Money Can't Buy
The Right Amount of Tomatoes
After all my griping and complaining about the lack of tomatoes last year, I now am a bit chagrined to find myself with a huge tomato glut. If I have to have something to complain about, I'm much more comfortable complaining about too many tomatoes and not too little. It's time to eat oneself silly with tomatoes and enjoy every bite until they are gone and then learn to do without until the next fresh tomatoes next year.
I've been accused of not liking tomatoes because I pull them off my sandwiches and pick around them in salad. I cannot abide store bought tomatoes – even the ones from the farmers' markets are suspect in my book. I want them fresh from the garden – still warm from the sun is best. I have a slight allergy to tomatoes – I pay a price for eating them and so I'm selective about the ones I’ll suffer for. I am of the opinion that cherry tomatoes have no business in the dining room; their number one purpose is to feed gardeners as they work and to that end, I try to have a couple of plants scattered about the garden in strategic places – usually near some shade. I’ll grab a handful of these sweeties and head over to the shade to enjoy.
Tomatoes For Any Kind of Summer
Last summer in Venice was chillingly cold. You couldn't go to a concert without a coat and you couldn't get a tomato ripe without a heat lamp. All over my part of Los Angeles, neophyte gardeners were asking what they did wrong, why no tomatoes? No sun. June gloom never left, and not only were we hazed in until late in the afternoon, it never warmed up enough for many tomatoes to set fruit. At The Learning Garden, we had 10% of the tomato harvest we had the year before. We had many plants that produced one or two tomatoes and many more that produced nothing – somewhere in late August, they just keeled over in despair.
We did get a lot of tomatoes off some plants – mostly the small tomatoes. The term small includes, of course, the cherry, pear and grape tomatoes, but also the larger 'saladette' tomatoes. These are tomatoes that are large enough to be worth two large bites or three small ones. In other words about triple the size of a big cherry tomato.
Breeding Can Be Fun
If you've been thinking Clear Channel is the biggest impediment to creativity, cast your thoughts in the direction of your back yard. You know, the part of the lot behind the house. Your garden. What new and interesting plants are you growing? Is it just some of the same old plants as in your neighbors back yard? You know, the plants everyone picks up at Home Depot?
There was a day, and not so long ago, when people just like you and I actually bred their own vegetable varieties. Just like Mendel, that character out of our 8th grade science books, who did amazing things with peas; wrinkled, green, smooth and yellow. Until the mid 1900s it was common for everyday gardeners to create their own tomatoes and it didn't take generations to achieve bragging rights to the most delicious varieties.
The Keys, Part II
Last issue, I started a series on “the keys” of eating from a garden consistently throughout the year. For those of us, with a less than stellar memory, the four keys were:
- Always sow small batches of direct sown seeds bi-weekly, tri-weekly or monthly to insure a continuous harvest.
- Or, plant two different varieties that mature at different times on the same day.
- With many plants, as they approach maturity, plant other plants between them that won't interfere until they are bigger, by which time the original plants will be gone.
- The same day you remove a plant from your garden, put another one in its place.
THE KEYS, PART 1The keys to having food to eat from your garden all the time are really simple but they require a life time of practice. The person who has something from their garden every day of the year is not only a very good gardener, but has kept notes, written or mental, over many seasons. It, like a good many rewarding things in life, takes practice.
Good Gardeners Adapt
For my part of Los Angeles, this last summer was a disaster. The marine layer covered my garden for most of the tomato season leaving something like 10% of last year's harvest. There were no peppers or eggplants at all - they like it even hotter than tomatoes. If I had known how cool the summer was going to be, I could have been planting lettuce. In fact, at almost anytime as June passed into July, then August, I could have planted lettuce.
Heartaches and Grease
Ray Wylie Hubbard wrote a song of advice to 'young pups' who want to be famous song-writers like him. It's called Heartaches and Grease where he tells them his whole song-writing career is predicated on bad choices in love and gastronomy. There is enough truth in that I'm sure to allow it to be a universal theme. In all undertakings, bad choices can always been a source of instruction. It's true in gardening as well.
