Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reasons to Love Our Weird Spring Weather This Year

OK, I admit I'm getting a little grouchy, and perhaps a bit disoriented. I saw ripe raspberries at the community garden the other day and commented that I thought of raspberries more as a summer fruit. "But Strata," someone replied, "it's almost June!" Oh yeah. Easy to forget when you have 61F days and 45F nights!

I always try to find a silver lining in the clouds, and came up with a short list of why I could love our weird spring weather. Now I feel much more cheerful about it!

  • Cool-weather crops are lingering longer! My peas have usually succumbed to powdery mildew by now, and yet they are still going strong, with new flowers and lots of delicious snap-pea pods. Lettuces are slow to bolt, and my spinach is bolting in slow-motion, so that I can harvest a bunch of tasty leaves. I can live with that!

  • Rain makes seeds happy. While they might prefer some warmer soil, seeds seem to grow best when they are rained on and there is good humidity in the air. Well, this week and some of last week seems tailor-made for seed germination. I'm going to put out some more pole beans and start some flats of bush beans outside on a patio table. Wish me luck!

  • There's more planning time. Some of us might feel this is frustrating, rather than useful. I'm trying to get over it. Since it's still too cold to put a number of warm-weather things out, I find myself thinking harder about what to plant, and being able to stick more closely to my garden plan. That's a feature!

  • Recovering from bad seed starts. Also since it's still pretty chilly for eggplants and peppers and the like, I am able to replant my pasillo baijo peppers. The first time, I planted from saved seed that didn't germinate (too much watering from the bottom). The second time, they were eaten by rogue greenhouse snails or slugs when barely emergent. The third time they fell over, burned down, AND sank into the swamp, err, were eaten JUST as they were getting big enough to transplant from six-pack to four-inch pots. I have reseeded. I can be patient. I also am growing out a Rosa Bianca, since I lost the label on one eggplant and really want a Rosa rather than another kind. La la la, I tell myself, it's not a bug, it's a feature! Even though I'm jonesing to get stuff in the ground outdoors!

  • Growing out our weed seeds early, so we can mulch. The rainy weather is encouraging the growth of weed seeds, so maybe we can get them all done (ha! hahaha!) and pulled up for the summer. So this one is kind of a stretch, I'm reaching here.

  • It's a great wildflower year! The frequent rain is bringing out all kinds of wildflowers that are usually sparse, and prolonging the season on many of the standard kinds. Roadsides and garden edgings are spectacular with flowers.

We might prefer some sunny 73 degree days out here in the South Bay, but at least we can try to appreciate some features of the days we're getting instead. Happy gardening!


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mulching for Synergy

To mulch or not to mulch, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to ... oh, wait, this is a garden blog, not a literary blog. Seriously, though, you'll see a lot of advice about mulch: what kind, when to do it, how to do it, and often the basic principles of mulching go somewhat neglected. There are three basic reasons to mulch your garden. They all boil down to controlling or influencing the soil environment: temperature, light, and moisture. Organic gardeners add a couple of reasons of their own to that list, namely soil bioactivity and fertilization. Mulching is powerful but unglamorous, and we don't have a stable of pictures ready to go on the glorious topic! By the way, mulching isn't just for gardens in the ground. Raised beds, windowbox planters, and ordinary pots all benefit from good mulching.

Temperature Mulch can act as an insulator, keeping soil warmer at night in the spring, or preventing it from heating up as much in the summer. Many vegetable crops have shallow roots. As the soil heats up in spring and summer, the higher soil temperatures, along with the changing length of day, send a powerful signal to bolt and go to seed. Mulching your cool-season crops in the fall helps keep them warm in the winter, and refreshing the mulch after the winter rains helps extend your spring season. Summer crops can also be put in earlier with mulch than without it, if you mulch in the late afternoon while the soil is warmest and use a thick layer that will help retain heat overnight.

Light When you till or fluff your soil in the spring, you help let sunlight into the soil to warm it. That same sunlight also triggers the growth of buried weed and grass seeds. By mulching your garden, you can control where the light reaches the soil. When you wish to plant seeds, simply scrape aside the mulch in that area along the row directly where you'll sow the seeds. For scattered crops, like hills of squash, you can uncover only the exactor spot where you want to plant. Mulch won't eliminate all the weeds, but it will cut down on them dramatically. Depending on what you use for mulch, the color of the mulch can make weeds easier to see as well!

