Saturday, January 03, 2015

Baby, It's Cold Outside! (At Least By Arizona Standards)

I'm sure my East Coast friends would scoff when I say it, but boy, oh boy, it's cold outside! Yesterday's low in my neighborhood was 26 degrees. That's not really so unusual for my neck of my woods, but it still catches me off guard every time. When I go outside in the mornings, the plants are looking distinctly chilly.

Frosty the Snow Herb

Luckily, the only ones that seem to be worse for wear so far are my nasturtiums, which have pretty much bit the dust. Everything else seems to be making it through just fine. In fact, some of them look downright lovely with their frost-tipped leaves.

Isn't the usual routine to freeze the vegis AFTER you pick them? 

But one of the nice things about Arizona is that the really cold weather doesn't last long. In the next few days, things should be warming up.

Which means, it's time to start thinking about what to plant next! Maybe I'll plant some peas. (I've never been particularly successful with them, but maybe this is the year I'll make them work.) I may plant some multiplier onions outside. I may even be really ambitious and start some tomatoes and bell peppers inside to be ready for spring. After all, it's the new year. We're all full of ambitious ideas, right?  Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Winter Olla Update

Seems like all the garden bloggers I follow are starting their posts by apologizing for the lack of posts. Everyone is busy with the holidays, busy with work, busy, busy, busy. I guess I'm no different. Sorry for the delay folks.

I did think I'd give a quick update on how things are going in the garden. Specifically, I thought I'd show you how the winter olla experiment is doing. So far, things are going really well! The plants really seem to like being watered from the ollas.

However, some plants are doing better than others. For instance, my broccoli plants are doing fantastic around the ollas. Look at these beauties!

One of them is even forming a head of broccoli already.

Compare that to the broccoli on the drip system and the difference is startling. Poor sad little broccoli.

However, it's a slightly different story with my artichokes. The artichoke next to the olla is doing pretty well.

But there's really no denying that the artichoke on the drip is doing better. Sure, the difference isn't as startling as with the broccoli, but the difference is there.

So far, here's what the olla bed is looking like:

And here's what the plants on the drip are looking like:

I'd say that overall, the olla-watered plants are doing better, wouldn't you? Still, I'm going to keep watching. I haven't actually harvested any vegis yet, so it ain't over til it's over. I'm going to keep watching and see how things go.

Happy gardening folks!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Using Ollas in Your Garden (Take 2)

The last time I checked in with y'all, I had learned a very valuable lesson on how NOT to plant ollas the garden. It was all very educational (if not a little embarrassing). Armed with what I have learned from that little adventure, I have embarked on "take 2" of my fall garden olla experiment. Last weekend, I tilled up a patch of garden that's on higher ground than the last time around and enlisted the other Gilbert Garden Girl (my daughter Chloe) to help me mix in some nice soil with the native soil.

The Proud Gardener

This time, the whole patch is fully integrated with the same type of soil instead of having abrupt shifts in soil types. (No more bobbing ollas!) Then, we buried the ollas and got planting. Here's the plan we used for our planting. First, we started with five (somewhat) evenly spaced ollas. (In the diagrams, one square = one square foot.) 

Our plan started with big plants (broccoli and an artichoke) clustered around the ollas. (When we went to the nursery, I found some cauliflower plants that I just had to have, so a couple of those broccoli plants in the picture turned into cauliflowers instead. You know how it goes.)

Next, we added some medium size plants (lettuce, herbs) around the big plants. (We mostly planted these from seed.) When the cold weather hits, these should be protected by the leaves to the big plants. (That's the theory anyway!):

Next up: Nitrogen fixers (peas and fenugreek, also from seed). These are scattered throughout:

Last up, we scattered a few flowers throughout to make things pretty. The youngest garden girl got to pick the flowers (of course). She picked snap dragons and petunias:

The hardest things about making this plan was leaving enough room to reach the ollas to add water. It's easy enough now, but when the plants get bigger, it could get challenging. We'll see!

What do you think? 3 months from now, will I be able to see the ollas at all?

Right now, it's a mix of nursery plants and seeds. So I'm filling up the ollas to water the seedlings, plus using a watering can for the seeds. Once the seeds sprout and develop some roots, I'll be able to switch to watering just the ollas.

Can you see the little seedlings up front? Or is it like playing where's Waldo?

Want to learn more about ollas? Maybe from someone a little more trustworthy who seems to have some actual experience? Ha! The best information I have found is the FAQ section of the Dripping Springs Ollas site.

