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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 a Fabulous Raised Bed Veggie Garden!

How quickly could you put this together, or something close to it, plus planted for good summer crops this year?! With or without finished paths wheelbarrow wide. The possibilities are endless!   

Last chance to design, make changes to your summer garden layout! March is often first plantings, if not, it is last soil preps before full on April plantings!

Many of the last days of February 2019 in Santa Barbara area were rainy and frosty! 8 AM Feb 23 the soil temp at Rancheria Community Garden was 40 F! That’s plenty chill and several plants were laying down. Many gardeners are waiting to plant. I haven’t seen any early toms, corn, o rzukes, nor beans yet. Even the Oats one gardener is growing are growing quite slowly. Good choice to wait a bit. Soon the planties will be growing quickly! In the extremes of weather conditions we have been having be prepared for a hot summer! Select heat tolerant varieties of seeds and transplants.

Day lengths are still short. We want Night air temps steadily above 50 and soil temps 60 to 65 for starting our plants well. Peppers, especially need these warmer temps. They do best with nighttime temps above 55°F and soil temps above 65°F. Average March night temps are in the mid 40s.

MARCH through June Planting Timing 

Start MORE seedlings indoors NOW for late April/early May plantings – eggplant, peppers, and more tomatoes for transplanting into the garden in late April or early May. Also sow cucumbers, squash and sweet potatoes. The beauty of seeds is you can plant exactly what and how many you want! If seeds and tending seedlings aren’t for you, get transplants and pop them in the ground per their right times! Plant Winter squash now so it will have a long enough season to harden for harvest and be done in time for early fall planting.

  • APRIL is true heat lovers time! Eggplant, limas, melons (wait until MAY for cantaloupe), peppers, pumpkins and squash! Many wait until April, even May or June, to plant tomatoes. Wait until the soil has warmed to 70°F before planting squash and melons.
  • Some gardeners wait until JUNE to plant okra. It really likes heat and grows quickly when happy. Choose faster maturing varieties for coastal SoCal. If YOU anticipate a HOT summer, plant a tad earlier, but be prepared to deal with it if summer is overcast as often is the case after all.

With our warming temp trends, get bolt resistant/slow bolt varieties, heat, and especially drought tolerant varieties.

Right now plant pepper transplants (at the right temps) and cold tolerant, early varieties if available. If you love your peppers and want some early, or have a short growing season, next year order seeds for ones that mature quickly and are cool weather adapted! Plant those transplants in the ground first and others more heat tolerant soon after to carry the length of the season. For cold tolerant sweet bell peppers, get seed for Ace, Lady Bell or King of the North! Obriy Ukrainian sweet red pepper is both cold and heat tolerant! For hotties that don’t mind cold, order up Early Jalapeno,  Hungarian Hot Wax or Anaheim. Rocoto stands some cold but not a hard freeze. Manzano are reported to survive at 20°! The extraordinary feature of these two peppers, Capsicum pubescens (hairy leaves), is they grow into four-meter woody plants relatively quickly, and live up to 15 years! Truly sustainable! Now we need a bell pepper that can do that! If cold weather can happen anytime where you live, grow your peppers in pots; take them inside when it gets cold. Keep them on a cart or put the pots on roller wheels.

Plant determinate quick maturing tomatoes – start with small fruited varieties and cherry toms – for soonest tomatoes for your table! The moist soil at Santa Barbara’s community gardens has residues of Verticillium and Fusarium wilts, so some gardeners wait until warmer drier June soil to plant tomatoes and other veggies that are wilts susceptible – but remember, those fungi are also windborne. You can delay it, make it less, but not prevent or stop it. Cucumbers are especially susceptible and do quickly die from it, so if you love cukes, be prepared to plant 2nd and 3rd rounds, but do these successive rounds in different places! See more about how to avoid or slow down wilt and fungi problems! See more about selecting tomatoes!

Outdoors sow or transplant beets, carrots, celery, chard, herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuces, green onions, bulb onion seed and sets (be sure to get summer maturing varieties), parsley, peas, peanuts (they do grow here!), potatoes, radishes, shallots, spinach, strawberries, and turnips. Transplant broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kohlrabi seedlings. Time for heat tolerant, bolt and tipburn resistant lettuces of all kinds! The fabulous ruffly Green Star, Sierra, Nevada, Jericho, Black Seeded Simpson are some. Tips for super Successful Transplanting!

PLANT PLANTS THAT REPEL PESTS IN ADVANCE SO THEY WILL BE UP AND WORKING WHEN YOUR SEEDLINGS COME UP OR YOU INSTALL YOUR TRANSPLANTS! Those are radish, cilantro, potatoes, borage.

  • Beans, Cukes, Dill, RADISH Combo! Depending on ground temps, tuck in some bean seeds where the peas are finishing, intermingled with cucumber seeds that will grow low along the trellis, below the beans, plus a few dill to go with the cukes! See more for bean/cuke planting tips. Plant radishes with the cukes to deter the Cucumber beetles. Borage repels tomato hornworm and is especially good with tomatoes, strawberries and squash!
  • Tomato Tips:  La Sumida has the largest tomato selection in the Santa Barbara area! Heirlooms are particularly susceptible to the wilts, Fusarium and Verticillium. Instead, get varieties that have VFN or VF on the tag at the nursery. The V is for Verticillium, the F Fusarium wilt, N nematodes. Ace, Early Girl, Champion, Celebrity, are some that are wilt resistant/tolerant. In these drought conditions, consider getting only indeterminates.
  • This is the LAST MONTH to transplant artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale; also strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry roots so they’ll bear fruit well this year.

Succession planting makes such good sense. Put your seeds and transplants in at the same time. Seedlings will come along 6 to 8 weeks behind your transplants so you have a steady supply of yummy veggies! But if tending seedlings isn’t your cup of tea, just leave space and put in more transplants in 6 to 8 weeks after your first planting.

