Building a Greenhouse for Next to Nothing (Compared to Buying One)

greenhouse1

I can’t believe I never did a post about our greenhouse. We’ve now been using it for at least a year and a half and I’ve been oddly silent about it. I guess it’s probably because it’s not 100% complete. We have one small area that still needs a permanent covering, the windows need new glazing and it is in desperate need of new paint. But it’s still functional and gets a lot of use. And it only cost us about $300.

$300 may sound like a lot of money until you consider that this greenhouse is 8′x12′ and uses glass glazing. Buying a glass greenhouse that size will generally run you  around $5,000.

Why a glass greenhouse? Why not just make a hoop house to save money? Hoop houses are great, don’t get me wrong, but they just don’t stand the test of time. While they are cheaper to make up front, there are some concerns you have to take into consideration. The material usually used for hoop houses is plastic sheeting, which doesn’t last more than a few years, even if it is UV resistant greenhouse plastic film. I’d prefer not to have to add more plastic to the landfill and also spend the money replacing it. Also, special consideration must be made regarding the hoop structure. PVC pipe (most isn’t UV resistant) will degrade the plastic through chemical reaction faster than it would normally degrade, so you have to either wrap the pipe or use another material, like galvanized pipe, which increases the cost.  Also, we have a very windy site for most of the year and plastic sheeting just wouldn’t hold up.

Polycarbonate greenhouses also degrade from UV but lasts substantially longer than poly film. It is a plastic and even though it my hold up for 10-20 years if properly treated with UV stabilizers, it will discolor and become more opaque after time. It also becomes brittle. Double walled polycarbonate, however, adds a benefit of being more insulating than both glass and film. It can be quite pricey though. Not as expensive as buying glass specifically for a greenhouse, but if you can do glass, which is superior to both film and polycarbonate, for less than either, why wouldn’t you?

windows

It’s all about the windows. It is amazing how many people are trying to offload free windows. Craigslist is where we scored the majority of them. We also scored a free door that was 1/2 windows from my best friend who had just bought a house and wanted to replace the front door. We stockpiled old windows until we had what we felt was enough to start building. Before starting we laid out the panes on the ground so we could get the right configuration to fit the walls of the greenhouse. Do this carefully as we had a few casualties while doing this, but fortunately we had enough windows to make up the difference. We made sure that we got some windows with their frames so we could open them as needed when it got hot in the summer.

leveling

Next, we had to figure out how the greenhouse would be sited. We had a space on the north edge of our property that wasn’t shaded, and it wouldn’t shade out anything. We made the long 12′ wall be the south facing wall to maximize sun exposure. We also decided that since the north facing wall is facing a fence we could just use plywood for it. We framed up the structure with new lumber, which is where a good portion of the money we spent on the greenhouse went towards, however the most costly part of this job was actually the roofing material. We used some of the extra pavers we had to level the structure since our ground slopes. It was also imperative that add extra bracing since the weight of the windows can be quite substantial. 

windows going in

The biggest score from the window search were these two 6′ long windows that someone had purchased and then never bothered using. The easily spanned the whole lower half of our south facing wall. It was a tight fit but we got them in. We also got more narrow windows from our next door neighbor that flanked the door (seen in the first photo). 

Greenhouse

Once we got most of the windows in on the south facing wall, we started  framing the door and getting the roof joists up. Sexy ain’t it? We decided to just do a simple sloped roof, rather than a gable roof so the south side was getting even more sun exposure, especially in the winter when the sun angle is lower and when we need the greenhouse the most. It’s important when you get the door that it comes with the jamb for easier framing. 

greenhouse2

Once the door was in, we were able to finish up adding windows. And then the roofing, which we used the clear corrugated plastic sheeting. It’s not a particularly pretty greenhouse and it does need a coat of paint, but it’s definitely functional. 

greenhouse

Of course, what you also have to think about is the interior. Where are you going to put plants? And what about the floor? We scored some pea gravel off of Freecycle and it was enough to put down a nice 3″ layer. We first put down weed cloth though so we wouldn’t be fighting the never ending onslaught of bindweed and Bermuda grass inside. Tom build a fantastic 8′ long potting bench out of scrap wood and then we bought some heavy duty utility “baker” racks for putting the plants on. We will be probably switching the locations of these and put the potting bench on the east facing wall and the racks on the south facing wall so we can add another one. We also are using an old unused compost bin (our chickens do all of our composting now) as a soil storage. 

 

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Tomatoes, Tomatoes, Everywhere Tomatoes

Spring Fever! 

Everyone has it. The nurseries have been selling tomato starts for weeks already even though it is still so, so early. With the unseasonably warm, dry weather I think we’ve all started getting the garden itch earlier than we normally would. 

The last week of March is the earliest I’ll even consider planting tomatoes here. Our average last frost date is February 29th, but I like to play it safe. Along with that, even if frosts end early (or not even show up for the second half of winter like this year) the soil temperature and the nighttime temps won’t be high enough for good tomato success. What you want is nighttime temps to be at least 50 F and the soil temp to be 60 F. 

Planting tomatoes can be relatively straight forward – just dig a hole and plop them in the ground. Or you can take a little more care in planting them which will give you bigger, healthier, more productive plants. 

plant

First you want to start with a healthy plant that isn’t root bound. If it has flower buds developing it’s probably been in the pot for awhile, has run out of root space and is now trying to reproduce because it believes it has reached it’s full size. Turn the plant over and if you can see roots dangling out of the drainage holes it’s most likely out of space. If the pot it is in is very firm you’ve got a severely root bound plant. 

roots

When you pull the plant up out of the pot it is OK to see the roots, but you don’t want them circling the soil medium. This plant has good root development without being root bound. We generally up pot our tomato seedlings into these deep pots planting them as deep as we can so that we start with nice deep root systems like the one above. 

hairs

While a lot of plants are sensitive to being planted deeper than where they began, tomatoes relish in it. See all the little hairs on the stems? Those can develop into new roots and the deeper you plant the deeper the root system will be. This is beneficial especially this year with the drought because you can focus on deeper, less frequent watering because the roots are deep in the soil. When planting deeply just pinch off the lower leaves and branches before burying it. 

