Friday, August 14, 2015

Pigweed - an ignoble name for Amaranth

The weed, which has been best able to take advantage of absolutely zero rain, and scorching afternoon temps, has been Pigweed. Green Amaranth. It doesn’t strike me as one of the weeds folks might be tempted to pass by in their weeding, because it has an ornamental value, say, such as bindweed. It has nondescript leaves & no noticeable flowers but instead, a prickly, tassel on top — a shock of seeds which look spiny as if to say: ‘ Hey, don’t think of messing with me.”*

In this time where healthier grocery stores are popping up on every corner in my metropolis, and increasing numbers of health nuts shunning wheat or gluten, Amaranth is a name that most have heard, though not everyone has actually used out of their pantry. It is, indeed, not a true grain; its rather, a seed. It is the smallest whole ‘’grain’’ in my kitchen. It is also more sweet and more sticky than the other grains I cook. So, I reserve it for breakfast with milk/cream and fruit.

I do l like it. But, like dandelions, though they have great value in my diet, I prefer to erect a large wall in my mind between the cultivated versions (for me that’s the Clio variety of ‘dandelion’ which actually, is in the bitter greens family — a chicory) and the weed ones. But, this time, after delving into all the internet had to serve up on the issue of amaranth, I believe this is one weed I’ll simply choose to view as a plant in the wrong place. Maybe in the wrong time. If there was a economic disaster that left me seedless, I’d like to know its around.

Like purslane, this weed is a little powerhouse. Purslane with omega 3 in its leaves, and pigweed seed with its oils. Amaranth seeds contain 5 percent to 9 percent high-quality oil, again, much higher than the common grains. Found in the amaranth oil are tocotrienols — a relatively rare and very beneficial form of vitamin E — and squalene, another rare compound reported to have anti-cancer properties. Squalene is also the oil which most resembles the molecular structure of our own skin’s sebum; it is recommended as moisture therapy for dry skin in individuals with very sensitive skin. However, it is also quite expensive.

Also, Amaranth seeds have a protein content of about 16 percent, more than other widely consumed cereals like conventional wheat, rice or maize, according to a book on the topic by the US National Research Council. Amaranth’s protein digestibility score is an impressive 90 percent, much higher than problematic foods such as soy, milk and wheat.  Native Americans collected the seeds and ground them into a meal.

Unlike other weeds, amaranth boasts both edible seeds, as well as leaves. As with most greens the youngest are the best. It has been said they taste like spinach.  They can collect high levels of nitrates. It's best to avoid any that are growing in lawns and areas that may have been fertilized with a high nitrogen fertilizer.

Pigweed, then, its like another vegetable in your garden. Its taking up nutrients and offering them to your table. With an eye to the next growing season, keep pigweed under control by felling it before its seeds sufficiently develop to produce viable offspring. Or gently clip it at ground level in the autumn, turning those lovely greens into the soil to nurture it & clipping seed heads into your kitchen bowl, to separate seeds from chaff and enjoy!

For a comprehensive guide to amaranth identification see

*Its a bit like all the climbing roses my former homeowner planted in key walking junctures where there is nothing for a rose to climb! So, instead, rose thorns obstruct our oath into the lounge area of the backyard & fall into the entrance to the garage. Whether to work, or play, they want to make it difficult to fulfill one’s purposes. That’s an illustration straight out of ‘House as Mirror of Self’’ by Claire Cooper Marcus, huh?!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Recapping All I've learned to control Slugs in my Vegetable Garden

Impressions are that slug issues are non-existent in my state. But, given that I live very close to a mountain stream, surrounded in its length by a belt of indigenous green, slugs meander down the cul-de-sac to my backyard garden.

Three years ago, when I had the arborists at work in my yard, leave all the resulting mulch for me, I had unintentionally created a slug paradise. Why gardeners in my city didn't use mulch all over their veggie crops, why I didn't see gorgeous bark, so readily available all over, I couldn't figure out. I learned!

