What I’ve Learned 2013 Edition Volume 1

Summer is officially here and it’s time for me to finally get around to writing down some of the things I need to remember. Hopefully this list can help you too in your quest for gardening perfection (pssst….it doesn’t exist).

strawberriesReplace your strawberry plants every few years.

I’ve heard this said over and over but I’ve always kind of been like “yeah, whatever, they are perennials.” Well, I finally have to admit that I was wrong. Every few years those plants drop in production…like a lot. Last year we harvested 35lbs of strawberries from our little 4′x10′ bed. Quite impressive. This year? I haven’t added it up yet but I’ll be surprised if we broke 5lbs. The berries this year are also substantially smaller than last year as well. These plants gave us a good 3 year run but even fertilizing didn’t help use out and we’ll need to replace them next year. The question is what varieties should I replace them with? Do you have a favorite strawberry variety with outstanding taste (#1) and production (#2)?

Update: While I was writing this it came to my attention that while the harvest is lower it has been made even more low by Squeak the Super Dog who has found an undying love for the taste of strawberries.

People love their big beefsteak tomato plants

This year we tested the waters selling plant starts. The tomatoes were the biggest hit by far. We only grow heirlooms and are picky about the varieties – only choosing those that grow well for us. While I thought Stupice – the heirloom tomato’s answer to a fog-tolerant Early Girl – would have been a big hit, it was the Black Krim and Hillbillies that stole the show. We actually sold out of Black Krim and 90% of our Hillbillies before we even started tabling at Moschetti Coffee. We also got a lot of requests for red beefsteak tomatoes so we’ll be looking at including more of those – probably Brandywine, Italian Heirloom and more Mortgage Lifter plants. Paste tomatoes were also a popular request so I’ll need to include some of those as well. Next year I hope to increase the amount of plants we grow substantially. We will also be using real plant pots as the red cups tip over too easily. Unfortunately it means we’ll have to charge a bit more to cover the cost.

….but are not so hot on hot peppers

As much as I LOVE hot peppers I should probably have realized that the general populace doesn’t share that love with me. While I was able to sell most of them, the sweet peppers sold out pretty quickly. Also, I’m hoping that next year the Anaheims do better so I’ll actually have some of those to sell.

Direct seeding doesn’t always work but sometimes it’s the seeds

We had a problem with direct seeding melons, watermelon, cucumbers and some of the squash. Most refused to germinate. After doing some investigative digging I found that the issue for some was that something was eating them right when the root would start to come out. So for those I ended up germinating them in the greenhouse and planting them as soon as they were up so as not to have issues with being root bound. However, the Bidwell Casaba melon seeds I couldn’t even get to germinate in the greenhouse. I tried pots outside. Still no go. I ended up going through 4 packets of seeds and after planting every single one I only got 2 plants to show for it. They weren’t being eaten, they just weren’t coming up. So I decided to try a few other varieties of melon and every single one I planted came up within just a few days. I’ve planted Bidwell Casaba before and had great luck so I suspect there was something wrong with this year’s batch. Next year I plan to start seedlings about a week before the earliest date I can put them in to avoid this mess again.

It’s all Beansabout the manure

Our garden is going gangbusters right now. Plants are all huge, producing a ton and we aren’t having any disease or pest issues. Last year we had a pathetic harvest due to being skimpy on the manure spreading. This year we tripled the amount of manure we put down and what a difference it has made! The only patch of ground that we didn’t amend very well is where we have beans planted and the difference between that patch and another patch in another location that was planted at the same time is very notable.

The only "clear" walk down to the end of the yard

The only “clear” walk down to the end of the yard

….but there is a downside and we planted too much of it

We can barely get down to the walkways because the uber-happy squash has taken over everything, including the pathways. We need to grow fewer squash next year because of this and also because they seem to want to take over all the other plants. Plus I have absolutely no idea what we are going to do with that much squash. I figure this year will just be the year where we determine what our favorite varieties are and then next year we will reduce the amount we grow. So far we know we will be growing Howden pumpkins and Trombocino squash. What I really like about the Trombocino is that it’s eaten like zucchini but the majority of it is seedless except for the bulb at the very end. This means that if one gets away from you it is still just as edible as it was when it was smaller. It also makes fantastic pickles because it’s less likely to get mushy in the canner. Of course it will be awhile before we can choose the winter squash variety we like the most (besides the pumpkins).