It is perfect to put in fast growers like lettuce, beets, turnips, arugula, to hold space until you are ready to plant bigger plants. When it’s time for the bigger ones, clear a space/harvest, pop in your seeds or transplants and let them grow up among the space holders. As the bigger plants start to shade out the littles, remove lower leaves so the littles get light too! The smaller plants act as living mulch under the bigger plants. No need to plant smaller plants in rows of their own. Think circles and understory! Plant them around and under the bigger plants! If you anticipate a HOT summer, plant heat sensitive littles only on the morning or shady side of larger plants.

Put in borders of slow but low growers like carrots, mini cabbages, in more permanent places, like on what will become the morning side of taller backdrop plants like peppers and eggplant.

Depending on what legumes you choose, figure 3 1/2 +/- to grow another round of green manure to enrich your soil Nitrogen. In warming weather and longer days, it grows faster. In 6 weeks to two months chop it down and chop up. Give it 2 days to 2 weeks to decompose on the surface, keeping it moist. Add amendments, turn it all under, allow 3 weeks to a month for it to integrate with your soil, and the area will be ready to plant again. Or, dig your planting holes as soon as you turn it under, put in some fine compost, a smidge of manure, your other favorite amendments like worm castings, bone meal, a mineral mix, and plant! The rest of the area will take care of itself! See much more – Living Mulch/Green Manure!

Consider not growing kale or chard over summer. Kale will grow, but really is happiest in Winter. If you harvest a lot of your kale in summer, it often has smaller dry looking leaves growing at the top of a tortured spindly stalk. I’ve seen them over 5′ tall. The leaves get tough, lack robust flavor, and lack that cool weather vibrance. Fertilizing, watering really don’t do much at this point because the plant is just trying to survive. A different strategy is to harvest a lot less early on, let your plant branch and become bushy! Then you can harvest at several points, and the plant provides its own living mulch. Huge difference. Or maybe you need to plant a lot more kales so you don’t over harvest individual plants!

This is one kale plant in the image below! It has made all these branches, harvest points, by April at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden! Look at that abundance! It thrives all summer!

Curly Leaf Kale Branching into Bush form!

Chard suffers. It droops from midday heat, recovers, droops, recovers each day. That’s hard on a plant. It doesn’t produce much. Doesn’t seem reasonable to harvest when it is trying to stay alive. If you do choose to grow it, plant it where it will have a little shade in the hottest part of the day in summer or install some shade cloth for it. Plant shallow rooted living mulch plants around it. Keep it evenly moist. Flooding it isn’t what it needs when it droops from heat, and plants can literally drown. Chard is a fast grower. Why not harvest them mid to late spring? Plant something that will be more summer happy, plant chard again in fall when things cool down.

Broccoli, on the other hand, depending on the variety, produces side shoots like crazy all summer long! Just be sure to stake them if your plant gets large and top heavy! And feed it now and then. It’s working hard. Mulch brocs you intend to keep, deeply starting now while it’s still cool to keep them cool. Brocs are naturally a winter plant. Or encircle them with quick growing shallow rooted living mulch plants – lettuce (repels Cabbage butterfly), beets, etc. that won’t interfere with your broccoli’s roots. When you harvest those quick growers, when you have access to the soil, feed your broc, and plant more living mulch!

Tall: Indeterminate tomatoes in cages, pole beans in cages or on trellises. Basil is great with tomatoes, and a pack of culinary dandelions! Tall varieties of broccoli you keep for summer side shoots. Cucumbers are great on the trellis below the beans.

Middle height: Determinate tomatoes, bush beans, okra, tall peppers like Big Jim Anaheim or Poblanos, zucchini. White potatoes with Zucchini to repel squash bugsRadish with cukes and squashes to repel cucumber beetles, with cukes, squashes and eggplant to trap flea beetles! Large Winter Squash vines and pumpkins are middle height, while some mini melons would fall to the lower mid height zone. Put in zucchini and vines, sweet potatoes, to take up space if you don’t want to do a lot of tending, but do know, you must keep those zucchini picked! If your zucchini is dense, and you miss seeing it, an unpicked zuke can become a 6″ diameter 2′ long monster in as little as 5 days!

Lower plants like eggplant, like a lot of heat. Put them on the sunny side, slightly in front of every other slightly taller plant. Leave a couple kale that will get taller. But, if they are leafless stalks with pom pom tops, they aren’t going to give any shade, so they could be left anywhere actually. Since they are a winter plant, mulch them deeply or plant lettuces or leafy plants around their base as a living mulch and keep the soil there moist and cooler, and feed them. Or grow the heat tolerant flat leaf kale like Thousand Headed Kale! It has many growing points instead of just one and self mulches!

Shorties & Littles: A lot of shorties will be in front of or the understory of taller plants, in some instances a living mulch, so there is no need to allocate, use up separate space just for them. Your plants all help each other. When the bigger plant leaves start shading out the littles below, harvest strategic large lower leaves to allow light and airflow.

Put beets and carrots in the short zone, as an understory, between and among big plants. Bunch onions away from beans, great with other short rooted plants like lettuces that need to be kept moist. Summer small bulbed variety radishes give a great spike of hot flavor to a cool summer salad! Some delicious mini melons are quite small leaved and low to the ground, are easily trellised though it is cooler up on that trellis….

Flowers & Seeds! Let arugula, cilantro, chamomile, a carrot or two, and a celery go to flower to bring bees, butterflies and beneficial insects – pollinators! Besides being beautiful and having lovely scents, let them seed out for seeds for next year’s plantings, to share at the seed swap, give as gifts! Carrots love being with cilantro and chamomile, and chamomile improves the flavor of any neighboring herb!

While you are thinking where to put things, select permanent spots for herbs, gateway points for flowers and edible flowers! Designate a permanent patch for year round flower habitat for bees. Cilantro is both tasty and has lovely feathery leaves and flowers in breeze, great pollinator food. Chamomile is downright heady scented on a warm morning. Comfrey, Knitbone, is both healing (arthritis/bones) and speeds your compost, is high in soil nutrition. Poppies are beautiful; humble white Sweet Alyssum is dainty and attracts beneficial insects. Calendula traps aphids, whiteflies, and thrips! Marigolds are brilliant and called the workhorse of pest deterrents! Cosmos is cosmic! See Stripes of Wildflowers!

Finish your Summer Gardening preparations!

