Saturday, October 27, 2012


In general, on our little farm we seed thick and get ready to pick.  We maximize our growing space by planting as tightly as possible, always closer then the recommendation, and thinning when necessary. 

With the crops coming in well from the first planting in early September, this week's project was to thin.  I'll admit to struggling with this somewhat.  All that lovely energy gone into these plants that I'm uprooting.  All that lovely potential that is arrested.  But of course, that thinking is superfluous.  Thinning lends energy and potential to the remaining plants, and there are always ways to use these thinnings.

I thinned three crops this week; beets, radishes and carrots.  Beets, because unless you purchase special monogerm seeds, your "seed" will be a ball of several potential embryos.  Radishes and carrots because the seeds are so ridiculously tiny, you can't hardly help but over seed. 

Thinning gives you plenty of time to think about the labor intensity of farming.  "Carrots should cost a LOT more," is a frequent theme of mind, while I'm trying to stretch out my aching back.  Which leads me to question how the big guys can afford to sell them for so little.  One way the commercial farms maximize profits is to reduce labor costs by buying special seeds and seed-sowing machines.  This eliminates the whole thin-by-hand step. 

In the meantime, while I don't have the special equipment, I am the cheap labor, and realize that it's like having a free gym memborship.  Plus you can eat the thinned greens - fabulous in an omlette, or added to salad, or blended into a smoothie.  Food from the "throwaways".  Yoga in the garden.  How does it get any better than that?

Plus, I swear the beets & carrots & radishes are twice as big as when I thinned them.  Or, maybe it was just perfect timing.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


This is why we live here.  When other places in the country are getting in-doorsy, we are seriously beginning to get out-doorsy.  I move my office outside, my eating outside, and as much play \ work outside as possible.  All the hard work put into the preparation of the beds has paid off.  The plants are growing beautifully.  I thinned the very first radishes and beets, and used the greens in an omelette and a salad.  Light, peppery taste that informs but doesn't dominate.  And very high in iron (like all dark green leaves), as well as calcium,  magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, C, & K, all used to strengthen your blood and bones.  We are pulling in ever more quantities of Japanese eggplant and Yardlong beans.  Some of the seeds put in earlier didn't sprout, so it's time to re-plant in those spots.  This week I ordered a ton of seeds, and they will go in the ground this coming week.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

 Seeds in the Ground, Ladies

It's hot.  Well, it's going to be hot.  I seem to be spending more time inside, looking out at what needs to be done, than outside doing it.  If there were a lick of a breeze, it'd be more comfortable - as comfortable as it can be when you're turning dirt - basically becoming a human tractor - or shoveling and humping new compost.  But since it's also humid, and I'm sweating buckets, a slight breeze would wick some of the heat away, not to mention the flies.  Bed preparation is not for sissies.
     Last year I planted the fall crops according to the phases of the moon.  Every turn of the phase - from full to waning to new to waxing, for 4 months - we carefully plotted and charted what was planted.  Consistently, I found that my seedlings came up later than predicted by the seed companies, and the harvest occurred later.  ROFL  This year I'm trying to understand the plants themselves better, to be in tune with what they need to produce, in terms of temperature, humidity, soil, sunlight.  I feel like a conductor, marshalling her instruments to perform at their best, and in their own best time. 

     I'm excited about how the tomatoes - and the other nightshades (peppers, eggplant) - are LOVING the hot & humid.  And how the legume seedlings (beans and peas) are JUMPING out of the ground.  I gave my roses an end-of-summer deep pruning for the first time ever, and they look fabulous.  Usually, in the desert SW, roses are deep pruned in January.  But the summer is so harsh on them, more so than the winter (plus the local 5-star resort prunes theirs in August, and I figure they can afford real rosarians) that I thought I'd try it.  I kid you not, the new branches were beginning the very day after I pruned them.  That, and a new layer of fresh compost, and they are looking fat and happy.

     Still, nothing comes up without a little labor, so on this Labor Day Weekend, the motto around our little farm is, Seeds in the ground, ladies.

Friday, June 29, 2012

On Onion Harvesting and Curing

The main reason I'm writing this blog is so I will remember things from one year to the next. It is my garden journal. Most of my mornings are spent in the yard; planting, harvesting, tying up, cleaning up. I run between what I see in the garden and my computer to look up stuff on the internet; what's that bug, that plant, when to harvest, what do I have growing there again (?!?). This week I harvested a lot of onions, and this is what I've learned.

