Monday, August 8, 2016

A Special Day in Several Ways

Today, August 8, is a trifecta of events worth noting. From a personal perspective, my younger sister turning 70 is the most significant item on the calendar: Happy Birthday, Sis! She stays spry by riding her senior citizen tricycle around the tiny rural town where she lives and picking blackberries with neighbors. I try to keep the kinks out by puttering around in the backyard.

Today is also International Cat Day which seems a fitting tribute to my sister, who does appear to have nine lives and always lands on her feet, even in the bygone days, fortunately brief, when she used to jump out of airplanes for the fun of it. She has cats who acquired her some years ago; we have no permanent cats at present as our perimeters are patrolled by a fifteen year old canine, wobbly but determined, who still takes his job seriously. There are a few persistent visitors, however, who know where the safe spots in the yard are, and are clearly applying for a position should one become available.

Less auspiciously, August 8 also happens to be Earth Overshoot Day, the point at which we humans begin overdrawing our account of Earth resources. We are using more resources than Mother Earth can replenish in a year's time and today is when the bank account is empty and we have to break into our grandchildren's trust fund, using up what should be carefully set aside for generations coming after us. The experts who measure these things say that at current rates of consumption we are using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to keep the party going.

So it feels especially good today to gather a boxful of garden bounty grown in the richly composted soil of our backyard. All the jewel-toned summer produce will indeed be used up to the last bite. But all the scraps will go into the compost bin, pass through the digestive tracts of many eager worms, combine with whatever organic debris is layered in, and then replenish the very ground from which it sprang. Daily deposits for Mother Earth's account.

Happy Birthday! Happy Cat Day! Guardedly happy Overshoot Day . . . . .

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Garden Visitors

Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver, the other gold. Old friends, I'm assuming, are golden, new ones silvery.

We've had both kinds in the yard in recent months: recurring visitors I expect to see each year and would worry about if they did not show up, as well as unexpected sightings of life forms I may have heard about -- or not -- but haven't personally encountered in our garden.

One old friend, seen last April, was truly golden:

The golden tortoise beetle makes infrequent appearances; only once or twice before have I come upon one. Evidently they like to chew on members of the morning glory family, such as the ubiquitous and ineradicable bindweed, so be assured that this year's little fellow is finding plenty to eat. It's said they will change color when disturbed, shifting from shiny metallic gold to a flat orange with spots to fool predators who know how tasty they are but will avoid unpalatable but similarly shaped lady bugs. I guess this bug trusted me, as he stayed shiny on my palm.

I don't think I would worry if the golden tortoise beetle did not appear one year; but I would greatly miss his cousin, the lady bug, scourge of aphids and other bothersome guests. Fortunately, lady bugs seem to like our garden and are regular patrons. I've heard that they are attracted by brassicas and it's true that in the spring of 2015, when we had an especially abundant crop of broccoli, two beds worth, plus another bed of kale nearby, we also saw an explosion of the lady bug population. They were everywhere; I had to brush myself off before coming into the house. This year is back to normal with fewer brassicas and only occasional bug sightings, such as, in early July, a lone lady resting on some lady-like Queen Anne's Lace.

Another strikingly patterned orange and black visitor, the notorious harlequin beetle, has been appearing in the last couple of years in early spring. It also seems drawn by brassicas, especially the cover crop mustards I started planting in the same time period. Although it has a bad reputation for sipping juices out of a wide range of garden plants, dining on stems and leaves as well as fruit, weakening and discoloring plant tissues as it goes, I haven't noticed a lot of damage beyond a few holes in the mustard leaves.

What to say about a new bug found this year in the dried up, two-year-old fava bean pods, saved for cover cropping? In late March, when I dug into the bag of old pods and started shelling out the beans, I noticed some little beetles scurrying for cover. I also noticed lots of little holes dug into the fat tawny seeds.

One of the pods yielded up a pale, translucent, tiny worm, no doubt the larval form of this new insect.

It did not take much searching online to identify these bugs as broad bean weevils, a type of beetle and member of a family of weevily critters who feed on dried legumes and grains. The adults lay their eggs on the surface of pods or seeds, then the larva burrows down into the seed and consumes what it needs before pupating in place. The hatched adult crawls out of the little seed tunnel hollowed out by the larva and the beat goes on.

The bugs were indeed feasting on my fava bean seeds, but as everything I planted sprouted and grew without problems, I nonetheless count them as new and interesting friends.

Old or new, silver or gold, it's always a treat to encounter the many varieties of life forms that abound in our backyard abundance.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Five-Step Drought Busting System

Wow! It really works! On a 100-degree September day, around three o'clock, I took some photos of garden vegetables that were not wilting in the blistering heat. Tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, zucchini -- all were standing tall.

