Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Book Review: Gardening With Less Water by David Bainbridge

I don't know about you, but I'm a natural worrier. I worry that I'm not saving enough money for my nine-year old daughter's college education. I worry that I don't do enough to help people less fortunate than me. I worry that some minor offhanded comment I made to my colleague at work might have offended them. You name it, I worry about it.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? 

So it's no surprise that our current drought has set off alarms for me. But as bad as the drought is (and yes, even after the recent rains, it's still bad), this is one of the problems that's easier on my worried mind. Because saving water is one of those things that I can do something about. And I always feel better when I can do something about a problem rather than just sit around and fret about it helplessly. Which is probably why Amazon's genius algorithms popped up David Bainbridge's new book, Gardening With Less Water, in my email. It knew that I'd be a sucker for a book like this.

Bainbridge's book is great for people looking to save water in their gardens. There are lots of ways to save water in the garden, but Bainbridge primarily focuses on watering techniques--cheap methods that you can implement yourself without an engineering degree or a huge budget. And he includes detailed, colored instructions and lots of tips to make sure you get it right.

In case you're wondering, no, we're not talking drip irrigation systems. For anyone who has read water saving brochures or blogs, you've probably been advised to install one of those. Bainbridge dismisses these pretty quick because 1) they use more water than the other techniques in the book, 2) they are hard to maintain, 3) animals are apt to chew at them in really dry, open climates, and 4) they are expensive. No, Bainbridge breaks new ground with this book by talking about old techniques.

Yup, old is new again. And we're talking really old here. Imagine techniques used by ancient cultures, lost to the sands of time (well, until now of course). Bainbridge is part conservationist and part archaeologist digging these things up. But he explains them well, and tells you how you can use everyday stuff that you have lying around the house (or available at a big box store) to revive these techniques in your own garden and save a lot of water. Good stuff, Baby.

One of the biggies that he talks about is buried clay pots (ollas)--a topic that is near and dear to my heart. But even though I've used them and experimented with them a lot, he still had a lot to teach me. For instance, you may remember that I've sworn off DIY ollas because my experiments show that they don't work as well. In his book, he shows how to make sure you pick pots with the maximum porosity so you don't have the same problems I did.

Wow, I could have saved myself a lot of money if I had this book a couple of years ago. 

He also had some great tips on:

  • Figuring out how closely to place your plants to your ollas based on your soil conditions. (Every blog I've seen before this had generic instructions that didn't take individual conditions into consideration.)  
  • Avoiding "clogged pores" in your ollas by misuse of fertilizers, wrong water types, or failure to clean them properly
  • Automatically filling the ollas using drip systems or gravity-fed systems when you're away for long periods of time

And that's just ollas. He also has great tips on using buried capsules, wick irrigation, and deep pipes for irrigation. If you want to experiment with some new, inexpensive ways to save a lot of water in your garden, I just can't recommend this book enough.

Also, keep in mind, this isn't information you can find on the internet for free. I've spent many long hours looking for it myself. The closest thing you'll find is some academic papers written by Bainbridge himself. Those papers don't go into nearly the same depth as his book though. If you're really looking to save a few bucks, check out the book from the library--that's what I did for myself. I quickly decided I wanted to have it on hand for future reference though and bought a copy at my local bookstore.

As a bonus, when I was there, I saw another book right next to it that caught my attention: Growing Vegetables in Drought, Desert, & Dry Times by Maureen Gilmer. That will be my next book review. :)

Saturday, January 02, 2016

2016 Garden Resolutions

The ball has dropped and it's time for new year's resolutions, right? Time to improve yourself and your garden! Time for some hearty self assessment! Time to reach into the reserves and give just a little more to make yourself and your garden a little bit better in the year to come!


Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I love experimentation. I'm always trying to do better: whether it's experimenting with cover crops to improve the soil, experimenting with water-saving techniques to save resources, or experimenting with permaculture to save, well, everything I guess, I've always got some scheme brewing.

But looking back on 2015, I see that things went pretty haywire. I had big plans, as usual, and it looked like they were going well, but somewhere around mid-year, I realized that the whole garden's soil was diseased. I had to rip everything out and solarize the soil to bring it back to health. Quite frankly, the jury is still out on whether it worked---I won't know until next summer---but something else happened then too. I stopped having time for my garden.

Last year, I had to travel a lot for work. I took trips to California, Florida, Minnesota, Ontario, and London. As you can imagine, it interrupted my work in the garden considerably. I also found myself battling more and more migraines, which made it near impossible to get things done, even when I was here. I got more and more frustrated, because I couldn't carry out any of my plans, until finally, I just accepted it.

So this year's resolution for me is simple: Take it easy on myself and ease up on the plans. When I am able to plant something in the garden, I will plant whatever is appropriate for that time of year. If I am not able to plant anything, I will try not to worry about it. When I have time in the garden, I will try to enjoy it.

Even if means just watching the balloons go by

I do have some vegetables growing now, thanks almost entirely to my husband, who dug holes for almost all my ollas when I was on my last business trip. He knew how much it would mean to me to look out on a garden, so even though he's not a gardener, he went to work and did it for me. I have some pretty little broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and herb plants growing now. Hopefully, they'll make it to the dinner table. Regardless, just seeing something growing out there after such a long stretch of nothing is wonderful.

