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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 more safe to use right out of the bag. If friends are giving you chickie poop, try a little first to see how it goes. Be careful.
  • 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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Zuni waffle gardens were extensive in New Mexico in 1873, and are still used today. Drought, a hot dry, maybe windy, climate requires creative response. Consider an old proven successful technique!
Waffle gardens at the Zuni Pueblo were planted near the river.
Photographer: T. H. O’Sullivan. Expedition of 1873.
xThe Zuni people developed this waffle-garden design, which is still used today as an ecological method of conserving water. Photo by Jesse Nusbaum, 1911 New Mexico.Planting a waffle garden, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico
Museum of New Mexico photo by Jesse Nusbaum, 1911The Zuni people developed this waffle-garden design, which is still used today as an ecological method of conserving water. The garden was surrounded by a clay or adobe wall that rose 30-50 cm above the ground. The waffle plot may have had a gravel mulch as well. Both methods served to hold the water in the soil longer, to retard evaporation.

About those walls! Study this little airflow diagram…better to make a porous windbreak!
Study this little diagram...better to make a porous windbreak!
In a cooler climate, a wall, maybe of berry producing shrubs with dwarf fruit trees behind, can reduce cooling and drying winds, allowing the warmth of a food forest! The waffles still reduce water use. Mulch in summer keeps weeds down and the plant roots cool and moist though the plants are getting lots of heat.

Waffle gardens at the Zuni Pueblo were planted near the Zuni River. Sadly, today, it is an unreliable water source for sustainable farming, but if you live at the bottom of a drainage area, take advantage of it as they did. If you are selecting land, choose wisely.

Water Zuni River Watershed Waffle Garden

This Zuni field, left, takes advantage of the shade of the trees. Notice that the pattern follows the contour of the land, and the waffles are not all square or the same size. Shape them as suits your needs.

This Zuni waffle garden field takes advantage of the shade of the trees. Waffle garden spaces are not all square or the same size! Shape them as suits your needs.

OCTOBER 28, 2014 The University of Arizona plans a simple Community Garden that incorporates water conservation structure where the higher ground acts as waffle berms.

A modern Waffle Garden! University of Arizona plans a simple Community Garden that saves water.

June of 2002 the A:Shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center had put in a waffle garden to help the children of Zuni understand the ways of their ancestors. July and August, Zuni usually experiences monsoon season with afternoon thunderstorms coming from the south, a common (hoped for, prayed for!) occurrence. When we visited Zuni in August we found that the garden had changed significantly and that there had been lots of growth to all the crops!

A:Shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center Waffle Garden!A:Shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center Waffle Garden in the rain!

A:Shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center Waffle Garden corn is flourishing!A:Shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center Waffle Garden corn is flourishing!

Use and modify your areas to good advantage. High berms deflect the prevailing drying wind. Deep basins hold water where it is needed.

Waffle Garden modification! High berms deflect the prevailing drying wind. Deep basins hold water where it is needed.

Teach! Visit local historic native gardens in your area. In Santa Barbara CA that would be our Mission Garden, called La Huerta, The Orchard. The Albuquerque Demonstration Garden, at the Open Space Visitor Center, is a hands on volunteer effort learning feature designed to teach about historical foods and methods of farming in the Rio Grande Valley.

Albuquerque Demonstration Waffle Garden at the Open Space Visitor Center

Pointers

  • Your berms don’t need to be amended.
  • You don’t need berms, or very high berms, if you dig down and amend.
  • Generally, make your waffle 2′ or smaller square. Make them a size workable for you to comfortably reach across.
  • Make pathways close enough between patches so you can easily reach across to tend and harvest your plants, and haul in your amendments.
  • Plant sprawlers like squash, melons, at a corner.
  • Plant corn so it doesn’t shade plants that need full sun.
  • Lovely as the Three Sisters, beans climbing corn, squash at the feet of the corn, sounds, some say the corn shades out the beans.
  • Put up a trellis along one edge if you are ok with breaking tradition a bit.

Squash and corn starting in a single dug down Waffle! Give it a try! You can do it anywhere!
Squash and corn starting in a single dug down Waffle Garden section!

And that, became this! Happy Planting!
Corn and squash in Waffle Garden space.

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California’s 2013 was the driest year on record in 119 years.

Beautiful Pineapple Tomato Heirloom is drought tolerant, suitable for grafting!
This beauty is Territorial Seed’s heirloom Pineapple tomato – drought resistant, indeterminate, suited to grafting.

Drought won’t stop us from growing tomatoes, but we do need to adjust some of our veggie variety plant choices.

Herbs by nature are naturally drought tolerant since most of them are Mediterranean.

Veggies are generally not naturally drought tolerant. Most are seasonally advantageous short rooted annuals, not deep rooted perennials. They grow quickly, need water to do that. Period. To produce fruitfully, they need to be able to make generous leaves to support photosynthesis to produce generous fruits and lots of them. Yet there are more heat loving varieties that do thrive in dry areas.

Some of us very coastal gardeners will be quite happy for the heat! It will mean we can grow plants we couldn’t before, like melons, pumpkins, large fruited eggplants, okra, that gardeners further inland, in the hot foothills, or south of us have been enjoying all along! There are even drought tolerant varieties of melons like Blacktail Mountain.

One drought solution is to grow only super prolific plants for the most return per square foot, especially the drought and heat tolerant varieties! These 5 are a great backbone-of-your-garden veggies!