 Hot weather makes for early harvests

We harvested our very first June tomatoes this year. Usually we don’t get tomatoes until the end of July – mid-July at the very earliest. We’ve even got tomatillos ready to go. It’s been unseasonably hot the last month or so. While our normal weather pattern is around the upper 70s with morning fog, we’ve been getting a pretty consistent stream of upper 80s to 100s. It finally cooled down to decent upper 70 weather this week but it was pretty brutal for awhile. Because we weren’t expecting it, some of the harvest got away from us and now we’re scrambling to process stuff. I processed a dozen quarts of zucchini pickles on Friday. I also processed 36 8-oz jars of apricot jam, 6 quarts of halved apricots and 2 quarts of apricot syrup.

I think for now I’ll stop here. Watch for Volume 2 later in the season.

The Hugelkultur Bed Experiment Update

hugelLast fall we decided to convert part of a garden bed into a low  hugelkultur bed to see how it would work for us. To compare we prepared the bed right next to it using a rototiller. In both beds we used the same mix of soil amendments and we planted the exact same varieties in the same configuration. They are also hooked up to the same water line. So other than one being a hugel and the other being tilled, they are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same.

The season is still fairly early but I’m already seeing some differences.

tomatoesThe tomatoes are slightly larger in the hugel bed compared to the tilled bed.

peppersSame with the peppers. Especially the habanero, which is notorious for being a slow growing variety.

eggplantsThe eggplants are doing equally well.

watermelonWatermelon germination was the biggest difference. I had much faster and better germination rates in the tilled bed compared to the hugel.

Of the squash plants that germinated at about the same time, the ones in the tilled bed are bigger and more vigorous.

bedsThe biggest difference though is a substantially smaller amount of weeds in the hugelkultur bed.

The season has just started and production hasn’t even started yet and that will be the real test to determine which bed works the best.

Buying Before it’s Time

Now is not the time to plant these.

Now is not the time to plant these.

This morning I saw tomato and pepper plants for sale. This morning I also saw frost on the ground at my house, which has a much milder climate than where I saw these plants for sale. What do peppers and tomatoes hate? You guessed it. Frost.

So why in the world would some nurseries be trying to sell frost sensitive plants while there is still frost? Come on now, we live in a capitalist society, we all know the answer there. They don’t care if your tomato plants get ruined, they want to get a jump on selling the most popular vegetable plant around.

Don’t be fooled. Just because the nurseries have it does not mean it’s time to put it in the ground. Even some of the best nurseries can make you fall victim to buying before it’s time. Spring is here, the seed catalogs are out. It’s time to plant!!!!

Hold on a second. What’s your last average frost date? Not yet? Then don’t buy those frost sensitive plants. Actually I wouldn’t even buy them within 3 weeks of the average frost date. Remember, it’s an average, so some years it will be later in the year.  Our last average frost date is supposed to be sometime in February but I’m not buying it. As I said, we had frost last night and I know last year we had frost as late as mid April. Since then I’ve learned that February is NOT our last frost date and I won’t plant until after mid April.

Now, you can very well plant them early if you have season extenders, but mid-March still seems excessively early to even use those. Tomatoes and peppers aren’t just frost sensitive but they LOVE heat and prefer their nights to not go below 55 deg F. Planting them too early can stunt them or just knock them back so they don’t get a good start.

Nurseries do a disservice to gardeners by selling plants before they can safely go in the ground. Beginning gardeners trust nurseries to know when planting times are so if tomatoes are in they think that it’s time to plant them. Then they plant them and the plant dies because it’s still too cold still. And nothing discourages a new gardener like a dead plant when they just start out.

Putting a Value on That

Recently I tagged along with my mom to the grocery store. She was in town visiting and she’s a fantastic cook and was planning on making an amazing meal for her best friend who she was staying with.

It wasn’t just any grocery store, though. We were entering the yuppie-hippie grocery store. A full third of the store was just produce so I figured this was a good time to check out prices for the in season, organic produce.

