Our Disastrous Summer Garden

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I’m struggling this morning for metaphors to describe our summer vegetable and fruit garden: Napoleon at Waterloo, the Hindenburg disaster, being locked in a cell with a recording of “Achy Breaky Heart” in a continuous loop. In short, growing edibles this year was an unmitigated disaster. Here’s a few of the things that happened:

  • We planted a bed of basil seeds and got lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) instead. Yes, I know lambsquarters are edible, but I was looking forward to the basil.
  • Our Swiss Chard, usually a good performer, was stunted and anemic. It seemed incapable of growing past 8 inches.
  • Our tomatoes grew well, produced a fair amount of fruit and then abruptly dried up and croaked.
  • We planted zucchini too late and it got a bad case of powdery mildew.
  • The raccoons figured out how to bust through the bird netting that was supposed to keep them out of the vegetable beds. They completely obliterated two out of four vegetable beds.
  • With the exception of our pomegranate tree, every last peach, apple, persimmon and most of our figs were harvested by squirrels and raccoons.
  • The Nectaplum, Santa Rosa plum and nectarine trees did not produce a single fruit due, I think, to a lack of chill hours caused by climate change.
  • Drought, of course, made everything worse. We had to water our already alkaline soil with alkaline water. Only the native plants and what we call the Biblical plants seem happy (e.g. the fig and the pomegranate).
  • The drought and an extreme heat wave pushed everything in the garden to the edge–and a few over the edge: in the last month we abruptly lost some garden stalwarts, including a rosemary bush and a culinary sage.

Despite all these disasters, I came back from the Heirloom Expo with some ideas:

  • Spend a little less time on Facebook and a little more time in the garden.
  • Come up with better raccoon fortifications.
  • Take out stone fruit that isn’t performing (Kelly has wanted to do this for a long time but I’ve dragged my heels).
  • Take better notes.
  • Improve soil and restart a composting project.
  • Come up with small metal cages to enclose fruit (I have a notion that involves 3D printing–more on this later).

How did your garden do this summer?

Heirloom Expo in Photos

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I highly recommend making the trip next year to Santa Rosa to see the National Heirloom Exposition put on by the folks at Baker Creek Seeds.  The centerpiece of the expo is the massive display of hundreds of different varieties of squash, melons, tomatoes and other edibles. It’s inspiring and frustrating all at once since, unless you have your own garden, you’ll never see such diversity at the supermarket. I came back with the will to improve our dismal vegetable gardening efforts and with a bunch of interviews you’ll hear on our podcast this week. For those of you who didn’t make it this year, here’s some of what you missed:

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The Unintended Consequences of Water Conservation

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We’re in the midst of an historic drought here in California and, as a result, cities have instituted mandatory landscape watering restrictions and cut off irrigation to parks and other city properties. Lawns are brown and trees are dying.

Back in May, two University of California Cooperative Extension horticulturalists, Donald Hodel and Dennis Pittenger issued a provocative position paper “9%: Perspective on the California drought and landscape water use” that argues that these restrictions have been short sighted.

In addition to the amenities and benefits we would lose by letting landscapes go dry, many hidden costs are associated with this strategy, and little, if anything, is ever said about them. Letting landscapes go dry will lead to damage and even death of plants. For trees such damage could mean dropping branches and even tree failures, leading to significant property damage and human injury or even death; lawsuits would certainly follow. As landscapes go dry, the risk of fires would increase. In changing over landscapes to low-water using plants or to non-planted, non-irrigated areas, labor and material costs for plants, installing or retrofitting irrigation systems, and other materials could be significant. Converting lawns to artificial turf is also expensive.

Hodel and Pittenger’s main point is that if we cut off landscape irrigation entirely, we’d only save around 4.5% of all water use in the state and that we should have thought more carefully about the restrictions we put in place.

My own two cents is that our elected officials used landscape irrigation as a convenient scapegoat to direct our attention away from powerful agricultural interests. The result has been dead trees, melting synthetic grass and shady contractors installing ugly heat generating gravel landscapes with lawn rebate money. Part of the problem is that, to many political leaders, plants are just a kind of background material like the sad potted ficus trees on the set of a public access TV show. Who cares if you pull the water? Never mind that insects, animals and people call those landscapes home.

Two ways out of this: a focus on long term solutions in our civic discourse and instilling a love of plants (we could call it horticultural literacy) in the next generation. Both are tall orders. In the meantime, I recommend reading Hodel and Pittenger’s paper. They are, perhaps, more enamored of the lawn than I but their call for thinking before we jump is necessary and refreshing.

What do you think?

The best dry toilet ever

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We are fortunate to have talented friends all around us, because they are a never-ending source of inspiration.

Case in point: Our friend, Gloria, needed a toilet for her off-grid compound. She asked our mutual friend, Daniel, to make her one. Daniel is a gifted maker– all his creations seem to have an inherent grace about them. Using the classic text, The Humanure Handbook, as a resource, he built her the most beautiful dry toilet system I’ve ever seen.

See more pics of this system and read Daniel’s story on his book-as-a-blog, The Cabin Dweller’s Texbook.

Also, we interviewed Daniel earlier this year for Root Simple Podcast #044.

A Neoclassical Native Bee House

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Inspired by the LA Natural History Museum’s bee houses on poles, I dashed off my own version in Sketchup. It’s an homage to Ian Hamilton Finlay.

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Kelly is supportive but skeptical. I’m hoping it can be a part of the reboot of our front yard, which we’re about to embark on. The plan is to remove unsuccessful plants and make the space more welcoming to wildlife. More on that in later posts.