oystershell

If blossom end rot is an issue for you even with proper watering, now is the time to make sure that your tomato (works for peppers and eggplants as well) has access to plenty of calcium. We use either crushed egg shells or oyster shell (the same oyster shell that we feed our chickens). We have some salinity issues in our soil, which effects the ability of the tomato plants to uptake calcium. Sandy soil can also be a problem since it has low water retention. 

sprinkles

When planting the tomatoes I dig a deep hole in well amended, loosened soil that can take not only the roots of the tomato, but also the stem that I’ve plucked the leaves and branches from. I then sprinkle a couple tablespoons of oyster or egg shell into the hole and then plant the tomato. The oyster shell will break down over time releasing the calcium for the plant to take up. 

planted

Once the plant is in the ground just cover with soil and give it a good watering to reduce transplant shock. Overcast days will also help reduce shock as will handling the roots gently. 

cage

Tomatoes generally need support. The standard tomato cage is a pathetic attempt at support. They almost always collapse from the weight of the plant. There are now more sturdy ones but they are really pricey. Instead we use concrete reinforcement fabric which is a welded wire grid that comes in 7′ sheets. We just pull it into cylinder and wire it together. The grid is 4″ square which is a great size for getting your hands in and getting big tomatoes out. They last for years. We still have the first ones we made 8 years ago. 

Tomatoes are pretty resilient and don’t need a lot of care, which is probably why they are the #1 garden vegetable grown. But add a few extra steps to planting and you’ll get bigger, more productive plants that can handle the drought with even more resilience. 

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Surviving the Drought in Your Garden

The biggest question garden-loving Californians are asking right now is “Should I even grow a garden this year with this drought?” It’s a responsible, well meaning question. I asked it myself a few weeks ago. I went back and forth about it. A garden increases your water use, but at the same time you don’t want to let all your hard work die.

And then it dawned on me as I was driving by agricultural fields being irrigated by overhead spray in the middle of the day.

I’m going to be eating food anyways that requires water use. If I grow it I can control how much water is used better than a large scale farmer can. I can actually reduce my water use through food consumption more if I grow it myself. The LA Times recently had an article about how much water is required to grow certain foods (if you eat meat, goat takes the top spot for least amount of water needed per pound of meat). An apple requires 18 gallons and an orange requires 13 gallons. That’s quite a bit of water for just one fruit. Potatoes require 119 gallons of water for a pound. Yikes.

My guilt of growing a garden subsided a bit. Now it was time to figure out what I can do to reduce my water footprint even more. I hope these tips can help you as well.

Know Your Soil

soilstructure

One of the keys to water wise gardening is to know what kind of soil you have. If you have raised beds you most likely have a soil that is high in organic matter and maybe even has a bit of topsoil. If your beds aren’t brand new you’re going to want to get your soil tested so you know what nutrients you need to add. Plants that are getting enough nutrients are going to be hardier and will weather the drought better. If you plant in the ground like I do you are also going to want to know the soil’s structure. How much sand, silt and clay does your soil have? Sandy soil doesn’t hold water very well while clay soil has a tendency to hold onto water too well.

In addition you can check out the Web Soil Survey through the USDA (push the green button). This will give you an idea of how deep your soil is, which directly effects how much water it can hold. It will also tell you the water holding capacity of your soil. For the record, our soil is 20-40″ deep but only holds 4.5″ of water, which means that if it rained 6″ the soil would only be able to hold 4.5 of them and the remaining 1.5″ would run off or flooding would occur. Also, the water table is over 80″ deep so I can depend on trees being able to access it, as most tree roots actually only go down 2-3′.

Amend Your Soil

compost (2)

Adding compost to dig in

Starting from the ground up we first want to make sure our soil is well amended with a lot of organic matter. Organic matter will help absorb and hold onto more water. It will also help provide enough nutrients for the plant to develop strong root systems. Organic matter helps fast draining sandy soils hold onto water and helps heavy clay soils distribute the water deeper to the root zone and makes it more available to the plant. If you have tested your soil through A&L Agricultural Laboratories they will offer you recommendations of what to add to your soil to grow the desired crops.

Control Your Water

tomato

A tomato planted at the emitter location on drip tubing.

Fortunately for us, we are already on the right track. Our entire property is on drip/micro irrigation. If you don’t have your vegetable beds on drip, now is the time to invest. A drip system does several things.

  • It reduces the amount of water you use while watering by 50% or more.
  • It reduces diseases caused by overhead watering.
  • It reduces problems with weeds.
  • It reduces the amount of time you spend watering.
  • It reduces runoff and erosion.

If you don’t have a drip irrigation system yet and don’t know how to put one in, I’ve got a pretty thorough tutorial that can help you.  Once you have your driplines in, situate plants so that they occur at an emitter so the plant can fully utilize as much water as possible. And instead of watering a little bit every day, water heavily but less often. You want the roots to travel as far down as you can get them to go. Plants with shallow roots are more likely to get dried out and stressed. Most plants require an inch of water per week. My aim is to water with drip 30 minutes twice a week. Of course the length and frequency of watering depends on the drip components you use. Many manufacturers offer calculators to determine how long and often you should run your irrigation. In addition, to reduce evaporation, schedule your irrigation to come on between 7pm and 7am. Early morning hours are preferable.

