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Amendment Biochar Applying

Charcoal-like biochar improves soil hydration and enhances agricultural production while it curtails nutrient leaching, increases nitrogen available to plants and reduces the release of gas pollutants. A new study by researchers at Rice University and North Dakota State University gathers current and potential sources of government support to promote the production and use of biochar. Credit: Ghasideh Pourhashem, from the January 11, 2019, Rice University post. Read more Biochar holds promise for sequestering carbon and cleansing polluted air.

Fans rave about its virtues. Some are skeptical but want to learn more. So, wanting to learn, possibly use, I typed in ‘2018 2019 Biochar pros cons’…carefully read the latest noncommercial posts and their comments threads.

A few years ago a knowledgeable gardener I know raved about biochar. Now, some years later, recently a friend sent an article that turned the tables enough to make me want to check it out. One is how it was compared with natural soil that is replenished with biochar by forest fires. Two is how Biochar has several soil sustainable features, but foremost is how it keeps Carbon in our soil hundreds, maybe even 1000s of years! And that is to say nothing of its water holding capacity! Carbon is the foundation of our soil ecosystem. Three: Also, I recalled how amazingly my winter and summer garden plants grew last year. It started with a collusion of happenstance. I planted quite late, Dec 10, 2018 during the Thomas Fire ash fall. The ground was literally solid white with ash and chunks. But this winter my plants didn’t do nearly as well. Hmm… Granted, the ash is not biochar, but it’s a relative – it came from the high heat of a forest fire.

Right now, planet wide, by many, Biochar is considered crucial to our planet’s sustainability. Using it is a regenerative practice that will help our plants not only weather extreme conditions, but thrive!  

BIOCHAR RESEARCH

There are technical discussions, both pro and con, in a language all their own, to simple explanations for the home gardener. The main research is in consideration of farmers with vast tracts of land that could have significant impact on climate change.

CONSIDERATIONS

Nov 29, 2018 From a field day presentation at California State University-Fresno, here are some points from Suduan Gao, a research soil scientist with the USDA San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier. She talked of the potential of applying a biochar amendment to help in water and nutrient management.

Biochar is charcoal used as a soil amendment. It is made from biomass through thermal decomposition [fire]. Gao said it increases water use efficiency and nitrogen retention, reduces leaching, cuts nitrous oxide emissions and reduces ammonia emissions.

Gao said nitrogen dynamics are influenced by biochar and are highly affected by irrigation levels.

She said ammonia volatilization loss was substantially higher when fertilizer was applied only a few times in a larger amount than when it was applied more frequently in smaller amounts.

“Soil accumulates more nitrogen at lower irrigation levels than at higher irrigation levels,” Gao said. “The accumulated nitrogen, however, can be all leached during the rain system.” [Fertilizing after rains is more better!]

She said there were no significant biochar effects on ammonia, nitrous oxide and soil nitrate concentration, but there was a significant interaction between biochar and irrigation.

PROBLEMS WITH BIOCHAR? Fabulous or Fantasy? Is it too good to be true? There are extensive rebuttals to its use, even warnings that it’s not all the fans say, can even cause harm!

Nov 18, 2010 DR MAE-WAN HO said ‘Turning bioenergy crops into buried charcoal to sequester carbon does not work, and could plunge the earth into an oxygen crisis towards mass extinction.’ She further says: …implementing the biochar initiative could be dangerous, basically because saving the climate turns out to be not just about curbing the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere that can be achieved by burying carbon in the soil, it is also about keeping oxygen (O2) levels up. Keeping O2 levels up is what only green plants on land and phytoplankton at sea can do, by splitting water to regenerate O2 while fixing CO2 to feed the rest of the biosphere.’

  1. She cites: A ten-year trial in Swedish forests showed that buried charcoal appear to promote the breakdown of humus, the decomposing plant matter on the forest floor, thus completely offsetting the carbon sequestered in the charcoal.
  2. She discusses examples of the stability of biochar stating that it isn’t always stable. [In a 2012 Mother Earth News post, Editor Dr. Kehres (Journal “Humus and Agriculture“) summed up a symposium: “Biochar appears over-rated — the biochar claim to 1,000 year stability is revised downwards to 10 to 100 years, roughly the same as compost.”]
  3. She warns that things that happen so fast now that we have the internet and huge commercial organizations, a lot goes on without public awareness or understanding and no testing. Since this one expressly claimed climate change remediation, it was touted to be necessary immediately. Some fads are found to be faulty later.
  4. She gets into comparisons of interest to gardeners, stating that Biochar effects on soil fertility are not always positive. Field trials were conducted on cleared secondary forest with 15 different amendment combinations of chicken manure (CM), compost (CO), forest litter, chemical fertilizer (F), and charcoal (CC) applied once on rice and sorghum, and followed over four cropping cycles. Chicken manure gave by far the highest yield over the four cycles (12.4 tonne/ha). Compost application came second at about half the yield, but was still four times higher than chemical fertilizer. The control, leaf litter (burnt and fresh), and charcoal treatments gave no grain yields after the second season, and were discontinued. Further, in combination with compost, charcoal amendment decreased yield by about 40 percent compared to compost alone, and only improved yield in combination with chemical fertilizer.

Read the comments on this page for rebuttals and further information. It is suggested Biochar is not THE answer, but part of a complex mix of possibilities.

This 2013 Mother Earth News post Biochar: Not All It’s Ground Up to Be? states the appropriate use of Biochar depends first on soil type. Some soils retain nutrients very well without any amendments like biochar. Tim Crews says: ‘If you’re cropping on soil types other than Ultisols or Oxisols and you manage your organic matter (residues, manure, compost, etc.) well, you don’t need biochar. It won’t do anything for your fertility.’

Second, a ‘situation in which biochar could provide benefits is on very sandy soils in arid climates, because of its ability to improve such soils’ water-holding capacity, reducing drought stress on plants. But making biochar requires large quantities of bulk plant material, and the biochar factory needs to be close to the source of that material; therefore, the product would have to be manufactured in or around highly productive lands or on vast areas of unproductive lands, and then be hauled long distances to the arid environments where it’s to be applied.’ Not only is the available quantity of crop residue per acre too small, but to haul residues off of cropland to a biochar plant would be to further rob the soil of organic matter, while paying a price in energy and other resources as well. After all that, some ‘studies that found yield increases with such heavy application found that after a few years, soil carbon was no higher in biochar-treated plots than in control plots.’

Biochar has been under discussion for years! When you are doing your own questing about it online, look for current posts and research. Note whether the post is on a commercial site, a university, posted by a farmer, if the poster is knowledgeable, what their credentials are or aren’t, if they have experience. Remember that universities make money from research grants on popular topics and sometimes the donation is made by a company. Go to permaculture sites for a look at possible long term possibilities, concerns. Look for pros and cons.

In 2018, the agriculture application segment accounted for 71.1% of the total biochar demand. That makes sense because they have the biggest land holdings. [But it also means 28.9% is used by others, including home gardeners! That’s a big % considering the sizes of their small gardens!] Quoted from a Biochar fan, he says ‘However, a large number of farmers still lack in knowledge about the product and its benefits.’ My question back to him was ‘Do you know what % of farmers use biochar?’

Amendment BioChar and Compost + Manure Yields Great Results!

Some say Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

When would you, a home veggie gardener, use biochar?

First, are wood ash and biochar the same thing? Yes and no. Biochar is made at 450 °C/842 degrees F with low oxygen and wood ash is made at 870 °C from the same mixed hardwood. What about BBQ charcoal? Not the same thing as wood ash or biochar! Not recommended for garden use.

How do you even know if you need Biochar? Was there a forest fire ever there and you already have it? They say biochar comes from such fires and lasts 100 to 1000 years, or 10 to 100 depending on where you read… That translates to the question whether Biochar is considered to be stable or not and under what circumstances.

