Advances in Gardening: The Screens of Discretion

When our friend Tara helped us reconceptualize our back yard, one of the first things she did was wave toward our compost pile and chicken supply zone, and say, “You’ve got to screen off all that crap.”

Of course! We had to take control of the view. Ahhhhh…..

So Erik built this screen. He started using a pre-made trellis material, but tricked it up.  Behind it you can see the massive compost pile. The structure on the left is the end of the hen house. We’d been stacking straw bales and wood chips there. Now we can hide all that behind the screen–and maybe there will even be room for that ugly steel can back.

It’s a shady spot, but Tara thinks it gets enough light to grow raspberries. If you look close you can see two tiny raspberries planted at the foot of each screen.

Aesthetic improvement + new growing space for food = pretty cool

Advances in Gardening: Introducing the Germinator™

I’ve built a kind of seedling Guantanamo which I’ve dubbed the “Germinator™.” Why? Two reasons:

1. Damn squirrels and chickens. Both have gotten into my seedling flats in the past and wreaked havoc. This is why the Germinator™, for most of the year, has a wire mesh top. That wire mesh also takes down the harsh Southern California sun a notch so the flats don’t dry out.

Univent Greenhouse Automatic Vent Opener2. During the cooler spring season, I can trade out the wire mesh for a translucent plastic top and I’ll have a cold frame. Last year my tomato seeds failed to germinate due to cold weather. I’ve vowed not to let that happen next year.

I’m going to trick out the hinged top of the Germinator™ during the cool months with a Univent Greenhouse Automatic Vent Opener, a gadget that promises to automatically open and close the top. The Univent requires no batteries or power and aims to maintain a temperature range between 62-73 F. We’ll review the Univent when we try it next year.

So far the Germinator™ has worked well, providing a safe haven for our winter seedlings: artichoke, spigarello broccoli, nettles, sweet peas, white sage, Italian dandelion, chard and more. We could sow directly in the ground but, due to construction of our new garden infrastructure, starting seedlings in flats allowed me to get going ahead of time.

Advances in Gardening Series: The Fan

Yet another heat wave slowed our backyard redesign project, but the weather is looking more cooperative at last and things are coming along. What we thought we might do over the next few days is share some of the new things we’ve put in, and how/why we built them, just in case any of it might be useful to you.

Everything is pretty rough and ragged right now, but it will be fun to report back in a couple months and do a compare/contrast.

The Concept:

Above you see the bones of my herb fan (and lots of chaos beyond). This space used to be my herb patch, which consisted of a bunch of random plantings, some perennial, some seasonal. It somewhat useful and occasionally attractive, but  didn’t earn its keep. So what I’ve done is split my herb production into two categories: kitchen and medicinal.

The kitchen herbs are going to live in a smaller planter box, all compact and tidy (because really, how much marjoram do you need?). This new bed, The Fan, is for medicinal annuals, because I need more space to produce them in useful quantities. For instance, you need a good number of chamomile plants if you want enough to put away for tea and a little more for salves. With this in mind, I’m going to rotate “large” crops of annuals through this space, one variety per wedge.

This winter’s fan is planted with, from left to right, Calendula, chamomile and bread seed poppies. I started the Calendula and chamomile in flats ahead of time, simply to get a head start, then transplanted them into their wedges this week. Poppies don’t like to be transplanted, so I sowed those seeds today.

The original herb garden was a rough quarter circle. We kept that footprint, but used spare bricks to divide the shape into 3 smaller wedges. The bricks give me a way to walk between the wedges without compacting the soil. 

The Process:

To prepare the ground…

I first forked the original soil, because while it’s not bad soil, it was compacted. Poppies have deep taproots. Like carrots, they need loose soil, so I really worked their wedge deep. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have done the same for all the wedges. Then I spread 1″ of good homemade compost over the whole area and a bit of alfalfa meal and forked that in about 3 inches deep. Then I watered deeply to prepare for planting.

By the way, I made a mistake at this stage. While merrily amending and forking the soil, I forgot that chamomile likes crappy soil.  With chamomile, hard conditions yield many blossoms. So by putting my chamomile in a deluxe bed, I may have guaranteed myself lots of foliage and few flowers. We’ll see. The lesson? Pay attention. Don’t garden on autopilot.

Next I coiled drip tubing in each wedge…

pinning the tubing down with bent wire. Erik did the heavy lifting in setting up the drip system a couple of years ago. Now when we want to irrigate, we just have to move the tubes around or switch them out as necessary. You can see the tubing snaking around in the photo. Soon as the plants get a little bigger it will become invisible. The mainline tubing is visible at the bottom of the photo–this is where all the little tubes plug in. That will also be obscured later.

The final step is to protect newly planted seeds and seedling from marauding critters.

We do this by stretching bird netting over wire hoops. Bird netting, also called aviary netting, is a super light, fine plastic netting that can be bought at most nurseries. You can drape trees or garden beds with it to protect them when in fruit, or when plants are tiny and tempting.

