Opinion: Cultivating the Coast

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The Three Sisters

By Carly Sciacca

It might be surprising to learn that summer is actually one of the most challenging growing seasons in coastal Southern California. Because of our proximity to the ocean and the dominant marine layer, early summer weather is too cool to grow summer crops, too warm to grow cool season crops, and our humidity welcomes pathogens. 

Coastal gardeners have to adjust their timing and expectations when it comes to summer harvests; however, with a little knowledge, it is still possible to have bountiful summer crops.  

One of the most rewarding summer combinations, “The Three Sisters” planting method was passed down by Native Americans and named after a harmonious, symbiotic sibling relationship. Corn acts as a trellis for beans that provide nitrogen through their roots, while the squash acts as a living mulch, cooling and hydrating the soil. When eaten together, corn, beans and squash provide essential amino acids and allow hunter-gatherers to become agrarian.

If you want to see an example of a “Three Sisters Garden,” come to the South Laguna Community Garden Park. I’ll be planting historically significant varieties suited to zones 23 and 24. Two of the ancient varieties, the “1,500 Year Old Cave Bean” and 

“Burro Mountain Corn” was discovered in clay vessels from archaeological sites in New Mexico. The “Gete-Okosomin” squash (Miami Tribe of Indiana), “Cherokee Trail of Tears” bean (Tennessee), “Painted Mountain” corn (Montana) and “Seminole” squash (Florida Everglades) are ancient varieties that provide a glimpse into the lives of early Americans. The garden will be located just inside the lower Coast Highway entrance. 

Corn

Corn by the ocean? It can be done! People have great success growing this crop at the South Laguna Community Garden. Here are some tips for success:

Plant at the right time for our zone. You can start corn in early May and plant seedlings from May to August, with July being the preferred month. Currently, there is corn at all stages growing in the garden.   

Choose the right variety

Home gardeners should look for short season (<100 days), compact (5-6 ft.), disease-resistant types. Choose between “fresh eating” or “dry” varieties depending on your preference. Johnny’s Seeds provides helpful charts to help gardeners select the right corn. Try Sugar Buns, Allure or Solstice.  

Don’t grow more than one variety at once, or if you do, separate varieties or stagger your planting by 20 days. Because corn is actually a seed, cross-pollination can change the flavor and texture of the immediate crop. Dry “popcorn” type corn is always dominant and will make sweet corn tough if it cross-pollinates.  

Water and fertilize your corn. Corn is a grass and is a heavy feeder. Use a well-balanced organic fertilizer.  

Hand pollinate to increase your yield. Corn is monoecious. The “tassel” at the top of the corn stalk contains the male genetic material, while the ear of corn itself contains the female ovules, each attached to a piece of silk, which needs to be pollinated to develop into kernels. To hand pollinate, pick part of the tassel and sprinkle pollen onto the silk, preferably when dry.  

Beans

Beans are always a good summer choice for our region.  

Choose the right variety for your garden. “Pole beans” which require support and have a longer harvest season (2-3 months), or “bush beans” that grow to two feet and yield within a few weeks. Also, consider if you will eat your beans fresh or want a “shelling bean” that can be dried.  

Soak beans for four to 12 hours before planting.  

Try using an “inoculant” to make sure that your beans have the beneficial bacterial present that helps them “fix nitrogen” from the air and deposit it into the soil. It is available from seed companies and on Amazon.  

Protect your young plants. Everyone likes to eat beans! I have more luck planting beans in pots and transplanting them a few weeks later in the garden. Plastic bottles with their tops and bottoms cut off work as sleeves to protect seedlings.  

Pick regularly for a long harvest. If beans aren’t picked consistently, the plant switches over to seed production mode and will stop producing young pods.  

Squash

Squash can grow nearly year-round in Laguna Beach, but it is definitely happiest in the warmest months. There’s a reason you’ve heard the jokes about avoiding the “squash-growing neighbor’s” knock on the door for fear of cucurbit overload. Last week, I let a zucchini sit a few extra days, and it weighed in at six and a half pounds! One to three plants are more than sufficient to alienate your neighbors. Don’t plant the whole seed pack!

Choose the right variety

“Vining” plants can grow from 10 to 50 feet if not pruned, and “bush” squash has a compact growing habit. Patio varieties are even smaller and great for containers.

Pick disease-resistant varieties. For Laguna Beach gardeners, powder mildew is our biggest concern. Look for seeds and plants marked with “PM” indicating resistance.  

Pick bush varieties often to keep plants from going dormant.

Hand pollinate to increase yield. Squash, like corn, has female and male flowers. If you have small fruits with flowers attached (female flowers) that die on the vine, that’s because they aren’t being pollinated. Simply open the female flower, pick a male flower (the ones without fruit attached to them) and rub it on the female. 

Don’t pick vining winter squash too soon. It needs to ripen and develop a thick skin first. After it is ripe, store it in a warm, dry location for a couple of weeks. Garages work well.  

Please share your photos and gardening experiences with me. I’d love to see them. 

Carly, a Laguna Beach native, is a visual artist, writer and avid gardener specializing in varieties that grow in zones 23 and 24 along the California coast. She lives with her husband, daughter, animals and plants in South Laguna near the South Laguna Community Garden Park, where she is assistant manager. Contact Carly at [email protected].

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