  • Install a greywater, rain capture system
  • Install gopher wire protection.
  • Install pathways, berms.
  • Waffle Garden, basins & windbreaks, Water Garden. Excellent drought choices.
  • Gather cages & trellises
  • Terrace slopes – capture water runoff, prevent topsoil loss, mulch it
  • Build creative raised beds, try Hugelkultur
  • Get new containers, pallets, boards, net or wire for bird protection
  • Organize where you will keep straw bales for summer mulch
  • Setup Compost and worm box areas

Complete your Soil Prep! 

  • Add compost, only 5 to 10%, & other amendments to your soil all at the same time.
  • Add well aged manure as appropriate. Less in spring because you want fruit production, not leaf, unless it is a plant grown for its leaves, like lettuce, kale or cabbage! None for carrots, peas or beans.
  • Add 25% worm castings. As little as 10% works. They are potent, help with seedling germination, boost immunities to disease.
  • Adding Jamaican guano high in P, Phosphorus, at planting time helps your plants continue to bloom LATE in the season! Its NPK ratio is 1-10-0.2, takes 4 months to become available to your plants.
  • Sprinkle with a tad of coffee grounds to reduce wilts fungi. Add only a ½ a % to your soil or compost. A tiny bit goes a long way!
  • Don’t cover with mulch yet unless you need it for erosion control. Covered soil is cooler. Let your winter cool soil warm up. The exceptions are broccoli, cabbage, chard, and kale! Mulch ASAP because they like/need cooler soil.
  • Water your prepped areas when you water your other veggies. Soil organisms need moist soil to live.
  • Sidedressing! Hard working plants need fuel and water. As broccoli starts to head, give it a fish/kelp tonic! After the main head is cut, your side shoots will flourish!

Pests Reminders and Home Remedies!

  • Before you put in seeds, sprinkle a bit of Sluggo type stuff around immediately to keep snails and slugs from vanishing upcoming seedlings overnight, making you think they never came up! No, they didn’t let you down. Killing off the creatures ahead of time saves the babies. It stops new transplants from being seriously damaged or entirely eaten while they are small. Do this a few times, to knock off the generations, and there will be no tiny vegetarian predators for a while.
  • Pull away those blotchy sections the leafminers make on chard and beet leaves. Remove whole leaves that are too funky for rescue. Harvest the bigger outer lower leaves more often to stay ahead of the miners. Water a tad less so leaves are less soft and inviting.
  • Hose APHIDS off chard, kale, brocs, cabbages. Keep doing it for a few days to catch the ones you missed and new generations. Nearby, plant Calendula as a trap plant, radish to repel them. When you see unnaturally curled leaves, you will likely find aphids. Check both upper and undersides of the leaves and the tiny leaves at the central growth point.For hard to get at places, down the centers of chard, crinkly kale leaves, get out that spray bottle! Treat once, wait a couple days, treat the ones that got away and newborns.I tried it, it WORKS! The simplest is to spray with 2 Parts alcohol, 2 parts water, 1 part  soap. DO NOT use on seedlings, it will kill some of them. Spritz lightly rather than drenching or you may kill your bigger plant too! However. If the infestation is just over the top, with chard you can cut off the whole plant about 1 1/2″ above ground and simply let it regrow, though it may never be as healthy or lush as a newly grown plant. Sometimes it’s just better to start over, and not in the same place. Hose away any reappearing or lingering aphids post haste! Check out the ant situation.
  • Regularly remove any yellowing leaves that attract whiteflies.
  • Gophers You can still put in wire protective baskets or barriers, especially now while the soil is softer after any rains. If you see a fresh mound, trap immediately.

Prevention A frustrating typical disease is Powdery mildew. It’s common on Curly Leaf kales, squashes, beans. Plant leaving plenty of space for air circulation. Apply your baking soda mix. Drench under and upper sides of the foliage of young plants to get them off to a great start! Do this the same or next day if transplanting. A super combo is 1 regular Aspirin dissolved, a 1/4 cup nonfat powdered milk, heaping tablespoon of baking soda, a half teaspoon liquid dish soap per gallon/watering can. Reapply every 10 days or so, and after significant rains. Not only is prevention so much better than after mildew has set in, but this mix stimulates your plant’s growth! See Aspirin Solution.

Do not compost diseased or infested leaves or plants. 

Thin any plants you intentionally over plant – carrots, beets, turnips, kale, chard, mustard. If you planted too close together, take out the shorter, weaker plants. They are all great in your salads along with small tender Brassica leaves.

Watering & Weeding Wind and sun dry soil quickly and short rooted plants like peas, or seedlings, need to be kept evenly moist.

Dust Mulching, cultivation, is perfect to break up the soil surface, especially after a rain! That keeps the water from wicking to the surface and evaporating. If you use a hula hoe you do two things at once! Just a half to one inch depth cuts off weed sprouts. Indeed, it turns the soil a tad, all that’s needed. More weeds will follow, but it’s quick and easy to repeat the process. Two, three times, a few days apart, and there will be little weeds after that for a while. Get ’em while they are small and easy to do. Smart gardening.

Grass in Flower, soon to Seed

When grass has those frilly little green tops, it is blooming and seeding! Remove it ASAP. Better yet is to remove weeds before they seed! If at the seeding stage, gently pull, don’t shake the soil loose from the roots and spread seeds all over, if possible, and don’t put them in your compost!

Keep COMPOSTING! Soil building is the single-most important thing you can do for your garden. Compost keeps your soil aerated, has great water holding capacity, feeds just perfectly! And if you made it, you know what’s in it! Make it HOT, Cold, or In place!  Dry is dead, so be sure it is always slightly moist. Giving back to Mama Earth is nature’s natural way! And, like Will Allen says ….there is something very Spiritual about touching the soil, that’s where life begins.

The good work you do now will pay off with abundant summer harvests!

Oh, and see more in February’s Newsletter, especially about Tomatoes!

Updated 2.24.19

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Here in Santa Barbara many February days have been frosty cold and rainy, with more rain to come! If you are in a rainy area, remember, if the soil sticks to your shovel, wait a little longer to till. Enjoy these images from two of Santa Barbara’s Community Gardens!

