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Feed Your Veggie Garden!

Purposes for Feeding, Sidedressing

General well being – Compost is the best general feed. It is rich with nutrition, has great water holding capacity, especially needed in summer and drought areas. Here are some possibilities. Pull back your mulch, scatter and lightly dig in a little chicken manure. If you prefer organic granulated fertilizer sprinkle it around evenly. At the same time, and/or lay on a ½” of tasty compost, topped with some worm castings. Or you can water on some fish emulsion. Water well and gently so things stay in place. Pull your mulch back in place. See more

Up production, extend harvests – Again, compost is a great pick-me-up. It’s gentle, balanced, and free if you make your own. Plants you have from saving seed are adapted to your special blend and just keep getting better! Some gardeners dig it in a bit, no deeper than the top 6″ for most summer veggies. Others simply pull back the mulch, lay on an inch of compost, water, then recover with the mulch. No need to cover an entire area if you are short on compost. Do only out to the dripline.

Less leaf/more blossoms – Studies show the ideal ratio of nutrients for flowering plants, tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers, melons, eggplant, is an NPK of 3-1-2. (That’s 3% Nitrogen, 1% phosphorus & 2% potassium.) So look for that ratio on the label of packaged fertilizers; anything close to a 3-1-2, a 6-2-4 or a 9-3-6 does the job. If you are getting way too much leaf, few to no blooms, no fruit, water like a fiend to wash away the too much N (Nitrogen) your soil has. Plus, though N makes for beautiful leaves, too much inhibits flowering and fruiting. You can add fertilizers high in Phosphorous for blooms, but at this point it needs to be super easy for quick uptake by your plant.

More foliage – Lettuce, chard, kale can use more N. They are doing nothing but make leaves and for those plants we don’t want flowers! They are good with higher ratios of N. Liquid fish and seaweed mix is good if you don’t have predator animals frequenting your garden! Fish and kelp have a nice balance of the basic nutrients and lots of essential trace elements. Pour some into your watering can, dilute it as directed and water it into the soil around the root zone to the dripline. If you prefer granulated stuff, pull back your mulch, sprinkle the granules around evenly, about 6″ from the plant stem. Lettuce thrives on chicken manure scratched into the top 2″, does wonders, especially in summer when your plants are working hard. Cover your mix or scratched in manure with compost or soil for faster uptake, and water in. Put your mulch back in place.

Green up the leaves – a super quick fix is to give your plants a tad of blood meal. It is easy for your plant to take up, and leaves get back to their beautiful Nitrogen rich dark green asap! Blood meal is an expensive high nitrogen fertilizer, 12-2-0, a very high number for a natural product, as are fish meal (and fish emulsion), horse and poultry manure ie chicken manure. Use it sparingly because it can burn flowers and foliage due to the ammonia content. And, remember, too much N inhibits flowering and fruiting. Blood meal is also toxic to animals.

Disease and Pest Resistance! Worm castings are tops! Raise your own worms or buy castings in a bag or fresh and potent at a local organic nursery!

Foliar Feeding - rose upturned

Foliar Feeding – Leaves

Not everyone can always get down on their hands and knees and dig about under their veggie plants. Maybe making compost, worm casting and/or manure teas will work for you! There are various methods, some simple, others time consuming and complex. Either way, they work! If you take the easy route, all you do is mix a handful of castings, a handful to a cup of compost, handful of manure, stir and let them soak overnight in a bucket. In the morning, swoosh it around in the bucket one more time, let it settle, then strain the top liquid into your long neck watering can, the one with the up turning rose. If you don’t have predators like skunks, stir in liquid Fish Emulsion, 6 tablespoons per gallon of water/Kelp, ¼ to ½ teaspoon per gallon of water, mix, and drench your plants! That’s a mix they won’t forget! Get a watering can that has a rose (spray end) that will swivel upward so you can apply that tasty mix to both the undersides and tops of the leaves, the whole plant. Since it has been found foliar feeding is in some cases more efficient that soil feeding, it makes good sense!

Teas have no drawbacks. They can be applied to good avail every couple of weeks if you wish.

Peppers, Toms, Eggplant & ROSES respond really well to Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom Salts) foliar feeding. Apply it when they are seedlings, when you transplant.