I'm also happy to report that my migraines are improving. I've been working on various changes (diet, exercise, breathing techniques, sleep, etc.) that seem to help. I'm hoping that my plans to go easier on myself will too.

So Happy New Year to you all. Here's hoping you go easy on yourselves too.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Book Review: The Hands-On Home by Erica Strauss

Before I get to the book review, let me just say: it's been a tough summer in the garden. In May, my garden appeared to be thriving, and then seemingly out of nowhere, it was hit with (what I assume is) fusarium wilt. At first, I thought it was only half the garden, but soon, I realized it was the whole thing. The cure? Rip everything out and solarize it. For weeks, I was looking at ugly plastic, doubting my gardening abilities. How had I let this happen? Even worse, the project dragged out a lot longer than expected. (I had various work trips that made it hard to get things done.) The longer things went on, the more doubts grew.

I tried to occupy myself with other things. A new book came out that I had been looking forward to: The Permaculture City by Toby Hemingway of Gaia's Garden fame. I thought this book would be perfect for me. It was a permaculture book geared toward people living in cities and suburbs. Instead, I felt like it was one big guilt trip. Do you shop at Costco? How embarrassing! (Actually, I like how they treat their employees, thank you.) If I was a good permaculturist, I would be swapping fruits and vegis with my neighbors. (Nice idea, but none of them grow enough produce to trade. Me neither for that matter.) Yuck. This didn't make me feel any better. It just made me mad. I was trying every day to make a difference, but according to this book, it wasn't anywhere near good enough.

As fall came closer, I tried to buck up and start anew. I decided that I would start all my fall plants from seed inside under grow lights. I would pick the perfect variety for my area! They would be disease resistant! It would be great! Even better, I would use this great technique from Pinterest that enables you to Turn a Soda Bottle into a Worry Free Self-Watering Planter. Uh, guess what? Even here in Arizona, the most arid place on earth, those self-watering planters turned into mold-growing messes. Ug.

I don't know what went wrong. The internet is usually so reliable. 

Then, a few days ago, I came home from yet another work trip. I knew I wanted to take some time to plant my fall garden, but quite frankly, I was starting to doubt my abilities. Would it just be another disaster? Was it even worth the time? Maybe I should just save myself some time and money and watch some Netflix instead. Lucky for me, Erica Strauss's new book, The Hands-On Home, A Seasonal Guide to Cooking, Preserving & Natural Homekeeping had arrived while I was away.

Yeah, baby!

For those of you who don't know, Erica Strauss is a super awesome blogger at Northwest Edible Life. She's got about 5 gazillion readers, and for good reason. Erica knows her stuff. She's an urban homesteading diva who approaches life with humility, zest, and humor. And she's brought all of that to this book.

What can I say? It's a great book. Erica will teach you to make basics around the kitchen, like mayonnaise, tortillas, and yogurt. She'll show you how to cook delicacies like roasted salmon with yogurt-herb crust. She'll guide the way while you make your own honey-rosemary hair wash, peppermint tooth powder, or oil-based moisturizer. She'll even have you considering DIY laundry detergent and oven cleaner. But the recipes, however useful, are not what I love best.

What I love about Erica's blog, and now her book, is that she's so darn encouraging. Sure she's an urban homesteading diva now, but she used to buy chemical cleaners by the truckload. How did she think to create an eco-friendly DIY carpet freshner? Her three year old son "inspired" her one day by grinding a whole bulk container of cinnamon into the rug when she wasn't looking. Has she always canned local fruits? Heck no! Her first canning experience involved a non-organic Costco pineapple and a lot of clean-up from the burning. In other words, she's learning as she goes, just like the rest of us. No judgment here.

When you read Erica's book, you benefit from her years of experimenting. She's been through the wringer and has lived to tell. So you can follow her recipes and tips if you want, and just benefit from her experience. Or, if you're feeling really brave, you can follow her example and do some experimenting of your own. She's got lots of great information in there that you can use if you're feeling feisty and want to splash out and do something new. Why not?

And with that in mind, I think I'll dust myself off from a hard summer, and try again. If Erica can do it, so can I. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Is It Fall Yet?

Like most Arizonians, I'm speculating how long it will take for the fall weather to come. This summer, like all summers, has lasted a long time. It doesn't help that I haven't had much gardening to keep me sane. 

Originally, when I decided I needed to solarize my garden, I thought that I only needed to solarize half of it. After I got the plastic laid down on the front half though, I found the signs of fusarium wilt in plants on the back half. So I pulled out all the plants there too and laid down plastic on the whole vegetable garden. I was most worried about having to transplant my peach tree in the middle of summer, but it seems to have survived the transplant. 

Not much to look at, but alive and kicking at least

With nothing to look at in my vegetable patch but ugly white plastic for a good deal of the summer, I've had to find a way to keep myself occupied. 

What? This isn't a pretty view? 

I have weeded, fixed leaks in the irrigation, planned the fall garden, cleaned and organized my tools in the side yard. I even made a purchase that I've been wanting to make for a very long time. I replaced my little 55 gallon rain barrels with a mammoth 865 rain tank. It's a monster. 

Monsoon season, here I come!

Still, I realized none of this was replacing my need for a few vegis in the backyard. So I bought a big pot at Costco and started a couple of plants on the back patio to tide me over until fall planting season comes around. 