2019 Mother’s Day is May 12! Here are some wonderful ideas for green and loving gifts! Get living gifts started now! Click here

See the entire March 2019 GBC Newsletter!

March Planting, Thoughtful Garden Design & Choices! 

Grow a Pollinator Meadow at Home in Your Veg Garden!
Clever Seed Planting Tips Indoors or Out!

How to Transplant for Super Successful Returns!

Upcoming Gardener Events! Mesa Harmony Plant Sale/Straw Bale Workshop, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Spring SALE! 49th Annual EARTH DAY Santa Barbara! 2020 International Permaculture Conference Argentina!

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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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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Design a Fabulous Raised Bed Veggie Garden!

How quickly could you put this together, or something close to it, plus planted for good summer crops this year?! With or without finished paths wheelbarrow wide. The possibilities are endless!  

Last chance to design, make changes to your summer garden layout! March is often first plantings, if not, it is last soil preps before full on April plantings!

Recent Santa Barbara temps have been close to freezing, a few plants lost. Day lengths are still short. We want Night air temps steadily above 50 and soil temps 60 to 65 for starting our plants well. Peppers, especially need these warmer temps. They do best with nighttime temps above 55°F and soil temps above 65°F. Average March night temps are in the mid 40s. The soil temp now is 51-53°F at Rancheria Community Garden.

MARCH through June Planting Timing 

Start MORE seedlings indoors NOW for late April/early May plantings – eggplant, peppers, and more tomatoes for transplanting into the garden in late April or early May. Also sow cucumbers, squash and sweet potatoes. The beauty of seeds is you can plant exactly what and how many you want! If seeds and tending seedlings aren’t for you, get transplants and pop them in the ground per their right times! Plant Winter squash now so it will have a long enough season to harden for harvest and be done in time for early fall planting.

  • APRIL is true heat lovers time! Eggplant, limas, melons (wait until MAY for cantaloupe), peppers, pumpkins and squash! Many wait until April, even May or June, to plant tomatoes. Wait until the soil has warmed to 70°F before planting squash and melons.
  • Some gardeners wait until JUNE to plant okra. It really likes heat and grows quickly when happy. Choose faster maturing varieties for coastal SoCal. If YOU anticipate a HOT summer, plant a tad earlier, but be prepared to deal with it if summer is overcast as often is the case after all.

With our warming temp trends, get bolt resistant/slow bolt varieties, heat, and especially drought tolerant varieties.

Right now plant pepper transplants (at the right temps) and cold tolerant, early varieties if available. If you love your peppers and want some early, or have a short growing season, next year order seeds for ones that mature quickly and are cool weather adapted! Plant those transplants in the ground first and others more heat tolerant soon after to carry the length of the season. For cold tolerant sweet bell peppers, get seed for Ace, Lady Bell or King of the North! Obriy Ukrainian sweet red pepper is both cold and heat tolerant! For hotties that don’t mind cold, order up Early Jalapeno,  Hungarian Hot Wax or Anaheim. Rocoto stands some cold but not a hard freeze. Manzano are reported to survive at 20°! The extraordinary feature of these two peppers, Capsicum pubescens (hairy leaves), is they grow into four-meter woody plants relatively quickly, and live up to 15 years! Truly sustainable! Now we need a bell pepper that can do that! If cold weather can happen anytime where you live, grow your peppers in pots; take them inside when it gets cold. Keep them on a cart or put the pots on roller wheels.

Plant determinate quick maturing tomatoes – start with small fruited varieties and cherry toms – for soonest tomatoes for your table! The moist soil at Santa Barbara’s community gardens has residues of Verticillium and Fusarium wilts, so some gardeners wait until warmer drier June soil to plant tomatoes and other veggies that are wilts susceptible – but remember, those fungi are also windborne. You can delay it, make it less, but not prevent or stop it. Cucumbers are especially susceptible and do quickly die from it, so if you love cukes, be prepared to plant 2nd and 3rd rounds, but do these successive rounds in different places! See more about how to avoid or slow down wilt and fungi problems! See more about selecting tomatoes!

Outdoors sow or transplant beets, carrots, celery, chard, herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuces, green onions, bulb onion seed and sets (be sure to get summer maturing varieties), parsley, peas, peanuts (they do grow here!), potatoes, radishes, shallots, spinach, strawberries, and turnips. Transplant broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kohlrabi seedlings. Time for heat tolerant, bolt and tipburn resistant lettuces of all kinds! The fabulous ruffly Green Star, Sierra, Nevada, Jericho, Black Seeded Simpson are some. Tips for super Successful Transplanting!

PLANT PLANTS THAT REPEL PESTS IN ADVANCE SO THEY WILL BE UP AND WORKING WHEN YOUR SEEDLINGS COME UP OR YOU INSTALL YOUR TRANSPLANTS!

  • Beans, Cukes, Dill, RADISH Combo! Depending on ground temps, tuck in some bean seeds where the peas are finishing, intermingled with cucumber seeds that will grow low along the trellis, below the beans, plus a few dill to go with the cukes! See more for bean/cuke planting tips. Plant radishes with the cukes to deter the Cucumber beetles.
  • Tomato Tips:  La Sumida has the largest tomato selection in the Santa Barbara area! Heirlooms are particularly susceptible to the wilts, Fusarium and Verticillium. Instead, get varieties that have VFN or VF on the tag at the nursery. The V is for Verticillium, the F Fusarium wilt, N nematodes. Ace, Early Girl, Champion, Celebrity, are some that are wilt resistant/tolerant. In these drought conditions, consider getting only indeterminates.
  • This is the LAST MONTH to transplant artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale; also strawberry, blackberry, and raspberry roots so they’ll bear fruit well this year.

Succession planting makes such good sense. Put your seeds and transplants in at the same time. Seedlings will come along 6 to 8 weeks behind your transplants so you have a steady supply of yummy veggies! But if tending seedlings isn’t your cup of tea, just leave space and put in more transplants in 6 to 8 weeks after your first planting.

