This season’s experience with alternative tubers

Irish potatoes are a critical part of my self sufficiency diet plan. They are a great source of calories and an important crop. However I do get a bit nervous about being so dependent on one crop for so many calories. History tell us that potato famines can happen, and with the onset of a crop disease, the best plan is to have a diversified crop strategy.

With that in mind, I decided this year to try a number of other tuber crops to see what it was like to grow them.

Sunchoke: taming the beast so it can feed you.

Sunchoke flowers

Sunchoke flowers

Before I grew sunchokes I would hear people say strange things about them. An intense young lady at the Ecofarm conference warned me, “Grow them in a container or they’ll take over. Be careful!” And when I asked the gentleman at the seed swap table what size container I should grow sunchokes in, he mysteriously replied “Pick the container size based on how many sunchokes you want.” Seriously?

It turns out, yes, seriously. Sunchokes are such an aggressive grower that it’s kind of unsettling. I put three sunchokes in three 2-gallon buckets, and dug those buckets into the soil in the back of my space, where it’s hard to water. I wanted the containers in the soil because I knew that doing so would help the container soil to hold more moisture than it would if it had the sun heating the side of it. Even though I put the sunchokes in relatively small containers, the plants grew to be about six feet high, and each yielded many pounds of tasty tubers.

Harvested sunchoke in the bucket I grew it.

Harvested sunchoke in the bucket I grew it.

One cool thing I discovered this year is that the buckets, in addition to preventing the “escape” of wayward sunchokes, make it very easy to harvest and store the tubers. I just loosen the soil around the container, pull the whole container out of the ground by the sunchoke trunk, and then cut the trunk down to about 1″ out of the container. This gives me a “handle” by which to carry the container, and the soil in the container is an effective way to store the sunchokes for a while. To get quality tubers, it’s important to cut down the plant when (or before) it starts to decline towards winter.

sunchokes JlmartichokeSA caveat about sunchokes is that they are said to give some people pretty bad gas, and so it’s worth trying some first to see if you can eat them. We like them sauteed or steamed–sunchokes have a unique flavor that is reminiscent of a tuber, but more interesting.

As a footnote, this year I noticed that in a corner of the unused plot next to me, there is a volunteer sunchoke that’s grew. I think the only water it gets is runoff from the park’s sprinklers. It grew well.

Sweet Potatoes

It’s funny now to look back and see that although I thought that sweet potatoes would be my best alternative to Irish potatoes, it looks like sunchokes have claimed that spot. Nonetheless, I think that sweet potatoes could become a regular part of my mix.

I tried growing sweet potatoes a few years back, from a plant that I bought at the local Japanese grocery store in August, however it didn’t do that well. The plant grew initially, but then it got cold before any tubers could develop. When I dug it up, there wasn’t anything worth eating.

I did my research this year and determined that soil temperature is a huge deal for growing sweet potatoes well. Given that it tends to be a bit cool around here, relatively speaking, that is an inherent challenge. I’ve had poor results in the past from trying to grow hot crops like Ocra and Musk Melons in my cool climate, but nonetheless I wanted to give sweet potatoes another try.

A gentleman in Canada wrote a book called Sweet Potatoes for the Home Garden which talks about growing in non-tropical climates. I bet he gets pretty decent heat in the summer, compared to me, but I was still interested in the book. I didn’t end up buying the book but I did find a helpful article on sweet potatoes that he did for Mother Earth News that gave me some hints.

For heat, I ended up preparing the soil, covering it with a thick black garbage bag liner, and then cutting holes in it to transplant my sweet potato slips. I had to be careful to water a lot in the early days, because I knew the surrounding soil would dry out. I made the mistake of putting some of the plants behind my quinoa, and so they get shaded out. However most of the plants have done quite well.

As is my common practice, I planted two different varieties of sweet potato. One has done better than other. I grew my own slips from store-bought sweet potatoes from the Japanese grocery store. I actually wouldn’t recommend this approach because it’s easy to end up with a variety that doesn’t actually grow well in your climate. But given my failure to grow sweet potatoes a few years back, I was reluctant to spend the dollars to buy slips through the mail.

