Water-Wise Garden Planning

This past weekend I went to a lecture given by Golden Gate Gardening author Pam Pierce. The event was part of a promotional tour for the launch of her third edition and focused on sustainable food gardening, specifically, creating a water-wise vegetable garden. Here are just a few of the tips she provided:

  • Group plants by water use: This allows you to spend valuable water (and the money it costs) only on the plants that really need it and helps prevent over-watering
  • Amend the soil with compost: The more organic matter in the soil, the better it retains water.
  • Mulch: Mulching helps prevent evaporation and keeps the soil cooler in hot weather.
  • Choose your plants wisely: Don’t waste money and water on edibles that end up rotting on the vine. Plant only what you will harvest and eat or share. My tip: Consider choosing smaller, less heavy producers or fewer plants if you can’t keep up with the harvest on something you really love.
  • And the last one for my fellow temperate climate gardeners: Take advantage of the rainy season by planting, for example, California spring veggies or bareroot trees in February so nature will do the watering for you for several months allowing your plants grow strong roots and first leaves.

In the addition to the great ideas she provides, she also brought a basket full of fruits, veggies, edible flowers and herbs she’d just collected or taken from storage including chard, salad greens, nasturtiums, oca, apples and Bolivian sun root (she even shared the last two). It’s amazing how much food even the smallest garden can provide year-round with the right choices, a little planning and some good storage. And if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, pick up an updated copy of her amazing book. She has made significant revisions including new zone planting guides for San Jose/Santa Clara and Walnut Creek/Contra Costa and a ton more information on sustainable gardening practices.

In case you’re interested, the event was sponsored by the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA — a gorgeous dry garden planted on 4.5 acres of a former walnut farm. Planted mostly with succulents, cacti and South American and Australian natives, the garden is stunningly architectural and features a number of endangered and seriously endangered plants including a bristlecone pine. The garden is now protected by a conservancy and serves as an educational institution as well. If you’re ever in the area, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Planning Your Spring Garden

The weather outside may be frightful, but that doesn’t mean you can’t flex your gardening muscles this winter. Here are five simple steps to jump-starting your spring garden no matter how hard it rains, sleets or snows.

1. Find inspiration: Spring’s fall seed and plant catalogs have already hit mailboxes and online catalogs have updated their websites. Not only will thumbing (or clicking) through their colorful pages chase away the winter day’s gray, it will give you a ton of great ideas for next seasons’ plantings.

2. Start a garden journal or inspiration file: If you don’t already have a place to jot ideas and store inspiring images, now is the perfect time to set one up. Whether you buy a journal designed just for gardeners, a spiral-bound notebook, an accordion file to stash torn-out catalog pages doesn’t matter. Use whatever works best for you.

3. Review last year: Now that you have a place to make notes, take a look at what worked — and what flopped — last year. Did your row of heirloom tomatoes have you swimming in more pasta sauce than you could ever give away? Has your prize apricot succumbed to fireblight? And what about that obscure variety of pumpkin that didn’t set a single fruit? Decide what stays and what goes.

4. Make a plan: Start with a list of all the plants you hope to grow, including any that may already be in the space (including perennials, shrubs, and trees). Next, graph it out using mature plant sizes to make sure you have the spacing right. It helps to do the diagram of the available space and any plants that need to stay put in pen (don’t forget containers), then pencil in the rest. That way you won’t have to redraw every time you want to change things up. There are also a number of garden-planning software programs that help take the guesswork out of design. Don’t forget to rotate what you plant where to avoid plant disease.

5. Place your orders: Make sure you don’t miss out on your favorites, especially if you are buying heirloom seeds which often sell out fast. Many plant catalogs offer great discounts, coupons, and other specials if you order early enough. Want to save even more? Talk to fellow gardeners about sharing seeds. They may even have saved seeds or cuttings they’d be willing to give or swap.

Still longing for a little green in your life? A few well-chosen indoor plants or start a kitchen garden with your kids.