It is perfect to put in fast growers like lettuce, beets, turnips, arugula, to hold space until you are ready to plant bigger plants. When it’s time for the bigger ones, clear a space/harvest, pop in your seeds or transplants and let them grow up among the space holders. As the bigger plants start to shade out the littles, remove lower leaves so the littles get light too! The smaller plants act as living mulch under the bigger plants. No need to plant smaller plants in rows of their own. Think circles and understory! Plant them around and under the bigger plants! If you anticipate a HOT summer, plant heat sensitive littles only on the morning or shady side of larger plants.

Put in borders of slow but low growers like carrots, mini cabbages, in more permanent places, like on what will become the morning side of taller backdrop plants like peppers and eggplant.

Depending on what legumes you choose, figure 3 1/2 +/- to grow another round of green manure to enrich your soil Nitrogen. In warming weather and longer days, it grows faster. In 6 weeks to two months chop it down and chop up. Give it 2 days to 2 weeks to decompose on the surface, keeping it moist. Add amendments, turn it all under, allow 3 weeks to a month for it to integrate with your soil, and the area will be ready to plant again. Or, dig your planting holes as soon as you turn it under, put in some fine compost, a smidge of manure, your other favorite amendments like worm castings, bone meal, a mineral mix, and plant! The rest of the area will take care of itself! See much more – Living Mulch/Green Manure!

Consider not growing kale or chard over summer. Kale will grow, but really is happiest in Winter. If you harvest a lot of your kale in summer, it often has smaller dry looking leaves growing at the top of a tortured spindly stalk. I’ve seen them over 5′ tall. The leaves get tough, lack robust flavor, and lack that cool weather vibrance. Fertilizing, watering really don’t do much at this point because the plant is just trying to survive. A different strategy is to harvest a lot less early on, let your plant branch and become bushy! Then you can harvest at several points, and the plant provides its own living mulch. Huge difference. Or maybe you need to plant a lot more kales so you don’t over harvest individual plants!

This is one kale plant in the image below! It has made all these branches, harvest points, by April at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden! Look at that abundance! It thrives all summer!

Curly Leaf Kale Branching into Bush form!

Chard suffers. It droops from midday heat, recovers, droops, recovers each day. That’s hard on a plant. It doesn’t produce much. Doesn’t seem reasonable to harvest when it is trying to stay alive. If you do choose to grow it, plant it where it will have a little shade in the hottest part of the day in summer or install some shade cloth for it. Plant shallow rooted living mulch plants around it. Keep it evenly moist. Flooding it isn’t what it needs when it droops from heat, and plants can literally drown. Chard is a fast grower. Why not harvest them mid to late spring? Plant something that will be more summer happy, plant chard again in fall when things cool down.

Broccoli, on the other hand, depending on the variety, produces side shoots like crazy all summer long! Just be sure to stake them if your plant gets large and top heavy! And feed it now and then. It’s working hard. Mulch brocs you intend to keep, deeply starting now while it’s still cool to keep them cool. Brocs are naturally a winter plant. Or encircle them with quick growing shallow rooted living mulch plants – lettuce (repels Cabbage butterfly), beets, etc. that won’t interfere with your broccoli’s roots. When you harvest those quick growers, when you have access to the soil, feed your broc, and plant more living mulch!

Tall: Indeterminate tomatoes in cages, pole beans in cages or on trellises. Basil is great with tomatoes, and a pack of culinary dandelions! Tall varieties of broccoli you keep for summer side shoots. Cucumbers are great on the trellis below the beans.

Middle height: Determinate tomatoes, bush beans, okra, tall peppers like Big Jim Anaheim or Poblanos, zucchini. White potatoes with Zucchini to repel squash bugsRadish with cukes and squashes to repel cucumber beetles, with cukes, squashes and eggplant to trap flea beetles! Large Winter Squash vines and pumpkins are middle height, while some mini melons would fall to the lower mid height zone. Put in zucchini and vines, sweet potatoes, to take up space if you don’t want to do a lot of tending, but do know, you must keep those zucchini picked! If your zucchini is dense, and you miss seeing it, an unpicked zuke can become a 6″ diameter 2′ long monster in as little as 5 days!

Lower plants like eggplant, like a lot of heat. Put them on the sunny side, slightly in front of every other slightly taller plant. Leave a couple kale that will get taller. But, if they are leafless stalks with pom pom tops, they aren’t going to give any shade, so they could be left anywhere actually. Since they are a winter plant, mulch them deeply or plant lettuces or leafy plants around their base as a living mulch and keep the soil there moist and cooler, and feed them. Or grow the heat tolerant flat leaf kale like Thousand Headed Kale! It has many growing points instead of just one and self mulches!

Shorties & Littles: A lot of shorties will be in front of or the understory of taller plants, in some instances a living mulch, so there is no need to allocate, use up separate space just for them. Your plants all help each other. When the bigger plant leaves start shading out the littles below, harvest strategic large lower leaves to allow light and airflow.

Put beets and carrots in the short zone, as an understory, between and among big plants. Bunch onions away from beans, great with other short rooted plants like lettuces that need to be kept moist. Summer small bulbed variety radishes give a great spike of hot flavor to a cool summer salad! Some delicious mini melons are quite small leaved and low to the ground, are easily trellised though it is cooler up on that trellis….

Flowers & Seeds! Let arugula, cilantro, chamomile, a carrot or two, and a celery go to flower to bring bees, butterflies and beneficial insects – pollinators! Besides being beautiful and having lovely scents, let them seed out for seeds for next year’s plantings, to share at the seed swap, give as gifts! Carrots love being with cilantro and chamomile, and chamomile improves the flavor of any neighboring herb!

While you are thinking where to put things, select permanent spots for herbs, gateway points for flowers and edible flowers! Designate a permanent patch for year round flower habitat for bees. Cilantro is both tasty and has lovely feathery leaves and flowers in breeze, great bee food. Chamomile is downright heady scented on a warm morning. Comfrey, Knitbone, is both healing (arthritis/bones) and speeds your compost, is high in soil nutrition. Poppies are beautiful; humble white Sweet Alyssum is dainty and attracts beneficial insects. Calendula traps aphids, whiteflies, and thrips! Marigolds are brilliant and called the workhorse of pest deterrents! Cosmos is cosmic! See Stripes of Wildflowers!

Finish your Summer Gardening preparations!