I haven’t updated it in awhile – here it is February and I still haven’t finished 2012′s totals – but on the right hand column we keep track of what we spend and save running our urban farm. I base the prices on the unit costs for a similar item if I was purchasing it elsewhere – whether it was the farmers’ market, the grocery store or a roadside stand. If I see similar items at different prices I take the average.

Since I don’t make it into a grocery store very often, especially one with such a large selection of (organic) produce I figured I’d start jotting down some of the prices of items I normally don’t find at the farmers market (or the normal grocery store, for that matter) but that I grow at home. If the produce came in a bunch or was priced individually I weighed it to figure out the cost per pound.

As I went through row after row of vegetable, weighing and jotting down prices I quickly began to realize that there is no way in hell I would ever spend that much money on produce. Cute little of bunches of arugula that only weighed a 1/4 lb were going for $2.49 or $9.96/lb. Nearly $10 for a green that practically grows wild in my yard with no known pests. For realz? Do people actually spend this much for arugula? Well, now that I think about it, a similar amount sold at my local farmers market goes for $2 a bag or about $8/lb. That can’t be right. The dandelion greens (yes, they even had those) were half the price of the arugula, and in my (not so) humble opinion they are harder to find commercially. They too grow like a weed in my yard, and I can say I wouldn’t pay $5/lb of them either.

There’s a balancing act when you grow food yourself. I grow it because I wouldn’t pay what this yuppie-hippie store charges for the items that cost me just a couple of dollars in seeds for a year’s supply. If I didn’t grow it I probably still wouldn’t buy it so am I really saving money? Probably not. But there are items that I would buy, like apples (they have them for $3.99/lb, but at the farmers’ market they are $1.50/lb for organically grown), I just wouldn’t buy them at that particular grocery store. So which price do I go with? The farmers’ market price, of course.

The other side of the coin is when I think an item is worth more than what they sell it for. Potatoes, corn, onions, garlic and winter squash should be more than the $0.99-$1.99/lb just because they require so much more space, time and skill to grow. But the cost is what it is so in fairness that’s what I use in my spreadsheet. I’ll be honest though, it pains me to enter the low numbers.

As I peruse the farmland listings and calculate how much it would cost us to have a farm I really have to wonder how the hell we would ever make enough money selling vegetables to pay for the farmland it’s grown on? While that $10/lb for arugula sounds like it could do it, it’s important to realize that the farmer that’s growing it is lucky to get $2/lb for it. The remaining $8 goes to transport, distributors and the grocery store. Direct sales would have to be the way to go and lots of high value crops (*cough* heirloom tomatoes *cough*) to make up for the lower value crops.

 

 

Picking the Right Irrigation System and Installing it

Reader Question:

I wanted to know if there is a drip irrigation system that you guys would recommend!  I don’t have such a big garden just a few raised beds! I seen your system and is huge but i just need something small! It would be really helpful! Thank You!

Choosing Your System:

Part of my day job description includes putting together irrigation construction documents for construction projects. Usually these documents are for huge sites with extensive systems involving thousands of feet of piping, dozens of valves and sometimes multiple controllers.

You’re probably scratching your head trying to make sense of what you just read. That’s OK because the typical home garden is not going to require all this fancy talk, but it will require a few necessary items to work well.

I like to set it and forget it, meaning I really don’t want to have think that much about watering. Of course, having a garden that would require several hours to water every other day is the reason for that, but even with smaller gardens you might want to think about going this route because sometimes life gets busy and you might not be able to water for a few days. If you have automatic irrigation you won’t have to worry about losing your garden that you’ve spent months nurturing.

I’m also of the mind that you should have a system even if you don’t necessarily need it. This was highlighted last summer with the severe drought in the Midwest  My mom, who lives in Ohio, depended on summer rains to water her garden but the rains never came. The heat did though. She had to spend large amounts of her time hand watering just to keep everything alive. When you don’t need it you can just turn it off and when you do need it it’s nice to just be able to turn it back on and let it do its thing.

There are so many different types of irrigation how in the world do you choose one? My first word of advice is put down the pre-assembled “garden drip” irrigation kit at the big box store. Every site is unique and those kits do very little to accommodate even the average one. Second you’ll need to figure out if you want to do drip irrigation or overhead irrigation (which I won’t be covering here).

