Thursday, December 29, 2016

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Organic Garden Management – Part 2

By Lindsay Del Carlo, Trial Garden Manager

Many of our newer gardening customers want to garden organically, so I've asked our Trial Garden manager Lindsay Del Carlo to write the next few blog posts to share our own organic gardening techniques. Here is the second post focusing on pest control and encouraging beneficial insects. - Renee
To see the first part of the series, click here.

No garden is completely pest free, but having a variety of plants that attract beneficial insects can really go a long way toward controlling plant pests by creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. When pests do present a problem, there are now many highly effective products to control them:

Napa Cabbage Under Row Cover
Floating Row Cover. In our trial garden, our premier method of pest protection is to simply exclude them with a soft but effective barrier. We use sheets of white "floating row cover," a multi-purpose, ultra-lightweight spun fabric that can be readily purchased at most good independent garden centers and is readily available online. (Online sources include: Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, Harmony Farm Supply, Gardener's Supply Co.)

These thin row covers are simply laid loosely over the top of the plants in the beds, then fastened down at the sides of the beds so nothing can crawl under. Row covers work by effectively blocking pests out as the plants grow, while still letting ample sunlight and water in through the porous fabric. When the plants are near maturity or begin to flower and need pollination, the row cover is removed. Row cover works wonderfully well to protect against otherwise hard to treat pests such as leaf miners and cabbage moths.

Newer Organic Controls
Organic Pest Control
Actinovate is a relatively new organic product containing beneficial bacteria in a soluble powder that will control a wide range of diseases including powdery and downey mildew, botrytis, alternaria and other air borne pathogens on plant surfaces. It also works as a soil drench to control root decay diseases such as pythium, phytophthora, fusarium, rhizoctonia, verticillium, and other root decay fungi.

Serenade is an organic product the controls bacterial diseases like powdery mildew, rust, and black spot that affect many plants including squash, cucumber, roses, hollyhocks, and zinnias, just to name a few.

Wherever slugs and snails are abundant, a bi-weekly applications of organic Sluggo Plus around garden beds and surrounding garden spaces will definitely control them. Sluggo Plus is also effective against earwigs and sow bugs which are notorious eaters of seedlings.

Safers Soap is a great product made from naturally occurring fatty acids. At the first sign of damage, a weekly spray with Safers Soap is very effective in controlling common aphids, mealy bugs and white flies and other damaging pests like mites and thrips on vegetables herbs and flowers and fruit trees of all kinds.

Bacillus thuringensis (a.k.a. BT) is an effective organic treatment for all caterpillars pests that particularly enjoy eating leafy vegetables and Brassica family members like broccoli, cauliflower, napa cabbage and kohlrabi. As with most of the organic pest products, an application at regular intervals for about 2 to 3 weeks usually provides adequate control.

Bee on Borage
Attracting Beneficials
Not all insects that you see in the garden are harmful for plants and many are actually quite helpful, distributing pollen between flowers or providing food for beneficial insects. A garden of diverse plant varieties also creates an ecosystem that attracts lots of beneficials. Even if you are strictly a vegetable gardener, it's important to plant some flowers and/or flowering herbs to attract pollinating bees of all kinds. Sunflowers, poppies, cosmos, tithonia, monarda, zinnias, marigolds and herbs like lavender, catmint, dill, borage and basil are favorite bee destinations.

Ladybug eating aphids
Yarrow and alyssum are good too, and their flowers will attract lacewings and lady bugs. The larva of these insects dine on aphids, mites and other small insects and their eggs.
Alyssum, bishops lace, chamomile, cosmos, fennel, and monarda are just a few plants that will attract hover flies (aka syrphid fly). The adults look like little bees that hover over and dart quickly away, but they don't sting. They lay white, oval eggs singly or in groups on leaves which hatch into green, yellow, brown, orange, or white half-inch maggots that look like caterpillars. They raise up on their hind legs to catch and feed on aphids, mealy bugs and other pests.

