5 Ways to Get Your Food Garden Through the Drought

Leave a comment

As farmers in California fallow more and more acreage, and water restrictions come to us in the cities, there are a lot of things that can be done to keep urban gardens going.

#1. Compost Everything. The best thing you can do to help your soil hold moisture is to mix it with composted organic matter. So no more tossing potato peels into the disposal. (Like you’ve got water to waste running the disposal anyway.) It is time to compost everything you can get your hands on. Food scraps, newspaper, junk mail, dryer lint, coffee grounds, egg cartons–the works. If it’s organic matter and it will break down, there’s a spot for it in the pile. And that pile needs to be in a shaded and/or covered spot where the sun and wind will steal as little of the moisture that goes into the pile as possible. Toss the dirtier grey water you should be saving from inside the house over it when you can but avoid adding soaps to the compost pile as they can inhibit the bacteria working their magic inside the pile. Build one pile and then start a second one while the first pile ‘cooks.’ As soon as it is ready, work it into the top layer of soil, just under your mulch layer.

Chipping Delivery#2. Mulch Everything. And I mean everything. Paths, empty patches where nothing is growing, all of it. Use a light-colored material if possible to keep the soil cooler. I started with a couple of truckloads of fruit tree chippings. Tree companies will dump them for you for the asking as it saves them paying to put them somewhere else. My entire yard is covered in a thick layer of this mulch that has been breaking down for a few years now. In the growing areas, I cover as much as I can with rice straw. It’s light-colored and it’s light-weight material that doesn’t compact the soil underneath and air still circulates well. And if it starts to break down too much, or if there is leftover straw that doesn’t get used, it goes right into the compost pile.

Ollas in the garden#3. Water Through the Soil–Not Through the Air. I use a combination of ollas and Plant Nanny wine bottle-style terracotta watering stakes to put moisture straight into the ground without spraying it through the air. This allows the soil to draw the water that it needs through the unglazed terracotta, so it’s never wasted. You can fill the ollas and wine bottles with grey water from the house and the clay will even provide a bit of filtering. And, if the top inch or even two of soil dries out, plant roots can still get water from the moist soil at the bottom of the ollas or Plant Nanny. I use brightly colored clay birds to top my ollas so that I can find them in the mulch to fill them again.

Rice straw mulch in the vegetable garden#4. Lower Raised Beds. If raised beds increase drainage and allow the soil to warm more quickly, well, that is exactly what we don’t want this year. In several spots in my garden I am growing in-between what would normally have been my beds. I took up the mulch from the paths between the raised beds, added compost and some of the nice fluffy soil from the taller beds, and planted in the low spots that used to be my paths creating ‘sunken beds.’ It is my theory that these will reduce drainage and slow the drying of the soil. I laid wide stones on the raised bed section so that I can walk on them with minimal compaction and go back to growing in them for the Rainy Season, should we get to have one this year.

Tomato Seedlings#5. Start All Your Seeds Inside and Transplant. I know beans and squash and melons don’t care for being transplanted, but it is so much more efficient to water a small flat or a tray of seed starts than it is to water a whole bed with only a dozen or so plants coming up in it. And the even temperature and protection from wind inside the house will also help. I move peas and beans outside as soon as they have true leaves because their roots quickly extend through the bottom of even my deepest redwood flats. Once you have seedlings outside and are watering anyway, you could seed some companion lettuce or other greens nearby to germinate in the moisture available from around the seedlings.

What are your plans for food gardening this year? Please share your drought-survival tips with us all in the Comments.

Fruit Tree Guild in Summer

Leave a comment

Fruit Tree Guild with OllasThis is the first year I have tried to create guilds of plants in the garden. I added a dozen young fruit trees to the front this year, and I started each of them off with growing companions suggested by folks who know a whole lot more about permaculture than I do. Each bare-root tree was planted with something that would help fix nitrogen, like the peas pictured here, something deep rooted that would help accumulate minerals, a root crop to help break up the clay soil, use the space well and provide leaves for eating, shade, and mulch, and something from the Allium family.

