Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why buy broccoli when you can grow your own?

Listening to people talking on the radio when you are driving rather than blasting music and singing along is sign of getting old, I reckon. But I was listening to a talk show the other day about the health care vote thinggy-majiggy here in the US. As far as I can make out the question is about making everyone buy health insurance, and an analogy has been drawn along the lines of forcing people to buy broccoli.  However, this is not a political blog, and I don't really want to air any comment on the health insurance issue as I feel ill equipped to make a call on it either way (Can I get health insurance for being ill equipped?) But I thought it was a great title for a blog post.

I've been agonizing about what to write in my blog these days. The very nature of gardening is cyclical, so I could end up covering the same topics year in and year out which gets too repetitive for my liking. I could post lots more "How to"s but there is very little out there that hasn't been done, that can't be googled and it feels too much like my work as a gardening coach.

So this week I decided  to give you a "Spring Garden Tour" sponsored by all the lovely rain we finally and gratefully received. And there is actually no pictures of the broccoli which I've largely allowed to go to seed for next years crop! But I do buy health insurance - can't rely on good health setting seed year after year unfortunately.

The order of the photos is fairly random - Enjoy!

First stop the bulb garden.

Having bought a few dozen tulip bulbs before I knew just how high maintenance they were purported to be in California, I decided that I couldn't go through the rigmarole of keeping them in my fridge for eight weeks and then have them probably only ever blossom that one time. Unwilling to throw out what looked like perfectly good bulbs after they had bloomed and died back, I buried them in the bulb garden only to be wonderfully surprised by blooms this year.
Not the most spectacular tulips ever but hey, better than a kick in the nuts. (I'll show you my nuts later in the tour.)
This shot captures the gogi-berry bush in the foreground. It still hasn't produced berries. And a fence lizard - tip-toeing through the tulips!
My containers are spewing forth blossom left, right and center.

Regular deadheading and fertilizing is the key to beautiful pots.
I love lettuce - its so easy, so forgiving, and oh so colorful...

Some are still in the six packs where I planted their tiny wee seeds and never got round to transplanting them. I'm harvesting them straight from here.
I have about a dozen varieties of lettuce - the ultimate ornamental edible - say that quickly five times!
These are from seeds saved last year.
Even better are the plants that save you the bother of saving their seeds and just reseed themselves. The winter arugula crop decided to go for it again.
And in the native garden the Hooker's Evening Primrose had put out one brave little seedling. A disappointing amount of reseeding but lets see if the rain brings forth any more. I'm maintaining the "prime directive"  as far as I can in the native garden, until they get warp speed of course!
It works for the poppies.
For the checkerbloom too.
And for the blue eyed grass - which has yellow 'eyes' and is not a grass but a petite iris.
And the succulent garden delivered a sweet surprise. My stone plant blossomed practically before my eyes.
And an hour later I walked past and it was doing this...
Blooming gorgeous is the name of the game for this drift of candy tuft - amazing for a plant that gets absolutely no attention (including irrigation) from me.
My spoon petaled daisy (given to me by a Master Gardener buddy last year) blossomed in abundance.
The artichoke given to me by my friend Lisa is coming along nicely too. I just have to figure out to to cook these things!
Propagation is ongoing in the garden, sometimes on purpose - I need to fill these new raised beds.
Here are some of the warm season seeding results.

Other propagation is accidental - nature finding a way to keep going.

My neighbor Laurie gave me a Christmas Cactus and one of the "leaves" (actually it's a segment of stem) came off. It seems to be growing.
I lost one of the Dracaena marginata in this pot but it seems to have left behind a baby!
Outside, I'm protecting the new seedlings from the nasty birds.

Having run out of bird netting I had to get creative.
As promised - a picture of my nuts. Almonds to be precise.
I just hope I get to harvest them before the squirrels get there. Nothing worse than the squirrels sinking their teeth into your .... harvest!

Byddi Lee

Eco Gardening Coach

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Piece on Potatoes for St Patricks Day

In my efforts to research native Irish vegetables, I found it impossible to get past the potato. The problem is that potatoes are not native to Ireland at all, having only been introduced to Ireland in the 1580's. 