Ah, finally, a touch of green

That big guy is a zucchini plant. The little sprouts on the left are butternut squash seedlings. They aren't much, but hopefully, they'll tide me over. 

Next week, I can finally pull the white plastic off the garden. At that time, I'll plant cover crops over half of it.  The other half, I'll reserve for some seedlings that I have already started inside. (They probably won't be ready to plant until late September, so I'll just have to hang on a little longer.) 

The cover crops won't be vegis, but at least I'll be able to look out my window and see green instead of plastic. It'll be a nice change. With any luck, the weather will change soon too, and I'll be able to get out in the mornings without sweating buckets. A girl can dream, right? 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Cover Crops: When Compost Just Ain't Cutting It Anymore

I don't know about you, but I constantly feel like I'm battling to get more nitrogen into my soil. I try to add compost to it from time to time, but my efforts to create compost don't seem to keep up with my garden's need for it. I also periodically add aged steer manure to the soil, but my daughter has made it well known that she doesn't appreciate being dragged along on the outings to buy cow poo.

My little angel

So I have been looking for a better solution, and I think I've found it: cover crops. As Mother Earth News says: "A cover crop is any plant grown for the primary purpose of improving the soil." I started looking at cover crops like legumes to add nitrogen to the soil, but it turns out that cover crops can do a lot more. They can deter weeds, aerate the soil, mulch the soil, bring up other nutrients from deep down, and--this should perk up the ears of all of you battling our Arizona clay--break up hard-packed soil.

Arizona soil can be a teensy bit tough to break up sometimes

I really like the sound of that last one too. I'm getting really tired of pulling out my tiller to break up the soil, and I'm starting to wonder if it's such a good idea anyway. The idea of having some plants break up the soil for me sounds so much nicer. (One of these days, I'll ramble on a bit about no-till gardening.)

Now the question is, which cover crops should I use? Well, not surprisingly, it turns out the best cover crops to use vary considerably depending on location, soil requirements, and time of year. In my case, I'll be planting my first cover crop in late July, after I'm done solarizing my soil. As part of the solarization process, I already tilled the soil, which means I don't have to worry about compaction. I really just need to add nitrogen to the soil. So I'll probably just use cowpeas, which are great for adding nitrogen and can withstand our brutal summers.

But what about you? What if you want to grow cover crops in your garden, but your circumstances are different than mine? How can you easily figure out what to grow?

Google returned about 6,340,000 results. You'll have this figured out in no time!

I recommend checking out this great chart from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply. I have read roughly a gazillion articles and books about cover crops, each with some of the information in this chart, but not all. This is the only place where I've seen it so nicely summarized all in one spot. (Peaceful Valley also sells a lot of the products mentioned in the chart. Again, they're the only site I've found that sells them all, which is nice.)

As I mentioned above, I'm no expert, but I have read enough about cover crops to make my eyes cross, so I'm going to go ahead and give you some advice on the subject. Here are a few things that seem to come up again and again in the articles and books that I have read:

  • If you're like most gardeners, you should probably be cover cropping a lot more than you do. Get creative if you have to--plant quick growing cover crops between seasons or mingle cover crops with your regular plantings if necessary.
  • When planting legume cover crops, use inoculant to speed up the nitrogen-fixing process unless the seed is already rhizocoated. (For the definition of terms like inoculant and rhizocoated, see What you need to know about our cover crop.)
  • With most cover crops, you'll probably want to cut them down before they go to seed so they don't take over your garden. Common wisdom seems to be to mow down the crop when approximately 50% of it has gone to flower.
  • Think carefully about what you're going to do with the crop when it comes time to mow it down. Are you going to till it in? Let it decompose in place? Throw it on the compost pile? What you choose controls how much nutrients the crop adds to the soil and how soon you can plant something else in the same spot. Check out green manure to learn about the various options.
That's pretty much the extent of my wisdom on the subject. I will let you know if I learn anything new though. To hear from some other Arizona gardeners who have used cover crops, I recommend: 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Solarizing the Garden: The Upside to This Brutal Heat

In my last post, my garden was doing awesome. My tomatoes were out of control. I was constructing supports for green beans. Everything was thriving.

Work it! Oh yeah, you know you're looking good. 

And then, a familiar thing started happening. The heat hit and my plants started going down one by one in a blaze of glory. Does this sound familiar? Yup. It's the same thing I was whining about last summer. And just like last summer, at first, I just thought I had not planned properly for shade. But then I started seeing some posts on the Tucson Backyard Gardening Facebook group that started making me look closer at my plants.

The tomatoes and green beans were dying from the bottom up. The leaves were getting yellow. And here's what really got me thinking: they were developing brown spots along the leaves. That's not the look of a plant dying from heat. That's the look of a plant that's diseased.


I can't know for sure what my tomato plants and green bean plants had, but all signs pointed to fusarium wilt. (The only way to really know would be a lab test.) Looking back, it seems likely that a lot of my plants had fusarium wilt last summer too. So it seems pretty likely that the disease is living in my soil.


That's the bad news. The good news is that our climate is perfect for treating the problem without chemicals. To get rid of fusarium wilt (and many other soilborne pests), you can cook 'em out using a method called solarization. (Doesn't "solarization" sound like it's custom-made for Arizona?) Solarization is a process where you lay plastic over the soil to concentrate the sun's heat to raise the soil's temperature. In cooler climates, people use the technique to start growing plants earlier in the season, when the weather is cold. In hotter climates, we can use the technique to bake nasty stuff like fusarium wilt out of the soil without using chemicals. Cool.

