Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Wonderful Wonderberry

Part of the excitement of growing your own food is trying out some plants you haven’t tasted before.  We all love to try new varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchini’s, peppers, melons and other easy to grow vegetables to experience the range of different flavors available from our fresh, homegrown produce.  So it was a pleasant surprise to find a plant that could bowl me over with a flavor unlike anything else I had ever tasted.  It was the historic heirloom: ‘Wonderberry’.

Luther Burbank
I came across the Wonderberry in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog for 2011 earlier this year when I was putting together my seed orders.  The first thing that caught my eye was the botanical name of Solanum burbankii.  It was related to the tomato, AND it was developed by plant breeder Luther Burbank who developed the ‘Burbank’ tomato, my all time favorite.  On researching the plant, it turned out that the Wonderberry was the center of a very heated debate in the early 1900’s after Burbank sold the rights to the seeds to nursery agent John Lewis Childs in 1909, who changed the name from Burbank’s ‘Sunberry’, to his own ‘Wonderberry’.  Childs then brashly promoted it with outlandish claims as:

"Luther Burbank's greatest and newest production. Fruit blue-black like an enormous rich blueberry.  Unsurpassed for eating ... in any form. The greatest garden fruit ever introduced .... Easiest plant in the world to grow, succeeding anywhere and yielding great masses of rich fruit."

Prominent American horticulturists and plant scientists from as far as Kew Gardens in England stated that it was nothing more than a common weed (Solanum nigrum) or black nightshade. And newspapers across the country had a field day trying to discredit both Childs and Burbank.  Finally, in the late 1950’s, the ‘Wonderberry’ was proven to be a separate species, with seed roots in Africa, but not until the plant had vanished from commerce for decades in the wake of the controversy.  It’s now making a comeback as more gardeners give it a try.

The front of the seed packet I received from Baker Creek had a painted drawing instead of a photograph, so I had little idea what the plant was going to look like in the garden.  I planted the seeds on May 1, 2011 and by the end of June they had grown to small bushes with tiny white flowers.  By the end of July they had grown up to 3 feet and needed to be staked.  I tasted the first shiny black berries about a week later. They were watery with a slight tomato taste and very little sweetness.  I was not impressed.  But just a little over two weeks later that all changed.  The berries were no longer shiny but had a dull cast to them.  The tops of the petals holding each berry were a light yellow color instead of green.  The flavor of the berries was much improved and they were sweeter.   It was time to pick.

I looked for recipes on the Internet and found the most common way the Wonderberry was being used was as a jam.  I printed a few recipes for reference then went out with a cottage cheese carton to pick all the berries.   

Picking wonderberrys is completely different from picking other berries.  If you grasp the individual berry and pull, you’ll likely end up with squashed berry innards all over your fingers.  Instead, you gently roll the berries with your fingers and they will come right off the stem and fall into your hand.  Place a container under a cluster and the berries readily drop in as you roll them.  There will still be green berries on most of the clusters.  These will not come off if you roll them, and need to be left on the plant to ripen.

By the time I had rolled most of the black berries off the stems, I had about 1 ¼ cups of fruit.  Once in the kitchen, I poured the berries onto a paper towel spread in a large roasting pan to weed out any tiny bugs that may have fallen in and to pick out any green berries and plant debris.  Then the berries went into a strainer where they were gently washed.

For the jam recipe I used orange peel as a thickener since it contains a natural pectin in the white pith.  The orange peel gives the jam a very slight orange flavor note.  Lemon peel can also be used.  

I made the jam as a “refrigerator” jam since there’s just not enough to bother processing in a hot water bath to store away—it will be eaten way too soon.  But you will still need a sterilized jar to pour the finished jam into.  You can process the jar for storage if you wish, following standard canning procedures.

Wonderberry Jam

1 cup wonderberrys (I used all of what I picked, a little over a cup)

1/3 cup sugar

Peel of ¼ of a medium orange, including the white pith.  Cut this into long thin strips about ¼ “ wide.

Half-pint mason jar with lid, sterilized in a hot water bath


  1. Place all ingredients in a small kettle and bring the heat up to medium. 

  1. Stir well as berries begin breakdown. 

  1. Turn heat up to a medium-high.

  1. Press the berries with the back of your spoon as you stir to break them down.

  1. Continue to stir and press the berries until the jam comes to a low boil.

  1. Turn the heat down to simmer and let the jam continue to slowly cook for about 45 minutes or until the liquids have reduced by at least 1/3 of original amount.  Stir occasionally.

  1. Turn off the heat.

  1. Remove the orange peels with tongs and set aside to cool on a plate.  These are delicious once cooled down.

  1. Remove the sterilized jar from the hot water bath and pour in the jam.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Wonderberry Jam has sweetness similar to a grape jam but a decidedly different flavor.  It's absolutely delicious on an English muffin or a slice of toast with butter.  Spread on a generous spoonful of this dark amethyst colored jam and relish the WONDERful flavor of the Wonderberry!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mid-Season Harvests in My Sacramento Garden

It’s mid-season harvest time and the vegetable garden has been thriving, despite the unseasonably cool summer—and maybe because of it.    The front-runners are the vegetables with “big” seeds that were initially planted in 4” pots and allowed to grow until rooted enough to transplant.  They included the banana squash, bush bean, cucumbers, pumpkins and zucchini.

