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.

The December Garden

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Yacon Flowers

The tasty tubers are much bigger than the bright flowers

I apologize if it sounds a little sad to say that the yacon plant’s reward for making these sweet little flowers was that we ripped it out of the ground, ate it’s tubers and cut it’s roots into five separate sections before replanting them.  I couldn’t help it. It was delicious. Yacon, also called “Bolivian Sunroot,” has a crisp, fruity tuber that ads a satisfying crunch to salads and can be prepared a number of different ways. I bought this one on a lark from Pam Peirce when she was visiting Common Ground. Now that I have tasted them, I hope to have a stand of five plants next year. They can get as tall as 6′ and should make a nice visual break between the front garden beds and the street.

Red and green tomatoes in December

Glacier Tomatoes ripening in December

I brought in the last of the peppers, eggplant and Armenian cucumbers right after Thanksgiving. If you had to eat out of the garden right now in mid-December, you could have spinach, kale, chard, arugula, lettuce, green onions, a couple snap or snow peas, mustard greens, broccoli, cabbage (the loose leaf kinds anyway), rutabagas, turnip greens, chicory, sorrel, radishes, rosemary or thyme, and tomatoes. Seriously. I have tomato plants flowering and setting fruit, in December. I put the ‘Glacier‘ tomatoes my mother-in-law sent over in large pots, uncovered so pollinators could get to them, on the patio set against a south-facing wall. It’s a cozy spot, sure, but we had frost for days running a week or two ago. These tomato plants do not care. And who am I to argue?

Seed flat

Keep 'em coming

This week the plan is to set out transplants we have grown of more arugula, chard, kale, Osaka Purple mustard, Chinese asparagus, winter leeks and mesclun mix. And to seed new flats of rutabagas and spinach. If I get to it before the rains come back, I’m going to try a stand of Alderman shelling peas near where I put in the Green Beauty snow peas. They aren’t in a well protected spot, but last year I had both snow and snap peas grow right through the winter. Frost got some of the pods, but the plants survived and flowered again.

All the weather folks keep telling me to expect an unusually wet and cold winter, which sounds an awful lot like the summer we just had, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Yesterday it was 65 degrees. Those tomatoes were probably sweating. ;-)

What I’m Doing Differently Since Taking “Edible Gardening”


This year I was lucky enough to be part of “The Edible Garden Series: From Design to Harvest” through Common Ground in Palo Alto taught by Drew Harwell. And there are a lot of things that I’ll be doing differently now that I have completed this class.

First, and perhaps most revealing, I’ll be growing–am already growing–a lot more food in the same garden space that I started with. Not only do I understand inter-cropping and plant rotations better, but plant spacing makes a lot more sense to me and I’ll be using a lot less of it in between my plants, especially my winter crops, than I have in the past. Column H of the Master Charts in “How to Grow More Vegetables” is finally useful to me! Yay!

Seed Flat KitAnd I’ll be starting those plants in flats. I used to start seeds in old yogurt containers, left-over six-packs from the garden center, old plastic cups…pretty much anything that was handy and could be recycled into something that held dirt. But seed flats hold a *lot* more soil than a six-pack, and hold it deeper than a six-pack. It stays moist and at a more even temperature and your seedlings grow up much healthier. I have no idea why this never occurred to me before, but as soon as Drew talked about it in the first week of our class, it all made sense and my seedlings are certainly thankful for it. Now I just need one of those little scoop tools to help with transplanting.

Kangaroo Rat

California Kangaroo Rat

Those new flats will be filled with 50% “bed soil” and 50% compost that I am now making right here at home with confidence and success. I’ve tried a lot of different composting methods over the years.  Some of them ended up smelly, some of them ended up taking forever to break down and one of them had an entire family of kangaroo rats who leaped out of it right at us when we opened the container to turn it!

No more. One of the things that’s different around here is the compost piles are now open. No expensive bins or crazy spinning systems or awkward compost turning tools required. We are building 4′ x 4′ piles with alternating layers of ‘green’ material, ‘brown’ material and bed soil. And we are turning them once, after they have gotten up to or beyond 135 degrees. The first pile has already cooked up to this point and been turned. The second one is piled right over where I hope to dig a new bed in the spring to help prepare and improve the soil while it decomposes over the rainy season.

This is also my first season of cover cropping. I have ‘Medic Mix’ from Territorial Seed Company in three of the raised beds, cereal rye in one, the Common Ground ‘Cover Crop Mix’ in another and a healthy stand of fava beans already going. These are the first crops I have grown specifically “for the soil” and I am feeling good about the process. Cover cropping is another thing from this class that now really makes sense to me. Some of these crops will be chopped under as a green manure before the spring planting happens, and some of them will end up in a compost pile. Either way, I like the idea that there are crops for us to eat and crops to feed the soil that ultimately feeds us.

Asparagus SeedlingsMy garden is now more forward looking in other ways too. Not only do I understand where the prevailing winds come from and where the afternoon sun hits the garden. I have learned a lot about planning the garden as it moves through time. For instance, there are more perennial edibles now in place or in progress. We have started our first Pigeon Peas, experimented with Chayote squash, put in an asparagus patch for plants started at home from seed, added several kinds of berries and learned how to be better to the fruit trees. And this is only a fraction of what Drew covers in the series!

Keep an eye out for the Spring Edible Gardening Series. The class is a great investment of your time and easily pays for itself with the increased yields you’ll rapidly see in your garden.

