grains. I tried half-heartedly last year, and I got crummy results. The reality is that getting strong germination requires technique, and I wasn’t applying much. “Just chop in the seeds and keep them well watered,” was what I heard. Yeah right.

But this year, after spending too much time transplanting Cereal Rye seedlings, I said “no mas” and put in a real effort to get direct seeding of grains to work. Here’s what got me results:

1. Good soil prep is critical. Before seeding, I removed the previous crop, weeded, did a single dig (deciding that a double dig wasn’t necessary this year), and then worked my compost and amendments in. In my experience, this is a big part of the labor it takes to actually plant. Putting seedling or seed in the ground can seem easy after all of the prep.

2. Protecting the prepared soil is critical. Once the soil was prepared, I watered it well and then covered it. Burlap is best, but regular black landscape/weed fabric is fine. Just try not to leave it uncovered. And keep watering it through the cloth, since the soil is very much alive and needs the water.

3. Pre-soak your grain seeds. I had heard about doing this, but now I realize how critical it is. It helps tremendously to get the seeds into the “blast off” phase of germination. And since your soil is already prepared and well watered, it has a good home waiting for it. I soaked my grain seeds for about 12 hours, but my sense is that you could even soak for a day or two. I found a Wheat Emergence study that looked at length of soaking, and planting depth. 12 hours (the longest they tried) and 3″ (the deepest they tried) was the best.

4. Plant your seeds deep enough. I have often been worried that if I planted my seeds too deep, they wouldn’t come up. There is often repeated conventional wisdom about burying seeds no more than twice the depth of the size of the seed. However in my experience it really depends on the seed. And indeed, when I took the advice of the study and planted my Cereal Rye 3″ deep, it did really well. In fact my direct-planted Cereal Rye is growing much better than my transplanted Cereal Rye.

5. Keep the soil covered until seedling emergence. The biggest enemy of germinating seeds is lack of moisture. You have to keep them well watered, but if you don’t live next door to your garden, or even if you just get a very sunny day, this can be tricky. Fortunately, pretty much all vegetable and grain seeds *do not* need light in order to germinate. Thus after planting the seeds, we can cover the soil with burlap to keep the soil as moist as possible during this critical time.

6. Keep the grain seedlings shaded until they are tall and strong. Even after emergence, moisture can be a real issue for new seedlings. I think that moisture is a bigger issue than sunlight at this point, and so I’m willing to trade off 30% of the sun power for dramatically better moisture retention in the soil. It’s a matter of judgement as to when to remove the shade cloth.

Crop Learnings From Fall 2013

map-2013-fall

At a glance you can see that I grew a lot of different things last fall. Certainly I learned a lot about layout, in addition to gathering much learning on fall and winter gardening in these parts. We are very blessed to be able to grow year-round without greenhouses or fancy tools. (Of course there’s that pesky water issue, but I won’t get into that here.)

My goal last year was to do a lot of cover crops to build the soil. And to try some winter greens and root crops. There were enough successes to balance out the “less successful” crops. Lots of learnings.

Winter greens mature quickly. And are popular with snails.

sm_13W, Komatsuna, Kakina, Horenso-90q_19x12cI was taken by surprise at how quickly the Asian greens grew. Komatsuna, Kakina, and Japanese Spinach were delicious, but were easy to lose track of. Same thing for Bok Choy and Chinese Broccoli. Before I knew it they were old and withering. Part of it was knowing when to harvest. Honestly with greens you can’t be too early; they are just smaller than they might be.

As the weather gets ideal for greens, it also gets ideal for snails and slugs. At some points it really took going out there nightly with a flashlight–much easier to do in a backyard garden than one a 5 minute drive away. I considered Sluggo but would rather than have that in my soil, and so I stayed away from it.

Salsify didn’t give satisfaction.

Salsify flowers!By numbers, in terms of calories per square foot, Salsify should be wonderful. It’s a root vegetable somewhat carrot-like that gives a lot of calories per square foot. However in practice, I hit some problems:

  • Salsify is quite hard to clean. It’s very knobby, more so than other vegetables.
  • The per plant yield is small. Sure, it may be possibly to plant them on very tight centers, but who needs all that work? Frankly I’m moving towards larger carrots, too.
  • We got very big greens with beautiful flowers, and shockingly small roots. The latter may have been as a result of my soil balance not being ideal for Salsify. In any case, I’ll focus my efforts on the better yielders.

