Veggies in the ground
Now’s the time to get all those summer vegetables planted
Both gardeners and accountants have something in common: They can’t wait for April 15 to pass. Not just because it’s tax day—it’s also the commonly quoted “last-frost day” for Chico, which means summer crops can be planted without fear of them freezing.
“Mid- to late April, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. You can pretty much go for it, except for peppers and eggplants. … I always wait later for those”—until the very end of April, offered gardener Holly Nielsen, as she pulled up weeds on a recent sunny Thursday. Nielsen’s large garden at her Chapmantown house supplies most of her family’s vegetables and fruit for the year.
Across town from Nielsen, Mary Berglund— who gardens about two-thirds of an acre near Lindo Channel—offered that it’s “typically safe to put in your tomatoes, your peppers, your eggplants,” by the end of April.
“My chard is in. My kale is in. You can put your cucumbers in,” said Berglund, standing near her 15 long raised garden beds. By May 1, she plants her squash and melon seeds.
“I tend to plant my corn [seed] a little bit later, because we tend to go on vacation in July and I don’t want to miss any of that corn, and so I make sure it’s ripening in August,” Berglund explained. She has a separate corn field where, last year, she planted 17 25-foot-long rows of sweet corn and Floriani Red Flint, good for cornmeal. “That one pound [of Floriani Red Flint seed] got me nearly sixty pounds of grain,” which she milled at home and used for baking. Berglund also chose her 60 varieties of fruit trees that produce fruit in harmony with her yearly July vacation, so she won’t miss a bite.
Those with less space and fewer years in the garden need not be left behind. Satyr and Serra Wells are on their second year in their quarter-acre garden, which was all grass and gravel when they bought their house in December 2011. They spent last year sheet-mulching the grass—laying cardboard and dirt directly on top of it to kill it—and bringing in ladybugs in hopes of fending off a summer aphid invasion like the one that took out many of their squashes last year.
This year, the couple are thrilled to find “lots of mating ladybugs—a lot of them stayed!” said Serra, walking along meandering paths between garden areas mulched with bark and next to a big “hog panel”—heavy-duty wire fencing designed for pigs, which they repurposed to make an arch over some young beets and salad greens. Pea plants are growing up the panel; cukes will soon follow.
“I’m going to try to keep growing greens there, but [will] let my cucumbers grow over it, so that it’s shaded,” said Serra. Plus, the cukes “will just hang down, and they’ll be much easier to harvest.”
“I feel like we’re still in the experimental phase,” she offered. While she and Satyr had dabbled in smaller backyard gardens before, they are still new to gardening on such a big scale.
Experiments in sunny Chico, with high-quality soil in many neighborhoods, often mean success, though. All four gardeners point to the planting flexibility the city’s long summers provide—it’s almost never too late to start planting.
“There’s still a lot of stuff that can be direct-seeded. Cucumbers could go directly in the ground in the end of April. … Anything in the nightshade family, [like] tomatoes—they’d be a little late, but you’d still get some” to harvest, said Serra.
All four gardeners try out new things every year, particularly when it comes to tomatoes. Nielsen raved about the Iraqi Abu Rawan tomato seeds that she bought from Petaluma-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Co. “They’re crazy drought-tolerant,” with nodules along the roots to store water, she said.
Berglund—whose tomatoes, which she started indoors from seed, were already in the ground, hardening off, in early April—loves the Jaune Flamme variety, which Redwood Seeds carries locally.
“It’s a delicious salad tomato, but it’s my absolute favorite for drying,” she said. “A small to mid-size orange tomato, all you have to do is cut in half, add a little salt and thyme, and dry it.” Berglund will toss dried tomatoes into the food processor to make a powder, which works well in dishes as a substitute for tomato paste.
The Wellses got some of their tomato seeds from a variety pack from Baker Creek. They grew starts in a makeshift greenhouse made of a sliding glass door propped up horizontally against a sunny wall, with plastic hanging on the sides to keep the heat in during the cold nights. They plan on selecting two dozen of their starts to go into the ground by this week. They’ll use bamboo teepees and twine to “tame” their tomatoes.
For her part, Berglund prefers the more traditional tomato cage for support. She dedicates three of her 15 beds to tomatoes, but admits “nobody has to have that many. It just depends on what you like.
“There are just so many things that grow well here,” said Berglund. For instance, if you like salsa, plant a salsa garden. “Everyone can fit a little tomato, pepper and cilantro.”