Garden, Plant, Cook!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Yesterday's Seed Share Q&A and a Free Children's Gardening Book From Baker Creek.

Dear Folks,

Yesterday turned out to be a great Free Seed Day!

Over 120 seed packages went to new homes and I got some great seeds in too - Thank you Jacq Davis for the Papaya and Moringa Seeds and a very nice young man who brought Passion Flower seeds for the Seed Bank.

I did a lot of Q & A and clarifying on frost protection, planting time and some soil questions.  And, what about using shade cloth?

Shade Cloth or Planting in Shade.  Here is the thing, if you plant at the right time for the variety, shading in any form except with a limited number of species, is not necessary.  If it is edible it needs the sun, as much of it as can be accessed.  Plant like strawberries and peppers benefit from a bit of the late afternoon shade, but still like about 6-8 hours of direct sun.

If you absolutely feel you must use shade cloth for whatever reason you have to understand how high to place it.  Shade cloth too close to the tops of the plants holds in the heat, creating a HOTTER not cooler environment for the plants.  Have you ever stood under an umbrella or ten canopy on a hot day and wondered why it felt hotter when you have "shade"?  Same principle there is no air flow sufficient to minimized the radiant heat produced by a fabric when the sun is beating down on it.  (There are exceptions like mylar coated tents or similar.)  Most folks presume that because you can see through shade cloth there is air movement.  Nope!  There should be a good 4-6 feet clearance between the top of the tallest plant in the garden and the shade cloth to avoid heat retention.

Preferably it should be place directly over - or slightly to the west of the garden area so that the plants can get at least some of the sun they need.

Tomatoes - One of the gardener's Holy Grail of plants and worth it if you do somethings right in the desert garden.

To begin with, we get two growing seasons out of a tomato planted in January/February.  Spring and fall.  The pollen can't set in the middle of the summer when our night time temperatures are in the 80s.  The fruit starts to set again as soon as those temps drop back in late August /early September.

Seeds or transplants need frost protection until mid-March (on the outside of the time frame).  Tomatoes do not like cool/cold soil and will actually stop growing if we hit a couple of cool/overcast days. They will start growing again when the soil warms back up.

Unless you plan on planting a forest of tomatoes - many, many plants all planted close together - do NOT stake or cage them.  Let them Sprawl.  High up is hot and dry, low down is cooler and moister.  The vines get very strong and will generally hold the fruit up off the ground without a problem.  Usually the sprawling vines also cover the fruit well enough to keep them visually out of bird site.  IF Fruit touches the ground, just slip an un-coated white paper plate under the fruit to keep off soil.  Do the same thing with melons or squash or any fruit which touches the ground. Use can use a piece of wood or a brick instead.  (Large growers frequently use straw for the same purpose.)  The bacteria in our soil is great but also a problem for tender fruits, causing them to rot and attract bugs.

Amending Soil:   First about our "native" soil, worms and moisture.

Looking at a very dry, hard as a rock area of backyard or land most folks just can't see what lies beneath.  Worms and moisture!  Where are they?  About 3+ feet below where the moisture ensures the worms a hospitable home and they are NOT going to come up into the dry earth above until it is more welcoming.

How do I know this?  Because 20 years ago when Deane decided to completely rework the barren (except for mallows following a rain), hard as a rock backyard, the only thing we got sticking a shovel into the earth was an occasional grub.  No Worms.  Period.

He brought in several tons of compost, used one of the huge tillers to work the property stem to stern, until the soil looked like black talcum powder, and then he watered, leveled and bermed the entire perimeter and started planting trees by digging enormous holes for each one - six feet to be exact.

Along the way down - he encountered impressive caliche (a chemical reaction between the intensity of the sun, and high mineral content of the soil and water) a couple of feet down and below that was moist soil with an occasional worm!

Fast forward 1 year and digging and working in this revitalized soil we started encountering worms.  Fast forward to today and we can stick a spade into the worked areas and find 2-3 worms per spade or 8-12 per shovel full.