Sweet potato flower blooming during Indian summer

Sweet potato flower blooming during Indian summer

Here in the San Francisco bay area we have a weather phenomenon called “Indian Summer” whereby it heats up around September and stays fairly warm right through to November or even later some years. We have had a few colder days, which means as cold as 50F, but certainly we haven’t come close to a freeze, even at night. What this means is that my sweet potatoes that I put in this spring are still happily growing. I’m hoping this means I’ll have a real harvest, but we’ll see.

If you are willing to spend the money to get just the right sweet potato, you should consider the Sand Hill Preservation Center. They have an extensive catalog that gives information on short season varieties, which is important for non-ideal climates. They also list how viny vs. bushy the plants are, which is helpful if you have a small growing space.

I did filtering on their list using Excel, to find just the right short season, busy or semi bushy, excellent yielding varieties. Here are 3 of them that I identified, and which I’ve seen sold by a few other companies as well: Ginseng Red, Copper, Jewel. I didn’t grow these this year, but maybe I will next year. Ideally I’d be able to find these varieties at a farmer’s market and just grow my own slips.

Andean Tubers: Oca, Yacón, Mashua

Andean tubers, fighting it out in the back

Andean tubers, fighting it out in the back

The Andeas in South America host many varieties of tubers which are mostly unknown to us here in the United States. These crops can be quite expensive to find around here. However I was very fortunate to find local gardeners who gave me some tubers so I could give them a try.

Oca tubers

Oca tubers

Oca did the least well this year. I received three tubers from a generous gardener in the Santa Cruz area. One of them did OK, one initially emerged and then died off, and the third was never seen again after initial planting. When Oca first emerges, it looks like a clover with a very stocky stem, so be careful with how you weed! My one Oca plant isn’t that big but looks healthy, and has produced some tubers. I’ll keep trying with Oca, but I’m realizing that even on a thriving plant the yields aren’t going to be that high compared to Irish potatoes.

Yacón flowers

Yacon flowers

Yacón proved itself to be an aggressive grower. I put it in the back, which is the toughest place to water, and let it compete with the Mashua for sunlight and space. It grew to about six feet high and even in November continues to put out nice orange flowers. I’ll be interested to see how the yields are when I dig it up.



mashua WP_006765

Mashua was a true wild-card this year. I’d never heard of it, but the gentleman who gave me the Oca grows it, and so he offered me a couple of tubers. It turned out to be a robust vine that readily covers other plants if given the opportunity. I removed it from my tomato supports several times.

Visually, the shape of the mashua leaves offered a nice variation to other plants in my garden. Again, we’ll see what I get when I go to dig it up. Based on how aggressively it’s grown, I imagine it’ll be a good harvest.

Calorie Crops Matter: Why I Grow Potatoes and Grains

Sorghum, not quite ready yet

Sorghum, not quite ready yet

One of driving themes behind my growing activities is exploring what it takes to actually grow a diet. In other words, if I wanted to grow enough calories to keep my family feeling good, what would it take? Although this may seem like a somewhat trivial distinction, it’s not. The crops that are most commonly grown by backyard gardeners around here are also crops that don’t deliver many calories. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, lettuce are satisfying crops to grow, but they won’t keep meat on your bones. The water content is too high. Sorry.

What I’m finding as I do the math on calories, look at crop storage and calorie density, and grow a variety of diet crops, is that I am starting to understand why ancient cultures grew what they did. I am seeing potatoes, wheat, quinoa, sorghum as amazing crops, and understanding why they have historically mattered so much to society in the old days. Or for that matter now, depending on where you live and what your situation is.

potatoes 2014 late fall 20141106_131001I see a big gap in our local backyard crop selections whereby the critical “backbone” crops of any real diet just aren’t getting grown. I think it’s fantastic that there are some people growing *something*, even if it’s just tomatoes, because there are a lot of transferable skills. If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow potatoes.

But coming from a food security frame of mind, it’s important that we have hands-on experience in growing the calorie crops, too. And as well it’s important that you develop our own local varieties of calorie crops that will thrive right here in our backyards. So along those lines I put an emphasis on potatoes and grains, because they are very strategic to local food security.

