Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Freezing Okra for the Winter

The unbelievable has happened. My family and I are actually getting a little tired of eating okra. (I know. I can hardly believe it myself!) A couple of weeks ago, I found myself thinking, "Well, I think okra season is nearly done anyway."

I took this picture this morning: 


Look at all those flowers. I don't think okra season is nearly over.

If you're in the same boat as me--so much okra, you don't know what to do with it--you might want to think about freezing some of it for later. I'm guessing you'll be happy to have it in the middle of the winter to put into jambalaya or stew or something. (I know I will!)

Here's the article I found for freezing okra: WikiHow: How to Freeze Okra. I found it very useful and have used it a couple of times now when my family couldn't face one more okra dish! It seems a lot more constructive than making them eat it until they hate it with a passion, doesn't it?




Sunday, August 24, 2014

Permaculture Baby Steps: Learning Permaculture Principles

Since my last post, the idea of permaculture has really wormed its way into my consciousness. I must admit, I'm a little obsessed. I've been doing a lot of reading about it, trying to get a handle on the idea. I love this idea that you can solve problems in the garden using natural solutions. Even better, I love the idea of creating a little ecosystem that not only produces great stuff for you, but also creates a nice little wildlife habitat as well.

Let me clarify, a wildlife habitat for animals, not children

But during my research, I must admit, I also got really overwhelmed. When looking at books and websites about permaculture, most of them talk about massive installations (food forests) that use plants that won't necessarily work here in Arizona. Trying to think about creating all those symbiotic relationships is hard enough, but trying to translate all those examples to use plants that will work in a desert environment and my garden in particular was really, really daunting.

So I decided to go back to square one and stop looking at all those examples, and focus on the basic permaculture principles instead. When I did, I realized that (unlike what many of these books and websites had lead me to believe), you don't need massive acreage to make this work. You're not required to create big food forests. Permaculture centers around a set of principles, not a set of techniques. Those principles hold true if you have acres and acres of land to work with, but they also work if you only have a patio with some potted plants. 

So let's talk principles. As best as I can tell, they aren't completely etched in stone. Some books and websites have them boiled down to 10 principles. Others list as many as 14. But they seem to (mostly) cover the same ideas and themes, just in their own ways. In that somewhat loosey-goosey spirit, I've given my take on them below. (For a professional's take on them, see chapter one of Gaia's Garden or the Permaculture Association's website.)

The idea here is simple: You should base your actions on what you see going on in your surroundings, not based on a bunch of preconceived notions. Sadly folks, this means that you shouldn't necessarily start your garden planning with "I really want tomatoes this summer." If you observe that your tomatoes die every summer in a blaze of desert glory, you may have to stop being so darn stubborn and come to terms with the fact that summer isn't the right time to plant tomatoes in Arizona. Perhaps you should look around you and see what is doing well in Arizona in the summer and plant that instead. (Yes, there are things that grow well here in the summer. You just have look around to find them.)

I think this principle goes hand-in-hand with the previous principle. If you observe that something isn't working in your environment, and choose to act to fix it, you need to keep the scale of your action small so you can really determine if your chosen solution worked. If you throw too many variables in the works, you really will have no idea what solved the problem or caused the failure. What I like about this principle is that it always leaves the door open for more tinkering. Because you need to work on a small and slow scale, it means there will probably always be more to do.

There are all sorts of energy you can catch and store. One of the biggies that I think about in a gardening context is water. Luckily, there are all sorts of great methods for catching and storing water--berms and swales in your landscape, rain barrels or rain tanks under your gutters... I have even heard of one ingenious soul taking an old water cooler and putting it under his gutter. Whatever works! In the winter, heat is a great type of energy to think about catching and storing. (Yes, we have to worry about it getting cold in Arizona too, just not the bury-your-house-in-snow type of cold.) For instance, you can plant your vegis close together to create little microclimates. The plants can huddle together, creating a little extra warmth for each other. Maybe they'll even tell each other a few stories and roast marshmallows while they're at it too!

This one should be second nature to most of the people reading this post. Gardens aren't just for looking pretty. They should also be for producing something useful (food, medicine, firewood, a cure for cancer... something like that). Considering that most of us are usually trying to find a way to squeeze one more raised bed into the yard, or sneak edibles into the front yard without the HOA noticing, I don't think we need to be lectured on this one, right?