Amending  is about bringing in "organics" like finished compost, well rotted manure and working them into the native soil to "fluff" and increase drainage.  There are minerals in un-amended soil,  along with microbs and beneficial fungus, which together with the healthy "living" compost and manure create a perfect recipe for happy plants.

Compost vs. Mulch
          Compost is worked INTO the soil.  Mulch is put ON TOP of the soil, to cool the soil, minimize evaporation and begin or help the process of creating a hospitable environment that those worms - remember them - will want to come up into, bringing their rototilling, manure spreading, reproduction activities into.

The reason for the BIG difference in where the mulch is placed comes down to this:  wood chips are not composted yet.  If they are incorporated INTO the soil they steal nitrogen from the soil, rather than add to it.

I had a nice conversation on reclaiming a barren lot with a young man and gal.  He was bringing up the concept of wood chips, mulch layered to begin the process of revitalizing his backyard - he knew his subject very well and we discussed the methods and sources.  Layering with wood chips, mulch, compost if you have it, manure creates an incredible reclaimation environment that you can begin to plant in after about 6 months.  You are looking for 8+ inches in depth.

Free Wood Chips  You can call a tree trimming service and arrange for a load of wood chips to be delivered, Free, to your home.  This is a wonderful win/win because the landscaper is saved a run to the dump or landfill and you get a free mulch.  FYI - IMPORTANT points:  1)  They will deliver a load when they are in your area - sometimes you can arrange and exact date and time, but not always.  2)  You will get a HUGE amount of wood chips all at once - about the entire length of your driveway, which you will have to wheelbarrow to your garden locations yourself, unless you want to pay for it to be moved.

I found an excellent short video illustrating just how big the pile is along with aspects of what might be in the pile.  The videographer makes a nice point of building a relationship with a landscaper if you envision getting more than one load of wood chips.

Wood chips can be a component of "Sheet Mulching".Layering mulch to create healthy soil is referred to as Sheet Mulching or Lasagna Gardening.  Watch Greg Peterson over The Urban Farm show you how to get a healthy bed going this way.  Greg explains both long term use and short term use of the layer area.

Frost Protection / Planting Time.

We are at the end of cool weather planting the beginning of warm weather planting. BUT - planting the warm weather plants now means having frost protection available or in place (Poor Man's Cloche) until mid-March.  It is about the occasional frosty night until then and even the possibility of hail.

Sowing seeds directly in ground, with proper watering, generally results in healthier plants overall.  Water/sprinkle every day until you seed germination above ground (that means keeping it moist - not soggy - during the entire under-ground germinating process), and then you can start backing off the water to less frequency and more duration (deeper) to encourage good strong roots deep away from the soil surface and excess cold and heat.

Many of us "artificially" start seeds, in posts, jiffy pellets (I use these), indoors, using grow lights and heat mats.  This works very well, germinating most seeds if done properly.  The thing is -- these plants may not have the same stamina if started directly in the ground.  It is a matter of the "strongest survive".

So if you have the option - direct sow.

We can still see soft frost (anything under cover whether blanket, tree or patio cover) will generally be okay with little or no damage.

Hard frost is possible this year with our freaky El Nino and its huge temperature swings.  Hard frost moves "horizontally" as opposed to soft frost's vertical pattern.  Hard Frost also means sustained (4 hours +) below 32 degrees and is difficult to prevent damage without the use of a heat source like old-fashioned Christmas tree lights and cover.  Or moving plants into an above freezing level area.

DO NOT remove any frost damage yet.  Not until we have no possibility of additional frost.  If you did not see my previous post of February Planting, Hail is the link.   I discuss a little more about end of frost and include a picture of a poor man's cloche.

Getting Back To Seeds:

Baker Creek Seeds:  I received this email from them yesterday (so timely to my seed share), which I wanted to pass on to you all.

"Did you know that Baker Creek has published a kids' gardening booklet? Yes! This fun and informative publication, Amazing Seeds: A Kids Guide to Strange and Wonderful Garden Veggies, contains 32 color pages of interesting facts and how tos for growing veggies. And the best part? We are happy to send quantities of booklets for FREE to schools and homeschool groups, as well as to libraries and special events. Just send an email to,“Attn: Free Kids Book” in the subject line."

