Organic Gardening Magazine Tests Seven Different Potato Growing Methods

Doug Hall, writing for Organic Gardening magazine, did a test of seven different potato growing methods: hilled rows, straw mulch, raised beds, grow bags, garbage bags, wood boxes and wire cylinders. His conclusion? Raised beds worked the best giving the highest yield. Some of the other methods worked well too, though I wonder about black materials, such as grow bags, in our hot climate.

The last time we grew potatoes we used a stack of tires. Results were mixed. I think painting the tires white to reflect heat might have worked better. For most of you reading this, the opposite would probably be true. Black materials such as tires or grow bags would help keep your ‘taters warm in cool climates.

Read Hall’s article here: “7 Ways to Plant Potatoes

And let us know how you grow your potatoes . . .

Why I Grow Vegetables From Seed

Chard destined for failure

On the last day of a vegetable gardening class that Kelly and I just finished teaching at the Huntington, we needed to demonstrate how to transplant seedlings. The problem was that we didn’t have any seedlings at home ready to transplant, so I had to make a trip to a garden center.

That sorry errand reminded me why I grow from seed.

All of the seedlings at the nursery were uninteresting varieties and root-bound–way too big for their pots. And someone tell me what’s up with the trend I’ve noticed recently of selling mature tomato plants in small pots? I suppose novice gardeners probably think they’re getting a better value with a large plant, so the nursery has an incentive to sell root-bound stock.

In fact, every last vegetable seedling at the nursery had root systems as congested as the 405 freeway on a Friday afternoon. When roots hit the bottom of a pot you get what John Jeavons calls “premature senility,” resulting in stunted growth and plants that go rapidly to seed.

On occasion I’ll buy seedlings, as when I failed to get my tomato seeds to germinate last year. In that case, Craig from Winnetka Farms had some on hand. And there’s a guy at one of the local farmers’ markets that has decent seedlings.

But nothing matches the variety, cost savings and quality of DIY seed propagation.

More On Preventing Plants From Falling Over

Mrs. Homegrown’s post on her storm-flattened flax patch reminded me that I had a photo I took while taking John Jeavons’ Biointensive workshop earlier this month. In front of Jeavons is a bed of fava beans, also notorious for falling over in the slightest breeze. The randomly strung network of twine will support the fava as it grows.

You can see from my own fava bed below that I could have benefited from this low tech solution:

While I didn’t lose any fava in the storm, the plants are sprawling all over the adjacent, narrow path making it difficult to harvest.

As Jeavons says, the expert is the person who has made the most mistakes!

Germinator Update

Last year my tomato seeds failed to germinate. Why? It was just too cold.

I vowed to build a cold frame and this winter I made good on that promise. I’ve upgraded the plastic sheeting on the “germinator” to rigid plastic awning material (plastic sheeting over a flat surface doesn’t do well in rain . . . duh). If I were to build this thing again I’d construct a sloping top, especially if I lived somewhere with actual weather.

Before–plastic sheeting on a flat surface–a bad idea! What was I thinking?

The automatic vent lifter (available from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply) works great, popping open the germinator to keep the seedlings from frying during the day (remember this is Southern California).

The sight of my tomato seedlings was a highlight of the week:

If I lived in a colder climate I might consider incorporating a compost bin inside my cold frame to keep seedlings warm, a heat mat, or growing indoors under lights.

Survival Gardening

One of many survival garden pitches.

Listen to AM radio for more than a few minutes and you’re bound to hear an ad touting seeds and “one acre survival gardens.” The implication is that hordes of foreclosed zombies will soon empty the shelves of the local Walmart and leave us all bartering for gas with our carefully stored heirloom pole bean seeds.

But it does raise the question of how much space you need to grow all your own food. It’s been on my mind since attending John Jeavons’ three day Grow Biointensive workshop where we spent a fair amount of time, calculator in hand, figuring out how many calories you can squeeze from small spaces.

What gets left out in the “survival garden” sales pitches is that, if you want real self-sufficiency, you’ve also got to maintain the soil fertility that you deplete by harvesting. To do that you need to grow all your own compost. For this, Jeavons suggests what he calls “carbon and calorie crops” things like corn and wheat where you get both something edible and a lot of biomass for your compost pile. In Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot “sustainable one person mini-farm” scheme, 60% of your growing area is devoted to these compost and calorie crops. The remainder is planted in 30% high calorie root crops, such as potatoes, with just 10% of the garden devoted to the usual tomatoes and greens.

The residents of Biosphere 2, using Jeavons’ techniques claimed that enough food could be grown for one person on as little as 3,403 square feet. Jeavons has shown that you could use less space, but you better like eating a lot of potatoes.

In reality, there’s probably too many variables, such as climate, to get an exact figure on how much space you need to grow enough food for one person. And let us not forget the novice survival gardener’s experience (I’m amused at the thought of those one acre survival gardeners busting open that paint can full of seeds for the first time having never gardened before). And if you want livestock, the acreage requirements jump considerably.