  • Magnesium is critical for seed germination and the production of chlorophyll, fruit, and nuts. Magnesium helps strengthen cell walls and improves plants’ uptake of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.  Magnesium deficiency in the soil may be one reason your tomato leaves yellow between the leaf veins late in the season and fruit production slows down.
  • Sulfur, a key element in plant growth, is critical to production of vitamins, amino acids (therefore protein), and enzymes. Sulfur is probably the oldest known pesticide in current use. It can be used for disease control (e.g., powdery mildews, rusts, leaf blights, and fruit rots), and pests like mites, psyllids and thrips. Sulfur is nontoxic to mammals, but may irritate skin or especially eyes.
    x
    CAUTION Sulfur has the potential to damage plants in hot (90°F and above), dry weather. It is also incompatible with other pesticides. Do not use sulfur within 20 to 30 days on plants where spray oils have been applied; it reacts with the oils to make a more phytotoxic combination.
  • Epsom Salts are easy to do!  Buy some Epsom Salts, what you soak your feet in, at the grocery store, mix a tablespoon per gallon, foliar feed! Foliar feeding is simply sprinkling leaves with your solutions, and works better than applying to the soil! Get a long snouted watering can that has a turnable sprinkler head. That long spout comes in handy, reaching well into your plant! Turn the head so the water shoots up under the leaves then falls back on the tops! The long arc of the handle gives lots of maneuvering ability and saves your back! Feed your plants once when they bloom, and again ten days later. The results, attributed to magnesium in the salts, are larger plants, more flowers, more fruit, thicker walled peppers! I use this mix on all my Solanaceaes: eggplant, pepper, tomato, tomatillo. Roses love it too!

Broad Fork Garden Baby Blue!Soil Feeding – Roots

Plants have lots of little feeder roots near the surface of the soil, at least out to their dripline. When you cultivate or scratch up the soil, those little roots are broken and they can no longer feed your plant. Scratch up the soil on two sides only at most. Leave plenty of undisturbed soil so the feeder roots can continue to feed your plant. Your plant may even slow down after a feeding until it grows more feeder roots back. Give it a little time for recovery.

Seedlings need to be fed close to the plant because they don’t have an array of feeder roots yet.

Lettuces love a bit of chicken manure, but ixnay for strawberries. They don’t like the salts.

If you enjoy making those tea/fish/kelp mixes, and want to feed your plants but minimize damage to their roots and soil structure, get yourself a spade fork, or if you have a lot of territory, a broad fork like in the image! Push it down into the soil, rock it back and forth slightly to make holes, pour in your soup! You will hear the soil organisms dancing!

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.

Worm castings?! OH, YES! Though they are not nutrients they do cause seeds to germinate more quickly, seedlings to grow faster, leaves grow bigger, more flowers, fruits or vegetables are produced! Vermicompost suppresses several diseases on cucumbers, radishes, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes and peppers, according to research from Ohio State extension entomologist Clive Edwards. It also significantly reduced parasitic nematodes, APHIDS, mealy bugs and mites. These effects are greatest when a smaller amount of vermicompost is used—just 10-40% of the total volume of the plant growth medium is all that is needed, 25% is ideal!

Up production, extend your growing time, enjoy seeing your plants’ radiant health, and be blessed with scrumptious meals!

See also Soil Building!

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Vermicomposting Workshop Vancouver

Since 1990, City Farmer and the City of Vancouver have held worm composting workshops for City of Vancouver residents who live in apartments. For $25 participants get a worm bin, 500 worms, Mary Appelhof’s book “Worms Eat My Garbage”, a trowel, bedding and a one-hour class. Now that’s a deal!

Worm Castings are like BLACK GOLD to your garden, and high quality store-bought castings are just about as expensive! For good reason. They cause seeds to germinate more quickly, seedlings to grow faster, leaves grow bigger, more flowers, fruits or vegetables are produced. Vermicompost suppresses several diseases on cucumbers, radishes, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes and peppers, according to research from Ohio State extension entomologist Clive Edwards. It also significantly reduced parasitic nematodes, aphids, mealy bugs and mites. These effects are greatest when a smaller amount of vermicompost is used—just 10-40% of the total volume of the plant growth medium is all that is needed!

Worms are easy to raise or you can use a complex system. You can start them anytime, indoors or out depending on temps. Here in Santa Barbara mine live outside all year in full sun. They are more active when they are warmer. Non color inked newspaper is often used for bedding to start a clew (colony). Worms are 90% water, so keep the bedding moist. My worms get all the moisture they need from the juicy kitchen bits I feed them and that I cover them with their plastic blankie to keep them moist!

They like decomposing kitchen waste with the exceptions of spicy, acidic, and meats (too tough). No junk food. Coffee filters, grounds, lightly ripped teabags are good, but not too many of those because they are acidic, and veggies like things a tad alkaline. Things cut into smaller pieces decompose faster. Harder or tougher items take a long time. I don’t ‘feed’ mine avocado pits because they literally can’t eat them. They do love the avo shells though and nest in them. Egg shells keep the pH neutral.