I'm always happy to answer questions via email or at the Mesa Community Farmers Market.

Watch my post regarding my Free Lecture open to the public at Mesa Urban Garden on February 20th.  Details to be announced.

-- Catherine, The Herb Lady

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Survey Results and Notes.

Dear Folks,

I want to thank all of you who took the time to take my little survey back at the beginning of the month.

I also received an additional comment about more monthly planting information.

Here are the results of the survey:

desert gardening  (87%)
edible landscaping in the desert (75%)
culinary herb gardening (50%)
more like my 25 days of Herbs & Celebrations (50%)
cooking from the garden (37%)
more on edible flowers (37%)
healthier recipe versions of traditional foods (25%)
chickens, ducks, goats (0%)

I'm going to take these one at a time and comment.  If you wish to add a comment, please do, it helps me know what you need to be more successful in YOUR garden.

Desert Gardening  (87%)

In looking at the interest in this option I probably should have been more specific, because what I had in mind was Native Edibles.  So I'm going to go with that as the focus.  If any of you had something different in mind I would like to know that!

Native plants are, of course, more tolerant of our desert conditions, require less watering than your usual veggie, fruit and citrus tree gardens, and have a cultural significance that makes them attractive over and above their edibility and other uses.

I would encourage you to check out Jean Groen's growing (pun intended) list of books on foods of the Sonoran Desert and other areas of the state.

Jean is a friend and as knowledgeable an expert on desert foods as I try to be on the 'traditional' garden-grown foods.

Order via sending her an email through the website. You can also find her books at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum bookstore.   Or find some of her books on Amazon. I recommend starting out with  "Foods of the Superstitions Old and New"

With that in mind, many of the food plants most gardeners so like, such as corn, melons and squash, have native heirloom varieties.  Those are regionally adapted for this climate, but also take a bit more water than true desert plants.

Take Mesquite for example.  This wonderful bush/tree has edible pods, provides shade, requires no watering once established (they do grow taller etc. if they get regular watering) and can be used to reclaim fallow areas in order to establish a vegetable garden.  I will post more on that in a future blog.

Prickly Pear and Jojoba are some of the best known edibles.  Both do well in a low/no water use garden.  The Prickly Pear has edible flower, fruit and pads (being mindful of the thorns and glochids (hairy base of thorns).  I will discuss these and more in future blogs.

Edible Landscaping in the Desert (75%)

My top passion.  Upon arriving in Arizona in the 70s I discovered that there was no summer only gardening, but all-year gardening.

Like many new-comers it took be a bit to start understanding that spring fever enthusiasm for planting EVERYTHING as soon as the temperature was in the mid-70s to 80s was NOT a key to growing things.

What actually began as a need to put more flavor in my cooking through culinary herbs and spices (due to family salt and fat restrictions), morphed into a true passion to try and grow everything I tasted.

I found the concept of edible flowers intriguing - color and safety in my food and color and happy pollinators in the gardens.  Win/Win for everyone and everything.

Gradually I discovered that trialing a couple of each type of plant in different areas of the gardens yielded not only successes but also what did not work, at the same time observing the timing of planting and sowing.  As each variety showed me where and when it was happiest, I also learned to take that learned knowledge and apply it to what might be considered exotic food plants.  I was insatiably curious about new-to-me veggies and herbs from other cultures.  I read and researched every chance I got, purchased plants and seeds to add to my trialing.  I quizzed folks of ethnic backgrounds on what their grandparents and parents grew and ate.

That proved to be both a challenge and a delight.  While at the farmers market I would ask someone what their ethnic heritage was.  This almost always, initially, brought a guarded look and answer.  When I told them I wanted to know what their grandparents or parents grew and cooked with - the delight just lite up their faces and I listened and learned..

The results in my gardens with all of my Trowel & Error gardening yielded an amazing result.  I have found very, very few food plants that cannot be grown here.

The key is always, always to plant at the right time for the variety.

