Saturday, June 11, 2016

Okra Season

Finally, my okra is taking off! 

I can't remember how long ago I planted it. A month ago? More? It does make me wonder though--why do I even bother planting okra before mid-May? I should really know better by now. Okra doesn't really get going until the June heat kicks in. It must be wishful thinking on my part, wishing for bhindi masala or jambalya that much sooner. I can't wait! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Getting Expert Advice on Trees in Your Landscape: When Google Isn't Enough

For the most part, I like to experiment in the garden and don't mind living with the consequences. I do a lot reading and Googling first, and then just hope for the best. If things go wrong, oh well. The experimenting is the fun part.

It's probably a good thing my hobby isn't science

However, I do have an exception to that rule--and that's for trees. If you don't take care of your trees correctly, you can really do some damage. Bad placement, bad watering, bad pruning, and you have a tree that could come down during a storm. If you're unlucky, it could damage your house, your car, your fence, or (Heaven forbid) a person. That doesn't seem like something you should experiment with.

Which is why I recently decided to call Noelle Johnson, from Noelle has a degree in horticulture, is a certified arborist, and has lots and lots of experience with Arizona plants and trees. She's also just a great person. I knew she was the right person to call when I had questions about my trees.

My first question was about the trees in my front yard. They are quite mature, but I have never moved the emitters from their original location about 3 inches from the trunk. Had I royally screwed up? Answer: Nope. I'm OK. (Phew!) The trees have clearly been getting water from the emitters placed for the shrubs surrounding the trees, so the trees are OK (but it is probably time to move those emitters away from the base of the trees--they aren't doing any good there).

FYI, if you are looking at a tree from the top, the roots will naturally reach past where the leaves are so they can get water during a rain storm. That's where you should place your emitters. You can see a good description of it in Landscape Watering by the Numbers.

My second big question turned out to be much trickier. It was about a big Palo Verde tree I have in my backyard.

When my husband and I first moved into the house, we thought it would be clever to plant this tree in the lawn, because then the tree would naturally get watered when the grass gets watered. However, lately we've been wondering whether that watering schedule is really working well for it. It hasn't been looking that healthy.

It turns out, planting this tree in the grass wasn't such a good idea. Desert adapted trees aren't well-suited to lawns. These types of trees need a chance to dry out between watering, but lawns need frequent watering. There's a good chance this tree is rotting from too much water. It's disappointing to hear, but I'm glad we found out before it fell down in a storm and did some real damage. Now we have a chance to remove it safely.

Bonus Tips!

Even though I mainly asked Noelle to come to see me to give me advice about my trees, two avid gardeners can't help but keep talking. In the course of conversation, I got some great bonus tips about my various shrubs and my vegetable garden. Here's the one that I'm most excited about:

I have this really mangy, awful looking Mexican petunia:

Awful, isn't it? In case you're wondering, here's what a Mexican petunia is supposed to look like:

Like looking in a mirror, right? I had considered just pulling the mangy thing out and replacing it with something else, but these things are impossible to remove. (I've tried it twice.) Once you plant it, it's there for life. So I have this horrible plant that I cannot get rid of that looks awful. The solution? Cut it back to about 3 inches and it will grow back good as new. I love easy answers!

It was such a pleasure to talk to Noelle and get expert answers. If you're looking for some advice about your garden, I could not recommend her more!

Monday, May 09, 2016

Preparing the Garden for Summer Weather

It has been lovely lately here in Gilbert. We have actually had a spring instead of jumping straight from winter to summer, as we sometimes do. We've had weather in the 70s and 80s for quite a while, and for the past few days, we've even had rain.

Storm's a comin'

This is all highly unusual for our neck of the woods, but not surprisingly, it isn't destined to last. A quick look at tells me that this will all end soon.

TGIF? Hmm. Maybe not. 