Grains are easier than you think

A nice thing about growing grains is that it’s very easy to save the seed. Basically at harvest time you just set some aside. (Granted, you still have to be careful about varieties crossing while growing.) Another benefit is that grains generate a tremendous amount of seed. My 300 square feet could produce enough quinoa seed to plant out several acres, possibly even dozens of acres. And then grains can be stored for a very long time if done properly. I hear that ancient stashes of wheat have been found hidden in cliffs in the Grand Canyon, and that it was still in good condition! Plus grains are very dense calorically, in terms of calories per pound, and so they have great value in tough times.

Potato Seeds, not Seed Potatoes

First TPS (true potato seed) berry! Blue victor. Lots of tiny seeds in here. Yes, potatoes can be grown from seeds.

A potato fruit containing potato seeds.

Have you heard of TPS, or true potato seed? Basically some potatoes will produce a small fruit that contains seeds. And if you plant those seeds, some of them will germinate and grow into potato plants. It’s not as easy as growing from seed potatoes, which are just old potatoes, but it can be done. I grew three varieties last year, and had one of them give me fruit. Of course I also got a number of tubers.

For people who are into having a seed collection that they can readily put in a backpack and walk away with, TPS opens up a world of new possibilities. Nobody wants to lug around a sack of potatoes, and yet everyone appreciates the caloric potential. Growing potato from seed gives you portability. In addition, there are opportunities to breed new vibrant varieties of potatoes adapted to a specific growing location.

A good man named Curzio in Wisconsin is a big champion of TPS, and I was able to buy some seeds from him through the seed saver exchange. His website has a lot of good resources, and a link to a closed Facebook group you can join if you are actively growing TPS.

To close I have to say that freshly dug potatoes really do taste great–better than anything I can buy at the supermarket. Potatoes are an easy and surprisingly fast crop to grow, and are worth it.

On Cabbage, Community, and Growing What You Eat

One of the fun things I didn’t anticipate about being in a Community Garden is the extent of the community. It is fantastic to rub shoulders with other people who also care a lot about growing food. Along those lines, it’s been eye opening to see the high percentage of people at the garden who are from overseas. You can get a sampling of how the world grows backyard food by walking around. China, Russia, the Ukraine, Italy and more are all represented.

Cabbage headSo one day an elderly Ukrainian neighbor says to me, “Do you like cabbage?” And I thought he was going to hand me a cabbage, but instead he handed me a Cabbage seedling! Having crunched the numbers on cabbage, I knew that it took a lot of space, but in the spirit of being neighborly, and also of trying something new, I said “Yes!” and planted the cabbage. He coached me to water it well, in his words to put “too much water,” and sure enough the thing grew.

I’m so glad I planted the cabbage for a few reasons. For one, I was trying to grow an Asian Cabbage next to it, but they didn’t do so well. It seemed like the leaves got stale very quickly; I may have left too long. On the other hand the Ukrainian cabbage did absolutely beautifully.

Furthermore, one of the “things nobody will tell you” about growing food is that it’s one thing to grow it, and it’s another to eat it. I know it doesn’t make any sense, does it? But the produce we buy at the market has had a decent amount of work put into it to make it easy to prepare. And to add to that, if you don’t have the time or skill to cook, your homegrown produce may go to waste.

I harvested the Ukrainian Cabbage, brought it home, and my wife was delighted! She knew exactly what to do with it, and made several great dishes. This is in contrast to headscratchers like Salsify that we never did figure out.

So this year we’ll be growing a lot of cabbage, of 4 different types in fact. Although they take a lot of space, they are a great crop that I know we’ll eat. And once I harvest them, I can put a fertility legume of one kind or another in their place, and build in some fertility for next Spring’s crop.

Crop Learnings From Fall 2013


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.



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.

My Layout and Crop Strategy for 2014 Fall

map-2014-fallLast year I got too intricate with my winter garden layout, and so for this year I’ve taken strides to really simplify things in terms of layout.

WP_006924 crop

Cover Crops

In tan you can see the areas where I’m putting in cover crops. I’m doing cereal rye, generally in 6″ apart rows, along with vetch in the in-betweens. My thinking on the rows is that it makes it much easier to hoe, and also down the line when the weeds come, I’ll know where to expect them. I do plan to put legumes in between these rows, Wooly Vetch, shortly. I justed wanted to let my Cereal Rye get established before the Vetch comes in and takes over.


WP_006702On the far right I have a mix of my perennials and my Onions and Garlic. I’ve put my Tree Collards at the top corner where they won’t cause a shading problem. I started these from cuttings I received from friends.