The process is pretty simple: Till the soil to loosen it up, smooth it out so the plastic can lay over it very evenly, soak the dirt really well, lay the plastic over it very tightly, and let the soil bake for 4-6 weeks. (Times will vary depending on the weather.) To get more details, I recommend this excellent article from UC Davis, a renowned agricultural school: Soil Solarization for Gardens & Landscapes.

Lucky for me, I don't have to solarize my whole garden (just most of it), so I do have a few zucchini and melon plants to hold me over while everything else bakes. Good thing, or I might go crazy with nothing to grow for a month and a half! I'll let you know how things go. In the meantime, happy gardening and stay cool.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Tangle of Tomatoes (and Other Updates)

For Mother's Day, I got to do whatever I wanted today. So I got my family to help me in the garden for a much of the day. It was a beautiful day for it. There's a lot of been meaning to do, it was great having them out there helping me!

I even made our dog Elsa help!

I don't know if you remember my elaborate plans for my spring/summer garden, but they've (mostly) been working well. Some of them actually worked a little too well (a problem we all want to have) and I had to adjust things a bit accordingly. What does that mean?

Well, originally, I planned to plant a bunch of tomatoes in a circle in the spring, and then surround them with okra as things got hotter. The idea was that the okra would shade the tomatoes and protect them from the summer sun. The okra might even create a humidity zone that would help keep the tomatoes alive in the summer. Here are the tomatoes now:

We don't need your help, Man!

I'm not sure if it's the unseasonably cool weather, the ollas, or the humidity zone created by having them so close together, but they are MASSIVE. As you can see, I had to build a whole structure around them to keep them supported. And here is one of the okra plants next to them:

Hello? Are you in there? 

Can you even see it? It's that teeny tiny little thing in the left side of the picture. What never occurred to me is that the okra wouldn't grow because the tomatoes would shade the okra (instead of the okra shading the tomatoes). So however thrilled I am that my tomatoes are doing so well, I had to find a new spot to plant my okra today.

So I pulled out my artichoke plant. I was going to let it flower--as you can see, it was really close to creating its beautiful purple flowers--but it was more important to me that I get more okra started.

Goodbye lovely artichoke!

For the first time ever, my green beans are also doing well enough that I actually need supports for them. So I dragged the family out to Home Depot get some bamboo stakes and we made a little tent thing for the green beans to grow over.

The sky's the limit! Or, more precisely, about 5 ft. is the limit!

I also planted various sunflower, melon, and zucchini seeds around the garden. I actually already have a zucchini plant that is thriving, but one of the tips I've read to beat the dreaded squash vine borers is plant new zucchini plants every few weeks. (Basically, if one plant goes, the next might do better.)

Be brave, little zucchini plant. Hold strong against the borer!

All of that kept us pretty busy today. It was a lovely day in the garden. I couldn't have asked for a better Mother's Day. How about you? Did you have a good Mother's Day?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Avoiding the Dreaded Squash Vine Borers

Those of you who have been following my posts for a while may remember that last summer's was quite a disappointment to me. Many things went wrong (which I won't relive now--it was bad enough the first time through), but one of them was squash vine borers.

I hate squash vine borers.

These nasty little buggers will drill into a thriving, healthy squash plant and kill it from the inside out. And chances are, you won't notice them until it's too late. You'll be looking at your gorgeous zucchini plant or pumpkin plant or squash plant of choice, just imagining what you're going to do with all that squash--"I'll make pumpkin bread! I'll try that zucchini chip recipe I heard about online! I'll have so much squash that I'll get sick of it!"--and before you eat a single squash, the plant will start wilting and dying right before your eyes, and there won't be a single thing you can do about it.

What's worse is it's kind of humiliating too. Squash is supposed to be the easiest plant in the world to grow. Honestly, it's what got me addicted to gardening. My first edible gardening success was a zucchini plant. I think I just stuck a zucchini plant from Home Depot into some unamended soil, and it grew like gangbusters. I got zucchinis the size of baseball bats off that thing. And now, after years of experience, I couldn't get a single darn zucchini off my plants before killing them? How humiliating!

I hate squash vine borers.

So after last year, I did some research and found a great article on how to avoid the little buggers from now on. Since it's about the right time of year to planting squash, I thought I'd share that article with you too:

Ask Ruth: Squash Vine Borers

I don't know who this Ruth is, but man, let me tell ya, she seems to know what she's talking about. By my count, she's got 16 different tips in that article about how to avoid the dreaded squash vine borers. I'm gonna listen to her. In fact, I started this morning. I went out to my little zucchini plant and looked for eggs on it. (I didn't see any, but I did my best to brush off the stems anyway, just in case.)

Protect 'em when they're young!

Once I had done that, I took some netting and covered the plant. (I had the netting around, but if you don't, you can find it at any fabric store. It's like the stuff they use to make wedding veils.) I used netting because it's lightweight, won't weigh down the plant, and will let in plenty of sunlight. Then I weighed down the sides with some rocks so no bugs could fly in around the sides. 

Doesn't it look elegant? 

As the plant gets bigger, I'll need to add progressively bigger netting to accommodate it. Then once it starts getting flowers, I'll need to remove the netting for pollination. Then it will be time to switch tactics. 