Movie Review: Recycled

Recycled, a 6-minute documentary film, follows a homeless poet through his day in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The cinematography is as inspiring as what he has been able to do with an empty piece of dirt in the median of a neighborhood street. (Shown with subtitles.)

Help Your Plants Beat the Heat

Summer heat is already beating down across much of the nation, spelling disaster for many young seedlings. So what can you do to protect your future food investment? Try these tips for how to help your plants beat the heat.

Water

Check moisture levels daily, maybe even more often for container plants. When the mercury starts cruising up over 85… 95… 105 water evaporates in a flash. And when your plants are young, their tender root systems can be irreparably damaged before you know it.

Water first thing in the morning before the sun gets too high and the day gets too hot. This helps in two ways. First, plants draw up water through the roots as the temperature rises. If the soil is dry they will draw up only air. Secondly, any water dripped on the leaves can turn into tiny magnifying glasses burning the leaves with the sun’s heat.

Mulch

When it’s hot out, you’ll need to do more than water regularly, you’ll need to preserve as much of that water as you can. Adding a good, thick layer of mulch around your plants can help keep the moisture in the soil. As an added bonus it will also help keep your plants’ roots cool.

Shade

Sometimes, the only way to keep your plants from whithering under the sun, is to move them to the shade until the worst of the heat passes. If you plant in containers, all you need to do is pull them to a shadier spot. If you plant in the ground however, you can still protect them by putting up a temporary shade cloth. A few bamboo poles and an old sheet is an inexpensive and simple solution.

Keep a close eye out for the signs your plants might be suffering from the heat including wilting, brown edges and scorch marks. If you notice any of these signs, act quickly and your precious plants can live to fruit another day.

Garden Without a Yard

Even if you don’t have a yard, patio, or even a sunny windowsill, there are still plenty of ways to get out there and garden.

Community Gardens
According to the American Community Garden Association, a community garden is very simply “any piece of land gardened by a group of people.” But it’s more that just that. Community gardening builds connections, provides educational and mentoring opportunities for new and experienced gardeners alike, improves the standard of living for those who garden there by providing healthier food as well as exercise in tending the plants that provide it, and helps individuals and communities become more self-reliant.

There are community gardens in neighborhoods throughout the country and the world. Most charge a nominal annual fee to cover operating expenses. To find a community garden in your area check the garden finder on the American Community Garden Association’s home page. You can also check out your town’s government pages or your local park and rec department.

Don’t have a community garden in your neighborhood? Start your own.

Yard Sharing

If you’re an urban farmer without a place to plant, consider sharing space in a neighbor’s yard, or even creating a small farming business across multiple yards. According to Hyperlocavore.com, a yard sharing community site, yard sharing is:

“…an arrangement between people to share skills and gardening resources; space, time, strength, tools or skills, in order to grow food as locally as possible, to make neighborhoods resilient, kids healthy and food much cheaper! The group can be friends, family, neighbors, members of a faith community (or any combination!)”

Perhaps you have a neighbor who doesn’t have time to garden but would love fresh vegetables. Or a great aunt who can’t garden herself anymore but misses watching fresh fruit ripening on a vine. Yardsharing doesn’t just give landless gardeners a place to practice their art, it builds community, teaches the values of working together, of sharing, and, if successful, can raise the standard of living by improving the quality and availability of food for an entire neighborhood or group.

Volunteering

If you are willing to garden for the joy and experience instead of for crops, consider volunteering your time to a local educational or other charitable organization. Botanical gardens, public gardens, and educational farms can be found throughout the country and many are  suffering in this economic down-turn. Here are just a few that could use your help:

Try searching Volunteer Match for opportunities in your area. You might also consider helping out your local senior center or school gardens. If you don’t find one in your community, consider helping them start one.

