Friday, November 18, 2016

Last season's growth

Occasionally, I like to do something just for fun. Here are some animated Graphic Interchange Format (GIF) clips to show some of the growth from last summer's garden. I hope you enjoy.

Gardening along a south-facing wall did help quite a bit with the Armenian cucumbers, though they never got as much sun as the tomatoes did.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Jumping Spider

While I acknowledge that the majority of you gardeners may not be insect lovers, this last spring I kept seeing this huge jumping spider on my dark Armenian cucumber.

Large black hairy jumping spider

I always make it a point to be friendly to insects that eat the bad bugs in my gardens.

Here she is again, looking for her next meal.

Friday, November 11, 2016

2016 Long Dark Armenian

So, this last summer’s garden was just on the south side in two small garden plots in Suisun, California. Although I was able to save seed from my last Long Dark Armenian cucumber harvest, the seeds were not high enough quality to last very long, so I decided to plant them to save the Long trait that I have been working to preserve.

Long Dark Armenian Cucumber Plants, Early May

They continue to grow

Another plant doing well.

For my first planting I began with at least nine plants, but thanks to my almost nightly losing battle with large slugs I did have to re-start them at least once. Eventually, with help from metal cans used as collars around each stem, I was able to isolate plants from slugs and have enough plants grow large enough to fend for themselves. The only thing I did to prepare the native soil for planting was amended it with compost, a small amount of potting soil and a little of my home-made 15-30-15 mix made from things like bone meal, rock phosphate, greensand.

Some of the same plants, late May

Dark Armenian Cucumber, Late May

Because of moving and life, I did not start planting until mid-April. Those of you who have read this blog before may be familiar with some of the reasons I like this kind of cucumber. Once you begin to grow Carosellos and Armenian-type cucumbers, it becomes difficult to want to grow other cucumber varieties – especially if you garden in a warmer climate. But one of the things I love most about the Carosellos is the very predictable growth pattern they possess. Each plant starts by growing a small bush, then grows out its vines while producing male flowers off the main vine. Then, as the secondary and tertiary vines grow, the female flowers begin to appear. Just like any other vegetable, the more growth you want out of a plant, the larger and longer the vines need to be to support that growth.

Female flowers start in mid-June

I am selecting for longer flowers, like these

Another nice long female flower.

Another female flower, not as long.

So, the main trait I am selecting for in this Dark Armenian variety I am growing is fruit length. Yes – there are some secondary traits that I am selecting for that are important to me, such as making sure that the cucumber does not grow too wide, before it gets to a suitable length and making sure that the cucumber plant itself is healthy. One advantage I have in selecting out these traits is that I am starting from a population of seeds that originated from only one self-pollinated cucumber grown among one type of cucumber (dark Armenian) that was isolated in my Tucson garden.

What becomes of the short female flowers

What becomes of plants that produce mostly short female flowers

Following the pattern that this cucumber variety possesses, I just waited for the first female fruit to grow, then pull off any female flowers that do not look promising. Looking back on this second season, I should have pulled off any female flowers that did not grow past the length of my index finger (3.5 inches or almost 9cm). What I mean by this is that in order to select for the trait of length a standard benchmark must be set. The best time to set this trait for cucumbers is when the female flower first opens. For what I am selecting, if the fruit of the female flower is below a specific length, keep it, while if the fruit of the female flower is small, pull it. Over time, most of the dark Armenian are hopefully selected for medium sized fruit (that is what I generally select for). However, with this specific strain I am selecting for longer ones.

Some nice fruit, beginning to set.

A little later

Several days after that.

One thing to note is that although fruit selection is not essential to saving seed, it only requires a few generations to shift genetics of a landrace enough to completely change a vegetable. This is often referred to as “genetic drift”. For example, let’s say I am dealing with the regular white Armenian cucumber variety and I am a farmer’s market gardener. My main purpose would be to remove from the population of cucumbers that I would save for seed the cucumbers that are most marketable – because they would sell best. Traits like straight, medium sized, think and minimal scarring would be most marketable. So, if year one I selected marketable fruit for selling and left the rest for growing to seed by year two I would be left with cucumbers that were less marketable. By year three and four, I would have something completely different than what I started out with. By taking out all the straight medium sized, healthy cucumbers, over time my seed saving will produce odd-shaped, scarred, wide, ugly cucumbers of varying length. This is why fields that allow customers to pick their own produce should always scrap the seed that comes from the left-over fruit. Gardeners who want to save seed should really decide what trait they are going to select for before even planting the first seed of that season.