Keep Your Water

Give all your plants a thick layer of mulch

Give all your plants a thick layer of mulch

Mulch the hell out of everything you plan to water. And I mean MULCH. Lots of it. Go for at least 4″ if the plant’s height allows. Straw is a cheap mulch that you can use though it does get slick when wet and has a tendency to blow around. Bark mulch is heavier and longer lasting but can be expensive unless you get it from a tree service. However, getting it from a tree service can limit you to getting mulch from whatever tree they just removed. Some tree species can cause problems in the garden such as black walnut and eucalyptus. So far, one of the best mulches that I have found for water retention has been old livestock bedding. It’s heavier because it has absorbed urine and feces (which also increases it’s fertility) so it doesn’t blow away and it’s finer in texture from being broken up by hooves so it doesn’t have as many air spaces to allow evaporation. If you don’t have livestock you can get old bedding from horse stables, which are usually giving it away for free. Just be careful about weed seeds. Horses that are stabled tend to have less weed seeds in their feces than pastured horses. I’ve used rice hull bedding from a local stable before and this stuff was fantastic. You can also save up dried leaves and use those as well. We tried out plastic mulch/sheeting one year and found that it helped hold onto more water than expected. It also helped heat up the soil for plants that preferred warm soil. Melons and watermelons really thrived with the black plastic. The more drought tolerant plants such as tomatoes, didn’t fare quite as well.

Make sure to lay the mulch over your irrigation lines. You don’t want to actually water the mulch because it will absorb all the water and not allow any to reach the soil and water your plants. You also don’t want to have mulch right up against the stems of most plants (onion family and potatoes plants tend to be the exception) as it can cause problems with rot. An inch or so away is fine though.

Make the Right Plant Choices

All of this Pink Banana Squash came from just a single volunteer plant that we only watered twice

All of this Pink Banana Squash came from just a single volunteer plant that we only watered twice

Not all vegetables are created equal. Some, like celery, onions, green beans, carrots, lettuces and melons require a lot more water than other vegetables. Squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and dry beans, especially Tepary beans, chard, and arugula are better choices for gardening when water is restricted. Most plants also have critical periods where they will require more water than normal. Most of the time this is during flowering and fruit production.

If you really want to grow some of the higher water need plants, put them together on a separate water valve. That way you can have part of your garden getting more water than the rest rather than the entire garden getting more water than some plants need. Also space the plants farther apart so they aren’t competing with each other for each precious drop. You may end up with fewer plants, but you won’t have to water as much.

The above picture with all the squash is a perfect example of how water wise gardening can still be productive. All of that squash – each weighing approximately 20lbs – came from a single volunteer plant. It sprouted in our old chicken yard so the soil had lots of organic matter and a high nutrient content. Because it was a volunteer we didn’t have irrigation going to it and only ended up giving it two deep waterings early on in it’s growth. It was a wetter year then compared to now, so the soil had a larger water capacity than this year, but it goes to show that if done correctly and mindfully very little applied water can still result in a big harvest.

We have a lot of volunteer vegetable plants that grow in our yard. Most of the time they are in our beds, but sometimes they are growing elsewhere that won’t be getting any water. These vegetables are the ones that do best in drought conditions because they don’t need the extra water. Chard, squash, arugula, and tomatoes are the most common ones growing about our yard. Also artichokes are very drought tolerant. Their growing season is in the winter and spring and then they die back in the summer and go dormant until the rains return. We rely 100% on the rainy season for our artichoke plants. We’ve never watered them until this year. They and the trees are now getting the water we save.

A Word on Container Gardening

If you have a small yard or balcony and still want to grow some of your food, container gardening can be done even in a drought. Follow many of the same guidelines as outlined above but you also want to take care regarding the type of container you are using. Terracotta planters are going to dry out a lot faster than plastic or even glazed pottery. Also, utilize saucers under your pots to catch excess water. An even better system would be to invest in or make self watering containers. These only release water as the plant needs them and are low water use.

Save Your Water

We now have several 5 gallon buckets in our kitchen and bathroom to collect water that can be used for watering perennial plants and trees. One of those buckets is in the bathtub specifically to catch the cold water before it gets warm. This is perfectly fresh, clean water that shouldn’t be wasted. In addition we are now saving some of our kitchen water. If you cook pasta, don’t salt it so you can use that water in the garden. If we’re rinsing off produce, we save that water. We save some dish washing water based on what we are cleaning and what soap we’re using. If it has touched raw meat, raw eggs, etc. it goes down the drain. All this water is getting used to water our artichoke plants, fruit trees, and various shrubs. I don’t use it on annual vegetables where we eat the leaves or roots. You can also save laundry water if you aren’t washing diapers.

Besides saving water we’re also just reducing the amount we use. The saying “if it’s yellow leave it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” is being said quite often around our house now. We also turn off the water when we’re brushing our teeth (which we all should do anyways) and turning it on only to rinse the dishes. Also, while washing dishes we run the water a lot lower. It seems that it rinses them just as quickly at a lower flow than at full blast so I hope to see a savings in that regard. Showers have also been shortened to just 5 minutes. I’m planning on getting a valve to add to the shower head so we can turn it off while we’re soaping up.

By reducing the amount of water your garden and your household uses and by saving it, you can reduce your overall use of water enough to not have to feel guilty. And remember, the agriculture sector uses 75% of the total water so if you’re growing your own and following water wise guidelines you are helping reduce more water than just what you see on your bill.

 

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Seed Starting 101

seedlingsBeginning gardeners tend to rely mostly on transplants purchased at their local garden center. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Seed starting can be intimidating and failure does occur. Letting someone else deal with that and just getting your hands dirty when you start gardening is a great way to limit discouragement among new gardeners. But if you’re feeling particularly brave, have some gardening experience under you belt, or just want to try new types of vegetables that just aren’t available as transplants, starting your own plants from seed is a fantastic way to go. And really, it’s not as scary as it sounds. There are just a few rules you need to keep in mind.

Getting Started

Have you ever been to a big box store or even just a hardware store and perused their garden center? Lord knows I have, even though I know better. They are a good place to start dabbling in growing plants, but definitely not a good option when you want to get serious. If you want to get serious you need to go to plant nurseries or start getting stuff online. Basically you need to buy your growing supplies from people that actually know what the hell they are doing.