Syrpid Fly
When we grow parsley, cutting celery, dill or cilantro we let some of the plants mature and blossom. Their flowers, along with those of marigolds and zinnias are wonderful for attracting parasitic mini wasps which are parasites of a variety of insects. They have stingers that have been adapted to allow the females to lay their eggs in the bodies of insect pests.The eggs then hatch, and the young feed on the pests from the inside, killing them. After they have killed the pests, they leave hollow "mummies" which we see regularly here in the garden, especially on aphids.  It’s wild!
Parasitic wasp stinging aphid
Having an organic garden doesn’t have to be tricky; what you put into it , you will get right back out of it.  Building healthy soil will give you healthy plants.  Creating biodiversity in the garden will help to have an ecosystem that can sustain itself.  And for those times when you do need a little extra help with those pesky critters, there are safe products on the market that will do the trick. With a some simple garden planning, you can avoid inviting situations that encourage pests and diseases.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Organic Garden Management - Part 1

By Lindsay Del Carlo, Trial Garden Manager
Many of our newer gardening customers want to garden organically, so I've asked our Trial Garden manager Lindsay Del Carlo to write the next few blog posts to share our own organic gardening techniques. Here is the first post focusing on soil preparation and care. – Renee

Our trial garden has been managed organically for over 25 years by observing organic cultural practices that produce a thriving, healthy garden:
  1. Good soil preparation is basic and vital to growing a healthy organic garden and using cover crops, organic fertilizers and compost helps to improve soil structure and fertility and increase both overall plant health and resistance to pests and diseases.
  2. Crop rotation helps to decrease the need for excessive fertilizer and prevent build-up of soil disease. No garden is completely pest free, and there are now many useful new organic pest control products on the market for effective pest control.
  3. Having a variety of plants that attract beneficial insects helps to control pests by creating a working, self-sufficient ecosystem. 
My posts will explain these classic organic techniques one by one:

It All Starts With Building Healthy Soil – Using Compost to Build Great Soil
Finished aged compost
to add to garden beds
Throughout the gardening seasons, every time we start or transplant a new crop into one of our raised garden beds, we first prepare the soil by adding a few inches of aged compost and turning it into the top 8 inches of the soil with a fork. Compost is an excellent soil conditioner, improving the soil structure and adding micronutrients that feed plants.

In our extremely sandy soil, the compost acts like a sponge that holds onto water and helps keep soil from drying out so quickly. In a garden with denser clay soil, adding compost aides in keeping soil loose and non-compacting so it will drain better.

Compost also provides plant roots with more air space which is actually vital to plants. Whether you make it or buy it, be sure your compost well aged, and completely broken down for the best availability of nutrients. Renee's Garden offers a good Compost Guide if you want to learn how to make your own low-cost, nutrient-rich compost. 

Fertilizing Regularly Is An Important Part of Organic Practice
Organic Fertilizers L to R:
Liquid Kelp, Sustane grainular,
Earth Worm Castings,
Fish Emulsion
In addition to preparing our soil with compost, we also consistently use good organic soil amendments and fertilizers. Earthworm castings are the end product from worms digesting organic materials, and it is odorless and non-toxic. A little goes a long way with earthworm castings and they contain abundant essential elements plants need for healthy growth and can really make a marked difference in your garden.

Organic fertilizers provide vital nutrients and help plants to build strong tissue, making them more pest resistant. Synthetic fertilizers, although they work very quickly to promote quick growth, encourage fast development of very soft plant tissue that becomes a magnet to pests like aphids and mites which can easily penetrate the plant tissue to feed on it. Knowing the fertilizer requirements for different crops is important to avoid over or under-fertilizing and so that the crops can be rotated properly.

We use a granular, certified organic fertilizer called Sustane. (Fertilizer brands are regional, so inquire at a good independent garden center for what is available in your area or look online). This granular fertilizer breaks down slowly in the soil to feed plants over a long period of time. Organic fertilizer in liquid form is faster acting than granular fertilizer. For heavy feeding crops (see your packet back), we also supplement the slow release granular fertilizer with a liquid kelp/ fish emulsion mixture (1 tablespoon each liquid fish emulsion and liquid kelp per gallon of water) as either a foliar spray or soil drench to give plants of any age a quick boost.