There are all sorts of ways to use renewable and biological resources in the garden. One of the most obvious ways is to improve your soil using things like compost, compost tea, composted manure, worm castings, chicken droppings... the list goes on and on. If you want to get creative, you can also expand this principle just a bit (remember, we're getting a little loosey-goosey here) to include using recycled resources too. When you do that, you can start thinking about doing things like using items off craigslist to create aquaponics systems, using reclaimed wood to create raised beds, or reusing almost any old container to create planters for your patio.


Variety is the spice of life, my friends. It's also a good insurance policy in your garden. If you plant nothing but corn in your garden, and it's a bad year for corn for some reason (too hot for it maybe? swarm of locusts?), guess what? You're not getting anything out of your garden. If you plant a variety of plants, chances are at least some of them will survive. The same holds true for variety of types. For instance, if you love, love, love tomatoes (and really, who doesn't?), it's probably a good idea to plant a few different types of tomatoes to see which ones will work best. For instance, I planted full size tomatoes and cherry tomatoes this spring. The full sized ones were pretty much a bust, but the cherry tomatoes were producing well into July. If I had only picked one type to plant from the outset, I probably would have picked the full size tomatoes. And then where would I be? Tomato-less and destitute. It's just too sad to contemplate.

Up until now, I've been throwing you soft balls, but this is where the permaculture principles get trickier. This principle advocates that creating segregated little zones--one for your flower garden, one for your vegetable garden, one for your fruit trees, etc.--weakens the system. To reduce your work load, make plants healthier, and produce more from less space, you have to integrate these things together.

For instance, by planting flowers next to your fruit trees and fruiting vegetables, you help attract bees to help with pollination. (Otherwise, you might be out there hand-pollinating, which can be a real pain.) Or by planting nitrogen-fixing plants like peas and beans around trees and plants, you can avoid fertilizing them.

This process of making plants perform more than one function is frequently called "stacking functions." And this is where permaculture gets a little hard, because trying to devise a system where every plant is multitasking and connected to one another is complicated. (One of my favorite bloggers, Erica Strauss at Northwest Edible Life, recently talked to Michael Judd, author of Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist, about easing your way into this. It's a great podcast if you want to listen to it.) By all accounts, it sounds like it's really hard to get the hang of, but once you do, it makes life a whole lot easier.


The idea here is that edge where two different environments meet is the most diverse, and possibly the most productive place in the ecosystem. The examples I've read talk about woodland meeting meadow, but since that really doesn't happen in most of our backyards, I'm more inclined to think of edges being where a fruit tree (or trees) meet the vegetable garden. That's going to be really productive because the fruit tree will shade the vegetables, and the vegetables will shade the roots of the tree. I'm sure there are other edges to consider too. For instance, I certainly know that weeds are very productive at the edges of my lawn because of sprinkler run-off. Perhaps there's a way to take advantage of that? (Anything to avoid all that weeding!)

Last, but not least, permaculture advocates that you need to turn problems into solutions. Also, you need to turn hay into gold and get your daughter a real live flying pony for Christmas. (OK, you don't have to do those last two, but my point is this sounds impossible, right?) I think that once you get the hang of it, this last principle probably isn't as hard as it sounds (at least, I hope not). I think achieving this one is a matter of mindset. For instance, my rain gutters empty into a "dead end" that pools up at the edge of my house. It doesn't drain away, which means that water is just gathering at the edge of my foundation, which is a problem. To turn it into a solution, I just needed to think about it a different way: "What can I do with all this water gathering by the edge of my house during rain storms?" When I think of it that way, the answer of course is "Gather it and save it." So a new rain tank is definitely in my future. If you think about other problems this way, maybe solutions will present themselves.


So there it is--my take on the permaculture principles. I'm going to try to apply them going forward to my little piece of Arizona suburbia. Let's see how it goes!


Saturday, August 02, 2014

Permaculture Baby Steps

This summer's garden started off with such promise with beautiful edibles growing everywhere, but as the summer wears on, I've been having to tear out more and more plants. About a month ago, I realized that I had planted my green beans and my second batch of corn at the wrong time, and they both succumbed to the heat. So I had to pull them out. Cucumbers and tomatoes? Gone in a blaze of glory. My zucchini and pumpkin were either taken out by squash vine borers, the heat, or a combination of both. Bye bye zucchini and pumpkin. I think there were others in there that I'm forgetting that are long gone now as well.

