Category Archives: Soil

gardening in a dry year

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It’s been a dry year here in California. One of the driest winters on record. To us, even though we had a very wet fall, it seemed like after the holidays the faucet was shut off. There was really almost no rain whatsoever after the holidays. Such a strange winter. And this spring we are certainly seeing the signs. Sure, if you squint your eyes and turn your head a little to the left, things look pretty good. Flowers are blooming, trees are leafing out. But if you look closely you’ll notice that the lawn is almost dead already, spring flowers are getting torched by this early heat (supposed to be in the 90’s tomorrow!), and we are relying heavily on irrigation…already. This is going to be a long summer.

A few years ago I wrote a post on drought friendly vegetable gardening, (wow, I used to write such different posts back then!) which is worth a read if you are struggling with water issues too. In regards to that post, we outfitted two more beds with in-line drip irrigation. We ordered 15 yards of mulch to heavily cover the irrigation and our tender crops. We are also focusing heavily on three beds this growing year instead of last years four beds. And I’m heavily mulching the flower gardens to help retain every last ounce of water in the soil. We need, however to get these beds on a timer, so that they can be watered in the evening or early morning hours. That is an easy step, we just need to put it higher on our priority list.

Luckily we have the option of putting our laundry on grey water. We’ve had this since we moved in, but it only drains out to one spot. Though I shouldn’t complain, the snowball hydrangea looks quite happy about the situation. However, my hope for the near future is that I can hook it up to a pipe that has multiple perforations in it, so that it can water a larger area along our foundation plantings.

How is the rain/water situation where you garden? Do you have any drought gardening tricks?

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Filed under Mulch, Soil, State of the Garden, Water, what we've learned

Side Dress with Compost (Day 19 to 30 DTABG)

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Now that our little seedlings have grown into full blow adolescence, it’s a good time to add a little boost of nutrients to keep them growing and on their way to full production. The best way to do this is not with fertilizer, but with compost. Fertilizer may provide a quick boost but over the years ends up depleting the soil of it’s nutrients. However compost adds to the soils fertility, by giving it natural nutrients thus eliminating the need for fertilizer. Got it? Pretty cool, that compost stuff. Remember Compost is Proof that there is Life After Death.

Anyway, pull away your mulch a bit and add a few healthy handfuls of compost around the base (but keep it about an inch away from the stem of the plant – you don’t want to burn the stem). If you mix a little manure or grass clippings into the mix all the better. Grass clippings provide an excellent source of nitrogen into the soil. Our peppers that we mulched with grass clippings are growing like bananas. After you’ve ‘side dressed’ your plants, pat the mulch back in place and give your plants a good watering.

Have you given your plants a mid season boost before? Have you seen a difference? What did you use?

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Filed under 30 Days to a Better Garden, Soil

Trouble with Seedlings : Damping Off

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tomato seedling riddled with damping off

Scott and I aren’t experts at seedling fatality diagnostics, but we’re pretty sure that for the last two years in a row at least one of our tomato seedlings has succumbed to ‘damping off.’ Damping off or seedling rot is caused by fungi that live in the soil. When you keep the soil continuously damp, give it some high humidity and maybe some cloudy days it sets that fungi in action and ready to destroy your fragile little seedling stems.

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healthy seedling

How Do You Notice Damping Off?
We first notice it when the base of the 1″ stems get thin and white, the next day they fall over and die. Sometimes the damping off will affect your seedlings before they even sprout.

How can You Prevent it?
You can prevent Damping Off by sterilizing everything before you plant your seeds. If you make your own seed soil mix you can sterlize your seed soil in the oven with this tutorial. Make sure to wash your planting flats thoroughly too. When seedlings are crowded together that also will activate the fungi, so try to only plant one seed per planting cell.

What to Do When You Spot Damping Off.
Believe it or not, there is a slim chance that you can rescue your poor seedlings from damping off. When you first spot it stop watering right around the base of the plant. Give the seedlings as much light and air as you can. However we’ve had our seedlings our in bright sunlight with low humidity and they always die on us. My recommendation would be to start new seeds immediately when you spot it because chances are slim that you’ll save your new growth.