  • Install a greywater, rain capture system
  • Install gopher wire protection.
  • Install pathways, berms.
  • Waffle Garden, basins & windbreaks, Water Garden. Excellent drought choices.
  • Gather cages & trellises
  • Terrace slopes – capture water runoff, prevent topsoil loss, mulch it
  • Build creative raised beds, try Hugelkultur
  • Get new containers, pallets, boards, net or wire for bird protection
  • Organize where you will keep straw bales for summer mulch
  • Setup Compost and worm box areas

Complete your Soil Prep! 

  • Add compost, only 5 to 10%, & other amendments to your soil all at the same time.
  • Add well aged manure as appropriate. Less in spring because you want fruit production, not leaf, unless it is a plant grown for its leaves, like lettuce, kale or cabbage! None for carrots, peas or beans.
  • Add 25% worm castings. As little as 10% works. They are potent, help with seedling germination, boost immunities to disease.
  • Adding Jamaican guano high in P, Phosphorus, at planting time helps your plants continue to bloom LATE in the season! Its NPK ratio is 1-10-0.2, takes 4 months to become available to your plants.
  • Sprinkle with a tad of coffee grounds to reduce wilts fungi. Add only a ½ a % to your soil or compost. A tiny bit goes a long way!
  • Don’t cover with mulch yet unless you need it for erosion control. Covered soil is cooler. Let your winter cool soil warm up. The exceptions are broccoli, cabbage, chard, and kale! Mulch ASAP because they like/need cooler soil.
  • Water your prepped areas when you water your other veggies. Soil organisms need moist soil to live.
  • Sidedressing! Hard working plants need fuel and water. As broccoli starts to head, give it a fish/kelp tonic! After the main head is cut, your side shoots will flourish!

Pests Reminders and Home Remedies!

  • Before you put in seeds, sprinkle a bit of Sluggo type stuff around immediately to keep snails and slugs from vanishing upcoming seedlings overnight, making you think they never came up! No, they didn’t let you down. Killing off the creatures ahead of time saves the babies. It stops new transplants from being seriously damaged or entirely eaten while they are small. Do this a few times, to knock off the generations, and there will be no tiny vegetarian predators for a while.
  • Pull away those blotchy sections the leafminers make on chard and beet leaves. Remove whole leaves that are too funky for rescue. Harvest the bigger outer lower leaves more often to stay ahead of the miners. Water a tad less so leaves are less soft and inviting.
  • Hose APHIDS off chard, kale, brocs, cabbages. Keep doing it for a few days to catch the ones you missed and new generations. Nearby, plant Calendula as a trap plant, radish to repel them. When you see unnaturally curled leaves, you will likely find aphids. Check both upper and undersides of the leaves and the tiny leaves at the central growth point.For hard to get at places, down the centers of chard, crinkly kale leaves, get out that spray bottle! Treat once, wait a couple days, treat the ones that got away and newborns.I tried it, it WORKS! The simplest is to spray with 2 Parts alcohol, 2 parts water, 1 part  soap. DO NOT use on seedlings, it will kill some of them. Spritz lightly rather than drenching or you may kill your bigger plant too! However. If the infestation is just over the top, with chard you can cut off the whole plant about 1 1/2″ above ground and simply let it regrow, though it may never be as healthy or lush as a newly grown plant. Sometimes it’s just better to start over, and not in the same place. Hose away any reappearing or lingering aphids post haste! Check out the ant situation.
  • Regularly remove any yellowing leaves that attract whiteflies.
  • Gophers You can still put in wire protective baskets or barriers, especially now while the soil is softer after any rains. If you see a fresh mound, trap immediately.

Prevention A frustrating typical disease is Powdery mildew. It’s common on Curly Leaf kales, squashes, beans. Plant leaving plenty of space for air circulation. Apply your baking soda mix. Drench under and upper sides of the foliage of young plants to get them off to a great start! Do this the same or next day if transplanting. A super combo is 1 regular Aspirin dissolved, a 1/4 cup nonfat powdered milk, heaping tablespoon of baking soda, a half teaspoon liquid dish soap per gallon/watering can. Reapply every 10 days or so, and after significant rains. Not only is prevention so much better than after mildew has set in, but this mix stimulates your plant’s growth! See Aspirin Solution.

Do not compost diseased or infested leaves or plants. 

Thin any plants you intentionally over plant – carrots, beets, turnips, kale, chard, mustard. If you planted too close together, take out the shorter, weaker plants. They are all great in your salads along with small tender Brassica leaves.

Watering & Weeding Wind and sun dry soil quickly and short rooted plants like peas, or seedlings, need to be kept evenly moist.

Dust Mulching, cultivation, is perfect to break up the soil surface, especially after a rain! That keeps the water from wicking to the surface and evaporating. If you use a hula hoe you do two things at once! Just a half to one inch depth cuts off weed sprouts. Indeed, it turns the soil a tad, all that’s needed. More weeds will follow, but it’s quick and easy to repeat the process. Two, three times, a few days apart, and there will be little weeds after that for a while. Get ’em while they are small and easy to do. Smart gardening.

Grass in Flower, soon to Seed

When grass has those frilly little green tops, it is blooming and seeding! Remove it ASAP. Better yet is to remove weeds before they seed! If at the seeding stage, gently pull, don’t shake the soil loose from the roots and spread seeds all over, if possible, and don’t put them in your compost!

Keep COMPOSTING! Soil building is the single-most important thing you can do for your garden. Compost keeps your soil aerated, has great water holding capacity, feeds just perfectly! And if you made it, you know what’s in it! Make it HOT, Cold, or In place!  Dry is dead, so be sure it is always slightly moist. Giving back to Mama Earth is nature’s natural way! And, like Will Allen says ….there is something very Spiritual about touching the soil, that’s where life begins.

The good work you do now will pay off with abundant summer harvests!

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Mother’s Day is May 8! 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!

See the entire March 2018 GBC Newsletter!

March Planting, Thoughtful Garden Design & Choices!

Stripes of Wildflowers!
Clever Seed Planting Tips Indoors or Outdoors!

Senior Veggie Gardening!

Upcoming Gardener Events! Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Spring SALE! 48th Annual EARTH DAY Santa Barbara!