So what's left? My old friend, the mighty okra continues to thrive in the inferno that is an Arizona summer.

Pretty little masochists

Black eyed peas are nestled behind the okra as part of my olla experiment. (I suspect the shade from the okra is helping to keep them going.) Other than that, I've got two little basil plants, one cantaloupe vine, a few sweet potato slips, some sunflowers, and a whole lotta bare space. Sigh.  Compared to last summer, when I could barely contain my garden, it's pretty disappointing. But not to fret, this is a learning experience, right?

If a few more plants die, I could turn it into a bowling alley

I've been thinking hard about what went wrong this summer, and at least one thing that's really clear is that I didn't plan properly for shade. Too many plants were left to fend for themselves in the brutal Arizona sun. And as I started pulling out dead plants, it created a domino effect where the plants near them were exposed to more sun, which burned them to a crisp, and then they had to be pulled out too. That exposed more plants, and well, you get the picture. 

Wait, wait. What's happening now?

Now there's all sorts of ways to create shade in the summer garden. You can build shade structures, like arbors. You can plant tall, hearty plants such as sunflowers and okra where they can shade shorter, more fragile plants. You can plant a tree (or trees). Or you can do some combination of all of the above.

As I've been thinking about what to do better next year, I've find myself leaning towards a trees + plants combo.Trees sound better than building a structure because they are prettier, easier, cheaper, and they can give me food. Tall plants seem like a good idea too because they will provide additional shade (beyond that provided by a tree), plus they can create little micro-climates of humidity to help the lower-lying plants. But this tree + plant combo relies on planting a tree smack dab in the middle of my garden, like this:

Can you tell that I have an extensive art background? I'm sticking that picture on my fridge!

 As I've started researching if planting a tree in the middle of my garden is a good idea, I've realized that it's probably right inline with good permaculture practice. I'm new to this permaculture idea, and if you are too, it can be a hard idea to wrap your head around. It involves creating a whole ecosystem where all the plants support each other and the wildlife around your area. The plants naturally build the soil and help retain water. Different types of plants (grass, trees, shrubs, edibles) are not cordoned off to different areas of the yard, but rather mixed together. The landscape is built up in several layers to support a multi-faceted ecosystem that is far more self-supporting (and far more productive) than your average yard. It's completely different than the way most of us were taught to design a year and quite frankly, I find it completely daunting.

Putting a tree in the middle of my vegetable garden would be inline with permaculture thinking, but it would be just one baby step towards a much bigger more complex system. I'd have to figure out how to create a "guild" of plants that work well around it, figure out which ones would attract wildlife, which would fix nitrogen, which should be permanent, and which can change from season to season. When I read about the process, my head swims.

But really, I think I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll take some baby steps for now. This fall (or maybe next spring), I'll plant a tree for shade in my garden. And next summer, I'll use okra and sunflowers to protect more delicate edibles. And I'll keep reading my books and watching the garden to learn more and get more ideas. I like this permaculture idea, and if I keep reading about it, maybe by next summer, I won't find it so daunting.
 
Want to learn more about permaculture? Here's what I've been using to research:
  • Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway: My head swims when I read this, but it is full of good information. I get the feeling if I read it about 3 or 4 times, I might absorb enough to apply the practices the author is trying to teach.
  • Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist, by Michael Judd: This book is much, much easier to read than Gaia's Garden. It's not nearly as daunting. It's not quite as informative, but you're not nearly as likely to cry "Uncle!" either. Also, the author has a great sense of humor.
  • Valley Permaculture Alliance: Phoenix based forum for permies. A good place to go to exchange ideas and ask questions. It's nice to have a place to go to take the generic permaculture ideas and think about how to apply them in our very unique climate.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Comparing DIY Ollas to the Real Deal

A while back, I learned about something called an olla, and let me tell you, I was enthralled. Ollas are unglazed clay earthenware pots that you bury in your garden. They save a significant amount of water over other watering methods (even drip irrigation, which I had always heard was the ultimate water-saving method), because you bury ollas below the surface of the soil. Rather than watering above ground, the water seeps through the clay pot below ground, and the roots of the plant get the water there. In other words--no water evaporation in the air. Also, you can't over water--the plants take what they need and no more.

As you can imagine, I just had to try it. So I searched high and low all over the Phoenix area looking for these magic urns. I found one at Summer Winds nursery, which my husband quickly picked up for me.