This year due to all the house renovations we’ve undertaken and our battle with damping off, we’re going to be buying most of our tomatoes and peppers. That’s just fine, it feels good to take a year off from nuturing seedlings in pots.

Have you had any seedling fatalities this year so far?

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Filed under Seeds, Soil, Sprouting

Tips for a Drought Friendly Vegetable Garden

As a native Californian, you get used to the word ‘drought’. It comes up every once in a while so you do what you can to cut back on your water usage. Sometimes it gets so bad that you expect that everyone has to let their lawn die that summer, you adopt the rule, “if it’s yellow, it’s mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down.” You put buckets under the bathtub faucet to catch all the cold water before it turns hot. You do what you can.

But this year is different. Because we’ve had such a warm, dry winter this year as well as the past two years, we are really low on our water levels. Frighteningly low. At the rate we are using water and the rate we are receiving rain, the main reservoir in our county, Sonoma County will be dry in July. Dry. Bolinas, the infamous hippy beach town, could be completely out of water by April! Out of Water!   They are calling this the worst drought EVER in California’s history. A 30% water rationing is coming in the next couple of weeks to us. And a 50% rationing is probable if we don’t get much more rain.

So what do you do in this situation? Give up gardening all together? Mainstream agriculture uses about twice as much water (and maybe much more!) to irrigate as a small scale, organic and well planned home garden. It almost seems to be a better thing to grow your own vegetables in a drought. But to do it thoughtfully. We’ve been doing some reading and planning and making changes to the garden for this upcoming dry growing season. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Grow Your Crops Before the Summer Heat Starts – Instead of doing a heavy summer planting, do the majority of your planting in spring with short season vegetables. Plant lettuce, peas, radishes, spinach, beets, onions, garlic and broccoli all which thrive in the cooler spring weather. Keep your summer plantings spare and then when fall arrives you can replant the same things you did in spring.
  2. Plant Drought Tolerant Vegetables – Some vegetables don’t need as much water as others. Amaranth, cow beans, corn, mustard greens, purlane, spinach, tomatoes, chard and a few others don’t need as much water. You buy a Drought Tolerant Seed Mix. The Veggie Patch Reimagined has a great list of drought tolerant plants. And you can read more about  drought tolerant vegetables here too.
  3. Double or Triple Dig Your Beds – While double digging is a common idea in America with organic gardening, in parts of Africa they triple dig their beds. Their crops are much more successful than their non-digging neighbors gardens. If you aren’t familiar with double or triple digging, basically you dig out the first layer of soil about one shovel deep. Then you dig out a second layer and if you are really ambitious then you can dig out a third layer. Doing this aerates your soil making it easier for the roots of your plants to grow down, thus making it easier for the roots to pick up the water that is already deep in the soil.
  4. Add Compost to Your Soil – Having your garden beds be composed of at least 2% of compost will help your soil retain a great deal more water.
  5. Mulch – Adding a 3-4 inch layer of mulch to your garden beds will do wonders. I found it amazing what a difference this made to my flower beds years ago. A night and day difference in the health of the plants once dry old August came around. You can use either compost, grass clippings or straw as mulch (there are many more mulch options too).
  6. Water at Night – In thinking of using your water to it’s best advantage, water in the evening. Most vegetables do most of their growing at night and that is when they’ll need the most water. If you water in the morning or mid-day, most of it will evaporate and not benefit the plant at all.
  7. Water the Right Amount – If you are watering from a hose, you should water just long enough for the top layer of soil to look shiny. Once it looks shiny, turn off the hose. It should remain shiny for 3-5 seconds after you turn the water off. If the ‘shine’ wears off faster, water a bit more, if it takes longer to soak in, water less.
  8. Install Irrigation on a Timer – The best way to water plants properly and save the most amount of water is to install some sort of irrigation that is regulated by a timer.
  9. Plant Vegetables Close Together – There are many advantages for planting your veggies close together. But in thinking of water preservation, planting things close together creates a canopy layer over the soil, which shades it and prevents evaporation.
  10. Choose Plants that Produce in Abundance – When water becomes a precious commodity, when it comes to gardening, you want the most bang for your buck. Plant vegetables that produce a copious amount of edibles. Tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplant among many others produce many meals worth of produce. Broccoli and cauliflower both take up a large amount of space and water and only really produce enough for one dinner, maybe two.
  11. Try Dry Farming Your Tomatoes – Some people swear that by dry farming their tomatoes they acheive the best flavor possible. To do this you have to really build up your soil with organic matter by way of adding compost and growing cover crops. Then basically you plant your tomatoes and let them grow without watering. You only water when their leaves start to turn yellow and then you do so rarely and deeply. Once the tomato plant develops fruit you stop watering all together. This allows the plant to focus not on new growth, but developing the fruit. You tomato plants will be ugly and straggly by doing this and your yield will be small, but you’ll have great tasting tomatoes.
  12. Place Drainage Pipes Between Crops – By using the technique that we’ve learned over the years of placing drainage pipes between our tomatoes, we’ve been able to cut down to watering our tomatoes only once a week, if that.
  13. Use Grey Water from the House – We’ll be buying some large buckets with sturdy handles and maybe a rain barrel for outside to fill with our indoor grey water. Any water remains from washing things out in the salad spinner, cold water before a hot shower, etc will be put in these buckets for watering the garden.
  14. Don’t use Roof Water – From the reading I’ve done, it is not safe to use roof water collections to water edibles. The water picks up whatever chemicals are in your roofing and make it not such a healthy thing to water your veggies with. Leave that for the ornamentals only. And it isn’t like we are getting much rain to catch this way anyway. We’ll be skipping this step.