So it's time to get the garden ready for summer weather. With that in mind, here are a few things to think about:

As things get hotter, your plants will need more water. For instance, I am currently using drip irrigation to water half of my vegetable garden for 30 minutes every other day. Starting around Wednesday or Thursday, I'll bump that up to a daily routine. The other half is watered with ollas. I'm sure I'll need to refill those more often.

Keep in mind that you should water early in the morning or late in the evening to reduce water evaporation. Also, if you water midday when things are really hot, you can cook the roots of your plants. You don't want to precook your vegis!

Another summer staple in my vegi garden is hay. Not only does it reduce water evaporation, it helps cool the ground around the base of plants. The only thing to remember is that you want to wait until plants have gotten big enough that they can see over the top of the hay. You don't want them getting lost in there.

And you thought nests were just for birds.

Not all plants need shade in summer--in fact, some thrive in the full summer sun (more about that in a minute). However, for sane plants that don't like the full glare of the 115 degree Arizona heat beating down on them all summer long, a little shade is in order.

If you plan well, one of the best ways to accomplish this is by using one plant to shade another. For instance, most sunflowers are tall and wide and can shade other plants. Okra is another that can provide great shade throughout the summer. Some people even plant vegis underneath their trees to provide them shade. (If you want to see some beautiful examples of this, I recommend visiting Singh Farms in Scottsdale.)

However, if you haven't planned quite that well, you could construct a shade structure instead of using a natural one. My husband and I are in the middle of doing exactly that right now. I successfully started tomatoes from seed for the first time this year, but got them started too late. They are doing beautifully, so I'm not quite ready to give up on them. So I'm going to try to baby them with water, mulch and a shade structure to see if I can help them survive through the summer. (I'll post more details once the structure is finished.)

What do you think? Am I going overboard for a few tomato plants? 

Lastly, if you have potted plants outside, you can move them to a more shady spot. (I generally move mine under my office window on the patio.)

Preparing for summer is not all hunkering down and doing your best to prepare for the worst. Some plants actually like the heat. (Weirdos.) Which means that if you want, your summer garden could be your most productive garden. If you haven't already, now's the time to plant black-eyed peas, basil, yardlong beans, armenian cucumbers, eggplant, jicama, melons, okra, pumpkins, squash, sunflowers, and sweet potatoes.

I actually planted armenian cucumbers, melons, and okra a few weeks back, and they're just holding back, waiting for the weather to get interesting.

Meh. I can't be bothered to grow yet. Wake me up when it's hot. 

Once the mercury rises above 100, they will really take off. The only catch is, you'll have to go outside in the heat to pick all those vegis that they will produce.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Self-Filling Ollas: Nice to Be Experimenting Again

It's hard to go to long without cooking up some sort of new experiment in the garden. I get antsy without something new to tinker with. Happily, I've got a big new experiment brewing this spring: self-filling ollas.

Anyone who's read my blog before knows I love my ollas. They do have a big down side though: Keeping them filled--particularly if you have a lot of them in the garden. Right now, I've got twelve of them in the garden, and filling them all by hand every couple of days would be a major hassle.

I was 44 when I started this task

So with the help of my hubby, we rigged a system where they (mostly) fill them themselves. Here's how it works: The ollas are all planted as usual in the garden, but instead of having removable tops that we take off to fill them, we glued on tops so they can't overflow. Those tops have tubing fed into them, and the tubing is connected to an old 55 gallon rain barrel. (I had two 55 gallon rain barrels lying around because I had replaced them with a behemoth 855 rain tank.) Six ollas are connected to the rain barrel, and I fill the rain barrel about once a week (instead of filling six ollas every couple of days). I've got two of these systems set up. They look like this:

And here's a close up:

It's not completely self-sustaining--I still have to fill the rain barrels once a week--but it's a whole heckuva lot easier than filling twelve individual ollas all the time. And it enables me to take advantage of the rain water from my mammoth 855 gallon rain tank, which I pump into the 55 gallon water barrels with a cheapo little pump:

I love this monster

Even better, I can go on a trip for a week or so and not worry that my plants will all die.