Have you been applying wood ash from your fireplace regularly? Some gardeners say Yes, used it for years, readily absorbed, amazing crops! Great substitute for lime to raise pH. Others say it’s grey death. It has a high pH that throws off the balance of your compost/soil, can kill off the microbes that are producing your compost. Poster Mr Bill says: ‘Charcoal chemically functions like a sponge, absorbing many organic compounds. When placed in nutrient rich soil, it absorbs the excess nutrients and traps them in the soil. As the carbon in the charcoal is annexed by fungal colonies, those nutrients are released over time. By tying these nutrients up in the soil with charcoal, they resist erosion and release at regular intervals, rather than the feast or famine spikes in levels that occur with manual fertilization by humans.

However, ‘…added to poor soil, or soil deficient in even one nutrient (which may not be obvious), the charcoal’s sponge-like absorption can compete with the roots of plants for the nutrients, leading to increased disease susceptibility or irregular growth hazardous to the plant.’ So it’s good with good soil, bad with deficient soil.

Lord knows even a 10X20′ community garden plot has varying soil content within the plot for many reasons. In my case, I trench in kitchen waste given to me by neighbors. One eats lots of bananas, hence peels. One is a super juicer, greens, carrots, etc. + lettuce and avocado. Another is a senior tea drinker, so little bags along with old snacking grapes, a few eggshells, a bit of coffee and citrus peels, etc. I get them when they have enough. They put them in a bucket outside my door. I take them to the garden and trench them in where compost is needed most. Sometimes a certain kind of plant never thrives in one area no matter what I do. It would take a lot of soil testing to sort out these small areas. I do my own remediation by adding store bought fluffy compost, and chicken manure in general. Most of the time it works fine.

FYI! If you are using or opt to use wood ash as an amendment, DO NOT mix the wood ash with nitrogen fertilizer; a reaction can occur releasing ammonia gas.

Be careful with your choice to use biochar. Is your garden flourishing because it is high on temporary soil amendments that will be spent this season? Is one area doing great, another adjacent area not doing so well; great for one plant but not another? Does your summer or winter garden do well and the other season doesn’t? Plus, all Biochar is not created equal. Its pH and ash content vary depending on the temp it was created at and the feedstock (what was burned) used, whether that was contaminated or not. In general Biochar raises soil pH. You need to use the right amounts. In a community garden 10X20′ plot, where the soil pH varies within the plot, you don’t have room to test/experiment. The increase in soil pH with alkaline biochar will be higher in acid soils than in originally alkaline soils. However! If a biochar has less ash content it will decrease soil pH because of the organic matter content.

Clearly, fireplace ash that is added every season or spring, doesn’t function the same as biochar that lasts 100 to 1000 years. It is either used up or leached away by watering, otherwise, your garden would have the highest pH in history! If biochar can’t be removed from your soil, and lasts for 100 to 1000 years, and your soil is unfavorably balanced, you may need to adjust your soil for a long time. Ironically, it works best where you already have a super flourishing garden!

Note, the type of fire makes another difference. There is increased growth after a forest fire, but slash and burn techniques have a long term bad effect in just a few years. Definitely not sustainable. Wildfires get much hotter, average over 1600°F, than farmer-made controlled burn fires kept under 1000°F to clear a field. Wood burns differently at different temps; the coals have a different structure. Forest fires burn hot at the center with low oxygen and you get Biochar. Big difference. All fires are not equal.

Mr Bill made a convenient list for us home gardeners!

• Use on rich soil with no deficiencies
• Use to correct acidic soils, or amend the pH of the char before application
• Never use on acid loving plants like blueberries [strawberries, celery, beans]
• Add to compost after composting has finished, not during composting. The recommendation for application is about ½ cup per cubic foot of finished compost. [That’s not a lot!]
• Use in moderation
• Never use char from pressure-treated or painted wood.
• Don’t use petroleum based fire starters or fluids if you intend to use the ash.
• Fires started with alcohol or non-paraffin wax are acceptable for garden use.
• Be mindful of your nutrient levels and pH when using char, test regularly for best results.
• Not all char is equal, refuse from wood gasifiers or efficient wood stoves is preferable to that from your campfire, fireplace or grill, but all are acceptable for use given the correct use of your discretion.

Making Your Own Biochar Amendment in Place!

HOW to MAKE OUR OWN BIOCHAR?! 

Though it’s been many years since the Biochar cure has been offered and raved about, using biochar on a mass basis has not been implemented to an extent that is making a planet wide difference. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use it individually. The simplest way to do it is right where you will use it, just like the Amazon Indians did 2000 years ago.

First check your legal situation before you go for it! Per the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District where I live: A burn permit is required for all outdoor burning activity except recreational (campfires) and cooking (BBQ). This includes: Agricultural Burning (see definition) … Residential backyard burning (permitted only in the unincorporated areas of the Santa Ynez Valley)

Highly flammable gases are released during pyrolysis, so make it outside, well away from buildings, animals and people!

Barbara Pleasant, famed author of 5 garden books, throws in her two cents! ‘Last year, I committed one of the great sins of gardening: I let weeds go to seed. Cleaning up in fall, I faced down a ton of seed-bearing foxtail, burdock and crabgrass. Sure, I could compost it hot to steam the weed seeds to death, but instead I decided to try something different. I dug a ditch, added the weeds and lots of woody prunings, and burned it, thus making biochar. It was my new way to improve soil—except the technique is at least 3,000 years old.’

Barbara words the process more simply… What’s biochar? Basically, it’s organic matter that is burned slowly, with a restricted flow of oxygen, and then the fire is stopped when the material reaches the charcoal stage. Unlike tiny tidbits of ash, coarse lumps of charcoal are full of crevices and holes, which help them serve as life rafts to soil microorganisms. The carbon compounds in charcoal form loose chemical bonds with soluble plant nutrients so they are not as readily washed away by rain and irrigation. Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

She speaks of the Amazonian ‘dark earths,’ terra preta, that ‘hold plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. Even after 500 years of tropical temperatures and rainfall that averages 80 inches a year, the dark earths remain remarkably fertile…’ They were produced this very way, burning. …composts and other soil-enriching forms of organic matter last longer. …increased productivity by making nutrients already present in the soil better available to plants. …organically enriched soil retains nutrients for decades rather than for a couple of seasons. This charcoal releases its carbon 10 to 100 times slower than rotting organic matter. See the details  See Twin Oaks Forge for making charcoal in a barrel!

Why buy commercial Biochar? 

Jeremy Menefee says, first, because they use more advanced tools and techniques than the home producer can easily acquire, commercially-produced biochar is usually more consistent in composition and charred under ideal temperatures.

Second, they are able to produce inoculant tailored to specific uses. Vermont Biochar, for example, produces (by hand) several versions ideally suited for either leafy annuals, root crops, or shrub or woody perennials. Each uses a different composition of inoculant to tailor it for the specific application.

Experienced permaculturist Jeremy also says to Biocharge your Biochar! Even commercial biochar producers say their products benefit from being biocharged again once it’s on your property, to tailor it to your site conditions. Here are two easy methods he recommends.

1) Compost charging Even if you buy inoculated biochar, rather than producing it on-site, it will be improved by maturing in your compost. You can use as much biochar as you want, up to about an even 1:1 ratio with the compost, so don’t worry too much about overdoing it. The Biochar doesn’t break down in the process. You may have shorter compost times! Some experts recommend adding both manure and bones.

Quick tip: If you have time, a great way to get the most out of your biochar is to spread it an inch thick or less into your farm animal bedding. Then, when the bedding is spent, add it to the compost pile. [LOL Black Sheep?!] The biochar is essentially ‘double-charged’ in this way. Also, in addition to stacking functions of your animal bedding, this can help reduce odors. Anecdotal evidence suggests it can also reduce illness among your animals!

2) Rapid Charging! The other way to inoculate your biochar is a bit more labor-intensive, but you can complete the process in hours or days, not months. First, fill a 55 gallon (210 litre) drum with fresh water and biochar. If you are using municipal treated water, let it sit for a couple days to remove any chlorine. Then add compost tea or worm castings and leachate to the barrel with some soil from the area where you will use the finished biochar. For example, if you are going to apply the biochar to your fruit orchard, add some soil from around a robust and healthy tree in that orchard. This will help charge the biochar with the ideal microbiology for your specific orchard.

