Five New Onions for the Holidays

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It was 59 degrees and sunny in the garden today, at the end of December. I couldn’t resist planting something and the onions were first in line. I saved seeds from last year’s onions, several different varieties of them–all in the same grocery bag. I didn’t even realize my mistake until I wanted to get the early white onions started. Oops. Turns out seeds for white onions look pretty much like seeds for every other kind of onions. I forced myself to make a trip to the local garden store for seeds I could identify. ;-)

Planting onions from seedI chose ‘Walla Walla Sweet’ from Nichols, even though I probably should have planted them much earlier for overwintering. They will still be delicious even if they are small. Mike the Gardener sent me some ‘White Sweet Spanish’ onion seed. It’s a long-day variety, and my garden is pretty much on the dividing line where you should grow short-day onions south of my house and long-day onions north of my house, so I figure I might get away with either one. The ‘Ailsa Craig’ onions from Seed Savers Exchange are another long-day variety that I’m hoping will work for fresh eating through the summer. I’m also trying ‘Yellow Granex’ from Botanical Interests. It’s a short day onion that should have been planted in the early fall, but some years that just doesn’t happen. I’m going to try it anyway and see how it fares compared with the ‘Walla Walla Sweet’. Hopefully one of them will be happy enough to bulb.

I’m also experimenting with ‘Copra Hybrid’ storage onions. The seed is old, packed at Territorial Seed for 2009. No hard feelings if it doesn’t sprout. I know onion seed isn’t supposed to keep well. The other storage onion I’m thinking about trying is the ‘Gold Princess’ onion, but it’s a cipollini onion and they seem to need space around them to develop well. I’m going to wait until things warm up again before making a good spot for them.

What’s the first thing you’ll plant for the 2012 garden? I think my next project will be beets, then it’ll finally be time to get some of the tomato and pepper seeds going.

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!

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.

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.

My Little Seed Data-Bank

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In my quest to achieve new heights of garden nerdom, I have begun to compile a database of the seeds I am planning to use for 2011.   The first 122 hopefuls are listed by seed source, type, variety, year the seed was packaged for and any comments I have to add from previous years of growing them. Most of the seed is open pollinated, from small operations owned and run by actual people wherever possible. Some of the seed I purchase from a couple different sources so I can compare how each performs in the garden under our growing conditions.

Seed to Seed

I’m growing open-pollinated seeds from Bountiful Gardens and Adaptive Seeds because I like the idea that I could save seed from year to year and eventually end up with a variety that has adapted to perform better in this area in the ways that matter to us. My mother-in-law handed down some of the family fava bean seeds to me this Christmas Eve. They have been adapting to growing in our Zone 9b location for at least 35 years, and to growing in nearby Santa Cruz for several generations before that.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75% of agricultural crop diversity was lost during the 20th century. Think about that for a minute. The climate is changing at the same time the diversity of crops we are going to need to meet the challenge of that changing climate is being lost. Farmers all over the world used to save their own seeds, seeds that adapted to the local conditions, just like my in-laws saved their favas and basil seeds. But now enormous amounts of seed diversity are being lost and huge corporations are controlling, patenting and hybridizing seed resources. 25% of the world’s seed supply is already controlled by just three agro-chemical corporations. I think they can manage without the seeds growing in my yard too.


Hybrid vs. Open-pollinated