Self Watering Garden Bed...!?

We know about self watering containers, but how about self watering garden beds?

This concept is simple, was used by ancient peoples, and is extremely efficient. It's called an olla.  Pronounced "oy-yah", it is a vase shaped unglazed clay terra cotta vessel with a slender neck and a lid.  Beautiful yet simple, the idea is to bury the vessel in the garden bed, fill it with water periodically, and plant around it.  Because the vessel is porous, it slowly releases water into the surrounding soil as plant roots need it, and because the pot is buried, evaporation is severely reduced.


I'd been reading about ollas and was interested in trying them, but hadn't acted on it.  As luck would have it, I was at at the Plant and Pottery Outlet in Sunol, and there they were...for $10 each!  I couldn't resist, so I took a couple of them home to try in my vegetable beds.

Ollas before they were buried, placed about 4 or 4-1/2' apart in my beds.

I placed my two ollas about 4-1/2' apart in my tomato/pepper bed.  
Buried up to their chins and filled with water. Now just waiting to see how the plants like it!
The History
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 Savings
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. 

I love to experiment in the garden and I love this concept.  It's so elegant and simple.  I'm excited to see how the tomatoes and peppers do.  I'll post pictures and an update as the season progresses.  

Gardens and Drought - 4 Steps to Reducing Water Use

With our governor’s announcement that water rationing is now an official reality and soon-to-be mandatory, I thought I’d review some of the things we can all do in our gardens to conserve water and still grow lots of great food. I 've written about this before, but given our dire water supply and the fact that it's planting season, I thought it would be a good refresher for me, and hopefully for you too!
  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
A note about tomato plants—they will sometimes wilt some during the day when the sun is intense or it’s particularly hot.  Don’t grab the hose yet though! Our first reaction is to water them, but that’s probably not what they need.  If the plant perks up again as the sun recedes and temperatures drop in the evening, then it’s not a watering issue.  They just responded to the light and heat by drooping some.  They will be fine.  Planting intensively will help, as plants help shade and protect other plants.

Now, I gotta go plant!

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!

Planting Basics

I am going to cheat and re-publish parts of posts from 2010, partly because they are basic, and partly because I think I did an amazing job being succinct (a personal best).
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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.

----- Arti

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!

...Kelley

Do you still love us?

I really don't understand how other bloggers do it.  I feel tremendous guilt and shame that it has been months since we last posted.  We have laundry, shopping, and other stuff to do, and I suspect other bloggers just phone all that in.  That is why we are lucky to have the expedient of original artwork from one of our friends/customers.  Yes, Tracy, you will rue the day that you ever met me..

In any case, we are back.  This year we couldn't help ourselves and have more -- volume and variety -- than last year.  We're also deeply gratified that so many people (and not just our relatives) are eager to plant our product again.  But wait, a warning to those who suffered through last year's cold and rainy season.

This may be familiar ground (pun intended), but walking all over your garden, especially when the soil is wet,  is one of the worst things you can do for it.  Why?  Well, plant roots need oxygen and your weight compresses the soil, pounding the oxygen out.  That's why rooting plants in water produces fragile root systems for many types of plants -- there isn't much oxygen in water.   The average human being can compact soil up to 75% by just stepping on it, and you only need 20% more for compaction sufficient to build on!  The lesson here is to establish parts of your garden that will not have plants, and to arrange them well so that you won't pull something reaching for something ill-sited

The Big 3..or 4

There are lots of tips and tricks, but here are 3 basic things to help grow a successful crop of tomatoes.

1. Dirt wrap - you know how some spas offer to surround you up to your chin in warm, clean, mud? Well, that's exactly how tomatoes like to be planted. I personally believe that is why they have such cute, hairy stems. Those hairs are actually potential roots, ready to develop and suck up nutrients.
Just trim off the lower leaves, nestle the plant in up to its leafy chin and give it a great, big initial drink for its summer heat treatment.

2. Feed me - 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.