I recommend drip for several reasons.  First it is low flow and the water is put directly on the soil at the rate the soil can absorb it. This reduces evaporation and eliminates drift from wind.  It also reduces fungal diseases that can be caused by overhead watering while also being less likely to cause puddling and soil erosion. In addition, you’re less likely to have weeds when you control where the water is going through drip. The weeds have a tendency to congregate at the point source rather than spreading out across your entire bed. The downside of drip, however, is that it can be clunky to handle and it gets in the way of digging, hoeing, and raking the soil. It also doesn’t last as long and has to be checked over thoroughly before every season. To me, however, the saving in water (and $$$) is well worth these minor headaches.

Designing & Installing:

You will either need to draw up a site plan of the area you want to irrigate or get some construction marking paint (spray pain that can be applied when the can is upside down – usually comes in fluorescent colors). The main purpose of this is to find out how much PVC irrigation pipe you are going to need between your water source and the places you want to water. Generally the pipe will only need to run to the end of each bed closest to your water source. Rainbird, a popular irrigation supply company, has some design manuals online that you can use to help with your irrigation layout.

valve setup

Basic valve setup. Click picture to enlarge.

Stick with 3/4″ Schedule 40 PVC pipe unless you’re doing a really large area on drip or you’re using spray. Then you’ll need to do pressure loss calculations but I’m not going to go into that here. Pipe is pretty cheap so if you purchase  more than you need (which you will) it won’t break the bank. In addition to the pipe you’ll also need the joints (elbows, tees, 4-way, couplers, etc.). This is why a drawing is helpful. Keep in mind that any turns in the pipe are usually going to have to be at 90 degrees.

The photo above shows how we set up our valves. The valves are what turns the water on and off automatically (there is a manual switch as well). They are connected to an irrigation timer (also known as a controller) that is in our water tower by low voltage wire. When you enlarge the picture you can see the wires that you connect on the top of the valve (they haven’t been hooked up yet in this picture). If you just have a few raised beds you’ll probably only need one valve. We have three different watering zones – fruit trees, vegetable beds (we require two valves due to water pressure loss), drought tolerant landscape – which all require different watering schedules so we need to have four valves for our backyard.

It might look complicated but once you have all the parts you need it’s really not. Everything gets put together rather quickly. The hardest part of installing irrigation is digging the trenches for the pipe and electrical wires in my opinion.

For the threaded joints you’ll want to purchase plumbers/Teflon tape – a thin relatively stretchy white material that’s not sticky to the touch. With this you’re going to wrap the threads in the same direction you’ll be screwing on the fitting. This tape fills in any gaps in the threads, sealing it from leaking. Wrap it around about three times but don’t let it extend past the end of the threads as it can potentially clog your system if a small piece breaks off. For the PVC slip joints you’ll want to get pipe cement and primer. Some people claim that you can skip the primer, however, this is only true for systems that will not be pressurized. With drip systems the lines will have pressure when they are on so make sure to use primer first, otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of leaks that you can’t always fix. Primer is generally purple in color and you apply it first to the inside of the connector and the outside of the pipe. Allow it to dry a bit. You then apply the cement in the same fashion and insert the pipe into the connector. It should have a firm hold to finish connecting within a few minutes but don’t plan on running water through your system for at least 24 hours to allow the joint to cure.

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Irrigation hookup at each bed. Click photo to enlarge.

You’ll want to run pipe to your beds. Connect them with female slip joints and cement. I prefer the pipe riser for each bed to be located on the outside of the bed, though some prefer them on the inside. If the bed is already in place and filled it will have to be on the outside. On the left is what you need for each bed. The ball valve is important because it allows you to turn off individual beds when they aren’t planted. I like to use the threaded gray risers as they contain carbon to help make them more resistant to UV. You can use PVC though if you want to. just remember that if you use the threaded pipe you’ll need elbows with one end being threaded.