Each guild also has it’s own ollas for irrigation since we’re in an arid climate in yet another drought year and evaporation is not our friend. You can see the top of the terra cotta ollas sticking up. The white stopper on top helps stop evaporation and keeps lizards and slugs out of the water. Lots of compost and mulch was added around the growing area, but not up against the trunk of the young tree. They apparently need some breathing room where the trunk meets the soil.

Guild in SummerNow that it’s July, the guilds have shifted from peas to beans for nitrogen, and from compost to a green mulch of leaves from squash, cucumbers, melons or sweet potatoes. I have also added an “aromatic pest confuser” to each guild. This is usually an herb that has a strong scent, something I like in the garden anyway, and which can be used to essentially hide the plants damaging insects may be looking for. Each of my young squash plants is mulched twice in the spring with rosemary cuttings for this same reason. It may seem a little weird, but no squash borers have turned up to call me on it. ;-)

This young peach tree has basil, carrots, leeks, chamomile, squash, and a lettuce plant in it’s guild. I am going to add perennial runner beans to fix nitrogen. Behind the tree, you can see the long, flat leaves of the horseradish patch. I may see if I can encourage the horseradish to expand away from the tree roots, but for now, they all appear very happy together. This tiny tree even produced three gorgeous fruit this spring. I expected it to take several years before I got to taste these peaches, so that was a very welcome surprise and I’m taking it as a good sign.

If you want to start a guild of plants around any of your trees to create a supportive growing neighborhood, it’s very easy to get started:

1. Choose a perennial nitrogen fixer, like a runner bean, or add annual nitrogen fixers such as peas in spring, beans in summer, peas again in fall.

2. Choose root crops or deep-rooted herbs that will reach down into the subsoil and help bring nutrients up to where the other plants in the guild can share them. Comfrey is a perennial favorite of permaculture fans. Borage is another one that requires no work at all to grow.

3. Choose aromatic pest confusers, herbs that you will want to smell and maybe eat yourself that help keep pests away from your guild. I like Lemon Balm, oregano, basil, and thyme.

4. Grow a living mulch that will contribute food for you as well as shade and leaves to mulch in place to keep the soil moisture consistent for the guild.

5. Enjoy!

What are your favorite plants to use in guilds or as companions for other crops in your garden? I would love to hear about them in the comments.

Are Those Peas or Beans?

Leave a comment

Cow Peas and FriendsThe cowpeas are starting to fill out but it’s hard to get a good picture of them in the midst of so much garden diversity. They are there, right in the middle of the lower half of this shot, but they are surrounded by California poppies in the front, marigolds to the left, some perennial kale on the right, and flanked by one of my ‘Principe Borghese’ tomato plants. There are very few monoculture section in the garden this year!

Because of the extended record drought in California, now in it’s third year, I am trying a lot of cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) which are supposed to be more drought tolerant than regular beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). They are closely related so I hope they will fill the same spot in the kitchen and the garden. Some of the members of the genus Vigna used to be classified as Phaseolus, but apparently the two turned out to have a different biochemistry. A true pea would be a member of the Pisum genus. All three are part of the Leguminosae or Fabaceae family. What that mostly means to me is they are a good source of protein and they contribute nitrogen to the soil around them.

Wikipedia calls cowpeas “one of the most important food legume crops in the semiarid tropics… A drought-tolerant and warm-weather crop, cowpeas are well-adapted to the drier regions of the tropics, where other food legumes do not perform well.” Global warming hasn’t made Northern California part of the tropics–yet–but we have plenty of drought and hopefully enough warm weather to make at least some of the cow pea varieties happy. So far I am trying a nice-looking black and white ‘Tohono O’odham’ cowpea, ‘Peking Black’ cowpeas from my friend at Thyme Square Gardens, and ‘Monkey Tail,’ ‘California Blackeyed’ and ‘Red Ripper’ from Baker Creek.