A nice, marketable dark Armenian cucumber

Selecting for a long cucumber is not as easy as one might expect. It takes attention to detail throughout the whole lifecycle of the cucumber plant. Let’s say that cucumber plant A produces both short and long cucumbers, while cucumber plant B produces thin medium-sized cucumbers. Though A would be preferable to B in the short run, the consistency exhibited by B may turn out to be better in the long-run.

A:Long and Short; B:Thin; C:Young Plant, Long Fruit; D:Mature plant Long fruit

Another scenario we could encounter is cucumber plant C, which produces long fruit earlier (on the secondary stems) while cucumber plant D produces long fruit later (on the tertiary stems). Which is better? Many people would prefer cucumber plant C (earlier is better – right?) but thinking about the goal, the gardener will discover that if she desires the fruit to be longer, it is better if the female fruit is produced later in the season.

Another nice dark Armenian cucumber

I really like them when they are long and thin - the texture is better when thin.

Perhaps the same fruit - texture degrades as it begins to set seed.

The reason why D is preferable is because the greater capacity the plant has to grow fruit within the short window of fruit growth, the longer the fruit will grow. Plants tend to signal the fruit to go into seed development mode when they are under stress – so if a lot of growth is putting a young plant under undue stress, the fruit will stop growing in length and start growing in width. Thus, healthy, yet older plants that produce less long female fruit later on is the ideal selection scenario – something I will continue to look for in further generations of this Dark Armenian strain.

A longer dark Armenian, beginning to set seed

Another look at a longer dark Armenian cucumber

Me with this cucumber ready to harvest.

Harvesting seeds from the first dark F2 Dark Armenian

So, it took most of the season to find what I was looking for. In the process, I got rid of the less vigorous, healthy plants to allow the healthier plants to grow. If you are thinking of removing a plant, it is wise to mark it with a marker along the whole stem (if it is intermingled with other plants) to ensure that you do not cut down a plant that is supplying life to a desirable fruit. After removing weaker plants, I started to look for the female fruit. There were a couple of longer female flowers that did not set and there were a couple female flowers that I found on plants I had already trimmed (future note to self – never cut at the ground level until you mark the whole plant). The rest of the fruit that managed to live through my mistakes turned out mostly to be normal Dark Armenian cucumbers. Selection can take years, and at times gardening is more an exercise in patience than playing in the flowers.

What do we have here? It looks promising.

Sure enough. This cucumber is growing pretty good.

Another perspective

In the end of my second year of selection, I ended up with two cucumbers that grew to a moderate length. Although I did not measure the length of the first one, the second one grew to a decent length. By selecting for length over multiple generations, I hope to be able to produce a cucumber variety that produces not only a few long cucumbers, but to develop a stable strain. My goal is not for a world record, but rather to supply a reliable landrace of long, thin and marketable cucumber dark Armenian cucumbers.

The long dark Armenian cucumber next to a tape measure

And the results.

Saving seed of my L2 dark Armenian cuc. Note the large butcher knife.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Move

In moving to California we went from owning our home to renting again, while doubling our monthly housing expenses. At the end of August we moved once again – this time from Suisun City to Fairfield, California. In the process we tripled our housing expenses (from Tucson) and now are proud owners of a 30,000 gallon pool (and a home). In reality, a pool was the last thing that I wanted, but when picking a place to live the need for garden space did not come up #1 on the family’s “needs” list.

Our new home

So, now that my family has physically (but not emotionally) settled down in Fairfield, I’ll describe my yard. The front yard is small, with a towering Ash tree of some type that needs some large dead branches removed. Three smaller trees lined the side fence. A pomegranate (which I took out), a peach tree and another tree that looks like it could be some kind of fruit tree. There is a 6’x6’ grass square in the middle of the yard with black chipped wood bark as mulch.

The pool (aka: backyard)

Another view of the backyard

Having established the existence of the pool, which takes up the majority of the backyard, I would like to take a moment to point out possible locations of other growing areas. Around the pool are tall Cyprus trees (which can be planted around and under) and we do have a balcony that I could put some large stainless steel troughs on to garden. The final area, which is most hospitable to gardening is a 10’x20’ plot surrounded by a fence on the south and west sides, a make-shift chicken coop on the north and a pool to the east.

The most likely spot for a garden

At this time, I would like to say that there was another property (howbeit not in the ideal spot) that we saw while we were looking to purchase a home that had a much larger yard, whose seller had already been working on gardening in the spacious backyard for some time. However, in order to better take care of the family’s needs, I accepted that a meager 186 square feet with less-than-ideal lighting would have to make do. I know – I should be grateful!