Here is the ubiquitous seed saving kit. It has a bottom tray, cell packs that go inside and then a clear cover that fits over the top. Now I have a greenhouse to start all my seedlings in so there’s no need for me to use the top cover. Also, because it’s outside, I don’t need to have the bottom tray to contain the water. But that bottom tray isn’t harmless. the problem with it is that it holds the water. That’s the intended purpose of it after all. But with seedlings, holding water isn’t really a good thing. You want that water to drain away from them. If the cells stay even partially submerged in water they’ll develop fungal problems (even when using sterile seed starting soil) which invariably lead to:

Damping Off

Damping off can wipe out all of your seedlings if you aren’t careful. Of course this doesn’t mean you should let your seeds go bone dry but you should allow the top surface of the soil go dry between watering and don’t allow them to sit in water. It can also help to put a layer of perlite on the top of the surface of the soil.

If you do need to start your seedlings indoors and can’t just let the water run all over you will need to make sure to empty out the water from the tray after every time you water so you don’t have them soaking in it.

Light is also an important aspect of seed starting. Placing your seedlings next to a bright window just won’t cut it. You’ll end up with weak seedlings that become leggy. What you will need is a grow light. Don’t worry, you don’t have to wander into a shady hydroponics store to find one of these. They are readily available at any local hardware store or online. A fluorescent hanging light with plant or full spectrum bulb is all you need. You will need to make sure that the light is on a timer and that it hangs just a few inches from the tops of the plants. As the plants grow, adjust the height of the lamp.

If you don’t have space in your house, garage, basement or shed to start seedlings another option is to get a mini greenhouse or use cold frames. I used one for years with great success until I outgrew it. If you have just a standard home vegetable garden, though, these should work fine for you. If you live in a cold climate your best choice will be ones that use polycarbonate greenhouse panels which are insulated as opposed to the plastic sheeting that some of the cheaper versions use.

A Word on Soil

What you choose for soil can make all the difference in the success of your seedlings. Garden soil, that is, soil pulled right out of your garden beds is probably the one you definitely don’t want to go with. As mentioned above, damping off is a serious concern for seedlings. If you are doing a small amount of plants from seed you can get bags of sterile seed starting mix. Peppers are the exception. For whatever reason, pepper seeds, which are temperamental to begin with, don’t like a lot of peat moss in their seed mix. Instead, I start them in Orchid mix (not the same as orchid bark) which doesn’t contain peat or sphagnum moss. If you are doing larger amounts of seedlings I just use Rose Care mix to get them going and have had great luck with it.

Starting the Seeds

There are several ways you can start seeds. For some plants like carrots, beets, parsnips, radish and other root vegetables (not including onions, leeks, etc.) and corn, arugula, looseleaf lettuce and beans direct sowing, or planting them directly in your garden soil, is the best way to start them. Carrots require a bit more consideration due to being planted near the surface but also needing to stay moist for germination to occur. The best way to handle this is to cover the bed right after sowing and watering with either cardboard or plywood until they start to come up. Parsnips also require something a little different. They tend to have poor germination rates so I start them on a damp paper towel in a plastic bag or tupperware container. Once I see the little tail of root popping out from the seed I will carefully plant it in the garden. I’ve found that this gives me much higher rates of success.

Squash, melons, watermelons and cucumbers can be either direct sown or started. Care should be taken when starting them indoors as they have very sensitive root systems. Never allow them to become root bound and when transplanting them, do not disturb their roots. If you want to get a jump start on the season start them in 4″ pots and once they germinated and break the surface plant them very carefully. This will reduce the likelihood of transplant shock.

For plants like peppers, tomatoes and eggplants you can either start them in 4″ pots if you don’t have many, or if you produce hundreds of them, like us, start them in flats and then transplant them into 4″ pots.

For smaller plants like head lettuce, spinach, onions and chard (beets I also like to start this way) and also for peas (to get them nice a big before exposing them to slugs and snails), and brassicas, you can start them in flats. Make sure that the flats have holes in the bottoms so they can drain. I prefer the flats because I can plant a bunch of plants all together and then just tease them out when it’s time to plant. I almost always end up with extra plants which I then pass on to other people. Generally the cool season vegetables don’t get put in the greenhouse and are fine being started outside.

tomato

When it’s Time

I’ll admit that I’m bad at hardening off. A combination of being busy and being lazy I never get around to doing it. For the more frost tender plants I’ll just leave the greenhouse door open in increasing increments until I am sure that the last frost has come and gone. Since the cool season vegetable are started outside, I don’t really have to worry about them. If you want to be a bit more methodical than I am with hardening off, simply ease your plants into being on their own outside. Let them spend a few hours each day in a sunny spot. Increase the amount of time they are outside on their own until you have them out there almost the entire day.

Try to plant out when it’s either overcast or later in the day if it’s warmer so as not to completely shock the seedlings. Don’t try to over handle the roots and only plant out the plants that have a nice large healthy root system but are not root bound. The exception is to transplant squash, cucumbers, watermelons and melons before they have a large root system.. Also it’s key to water them well right after planting them out. I don’t use any B-1 or transplant starter because you don’t really need to. Don’t over water either. They will get wilty no matter how much water you give them. Just offer them some shade if you can and let them bounce back on their own.

Starting your own seeds is rewarding, will save you money and expand your horizons. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you the nursery will still have what you need.

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What I’ve Learned 2013 Edition Vol. 1

Summer is officially here and it’s time for me to finally get around to writing down some of the things I need to remember. Hopefully this list can help you too in your quest for gardening perfection (pssst….it doesn’t exist).

strawberriesReplace your strawberry plants every few years.

I’ve heard this said over and over but I’ve always kind of been like “yeah, whatever, they are perennials.” Well, I finally have to admit that I was wrong. Every few years those plants drop in production…like a lot. Last year we harvested 35lbs of strawberries from our little 4′x10′ bed. Quite impressive. This year? I haven’t added it up yet but I’ll be surprised if we broke 5lbs. The berries this year are also substantially smaller than last year as well. These plants gave us a good 3 year run but even fertilizing didn’t help use out and we’ll need to replace them next year. The question is what varieties should I replace them with? Do you have a favorite strawberry variety with outstanding taste (#1) and production (#2)?

Update: While I was writing this it came to my attention that while the harvest is lower it has been made even more low by Squeak the Super Dog who has found an undying love for the taste of strawberries.

