8 fascinating yet kind of creepy facts about aphids, and some cool insects that eat them.Read More
Tilling is an age old response to compacted earth, but we now know that it creates many problems, including the same problems we seek to remedy! Here's 5 reasons to leave that rototiller in the shed.Read More
The concept behind using ollas--vase shaped, unglazed terra cotta vessels with lids, is to bury them in a garden bed, fill them with water periodically, and plant around them. Water slowly wicks into the soil surrounding the unglazed ollas, where plant roots colonize.Read More
When most of us think of rainwater capture, we think of rain barrels, tanks, or cisterns. That’s ok, but it presents a couple of problems—cost and space. Installing a storage system that holds a meaningful amount of water gets expensive. It would also take a proportionally large amount of space from my postage-stamp-sized property.Read More
We know about self watering containers, but how about self watering garden beds?
|Ollas before they were buried, placed about 4 or 4-1/2' apart in my beds.|
|Buried up to their chins and filled with water. Now just waiting to see how the plants like it!|
From what I've read, olla irrigation has been traced back as far as 4000 years in China, and is thought to originate in Africa. It is and has been used by cultures all over the world.
Water tends to seep through the wide, bulbous part of the pot which is deeper in the soil, not through the neck, so the surface soil stays on the dry side. The surface soil would act like mulch, reducing evaporation. With the surface soil dry, it is said that fewer weeds will germinate. I will still mulch deeply, to keep as much moisture in the soil as possible, and keep the soil life happy and thriving.
- Amend your soil. Work lots of compost as deeply as you can into your beds—up to 24” deep. Loose soil with organic matter encourages bigger, deeper root systems that can find moisture and nutrients. Your plants will be healthier and tastier too!
- Plant intensively and with diversity. Leaving lots of space between plants makes for lots of exposed areas that dry out and compact quickly. While you don’t want to crowd your plants to the point where you lose production, you can tuck different plants into bare spaces. For instance, if you plant your tomatoes 24” apart, you can tuck some herbs, peppers, and beneficial flowers in between. It’s pretty and all the plants tend to do better. The soil stays covered (which slows evaporation) and the plants tend to take care of each other.
- Mulch! This will drastically reduce the amount of water your beds need. Once planted, mulch your garden beds with several inches of organic matter. You can use compost, straw, fir bark, dead leaves or wood chips to layer over your beds. You will be amazed how moist the soil below will stay. It’s like an insulation layer. It also tempers heat and cold.
- Water judiciously. The fact is, overwatering is a very common error gardeners make. We want so badly to take good care of our plants, and watering seems like such a kind and nurturing thing to do! We tend to water when we feel it’s hot, and when the ground looks dry. Just because it looks dry on the surface though, doesn’t mean it’s dry 6” down. Get in the habit of poking down into the soil periodically and feeling with your fingers or hand. If it’s moist, you shouldn't need to water.
We thought a curbside sale would be in order in April, but the plants got together and voted for this weekend instead. How could I say no?
The plants are prime right now, so come by and get your garden going!
Each year we grow tomatoes and peppers in the ground, in containers, and in raised beds. Almost always, the plants grown in-ground out perform the others. What, you ask? In our heavy soils? For most of us here in the Diablo valley, our soils are high in clay. Heavy, sticky, compacted, hard as concrete, cracks-open-in the-summer clay. Frustrating. The upside, though, is that clay typically holds nutrients well and transfers those nutrients to plants well, and when we prep and maintain our beds appropriately, our soils produce great gardens.
Our practices have evolved over the years as we observe our gardens and become more educated about soil. The fact is, there is an entire universe living below our feet. It's an incredibly complex and diverse ecosystem that, when kept healthy, is responsible for producing and nurturing healthy, abundant plant life.
For quite awhile we've advocated double-digging beds. We still do as an initial step in establishing a bed. We used to double dig each spring; however, we are evolving out of it as a yearly practice because it disturbs soil life too much on a continuum. Besides, it's a labor intensive process--a deterrent to actually doing it every spring. BUT, there is no substitute for this method as a way to start a new bed and plant it immediately.