You can pick onions at any time; young onions are called "green onions", and you can eat from one tip to the other; medium onions are called "spring onions", and you can eat the bottom (root) part, which has started to get bigger \ fatter \ bulb-ier, and some of the green; mature onions are called "bulb onions", and you eat the bulb only.

Bulb onions can either be eaten "green", right out of the garden, or they can be cured for storage.

The trick - some say the art - comes next; knowing when to stop watering.

The longer your bulb onion is in the ground, the larger it will get. However, once they stop growing, you need to stop watering them, so they don't rot because they are no longer taking in the water.

Conventional farmers watch for the leaves to fall over. In a field planted with the same kind of onions, all the onion leaves \ greens will fall over at the same time, signaling that the onions have stopped growing, and to stop watering. In an urban farm, where the crops are often interplanted, that's impossible.

So, you need to feel the shaft of the onions, down near the bulb, and if it feels squishy \ soft, you need to pull that onion today, before you water again, and begin the curing process. The onion in the picture to the right was harvested this morning. The greens have not died back, but the shaft is soft - it bends 90 degrees.

Knock off the excess dirt. Lay the onion out on the ground, or on a screen, in the shade. After a day or two, when the roots are dry, you can trim off the stems, but no less than 1" from the bulb.

If your onions are 2nd year onions, they very likely will have had scapes. When you harvest onions with scape stems, separate that from the bulb. That is where the moisture will concentrate, and your bulb will rot if you don't separate them.

Onions take up to 3 weeks to cure properly. The point is to dry them slowly in order to concentrate the flavors. Keep them in the shade, keep them where the air is circulating. Once they are cured, theoretically they can be thrown in a box and kept in the dark. Last year we tied them up in pantyhose (knot in between each bulb) and hung them from the ceiling. This year most of them are in a basket and seem to be ok so far. Check them periodically to pull any that have gotten soft.

Or (see last week) make them into chutney!

Monday, June 25, 2012

 Onion Chutney !!

We are awash in onions, and there are more to come. We have been grilling them, sauteing them, and broiling them. It's time to preserve some for later. One of my favorite recipes comes from one of my favorite books, The Herbal Pantry, by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead. I have found their Tomato Chutney recipe works just great with onions instead of tomatoes. Sweet and spicey and tangy, and the galoot loves it.

3 lb. onions, chopped - whatever you have; this time I used Siskiyou Sweets and Red Bottle
1 c brown sugar
1 c cider vinegar
1 large red pepper, chopped
1 large tomato, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 T fresh ginger, grated
1/2 c cranberries
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp salt

Place all ingredients in a large non-aluminum saucepan, and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 30 min.

Sterilize the canning jars by boiling them for 10 mins. Separately, cover the jar tops and rubber rings with water, bring to a simmer, and turn off the heat. Let the jars and tops sit in the hot water until you are ready to use them, then drain them on a clean towel.

Fill a large pot half full with water and bring to a simmer. Ladle chutney into jars, leaving some space at the top. Lower the jars into water and add more boiling water if needed to cover the jars by 1 in. Cover and bring to a boil for 15 mins. To test for a safe seal, lift the jar by the lid only. If the lid stays on, it is safe to put that jar on the shelf for up to 4 mos. 

If not, eat now!  Open jar will keep well in the refrigerator for a week or so.  Chutney is an excellent accompaniment to meats, but also is wonderful on sandwiches and veggies.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Go Vertical

In a small space, the best use of the land can often be to grow vertically. Some crops are obvious choices - beans will grow up just about anything if they get a chance - but many can be trained to grow up rather than out, with a minimum of work.

Growing up is especially easy for us, because we have had a structure of posts - and wires strung between them - since last year. Specifically erected to hold shade cloth, a pleasant surprise is how versatile you can be with dropping some string down from the grid above, just about anywhere.

Keeping in mind that vertical growth will cause shade, you will want to plan to take advantage of that. I have been thinking that if I had put in something - sunflowers perhaps? - on the extreme Western edge of the backyard, the squashes that are growing there would be a little more shaded. Why is it always hard to remember that, yes, it's going to get really, really hot?