Once the plant is blooming, I won't be able to cover it to keep the borers out. Instead, I'll need to wrap the base of the stems (where the borers like to dig into the plant) with something like tin foil (if I'm feeling flashy) or pantyhose (if I want a more low-key type of look) to keep the borers off the base of the stem. Ruth tells me that I'll need to extend the wrapping beneath the base of the soil, and I believe her. 

So how about you? Are you willing to go through such extreme measures to save your zucchini from the dreaded squash vine borer? 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tips and Tricks for Installing Drip Irrigation in Your Vegi Garden

In my last post, I talked about some of the things I've learned about using ollas for irrigation in my vegi garden. Now I thought I'd talk about some of the things I've learned about using soaker driplines--specifically, what I've learned about installing it. (FYI, for those who are interested, I've talked before about using soaker hoses, also called weeper hoses, for irrigation. I have also talked before about drip irrigation, but the focus was maintenance.)

Drip irrigation can be a super awesome way to water your garden. It's efficient, because it waters your plants slowly--giving the water time to soak into the soil, causing less evaporating into the air. And it's convenient, because you can put it on a timer, setting it and forgetting it for extended periods of time. And hypothetically, it delivers an even amount of pressure to all the plants on the line, regardless of whether they are on the beginning of the main drip line or the end. Hypothetically.

About that...

This is a picture of some drip irrigation I installed recently:

Each of the four lines you see in the picture is soaker dripline coming off a main drip line. (Basically, soaker dripline is a drip irrigation line with little holes punched in it at regular intervals. You can plant little seeds or plants all along the line to get even water along a whole row.) Off to the right (not pictured) there are two more rows of soaker dripline, making for a grand total of six being watered off the same main line.

Here's the thing: without a little tweaking, the first soaker dripline  (the one on the left, which gets water from the main line first) emits water at a much faster rate than the last. It's not supposed to work that way, but in my experience, it pretty much always does. In fact, the more soaker dripline I add to the main line, the more extreme the problem gets. (Last summer, I got to the point where the last soaker dripline was, for all intensive purposes, not getting any water at all.)

Happily, I went to a drip irrigation store and they thought up an ingenious solution: Stem the flow of water to the lines at the front using 4 gallon emitters, which will ensure that there's some water left for the lines at the back. Genius!

Of course, I forgot I needed to do this when I was installing my soaker driplines recently, but luckily, it's pretty easy to retrofit lines that you have already installed. Here's how:

Retrofitting Your Line

Here's where I'm assuming you're starting: A soaker hose drip line coming off a main drip line. (Beautiful, isn't it?)

Not for long! Step one: Cut the soaker hose drip line a few inches from the main line. 

This next step is optional, but I find it useful. Take a cigarette lighter, and heat up the cut end of the line for a few seconds to loosen up the plastic a bit. (If you do this, don't do it for long. You don't want it too loose. I just do a quick count to five.) Try not to burn your fingers during this step! 

While the plastic is still warm, jam the 4-gallon emitter into soaker driplines. Get it on there nice and snug. (Sorry, I failed to get a picture of this step.) 

Now, go to your irrigation controller and run a quick test to make sure that water comes out of the newly installed emitter. If no water comes out, you may have installed the emitter backwards. I'll be darned if I can tell which way is which on those suckers without just testing them! 

If no water came out when you ran the irrigation controller, cut off the line just below where you added the emitter. Repeat the last few steps, but this time insert the emitter the other way around. Try not to swear. 

Once you successfully get water to come out of the emitter, use the lighter trick to heat up the plastic on the soaker hose drip line that you previously cut off, and jam it onto the newly installed emitter. 

Keep installing 4-gallon emitters on your soaker driplines, starting with the line getting the most water pressure and working your way back, until you've achieved a reasonably even flow of water between all the lines. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How Often Do You Need to Fill Up Your Ollas?

As I use more and more ollas in my garden, I'm learning a lot about them. One of the things that has surprised me is how often I need to fill them. When I originally looked at the Dripping Springs Ollas FAQ site (which I totally recommend), they mentioned that they fill their ollas 1-2 times a week in Texas. I figured I'd get about the same results here in Arizona. And I do... sometimes, under certain circumstances. Under other circumstances... not so much. So what circumstances effect how often I have to fill up the ollas?


This is no surprise, right? In the summer, the plants get a lot thirstier, so I have to water the ollas a lot more often than in the winter. Honestly, I can't remember how much I watered them last summer, but I can tell you it was more than this winter, when I sometimes went as many as 5-6 days between top-ups for some of the ollas. 

Plant Size

I prefer to keep the ollas around young plants more topped up than mature plants because the young plants' roots are shallower. If the ollas aren't relatively full, the plants might not be able to reach the moist soil because their roots are too shallow. On the other hand, mature plants have had a chance to develop deep roots that can reach the moist soil near the bottom of an almost empty olla.

They're so cute when they're young, but they need so much extra work!

Lately, I've been filling them up every other day or so, but I've come up with a couple of ideas for how I might be able to scale that back just a tad. (See the next entry.)

Exposed Soil?

One of the things that has really surprised me is that the ollas around big, established plants consistently drain a lot slower in my garden than the ones around small plants. For instance, that little zucchini plant in the picture above (which is about 10 inches in diameter) drains much, much faster than these monsters: 

No thank you. I couldn't possibly have any more. I'm full. 