I hear that some women ask their husbands for jewelry

Since the olla was both pricey ($34) and hard to find, I thought it would be worthwhile to also look into creating some of my own. I had seen quite a few tutorials online on how to make your own ollas. I thought it would be a good idea to try it out, and compare the results of the DIY version to the one I had just purchased.

 

The "real deal" vs. a DIY olla. Like twins, huh?

So I buried both of these in the ground a couple of feet away from each other a few weeks ago and planted black eyed peas around them. Next, I hand watered the seeds until they sprouted and grew an inch or so. Then, I watered them exclusively using the ollas. Here's how they look today: 

DIY olla

The "real deal" olla


As you can see from the pictures, the leaves on the plants around the DIY are quite a bit crispier. I've noticed that this olla takes a lot less water than the "real deal." I assume that's because it was not fired at a lower temperature like the genuine article.

I guess that means that when it comes time to get more ollas, I will be shelling out the dough for the real thing.

Monday, June 30, 2014

My Goodness, My Back is Sore


It all started so innocently. I thought I'd repair a few leaks in the drip irrigation. As I've said before (quite smugly, really) "It's so easy! It barely takes any time at all!" Well, that's true sometimes.

But recently, I couldn't get these leaks to unleak. I would patch them and they wouldn't stop dripping. Grr. It turns out that drip line gets less pliable over time, particularly if it's been exposed to the sun a lot (like if it hasn't been properly covered up after being repaired the last time--ahem).

So I decided that I needed to replace about 25 feet of the main line with new line. Which meant digging up all that line, cutting it out, laying in new line, and attaching it to the old line. Oh yeah, and then I had to attach new emitters where I thought I was originally just going to have to just repair a little leak. Not so easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

The gaping maw where drip line once was

And apparently I'm a masochist, because I was just getting started. Then I decided I needed to clear out the garden. I basically did an inventory of all the plants that were soaking up water but not producing much and decided to pull them out. If it was on a drip line, but wasn't producing food, attracting pollinators, or creating shade, it was out! 

For instance, it's been getting too hot for my full size tomato plants (the cherry tomato plants are still doing well). So I ripped those out and capped off the emitters that were running to the old tomato plants. Every time I did that, I would have clean up the mulch around the plant (either hay or gravel, depending on whether it was in the vegi garden or border) and fill up the hole that the plant left.

The last remains from two tomato plants

But then there were these big gaps in the garden. And I think we all know how much gardeners hate big gaps in the garden, right? I had to fill those gaps!

All that space, just taunting me!

But all this messing around with drip irrigation had really ticked me off at this point. Plus, I've become obsessed with saving water. So I didn't just want to drop some new seeds along the old irrigation lines. (No, that would be too easy!) 

So instead, I decided I needed to use ollas when I planted new plants because they would save me a bunch of water and I wouldn't have all these problems with maintaining an irrigation system. Which is great. But I had to do a lot of digging to plant them. So out came the shovel (and the Advil) and I started burying ollas in the garden.

And if it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm really not. I'm pleased as punch with all my progress. It's great to look out and see a cleaner garden and know that I'm doing my part to save water. But my back really is sore! I think I'll go take some more Advil.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Awesome Overload

There's so much going on right now. Where do I start?

My old reliable okra is really starting to take off. I stripped all 10 plants of their pods on Sunday to make jambalaya, and was able to pick about 8 more pods this morning. I imagine I'll be making another batch of jambalaya before the week is done.


My second batch of corn for the season is coming along nicely. It's probably just about time to plant another because the family loves fresh sweet corn. 


I've got successful tomatoes and grapes for the first time in years, but I've been fighting off the birds, who want at them too. I've been trying all sorts of tricks (bowls of water, bird netting, paper bags) to fend off the birds. I'll have to write a post about all of the tricks, but so far, covering up the fruit with paper bags is my favorite.


 This might finally be the year that cucumbers and green beans work for me. Fingers crossed!



My zucchini plant is looking good, but the squash keep dying off. So, now I'm going to start experimenting with hand pollinating. I'll let you know how that goes.


I'm also trying out cantaloupe for the first time this year. The kid says she loves it, so how could I not grow it?


My attempt last year to order sweet potato slips didn't work out so well, so I tried to create my own this year with the old stick the potato in a jar of water trick. I just planted the slips in the garden today. Hopefully, they will survive the heat.