Essentially, double digging is a method of loosening, aerating, and incorporating organic matter into soil to a depth of up to 24". It's a proven method that improves soil tilth, fertility, drainage, water holding capacity, organic matter content and overall soil quality, providing a much improved environment for beneficial soil life, and a superb medium for growing an abundance of great food. What more could an eager gardener want? So, to start, here's a how-to on starting a new garden bed, and how to keep it healthy. Then I'll tell you how we treat raised beds and containers.
You'll need a digging fork, a spade or shovel, a piece of plywood as wide or wider than your bed (you'll be standing on it), enough compost to cover the bed about 1"-2" thick, plus some compost in reserve--enough to cover the bed 1/2" thick. Also, you want the soil to be evenly moist, not wet. When you get the moisture right, the whole process is WAY easier.
1. Define and mark the bed layout. I like to mark the corners of my new bed with stakes. A 4' or 4 1/2' wide bed allows most people to reach into the center without stepping in the bed. Any length will work, I like mine 10'-20' if space allows.
2. Using the plywood to stand on while in the bed, weed the bed by sinking the digging fork into the soil as far you can and just loosening the root zone. No need to turn the soil, just work the tines up and down a little, then pull the fork out and move it over a little, and sink it again. Do this to the whole bed, then pull the weeds. This step also makes double digging easier.
3. Time to double dig. It's honestly easier to understand if you watch this video, Be patient. Watch it. It gets a little goofy about how to hold your tools and such, but these folks are farming acres this way and are interested in saving their backs. (You'll note that they aren't adding compost during the dig. You DEFINITELY want to add a compost layer as I note in the next paragraph). If you want to cut right to the double dig portion of the video, fast forward to 3:12. It continues on the second video to about 3:15.
Before you begin digging, spread a 1-2" later of compost over the whole bed. As you are merrily digging away, before you loosen the bottom of each trench, place 1/2" of your reserve compost in the trench.
4. Sprinkle your organic fertilizer nutrients over the bed, and work in to the top 2"-4" of soil. If you're not planting right away, water it in.
5. Plant! Make sure you don't step on the bed now. Use the plywood to stand or kneel on if you want to be in the bed.
6. Mulch mulch mulch! Place compost, straw, dry leaves, or other organic matter several inches deep over your bed. Pull the mulch away from plant stems a little so as not to smother your crop. Mulch will keep your beds moist much longer and as the mulch breaks down, it trickles down into the bed keeping it aerated and loose.
7. Keep the beds covered. Even after your crops are done, keep a mulch layer in place, and/or plant a cover crop. Cover crops send roots down keeping the soil friable, and when cut provide nutrient rich organic matter that you can chop and leave on the bed, or send to the compost pile.
So what happens next year? If we cover crop and keep organic matter on the bed, we have less compaction, and we ideally won't continue the double dig process every year. Which is fine by me. I'd rather spread mulch and seed than dig relentlessly, and the soil life is happier when not disturbed.
We use raised beds for various reasons. It's a popular alternative that reduces the need for digging and with the use of hardware cloth on the bottom can keep the ground varmints from obliterating a garden. But, it's also more expensive and materials intensive. If you opt for raised beds, here's how we prep them.
1. As the beds are built, we loosen the native soil below with a digging fork and add a bit of compost. This improves drainage and encourages roots to populate the soil, rather than acting like a barrier.
2. We fill the bed with a planter mix, not a potting mix or pure compost. Planter mix has some mineral soil in it which is key for transferring nutrients to the plants.
3. As noted in #4-7 in the in-ground prep section above, we work organic nutrients into the top 2"-4" of the bed, then plant, then mulch. Ideally, we keep the beds mulched or cover cropped between planting seasons.
