The first week of December is California Healthy Soils Week. To help "celebrate" the occasion I was asked to give a lecture on some tips to keep your garden soil healthy. If you're the type that likes to watch videos, then you can watch the recording. (It's about 1 hour including the questions at the end.)
If you're like me and like to get the short, bullet-point version, here it is.
Dustin's Healthy Soil Tips:
- Know your native soil (Try this link!)
- Make permanent paths
- Treat beds like beds: don't stand or walk in them and keep them covered—with mulch
- Add organic materials like compost
- Rotate crops; be sure to include cover crops
- Till gently; here's an article to learn more
Note: Inyo-Mono Master Gardeners who watch the video can receive 1 hour continuing education credit.
It's now October so that means that we're now in the time of year where we start to wind down our gardens for the season. If you're at all like me and refuse to plan for the eventual coming cold weather by pulling out plants, a killing frost will force the matter.
For most of the Eastern Sierra, at least places where gardening is feasible, October brings us our first frost of the season.
I am often asked about first and last frost dates for various communities. The good news is I have that information. The bad news is that there is wide variability in the actual date. That means it's important to keep an eye on the weather forecast.
Average First Frost Dates
There are two ways to think about frost dates. Here is the first and conceptually easiest to understand: Average first frost date along with an estimate of the spread of when that might happen. The table below shows the average first frost of fall and a range of dates that shows where there is about a 70% chance the the real frost date will fall.
First Fall Frost Dates
Typical Frost Window
|Independence & Lone Pine||11/3||14||10/20||11/17|
Big Pine is about the same average date as Bishop—maybe a little later—but it varies much more. We don't have any data, but that's a observation from gardeners there.
It's also worth noting that the data for Topaz Lake isn't that great, and the station isn't in the best location for predicting effects to your garden. That said, the whole area has a lot of variation every year, making predictions hard. This data is a good place to start.
A Probability Approach
The other way to look at frosts is to consider some level of risk that you are comfortable and then check which date corresponds with that risk level for your location. The Western Regional Climate Center has extensive data and risk projections for many locations in California. (Here is the data: https://wrcc.dri.edu/summary/Climsmcca.html )
Below is an example for Bishop, California.
- Follow the link to WRCC's page
- Choose a station from the list
- On the left side you will see various reports. Fall 'Freeze' Probability will generate a report like above. Scroll down some to see it. It's under the Temperature heading.
- Author: Jan Rhoades
It is definitely harvest time in my garden - I guess it has been for awhile. Like all good gardeners, I browsed the seed catalogs and found two new varieties to try out this season: Burbank Red Slicing Tomato and Crane Melon. My choices were inspired by a trip to Santa Rosa and the Luther Burbank Garden. What a treat to walk in the garden of a man that left such a horticultural legacy. Read on to find out more about these two winners. Both are listed by the The Slow Foods Ark of Taste, a catalog of distinctive foods deemed threatened by industrial standardization. They are definitely two to try!
In Sonoma County, the last name of Crane is pretty much synonymous with the word melon. The Crane family has been farming melons there for more than a century.
It all started when Richard Crane was enticed to set down roots in the area because of the Gold Rush. But it was his son, Oliver Crane, who succeeded in breeding a golden melon that grew incredibly well in the unique clay soil and climate of Sonoma County, and without much irrigation. Named the Crane melon, it is a cross between several heirloom varieties: a Japanese melon, an ambrosia melon, a white melon and a Persian melon.
Beginning in the 1920s, Oliver sold his melons out of the farmstead's barn in Santa Rosa. Today, six-generations later, it has become an iconic landmark known affectionately as the “Melon Barn” where the family continues to farm and sell these melons. The Crane Melon is not found at grocery stores as it is vine ripened, and does not have the shelf life to be shipped. The Crane family claims that, “The Crane melon's flavor is due to its terroir. The melon was developed to be grown...in a particular soil, within a specific climate zone, farmed in a certain style.”
The Crane Melon has appeared in magazines, newspapers and TV shows. A Los Angeles Times article recognized it as a true heirloom. A striking melon it is slightly pear shaped with a gently tapering end and averages 4 to 7 pounds. Its exterior is a pale dusty green color with dark green blotches that become a rusty orange when fully ripe. The inner orange flesh is firm and succulent This melon is described as highly aromatic and exceptionally sweet and juicy with notes of honey, rose and orange blossom.
Over the past month, I have eaten several of these delectable melons from my own generous vine. They are quite big and make a lovely dessert. I am not sure that the soil here has the same terroir, but I can truly say they are the best melons I have ever tasted.
Burbank Red Slicing Tomato
Developed around 1914 by plant wizard Luther Burbank, this tomato was reportedly the only variety that Mr. Burbank raised for canning. It is a semi-determinate that grows on stocky bushes 18 - 36" tall and produces beautiful 6 - 8 oz fruits perfect for slicing and canning. Quite productive and a fairly early tomato, it has no problem with cool nights and even seems to tolerate drier climates. The fruit is a deep red color with a satisfying bold tomato flavor.
In his own words, Burbank described this tomato as, ”The earliest, smoothest, largest and most productive of all early tomatoes. It is of a bright red, the flesh being firm and of superior quality. The plants resist disease in an unusual manner, and unlike most early tomatoes, it produces heavily all summer. A fine home or market tomato, as it is a fine keeper and shipper."
The 1923 Burbank Seed Catalog reads, ”Fruit, bright crimson; thick, solid, heavy, smooth, medium to large in size, superior quality, unusually heavy and continuous bearer throughout the season. Good keeper and fare shipper. The Burbank has one other unique and most remarkable quality which will be appreciated by those who like fresh sliced tomatoes for the table. Unlike other tomatoes, the skin peels freely from the rich, firm flesh. “
All summer, I have been enjoying these fine tomatoes in sandwiches and salads, as well as cooking them down to paste for winter use.