You can easily see when they have run out of food. Feed them sooner than that, or they might be hungry a few days, even die. They eat the bacteria on what you give them. They can’t eat raw food until it decomposes a bit. Hit up your friends that juice for a high quality steady supply of fresh organic veg and fruit trims and bits. Avoid acidic citrus, sulfuric onion, pastas (not a fruit or veg), but go wild with carrot peelings and tops, funky lettuce, melon rinds. Fridge clean outs are perfect for your worms!

The quality of what you feed your worms is the quality of your castings. Real nutrients, like the organic wastes of nature, give you excellent castings in return. Worms will eat non nutritious cardboard and lots of other things, but why? Better to recycle that in other ways.

The right kind of worms are RED WRIGGLERS! They forage on debris above ground. They are smaller than earthworms that live IN the earth. Fishermen use them for bait. Ask your fellow gardeners to give you a handful to get started, or go to the bait shack, or a local organic worm dealer. The little guys live about 2 years. My clew has been going strong for 12 years now.

Housing! Since they are surface foragers, these worms need width, not depth. Mine live in a low 4′ by 2′ opaque grey storage container. I put holes in the bottom for drainage, holes in the cover to let hot air out in summer. Inside the container I cover them with a large black plastic bag to keep it moist and dark for them. They feed all the way to the top because they feel safe no birds can see them!

Harvest the bumpy like little castings, look like fluffy coffee grounds, they push up to the surface. You have seen castings, often after a rain. Earth worms push them up into little textured piles on the soil’s surface. I use an old coffee container with a handle. Take the ‘blanket’ off your worms. Give them about 5 minutes to dive out of the light. Gather the castings at the top. Wait a few more minutes for them to dive again, then gather some more.

Feeding your plants I walk about my garden to see who might need some castings, or where I plan to plant. Scratch out a shallow area. Most veggie annuals do all their root growing in the top 6 to 8 inches of soil. Spread some castings in, cover them with the soil you dug out. After you have used all the castings, water the areas lightly so the castings stay covered and moist. Remember, you don’t need but 10-40% castings of the total volume of what you are growing your plants in.

How Castings Work! Castings are not exactly a fertilizer, ie their available N, Nitrogen, content is only 1.80 – 2.05 %, yet their NPK value is much higher than soil! NPK are the main minerals your plants need. The NPK in castings is locked in the cast, and slowly released as micro-organisms break it down. This is much better for plants, because it takes time for them to uptake nutrients. They can’t do it all at once.

Vermicompost nutrients and minerals are significantly higher (with Nitrates up to 9 times higher) than garden soil. This creates electro-conductivity, in turn creating more salts in vermicompost. When there is too much salt in soil, it sucks water from plant roots resulting in the ‘burning’ of plants. Although there aren’t enough salts in vermicompost to do that (it is much more common in chemical fertilizers), using too much wormcast can stunt plant growth.

Optimum growth is in a soil ratio of 1:4, that’s 25% castings, 75% soil. However it has been shown that even 10% of wormcast shows significant difference in plant growth. Using over 40% castings, plant growth performance is stunted and may even appear worse off than having no wormcast at all. A wise gardener knows more is not always better. And, your precious castings will go further.

An even more clever gardener will make a drain at one end of the box and collect the worm tea! Check out Bentley’s post for some of the finer details to consider and how to process your leachate for maximum results. If you aren’t doing worm tea, move your worm box from time to time so that juice can drip into your soil, making it rich and nutritious. Plants will grow like crazy there!

Plant recovery! L.A. Times, 5/27/00, Julie Bawden Davis: “Convinced that nothing could help a whitefly infested hibiscus in my garden that had been struggling for two years, I spread a one inch layer of worm castings around the plant. A month later I noticed that the whitefly population had dwindled. Three weeks later there were absolutely no whiteflies on the plant. It’s now back to its healthy self and producing lots of blooms.”

To my delight, visitors often wonder if I have named my worms! We all laugh and I show them more worms! Oh, and how do you get more worms?! Worms are hermaphrodites, meaning each worm has both male and female reproductive parts. The worm does have to mate in order to reproduce, but, every worm they meet is a potential mate. When a worm gets to be about six weeks old it forms a white band around its head, called a clitellum, this is where their reproductive organs are located.

Under ideal circumstances, worm populations can double in a month. They begin breeding at 2 months old, are capable of producing 96 babies each month. Worms have a brain and five hearts. Worms breathe through their skin. They have neither eyes nor ears but are extremely aware of vibrations such as thumps or banging on the composter.  Please try not to disturb them unnecessarily. Worms are odorless and free from disease.

Worm Economics and Education! Vermiculture has become common practice. Private Worm Farms abound! Universities and schools have educational programs, cities have programs, zoos, private organizations proudly tell their story. Websites assist you about raising your own or starting your own business.