The beans against the east wall of the back square, for instance, are only hanging on through sheer determination. That wall is a killer for absorbing the heat. I had thought the beans would shade the wall, but rather, it's taking them out.  Next year . . . melons? that have been in for longer?  Maybe they could get up and shade the wall before the extreme heat.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sumer Is Icumen In
Summer, for the Southwest Gardener, starts in May. All month we've been pulling out the winter crops, and putting in the summer ones. At our last market of the season, on May 13, we took pink grapefruit, Meyers lemons, carrots, spring onions and beets, and we will continue to harvest the root crops for several more weeks, but now it has turned decidedly warm, and summer is right around the corner. The zucchini seeds are up and roaring. The eggplant have yet to come up, but they take longer. The melon patch is going to take over Manhattan.

In the meantime, the tomatoes, tomatillos and early melons are all starting to fruit. My main project this week was to stake those melon vines and tomatoes. We will need MUCH more string for the late melon patch.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Busy! Busy! Busy!

Last week I sang a concert, had two rehearsals for said concert, went to two parties, had another rehearsal, had two rehearsal classes, hosted a guest lecturer, was part of two rehearsals \ interviews for a new music director - at one of which I sang solos - not to mention singing in church, and teaching and taking lessons.

This week I have one rehearsal at which there will be an interview for a new music director - I will sing solos - not to mention singing in church (2 services this week), and teaching (and taking) lessons and two rehearsal classes.

Next week I have two concerts, two receptions, two rehearsals, not to mention singing in church, and teaching lessons.

Life is getting somewhat complicated as we hurl ourselves to this end-of-semester time of year in the academic calendar.

It is busy on the farm, but nothing is ending.

This week was in the 80s and 90s, and we put up most of the shade cloth and lattice onto the grid system we installed last year. So much easier now the system is in place!

We also turned over one of the beds, removing and composting the bolted lettuce (saving some seed). We decided to remove the top 6 in. of dirt as well, and brought in newly composted dirt to mix in. This bed had been used for lettuce, two seasons in a row, and we felt there was likely very little nitrogen left in the dirt. We have planted a mess of melon seeds in the new bed and are looking forward to the new growth.

The peppers are coming on strong. They are about ready for their first harvest.

The tomatillos are getting larger every day - it seems like you can watch them grow. Need to find out what to do with them! (besides salsa verde, which I don't like).

The beans are starting to flower.

There are lots of carrots and onions that we've been picking and eating all along. 

Plus, some onions are going to seed and are simply beautiful.

The farm is always changing, transitioning, moving from one season into the next. But nothing ever feels like it's ending. There's always a new season to plan for, a new crop to grow, a new plot to dig, and seeds to save.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

New Orchard !!

A couple of weeks ago we visited The Urban Farm - - and learned many things. But one of the major lessons is that you can grow fruit trees like a hedge; not too tall, not too round, but a continguous, fruit-bearing hedge. This caused a lightbulb to flash in our minds. What if we take out our cactus garden strip, at the front of the property, and replace it with an orchard? Several benefits; 1) maintain the privacy that we had been getting from the cacti, 2) more sunlight on the front yard by removing a few un-necessary trees, 3) much easier to maintain, 4) fruit-bearing instead of not producing anything.

Totally win \ win.  Only downside is it was a lot of work. And, we're not done, but we are well on our way to having an orchard with - so far - 3 types of oranges, one apple and one peach. And plenty of room to fill in with more trees as we're able. Our big spring project for this year.

Last year's big spring project was the erection of the support system for shade. This came in handy this week, as the temperatures soared to over 100. It was a breeze throwing up a few lattice pieces on top of the wires and fastening them down.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Water Deeply

It's April and it's beginning to get hot. Not "hot" as we know it in the coming months. Not "hot" as we will understand it next fall. April's hi temps are in the 90s - and next fall that will feel like a breath of fresh air. We know this, and yet it still feels hot to us, because it is a harbinger of what is to come. What you, depending on your bent, either relish or fear. I'm in the fear department.

Silly, because it is really so beautiful outside - absolutely the best wild flower season. My iris have bloomed for the first time ever. Last year they were moved into the bulb garden to get more sun, but didn't flower. This year they are glorious.

The heat signals a change in season for the plants as well. Some - like the lettuces and peas - are at the end of their run, and are bolting or dying. This week we started clearing out the beds of the spent plants. We transplanted what spinach was still viable, cut out 6 inches of the topsoil, dug underneath that to loosen the bed for new roots, added in good compost and dug that in deeply. Then we transplanted 3 Pontano and 1 Italian Red Pear tomato, planted seeds for Punta Banda and Nichols Heirloom tomatoes, and seeds for Sinahuisa chiles. I also sprinkled in a healthy dose of zinnia seeds - to combat white flies.