Once everything is well mixed, insert a long tube such as a length of PVC pipe into the barrel and direct air from a blower into the tube, or use a pond aerator and air stones. Aeration supercharges the inoculant and gives the beneficial microbes a massive head start, and helps them adhere to the biochar. Continue this for 12-24 hours.

Safety when applying Biochar amendmentBe careful when applying dry Biochar!

Wear a dust mask such as the 3M™ 8511 Particulate Respirator – N95 to protect your lungs. Moistening biochar can help a lot with dust control. Some Biochar is shipped with about 30% moisture content to help with dust control. Protective eyewear will reduce the chance of getting dust in your eyes. Wear gloves! Wear rubber boots that can be cleaned easily! Apply evenly on a dry, windless day. Mix thoroughly into the soil before planting.

How much do you apply? Doing it right depends on what kind of soil you have and it’s tested content, its pH, how much you want to raise the pH if at all. And, of course, none, if you don’t need it or your situation isn’t right for it!

There are different answers!

  • A company says: From everything we have seen in our own use and through the research of others a good “rule of thumb” is 10% of the planting area should be biochar. If your soil is absolutely horrible you should probably start with a 50/50 mix of biochar and compost and apply about 1/4 lb per square foot.
  • Typically home gardeners use 5-10% biochar in the top 6 inches of their soil.
  • A gardener says: If bought, follow the instructions on the bags, but I would suggest 50/50 with soil and the same for containers, and see your results the first season before you adjust quantities.
  • Farmer Jeremy Menefee says: It takes about 10 pounds of biochar to properly cover 100 square feet. For potted plants, use pure biochar at a ratio of about 1:16 with your potting soil – about ½ cup per gallon of soil. This ratio is good for raised beds as well, one gallon of biochar per 16 gallons of soil. If you inoculated your biochar in compost (at ratios up to 1:1), just apply compost as normal – the presence of biochar doesn’t change the amount of compost used.

How to apply? Simple!

  1. Made your own in place? Just add amendments of your choice, especially compost, and till it in.
  2. Purchased, preferably inoculated? Lay on about 1/4″, amendments and till it in. If you don’t have much, spread it out and add more each time you amend.
  3. If you’re not able to till, spread out your inoculated Biochar, cover with mulch to hold it in place, let Nature do the work for you.

Coast of Maine Biochar Amendment raised bed mix

Biochar IS big business. There is university research devoted to it for sustainable reasons. They make huge grant monies from it. Yale and Cornell, Ames Iowa, Delaware, Missouri, North Dakota, Rice U in Houston Tx to name just a few schools. Government is in on it too, for example the USDA’s Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans. There are subsequent conferences, magazines, books, products at your nursery.

USBI Biochar 2019 – is the largest event in North America dedicated to advancing the sustainable production and use of biochar through scientific and engineering research, policy development, field practice, and technology transfer. It will focus on bridging scientific, industrial, practitioner, and policy gaps in biomass utilization for biochar and bioenergy production. June 30 – July 3 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins Colorado.

BIOMASS Magazine – Beyond the Hype

Check out the BioChar Journal …we want our readers to be confident that what is written in the Biochar Journal is based on sound science and practicality.

Local gardeners might see various products at their nursery. A blend in snowy Maine might be quite different than in SW SoCal droughty areas. Before you order up online, take this into consideration. When buying locally, look on the package to see where it was made, then check out those ingredients. The bag shown here is definitely intended as a pH raiser; it has biochar and lime!

For those of us gardening at community gardens, we need to think of what the next gardener’s soil needs might be after you leave. What if they primarily want to plant acid loving plants, those blueberries, strawberries, celery or beans? In keeping with rotating crops, planting in a different place each year, to avoid soil diseases various plants are susceptible to, we may need to stay flexible – amend each season or year with regular or acidic compost per patch as we go.

If you have a good size parcel of land for veg gardening, that you plan to keep for many years, soil test different areas. You might coordinate your Biochar choices with the land’s own natural flow, plant accordingly. Some sites say it takes about a year for the Biochar/soil relationship to be fully established. If you are planting in raised beds/containers, where soil is leached of nutrients due to higher soil temps, drying, in those structures and frequent watering to compensate, replacing spent soil/compost each year, Biochar isn’t going to work for you.

Making your own Biochar is cheap, but a lengthy process you hope you do right. Probably wise to have someone experienced with you when you do your first processes. First there is gathering the right materials, selecting the right place and technique for the kind of results you want, doing the burning. Then there is the biocharging process for it to do its best work. Buying Biochar can be pricey if you get the best, inoculated. If you put it where it can be used to best advantage, that is worth the one-time expense.

Your final decision to use or not use Biochar may be based on your instinct. You may decide not to use it at your current location or in a specific area of your garden. You might move, or be visiting in another gardener’s location and feel it is the right choice for that place. Maybe you will decide to wait and see. Honor your feelings. You might not save the planet today, or maybe you will by using succinct educated choices.

Bless you for being a garden guardian, a caring Earth Steward.

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The Green Bean Connection newsletter started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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Design Your Beautiful Summer Garden!

Designing your garden is an intricate and intimate process depending on a lot of factors. It will ‘look’ like you as you are at the time of your life that you do it. Gardens are a form of autobiography. ~Sydney Eddison, Horticulture magazine, August/September 1993. If you plant from seed, designing your garden leads to making a pretty accurate seed list.

Some of your choices will be the same as what your family always did. Or, you may be a permaculture type doing a Food Forest guild system. There is no right way. You are you, your situation unique. You may be the same the rest of your life, only influenced by drought, deluge, seasons or climate change. You may be research oriented and enjoy trying out new plants and practices from across the world, allowing volunteers the birds bring to grow. You might decide to leave an untouched wild area in the name of freedom or magic, or rest a section of your garden each winter! Or plant it to a green manure cover crop or incorporate living mulch!

Choose a sunny place with easy access to water! Bioswales may be part of your water capture plan. In SoCal consider a centuries old technique, a water saving Waffle GardenGreywater distribution location may determine where fruit and nut trees will be planted. Then how will their mature shade affect the rest of your garden? Use dwarfs?

Garden Design Slope HillsideMake your garden a shape that flows with the area, whether that be simply the space available, or contoured to the land. Use slopes and hillsides! (Image by Arterra LLP Landscape Architects) Grow permeable windbreak shrubs to slow wind. If you don’t have outdoor space, but do have a sunny doorstep or balcony, put those containers to work!

Layouts can be any design you want! Circles with cross points, spokes, concentric, spiral! Squares like a formal British royal garden. Wild like a cottage garden or food forest garden guild. Beds in blocks. Straw bales wherever you can put them! Terraced on a slope! S curves along an existing path interspersed with ornamentals! Maybe you would like to add a greenhouse this year, or you need a shed and convenient workspace.

Put in pathways – straw bedding, boards, gravel, pallets, living mulch, as suits the spirit of the location, are safe and make you happy to be there!

Where is the summer and winter sun path in the sky? Where will you plant tall to short? Generally it’s tall in the North to short in the South. A full 6 to 8 hours of sun is best for almost all veggies. You can do shade, but it’s slower and fruits are not as big or plentiful. If so, choose varieties of plants that like cooler weather.

If you choose to make your own compost, select an easy access area for composting, near the kitchen, if you will be using it on an ongoing basis. Plant compost speeding herbs like comfrey or yarrow right next to it. They like a lot of water and your compost needs to be kept moist, so near a spigot is good thinking. Plant pretty calendula – summer or borage – winter to hide it and bring bees and butterflies! If you use straw layers, leave space beside your composter or compost area for a bale staked in place on its end.  See more

Also choose an area, maybe near the compost, for your worm box if you will be growing them for their valuable castings. Mine are in full sun all year and produce like crazy. See more

Decide if you want to do a no dig Lasagna type bed or your soil is fine and you can just get to planting right now! But first, either way, install gopher protection wire!

The nitty gritties are deciding what plants you want, how much space they take up per the return you hope for. 