Originally potatoes came from Peru. Laura Stadley from "Whats cooking America" has a very interesting article on the history of the potato. I was particularly tickled by her reference to an Irish legend that told of potatoes coming from the shipwrecked Spanish Armanda. However, most historians agree that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to that part of the world. 

Potatoes were easy to grow and the Irish embraced the little white tubers, slathering them with butter and salt, turning them into a veritable feast. They became completely dependent on them which is why when the potato blight hit in the mid 1840's they had nothing else to eat and the country quickly spiraled into famine. Over a million people died and many more fled to the new world. The population of Ireland shrank from 10 million to 3 million in that decade.Even now the population of Ireland is still only 6.4 million.

I still panic if my spuds aren't doing well, but I do plant other crops, and well, if they fail there is always a Safeway's up the road. I have great respect for the billions of people on our planet to whom the failure of their crops can be a life threatening event.  

Growing your own potatoes

You can buy seed potatoes at most good nurseries or you can plant potatoes that you get at the grocery store and that have sprouted shoots. These grow equally as well as the seed potatoes, but the seed potatoes will have less risk of carrying disease. I haven't had any disease on my potatoes and I use both.

Potatoes are very frost tender so plant after danger of frost.

I plant my potatoes in a trough that is about 6 inches deep. When I fill in the soil I heap it up into a drill that means the potato is under about 8-10 inches of soil.  If I'm burying my potatoes in a pot or a grow bag I will usually only plant them about 4 inches deep and then add soil to them as they grow. This is called "hilling up." I have found both ways work equally well. The bottom line is that you want a long stem under ground. Potatoes are not roots, but are tubers that have grown from the stem. 

Whilst under the soil they remain white (blanched), but if they have sunlight on them they will turn green and this causes a build up of poisonous alkaloids. Green potatoes should not be eaten. Remember that the potato is a member of the deadly nightshade family. The only part of it that is NOT poisonous is the potato tuber. Never eat any of the rest of the plant.

It takes a while (up to six weeks) for the potatoes to emerge - especially the deep planted ones.
Once they unfurl they are like green roses against the soil.
They need plenty of fertilizer,cow manure being one of their favorites! They like lots of water, though I do have a volunteer potato in the far flung reaches of my yard that has received no additional water. I'm surprised it has survived this drought-winter we've been having.
Well, when I say drought , I mean until this week! Although the rest of the Bay Area has had a nice thorough soaking, we seem to be in a rain-shadow and the moisture in the air has not even wet the ground. However, the cloudy skies have tricked the spuds into thinking they are in Ireland, and they are loving it!
One thing that potatoes have in common with the Irish is that they get absolutely everywhere. If you have planted potatoes at all in the past, you will find them popping up everywhere. I like to think of volunteer potatoes as growing menu choices!

Here we have champ growing - potatoes in the scallion bed - just add butter and salt.
And who's for garlic potatoes?
Asian fusion - spuds and bok choi - just add Chinese five spice.
The leaves on this potato look a little different, a night shade for sure, but could it be a volunteer potato leaf tomato? It is extra pointy and a slightly lighter shade of green. Time will tell - in the meantime I'll keep eating the chard!
The other members of the deadly nightshade family have started to germinate.
Above and below are tomatoes
And a pepper - I don't use heat mats, but these guys do get babied and even get to sleep in our bedroom!

In previous years I've posted about the man himself, St Patrick, and the shamrock  in case you were interested, seeing as it is the season!

Wishing my readers a Happy St Patricks Day - have fun drowning your shamrock!

Byddi Lee

Friday, March 2, 2012

Drip irrigation installation workshop

It wasn't until I'd undertaken to put in a drip system by myself that I realized how easy it could be. I'd always been frighten off by the talk of valves, pressure regulator, PSIs and GPHs. And what on earth is a "faucet"?

After I discovered that "faucet" was the American for "tap", I began to calm down. You don't need a degree in plumbing to install your own drip system, especially if you have an outside faucet/tap that any hose will attach to.

A valve simply refers to an on/off device i.e a faucet, tap or an automatic timer of some sort that will do the switching for you.

PSI is the pressure measurement, or the "push" of the water as it comes out of the tap and stands for "pounds per square inch." Water in your taps should around 60 PSI and too high for direct connection to a drip system. But we'll get to that.

