Saturday, September 24, 2005

Raised Beds for Next Year

This year's garden was laid out rather casually, in what I thought might be 'the right way' but wasn't sure about. So I used inexpensive plastic landscaping edging, secured with small plastic stakes (all from recycled plastic, thanks) to outline quasi-raised beds, where the soil is mounded up about 6 - 8 inches high. I was able to cut it with garden shears, and it was flexible enough that I could cut and stake it where I needed the soaker hose to pass through it to go between beds. Now that I have a better idea where things should be. There are a couple of other factors: reach, and railways.

I have learned the hard way that I personally don't have the reach needed to pick things in a 3x6 garden bed where one side is against a fence. All the raised-bed veggie books will talk about 3x6 raised beds, but the writers are generally guys who are six feet tall or nearly, and have that critical extra reach of 4 - 6 inches. I guess it's a Guy Thing. My husband and I use the same seat and mirror settings for our cars, which is handy. But when I drive the Ford Ranger, I have to disengage the emergency brake before I put on my seatbelt, since I can't reach down below the dash to the release. He can get it with no problem. Part two is railways: we want to lay things out so that we have room for a Garden Railway. Mike is quite the railfan, and while he volunteers at various museums working on track for the 1:1 scale trains (full size!), we think it would be a nice change to do track work with 1 ounce rail, rather than 90-pound rail. I'm quite charmed by the concept of tiny boxcars of cherry tomatoes going 'round the bend when we have folks over for a BBQ. So we need pathway space for that, and for the tracks to loop around garden beds, since even tiny trains need a shallow-radius curve to turn around.

Now, on to raised beds!

My peppers didn't do very well here, from a combination of under-feeding and not being warm enough. I should have been using a foliar fish emulsion spray or seaweed spray once blossoms appeared, or supplemental feeding at the surface. When I grew peppers hydroponically last year in San Jose, they were exploding with fruits, since they were constantly getting all the nutrients they needed. I'll definitely try hydroponics this coming year, and compare results in a test raised bed using black plastic to warm the soil. I found an inexpensive recycled plastic raised bed kit which is black and designed to warm up the soil. I will probably get the drip irrigation kit designed to go with the raised bed, too, rather than mucking about with soaker hoses.
Gardener's Supply hotbox style raised bed
This particular bed is also touted as a potato bed kit, more attractive and easier than raising them in barrels. You just take apart the sides of the bed in the fall, rake out the potatoes, and you're done! Friends of ours raise sweet potatoes, and I'd like to try raising them in a bed like this. Sure, potatoes and sweet potatoes are generally cheap enough that raising them in a small garden doesn't make a ton of sense. However there are some varieties of potato, such as Russian Banana, Ruby, or Princess LaRatte that are expensive or hard to find in stores, and sweet potatoes actually are incredibly attractive plants, related to the morning glory and with stunning flowers.

Guarden brand mini-greenhouse Orcaboard raised bed kit with toprail
I'd been looking at some raised bed mini-greenhouse kits, which also can be used with anti-pest mesh. I would still like to get something tidy and kit-like, to minimize the homebrew aspect of all this and stay neat and proper. The first kit mentioned, the black 'hot box' kit, is only available in 3 foot by 3 foot size, which may or may not do well for the space we have. I need to get out there and do some measuring. The mini-greenhouse raised bed kits are available in 2x4, 3x6, and 4x8 sizes. Another set of recycled plastic raised bed kits, from Orcaboard, offers a top-rail add-on, making a small shelf around the top. They say there are 'accessories' available, but I can't find links. They're in 2x4, 4x4, and 4x8. They're white and very nice-looking, so a couple of 2x4 kits might make sense around the side of the house where things are quite visible from the street.

Scenery Solutions raised bed kit
The do it yourself stacking joints and recycled-plastic plus wood-flour timber beds from Scenery Solutions are also fairly affordable, and look like a traditional high-end redwood or cedar raised bed. The lumber is sold in 2x6 thickness, in 8 foot lengths, but clearly one could craft beds of an arbitrary or custom size using the joint kits. Stacking up to a 12-inch high bed gets expensive fast, though one could add on a new layer annually until the ideal 18 - 24 inch 'cadillac of raised beds' height is reached. Decisions, decisions!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

California Master Gardener Handbook

The UC Davis cooperative extension office is now publishing the California Master Gardener Handbook, an incredible reference for those of us gardening here in the Bay Area and elsewhere in California. Similar in concept to the old favorite Western Garden Book, this is a 700-page ox-walloper of a book, customized for California's many climate zones and soil types.

If you're unfamiliar with the Master Gardeners program, this is a good time to start learning about it. It's a county-by-county service that helps identify and train community members who volunteer and work locally to spread gardening knowledge. Santa Clara has a very active chapter, which does demonstration gardens in Prusch Park in San Jose, and up in Palo Alto and other areas as well.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Planning for Next Year: Plant Diseases and Avoiding Them Next Time

Overall the garden was a flying success, but there were some glitches! In planning my soil amendments to be tilled in this fall, and my watering strategy for next year, I'm finding that it's very useful to analyze what didn't go so well this year. The Gardener's Supply site has a helpful picture catalog of plant diseases for use in identifying what went wrong in this year's garden.

We had big trouble with powdery mildew in the cucurbitae, especially the summer squash. This was partly susceptibility and partly my watering practice. To conserve water, I was watering at night, and watering very deeply but only every 3 or 4 days. Unfortunately that made the still-clayey soil much too moist for the squashes, and they'd develop big powder spots on the leaves within a day of watering. I sprayed with a light sulfur spray from Safer Naturals, which helped keep it in check, but the real difficulty was that I should have been watering lightly and frequently, first thing in the morning so the plants could dry out by the end of the day. Now that it's getting below 65 at night, the powdery mildew has mostly vanished, since it needs high temps to flourish, but it really played havoc with my summer squash crop and the late peas.

Let's talk about watering briefly. I wanted to adjust the watering to favor the squashes, but hadn't considered that when I built the temporary beds this spring. Since my watering system was two soaker hoses on a Y-connector that threaded through ALL the beds, there was no way to water more in one area and less in another. I hadn't even used a Y-connector that had valves, which would have let me close off one side. I didn't get one and retrofit it, though, because it wouldn't have done much for me-- the hoses snaked along the beds in a way that maximized hose use, but didn't take into account any kind of zones of types of plants. Wups!

I also learned about 'drought farming' of tomatoes, where they are watered very little, possibly not at all, once the fruit sets and gets of a certain size. It's supposed to make the tomatoes denser and more flavorful. When I tried to adjust my watering to make the squashes happier, and quasi-drought-farm the tomatoes, my cucumbers and melons stopped setting fruit, since those fruits are MOSTLY water. I was busy and not paying attention sufficiently to notice that for a few weeks, by which time my melons had given up, despite some hand-pollination, and most of cucumber season had passed by. I am now getting 'normal' fruit set on the cukes, since I stepped the watering back up to a higher level.

More planning coming soon: raised beds! The right way, this time!