Rocks, cat poop and debris are no fun.

The first while in the new house was pretty rough for me. I talked things through with my wife and others while unpacking the house and not able to take care of the yard. After 3 or 4 weeks, I was able to start picking at the yard, slowly taking out rocks and cat poop left by a combination of the previous owners and the neighbor’s bazillion cats. It stunk – literally and figuratively. So, when a friend from church stopped by and asked what he could do to help, I filled him in on my plight.

After digging out about 12" of dirt

Within a week, thanks to my friend’s help, we had some men (young and old) come help haul dirt onto a tarp in my driveway over Columbus Day. We dug down about 8-10 inches using a rototiller, shovels, a pickaxe, buckets and two wheelbarrows. After that, I continued to dig out more of the dirt while I priced out compost from local sources and patiently waited for the right time in our schedule to pay to have some delivered. Then, a short time later, a miracle occurred. Another friend from church, despite his health problems, was able to help me get 10 cubic yards of compost delivered straight to my driveway. I cannot express how grateful I was for that! Finally, I could get started on my garden!

After digging out even more dirt

The day of Compost has arrived!


Black gold is a beautiful thing to behold

My three younger children helped me to finish moving the compost out of the driveway within the first week of having it delivered. There was a big rainstorm we were trying to beat, and they did an incredible job of helping me to finish moving the compost to the backyard. Despite their complaining of the smell (which to me smelled more like barbeque potato chips than manure), they did a fantastic job helping without having too much compost spilled into the pool.

A poor shot of us finishing up on the pile of compost.

So now I can finally say that I have a garden. Well, I have a pile of compost in a garden area. With all this done now, the near-term plans are to wait until the apple tree goes dormant (so I can move it into the front yard where the pomegranate tree was) and sift some of the soil from the driveway back into the garden area. I have been dabbling with the idea of starting some winter veggies in soil blocks, but I just haven’t made it a priority yet. My youngest son decided to get into the gardening spirit and has been planting mushrooms that he finds into my compost to make his own little mushroom garden. I had no idea that this would work, but the result is quite pleasant to behold, so for the time being I am happy to let him have a mushroom corner.

I am so grateful for everyone who helped make this little plot into a garden.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Little Leaf Cucumbers in Northern California

For those of you who have neither lived in nor seen Northern California, it possesses a Northwestern wet winter and warm, non-rainy (but semi-humid) summer that is quite different from Southern California. Along with the tomatoes, my Arkansas Little Leaf cucumber variety did very well in this climate. It was strange to be in a place where my plants not only survived, but thrived.

A little leaf cucumber female blossom

Growth continues with the fruit
I love watching the fruit grow.
This is a prolific cucumber variety
With the warm days and cool nights, the major stressor for this cucumber variety in this climate was the occasional day when my soaker hose timer and the lawn’s watering system turned on at the same time. In wet, humid conditions many cucumber varieties have problems with cucumber mosaic virus or powdery mildew. Luckily, this little leaf variety is resistant to both.

Another bunch of cucumbers.

With the warm days and cool nights, the major stressor for this cucumber variety in this climate was the occasional day when my soaker hose timer and the lawn’s watering system turned on at the same time. In wet, humid conditions many cucumber varieties have problems with cucumber mosaic virus or powdery mildew. Luckily, this little leaf variety is resistant to both.
The cucumbers harvested from a couple vines.
Getting some cucumbers ready to store.
With enough cucumbers to save seed, I was quite hopeful that my bounteous harvest would result in a lot of fertile seed. However, after waiting several weeks to allow the picked cucumbers to mature, I was sad to see that many of the cucumbers had not produced any seed at all. This is one of the major drawbacks when dealing with parthenocarpic fruit when saving seed. You may go through the whole life cycle of a plant from seed to fruit and only when opening it up will you discover that there is no seed. What a waste! Oh well – even wasted gardening projects can result in compost for next season!
The moment of truth...

And... no seeds.
Here's some more seeds. That's more like it!
Fermenting cucumber seeds.

Overall, I did get enough seed to last me for several years – howbeit not a surplus. If you enjoy pickling cucumbers, this is a good variety. As for me, I was not willing to go through the work of pickling cucumbers this year and, when it comes to fresh eating the Carosello and Armenian-type cucumbers far surpass the tough skin and possible bitter taste of a pickling cucumber variety.
A couple Little-Leaf Cucumbers