Runner MagicNot that I am giving up on my fascination with perennial runner beans. This year, even after the unusually dry winter, they are back better than ever, flowering and setting pods on 8′ vines. The new ‘Sunset Runner’ has a peach blush on its flowers that has won me over, though I haven’t tasted any of the beans it makes yet. I like the idea of adding one or two runner bean plants to each of the fruit tree guilds in the front garden. That will give the other members of the guild a reliable nitrogen source and in years to come the beans won’t  climb the fruit trees and try to take over until the fruit harvest is already done. (In my plans, at least.) The largest patch of runner beans was under sown with carrots early in the year to help break up the clay, make good use of the space, and to provide some shade for the re-sprouting young beans. They also have Borage, squash, and sunchokes as companions happily growing in and around them.

Rattler BloomsAnd, of course, I broke down and tried a few new varieties of regular snap beans even though it’s another drought year. I got some ‘New Mexico Cave’ beans in a seed trade and planted half a dozen or so of them as a trial. I also got a handful of ‘Rattlesnake’ beans in a seed swap at the local Urban Farmers Coop and couldn’t resist trying them. I especially love their beautiful purple flowers and can’t wait to see the mottled pods they make. So far the most vigorous growers have been the patch of ‘Cargomanto’ beans I put in very early in the back garden. They were supposed to be 30″ tall, but I stopped measuring around 7′. They do not appear to have the drought tolerance vegetables are going to need around here this year though and I’m still waiting to see what their flowers and beans will look like. The site where I ordered them calls them a “Heat Loving Rare Heirloom” and suggests planting them where the sun gets to the stem of the plant. I wonder if our cool nights that the runner beans seems to love so much are a bit too cool for our new friends from Columbia? Of course, as these are the same folks who told me the plants were going to be 30″ tall, maybe we better watch closely and see what happens. Right now our evening lows are just barely warm enough to ripen tomatoes, 55 to 57 degrees. Next week is predicted to be much warmer, so I’ll get out the watering can and the camera and let you know how they do.

First 2014 Potato Harvest

Leave a comment

February 16th I planted a number of bags of potatoes because it was an unusually warm early spring for us here in Northern California. The usual Rainy Season hadn’t ever shown up and there wasn’t much precipitation in the forecast. Normally, I would plant the early spring potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, a month later, when the rains are starting to subside.

Volunteer RedsI plant each potato bag with three 2-3 oz. egg-sized seed potatoes. One of the red potatoes must have been dug out of the bag by one of my local rodent garden re-decorators, because by April, there was a nice potato plant growing between two of the bags and this is what I found when I collected all the potatoes yesterday. Even more of these reds had grown underneath the blue bag.

The full bag of potatoes, if they had all grown together in one bag, would have produced a harvest of 1 pound, 8 1/2 ounces.  I plant somewhere between 6 and 9 ounces of seed potatoes in each bag. If we call it half a pound of seed potato planted, getting back the equivalent of just 3 pounds of potatoes for each pound planted is a disappointing yield. I keep reading tales of 10 pounds grown for every pound of seed potatoes planted. Is anybody really getting that in grow bags?

Deep BluesI also grew some unnamed “Blue” potatoes that delighted me by producing true seed pods and over 2 pounds of good sized, oval potatoes with a deep purple-black flesh color. If we assume again that I planted roughly half a pound of these seed potatoes, they yielded, under the same weather and growing conditions as the reds, the equivalent of four pounds, six ounces. Still not enough to consider it a high-yield potato if grown in bags and started in very dry conditions. But if these guys taste good, I’ll be growing them again because I like the potatoes they produced. I just wish I knew more about who they are! I bought them in a bag of seed potatoes that was literally marked “Red, White, and Blue Potatoes” with no other indication of variety and I was very surprised to see the seed pods after flowering. A quick look thru “The Complete Book of Potatoes” gives me some hints. The flesh is as dark as ‘Purple Peruvian,’ but the shape is wrong. The light-colored ring of the ‘All Blue’ is absent in these potatoes. They are darker in both skin and flesh tone than the ‘Adirondack Blue’ which leaves me closest to ‘Purple Majesty’ assuming these were one of the commonly farmed types.