What plants do you want? Will you judge by nutritional value first, return per square foot? Will you really eat it or has your family just always grown it? Will you be biodiversely companion planting or monoculture row planting?

Think about your choices for permanent residents! Plant perennial herbs by the kitchen door, at corner points or gates. The perennial Dragon Fruit along the fence. An amazing chayote needs tons of room. Artichokes are big, and grow 10 years! Set aside an all year area for flowering plants for bees, beneficials, butterflies and birds! See Stripes of Wildflowers!

In summer, where will biggies like that Winter Hubbard Squash, pumpkin, squash or melon, artichoke, sweet potatoes fit or is there really enough space for them per their production footprint? Sweet potatoes want a lot of water. Do you need them to cover space while you take a break from other planting?

Will you be planting successive rounds of favorites throughout the season? If you plant an understory of fillers – lettuces, table onions, radish, beets, carrots, etc – you won’t need separate space for them. If you trellis, use yard side fences, grow vertical in cages, you will need less space. See Vertical Gardening, a Natural Urban Choice! If you plant in zig zags, rather than in a straight line, you can usually get one more plant in the allotted space.

Are you growing for food or seed or both? Waiting for plants to flower to seed takes time, and the space it takes is unavailable for awhile. But bees, beneficial predator insects, butterflies and birds come. And you will have seeds adapted to your area for next year’s planting, plus extras to share, perhaps take to the Seed Swap!

Would be lovely to put in a comfy chair to watch the garden grow, see birds, listen to the breeze in the leaves. Or read a bit and snooze in the hammock.

Social at Davie Village Community Garden in Vancouver's West EndInstall a summer social area, table, chairs, umbrella. Have candlelight salads in the garden with friends. This is at Davie Village Community Garden in Vancouver’s West End.

Plant sizes, time to maturity  There are early, dwarfs, container plants that produce when they are smaller, have smaller fruits. There are long growing biggies that demand their space, over grow and outgrow their neighbors! Maybe you don’t need huge, but just enough for just you since it’s only you in your household. Or it’s not a favorite, but you do like a taste! The time it takes to mature for harvest depends on weather, your soil, watering practices, whether you feed it or not along the way. The size depends on you and the weather also, but mainly on the variety you choose. You can plant smaller varieties at the same time you plant longer maturing larger fruiting varieties for a steady table supply. How long it takes to maturity, and the footprint size of your mature plant is critical to designing your garden, making it all fit.

Vertical and Horizontal Spacing!

  • Vertical Space – More plants per square foot!
    • One method is to double trellis up! Cucumbers below beans!
    • The other is to plant in ‘layers!’ Plant an understory of ‘littles’ and fillers below larger taller plants ie Lettuce under Broccoli. The lettuce does double duty – food and as living mulch!
  • Horizontal Space – Give them room to thrive at MATURE SIZE!
    • Pests and diseases go right down the row of plants of the same kind, especially when they touch each other. You may lose them all ~ better is Biodiversity. Interplant with pest repelling, growth enhancing and edible companion plants! Alternate varieties of the same kinds plants.
    • More is not always better. Plants too closely transplanted, seeded/not thinned, get rootbound. That squeezes oxygen from the soil, prevents or dramatically reduces water uptake for plants in the center. Plants can’t take up nutrients without water. That lessens growth and production since your plants are literally starving. In crowded conditions feeding your plants doesn’t help. Weakened plants are more disease and pest susceptible. Give them room to breathe and live to their full glory! Only ONE healthy plant may produce more than an entire row of stunted plants.
    • On the other hand, do as many have always done, deliberately overplant then thin for delicious mini salad greens!

Look up each of your plant choices. Make a list – name, variety, days to maturity, mature spacing. The mature spacing gives a good indication how tall your plant might get and if it will shade out other plants. If you put your list on your computer you can click on the column to reorganize the list per footprint space/height or days to maturity.

Your purpose may be for your and your family’s daily food, as a chef for your clients, for a Food Bank. Fruit and nut trees may be part of your long term plan.

Now that we know how much space you have and your purpose for growing each plant, we can estimate how many plants of each you need, how many seeds you will need if you plant from seeds. Know that Mama Nature has her own schedule – lots of rain, no rain. Wind. Hail. Heat. Birds love picking seeds or tiny seedlings you planted and snails/slugs are perpetually hungry. We won’t speak about gophers. Add to your number of seeds to account for surprises, gardener error, low germination if the seeds are old. Get enough for succession plantings.

If you are a SoCal gardener, you may plant several times over a season. In summer plant bush bean varieties and determinate tomatoes for soonest table supply and to harvest all at once for canning. If you want a steady table supply all season long, also plant pole bean varieties and indeterminate tomatoes. If you have a Northern short season summer window, you may choose cold tolerant early bush and determinate varieties for quicker intense production. In SoCal ‘winter,’ plant bush and pole peas at the same time for early peas then a longer harvest of the pole peas!

Take into account the number of people you are feeding and their favorites!

Graph paper, sketches, a few notes jotted on the back of an envelope, in your head. It all works and is great fun! If you sketch it, keep that sketch to make end-of-season notes on for next year’s planning!

Here’s to many a glorious nutritious feast – homegrown organic, fresh and super tasty!

See also some of the bigger long term choices planning your garden.

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara’s community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are often in a fog belt/marine layer most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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Pests Gopher Wire Installation Rancheria Community Garden

Epic installation of Gopher prevention wire in progress, 10X20′ plot, going well. Another 3′ was cleared today and the wire rolled out further, more soil backfilled. 11.25.17 Rancheria Community Garden

Gophers are quite the pest. 3 helpful ideas!

Everyone installs gopher wire protection their own way per their needs, budget, personal ability, time they have, inclinations! The images show just one person’s way of doing it. Yes, it’s work, but so worth it!

When should you install gopher wire protection? Anytime! But if you are waiting for seasonal crops to finish, in SoCal, it’s fall before winter plantings, or very early spring before you get itchy and can’t wait to plant! If you are in rainy areas, do it when the soil is less wet and heavy and you will do the least damage to your soil structure. If you are in northern snow and soil freeze areas, do it when you can first work the soil, or just before winter sets in and the soil is too hard to work any longer. Same for desert areas, but go by the heat not the freeze. Spring for the desert starts in the fall when it is cooler. By actual spring, it gets too hot and there is no more planting until fall again, so do it before the heat sets in.

1) If you decide to use wire barriers, you could do small areas at a time as they become available. You could purchase, or make, wire ‘baskets,’ very small to quite large, for areas that you want to plant gopher favorites like lettuce, beans, cukes, chard – soft bodied plants. My other thought is to install a border of wire vertically to see if that works, rather than digging up the whole plot and laying wire underneath. I’ve seen two places where people installed these boundaries and the gopher piled soil outside their plot where the barrier stopped them. They didn’t go underneath it.

But, there are times that just doesn’t work and though it takes time and help from the Angels, wiring the whole area underneath and perimeter, is the wise real choice. If you are going to do that, remember, aviary wire lasts about 3 years. 1/2″ Hardware cloth/hog wire lasts about 10 years. Big difference. Builder supply yards often carry several wire roll widths and they will cut just the length you need. When measuring, decide on the length/width you need, plus the amount you will need to get up the sides and maybe 6″ more so overland gopher travelers don’t come in over the top. Remember AVIARY wire. NOT chicken wire! Gophers go right through the chicken wire…

The depth you choose depends on what plants you choose and the relationship between you and your shovel! Veggies are primarily annuals with roots 6 to 8″ deep. Tomatoes have long deep roots. Also, if you are vigorous with your shovel, the average shovel blade length is 10″, install your wire deeply enough that when you are amending your soil you don’t puncture your wire! Gophers are strong little earth movers and can push through such a break. NO, NO, NO! The last time I installed wire I laid it 16″ deep – beyond my average digging depth, and well beyond where annual roots live.

That super tiny animal strength is why you bind your lengths of side by side rolls of wire together, if you are using several widths, and overlap them a good 8″ or more. Be sure to fix it to the board that borders your planting area.  Especially if you are only going to board height, not having some of the wire extend above the board.