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

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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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Veggies growing in homemade compost!

Veggies growing in homemade compost! Photo by Rod Zimmer

Compost is the single most best thing you can do for your soil! It feeds your plants, adds water holding capacity, and much more! 

Anytime we have a season change, compost becomes more important. In summer most of us are thinking how can I do it all?! Harvesting takes more time than waiting for the plants to produce. There’s more watering to do in summer. Yet, fall is soon upon us and though making compost takes a wee bit more time, it is so needed to give our plants a good start! In winter, making compost is essential for spring planting!

Here are some possibilities!

There are 3 basic kinds of compost, cold and hot and composting in place.

Of the cold kind….

The kind that finishes the quickest is the kitchen veggie waste that gets chopped vigorously with the shovel every few days, turned and turned again. Small bits decompose faster. The pile is kept moist. The dry brown material in the pile isn’t usually  straw. Straw is hard to chop and takes a long time to decompose. It’s more like leaves, some already chopped, partially decomposed mulch type stuff. The right leaves have nutrient value. See more. With only a couple of turns, this whole process might take two weeks, usually less – even in cooler weather! It’s quick. For quick results it’s also best to put your compost in full sun. Shaded compost usually ends up untened. It’s in an out-of-the-way place, processes so slowly a lot of gardeners forget they ever made the pile. Neglected, the pile literally dies.

In a community garden or a small garden area you might not have space for such a pile. But if it’s a priority you probably will make the space! If you do, and if you want to keep it a bit contained, instead, make a shallow pit and put your ‘pile’ in there. Toss a thin layer of healthy soil over it and turn that in to inoculate your compost with soil organisms. They will speed the decomposition process. A thin layer of soil also keeps flies away and you have no smell. Cover it with a light layer of straw or plastic to keep it from being unsightly to visitors while it is in process. A wire cover over straw lets rain in, so I use a couple plastic bags left from manure. I put a light weight board over my cover and a concrete stepping stone on the board to keep it from blowing away. If it rains, the cover keeps your processing compost from getting too wet. If it’s dry weather, covering keeps it moist. It will decompose better rather than off gas the Nitrogen, dry and die. The cover is instantaneous to remove, then you can have at that pile with gusto! With that kind of pile, you have a fairly steady supply of compost. Most of the time some of it is ready to put here and there.

I am very grateful to three neighbors who give me their green kitchen waste. Since I also grow worms, I ask them to give me only what they imagine a worm could eat. Worms!

Compost Sifting‘Every day I fill the wheelbarrow with rich screened compost. It really smells quite delicious; nutty with a spicy note.’ Sifting your compost is a piece of cake! Grab your wheelbarrow or bucket, get a piece of hardware cloth/hogwire or a nursery plant flat with a smaller weave to it, like in the image, and sift away! You can build a lovely framed sifter or buy great rolling devices. Choose the size opening you want. Or, don’t sift at all. I like a little texture to my compost. 

Have your compost pile handy, nearby, warm in the sun for speedy decomposition! Keep it moist, cover it when it needs it – in hot/dry or rainy weather, turn it! Compost that gets turned regularly often gets raided before it’s completely finished. You can still make out some of what the stuff is that’s there. That works just fine because it finishes quickly, in the ground, at home with all the lovely soil organisms.

If there comes a time when you compost has been sadly neglected, spread the stuff out as a mulch and start over, or let it go and just buy what you need. No shame in that.

Hot Compost is PDF, pretty darn fast!

It can heat up to amazing temps, so hot it makes ash and you cannot put your hands in it without getting burned. You can see it steaming on a winter morning! The point is to kill diseases, pests, weed seeds. Well that almost gets done, because, you see, the heat is in the middle of the pile. So they say turn it so the hot part goes to the outside and the cool part to the inside. That, my friends, is easier said than done. But, at least some of it happens.

Two interesting points here. My cold compost pile gets that hot! Yep, it does. A well-built pile with thin layers will cook quite happily no matter your intention. It’s nature. The other thing is I don’t put diseased plants or seeding weeds in my pile, so I don’t need it to get hot. Sure, some pest eggs probably make it. However, what happens most is veggie seeds sprout when I put the compost in to amend my soil! I swear, I can’t see those seeds when it is compost. It all looks dark and yummy. But lots of times I’m glad that happens! The plants get a terrific start and I get surprises! This year I enjoyed two elegant celery plants that came up about a foot and a half from each other and everyone complimented how beautiful they were, robust, with gorgeous long dark green stalks!

Whether you do hot or cold compost is your choice. I’ve tried it both ways. Sincerely. Got a long thermometer, built cubic yard piles and turned them. Now I have cold compost and turn it. No way around that turning if you want results sooner than later. It doesn’t matter what size I build it. I’ve seen 1 cubic foot piles heat up just fine! If it gets hot, it’s hot. If it doesn’t that’s fine with me. Taking care of it, turning, keeping it moist, making thin layers gets the job done. The layers are more a measuring device – 1 dry to 2 wet. Once they are in, mix up the material so the straw is moistened and the wet just doesn’t make a mass. My friend who chops and turns his with vigor gets much faster results, and I may take that up too.

Composting in place

No dig composting in place is an age old technique more recently called Lasagna Gardening. It takes some prep time, that is often done with a group of friends, but once that is done, you’re home free! There’s no turning, no carrying finished compost about because it is already where you want it! Materials may take longer to decompose. It is a cold pile, but if your pile is directly on the earth, soil organisms happily munching makes things happen quickly. It takes a lot of materials to start depending on the size you want your garden to be. You can start with a small area, add more later.

The beauty is it can be done on top of a lawn to form a raised bed, with or without a box border. If you have lawn where you want to plant, peel back the lawn or not, lay down cardboard or newspaper to kill off the lawn, prevent it growing back, up into your bed. If you choose cardboard, water a LOT to soak that cardboard. Layer to your heart’s content until you run out of materials. You can make beds 18″ high to start. They will settle a lot. That 18″ can easily become 9″ in two or three days in warm weather! You can plant instantly! Just pull back a planting hole, add some ready or nursery-bought compost and any other amendments right for your plant, and plant! Your amazing ‘lasagna’ will decompose and make beautiful soil without you doing a thing more! Add more materials as you acquire them to any spots you want to build up or if you want more compost or a bigger or another bed!