Banana Squash—I’ve always wanted to try banana squash, not so much because I like to eat it, which I don’t, but because of the novelty of the huge fruit it makes.  The vines of my banana squash have grown very long and taken over a lot of garden space, as expected, with one vine that found a way to climb up a bush next to the fence and is heading over to the other side of the fence into the neighbors yard (lucky them!).  It took 5 weeks before the plants produced the first female flower, with the first squash now over 19” long and growing.  There are a couple more little yellow torpedoes starting to grow now but the plants seem reluctant to produce anymore female flowers.  That’s okay, because I think we have enough; there’s no room for more.

Bush Bean ‘Nugget’—these plants started out with sparse growth and weak stems resulting in the bushes flopping over with watering or in the wind.  About 3 weeks into their growth I packed a solid 3-inches of mulch all around them to help keep the soil moist and hold up the plants.  I also fed them with fish emulsion every week.  In less than 2 weeks the plants had grown fuller, the bushes were standing up straight, and beans were forming on all the stems.  I picked the first cream-yellow beans a week after for soup and have been harvesting every 5-7 days since.  The bushes are pretty much finished and I could start some more if I wanted to since they have an average harvest time of 52 days.  But I think I’ll wait till next year.  The beans are good in soup and vegetable stews.  The taste is very mild.

Cucumber ‘Marketmore 76’—this cucumber gets both thumbs up for ease of growth, prolific fruiting, and delicious taste.  The roots in the 4” pots were very well formed at the time of planting and the plants had their first bloom just a week after planting in the garden bed.  I set up a trellis line for the vines and they were attaching readily.  The first cucumber began to form by the third week, and by the forth week I was picking.  From then on, the vines began to flower nonstop with little baby cukes showing up every day.  I’ve been harvesting cucumbers every 3-5 days.  These cucumbers are big and solid with a clean, slightly sweet flavor and not a hint of bitterness.  They can be picked between 6 and 9 inches and are usually straight, but can be curved.  Take two cucumbers, peel, slice thin and cover with rice vinegar mixed with about 2 tablespoons of sugar,  ½ teaspoon of salt, and a dribble of sesame oil.  Nummers!

Cucumber ‘Green Slam’—compared to the ‘Marketmore 76’, this cucumber is a disappointment.  The transplants struggled from the time they were put in the bed next to ‘Marketmore 76’ and only by packing a thick mulch around them, did they finally start to put on growth.  I had to help them attach to the trellis as the vines grew.  The small leaves also wilted severely in the heat which meant pouring supplemental water around them every afternoon.  I don’t think the plants put down very long roots to get at moisture deeper in the soil.  The cucumbers are small and I picked the first one about 7 weeks after planting.  These cukes should be picked at about 6 inches.  The flesh is dryer than ‘Marketmore 76’ and the taste is very mild.  It does have fewer seeds.  When I grow this cucumber again to use up the seed, I’ll plant it in a tub where I can set it in a spot with afternoon shade and see how it does.  I think ‘Green Slam’ may be better suited to coastal climates rather than the hot Sacramento Valley conditions. 

Pumpkin ‘Jack Be Little’—I planted 3 4-inch pots at the end of the corn bed right around the end of May.  They have been growing vigorously since that time and have begun to grow along the woven trellis around the corn--even growing over the top of the corn patch.  I checked the vines in vain every morning for over 7 weeks for female flowers; male flowers all over the place, but no females.  Then one day 2 weeks ago, I moved a leaf aside and, there it was, the first little pumpkin, looking like a creamy marshmallow at the end of the stem.  It reached about 4 inches in diameter and colored a deep orange this week —ready to pick.  It’s so cute.  It sits right in the palm of my hand.  And, wonder of wonders!  There are more female flowers showing up and more creamy chunks growing on the vines.  Fingers crossed, I’ll have a bushel by October!


Zucchini ‘Revenue’—what can you say about zucchini?  It pretty much grows itself.  You just have to find homes for all the zukes as they seem to explode off the bushes all at once.  ‘Revenue’ is a really good variety.  The plant stays fairly bushy with a shape around 3’x 3’ with very slight vining.  Two bushes are plenty for two people.  The color is a medium green (see the sample in the basket above) and it has a nice, clean taste that works well in scrambled eggs, creamy soups, mixed vegetable stews or chopped in salads.  I was a little worried when the bushes stopped producing at the end of August, but they started putting out more zukes about a week later.  Needless to say, the production is starting to get out of hand again.  Time to dig out my Zucchini Bread recipe.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Corn Lodging Follow-Up

The corn block is doing exceptionally well since I set up the woven containment system for each stalk.  In fact, the corn stalks have grown almost 1/2 foot since last weekend and are now up to 36" tall.  
This won't be the end of my worries, though.  When I picked the corn variety "Honey & Cream" from the catalog, it was because the description sounded so good:   

"Nothing beats the old-fashioned flavor of this classic, bicolor corn.  
Succulent and sweet, 7 inch ears form 12 rows of the most flavorful, creamy kernals".  

