Natural Perspectives: Racing against weather to grow produce

For anyone except an astronomer, Labor Day signals the end of summer. We know that the official start of fall isn't until the autumnal equinox Sept. 23. But once school starts, that's the end of summer for us. Or at least for Vic. His college classes already have begun.

The arrival of fall means that the rainy season soon will be upon us. But we got surprised on Monday with a thunderstorm that woke us at 4 a.m. with flashes of lightning, booming thunderclaps and enough rain to wet the garden. However, we're at least six weeks away from the start of any real rain.

Monday's odd weather was supposed to be followed by a couple of really hot days. Sometimes it's hard to know what season it is. Especially if you're trying to grow a garden like I am. Is it too late for a late crop of green beans? Is it too early for planting winter crops like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower? I bet no on both and put in a late crop of beans plus an early crop of winter vegetables. I have a reason for wanting to push the seasons at both ends.

At the beginning of 2011, I set a goal for myself of growing 500 pounds of produce this year. I thought it would be easy since I had grown 224 pounds last year in only my home garden. With the addition of a 15-by-20-foot plot at the new Huntington Beach Community Garden, I thought that 500 pounds was actually a modest goal. Not.

The community garden didn't get going until March. Because the ground there was hard-compacted clay and gravel and needed a lot of prep work, I spent most of my time on that garden. I never really planted much at my home garden this year. So I downgraded my goal to 300 pounds early in the season. Sadly, it looks like I'm not even going to make that adjusted figure.

The community garden gave me room to grow winter squash, pumpkins, watermelon and corn. But the soil was so poor that the corn stalks were dwarfed, and so were the cobs. Still, we did manage to get at least a few bites of homegrown corn.

My winter squash did fairly well, giving me a bit over 13 pounds of red kuri, green kuri and mini blue Hubbards. But my summer squash crop pretty much failed. Each plant produced one or two squash and died. I got a total of nine pounds of summer squash, and some of those were gifts from my friend Judi Smith's garden.

How bad a gardener do you have to be to accept summer squash from friends? August and early September are supposed to be "leave a zucchini on the doorstep, ring the doorbell and run" months. Maybe that was my problem. I planted yellow crookneck, yellow straight-neck, Lebanese and patty pan squash. No zucchini. I tried replanting summer squash, but they all died without producing anything.

I also grew Amish pie pumpkins at the community garden. They were supposed to reach sizes of up to 90 pounds, but mine didn't even top two pounds. I only got three small pumpkins, but each one is perfect for making one pie.

Despite that fact that I fertilized throughout the summer, it seems that very little that I grew at the community garden reached a large size. My largest watermelon was the size of a cantaloupe and weighed less than four pounds. But I couldn't have been prouder because it was the first watermelon that I've ever grown. To wring every bit of edibles out of that tiny harvest, I made watermelon pickles out of the rind.

Last year, I had 18 tomato plants in my raised beds in back. This year, I only planted a couple in back. I put my faith in the community garden. Big mistake. My plot there has sun, but the "soil" leaves a lot to be desired. I had hired someone to rototill and sift out the rocks, but he didn't go deep enough. I was left with a couple of inches of dust, to which I added planting compost and manure.

I thought that I had done a good job with soil prep, and things looked good at first. However, now the only part of my garden that is growing much is the area that Vic hand-dug after the rototilling.

I tested the soil pH and found that it is way too alkaline, so I plan to add some coffee grounds from Starbucks to help acidify it. I'd have to say that the community garden is a work in progress and that this year I'm finding out what isn't working.

Another problem at the community garden was that a bunny took up residence in my plot. It was very happy there all summer long, eating my green beans, eggplant and Japanese mustard greens. Finally, the pickings got too slim and it moved on to someone else's garden.

I've now put up a third fence around my plot. The first one was of vinyl-coated wire, which was rabbit-proof, but was unacceptable to Southern California Edison. The second one was plastic poultry netting, which was acceptable to Edison, but totally ineffective at keeping out rabbits. That dingdang bunny chewed 13 holes in my fence. As soon as I patched an opening, it made a new one. Now I have white plastic lattice trellising, which seems to be keeping the rabbit out. Or maybe it's just that there's nothing left in my garden for it to eat. Time will tell.

My home garden hasn't done much better. The night critters raided our peach, nectarine and apricot trees this summer, consuming nearly the entire crop from each tree. We set out our live trap and caught an opossum each time we set the trap. We relocated four opossums to a "safe and undisclosed location" this summer. We also called Orange County Vector Control and had them set out bait stations for rats. The rustling of the night critters has finally stopped, and we're hoping to be able to eat the fall crops from our three little apple trees.

I keep records of my produce, weighing each day's harvest and logging it into an Excel spreadsheet. Our harvest through the end of August this year fell a tad short of 150 pounds. There are still four months remaining in the gardening year, but most of my heavy crops are in.

Apples, avocados, oranges and yams are my best hope for any significant additional harvest poundage this fall. At this point, I'm just hoping to be able to equal my harvest from last year.

Given that I've harvested only 149 pounds in the first eight months of this year, can I grow 75 more pounds of produce between now and the end of December? I'm gambling on an early fall and have already planted broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and peas at home. I'll plant a second crop at the community garden in a couple of weeks, hoping that everything ripens before the end of December. The race with the weather is on.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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