Guerrilla Gardening
In some cases, you just have to garden where you can. For guerrilla gardeners, that means roadsides, sidewalk tree surrounds, street dividers, and abandoned lots. If you’re looking to add a few wildflowers to an empty field, that’s easy enough, but if your goal is vegetable gardening you’ll want to keep a few important things in mind:

  • Soil condition: If the land isn’t yours you have no way of knowing what’s been dumped there. Test the soil thoroughly before you plant anything you may want to eat.
  • Maintenance: It’s one thing to put up an overnight garden and another to make sure it gets watered and fertilized enough to thrive.
  • Vandalism and theft: There are those who may not share your love of gardening and decide to voice their dissent by pulling up your work by the roots. Still others may appreciate it too much and decide they want the plants or produce for their own yards. (For one sad cautionary tale visit YouGrowGirl.com.)
  • Legal ramifications: Technically, gardening someone else’s land is against the law. If the land you choose is a neglected median, chances are the owners will look the other way, but that may not always be the case. The best defense is to know what you’re going to say should someone stop you (non-confrontational is usually the best policy) and know when to walk away.

If you’re up to the task, guerrilla gardening can give great rewards not only in produce but in community-building and neighborhood beautification. Involve other locals to improve your success rate and share the fun. Get more tips and find like-minded gardeners at Guerrilla Gardening.org.

Designing an Edible Garden: Before You Start

The perfect garden is as individual as the person who dreams of it. Each of us has our own style, our own tastes, our own desires. The perfect garden cannot come from a template. It has to be created individually each time like a work of art. And like a work of art, before you sit down to create — whether you are creating the art for yourself or someone else — you have to make a few decisions: what medium will you use? What colors? How big will it be? What will be its purpose? The same is true for a garden. Some of the questions will be about the garden itself, while others delve into the person who will be using the garden, to help make sure it fits their personality, style, tastes, and needs. Before you embark on any gardening project ask yourself the following questions:

  • What space will you use for the garden: yard, patio with containers, a few pots in a sunny window?
  • What kind of garden do you want to create? If you’re here on this site, chances are you want it to include some kind of food, but how? Do you want a few strategically placed edibles or an entire garden dedicated to food? A traditional raised bed vegetable garden or an eclectic mix of flowers, fruits and foliage plants?
  • Are you starting with a blank slate or are you trying to incorporate edible plants into an existing garden plan?
  • What do you love about the garden you have?
  • What do you dislike about it?
  • What plants do you love?
  • What plants do you dislike?
  • What fruits and vegetables do you love to eat?
  • What things may impact where you place your plants: sun exposure, existing structures,desire to have food plants as close as possible to the kitchen?
  • Do you have any special requirements/considerations (access, kids, pets, pests, possible polution)?
  • What styles appeal to you (garden, architecture, interior design, clothes, cars…)?
  • Do you consider your tastes formal, casual, ecclectic, exotic, minimalist, or other (specify)?
  • How much time/energy do you have to devote to gardening?
  • What is your favorite type of cuisine?
  • What is your favorite vacation location? Why?

If you’re looking to create an edible garden experience rather than just adding a plant here or there, or if you are especially space constrained, you may want to make a garden plan before you start planting. Consider starting an inspiration file and fill it with photos of parks or neighboring gardens, postcards, pictures from books or magazines, wallpaper samples, you name it. Anything that captures the look or feel of what you’re hoping to create.

Once you’ve pulled these pieces together (along with a gridded map of the existing yard and structures), you’re ready to start designing. And that’s where the fun begins. With a little planning and preparation, your edible garden can be as beautiful as it is functional.

Create a Self-Watering Container

One simple way to save  water, time and sometimes even your plants is with a self-watering container, but commercial versions can cost a ton of money. California gardener Ray Newstead has a solution for that: build your own.

Ray’s innovative EarthTainer(TM) design uses rubber storage bins, a plastic aquatic plant basket, and PVC pipe to create the perfect solution for growing great heirloom tomatoes, but could be used for other vegetables as well.

Visit EarthTainer.Tomatofest.com for complete instructions on how to create your own (he even has videos to help you along).

If you’re not in love with the way the bins out on your patio or in your garden, you can easily camoflage them with other plants.