I had fixated on "old-fashioned flavor" and "flavorful, creamy kernals".   I failed to seriously take into account the rest of the description:  "Robust, 7 foot tall plants ..."  

                                                  7-FOOT TALL PLANTS!!  

What was I thinking?  Obviously, I wasn't.  Most corn varieties for the home garden fall in the 5-6 foot range which would have been a better height for my garden.  With the corn growing in a 16" high raised cinderblock bed, the tops may eventually be unreachable.   ..."where corn grows as high as an elephant's eye"...

So my plan is to add 8 foot stakes at the corners and continue to corral the block of corn inside the twine enclosure to prevent "stalk lodging".  That's when the corn plant is actively growing ears and breaks in the middle of the stalk from strong gusts of wind.  The result from this type of lodging is pretty much total loss of the plant.

I'll be learning more from growing this block of corn than I had ever imagined...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Corn Lodging in the Home Garden

I know a lot of gardeners in the Sacramento Valley have planted corn as part of their vegetable garden mix.  But wind conditions on Sunday were really bad for the young corn stalks just getting going with our late spring heat.  Gusts of dry, northwest winds started up early in the morning with a few strong gusts to 30 mph; sustained winds were between 18-20 mph.  I looked out the kitchen window around 10:00 am and couldn't believe what had happened to the corn.  The stalks were lying almost horizontally in the bed and the wind was continuing to beat them down in erratic waves.

I ran out to see how bad it was.  It was bad.  It could have been worse had I not planted baby pumpkins at the south side of the bed.  They were holding the end stalks up just enough to keep the stalks from lying flat on the ground.  I'd heard of this condition and even seen pictures of it in huge corn acreages, but never thought it would happen in my garden.  It was "corn lodging".

Corn can stand slow wind speeds with the roots acting as guy ropes to anchor the plants against lodging.  But during high wind events, the windward roots are pulled from the soil while the leeward roots start to buckle from the fluctuating changes in the direction of the wind, causing the plants to compress down onto the next row of plants.

When lodging happens in large corn fields a decision is often made to leave the corn alone for a few days while the stalks redevelop a root-system, causing the stalks form into a vertical pattern called "goosenecking".  This may decrease photosynthesis and increase the potential for diseases, but it is usually not a complete loss for the farmer.

Because my block of corn is significantly smaller than in the big farms, I decided to use a method for holding the stalks up throughout the season and help prevent possible lodging as our summer winds blow through the valley.

I don't remember where I had seen this method but I know I'm not the first one to use it for the home garden.  It's a simple weaving of twine down the rows in one direction and through the rows in a perpendicular direction, leaving each corn stalk in its own protective cage of twine.

The corn stalks are now back to almost upright positions.  More twine levels will be added as the stalks continue to grow.

Although I feed the corn with fish emulsion every weekend, I decided to add an additional side-dressing of vegetable fertilizer (5-10-10) to encourage faster root development.  Now I just need to wait and see if the corn recovers and gets back on its way to growing tasty late summer treats.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Will Old Zucchini Seeds Germinate?

A question one of my readers asked, after seeing some of the old seeds I was planting, was if old Zucchini seeds will germinate.  I can now say YES! …and NO.  The Squash ‘Slender Gem’ from 2005 and Zucchini ‘Round Bush’, also from 2005 did not germinate—none ever even broke the surface.  But the Zucchini ‘Revenue’ from 2005 all germinated and have grown to healthy plants in their 4” pots.   My suggestion if you’re wondering about planting seeds 3 years or older is to plant them in 4” pots rather than directly into the garden, in case they don’t germinate.  But also make sure you leave some space in the garden for the plants in case they do germinate.

Seed germination has not been a big issue with this years crops since most of the seedlings came up by the third week of May.  It was the last week of May and the first week of June that has had the most impact on all of the plants.  I lost the ‘Orange Delight’ melon which just did not thrive in the unseasonably cold and damp.  And the melons ‘Hales Best’ and ‘Jenny Lind’ are just hanging on.  I may just plant a fresh crop now that the weather is warming up.

Equally holding on are the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra.  They’re still in the 6-packs with too little root development to transplant to 4” pots.  With a three week minimum rooting period in the 4” pots before transplanting into the gardens, it will likely be mid-July before any of them get transplanted into the gardens. 

Looks like September harvests will be very big this year…

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

As our unseasonably cold and wet weather continues, my anxiety over the newly germinating seeds has hit fever pitch.  Last Sunday I watched anxiously for any sign of the hail that was predicted and finally had to run out to cover the 6-paks of seedlings with empty flats when ¼” hail started pelting the gardens.  The seedlings were mostly the tomatoes, basils, peppers, okras, stevia and wonderberry.   On Monday morning, Baby Kitteh followed me out to the garden where I found that the tiny hail had made minute impressions where it had smacked into the cotyledons of the banana squash, which I hadn’t covered, but by afternoon the holes were filled back in.  The seedlings in the 6-paks did all right with the flats protecting them, even the ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes, which are just starting to push their first true leaves.

