Sunday, December 12, 2010

December Groundwork

Sorry to be so late, we have been busy with the our garden tour and we just had to take a few days off. Here we are again, almost at years end, except for a few frosty nights and some frost bitten tomatoes, the December weather has been perfect. Here's a quick run down of the schedule for this months garden activities.
  • Have frost cloth ready in case of a predicted freeze for frost sensitive plants. Use frost cloth or old sheets (we double our layers and keep our fingers crossed!) to cover tomatoes and peppers. If possible, cover all the way to the ground to keep warmth in. Wait until the later part of February to trim any affected frost damage.Winter vegetables will usually survive the frosts. Watch your local weather reports. The last frost date is usually March 15th.
  • Citrus trees begin to ripen, be ready to harvest sweet, juicy, lemons, oranges and grapefruit.
  • Continue to sow or transplant cool weather vegetables. Root crops, lettuces and members of the cabbage family can be planted until early spring. Favorite salad ingredients can continue to produce until the temperatures heat up in late spring.
  • Examine your crops for pests, look under leaves and around the base of the plant for looper-worms, especially on your cole crops. Hand pick if possible. If the little green caterpillars get out of hand, most nurseries recommend B.T. as an organic control. If birds are a problem, place netting over garden area.
  • Local nurseries will begin to stock bare-root plants (roses and fruit trees) at the end of December. Plan and prepare a nice sunny location for planting next month.  Pre-dig your hole and add a little mulch, compost and gypsum or sand. Fill the hole with water to soften the soil in preparation for the new tree roots. Research your southwest desert varieties. Choose varieties that require no more than 250 chilling hours.
  • If you like tomatoes and peppers, try some heirloom varieties from seed this year. Plant seeds to produce your own transplants for spring planting. Sow seeds indoors around the end of the month. Choose varieties that will do well in our desert climate. ( Transplants should be ready to plant outside from mid-Feb to mid-March.
  • Feed vegetables a good, well balanced fertilizer every couple of weeks. Don't over fertilize herbs if they look healthy and green.
  • Start collecting fall leaves for composting. We usually mow ours up and catch them in a bag. They are small and ready to go in the compost pile. Don't forget to ask your neighbor for their leaves, they keep well in bags for many months. Layer leaves with the summer's bagged lawn clippings, and other organic material for fast decomposition. Spray with a little water and let it rot!
  • Prepare beds for spring planting. If you have a new area that you'll be planting, layer 4 or 5 inches of manure and let it rest for awhile. In a few weeks, you can add compost and amendments and work that in. Don't work the soil when it's wet.
  • Deadhead spent flowers. Roses, especially will give you beautiful blooms this month. Prepare for pruning next month when you will be striping all leaves and blooms off the canes.
  • Gather seed catalogs, choose and order seeds for spring sowing.
That's it, it's time to take a break and enjoy time with friends and family.  Have a great holiday season, we'll get back together in the new year!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mild November days remind us to slow down and relish in the fact that we have survived the summer onc e again. Here in the low desert of Phoenix we have two growing seasons.This cool season weather is the perfect time to sow peas, root crops, leafy greens and a long list of cabbage family crops. Plant cool-season herbs and edible flowers, experiment with new tastes and textures in your Autumn dishes. One of my favorite herbs is dill. I love the delicate, feathery-like leaves or fronds. It reminds me of a fairy land, especially when the flower heads form into little yellow umbrellas and turn into seeds! Dill is easy to grow from seeds. Sow them in full sun and well-drained soil. Plant in the back of the garden bed. They can grow up to 3 feet tall. Cut fresh as needed. Fronds, flower heads and seeds are all edible. After you have had your fill, dry for later use. Spread fronds out on a paper towel and air dry, or microwave for 3 minutes. Remove thick stems and crumble. Store in an airtight container. When seedheads form, let them dry and remove seeds. Add to fish dishes, dips, soups and salads. Leave a few seedheads to dry in your garden for self-seeding.

November Checklist ~
  • Adjust watering schedule as weather cools. Water deeply so moisture will reach the root system, but less frequently as the season changes.