Buying Castings! No time for one more thing to do?! Get your castings from a reputable organic seller. There are many great companies with high quality castings today. Don’t confuse an amendment, with castings added, with a bag or bucket of pure castings. Remember, a little bit of the right stuff goes a long way. Give them to your indoor plants too.

Whether for prevention, nutrition, recovery or economics, worm castings are fabulous. Worms work for free, and are sustainable!

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Garden Tower Terracotta

Want to expand your growing space, or you don’t have growing space?!

Vertical gardening in a 55 gallon barrel is a great solution! Cost-efficient, space-efficient! One barrel can be virtually an entire garden in itself – plant the sides in strawberries, lettuce, potatoes, herbs, carrots, beets, and hundreds of other plants, and a tomato and pepper in the top! In fact, an average 55-gallon drum can hold 72 plants in the sides alone, or fewer as you wish, depending on smaller or larger plant choices. Either way, it’s a good return per square foot.

No gophers, moles, or weeds, and few soil insect pests. Water usage is less because the system lowers evaporation since it’s enclosed. Water not used at the top trickles down to water plants below. A drain at the bottom collects any excess nutrient dense water, that is like a compost/worm casting tea, that you can pour right back on top of your barrel garden. Plants grow faster! 

Here’s the barrel building process! Select a clean barrel, make the pockets, set up a manual or automatic watering system, mix the fertilizer, plant, harvest, maintain.  

Get a food grade plastic barrel (if you are ok with plastic) from any food processing company, used on craigslist, from your local honey processor! 

DIY! Mark and make slits in the side with a buzz saw, open the slits with a soldering iron to soften the plastic, hammer a wedge in to open the slits to the dimension you want. OR, a jig saw, heat gun, crowbar, two by four. Use what you got. Some places you buy the barrels from will cut them for you for a little extra. Worth it for the long term investment you are making and the amazing production you will get from it.

The number of slits might be 48. If you are doing bigger plants, leave more space between the rows of slits around your barrel.

In the center install a 4 to 6″ worm tube! Put your worm food in there, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, stuff safe for them to eat. Drill holes into the tube so the worms can come and go, aerating your soil, leaving their castings as they meander. At the bottom of the barrel, make a hole that you can screw a plug into at the bottom of your worm tube. Put your barrel up on cinder blocks so when you remove the plug, the worm castings fall down into a container below. Put a cap on top of the tube to keep out critters like mice, and rain.

If your barrel will have a permanent location, sunny on all sides, you can attach legs, or put it up on cinder blocks. If you need to move it around or turn it for sun and shade, pop your barrel up on a plant dolly. Put the drum in its permanent location, or on your dolly, before filling the container with soil and plants because then it may be too heavy to move afterwards.

Check out Half-Pint Homestead’s video on how to make your own barrels! How to install automatic watering, a drip system in your barrels. John Kohler shows you how to set up a Garden Tower and plant your plants in it. He is a strong advocate of super soil with powerful amendments! And why not?! Makes a lot of sense. Lots of healthy plants in a small space are chomping up those nutrients right and left. What you put in is what you get back. The video is done in his inimitable way, quickly with lots of animation!

If you don’t want to build one yourself, get one in from a small company in Bloomington Indiana called Garden Tower Project! Their new custom terracotta colored, USDA food grade, UV-stabilized v1.1 Garden Towers are $269 (Feb 2014), versus the Tower Gardens, the tall white skinny towers, that start at $525 for a structure that grows only 20 plants. The foot print is about the same, but these don’t have to be anchored and your plants whipped about around a small diameter when there is high wind. And there are certain plants, like peppers, with vertical stems, that don’t do well in Tower Gardens. Garden Towers recycle your kitchen scraps, do worm composting, and your plants are grown in soil. 

If you are planting on a deck, balcony or rooftop, be sure the weight of either one can be accommodated safely. Be sure your water source is convenient and there won’t be water damage to your space or neighbors below or near you.

Plant placement! Smaller plants to the top, vining plants at the bottom. Put upright plants like tomatoes, peppers, bigger tall plants, carrots that need to grow straight, in the top of your barrel. Or plant the whole thing to strawberries! Perennials are not your best choice because they can become root bound. 

Maintenance is pretty simple. From time to time, you add some of your collected castings, and replenish your compost as soil settles, gets used. Replant when space becomes available.

In Eugene OR, the students are making start up barrels to sell, and getting a community garden going this year! Perfect!

Alex at Garden Tower Project tells the story pretty quickly and makes the big points!  It’s way less expensive and complicated than hydroponics. You can put them anywhere. Perfect for seniors, no weeding! Oh, and the barrels come in different colors – green, red, white and blue, and now, that lovely natural looking terracotta!

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Tomato flowers - Pest & Disease Free, Well Fed Veggies!