If you are doing composting in place while gardening, you just put on the layers, between the plants or down a row, with the materials you have on hand until you run out. The smaller the chop, the pieces, the faster the decomp. Keep them moist so they will decompose faster.

Trench it and forget it! Trenching has always been the simplest technique of all! It’s a super simple way of putting chopped veggie kitchen wastes to work. Dig, pull back a 6″ trench, no deeper. Soil organisms live at the top. Put your kitchen waste in the trench, grab the shovel and vigorously chop the waste into fine pieces. If you don’t feel like chopping it, don’t! Put in the stuff, cover with some of the soil you pulled back. Turn that a couple times to mix in soil organisms to speed the decomp process, cover with the remaining soil and forget it. Period. Done. A week later you can dig in that area and find no trace of it. Soil organisms are intelligent and born hungry.

I combine trenching and a pit. If I have a spot needing compost, I trench it there. If there are no spots needing it right now, I put it in the pit and hold it until a spot needs it or a plant needs sidedressing (feeding mid season). In that case, in summer I also at a bit of manure or if it’s SoCal winter time, a little fish emulsion for easy and quick uptake.

NOTE! Compost you make isn’t the same as manure, nor nursery bought bagged compost. When you trench, you can add those at the same time if you wish. Manure is good ole down home stinky poopy stuff high in Nitrogen. You can also plant cover crops, living mulch, green manure for Nitrogen. You plant different areas to restore your soil, or in SoCal winter to make good soil for spring planting. Your soil also needs water holding capacity from bulk – what is called forest materials in nursery compost bags. Bagged nursery compost is fluffy. Air space. Your soil needs that too. Kitchen waste compost doesn’t have that. I buy bags of nursery compost – bulk and chicken manure – Nitrogen, as well and add them, sometimes to an area, definitely to my planting holes. Plants uptake a lot of their nutrition from tiny lateral feeder roots that often grow beyond the dripline of your plant, so if you can, do a whole area. Add special amendments to your planting hole. Make that planting hole a bit larger than you have been doing? Sometimes it depends on your budget how much materials you have available. Planting cover crops is cheaper, but it takes longer…

If you have massive amounts of stuff to compost, the fastest way of all, record time, is to use maggots! Cities use them and sell the compost! See all about it!

Hugelkultur Sepp Holzer Diagram Cross Section

Hugelkultur is a long term choice. Hugelkultur, hill mound, is the quintessential sustainable variation of ‘composting’ in place. 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! Woods that work best are alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow (make sure it is dead or it will sprout). Add leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, petroleum-free newspaper, manure, compost or whatever other biomass you have available. Add some red wiggler 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.

Raised bed Hugelkultur Lasagna Combo Buckman StyleIf you are starting a raised Hugelkultur bed, dig down about a foot or more, lay in the big logs, big branches around them, smaller branches on top, layer as above to the height you want, allowing for settling. The difference is that this is a flat top raised bed. You can also dig deeper and make the top of the bed flush with your soil! Also, you can do terracing with a Hugelkultur substructure.

Container gardeners you can do your own mini Hugelkultur version as well. A 1/2 beer barrel, a five gallon can, kid’s swimming pool, whatever you have, can be repurposed! Just be sure there are drainage holes. Double purpose your container by making it a self-watering system as well!

Hugelkultur is an excellent long term sustainable choice!

~ The heat from decomposition gives your plants a terrific early start or extends your growing season. You do need to be careful of freezes if you live in a cold area.
~ The right hardwood logs will give your plants steady nutrition for 20 or more years!
~ If you do the above ground version, you have more planting space because it is tall and vertical!
~ Nearby fruit trees are also fed.
~ The logs and branches soak up water and hold it, so less water to none is needed after the first year.

More clever tips!

  1. At intervals, near the center of your compost pile, place handfuls of old compost or fresh rich soil, as an infusion, an inoculant of soil making organisms.
  2. In dry SoCal, I cover my compost pile to keep it from drying out, and I never need to water it.
  3. When cold composting and composting in place, add red wriggler worms to chomp up materials. They add worm castings that help your plants’ immune systems and uptake of nutrients. If you will be turning the compost, kindly use a pitchfork so there will be the least damage to your worms.
  4. Be smart, add herbs! Penny Woodward says: ‘Regular handfuls of chamomile, dandelion and yarrow leaves and flowers will all speed up decomposition of the compost with YARROW being the most effective. Yarrow also adds copper, nitrates, phosphates and potash while chamomile adds calcium and ‘sweetens’ the mixture. Dandelions contribute copper, iron and potash. Nettles are problem weeds but they actually improve the quality of the soil they are growing in and when added to the compost they contribute iron and nitrogen. Tansy adds potassium, which is very important for plant growth while Valerian increases the phosphorus content so essential for good flowers and fruits [but is invasive!]. The most nutritious compost plant is COMFREY and it grows most of the year in SoCal coastal climate. The leaves are rich in potassium, nitrogen, calcium and phosphates. I keep a clump growing next to the compost. It grows like crazy, and I layer on a handful of leaves whenever I throw in kitchen scraps.
Stemilt's World Famous compost!

Fine finished Stemilt World’s Famous Compost!

Mix it up! Do any version or combo of compost versions that work for you or as you have the materials available to do what you want! Do more than one method at the same time! Super soil is the Number 1 thing you can do for your garden and compost makes the difference! When your compost smells great and you could just about eat it, you know you made it right!

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All that said, there are tons of composting devices available. Some work more or less, some work for one person but not another, for various reasons. Google for pros and cons of each one before you purchase. See if you think you will tend it as it needs to be tended, if it suits your needs, your location. Will you need additional tools. Imagine doing the process it requires. Would that really work for you. Worst is you buy and it fails. You can resell it, give it to someone who would be dedicated to the process it needs, donate it to a charity sale, or an organization that needs one. It’s ok.

All that said, if building your own compost isn’t your choice, support your local nursery and get the best from them! Otherwise, have a good dirty time of it!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. We are very coastal, during late spring/summer 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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