  • Inspect vegetables closely for insects, pests and diseases.Keep an eye out for little green caterpillars or Cabbage Loopers. This is also the time of year for aphids. Rub out or pinch out at first sign of the ash colored cluster. Also try using a soapy spray by mixing 1 tbsp. each of Dawn dish soap and vegetable oil with 1 gallon water. Spray in early morning or evening. Make sure you spray the underside of leaves. With early detection, you're more likely to manage or prevent any major damage to plants.

  • Dead-head spent blooms and harvest veggies to stimulate continued growth.

  • Continue to sow cool-weather annuals and biennials every 2 to 4 weeks through the fall for a continuous crop of vegetables through next spring.

  • Thin seedlings as they grow to prevent crowding, this gives your young plants plenty of room to grow. Use scissors to cut seedlings at ground level. Wash and toss these sprouts into your salad.

  • Be prepared for early winter frost. Average first frost date takes place around the end of November to the first week of December. We usually have 7 to 10 nights of below freezing temperatures a year. Check out the National Weather Service for more up to date information. Cover frost sensitive plants with a sheet, light blanket or frost cloth (not plastic) all the way to the ground. Frost-tender veggies include; Tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplants. Paper bags or boxes are great for low lying plants. Floating row covers are another option. If a hard freeze is forcast, try using outdoor Christmas lights under cover for extra warmth. Coldest temperatures are just before sunrise.

  • Fall brings cool weather and an abundance of free organic matter. As trees begin to drop leaves, bag and save for compost pile, mulching or adding to layered garden beds. Mow over leaves a couple of times for a ready-to-use mulch. You can never have too many bags of leaves!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

EGGPLANT GRATIN - Barefoot Contessa

The Barefoot Contessa never lets me down. I have all of her cookbooks and her recipes are great. Even cutting back on the rich ingredients I have had great luck with her recipes. I found this recipe in her Barefoot in Paris book. It is excellent. And I think it would be great served with grilled chicken.

But pretty much anything hidden below the conncoction of ricotta cheese, parmesan, and marinara sauce, all toasty and bubbly on top, would taste good.

Good olive oil, for frying (this always cracks me up--"good olive oil")
3/4 pound eggplant, unpeeled, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
1 extra-large egg
1/4 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup good bottled marinara sauce

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Heat about 1/8-inch of olive oil in a very large frying pan over medium heat. When the oil is almost smoking, add several slices of eggplant and cook, turning once, until they are evenly browned on both sides and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Be careful, it splatters! Transfer the cooked eggplant slices to paper towels to drain. Add more oil, heat, and add more eggplant until all the slices are cooked.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg, half-and-half, 1/4 cup of the Parmesan, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper.

In each of 2 individual gratin dishes, place a layer of eggplant slices, then sprinkle with Parmesan, salt and pepper and spoon 1/2 of the marinara sauce. Next, add a second layer of eggplant, more salt and pepper, half the ricotta mixture, and finally 1 tablespoon of grated Parmesan on top.

Place the gratins on a baking sheet and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the custard sets and the top is browned. Serve warm.

Note: I cooked the eggplant in a very seasoned pan and did not need to use much olive oil. I also substituted regular milk for the half and half. And I made one gratin not two.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

September Groundwork

If there is a season for everything, then why in this season of planting have I not yet felt the inclination to plant! Oh yes, it's still 110 degrees outside! That aside, my September to-do list is quite similar to my August to-do list, so what you didn't do last month you should plan to do now. Late September is the beginning of the fall sowing season and as temperatures in our low desert begin to drop it is the prime time to plant. If you are still too meek to venture out and sow your seeds, you may also wait for the nursery transplants to arrive later this month.

September To-Do List

  • Organic matter is used up as it feeds organisms and is changed into humus. Refresh garden beds and boxes with 4 to 6 inches of a combination of compost, well-aged manure or organic matter. Turn into soil to a depth of 12 to 14 inches. Use a spading fork rather than a shovel, it breaks up clumps and aerates the soil.