That is a snap dragon plant and parsley plant. The parsley is over two feet in diameter! Both are very dainty drinkers. I'm filling up their olla about twice a week right now. I could probably get away with less. (Remember, I'm filling up the teeny, tiny zucchini plant's olla every other day, and I suspect I'm pushing it.)  

I'm assuming this phenomenon is caused by the big plants shading the soil around the ollas. Look at all that bare soil around the zucchini plant. I'm guessing that water is evaporating like crazy in into the air around it. There's barely any bare soil around the parsley plant, so there's probably very little evaporation happening there. 

Assuming I'm right, I'm thinking the right thing to do is to create some temporary shade for the soil around small plants until they have a chance to grow around the ollas and create some permanent shade. Perhaps I'll pile up some hay around the plants and ollas (leaving some room for any seeds I've got planted nearby) or erect some sort of shade structure. We'll see.

Update 4/15/15: So I tried adding hay around the ollas with lots of exposed soil and adding a little bit of shade--no joy. I still had to keep adding about the same amount of water to them. Then I had an "aha!" moment. The issue probably isn't exposed soil or shade. The reason established plants probably need so much less water is that their roots have had time to grow right up next to the ollas. For instance, check out this picture of an "inverted root ball" I found on the Internet: 

All that light brown stuff is a big mass of roots that grew right up against the olla. Once the olla was pulled out, the roots were formed in a perfect olla shape in the soil. 

So the reason young plants need more water than established plants is that they haven't attached themselves directly to the olla yet, which means more water is needed to pass through the soil to the roots. Once the roots get more established, they'll be pressed up right against the olla, and no extra water will be required to pass through the soil. So the extra water requirements for young plants is a purely a temporary situation. 

Soil Type?

I suspect results will also vary depending on your soil type, but since I only use one type of soil around my ollas, I really can't speak to that. (All my ollas are planted in native soil--i.e., clay and rocks--amended with manure and compost. Maybe they would need more fill ups with looser soil that drains better? I'm just theorizing here.)

So there you go. Those are the factors that I have found that may impact how often you have to fill up your ollas. In other words "mileage may vary depending on use." I'm still a huge fan and think they are a great way to save water. I'm just always looking for a way to make them more efficient! 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Keyhole Gardens: My New Obsession

Before we talk about my latest obsession, I need to make a confession: I hate composting. I still do it, because I would be consumed with overwhelming guilt if I didn't, but I hate it. It's messy and stinky and it attracts bugs. Ew. I just hate the bugs. And it's not like I haven't tried lots of things to try to make it better. Here's my sad (and whiny) tale:

I started with a free composter offered by the city of Gilbert. It looked something like this.

Total disaster. I couldn't properly stake it into the ground, because the soil where I was trying to place it was the consistency of concrete and the stakes it came with were approximately the size of thumbtacks. My husband and I are both pretty wary of rodents coming into the yard, so having what essentially was an open-bottomed food receptacle was a no-go in our minds. I sent it back.

Next up: I got a couple of those turny deals that are completely enclosed and make it easy to aerate your compost. Specifically, I got the Keter 17186745 Dynamic Composter (60 gal). Here's a lovely picture of a mother and daughter using one in their idyllic country yard:

I wonder what that mother has to do to get that daughter to compost? Bribery? Threats of grounding? I just don't have to the parental backbone to deal with the whining that would ensue. Yeah, sometimes my daughter likes to turn the crank on our composter, but be close to it when the door is open? No thanks! And by the way, we have big bungy chords wrapped around ours because the doors have a tendency to pop open when the composter is full and the contents dump out everywhere. Sooooooooooo lame.

And when we finally have finished compost? It's easy enough to dump it on the ground underneath the composter, but getting it into the garden is a bit of a logistical nightmare. I either have to scoop it out of that thing into another container and haul it over to the garden (no fun) or drag the whole composter over to the garden and empty it there (awkward). Either way, I'm reaching pretty deep into the thing to clean it out, because a decent amount of compost doesn't want to come out on its own. (Gross)

So to deal with the not-easy-to-empty-out problem, the next thing I tried was garbage cans. I just took some heavy duty trash cans with lids that stay on well and drilled lots of holes in them. When it comes time to turn the trash cans, I put them on their sides, and push them around with my feet. Not bad. They are easy enough to turn, protect the compost from critters, and are easy to dump into the garden when the time comes. Sounds like the perfect solution, right?

No! I still want something better! I'm a big whiny baby who still wants to have something easier! Wah! Wah! Wah!

Enter my new obsession: Keyhole gardens. There are a couple of variations on keyhole gardens, but the one I'm talking about has a compost pile right in the middle. The basic idea is that you create a circular garden with a notch on one side and a hole in the middle (i.e., something that looks like an old-fashioned keyhole from above) and you put a compost pile smack dab in the middle. Like this:

Here's another view:

Once you set this up, all you have to do is periodically water the compost, creating compost tea that seeps into the surrounding garden, nourishing the plants. Which means you never have to turn the compost and you never have to move the compost. You just throw your "greens" (kitchen scraps in my case) and "browns" (shredded newspaper in my case) in there periodically and water the compost tower periodically. Are you hearing me people? Composting just got lazier! Woo hoo!