Unfortunately, the constant cool, wet weather has brought on another problem: slugs and snails!  This morning I pulled two giant snails off the sides of the cucumber pots (they had already done some sampling) and after checking underneath a couple more pots I found a whole neighborhood of slugs cooling their antennae until nightfall.  So just before sundown today, I went out and looked under every pot and pulled off the slugs.  I’m not good at salting them or stepping on them so I put them on the bottom of a basket with the hopes that the birds will find them and make them a tasty meal.  Do birds even like slugs?

Saturday, May 14, 2011


The greatest pleasure I get from growing my own vegetables is to start them from seeds then wait for them to germinate. It’s not that I haven’t a high level of envy when I see 1 gallon plants at the nursery, already well established and rooted, certainly moving fruit harvest up by weeks. It’s just that I have an innate childish excitement when I go out to the garden every morning to see if any seeds have broken through the soil overnight. It’s like Christmas every day. Then I’m checking off-and-on all day long to see if there’s a bulge in the soil surface or a spot of green stem showing through a crack in the soil.

All my seeds were sown from April 27th to May 1st. I made a list of germination times for each and then waited to see if the seeds came up in the normal germination window, the average being within 6-14 days. Most of the seeds have come up on time, but there are signs (or really no sign at all) that the Pumpkin ‘Baby Bear’ from 2006 and the Zucchini ‘Revenue’ and ‘Round Bush’ from 2005 are not going to come up. The seeds were old but I had hoped for some viability yet. I’ll wait till the end of next week, then toss them if the seeds don’t come up.

The Peppers ‘Hungarian Yellow’, ‘Large Red Cayenne’ and ‘Sweet Banana’ have also not come up but their window of germination is one of the longest—8 to 25 days. So I can be waiting until about May 22nd before they emerge. But I’ve grown peppers before and know this is normal. It just means a late season harvest.

The tomatoes have also been slow to germinate because it’s just been too cold at night, and daytime temperatures have been fluctuating as well. Once we get more days in the 70-75 degree range, and nights above 55 degrees, they should take off. It’s this temperature variance that can cause tomato seeds to take their time germinating or just rot in the soil all together because of the cold. I’ve planted tomato seeds as early as late-February to mid-March and have had 5” plants by the end of April. This has just been a colder than normal Spring and the tomato seeds show the effects.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Seed Planting for the 2011 Summer Garden

The long awaited day to start planting my summer garden seeds finally arrived on Thursday April 28th when the weather predictions were for at least 65° for the day. The potting soil, cell packs, 4” pots and flats were all ready to go. All the seeds start in cells or pots and then are transported to the gardens once well rooted. I just can’t keep up with the slugs and snails when I try to plant directly in the beds. And the container planting tends to produce very healthy, well-rooted plants that transplant well.

What I thought would only be a day or two of planting spread over the whole weekend as I dug through some of my older seeds to add to the mix of new Territorial Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. I generally toss any seeds over 5 years old, but some of the larger seeds like zucchini, melons and pumpkins will stay viable a little longer if kept under good storage conditions.

The biggest change for me this year was to only plant a limited number of cells or 4” pots of each seed. In years past, I’ve dutifully planted all the seeds that came in the packets, ending up with dozens of flats filled. But when it came time to plant the rooted seedlings in the gardens, I would come up critically short of space—even with additional space in my sister’s garden in Davis--and would end up trying to give the rest of them away or finally sending soil and seedlings to the compost pile. No more planting every tomato and zucchini variety I can get my hands on! This year there are only four tomatoes and two zucchini varieties, which makes more room for cucumbers, melons, okra, some basil, a good sampling of peppers and a few odds and ends.

I also had to plan for the ‘Jumbo Pink Banana’ Squash that will be taking up a great deal of garden ground very quickly. The 2 baby pumpkins won’t be quite so bad since their vines will be in manageable lengths.

And then there’s the ‘Honey & Cream’ Corn. The well composted spot I thought I would plant in has just too much shade for almost half a day. I’m going to have to use the raised bed I had planned to let go fallow this year and beef up the nutrients a little sooner than planned.

Here’s the list of seeds in alphabetical order with the Seed Company and year listed in brackets. Descriptions for the Territorial and Baker Creek seeds are in my recent blogs. There are some seeds listed from a company called Rogueland that were purchased in 2009 in bulk discounted sampler bags. They’ve grown very well for the last couple of years. As the seeds develop I’ll enter pictures and information in this blog and hope for a good year of winners.