Crop Rotation Controls Disease and Maximizes Nutrients 
Crop Rotation is a very important practice which helps to avoid depleting the soil of nutrients and a build up of soil pathogens. Some vegetables are heavy feeders and deplete the soil more than others. 

Nitrogen fixing Rhizobia
nodules on Fava Beans
For example, heavy feeding varieties like tomatoes, corn or squash should be followed by lighter feeding leafy varieties like lettuces and or root crops such as carrots. Then we follow that second crop with a with soil-building legume crop like beans or peas were a fall cover crop like bell or fava beans.
Legumes actually enrich the soil because their roots have nodules containing nitrogen fixing Rhizobia bacteria that convert the nitrogen from the air and make it available for the plant to use as food. These nodules are very noticeable when you pull up a plant by the roots and look carefully. After our legume crop is cut and harvested, the remaining roots are left in the ground or composted so the root nodules will break down and release all the valuable fixed nitrogen for following crops.
Garden map for planning
crop rotations
For example, Nightshade family vegetables are susceptible to soil pathogens like verticillium and fusarium, so it is helpful to rotate their place in the garden each season.

Rotating varieties of the Mustard family helps us avoid build up of soil dwelling cabbage maggots and other mustard family pests. We keep a simple chart of our garden bed plantings each season so that we can easily keep track of what the next rotation should be.  

Cover Crops Offer Nutrients and Protection
Turning in cover crop
Planting cover crops is a great way to protect soil from erosion from winter weather and rain. When our growing season slows as winter draws near, final harvests are made from those beds we will not be planting again until spring. We protect this uncovered soil by planting a cover crop to both enrich the soil and protect it from the elements. In our area we use Pacific Gold mustard and a legume crop like fava or bell beans, or a blend of oat grass, bell beans and purple vetch works best. (Cover crop components vary in each region of the country: consult a local Master Gardener or knowledgeable staff at a good independent garden center to find out what is best used in your area).

The cover crop also takes up extra nutrients in the soil that would otherwise be leached out by driving rain. In spring, the cover crops can be dug back into the soil, thus releasing the captured nutrients. In our trial garden, we do this mainly with Pacific Gold mustard which is low growing and easy to dig back into the soil. It also has a more powerful effect against soil diseases when allowed to decompose directly in the soil. Other cover crops like legumes which grow much larger, we prefer to pull out and compost the cover crop plants. They will break down in the compost heap much faster this way, so their nutrients are ready to be added back into the garden beds as part of the compost added when we prepare for planting spring. 

Part 2 of this article will be published next month.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Captivating Kohlrabi

My memories of kohlrabi are full of fond nostalgia. When I was a little girl in suburban Cleveland, weekly visits to my grandmother's wonderful garden were a highlight of summer. I couldn't wait to go look at all the growing plants, and then I always helped her pull up a bunch of plump kohlrabis for afternoon snacks. My grandmother would carefully cut off the leaves and peel the bulbs, then slice them up in thick juicy rounds that kept me munching all afternoon.

Now that I'm a grown-up kitchen gardener, I continue the tradition and grow both violet and green varieties of kohlrabi. I plant them in a pretty mosaic pattern each spring and fall and then stand back to watch and enjoy visitors' reactions to the eye-catching shape of this unusual vegetable. Kohlrabi plants form bulbs, actually edible swollen stems, just above the ground that are shaped like round tennis balls. They are green or deep violet-purple depending on the variety, with ruffled foliage that looks like broccoli leaves growing out of the bulb's tops and sides.

To buy our kohlrabi seeds, CLICK HERE.

Many friends gaze in amazement when they first see my kohlrabi bed. Neighborhood kids have always called it my "flying saucer" or "space ship" vegetable. Yet anyone with a Slavic or Asian background smiles fondly and licks their lips because they know how tasty the crunchy mild flesh of these eccentric looking bulbs can be both raw and cooked.

Kohlrabi's name is a combination of the German words for cabbage and turnip, but to me, the flavor of the bulbs crisp flesh is sweeter than either of its family members. Peeled kohlrabi bulbs are juicy with a delicate sweet flavor that I would describe as a cross between apples and very mild baby turnips. Elizabeth Schneider, in her classic Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables (Harper and Row 1986), says that to her, kohlrabi tastes "like the freshest, crunchiest broccoli stems, touched with a hint of radish and cucumber."