As best as I can tell, this gardening method was pioneered by the Send a Cow organization to help families in Africa with poor soil and limited water. (Yup, in addition to helping lazy gardeners like me, it actually has a much more altruistic purpose.) Apparently, keyhole gardens are catching on big in arid climates in particular, because they save water in addition to using compost efficiently. Specifically, keyhole gardens appear to be catching on big in Texas with the help of Dr. Deb Tolman and Texas Co-op Power. (I have to admit, I still don't fully understand how they save water--they are raised beds, which traditionally suck up more water--but results don't lie!)

So in addition to making composting easier, keyhole gardens also save water? Sold! I can't set one up yet, since I've already planted my spring/summer garden, but I can start planning for next season. In the meantime, I'll pour over pictures of other people's keyholes gardens and come up with my perfect plan. The thought of makes me almost as happy as this little cutie appears to be with his new garden:

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Planning My 2015 Spring/Summer Garden

Let me tell ya folks, I made things hard on myself this year. Planning out my spring/summer garden this year was a real bear. I gave myself a lot of big goals for one patch of land:
  • Use succession planting to keep the garden going at full production from early spring throughout the end of summer. (Anyone remember the domino disaster from last summer? Let's avoid that happening again, shall we?)
  • Experiment with using okra to shade tomatoes throughout the whole summer, keeping the delicate little darlings going so I can get a second batch of tomatoes out of them in the fall. (Tomatoes are the delicate darlings here, by the way. Okra is an indestructible summer warrior.)
  • Make the most of companion planting to help ward off nasty bugs.
  • Squeeze in a lot more varieties of vegis than previous years. (I've got a big garden--17 by 24 feet--I ought to have room to experiment with some exciting new edibles, don't you think?)
  • Add flowers to spruce the place up.
  • Work around the existing plants that I have (like gazanias and artichokes) that will keep going throughout the spring.
  • Incorporate more of my beloved ollas into the garden. 
Needless to say, it took me a little while to work this all out, but I was up for the challenge. So how did I do it? 

Planning the Okra and Tomato Patch

Let's start with my okra and tomato patch. I won't tell you how many iterations it took me to get to this, but here's the final plan. I started by building a ring of okra plants around ollas. I needed to make sure I would be able to reach the ollas to water them (hence the gaps in the ring), and that there would be plenty of room in the center of the ring for the tomatoes. I also wanted to make sure to cram the okra as close together as possible to create a nice humidity zone during the summer:

Next, I added tomatoes in the middle. I didn't worry too much that the tomatoes would be hard to reach, because tomatoes don't produce in the middle of an Arizona summer anyway. (It's too hot.) The whole point was just to protect them through the summer so they could start producing again in the fall. I also added a few marigolds in there to help keep away the nasty buggies. 

So now I had my tomatoes taken care of, but that wasn't quite enough okra for my taste, so I added another row for good measure. I also planned for a few basil plants in that row to help ward off more bugs (and because it's tasty): 

Lastly, I surrounded the whole thing with a few lines of cosmos. Cosmos is also supposed to be a good companion for okra. Plus it's just plain pretty. (You'll notice a line of carrots in there too. Those were planted before I started my planning.) 

In my area, the ideal planting dates for all these beauties are: 
  • Okra: Mid-March through May
  • Tomatoes: Mid-Feb through March
  • Marigolds: February through May
  • Cosmos: March through June
  • Basil: February through May
For my plan, March seems to be the common denominator for all of them, so I'll just plant the whole kit and caboodle then. Excellent! Okra and tomato patch planning, done! Next up, corn and green beans. 

Planning the Corn and Green Bean Patch

Corn is a pretty high maintenance crop for the home gardener, but my family loves, loves, loves it when I grow it, so really, it's a must have on my list. My daughter has also recently informed me that she really likes green beans, so that's another must have on my list.

In my area, the ideal planting dates for my family's must-have vegis are:
  • Corn: Mid-February through early April, then again in mid-July through August
  • Green Beans (bush variety): Mid-March through April, then again in mid-July to mid-September
  • Green Beans (pole variety): All summer
Beyond planting dates, I have a few other requirements for my corn and bean planting:
  • Contrary to popular advice, I don't plan to plant the corn and green beans together. (I've never been able to make that work.) Instead, I'll plant them in succession. 
  • Again, contrary to popular advice, I don't want to plant the corn in large blocks. People commonly advise this to help with pollination, but I always meticulously hand pollinate my corn, so it's not necessary in my case. I'd rather grow corn in small batches to have a steady supply of fresh corn for dinners. Fresh corn straight out of the garden is the real goal here--not so much that I end up freezing it. 
  • I don't have enough ollas for the corn patch, so these will be grown with drip irrigation. That means tidy little rows. 
  • I want to make the most of companion planting. For the corn, that means I'll plant it with sunflowers (to make the corn sweeter) and dill (to ward off bad bugs). For the green beans, that means I'll plant it with rosemary, radishes, or petunias (depending on when I plant) to ward of the nasties. 
Phew! Are are you tired yet? That's a lot of requirements. Let's see how the puzzle pieces come together. First, the corn:

OK, this is relatively straight-forward, right? I've got seven rows of corn (plus its companions, sunflowers and dill) being planted at periodic intervals throughout the growing season. The first row was planted on February 15th and the last row will be planted on August 15th. So far, so good. Now it's time to start layering in green beans.