As an experiment, once I got the cuttings home, I took two of them and cut a bit off the bottom, like what you do before putting cut flowers in a vase. Sure enough, the ones I cut (with the green ribbon in the picture) grew leaves much more quickly. And two months later, they are still doing very well compared to the ones I didn’t cut before planting.

I have my Pineberries below that, and then at the bottom right my Sequoia Strawberries, which survived the Leather Rot that killed most of my Seascapes.

One other thing I’ve just started is I’m doing a row of Egyptian Walking Onions in the lower right corner, around my Strawberries. Snails and Slugs really are a problem for Strawberries, and so I want to see if a row of these onions can make a difference. Also I love how the walking onions so readily propagate themselves, given how much care it takes to raise onions from seed. My hope is that once I get the “fortifications” thick enough, then I’ll have a rotating supply of onions that we can eat when the new offshoots show up in late summer.

Onions, Garlic, Shallots, Leeks

Then in the middle of the perennials I have Onions, Garlic and Shallots. I figure that they will mature in a similar timeframe. Also they all need to be mulched, since none of them create enough canopy to shade the soil, and they all have similar water needs. It’s fun to see them poking through the soil as they come up.

I’m also doing a section of onions and leeks in the vegetable bed. Last winter the onions just didn’t bulb much, but I think that’s how it goes over winter. My hope is to get bulbs earlier in spring than I would otherwise.


Cabbage headBy dumb luck I ended growing one Russian Cabbage last year, from a seedling handed to me by a friendly neighbor. It turned out to be one of our prized crops for the winter season, and so this year we’re doing many more.

I chose 4 varieties, and 3 of them germinated strongly, and one, Primo, did not. I did a second seeding of Primos in order to get the 3 I had originally planned to grow. For the other varieties, January King, All Seasons, and Red Drumhead, all did great and so I decided to expand my cabbage planting area. All seeds are from Bountiful Gardens who, by the way, are looking into the Primo germination issue for me.


Now here’s a crop that nobody knows about. It produces a lot of calories per square foot, however they aren’t particularly dense calories. Nonetheless I’m intrigued by the name and the lack of name awareness, other than as a vegetable that nobody really knows what it is.

I grew Rutabaga in Spring 2013 but had problems with insects, only to realize it’s much better grown as a cold season crop. So I’m trying again! On a visit to the Petaluma Seed Bank I got super excited and bought two varieties of Rutabaga (of the 6 or 7 varieties they had in stock) and so those are now in the ground and growing. I’m doing Collet Vert and American Purple Top this year, having done Brora last year.


sm_WP_004999-90q_19x12cI had a fantastic time last winter growing a variety of beets, and so it’s a natural for this winter. I’ll be doing my favorite monster Beet, Mangel, once again. These are mildly sweet blond beets that can get big. The greens are great too. I’ll do Bulls Blood Beets again, with an eye on the leaves this time, to see if indeed the snails lay off of them. And then I will once again give Cylindra beets a try, although they thus far haven’t done much for me in terms of size. I probably need to bite the bullet and do some seed saving on Cylindra beets to get better yields.

Japanese Greens

Komatsuna in the middle

Komatsuna in the middle

Last year’s Komatsuna was a good grower and so I’m going to do it again. Japanese Spinach also grew well but was inconvenient to frequently harvest at a distance. They are more suited to a backyard situation. Kakina was fine, but too similar to Komatsuna to do both.

And then Shungiku showed itself to be a very prolific grower. This time I’m giving it space from everything else, so that it doesn’t take away from other crops. Lots of hot pot ahead for Shungiku.

Gobou, AKA Burdock

Homegrown gobou, about to be Kinpira Gobou.This is a root crop that in the stores looks like a big long stick. It’s used to make a delicious Japanese appetizer, Kinpira Gobou, which is a mainstay in many Japanese restaurants. I started my Tokinogawa Gobou late last spring. It did nothing for about a year, and then as I was preparing to take it out, it took off and grew huge. Ultimately the roots on some of the plants went about 3′ deep. I didn’t actually dig that deep, and ended up snapping off what I could down to 2′ deep. I’m going to try a smaller Gobou this year, Salada Musume from Kitazawa Seed Company in Oakland.

