Thursday, May 15, 2014

Watering in the Drought

We are having a drought year, which makes good watering practices even more important.  There isn't any water to spare, so it's crucial to use water wisely and efficiently.  Here are some tips and tricks:

  • Mulch over your soaker or dripper hoses.  A good layer of mulch cuts down on evaporation and helps hold moisture in the soil.  It protects your plants root systems from extremes of heat.  Compost makes a great mulch, and if you live in Santa Clara County you can get free compost from the Sunnyvale SMART Center.   Straw is another great mulch, but try to get rice straw as it won't have seeds-- seeds in straw translate to weeds in your garden!   My dill and lilies are happy with a thick mulch of compost covering the dripper hose, as you can see in the picture below.

  • Water deeply when you do water.  Leave your soakers on for 30 - 40 minutes and let them get the underlying soil nice and moist.  I water twice a week during the spring and fall, and three times a week during the summer (or during heat waves like we just had!).

  • Water when it's cool outside, at night or in the early morning.  If you are hand-watering, or have sprayers, water first thing in the morning so that you don't attract slugs and snails (they love to come out at night, and water just encourages them).  If you have well-mulched dripper or soaker hoses, you can water at night or in the early morning.

How can I tell if a plant is stressed and needs extra water?  Look at the leaves-- they will be drooping, as shown in the picture below.

Some people will tell you it is just the plant getting through the hottest part of the day. Don't believe them-- yes, the plant is slumping to reduce its surface area and lose less moisture through evaporation.  But it's doing it because it's water stressed.  A plant which is getting enough water will not droop during the daytime, even when the temperatures are extreme.  Contrast the two pictures, taken at the same time during a 95 degree day.  One squash plant needs water, the other is perfectly happy with the heat!

When you are going to have a heat wave, do an extra watering before it hits.  Be extra careful about recent transplants that may not have deep or established root systems-- they can almost always benefit from some hand watering at the base of the stem, even if they are on a dripper system.   Consider doing extra watering of any planters or containers you may have.  Some containers are always on the edge of drying out, and a heat wave may push them over the edge.

Happy watering! May you and your garden have a great year, despite the drought!

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Time to Plant Squash and Beans

The nights are starting to stay above 50F, so it's time to start planting squash and beans!  This yellow summer squash was purchased as a seedling and put outside in April, a bit early, but it did fine.

Start the squash in 4-inch pots inside for faster germination.  Or make a little mound of dirt and plant the squash seeds in it, just a couple of palmfuls of soil in a little bump that will warm up faster during the day.  Squash will take 7 - 10 days to germinate.  When the seedling starts to poke up out of the dirt, put the pot outdoors in a sunny space.  Keep it watered every couple of days so the seedling doesn't dry out.   These are seedlings of Renee's Seeds "Romanesco Zucchini".  It's one of the best eating zukes out there, and easy to find-- all the OSH's carry Renee's Seeds (and mail order works too).

It was started in a 4-inch pot on April 19th, and planted in the ground today.  You want to plant them when they have their first true leaf, the jagged leaf in the center.  That was just right, as the roots had just reached the bottom of the 4-inch pot but hadn't started to circle the pot yet.   When I plant I do 4 things, and you might want to do them too.

First, I put in about a couple of tablespoons of "Sure Start", a seedling and transplant fertilizer.  You can get it at SummerWinds, and I think OSH might carry it to.  One box will last quite a long time-- several garden seasons.  It's a good investment.

Second, I water the hole.  I fill the hole with water and let it drain out before I plant the seedling.  That means that there is good moist dirt for the new roots to reach for, and it also helps disperse the Sure Start.

Third, I water the pot.  I make sure the root ball is moist so that the seedling will suffer a minimum of transplant shock.

Finally, I add compost to the soil when I fill in the hole.  This gives the little plant some good nutrition in the soil around it.

Here is the Sibley winter squash that I started on April 3rd, and transplanted a couple of weekends ago. They've been growing nicely!

You've probably noticed that there are several plants there, and there were two Romanesco zuke seedlings in the photo above.  What's up with that?  Well, I plant several seeds so that in case one or more doesn't come up, I have extras.  What to do with the extras?  I let them get larger and get another leaf or two, and then I decide.  I pick the biggest one to keep, and cut or pinch the others off at the ground.  Never pull them out-- their roots are tangled up with the roots of the one you want to keep!  In the case of these Sibley squash, I am keeping both plants.  They form a long vine, and I will put one vine in one direction and the other vine opposite it, so that I can keep both plants.  That should work-- you and I will both find out as the garden year progresses!  For a bush squash like a zuke, that trick won't work, so I will be snipping off one of the little Romanesco zuke seedlings in a week or two once they are more developed and I can pick the clear winner.

I mentioned beans in this post, too.  Here are my beans so far.  The large plants were volunteers that came up this spring all by themselves-- I had let a bean plant go in the fall and dry up, and the pods split and seed landed in the dirt!  I thought I had picked up all the seeds but clearly I missed some. Volunteer plants are great garden neighbors.  They are usually early and healthy, as the conditions were just right for them to grow!  This fall, let some things that you like to grow every year go to seed and scatter their seeds.  You might well get some volunteers in the spring.

You can see the little beans coming up along the drip line.  I spaced the seeds so that each seed got a drip of its own.  That way I didn't have to do special watering to germinate my beans, I could just turn on the normal drip irrigation.  These are Cherokee Wax Beans, an heirloom bean that I've been growing for many years.  Heirloom means they breed true, but I grow so few beans at at time that I haven't been saving seeds, I've been working through the generous packet of seed that I got.   Bean seeds kept at room temperature in a dry place will easily last 5 years or more.  Most beans take 5 - 8 days to germinate-- great to grow with kids because you get results so quickly and they grow so fast!

I often soak beans for a half hour, especially older seed, before planting.  I do this with peas too.  Some people advise against it but it works for me.  Don't soak too long-- the bean can absorb too much water and split, and then it won't germinate.  But a half hour is about right, and I think my beans come up a day or two faster because I do this.

If you want to get seedlings and plant them instead of starting from seed, by all means do that.  I start from seed so that I can grow my favorites, which aren't usually sold as seedlings.  Seedlings have the advantage that they are ready to go in the ground immediately, and are often selected for your particular area's growing conditions.  However seedlings can be too big, and might be stunted later because they got "used to" a small pot as their growing ground.  In general, never buy a seedling with flowers on it, especially tomatoes.  That seedling has decided "this is all the room I'll ever have to grow, so I better go for it and make fruit".  Even after you plant it in the ground or a big container with room to grow, it may never reach a normal size for that variety.

Happy planting!  Talk to you again next week!