Basil ‘Geonovese’ (Rogueland 2009)

Basil ‘Large Leaf’ (Rogueland 2009)

Bush Bean ‘Nugget’ (Territorial 2006)

Corn ‘Honey & Cream’ (Territorial 2011)

Cucumber ‘Green Slam’ (Territorial 2011)

Cucumber ‘Marketmore 76’ (Baker Creek 2011)

Eggplant ‘Black Beauty’ (Rogueland 2009)

Eggplant ‘Japanese White Egg’ (Baker Creek 2011)

Grain ‘Brown Maskal Teff’ (Rogueland 2009)

Herb ‘Stevia’ (Baker Creek 2011)

Leeks ‘American Flag’ (Rogueland 2009)

Melon ‘Hales Best’ (Rogueland 2009)

Melon ‘Jenny Lind’ (Pinetree Garden Seeds 2006)

Melon ‘Orange Delight’ (my save from ~ 2008)

Okra ‘Eagle Pass’ (Baker Creek 2011)

Okra ‘Star of David’ (Territorial 2011)

Onion ‘Red Burgermaster’ (Botanical Interest 2008)

Pepper ‘Hungarian Yellow’ (Rogueland 2009)

Pepper ‘Large Red Cayenne’ (Rogueland 2009)

Pepper ‘Sweet Banana’ (Rogueland 2009)

Pumpkin ‘Baby Bear’ (Pinetree Garden Seed 2006)

Pumpkin ‘Jack Be Little’ (Territorial 2011)

Squash ‘Jumbo Pink Banana’ (Baker Creek 2011)

Squash ‘Slender Gem’ (Burpee 2005)

Tomato ‘Cherokee Purple’ (Baker Creek 2011)

Tomato ‘Early Girl’ (Territorial 2011)

Tomato ‘Green Grape’ (Baker Creek 2011)

Tomato ‘Stupice’ (Territorial 2011)

Tomato ‘Stupice’ (Totally Tomato 2006)

Wonderberry (Baker Creek 2011)

Zucchini ‘Revenue’ (Territorial 2005)

Zucchini ‘Round Bush’ (Bountiful Gardens)

I think that’s quite enough!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

I’ve had my eye on Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds ever since I saw one of their fabulous seed catalogs at my friend Virginia’s cabin in the back woods of Mendocino County. I had always marveled at the wonderful selection of vegetables she had in her gardens whenever I would go up to visit. When I opened the catalog I thought it was a high end glossy magazine. There were huge colorful photographs of many of the vegetables, along with extensive comments and history about the seeds. The prices for seed packets were in the $1.50-$2.00 range, which meant that the quantities were just right for a backyard garden.

The business statement about the purity of their seeds was what interested me the most and is the strongest statement you’ll find from any seed company. And that’s very important to me.

“All of our seed is non-hybrid, non-GMO, non-treated and non-patented. We do not buy seed from Monsanto-owned Seminis. We boycott all gene-altering companies. We are not members of the pro-GMO American Seed Trade Organization! We work with a network of about 50 small farmers, gardeners and seed growers to bring you the best selection of seeds available! Many of our varieties we sell were collected by us on our travels abroad.”

"The Evangelists of Heirloom Seeds"--The New York Times

"...These are the people on the cutting edge of food culture..."O, The Oprah Magazine

So, I ordered a catalog at their website: They don’t even charge for this seed book masterpiece! The hardest part was whittling down a $50.00 order to about $30.00, including shipping. I still have to watch my budget.

I sent in my order April 15th and had the seeds by April 21st.

Here are the seeds with the catalog descriptions. The first group will be planted right away for the summer garden.

Cucumber ‘Marketmore 76’dark green 8”-9” fruit. Great slicer. Good yields. Excellent flavor!

Eggplant ‘Japanese White Egg’full, rich flavor; lovely 2”-3” white fruit are perfect for stir-frying. The plants give heavy yields all season.

Wonderberrydeveloped by Luther Burbank. Tasty small blue-purple fruit, good fresh or cooked. Small plants produce good yields in about 75 days. A historic heirloom that is easy to grow and fun for kids. Grow like a tomato. Do not eat green fruit.

Okra ‘Eagle Pass’from the area around Carrizo Springs and Eagle Pass, Texas. A great okra that is less slimy than others; big pods are tender and delicious. Productive plants are a favorite of the farmer who grows this variety.

Squash ‘Jumbo Pink Banana’large, pink banana-shaped fruit, can weigh 10-40 lbs. This variety is about 100 years old with a fine flavored, dry, sweet orange flesh. Popular on the West Coast. Large yields.

Tomato ‘Green Grape’sister to ‘Green Zebra’, this tomato is rich, sweet and zingy. The fruit are lime-green inside and have chartreuse-yellow skins. They are about the size of a large grape, perfect for salads and snacking.

Tomato ‘Cherokee Purple’an old Cherokee Indian heirloom, pre-1890 variety. Beautiful deep dusky purple-pink color. Superb sweet flavor and very large fruit. Try this one for real old-time tomato flavor.

Herb: Steviaa hard-to-find herb that is grown for the famous Stevia leaves which, when dried, are used to sweeten drinks and desserts.

These seeds will be planted in late summer for fall harvest:

Beet ‘Cylindra’a wonderful heirloom from Denmark, this one is famous for slicing with its long, cylindrical roots. Produces much more uniform slices than round beets. This tender and sweet variety is also known as “Butter Slicer” because of it’s wonderful texture. [I’ve grown this before and rate it best of all in flavor and cooking quality. Not so earthy tasting as some varieties].