Now that you’ve got water to your beds you’ll want to get the dripline down in your bed. There are several options regarding the type of line you want to use. I personally like dripline with inline emitters because it’s easier to handle. You can get these in 1/2″ and 1/4″ size. With each of these sizes there are different emitter spacings within the line. The 1/2″ dripline’s smallest spacing is 12″ which might be too far for vegetable beds. The 1/4″ size comes in 6″ spacing so go with that. Some people like to use the porous soaker lines which look like black spongy material that “weeps” water when it’s turned on. If you have hard water or even just well water this type clogs really easily and you’ll need to replace it before the season is over (trust me, I’ve had to do this). The inline emitter dripline use turbulent flow to help keep the emitters from clogging.

Another option is drip tape. Drip tape is inexpensive and puts a good amount of water down in a relatively short time frame. Unfortunately it doesn’t last long. By our 2nd season we spent a good portion of our time repairing blown sections of it. It also requires a much lower water pressure to run correctly, which requires difficult to find pressure regulators.

C:UsersRachelDocumentsbed.dwg Model (1)Once you figure out which type of dripline you want to use you’ll need to layout how you want to water it. I prefer to run the water source on the end of the long side versus the center of the short side. From the source you run 1/2″ poly across the short side and then cap it. At ever 6-9″ (spacing is personal preference and also depends on the width of your bed) you’ll insert a barbed 1/4″ tubing connector. There’s a poly tubing hole punch gun that makes this job MUCH easier. Connect 1/4″ dripline tubing to the barbed connector and run it to the end of the bed. Crimp the end and stake it down. You can buy end clamps or just use zip ties.

One more thing you’re going to need to consider – when dealing with poly tubing you want to either use universal fittings or fittings that are the same brand as the tubing. Different manufacturers vary the size of the tubing ever so slightly so the fittings of another manufacturer (unless they are universal) will not work on their tubing. The links in the following list are just to give you an idea of what you’re looking for. They don’t necessarily work together. Your best option is to purchase everything from the same store, which will generally have compatible parts.

 

The Basic Supplies for Automatic Drip Irrigation

 A word about controllers

With controllers you can go cheap or you can go expensive, but either way, it will most likely be your most expensive piece of irrigation equipment. The more costly a controller is, the more features it will have such as being able to attach rain sensors, soil moisture sensors, or more programs and stations. The one I’ve linked to is the one that I own and have been very happy with it. It has a rain delay and a rain shutoff switch so I can turn it off during the winter and when it’s time to run it again, it keeps all my previous programs. The programming is relatively easy to do as well.

One thing I will caution you against is getting battery operated controllers that also double as a valve. In my opinion (and experience), these are not reliable and go out regularly. The worst is when you’re on vacation and the battery goes out with the valve open (yeah, this happens more than you’d think).

 

2013 Garden Planning

melon

Bidwell Casaba Melon

I’ve spent the last few weeks carefully going through all of our seed catalogs to figure out what we’ll be growing this coming year. Surprisingly, we’re making quite a few changes even though I’m always saying that I need to stick with varieties that we know work. This past year was a success for some things and a total failure for others which is probably where this desire to mix things up is coming from. We’re also expanding the growing of some crops while eliminating others. The primary crops we’re expanding are beans, corn, potatoes and squash – crops that can store well. I’ll link the varieties we’ll be using so if they sound interesting you won’t have to go searching for them.

Most of the beans will be dry beans but we’ll also be adding in Romano beans, which I’ve heard nothing but great things about. The variety of Romano we’ll be growing is Supermarconi. I’m excited to add Tepary beans to our garden. Tepary beans are native to the Southwest and Mexico making them very drought and heat tolerant. I’m hoping to successfully grow these without any summer irrigation. In addition we’re bringing back runner beans, which are a perennial in our area and prefer cooler temperatures. Not technically a bean, we’ll be trying out cowpeas, Blackeye Peas being the most commonly known variety. We’ll be continuing with Cherokee Trail of Tears, Speckled Cranberry, Anasazi (a variety shared with us but difficult to find commercially) and Purple Podded Pole.

We’re not going to be growing Bloody Butcher corn this year. It’s a nice dent corn that works well for fresh eating and gets HUGE – over 12′ tall – but we want to expand our corn varieties this year. Instead of dent corn, which is a rather difficult corn to work with, we’re going to do a flour corn, Mandan Bride, which is better for making flour rather than meal, which tends to be courser. We’re also going to do a fun popcorn called Bear Paw that has split cobs and a dwarf sweet corn called Blue Jade. It’s one of the few corn varieties that can actually be grown successfully in pots.

squeek pumpkin

Squeak and her Howden Pumpkin

Our potato varieties will be some of the same but some new ones. We’ll still be growing All Blue, Russet Rio Grande, and German Butterball as these usually do really well for us. New varieties for us will be Yukon Gem, Kennebec White and Desiree which are all said to be high yielding varieties.