TDH Potatoes Over-WinteredThe ‘Tall, Dark, and Handsome’ blue potatoes we have been growing for several years now were over-wintered from 10/21/2013 to 5/30/14 and still didn’t produce as well as the probable ‘Purple Majesty’ bag. The seed potatoes were very small, but there may have been as many as five of them in the bag with only 1 pound, 12 ounces of potatoes harvested. An equivalent yield of 3 pounds, 8 ounces per pound of seed potatoes planted. Not horrible for an over-wintered potato, but still not ideal.

We keep growing these potatoes because they produce long stolons high on the stem and we want that characteristic for vertical growing in small spaces. This variety has to be a close relative of the ‘All Blue’ though it does have an unusually pronounced white center spot in this particular potato. I’ll have to check again to make sure there were no ‘All Blue’ potatoes in the original grow-out.

The first group of potatoes we trialed in the spring of 2011 was selected by Tom Wagner of Tater-Mater fame for their potential suitability for vertical growing success. Read about how the Great Potato Grow Out project got started here. This year, one of the plots where some of the original Grow Out potatoes grew produced a strong, tall volunteer. I don’t know if this grew from a mini-tuber left behind or perhaps even from a seed pod that dropped into the soil and finally germinated after the cold winter we had? It’s been three years, so I can’t honestly be sure that it’s from one of Tom’s original experimental varieties. But I can’t wait to see what sort of potatoes it produces. I grubbed around a bit in the compost surrounding the plant hoping to find some hint of what it was producing with no luck today. The plant has over three feet of stem sticking out of the soil even though it has been hilled up several times. Whatever it does produce could be regrown to test for stolon set high on the stem which might give us a whole new variety to add to our further trails. That’s an exciting idea for us here at Dirt to Dinner!

Tall Potato from Tom Wagner?

Tall Potato from Tom Wagner?

 

How Much Do Beans Like Biochar?

1 Comment

By now I’m sure you’ve heard all the buzz about adding biochar to your garden soil. But, I thought, how much difference could it really make? I’ve been working for years on the soil in my garden. It’s full of organic matter from homemade compost and carefully mulched. I fortify it with kelp and fish meal. The worms seem to love it.

In order to test it out, I planted ten seeds of ‘Black CoCo’ beans in each of two identical slightly raised 3’x3′ beds that held onions until July. I added compost, fish meal, kelp meal, and a small cupful of Sure Start to each bed. Then I added a quart of Soil Reef to only one of the beds. (Just for the record, I have no connection with Soil Reef, or it’s makers. And Soil Reef does contain compost and worm castings along with the biochar.)

In each of the beds 8 of the 10 seeds I planted germinated over a span of 12 days or so, The young plants did well in both beds, though the Soil Reef beans seemed perhaps a bit greener than the untreated bed. Then it got really hot and dry and I got very busy with work and couldn’t water nearly as much as I wanted to.

Black Coco Beans in Drought Conditions
The smallest of the seedlings died and the others lost several of their leaves. In the regular bed, that is. Both plantings were lightly mulched with straw before germination and then more straw was added to retain moisture after the seedlings were up. This was not enough to sustain the beans planted in my usual soil mix very well through the drought. And the Soil Reef patch? A leaf or two was lost there as well, but the plants are bigger, greener, and much more vigorous.

Coco Beans with Soil Reef BiocharThese two pictures were both taken today. I left the toe of my shoe showing in both shots to give you a size reference. The leaves you see on the bottom left corner of the Soil Reef patch are sweet potatoes. And they present our second potentially confounding factor. Both bean patches are adjacent to a large rectangular sweet potato bed, in my standard soil mix. And it just so happens that the end of the sweet potato bed nearest the unhappy CoCo beans is not growing as well as the end near the happy, Soil Reef CoCo beans. There is also a large sunflower near the sad bean patch, which may be hindering the growth of both the beans and the sweet potatoes.

