Prepping our Beds and Containers, with Video too

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.

In-Ground Beds

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.

Raised beds

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.

Water, Lack of Water, and the Edible Garden

...posted by Kelley

As I write this, it's 97 degrees outside and I'm thinking about our water supply, or lack thereof. Many gardeners questioned whether it's a good idea to grow this year, but I must admit that I didn't flinch. There was no question for me that I would continue to grow food. It has, however, made me hyper aware of how I use water, and what steps I can take to reduce my usage in the garden.  Here's 5 steps I'll take this year.

1. Prep Your Beds Well.  This is SO important.  I double dig my beds, which is initially a pain in the a**, but it makes a world of difference. Why? Many reasons, but simply put, plant roots need air. The farther down from the surface you can loosen and amend the soil and provide air, the farther down plant roots can go after water and nutrients. The deeper the roots, the less water needed at the surface. I also space my beds close together. Narrow walkways mean less hot, dry, exposed, compacted ground. 

2. Plant Intensively.  In a double dug bed, or in raised beds and containers, you can space plants quite close together. As the plants grow and mature, they help shade each other and the soil surface, slowing evaporation. Water vapor also stays in and under the plant canopy longer. Additionally, planting a diverse group of plants together enhances the health of each, especially if you include flowering plants and those that tend to have different root depths and similar water requirements. 
3. Install and maintain a drip system.  Not only does it save water, but it makes life a lot easier. I set up my beds with dripper line spaced quite closely. I want the dripper system to wet the entire bed, not just the base of each plant. That way I can plant intensively and not worry about whether there is a dripper exactly at the base of each plant, and next season I can plant again without rearranging the system. I also believe that an evenly moist bed supports soil life and nutrient supply better than a bed with wet and dry spots.

4. Mulch.  Lots and lots of it. 3-5" of it over the whole bed and over the drip system. Just as planting intensively slows evaporation, so does mulch. Compost, straw, mini bark or fir bark, all work fine. I don't suggest wood chips, because as they break down, they use nitrogen, making it less available to your plants. Bark doesn't do this, wood does. I like compost because it's the same material I double dig my beds with and it will only make the beds better. It also looks better to me than straw. Make sure your drip system is working well before you mulch and pull the mulch away from plant stems a little.  

5. Stop Watering So Much!  Tomatoes, peppers, most herbs and well chosen beneficials don't need an abundance of water. If fact, too much water makes tomatoes taste like...water. Additionally, a plant that gets watered frequently has no need to send roots down deep. In the August heat, tomato and pepper plants in my double dug beds get water every 10-14 days. That's it. With deep mulch I'm sure I can stretch it farther than that. My squashes, beans, cucumbers and melons get water every 7 days or so. I'm curious to see how far I push it this year.

I wish us all an abundant and drought friendly gardening year!

Container Planting

We get a lot of inquiries about growing tomatoes in containers. While neither of us are experts, we are opinionated, so I get to give you my 2 cents.  If you're a seasoned container gardener with a solid history of success, then I probably need your opinions more than you need mine.  If you have spotty success or are new at this, I hope this helps.

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!