The pumpkin is coming back! We’ll be growing Howden pumpkins again but I’m also going to be adding Winter Luxury Pie pumpkins, which I’m very excited to have finally found space for as these are considered the BEST pie pumpkin around. We’re still going to grow Marina di Chioggia, which, in my humble opinion, is the best tasting squash out there. I want to also grow smaller winter squash including Delicata, Triamble, Butternut rogosa violina ‘Gioia,’ and Vegetable Spaghetti. In the summer squash variety we’ll be doing Trombetta di Albinga, also known as Trombocino. We’re not going to do our usual Golden Zuchhini because…and this may come as a surprise…it doesn’t do very well for us. Four plants couldn’t give us enough summer squash for our needs. What I like about the Trombocino – which we have grown before – is that it’s a vertical climber freeing up space for other plants. I also find it exceptionally flavorful compared to traditional summer squash. The seeds are all contained in the bulb of the squash so you can pick it any time without worrying whether it’s gotten too seedy and pithy. It’s also tasty as a winter squash.

We won’t be doing fennel again this year as we just don’t use it enough to give it space in the yard. I’ve also been kind of on the fence about parsnips for the same reason so this year I’ll be skipping them.

Some of our favorite varieties will be staying. Orangeglo watermelons, Bidwell Casaba melons, Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard, Gigante di’ Inverno Spinach, Yellow of Parma onions, arugula, Cimmaron and Tango lettuces, Golden beet, Berlicum 2 carrots, Tendercrisp celery, Oregon Sugar Pod II peas, Verde tomatillos, White Icicle and Pink Beauty radishes, Giant of Naples Cauliflower, Calabrese Broccoli and Perfection Drumhead Savoy Cabbage.

Dr. Wychee's Yellow Tomato

Dr. Wychee’s Yellow Tomato

Of all the tomatoes we normally grow, we’ll only be changing out two varieties and adding in a new one. We did Pineapple Pig last year but it was too late of a variety for us to really get any useful fruit off of it. We’ll be replacing it with Pineapple Heirloom, which a friend in town had really good luck with. That same friend also had really good luck with Cherokee Green so we’ll be adding that one as well. We’ll also be eliminating the Isis Candy, which did fine but cherry tomatoes are just too much work for us to harvest when we have some much other things to harvest as well. Instead, we’ll be doing Stupice, which is a 2″ earlier tomato that is said to outperform San Francisco Fog in cooler climates. The varieties that will be sticking around will be Wapsipinicon Peach, Mortgage Lifter, Hillbilly, Black Krim, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Indigo Apple, and Dr. Wychee’s Yellow.

We’re keeping hot pepper varieties Anaheim, Habanero, Cayenne, Serrano Tampequino, Sante Fe Grande; and sweet pepper varieties Orange Bell, Red Marconi, Corno di Toro Rosso and California Wonder. We’re getting rid of Jalapeno and replacing it with Corne de Chevre.

The hardest part of dealing with all of these varieties was figuring out the layout of them in our planting beds. Usually I just do crop layout but I always regret being so generalized later in the season when I can’t remember which varieties are which. This year I drew up our plans in a much more concise way splitting up varieties and keeping similar varieties separate. The placement is mostly based on companion planting. You can click the image below to see what our plan looks like this year.

C:UsersRachelDocumentsGarden2013.dwg Model (1)

The Basics of Site Design

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When looking to design your property there are several things you need to consider. The most important are sun/shade patterns throughout the year, slope, drainage, and what your proposed uses will be. Vegetable gardens need good drainage, minimal slope and a lot of sun during the growing season. West facing slopes tend to get more moisture than east facing slopes, while north facing slopes will get a lot less sun than south facing slopes. Most livestock need a place with sun and shade all year to really be happy.You will also want to consider placement in relation to how often you will visit it. Areas that you will visit frequently, such as a chicken coop, should be closer to your home compared to something you visit less frequently, such as fruit trees.