A VERY OLD DRIP
A month ago, I had never even heard of an ‘olla' (pronounced ‘oy-ya' or ‘oh-ya') and already I have two of them. A simple terra cotta pot, ollas are the ancient drip system for gardens, and, given my antipathy for plastic, seemed worthy of investigation. I found mine through Path to Freedom, an urban homestead project in Pasadena.
MAY IS YOUR LAST CHANCE
In May, if your garden looks barren now, you're in for a rough summer! You have to get out there while there are still some days that aren't as hot as it will surely get and get some plants in the ground and established, now! You missed taking advantage of those wonderfully late rains we had this year, but if you act with alacrity, you can still get a garden in that will serve you over the summer months.
Set out small starter plants of cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and okra. If you can find the red okra, even if you don't eat the stuff, the flower and fruit are so beautiful, it will be the stunner in your summer garden!
A Local Tomato
You've either just bought or are about to buy some tomato and pepper plants, maybe some eggplant and okra as well, for your summer garden. If you're lucky, you can find Tomatomania selling seeds near you or you can order from them online. The one thing that is for certain, there are a lot of varieties of tomatoes in the world and if you just tried one new one every year for the rest of your very long life, you wouldn't come near to sampling all of them. The good news is that not all of them are worth the sample - the glory of all these tomatoes is that one will do good in one year, another the next - one does good close to the coast but gets thumbs down in the Valley. At any rate, the adventure is in the ride, not in the destination!
Winter is the time those of us in Southern California gardeners will want to start any perennial plants we might want to have in our gardens. Any plant that lives year in and year out is what we call a 'perennial.' (Plants that live for only one year or less are called 'annuals' and include most of the plants we think of as edible. This article is not about them.)
While most of what eat comes from either annual plants or trees, there are a few plants that live for more than one year and are not trees producing tasty eats. They don't get mentioned enough and since now is the right time to buy and plant them, here are two to consider.
Good Tools for a Good Garden
My Grandfather on my mother's side was a farmer. He farmed something like 160 acres in Northeast Kansas for most of his life. He lost title to the farm he owned in the Great Depression, but he continued to farm it as a sharecropper. One of his son's helped him buy three acres in the nearby town where he retired from farming but continued to garden for the rest of his life. It is where he took me through my first steps as a gardener. I remember him saying many things that no one else remembers, probably because I spent so much time near him and was taking notes all the while.
A SHORT ROW TECHNIQUE THAT WORKS
Summer is really gone - we'll be 'falling back' soon. But there is no time for melancholy reflection about the summer that was because there is a whole new growing season demanding our attention right now.
Winter is our primary growing season for root crops (carrots, beets, onions, leeks, turnips, radishes, shallots, garlic, rutabagas and potatoes, not sweet potatoes), lettuce and other salad greens, fava beans and cabbage family plants, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. It's time to have all these in the ground and growing. The earlier you get them out, the better chance you have of being able to harvest these with enough time left over to put in a succession crop.
THE REWARDS OF YOUR WORK!
Planting in August is an act of desperation. If you failed to plant by now, your best bet would be to plant yourself in a hammock with a good book and cold drink. I give you the month off.
But if you DID plant, it's harvest time! Basil must be picked constantly or it will go into decline and die if it gets the chance to set seed. Of course you want to prevent that so you will keep pinching off all the flowers. Basil leaves come in pairs and once a stem has three pairs of leaves, it will send out flowers to produce seeds. Keep pinching out that last (terminal) pair of leaves and the flowers; enjoy them in a sandwich or salad. If you have a large number of basil plants, before the month is done your neighbors will also have more basil than they can use!
HERE COME THE HOT MONTHS!
Of all the months in the Southern California gardening calendar, June is one of the most difficult to deal with. The coastal communities experience June as the continuing spring (June Gloom); in fact, after some days of sunshine in April and May, it can be almost depressing to wait until after three to see the sun before it goes down. For plants, especially the ‘summer' vegetables we put out,it's enough to weaken them for infestations of insects and disease. Tomatoes, king of the heat loving veggies, will not set fruit unless the temperature stabilizes above 85 F.