Other plants - like onions and peppers - have survived the winter and are starting to show the promise which will be harvested in the next couple of months. It is time to adjust the watering technique for these plants to a slow trickle to cause a deep soak. Roots grow into air pockets, which are identified to them by water flow. It's as if the water soaking through the dirt entices the root to grow into the cracks. A deep soak encourages the roots to grow deeply; away from the sun's hot rays and into the coolth of the earth.

Over the coming months we will employ more measures to avoid the sun's hottest rays. But for now it is enough to water deeply. FYI: March temps are in the 80s. April in the 90s. June = 100s. July = 110s and, yes - I kid you not - August can = 120s.  Uff da me.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Small is Good

It is March in the Valley of the Sun. Perhaps our most beautiful month, if what you like is blooming, blossoming, teeming life. Spring here is like spring anywhere in the U.S., just a little earlier. And, too, it is a fleeting season. This is our short growing season. Soon summer's temperatures will challenge all but the most draught tolerant plants. So we pack our gardens full of food and flowers that will nourish our eyes; our bodies; our souls. I predict a lot of preserving coming up in the months ahead.

But for now we have work to do.

Though we would dearly love more land - we scheme, pour over Craigs List, consult real estate postings near and far - there are some definite advantages to being small. Fewer weeds, for instance. The most "weed" work we do on our little farm is taking things we love out of places where we don't want them. I referred to the Ixia a few weeks back. We have since pulled the spent plants, transfering a bunch of seed into the flower bed. If your plant is in the wrong place, regardless of how much you love it, it is still a "weed".

It is also thinning season. Hands in the dirt, dirt under the fingernails, back breaking, pain staking, healthy, strong, delicious work.

This morning I tackled the beets. Beet seeds are called multi-germ, meaning they produce more than one seed per seed ball. So, regardless of how careful you are in your spacing at planting time, they will have to be thinned at seedling stage in order to produce mature-sized beets. You will most often hear the suggestion that you eat the thinnings. Very true about baby carrots as well as beet seedlings. However, according to my favorite go-to book, "The Encyclopedia of Country Living", by Carla Emery, these thinnings can also be transplanted. Water well the existing plants. Fluff up the patch that you will plant. Delicately lift \ uproot the smaller plants and stuff them in the new patch. Pat down gently and water well. We'll see how well these seedlings "took" in another day or two.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Beet Red Velvet Cake

I don't like beets. I can't quite figure them out. They're sweet? AND starchy? Are they dessert? Side dish? So this year I resolved to to take advantage of their natural sweetness AND starchiness, & try baking with them. My first foray is Beet Red Velvet Cake.

Whoa! This is seriously good cake. We made cupcakes, because we want to see if we can do it, in order to sell more produce. This recipe, adapted from, made 16 large cupcakes.

2 large beets
1 TBS balsamic vinegar
1/2 c unsalted butter, room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
2 1/3 c granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
2 c all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c cocoa powder, unsweetened (not dark or Dutch processed)

Preheat oven to 350F. Place beets in small baking dish. Cover with parchment paper & foil, and roast until tender, about 60 - 90 min. When cool, puree in blender or food processor. In a mixer, cream butter and cream cheese. Mix in butter until smooth and fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time, and then vanilla. In a separate bowl mix dry ingredients. In batches, blend dry with wet. Fold in beets & spoon into cups. Cook 30-40 mins.

Cool completely.

Best frosting ever, from

2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 c unsalted butter, room temperature
2 c confectioners sugar
1/4 c pure maple syrup

Blend everything thoroughly. Slather on cake. Eat hearty.

Ok, so I don't know how to make them pretty. More to learn. Still, amazingly amazingly delicious.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

 One Week Early

     We're one week early. With no February frost this year everything is blooming, blossoming and ripening one week early. You can tell the minute you walk outdoors; the delicious scent of orange blossoms fills the air. The Wisteria is just beginning to open, and its intoxicating scent practically assaults you when you walk underneath. The Ixia has reappeared in force. Last year we co-opted the flower bed for veggies. So it appears that we have successfully transferred the Ixia into a better spot. This year we will likely try to move the patch again. Although it is a bulb, it grows and spreads from seed. After the flower is spent & drops off, it is very easy to capture the seed & simply spread in the new area.

