Turnip Testing 2011

Leave a comment

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!

Worm Casting Experiment 1S

Leave a comment

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.

My Little Seed Data-Bank

Leave a comment

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

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.