Cool-season gardening for small spaces

By Rebecca Jepsen
for the Mercury News
October 2, 2009

In much of the country, October brings an end to picking homegrown produce. One of the best parts of living in Silicon Valley is the amazing opportunity to grow our own veggies, herbs and fruits year-round.

Now is the time to start your fall and winter garden: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, onions, garlic, lettuce and leafy greens.

If you don't have or want a garden, you can grow a surprising amount of food in even a small space. There are pots and containers in every size, style and color to adorn your deck, patio or driveway. Any location that gets at least six to eight hours of sun will work just fine.

VEGGIES TO CONSIDER

According to Ruben Nunez, vegetable buyer at Yamagami's Nursery in Cupertino, there are many varieties of cool-season crops that do as well or better when grown in containers.

Utrillo shell peas grow to 2½ feet tall and need no trellising. They are resistant to powdery mildew, a problem when growing peas.

If you want to entice your children to eat cauliflower, try growing the variety called Cheddar. Not only is the bright orange color appealing, it also has 25 times more beta carotene than the standard white variety. With its brilliant purple hue, Graffiti is a real attention-getter.

Beets can be grown in fairly shallow pots. Bull's Blood is an heirloom variety from the 1840s. Its beautiful burgundy leaves are great in salads; the candy-striped roots are best when harvested young.

Although kohlrabi is a cultivar of cabbage, it tastes like broccoli stems. The rounded enlarged stems (which resemble turnips) grow above the ground, making it easy to grow in even shallow pots (6-8 inches deep). It can be eaten raw; when peeled and shaved, it adds a zesty flavor to any salad.

MOVING ON TO LETTUCES

There are literally hundreds of varieties of lettuces, herbs and leafy greens that do well in containers.

Sardinia spinach is a relatively new, compact variety. It is a heavy producer, slow to bolt. Its upright growing habit makes it is easy to harvest.

Romaine Lettuce Tantan is new mini-romaine with a whole lot going for it. Not only is it aphid- and disease-resistant, it is also bolt- and tipburn-resistant. Its upright heads grow to just 6-8 inches and offer a wonderful sweet flavor and crisp texture.

Another ingredient to jazz up your salad bowl is Redbor kale. Its curled magenta leaves add color and crunch while delivering a healthy dose of vitamins, protein and fiber. Redbor is vigorous and cold-resistant; it grows to 18-24 inches.

And talking about jazzing up a salad, how about trading out those ornamental flowers for edible varieties that add color, flavor and nutrients? Cool season options include: calendulas, nasturtiums, pansies violas and flowering peas. Flowers can also be used in jams, garnishes and desserts.

PERENNIAL PLANTS

Try growing perennial plants that will provide food for you and your family for several years to come.

Perpetual Spinach, also know as Leaf Beet, is actually a slim-stalked,smooth-leaf Swiss chard. It is a biennial (will last for two seasons before bolting) that produces 18-24 inch leaves from late spring to midsummer.

For an unusual and compact rosemary, try Gorizia. Its broad flat leaves are twice the size of the "garden variety." It has a sweet, gingery flavor and grows to only 30 inches.

Chicory is one of the earliest plants cited in history. Some are grown for their leaves, others for their roots, which are often ground and used as a coffee substitute or additive.

There are also many varieties of perennial sage, oregano, mint, and garlic chives.

For container gardens, use a well-draining, soilless potting mix, add slow-release fertilizer and water often — plants in pots dry out much more quickly than those in the ground.

 

Q My butternut squash is being invaded by squash bugs. The problem has gotten worse even though I rototill in the winter, keep the area free of weeds, and even planted marigolds and basil to attract beneficial predators. I have read about a parasitic fly that attacks squash bugs. Can you tell me where to find it or how to attract it?

A The tachinid fly (Trichopoda pennipes), which lays its eggs on the underside of the squash bug, overwinters as larvae inside the bug and emerges in spring. To attract the fly, try planting dill, fennel, lemon balm, parsley or daisies. Planting nasturtiums and marigolds will also help deter squash bugs. Garlic-based sprays can be effective. As a last resort you can also try neem-based materials or pyrethrins.

Q With our current water shortage, I am letting my lawn die off and am looking for a drought-tolerant, sun-loving ground cover that is low and green like grass. I live in an area with deer, rabbits and raccoons. Can you recommend something that they won't eat?

A A great option is California meadow sedge (Carex pansa). It is a Pacific Coast native that tolerates a variety of soil types and conditions. It can also handle an exceptional amount of traffic; mowing just once or twice a year will give you a "lawn-like" look and feel.