Thousand Headed Kale

To be honest I’ve struggled to get consistent results from Kale, and so I’ve been on the lookout for other varieties to try. Bountiful Gardens is offering this Thousand Headed Kale this year and so I’m giving it a try. Theoretically, winter should be an ideal time to grow Kale.


I have an ongoing interest in potatoes, given how critical they are as a diet crop. I learned last year that potatoes planted in late October will have a poor yield because of low temperatures in January, when the tubers have the potential to grow. This year I was planning for a late summer plant-in, but ended up getting them in the ground September 1. I think I’m late, but not too late to hope for results.

One major mistake I made with my potatoes is that half of my seed potatoes were freshly bought farmers market potatoes, in fact from the Little Organic Farm up in Petaluma. Whereas my potatoes from my early Spring harvest had been sitting around for months and stared to sprout, my fresh market potatoes were much earlier in their lifecycle. As a result, 6 weeks later they have yet to emerge, whereas my Spring potatoes have grown plants nearing two feet high. Live and learn.

The suspense now is twofold: Will I get a good crop from my Spring seed potatoes before it gets too cold? And secondly, will my expensive market-bought seed potatoes have the wisdom to wait until late February to come out of the ground? Or will they stampede out in late December to find frost around the corner?


POSTPONED: Sat, Nov 1st talk for the Clipper Community Garden

Natural Ways to Build Soil Fertility

POSTPONED November 1, 2014. 10am to 11:30am. San Francisco for the Clipper Terrace Community Garden.

The good folks at Clipper Terrace have asked to postpone this talk until early 2015. I’ll post an update when I have the new date and time.

Vetch flowers. Will be a sea of purple soon.I will give a brief overview of key ideas around soil, and then get into the specifics of the “what, when, and how much” for building your soil fertility through completely natural, non-chemical means. I’ll show you how beneficial grains and legumes are for the soil, and how to use them as the basis for a highly effective no-turn compost. I’ll also talk about specific plants you can grow to improve your soil structure.

This talk will take place at a private residence near the Clipper Terrace Community Garden. If you are not a member of the garden and are interested in attending, send me an email and I’ll connect you with the organizer.

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.)


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.

Sat, Oct. 11 talk at the San Mateo Garden Center

healthy soil flickr NRCS 8053614949_95f38a6a25_zThe old adage to “rest the soil” over winter is often misunderstood. This can result in soil damage that means lower yields come next spring. Fortunately, taking care of your soil over winter doesn’t need to be a huge undertaking.

If you understand a few key ideas, you’ll have a range of options to properly protect—and even build—your soil over winter. I’ll outline the “what” and “how” for several options, and give you a sense of the pro’s and con’s of each. Join me for this highly practical and pictorial walk-through of winter soil care.

After the presentation you’re invited to join me for an optional guided walking tour of the nearby Beresford Community Garden to see the principles of winter soil care in action.

I am a Certified Master Gardener and an enthusiastic small-scale grower of vegetables and grains. Learn more about me.

Easy Ways to Protect Your Soil in Winter”
at the San Mateo Garden Center605 Parkside Way San Mateo, CA 94403
Saturday, October 11, 2014, 1pm.
Open to the public. No charge. Ample free parking.

This presentation is offered as part of the San Mateo Garden Center’s series of monthly “How to do” clinics.

How to use Excel to make your garden map

2014 Spring final bed picMany people have asked me to show them how I use Excel to make my garden maps, and so here is a walk-through. The summary is that I simply resize the cells to be square in size, create a border for the bed boundaries, color in the beds using patterns, and then insert labels using Text Boxes. Here is a step by step walk-through.

If you want to jump right in here’s the result: Sample Garden Map.xls

Any version of Excel will work, but for these instructions I’m using Excel 2010. For different versions, the exact location in the user interface may vary, but the features should have the same name.

A.    Resize the cells to be square

  1. Create  a new blank Excel document.
  2. Select all cells in the worksheet by clicking on the “triangle” towards the upper left, between the letters and the numbers.
  3. Right click on column header A and choose “Column Width”
  4. Enter “2” for column width. This maps to 25 pixels on my computer, but anything will do as long as it’s the same as what you put for row height.
  5. Right click on row header A and choose “Row Height”
  6. Enter “15” for row height. This maps to 25 pixels on my computer, but anything will do as long as it’s the same as column width.

