Milo Mitchel

Science Education and Gardening

Category: vegetables

A Stark Contrast: The Salinas Valley and Pinnacles National Monument

Armando next to a onion digging tractor implement. This machine digs the onions up and deposits them on top of the soil. They are allowed to dry and then another machine comes along to pick them up and conveyor them into a truck. They are then trucked to a facility that packs them.

Still making my way back from Arizona, I decided to make a side trip to Pinnacles National Monument. On my way there I stopped to photograph some of the lush fields of vegetables in the Salinas Valley. In a massive field of onions I met Armando, who told me about how he farms.

Unlike the onions, this cauliflower is cleaned and boxed right in the field. The efficiency of this mobile packing operation is impressive.

The Salinas valley is intensively farmed, and produces a massive amount of food, but this level of industrial production requires an obscene amount of fossil fuel inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizer. This method of farming also depletes the soil, and causes erosion, so that more and more inputs are required for the same yield. I believe it is time for us, as a society, to re-evaluate agricultural inputs. We have so much to learn from nature. At Seed School, renown permaculture pioneer and former Harvard geneticist Toby Hemenway gave a lecture on this topic. Read his lectures here.

When I arrived at the Pinnacles I was struck by a lush chaparral plant community, thriving in steep rocky soil, nearly devoid of nutrients. The landscape is dominated by chamise, buckwheat, ceanothus and digger pine. Chamise, a heather-like plant, actually relies on fire to propagate itself. These same chaparral plants also thrive in Sonoma County; from the slopes of St Helena to Gunsight Rock.

A ray of sunlight illuminates the Pinnacles, flanked by digger pine and chamise.

For further reading about the Salinas Valley, check out East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Considered by Steinbeck to be his best work, East of Eden captures the beauty and the sadness of the Salinas Valley in an epic story about farming, family, and morality.

Tomato Time

It’s time to plant tomatoes! We will be planting 50 tomato plants over the next two weeks at Pillow Road, and 20 at Zazu.We’re also growing a some inside the greenhouse in 5 gallon pots. I’m thinking about growing Zazu’s tomatoes in 15 gallon pots with spot-spit irrigation.

Two Brandy Boy's started from seed by my mom and now being grown in the Pillow greenhouse.

These starts are ready to be planted in Pillow raised beds.

Seed Starting Time

The first signs of the approaching Spring are starting to appear- daffodils are blooming and the fields are exploding with fiery mustard blossoms. It may still be cold and rainy, but it’s time to start thinking about starting spring vegetable seeds!

Here's some lettuce and spinach along with various seedlings in the greenhouse.

Right now is an excellent time to direct seed peas. I’ve been planting snow peas and shelling peas primarily. Its also a good time to direct seed lettuce and spinach, or grow them indoors, or in cold frames. Make sure to protect them from hungry birds with chicken wire or crop cover.

Here is an example of a self watering container. Click on the photo for the full image.

Now is also a good time to start summer vegetable seedlings (like tomatoes and beans) indoors. Find a sunny window and plant in 4in pots or in seed starters available at Lee Valley garden supply. These seed starters water from below via capillary action, so all you have to do is fill the reservoir every so often. You can also make your own self-watering container out of an old tupperware. See the link on the right.

I have found that seedlings do much better if you use soil with fertilizer mixed in. You can buy soil with fertilizer in it or you can add it. I like Sure Start and Osmocote. If you are growing seeds indoors, you can buy a plant light at the hardware store that emits the spectrum that plants need. It is important to not over or under water your seedlings. That’s why watering from below makes a lot of sense because the plant only absorbs what it needs.

Seedlings in the greenhouse, placed on top of heat mats to speed their growth.

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