Happy Garlic Ready for the Snow

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"A working man would consume 10 pounds of potatoes each day"


- Introduction to Organic Gardening Workshop!
- Prepare and plant for early corn (hope for no more freezing weather)
- Plant out early girl and moskvich early tomatoes
- First zucchini and cucumber planting

It's spud planting time on the farm! I was fortunate enough to have an excellent group of hard working and fun students from the San Diego Waldorf High School up here last week to help prepare the soil for and plant these tasty tubers. We planted the potatoes at the same time as we put in our summer crop of onions, right next door. In order to assure abundant tuber formation from the plants this summer, we weeded, dug the soil deep and wide (you'll understand why soon), and amended with a lot of well-finished compost. (We also added a dusting of Steve Soloman's recipe for "Complete Organic Fertilizer".) Next we dug an 8 inch trench down the middle of our four 50 X 4 foot beds, plopped in whole potatoes (8 - 12 inches apart), and buried them. Potatoes are truly fascinating both biologically and culturally as this excerpt from one of my favorite books, The Book of Garden Secrets, points out:

Growing potatoes in your garden can be very rewarding, as the yield from even a small area can be surprisingly high. And besides, nothing you buy tastes as good as the tiny, creamy new potatoes dug straight from your own garden. Once under way, potatoes require little attention except watering because their foliage is so vigorous...
Potatoes have an especially colorful history. They are native to the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia and are still grown there in greater variety than anywhere else in the world. Andean potatoes come with blue, brown, purple, or red skins. Different types tolerate a wide range of climactic conditions, and some can even produce a crop at an elevation of 14,000 feet.
Before the potato famine, many Irish people lived on a diet of boiled potatoes and milk; a working man would consume 10 pounds of potatoes each day. This might sound like a pretty boring diet, but surprisingly 7 pounds of potatoes plus 1 pint of milk will meet all your nutritional needs for a day...

Despite the fact that most people eat potatoes as a source of starch, potatoes are high in protein...In terms of amount of protein produced per acre, potatoes rank second only to soybeans though the quality of this protein is higher than that of soybeans.

If you were looking to grow a few crops in a small space to provide you with maximum sustenance, this relative of the tomato would be an important ally. However, relying on it alone or one variety alone could prove fatal, as it did for the Irish in the mid -1800s. The lessons we take from the potato famine teach the importance of diversity in our food system. Sadly, in recent decades this diversity has been undercut by the economic demands of industrial food production, the consolidation of power within this industry, and the patenting and engineering of crop genetics.

I like to think that planting a diversity of spuds and other food crops is a small, peaceful and essential act of subversion. That it testifies to the fact that we have what we need here to live without the industrial food system. When we start to grow food for ourselves, in harmony with our ecology, we reduce our dependence on an industrial food system that does not produce food in harmony with our ecology. The global food system and the food we buy from it is one of the leading (if not the leading) contributors to greenhouse gases worldwide; the fossil fuel based fertilizers it uses are the leading cause of water pollution and river mouth dead zones around the world; its threat to bio-diversity in and out of the food system cannot be overstated; and we are losing our top-soil (the important stuff we need to grow all food) at alarming rates. Good farming and gardening practices, on the other hand, sequester carbon, build soil, increase regional bio-diversity, and keep our watersheds and ecosystems alive and healthy.

The implications of these divergent choices should be clear.
If you are interested in reclaiming and protecting a little bit of your ecology get out there and plant some spuds!

Here at Camp Stevens we like to play a game around the dinner table where we ask kids what plant part they are eating. When potatoes are a part of the meal the answer can be hard for them to find even if they know the basic plant parts. "Root" is the most common answer we get but tubers are not actually roots.

Though they do form underground, tubers are technically modified underground stems, potato "eyes" are actually the traces of what would have been leaves on the above ground stem. When we plant the potato, roots and more stems will form from the spud. To maximize yield we want the soil to be loose and deep so that the underground stems can spread far and wide, producing lots of tubers. The photosynthesizing leaves will send carbohydrates and proteins down the stem and into the spud. A potato tuber acts like a storage chamber for energy. This adaptation has proven useful to the potato and humans alike as we can dig the potatoes, plant some to propagate new plants and eat some for energy.

Culturing potatoes for maximum tuber production is a bizarre and fascinating practice, during the growing season we we will do whats called "hilling" the plants. Once some shoots have come up and the stems are about 1 foot tall, we will bury all but a few inches of the leaves and stems, creating a hill. We might hill the potatoes one more time before the plant goes into dormancy for the winter, its above ground foliage dies and sends the last of its nutrients into the tubers below ground. At this point we can dig the plants out of our hills and enjoy watching mountains of potatoes tumbling out of the loose soil, the stems we buried have now formed an abundance of tubers in our hills. Its like striking a gold mine!

If we each do our part the world will be our garden,

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Snow! April! Southern California!