Moisture Here in the Bay Area, we're having an oddly prolonged rainy season. Eventually it will stop, though, and then for many months there'll be no water in the garden other than what we add to it. The clayey soil in much of the Santa Clara Valley has a tendency to bake into pseudo-adobe in the sun. Mulch to the rescue! A layer of mulch creates a barrier to evaporation. If your soaker or drip system is covered by the mulch, so much the better-- all of the water will get into the ground where it belongs, and tend to stay there longer.

Unmulched gardens around here tend to get easily water-stressed, as the soil dries hard in a way that makes water run off, rather than soak in like a sponge. Having a high percentage of biological material in your soil (compost, organic matter, etc) helps hold water, the sun here is just too strong for most gardens and dries out the top two or three inches of soil. As we'll see in a moment, those few inches are fairly critical!

These are the conventional reasons for mulching. Organic gardeners have even more reasons for a good mulch strategy. Read on!

Soil Bio-Activity In organic gardening and permaculture, we actively aid and maintain the soil as a type of living organism in and of itself. In the first several inches of soil there are distinct layers of bio-activity that assist plants in growing, in a symbiotic or synergistic realtionship. Those few inches are where mycelium threads, soil helpers, beneficial bacteria, and other garden buddies are supposed to be at work. Mulch keeps things cool and moist and dark for them, and allows us to condition the soil directly. Isn't this just "temperature, light, and moisture" all over again? Yes and no-- we're acting on behalf of the soil rather than the plant, and may mix things into the mulch, or mulch in layers, to "feed" the soil as an organism.

Fertilization Speaking of fertilizer, that's what mulch can become if used correctly and well. While any mulch will eventually break down and become part of the topsoil, not all mulches are created equal in fertilizer value. As organic gardeners, we prefer to use a variety of mulches and layered mulches to help assist the garden in being productive.

Straw has tremendous insulating value, but usually little fertilizing value. Decomposition of cellulose material like straw or sawdust can actually decrease the amount of available nitrogen in the soil. Watch out for this when applying animal manures, as many manure mixtures are mostly sawdust, shavings, or other bedding material. They'll add nitrogen after many weeks of decompostion, so they're a great choice for a garden plot that is going to stay fallow or just grow a cover crop over the winter.

Alfalfa pellets break down into nitrogen for a long slow boost to plants, and decompose more quickly than straw or shavings or leaves. For a quick pick-me-up, try coffee grounds. They are 'hot', like chicken manure, and supply quick nitrogen. Unlike chicken manure, coffee grounds won't give your plants chemical burns.

Strata's Pick: Cocoa Bean Shells

My favorite mulches that combine fertilization with good insulation are the shredded cocoa-bean shells sold widely at hardware and garden stores. They smell wonderful, build up nice air gaps for good thermal insulation, and draw worms up from the deeper soil like crazy. I have never seen so many worms as when I mulch with cocoa shell.

Why the worm excitement? Worms aerate the soil and make it more friable (crumbly, workable) so that plant roots can grow more efficiently. Worm castings (a fancy name for worm poop) are GREAT fertilizer, and by encouraging the worms to come poop near the surface, the shells contribute fairly quickly to the soil fertility. Sorry to be indelicate here, but worms are basically tubes that eat, and what comes in must displace what came before. (Fellow geeks: worms are FIFOs).

As an added bonus, the cocoa shell mulch also seems to discourage snails and slugs. I occasionally see a shiny trail across them, but only rarely. A mulch of crushed eggshells has been noted as good for repelling slugs and snails, so perhaps the cocoa shells work similarly. I'm just pleased with the results so far.

Practical Tips

  • Get to it while the soil is still moist with spring rain.
  • Don't rake or till the soil before mulching; you disturb fewer weed seeds that way.
  • Mulch should be near, but not touching, the stem of the plant-- some mulches can trigger fungal withering of plant stems. Great vs weeds, not so great for your peppers and lettuces!
  • If you have a ton of weeds, weed first, then mulch. If the weeds haven't taken over yet, pull the biggies and try to kill the little ones by simply mulching over them.
  • Use dark mulch to warm soil, light colored mulch to cool it or to reflect sunlight up into the plants.
  • Scrape back mulch to side-dress plants with compost later in the season, water in the compost, and then re-mulch.
  • Try to put soaker or drip hoses under, not over, the mulch. Mulch can soak up water and keep it from getting to your deeper soil layers if the drip/soak line is on top of the mulch.
Happy mulching!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Tale of Three Sisters

A Three Sisters garden is corn, beans, squash all interplanted, in the style of many Native American nations. I'm not sure where this first was documented; many of us learned about it in grade school during lessons about the Pilgrims. One early authoritative source is Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden, the result of lengthy interviews with a Hidatsa woman. It was published in the late 1800's and includes pictures and diagrams. This first-hand account of Hidatsa gardening practices includes information about tools, recipes, preserving crops, and some keen observations about human nature.