Radish ‘Chinese Red Meat’the colorful “Beauty Heart” radish of historic China. The 4” round roots have white and green skin, but the magic is in their rose-red center which is so sweet, crisp, and delicious. A good radish to add color to salads and stir-fries. Must be grown in cooler weather and does best when fall planted. Sometimes called “Watermelon Radish” at market.

Radish ‘German Giant’very large, round red radish that was collected in Germany. These keep their fine quality even when large. This heirloom is very popular with the Amish. Mild and tasty.

Turnip ‘Boule d’Or’the “Golden Ball’ or “Orange Jelly” variety has been a mainstay of European turnips for over 150 years. This seed came to us from France where this old turnip is still cherished. It has a finer flavor than many of the white-fleshed varieties as the yellow flesh is sweeter and milder. Lovely color. [I had tasted a gold turnip before and was so pleased to find it didn’t have the sharp, sometimes bitter bite, a white turnip can have].

Spring Garden Overload--April

Only another gardener can appreciate the feeling of desperation that settles in when we have an over abundance of rain at the beginning of Spring, followed by a short “false spring” (when everyone thinks it’s time to plant tomatoes), then colder than normal temperatures, then another light warming with a few early spring showers, followed by a couple more frosty nights, all which keep the soil too wet to work in and too cold to plant in.

We watch the weather reports religiously to see how much the thermometer has inched closer to the 65 degree daytime temperature mark that favors seed germination. Then one morning we wake up to the sun shining and the frost finally over... and the snail and slug population exploded, grey aphids all over the cabbages and kale, and a nasty, sticky weed creeping all over every corner of the gardens...

We HAVE to clean out the squatters while waiting for the temperature to warm up to seed sowing range. What else can you do?

I ordered more seeds.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Apricots and Peaches

When my father was transferred from the east coast to Mather Air Force Base in California in 1954, it was a permanent move that meant looking for housing for our family of nine, with one more on the way. I will be forever grateful that he settled on a two-story house in a new subdivision with ¼ acre plots. Before we even got a fence built around the backyard, Dad had planted a mini-orchard with every available fruit and nut tree he was able to find. The mix included an apple, apricot, cherry, crabapple, French prune, fig, nectarine, almond, plum, and two peaches. For the next decade, Mom was busy in the kitchen during harvest season canning the fruit and making cobblers, pies, jams, jellies, and fruit filled cookies. The smells coming from the kitchen were wonderful!

But the orchard slowly deteriorated. The apple tree died first, then the nectarine and cherry. The other trees were declining at a slower rate but by the time they were around 15 years old, they were pretty much done. The fig and the almond were the last of the trees to go. The fig just fell over on its side one day and had to eventually be cut apart and removed. That left the almond, which gave us our beautiful “snow” every year when the blossoms fell. The tree had made it to a very old age, over 40 years, when a 50 mile-an-hour gust of wind took it down on a soggy, rainy night. The last of Dad’s orchard was gone.

Over the years the backyard became home to a number of shade trees to cool our home in the hot Sacramento summer: silver maple, sequoia, privet, camphor and loquat. Last fall a few of those trees had to be removed for being too close to the utility wires. That left some wide open spaces along the fenceline. I immediately thought of putting in some new fruit trees.

So just before the bareroot season was over, I bought a ‘Fantastic Elberta’ peach, with very showy double pink flowers in the spring, and a ‘Harcot’ Apricot which will give us a sweet, juicy fruit with an “especially rich apricot flavor”. Both have been planted with a mixture of soil amendments to add more nutrients and microbes to the soil. Our constant spring rain should help get the root system settled in and ready for the warmth of spring.

Now there is only one open space left. I’m seriously thinking about putting in another almond. Nothing beats having your own personal “snowfall” every spring and having a reminder of the magnificent orchard Dad planted many years ago.

almond blossom photograph courtesy of Yolo Farm Bureau

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Seed Order for Summer Crops--Territorial Seed Company

Although I have many packages of vegetable seeds, there are always some irresistible descriptions in the seed catalogs for vegetables I haven’t tried. I rationalize that some of my seeds are getting past the 2-5 year cutoff point for viability and I need to get replacements right away.

When choosing a seed company, the first thing I look for is whether they have signed the Safe Seed Pledge. The pledge states that the company will not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. If they do not have a statement to that effect in their catalog, the catalog is tossed.

Thankfully, more and more seed companies are taking that pledge. One such company, Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon,, was one of the first to sign up. Their pledge reads:

“As charter signers of the Safe Seed Pledge, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. We wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems, and ultimately people and communities. All of our seed is untreated”

Because I buy seeds from about a half-dozen seed companies, each order is a portion of the final inventory of seeds I want this year. I like that Territorial has ‘Sampler’ packets with a small amount of seed that can be used up within 1-2 years. Since I’ve bought from Territorial in the past, and have been very satisfied with their seeds, they are getting my first seed order this year**:

Corn ‘Honey & Cream’—“…old-fashioned flavor…bicolor corn. …sweet, 7 inch ears form rows of the most flavorful, creamy kernels. …7 foot tall plants exhibit disease resistance.”