I'm hoping that as the plants get bigger, the ollas will actually require refilling less often. "Huh?" you might be thinking. "Shouldn't bigger plants need more water?" As the plants get bigger, the roots get bigger and completely adhere to the surface of the olla--no water gets lost in the soil. If that's the case, I might be able to drag out refilling those rain barrels to every 8 to 10 days. I'll let you know.

If you want details on how to set up a system like this, I recommend Gardening With Less Water by David Bainbridge. That's where I got the idea for my system.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Improving the Soil

Recently, the youngest Gilbert Garden Girl (i.e., my 9 year old daughter) had a science assignment at school: come up with a hypothesis and test it. Her hypothesis was that darker soil has more nutrients for plants than lighter soil. (How proud am I that she chose something gardening related? Pretty darn proud!) To test her theory, we took two snapdragons, planted one in some light, unamended soil from the corner of my garden and planted the other in some dark potting soil from a bag. Then we treated them the same for a few weeks. Guess which one is which:


The difference is a little shocking, isn't it? It really got me wondering if I'm doing enough to improve my soil. Granted, the light soil in this experiment came from a corner of the garden that was unamended. Still, I think I can be doing more.

Around the same time, I came across this video from Geoff Lawton on how to use lasagna gardening to improve your soil. What I like about it is that you can do it at the same time that you're planting in the same spot. You don't have to sit around and wait a season for things to get better. Woo hoo! Perfect for impatient people like me. I think I'll give it a try this year.

Check it out: 

Awesome, right?

One caveat: DON'T TRY THIS WITH BERMUDA GRASS. I know, I know. Everyone wants to try this with Bermuda grass. It seems like such a nice way to get rid of it, doesn't it? Like the evil villain in a bad movie, Bermuda grass will just laugh at your puny efforts to kill it with simple sheet mulching though. "You can't kill me that easily." It might say. Then it will light a cigarette and sneer at you. No, if you want to kill Bermuda grass, you're going to have to do something much more extreme like dig it out and solarize it. (Sorry to be a killbuzz.) 

Monday, February 29, 2016

All About Ollas: The Water Saving Wonders for Gardeners

You all know I love using ollas in my garden, right? Which is why I was so surprised when I looked back over my old blogs and realized how many gaps there were in my posts. I've learned so many important things about ollas that I never passed that onto you! Shame on me!

So even though I've talked about this topic quite a bit over the past couple of years, I think it's time for me to start from square one and really try to cover the topic from top to bottom. For those of you who are new, I recommend reading on, because ollas are awesome. For those of you who already know about ollas, I recommend reading anyway. Maybe you'll pick up some new tips. :)

What is an Olla Anyway? 

Let's start with the basics: what are ollas? Ollas are unglazed pots that you can use for irrigation. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the ones I use look like this:

Ain't she a beauty? 

The concept behind ollas is simple: You bury the ollas in the ground with the neck sticking out above the soil line, bury your plants around the ollas, and then fill the ollas with water. When you're done, your garden might look something like this:

The water inside the ollas will slowly seep out through the ceramic walls of the pots, giving the plants exactly as much water as they need--not too much, not too little. In other words, ollas are the Baby Bear of watering techniques: just right. All you have to do is keep the ollas full of water and your plants will take what they need.

Watch out though! If you plant too many plants around the olla, finding the olla later to refill it will be like playing Where's Waldo

As someone living in drought-prone area, what I love about ollas is that practically no water is lost to evaporation. Ollas are just about the most water efficient irrigation option there is because the top of the olla is covered and the irrigation all happens below ground level--no water evaporates in the air. Ollas are far more efficient than hand watering. They are even more efficient than drip irrigation, which people just rave about when it comes to saving water. 

Will My Plants Grow As Well with Ollas? 

