Turnip Testing 2011

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TurnipsWe didn’t have enough turnips in the Dirt to Dinner garden in 2010. Or in 2009 for that matter. When I was growing up in the 70’s in the suburbs around Cincinnati, no self-respecting kid would have eaten a turnip. Today, in California, I know kids who will happily eat raw, pickled, braised or stewed turnips without complaint. So, I guess we really are making progress. It just takes a long-range perspective to appreciate it.

Because the turnip is a popular vegetable around here, and we have an unexplainable deficiency in the radish growing department, we’d like to identify a turnip variety that does well in our conditions, grow a lot of it, save our own seed, and maybe even further improve or adapt the variety in the future.

This is probably a bad idea for several reasons:

#1. Turnips are biennials. They won’t even make seed until after they have been in the ground over the winter. Which means they are going to take up their space in the garden for a long time.
#2. Turnips are out-breeders so even if we grow only one turnip variety we could still have our seed accidentally crossed by a bee visiting from a neighborhood garden growing a different turnip variety we didn’t know about. But how many neighborhood gardens are going to have turnips laying around long enough to go to seed, you say?
#3. Well, it’s not just the turnips we have to worry about! Turnips are classified as Brassica rapa and could potentially cross with mustard, rutabagas, Chinese cabbage, Chinese greens or those radishes we can never seem to grow! On the up-side, Ecology Action’s booklet #13 “Growing to Seed” says we only need to keep seed from five plants to maintain enough genetic diversity in the line.

Not one to be deterred by facts, I went ahead and started Phase 1, which is growing several varieties in order to choose one to work with in the fall or next spring. This part just involves growing and eating. We have identified six types of turnip seed to trial, four of them were planted today and after the next storm front passes, we’ll add ‘Tokyo Market’ and ‘Tokyo Cross.’

2/23/2011 We seeded two 2.5′ x 2.5′ beds with turnips separated by a North-South running strip of ‘Petit Pois’ peas saved from 2010.

Bed A is ‘Scarlet Ohno’ from Bountiful Gardens vs. ‘Scarlet Ohno’ from High Mowing Seed. I’m hoping they aren’t both repackaged seed from the same farm! At the very least we should see some landrace variation. The Bountiful Gardens package says, “Greens are smooth and hairless, excellent for greens. Roots for fresh use and pickling, not keepers.” High Mowing adds, “Hot pink skins with white, mild and crunchy flesh. Excellent for baby roots or greens with a signature pink streak.” 50 days. The Bountiful Gardens pack is marked for planting in May-August, but I’m guessing that’s either not right or not for our area. Seems odd when everything else says, “As soon as soil can be worked,” or “4 weeks before last expected frost.”

Bed B is ‘Gold Ball’ side-by-side with ‘Orange Jelly’ with the same separating strip of ‘Petit Pois’ between the varieties. The Sustainable Seed package for ‘Gold Ball’ says, “…perfectly shaped 3-4” amber globes…never woody…perfect storage turnip for the root cellar.” ‘Orange Jelly’ is also recommended for its storing ability and says flavor is improved by frost. Might be nice to try these two again in the fall.

By about mid-April we should be munching, marinating, fermenting and baking our different turnips and picking a winner. Do you already have a favorite turnip that does well in your area or a favorite turnip recipe to share? Leave us a comment!

Fresh in February: 22 Things We’re Eating Right Now from the Family Food Garden


It takes some planning. And, depending on your growing zone, it may take some straw, row covers or cold frames. But it really is possible in most USDA Zones to eat something out of your garden year round.

That’s easy for me to say, I live in Northern California and garden in Zone 9b. So, don’t take my word for it. Grab The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. He’ll tell you everything you need to know to grow through the winter—and he’s farming in Maine!

Peas, Spinach and ParsnipsOur favorite snap pea, ‘Sugar Daddy’, is delicious this time of year, sweet, crisp and productive. It’s growing alongside ‘Catalina’ spinach which is producing a surprising amount of salad greens and stuffing for omelettes. In the bed behind, you can see the tops of parsnips ready for pulling. Get your digging trowel ready though, those roots are deeper than they look.