My first batch of sunflowers for the season are starting to droop and look pretty sad.


But I'm not going to pull it out yet, because it's still attracting bees to pollinate the garden. Also, this may be the year that I actually start saving seeds. Who knows? Sunflowers seems like a good place to start.


As part of my growing obsession to save water, the hubby has constructed a greywater system that takes the "waste water" from our R.O. system (i.e., the system that turns our tap water into filtered drinking water) and dumps it into a bucket instead of pouring it down the drain. I now use that "waste water" to help water my garden. (We plan to write a blog about creating a system like ours. I think it cost about $60 and I'm told it was pretty easy.)

I plan to pair this with ollas to save even more water and also to make sure my plants are getting watered deeply.


The only question really is whether I'll buy them or make them. I have a side-by-side experiment planned with a olla designed for the job vs. a do-it-yourself olla. Depending on the results, I'll determine how to upgrade the garden from there.

The hubby also recently hung a grow light in my office for me. Now that the Arizona summer is really starting to hit, things like my green onions and parsley in the garden have started to languish. Rather than buying them at the grocery store, which is probably shipping them in from far-off locations, I thought it was better to grow them at home. I'm hoping to grow green onions, parsley, cilantro, romaine lettuce, and maybe some baby bell peppers with this setup. Let's see how it goes.


Whew! There's probably more, but that should be enough for now, huh?

How about you? What are you up to this summer?



Monday, June 16, 2014

First Okra of the Season

I love okra season, and it's just getting started. My plants are probably a foot high, and they're already starting to produce pods. Last week, I managed to save enough pods for one good dinner for Father's Day--jambalaya. Soon, I'll be rolling in the stuff. It's an exciting time of year!

Jambalaya. Need I say more?


Sunday, June 08, 2014

9 Easy Ways to Save Water in Your Desert Garden

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways to save water in the garden. (Actually, I've been thinking about how to save water in general. WarkaWater anyone? But this is a garden blog, so maybe I should just stick to gardening, huh?) Not only do we live in a desert in Arizona, but we share water supplies with California, which is experiencing a severe drought. So I want to do my part to conserve while supplies are low.

There are millions of ways to save water, and a lot of them are pretty easy. You just have to be in the right mind set. So without further ado, here's nine of the easiest things I could think of to save water in the garden.

Idea #1: Prune Less

The Idea: I listed this one first because even among easy ideas, it stands out for how easy it is. Plus, it's free, it makes your garden look better, and you can easily start doing it right now. In other words, it’s a no-brainer. The idea is that if you let your bushes and trees grow into their natural shapes rather than pruning them into cubes, mushrooms, and other weirdo shapes. You use less water because 1) you need fewer plants in your landscape because your plants you have are allowed to fill up a lot more space, and 2) you can water the plants less because they're not expending as much energy trying to grow back all those branches and leaves you just chopped off. What's not to love?

My Personal Experience: I admit that I have landscapers who help maintain my front yard, and they've been pruning a few of the hedges into cubes and domes. I hate the look of it, but I just haven't gotten around to asking them to stop. I think it's time for me to stop being so lazy and talk to them about pruning less. (Even better, I can pull out the plants that they've been pruning and replace them with cactii or something with lower water needs.)

Looks totally natural, right? (Ug!)

Where To Find Out More: Noelle Johnson of azplantlady.com fame has a great article about the perils of over-pruning, called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It talks about over-pruning uses too much water and harms your plants and gives some great advice on how to help your plants recover from over-pruning. The Water Use It Wisely website also has a good article on this subject with the very exciting title Prune Sparingly.

Idea #2: Change Your Watering Schedule

The Idea: Like the previous entry, this one is free, but it might require a teeny bit more planning. I first heard about this idea in Dave Owens book Extreme Gardening, but many other experts say the same thing. I think that many of us water our plants a lot (particularly in the summer) because we think that they need a lot of water to survive the desert heat. However, if you water correctly, you can get your plants and trees to grow deep roots, which won’t be as affected by our sweltering summers. Then, they will require less water. However, if you haven’t been watering your plants this way up until now, you might need to go through a transition period to slowly get their roots to grow deeper. 