People love their big beefsteak tomato plants

This year we tested the waters selling plant starts. The tomatoes were the biggest hit by far. We only grow heirlooms and are picky about the varieties – only choosing those that grow well for us. While I thought Stupice – the heirloom tomato’s answer to a fog-tolerant Early Girl – would have been a big hit, it was the Black Krim and Hillbillies that stole the show. We actually sold out of Black Krim and 90% of our Hillbillies before we even started tabling at Moschetti Coffee. We also got a lot of requests for red beefsteak tomatoes so we’ll be looking at including more of those – probably Brandywine, Italian Heirloom and more Mortgage Lifter plants. Paste tomatoes were also a popular request so I’ll need to include some of those as well. Next year I hope to increase the amount of plants we grow substantially. We will also be using real plant pots as the red cups tip over too easily. Unfortunately it means we’ll have to charge a bit more to cover the cost.

….but are not so hot on hot peppers

As much as I LOVE hot peppers I should probably have realized that the general populace doesn’t share that love with me. While I was able to sell most of them, the sweet peppers sold out pretty quickly. Also, I’m hoping that next year the Anaheims do better so I’ll actually have some of those to sell.

Direct seeding doesn’t always work but sometimes it’s the seeds

We had a problem with direct seeding melons, watermelon, cucumbers and some of the squash. Most refused to germinate. After doing some investigative digging I found that the issue for some was that something was eating them right when the root would start to come out. So for those I ended up germinating them in the greenhouse and planting them as soon as they were up so as not to have issues with being root bound. However, the Bidwell Casaba melon seeds I couldn’t even get to germinate in the greenhouse. I tried pots outside. Still no go. I ended up going through 4 packets of seeds and after planting every single one I only got 2 plants to show for it. They weren’t being eaten, they just weren’t coming up. So I decided to try a few other varieties of melon and every single one I planted came up within just a few days. I’ve planted Bidwell Casaba before and had great luck so I suspect there was something wrong with this year’s batch. Next year I plan to start seedlings about a week before the earliest date I can put them in to avoid this mess again.

It’s all Beansabout the manure

Our garden is going gangbusters right now. Plants are all huge, producing a ton and we aren’t having any disease or pest issues. Last year we had a pathetic harvest due to being skimpy on the manure spreading. This year we tripled the amount of manure we put down and what a difference it has made! The only patch of ground that we didn’t amend very well is where we have beans planted and the difference between that patch and another patch in another location that was planted at the same time is very notable.

The only "clear" walk down to the end of the yard

The only “clear” walk down to the end of the yard

….but there is a downside and we planted too much of it

We can barely get down to the walkways because the uber-happy squash has taken over everything, including the pathways. We need to grow fewer squash next year because of this and also because they seem to want to take over all the other plants. Plus I have absolutely no idea what we are going to do with that much squash. I figure this year will just be the year where we determine what our favorite varieties are and then next year we will reduce the amount we grow. So far we know we will be growing Howden pumpkins and Trombocino squash. What I really like about the Trombocino is that it’s eaten like zucchini but the majority of it is seedless except for the bulb at the very end. This means that if one gets away from you it is still just as edible as it was when it was smaller. It also makes fantastic pickles because it’s less likely to get mushy in the canner. Of course it will be awhile before we can choose the winter squash variety we like the most (besides the pumpkins).

 Hot weather makes for early harvests

We harvested our very first June tomatoes this year. Usually we don’t get tomatoes until the end of July – mid-July at the very earliest. We’ve even got tomatillos ready to go. It’s been unseasonably hot the last month or so. While our normal weather pattern is around the upper 70s with morning fog, we’ve been getting a pretty consistent stream of upper 80s to 100s. It finally cooled down to decent upper 70 weather this week but it was pretty brutal for awhile. Because we weren’t expecting it, some of the harvest got away from us and now we’re scrambling to process stuff. I processed a dozen quarts of zucchini pickles on Friday. I also processed 36 8-oz jars of apricot jam, 6 quarts of halved apricots and 2 quarts of apricot syrup.

I think for now I’ll stop here. Watch for Volume 2 later in the season.

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The Hugelkultur Bed Experiment Update

hugelLast fall we decided to convert part of a garden bed into a low  hugelkultur bed to see how it would work for us. To compare we prepared the bed right next to it using a rototiller. In both beds we used the same mix of soil amendments and we planted the exact same varieties in the same configuration. They are also hooked up to the same water line. So other than one being a hugel and the other being tilled, they are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same.

The season is still fairly early but I’m already seeing some differences.

tomatoesThe tomatoes are slightly larger in the hugel bed compared to the tilled bed.

peppersSame with the peppers. Especially the habanero, which is notorious for being a slow growing variety.

eggplantsThe eggplants are doing equally well.

watermelonWatermelon germination was the biggest difference. I had much faster and better germination rates in the tilled bed compared to the hugel.

Of the squash plants that germinated at about the same time, the ones in the tilled bed are bigger and more vigorous.

bedsThe biggest difference though is a substantially smaller amount of weeds in the hugelkultur bed.

The season has just started and production hasn’t even started yet and that will be the real test to determine which bed works the best.

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What the Fodder?

Have you seen the new biggest craze in livestock feed?

It takes just about a week to grow and increases your feed by up to 6x* by weight. It’s highly nutritious and provides 20% protein by dry weight. You can feed it to poultry, rabbits, ruminants, horses, just about any grass-loving livestock animal around.

When my friend, Brande, first told me about it I wasn’t so sure. I had heard great things about it but had only seen these huge, incredibly expensive setups for large livestock operations. I hadn’t even thought that it was possible to do fodder without one of these setups.

What in the hell was I thinking? Nowadays everything can be done DIY so why couldn’t making fodder? It would just require a bit more labor on my part.