Build Your Own Compost Bin

Compost is garden gold. You start with kitchen scraps and yard clippings, add time and a little turning, and you wind up with gorgeous, nutrient-rich stuff that will help your plants grow strong — all from things that might have otherwise wound up in our ever-growing landfills.

You don’t have to have a huge yard with multiple bins to compost in your own backyard or patio area. Using a few simple items you probably already have on hand, you can make your own compost bin with very little effort.

You’ll need:

  • 18 gallon plastic storage tub with lid (go for the more rubbery kind if you can, they are easier to work with)
  • Knife, drill or awl

You may also want:

  • A second lid (if you plan to keep it on a patio)
  • Decorative planter feet, bricks or small stones to elevate the bin slightly off the ground
  • Outdoor paint or colored duct tape to decorate the outside

How to:

 

1. Mark where you want the holes with a Sharpie marker–holes should be approximately 1/4″ across and 1 1/2 to 2″ apart

 

2. Punch, cut or drill  holes in the top and bottom of the storage bin; make sure the bottom holes are at the lowest part of the bin so it can drain easily

3. Decorate if desired

4. Place the bin in it’s new home–ideally somewhere easy to access, otherwise you are less likely to use it

5. Start composting!

 

A few other considerations:

  • If you have a big yard and a lot of scraps and clippings, consider using a larger tub or even a trash can (plastic or metal will work)
  • If you have a lot of wildlife in your neighborhood, consider getting a tub with a locking lid to keep the animals out
  • The juice created by the compost can be very acidic, do not place the bin directly on a patio as it could mar the finish
  • If you live in an apartment, be sure to check their rules about what you can and cannot have on a patio or balcony, some do not allow storage bins in public sight

 

Make Your Own Compost

Composting is a simple, inexpensive way to improve your soil, save water, and give your plants the nutrients they need to grow and produce.

What You Need

  • A place to compost–a compost bin or an unused area of your yard where you can build a pile
  • An assortment of compostable materials
  • Water

How To

  • Decide where you will compost–if you need a lot of space, you can create a simple, open pile in an unused area of your yard or build a wood and wire cage to contain it, if you have less space or live in an urban environment, an enclosed bin is probably your best bet (you can either purchase one or build your own)
  • Combine compost materials in your bin or pile, many people prefer to alternate layers of browns and greens—for best results use approximately 1/3 greens to 2/3 browns
  • Add just enough water to dampen the pile, you want it to be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge
  • Turn the pile by mixing the contents of your bin regularly for quicker composting

Compost Ingredients
Greens

  • Kitchen scraps including fruit and vegetable trimmings and peels, stale or moldy bread, eggshells (rinse first)
  • Coffee grounds and used tea bags
  • Fresh yard and grass clippings

 

Browns

  • Dead leaves
  • Dried grass clippings
  • Shredded newspaper (many use inks that may be toxic—use only those that print with soy-based inks, for example the San Francisco Chronicle)
  • Used paper towels
  • Vacuum cleaner bag contents

Do Not Compost

  • Meat or dairy products
  • Diseased plant materials
  • Weeds with seeds or viable roots
  • Pet waste

Learn what else you can compost at WebEcoist.com.

Troubleshooting
Problem: Slimy and smelly
Cause: Too much green material or too wet
Solution: Add more dry browns and mix well

Problem: Not breaking down
Cause: Too much brown material or not enough water
Solution: Check dampness of pile, add more greens and/or water and mix well

Problem: Inconsistent break down
Cause: Scraps are too big
Solution: Make sure all pieces are 2 inches or less in diameter, the smaller you chop your scraps and shred your paper, the quicker and more consistently your compost will break down

Problem: Pests
Cause: Exposed, rotting kitchen scraps
Solution: Bury scraps below a layer of browns; omit all meat, dairy and other fat-containing kitchen scraps

Problem: Seedlings
Cause: Seeds from fruit and vegetable scraps root in compost
Solution: Gently remove seedlings, plant in pots and see what grows

For more information visit:
Howtocompost.org
VegWeb.com/composting