My Personal Experience: Right now, I have my trees and shrubs on a twice a week watering schedule. According to everyone who talks about water deeply and infrequently, that's far too often. My plan for now is to not bump up my watering frequency in the summer, but possibly bump up my watering time. Then in the fall, I might cut back to one day a week, once they've developed some deeper roots. I've still got some more research to do on the right way to transition from a frequent to infrequent schedule. I'm pretty sure cold turkey isn't the way to go, but I'll keep you updated as I learn more.
Where To Find Out More: Once again, Noelle Johnson explains things so well. Check out her blog post: Too Much Water Equals More Pruning, a Backache, and More $ Spent in the Garden. The Landscape Watering Guide has a really cool interactive feature to help you figure out how much water your plants need. If you sign up for the City of Chandler Water Saver Newsletter, you'll get monthly recommendations on how to adjust your irrigation based on the weather.

Idea #3: Check for Leaks in Irrigation

The Idea: The idea of fixing leaks in your drip irrigation can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but trust me, it's really not that hard. If I can do it, so can you! And if you have ever dug a hole for a new plant in your yard, inserted a line for a new emitter, had someone come through your yard with a weed whacker, or otherwise come close to your drip emitters or drip lines, there's a really good chance that you have leaks that need to be fixed. This is an inexpensive and easy way to save water and money in your garden. You just have to be brave and learn how to do it.

My Personal Experience: I have fixed a lot of leaks in my drip irrigation system. The first time I went through looking for leaks in the system, it took me a long time to fix them all because I had never checked for them before and lots of them had built up.  But now that I've got through that initial slog, I just takes a few minutes (literally!) now and again to fix a leak here or there, and everything is fine.

I think my irrigation might have sprung a leak 

Where to Find Out More: I have a blog post about fixing leaks in drip irrigation: Don't Forget the Routine Maintenance. It contains links to YouTube videos for more info. If you have a different type of system than me, just do a quick Google search or YouTube search to look for different videos. The information is out there!

Idea #4: Use Low-to-No Water Plants in Your Landscape

The Idea: OK, we all know this one right? Replace thirsty plants like hibiscuses with lower water plants like native shrubs, cactuses, and agaves. Surely we've all seen examples of beautiful landscapes done entirely with native plants? Pick up almost any issue of Sunset magazine or Phoenix Home and Gardens for examples. Or maybe just take a nice stroll down the street. It's really not hard to find examples of beautiful native low water landscapes done well.
My Personal Experience: Over time, I have been replacing the shrubs that were planted in my front yard when we moved in with cactuses. I don't put them on drip irrigation (because, Hello!, they're cactuses). I just put a reminder in my phone to water them once a month or so if it hasn't rained. I'll admit that my front yard looks a little barren right now. I think I need to put some hardscaping in there to add some interest, but it has definitely cut back on the water used by my garden.

Agaves: Like Beautiful Desert Flowers (But a Little Bit More Painful to Arrange in Bouquet!)
 
Where to Find Out More: Where do I start? There is so much information out there about creating beautiful, low-water landscapes (which quite frankly makes my barren front yard even more of a travesty). Noelle has been talking about it a lot lately. Here's just one of her posts: A Jewel In the Desert: Sustainable Landscapes Part 3. Mary Irish has written a series of books about desert plants, including the Arizona Gardener's Guide.  Or maybe you could go visit the Desert Botanical Gardens to get some in-person inspiration. 

Idea #5: Plant Short Season Edibles in Your Vegetable Garden

The Idea: The idea here is simple. If you pick vegetables that have a shorter number of days before they reach maturity, you'll water them for less time over the course of their life. You can determine how long it takes a plant to reach maturity from its seed packet. For instance, the Pink Bumble Bee Tomato takes 60-70 days to reach maturity, whereas the Tappys Heritage Tomato takes 85 days.

Water concerns aside, it is generally a good idea to go for quick maturing edibles in Arizona anyway, because most of our seasons are short (except for summer, which lasts foreeeeeeeeeeeever). If you plant vegetables that take a long time to mature, the seasons could change before the vegis have a chance to fully develop, and they could freeze or fry before you have a chance to chow down. 

My Personal Experience: I try to pick vegetables with short maturation periods, but I admit that I sometimes forget. Like most gardeners, I sometimes get so excited about picking that perfect vegetable, that I completely lose sight of whether it's adapted to my climate, how much water it needs, whether it's the right season to plant it, etc. Sigh.