  • Indeterminate tomatoes produce all summer long from one plant! No need to replant determinates costing periods of time with no production and additional water usage. Of the heirlooms, Pineapple, per Bountiful Gardens is the most cold-hardy and drought resistant large tomato they have seen.
  • Pole beans!  Same issue with bush beans as with determinate toms. No need to replant bush beans costing periods of time with no production and additional water usage. Pole beans produce all summer long. Try Rattlesnake bean, aka Preacher Bean. 100-degree heat doesn’t stop them from producing lots of beans.
  • Zucchini  Dark Star, produces in only 50 days. It is the result of organic growers working together to grow an open-pollinated heirloom-type zucchini that could outdo the modern hybrids. The result is a zucchini with great performance in cooler soils and marginal conditions, along with a big root system that goes deep to find water and resist drought.
  • Giant Fordhook chard, BountifulGardens.org says it is tolerant of drought and heat in our research garden.
  • Kale! Curly leaf is super productive per its footprint! In our warmer weather Curly leaf kale, a favorite, is more susceptible to aphids, and those little devils are hard to get out of those convoluted leaves. One thing you can do is pick more frequently to keep new growth coming fast. And it will be a must to do frequent routine pest checks; keep flushing them away.1000 Thousand Head Kale Multiple Growth Points!But how about a heat tolerant flat leaf kale like Thousand Headed Kale?! It has multiple growth points instead of just one, so it puts out a lot more foliage and tender shoots. Huge plants make lots of food. A must for self-sufficiency.

    Edible Perennial Tree Collards from AfricaAnother super Brassica is perennial Tree Collards! From Africa to Los Angeles, TCs grow 6′ tall average, but up to 11 feet, live 4 to 5 years in continuous production! No lost harvest time because of needing to be replanted. TCs are high in Calcium, and unlike spinach, chard, and beet greens, collard greens don’t contain high amounts of oxalic acid, an anti-nutrient that can deplete your body of important minerals like Iron.

Check out Bountiful Gardens! They specialize in heirloom, untreated, open pollinated varieties for sustainable agriculture. In the drought tolerant section they say, ‘Please note that this does not mean that the crops listed don’t need some watering – these are crops that will grow with less water and all of these crops will need moisture to get established.’

Prickly Pear - Zapatas, have edible pads and fruits!Try new plants from arid countries. Maria Arroyo at our Santa Barbara Community Gardens office recommends a traditional local plant, zapatas, Prickly Pear! Both pads and the fruits are edible! The fruits, tunas, are used in brilliantly colored healthy anti inflammatory juices, uh, margaritas, a jelly candy, and jams. The pads, nopales, are used various ways. From Phoenix Arizona, here is Kymm Wills’ easy Nopales Recipe!  When & how to harvest those dangerous nopales! Or, check out your local Mexican market.

I have been thinking of the Santa Barbara Mission traditional La Huerta corn. The cobs are quite small. That is likely what happens generation after generation when there is little water. Bet the New Mexico/desert varieties have small production as well. In some instances we will need to adjust our expectations about how much yield to expect when we use less water. We may need more land to plant more for the same previous yield.

This is time to check out southern university sites in states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, maybe Florida, hot states, for their successful heat loving varieties. Please report in to me your location and ones you try that prove successful. Please save those seeds!

Our planting techniques need rethinking. One simple garden practice to change is to plant IN furrows and basins/wells, like Zuni waffle gardens, would keep water right and only where it is needed rather than randomly watering an entire area. A more refined furrow technique is to make a deep furrow, flatten the top, about 8 to 10″ wide, and make a mini furrow there on top! With gentle and careful hand watering, your water stays right at the top where seedling roots need it, rather than running off and eroding the sides of the furrow, lost to evaporation. The bottom of your furrow stays dry and you footwear doesn’t get muddy! Later on, as plants get bigger, roots go deeper, you can water in the main furrows.

Soil amended with compost, worm castings or Sphagnum peat moss has greater water holding capacity.

Grey-water is king. Think how much an apt building would make. Even a 10-minute shower with a low flow shower-head at 2.5 gallons per minute is 25 gallons of water used per shower.
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FYI  Feb 19 I attended the Farm Policy presentation. Here are some notes I took:
  • Santa Barbara County is #12 in California agriculture production.
  • Broccoli is our #2 crop (strawberries #1), 20% of US production! Most of what is exported goes to Japan, cut in special forms to their taste!
  • Farm production is up to 3B/yr.
  • We could be in a 500 year drought. Farming as we know it will be changing. Wells are drying up.
  • Nutrition is the base cause of noncommunicable diseases, 50+% overweight, 8% diabetes, our life expectancy now declining.
  • Amazingly, we import 95% of our fruits and vegetables. Yes, you read that right. Suggestions – increase local food distribution, grow more at home!
  • Mexico has the highest obesity rate in the world.
  • Europe now has a 50% reduction of meat and dairy use.
  • The Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue gleans a 2nd harvest of unused produce, ie misshapen, too small, from farms, farmers’ markets, for seniors, youth, and others in need. Wonderful story!

Which Landscape Plants to Save? TREES! 

Trees are long term plants, and they make shade. Shade means cooler, less evaporation, and though trees use water, they also preserve water.

I like Joan S Bolton’s thorough and thoughtful, informative professional post. HOW TO KEEP YOUR TREES HEALTHY DURING THE DROUGHT

Here are some more details at SB County Agriculture & Weights & Measures Newlsetter. See Page 4, Our Oaks are Thirsty by Heather Scheck.

Stay strong in these challenging times. Enjoy the changes. To your good health and happiness!


The Green Bean Connection 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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