Winter potatoes yield poorly

sm_WP_004292-90q_19x12cFor an experiment, I put Irish Potatoes in late October, to see if I could grow them over winter. The good news is that I was able to keep the plants healthy, even through frosts, by covering them with a salvaged car cover when the temperatures got near zero. The bad news is that our weather was at its coldest at the point in time when the potato plants have the most potential to grow the tubers. As a result I got undersized tubers and a disappointing harvest. This year I got my potatoes in September 1, which I think my still be on the late side. We’ll see what happens.

Winter Kale and Spinach are not a slam dunk.

13W, Spinach, Monstrueux de ViroflayI was looking forward to getting wonderful greens. And although I got many, some just didn’t work out well at all. I grew a giant Spinach, Monstrueux de Viroflay, but it never really got established. I did seedlings and transplanted them, but they weren’t happy. I didn’t dig into what happened.

There was a similar story with my Russian Kale. I had grown some near that spot in summer, that did OK before keeling over from the heat. So I thought winter would be easy, since they are a cold weather crop. But the Russian Kale languished.

Fortunately my Dwarf Blue Curled Scottish Kale did much better. In fact going into summer I had three plants. They were all desperately trying to go to seed. I clipped those extensions out for a while, and almost gave up hope. I pulled one, and then another.

Luckily, for the sake of experimentation, I left the last plant in. And sure enough, as our traditional summer subsided, it stopped trying to go to seed and went back to being a leafy producing Kale plant. Now it’s a steady producer, and an ideal size. I’m glad I waited to pull it, and now I’ll be fascinated to see what it does this winter.

Timing and culture are critical for winter grains.

winter weeds WP_004568I waited too long to get many of winter grains into the ground. The more I waited, the more they struggled to outcompete the winter weeds. I think September is an ideal time to plant grains.

Furthermore the grains that I sewed and broadcast had really mixed performance. I didn’t pre-soak them–I just broadcast or laid in rows, and then chopped them in with a rake. It didn’t go well.

What I’ve experimented with and learned since then is that presoaking and proper seed depth is critical for grains, and makes a huge difference. In my latest experiment, I presoaked Cereal Rye for 24 hours and then planted it 3″ deep. This was based on research paper I pulled up. The results were stunningly better than “scatter and chop.”

Wooly Vetch is a wonderful winter cover crop.

Vetch flowers. Will be a sea of purple soon.In the right weather, Vetch gets established and can really spread. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it took hold and covered the soil. It was a good competitor to the weeds. In addition to fixing nitrogen, it puts out a beautiful purple flower. It did a bit of self seeding going into summer crops, but I liked the nitrogen fixing aspect and left it in with my sorghum. I think it helped.

A good piece of advice that I got about Vetch is to get your surrounding cover crop, for instance Cereal Rye, established first, before putting in the Vetch, so that it has a chance.

Learn to grow cheap garlic before spending the money on fancy garlic.

sm_WP_004496-90q_19x12cI spent good money buying fancy seed garlic, and then screwed it up by planting aggressive greens (Shungiku) too close to them. You can see the poor garlic desperately trying to reach out for sun!

When it became clear in early Spring that my garlic was going to yield poorly, I went to Trader Joe’s, picked up a package of organic garlic bulbs, and separated and planted those–away from aggressive greens. They grew fantastically well, at a fraction of the price. So I think it’s good advice to not drop dollars on the fancy stuff until you’ve had at least a season growing the cheap stuff.

Beets and Turnips grew very well.

sm_WP_004999-90q_19x12cI grew a German variety of beet called a Mangel, which I learned of from John Jeavons. I meet almost nobody who’s even heard of a Mangel, or those who have dismissively call it animal fodder! Mangels can grow huge and delicious, so call me an animal. Seriously, this is one of the best crops nobody has ever heard of. Bountiful Gardens sells the seeds.

sm_13W, Beets, Bulls Blood-90q_19x12c (NXPowerLite)I also had the good fortune to grow Bulls Blood Beets. The leaves of these are a deep red. If you enjoy eating the leaves of Beets, which tastes like their cousin Chard, then these are a great option for winter. Why? It seems that the slugs and snails don’t bother the leaves as much, related to whatever it is that makes the leaves so red.