Up the Bean Pole

White Emergo Pole Beans

White Emergo Pole Beans

Remember that crazy thing we did this winter with a dozen or more varieties of peas? Well, I think it’s happening again, this time with beans. White beans, black beans, heirlooms, perennials and beans with packaging in languages I can barely understand. Ever wonder what the opposite of monocropping would be? Stop by and I’ll show you.

We like green beans, especially if Chinese sauces are involved. But most of these beans are intended for drying. This winter they will turn into chili and baked beans and hearty soups.

Tarahumara Black Bean Trellis

Sprouting Tarahumara Black Beans

Some of the beans are heirloom black beans traditionally grown by the Tarahumara. We are trying both the bush variety and the pole beans. They are used to a very dry climate and I initially over-watered the bush beans giving them “chlorosis” which is a yellowing of the young leaves that occurs when you give them so much water that you actually wash away some of the nutrients they need for photosynthesis. Oops! I mulched them with some Happy Frog and cut back on the water and they seem much happier now. It helps that it’s not over 90 degrees any more.

Druzba Tomato and Hutterite Soup Beans

Eastern European Cousins

Another interesting variety we have in the garden right now is the Hutterite Soup Bean. Seeds of Change says these beans immigrated to the U.S. in the 1760’s with a religious group from Austria. Which sounds nice and is about all you can fit on the back of a seed pack, but the Hutterite’s have a rich and interesting history. And let’s hope they have some good soup recipes too, because these beans sound delicious so far. In homage to their Eastern European connections the Hutterite Soup beans are interplanted with a Druzba tomato, an heirloom from Bulgaria. They may actually be planted a whole lot too close for comfort. In my research about the Hutterite beans, I came across one site that recommended planting them 18″ apart. I’m lucky if mine are 3″!

Contender Bean Pods

Our First Contender

The first beans planted in the garden this year, Contenders planted on March 30th, no less, were the first ones to give us pods. I’m surprised they didn’t curl up and die from the cold. I know I nearly did! I planted a tiny patch of them, maybe a dozen plants, just to see if it was warm enough to sprout beans yet. I have been cautiously adding different varieties to the garden since mid-April when these came up looking no worse for wear. So far the list includes:


White Emergo
Christmas‘ Limas
Fagiolo di Spagna ‘Spagna Bianco
Bush Black Beans ‘Tarahumara Ejotero Negro
Hutterite Soup Bean
Swedish Brown
Pole Black Beans ‘Tarahumara Chokame
California Blackeye Pea
And I have some Fin de Bagnol seeds around here ready to slip into a spot where nothing else is growing yet.
Why didn’t I get more pole bean seeds? They are so much easier to find room for. Though I think the real question will be, how many beans of a given variety do I need to plant in order to save enough dry beans to cook something from them? I guess we’ll find out.

Fun Stuff in the Garden

Yacon Start Newly Planted

Yacon Start

We’re developing a few of our own standby’s in the garden, like the Principe Borghese tomatoes for drying, Costoluto Genovese tomatoes for eating fresh and Straight Eight cucumbers for slicing, but we’re also trying some new things this year just for fun. One of them is Bolivian Sunroot, also called yacon. The plant reproduces through a rhizome, but stores energy in sweet, crunchy tubers with a unique taste. They were described to me as something like a yicama-strawberry flavor, which I find hard to imagine but am looking forward to trying. The plants can grow over 6′ tall, so I have this one near a trellis post in case it needs staking later.

Brightest Brilliant Rainbow Starts

Brightest Brilliant Rainbow Starts

Another new friend in the garden this year is quinoa. I’m growing ‘Brightest Brilliant Rainbow‘ quinoa which is supposed to be good not only for the variously-colored seed heads, but for summer greens when the plants are young as well. I don’t grow wheat or corn because of allergies and am looking forward to exploring some of the other grain options that are possible for a home gardener.

Lima beans starting up their trellis

Christmas in June

Lima beans are also new for us this year. I went with the ‘Christmas‘ Lima because I just couldn’t resist them in the catalog. The seeds are big and plump and have deep red striping on them. We grew a few Italian shelling beans last year that were delicious in soup and I think these will be gorgeous in a summer minestrone or on cooked their own. I was planning to pick half the plants and let the other half set seed for dry beans in the winter but as they are beginning to twine their way up the teepee, I’m already wondering how I’m going to do that. Might be time to plant another teepee of them specifically for drying. That would make it easier to deal with.

My family also really enjoys Black Bean Soup so I am trying several different varieties of Black beans this year to see which ones grow well for us. I have both bush and pole versions of a traditional variety grown by the Tarahumara Indians and some Black Turtle Beans to test.

Garlic growing in Straw Mulch

Garlic growing in Straw Mulch

We also have a small test patch of garlic this year, and, if it works well, we’ll have a lot more of this cooking essential planted this fall. There are a lot of meals around here that begin with garlic and olive oil. It would be fun to have our own varieties growing in the garden for when we want them. If I can decide what kinds to grow. The Winter Gardening catalog from Territorial Seed has literally dozens of different kinds of garlic. I may have to order a sampler and see which ones do well here.

I have a feeling the first stems of our test garlic are going to be ready in a day or two, so we’ll have some idea what’s going on down there under the straw mulch. The drying process for onions and garlic sounds really simple and if this hot weather keeps up, we should be prepping some of both this week or next.