I’ll be using our property as an example for some basic site issues and how we designed it. Of course we had few real obstacles compared to others, but it should give you the basics.

When we first moved into our home the very first thing I did was create a site plan of existing conditions. Our property, .28 acres, is a narrow, long rectangular lot running east to west. We had some obstacles in the way including some old, dead and dying fruit trees and two large black walnut trees on the western end. We also had an oddly placed 6′ wood fence right off the back stoop (posts locations in the photo above) and no fence or gate on the side of the house so anyone could enter our backyard.

The next thing I did was create a list of things I wanted. I knew I wanted garden beds and fruit trees. We needed a place for our chickens and we needed to be able to add more animals into our system in the future. I also needed a large patio for entertaining and a way to keep our dogs out of the garden (though that has been largely unsuccessful since Squeak is agile enough to jump fences). We had two things in our backyard that we could not change – the water tower and a large oak tree centered on our southern property line. Our lot sloped gently towards the western end, away from the house. Even in the winter with the big oak tree, most of the yard got good sun exposure all day, which was definitely a bonus. In the summer only the area directly under the tree gets all day shade.

Fruit tree placement was easy. It was important that they go in locations where they wouldn’t cast too much, if any, shade when fully grown on the vegetable beds. The north edge of the property was the best place for the majority of trees. Additional trees were located on the eastern and western outermost edges. The biggest rule you want to remember is to never place trees on the southern side of your vegetable garden (at least here in the northern hemisphere) if you want to maximize sun exposure. Western edges should also generally be avoided, but we decided to include more trees along that side anyways.

designBecause our site was narrow and long we ran our beds from east to west. This helped with wheelbarrow access and running irrigation line. Because of our layout, it maximized the amount of growing space relative to walking paths. It also helped with sun exposure because all of the beds would get equal amounts of sun exposure throughout the day. Taller crops would be planted in the northern beds while shorter crops would be planted in the southern beds. The site plan to the right is flipped so that north is down.

It made sense to put the patio adjacent to the house and tower as that would be one of our most used spaces, especially for entertaining. The backdoor enters the kitchen and then the wraparound patio accesses the door to the water tower. A clothesline was added on the western side of the tower running east-west to, again, maximize sun exposure.

The chickens and turkeys are kept between the patio and garden so we can monitor their shenanigans and the rabbits were placed directly under the oak tree to maximize shade during the hottest months. The greenhouse is on the northern property line but the area south of it is clear of any trees or structure that could reduce sun exposure. The goats are at the far end of the yard, though we’ve recently been thinking of finding them a new home closer to the house.

Which brings me to my next point. No matter how well planned out you think you’re property is, things will always be in flux. What we thought worked well during planning might not actually work so well during implementation. The goats are a good example. The barn is easy to access from the pathway off of the patio – just a straight shot down there. However, that also happens to be the lowest spot in our yard so in the winter it floods. This wasn’t as apparent to us before we built the barn because we didn’t really spend that much time in that corner, especially when it was raining hard. If you don’t want to have to keep moving things go slowly. Really observe everything before building. Go out during a heavy rainstorm to see where all the water goes. Spend time outside during hot days to see where the most comfortable place to sit is. The more time you take in planning, the less time you’ll spend rearranging.

Choosing Varieties to Grow

tomatoesAnother year is coming to an end. The seed catalogs are rolling in and as I sit there and drool over them I come across new, exciting varieties that I just have to try.

There’s a part of my brain that’s screaming at the rest of it saying “Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken!!!” Year after year I always post about things I’ve learned and one of those recurring things is to just stick with the varieties I know work for our area. Don’t risk losing productivity because I’m feeling adventurous. But really, what fun is that?

There are some things I’m set on not changing. The Oranglo watermelon and Bidwell Casaba have been very kind to me, unlike most other watermelon and melon varieties so those are here to stay for the long haul. Catskill Brussels Sprouts will probably also be sticking around just because there seem to be so few varieties of heirloom sprouts and these do the best.