There are really only about 3 things you absolutely have to have: seed, water and planting trays with drainage holes. There’s no need for soil or fertilizer. Because we have a mild climate I’m just growing mine outside on a table. The best seed to use is barley as it has the highest nutrition and protein of all the other grain seeds. I can get an 80lb bag of barley for just over $18. You can try to find hulled barley but I find that unhulled seems to work fine. When watering, I recapture the water that drains to reuse.

You only want to put about a 1/2″ of barley in your tray. It really does swell up and I found that with 3lbs of barley the tray was busting out at the walls. Before you start with making fodder you need to soak the barley for 6-8 hours in water. This degrades germination inhibitors in the seeds (this is why you should also soak peas and legumes before planting). You want to cover the barley with enough water so that when it expands it remains covered.

Once your soaking is over pour the seed and water into your tray and then rinse the seed. Cover your tray so that it remains dark to help encourage germination. Above is the day after soaking. Small root tips begin to show up at the ends of the seed.

Water your seed 2-3 times a day. You want to keep it from drying out too much. By the second day after soaking you’ll start to see more of the roots.

The following day small bits of green will poke their heads out of the layer of seeds and roots. It will soon be growing so fast you can almost watch it. By now you can take the cover off because you want the grass blades to develop chlorophyll and energy.

On the fourth day after soaking you’ll be seeing the beginning of a nice little green carpet. It’s not much yet but the following day you’ll be amazed.

Day 5 and it’s starting to look like turf. Keep watering at least twice a day.

By day 6 you’re almost ready to feed it. Supposedly this is when the nutrition of the grass begins to peak.

On day 7 it’s time to feed the fodder. You can see here the awesome layer of roots, seeds and grass. Poultry and ruminants will consume all these parts. Rabbits generally only like the greens. I started with 3lbs of seed and produced nearly 15lbs of fodder. It took my hens a couple of days to eat one tray’s worth of fodder. If you start a new tray ever day or every couple of days you’ll have a constant supply of fodder to feed.

*I’ve only seen about a 5x increase but I’ve heard that 6x is also possible.

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Picking the Right Irrigation System and Installing it

Reader Question:

I wanted to know if there is a drip irrigation system that you guys would recommend!  I don’t have such a big garden just a few raised beds! I seen your system and is huge but i just need something small! It would be really helpful! Thank You!

Choosing Your System:

Part of my day job description includes putting together irrigation construction documents for construction projects. Usually these documents are for huge sites with extensive systems involving thousands of feet of piping, dozens of valves and sometimes multiple controllers.

You’re probably scratching your head trying to make sense of what you just read. That’s OK because the typical home garden is not going to require all this fancy talk, but it will require a few necessary items to work well.

I like to set it and forget it, meaning I really don’t want to have think that much about watering. Of course, having a garden that would require several hours to water every other day is the reason for that, but even with smaller gardens you might want to think about going this route because sometimes life gets busy and you might not be able to water for a few days. If you have automatic irrigation you won’t have to worry about losing your garden that you’ve spent months nurturing.

I’m also of the mind that you should have a system even if you don’t necessarily need it. This was highlighted last summer with the severe drought in the Midwest  My mom, who lives in Ohio, depended on summer rains to water her garden but the rains never came. The heat did though. She had to spend large amounts of her time hand watering just to keep everything alive. When you don’t need it you can just turn it off and when you do need it it’s nice to just be able to turn it back on and let it do its thing.

There are so many different types of irrigation how in the world do you choose one? My first word of advice is put down the pre-assembled “garden drip” irrigation kit at the big box store. Every site is unique and those kits do very little to accommodate even the average one. Second you’ll need to figure out if you want to do drip irrigation or overhead irrigation (which I won’t be covering here).

I recommend drip for several reasons.  First it is low flow and the water is put directly on the soil at the rate the soil can absorb it. This reduces evaporation and eliminates drift from wind.  It also reduces fungal diseases that can be caused by overhead watering while also being less likely to cause puddling and soil erosion. In addition, you’re less likely to have weeds when you control where the water is going through drip. The weeds have a tendency to congregate at the point source rather than spreading out across your entire bed. The downside of drip, however, is that it can be clunky to handle and it gets in the way of digging, hoeing, and raking the soil. It also doesn’t last as long and has to be checked over thoroughly before every season. To me, however, the saving in water (and $$$) is well worth these minor headaches.

Designing & Installing:

You will either need to draw up a site plan of the area you want to irrigate or get some construction marking paint (spray pain that can be applied when the can is upside down – usually comes in fluorescent colors). The main purpose of this is to find out how much PVC irrigation pipe you are going to need between your water source and the places you want to water. Generally the pipe will only need to run to the end of each bed closest to your water source. Rainbird, a popular irrigation supply company, has some design manuals online that you can use to help with your irrigation layout.

valve setup

Basic valve setup. Click picture to enlarge.

Stick with 3/4″ Schedule 40 PVC pipe unless you’re doing a really large area on drip or you’re using spray. Then you’ll need to do pressure loss calculations but I’m not going to go into that here. Pipe is pretty cheap so if you purchase  more than you need (which you will) it won’t break the bank. In addition to the pipe you’ll also need the joints (elbows, tees, 4-way, couplers, etc.). This is why a drawing is helpful. Keep in mind that any turns in the pipe are usually going to have to be at 90 degrees.

The photo above shows how we set up our valves. The valves are what turns the water on and off automatically (there is a manual switch as well). They are connected to an irrigation timer (also known as a controller) that is in our water tower by low voltage wire. When you enlarge the picture you can see the wires that you connect on the top of the valve (they haven’t been hooked up yet in this picture). If you just have a few raised beds you’ll probably only need one valve. We have three different watering zones – fruit trees, vegetable beds (we require two valves due to water pressure loss), drought tolerant landscape – which all require different watering schedules so we need to have four valves for our backyard.

It might look complicated but once you have all the parts you need it’s really not. Everything gets put together rather quickly. The hardest part of installing irrigation is digging the trenches for the pipe and electrical wires in my opinion.