Feeding your plants for continued sassy growth and production makes sense, sure, as they use up soil nutrients.  And we think a healthy plant resists pests and diseases.  That may be true for diseases, but not necessarily so for pests!  They love a healthy plant, just like we do!

Most gardeners think of putting food on or in the ground for their plants, but in some instances, plants actually have more uptake through their leaves!  There is tons more surface, especially if you spray under the leaves as well as wetting them down.  Uptake is faster and more intense.  So foliar feeding and treating is best!

  • All kinds of teas are great – manure, worm, compost, fish emulsion/kelp mix
  • Epsom Salts for Solanaceae – peppers especially, but also tomatoes, potatoes, tomatillo, eggplant, chayote!  Tablespoon/gallon.

Pest prevention and strong bodies begins when your plant is a baby!  When you put those transplants in, that’s when their care needs to start.  You can apply Powdered Milk, Baking soda and Aspirin together.

  • Powdered milk is a natural germicide and boosts their immune systems.  Use especially on your young bean plants, all your cucurbits – cukes, zuchs, any mildew prone plant.  1/4 Cup/gallon.
  • Baking Soda makes the leaves alkaline and inhibits fungal spores!  Apply every 5 to 10 days, or after significant rains, as the plant grows, because these new plant tissues are not yet protected by your fungicide.  A heaping Tablespoon/gallon, with a 1/2 Teaspoon of a surfactant – insecticidal or dish soap or salad oil, does the job.
  • Salicylic acid, in aspirin, triggers a defense response in tomatoes and other plants as well, and stimulates growth!  One regular strength dissolved/gallon.
  • Hydrogen peroxide (from your drug store) adds Oxygen. Oxygen allows even more uptake of nutrients! It is speculated your plants will then need only a half to a third of other regular fertilizers you use! Your plants will be healthier, stronger, last longer, look great!  Spray it right on the roots when you transplant, and spray the planting hole.  Wet them good.  Katrina Savell says:  Many disease causing organisms, pests, algae, fungus and spores are killed by oxygen, which is why the additional oxygen in H2O2 is so handy in the garden.  Important details

One step earlier, you can start with your seeds, presoaking, presprouting!  From the web:

  • OKRA is one hard seed!!!!   I presoak my okra seed in 1 pint of warm water containing 1 tablespoon of household bleach to pre-soften the seed for 24 hours before planting.  [Some soak them 48 hours!]
  • I would never use bleach in the soaking solution. If you are worried about contamination, try soaking in chamomile tea or 3% hydrogen peroxide instead. If the seed is purchased, I wouldn’t bother.
  • Hydrogen peroxide, both in soak and rinse solutions:  1 oz. of  3% H²O² to 1 pint of water.  Sprouts come up faster.  Some people have reported 3/4″ sprouts in 24 hours.  Last year I soaked my bean seeds in a kelp solution before planting and they sprouted in about 2 days.  [Caution – bean seeds need very little soaking or laying in dampened paper towels.  They decompose quickly.]

You can see the contrasts of thinking.  Find your own way that you enjoy.  And, of course, seeds vary, so you might use one soaking/presprouting technique for one, and something else for another.  See more

Dramm Watering Can - Long Reach, Turnable Rose

To make your work easier, have a watering can that does the job.  A long spout with a rose that turns up so you can get under the leaves is perfect!  These Dramm cans are the best for the price, under $20!  Big accessible opening to easily add ingredients to your mix.  And they come in colors to suit your happiness!  Yes!

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Dry farming has been a garden practice done for centuries in arid places.  With global warming, many will be using these ancient techniques to great advantage!  In Vietnam today, beans and peanuts, that restore the soil, and sesame, are grown season to season between wet rice plantings!  Watch this Vietnamese video, No Water Required! Dry Farming In Âu Lạc Vietnam

Dry Farming Video Vietnam - Beans, Peanuts, Sesame Restore Soil!

I’m sharing this paragraph of a past post on DRY GARDENING from the Oregon Biodynamics Group.  We hear about tomatoes being dry gardened, but have you ever done it?  Here are some practical tips from people who have:

When the homesteaders planted their gardens, they needed to feed their family for much of the year. They couldn’t afford to do raised beds or to develop irrigation systems. How did they do that? Part of the answer is to give plants lots of elbowroom. Space rows widely at about 8 times what we do with intensive beds. They also hoed or cultivated to keep a “dust mulch” between the plants. This technique is quite effective at preserving water so the plants can make it through the summer with only an occasional irrigation. Most of this class is directed at intensive gardening because we have limited areas for garden plots. But if you have the room, one can produce high-quality produce without irrigation. Vegetables must be able to send down deep roots so that they can draw in the water that is stored in the soil. Plants that work are root crops, brassicas, corn, squash, and beans. Ones that don’t work are onions, celery, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, radishes, and spinach. The plants need to get well established in June [Oregon] using the natural soil moisture. Then they can carry themselves through the dry months. It helps to give 5 gallons of compost tea every 2-3 weeks during July-August. Liquid fertilizer helps with the stress of low water.