Plants used to wilt noticeably in the hot afternoons even during non-record breaking summers. It was always such a sad sight that I used to avoid the garden during that part of the day. But now, well into what will likely turn out to be the hottest year yet on record here on Planet Earth, my humble veggies are basking and flourishing.

The Five-Step Drought Busting System works.

Although the portentously titled "System" is just a collection of simple practices that many gardeners follow, I believe it is the combination of five techniques that is making a noticeable difference in keeping the plants happy. Here's how it all fits together.

Step One: Add lots of organic matter to the soil, and

Step Two: Don't dig!

Add organic matter and don't dig????? But . . . but . . . how??? Simple. Just layer it on. This approach works just fine for Mother Nature. Go to a forest and take a look at what's going on beneath your feet: you will see layers and layers of leaf litter covering dark, rich, moist loam.

A statistic I've seen quoted frequently states that for every one percent increase in organic matter in an acre of ground, an additional 16,500 gallons of water can be held in the top one foot of soil. That's a lot of liquidity! And all that water stays in the soil.

I once saw a demonstration (most likely in Debra Koonz Garcia's wonderful film Symphony of the Soil) by a scientist who had set up four clear plastic cylinders of different types of dirt. He ran water through the cylinders to show which soil types held water and which did not. Soil with plenty of compost held nearly all the water poured on it and the little bit that trickled through was clear, showing that nutrient-laden silt was not washing away.

Even more convincing is the experience of Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, California. They use massive amounts of compost on their three acres of vegetables to produce numerous harvests per year. After five years of building soil they have reduced their water use by more than 50% and their ponds and run-off are "almost crystal clear." Tests by experts have shown that their storm water run-off shows no leaching of excess nutrients to pollute waterways, confounding conventional wisdom about heavy use of compost.

The secret to the remarkable results at Singing Frogs Farm may well be the Kaiser's no-till philosophy. The active approach of adding massive quantities of organic matter is balanced by a passive avoidance of tilling or digging. The hands-off dig-free style allows the billions of life forms in rich soil to flourish. An intricately patterned living web holds on to the water and prevents leaching.

Bringing this data down to earth in our backyard means that the summer plantings -- about 100 square feet of ground -- should be holding plenty of moisture and retaining plenty of nutrients after a couple of years of intensively layering on various types of organics:

  • chopped up cover crops such as fava beans and mustard 
  • fallen leaves
  • straw 
  • yard debris 
  • small amounts of manure
  • small amounts of organic fertilizers
  • rock powder (for minerals) 
  • cardboard 
  • newspaper 
  • lots and lots of compost.

The only digging implement used is a trowel to loosen up the top few inches of soil right before planting.

Step Three: Install Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation delivers a slow steady trickle of water right to the root zone of a plant and is nearly 100% efficient: pretty much all of the water reaches its objective and is not lost through evaporation or run-off. By contrast, overhead watering is thought to be about 50 to 70% efficient. Drip irrigation works even better with rich soil that holds the moisture in place so thirsty roots can make the most of it. Despite all that, until very recently I never used a drip system, preferring to water by hand with a spray nozzle on a long hose. I couldn't face the myriad tiny plastic parts and teeny hoses that have to be meticulously assembled and maintained.

Then I found the marvelous "Snip and Drip" irrigation system from Gardener's Supply. Nice fat soaker hoses with Tinker-Toy sized plastic connectors are so easy to assemble a kindergartner could do it and even a senior citizen has a good chance of success. Included in the package is a length of regular hose. Both the soaker hose and regular hose can be cut with scissors (that's the "Snip" component) so the pieces can easily be customized for a raised bed garden. Sections of regular hose run across the paths and link together the raised beds outfitted with lengths of soaker hose (the "Drip" component). Very sweet! Plus, it can all be disassembled and reconfigured as needed from one season to the next.

Step Four: Make Some Ollas

Oh-yahs, oh yes! Ollas are unglazed clay pots sunk into the ground  and filled with water that will be sought out by the roots of nearby plants. It's an ancient system thought to have originated in Africa, with the first written record coming from the Fan Sheng-chih Shu, a guide for farmers compiled more than two millenia ago in China.

In case you are wondering why an African or Chinese system has a Spanish-sounding name, our modern terminology is derived from the Latin word for "pot," olla, which passed unchanged into Spanish, The word, plus the technique was brought to the Southwest USA by the early explorers and taken up by Native Americans.

It is now re-emerging in our water starved regions of the West. The research is advancing as well, proving the extreme efficiency of a system where every drop of water goes straight to roots that need it and not a single drop is wasted. A good overview of the method (lots of research citations and further reading) is to be found at the Permaculture Research Institute website. 

When I first started using clay pots several years ago I felt like an early explorer myself, trying out something known only to readers of obscure gardening blogs and permaculture websites. Now ollas are to be found at local nurseries and hardware stores or online from a variety of sources. As they are not only amazingly efficient but amazingly pricey, I still make my own from cheap clay planting pots stoppered with rubber corks and lidded with the pot's own overflow dish.