For the threaded joints you’ll want to purchase plumbers/Teflon tape – a thin relatively stretchy white material that’s not sticky to the touch. With this you’re going to wrap the threads in the same direction you’ll be screwing on the fitting. This tape fills in any gaps in the threads, sealing it from leaking. Wrap it around about three times but don’t let it extend past the end of the threads as it can potentially clog your system if a small piece breaks off. For the PVC slip joints you’ll want to get pipe cement and primer. Some people claim that you can skip the primer, however, this is only true for systems that will not be pressurized. With drip systems the lines will have pressure when they are on so make sure to use primer first, otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of leaks that you can’t always fix. Primer is generally purple in color and you apply it first to the inside of the connector and the outside of the pipe. Allow it to dry a bit. You then apply the cement in the same fashion and insert the pipe into the connector. It should have a firm hold to finish connecting within a few minutes but don’t plan on running water through your system for at least 24 hours to allow the joint to cure.

100_0562 copy

Irrigation hookup at each bed. Click photo to enlarge.

You’ll want to run pipe to your beds. Connect them with female slip joints and cement. I prefer the pipe riser for each bed to be located on the outside of the bed, though some prefer them on the inside. If the bed is already in place and filled it will have to be on the outside. On the left is what you need for each bed. The ball valve is important because it allows you to turn off individual beds when they aren’t planted. I like to use the threaded gray risers as they contain carbon to help make them more resistant to UV. You can use PVC though if you want to. just remember that if you use the threaded pipe you’ll need elbows with one end being threaded.

Now that you’ve got water to your beds you’ll want to get the dripline down in your bed. There are several options regarding the type of line you want to use. I personally like dripline with inline emitters because it’s easier to handle. You can get these in 1/2″ and 1/4″ size. With each of these sizes there are different emitter spacings within the line. The 1/2″ dripline’s smallest spacing is 12″ which might be too far for vegetable beds. The 1/4″ size comes in 6″ spacing so go with that. Some people like to use the porous soaker lines which look like black spongy material that “weeps” water when it’s turned on. If you have hard water or even just well water this type clogs really easily and you’ll need to replace it before the season is over (trust me, I’ve had to do this). The inline emitter dripline use turbulent flow to help keep the emitters from clogging.

Another option is drip tape. Drip tape is inexpensive and puts a good amount of water down in a relatively short time frame. Unfortunately it doesn’t last long. By our 2nd season we spent a good portion of our time repairing blown sections of it. It also requires a much lower water pressure to run correctly, which requires difficult to find pressure regulators.

C:UsersRachelDocumentsbed.dwg Model (1)Once you figure out which type of dripline you want to use you’ll need to layout how you want to water it. I prefer to run the water source on the end of the long side versus the center of the short side. From the source you run 1/2″ poly across the short side and then cap it. At ever 6-9″ (spacing is personal preference and also depends on the width of your bed) you’ll insert a barbed 1/4″ tubing connector. There’s a poly tubing hole punch gun that makes this job MUCH easier. Connect 1/4″ dripline tubing to the barbed connector and run it to the end of the bed. Crimp the end and stake it down. You can buy end clamps or just use zip ties.

One more thing you’re going to need to consider – when dealing with poly tubing you want to either use universal fittings or fittings that are the same brand as the tubing. Different manufacturers vary the size of the tubing ever so slightly so the fittings of another manufacturer (unless they are universal) will not work on their tubing. The links in the following list are just to give you an idea of what you’re looking for. They don’t necessarily work together. Your best option is to purchase everything from the same store, which will generally have compatible parts.

 

The Basic Supplies for Automatic Drip Irrigation

 A word about controllers

With controllers you can go cheap or you can go expensive, but either way, it will most likely be your most expensive piece of irrigation equipment. The more costly a controller is, the more features it will have such as being able to attach rain sensors, soil moisture sensors, or more programs and stations. The one I’ve linked to is the one that I own and have been very happy with it. It has a rain delay and a rain shutoff switch so I can turn it off during the winter and when it’s time to run it again, it keeps all my previous programs. The programming is relatively easy to do as well.

One thing I will caution you against is getting battery operated controllers that also double as a valve. In my opinion (and experience), these are not reliable and go out regularly. The worst is when you’re on vacation and the battery goes out with the valve open (yeah, this happens more than you’d think).

 

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2013 Garden Planning

melon

Bidwell Casaba Melon

I’ve spent the last few weeks carefully going through all of our seed catalogs to figure out what we’ll be growing this coming year. Surprisingly, we’re making quite a few changes even though I’m always saying that I need to stick with varieties that we know work. This past year was a success for some things and a total failure for others which is probably where this desire to mix things up is coming from. We’re also expanding the growing of some crops while eliminating others. The primary crops we’re expanding are beans, corn, potatoes and squash – crops that can store well. I’ll link the varieties we’ll be using so if they sound interesting you won’t have to go searching for them.

Most of the beans will be dry beans but we’ll also be adding in Romano beans, which I’ve heard nothing but great things about. The variety of Romano we’ll be growing is Supermarconi. I’m excited to add Tepary beans to our garden. Tepary beans are native to the Southwest and Mexico making them very drought and heat tolerant. I’m hoping to successfully grow these without any summer irrigation. In addition we’re bringing back runner beans, which are a perennial in our area and prefer cooler temperatures. Not technically a bean, we’ll be trying out cowpeas, Blackeye Peas being the most commonly known variety. We’ll be continuing with Cherokee Trail of Tears, Speckled Cranberry, Anasazi (a variety shared with us but difficult to find commercially) and Purple Podded Pole.

We’re not going to be growing Bloody Butcher corn this year. It’s a nice dent corn that works well for fresh eating and gets HUGE – over 12′ tall – but we want to expand our corn varieties this year. Instead of dent corn, which is a rather difficult corn to work with, we’re going to do a flour corn, Mandan Bride, which is better for making flour rather than meal, which tends to be courser. We’re also going to do a fun popcorn called Bear Paw that has split cobs and a dwarf sweet corn called Blue Jade. It’s one of the few corn varieties that can actually be grown successfully in pots.

squeek pumpkin

Squeak and her Howden Pumpkin

Our potato varieties will be some of the same but some new ones. We’ll still be growing All Blue, Russet Rio Grande, and German Butterball as these usually do really well for us. New varieties for us will be Yukon Gem, Kennebec White and Desiree which are all said to be high yielding varieties.

