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.

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.

100_0562 copy

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)

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

 

That Hugelkultur Thing

Oh yes, I’m going to be talking a lot about hugelkultur beds because we just finished our first small 10′ section of it this afternoon. While it didn’t take very long to do, it was a lot of heavy lifting. Most of the work was actually clearing out the bed of raspberries (that never have produced a single berry) and weeds and then digging a foot of dirt out.

Building a hugelkultur bed doesn’t actually require you to dig up the dirt and sink it, but what can I say? We’re gluttons for punishment? No, actually, our soil has been so nicely amended and had this great texture that we decided to dig it out so we can add it back to the top of the hugelkultur bed. And in the past when we used to do raised beds we always found that when we included native soil in the beds they always did a lot better. My guess is that the native soil includes micronutrients and microorganisms that compost doesn’t have.

We then laid down sheets of cardboard. Of course, this is another step you don’t have to do but because we have such a problem with bindweed (which can have viable roots as far down as 20′) we decided that putting down cardboard would create a barrier to help stop the bindweed but eventually break down once it was no longer needed. Once the cardboard was down we started tossing wood of various sizes onto the pile. and a few old artichoke stalks for good measure. The wood is the key to hugelkultur. While it breaks down over time it will absorb water like a sponge while also releasing nutrients. The water absorption helps reduce your water use. If you make large 6′ tall beds you can go without adding any additional water during dry summers. Since our bed is not that high we’ll still have to supplement with summer water but we can definitely cut back since a bed that’s only 2′ tall can hold water for approximately 3 weeks. This leads to another important thing about these beds. You have to build them before the rains come, which is late fall here, so they can absorb as much water as possible before you can plant them. It’s best to use rotting wood which will hold more water and is also less likely to tie up nitrogen in the soil. Also avoid certain woods such as black walnut, cedar, redwood, black locust and eucalyptus which either contain rotting inhibitors or contain compounds that are toxic to other plants. Fruit tree wood also has a tendency to be too hard and take too long to start rotting.

After we got all the wood in place we placed a good thick layer of poultry litter which consists of straw with chicken and turkey manure and quite a few feathers (just because they are currently molting). Poultry litter is the best way we’ve found to get a compost pile up and running quickly so we wanted to use this directly on the logs to help get the breakdown process started. Again, this isn’t necessarily a step you must do to build a traditional hugelkultur bed, it’s just a step we chose to do.

Another step we chose to include was to cover the poultry litter with finished compost that we picked up at the local recycling/composting facility. $4.31 for a truckload, which you just can’t beat.

The final layer, which is really the only other thing you have to do besides using wood, is covering the bed with soil and smoothing it out. Yes, it’s a lot of work but the work we do now means we won’t have to work later. Hugelkultur beds are kind of self-tilling and since they are raised they’ll never get walked on, which compacts the soil. We’ll definitely finish off this one bed, hopefully getting more of it done tomorrow and then we can start thinking about doing some of the other larger beds. Eventually if this works out for us, I’d like to do all of our beds this way.

Dipping Our Toes into the Permaculture Pond

One of the many amazing works from the Lexicon of Sustainability project. Learn more here: http://www.lexiconofsustainability.com/

Back in college I took a course that touched just a little bit on permaculture. It took place at the Cal Poly Organic Farm where biointensive and permaculture concepts are explored. Permaculture is such a broad topic that it was barely touched upon but it did peak my interest. The problem, though, was that this huge topic seemed so unwieldy to me that I never really pursued it.

But the more I think about it the more I want to learn more. Last week I started to listening to the Homesteading and Permaculture podcast by Paul Wheaton. I also decided that we’re going to turn one of our big garden beds into a hugelkultur (pronounced: Hoogle-culture) bed. I want to reduce our water use while also creating a no-till bed. Seriously, I’m tired of double digging. And after seeing the success of Erica’s half-ass hugelkultur bed (even though she lives in a very different climate) I am convinced that I need to do this. If the one bed does well we’ll convert all of our beds to it. Did I mention I hate double digging? Yeah, like a lot.

