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.

Do-It-Yourself Gutter Garden

Looking for more space in a small garden? Consider this clever idea: Create a vertical garden using low-cost or salvaged rain gutters.

Suzanne Forsling of Juneau, Alaska attached gutters to the side of her house creating not only additional space, but a planting area that helped alleviate some of the problems associated with the difficult Alaska climate (cold ground, low light levels, etc.).

Of course because the gutters are relatively shallow, you’ll need to choose carefully what you’ll plant there. Salad greens are a great choice, but Suzanne also had good luck with radishes.

One Garden tip: If you don’t have a wall or fence available, consider mounting the gutters to free-standing posts. Add locking casters to create a movable living wall that can be used to divide your outdoor space into separate rooms.

Dig deeper:

Money-Saving Gardening Tips

Growing vegetables can help you save money on groceries, but with a few simple tricks you can save even more. Some of them will even help you save a little time, too.

Start With Seed
The average cost for a pack of 100 organic seeds is $2.50. That’s 2.5 cents per plant. Even if only half of them make it to full plant-hood, that’s an unbelievably low price, especially when you compare it to the $3 or more many nurseries charge for a single organic seedling.

Share Seeds and Seedlings
Even if you’re planting one-seed-per-veggie plants like carrots or radishes, 100 seeds are probably more than you will ever use in a single season. Rather than buying a full pack of seeds for every vegetable you want to plant, go in with your gardening friends and have each of you pick a different variety to share. That way, if you want to grow three varieties of tomato, a zucchini, a pumpkin, two types of beans, shelling peas a sweet pea and a bell pepper instead of purchasing 10 seed packets at $2.50 each for a total cost of $25, you and 9 friends can each spend only $2.50 each and share the wealth. The same thing goes for seedlings. It’s just as easy to start several seedlings as it is to start one, so if you have space, considering growing a six-pack and trading plants instead of seeds.

Embrace Heirlooms
Most commercially available seeds are hybrid plants bred for disease resistance and productivity. Unfortunately, hybrids cannot be reliably reproduced from saved seeds. That means you need to buy a new pack of seeds every season. Not so with heirloom vegetables. If you save a seed from an heirloom and plant it, you will very likely wind up with the very same plant. And since one pumpkin alone can contain hundreds of seeds, you’ll have plenty for you and your friends to share at a grand total cost of $0.

NOTE: Many heirloom seeds of the same type cross-pollinate with each other. For example, if you have a miniature blue corn planted next to a giant sweet white corn, your following year’s plants may be a giant blue, a miniature white or even a regularly sized yellow, depending on how they combine. With things like corn, you’ll need to stick to a single variety to ensure a consistent crop. Still, since the seeds are essentially free, it might be a fun adventure to mix things up and see what you get.

Plant Perennials
Plant a perennial once and it comes back year after year (provided you take good care of it)—usually bigger and stronger. And because many perennials can be dug up and divided into smaller plants after several seasons of growth, you’ll save even more. A few examples of fantastic perennial vegetables are artichokes, asparagus, and rhubarb.

Shop End of Season Sales
As planting season winds down, many garden centers find themselves with lots of seeds left over. And since seeds are marked for a single growing season, they are forced to put them on sale. Lucky for us, most seeds stay viable for years longer than their original date, so shopping for next year is almost a no brainer. Websites also use sales to clear out their slower selling stock. Check out the ongoing Seed Sale at Park Seed, Co. for great prices on excess inventory, many as low as 75 cents a pack. Not only will you get a great bargain, you’ll have your seed shopping done well ahead of next year’s planting time.