But considering that it takes, according to Jeavons, between 15,000 and 30,000 square feet for commercial agriculture to provide the same calories as Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot mini-farm, we’d do well to pull out those calculators on occasion. With just 176 square feet of vegetable beds at the Root Simple compound, our goal is self-reliance, not self-sufficiency. Do you think our post-apocalyptic overlords will feed us in exchange for blogging for them?

Avocados

Green gold!

We’re very lucky that when we purchased our house 13 years ago it came with a mature, and delicious avocado tree. Wanting to know more about how to care for that tree I attended a remarkable lecture at the Huntington given by avocado experts Carl Stucky and Julie Frink. From the Huntington lecture I gleaned the following factoids:

  • Avocados varieties are divided into three “races”: Mexican, Guatemalan, and West Indian.
  • Avocados are extremely frost sensitive, more so than citrus.
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch! Avocados like a thick layer (6 to 12 inches) of course mulch. Once you mulch you have to keep mulching because the shallow roots of avocado trees will often grow up into the mulch.
  • Avocados like a well drained soil and won’t tolerate wet feet. So if you dig a hole and fill it with water and that water sticks around for a day, plant something else.
  • Avocados use a lot of zinc and may need supplemental applications of zinc sulfate placed in shallow holes.
  • What few pests avocados have can be sprayed off with a hose. 
  • Occasional deep waterings flush out chlorides in the soil that can cause leaves to turn brown at the tips and poor fruit production. In fact if the first rain of the season is less than 3 inches, you should irrigate to flush out salts that build up during the dry season.
  • Avocados take a long time to ripen on the tree–12 months or more depending on variety.

For additional reading Stucky recommended the following internet resources:

Avocadosource.com
California Avocado Society
California Avocado Commission (The “growers” part of their website)

One thing that I discovered this year is that you can leave avocados on the tree for a very long period. We had at least a six month harvest window. There’s actually still a few on the tree.

As for squirrels, Stucky’s advice involved extraordinary rendition and water boarding, but we’ll spare you the details.

Grow Biointensive Videos

I’ve often threatened that our next book would adapt the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders into a vegetable gardening guide. Obsessive/compulsive? Here’s how you plant radishes . . .

Wherever I fall in the diagnostic manual, the vegetable gardening method I’ve used for the past few years has been based on John Jeavon’s “Biointensive” method as described in his book How to Grow More Vegetables. This past weekend I made the pilgrimage to Jeavon’s Willits, California headquarters to drink the Kool-Aid at the foot of the master and take a three day Biointensive workshop.

The Biointensive method involves growing compost crops, double digging and tight spacing. Jeavons aims to produce a complete diet in as little space as possible while maintaining soil fertility with few outside inputs. Unlike most garden gurus Jeavons backs up his ideas with meticulous research which draws on his background in workplace efficiency.

He’s also generous and “open source” with his techniques. The workshop was reasonably priced for three full days of instruction. Should you not be able to get to Willits, Jeavon’s non-profit Ecology Action has produced a well made series of instructional videos that you can view online here. I’ve created a playlist of the complete set of these videos below:

Now, I’m so fired up from the workshop I’ve got to get away from this computer and out into the garden!

Self-Watering Containers in Mother Earth News

We’re proud to announce that Mother Earth News online is excerpting the project, How to Build a Self-Watering Container from our book, The Urban Homestead.

We heart Mother Earth News. If you haven’t visited their site, do so. You’ll find a treasure trove of homesteady-type information to peruse.

(Here’s a hint about that article: there are illustrations, but they’re not embedded in the text. Look for the link to the “Image Gallery.”)

Content Mills: Pimples on the Information Superhighway

Yes, there really is a “How to Get Rid of Pimples on the Buttocks” video on eHow. If only they had a how to get rid of eHow article.

Google’s powerful search engine has become an essential component of the urban homesteading toolbox. From diagnosing tomato diseases to cooking Ethiopian injera Google has the answers.

In recent years, unfortunately, low quality “content mills,” such as ezinearticles and suite101 that pair dubious information with advertising, have replaced more respectable sources in search rankings.  An article in Wired Magazine, “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model” details how these content mill scams work. Authors and video producers for these companies get next to nothing to produce shoddy work that is then tied to keywords used to generate click through advertising.

I actually got an email a few months ago from content mill king Demand Media asking if we’d contribute video. I replied with a terse email message, “Sorry to say that we don’t generate material for content mills.” I got an astonishing response,

Hi Erik,

Thank you for your timely reply. I think you have a point about the content mill, however should you ever reconsider, and would like for us to produce high quality How To videos for you and Ehow, which you can use on your own web site, please don’t hesitate to contact me. All the videos on Ehow include links to your website, a bio of the expert, and Google Search result optimization.

Google adjusted its algorithms last week to bump down content mill sites. A study, released this past weekend by Sistrix, shows how that adjustment has changed search results. The results are mostly positive. In Sitrix’s “visibility index” exinearticles.com is down 90% and suite101.com is down 94%. But at least one content mill slipped through the cracks. EHow.com actually rose in Sistrix’s index.

So Google has more algorithm tweaking to do that runs somewhat counter to their financial interests in selling more ads. But I’ll repeat what Amy Stewart says over at Garden Rant, dear eHow: please go away.