4. Each year, we top off our beds with compost as the planter mix level recedes.
When growing in containers, we use potting mix. Not planter mix and not soil. Each time we plant a new crop, we top off the potting mix with a blend of potting mix and compost. We work organic nutrients into the upper 2"-4". With container growing, it's challenging to get and keep healthy soil life, and we find that foliar feeding is a great supplement to just relying on nutrients in the potting mix. Every 3 years or so, the containers get cleaned out and filled with new potting mix, as the old mix has deteriorated. I wrote a more detailed post about container planting for tomatoes some time back, and you can read that here...
However you choose to garden, I'm happy you're doing it. The world is a better place with gardens and gardeners in it.
posted by Marian
- We use less than half the water a commercial grower will use (even less if we're on drip irrigation and have mulched).
- We slash our carbon footprint as there's zero fuel involved other than you coming either to Rodgers Ranch for the farmers' market to select your favorites.
- The food is tastier and more nutritious because we pick it at peak maturity and eat it soon thereafter.
- What we grow is much safer because we know what has gone into growing the plants. (And you KNOW the plants are coming from a great home - Kelley and I use only open pollinated seeds, make our own transplanting medium, use compost and worm castings as Best.Fertilizer.EVER, and grow the seedlings so they're accustomed to our climate.)
...posted by Kelley
Posted by Kelley...
About every January, as we plan for our seedlings, we review some lessons learned from our past years and make adjustments to improve our little venture. Of course, our #1 concern is raising healthy plants, and as such I get obsessed with improving our potting mix. After all, it all starts there.
We’ve put together a nutrient mix that includes a healthy dose of vermicompost and bagged it. It’s suitable for both in-ground planting and containers. Good stuff! We’ll have it on hand for our customers at the Expo, the farmer’s market, and our curbside sales.
...is what I wish we had more of, but oh well -- I'll take any amount of precip we can get. Short of acid rain, that is.
|"My" baby CA buckeye|
However, changes are afoot in our business. I am "retiring" after this year mostly because I'm just getting too old to lift approximately 1-2 tons of soil and plants in a 4 month stretch. Instead, I am going to go deeper into native habitat restoration and preservation for homeowners.
|Be there or be square|
Strap on the seat belt and pull it tight. Keep your arms and legs inside and hold on. Time will warp. That's what the last 6 weeks have felt like. It peaked today as we wrapped up our final tasks for the Urban Farm Expo tomorrow. Time has found a speed that I've never seen. I'm not moving faster, but the days are really really short!
It's been quite a ride, and we're about to see what our weeks of hard work and planning will produce. We hope to see a lot of curious, happy, excited gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners enjoying the event, the workshops, the gardens, and each other.
Urban Farm Expo.
We have some great workshops and presentations. Kathy Echols will lead a workshop on propagation. If you know of Kathy, you know how amazing she is. Chris Shein will talk about permaculture and his newly published book on the subject. Another very knowledgable person. We'll have workshops on garden irrigation, biodymamics, chickens, bees, garden planning, and much more.
I hope to see many friendly faces there. Wish us good success.
It snuck up again. I swear every year that I'll be well prepared. Maybe it's that we still haven't had our rainy season. Maybe it's just like all those grown-ups said when I was a kid...time flies by faster and faster as we get older. Well this last one was a blur, and here we are in March. Daylight savings time is days away!
|Potting benches almost finished|
|Tomatoes ripening, Nov. 2011|
Here are 3 basic things to help grow a successful crop of tomatoes.
1. Plant deep - As we all know, root development is key to the life of almost all plants. And all those hairs on the stem of the tomato plant are actually potential roots, ready to develop and suck up nutrients. So, to take advantage of the tomato's root-iful characteristics, lower at least 50% of the green part our plants into its planting hole. The hole, by the way, should be approximately the size of a half-wine barrel: 18 inches deep, 2 feet in diameter.
Be sure to fill that hole with good stuff. Tomatoes like well-drained soil -- they will suffocate in our lovely Contra Costa clay. To get that result the easy way, fill the hole with a good, balanced mix like Navlet's Planting Mix. Then, give the hole with the plant in it a great, big initial drink. Fill the hole basically to overflowing so that the entire root ball and contents of the hole are wetted.