My corn this year is Painted Mountain Flour corn, and the first block is already a few inches tall. For beans, I chose Hidatsa Shield Figure beans in honor of Buffalo Bird Woman. I'm going to break with tradition and grow some melons as well as winter squash. My community garden plot is my only garden space with enough sun for melons. I'll have Sunshine kabocha as my winter squash, and Green Machine melon and Hime Kansen watermelon.

The first block of corn seedlings is already up and about four inches high. Planted May 1st.

Growing a Three Sisters

Some directions say to plant the corn and beans at the same time in hills, and plant the squash after the corn is a foot tall. Others say to plant the beans after the corn is 6 inches tall, and the squash at the same time. I put the squash in first last year, and do NOT recommend it-- the squash grows faster as the weather warms up and shades the beans before they get going! My current plan is to put in the beans when the corn is 6 - 8 inches tall, which should be in about a week, and to put the squash in around June 1st. I started them just this past Monday, so there's no hurry. Last year I'd started squash FIRST, and they were getting too big so I had to put them out. Oops.

The layout of the garden can be tricky. There are several different schools of how to do this. One says to plant all three in one hill, another says to alternate rows of corn-plus-beans and of squash. The theory is the same in both cases, though-- the beans climb up the corn stalks, and fix nitrogen at the roots to help a good corn crop. The squash vines ramble between the hills of corn and shade out weeds, as well as making it more uncomfortable for garden pests to come bother the corn. I found that a 4x18 garden bed is fairly tight spacing for either method. Here's last year's diagram; it didn't work very well, but I'm not sure if that was because of putting in the squash too soon, as above.

This year I am planting one corn per square foot, and leaving some 2x2 foot 'bay windows' along the front for bush varieties of winter squash. Since a bush variety really means "a bush plus short vines" I am hoping this works well. I do wonder if I should have put the bay windows in the back, so that vines would move forward toward the sun, but it's too late now. Will see how this goes-- every year, another experiment!

Reading about Buffalo Bird Woman's garden, one finds that the Three Sisters were in fact usually Four Sisters, the fourth being sunflowers. I usually plant sunflowers along the outside of my garden bed to attract pollinators, and this turns out to be an old, old practice. The Hidatsa often grew sunflowers in hills of three, the same as for corn, but I just plant them in a row due to limited space in the garden bed.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Flowering Garden

Adding flowers to your garden does more than beautify it. Early flowering plants put your garden 'on the map' for local pollinators such as native bees and hoverflies. They also attract beneficial insects to your garden, and provide habitat for them while your main garden crops develop.

An ideal garden flower would be fairly self contained, a bit taller than most of your food crops, and flower early in the spring. It shouldn't spread or take over, and shouldn't require a lot of care.

The most common companion flower in vegetable gardens is the marigold, as various species of Tagetes repel some pests and of course are lovely in the garden. I find that snails feast on my marigolds, especially the yellow ones, in such profusion that I needed to find some alternate flowers!

Cal poppies in a nearby ornamental bed.

California poppies are a wonderful attractor for native pollinators, and gorgeous as well. They will usually die in a garden itself, as they are so drought-adapted that overwatering destroys them. However, you can plant a bed of them next to your garden and enjoy the blazing orange blooms all summer! Water lightly once or twice a month, and crush the dried seed pods over the poppy bed, and they will keep coming back.

A Green Fingers cucumber waits for warmer weather to flourish, next to a meadowfoam, or Poached Egg Flower.

Limnanthes is a western wildflower almost as showy as a California Poppy, but much less well-known. I'm growing it for the first time this year. I didn't know how well it direct-seeded, so I grew the first batch as a 6-pack in the greenhouse. Territorial Seeds and other heirloom seed companies can supply Limnanthes if your local seed shop does not have it. I was drawn to it when I read that it does well in heavy clay soil, which describes the Santa Clara Valley soil quite well in my backyard.