Do you have any water saving tips that we can add to our list? I’d love to hear them…we need all the water tips we can get.

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Filed under Soil, Water

All About Cover Crops

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While we were on our vacation, Sunshine Through The Windows asked about when the right time to plant cover crops is. I thought I’d take the opportunity to make that small question into a post all about cover crops, if you don’t mind.

Cover crops (also known as green manure) are fantastic ways to enrich your soil. In fact they’ve helped to improve our soil dramatically over the years. Cover crops are a crop that you plant in the off season that works while you rest. Their roots help to break up hard soil and aerate it while also imparting nitrogen into your soil. You can see the nitrogen on our last years cover crop of favas and vetch here. In the spring you cut or mow down the crop leaving the roots in the soil. You can then gently till the soil to spread around the nitrogen and other nutrients the roots provide. As for the tops of the plants, they are a welcome addition to your compost pile that will help amend your soil also.

There are all sorts of cover crops that you can grow, favas, field peas, vetch, buckwheat etc. This year we went with a variety cover crop seed mix that our local nursery pointed us too. Normally, in our non snowy climate, it’s best to plant this in fall. However time escaped us this year and we didn’t get to it until December. If you live in a snowy area, you can plant this first thing in spring and mow it down in summer when your tomatoes and peppers are ready to plant out.

If you’d like to read more about cover crops and overall soil health, I can’t recommend the book Secrets to Great Soil (Storey’s Gardening Skills Illustrated) enough. We refer to this book over and over again.

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How to Grow More Vegetables…Part Three

As promised, today I’ll explain about how this Grow Biointensive way of planting as explained in How to Grow More Vegetables can improve your garden. As I mentioned this style of gardening has been rediscovered and studied for over thirty years by Ecology Action, up in Northern California. But it’s originally the ancient 4,000 year old Chinese Biointensive way of farming which is patterned after nature’s own intensive biological plantings.

Scott and I figure, if its worked for the Chinese for all those years, it might just in fact make our garden a better place. And while we don’t follow the method exactly, we add a little bit more of the method’s theologies every year. And it has improved our garden greatly. The man who initially brought this method to attention in the States, Alan Chadwick, wisely said, “Just grow one small area, do it well. Then, once you have got it right, grow more!” So, let’s learn this method already, okay?

Here are the components:
Deep Soil Preparation. This is the most important part. Loose soil structure enables the roots to grow deep down in the soil and a steady stream of nutrients can flow into the stem and leaves. Double digging your soil is admittedly back breaking, but it can be done is small steps and the benefits last for years and are certainly worth the effort.