So now I’m more interested in it, but how do I learn more about it? There are intensive workshops, including one being held at my friend’s urban farm, but unfortunately I don’t have the time or money to attend one of those. I could purchase books and read them but I’d like something a bit more structured that sort of forces me to move forward. I’m notorious for having a stack of shame – books that I intend to read but I never quite get to them or only read half of them because I have to read other books for blog reviews (and for some reason I choose to review the really long ones and insist on reading them cover to cover).

You can imagine my excitement when Erica posted on her Facebook page about this permaculture study group!  More structured, like an online class, but free. Well, except for the text book, but even that is free online. It’s a 6 month study group, requiring 3-4 hours a week of work. Are you interested in permaculture? You should check it out!

In Search of a Purple Peach

Indian Free Peach – Is this the Purple Peach?

This past weekend we attended an event at the Acta Non Verba Urban Farm. Kelly Carlisle, who runs it asked us if we could bring some of our chickens and we happily obliged.

There was a woman that taught a cooking demonstration about how to make Sweet Potato Butter that was so very delicious Tom couldn’t stop eating it. Due to Tom constantly being at her table to snag another sample he struck up a conversation with the instructor (I wish I had caught her name). She told Tom about a purple peach she used to get for processing. It was so purple it dyed her hands purple when she processed them. She said it was a peach that was once fairly common in the South but rare elsewhere. According to her there was only two people she knew in the Bay Area that grew it, one in Oakland and one in Vallejo. He quickly ran over to me to tell me about it.

He knows me too well. I’m OBSESSED with unique, rare varieties of plants (and breeds of animals). A purple peach? I must find this variety and when I do I will be finding space somewhere in my yard to plant it. Of course Tom doesn’t want me adding more plants so by sharing this with me he was doing himself a disservice. I think he secretly wants one of these peach trees too.

I started researching online for purple peach varieties. Here’s what I’ve been able to find. Winegrowers used to plant peach trees with their vines. The peach trees were extra susceptible to mildew so when the trees got infected winegrowers would be able to stop the mildew problem before it effected their vines. These peaches were called “vine peach,” “wine peach,” or “blood peach” because of their red-purple flesh. From what I can deduce, this was primarily done in France though, so not exactly what I’m looking for. Or is it?

I then found this gem:

One “Blood” peach tree was sent Jefferson in 1807 by the Washington nurseryman Thomas Main. In 1810 Jefferson planted forty-one stones of the “black plumb peach of Georgia” in the “New Nursery.” These likely came from William Meriwether, who had passed on “black soft peaches of Georgia” in 1804 and “Georgia black” peaches in 1809. When pomological writers such as Philip Miller, William Coxe, A. J. Downing, and U. P. Hedrick discussed the Blood Cling peach, they attributed its origin to a French variety known as Sanguinole, a curiosity suitable mostly for preserving. Today the peach is known as the Indian Blood Cling, a name that unites the “Blood” peach of the French Sanguinole with the “Indian” peach that grows wild in the southeastern states of Georgia and Florida and was obtained by Jefferson as the “black plumb peach of Georgia.” The fruit, entirely splashed and mottled with scarlet, tiger-like stripes, is sometimes twelve inches round. The skin resembles a beet: scarlet, tough, and meaty, although pleasantly flavored and brisk. Blood Cling is a fine peach to eat out of hand but is mostly used for pickling and preserving. It was commonly listed by early nineteenth-century nurseries and is still offered in the trade.

There appears to be 4 varieties of peach that might be the purple peach I’m in search of. The Indian Blood Peach, the Indian Free Peach, the Sanguinole Peach, and the Sanguine de Manosque Peach. The funniest thing about all of this is that I have an Indian Blood Peach in my yard already. I originally bought it as an Indian Free Peach but it is not a freestone, but rather a clingstone, so I’m certain it’s actually the Indian Blood Peach. While it wasn’t as dark as the peach above, it was very dark red and it did indeed stain my hands as I ate it. Apparently the color can range from white with red stripes to the dark purple color above from year to year.

I’m sure Tom is relieved to know that I won’t be planting another tree in our yard.