Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What's Next on My Desert Garden To Do List? Rain Gardens? Hugelkultur?

The other day, I realized something amazing. All my big garden projects are done. (Well, except the side yard clean up, but let's just forget about that, OK?) Let me rephrase that. All my big fun projects are done. When did this happen?

Last year, finished ripping up some of the back lawn and putting in the bigger garden plot:

We had gutters installed last year so we could route water to rain barrels (although I might want to hook up more barrels): 

I've had a vision for quite a while of a wall of fruit trees along my south wall (the chilliest part of my garden). I finally found the last ones (some pears) a few weeks ago, and got them put in. (It's hard to see anything but the pears in this picture, but there are some apples way in the background. When they get bigger, I plan to espalier them.):

The hubby constructed grape arbors for me along the east wall just in time for spring this year. The grapes are starting to grow like crazy now:

After the last rains, when the ground was nice and soft, I finally got trellises installed for my bougainvillaeas:

I even have a nice patio garden for plants that need a little extra shade in the summer (blueberries and peaches):

Now granted, there are still plenty of smaller things to do. There's that side yard clean up I talked about. (Grrr.) There's improving the quality of the soil in the big garden plot (but that's something that's going to take some time). And there's plenty of other little things. But really, I can't help but wonder what's the next big thing? After all, a girl's gotta keep busy.

In comes Erica from Northwest Edible Life, author of one of my favorite garden blogs ever. (She writes for a completely different climate than Arizona, but I love reading her blog anyway.) She recently wrote a review of Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist, and after her rave review, I ran out lickity-split and bought the book.

What can I say? She didn't steer her readers wrong. This book is great! It makes permaculture concepts easy, which is saying a lot. For instance, I've been vaguely thinking of redesigning my front yard for a while to make better use of rain water, but everything I've read on the subject has made me think that I need a PhD to make it work. This book was a light bulb moment for me. I don't need a PhD. I just need a shovel and a bottle of ibuprofen for the inevitable sore muscles. So maybe I'll put in some rain gardens.

Or who knows? Maybe I'll try some hugelkulture beds somewhere in backyard or side yard. (For those who aren't familiar, hugelkulture beds are like lasagna beds with big logs as the base layer.) I always thought this was something for wetter climates, but maybe not. In fact, hugelkulture beds might be ideal for our climate. They are supposed to create a really good little ecosystem that retains water much better than your average garden bed. Sounds pretty good for a dry climate, right? (Plus, I bet you could get a lot of source materials for hugelkulture beds during monsoon season when trees tend to get blown down.) 

So now I've got a book full of new ideas for big projects. And it makes them all seem easy. So the only question is, what's next? :)

Monday, March 03, 2014

What a Great Day

My husband is a genius. Let's just start with that.

Let me back up. Holidays with gifts (like birthdays and Christmas) are a tricky business around here. (Not for the kid. She's easy. Get her a stuffed animal and she's thrilled.) But for us grown ups, a little more thought is required. We really want to take the opportunity to show each other how much we appreciate each other by getting just the right gift, but there's that minor problem of figuring out what that perfect thing is. We usually think of getting something related to each others hobbies, but don't know enough about them to get just the right thing. Hmm.

Granted, this is not such an awful problem to have or anything. :) 

Anyway, today is my birthday, so my husband was faced with this dilemma once again, and he really stepped up to the plate. This weekend, he announced that for my birthday, yesterday would be family garden day. The whole family would be totally at my disposal for garden related activities. Not to be a total megalomaniac, but Mother Nature even got in on it by giving us a very nice rain shower the day before, making it very easy to dig things up in the garden. (Thanks Mama!) 

It. Was. Awesome. I decided we would start the day by going to a nursery I had never been to before. I chose Whitfill Nursery, which immediately became my new favorite nursery. I can't believe I've never been there before. First off, my kid loves it, which is always a huge plus in my book. When you first walk in, there's a huge porch swing, which she loved:

And there's chickens and roosters everywhere for her chase around:

Happy kids make happy mamas! As for me, I love that the entire stock (except the indoor plants) are locally grown. I don't care what your politics and thoughts on sustainability are--that's just going to make the plants do better in my garden because they're already used to local conditions.