When getting started for the season, farmer David Little of Little Organic Farm explains another way of dust mulching. To help people understand how dry farming works, Little uses the example of a wet sponge covered with cellophane. Following winter and spring rains, soil is cultivated to break it up and create a moist “sponge,” then the top layer is compacted using a roller to form a dry crust (the “cellophane”). This three to four inch layer is sometimes referred to as a dust mulch, seals in water and prevents evaporation.

Clearly, our SoCal weather is different than what the Oregon homesteaders had, especially in these times of climate change. I’m translating Oregon June to SoCal May. If you are a coastal gardener, or a foothill gardener, use your judgment how you will do your gardening practice. Plant your dry crops separately from your water-needing crops.  Plant your water lovers more closely together and mulch them well. Get plants going with a little water, then cut it off after a few weeks. As usual, seeds and seedlings Tomato California Dryfarmed Early Girlmust be kept moist at startup.

Soil choice is important. Dry farming in sandy soil, through which water drains easily, doesn’t work.

Dry gardening isn’t for everyone, ie, harvest is generally a tad less, or even only a third as much, or very dramatically, only 4 tons of tomatoes compared to 40 tons from watered plants. But they say the taste is superb! In fact, At Happy Boy Farms, near Santa Cruz, sales director Jen Lynne says “Once you taste a dry-farmed tomato, you’ll never want anything else!”  And people shop specifically for dry farmed tomatoes in areas where they are grown!

Useful pointers if you want to try your hand at it:

  • If it is an option, store water for summer use. Set up a grey water system.
  • Prepare your soil with well aged water-holding compost, manure, worm castings.
  • Plant out of a drying windy zone. If that’s all you have, plant subshrub barriers or build porous windbreaks.
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  • Select plants or plant varieties suited to summer, tolerate heat and being dryer.
  • Choose plants that mature more quickly so they will have the early season water.  Plant those that need less water in the latter part of the season.
  • Grow only what you need.
  • If you don’t need volume, but rather a steady supply, plant high producing dwarfs and minis, like many container varieties, that need less water for smaller leaves.
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  • Plant further apart, at least 1½ times or greater the spacing distance recommended on seed packets, 8 times further if you have been doing intensive planting practices. But, do give seeds and seedlings all the water they need until they are established
  • Make furrows and plant IN the bottoms of furrows, not on the peaks that drain/dry out.
  • Thin out seedlings on time.  No wasting water on plants you won’t use and that will slow others that need all the nutrients and water they can get.  Use scissors; don’t pull up soil causing the other plant’s roots soil to be disturbed, even expose the roots, to dry out, killing that plant too.
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  • If you don’t go the entire dry gardening route, but want to use less water, mulch deeply early on. It keeps your soil from drying out and blocks light germinating weed seeds from sprouting.
  • Self mulching:  plant in blocks, rather than rows. This creates shade for roots and reduces evaporation. If you are home gardening, maybe plant 4 to a block, put the blocks in different places to avoid disease or pest spread.
  • Dust mulching is simply soil cultivation to about 2 or 3 inches deep. Cultivation disturbs the soil surface and interrupts the wicking of soil moisture from below to the surface and losing it to evaporation.  Do it after rains or irrigating.
  • Remove water-using weeds. Don’t let them seed.
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  • When you water, do it by drip or trickle, deeply, early AM if possible, when wind is low and temps are cool. Plants drink during the day.  This is a good time to invest in a ‘hose bubbler.’  They deliver water slowly without digging up your soil.
  • Cultivate 2″ to 3″ deep before a rain to capture up to 70% of the rainfall! Cultivate afterwards if a salt crust (from manures) has built up.
  • Give your plants tasty compost tea, equal parts water and aged compost. Compost tea delivers rich soluble nutrients directly to the plant roots.
  • If water becomes critical, consider planting only a couple of containers with vegetables.
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  • Harvest on time at peak flavor and texture, using no more water than needed.
  • When your harvest is done, turn the remaining plants under, especially legumes, like beans, that feed your soil.

Amy Garrett, Small Farms Program, Oregon State University says ‘for each 1% increase in soil organic matter, soil water storage can increase by 16,000 gallons per acre-foot of applied water (Sullivan, 2002)! Many people think of grains and beans when dry farming is mentioned, however farmers in the western region of the U.S. have dry farmed many other crops including: grapes, [cucumbers,] garlic, tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupes, winter squash, potatoes, hay, olives, and orchard crops.’