Cucumber ‘Green Slam’—“…one of the first slicers to ripen, and it continued to pump out cucumbers all summer long. …6 inches long…nice clean flavor, without a hint of bitterness.”

Okra ‘Star of David’—“…heirloom variety…extra plump… …distinctive, tasty okra flavor. Cut one in half and its fascinating cross section reveals a geometric, six-pointed Star of David. …5-6 inches long (or smaller)… productive plants when kept picked.”

Pumpkin ‘Jack Be Little’—“Terrific for decorations and eating. These charming little orange pumpkins are 3-4 inches across, somewhat flattened and ribbed, with small, strong stems. Short 5 foot vines produce 6-12 of these fascinating miniature pumpkins.”

Tomato ‘Early Girl’—“A widely adapted variety for early tomato production. …plants bear 4-5 ounce red, globe-shaped tomatoes…

Tomato ‘Stupice’—“This cold-tolerant tomato ripens sweet, red, slightly oval, 2 inch fruit that make an excellent choice for first-of-the-summer salads, lunch boxes, and juicing. Stupice consistently gets high marks for taste throughout the summer. Pumps out fruit over the entire season. Bred in the former Czechoslovakia [and is pronounced “stu-peach-ka”]. Indeterminate potato leaf variety.”

The corn, cucumber and okra all sounded like really tasty varieties to try. With the tomatoes, I’m going with two early varieties since we’ve had more than two years of unproductive tomato plants in the heat of the Sacramento Valley summer. The variety ‘Stupice’ sounds especially good. I can’t wait to see how it performs. And the pumpkins are just for fun. After growing the ‘Sugar Pie’ pumpkin last year, and finding how easy pumpkins are to grow, I just had to grow some more.

Pumpkins are a great crop for the wee gardeners to start with, too.

**permission given to use photos from Territorial Seed Catalog

Monday, February 28, 2011

February—A Month of Contrasts

While most of the east and Midwest were getting slammed by horrendous snowstorms and flooding the first part of the month, here in Northern California we experienced another “false spring”, much like we had last year. Temperatures reached into the 70’s in some places with the resulting warmth causing many of the winter vegetables to bolt.

My Pak Choi varieties took the biggest hit, including ‘White Stem’, ‘Ching Chang’ and ‘Tatsoi’. But the 4” pots of ‘Tatsoi’ setting on top of the compost bed were not bolting, instead growing into huge, substantial plants. I didn’t have a spot for them in the garden so the pots were set over the fallow compost bed, along with some pots of Collards and Broccoli. I just bunched up the soil around them and left them for the winter. Their extremely healthy, robust growth confirmed what I was trying to change in my composting practices: switching from composting in separate bins to composting right in the garden bed.

For years I had been tending to 6 compost bins, made of circles of chicken wire that would get
filled with leaves, grass clippings, garden waste and kitchen scraps. Once one bin was filled, it was left to compost on its’ own while I filled the next bin. Usually every spring and every fall I would sift out the finished compost and work it into the cinderblock beds that are my vegetable gardens. It was great for keeping the soil loose and made gardening in the beds really easy to work in.

But I found that I had to add more fertilizers to get good growth from my vegetables as the years went on. And last years winter garden just didn’t have any oomph at all. Not only that, all of the cabbages, kale, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts got hit with a massive infestation of gray aphids and no amount of hosing off or insecticidal soap would stop them. My summer plants didn’t fare much better. The bush beans, melons, tomatoes and peppers just didn’t seem to thrive. Something was lacking in the soil.

I looked over where 3 of the compost bins were on one side of the yard, and then to where the other 3 bins were on the other side of the yard. Plants all around them were thriving and even getting a bit pushy. It was my eureka moment. All the wonderful nutrients that were being made from the breakdown of the compost by the microbes, earthworms and soil bugs were benefiting whatever plants that were reaching their roots under the piles. By the time I would haul the ‘finished’ compost to my garden beds, a good portion of the nutrients were used up.

That’s when a second light bulb came on. Why don’t I compost right in one of my cinderblock beds? It would mean keeping one of 5 beds fallow for a season to build up the nutrients, but it was worth a try. And to make a richer garden bed, I decided to concentrate on vermiculture to produce earthworm castings right in the garden bed.

So last October, I began to put all the kitchen scraps in one bed: egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit scraps and vegetable scraps only. No leaves and no grass clippings, just the type of food earthworms would love and could break down quickly into nutritious castings.

Now I can see how well it’s already working with the pak choi, collards, and kohlrabi—and with them still in their pots! Contrast that growth with the sluggish growth of the cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts that I planted last month in another tired bed.

One more month of feeding the bed should be enough, then one more month to let the earthworms finish everything off and it will be just the right time to put in tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and melons. I can taste them already!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seed Catalog Orders

Now is the time to start going through your seed catalogs and putting in orders. Here are a few plants I’d recommend trying since they’ve done well for me in the past with few problems. These would be especially good for gardeners just getting started with growing vegetables for the first time.