Also, the staff was great. Within minutes of walking in the door, they advised us to go to the desert section because the plants were going to be easier to take care of. They have a whole section full of beautiful tropical plants, but they weren't doing a hard sell on them. I like that. Plus, their selection of desert plants was great.

I was in seventh heaven. And my family was very patient with me while hemmed and hawed trying to decide what to get. I was trying to decide between a few different plants when I noticed butterflies fluttering around the bush morning glories. Well, that sealed the deal:

Also, Noelle at has advised me that bush morning glories are great because they survive arizona winter frosts well. As we wheeled these towards the check out counter, the same staffer who had pointed us to the desert section when we walked in smiled and said, "See! Those are good plants!"

After a nice lunch, we got home and got to work. Of course, we planted the plants we got at the nursery. (Well, not all of them. I still need to put in the bush morning glories.) But I did put in a nice agave I picked out:

And my husband constructed some grape arbors for me. (It's hard to actually see the grape plant beneath the wires, but it's there.)

I did a lot of work digging mulch into my vegetable patch, planted some carrots, corn, and marigold seeds, pulled up some broccoli that had finished flowering, pulled up a dead bougainvillaea, and made a small dent in the ongoing side yard cleanup project. Meanwhile, Chloe planted a butterfly bush in one of her garden beds. And our new rescue dog Elsa did a good job supervising the whole effort:

It may have been one of the best birthday presents ever. What a great day.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Taking the Soil Test: Did I Pass?

As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts, my winter garden hasn’t been much to write home about. My peas grew about 2 inches and then stopped. My broccoli starts grew in an inch or two and then went straight to flower. A lot of the seeds never grew at all. Meh. So I finally decided to do a little digging back there to see what was going wrong.

Who knows? Maybe I’d dig up something interesting while I was at it. 

There are always a lot of possible culprits to an unsuccessful garden, but I decided to start my investigations with a soil analysis. Because I created a new plot with new soil just last year, the soil seemed like the likely culprit. I decided to use two methods: a home soil kit (Rapitest pH Soil Tester) and a professional lab (IAS). I wanted to compare the two, just in case the cheap and easy home test could give me similar results to the more expensive professional lab. 

What I hoped for was that the expensive lab analysis would tell me exactly what my problem was and tell me exactly how to fix it, but also, that the home test would return similar results. That way, I would be able to use the cheap kit in the future and know how to interpret the results from it. More realistically, however, what I expected was that the expensive lab analysis would tell me exactly what my problem was, give me a good idea how to fix it, and the home test kit would be kind of useless.

It actually took me quite a while to figure out what I thought of the results that I got. 

Let's start by looking at the Rapitest results. I picked Rapitest because it is one of the most highly rated home soil test kits on the Internet. To use it, you put some water, a little bit of soil, and some testing solution in the little container. Then you shake it up and see how the color of the water compares to the colors on the test kit. I always find these tests a little frustrating. I have a pretty good eye for color, but they never match the little color swatches exactly, so I'm always kind of guessing where things fall in the range. 

 I hope you're not color blind

What I took away from my test was that my soil is pretty alkaline. How alkaline? I don't know. A lot, I guess. There was some general information that came with the kit as well about adjusting my soil's pH, but I didn't really look at it too closely. I figured if I was going to do that, I would look at some Arizona-specific literature on the subject, not the back of a cheap soil-testing kit.

Next up, the IAS Lab results. These were more in-depth, as expected. There were definitely people with lab coats and magnifying glasses and other gratifyingly geeky equipment who came up with this stuff! And I got a very exact pH measurement from them.


Boron readings? Oh, this is good geekery.

After looking through page 1 of the analysis, which had some very impressive, but very confusing readings for all sorts of minerals, I moved onto page 2, where they gave me their recommendations: 

Oh thank goodness! All those readings translated into English!

For those of you having trouble reading the fine print, it basically boils down to: "Your soil's pretty good, but the nitrogen is really low." That seemed like good news to me, because adding nitrogen is easy. And it made sense why winter garden had done so badly. Nitrogen is one of the main things that plants need. So that seemed like an easy fix. Problem solved!

