Growing Your Own Food

snow peas and radishes

snow peas and radishes

Many years ago, during an economic boom, a friend of mine made what I thought, at the time, was a bizarre prediction.
“Some day,” he said, “knowing how to grow your own food will be more important than knowing how to drive a car.”
In the wake of the recent economic upheaval, this prediction does not strike me as odd as it once did. You never know. Homesteading or living off the land could become the next big thing.
In our area, you can still harvest vegetables throughout the fall and winter if you plant now. The easiest vegetables to start are radishes, lettuces, peas and beets.
Radishes come in many configurations, from the common globe radish to the more exotic icicle and oriental radishes.
The seeds of all radishes sprout readily in the garden. Those familiar magenta-skinned globe radishes may be ready to eat in less than a month. The white Japanese daikon radish grows 1 foot in length, yet goes from seed to harvest in only 40 days.
Root crops that require more patience, such as onions, garlic and potatoes, may also be planted now.
Lettuces also are easy to grow from seed and are ready to harvest in about a month, albeit at a modest size. If you want larger lettuces, keep them in the ground longer, although you should not expect to grow supermarket-size lettuce crops.
Mesclun, the French word for mixture, refers to a salad consisting of a combination of garden greens. Seed packets labeled “mesclun” are now available; they include seeds of red and green lettuce, curly endive, chicory, radicchio and arugula. Your salad should be ready in 30 days.
If you wish, harvest individual leaves from your garden greens or shear the tops off with scissors every week or so, instead of harvesting the whole plants. They will continue to produce new growth for several months.
Peas require a little more than twice the patience of radishes and salad greens. They need around 70 days to yield their first edible pods.
Picked fresh from the plant, you can eat the whole pods raw – the sweetest snack the vegetable garden has to offer – as they mature.
Make sure you plant peas at the rear of your vegetable garden and provide them with some sort of trellis to climb. If you have a sunny fence or block wall, consider turning the ground beneath it into a pea patch.
Beets and Swiss chard are botanical relatives, both grow in Valley gardens with ease, and both are ready to harvest 60 days after planting. Swiss chard not only is edible but it is ornamental as well, with maroon-leaf and gold- and pink-stem varieties available.
Carrots also can be planted now. Their seeds are so small, and the tiny leaves that first sprout are so tiny and slender that you might miss them. Make sure you give carrots a loose, well-drained soil so they can grow straight and long. And remember to thin them out – a rule that holds true for all vegetables.
Cole or cruciferous crops include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprout, cauliflower, turnip, collard green and kohlrabi. All may be planted now and all face the same potential nemesis: that pretty white butterfly with the black beauty marks on its wingtips.
Prevent this pest, better-known as the imported cabbageworm, from taking up residence in your fall garden. Place a floating row cover – it looks like mosquito netting – over the seedlings and keep it there until harvest.
In our area, this is the best time of year to plant strawberries and you can find them now at most local nurseries.
Growing strawberries is tricky because the fungi that inhabit our soil may decimate the plants before they really get started. One way around this difficulty is to build a raised bed from top soil, available in nurseries by the bag, and compost.
To simplify the task, build a frame out of 2-by-8-inch planks and fill it with bags of good earth. Take care that the bed you create is not more than 3 feet wide so that you can access and care for your plants without having to step in the bed.
Another problem with strawberries is that in their enthusiasm to harvest, people don’t give the plants enough time to establish themselves before allowing them to flower and fruit. It is advisable to pluck off the first crop of strawberry flowers prior to their setting fruit. By demonstrating this restraint, you will have stronger plants and many more strawberries to pick after the plants flower the second, third and fourth time around.
In any event, even though strawberries are perennials, it is difficult to grow them for more than a few years in the same location before there is a drop-off in fruit production.
As strawberry companion plants, grow spinach and fennel.
Tip of the week
Self-sowing delphiniums, sometimes called larkspurs, whose flowering spires are beloved by all, may be planted now from seed. They are typically seen in pink, mauve and blue, are classic English garden plants, and self-sow from year to year. Their seed packets should be available at most nurseries.
Larkspur delphiniums (Consolida ajacis) differ from the candle delphiniums (Delphinium elatum) you see blooming in nurseries in containers. Candle delphiniums have gaudier inflorescences but they are assailed by snails and do not re-seed themselves in the garden as larkspurs do.
Now also is a favorable time to plant those nonedible but pungently fragrant sweet peas. When you see and smell their white, pink and violet flowers in the spring, you will swear the dollar or two spent on a packet of seeds was the best fall investment you ever made.
California wildflowers may also be planted now. Aside from the famous California poppies, consider clarkias, monkey flowers and lupines for your wildflower garden.

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