This Week's Permaculture Principles: 

What?!? Am I still on that permaculture kick? Why yes, yes I am!  And here are a few permaculture principles that influenced my little olla plan above:

Observe and interact. I first grew broccoli in my garden a couple of years ago. I had the plants all lined up in tidy little rows on a drip irrigation system. I also had a few spinach plants crammed into the same raised bed because I was low on space. That year, we had a lot of cold weather. When the first frost hit, I panicked a bit when my broccoli plants got all droopy, posted pictures of the broccoli on the Tucson Backyard Gardener's Facebook group, and asked if there was any hope. The smart people there told me it would be fine (it was) and also mentioned what a nice job the broccoli had done of shielding the spinach from the frost too. So I've learned my lesson. Broccoli withstands frost well and is good at shielding other plants from it.  

Use small and slow solutions. I am in love with the idea of ollas, but as much as I want to, ripping out all my drip irrigation and replacing it all with ollas probably isn't smart. I just don't know enough about ollas yet to know that I can make it work. So I started my experiments with ollas this summer with just two (one "real deal" and one DIY version). Convinced I could make the "real deal" work, I have now branched out with five. Assuming I can make five work, maybe next spring I'll get more ollas. I'll keep building up slowly until I get to the right amount.

Integrate rather than segregate. As you've probably noticed, my little plan is all about integration. (Or as my husband says, "It's going to look like a big mess, but in a good way.") I've packed as many different plants and purposes around five little ollas as I possibly can. Chances are some of them won't do so well. (For instance, I haven't traditionally had a lot of luck with peas, although I am trying a different type that's more suited to this climate this time.) But by including so many different types of plants in there, not only are some of them bound to succeed, hopefully, they will also help each other out.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How NOT Plant Ollas in Your Garden

It is officially fall, my favorite season in Arizona, and my fall garden plans are well underway. One of the big things I've been planning for this season is to take my olla experiments to the next level. So about a month or so ago, I tracked down a bunch of ollas for sale in Tucson and decided to take a little day trip down there to pick up four of them. (I visited some of my other favorite nurseries while I was there too, of course!) Since then, when I've had time, I've been preparing the garden to put these little babies into action!

First, I dug an individual hole for each of them, leaving space around them to add the plants:

Then I hollowed out the areas between the holes because I wanted to plant there too:

Next, I placed the ollas and filled the hollowed out area with some really good dirt:

To pretty things up a bit, I added a nice border around the edges where the native dirt met the "good" dirt:

Now, before you look at the next picture, who can tell me what's wrong with this design?

Give up? Well, water will be absorbed by the two types of dirt at drastically different rates. The native dirt (which has a lot of clay) absorbs water slowly, but it does absorb it. The "good" dirt doesn't absorb water much at all. Instead, the water just runs right through. When this design is hit with a lot of water (say, by one of the big rains that we had recently), the whole thing acts like a big bath tub with a clogged drain. (It doesn't help that the whole setup was in the lowest part of my yard.) So during the rains, the ollas started floating in the dirt like plastic toys in a toddler's bath tub:

Oh well. Happily, this all happened before I ever planted anything. So I didn't lose any plants. I'm already working on "Plan B" that will work better. I expect I'll have it implemented in a week or two. Stay tuned!

This Week's Permaculture Principles:

Hey, remember how I'm obsessed with permaculture? I thought I'd talk about the permaculture principles I observed in this week's exciting episode of Gilbert Garden Girls!

Observe and interact. As you can see, I put a decent amount of work into making my little olla design work. That was a lot of digging. It was tempting to be stubborn jackass and stay the course. ("Rainy season is over, right? It won't flood again soon. I can make this work!") But it didn't take much observation at all to see that staying the course wasn't a good long term solution. Rather than sticking with what I wanted to make work, based on my observations, it was clear I needed to take action and move onto a different plan.

Catch and store energy. One of the reasons I really love the idea of ollas is I think they are a great way to catch and store energy in our desert environment. They are a perfect way to distribute rain water--the best type of water for plants--exactly where it's needed (directly to the roots). And they are so efficient! Plants use exactly as much water as they need and no more!

Optimize the edges. This is a clear example of how I did NOT optimize the edges, isn't it? By having such a stark contrast between the native dirt and the "good" dirt, I created a real problem. I'll have to learn from this when I implement Plan B!

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.