After years of trial and error, David Little now considers himself an expert.“It’s very challenging because you have to hold the moisture for long periods of time, and you don’t know how different crops are going to react in different areas,” Little says. Much of the land he farms is rolling hills and valleys, which present additional challenges because they hold and move groundwater differently than flat land.

If you decide to dry farm all or part of your garden area, know that you and your land, your plant choices, are unique. Don’t give up, find your own way. Also you can do as David did, search for people who were known dry-farmers. He even made the rounds at local bars, asking older farmers about their experiences! He said they humbly shared their stories and gradually he picked up the important details. That’s dedication!

Be water wise, sleep well, eat hearty, share the bounty!

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Transplants' roots need to be healthy, no girdling, white, not tan! Choosing healthy Transplants!  When at the nursery, check if a plant is root bound.  Carefully pop the plant right out of the container!  You want white lively roots with plenty of space between them; no girdling, no tan color like the ones at the left in the image.  A girdled plant will never be quite as healthy as one that has had normal growth.  If they are tan they are old and may have disease.

If your soil is poor, or you have only asphalt or concrete, consider raised beds or straw bale gardening!

Nowhere in nature will you find row furrows.  Plant for biodiversity!  In fact, California entomologists compared plantings of all one variety of broccoli to mixed plantings of four cultivars. They found that the combination crops had fewer cabbage aphids. So merely mixing varieties in a monocultural planting may help reduce pest problems.

Lettuces can be kept from bolting, producing a stalk, by regularly picking the outer leaves, keeping them from maturing properly.  This ‘cut and come again’ approach to harvesting can extend the time they produce for up to 10 weeks!

Vermicompost, Worm Castings, causes seeds to germinate more quickly, seedlings to grow faster, leaves grow bigger, and more flowers, fruits or vegetables are produced. These effects are greatest when a smaller amount of vermicompost is used—just 10-40 percent of the total volume of the plant growth medium in which it is incorporated.

Intercrop, Interplant for better space usage!

  • fast and slow growing plants in the same space, like radishes and carrots or spinach and peas
  • small plants next to large like cantaloupe and corn or spinach and Brussels sprouts
  • deep and shallow plants like potatoes and cabbage or turnips and lettuce
  • heavy and light feeders like broccoli and carrots or corn and beans

To avoid mildew, space your plantings enough for air circulation and, especially if your area is shady and/or if you water evenings.  Better to water at ground level, not overhead, in the AMs if possible.  It’s good to rinse off leaves from time to time, so your plant can fully photosynthesize for fat harvests!  Too much dust and dirt can hinder that process.

If your soil is crusty or hard and ‘heavy,’ it’s hungry.  It needs humus, more compost.  Compost keeps your soil soft and friable, increases its water holding capacity, adds nutrients.  Yes!

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Red Russian Kale leaves and raindrops at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, Santa Barbara Ca Jan 6, 2016

Raindrops on Red Russian Kale leaves at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden

Skillful Preparation

When you build your garden, make raised beds, mounds, berms for water capture. Install channels to help with drainage issues.

Mulch sloped areas to hold water in place to soak in, and keep soil from eroding. Anchor the mulch in some way to keep it from washing away. Bark chips are not a good choice. Keep every drop of rain on your property to water your trees and to improve our water table. Remember, slow, spread, sink

Make ‘permanent’ pathways with boards, stepping stones, straw bedding, so you won’t be compacting your planting area soil when it is wet or dry! Best is to lay down straw then put a board or two side by side on top. This holds the straw in place, in case of winds, and the straw will feed your soil for good spring planting.

Set up to harvest rainwater for later use, even if it is just putting out containers and buckets here and there!

Way ahead of time, plant for air circulation so foliage dries quickly. Plants too closely spaced, make a warmer micro environment, mildew easier. Choose mildew resistant varieties!

Keep a Weather Watch! 

  • Mulch! Lay down some straw to avoid mud splatter on lettuce leaves, keep fruits clean, up off soggy ground, above the insect soil level zone. Insects stay safe below the mulch, don’t venture above where predators and birds can get them.
  • Lay down fertilizer – manure, compost before a rain so the fertilizer will soak in. Perfect time to sidedress established plants! Be sure there are berms to keep it where you want it and it won’t wash away.
  • Dig in compost and castings in the top few inches of your soil.  When the rain comes, it’s like making compost and worm tea all at once in place.  They improve your soil’s water holding capacity.
  • Take the cover off your compost to let it get wet.  Or cover it to keep it just moist and warm and in steady decomposition.
  • Tie or stake plants that may topple from wind or water weight. Stake cages, trellises that might get blown over. Secure plants growing on trellises to the trellises.
  • Planting! For planting seeds, it depends on whether it matters where they will end up. For example, a green manure cover crop needs no formal rows or placements. If you want a plant where you put it, might be good to wait until after the rain. Near-the-surface seeds, or small seeds, ones not so hard or heavy, can be uncovered or buried, washed away or likely rot if they get in a puddle. Bean seeds can rot, virtually dissolve, in a couple days. Plant delicate transplants ASAP just after rain. If it’s expected to be a heavy rain, wait, so your plants don’t literally drown. Plant just after the rain. The sun will warm up the soil and off they will go! 