Erik says he’ll do a whole post on the wire hoops one day, but right now can’t remember the name of the wire. But he gets in the chain-link fencing section of the Home Despot. But basically, it’s a sturdy galvanized wire. Because it’s sold in circular bundles, it’s easy to cut off a piece and use it as a hoop. The cut ends get thrust in the ground and the netting is spread over the arch. We weigh the ends down with bricks or boards. You can see the bricks on the far left wedge above–if not the netting itself.  This system isn’t elegant, but it’s temporary, and it works.

Now all I have to do is top water…

until the plants get roots deep enough to take advantage of the drip. It’s nice to have the chamomile and Calendula so far along. These seedlings are too big for bugs to bother, and should do fine. The poppies I planted by simply sowing the seed thick on the surface of the soil, and patting them down a bit.  When they germinate, there will be tons of teeny sprouts, and I’ll have to thin them ruthlessly so that each poppy has lots of breathing room. I’ve made the mistake in the past of planting them too closely. When you do that, they get spindly and sad.

And that’s that. I can hardly wait to see the beds fill in.

Tune in next time for… The Germinator!


Cure for Prickly Pear Stickers

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Hallelujah! Last night, our friend Oscar (genius man!) told us how to deal with the dreaded, pernicious, invisible prickly pear fruit stickers (glochids) which somehow end up embedded in my hands every time Erik brings one of those fruits in the house. The answer? Pumice stone. It’s so simple. Just rub the site with a pumice stone. I think it just shaves off the top part of the stickler, and then lower part works its way out eventually, I suppose. But the important part is that the top part isn’t moving anymore, which means no more pain.

I’ve tried it–it really works.

Happy, happy, happy!

ETA: A round-up of alternate suggestions from the comments: you can also try spreading white glue (PVA/Elmer’s) over the area and pulling up the “skin.” Other people do something similar with rubber cement. Or you can try duct tape. None of these worked as well for me as pumice, but everyone is different. 

This Is Why Mint Is Invasive

Mrs. Homegrown here:

That’s me pulling out a mint plant from our garden, as part of The Great Renovation. Check out those amazing roots! This container was filled with a 5 inch thick mat of thick, tangled roots. No wonder mint is unstoppable.

I adore mint, but we had two big mint plants, and under the new scheme, I’m trying to be more efficient about the way space is used in the yard. So this guy had to go. I thought I’d be digging roots out of the bed all day, but turns out they formed this thick, impressive mat you see above. I’m sure small bits will remain to haunt me, but all in all, I’m grateful it was that easy.

The moral:

If you’re thinking about planting mint for the first time, keep in mind that it spreads, given space and water. Its roots, properly called rhizomes, run underground and can send up shoots many feet away from the mother plant. In this way, it will cheerfully take over your entire herb bed or your borders, or wherever you thought fit to plant that innocent looking little seedling. If you try to pull it, little bits of leftover rhizome still in the ground can form another plant.

For this reason it’s better to plant it in a container, or in a bottomless container sunk into the ground. You need to corral those roots, basically.

Otherwise, it’s an easy, abundant plant to grow. It likes water and sun, but does tend to wilt or even go brown in hot, intense, summer sun. So I’d either plant it where it gets partial summer shade, or move its pot somewhere shady during the heat. And don’t be afraid clip it back when it starts to look rangy. It will pop right back up, looking much better for its haircut.

Why should you grow mint?

Here’s some of my reasons: Fresh mint tea (fresh mint tea is pretty and has a delicate flavor); dried mint tea (always on hand for overfull belly syndrome); fresh mint chopped up over fresh fava beans and goat cheese; fresh mint mixed with basil in a nut pesto; fresh mint sprinkled over yogurt drinks, mint infused honey for colds; dried mint in the bath; mint simple syrup; mojitos; and I’m sure there are more…and the tiny native bees like it a lot.

Should you plant spearmint or peppermint?

Both are good. Peppermint is stronger, but I consider them interchangeable. (If you’re trying to figure out which you’ve got in your yard, spearmint has matte, bumpy leaves that are bright green where the growth is new, whereas peppermint’s leaves are smoother and somewhat shiny and darker green, sometimes with purple tints.) For tea, I like the flavor of fresh spearmint best. Purely a subjective opinion. So the plant I’m pulling out in the picture was our peppermint plant. Spearminticus Victor!

Learn How to Compost Via the Humanure Handbook

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third EditionComposting ain’t rocket science but it does require some finesse. Following up on an earlier post which contained a comparison of different composters, I thought I’d mention my favorite written resource on how to compost. In my opinion, the best writing on the subject comes from a surprising source, the Humanure Handbook by Joeseph Jenkins. Best of all, an edition of this book is available online for free. Even if you have no intention of composting human waste, The Humanure Handbook contains excellent directions on how to easily maintain a hot n’ healthy compost pile. You can access the free edition here. Jenkins also has a bunch of great how-to videos here.

On the subject of humanure, news coverage of the terrible cholera outbreak in Haiti only gets half of the story. I keep hearing the press refer to the problem as one of a “lack of access to clean water.” True, but the other half of the problem is what Jenkin’s Humanure book is about, keeping human waste out of waterways in the first place and turning it into a resource rather than a disposal problem.

