Fruit Tree Guild in Summer

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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.

How Much Do Beans Like Biochar?

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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?

Cool-Season Vegetable Seeding

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Cool Season Seed Starting

In my Zone 9b Northern California garden it’s never too late to seed something, and August is the perfect time to begin starting the Fall and Winter crops. I love to make my own sauerkraut, so cabbages are high on my list. As space becomes available from the Summer crops, I will also add in peas, beets, carrots, chard, and several different kinds of cover crops between now and mid-October. Then I will put in the onions and garlic.

What are your cool-season vegetable garden plans?

Heat Wave Gardening

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The most important thing we’re trying to do in the summer garden is recover from the nine-day heat wave that has stressed or killed our project plants this year. It was an unusually dry winter here in Northern California, so soil moisture was already low moving into a dry and warmer than average spring. Shifting to an evening watering schedule has given the plants more time to recover before the heat of the day dries the soil.

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We are covering all the growing areas with straw mulch, even seed beds, and increasing the mulch until it’s several inches thick after plants are growing well. We are also testing out these Terra Cotta Aquacone Watering Devices from gardeners.com. I bury the terra cotta in the soil with only the top lip showing and upend bottles into them to help keep soil moisture where it is needed. Seems to be working well for these young Luffa starts.

Sweet Potato Vines

If you can tell which variety these are by the leaf shapes–please share!

One crop that seems perfectly happy with the weather is the sweet potatoes. Finally! The experts at Sand Hill Preservation Center say, “It takes about 1,200 heat units for our early varieties to reach a decent crop of usable sized roots…The question you must then ask yourself is, ‘How is 1,200 heat units determined?’ To get heat units you take the day’s high temperature (maximum) and the day’s low temperature (minimum) and add them together. Then divide by two and subtract 55 from that. That gives you the day’s heat units.” So, if our daily averages during the Heat Wave were at least 90 during the day and probably warmer than 60 at night, that gives us easily 20 heat units a day. Two months of that and we have a nice crop of delicious sweet potato pies! Of course, the heat wave did eventually break, but even so, if we stay at historical average temperatures for the rest of the summer, that still gives me plenty of time to enjoy sweet potatoes by fall.

Borlotto Beans

Another wonder of the heat is that we had beans drying down by the 4th of July. If I am very nice to the runner and Borlotto bean vines, we have time for a full second cropping of beans this year. I was so excited by this prospect that I started another dozen perennial bean vines just the other day. They should have plenty of time to get established by fall and then start cropping early next spring.

What helps your garden survive the heat? Share your ideas with us in the comments.

Carrots From Root to Flower

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Carrot tops sticking out of the soil

No Crowding the Carrots

I can often be found in the garden munching a carrot I couldn’t resist pulling out of the soil and hosing off while I worked. All in the name of proper thinning, of course. Unlike the peas you might consider serving them with, carrots do not like to be too crowded.

It took me several years to get the hang of how to encourage decent carrot seed germination, but lately my carrot luck has extended all the way to the final stage of seed saving. Last fall was the first time I attempted to plant carrot seed I had “saved” by way of forgetting to harvest a couple of carrots that later went to see among the bean poles where I couldn’t see them. I hoped they were purple carrots, the part still sticking up out of the ground certainly didn’t look orange anymore, but when the seeds came up this spring, the roots were mostly a very pale and not especially tasty yellow. Carrots  are an insect pollinated biennial, so chances are that either pollen from another carrot variety was introduced to my purple carrots, or the purple carrots I hoped I was letting go to seed were hybrids that wouldn’t breed true for the purple characteristic that I wanted.

Carrot FlowersThis winter I set aside a much more carefully protected carrot patch in the back garden where a known variety of carrots was grouped together and no other carrots, or other umbels at all, were allowed to flower. I’m just now starting to see flower heads drying enough to save seed and can’t wait to try planting them once the rains start this fall.

The problem is that by the time you save enough carrots to get good cross-pollination, you have just made sure you will have enough carrot seed for an entire army of urban farmers, and their friends. For home use, I just save the seed from the best, largest, and usually first flowers, the Primary Umbels. They make the highest quality seed. If you care to nerd out on such things, the way I do, here’s seven pages worth of research on the facts. And, if you want to see a great picture of the actual carrot seeds, don’t miss this one from the Carrot Museum, yes, seriously, that shows a group of carrot seeds under a microscope. Check out all those tiny hooks!

And leave me a comment if you want to know where you can send an SASE for some free carrot seed!

Don’t Read This – Go Read “The Seed Underground”

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To say that I was inspired by Janisse Ray’s The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, would exceed my understatement limit for the week. Before I even finished it, I purchased three more copies to increase my chances of still having one after I start giving it to friends who are on the verge of grasping where our food system is currently heading. I told my husband that when he was finished reading this book, he would better understand his wife, his yard, and his dinner.

Ray weaves her own story of coming to understand food in a deep and fundamental way with many stories of seed savers around the United States and the why, if not so much the exact details of how, they do what they do. It’s not an instruction manual. It’s more a “This I Believe” manifesto of seed saving.

If I could have put the book down, I would have done it in order to plant, collect, or share seeds of the nearest vegetable at hand. The book makes you want to DO something. It lifts you past the doom and gloom of species and varieties disappearing or being forever fouled by the poison of corporate gene manipulation to the beautiful simplicity of action you can take right now to be part of the solution.

You finish the book with the knowledge that seed savers are out there. Seed savers are messy and neat, healthy and sick, on small lots and vast acreage, saving a single variety or dozens at once. Seed savers are people saving food. And maybe seed savers are just like you.

So, don’t read this. Get out there and save some seeds. And take The Seed Underground with you to keep you in good company along the way.