I've tried beer traps, I've tried citrus traps, but I'm convinced that only invites more perps to the party.  The wet spring, lured them to my coleus which they ate to the ground. Note to self: transplant coleus once the hot temps of summer have hit, and the slug party is done.

I thought using soapwort as an edging would keep them at bay; I had read they refuse to cross a healthy strip of soapwort. Instead, I found them hiding under the soapwort by day, and coming out to munch veggies at night!

I thought planting leeks, garlic, chard, lettuce and brassica in the part shade part of my yard was a smart idea. If you have slug issues, however, the barest, sunniest, hottest part of the yard is the only part for vegetables! 

After living in this home for more than several years, I understand where they spend their days. Under dandelions in the lawn; under the shade of several underpruned trees, in my southeast corner; near the garden hose output, which is also the north side of the house; under tarps used for killing portions of yard we're converting to gardens, under bark mulch in the shade of tall flowers, and - of course - nearest the compost pile.

Right before and after a late afternoon rain, or very early in the morning, a sweep across the lawn in through their favorite domains, I find them waking and making their way to the garden. I pick them up and dispose.

For short term control, I keep coming back to Sluggo or Iron Phosphate.  But, its a financial investment and it requires re-application every several days, in my opinion.

Long term, I have now a feel for what needs to occur. It'll take some savings and effort. I always say, I'm on the 10-year plan.

1) All vegetable gardens should be located in the hot sun, away from trees (with an exception for garlic, the only thing I've found they avoid).
2) The beds, are surrounded by a nice border at least 2' feet wide, of bare dirt, which is hot and dry even into early evening or landscaped with crushed granite or pea gravel (but not so thick they find refuge there).
3) If there are any holes in the garden, or spots under the paving stones I've laid down as stepping stones in the beds? All need to be filled in. Yesterday, while watering my transplanted sorrel, as water accumulated near its stem, a small army of slugs emerged. Unbeknownst to me, I had left an airpocket there when I transplanted. If your transplants are not thoroughly tightly covered in soil, it can leave a cool spot below soil level that the slugs will find, for sure!
3) Tidy, tidy, tidy!  Keeping airspace between plants is so key. I thought a bushy, slightly overgrown, au natural garden was for me. It reminded me of lusher climes from which I herald, & fits my lifestyle of less time in the garden, more time enjoying it. I'm trying to recover from this vision. Sigh.
Keeping shade out of the garden, is one more impetus to trellising my squash. (I have an old chainlink garden gate door, which will be properly anchored for this purpose.)
4) Raised beds - even made of rough stone - at a height of 3' or higher helps, but is not a panacea. I've found slugs there, but in lesser numbers than down low, next to the lawn.

5) Ditch the mulch! (So counter-intuitive in a high desert climate!) Bark mulch is not a friend, but shallow rock where sun bakes, is tolerable. Pavers -where budget allows - are a godsend. Yep. Think living space outside, which truly adds value to your home.
7) Less lawn, is always better.
8)The north strip of lawn, requires proper sloping and drainage to a slotted culvert &
9) The area under the garden faucet, where leakage may hit the ground, should be covered in slate or recycled materials used as paving.]''

-Are there strips of copper one can buy to edge all beds? YES!
-Can one rent chickens in my city, and move them around the back yard? Yes, but I'm not convinced that I am committed to babysitting them sufficiently to keep them out of desired edibles.

Putting money into a backyard living space, is the way we'll spend our budget for now, which contributes to the value of our home. Smart gardening is smart money.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Imported Cabbage Worms - nastly little green Caterpillars!

If you're like me, before you started gardening, your impressions of gardeners included someone who really liked dirt. Someone who didn't mind washing filthy vegetables. Perhaps someone who cohabitated happily with slugs, and slimy earthworms, pesky biting bugs of all sorts.

I am here to set the record straight.