Basil ‘Italian Large Leaf’—easy to grow and a constant supply of leaves for cooking well into September.

Beets ‘Cylindra’—very sweet with a deep beet flavor. The best beet flavor I have tasted in any variety. They’re long instead of round.

Broccoli ‘Premium Crop’—plants grow up to 2 feet tall and have very tight florets up to 5 inches in diameter. Delicious flavor.

Cauliflower ‘Self-Blanche’—absolutely delicious heads up to 5” in diameter, with a mild flavor and light sweetness. I’m not a cauliflower lover but having tasted it right out of the garden has changed my mind.

Cucumber ‘Armenian Yard Long’—very easy to grow vining cucumber that’s really a melon. You’ll be picking 12” long “cukes” within 6 weeks of planting.

Cucumber ‘Boston Pickling’—an old variety of pickling cucumber that can be harvested continuously once it starts producing. Excellent sliced up in salads.

Sorrel ‘Large Leaf’—a vigorous plant that forms a tight mound with leaves that can be harvested for soups and salads. It’s a perennial and makes a great source for greens year-round.

Kale ‘Nero Di Toscana’—also known as Black Palm this kale has very dark crimply leaves up to 10 inches long. Very winter hardy.

Lettuce ‘Nevada’—this is a Batavia type lettuce resembling an iceberg but a bit looser leaves. It is virtually resistant to insect or disease problems like tipburn, bolting, and downy mildew. Outer leaves are huge but just as sweet and flavorful as inner leaves. My number one favorite lettuce both for ease of growing and for flavor.

Lettuce ‘Paris White Cos’—a Romaine type lettuce heirloom from 1879. Super easy to grow in small garden areas since it grows upright rather than spreading out. Harvest outer leaves as the head matures. It has a very clean, rich lettuce flavor. Seeds may be hard to find; mine were from Burpee.

Mustard ‘Mizuna’—a graceful mounding plant with feathery leaves, this mustard is a must for novice gardeners to try. The leaves have a slight peppery taste and can be mixed with salad greens or added to oriental soups and stir-fries. Plant ‘Mizuna’ in the flower garden for a softening effect and for coverage of spring bulbs after blooming.

Onion ‘Red Wing’—these beautiful, glossy burgundy onions are super easy to grow and can take a lot of neglect. Pull the largest bulbs from the first season, store the smaller ones over winter in a cool place and plant out again the following year to increase the bulb size. It’s not a big onion, maybe up to 3” in diameter. The flavor is sharp and sweet and lends a great color to salads.

Baby Pak Choi ‘Green Fortune’—a newer heat-resistant variety that is slower to bolt than most pak choi varieties. It grows very compact and can even be grown in cinder block holes. When the plants do begin to bolt in early February, you can eat flower stems and all.

Pepper ‘Anaheim’—if you’re new to growing peppers or are worried about growing a variety that’s too hot, try the ‘Anaheim’ pepper. It has mild heat and is great in hot dishes like eggs and soups and, of course, stuffed as chili rellano. The plants stay under 2 feet and once flowering starts the bushes will produce peppers until the killing frosts in December.

Pumpkin ‘Sugar Pie’—this compact pumpkin grows very quickly and can have 6-8 pound pumpkins ready to harvest by early September. It stores well once picked and is excellent roasted with butter and brown sugar. The pulp also makes wonderful fresh tasting pumpkin pies.

Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’—no other Swiss Chard can stand next to this variety for ease of growth and its festival of colors. Delicious and colorful in soups and stir fries. Harvesting of the leaves can go on year round.

Pineapple Ground Cherry—for the sheer delight of trying something new, grow some ground cherries. It’s related to the tomatillo but has a taste between a walnut and a sweet green tomato. Different, yes, but well worth a try. Plants are very vigorous and fill out a 4-foot garden space quickly. Fruiting is constant and heavy.

Tomato ‘Burbank’—with hundreds of varieties of tomatoes available I still come back to the ‘Burbank’ for old-fashioned clean tomato flavor, juiciness and low acid. Introduced in 1915 by Luther Burbank, this tomato does very well in Zone 9 conditions. My seeds came from Seeds of Change.

Tomato ‘Green Grape’—Wow! Is all I can say for this tomato. I grew it for the first time this year from seeds given to me by a friend and can’t stop praising it. It’s a cherry type tomato that grows on very vigorous bushes that are covered with greenish-gold/red tomatoes. The intense, sweet-tomato flavor explodes in a mouthful of juice. The seeds I planted are from Heirloom Seeds and “came from Ruby Arnold (Aunt Ruby) of Greenville, Tennessee who passed away in 1997”.

Zucchini ‘Eight Ball’—most everyone grows zucchini in their vegetable gardens since it’s one of the easiest, and may I say prolific, vegetables to grow. So I want to suggest one of the more unusual ones, the ‘Eight Ball’. Different in shape from most zukes, the ‘Eight Ball’ is perfect for stuffing when it’s just under 4” in diameter. And it has a more distinctive zucchini flavor.