The origins of kohlrabi are a matter of debate since some plant historians think it was cultivated as long ago as the Roman era, while others claim it was developed from the mallow cabbage as late as the 16th century. Although its antecedents may be obscure, kohlrabi is a very popular staple throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. In the USA, it is harder to find, but you can usually buy it in markets of many areas of the Midwest and Mid Atlantic states, or wherever there are heavy concentrations of German or Eastern European communities.

Kohlrabi is a reliable, productive and easy growing ornamental edible to grow in cool spring weather and again in fall when summer heat tapers off. The tasty bulbs and leaves are good sources of vitamins C and A, calcium, potassium and fiber and they are low in calories, about 40 per cup. Like all brassicas, kohlrabi is a potent anti cancer vegetable. The biennial plants are very quick to mature, bulbing up quickly to harvest in just 60 to 70 days after planting. Newer hybrid varieties offer much more vigorous plants that grow rapidly and produce big crunchy bulbs without the pithy or stringy qualities that plagued older, more traditional kohlrabi cultivars.

Growing great kohlrabi is easy and rewarding. It needs a good rich soil, preferring a neutral to slightly acid pH. Prepare your garden bed for planting by digging in lots of well aged manure or compost. While you can grow a fine crop of kohlrabi by direct sowing, I prefer to set out young seedlings started indoors from seeds no more than 5 to 6 weeks before the last expected frost date. I find that healthy, sturdy transplants are better able to survive lurking slugs or snails and unexpected inclement weather.

To start kohlrabi indoors, sow seeds about 1/2 inch deep and an inch apart in a container of seed starting mix. Keep evenly moist and provide a good light source. Germination takes 10 to 14 days and seedlings thrive in 65 to 75 degree conditions. When well established with at least one strong set of true leaves, thin seedlings to 3 or 4 inches apart or transplant them to deeper containers. Keep evenly watered and feed every 10 days with half strength liquid fertilizer. As soon as outside temperatures reach 50 degrees, acclimate seedlings to outdoor conditions for 4 or 5 days out of direct sun, then plant into the garden about 6 to 8 inches apart and water in well. Do not wait too long before transplanting your young seedlings as stressed or root bound kohlrabi will not produce good bulbs. In the garden, keep plants well weeded and evenly watered to ensure rapid development. Feed every three weeks or so with a balanced liquid fertilizer, compost tea, or fish emulsion and kelp solution.

Kohlrabi is not prone to serious pest problems, but to totally avoid predators and make my gardening easier, I usually cover the seedlings after transplanting with floating row covers which are permeable to both light and water. While they are not the most beautiful garden accessories, I find these row covers stabilize growing conditions and protect crops against any insect infestation. I remove them when plants are well established and beginning form baby bulbs, at about 6 to 8 inches tall. If you don't use row covers, a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap solution controls aphids or white flies and 2 to 3 inch cardboard collars averts cutworms. Non-toxic BT is an effective way to deal with cabbage moth larvae or other caterpillar pests. Limit disease potential in your garden by planting kohlrabi and all its brassica relatives in 3 year rotations.

I begin to harvest kohlrabi when they reach 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Cut the stem about an inch below the round bulbs. Trim off the leaves to cook separately and store the thick skinned bulbs in the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator. They will keep well for at least 3 weeks to cook up as you need them. I still enjoy kohlrabi sliced up raw best of all, but now I like to use both leaves and bulbs as cooked vegetables too. The leaves make a wonderful greens. Cut out and discard the stems, then drop the leaves into a pot of boiling salted water. Cook until just tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Then heat some olive oil in a skillet, add garlic or chopped onion and sauté until fragrant and softened. Toss in the kohlrabi leaves and cook a few minutes more. Finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Peel and slice kohlrabi bulbs raw for snacks, just like you would slice up an apple. Thin slices make crispy sweet dip holders or can be used instead of crackers for creamy spreads. Slices are great to add to green salads instead of cucumbers. You'll find shredded raw kohlrabi makes especially mild, sweet coleslaw, and you can also make kohlrabi pickles.