This morning, I went out to examine the undersides of my brussel sprouts leaves.  I brush off the tiny little spines which are actually cabbage worm eggs, too. They are really tiny. They're easy to miss.  I was sure to do it all last week before taking a couple of days off for the July 4th holiday.  Just a couple of days.

BUT cool, cloudy, and drizzly they were. Perfect conditions for hatching cabbage worms (or imported cabbage worms, formally)?? Apparently, YES!  And they eat 5 time as much a a slug. And they grow 10x as fast, for sure!

The two can be confused - in terms of what their damage looks like. But I find:
- damage from cabbage worms is more extensive/faster moving
- while the cabbage worms eat mostly the top, tender new growth if they can get at it - slugs are less picky.
- cabbage worms always leave a HUGE trail of poo (Yes, the word gardeners use is frass). Its like little oval, shiny, dark green pearls. Hugely gross.
- Of course, cabbage worms are truly hard to spot. They show up in photos way more visible than they are to the naked eye. I wash off my leaves, top and bottom, and then inspect again, and found twice as many as I spotted the first time! They seem to have a scary kind of wisdom; you'll NEVER see them lying over or perpendicular to a leaf vein.

Growing up, my Dad HATED cabbage worms. In fact, though summer after summer, I was paid to chase after the white butterflies that lay these nasty eggs, he still never defeated them. They defeated my dad. He gave up on growing brassica.

This summer is the summer of butterflies - I've seem Swallowtails galore and even a monarch - its also the year of white cabbage-worm spawning, white butterflies, sadly.  So, as 'Grow' magazine advises, I'll throw down a row cover. It only costs about $10 for a large one (enough for 2 rows, at least! I make good use of it over the season - keeping soil damp for bean seedlings, shading transplanted tomatoes on bright days...etc) from my local garden center. I will be comparing the price against good ol' interfacing from my local fabric store. I'll let you know what I find.

In the meantime, I fertilized the traumatized brussel sprouts, dusted them with diatomaceous earth - which I do not find deters the butterflies, but may make eating less pleasurable for the worms - and watered them well, too.  I just gave 'em a little extra TLC out of guilt for my negligence.

I do take solace in one fact, they are cold tolerant. Taking a hit on their growth at this part in the season, I may be able to make up for in autumn. Gardeners LOVE gardening in the cooler seasons. Insects slow down or disappear. Vegetables which are cold tolerant can continue to grow, with covering in the coldest nighttime temps. So, it will be with my beloved brussel sprouts. And I will dream of sprouts roasted in the oven with balsamic vinagrette as I baby them and wait.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Mild Hot Pepper Varieties

It's true. When I came to this state, I found that it was a rite of autumn, to make a big ol' pot of chile, serve with tortilla chips and watch the first football games.  Back home, when I talk about 'chile' we are talking chili. The kind with plenty of red kidney beans and ground beef, garnished with shredded American cheddar.  Here, instead, we are talking chile. Green chile.

I do love a nice bowl of Santa Fe green chile. Just not every day.  Also, when one has younger diners at the table, a chile with a milder attitude, may be preferred.

In a time, when the hotter the chile, the better -- when downing something that will make your ears bleed (as mine have, with consumption of a really-too-hot chile) - is cool, finding a list of **mild** hot peppers is difficult.  Even with the internet as a research resource!

Last year, the creme de la creme for us, was a mild Sonoran Anaheim chile. We purchased them roasted from a local greenhouse. Yep, garden centers everywhere, and even major a gas-flamed roaster, propelled by a sweaty human. The roasted gems are handed to you in a ziploc, marked with a Sharpie and cost about $5-7 per lb or $10-12 per small Ziploc.  I thought I couldn't go wrong on the ROI, growing them myself!

Here you have it.  They are not arranged in Scoville units for two reasons. First, I find the depending on the soil (how compact), the sun, and how hot the accompanying ambient temp is, the hotness of the pepper can vary. Also, I am still trialing these in my conditions, to see which ones I can reliably count on to be mild. But, here are a few to try, as I am.  I've poured over many seed cataloges and am growing most of them.