In our summer garden each plant of tomato, zuccini, and cucumber has at least one sunken pot to ensure a reliable supply of water through the heat of the day.

Step 5: Mulch, Mulch, Mulch

The last step in the Five-Step Drought-Busting System is to add a thick layer of mulch such as dry straw which covers the other elements: the rich undug soil holding moisture like a sponge, the soaker hoses tricking water sparingly into the sponge, and the sunken pots of hidden water nourishing thirsty roots directly. A thick mulch helps to keep the whole garden bed moist and prevent the small percentage of evaporation that occurs from the drip irrigation lines and the unglazed clay pot lids that remain above the surface of the soil.

Mulch is almost a religion with some gardeners for very good reasons. In general, it's a good idea to avoid bare soil. Nature abhors a vacuum and Mother Nature abhors uncovered ground.

The final step is to go out on a searingly hot day and enjoy looking at your happy plants!!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

High Point of Summer

Here we are in the lush peak of the season and, despite our diminished expectations, our drought-stricken, curtailed garden is nonetheless yielding more produce than we can deal with:

An array of hefty heirloom tomatoes in subtle shades of orange, red, pink and yellow . . .

Three kinds of zucchini in farmer's market quantities . . . and so many bristly cucumbers that we are running out of space in the fridge for the pickling experiments.

Not to mention the best collection of basil ever.

And the backyard even looks good if the camera angles are just right, edging out the dry, scraggly, burnt-brown areas and capturing only the productive beds overflowing with abundance.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Benediction of Rain

We owe a mighty vote of thanks to all the folks who were praying for rain. Two storms, one yesterday, another due in tonight, are expected to bring four to six inches in the lowlands and more on the hills. What a difference a little bit of moisture makes.

Even thought it's not nearly enough to save us from unprecedented drought -- the current soakings will only bring total rainfall so far to not quite forty percent of normal -- the backyard is a whole new place. How long has it been since there were fat water droplets clinging to the textured surface of the kale leaves? It seems like years.

There is a softness in the air, a new urgency in the song of the birds, and a sweet fragrance from the darkened soil. St. Francis had it right when he praised "Sister Water, so humble and precious and clean."

There is a heightened awareness now, all across California, of every precious drop, gallon, and acre foot. Trying to do my small part, I set out a plastic garbage can in the back yard as an instant rain water cachement system. A few inches have been collected already from the first storm. It's a tiny tiny drop in an extremely large bucket (the whole state and its water deficit) but it works as a consciousness raising gesture.

We are ready for the next storm, and the next.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hyacinth and Friends

A little white hyacinth is blooming in our backyard, where no hyacinth has bloomed before!!! I've bought them before, of course, at the supermarket, in tiny ceramic pots for forced blooming indoors. After all, who can resist a hyacinth in the springtime?

This one was growing up out of a pile of compost. I imagine the spent bulb came out with the kitchen scraps and landed in a propitious spot. Not realizing what it was -- no blooms were showing -- I unwittingly uprooted it while shoveling compost and adding insult to injury, or rather injury to insult, I sliced off a bit of the bulb with the shovel.

When I saw what it was I immediately planted it in the rich soil along the fence. I was sure it was done for, but plants can surprise you and I am always ready to be surprised. How nice to be rewarded with an un-looked for bloom. Let's hope it prospers in its new home as a symbol of rebirth, regeneration, and second chances, or, actually, third chances: house, compost pile, and now, planting bed. A three-time winner and a fitting tribute to the beautiful youth Hyacinth, beloved by Apollo but accidentally, tragically, slain by him and immortalized in an ever renewing flower.

Flowering at the same time across the yard in the bed along the other fence is a little mystery bulb, a migrant from the front yard. It must have come in with the leaf litter I collect in the front yard to cover paths in the back yard, following the permaculture practice of using onsite materials whenever possible.

There are dozens of these unknowns in the front yard, coming up every spring as long as we have lived here. And now they will be colonizing the backyard too. Another un-looked for spring bloom.

The wild onions are also blooming now in the shade under the plum trees. No mysteries or surprises are involved. These are tenacious weeds I happen to be fond of. They appear with the early spring bloomers and spread opportunistically everywhere there's an opening. I like them as additions to spring salads -- all parts are edible and have a mild oniony tang.

What all three of these pretty volunteer plants with their hopeful white flowers have in common is that they have chosen to grow in our yard. May they prosper (within reason).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Spring Begins, Again

It's been a long, long journey round the sun since the last heralding of backyard plum blossoms. But spring springs eternally and nothing can stop its burgeoning progress. Neither 500-year-drought nor neglectful gardeners with other priorities will hold it back. Welcome, little beauties! We are really, really glad to see you, bringing fresh chances and new opportunities to begin again.