I always say not to mess around with our corn selection. We grow Bloody Butcher corn, which has served us well. It gets HUGE and gives us multiple, relatively long ears on each stalk. The corn can be used fresh or you let it mature into a dent corn. After a failed attempt at saving seed from it and coming to the realization that we just don’t have enough space here to save corn seed to avoid inbreeding depression I’ve decided to expand my corn-growing horizons to include a flour corn, sweet corn and a popcorn.

Unfortunately there’s no fast way to determine what varieties you should grow for all vegetables. Your best bet in developing your list of varieties is to find varieties that were developed in areas that have a similar climate as where you live. For instance, Italian varieties will probably do best in coastal California where we have the same basic climate. Russian varieties might serve you well if you live in colder areas. If you have a short season choose varieties that mature quickly. This of course, can take some research to figure out. For cool season crops you’ll want to make sure they have enough time to develop before warm weather hits. For warm season crops you want to give them time before the frosts come. Seed packets and catalogs have a number, usually next to the name or after the description, that denote the average number of days to maturity.

Onions are much more specific than most other vegetables on where they can grow based on their latitude, rather than season length. Varieties will either be long day, short day or intermediate. If you live north of the 35 deg latitude (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington DC to approximate) you’ll want to grow long day onions. South of that grow short day onions. If you’re just on either side of that latitude you can grow intermediate onions. I’ve also had good luck with long day onions here on the 35th parallel.

Besides climate you’ll also want to look at the size, yield, and disease resistance of varieties. If late blight is a problem in your area choose varieties that have some resistance to it. If you have a small garden, choose compact varieties or high yielding varieties to make the most of your garden.

Or you can do what I like to do and just pick a bunch of varieties to try and see which ones do best.

When, How & Where to Start Seeds

The seed catalogs are coming in! This week we got our Baker Creek and Seed Savers Exchange seed catalogs. I’m now just waiting for Territorial and Sand Hill Preservation Center catalogs to roll in and I’ll be set to start choosing what we’ll be growing next year. Along with choosing what we’ll be growing we’ll also need to be planning out our year. If you haven’t checked it out yet, we’ve got a Google Calendar for planting that’s based on moon cycles for most of California and similar climates. Not in our area? Never fear. You can find out how to plan out your growing times and create your own calendar. Here’s the moon phase calendar if you need it.

So you’ve got your schedule figured out. The next hardest part is figuring out how to start those seedlings. I’ve got you covered! Here’s a handy chart to help you out. Bonus is that I included when you should plant based on frost dates so it’s easily used no matter where you live. Just click on it to zoom in.

That Whole Succession Planting Thing

This arugula is three successive plantings at 2 week intervals.

I have a confession.

We’re lazy gardeners. We barely weed, we never handwater, and we never fertilize during the growing season. Oh, and I’ve never done succession planting.

Of course we don’t really need to weed, water or fertilize, which is probably why we don’t do it. Wide rows, automatic drip irrigation, and heavy soil amending prior to planting all help with us with the stuff we don’t do.

But succession planting needs to be done – and I especially need to get good at it if we plan on being farmers – and the only reason I never did was just plain laziness. Well, laziness and just not keeping track of planting were my downfall. This year is different because I made a calendar to follow which forced me to stop using the “I’ll do it tomorrow” excuse. I’ve now been doing succession planting this fall and you know what? It’s easier than what I thought. Actually, it’s easier than planting everything all at once. Instead of slamming all the work into one day I’m able to spread the same amount of work out over the entire season. Why didn’t I do this earlier? Bonus is that if pests come through (i.e. rogue turkeys) they don’t destroy it all because I’m not planting all of it at once.

Some plants have extended harvest and don’t need to succession planting. In addition some plants have varieties with different harvest times that help extend the season and therefore don’t require as much successive planting.

What you should succession plant:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Greens
  • Bok Choy
  • Mustard
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Scallions
  • Beets
  • Swiss Chard
  • Cilantro
  • Green & Fava Beans
  • Turnips & Rutabaga
  • Carrots
  • Collards
  • Celery
  • Corn
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Parsnips

Plants that can be succession planted but also have varieties with different harvest times:

  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cauliflower

Plants that don’t need to be succession planted because they have a long harvest, are perennial or need a very long season

  • Squash
  • Melons
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomatillos
  • Peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Artichoke
  • Cucumbers
  • Okra