A LOT LIKE MY FIRST GUITAR SOLO
Now that my band has slimmed down from a quintet to being a duo again, I've got toshoulder some of the instrumental solo work. I have taken on two songs in keyof D to start my nascent lead guitar career. A self-taught guitarist, the way I learned to hold my pick makes leadplaying much more of a challenge than it would be if I had learned it the waymost guitarists hold a pick - I have less control and confidence in soloing. Thismorning, at our farmers' market gig, I stuck to a D major scale pretty tightly,and except for one errant note that I glissed up a fret, I didn't do toobadly. It was like a first home-growntomato in a few ways.
Most gardeners in the United States stare wistfully through their frosty windows at the frozen landscape outside and pine for the chance to do something in their gardens. Not so in Southern California! Most of the garden folks I know are complaining – vociferously – about all they have to do and the lack of sunlight to do it! It turns out that plants ARE always greener on the other side of the garden gate!
Ready For Everything!
In all aspects of life, you've got to be prepared for almost everything and that holds true for sure in music and gardening. My band had agreed to play a gig for three hours but we didn't have more than two hours of music in our back pocket. We were in a hurry to learn another hour's worth of songs.
While the rest of us of were tuning up and fiddling with amp knobs, the rhythm guitar player announced that she had a plan for learning the new songs: "We will go around the group in order and each of us will pick one song to learn. Here are my first seven..."
A GARDEN OF COUNTRY BLUES
Ray Wylie Hubbard blew through Los Angeles a few days ago and almost all of the band I play in made time to see him at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. Hubbard is, to my way of thinking, one of the premier songwriters of our age and seeing him perform puts me in intimate touch with the fine art of song craft. His songs embrace the heritage of being human, entertain with self-denigrating good humor and have the rough edges of modern man; a savory blend of past and present.
Nothing like having a gig when your lead singer is out of the country!' I'm not usually a lead singer, but we had to go on with the show, and though I still maintain a person who sings and plays an instrument should be paid twice, my band mates have left me waiting for my second half. With a couple of rehearsals under our belts, we showed up and we gave an energetic and dynamic show. I started the night with a really strong voice, but by the end of the night, I was barely able to whisper - I can tell you this is one guy thrilled to have the lead singer back before the next gig.
FOOD IS MUSIC
Food and music have a lot in common. Throughout history, food grown in the community, like music in the community, was not just the best - it was the only food or music available. The last one hundred years witnessed a transition as these homegrown resources have been replaced by commodities for mass consumption.
The effects of both have been similarly corrosive. Lots of people can eat and hear the same stuff, but is that the best we can do? Most of the food we eat from the market, especially the pre-packaged microwave and instant meal items are composed of a chemist's mutation of corn and soy beans. The varieties of plants we actually eat have been whittled down from hundreds to a few that modern science can manipulate into different concoctions with a box and a label. The Los Angeles FM dial reveals a similar phenomenon. Most radio listeners are given sparse choice from music that has been homogenized to conform to a format that the recording companies believe will ‘sell.'
GUITAR CABLES LOOSELY CONNECTED
We had just finished a set at WLA Farmers' Market (www.westlafarmersmarket.com), and were enjoying a solo set from Dafni (www.myspace.com/dafni) when Fred Siegel, our lead guitarist, demonstrated his keen powers of musical observation. "Would you look at how long her guitar cord is?"
While listening to Dafni, a number of comments come to mind quite naturally--from complimenting her guitar playing, quality vocal performance, compelling original songs, or even appreciating "them red curls." But in a testimony to astute observation, Fred was right. Dafni's cord WAS impressive - easily over 30 feet coiled neatly up at the base of the PA.
BACK TO MY ROOTS
The banjo is in the corner collecting dust. The days have gotten shorter and I’ve gone back to my musical roots: the bass, having come across an upright I could afford. Out in the garden, I’ve done much the same thing as far as roots go: carrots, beets, parsnips, radishes, turnips, potatoes, onions and garlic. Not only are they all root crops, they are all winter vegetables in our wonderfully mild climate. For the bouquet garden, as the summer annuals poop out, they are popped out and replaced with calendulas, nasturtiums (both edible) and sweet peas – not the edible pea, but the one with that heavenly scent that could make a confirmed teetotaler drunk. It’s surprising that it hasn’t been made illegal somewhere; please don’t tell our friends at Homeland Security.
