Friday, May 22, 2015

Growing Egg Plant-It Is Easy; We Delivered Our 1st CSA Produce Basket this Week

I grew up in the generation that if you wanted a vegetable, you opened up a can.  I had never eaten a fresh green bean until after I was married.  I chopped it up into tiny pieces and boiled it to death.  I had not a clue what to do with fresh, I just wanted to cook it so it turned out the same as the canned ones.
The same thing is true of Egg Plant.  I vividly remember eating at Frank's parent's house one night and I ate the most delicious, fabulous thing I had ever tasted.  I had no clue what it was and asked my mother-in-law what it was.  As everyone else at the big table dropped their forks, she said Egg Plant baked in the oven with cheese and tomatoes on top, Egg Plant Parmesan.  Oh and of course, since they are 100% Italian, it had garlic in it.  I went to the grocery store and had to ask the man where were the egg plants, I don't think I even knew what they looked like fresh.
So for a whole summer, I cooked, steamed, stir fried and baked egg plant and from that point on, we ate it at least once a week.  But I never grew egg plant successfully until we moved here in Gridley.  I planted a few in Nevada City, but I think the summer heat just wasn't long enough, similar to melons, to get the full sized ones.
We grow our egg plants from seed, in trays, they are easy to germinate and within a month, they are large enough to live outside.  Of course we grow lots of plants for our CSA farm business.  The beauty of these plants, is that they keep producing and producing after you pick.  In fact, the more you pick, the more they produce clear into fall.
What is an Egg Plant?  Did you know it is related to the tomato and potato??  It is an Aubergine species.
Eggplants belong to the nightshade family of vegetables, which also includes tomatoes, sweet peppers and potatoes. They grow in a manner much like tomatoes, hanging from the vines of a plant that grows several feet in height. While the different varieties do range slightly in taste and texture, one can generally describe the eggplant as having a pleasantly bitter taste and spongy texture.  They contain elements: copper, potassium, vitamin B1, B3, B6, manganese and others.  And it is low in calories and high in fiber.
When I was looking through my seed catalogs this spring, I noticed there is a new variety out, a WHITE Egg Plant!!!  It is called Raja in the Johnny's Seed Catalog.I didn't buy it because the one aspect about the egg plant is the color, why ruin your final dish of beautiful purple.  Maybe next year.
I love the large oval Egg Plants, but we also grow the Orient Express variety-long and slender; and the Rosa Bianca  variety which is lighter purple with striping of white.  In my estimation, as stated, they basically taste the same but will pick up flavors of your seasoning, or other vegetables you put with it.  In the summer I just take a bunch of fresh picked veggies, cut them all up and put them in a pan with a little olive oil, some garlic, salt & pepper and saute them all together.  Particularly using the tomatoes, or peppers added to the egg plant will bring out the best of all their flavors.  Put it over rice; or pasta-a form of ratatouille.  And maybe some great cheese on top of that???? Yum.
The plants can get fairly tall, maybe 30" or taller so they will need some staking, especially when those large oval variety start to get larger, they will pull over a plant.  Each plant can have more than 4-6+ egg plants on each plant once they are full grown.
This week we delivered our first CSA basket and our 2015 season has begun.  In the basket, we had lettuce, garlic, red and yellow onions, strawberries, cherries, zucchini, yellow squash, kiwi, green beans, cilantro, snow peas and small cucumbers.  I also provided a sample size of honey I obtained from our friend bee keeper, Mr. Valadez.  We will now be providing 1 lb jars and 2 lb jars of honey for our members from his bees. And we also gave our members a complimentary country fresh flower bouquet to start our baskets off with a bang.

We hope you plant a Egg Plant or two in your garden.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

How to Plant & Grow Strong Healthy Tomatoes

My farming and gardening experience is acquired by years and years of hands-on digging in the dirt and reading, reading, reading.  When I went to college, I didn't even know there were colleges that specialized in "agriculture" degrees.  I was pressured by my parents to get a Business degree, but my passion was my minor, Interior Design.  When I think about it, those skills and knowledge actually do help if you want to farm or garden.
When you own a business, you need to know about accounting; marketing; public relations; employee issues; profit/loss.  If you care about the presentation of your products you make or the produce you grow; designing your farm logo; or even putting together a produce and flower garden, having some "design" thoughts would be very helpful.
Now to tomatoes.  In my experience, starting tomatoes from seed is time consuming and difficult.  You have to start early in a greenhouse, transplant several times before they are ready to meet the real world outside. I purchase my tomatoes either from our local garden center in town, Mac's; or I purchase them directly from a fabulous nursery in Auburn, Eisley's.  We used to live in Nevada County and each year, we would always get everything we needed to plant directly from Eisley's.  They are one of the last large nurseries that supply most of the plants you see at hardware stores and even other small nurseries.  I purchase many varieties of tomatoes either in flats or 6 packs.  I like my tomato plants to be at least 6"-8" tall before I put them in the ground outside.  If you are planting only a few around your yard or in large container type gardening, my advice would be, spend a bit more money and go for the large tomato plants.
A gardening tip that I do to help get my plants going, takes a bit of courage.  When I first put the little plant in the ground, I make sure the complete root and dirt system it had in its' container are completely covered.  Then if there are any small yellow leaves, I break them off.  
After a week or so, I use my hand cultivator, my preference is called a Cobra.  I cultivate all around the tomato plant, pulling up any weeds that have grown close to the base of the plant.  I again, pull off any weak, lower branches.
Then after a few more weeks, the plant should be strong and healthy and much, much taller.  This next tip is again, hard to do, be brave.  
I clip off any lower branches or leaves and mostly keep the main stem and the strongest top few branches.  After all the base of the plants are exposed. This is when I do my first support strings.  I happen to use metal fencing panels for my tomatoes, so I run a long string from one end of the row to the other pulling on it so it pushes the plant up against the fencing.  Not too tight to cut into the main stem but keeping it from wanting to fall forward.
From this point on, I will add more string higher and higher, about ever 12".   As the plant gets high against the metal panels, I will push some of the top stems and branches through the openings to disperse the weight across the panels instead of the main stem of the plant.
Periodically, in the next month or so, I always move dirt around the base of the plant with my cobra.  Careful not to cut into the roots but move more dirt up against the roots and to always keep weeds away.  Weeds complete for nutrients and water and will cause your plants to not be their best or yield the best produce if their roots are invaded with weeds.  The weeds also bring insects that can pray upon the leaves or fruit of the plant.

