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.

Pulling Back the Covers

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Maturing Fava Bean PlantsDid my cover crops have to come up so beautiful and strong? When it’s grass growing up along the edges of the mulch, I have no problem ripping it out and tossing it into the compost heap, but fava beans you could actually eat.

I have to remind myself that there were other reasons we put them in as a cover crop. In addition to beans, favas make nice big plants that give a lot of ‘biomass’ for the compost pile. They also fix nitrogen, hold the soil through the winter rains and do a great job breaking up the adobe clay our garden is sitting on. I have also read that legumes develop microbial relationships around their roots that help the following crops, especially greens and heavy feeders like tomatoes.

Fava Bean FlowersI’ve also seen a lot of activity around the flowers. I can’t identify most of what seems to be benefitting from the nectar, but I have read that favas provide winter habitat and food for insect populations that are good for the garden.

I have three different varieties of favas growing this year. The ‘Broad Winsor’ you see flowering, the ‘Negreta’ which makes a dark brown bean with an ‘earthier’ flavor I am waiting to try. And the fava beans that have been handed down in my mother-in-law’s Santa Cruz vegetable growing family that we are calling ‘Grandma Susan’s’ fava. This fava grew in Santa Cruz for at least two generations and since then has been acclimating to this specific part of Santa Clara County for over 35 years now. I am thrilled to be able to grow it in the Dirt to Dinner garden.

Fava Bean PatchesIf we save the ‘Grandma Susan’s’ and the ‘Negreta’ to grow to maturity to make us fava beans to eat. That means the spaces growing ‘Broad Winsors’ are the ones headed to the chopping block–ahem, Compost Heaven. It’s time to give the space over to other cool-season crops like the beets, spinach, cabbage, broccoli and lettuces all waiting to grow.

There Are Flowers in My Vegetables

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Yesterday I found a bee on the bright yellow flowers of a Chinese asparagus plant that had gone prematurely senile in it’s pot after our unexpected January heat wave. I whispered to the bee that we have lots more interesting delights coming for it this spring.

We’re growing Blue Borage to have a companion for tomatoes, strawberries and squash that is also edible. It really does taste like cucumber. I’ve already eaten some leaves. has a detailed, interesting entry on Borage, which includes this in the “Companion Plants” section:

Borage is good companion plant to have in the vegetable garden as the insects it attracts make good pollinators for crops. It is a very useful companion plant to strawberries, as they are believed to stimulate each other’s growth.
As a companion plant to tomatoes, it is believed that borage deters tomato worm, and is thus a natural form of pest control. Borage is attractive to blackfly, this can be used to advantage by planting it as a decoy close to one’s fruits and vegetables to prevent them being blighted – an excellent companion plant for beans and peas.
Borage is also good as a green manure. Its long taproot brings up nutrients from the subsoil that remain in the leaves. Before the plant flowers the plants can be dug back into the ground to release the nutrients back into the topsoil.

We’ve also had good germination with our Calendula, a good companion for our cabbage family plants. The ‘Pacific Beauty‘ Calendula we’re growing is a culinary marigold, though I understand only the petals of the flowers are really edible. They are also supposed to soothe bee stings if you rub the fresh flowers into the spot that was stung. I’m wondering if I should be planting the Calendula away from where I want to attract pollinators though. Some of the listings I’ve seen say they repel insects (and deer). Louise Riotte (Carrots Love Tomatoes) doesn’t mention Calendula by name, though she does mention marigolds in general for nematodes and other uses. In Great Garden Companions, Sally Jean Cunningham reports Calendula attracts beneficials and may repel Asparagus beetles.

OK, this whole companion thing gets complicated quickly, doesn’t it?

We have also started a nice planting of ‘Pesche’s Gold’ marigolds, which are apparently ‘French’ marigolds. And we are getting ready to start ‘Tangerine Gem‘, which apparently also have edible petals.  Rosalind Creasy mentions them in the latest edition of Edible Landscaping. The ‘Sunrise’ Cosmos are coming along nicely. I have to pot them up again or decide where they are going in the garden fast. They will be almost the same colors as the marigolds on taller, frillier plants. We’re using the cosmos to attract bees, parasitic wasps and other beneficial insects on the theory that pretty much anything that’s good for the bees is good for the garden.

