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Counting our blessings through the garden

December 21 brings the year’s shortest day, the Winter Solstice. The sun will slowly rise in the sky in the northern hemisphere through June 21, the Summer Solstice. To the Fallbrook green-thumbed optimist, Winter Solstice is considered to be the first day of spring, allowing for the undertaking of fun risks and welcome surprises. Compared to the positive results of such an early gardening endeavor, failures will be minimal. Give the gift of a fresh vegetable garden as the ultimate present that truly represents the essence and love of this holiday season

At home with children, planting sugar snap peas (bush or pole varieties), carrots and strawberries produces the fun of eating fruits and vegetables right off the plants. Encouraging children to eat organic food directly from the Earth’s culture stimulates healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.

This is the time to plant broccoli, cauliflower, Chinese (Napa) cabbage, collards, chard and kale. Plant these larger varieties with at least two feet of space between, in all directions. To add value to and to make good use of your limited garden area, multi-crop your land with smaller varieties of plants, such as lettuce, endive, spinach and Asian greens situated between the larger varieties of broccoli, cauliflower and the like.

Asian greens include many varieties. Tatsoi, a delightful, dark green, spoon-shaped leaf with a wonderful flavor, Mizuna, a light green and frilly leaf with a very gentle, mellow flavor, and Michelli, a broad leaf, non-heading Chinese cabbage add great tastes to any menu. Chinese broccoli and Bok Choi (light green colored for the smaller leaves and darker green for the larger leaves) have wonderful succulent stems, and Daikon radish can be cooked, eaten fresh or pickled to taste.

For those fond of Oriental cooking but lacking ideas, recipes using unusual vegetable varieties are used in specialty cookbooks. The vegetables themselves can be found at nurseries in seed or plant form.

Harvesting the smaller varieties upon reaching three or four inches in height provides for several harvests while waiting for the larger cabbage family, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collards. These smaller varieties taste great in salads or in stir-fry dishes. Allowing the smaller plants to grow larger produces grocery store look-alikes.

To make even better use of space, plant members of the onion family between the “in-betweens.” Green onions with white or red bottoms and Maui onions grow from plant starts, seeds, or sets (tiny onions acting as seed, which keep for a long time if kept cool and dry). Garlic and shallots from the organic section of the grocery store can be planted one clove at a time where space is available.

With the vast amount of plant varieties available to the gardener, a ‘pick and choose’ approach works best. Select a couple of varieties from the larger vegetable family – such as broccoli and cabbage – and plant a couple of varieties of lettuce between them, adding a couple of varieties of Asian greens and 10 to 20 onions from plants or sets.

A wise approach to maintaining enough vegetables for a family of two to four is to plant in succession; after the harvest, plant again, perhaps using some different varieties, or the same. Two to four plants of any one variety maintains a small family, while a more ambitious gardener plants less often with more quantity.

In planting, the gardener has to decide between germinating seeds or installing plants purchased from a garden center. The easier path is to purchase an ‘already made plant,’ as the success rate of growth improves and timing becomes less of a burden.

Early January brings a time for the preparation and gathering of fertilizers, plants and mulch. Mulch serves to maintain soil moisture levels and also to prevent soil erosion from heavy rains. Mulches can be straw, or various grades of bark mulches that are available at hardware stores and rock yards if you cannot transport straw. These will help keep the soil moist in the summer, and safe from the pounding rains that we will most likely experience this winter and spring.

Organic fertilizers are needed to supplement the soil with vital nutrients that sustain the life of plants. A good organic fertilizer blend contains nitrogen, which stimulates growth, in the form of feather meal, organic cottonseed meal or fish meal. Phosphorous comes in the form of soft rock phosphate or bone meal (usually sterilized), and potash is abundant in many organic forms, including greensand, alfalfa meal and kelp meal.

Additionally, rock dust is an excellent source of minerals for plants. Most nurseries and garden centers have blends ‘ready made,’ but if these cannot be secured, it is not difficult to create an organic fertilizer in a wheel barrow. Mix organic compost, worm castings, and rock dust (these three ingredients can be located at local farmers’ markets) in a wheel barrow and work thoroughly into the soil with a cultivator or rake.

I hope this holiday season gives you the nurturing and joy that you all deserve.

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