Composting. “In nature, living things die, and their death allows life to be reborn.” (See, Compost really is proof that there is life after death!) Composting is an important way to return carbon, nitrogen, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, phosophorus, potash, and trace minerals back to the earth. These elements are all necessary to maintain the biological cycles of life that naturally exist. So ahead make that compost pile, it’s easy!

Close Plant Spacing. Nature doesn’t grow it’s plants in long, spaced out rows, why should we? We waste a lot of space growing things so far apart.

Companion Planting.
This is a fascinating subject to explore. It’s one of our favorite garden explorations. Basically, you want to grow things together that will enhance each other, such as beans and cucumbers.

Plant Carbon-Efficient Crops. Planting your garden in about 60% of the growing area with seed and grain crops will produce large amounts of carbonaceous materials for compost and provide significant amounts of dietary calories. Have you ever thought about growing crops for not only your consumption, but also to return back to the soil? That’s a new one, isn’t it? But a great one.

Plant Calorie-Efficient Crops. Remember, this methodology is taught to show people how to grow their entire diet in one 4,000 square foot plot (a vegan diet of course). So thinking of planting the most calorie rich vegetables is important. You want to plant about 30% of your garden to potatoes, burdock, garlic, and parsnips which produce a large amount of calories for your diet.

Open-Pollinated Seeds. Use these to preserve genetic diversity.

A Whole, Interrelated Farming System.
This Grow Biointensive food-raising method is a whole system and it’s components, when used all together create high yields that nourish not only yourself but the earth.

Cool system, isn’t it? What I’ve written about is only a taste of what you find in the actual book, How to Grow More Vegetables. Its full of incredible information on starting from seed planting with lunar cycles, charts like you wouldn’t believe, and diagrams of how to lay out your garden. Step by step illustrations on how to start small and eventually grow a plot into a 4,000 sq. foot self sufficient garden of Eden, or Garden of Eatin’ as it were.

I can’t tell you how much you need to read How to Grow More Vegetables. Add it to your Amazon wish list or check it out at your local library. You’ll love it too!

Read Part One & Part Two.

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Filed under books, Compost, Soil

Grow More Vegetables… Part Two

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I hope I didn’t scare you yesterday with that doom and gloom about the future of agriculture. I’m sure if I tried I could round up links to a ton more stories of fear, but I like to keep things positive here, so let’s hurry up and talk about how we can improve things, okay?

The challenges of world hunger, soil depletion, and diminishing resources is overwhelming. And many people tend to look for big solutions, such as mass distribution, miracle high-yield crops, mass producing fertilizer. But all of these solutions, really are harmful and create long-term dependency. How to Grow More Vegetables, the Grow Biointensive way of farming, teaches the world to become self sufficient. To nurture the soil, and to view the ecosystem as a whole, so we can continue to farm generation after generation.

The benefits for this Grow Biointensive way of growing are a:

    67% to 88% reduction in water consumption per unit of production
    50+% reduction in the amount of purchased fertilizer required per unit of production
    99% reduction in the amount of energy used per unit of production
    100+% increase in soil fertility
    200% to 400% increase in caloric production per unit of area
    100+% increase in income per unit of area.

Fantastic, right? Why hasn’t the world already adopted these practices? Well, they have. This type of farming was done in China as far back as 4000 years ago. The Europeans and Latin Americans adopted it long, long ago. But since the invention of mechanized and chemical agriculture, much of these practices have been destroyed. Ecology Action is working to reteach these methods world wide.

But how does this apply to your garden? What is this book going to do to make your garden better? Well, stick around for tomorrow’s post on what How to Grow More Vegetables will benefit you directly.

As for now, I’ll leave you with this quote:

Up to 6 billion microbial life-forms can live in one 5-gram amount of cured compost, about the size of a quarter. Life makes more life, and we have the opportunity to work together with this powerful force to expand our own vitality and that of this planet.

Read Part One & Part Three.

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Filed under books, Soil