Mexican sunflowers, Echinacea and Yarrow, as well as Sweet Alyssum (to shelter ground beetles and spiders),  are also part of the garden plan for this year. We are also trying Tarragon as a Nurse Plant for our eggplants who often don’t quite get the warmth they need in our climate and take a long time to fruit. Hopefully they will grow better with a little help from their new friend.

If you have tried and true companions you use in your garden, please let us know which combinations and varieties work well and which Zone you are in.

Divide and Germinate: Space Planning in the Garden

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Garden ViewI just calculated that we have 1,038 square feet under cultivation in the Dirt to Dinner garden, give or take the odd shaped growing bed here or there. Now, how do I divide that up to see how much of what we have room to grow this year? And how much seed do I start to grow that many square feet of a crop?

Thank goodness at least one engineer was here ahead of me to help figure this stuff out. Maybe if I think this thru I will finally understand how to use all the Master Charts in How to Grow More Vegetables.

Peas are the favorite Spring crop around here. And you can actually get a fair amount of snap or snow peas from a square foot of growing space since you can pick them over several months, or as long as the cool weather holds, which is more likely to be the determining factor for us most years. ‘Sugar Daddy‘ was the top snap pea producer in our 2009 Pea Trials, so let’s start there. Sugar Daddy peas need 7-10 days for germination and another 60 days to flower and mature the first pods. If they go in Feb 1st, that makes ten weeks later we’ll have out first peas, around April 12th. In an average year, whatever that is, Zone 9b would have six more weeks of favorable pea weather to enjoy before we could expect the daytime highs to get too high for pea pollen to do it’s thing.

Peas under cageSo, how many peas do we want to eat over that six weeks? Sugar Daddy peas are really best eaten straight off the vine, but a light steaming and some butter work too. I don’t intend to can or freeze them, so we only need to calculate what we actually want to eat fresh. My notes from 2009 look like we grazed over at least four square feet of pea vines to get a family ‘serving’ for a day. In good weather, three or four days later, there were enough new peas to pick those same plants again. So, each four square feet of snap peas could give us two ‘servings’ a week. If we’d like twice that I better put in eight square feet of snap peas, maybe ten to allow for slug damage would be safer. Add to that a couple square feet of snow peas and another four square feet of Alderman shelling peas and we’re up to sixteen square feet of peas.

Easy, right? Mark that on my handy spreadsheet garden plan. Now, just 1,022 square feet to go.

Worm Casting Experiment 1S

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On December 14th we seeded half a flat of ‘Guntmadingen’ Spinach in Ocean Forest potting soil. Ocean Forest isn’t perfect, but I’ve been happy with it and have used a lot of it this year.  Ocean Forest is a blend of worm castings, bat guano, Pacific Northwest sea-going fish and crab meal, composted forest humus, sandy loam, and sphagnum peat moss. Which brings us to the down-side, peat moss. I’m not sure how I feel about using it since it’s not renewable, most of it is imported long distances and it releases lots of carbon as it dries for harvesting. I need to research that to develop a more informed opinion.

My ideal would be not to need to use inputs like bagged potting soil but instead to make all our own compost and seed-starting mixes on site. It’s good to have a goal, but this one might be farther off than I would like since the garden keeps expanding.

Back at the spinach transplanting…

Roughly six weeks later, on January 22nd, we transplanted the best dozen spinach plants. They were all close in leaf size and root length. Six of the plants went into a container with more Ocean Forest potting soil on 6” centers. The other six went into an identical container in the same location with Ocean Forest potting soil on 6” centers. But, this group was also given additional worm castings by mixing fresh castings straight from the worm bins into the top 4” of soil before the spinach was transplanted.

Worm bin layerWorm castings have been shown to improve the activity of beneficial microbes in soil. I’ve seen some reports that 20% worm castings may be ‘ideal’ for flowers and vegetables, with additional worm castings not providing additional benefits. But since we don’t know what percentage of the Ocean Forest mix is already worm castings, we’re testing to see if adding our homegrown castings has a positive effect on plant growth.

Check back here to see how the trial progresses.