Even with the usual confounding factors found in the average urban garden, this experiment looks well worth repeating to me. What about you? Are you adding biochar? What sort of results have you had with it?

Squashing the Whitefly Invasion

12 Comments

It must be August, because my squash leaves are starting to look pretty sad in places. I noticed the beginnings of a whitefly problem a few nights ago and tested a new do-it-yourself spray on a group of leaves. Two days later, the test leaves looked great, but the rest of the squash patch was starting to show more serious signs of infestation. Today I sprayed the top and bottom surface of every leaf I could find with evidence of whiteflies and then some. I’ll track the results in a few more days and update things here.

The varieties of squash in the patch are:

‘Vegetable Spaghetti’ (C. pepo)
‘Candy Roaster Melon’ squash (C. maxima)
‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato’ (C. moschata)
and ‘Jim’s Butternut’ (C. moschata)

This last one was saved from ‘Waltham Butternut’ many years ago and kept going by a neighbor. It grew 25 foot vines with 10 fruit on a single vine in 2012. If some of that productivity crosses into my ‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato’ seeds for next year, maybe it will be a good thing!

The ‘Spaghetti’ squash is suffering the most from the whiteflies, though I first noticed it on the ‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato’ leaves. Maybe I didn’t notice it on the ‘Spaghetti’ squash because it’s harder to get to their part of the patch? The ‘Candy Roaster Melon’ is clearly the least affected. It’s much slower growing than the other varieties and is just now, in August, starting to flower. I have yet to find any research on differing vulnerability to whitefly across squash species, so the differences I see may have other causes. It is certainly too early to say that C. pepo is more likely to suffer whitefly infestation and C. maxim is more likely to fend it off—but that’s a theory that might turn out to be worth testing.

Homemade Whitefly SprayThe spray that I made started with 1 Tsp of Dawn Advanced Power liquid dishwashing soap mixed into 1 cup of vegetable oil. This makes a concentrate that you then mix with water in your sprayer. Add 1 1/2 tsp of the concentrate for each cup of water you add into the sprayer. I mixed 3 cups worth at a time in my regular household spray bottle. Next time I will seriously consider a backpack sprayer. In order to control whitefly everything I have read emphasizes the need to spray both the tops and the underside of the leaves. This can quickly become a tedious and finger-numbing project with your average spray bottle.

Next year I will plan ahead. The U.C. Davis Integrated Pest Management site says, “Several wasps, including species in the Encarsia and Eretmocerus genera, parasitize whiteflies. Whitefly nymphs are also preyed upon by bigeyed bugs, lacewing larvae, and lady beetles.” Buglogical has additional suggestions to try. If I manage to establish populations of these good bugs in my garden before August next year, maybe we won’t see the whiteflies at all.

Do you have a whitefly cure that works well in your garden? Please share it in the comments. And if you have tried something that didn’t work, I’d like to hear about that as well.

Updated August 31, 2013

The spray has had mixed results. The plants are still going, and new fruit is even being set, but there is noticeable damage from this pest on a number of leaves. Below is an example from the ‘Butternut’ patch.

Butternut Squash Leaves

Butternut Squash leaves treated with homemade whitefly deterrent.

The growing tips look healthy and you can see at least one young squash has been set during the Whitefly/Mildew invasion. But a number of leaves may have been too damaged to recover. And the nastiness is clearly spreading again.

Spaghetti Squash Leaves with Whitefly or Mildew

Both sets of leaves you see here are from the same Spaghetti Squash, one clearly much more affected than the other.

Only the few five-fingered leaves you see here are not from this plant. Seeing these leaves so close together, clearly growing in the same conditions, makes me wonder about the variability for disease resistance in these squash.