  • Sow seeds for snap beans, beets, bok choy, cucumbers, green onion, kale, leaf lettuce radish and turnips (see planting calender for complete list).
  • Save bags of grass clippings, leaves from fall foliage, shredded newspaper and spent summer annuals for use in your compost bins. Stop by your neighborhood coffee shop and ask for their coffee grounds.
  • Trim back tomato and pepper plants that made it through the summer to encourage another crop.

  • If you did not fertilize citrus in August, feed with the final application of nitrogen for the year.

  • Lightly trim roses as soon as new growth begins to about one-third. Work in alfalfa meal, blood meal or fish emulsion for added nitrogen. For phosphorus add bone meal, or rock phosphate. Water to a depth of two feet.
  • Set out strawberry plants. A garden just isn't complete without a strawberry patch. Strawberries grow well in lower desert regions of Arizona. If you want a good crop of strawberries later in the year, September is the best time to plant. This ensures that the plant has time to become well-established with a strong root system by January. This is when the strawberry plants flower and set fruit. For a nice strawberry patch you will need an area about 4ft x 4ft, plant about 4 inches apart, giving plenty of room for runners to fill in the bed. Use lots of organic compost and make sure the drainage is good. Sprinkle a little bone meal over soil monthly and water in. Set your plants in the ground at the same level they were growing in the nursery container. Raised beds are perfect for a strawberry patch. Choose a location that receives at least six to eight hours of sun. In case of a frost this winter, cover with clear plastic for a greenhouse effect. In the summer keep shaded from the direct sun. Layer straw under the strawberries to keep soil moist and to discourage slugs and pill bugs from munching on your ripe berries. Mulch to maintain consistent soil moisture. Varieties that are well-adapted to our low desert climate are, Chandler, Sequoia, Tioga, Shasta and Camarosa. Strawberries are easy to grow and always provide a pleasant surprise when you find your first red berry at the peak of ripeness!

Monday, August 23, 2010

August Groundwork

It's time to prepare your garden beds for fall! In late August and early September a new planting season begins, be ready to sow cool weather vegetables. Begin by looking through seed catalogs for inspiration, there's an amazing variety of of vegetables available. Last fall I planted Royal Oak leaf lettuce and Red Sails, both were an amazing addition to my garden and salad bowl. Experiment with purple broccoli or sow seeds of white radishes. Remember to rotate your vegetables to different locations in your garden from year to year. If you want a continuous supply of crops, sow seeds every two weeks during the planting season. Thin seedlings (and toss into your salad) when the plants have two to four leaves, leaving room for the growing plant. Consider planting enough of your favorite, tried and true veggies to share, bottle or barter!

Things to do in August

Prepare fall beds, spread 4-6 inches of compost or well-aged manure on top of soil. Turn in to a depth of 12 to 18 inches.
Deadhead flowers and harvest vegetables to promote continued production. Remove spent and dried plants that didn't make it through the summer.

Sow seeds for a second crop of summer squash, sweet corn, cucumbers, snap beans and carrots.

After August 15th you may begin to sow fall vegetables (see planting calendar ). Carefully monitor your watering.

Fertilize citrus trees a with nitrogen rich citrus feed, water at a depth of 3 feet at the trees outer canopy.

Plant Sweet Corn by the end of August, choose varieties that mature within 65 to 80 days. Amend soil with organic matter(nitrogen) and keep seeds moist until sprouting.
Trim back tomato plants by 1/3 to encourage new growth as weather cools.

Wait for the cool Autumn breeze!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Muffins in May? Is that odd? Since zucchini will soon be in abundance I thought I would be prepared with a few great recipes.

This recipe comes from the June 2009 issue of Cooking Light magazine. I added walnuts since I like a little crunch in my muffins, and zucchini and walnuts are a good combination. I also mixed in the little tiny bits of walnut dust with the cinnamon and sugar sprinkling it on top of the unbaked muffins. Mmmm, good.

Can't tell you if they freeze well since they didn't last long.