During a rainy period….

  • If you didn’t before, if it’s a light rain, get out there in your rain gear and add some compost, manure or fertilizer! Great excuse to play in the rain! Otherwise, no digging in saturated soil. It destroys soil structure that soil organisms make and need, stops oxygen flow the soil needs.
  • Check frequently to see how your plants are doing. Secure any tall plants, trellises that need it.
  • If a plant is too low and in standing water, raise it. Put your shovel deep under it, so not to harm the roots, push some filler soil underneath the shovel!
  • Add more mulch to sloped areas if it has shifted or isn’t quite deep enough.
  • Be sure your wormbox worms are not doing the backstroke! I cover mine with plastic INSIDE the worm box.  Any water either runs down the sides and out the bottom or puddles on the plastic. Easy to remove.
  • If the compost heap is wet enough now, cover it.
  • Rebuild any drainage channel that has weakened, clear if clogged. Rebuild water capture berms that have slumped. Level out areas that puddle.
  • Make sure all your rain harvest system is working well. Kudos to you for harvesting!
  • Practice arm-chair gardening! Read garden books, magazines, browse web sites, buy some seeds from mail-order catalogs, design your new garden layout!
  • Get some seeds, soilless potting mix, gather containers with, or make, drainage holes. Start some seeds indoors!
  • If the rain is prolonged, uh, do an aphid, snail and slug check as frequently as you can. Sluggo works on snails and slugs even when it is wet. Hard to believe, but, yes, it does.
  • If the rain is prolonged, do harvest your fresh and crunchy produce! Lettuces will flourish!
  • Check on fast maturing broccoli and cauliflower heads to cut at peak maturity! Gather your luscious strawberries. Keep your peas/beans picked to keep them coming!

After the rain! YES!

  • Be ready to weed! Do some dust mulching. It is simply soil cultivation to about 2 or 3 inches deep. Cultivation disturbs the soil surface and interrupts the wicking of soil moisture from below to the surface and losing it to evaporation.  Do it after rains or irrigating. It’s commonly done by dry farmers. A hula hoe does a great job in pathways, over wide areas! Those little 3 prong hand held or long handled stand up cultivators are great among your plants.
  • Do some thinning for air circulation as makes sense. Often there is a growth spurt, and you can see where thinning is needed.
  • Repair areas where soil has washed away exposing roots, carrot, beet, radish, parsnip or turnip shoulders.
  • Repair any berms or terracing, level out high/low spots. Clear clogged drains.
  • ASAP do what you do about snails and slugs. Keep checking for aphids – blast them away with water or remove infested leaves.
  • There is often more gopher activity after rain has softened the soil, so be ready! Here’s all about gophers and how to set Macabee traps! OR, now that the soil is softened, install a 1/2″ grid hardware cloth wire barrier basket under your entire garden area!
  • Harvest first, water second at ground level! That’s the rule to keep from spreading diseases spread by moisture.
  • It’s often warmer after a rain, and it is the warmth that mildew loves! Drench mildew susceptible plants with your mildew mix immediately. Apply it preferably before sunrise so it has time to be absorbed before it dries. Absorption can be in as quick as an hour! If you can’t do the sunrise schedule, do it early in the day while your plants are still shaded, and early enough so your plants can dry. If you prune mildewed areas off, remove those prunings, wash your hands and pruners before you go on to other plants. Water less frequently and at ground level, not overhead.

Easy homemade MIX for mildew prevention and abatementIt works for certain other diseases too! Be sure to spray up under leaves as well.

  • Heaping tablespoon of baking soda
  • 1/4 cup of nonfat (so it won’t rot and stink) powdered milk
  • One mashed regular 325 mg Aspirin
  • 1/2 teaspoon dish soap
  • In a large watering can of water, preferably with a long spout so you can get in to the plant’s central leaves too.

Remember, here in SoCal, a light rain may not begin to wet your soil, not even a 1/4″ deep! Always do the old finger test to see what’s what. Sometimes you need to water after a rain!

I swear, Rainwater IS different than hose water! Plants just jump right out of the ground! Enjoy!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for our SoCal 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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