Roundin’ up the Summer Urban Homesteading Disasters

Everyday loaf on the left, “charity” loaf on the right.

As we’ve noted in our books, part of the deal with this lifestyle is persevering through the inevitable disasters. Which means it’s time for a regular blog feature, the disaster roundup.  

Loafing Around
I agreed to bake a few baguettes for a charity function this evening. Problem #1 is that I can’t do baguettes in my small oven so I decided to do a shorter batard. Problem #2: for some reason, despite the fact that I measure my ingredients carefully with a digital scale, my dough turned out extra moist. Anticipating that the batards would stick to the peel as I put them in the oven, I decided to make round loaves in proofing baskets instead. Problem #3: the dough stuck to the proofing baskets and I ended up with edible, but aesthetically unappealing, loaves.

Moral: the more important the event the more likely disaster will strike.

Squashed
I’ve blogged about it before, but my attempt to grow winter squash (Marina di Chioggia) ended in disaster. The squash vines took up the majority of one of my few vegetable beds. I got only two squash, one that was consumed by racoons and the other that never fully matured before the vine crapped out. The immature squash was still edible, but bland.

Moral: winter squash just ain’t space efficient. Next year I’ll tuck it around other plants and trees rather than have it hog up space in my intensively planted veggie beds.

Luscious compost tomatoes.

Unintentional Gardening
I built a cold frame this spring so that I could get a head start on propagating my tomato seedlings. So guess which tomatoes did better: the ones I carefully propagated from seed and transplanted to richly amended vegetable beds, or the ones that sprouted randomly in compacted soil? You guessed it, the ones that grew on their own.

Moral: nature knows best when to start seeds and where to plant them than us homo sapiens. Maybe there is something to that permaculture thing . . . 

Our Hameau de la Reine
This summer the garden generally looked like hell. It thrives during our mild winter and spring then gets baked by the merciless Southern California sun at just about the time I start slacking off on my planting duties. Then the New York Times shows up and wants to do a photo spread about a month after stuff has quit blooming. This is when I usually come running in the house to complain to Mrs. Homegrown that the garden, “does not look like Versailles.”

Moral: take a class from someone who knows what they are doing, which is exactly what I’m up to starting next month. I vow that the garden will look like Marie Antoinette’s fake peasant village (the Hameau de la Reine) by next year. Then again, I say that every summer.

Garden Follies
Thinking the garden needed some ornamentation and not wanting to go the garden gnome route, I thought it would be a good idea to cast some Platonic solids in concrete–don’t ask me why–these things, “just come to me.” Mrs. Homegrown (using her Master of Fine Art superpowers) viewed this project with considerable skepticism. I successfully cast a tetrahedron and dodecahedron and stained them with iron sulfate and proudly placed them in the garden. They kinda worked but I have to agree with Mrs. Homegrown’s assessment that the scale is off–they look like the miniature Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.

Moral: trust the MFA in your household even if that MFA was in conceptual art. 

I could go on, but I’ve failed to document all of the disasters. Next, we’ll review what worked.

U-Dig-It Folding Shovel

I came across this nice little folding hand shovel called the “U-Dig-it” at a surplus store. It measures 5 3/4 inches when folded and weighs six ounces with the convenient belt holster. I used it this morning to transplant some okra seedlings and I can also see taking this tool camping.

I dig the U-Dig-It design, and I already prefer it to the hand shovel that got buried in the yard somewhere a few months ago. I can see this tool becoming part of my gardening “EDC“.

Winter Squash Disaster

Those of you who follow this blog may recall last summer’s “squash baby” fiasco.  This year I planted a few Marina di Chioggia squash plants (technically a pumpkin) in one of my vegetable beds located in a more secure location. Instead of some homo sapien making off with my squash bounty, it looks like the neighborhood raccoons are having a gnocchi party somewhere. All I’ve got to show for three Chioggia plants is one small squash and the one pictured above.

Household animal tracking expert Mrs. Homegrown assures me that the nearby scat pile belongs to some raccoons.