4.75 ounces whole-wheat flour (about 1 cup)
3 ounces all-purpose flour (about 2/3 cup)
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups shredded zucchini
1/2 cup fat-free milk
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 large egg
Cooking spray
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Preheat oven to 400°.
2. Weigh or lightly spoon flours into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine whole-wheat flour and next 6 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl; stir with a whisk. Combine zucchini, milk, oil, honey, and egg in a small bowl; stir until blended. Make a well in center of flour mixture; add milk mixture, stirring just until moist. Spoon batter into 12 muffin cups coated with cooking spray.
3. Combine 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon; sprinkle over tops of muffins. Bake at 400° for 15 minutes or until golden. Remove from pans immediately; cool on a wire rack.


Monday, May 10, 2010

May Groundwork

It seems as though spring has had a hard time leaving us this year. That's ok with me, but my tomatoes and peppers are having a hard time adjusting to the fluctuating temperatures! With this fair weather and a little digging, a vegetable garden becomes a family affair. Fast growing choices for kids might include: patty pan squash, cantaloupes, watermelon, and armenian cucumbers. Of course, the summer isn't summer without sitting in the shade of a sunflower house. (Plant sunflower seeds in a circle). Hopefully, cherry tomatoes were planted earlier in the season and are ready for little hands to pick while meandering in the garden. Here's the list of things to do for the month of May.

Continue to plant warm season vegetables, flowers, container fruit trees and citrus trees.

Transplant basil, garlic chives, lemon grass, oregano and mint.

Warm weather flowers include, marigolds, purslane, portulaca, sweet alyssum, scented geranium, zinnia, verbena and sunflower.

Citrus trees need to be fertilized, always water thoroughly before adding fertilizer.

As weather warms, increase your watering. Water deeply and slowly, but infrequently. Don't let soil get bone dry though. Check and reprogram water systems.

Add mulch, straw or compost around the base of each plant to help retain moisture.

Deciduous fruit trees should be thinned so fruit is 4 to 6 inches apart. (Just keep thinning! )Be prepared with bird netting and ladders as fruit ripens. Place netting before fruit is ripe! Another method is to pick the fruit before it's ripe and let it ripen indoors in brown paper bags. Water trees deeply to a depth of three feet every 7 to 10 days to provide moisture as fruit size increases.

Have shade cloth on hand to cover tomatoes as temps rise to the 95 to 100 degree range. Gently shake stems early in the morning to help pollination tomato flowers.

Feed roses every two weeks during their peak bloom season. Water deeply to 18 inches.

Harvest onions, garlic and chives.

Enjoy the merry, merry month of May!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

January Groundwork

January is here and it's not a time for slackers. It's time to prepare for Spring! January is the month to prune, plant, and dig holes. This is the time to think about expanding your garden. But, don't think too long. The dormant bare-root trees need to be planted before the roots dry out and the warm sun stimulates the buds to leaf out.

Here's the list for the month

  • Plant deciduous fruit trees. If you are planting bare-root trees, get them in the ground as soon as possible. Don't let the roots dry out. Take the tree out of the bag and set it in a barrel of water with a little vitamin B. Let it soak overnight. Have your holes pre-dug and soil mixture ready. Here is a list of fruit and nut trees for the low desert. Many nurseries have potted fruit trees available. You can plant these any time in the next few weeks.

  • Start taste testing citrus fruits for sweetness. Navel, sweet oranges, mandarins and tangelos are close to harvest time.

  • Continue to sow seeds or transplants of cool-season vegetables for a continuous supply of salad greens and root vegetables until warm weather arrives.

  • Time to plant bare-root roses. Find a location where roses have filtered afternoon shade. Valley nurseries have hundreds of roses available. Rose societies will be offering how-to clinics for pruning and planting. Take advantage of the expert knowledge of the valley rosarians. Check out the Maricopa County Extension's rose publication for more information.
  • Prune established roses to encourage optimum blooming in April. Cut all canes back to approximately one half. Cut canes back to an outward facing bud. Remove dead canes. Remove old or weak canes. Strip off all leaves and dispose of them. Seal all cuts with Elmer's glue to seal new cuts. Don't be afraid. Practice makes perfect.