Cajun Belle
Spanish Padron
Numex Joe E. Parker
Sonoran Anaheim
Pulsilla (tho' this is better known for its prominent role in Mexican mole sauce)
Ancho Poblano
Felicity Pepper
Pizza Pepper from Territorial Seed

Some might also add Pepperoncini (the mild 'hot' greek pepper that Papa John's serves alongside its pizzas) to this list, but as they are generally pickled, rather than roasted, they aren't really thought of for hearty soup.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Short Growing Season? --- Mature what you have FAST!

This year I planted later than my folks in zone 5, and I'm in zone 6. Their tomatoes, cucumbers and beans were transplanted, while mine sulked at the window looking out on yet another day of cold, cold rain. The soil remained cool long into late May! Just now, in late June, do the old timers say ''Mother Nature has finally settled down.'' Its hot, sunny....real hot.

My tomatoes and cucumbers will likely show something to harvest, should the growing season last into mid-September as it usually does. But, I am reckoning with scrapping my hopes that this be a big year for canning garlicky dill pickles. (I've been looking for the perfect recipe all season long!) I had planned on this being the year I truly focused all my learning and love on my sweet melons.  But that, too, may not be a worthwhile use of time.

Yep, resetting expectations.

What *is* a worthwhile use of time?
1) Ensuring plants, which will thrive in the conditions summer is providing - both the hot and the shorter season, have what they needs for optimal growth.

A. BEANS: I didn't plan on focusing on string beans, but I didn't wait long for the first batch to emerge, before giving up (my own saved seed for purple pole beans) and replanting. The second time around I went straight to the bean experts in my garden for how to plant optimally, and which varieties do well. This is not a year for sloppy planting or trying out a new variety.

B. WINTER SQUASH & MELONS:  I pulled a lovely, big winter squash plant this morning. Burgess Butternut - both a prolific producer and my fave for soup.  It hurt so much! Yet, I knew that its presence was going to cheat the sweet melons of sun nearby.  (Trellising isn't a viable option in a bed raised this high. Winds often precede our late-afternoon rains.) Yep, need to ensure the sun pattern is just right and influence it in any way I can.

In fact, I am generally clearing out anything I can, which will compete with maturing plants, as soon as possible. for example, I am not waiting for my 'cut and come' lettuce to come again. Its going after the first large head. Peas, which I generally allow to dry in the garden, will instead, be taken down when all pods are ripe.  (And all parts tilled under so that max nitrogen fixing is realized.)

I am also fertilizing. I generally don't do alot of this, spending rather additional monies on great soil. But this year, I'm not counting on my soil to do all the work. I love Dr. Earth and FoxFarm.

Here's a good schedule for fertilizing:

"The first time for fertilizing butternut squash plants is when the seedlings are a few inches tall. A dose of fertilizer at this stage will help the plant to get as large as possible. Larger plants mean bigger, more well formed squash. Once the plants begin to take off and get big, avoid adding more fertilizer until after the blossoms appear. This will encourage the plant to focus its energy on producing squash. After the blossoms appear, another dose of fertilizer can be applied to maximize fruit production. "

Finally, pruning and burying squash vines - this is a delicate matter! - and excess flowers, too, can help your squash vine to put energy into fewer fruits, which ripen before your first frosts.

C. TOMATOES and EGGPLANT: This isn't the year for trying out new water-saving strategies. Instead, a long, slow soak - as long as your busy schedule allows - is the name of the game. I do this each morning. Knowing that I am novice enough to over-watering, I team my deep watering with---
Plenty of HOEING and oxygenating those roots. Give 'em what they need, folks, and your plants will grow wild!