Word to the wise. Install your wire so it surfaces OUTSIDE the boards framing the area.. That way weeds that get tangled in it will be outside your planting area!

Yes, hardware cloth is hard to work with. It’s hard to get it to corner. I sat down in the bottom of the area and shoved and kicked it into place with my boots! It’s easier if there are two people. When you roll up your wire, if you are doing a lengthy area, tie the inner loops of the wire together at the edges. Otherwise, the moment you let go of the roll, the whole things sprongs out and unrolls itself! That’s worth a few strong words ’cause it was hard enough to roll it up in the first place!

But let me tell you, every bit of the time and energy it takes will make you a very happy gardener. I’ve seen grown humans, women and men, cry at losing a wonderful special plant they tenderly raised from a baby. Once your wire is installed, heartily congratulate yourself!

Pests Gopher Wire Installation neary completed - Rancheria Community Garden

All soil now to the right. It took 12 days to get to this point, 10X20′ plot. I was so tired. This image shows how the side wire that was folded in, unfolded as the wire was rolled out. You can see the dark spot where a gopher had previously tunneled along the perimeter trying to get in. 12.2.17 Rancheria Community Garden  

If it’s all you can do or afford, do baskets! Easiest, if you have only a few plants, is to buy ready-made wire baskets. They come in lots of sizes! See Peaceful Valley Farm Supply’s selection! Several people at the Community Gardens have made varieties of custom sizes of wire baskets to fit exactly what they are planting. It’s easy to do!

2) If your soil is too hard to dig, too sandy or something, you want to grow veggies where your lawn is, you want to avoid soil fungi issues, or your back or knees can’t get down to the ground like they used to, use raised bed boxes with wire stapled to the bottom! In the case of the lawn, maybe lay down plywood cut to fit to extend beyond the box base, so you don’t have to deal with grass getting into your new raised bed. Nice thing about this option is you can take the boxes with you if you move, you can move them around, or you can give them to someone when you no longer need them. Easy to empty and transport. Yes, boxes and wire degrade over time and will eventually need repairs or replacement. If you anticipate moving, build with light wood. If you are in a permanent location, spend a little more. Go for weight, insect and rot resistance, durability.

3) If you want to use traps (UC IPM), get someone to show you how to use them. There are a few tips that you learn with experience. And, really, they are dangerous, so respect them completely. Best choice is to set them when other people are around to help you in case of a bad oops. Trap soonest because gophers have children. Otherwise they are a very temporary solution.

One of the tips I would give, is trap immediately if you decide to trap. I have caught them in 20 minutes, while I was working in the plot! You can hear the trap snap. That means no more plants are eaten or damaged, at least by that gopher! Otherwise, they just mow plant after plant.

At the community garden, essentially the gophers know you. No need to worry about your scent on the traps. Nor do you need ‘bait.’ The gophers come to plug the hole because air is coming into their tunnel, and as far as they are concerned that shouldn’t be, so they come to fix it.

The cheaper little Macabee wire traps, not the large ‘black hole’ tunnel kind, need much smaller holes to insert. That’s less damage to existing plants, less need to remove any plants to make room for the traps. But the big traps might have a better success rate with smaller gophers. Gopher Hawks work well. All kinds of traps are dangerous to humans – DO NOT SET THEM UNTIL THE HOLE IS READY FOR YOU TO INSTALL THEM. Do not leave them lying about once they are set.  Not a project to do with children about. Cover the holes with boards and put heavy rocks/stepping stones on top so visiting kitties, doggies or toddlers don’t get into them and be hurt.

Many gardeners could never use traps. I understand. Gophers are beautiful little beings. Wire barriers are 100% humane.

4) You can use a combination of the 3 ideas above.

Beeper repellent stakes  Battery operated is expensive – price it out, you’ll see, or do the recharge dance. Solar beepers on sale are better and they last 2, 3 years. They work best in ‘open’ areas where the sound can carry, like lawns. If you put one in an area planted with tall dense plants, it won’t do much good. But if those plants are special and you want them protected, that works. Be sure the solar panel gets a lot of sun, doesn’t get shaded by your plant growing over it. If it is shaded, it fades to no beeping. Underground critters depend on hearing and vibration to alert them to danger, so take careful notice of the radius the beeper says it will cover per the area you need to work for. Heavier soils such as clay are superior transmitters of sound and vibrations than are sandier soils, so our loose garden soil isn’t going to get great mileage.

PLEASE don’t use rodenticides that in turn kill birds, pets, or animals that would feed on a poisoned animal. We want the owls, hawks and kitties to catch the gophers. We don’t want our pets or children to be poisoned.

Some gardeners say they plant enough for the birds, the insects, gophers too, but in a 10X20′ community garden plot, or a small space at home, you may not have enough space to satisfy that option. Nor is it kind to other gardeners, neighbors, who don’t choose that option. Gophers have children, and in time that option may not be feasible unless you have several kitties, owls, hawks or egrets to keep the balance. Build or buy and install an owl nest box!

Owls are chancy, whereas wire barriers are 100% barring the rare overland traveling gopher. But this natural method might be your choice depending on your location. Sutton Ag: ‘In Northern and Central California, Barn Owls begin selecting nesting sites in December or January in time for the February to May nesting season.  Occasionally new nests may be started as late as March but that’s getting late as peak hatches are in April. By July, most nest boxes have been vacated by the young who have flown to nearby trees or buildings for the final stages of their development. It is best to install the new Barn Owl Box before January, February at the latest.‘ Details at Sutton Ag, Salinas CA!

Very funny, sometimes touching, dialogue at this Houzz thread! The more I read, the more I laughed, and I must say some tears came to my eyes too. I had great empathy with many of the writers, real people with their various experiences! Worth the read.

So your decision is based on who you are. Be true to your heart. It depends on your budget, the time of year. Your strength. Get help if you need it. It can be a big project. Very virtuous. No more cursing or crying.

Updated 7.29.18, 7.31.19

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic! Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara’s community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are often in a fog belt/marine layer most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is.

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Senior woman harvesting tomatoes in her garden

Why quit now?! Have a feisty life! Here are some tips that may renew or ignite your passion! If you have a senior in your life and think gardening might be a good part of their lives, read on for some ideas!

Or maybe you have never gardened before! I didn’t start veggie gardening until I was 57! I knew nothing. Never had houseplants…they died if I tried. But it became my time! I learned fast listening to community garden seniors who had gardened all their lives, and seeing 30+ other community gardener’s successes and failures opened my eyes! I intensely scoured the Internet and I asked questions at my local nurseries and every once in awhile at our Cooperative Extension office!

Gardening is one of the most healthy things you can do for yourself! Having gardened in a community garden that is next to a senior community, and becoming a wee bit older myself, I have seen the advantages to senior gardeners first hand!

Get outdoors and get that Vitamin Sunshine! You can eat 100% organic fresh vegetables and fruits! You get excited by a seedling bursting to life, and that seedling’s growth every day. You get invested in its wellbeing. And it’s fun! You learn more things and your mind stays sharp!

Friends! One way or another you get talking with others, making new friends and improving your outlook on life! If you garden with others, there is delightful camaraderie and a wealth of sharing! See if your area has any gardening clubs. If not, start one yourself!

May I introduce the Four Counties Gardening Club of Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties of the state of Pennsylvania celebrating their 95th anniversary in 2017! Imagine the years of enjoyment that have been shared!

Garden Club Four Counties Pennsylvania 95 Yrs 2017

Right now, this spring, get out and start your garden! If you have never done before, you are in for a treat. Your plants don’t care how old you are, they just want some TLC! You will learn as they grow.

Be comfortable!

Choose some great garden shoes or mud boots.

Maybe you haven’t been getting out because you chill down easily. Check out the thrift shop or discount store for a snuggly work shirt, sweater or jacket. Wear layers. Take a thermos of a hot drink you like.

Too hot? Go a little earlier if possible. Take a cool drink with you and stay hydrated. Get a pretty sun hat and cool shades and you be stylin’!

Work easy! Lightweight wheelbarrows, tools and smaller watering cans can help a lot. Rather than working until you can’t, do a bit each day. Select a smaller patch to work. Go for quality.