I love green beans, but even better are wax beans. For some reason as a kid I thought the yellow color of wax beans was something special. Since then I've preferred them if given a choice, but I'm sure it's all in my head. Kids make food choices based on some illogical characteristics. This one stuck with me.
I've grown three different varieties of wax beans since I've lived in Owens Valley. I always grow bush-type beans since I'm too lazy to set up a trellis. This is the first year I've had enough to make more than a meal.
My first two years I attempted to grow ‘Top Notch' wax beans. They are easy to find and cheap. I like cheap.
I brought my 'Top Notch' seeds from Arkansas, but I didn't have much luck with them in Bishop. My plants had serious problems with fruit set in the dry heat. The plants grew and flowered prolifically, but few pods formed in either year. The other green beans (‘Blue Lake Bush' and ‘Royal Burgundy') I planted those years did fine, so I think it's a case of a poor choice in our area. Or at least that garden.
Since then I moved to another house and didn't put in a garden, but like everyone else, the coronavirus inspired me to plant a garden.
My current garden spot is even hotter than the last as it's nestled in between my house and a fence, in full sun all day. I figured I need to try a different kind of bean. By the time I decided to put in my garden, there wasn't much left for sale. I ended up growing ‘Borsalino', an Italian variety I frankly paid too much for in desperation for seeds.
‘Borsalino' was highly productive. Each plant yielded about ½ lb of beans. They were fair tasting and tender, but the pods were not very long. Most were 3-4" long. Few looked worthy of entering into the fair, but I can't complain about the yield. They also yielded almost their entire crop in one picking.
About a week after I planted those wax beans, I was given some French rocbrun seeds to plant. The mature seeds look like brown pebbles. Maybe that's what the name means. (This cultivar may actually be ‘Buerre de Rocquencourt' but rocbrun is easier for an Anglophone to say, if that's actually the case.)
My rocbruns were not as productive as ‘Borsalino', but the pods were much larger and generally more tender. I ate a few raw out of the garden. I was glad the pods were larger as that speeds up harvest; however it did take two passes about 5 days apart to get them all. I kept the first ones in the refrigerator until I had the rest harvested.
While they were excellent to eat, I wasn't so happy about cleaning them prior to canning. The pods were very sticky, and little bits of dirt and spent blossoms adhered a bit too well. I had to wash the beans twice to clean them of debris. They were good enough to eat that I plan to let some of the seeds mature and save them for next year.
The moral of the story is that in many cases, the reason something doesn't work could be as simple as the variety not being adapted to one's location. Wax beans definitely seem to grow here, as I would expect they would.
New gardeners: keep in mind that if you don't succeed with something this year, maybe the solution is to try another variety next year.
Basil is one of my favorite things to grow in the garden. It's easy, mostly pest-free, and best of all: I like it.
I usually go overboard and grow more than one kind of basil in the garden. This year I grew sweet basil, Thai basil, and ‘Mammoth' lettuce-leaf basil.
If you don't raise lettuce-leaf basil, you should consider it for next year. Lettuce-leaf basil is really fast to de-stem for processing which is great for lazy folks like me. ‘Napoletano' is my absolute favorite basil, but it was out-of-stock everywhere this year, so mild-tasting ‘Mammoth' it was.
Although I use fresh basil regularly, I never seem to make a huge dent in my garden's supply because I grow more than I should. Eventually the plants will begin to flower around mid-July. Each type of basil flowers at a different time and previous harvesting will also affect when it flowers.
An efficient time to harvest basil is just as the flower spikes begin to be visible, but aren't fully expanded. The plants will have lots of leaves ready to be used and the flavor is still good.
Today was basil harvest day in my garden, but I probably should have started last week.
I usually dry all my sweet basil, and use the Thai and lettuce-leaf basils fresh, but this year I had a lot of lettuce-leaf basil ready to harvest all at once so I had to preserve some. After drying and freezing, I still had some left to use up. So I went to my backup preservation plan: salt drying.
Salt drying relies on salt to draw out moisture to preserve herbs. Since there is no heat involved, the delicate aroma of the herbs is not as affected as by dehydrating. Any herb can be salt dried, but I'm not sure that's a good idea for every herb. I can't imagine finding a use for salted mint.
To salt dry basil, use a clean, wide-mouth jar. Put some salt in the bottom and alternate layers of washed, dried basil leaves and salt. I use kosher salt, but use whatever suits your fancy. (Remember, the basil will overpower any flavor subtleties of expensive specialty salts.) Sometimes I put a few peppercorns or fennel seed in the salt too. After filling the jar, store it in the refrigerator and it will keep for months.
Whenever you need some basil, pull out some leaves and add them to your recipe, adjusting salt if desired. When you are finished using all the leaves, you are left with a basil-flavored salt, also handy in the kitchen!
I've found that this method is very good with Thai or holy basils. I can pull the leaves out and add them to sauces. They do a good job retaining their distinct flavor this way. The small leaves fit well into the jar to make neat layers. This year I used the small leaves toward the top of my lettuce-leaf basil plants. The ruffles made it a little harder to place into the salt, but it worked if I packed it all down between each layer. I probably didn't get as much basil in the jar as with Thai basil as a result.
I am thankful that basil is so easy to preserve since I'm always swimming in it by mid-summer. Good thing it's something I actually use, unlike the radishes I plant for no apparent reason.
P.S. Before you ask: No you cannot safely can basil at home, even with a pressure canner.