Kohlrabi's mild flesh cooks up to tender sweet succulence. Peel off the outer skins and slice or cube to sauté slowly in sweet butter, or steam the unpeeled bulbs whole, then peel and cut up. Traditionally, cooked kohlrabi is served in a rich homemade cream sauce and it is quite delectable this way, especially with a few gratings of nutmeg added to the sauce. Stir fry kohlrabi with carrot slices, and scallions for a delicious and colorful side dish, seasoned lightly with fresh gingeroot. I've found that cooked kohlrabi pairs beautifully with fresh herbs like lemon thyme, marjoram, summer savory, garlic chives, broad leafed parsley, or dill leaf and aromatics like curry, nutmeg, ginger or paprika. To finish a dish of herbed kohlrabi perfectly, add a dollop of sour cream  or fresh, whole milk yogurt.

Unpeeled, trimmed kohlrabi bulbs can also be baked in the oven. Just put them in a covered casserole with 2 to 3 tablespoons of water and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour or until fork tender. Cool, peel and slice, and dress with a little butter and lemon and your favorite herbs or spices as above. I find that baking the bulbs is easy and really seems to intensify and concentrate their flavor.

Plant a second crop of kohlrabi for fall eating once summer heat begins to diminish. You can start the seeds in a container outdoors in light shade, then plant out seedlings in the garden, shading them for a few days until they are established. Fall kohlrabi is an especially sweet and tender treat you'll savor as an end of the season gardening reward every year. Sautéed kohlrabi has become a standard part of my families' Thanksgiving repertoire that everyone expects and looks forward to every year. Try some of these curious and delicious vegetables in your garden this season.

To buy our kohlrabi seeds, CLICK HERE.

Kohlrabi Sauté

4 medium kohlrabi bulbs
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons fresh low fat sour cream

Peel the tough outer skin from the kohlrabi, then coarsely grate bulbs. In a skillet heat butter and olive oil. Add garlic, onion and kohlrabi and sauté, stirring for 5 to 7 minutes or until kohlrabi is tender crisp. Stir in lemon juice, parsley, then season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Stir in sour cream, and serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.

Pickled Kohlrabi

3 kohlrabi peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 large carrots peeled, cut into sticks, parboiled 3 minutes
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
3 large sprigs fresh dill

Pickling Mixture:

3/4 cup white vinegar
1 1/4 cups water
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon dill seed
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt 

Combine kohlrabi and carrots and pack in a 1 quart glass jar along with garlic, bay leaf and fresh dill. In a saucepan combine pickling mixture ingredients and heat, stirring, until it boils and sugar is dissolved. Pour boiling mixture over kohlrabi filling jar completely. Cover jar. When cool, refrigerate for 3 to 4 days before using to let flavors blend.

Makes 1 quart. 

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Seed Harvest

At this time of year, our warehouse is getting filled to overflowing with new crops of seed that were just harvested this fall, carefully winnowed, sorted, cleaned, tested for germination and purity and finally shipped to us from all over the world. The warehouse floor is filled with the sweetly pungent odor of carrot seeds, the spicy scent of very fresh dill seed, and the simple physical beauty of dozens and dozens of different seed shapes, colors and sizes. In the old days, just 10 years ago, seeds were routinely shipped in muslin or linen sacks, but nowadays they come in airtight buckets or foil packages; not as romantic but probably much more moisture proof. When they arrive, we take out a sample and send it off to the seed lab to be sure that the germination rate has stayed as high as when we first arranged to purchase the crop.

Many of these purchase agreements were made long before the seed was planted last spring, so getting the seed into the warehouse means we finally can relax, knowing that variety has been successfully grown and we will have plenty of seed to fill our packets all season long. When we place our purchase orders to growers, there is no guarantee that a crop that meets our standards will result nine months later. Too much or too little rain; disease or pests; harvesting too early or too late; improper postharvest handling; all of these factors can mean we will get no crop that season and we never know for sure until the harvest is complete and the seed is inside our doors.