My thoughts after another year under a squash curse: winter squash takes up too much room to devote precious vegetable bed space if, like me, you don’t have a lot of room. In previous years I’ve tucked it in unused corners of the yard and let it sprawl around. That’s what I’ll do next year.

Vertical Garden Success!

Regular readers of the blog know that we’re dubious about vertical gardening, but this is a vertical garden we can really get behind. Here, a cherry tomato is growing out of a crack in a retaining wall in our neighbor’s yard. (It’s just off our front stairs, and is almost certainly an offspring of one of our tomatoes) It is thriving with no water whatsoever. You can’t see them in this picture, but there’s tons of fruit on it. And its tomatoes were ripe before any of our pampered plants were bearing. 

Moral: Plants grow well where plants want to grow.

Droopy Leaves are Not a Good Thing

Droopy Dawg

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So I just learned I’ve been taken in by a popular myth. You know how in the summer, the leaves of some plants go droopy in the heat of midday, then bounce back when it cools off? I’d heard…somewhere…who knows how these things get planted in your brain…that this was nothing to worry about. I’d also heard that was ineffectual, anyway, to water them midday.

Well, I was wrong. Erik just sent me a link to a post from one of his favorite blogs, WSU Extension’s The Garden Professors titled Hot Weather and Not-So-Hot Advice, which scientifically refutes this myth, and gives us permission to water midday, if necessary, to save the plants.

In a nutshell, droop is bad. Droop is stress. There should be no droop.

Are Raised Beds a Good Idea?

Raised bed fail. Our appalling parkway beds. Extra demerits for having used treated lumber! *

Raised beds have some pluses and minuses. Lately I’ve been thinking about their drawbacks. Namely:

  • Cost
  • How fast they dry out in a hot climate.

Now I can also think of a few reasons one might want to grow vegetables in a raised bed:

  • You do a soil test (and you should do a soil test, especially if you live in an urban area) and the results come back showing that you have heavy metals in your soil.
  • You live in a very wet climate.
  • A disability prevents you from kneeling or leaning over to garden.
  • Your soil has no contaminants, but has some other problem, say bad texture or lots of buried rocks/chunks of concrete.
  • You have dogs/rabbits/chupacabras, etc. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that for Southern California and, by extension, any dry climate, raised beds are a bad idea unless, of course, you have any of the issues mentioned above. Particularly in the summer, the raised beds I have in the parkway, pictured above, have performed poorly. So poorly, that I’m going to remove them soon. If a soil test shows high heavy metal levels I’ll just go with some ornamental/insectary plants.

 Above, broom corn (Sorghum bicolor) doing just fine straight in the ground.

A partially sunken bed. Extra points for finding the stinkhorn mushroom.

This bed is somewhat of a compromise. I cut the bed in half lengthwise to make it half as tall as it used to be thus getting two beds for the price of one. Then I sunk it into the ground In effect, the veggies are in the ground but I still have the neatness and defined borders of a raised bed.

Again, if you’re in Seattle raised beds are probably a good idea. But here in SoCal, I’m going to skip them from now on if just because of how much water they waste.

*ETA: A note from Mrs. Homegrown re: that topmost picture of the sad, sad raised beds. They look terrible because after a couple of seasons of struggling with mysteriously declining crops within their borders, we’ve given up on them and did not plant them this spring. I don’t want anybody thinking they look so poorly *only* because they are raised beds. That pair of beds has produced very well in the past, but has some sort of soil problem now–one which we can’t figure out. So I wouldn’t agree with labeling the picture “raised bed fail”– it’s more of a gardener fail. It may have something to do with the fact that they are raised, that the soil texture has deteriorated over time due to the elevation–that is Erik’s theory. I’m not so sure that’s all that is going on. Nonetheless, I do agree with the overall point of this post: that in this climate sunken beds make a lot of sense.

Vegetable Gardening in the Shade

New Zealand spinach in partial shade

Inspired by Scott Kleinrock’s work at the Huntington Ranch, I’ve been experimenting with growing vegetables in partial shade. Two of our vegetable beds sit under two large deciduous trees. In the winter these beds get full sun, but in the summer they might get as a little as four or five hours of direct sun.