Result: Your Excel sheet should now look like graph paper.

B.    Scale the sheet so you can see your whole bed

NOTE: my beds tend to be 4 to 5 feet wide, and so I like to make every square on the sheet map to a 3” x 3” section of my garden. Thus a 4×4 set of squares represents one square foot of the garden. On my laptop, if I scale my view to be 45%, then I can see the full width of a 25’ wide garden bed. You can experiment with the zoom feature to see what the best zoom level is for you.

  1. Click “View” menu and choose “Zoom”
  2. Choose “Custom” and enter “45%”

Result: The “graph paper” will look much smaller now.

C.    Draw the boundaries of your garden bed

  1. Click cell C3.
  2. Hold the “Shift” key on your keyboard, and click cell CX18. You should see the whole range for C3 to CX18 now highlighted.
  3. From the “Home” menu click the arrow next to the “Borders” icon. (The look will vary based on what the last border was.)
  4. Choose the “Thick Box Border” option, which for me is the 8th option down.

Result: There will be a Thick border that defines a 4’ x 25’ garden bed.

D.   Color the inside of the bed with a pattern.

  1. Click cell C3.
  2. Hold the “Shift” key on your keyboard, and click cell AZ18. (Different than last time.) You should see the range for C3 to AZ18 now highlighted, which is half of the bed.
  3. Right click and choose “Format Cells…”
  4. Click the “Fill” option, which for me is the second tab from the right.
  5. From the “Pattern Style” drop down, choose a pattern. I like the cross hatch one, which for me is in the third row, second from the right.
  6. In “Pattern Color” choose the color of your liking. I’ll choose a green. Then click OK.

Result: half of the bed now has a green cross-hatch.

Tip: You can color the other half of the bed to your liking using similar steps.

E.    Add the first crop label for your bed

  1. From the “Insert” menu click “Text Box” and choose “Horizontal Text Box”
  2. On your bed, click and drag to define the size of the text box. You can resize it later.
  3. Right click on the text box you’ve just created, and choose “Font…”
  4. Change the “Size” box to be “25” and click OK.
  5. Click on the text box and enter your text label. I’m putting “Sorghum”
  6. Right click on the text box, and click the “Center text” icon.

Result: Now there’s a label for the bed.

Tip: You can resize it by clicking and dragging any of the corners. You can save time by sizing it wide enough for most of your crop labels.

Tip: You can move it by clicking and dragging the text box’s top or bottom border.

F.     Copy an existing label

Note: it can be quicker to copy an existing label, than to create a new one.

  1. Right click on an existing label.
  2. Click ”Copy”
  3. Right click on your sheet, where you want to place the new label.
  4. Click the leftmost “Paste” icon.
  5. Click on the text in the text box and change it to your liking.

Result: now you have a new label, with the same size and text as your original one.

Tip: Once you map out the areas in your garden, you can simply make a new copy of the sheet for every season. If you keep the outlines of the map the same, then it’s really easy to flip from one sheet to the next, and compare what you planted this season in a given spot to what you planted last season. This is really convenient for planning crop rotations.

Growing map for 2014 Spring and Summer

When I was first starting with Grow Biointensive, I really wanted to see how other people were laying out their garden beds, so I could have some idea of how to do mine. So if you’re interested, here’s where I landed for this year’s garden layout for my vegetables + grains garden.

2014 Spring final bed pic

When I compare this to last year, I see that it’s much more complicated. I think of the book The Collapse of Complex Societies and I don’t know if that’s a good thing! In any case, what I tell myself is that I’m “testing a lot of different crops,” and in fact that is true.

Here’s blow by blow commentary on how I ended up with this crop selection and design.