Garden Tasks This Week:
- Incorporate cover crop for 3 sisters field
- Pot up last of the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants
- Harvest asparagus, artichokes, fennel, and overwintered spinach
- Mow cover crop for melons, tomatoes, and peppers (work soil when it dries down)
- Weed garlic

It is a misnomer that Southern California is a desert - in fact most of the areas west of the mountains should properly be described as semiarid grassland, chaparral, or coastal sage-scrub. The extreme aridity seen in the true Southern California deserts such as Anza-Borrego, Palm Desert, and Joshua Tree (Sonora and Mojave desert regions) is mitigated west of the mountains by Pacific moisture/humidity. That said, while water is not "severely" limiting to life most of the time" (Dimmitt, Biomes and Communities of the Sonoran Desert Region) in most of the urban/sub-urban areas of Southern California, it is certain limiting to non-native species (especially of the garden variety).

This year, there-fore Southern have a lot to be grateful for. As I sit writing looking out at our gardens from our office at 4200 feet in the San Diego mountains snow is falling and the precipitation of this last storm looks to push us over the 33" mark for the year. Truly a sort of blessing or whatever you might call that, something to be thankful for anyway. I've seen the results of ample Southern California moisture written in the deserts already this year as they are the first to burst forth after almost a decade of dessication, not that it bothered them. Brittle brush blooming as if it had been all along. The coastal slopes all around us are rich, green, and lest we forget, fleeting. We are in for an amazing dry season, this is our one and only ecology in full effect, forget the Easterners who drowning in weeds can't see the ephemera of it here, who I've heard describe the west as "brown and poky". When the now verdant "eastern looking" pastures of our west once again turn tawny, deep ochre, red and burning on the edge of the sea, lets love that too.

Now is a great time and this is a great year for the gardener to pull out a little lawn or other water hungry and minimally useful landscape plant and replace it with something more appropriate to Southern California. Food crops are always a great option to lessen our dependence on the ecological disaster that is the food system, but if you are interested in landscaping with native plants (and you should be) check out Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano or Las Pilitas in Escondido. Both nurseries have awesome websites and a huge selection of plants that will not only naturally thrive here and meet any of your landscaping needs, but also provide habitat for native wildlife. Through over-development, we Southern Californians have taken so much habitat away from the native birds, insects, mammals, and reptiles of our region that it is a crime against nature to not give back when we have the chance. I can imagine an urban-wilderness interface in Southern California which respects the habitats and corridors of our wild neighbors. Where the health of our gardens and lives are maintained by an ecological balance. One in which we fulfill our role and responsibility as stewards of our ecosystem not exploiters. Where we grow food for ourselves in our communities and foster the complex and beautiful communities of the wild, that we let wilderness back into our lives.
We're all in this thing together,

Friday, April 9, 2010

How many bees in a pound?

I've been the official Camp Stevens beekeeper since I came back here 4 years ago. Having never kept bees before, it has been a challenging and at times frustrating road. Three days ago, two parcels arrived at our doorstep, each contained about 11,000 worker bees (3 pounds of bees) and 1 queen. This is "a nice fat package" - enough to start a new colony in a new world - in this case, our garden. The package bees are ordered in the winter and ship in the spring, right around the time that a wild hive might naturally swarm. Swarming is an amazing behavior and is the way that bee colonies divide and propagate. When conditions and nectar flows are good, a healthy established hive may choose to divide. The workers will make a new queen and half the hive will leave with the old queen, striking out to find a new location suitable to build a hive. Ideally they are successful in this endeavor, the old hive continues with its new queen, and new hives continue the legacy of their mother colony further afield.

Keep your eyes peeled because this is a very busy time for honey bees. In a year such as this when rains have been good, the quickly reproducing honey bee is likely to take advantage of ample nectar flows. We should have the opportunity to see plenty of swarms. When honey bees swarm they are at their most docile; in fact it is a great time to capture a wild hive, if that's your game. Often you will just see a cloud of bees flying together, when they are either leaving an old hive location or heading to a new one. Sometimes during the move they won't know exactly where they are going yet, so they find a spot to cluster and wait. In this case you may be lucky enough to see a giant ball of bees hanging from a branch or bench or bush. They are simply waiting, while scout bees go out and find a new place for them all to live, after which they will move in. If everything goes well, they will succeed in their new location, pollinate the wildlands and gardens in the area (a large area, say 5 miles), build lots of comb, raise brood, make honey and bee bread, and someday divide themselves.

The value of bees and other pollinators should be obvious to us, not only as gardeners, but also as people dependent upon ecology and the sutainence it produces for us. It is a shame that so much of the habitat essential for bees and other native insect pollinators and predators has been taken by development (us). I beg people to reconsider removing wild hives from their yards and from our communities. Most colonies are incredibly docile and focused on what they want to do, which is to harvest nectar and pollen from flowers. You might find that a wild bee hive is an easy and enjoyable thing to live with. It is amazing to watch these hard working ladies buzzing in and out of their home and foraging all over your yard and neighborhood. We too are a part of this system... let's try to remember this, and to appreciate it.

Gratitude and Humility as we wade into the water,
Ryan Wanamaker