We also recommend the following for the initial planting. These additions should be mixed evenly into the hole, except for the fish head:
- 1 fish head at the bottom of the hole for nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium, and for a big boost to the wonderful soil life that digest the fish head and make nutrients available to the plants. I got mine at Ranch 99 for $.79/lb, but any fish monger or Asian-style market is likely to have them. If the heads are big, like salmon, it's perfectly OK to cut them in half;
- 3-4 crushed eggshells, for calcium, that I saved over the winter;
- 1 handful of bone meal which is rich in phosphorus and critical to fruit production;
- 1 modest handful of worm castings for a delicious first feed;
- the recommended dose of mycorrhizae from Bountiful Gardens, where you can read about the amazing things this product does.
I know this may seem excessive, but given the resources that you are going to give the plant in terms of time and water, do yourself a favor and make sure to give the plants the best start.
2. Feed well - tomatoes need to be fed about once a month after planting. There are many and complicated recipes. However, a balanced organic fertilizer that emphasizes phosphorus is a good choice, e.g., a 4-6-4. Phosphorus, the second number in all fertilizer forumulas, is key for fruit production. Many good organic fertilizers can be purchased at your local nursery. We got our plants off to their great start with combinations of products from Dr. Earth, Whitney Farms (currently, a Scotts company), and E.B. Stone.
3. I'll have another sip - be consistent in watering tomatoes after planting to avoid "bingeing". It's not good to drown them one day and follow up with a week of neglect. You can easily monitor the plants' needs by sticking your finger down a couple of inches into the soil. If it's dry, they may need a drink, but maybe not: tomatoes like a bit of drying, even to the point of mild wilting. Mulch also helps -- it slows down moisture loss and keeps roots cooler by providing shade for the soil. Put the mulch up to about 6 inches from the stem; that way, certain pests won't be able to stage a sneak attack under the cover of the mulch.
One last thing: rotate your tomato sites year over year for disease control. Many of the most common tomato pests live in the soil, but you can usually outrun 'em by planting in different locations.
The Container: Most tomato varieties want a large container. 15 gallons minimum. A tall pot is better than a short wide one. Don't skimp on the size of container, those roots need room! There must be a hole in the bottom for water drainage. I don't like those saucers that catch water under the pot. What's the point of a drainage hole if the pot is going to sit in a pool of water? Also remember that pots, especially dark plastic ones, can absorb a lot of heat. That's a plus in the spring when temperatures are cooler, but bad when it gets hot and the sun is intense. Draping shadecloth around the container will help. Thick terracotta pots don't seem to have this problem.
The "Soil": Container growing is not like growing in the ground. Do not use garden soil, topsoil, or that pile of dirt in the corner of your yard. The pot serves up some challenges, and using soil makes those problems worse. Don't use pure compost either. Use potting mix. A good one. Why? I could write a whole missive about this and tell you greenhouse horror stories involving 1000 tomato seedlings, but that's for another time. So, what's a "good" mix? Good mixes have structure, hold a lot of air and some water, but drain really well. Typical mixes in our area contain partially composted fir bark or bark fines (sometimes rice hulls), peat moss or coir, perlite, and some nutrients and ph adjusters. It's hard to recommend a brand, because I've had great results some years and bad ones the next with the same brand. Cynthia Sandberg, who farms for Michelin rated Manresa restaurant, swears by Gardner & Bloom potting soil. That's the best I can do for a brand recommendation. If you open a bag of potting mix and most of the contents are very fine (less than 1/16"), you don't have a good mix. It won't have enough structure, won't drain well, won't hold air, and will "collapse" or compact in short order. All bad news.
Planting: Tomato plants benefit from planting deeply. Very deeply. You want to bury much of the stem, I'd say halfway up the stem is good general rule. Clip off all the leaves below that halfway point just before you plant. The part of the stem that's buried will grow roots, which will produce a healthy productive plant. Before you place the plant down into the container, gently pull the rootball out at the sides, so it loses the seedling container shape and encourages the roots to grow outward. Once planted, water thoroughly. You want the potting mix and the rootball to get evenly moist. Just because water drains out the bottom doesn't mean everything is evenly moist. Water once, come back in 5 or 10 minutes and water again, then wait another few minutes and water a third time.