Where to Find Out More: Mother Earth News has a great article about edible gardening in drought conditions called Coping with Heat in the Garden: Drought Tolerant Crops, Resilient Perennials, and More. (The paper version of the article also included a nice list of heat-tolerant vegetables, but unfortunately, the online version doesn't seem to include that list. If you're interested, check out the June/July 2014 magazine for the list.)

Idea #6: Mulch

The Idea: Add mulch around your plants to help keep the water from evaporating so quickly.

My Personal Experience: In the summer, I generally add alfalfa hay around my vegetables. One bail of hay costs about $15 and is more than enough to last me the year. I just mound it up all around and make sure that the hay isn't touching the stems of the vegis. (My daughter kind of gets a kick out of helping me with this task.) I got mine from Cactus Feeds, but I'm guessing you can find suppliers all over the valley.


L
Little okra nest. I think Big Bird would be proud.

Where to Find Out More: I heard about this idea in Dave Owens book Extreme Gardening. (He also recommends mulching with compost.)

Idea #7: Get a Rain Sensor

The Idea: If you have drip irrigation (as many of us in the desert do), a rain sensor just turns off your normal watering if it has rained recently. Basically, it has a little cup to collect rain water. If it senses that there is water in the cup, it doesn't turn on the drip system. If it senses that the cup is dry, it turns on the drip system. 

My Personal Experience: We have a wireless rain sensor, but it broke quite a while back. I have to admit that's it has been low on our list of priorities to fix it, because whenever I hear that rain is coming, I just go and manually turn off the drip irrigation system. Then I put a reminder in my phone to turn it back on a few days later. So I guess I'm the rain sensor. :)

Where to Find Out More: I recommend going to Amazon.com and looking through the reviews there for a rain sensor. I did a quick check and found one highly rated sensor for less than $20. Not bad!

Idea #8: Create Basins or Furrows Around Your Plants

The Idea: To help water from flowing away from your plants and trees (where you need it), you can build up furrows and basins around the plants' root zones to keep in the water. Ideally you would do this when you first plant the seeds, seedling, or tree, but you can always do it after the fact if necessary. simply build up dirt around the plant and press it down hard enough to keep it firmly packed. The next time you water the plant or tree, make sure the basin or furrow that you created is holding in the water sufficiently.

My Personal Experience: I have built up these furrows around all of the vegis in my garden bed and around some of the trees and shrubs in my garden. I have found them particularly useful in the vegi beds keeping the water where I want them instead of running off where there are no plants. (For trees, it's a little bit less of an issue, since they have a wider root base.)

 
Basins at the base of trees and shrubs keep the water from running away

Furrows around rows of vegetables keep water in

Where to Find Out More: This isn't exactly the same thing, but if you want to learn more about the concepts of collecting water efficiently in furrows, basins, swales, and other recessed areas of your garden, you can read about rain gardens in books like Edible Landscaping with Permaculture with a Twist: How to Have Your Yard and Eat it Too. (This book makes rain gardens and other permaculture concepts extremely accessible.)

Idea #9: Create More Shade

The Idea:  Frequently, us desert gardeners end up having to water our plants a lot more in the summer because they are baking in the direct sun all day long. Although we probably won't get away without giving them at least some extra water during 110+ weather, giving them some shade might cut down considerably on how much extra water we have to give them. There are many, many ways to create shade for plants:
  • You can move potted plants to a more shaded area, like a porch. 
  • If you only have one or two plants that need shade but can't be moved, you may be able to do something as simple as place a lawn chair in front of them to create shade.
  • If you have a lot of plants that need shade but can't be moved, you can construct a structure such as a hoop houses or pergolas and attach shade cloths or sheets to the structures to shade your plants. 
  • You can plant tall, heat-loving plants (such as sunflowers) to the south and to the west of plants that are less tolerant of heat to shade them. 
My Personal Experience: For the most part, I try not to keep plants that can't handle our heat. Or when I find ones that can't take it, I plant them in a shady part of my yard. However, I am running out of real estate in the shady part of my yard and I still find that there are a few "must haves" that I couldn't pass up. For most of those, I have either planted them in pots that I can move to a shady part of my patio for the summer months or a part of my vegi garden that gets shaded by the house in the late afternoon. That doesn't keep me from planting some sunflowers anyway though, even if I don't need them for shade. Because who doesn't need sunflowers?