But something was nagging at me. It was that pH thing. The cheapo Rapitest seemed to indicate that my pH levels were pretty high, and the pro test actually confirmed it. IAS measured my pH levels at 7.7! Didn't I need to do something to correct it? Shouldn't I add some sulfur to the soil to lower the alkalinity? Why hadn't IAS said anything? 

So again I started digging.  And I came across this article in Organic Gardening. Basically, it boils down to this: Lowering your soil's alkalinity (pH) is hard. It takes time. Don't add a bunch of sulfur to soil where you're trying to grow plants. Instead, just keep adding compost each season. Eventually, you'll get there. And try to choose plants that can handle higher alkalinity. Hmm, I can see why IAS didn't say anything about lowering the pH, but it's not quite the "Victory! Problem solved!" feeling I had two paragraphs ago either. 

Overall, I think I've decided my initial hunch was right.  The expensive lab analysis did tell me what my problem was (low nitrogen), gave me a good idea how to fix it (amend the soil), and the home test kit was kind of useless. (Yes, it did tell me about another problem that I have, but it's not a problem I can do a whole lot about, so what's the point?) So my big plan is to give the soil a big shot of nitrogen now by tilling in some soil amendments, and to periodically add fish emulsion to the plants over the course of the season. Hopefully, that will do the trick. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tell It To Me Straight, Mama: What Are the Easiest Edibles to Grow in Arizona?

Recently, I got a Mother Earth News email touting the Easiest Vegetables to Grow. “Good stuff!” I thought. “Those folks at Mother Earth News know what they’re talking about. Considering all the problems I’ve been having with the garden lately, this might be just the refresher course I need to get back on track.” 

So what did they have to say? In a nutshell: salad mix, herbs, potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, and summer squash. Now I am not an Arizona garden pro, (for that, I point you to the AZ Plant Lady or the Scientific Gardener), but I think it is my hit-or-miss, purely amateur status that makes me qualified to talk about what’s “easy” and what’s not.

Trust me. I grow the best tumbleweeds in the state.

Mother Earth News, I think you’re great. And this list is probably a good one for a lot of the country, but Mama, I think you’re steering Arizona wrong. Well, not completely wrong, but not completely right either. Let’s do the run-down: 

  • Salad-mix: Absolutely. Yes, this is easy to grow in Arizona. Heck, if you’re feeling feisty, you can even start it from seed. It’s that easy.
  • Herbs: Yes, I have found herbs to be pretty easy here, although I have yet to grow them successfully from seed. When I get a seedling from a nursery (or sometimes even from the grocery store) though, they do great. I’ve had particular luck with rosemary (which I use as a landscaping plant in my front yard. Double duty!), basil (which goes crazy under the right conditions), and parsley.
  • Potatoes: Meh. I have successfully grown plants from spuds, but I would hardly call it easy. First, I had to do a ton of work to sift through my native soil to get all the rocks out. (I read somewhere that the rocks in our soil can make the potatoes malformed.) And the potatoes that I got in the end had lots of brown bits in them that made me nervous (were they diseased?). In the end, I think I only got one meal out of the whole plot. Not so easy.
  • Green beans: I’ve only tried this once, with no luck. Better gardeners than me have made it work, so I haven’t given up. Still, no judgment yet on whether it’s easy. Initial outlook: Not good.
  • Tomatoes: No, no, no. Just no. Yes, you can grow tomatoes in Arizona. But, from everything I’ve read, it’s all about the art of timing. (Notice that I say “from what I’ve read?” I’ve never got more than a few tomatoes off a plant myself before the thing kicked the bucket.) Basically, our winters are too cold for tomatoes, our summers are too hot for tomatoes, and our other seasons are very short. So to get any sort of decent tomato crop, you have to time things juuuuuuuuuuuuuuust right, and possibly employ all sorts of season extending techniques (shade cloth for summer/frost covers for winter). Better gardeners than me seem to have tips for how to do this. Maybe this will be the magic year that I can make it happen too.
  • Summer squash: Yes. Very easy. Zucchini, in fact, is what got my gardening addiction started. I don’t even think I did anything special when I planted it. I probably just plunked it in some native soil and watered it. And then it grew and grew and grew. Ah, magnificent zucchini!  