The pumpkin is coming back! We’ll be growing Howden pumpkins again but I’m also going to be adding Winter Luxury Pie pumpkins, which I’m very excited to have finally found space for as these are considered the BEST pie pumpkin around. We’re still going to grow Marina di Chioggia, which, in my humble opinion, is the best tasting squash out there. I want to also grow smaller winter squash including Delicata, Triamble, Butternut rogosa violina ‘Gioia,’ and Vegetable Spaghetti. In the summer squash variety we’ll be doing Trombetta di Albinga, also known as Trombocino. We’re not going to do our usual Golden Zuchhini because…and this may come as a surprise…it doesn’t do very well for us. Four plants couldn’t give us enough summer squash for our needs. What I like about the Trombocino – which we have grown before – is that it’s a vertical climber freeing up space for other plants. I also find it exceptionally flavorful compared to traditional summer squash. The seeds are all contained in the bulb of the squash so you can pick it any time without worrying whether it’s gotten too seedy and pithy. It’s also tasty as a winter squash.

We won’t be doing fennel again this year as we just don’t use it enough to give it space in the yard. I’ve also been kind of on the fence about parsnips for the same reason so this year I’ll be skipping them.

Some of our favorite varieties will be staying. Orangeglo watermelons, Bidwell Casaba melons, Five Color Silverbeet Swiss Chard, Gigante di’ Inverno Spinach, Yellow of Parma onions, arugula, Cimmaron and Tango lettuces, Golden beet, Berlicum 2 carrots, Tendercrisp celery, Oregon Sugar Pod II peas, Verde tomatillos, White Icicle and Pink Beauty radishes, Giant of Naples Cauliflower, Calabrese Broccoli and Perfection Drumhead Savoy Cabbage.

Dr. Wychee's Yellow Tomato

Dr. Wychee’s Yellow Tomato

Of all the tomatoes we normally grow, we’ll only be changing out two varieties and adding in a new one. We did Pineapple Pig last year but it was too late of a variety for us to really get any useful fruit off of it. We’ll be replacing it with Pineapple Heirloom, which a friend in town had really good luck with. That same friend also had really good luck with Cherokee Green so we’ll be adding that one as well. We’ll also be eliminating the Isis Candy, which did fine but cherry tomatoes are just too much work for us to harvest when we have some much other things to harvest as well. Instead, we’ll be doing Stupice, which is a 2″ earlier tomato that is said to outperform San Francisco Fog in cooler climates. The varieties that will be sticking around will be Wapsipinicon Peach, Mortgage Lifter, Hillbilly, Black Krim, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Indigo Apple, and Dr. Wychee’s Yellow.

We’re keeping hot pepper varieties Anaheim, Habanero, Cayenne, Serrano Tampequino, Sante Fe Grande; and sweet pepper varieties Orange Bell, Red Marconi, Corno di Toro Rosso and California Wonder. We’re getting rid of Jalapeno and replacing it with Corne de Chevre.

The hardest part of dealing with all of these varieties was figuring out the layout of them in our planting beds. Usually I just do crop layout but I always regret being so generalized later in the season when I can’t remember which varieties are which. This year I drew up our plans in a much more concise way splitting up varieties and keeping similar varieties separate. The placement is mostly based on companion planting. You can click the image below to see what our plan looks like this year.

C:UsersRachelDocumentsGarden2013.dwg Model (1)

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Choosing Varieties to Grow

tomatoesAnother year is coming to an end. The seed catalogs are rolling in and as I sit there and drool over them I come across new, exciting varieties that I just have to try.

There’s a part of my brain that’s screaming at the rest of it saying “Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken!!!” Year after year I always post about things I’ve learned and one of those recurring things is to just stick with the varieties I know work for our area. Don’t risk losing productivity because I’m feeling adventurous. But really, what fun is that?

There are some things I’m set on not changing. The Oranglo watermelon and Bidwell Casaba have been very kind to me, unlike most other watermelon and melon varieties so those are here to stay for the long haul. Catskill Brussels Sprouts will probably also be sticking around just because there seem to be so few varieties of heirloom sprouts and these do the best.

I always say not to mess around with our corn selection. We grow Bloody Butcher corn, which has served us well. It gets HUGE and gives us multiple, relatively long ears on each stalk. The corn can be used fresh or you let it mature into a dent corn. After a failed attempt at saving seed from it and coming to the realization that we just don’t have enough space here to save corn seed to avoid inbreeding depression I’ve decided to expand my corn-growing horizons to include a flour corn, sweet corn and a popcorn.

Unfortunately there’s no fast way to determine what varieties you should grow for all vegetables. Your best bet in developing your list of varieties is to find varieties that were developed in areas that have a similar climate as where you live. For instance, Italian varieties will probably do best in coastal California where we have the same basic climate. Russian varieties might serve you well if you live in colder areas. If you have a short season choose varieties that mature quickly. This of course, can take some research to figure out. For cool season crops you’ll want to make sure they have enough time to develop before warm weather hits. For warm season crops you want to give them time before the frosts come. Seed packets and catalogs have a number, usually next to the name or after the description, that denote the average number of days to maturity.

Onions are much more specific than most other vegetables on where they can grow based on their latitude, rather than season length. Varieties will either be long day, short day or intermediate. If you live north of the 35 deg latitude (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington DC to approximate) you’ll want to grow long day onions. South of that grow short day onions. If you’re just on either side of that latitude you can grow intermediate onions. I’ve also had good luck with long day onions here on the 35th parallel.

Besides climate you’ll also want to look at the size, yield, and disease resistance of varieties. If late blight is a problem in your area choose varieties that have some resistance to it. If you have a small garden, choose compact varieties or high yielding varieties to make the most of your garden.

Or you can do what I like to do and just pick a bunch of varieties to try and see which ones do best.

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