On the move: Vacationing in the shade for the summer months

Where to Find Out More: Noelle Johnson has a great blog post about using sunflowers to create shade in the summer: Natural Shade for Tomato Plants


More Ideas for Saving Water

These are only nine ideas for saving water. There are many, many more ways to conserve if you are interested. Here are just a couple of resources I recommend for finding ideas:


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From Seed to Supper: Growing Corn in Arizona

Like many backyard gardeners, my first attempt at growing corn failed miserably, but once I learned the trick (I'll give you a hint--it has to do with pollination), I realized that growing corn doesn't have to be that hard.

Planting...
According to the University of Arizona planting calendar, you can plant corn from late February through early April, and then again in late July through end of August. But I'll admit that I roll the dice and plant it straight through from March through the end of August. When planting, make sure your soil has lots of nutrients (adding lots of compost or steer manure before planting is a good idea), and plant the seeds about two inches deep. I generally plant mine about every 2-4 inches and thin them later to about every 6-12 inches. 


Waiting...
Corn plants will pop up fast. My seed packets say the seedlings will pop up in 7-14 days, but I usually see seedlings way before that. (I have my seedlings on the same watering schedule as everything else, which right now is 3 days a week for 45 minutes.) Corn is what they call a "heavy feeder" as well, so in addition to making sure you put some manure or compost in the soil when you planted, you might want to fertilize as they are growing as well. I've been adding fish emulsion once a week or so myself.   

 Pretty little corn plants, lined up in a row. (A little pumpkin seedling snuck in there too.)


Pollinating...
Here's the "secret trick" I was talking about at the beginning of the post. If you don't properly pollinate your corn, you'll end up with empty ears of corn where there should be kernels. Once you know how to pollinate though, it's not that hard.

Step 1: When the silks are young and fresh, like this:



pull some pollen off the top of one of the corn plants, like this:



Step 2: Sprinkle the pollen on top of the silks. Every silk represents a possible kernel on the cob, so do a really good job!


I really don't know how often you should do this, but my motto is "better safe than sorry," so I do it a few days in a row for each corn cob.

Harvesting...
When the silks on top of the corn cob are all dried out and the ear is looking nice and plump, you can test out if it's ready. To test it, pull back the top just a little bit, and stick your finger in a kernel. If milky juice seeps out, it's ready!



But wait! Don't pull it off the plant yet! For the absolute best taste, wait until the absolute last moment to pull that sucker off the plant. (Once you harvest it, the sugars start turning to starch.) You want it to be as sweet as possible. For me at least, that's the whole point of growing corn at home.

Eating!
Please don't tell me I have to tell you how to eat corn! Corn on the cob with a little butter and chili powder? Corn salad with avocado and tomatoes? Corn salsa? Oh my god, is dinner ready yet? 


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day Treat

On days that my family wants to treat me extra special (my birthday, Mother's Day, or just because), there are a few tried-and-true things they know they can do to make my day:
  • Plan an activity together as a family (preferably outside).
  • Make sure I get time for a nap.
  • Do something garden related. 

For Mother's Day, we did all of those things, and as always, I was thrilled. We started our day at The Coffee Shop in Gilbert for breakfast. Besides have wonderful food, The Coffee Shop has beautiful gardens to look at while you are eating. Out back, they have a gorgeous rose garden on the patio, and around the side, they have one of the most striking cactus gardens I have ever seen. (If you want a beautiful photo tour of the area, see A Farm, Flowers and a Restaurant in the Mist of Suburbia.)


So I had this gorgeous view at breakfast with my family, and after breakfast, we took a stroll to the community gardens at Agritopia (which is directly adjacent). When I visit the community gardens, I frequently get garden envy. The gardeners here do such wonderful things with their garden plots. Today was no exception. I was particularly in awe of the flowers on display.

Massive bunches of sunflowers


Hollyhocks as high as a tree


 This is just getting ridiculous, it's so pretty

But as pretty as the community gardens were, they were not what really knocked my socks off. Instead, it was a path along side of the community gardens that took my breath away. This path separates the gardens from the adjacent farm that provides food to the restaurant, and it is lined all along with grape vines. Walking along this path feels like you are walking along a little spot in California or Europe, not blazing Arizona. 

Magical

After inspiration like this, we of course had to go to my favorite nursery. I picked up a few hollyhocks for my own garden and some organic treatment to deal with grape skelentonizers for my own grapevines. I'll show pictures of those another day. For now, I'll leave you with that magical picture.