Ok, and of course, I am watching the pests a bit more closely.
- I am holding mulch at bay,
- I check the undersides of the leaves of my brassica for little green worms for a couple minutes in the morning,
- I generously sprinkle Iron Phosphate around lettuce and brassica at night - I am not holding back on my battle with slugs!  &
- Emerging beans are dusted with diatomaceous earth, as soon as they emerge. In my deep, soak watering method, I can lay the hose near the beans, and water in a way that helps me avoid re-dusting each day.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A few more Plants which Attract Beneficial BUGS

I've done it again. Planted a beloved plant which attracts the hawkmoth at night, within a short distance from my veggie patch. Shucks!

I've seen them flying about 4 o'clocks in the past, so I left them off the landscape roster this year.  But shucks!  I see hawkmoths devouring my larkspur, at twilight, too. 'Grow' magazine reports that the larva LOVE nicotiana. Elementary! But I missed skipping that one, too...sigh. Avoid all light-colored tubular shaped flowers, they say. Larkspur isn't exactly light-colored.

Tobacco hornworm will do serious damage to tomato plants. Boy, are they nicely camouflaged! They are so easy to miss. Honestly, I find them ugly.

Last early winter, I found a HUGE hornworm in a box of tomatoes, I was ripening after the first frost, atop my fridge.  It was munching on any little leaves and stems I left behind on the tomato, as I had been advised, this was a better way to ensure that the tomato ripened well, when picked fully green from the plant.

I could have perhaps created a zen balance in my garden, by interplanting flowers which attract parasitic wasps to my plot - wasps which lay their eggs inside the unsuspecting hornworm - yep inside! - such as cosmos & sweet alyssum. 

Johnny's Seeds makes a 'Beneficial Insects Attractant' seed mix selling it in 500 seeds or by the ounce and pound. It includes a few I hadn't thought of before such as -
Dill, Siberian Wallflower, Coreopsis, Daisy, Cilantro, California Poppy, Fennel, Globe Gilia, Liatris, Begamot, Baby Blue Eyes and Rudbeckia.

On first glance it seems the mix is to attract bees, too, but they offer a 'bee feed' mix in a separate product. Also, they note, this flowers/herb mix is formulated to attract predator insects. I can't say even with a fresh, swollen bee-sting to the lip, as I write this, that I consider a bee a predator.

So, hail, hail to planting more herbs and flowers in the garden! (And if you're looking for the gosh-darned best company for herb seed selection, check out John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds!)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Burpee seeds Grow old Fast & Germinate very Poorly after their Inaugural Year!

I live in a climate where its dry. Quite dry.  Getting used to a place much drier than what I grew up with, there are many mental adjustments to make. For starters, I had to scrap my ideas of what should be included in an ornamental garden, and embrace a whole new look!

There are benefits, too. Blight is far less common here.  Devouring the advice in 'Grow' a special publication of 'Fine Gardening' I learned that beans grown in dry climates are the safest to harvest when the intent is to use as seed bean the next season. Why? Common blight on seed beans is rare where precipitation rarely penetrates the pod when the beans are growing....forming. Lord knows, the hot dry of this place, dries up any moisture in the pod before anything can take hold!

In general seed keeps very well here. Sure, I take extra precautions, such as keeping it out of direct sun and storing it in ajar Ziplocs in a dark, dry basement room. Truly, I can still germinate seed well into year 3 and 4; in the case of tomatoes and peppers -- into year 5 and beyond! My fellow garden club members note that this is not uncommon.

But I have one beef. Why should it be, grown side by side, my Burpee seeds truly don't germinate after the first year of purchase?  Whether its beans, basil, corn, radicchio, annual agastache, 4 o'clocks, or Robinson's painted daisy, ... I can't get them to budge!  Any of the other seed companies I support, don't seem to have this issue. In fact, my own seed, unwashed, not properly separated from chaff (all conditions that contribute to its deterioration in storage) even germinate fabulous compared to my Burpee seed in year 2!

I've read what I can about the company.  In this post, you'll find interesting links. If you're not going to use Burpee seed up in year one, forget it. BUT, is there more than meets the eye if they're produced to play dead forever after, if not used up in year one?  Its too creepy.