One of the joys of winter food gardens is that the wet weather waters for you. Try to be sure that you position plants that are sensitive to too much moisture, like these peas, in raised beds with good air circulation around the plants so you don’t have to fight mold for the delicious pods. Even though pea plants will grow happily when crowded, consider spacing the seeds a bit farther apart in the winter to give them good air circulation and also so they are better able to share the available sunlight.

Kale, spinach and collards prefer the cool winter weather. The spinach that I am growing will not do a thing for me in warm weather even when I shade it with tomato plants. But it grows well in the winter and doesn’t fall apart when exposed to a light frost. The ‘Dwarf Siberian’ kale and ‘Vates’ collards actually improve their flavor after exposure to colder temperatures. Most of the red cabbages growing among them have been ripped apart by slugs, but the green cabbages are doing much better and providing us with slaw and sauerkraut galore.

Here are the 22 fresh foods we can eat out of our yard this February:

1. Spinach
2. Mustard Greens
3. Snap Peas, Snow Peas and Shelling Peas
4. Chard
5. Parsnips
6. Cabbage
7. Collards
8. Carrots
9. Rutabagas
10. New Potatoes
11. Beets
12. Fava Beans
13. Arugula
14. Celery
15. Lettuce
16. Radishes
17. Turnips
18. Bok Choi
19. Green Garlic
20. Broccoli
21. Cauliflower
22. Kale

Do you have a favorite winter-grower in your food garden? Let us know about it in the comments section. We’d love to hear what works for you and give it a try next year.

Rainy Weather Redux

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Peas Sprouting

The strong La Niña weather pattern has meant an unusually dry winter for the San Francisco Bay Area and our patch of Zone 9b garden. This is the first year I can remember having to water in January. Most of the rest of the country is waiting for their soil to dry out enough to plant some seeds. I’m out there with a hose every morning making sure the beds are moist enough for seeds to germinate.

But the Weather Woman has promised me another week of rainy weather and I spent the day scrambling to get ready. This is a perfect time to put out the seeds and transplants I have been putting off. Sugar Daddy peas were top on my list, as they often are this time of year.

So far the slugs, birds and squirrels have been getting more than their fair share of our pea sprouts. I started some extra seeds in a flat as insurance for the Alderman and Cascadia patches. I meant to do that with the Sugar Daddy patch I started today, but, halfway through watering in the seeds I realized I was also watering the seed packet and the remaining Sugar Daddy seeds. Since I hadn’t yet built the flat or mixed the flat soil I needed to use to plant them, I decided to use the now wet leftovers to reseed a pea patch that something had chewed on. I also needed to reseed half of the Green Beauty snow pea patch. I’m out of Green Beauty seeds, so I filled in with Golden Sweet snap peas from J. L. Hudson, which I’m excited to try. Hudson’s is a local seed company that doesn’t have a slick catalog or a zippy website, but it looks like many of their seeds are sourced locally so I expect them to be happy in my garden and they got my order here fast. I’m looking forward to trying them out.

All three pea patches are now covered with a layer of rice straw. I have a theory that slugs don’t like to slime their way across straw. Especially if it’s dry straw. I have also had good luck covering my pea sprouts with thin burlap or the kind of netting that onions are sold in. Burlap and straw may hide the apparently delicious smell of peas sprouting from hungry birds and squirrels or be hard for slugs to slime across. I don’t care how it works. I just want my peas safe long enough to get a couple of leaves. That seems to be all it takes before critters stop munching them. If they last long enough to get a couple sets of leaves, I’ve got a very good chance of eventually eating some peas. If the kids don’t get to them first.