If you want to grow peas to eat, you can do that now too – I’ve given up on them – fresh picked, they ARE wonderful, but I’ve found I just don’t get enough to eat from each plant to make them worth the effort. It’s a lot of work to get what my mom used to call “a mess of peas” to feed one person, let alone more than one.
THE SECOND COMING OF SPRING
Summer, just like my attempt to learn the banjo, is definitely in decline now. I've had my fill of tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini and will not touch them until I pick them from my garden again next year. There is something righteous about eating a vegetable or fruit only when it's fresh that just seems natural to me.
Basil is still in the garden- all summer long I've been pinching off the flowers and throwing them in a salad or whatever is cooking and all that pinching has left me with very bushy plants now ready for Pesto Day later this month - Pesto Day could just as easily be called, "End of Summer Harvest Day," for which it is a shorthand. The plants are stripped of their leaves. After they are washed, a food processor blends them with olive oil, heirloom garlic (also from the garden), parmesan cheese, pignolis, and a little salt and pepper to taste. This paste is packed in half-pint jars and is frozen for winter's pasta dinners to come. Sometime in September, The Leaning Garden will host its fifth annual Pesto Day. We use our heirloom garlic and a special basil, Genovese Profutissimo to make a pesto that has gained a following through out the Los Angeles basin. Look for it in events announcements (like the one Steve Shapiro puts together for FolkWorks) on a Saturday late in the month.
NATIVE TO OUR LAND
By now, the summer garden is in the ground and we've got a little time to relax - most of what is left to do in the heat should be a little weeding and making sure the plants don't get too dry. t's tough because there are festivals and warm languid nights that vie for attention all through these months.
But a garden is like a pet - although one that doesn't whine or bark when we fail to give it the proper attention. The ability to give attention is the core of a good gardener. Most folks with the proverbial ‘black thumb' have their attention elsewhere - and while good intentions are lovely, good attention is much more valuable, as your dog, cat, lover and boss will all tell you. The best players of any instrument get there by the attention they give; good, steady workmanship trumps talent that is intermittently exercised.
Gardening & Banjos
I was convinced against my better judgement to begin to learn how to play the banjo. I don't think I'm coordinated in quite the right ways to do that although I've been told I look like a banjo player. I guess that's half the battle right there. I've been thinking, if that's the case, I'd like to learn how to look like a wealthy man - or at least one that's solvent! Already Casey, my dog, is set to attack the banjo because he's quite dissatisfied with my constant "Thumb-index-thumb-middle" chants that go on for 20 minutes at a throw. He's wandering off to snooze in the garden, away from the plickety-plunk of my tenderfoot twangings and the swearing that is surely moments away.
Gardening Tips - March
Relying on March to cooperate with your garden plans is like counting on a mandolin to stay in tune for an entire set. In some years, March is a part of winter, while in others, it’s the true beginning of spring. Some years, a person who is running late with the garden chores scores big when March holds onto cooler temperatures. On the other hand, I’ve planted sweet corn in March and won the bet by having that quintessential summer taste in early June.
If you can’t wait for a taste of summer, you can plant a couple short rows of Royal Purple Pod beans – this bean variety will germinate in cooler and wet weather and as their little heads push up out of the ground you know tomatoes can’t be too far behind!
Gardening Tips - January
Towards the end of one of those disgustingly hot days we've had recently I was consulting with a woman who needed to replace a tree that had been removed to the south of her house. We considered a number of choices, I pulled one after another choice out of the trees I knew would do well in her location and one by one failed to bring anything but a willingness to "consider," in other words, none of my choices were cranking her tractor.
As we walked through Theodore Payne Foundation's tree yard, I saw her eyeing a valley oak (Quercus lobata - a hold over from the Roman name for oaks which was Quercus) a I had not suggested this tree because included in her criteria had been the requirement that the new tree be "evergreen," which the California Valley oak is not, it is deciduous, dropping its leaves in the cooler months. But this tree was calling to her.