On March 15 (the beginning of planting season for green beans), I'll add a row of green beans and its companions (radishes in this case) where corn is planned for later in the season. The idea is that the green beans will have a chance to grow, produce, and be done before it's time to plant the corn on July 15th in the same spot. I've got a couple more rows of green beans planned to finish up before the corn ever gets planted as well:

And then the rest of green beans will be planted after the corn is finished. For instance, I have a row of corn that I planted on February 15th. I plan to plant green beans in that same spot a few months later on July 15th.

Planning the Rest of It

The rest of my plan is going to be pretty anti-climatic after all that. The remainder of my garden has a lot of existing plants in place that I had to work around, so I just squeezed in a few extras where I could. There's not a lot of complicated succession planting or plants protecting other plants. If any of them need extra shade, I'll just construct something and put some shade cloth over it. No permaculture ninja stuff here.

So here's my starting point. I've got some existing snapdragons, gazanias, artichokes, carrots, green onions, cilantro, parsley, and a peach tree to work around. Some are being watered with ollas, some with drip irrigation: 

So I just decided to fill in the gaps with what I could--zucchini (a good old summer staple), armenian cucumber (something new and exotic), cantaloupe (one of my daughter's favorites), sunflowers (gorgeous!), butternut squash (I've got a divine soup recipe for it), peppers (why not?), another tomato or two (you can never have enough), and marigolds (to ward off bad bugs). Here's the final look:

And here are the three plans all put together to make up the whole garden:

Now there's just the minor matter of planting it all! Let's see how that works out!

Monday, February 09, 2015

It's "Go Time" in the Garden

Seasons change fast here in Arizona (except for summer, which drags on foreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeever). A month ago, I was showing you pictures of frosty vegis. Since then, I've frantically been trying to keep up with all the garden chores associated sudden onslaught of spring. Here's what's been going on since I last talked to you:


First and foremost, I had to plan my spring vegi garden. This took me quite a while, because I had a lot of big goals for one patch of land: 
  • Use succession planting to keep the garden going at full production from early spring throughout the end of summer.
  • Experiment with using okra to shade tomatoes throughout the whole summer, keeping the delicate little darlings going so I can get a second batch of tomatoes out of them in the fall.
  • Make the most of companion planting to help ward off destructive insects.
  • Squeeze in a lot more varieties of vegis than previous years. 
  • Add flowers to spruce the place up.
  • Work around the existing plants that I have (like gazanias and artichokes) that will keep going throughout the spring.
In other words, I was being high maintenance. (I literally lost sleep trying to figure it all out.) I'll admit that I've been putting off posting the plans, just because it will take a while to explain all those complex relationships (it's like a little garden soap opera!), but I will post them soon. 

But now that I've figured it all out, I have ordered my seeds and started the appropriate ones under grow lights in my home office. Here are the little darlings on their way now. Bless their little hearts. 

They're so cute when they're young


Meanwhile, while this was under way, we got a good deal of rain, which was lovely. Unfortunately, the weeds thought so too. Weeds popped up EVERYWHERE. I used to pay people to pull my weeds, but alas, I've decided to do it myself now. Times like these are when I have to decide how committed I am to that decision! (We can eat Ramen for dinner every night, right? It would be worth it not to weed that garden.)

Don't you hate it when guests come over uninvited? 

I am resisting my temptation to go at it all with a gas mask and a huge canister of Round Up. Instead, while the ground is still soft, I'm gently digging under the weeds so I can get the full roots and then pulling them all up, roots and all. Soon, I will douse the whole area with preemergent, a weed blocker made from 100% corn gluten. (Apparently, weed seeds are gluten intolerant.) 

Preemergent doesn't kill existing weeds, but once you weed an area, it should keep new ones from popping up for 3 months. I'm sure in May when it's 100 degrees outside and the weeds start popping up again, I'll wish that I had gone for the Round Up, but right now, it seems like a good option.


Honestly, I never remember to fertilize my fruit trees at the right time. Maybe it's why I never get fruit. (Or it could just be that they are young trees.) But I've been experimenting with a new way to get them some nutrients, considering my forgetful nature. Instead of using fertilizer, I've been planting nitrogen fixing plants like peas, mayo indigo, and desert lupine around the fruit trees. It's not any less work (in fact, its more), but I actually remember to do it because I see the plants there, reminding me to get to work. 

With the peas, I cut them down once they start flowering and plant some new ones. (Once the peas start flowering, the nitrogen starts moving out of the roots and up the plant to get ready for vegi production. If you don't cut the plant down, you loose the nitrogen-fixing benefits.) I've just gone through a cycle of cutting down the peas and planting new ones. Now I need to add some structure for the new peas to grow up so they reach the branches of the trees. Otherwise, they will turn into a tangled mess on the ground.

Ug. Bad hair day!


I'm afraid that I may have missed my opportunity for pruning some of my fruit trees and bushes. I think that the idea time to prune them is while they are still dormant, but some of them have already started sprouting new growth. Still, I think there's still a chance with my pomegranate tree, so I'll need to get on that soon.

Repairing Winter Damage

The brief flirtation we had with freezing weather did cause a leak or two in my irrigation system. Between hand watering and the rains, I've been able to avoid fixing the leaks up until now, but I can't avoid them forever. It's time to turn on the system, walk around while it's on, look for all the leaks, and get to work fixing 'em. Ah, the glamorous life! 

So how about you? What are you up to in the garden?