  • Sow seeds of tomatoes, peppers eggplants and basil indoors in time to transplant in the garden in late February to early March.
  • Continue to watch for freezing temperatures and protect frost-tender plants. The last average frost date is around February 15th.
  • Watch for gray aphids on tender new growth and hose off regularly with a forceful spray of water. Also, looper-worms like to eat cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Check under leaves and near the base and pick off worms.

  • This is a great time to add color and texture to your garden. Plant cool weather annuals between your vegetables. Calendulas, johnny-jump-ups, pansy, petunias, snapdragons and stocks will continue to bloom until spring. Cool-season herbs include, dill, parsley, cilantro and thyme.
  • Prune deciduous fruit trees by the end of January or before flowering starts.
  • If you are an adventurous gardener, plant asparagus now.

Have a great new year, and enjoy spring gardening in the desert!

Friday, January 1, 2010

I Have Completely Changed the Way I Garden!

I have officially changed my philosophy of gardening. It is already a challenge to have a vegetable garden in the desert of Arizona, but a year ago, I went to a gardening clinic that was taught by two Master Gardeners here in Maricopa County and they showed me a whole new way to garden.

It is called Square Foot gardening, and it was developed by an engineer named Mel Bartholomew. He has published several books and his official web-site is:

Anyway, the Master Gardeners were both AZ natives and had been gardening here for many years. They had learned about this new method a few years earlier and were sold on it and now I am also.

The theory of it is to use square foot sections and to use them efficiently and you will increase your harvest while using less space. Let me explain.

You start by leveling your area where you are going to put your square foot planting boxes. I (yes, ME!), built four 4x4 boxes and one 2x4 box using 2x6 pieces of lumber. I placed them in the area where my garden has been for the past 17 years. I put weed cloth under each box to prevent weeds from growing up into the boxes.

Next step is to mix the garden mix to fill the boxes. Mr. Bartholomew has a special recipe that he developed which is 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 compost. The initial cost of this is a bit, but it is the only time you will have to do it. From here on you just keep adding compost which is quite inexpensive or free if you make your own compost, which I do.

After mixing and filling the boxes you then need to make the square foot grid. I just bought inexpensive molding from the hardware store and we put it together one night for a family activity. Doesn’t Michael look like he is having more fun than he can handle?!?!?!

You can attach this to the garden boxes or just lay them on it which I did to make it easier when mixing in more compost in the future. Now you are ready to plant! I received a handout showing what and how many plants to plant in each square foot. Basically, you need to determine if it is a small (ex.-radishes, 16 plants per square-foot), medium (ex.-beets, 9 per square foot), large (ex.-leaf lettuce, 4 per sf), or extra large (peppers-1 per sf). Then you map out your garden and decide what you will plant.

Several of the large plants can be planted on a trellis so they take up even less room because they are growing up, this is called vertical planting. I was amazed at how much I was able to plant. More than I had ever fit into this same gardening space.

After planting, I put together a drip line with one head in each square and attached it to my faucet so I just turn on my hose for an hour and it drips onto each section to water it evenly. ***Note-I did use a sprinkler for the first 2 weeks until all the seeds had sprouted, then switched to the drip system.

I have already harvested 1 batch of lettuce and radishes since I planted in September and as you can see, now in December it is going strong.

The selling points of using this method of gardening are: 1-I don’t need to solorize the soil in the summer, 2-the ease of weeding is tremendous, and 3-since you can garden in Maricopa county year-round, it means less time in the hot summer you need to spend maintaining the garden.

Now I admit, I have only been doing this for 4 months and I will let you know how I feel about it in July and August when it is 115-120 degrees out there but since I usually didn’t garden in the summer, I will try it this year to see if I like it or not.

So, I recommend you check out this method. It does take some work to begin with but the time savings so far in the actual gardening has been less than the building of the garden so I have come out ahead time-wise. That time savings means more time for other things I enjoy doing, like playing with my graden train!

Mel Bartholomew teaches workshops all over and he insists this method can be adapted in any climate and location. Try it and let me know what you think!