All of this involves lots of communications throughout the growing season with growers in very far-flung places. It reminds me again that in today's world, planting a garden can be a truly ecumenical act because we enable gardeners to grow vegetables and herbs from all the world's regional cuisines, and flowers from every continent. The seeds we are offering have been grown by producers both large and small in the US, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany, England, Israel, China, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. All have their histories and stories in their home countries.

I think one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is the annual process of connecting with our growers to hear about their varieties and how they are used. When I first started in this business, I really had to travel to far away places to find new varieties, but now the Internet has meant that I can more easily find out about new introductions and track down the varieties that we need from among the world community of seed producers. I have been working with many of these folks for over many years. The next step is getting and beginning the long process of growing them out and evaluating, first in our California trial garden and then in our other regional gardens. The end result is where I began -- the seeds coming to our warehouse so I can share them with all of you!

Friday, August 28, 2015

New, Helpful Videos from Renee's Garden!


Trial Garden manager Lindsay Del Carlo and Facebook Master Rocky Festa have just finished and put up two new videos on our Renee’s Garden YouTube channel that we think our customers will find useful and enjoyable:

If you’ve grown our loofah sponge gourds, you’re probably wondering what to do with them all once they are ready to craft with. In our new video, Lindsay shows when to harvest, prepare and make home-grown loofah into terrific bath and shower exfoliating scrubbers. These make great holiday gifts!

Check it out:


Now that we sell seeds for delicious and authentic Italian “Mama’s Cannellini” Beans, Lindsay and Rocky have created a brand-new video that shows you how to get the mature dry beans out of their shells in the fastest, most fun way and then goes on to give direction on both storing and cooking them

Check it out:


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tips For Gardening in the Drought

In our current drought situation, you can still enjoy your garden and conserve water by paying careful attention to good soil stewardship practices:

Lettuce with drip tape at the root zone.
ADD ORGANIC MATERIAL into your soil when preparing your garden beds each spring. Plentiful organic material, added each season will help your garden soil retain moisture

USE COMPOST. During the growing season, add an inch or two of compost every time you plant a new crop in your garden beds because in addition to providing nourishment and texture to the soil, the compost also increases water holding capacity.

MULCH HEAVILY. Mulch prevents moisture from evaporating, keeps irrigation water from running off, and enables your plants to use water more slowly and effectively.

Strawberry plants with drip tubing at
the root zone, and straw mulch on the bed
To conserve moisture, put straw mulch around
lettuce plants, completely covering the drip tape
Irrigation line with 2 gallon per hour drip emitters
at the root zone to water grape vine
NEW PLANTINGS ALWAYS NEED WATER INITIALLY. If you don’t give your new plants adequate water they won’t succeed: when seeds are germinating and plants are still at the seedling stage, a little hand watering is the most effective way to get them established. Once water wise plants reach full size, drip irrigation will keep them thriving over the long term. The trick is to use water thoughtfully and effectively, and mulch heavily.

USE WATER SLOWLY: Deliver only the amount of water the plants need to thrive, but don’t use more than necessary. DRIP IRRIGATION supplies are easy to install and economical, and using drip will reduce your water use very significantly.

A ring of drip tubing
in container vegetables
CLUSTER PLANTS. Cluster plants with similar water needs together. The more you learn about the water needs of your plants, the better. Remember, watering frequently and shallowly results in shallow roots; less frequent, deeper watering of established plants entices roots to grow downwards.

CONSERVE WATER for outside use: Put a bucket in the shower/sink to save the water while you’re waiting for it to heat up, then use it outside. Put a bucket near every hose bib, so when you start/close a hose, you can save excess water when you start or stop watering.

Cover crop mix in bed
PLANT A FALL COVER CROP. The foliage of cover crop plants help prevent erosion and water run off and the roots hold onto your garden soil’s organic matter through the cold and rainy season. When spring weather comes, weed wack or pull and chop up the cover crop plants, then turn them into the soil in your beds. The plant residue will break down quickly as the weather warms, adding moisture holding capacity and additional fertility to the garden for later spring planting.
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