Be happy! Have a smaller garden space that doesn’t overwork you, you leave feeling great! A lot can happen in a small space. Even a small space can do wonders! Get your plants up in cages and on trellises! Plant small plants, littles, on the sunny side below larger plants. Remove the larger plant’s lower leaves if they shade out the littles. No need for rows. Plant around, among or along the larger plants!

Nor do you need to garden all year. Some gardeners prefer cooler weather, so refreshing it perks you right up! Others love the hot sun, no heavy clothing, so relaxing. If you are in a northern single season area, you garden with vigor, then rest over winter. Same for hot desert areas only in reverse! Coastal, especially SoCal, all year may be quite enjoyable. Do please yourself.

Easy access! If you can’t get down, or back up, then don’t! Have beds on legs or that you can stand or sit at. Containers up on strong secure waterproof bases work well. Either way, no gophers!

You could invest in a self-watering VegePod Garden! It is a fancy container type gismo up on legs with a protective hood that keeps bad insects and animals out and gives shade. You do need to open it when your plants need pollinating and to get more sun when the temps are right. You can order the stands with wheels so you can move them around with the sun! The largest one is 3’X6′. See more details at Fertile Fields! See if any of your local nurseries carry them and support your local nursery. In Santa Barbara area La Sumida carries them! I’ve seen a closely planted super successful one in action! It might take three years to break even with organic veggies, but there is no price for the joy of the gardening and superb health of being outdoors!

Raised Bed VegePod!

Smart choices

You don’t have to plant from seed unless you are used to it and like to. Nurseries take a lot of the worry out of life. Most of them have plants that do well locally at the right time of year. Chains and box stores are chancy. Transplants are easiest to do. Start with easy plants to care for. Plant part of the patch; save room for a second round of planting for a steady table supply. Even then, you may choose not to plant the entire area. Plants take tending and need harvesting. Do what works for you. Less may be an excellent choice.

Save time and energy. Choose efficient plants per square feet of production! Leafy chard and kales, and peas are cool weather winners. And you can plant a lot of beets in a small place – eat their greens and beets both! Summer squash, Zucchini grow enough for giveaways that are refused! Everyone else has too many too! Pole Beans keep making beans. Asian Suyo Long cucumbers grow so many so long so fast you can’t believe it! Lettuces are prodigious and Tomatoes light up our eyes! In addition grow one or two of your own super other favorites!

Container gardening is excellent! You can have as few or as many containers as works perfectly for you!

If you are gardening in the ground, do install gopher wire protection from the get go whether that is the bottom of a raised bed or a patch you dig up and install protective wire. If you are container gardening, no problem.

Teach the youngers the wisdom you have learned! It makes a huge difference to gardeners just getting started. It did to me. Years later now, I still remember them with respect and a little awe.

SAFETY ALWAYS

Get help with heavy lifting – bags of amendments.

Get help with any large scale digging that needs doing.

If you have any health jeopardy, share gardening with a friend or your family so you are not alone. Good health to you both, all of you! Gardens are healing places.

Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes!

To start your own Veggie Gardening Revolution all it takes is YOU & ONE SEED (or transplant)! May you garden with happy abandon!

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Mother’s Day is May 8, 2018! Here are some wonderful ideas for green and loving gifts! Get living gifts started now! Click here

The Green Bean Connection newsletter started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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Soil Building Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden Santa Barbara Peat Manure

Everybody makes soil their own way for different purposes at different times. At Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, Santa Barbara CA, this happy gardener is lowering his soil pH by adding peat and upping nutrition with manure.

Spring may be early again. If so, we need to be thinking of soil prep now. Perhaps layout a loose summer plan, or make notes for areas you really know what you will want there. If we have a hot summer again, your soil is going to need a lot of water holding capacity, and planting low for retaining water will make a big difference in water usage.

Soil care is for making fat plants and big harvests! We want nutrition, good texture that allows air flow and plenty of water holding capacity.

Clean Up First, free your soil of debris that may harbor pests or diseases. Remove old boards. Weed out neglected areas that may even shade out some areas. Thin out thick tree branches at the right time. Schedule it.

Cultivate! An age old technique to aerate soil, let it dry out, kill off soil fungi. It is also called, Dust Mulching. Simply cultivate about 2 or 3 inches deep. This disturbs the soil surface, interrupting the wicking of soil moisture from below to the surface and losing it to evaporation. Do it after rains or irrigating.

Compacted Soil If your soil is compacted, it needs lots of organic matter, composted plant and animal materials, to loosen it up. Or grow a green manure crop! Annual rye,  winter wheat or oats put down deep roots opening channels for airflow, compost or worm teas, liquid fertilizers and water to trickle down.

Resist working your soil when it is wet! That compacts it, making it difficult for plant roots to grow, and it drains more slowly. Grab a handful of soil and squeeze. If it stays in a ball, wait! Crumbly is what we want. As B. Rosie Lerner of Purdue Extension says, ‘…soothe that gardening itch by sketching garden plans, browsing online and mail-order catalogs, and making a shopping list for your local garden center.’

Bed Shapes

Raised Beds If we SoCal gardeners get El Nino rains, I’m recommending to make raised beds with berms, cover the berms with straw to prevent them from eroding. Leave the interior of the raised bed open to let winter sun heat up your soil. If you are planting in spring, raised beds heat up sooner. You can make them with or without walls. No permanent walls gives you complete flexibility of shape and location, and if you have too much rain, you can open a berm to release water. They are great for plants that need well drained soil. Make low spots or plant in trenches for plants that thrive on more water, like fast growing lettuces, chard. Short rooted plants, beans/peas, radish, beets, onions, strawberries, can be grown in mild trenches. Or, boards can be lain between rows to keep the soil moist underneath them. Space them per the need of your plant. Roots will seek the moisture under the boards. Overall, you will use less water. It’s a variation on pallet gardening.

In summer, if we have another hot one, lowered beds with thick berms will work well. Water will be held within the berms. In deep beds berms will act as mini wind breaks and well mulched beds will stay moist longer. See Zuni Waffle Gardens

Containers include some bordered raised beds and those pretty pots on your deck or balcony. If things are looking tired, replace that old spent stuff. Do your special soil for small containers per the type of plant you will grow there, being extra conscious of water holding capacity. If we have a hot summer, double pot adding insulation between the pots so the inner pot soil keeps cooler, more moist.

Pathways Healthy soil is about 25 percent air! Rather than compacting, crushing the air and life out of your soil, lay down something dry that feeds the soil, like leaves, straw, then top that with something like a board to distribute your weight. Do boards harbor slugs? Yes, but as you put down something like Sluggo (SLUGGO is 1% Iron Phosphate (FePO₄) in a yeast/noodle base, non toxic to all non mollusks, certified organic and extremely effective if used as directed. (Thanks, William!)), two or three times to kill off the generations, those go away too when they come out for their midnight snacks. Some gardeners use stepping stones and put kitchen trim into the soil under the straw. Next season they move the path over and plant in the old path, now rich soil!

Green Manure is a natural wonder mimicking Nature! During the seasons, leaves are dropped, animals come by and fertilize, things grow and die, laying in place giving their bodies to next year’s seedlings. Well, we are choosing that option. Legumes are a natural choice since they pull N (Nitrogen) out of the air and deposit it in nodules on their roots. N is the main food your plants need for prime growth. Legumes often chosen are Bell Beans (a small type of Fava), Austrian Peas and Vetch. Oats are a favorite of dry farmers because the oat roots go deep opening the soil for air and water flow letting nutrients drain down! When the beans start to flower, cut the patch down, chop everything up into small bits, turn them under. Wait 2 to 3 weeks, until you can’t see the bits anymore, then plant!

Composting

In Nature, organic matter, our equivalent is compost, only makes up a small fraction of the soil (normally 5 to 10 percent), yet organic matter is absolutely essential. There is various thinking about what the right amount of compost is to use in a garden. Cornell University says use 3 inches over the surface worked into the top 3-6 inches of soil! Research shows ideal soil contains 5% organic matter by weight, 10% by volume.