The name 'Poached Egg Flower' comes from the bright yellow centers of the white or cream colored flowers. I'm really looking forward to seeing it bloom. I hope it will establish itself in the garden along the verges, the way that alyssum does. I had to pull out my alyssum because the flowing drapery of it was perfect cover for dozens of snails, alas. Perhaps I'd have done better to keep it and just check for snails periodically.

Immature flowering plants: Cosmos and Bishop's Lace

Bishop's Lace, ammi majus, is often confused with Queen Anne's Lace or wild carrot, but in fact is a different cultivar. It's a common cottage garden flower, with big snowflake-like flower clusters floating airily on a tall plant. Butterflies are drawn to it, as well as bees. I thought it would be nice to have some on the outside of the garden. It's not long-lasting, so I hope it will reseed itself and keep going. This is an experiment!

Like the Limnanthes, I started the Bishop's Lace in the greenhouse. I soon found that it was susceptible to overwatering, and ended up with only 3 plants from a six-pack. Fair warning, if you are going to grow it! Bishop's Lace is readily available at most places that stock Renee's Seeds or Botanical Interests.

A couple of square feet of beets behind a pair of agrostemma.

The corncockle, agrostemma githago is another new flower experiment for this year. Tall and feathery, it should do well at the sunny edge of the garden and hold its own with the corn and squash. I chose Renee's Seeds cultivars "Purple Queen" and "Pink Contessa" mix. The package made them look like the pink and purple of the old PDP-11 keyboard. Who says gardening isn't nerdy?

I planted all the cosmos at the same time, but this one leaped ahead of the pack, blooming beautifully and earliest!

Last but far, far from least is my garden flower par excellence, cosmos bipinnatus.

Available in a range from my preferred pink/purple/magenta (Sonata mix) to ornamentally petalled varieties like Seashells or Double Ruffle, to the hot jazzy colors of cosmos sulphurens in orange, gold, and red, or even in dainty white, there is a cosmos color scheme for every gardener!

Cosmos is quite drought tolerant, and does best in dry soils. Many folks, myself included, make the mistake of overwatering their cosmos. This can kill the plant in poorly drained soils. With good drainage, overwatering merely makes the plants tall and spindly. Cosmos attracts bees and butterflies readily, as well as small birds who enjoy feeding on flowerheads gone to seed.

A honeybee enjoys a ruffled cosmos flower.

The plants go to seed readily, and benefit from deadheading. Snip back the plant to a height of 10 - 12 inches in the hottest part of summer, and scatter the seeds in a quarter inch of soil. A light watering at that point will generally get you a crop of fall cosmos, filled in and lower growing, with a rebloom of your original plants.

I've heard a story that the beautifully symmetrical blossoms led the early Spanish Missionaries to name the flower 'cosmos', aka 'harmony'. While that may be apocryphal, it does seem to be the case that the flowers came to California via the Missions, and stayed to the present day.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, May 03, 2010

A Pinch to Grow an Inch

Seedlings out in the wild to 'harden off' and get ready for planting. A dangerous time!

We've all had it happen. One day there are beautiful little seedlings, with a pair of seed leaves, maybe even with their first true leaf as well. The next day, bare little stems with a munched top. "That Which Eats in the Night" has come to visit. Snail? Slug? We sigh and resign ourselves to starting new seedlings. But wait! There is still hope!

We tend to consider that once the top of a seedling is gone, it's all over. The apical tip, aka the part of the plant that is growing, has been lost. It turns out that there are two things to consider. The first is that in some plants, the true leaves grow under that first set of seed leaves (the cotyledon leaves). The second is that many plants branch along their stems.

Most of these seedlings still have only the cotyledon or seed leaves yet.

A very wise elder gardener recently shared his "pinch" technique with me, while I was bemoaning some beheaded seedlings at the community garden greenhouse. Squeeze the tip of the stem very hard, pinch it at the top. This seals off the tip. At that point, the seedling may form a branching tip or even a new apical tip just below the pinch. Sealing the stalk allows the tiny plant to increase activity up there and you may get a second chance.

How often does it work? "Not every time, for sure, but often enough that I find it worth doing." was the reply. So pinch off those poor little naked stems and keep your fingers crossed. Before you go off to wait, pick up all your pots and six-paks and see if you can find the snail or slug responsible. Otherwise your new growth may get eaten too, and this is a trick that only works the first time!

I've seen pepper seedlings that have lost their tops be saved with the method we discuss above. Also eggplants!

Labels: , , , , , ,