I can't tell you for sure that all of your plants will do well with ollas, but I can tell you that I have had really good luck with them in my vegetable garden. I even did some side-by-side tests of ollas vs. drip irrigation, and most of my plants loved 'em. I've read that plants do well with ollas because: 
  1. The ollas deliver just the right amount of water--not too much, not too little.
  2. The clay in the pots actually delivers a few extra "bonus" minerals to the plants.
  3. If you happen to use rain water in the ollas (like I do), the water is purer than the water delivered via a standard drip irrigation system. (This might not be true in your area, but here in Gilbert, the municipal water is a little salty.)

I've got the saltwater, now if I just had the beach to with it

How Close Do Plants Need to Be to the Olla? 

As best as I can tell, the thicker your soil, the closer your plants need to be to the olla. (It's easier for water to soak through looser soil.) But that's not a very exact, is it? The way you can tell precisely how close your plants should be to your olla is simply to bury your olla, fill it up with water, and let it sit for a day before doing any planting. When you come back, you'll find a damp area around the olla. That's where you can plant.

Are There Any Tricks to Starting Seeds with Ollas? 

Hand-water any seeds that you plant around ollas until they sprout. (Seeds can't really take advantage of the damp soil until they actually develop roots.)

How Often Do You Need to Fill the Ollas? 

The interval between refills varies a lot. I've gone anywhere from every two days in the summer to once a week in the winter. Other factors can impact how often you need to refill your ollas too. For instance, I try to keep them topped up for seedlings, since their roots won't be long enough to reach the bottom of levels of the ollas. Non-intuitively, I also sometimes find that ollas need to be refilled less often when plants get very mature. This is because the plants' roots have adhered so completely around the ollas, no water is getting lost in the soil--it all goes straight to the roots.

Honestly, this is one of the biggest downsides of ollas--constantly refilling them. If you're busy, traveling, or just kind of lazy (all of which apply to me at times), refilling ollas on such a regular basis can be a real drag. Happily, David Bainbridge's new book, Gardening with Less Water gave me a great idea for how to fix that--create a system where the ollas fill themselves. My husband and I just finished putting together a system where we're feeding water into the ollas using tubes attached to rain tanks. (But that's another post.)

How Much Do Ollas Cost? 

In my neck of the woods, a two gallon olla costs about $34. I think most people would consider that pretty pricey. (Of course, if you compare that to installing a drip system attached to a controller, it's cheap, but I don't think that's what most people are comparing it to.) Personally, I think it's worth it, but I know most people aren't willing to shell out that type of cash. 

Money doesn't grow on trees you know!
(Particularly if you haven't saved enough water yet to grow the tree.) 

Can You Make Your Own Olla? 

Yes! You can make your own olla. There are tons of "how-to" blogs about it all over the internet. Before you go make your own though, let me tell you a few things I've learned: 

  • When I've done a side-by-side test of a DIY olla vs. the real thing, my plants did better with the real thing. I'm not 100% sure why, but I have a good guess: my test was conducted in hard conditions--it was an Arizona summer and I was growing the plants in (amended) native soil (i.e., clay). The DIY olla was probably at least slightly less porous than the real thing, and just could not deliver water as well. As a result, the plants getting water from the DIY olla suffered. 
  • Having said that, I've learned since that's there are ways to test for porosity in unglazed pots. Just spray them with water and make sure that they immediately get wet. Or dunk them in water and make sure they get uniformly wet. If there are any dry spots, it's not suitable for an olla. 
  • Another thing I've learned since writing my original blog about creating your own ollas is that it's totally not necessary to glue to ollas together (like most tutorials recommend). Instead, just find a cork, plug the bottom of a pot, and use that as an olla. Place a saucer on top for the opening. It makes it a whole heckuva lot easier to get the water in! 

Do Ollas Require Maintenance? 

A little. I use a stiff brush to clean mine between seasons. Also, it's a good idea to soak them every now and again in a combination of vinegar and water. (For instance, I soaked mine in vinegar and water after I realized my soil was diseased.)

Anything Else I Should Know? 

What?!? Aren't you bored yet? I think I hit the biggies, but if you're just dying to learn more, here's what I recommend: 

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!