Using the Method of your Choice! There are hot and cold composting methods, hot is faster. Making your own compost means you know what’s in it! The easiest of all composting, hands down, is composting in place, an age old method, but in recent years called Lasagna gardening. Whether you are doing hot or cold composting or composting in place, the principles are the same: put down brown/dry layers, your green/wet layers on top. Two brown to one green. The thinner the layers, the smaller the chop, the faster the result. Add Yarrow or Comfrey leave to make it go even faster! When composting in place put the layers right where you want your garden to be! If it isn’t ready in time, get some store bought compost, pull back a planting hole, plant! The rest of the garden will catch up! If you have worms, throw some on so they can help!

Hugelkultur, hill mound, is a long term sustainable variation of ‘composting’ in place. After the 2nd year the beds don’t need water, and the system will last up to 10 years! It can be above and/or below ground and takes a lot more energy to start but what a payoff! Get some big logs, branches. If you are doing it above ground, lay two logs closely side by side, put a lot of bigger to smaller branches between them, then go for it! Add leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, petroleum-free newspaper, manure, compost or whatever other biomass you have available. Add some red wriggler casting worms if you have them. As possible add your materials in thin 1/2 to 1″ layers, dry, wet, dry, wet until the area is filled. Lay a third log on top of them and if you have sod you peeled up, lay it on top of the whole pile upside down and do it again! Top the turf with grass clippings, seaweed, compost, aged manure, straw, green leaves, mulch, etc. Top that with soil and plant your veggies! If you did it right, you end up with a steep sided tall pyramid pile and veggies planted at easy picking heights. See a LOT more and example variations at permaculture, practical solutions for self-reliance.

Purchase No shame in purchasing compost. It saves a lot of time and is sometimes better than you could make! Buy the best you can afford, with as many tasty items listed as possible. We do want to see worm castings and mycorrhizal fungi in the mix! You can get some quite pricey magical sophisticated blends!

Acidic blends are for strawberries, and shade type landscaping plants. It’s quick and easy to change your soil pH by digging in a serious amount. Strawberries can be grown in the same soil as other veggies, but they get diseases and production is pitiful compared to magnificent strawberries grown in their right soil conditions.

Favorite Additional Amendments

Manures – Chicken, Cow/Steer, Bunny Poop, Horse – all add tons of N to your soil.

  • Bunny poop is supreme. It needs no composting, will not harm your plants in any way.
  • Horse often has salt. It needs to be well aged, from horses that ate pesticide free grass, free of insect spray used to keep flies off the manure.
  • Chicken manure used to be too HOT, but now, nursery chicken manure is a mixed bag literally. It is ‘diluted’ and safe to use right out of the bag. If friends are giving you chickie poop, know that it needs composting before you use it.
  • Steer manure can be cheap! But cow manure is better. The more you pay for specialty soil mixes at a nursery that carries them, the more you will find cow manure in that mix. Yes, you will pay more.

Worm Castings are referred to as Black Gold for good reason. They are not a food, but work with the hormones and immune systems of your plants. Just 10-40% of the total volume of the plant growth medium is all that is needed, 25% is optimum! You can certainly grow your own easily! Again, this means you know what they were fed. What goes in is what comes out. Feed ’em newspaper and that’s the kind of castings you will get. Feed them a healthy variety of kitchen trim and you will have serious quality castings!

Minerals are from rocks in nature. And are of all kinds from everywhere for every purpose! Chat about with experts, look online.

Coffee Grounds are free from local coffee shops,  and wonderful because they suppress fungal rots and wilts!! Our garden has wilts, so remember, coffee and cultivating! Grounds are more potent than they have a right to be! 0.5%, that’s 1/2 a %, or less is all that is needed or wanted! Be very careful with fresh grounds. They have mojo that can kill your plant or make your soil infertile!

Seasonal amendments are for upping bloom and fruiting! During flowering, we want lower nitrogen and higher phosphorous, that’s the P in NPK! Look for fertilizers higher in P, intended for flowering and fruiting. Know your guanos! Besides being expensive, bat and Seabird Guanos are not a quick fix; they take awhile to break down. Some say they are better applied as foliar teas, but still, the release time per Colorado University Extension is FOUR MONTHS even for powdered guano! Guanos vary hugely in NPK percents! Adding guanos high in P, Phosphorus, at planting time helps your plants continue to bloom LATE in the season! Jamaican bat is high P phosphorus (blooms) 1-10-0.2. But Mexican bat is high N (leaf growth, plant vigor) 10-2-1. Peruvian seabird is high in N and P (leaf and bloom) 10-10-2.

Soil Testing If you have some doubts, concerns about your soil pH, content or balance, you can get DIY soil testing kits or have a professional company do the job for you. They will want samples from several areas and that is wise. Soil can vary significantly in just a few feet!

Soil Building is the single-most important thing you can do for your garden.

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Garden Low Maintenance Wicker
Casual and comfy outdoor living/dining room. The owner says ‘…the wicker furniture in my garden was found —wearing a “free” sign— on the side of the road.’

I’ve been so serious about this due to the request of a friend, but I love how this gardener started her post: ‘The easiest way to keep vegetable gardening from being hard work is to pay someone else to do the work while you watch from the comfort of your air conditioning sipping on a cold beverage. (Well someone has to say it!) LOL’ And I have to laugh with her!

Whether you are super busy, as my friend is, or working, raising a family, doing dedicated community work, or are a senior taking it slower, or managing an estate, here are some helpful ideas to soothe your way.

As always, soil building is Number 1!

Start with a wide beeline path between your kitchen and the composter! Now that ‘beeline’ may be curvy, but make it the main pathway especially if your composting area is in a far corner. Consider putting your compost closer, centrally located, so you spend less time going to it, delivering compost from it. Add some solar lights for nighttime forays. Perhaps the composter can have a taller many flowered (for the bees) plant on the side to hide your compost area from view, but you know where that path leads. Make it sweet and easy to get there.

Make composting the simplest! Everyone has varying amounts of time and energy to compost. It can be a simple pile. Period. Just keep it moist.
  • If inclined, add a super simple divider like a piece of plywood jammed in the ground so you can turn the compost from one side to the other. That speeds up the process, aerates the pile. If you have compost type worms, throw in a handful and let them add precious castings to your pile. Decomposing will go faster.
  • If you love composting and like building, you can build a tidy 2 compartment setup.
  • Have one of those lightweight hard but thin rubber composters you can move about, enriching the soil at each spot you put it. Rather than spread the compost, plant right in it!
  • Save time and speed your compost by having a covered straw bale right next to your compost. If you don’t want it jutting out, break the bale in half, stack and cover or stand it on end between two hefty stakes, cover. Making compost is so easy. There will be no smells or flies if you layer. 1/2 Inch layers are ideal for fast decomposing, but do what you can. Every time you have non-seeding, disease free weeds or kitchen scraps (no meat – brings predators, no grain – brings mice & rats, little citrus – too acidic), lay it in, then cover it with a twice as thick layer of straw or dry brown waste (dry leaves) as the top layer. No smell, no flies, either!

Design makes a huge difference! And it all depends on how much space you have and how much time and energy YOU have! You want a veggie garden but the space is overwhelming?! Reduce the gardening space!

Garden Low Maintenance No Box Raised Bed The Gardener's Eden

  • As at The Gardener’s Eden, design your paths to be wide, almost as wide as this simple planting mound! Mounds are good in cool moist areas. Dug down beds, like Waffle Gardening, peripheral berms, are good for hot drought areas.
  • The purpose of wide deeply mulched pathways is to break up the space into smaller attractive patches. If your land is sloped, natural contour divisions may be obvious. The idea is to have less area to plant and tend. Same thing with the plant to camouflage your compost area. It takes up space you don’t have to repeatedly plant and repeatedly harvest. Three foot wide paths are fine! That gives you room to move your straw around to mulch under summer plantings, and to wheelbarrow in any bags of special amendments.