 

sm_WP_004677-90q_19x12c

And then I had an unexpectedly good crop of Turnips. They got big, they were tasty, and they didn’t suffer insect damage. The trick for us was deciding what to do with them, but I figure that will come with time.

Layout Learnings From My Fall 2013 Growing Plan

It’s fun for me to look back at my fall growing plan for last year, and take those learnings into this year. Here’s what 2013 Fall looked like. (Click the image for the larger version.)

map-2013-fall

My intent with last year’s layout was to walk a fine balance between growing food in winter, and feeding the soil. I also wanted to test out a number of different crops. Here are some high level learnings from last season, which I’ve used to build my fall 2014 plan. I hope there’s something in here of value for you.

2013’s fall plan was complicated. 

I was concerned about doing vegetables on the front row right after having done that for summer, and so I was going to plant Crimson Clover in between the crops. Although I did manage to do this in a couple of spots, I just didn’t have the precision to get it to work in general. Growing is more like horseshoes than it is with darts. If I can get to within 3 inches of my intended spot, then I’m doing well. So any plan that calls for more precision than this isn’t going to work. Besides, my plot isn’t actually rectangular anyhow! This is where the real world meets Excel.

Oh, and to top it off, it’s hard to tell Clover from Oxalis, a non-nitrogen fixing, hard to eradicate weed. So I ended up mistakenly leaving some Oxalis in and pulling some Crimson Clover out. For this year, I might try clover in a very specific spot, such as along the paths.

My fall 2014 plan cuts out the narrow strips of clover and instead focuses on large swaths of cover crops, with concentrated areas of food crops. I figure that after I harvest the food crops, I can put in some cover crops, but I won’t try to do both at once.

One foot wide growing areas are tough to manage

I found that when it came to transplanting, maintaining, and harvesting, the 1′ wide areas were a pain. I’ve since moved to doing 2’x2′ areas, which I found much more manageable.

I crowded out my garlic.

I had heard that garlic can act as a barrier to slugs and snails. So I thought I’d try growing it in a rectangle around some Asian greens (Shungiku, or a type of Chrysanthemum) to test the theory. On the bright side, I didn’t see any snail damage on those greens. On the downside, the greens totally crowded out my garlic, and were the likely cause of terrible garlic yields. Furthermore my sense is the Shungiku was actually so strong and resilient that once it got to be about a foot tool, an army of snails couldn’t have killed it off.

I got some of my cover crops started far too late.

There is this difficult decision-point in September, especially around here, of when to pull the remains of the summer crop and plant the winter crop. What makes it difficult is that in the Bay Area we have Indian Summer which frankly seems hotter some days then our regular summer, and makes for fantastic growing weather.

So last year I waited too long, and only put in some of my cover crops when the weather turned in November. What I didn’t anticipate is that when the weather cooled and the rains came, the weeds *went crazy* and took over the soil. My broadcast cover crops often got badly outcompeted.

For this year, I got most of my cover crops in as of the end of September. I have some legumes to plant here and there, but by large I’m “in the ground” now, and have been for about a month.

I didn’t properly make space to weed my compost crops.

If you notice the green boxes on the right of the map, you can see that I took out the narrow walkway in those parts and let the compost crop take over that whole space. It seemed like a good idea going in, but what I didn’t anticipate is how strongly the weeds would come in during winter. What I ended up doing is putting a few stepping stones in the middle of the morass and doing some weeding, a little too late.

For this year, I’ll be keeping the walkways in place. Also I’m planting my cover crops in rows, rather than broadcasting or in offset center, so I can weed more easily. Rows give me a big boost in knowing where to expect the weeds, and I’ve put the rows about 6″ apart, so I can easily hoe in between them, and still get a decent amount of shade on the soil.