     Ordinarily all of these would be blooming at least one week later. But it's farm time.
     This week we're seeing the end of our first batch of peas. Peas are easy to grow in the Southwest. They are relatively free of pests, they are fairly cold hardy, they grow vertically so they don't take up much room in a garden, which makes them especially handy in urban settings. You can tuck pea seeds just about everywhere, as long as there is something to climb. Or you can grow them densely, and they will climb on one another, with a minimum of framework.

     We grow Oregon Giant Snow Peas on our little farm. They are deliciously sweet & have a high yield. By planting in succession and tucking in seeds wherever there might be support, we have increased our yield even further. This year I planted one 18" wide plot, which is the main harvest. I also interplanted each of the lettuce plots with peas; good companions as they balance nutritional needs. And I put pea seeds in pots scattered around.

     We planted our first seed on Sept. 27 & pulled our first harvest on Jan. 10. Knowing when to pick is a matter of taste. Oregon Giants are best when a little plump but not too plump. In the picture, the peas on the left are beyond mature, and would taste woody. The peas on the right will be sweet & crunchy & chewy. The peas on the left will be saved to plant next season.

     Peas grow in order to re-seed. Therefore, to continue to have peas, you need to harvest frequently. However, they only live so long. On our little farm, the main crop is about played out. There are very few flowers these days, and the vines are starting to turn yellow & dry up. I am extra glad, now, that I remembered to plant more peas, in succession. I can only promise myself to - next year - plant twice as much!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Gold Dirt

     "Dirt is Gold," says Greg Peterson of The Urban Farm. Dirt is what feeds your plants, what sustains them and nourishes them through the vagaries of a season. At our little farm, where we're extracting pounds of produce each week, we expect a lot from our dirt, and we treat it very kindly. We have a huge compost heap at the east side of the yard, tucked up against a wall, and under the neighbor's citrus. It's one of the dampest and darkest parts of the farm. Weekly we feed the heap with kitchen scraps, weeds we've pulled, crops we're rotating out, and - especially - the droppings from several Mesquite trees we're lucky to have on the southern edge. The seed pods, about to drop in another month or so, are especially rich in protein and starch. In fact, Mesquite seed pods can be ground for flour - something I'm really jonesing to do.
     Our compost heap is constantly "working", making replacement dirt for the stuff we cycle out of beds that have run their course.
     Also, however, I'm paying very close attention to crop rotation. It isn't that hard to follow, and makes perfect sense. First, never put a crop in the same place it was last year or season. This is to confuse the parasites - and in such a small space as an urban setting, this is especially important. Second, the cycle takes advantage of what nutrients the current crop is adding to the ground. What follows today's crop is what requires the nutrients it has left behind. Below is a simple chart, with crops divided up into 4 groups:
- Leaves - Needs Nitrogen - lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale
- Fruits - Needs Phosphorus - squashes, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant
- Roots - Needs Potassium - onions, garlic, leeks, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes
- Soil Builders - Add Nitrogen - peas, beans, legumes
This week is the beginning of a major transition time in the Valley. In the north yard, where we've got more sun, we pulled the bolted broccoli, broccoli raab, kale, arugula and chinese cabbage. Soon to follow is a line of snow peas. They have been delicious, and we've still got some growing, tucked here and there throughout the farm, so we'll be eating them for a while. But the main - and earliest - crop is about played out.
     Now I get to decide what to plant next. This takes into account so many factors; time of year, companion planting, crop rotation, shading, microclimates. Where the leafy plants were, the broccolis and kale, we transplanted the baby tomatoes and peppers we've been growing from seed in our little nursery. Where the peas are - although I will be skipping a step - I'm going to plant melons. Now that we are moving into the hotter part of the year, they will provide some extra shading for the plants nearby. And the extra jolt of nitrogen they will get from the peas won't harm them.
     Science, art, beauty, patience, balance on our little farm.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


The spring flowers have started to bloom, and the bees are everywhere.  Thankfully, they are not "africanized", because I'm literally wading among them. Some flowers signal that the plant is preparing to produce fruit, such as the Dwarf Bonanza Peach, the delicious Oregon Giant Pea,
or the German Chamomile. 

And some flowers signal, that the plant is producing seed, such as the Green Sprouting Calabrese Broccoli, the Arugula and the French Marigold. On our little farm we collect and store as much seed as possible.