This year, because of the water shortage, I have placed straw around the base of my tomato plants to help maintain the moisture given to the plants from our drip system.  The winds have been bad recently and we had a very hot spell early this spring so I feel the straw has added in protecting the young tomato plant roots and to maintain the moisture in the ground instead of being lost in the wind and sun.  The dis-advantage of the straw can be that it may have seeds still in it and cause additional weeds.  I put it pretty thick around the roots to help with that so the seeds don't germinate.  And the ideal conditions under the straw can bring in beetles and ear wigs which are not good for the plant.  So keep an eye on any signs of holes in leaves.
I use food grand, diatomaceous earth (DE) for my insect control.  It is harmless, it is NOT what goes into pools, that has been treated.  It is great for ear wigs, ants and other insects.  I sprinkle it around my veggie plants and all around the base of my fruit trees.  Ants are one of my problem pests so I use a lot of DE.
After each time I trim up the lower branches of my tomato plants; when I cultivate new dirt around the base of them, I see a spurge of new growth and vigor in the plants.
I hate seeing all the piles of cut off branches and leaves but know it is for the best of the plant.  Same thing happens when we thin our fruit trees, you see all these green fruit on the ground and you think what a waste, but necessary.
When I go into the house and wash my hands, they smell of that beautiful fresh tomato scent and turn the water and my hands yellow.  Just dream of picking these wonderful fresh, plump tomatoes and slicing them on a sandwich in about 6 weeks, it will be worth it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How To Plant And Grow Onions

Every vegetable garden should have some onions.  I know they are very cheap to purchase in the stores, but believe it or not, the flavor IS different.  Same as potatoes, if you have never eaten a fresh, home grown potato, you just don't understand the difference in taste and texture.
Have you ever seen a seed to an onion?  Tiny, tiny.  If you have the time and a bit of space, it is best to sow a bunch of seeds in a good soil tray, planted only about 1/4" deep. Keep the seeds inside where it is warm, have light and moist in March & April and within a week or two you will have what looks like a small lawn.  After the onions get about 3-4" tall, you can start pulling them apart and put into larger containers until ready to plant outside.

I start my first batch of onions around February/March.  I purchase them either through my local gardening center-Mac's here in Gridley; or order them through a catalog-Johnny's.  I prefer to start my onions by using dormant starts, also called sets.  They are shipped, normally in bundles of 50-60 plants and contain normally one variety.  I buy a bundle of the red, white and yellow onion sets.  They look and are like tiny onions with a green stem.

The seed companies will make them available during certain months of the year.  They are easier to handle, seem to have very low rate of loss, and you can space them out properly to make sure you have enough room to mature.  The downside of purchasing them in bundles of sets is there is a limited variety and for small gardeners, there may be too many for you to grow. For ourselves and for our customers, we grow what most people will actually use/eat so we do not mind the limited varieties.
As these starts get going, it is important to keep weeds away from the bulb as they don't like sharing space!!!  When they get about 1/3-1/2 their mature size, I make sure the soil is hand tilled around them, weed free and then I cover the roots with straw until they are finally ripe.
I like to grow for ourselves and our customers green bunching onions too, used in salads.  I will start them as I stated above for the large bulb onions, but can also be purchased in garden centers in trays or 6 packs.  They look like a tray of alpha growing, but you pull them apart and plant very close together.  I like to stagger planting the bunching green onions so that I will have a continual supply to pull up and bundle in groups of 5-7.  They last a long time in the refrigerator and a small section of the greens can be used in salads and cooking as well as the white bulb.

When the large onion bulb is ready, the green part will be dying or dead and the bulb head become raised above the ground and the outer skin will look dry.  You could wash and clean it up and use it the day you pick it.  But once you put water to onions, they will start to rot where you store them.  
It is recommended to let them dry, with the dirt and greens on them.  I bundle up a bunch of them together, rubber band them, and hang them in my shed where it is out of the sun.  Some people have screens that they lay the onions on and that is great too.  Last year, the family got together out in the garden and while the adults were under the umbrellas chatting, the kids were pulling up onions, comparing who had the biggest onions.  Free labor!!!  Afterwards, we all tied with string or rubber banded groups together and hung them up.  I even braided a few.
The other day, I was cleaning out my shed to start the season and behind a shovel was a bunch of last year's onions.  They were still good!!!  Took them into the house and we ate them.
Don't be afraid to try growing onions.  Have some fun with the green salad bunching onions too.