So, what is easy to grow here? Here’s what I’ve personally had a lot of luck with:

  • Summer crops: Okra, melons, zucchini, sunflowers, and sweet potatoes. (By the way, the one thing that really flummoxed me about sweet potatoes was when to harvest them. I've since learned Thanksgiving or first frost, whichever comes first.)
  • Winter crops: Salad mix, herbs, broccoli, and Texas Granex onions
  • Permanent crops (bushes & trees): Pomegranates and rosemary.  

(For information about when to plant these forgiving beauties, see the Maricopa County Planting Calendar.) 

Of course, this whole discussion got started because I’m not having much luck with anything right now, and I was trying to think about what plants might go better. Really, this is all a distraction from the real matter at hand. I think it’s time for me to get my soil tested and see if I need to make some adjustments. I'm pretty sure I do. So tune in next time to see how those efforts are going. In the meantime, happy gardening!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Garden Geekery: Plant Profile Sheets and Other Fun

Any of you who follow me with any regularity (Hi Mom!) will have noticed that I haven’t posted a lot of garden pics lately. There’s a good reason for that. The garden just ain’t looking like much these days. Despite a major garden renovation a few months ago, my garden just isn’t taking off this season. I’m not sure why. Maybe the weather is to blame. Maybe I got started too late? Maybe the new soil needs a little time to “settle in”? Maybe I’m not watering at the right levels? Maybe I failed to offer the garden gods the appropriate sacrifices? Who knows? All I know is that most of the stuff I’ve planted is roughly the same size now as when I planted it a couple of months ago. Sigh. 

Happily, there are a few exceptions to this. My carrots & garlic (planted in October) and peas (planted earlier this month) are showing some progress: 

But yeah, overall, there’s not a lot show. Still, in my burning need for validation, I was thinking “There’s got to be something I can blog about! It’s been too long!” (I know, I know. This need for approval from strangers on the internet is so sad.) Then I realized that I had been working on something that might actually help other people, so I figured I’d blog about that. One of my resolutions this year was to keep better records, and Boy Howdy!, I think I nailed that one!

My records keeping folder and weight lifting system. Multitasking at its best. 

I don’t know about you, but I have an awful memory. And it gets worse all the time. I think that’s a blessing and a curse for a gardener. It’s a blessing to forget all the failures, because it keeps us coming back season after season for more gardening, but also, it dooms us to repeat them. So in an effort to make new mistakes every year instead of repeating the same old mistakes, I came up with a record keeping system.

It consists of a binder where I collect interesting articles and whatnot (see weight lifting picture above), but it also includes Word documents where I gather all the useful information I find on the Internet and checklists that I use to track my activities. Those Word docs are what I'm talking about here.

The first document is where the real action is. It's a list of all the information I’ve collected about various plants (mostly fruits and vegetables) over the last couple of years, including recommended varieties for my area, sunlight requirements, when to plant them, mulch requirements, watering requirements, links to useful websites, etc. That’s in the left column. The right column includes my notes about what I’ve done in my garden. That’s the “learn from my mistakes” part. (Lots of room for learning! Ha!) Here's a sample of what one of the pages looks like:

  Geektastic, yes?

Want more? Here's a link to the full-fledged doc:

Want a version of your own where you can note your own experiences, observations, etc? No problem!  Here ya go: I kept all the "General Info" in the left column, in case you find it useful, but cleared the right column for you write your own info in. (If you want one with the left column cleared too, just leave a message in the comments and I'll whip something up.) 

This second one is a little anti-climatic after that first one, but it might be a little less overwhelming. It’s a monthly checklist that I print out and put in a folder. It’s divided into two types of tasks: Things I need to remember to do every year (fertilize the fruit trees, prune the fruit trees, etc.) and things that I’m choosing to do this year (plant a particular type of vegi, buy a new type of fruit tree, etc.). Here's another sample for January:

Again, in case you're just dying to see more, here's a link to my personalized version: And here's a link to a generic version you can use for your personal purposes, if you are so inclined:

I suppose if I spent all the time gardening that I spend on these documents, my garden might be doing better. But most of the time I spend on this stuff is 5 AM in the morning when it’s still dark. (What can I say? I’m an early riser.)

So for now, I’ll be happy I nailed at least one of my resolutions for the year, and hope that it pays of next year. 2014, here I come!