    And pathways become Black Gold! Deep straw is great in pathways. Dig down about 6″. You can lay down cardboard first to keep weeds at bay, water lightly, then lay on your straw, replenish as needed. It will be slippery at first, so be careful. If you want the path to become future garden space, omit the cardboard, keep adding straw as it flattens down. By the following summer, the straw will have decomposed, made rich soil. Move the path over one width, and plant in last year’s path!

  • Make a sweet little seating area that takes up more space you don’t have to plant ever again and is enjoyable to boot! It’s a one time job so you can watch your plants grow! Could be just for two, or for a few friends to join you upon occasion. A colorful folding adjustable tilt umbrella is lovely for summer shade. A tree stump table, a couple of comfy back supporting chairs, or bring over folding lawn chairs for summer night star watching! You can take them in during winter. Could be a clever way to ‘store’ another couple of straw bales, casual seating for kids. Do it your way. The simplest flooring is an attractive mulch. If you are a builder, put in a mini deck, squared or curvy as suits you and the space available.
  • Would you like a covered area for garden items storage? How about a little veggie processing table by the hose for processing plantings or your harvests? Maybe even a little greenhouse?! All these lovely amenities take up space you don’t have to garden but make gardening happy. Cleverness prevails!

Do these bits little by little. Might take a couple or three summers. All in good time.

There is no need to build raised beds. You can make them by building up certain areas, like in the image above, by composting in place, but no walls/box are needed! Save yourself and your time. And it gives you more flexible usage of your space. Your soil is actually richer and you save water since less watering is needed and less soil ingredients are drained away. Higher areas are good for plants that like drainage, like strawberries. Save water by scooping up raised mounds with a well on top for tomatoes, cukes, squashes. Put a stake in the center of the well so you can see where to water when your plant’s leaves get big.

Preparing your Beds! NO DEEP DIGGING NEEDED! Usually. Annuals, that’s most veggies, use only the top 6 to 8″ of soil! Adding compost, manures, worm castings, may or may not be needed at all. If the soil has been resting, maybe all you need to do is weed and plant. If the soil is dead and dried out, amendments are probably needed, especially compost, to increase water holding capacity. Start watering to soften the soil and make your work easy, take less time. Get top of the line compost with everything in it. If you can find it, get a manure mix, especially if it has cow, not steer, manure in it. Worm castings are for your plant’s hormones and immunity to pests and diseases. Add all your amendments at the same time; turn them in. No stepping on your new beds and crushing the air out of them! Soil organisms need air to breathe just like we do! Put in stepping stones as needed. Better yet, make beds so narrow you don’t need to step in them at all!

Use any existing fencing, walls, for trellises. Install some permanent trellises, wire guides or hang a remesh panel on eye hooks. One time job. Tie your tomatoes to the fence, run your beans/peas up the trellises. Remesh can also be circled into sturdy easy access tomato cages!

Trellis Cage Remesh

Weed mat? My 20X20 garden is so active that I don’t find weed mat to be helpful. I like to rotate and plant successively, and not in the exact same places. Plus, I do understory plantings of small plants on the sunny sides of larger plants and they are always coming and going. Better I like deeper mulching that feeds the soil. I just pull the mulch aside and plant when and where I feel to do.

Drip lines? Similar answer. In my Southern California garden plants come and go, not only seasonally, but again, as I plant successively and biodiversely, deliberately mixing it up! I water when my plants need it, as much as each needs it. I find being there hand watering makes me see what’s needed and I take better care of my plants. Your circumstances may be different. Do what makes you happy to be there.

Wise Low Maintenance Plant Choices and Harvesting

  • Plant only your very favorite veggies that make you want to garden! Simply don’t plant others you or your family don’t eat up quickly that end up in the compost.
  • Plant from transplants! No growing from seeds that need daily watering then seedlings that need tender vigilant nursing.
  • Choose award winning veggie varieties like AAS 2015 Winners by region, non GMO. Get vibrant healthy transplants with staunch disease and pest tolerance and/or resistance, heat/drought tolerance, humidity tolerance or proper cold hardiness. Don’t lose time with questionable box store plants, spindly, puny, sometimes sick or pest infested, or root bound plants.
  • Choose plants that produce well in your soil and temps so you aren’t discouraged. For example, in the NW you might not choose plants that take a long time to produce; summer is just too short. Carefully choose sunnier locations with low wind and warmth from fencing. Ask around your neighborhood, at your LOCAL nursery for recommendations.
  • Plant fewer plants. Less Zucchini is a classic example. Instead of a vining Zucchini, get a bush/container variety. Plant less string beans. Harvesting, one, two beans at a time, is labor intensive, time consuming, to say the least, and they are prolific! Yes, you can give them away, but if you find yourself not gardening because it takes too much time….
  • Plant plants with large footprints and low maintenance! For example, rather than a 2′ diameter calendula that needs constant deadheading to look good, put in a 3′ to 4′ diameter Borage! Both are beautiful but the herb Borage uses more space, makes pretty, the flowers are edible, requires no maintenance, and, they generously reseed themselves!
  • Rather than gardening vertically to save space, plant ramblers and let them ramble! Put in a mound of 3 winter squash, or melons, and let them ramble a whole patch! All you do is watch and water. Or put in the biggest vining zucchini you can find. They produce a lot and take up a LOT of space you don’t otherwise have to maintain. Put a stake in the basin on the mound so you know where to water when the leaves get big.
  • Tuck in some hardy perennial herbs close to your kitchen at corners or entrances for quick convenient harvest, beauty, fragrance! Some are invasive, like Oregano, so sink in a bottomless 5 gal container to keep them where you want them. Again, less maintenance in the long run.
  • Instead of canning, do the simplest! Whack them into the size you like and freeze ’em in serving size bags or containers you can reuse!

Weed before they Seed! That’s the one thing you need to do like religion for less maintenance later! Otherwise you have a continuous supply of lots of weed babies. And don’t put seeding weeds in your ideal habitat compost! That weeding certainly doesn’t have to be done all at once. Each day or every few days, do a small area. It goes quickly that way and progress feels so good.

To your low maintenance gardening pleasure!

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Raised bed Hugelkultur Lasagna Combo Buckman Style

Australian permaculturist Rosina Buckman has some terrific tank garden tips!  She says think of your raised bed as a compost pile!  That’s efficient!  Place it wisely to get the most sun, least cold wind.  This bottomless tank is a tidy look even for the front yard!
Rosina combines a mini Hugelkultur process and Lasagna layering, composting in place!

  • Hugelkultur puts logs, branches, twigs at the bottom of the pile.
  • Rosina puts a rough mulch on top of that.
  • Then she Lasagnas a layer of green/wet grass clippings, or the like, to dampen the dry layers below.
  • Newspaper or cardboard is next.  Make sure it is completely super soggy.
  • Lay compost on that.  Throw in a few handfuls of red worms!
  • A topping of Straw mulch allows aeration yet keeps the compost moist!

The beauty of branches and twigs at the bottom of your raised bed is the decomposition process, which takes a long time, heats the soil above, allowing earlier planting and extending your summer season into fall!
Neighbors contribute their high quality nutritious kitchen trim, which can be part of the ‘green’ layer or dug in anytime, anywhere!
Ms Buckman tells how to ‘wake up’ your soil with a ‘cocktail of Kelp or Seaweed extract which you can buy in concentrate form known as Maxicrop in the US or Seasol in Australia!’  You can do it yourself with a ‘small cup of each ingredient (liquid kelp/molasses) mixed with a bucket of water’ to speed up the growth of microorganisms.  [Why not add a 1/2 cup to a cup of fish emulsion too?!]

Admin at this site says:  One important point that needs to be made about this raised tank garden. There is NO metal Bottom to the Tank Garden. It has no base. The tank is just a hoop to hold all your organic matter in. Water is allowed to escape at the bottom and leach out into the surrounding soil. Do not use tanks with a metal base. If you have a tank with a metal base – consider turning it into a Wicking Bed Garden. Some people say wicking beds are the very best way to garden because you will never need to water your garden.  Read about how to make one here.

See more at EcoFilms

I’m always encouraging you to make good soil because it is the living foundation of your garden!  Healthy soil; an abundance of yummy veggies!

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