Culinary Herb Gardening (50%)
More Like My 25 Days of Herbs & Celebrations (50%)

The breadth of culinary herbs may seem small, but the range within families is quite large.  You could use a different flavor of basil every day for a month and not exactly repeat the flavor.

I will weave posts on culinary herbs into the Edible Landscaping posts.  It is interesting to me that so many folks view of herbs begin with a notion that herbs in the garden are unattractive and relegated to the back of the yard, out of view.

Most herbs are not only attractive, their flowers are edible (fragrant and tasty like the herb itself) and while some are 'plain' some are just drop-dead gorgeous plants in or out of bloom.

I am so pleased many of you enjoyed the 25 Days of Herbs and Celebrations.  I will definitely keep the concept of series in mind when choosing topics.

Cooking from the Garden (37%)
More on Edible Flowers (37%)

I have to pay more attention to my recipe building as this survey result would indicate I don't always showcase what I used from the garden.  I do regularly create or re-share recipes but I don't always mention when I worked from the garden harvests.  I need to get better at that :-)

The range of edible flowers goes from vegetable and herbs flowers (sugar pea flowers and basil flowers) to old-fashioned cottage beloved flowers like hollyhock, stock and nasturtium.

I will try to do a blog post which incorporates more discussion on individual edible flowers with appropriate planting/sowing time.  The great thing about edible flowers, here in the desert, is you can have edible flowers in bloom every month of the year including the summer.

Healthier Recipe Versions of Traditional Foods (25%)
Chickens, Ducks, Goats (0%)

Okay no discussions that only focus on chickens, ducks or goats - got it!  However if you have the place and a need for "fresh" -- goats milk (and yogurt and cheese made from it) is wonderful along with your own chicken and duck eggs.  There are side benefits for your gardens too - fertilizer :-)

Healthier Recipes.  I am more and more interested in making my own version of commercially produced foods.  Just recently I made a version of Cheeze-Its crackers using locally made cheese.  There is no way this was low calorie, but I'm going to adjust the ingredients to make it higher protein to calorie ration, which is one of my guiding principles when making a homemade version of something.  Compared to Cheeze-its my recipe has only 5 ingredients.

There are exceptions - if it is a dessert I just try to make from better ingredients (organic sugar, organic butter etc.)

Most of my recipes, including my homemade versions of commercial products is focused on my formula for what constitutes nutrient dense.  The total number of grams of protein and fiber added together and divided into the calories for the serving resulting a factor number.  Nutrient dense food has a factor of 20 or less.

An example is my "Seed/Nut Cheese Cracker"  which has a ND factor of 12.97 compared with Triscuits which has a factor of 20 (THE best of the commercial crackers but still with a lot of chemicals and high sodium in it).

I have some more ideas for homemade versions of foods I will be sharing in the future.

. . .


I want to thank you again for taking the time to give me feedback on what matters to you.  I won't try to follow a proscribed schedule, instead doing regular posts addressing one or more of these themes.

Have a great week - it is going to be pretty nice most of it.

REMEMBER - my Free Seed Share this coming Friday at the Mesa Community Farmers Market - 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

-- Catherine, The Herb Lady

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

February Planting, Frost, Hail and Fertilizer

Dear Folks,

[Pictured: Poor Man's Cloche]


Artichoke; Asparagus; Basil; Bay; Bean, Lima; Beets; Bok Choy; Cantaloupe; Carrots; Chard; Citrus Scented Marigold (Tagetes Nelsonii); Collards; Corn; Cucumbers; Epazote; Fruit Trees; Jerusalem Artichoke; Lavender; Lettuce & Greens; Marigold; Marjoram; Melon, Musk Melon; Melon, Winter; Mint; Mustard; Onion, Sets; Onions, Green; Oregano; Peas; Peppers; Potatoes; Purslane; Radishes; Sage; Savory; Spinach; Squash, Summer; Strawberry; Thyme; Tomatoes; Turnips; Watermelon


Bee Balm (Monarda Didyma); English Daisy ; Hollyhock; Jasmine Sambac (Arabian); Pansies; Primrose; Purslane; Safflower; Scented Geraniums; Snapdragons; Sunflower; Sweet Alyssum; Tangerine Scented Marigold (Tagetes Lemonii)

Frost/Freeze:  Average last frost day is approximately February 15th, however frost and hail has been seen as late as the second week in March.  It is best to have your frost covers handy.