  • Originally I was only going to do one kind of bean–soy beans–but then I realized that I can only grow beans during the summer, and so I might as well take advantage of that. Furthermore in crunching the numbers on pole Lima beans, I saw how strong they are in terms of yield per square foot. To sweeten the deal, I’m told that you pretty much can’t buy pole Lima beans because they are not economical to harvest and sell commercially. Thus there could be a niche there one day. Thus I’m trying 3 kinds of Lima beans this year. (And it’s a struggle, but that’s another story.)
  • I was going to grow a few different kinds of beets, but since I can grow those very well during the San Mateo winter, I decided to only grow Cylindra beets this summer. They are a very high yielding variety, and a great crop, and so I wanted to see how they do in this location during the summer. So far they are looking great.
  • I’m doing Parsnips again this year. Last year’s parsnips were of note because they grew so aggressively (after I finally figured out how to germinate them) and they stayed green and nice until I harvested them well into late fall. This year I plan to do two crops of them, with the second crop being harvested after the weather turns “cold” (well, cold for around here.
  • I didn’t intend to do so many tomatoes, but I got carried away at the Master Gardener tomato sale and bought…lots. The thing is that as someone who generally starts everything from seed, it was just so exciting to have the chance to try 5 new varieties, from hardy seedlings! I didn’t measure my garden bed properly and ended up planting into an adjacent area. “With the ideal comes the actual.” <breathe.> The tomatoes are doing fantastic, in any case.
  • There’s a funny story behind the Japanese Burdock (aka gobo or ごぼう ). I planted it last year, a bit late in spring, in a marginal part of my plot, and didn’t really do anything all last year. Come this spring I was getting ready to write it off to experience and move on when the plants suddenly “blew up” and got huge. My best guess is that perhaps they finally got deep enough to find the nutrition they needed. Or maybe they are psychic. Whatever the case, we’ll have some decent gobo this year.
  • Japanese millet is supposed to have a 45 day growing cycle, and so gives the possibility of yielding a lot of compost crop in a small area. For now I’m figuring out how to get it to reliably germinate when broadcast. BTW I was able to buy a half pound of this from an eBay seller for about $7 delivered.
  • I stumbled on the blue tinged Ethiopian wheat while looking for something interesting to add to the cart when I bought my Pineberries. I subsequently found it for half price on eBay. So far it is an aggressive grower.
  • I found the Pineberries on the excellent website. They are a white strawberry that apparently tastes a bit like pineapple. Again, too small to harvest commercially, and thus in interesting niche crop.
  • I decided to make better use of the top fence this year as a trellis. My French Pole beans germinated so well that I put the extras up top. And then I put bare root Raspberries of various types along the fence as well. It is interesting to note that many of the bare roots arrive at the nurseries around Thanksgiving! I really wanted to grow Tayberries (hello $10 jar of jam!) but I missed my window. There’s always next year. I did get an Ollalieberrie cutting that seems to be catching on.
  • Onions are a core cooking crop, and so I’m giving a go to several different kinds. After experiencing poor survival of seedlings, I finally made the connection and got a hand mister to water them when they are tiny. I was knocking them over, even with a Haws watering can. (say it ain’t so!) I got a great misting hose attachment as well, but the water pressure is so high that even with a regulator, I still brings a lot of force to the droplets. The hand mister is perfect–just be sure to get one with a locking trigger to save on thumb fatigue.
  • Quinoa and Sorghum were my star grains last year, and so I’m trying 3 new varieties of each this year. For the sorghum, the Mennonite was a very strong germinator and grower, whereas the White African had poor germination. For the quinoa, the Shelly (black) and Campesino germinated and is growing strongly, but the Kaslala has been struggling, possibly because of soil texture at that location.
  • Because tubers are important to my diet planning, I decided to diversify and try several different kinds this year. I was very fortunate to be gifted Andean tubers, namely Yacon, Oca, and Mashua, and so I have those growing. I also received Sunchoke to grow, along with a stern warning to grow it in a pot, lest it take over! All are growing well, although I had to rescue the Yacon from an early snail attack.
  • And last but not least, I am trying to grow dryland rice this year. I am told that there are varieties of rice that can be grown just like wheat–in a normal, non-flooded garden bed. So I am trying Duborskian, Blue Bonnet, and Koshihikari, and using exactly the same amount of water as I am for my wheat. Thus far they are just looking at me and going slightly yellow, although the Koshihikari looks the best of the bunch.

When I tell people I have a food garden, I often hear “that’s a lot of work.” Well if you do what I’m doing this year, and testing out 50+ varieties of “this and that” then it *is* a lot of work. However it doesn’t have to be–I could have easily kept it to 5 varieties, and had this be not a heck of a lot of work. But that’d mean less learning and less adventure. For now, since I have the chance to try (literally) 50 different things, I’ll do it.