My Shady Gardening Plans

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NettlesThis ever-expanding patch of nettles is growing in my back garden in the ‘dappled shade’ that it supposedly likes. My husband swears he won’t be eating it because we don’t really know what it is, since it just turned up there, in the middle of what was once a lawn. But they look like nettles, they certainly sting like nettles, and they grow right where nettles are supposed to grow, so I’m making them into a cream soup. Just as soon as I can figure out when the right time to harvest nettles happens to be.

In the front garden, in what I hope is a patch of roughly 75% shade, I fall-planted half a dozen goldenseal rhizomes. I haven’t seen them yet this year, but I hope to. From the description on botanical.com, it sounds like they’ll be hard to miss, “The flowering stem, which is pushed up early in the spring, is from 6 to 12 inches high, erect, cylindrical, hairy, with downward-pointing hairs, especially above, surrounded at the base with a few short, brown scales.” They aren’t strictly edible, but I think they’ll be a fun medicinal addition to the garden if we can get them started. The challenge may be figuring out exactly what “75% shade” is. Does that mean a spot that is in the shade 75% of the day? Or does it mean a spot that receives 8+ hours of sunlight through leaves or lathe or whatever that blocks 75% of that light?

Catalina SpinachOver the winter I tried spinach in a spot that only gets the late afternoon sun, and it clearly wasn’t enough. The spinach plants are still there, but they are tiny. Nothing like their relatives planted 15′ away in the sun–which are delicious! They are Catalina spinach, my favorite variety to grow at home. They not only grew, they happily made new leaves as we picked them all winter long. The other green I seeded into a shady patch is Good King Henry. Still waiting for it to come up this year. For the warm months, I’m planning to do a patch of greens in lighter shade. I’m going to include spinach, mixed in with chard, kale, lettuce and sorrel.

I’ve heard a lot of conflicting things about runner beans and shade, though everyone seems to agree that they do not like to flower or produce beans in the heat. I am going to start a few plants early in a container tucked up alongside the house where it will stay warm. That should give them a chance to germinated and get going while the ground is still cool. Then, if they are unhappy, I can move the container to provide more or less light, as long as I am smart about how I trellis.

Sugar Daddy PeasThis year I am also going to keep the snap peas going with additional plantings where they will get afternoon shade through the summer. I don’t want to go to extreme efforts to eat them out of season, but I’m curious to see how long we can keep them happy with a nice tall crop of something to their northern side.

Other suggestions I’ve had for the sun challenged areas of my garden include chives, radishes, Asian greens, sorrel, nasturtiums and currants. Do you have something that grows well for you in less-than-perfect light conditions? Let us know about it and we’ll consider it for our light trial experiments this year.

The Insectary Is In

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I am that happy kind of exhausted that comes after a good day of actually accomplishing things. I even found time to pull out the weeds, pull back the old mulch and revive the center section of the front garden that serves as our Insectary.

This year a cherry tree has been added to the very center of the area. I hope it will be happy there and all the habitat for beneficial insects growing around it will have beneficial affects for the cherry tree as well as the vegetable garden. It’s set apart from the other cherry trees, so being in the center of the Insectary is it’s best hope to get cross-pollinated.

Working out in a circle from the tree, I alternated Blue Borage and Cosmos, because they should be the tallest of our beneficials.  I even read somewhere that Cosmos can turn into a 4-6ft bush if you let it. That cherry tree better grow fast if it wants to keep up! As this is my first foray into Flower Land, I’ll be happy if the Cosmos survive until fall.

In the second round out from the tree I added Calendula, an annual that might grow to two feet tall in a good year, alternated with oregano and lavender that are just starting to come back from last year. The third layer out is Zinnias and a smattering of Alyssum that I hope will mound in between the stepping stones.

After the weeds were pulled and the flowers were planted, I covered the whole area with a couple inches of Happy Frog compost as mulch, watered it in, and wished it luck. Do slugs eat flowers? There are red cabbage plants with huge holes chewed in them not far from the Zinnias. The Blue Borage does not look like a plant you want to mess with, but the Zinnias have tender-looking rounded leaves. Maybe I should fill that pie tin with beer again, just to be on the safe side.