Playin’ Possum

Since it happened too fast to take a picture I offer, thanks to the interwebs, this image of former Secretary of State of Florida Katherine Harris holding an opossum.

When I stepped out into the backyard early this morning to let the chickens out, I found an opossum just outside the coop eyin’ my ladies. It ran off well before I got anywhere near the coop. Since our dog passed on I’ve noticed an uptick in backyard critters. Still, it was late for a possum to be out–perhaps it had been partying down on nearby Sunset Boulevard and was just getting around to finding some grub. And that grub? Like us, opossums eat both eggs and chickens.

As with all such pest problems I went straight to the University of California integrated pest management website where I found a helpful article on opossums. The advice:

  • Pick up fallen fruit (I’m pretty good about this).
  • Eliminate wood piles (I’ve got one I need to eliminate).
  • Don’t leave pet food outside (I never do this, though I had forgotten about a mostly empty bag of chicken feed that the opossum could have been attracted to).
  • Screen off building entrances (I’ve done this).
  • Sit out on the back porch with a rifle. As UC puts it, “opossum may be spotlighted at night and shot”  where, “it is legal and safe to do so”  (can I employ our local gang?)

Habitat control is a great way to keep the population of critters like opossums at manageable levels. But there’s a problem here for those of us in urban or suburban areas. I could do all of these things (minus the gunplay) but what if several neighbors on my block have fallen fruit, outdoor pet food, and open basements?

What we need is an integrated pest management version of Neighborhood Watch, a group of people, at the block level, who would help folks reduce pests without resorting to pesticides and poisons. Sadly, I have no idea how to organize such a thing without coming off as arrogant and overbearing. But when we, at the neighborhood level, figure out how to make these sorts of arrangements that benefit the common good we’ll be well on our way to a more perfected humanity.

Wait, I got it, a neighborhood possum roast!

An earlier version of this post contained the phrase “paryting with the winos and tranny hookers down on Sunset . . .” A number of readers, quite rightly, took offence at the word “tranny.” My apologies to anyone who may have been offended. 

Another way to deal with prickly pear stickers

One of those “farm uses” could be burning off prickly pear spines . . Image via BoingBoing

I’m drowning in prickly pear fruit which means a lot of nasty thorns in the kitchen and an angry Mrs. Homegrown. Previously I burned them off over our stove, but inevitably a few stickers would find their way to the kitchen sponge. Now I’ve got a new technique for removing stickers thanks to Norman of Silver City New Mexico who writes,

“Just a note to tell you how I harvest the pears.  We live in the arid SW and have a lot of native cacti.  The pears were very good this year because of the extra wet summer.  In dry times we burn the stickers off the prickly pear so the cows will eat the leaves.  It saves the cattle in some years.  I take a propane torch and burn the stickers of the pears before I pick them.  They turn very shinny like you had waxed them.  Then just pick them with your bare hands.  Sure saves a lot of time not having to roll them on a grill.”  

I tried this today with the propane torch I use for sweating pipe. Works great. Norman also suggested making some “Knox Blox” with the juice, something I intend to try. Thanks Norman for saving our marriage.

Summer 2010 Tomato Report

Tomato season began inauspiciously with unseasonably cold weather for Southern California. I simply couldn’t get any seeds to germinate. Thankfully, Craig of gardenedibles.com came to the rescue with a couple of seedlings for us. Here’s a recap of our tomato successes and failures:

Red Pear. I’ve grown this one before. It’s a plump, ribbed, meaty tomato. It’s flavorful and amazing both fresh and made into sauce. Craig concurs that this is a must grow variety.

Napoli. A paste variety with a short bushy growth pattern. Like San Marzanos this vine cranks out a ton of fruit. Did not taste great fresh but made the best canned tomatoes I’ve ever grown–I’m guessing this variety is bred for canning.

St. Pierre: not much to say about it. O.K., but not all that exciting.

Yellow pear. This small cherry tomato sprouted out of the compost. It’s kinda bland, but we got a ton of them. I borrowed some time in neighbors Anne and Bill’s dehydrator and dried them.

Sun Gold. Mrs. Homegrown stuck a Sun Gold tomato in the backyard which I failed to care for properly. Nevertheless, it still produced a decent crop.Very sweet and prolific.

Failures. I had three vines fail on me due to a combination of not transplanting soon enough and not paying attention to them–mainly, I think they got root bound in their pots.

Lessons
This year I took the watering advice of tomato guru Steve Goto of  Gotomato. Goto suggested a thick layer of mulch and a very deep watering when transplanting. The next watering comes when the plant droops in the morning–a whole month for me. Thereafter you water deeply only when the plant droops again in the morning, which worked out to be about once a week. You ignore any droopiness during midday and only water in the morning. I used in-line drip emitter tubing and all seemed to go well. Goto has tomato growing instructions you can download here.

Another big lesson is that even in sunny Southern California you need a cold frame to get good germination in the spring. We’ll blog about the cold frame I just added to our back patio soon.

So how did your tomatoes do this year? Drop us a comment with your geographical location and the tomato varieties you liked the most/least.