GPH is gallons per hour. Ideally you'll be able to figure out exactly how much water your drip system is delivering to your plants so that you don't waste water by over watering. Though, even when I know the GPH it's not an exact science, so I go by how the plants look, and I use my moisture meter to ensure that the soil is as damp as I want it to be.

As you may have noticed, I'm not talking in metric - these units and measurements are USA specific and so will differ in other countries. For example the taps here are 3/4 inch and the piping is 1/2 inch and the drip-piping is 1/4 inch. I don't know what that translates to in Ireland because, well, I never needed drip irrigation there! Your local DIY store or irrigation supplier should be able to help with the details, though the principle is the same.

There are many systems on the market, and available at the big box stores, to install drip systems. I've been told that going to a dedicated irrigation store ensures better quality components than the same brand choice in the big box stores. I've ignored this good advice through sheer laziness and can happily report that the fittings I've used for the past three years have lived up well to the task at hand, despite the fact we have very hard water.  It is best to choose a brand and buy all its fittings and components at the same time. This prevents sizing problems when you try to put the system together.

So, you've located your outdoor tap. It's a good idea to attach a double valve so that you can still attach a general use hose. This one divides the tap into two taps, but you can get ones which divide it four ways. You can also split this up further down the hose giving you water zoning options so you can set separate timers and flows to different areas of your garden.
You also need to prevent the water from the drip system washing back into the tap and  back into your water line. To do this, use a backflow-preventer. Many come with a filter, and a filter is recommend if you have hard water or if your water might have particles in it that may clog the drip emitters, for example, if you are using grey water or well water.

Then you will have to decrease the water pressure to avoid breaking the emitters, decreasing the PSI to less than 30 will be sufficient for drip systems, sprinklers and misters.
Your drip system can be inline emitter tubing for a vegetable bed. The spacing depends on the GPH the emitter delivers and the type of soil. Clay soil, with its water clinging properties, can have the tubes spaced a little further apart - 36" for 0.5 GPH emitters, 48" for 1 GPH emitters. You can find more information online, but use the figures as guidelines. Most soil is not exactly all clay or sand but somewhere along a scale from one extreme to the other. Remember to watch your plants and use your moisture meter to check soil dampness. It's hard to beat gut instinct too.

My project was to supply water to my pots at the front. I'd been hand watering them for years and I was sick of hauling the hose around. It often banged against other plants and broke them. Even as I started this project, I was moving the hose out of the garden, and I snapped my white sage in two. Not happy! But it did prove that this was a very necessary project.

I used Rainmaker from Homedepot. The packaging was very helpful, providing information on all the components I needed to ensure backflow-prevention and stepping down the pressure.
You'll notice a choice between a 1/2" hose and a 5/8". I went with 1/2" as it is the easiest one to find.

Here's how all those diagrams translate into real life! I've added a hydro-port to show some of the gismos available to fine tune the system. It allows 8 tubes to come from a central hub. The flow on each one can be adapted - useful for differing sizes of containers or plants with differing water requirements. Really this stuff is just Lego for gardeners!
Here's what the first four components look like joined together.
I took the timer off to test the parts on the tap.
I measured out the 1/2" pipe, cut it with scissors and used a cable-tie to seal the end. Specialized plumbing tools are not needed.
Then I used the gadget I bought in the store to punch a hole in the 1/2" pipe. It was the only tool I had to buy and it was really helpful. After measuring the 1/4" tubes to their required length, I fitted one end with the button emitter and the other end with a double barb to connect it to the 1/2" pipe.
These were hard to push on to the tubing until I had a stroke of genius and put the end of the tube into hot water.
This expanded and softened the tube and the job was much easier. As soon as it cooled down it fitted snugly in place.
The barbed end needs to be pushed into the hole in the 1/2"pipe. It takes a little effort but is completely do-able. Be careful not to nick the pipe - like I did! Fortunately, it did not go all the way through but it is a potential weak spot.
The other end with the drip emitter goes into the pot.
And that's all there was to it.
As soon as I finished the sky clouded over and it rained for two days! But I'm organized now for the summer ahead...

Byddi Lee