Nutrients: If you're using an organic potting mix, or one that does not contain a CRF (control release fertilizer), your greedy, hungry tomato plant will use up all the available nutrients in 4-6 weeks. I like to mix an organic dry vegetable food (such as Dr. Earth, Whitney Farms, Espoma, etc) into the upper 2 - 4" of potting mix at planting time with a little extra bat guano or alfalfa meal, used sparingly. Still, at 4-6 weeks, you'll need to start feeding again. Then I'd switch to an organic liquid food, and feed weakly weekly--a weak solution once a week, like 1/2 the strength suggested on the label.
Watering: Don't kill 'em with kindness. Tomato plants don't like to be wet all the time. They prefer to go just a little on the dry side (slightly moist), and then be watered well. Frequency will change over the season. Hot or cool temperatures, longer days, wind, sun exposure, your potting mix and the size of the plant all influence frequency. You may only need to water once a week in spring, and then once a day in summer when it's hot and the plant is larger. You'll need to get a feel for that. Don't be shy about sticking a finger down into the soil. Just because the top looks dry doesn't mean it's dry 6 or 8 inches down.
Staking: Most varieties need to be staked or caged, even in a pot. Unless you're growing a determinate variety or a specifically compact variety, don't bother with those crappy little wire cages. They are a waste of money and resources. One day you'll come out for a visit with your tomato friend and it will have pulled that thing out of the soil and be wearing it like a hat. Then it will fall over. You'll then have to figure out how to extract the plant from the cage without destroying both. Does it sound like I've been there before? Go to your local home improvement store and find the aisle with sacks of concrete. You'll see remesh mats--4' x 7' welded wire mesh sheets made for reinforcing concrete. Buy one. Roll it into a tube shape and wire it together so it will stay in the tube shape. Now you have a functioning tomato cage. Slip it over the plant, tuck it's arms and legs inside and secure the cage to the container with a long stake driven into the soil and wired to the cage. If you don't stake the cage down your tomato friend will one day yank it out and try to heave it across the yard. Continue to tuck it's arms and legs inside the cage as it grows.
A Note about Varieties: I think people assume that they must grow cherry varieties if growing in containers, but it's not the size of the fruit that matters as much as the growth habit of the plant. We offer a couple of cherry varieties that I swear would knock a 15 gallon container over, drag it around the yard and then become very unhappy. That said, I don't recommend most of the big, late season beefsteak varieties because the chances of getting only 2 or 3 tomatoes all season are just too high. If you're growing more than a couple of plants, the risk may be worth it. Many of the early and mid season varieties, and those that are prolific producers will do well for most people.
A Note on Drainage: Here's the part where I feed you more information than you wanted. One major problem with container growing is drainage. Even with a good potting mix you are likely to get water that just won't drain out of the pot, and it pools in the bottom making a soupy, airless layer that roots don't like. This is "perched" water. We all used to think that putting gravel or sand or pot shards in the bottom of our pots would eliminate perched water, but it turns out that physics doesn't work that way. I won't bore you with the details here (I'll bore you with it in another post), but gravel in the bottom of a pot only takes up space, and the perched water will still stick in the bottom layer of potting mix above the gravel. Now, sometimes plant roots will colonize that zone before it gets bad and use that water, but many times not. So what's the solution? Before you fill your container with soil, take a mop string, or absorbent length of rope and coil it around the bottom of the inside of the pot, then thread one end through the drainage hole and let it dangle a couple of inches below the bottom. Elevate the pot with pot feet or something that will keep the pot from sitting on the ground. Now fill your container with potting mix. The mop string/rope acts as a wick, drawing excess moisture down the string and out of the pot. It's the same idea as sticking the corner of a paper towel in a cup of water and watching the water get pulled into the paper towel. Are you asleep yet?
Wow, that was more like 10 cents worth of opinion. How about you? What works for you? Please share!
|View from Wall Point|