GARDEN TIPS for February

February is the transition time for the garden from Winter to Spring sowing, transplanting and harvesting.

There is still time to get a last batch of carrots, sugarpeas, lettuces and similar in the ground. Choosing short maturity varieties, particularly of the root veggies, will give you more harvesting success as the weather jumps to heat in a couple of months.

February is also the time to start your warm season plants like tomatoes, basil and peppers, to name a few.  But they may need some initial frost protection.  Keep in mind that they may actually stop growing if there is a cold day or several, which chills the soil.  Then they resume when the soil heats back up (an interesting phenomenon I finally caught on to several years ago).

The weird weather of the last couple of years in February/March with high temps followed by overnight chill/freeze (Global Weirding as Karis over at the Valley Permaculture Alliance put it so well), makes for some required diligence in the garden in February and March.  It pays to remain more mindful of what the weather will be rather than just sow and try to grow.

February is the end of the primary perennial best planting time in the valley (October - February).  What this means is that to ensure the best success for your perennials like rosemary, oregano and fruit trees, it is best to have them in the ground before the end of February and the beginning of our temperature increases.

New to-the-valley residents can be surprised by the common spring joke of "when is spring here?" and the answer is "do you remember that period in early March when it was about 78-83 or so degrees for about 2 weeks? - that was it!"

This of course is due to the sudden rise of temperatures from balmy mid 70s in late February / early March to the 90s by April 1st (or higher - we have had the rare 100+ degree days in late March or early April).

The plants just can't take the stress of dealing with putting down roots while the temperatures soar into the 90+ range in just a few short weeks.

Fertilize fruit trees now -- Use Valentine's day as the target -- (and again in late May (Memorial Day) and early September (Labor Day).
    Pecan trees need zinc sulfate, applied at the rate of 1 pound per trunk inch width.

    The last frost date averages around February 15th, although we have had frost as late as March 1st or 2nd (usually the result of a late winter storm with hail).
    Frost in the Valley at the 1100 or lower elevations is usually limited to ‘soft frost’ where simple sheets or paper placed over sensitive plants (or moving potted plants beneath patios or trees) is sufficient to protect them. Hard/Killing frosts are rare particularly in February/March.
    For every 1000 feet over 1100 in elevation the last frost day is moved back 10 days and the possibility of hard (killing) frosts starts to occur.  At 2000 feet or lower, this is still a rare occurrence.
    Getting your edible seedlings in the ground as early as possible provides longer-produce seasons - especially with plants like tomatoes.
    Use homemade 'cloche' covers to protect seedlings -- cut the bottom of gallon milk containers or 2 liter soda bottles - clean very well to avoid mold -- place over plants each night until frost danger is past, remove during the day, or if you need to be gone for several days remove the cap to allow excess heat and humidity to escape.
    How do you know if we are finished with frost?  There are some examples in nature, but you still need to be prepared to cover sensitive plants through the 2nd week in March.
        a. Ant activity in the garden indicates the soil has warmed up sufficiently for them to start gathering food again.
        b. If the mesquite trees have started to bud out, it is unlikely to frost after that
        c. Be aware that a warm storm can contain some hail through March.

    Here in the Valley we can have Hail on an expected basis in Spring, early Summer and Fall.
    The perfect conditions for Hail are warm OR WARMING soil, cool air mass coming in AND wind.

    February and March have the perfect combination of warming soil and a cool system moving in.  If you add wind you will generally get hail.
    So, while actual frost may not happen keep your frost protection covers and jugs handy in the event of hail to safeguard your new seedlings and transplants.

-- Catherine, The Herb Lady

My calendar can keep you on track for planting veggies, fruits, herbs and edible flowers at the right time through out the year.

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