Now my shade gardening experiment may not be applicable to northern climates. In fact, the sun is so harsh here that partial shade can be a good thing, in that it keeps more delicate veggies from drying up and blowing away.

What has worked in our partially shaded beds:

  • New Zealand spinach
  • cucumbers
  • tomatoes (not as much growth as in the sun, but they are fruiting)
  • lettuce
  • Swiss chard
  • dandelion greens
  • raspberry

Growing but struggling:

  • bush beans (cover crop)

For more information on growing in the shade, check out this article in the San Francisco Chronicle,  “Best Edibles to Grow in Shade in the Bay Area

Also, follow Scott Kleinrock’s research on the Huntington Ranch blog.

And I’m interested in hearing other people’s experiences growing vegetables in the shade so please leave some comments noting where you live.

More Thoughts on Garlic

Homegrown Neighbor here:
So Mrs. Homegrown’s post the other day about their not so successful garlic season this year inspired me to weigh in with some of my own garlic observations.

I recall having a conversation with Mr. Homegrown around the time we both planted our garlic in November. I selected three heirloom varieties to grow at a job site and I plopped a few extra cloves into my own garden. Mr. Homegrown said, “You can’t grow hardneck garlic here.” I of course had purchased only hardneck varieties. Now, we have garden debates like this all the time. Sometimes I am right and often I am completely wrong. I replied that we would wait and see. I hoped my hardneck garlic varieties wouldn’t be a total failure.

He planted white softneck garlic, the popular commercial variety here in California. I planted Music, Pskem River and Bogatyr garlic at my work site and Pskem River also in my home garden. All three varieties have done simply okay at my work site. However, the Pskem River garlic in my home garden is big and beautiful. Hardneck garlic produces scapes. The picture above is of the scapes I have removed from my plants in order to encourage them to produce bigger bulbs. Now I am going to stop watering the garlic and hope to harvest it in a couple of weeks. It is best to stop watering garlic at least two weeks prior to harvest to help the papery skins to form. This will also improve its storage quality.

Since I live a block away from the Root Simple compound, I’m quite sure weather isn’t the issue. Also, as my other garlic plants at a job site have shown lackluster growth I think I can draw a few conclusions. First, garlic likes fertile soil with plenty of nutrients. My home garden bed with the garlic in it has been amended with a lot of rich compost including worm castings and chicken manure. The native soil in the area also isn’t too bad. The pH is pretty neutral to slightly alkaline. Its a little heavy on the clay side but clay holds nutrients well and with all of the organic matter added the drainage is pretty decent. So I’m confident the robust garlic has been growing in healthy, rich soil.

My work garden site has less fertile soil that I am constantly trying to improve. So I’d guess that the garlic that has been slowly plugging along there is suffering due to the soil.

How it is watered can also affect how well garlic grows. Garlic likes even, regular watering during its growth cycle. My past experiences with garlic have certainly taught me that if they don’t get regular water they will stay puny.

And as to the softneck versus hardneck garlic debate I can say conclusively that hardneck garlic will indeed grow and thrive here in a Mediterranean climate. Garlic is usually planted here in November and harvested in June or July. So its growth cycle avoids the most intensely hot months. Softneck garlic stores better and this is why it is so popular and almost all commercially available garlic is softneck. Supposedly softneck varieties do better in warmer climates and hardnecks do better in colder climates. However, while we are not growing in Minnesota, nor are we growing in the hot and humid tropics. Our climate is very forgiving.

I can’t wait to harvest my garlic heads in a few weeks. I’ll post some pictures after the harvest.

Processing and Winnowing Flax

We grew a five foot circle of flax this winter in the center of our yard. When it came time to harvest said flax I pondered creating the world’s smallest piece of linen. Lacking the time for that process, I opted to simply harvest the seeds.

I used a block of coconut coir to smash the seed heads against a piece of newspaper.

Next came time for winnowing the flax. I used a fan and had to winnow multiple times to get the chaff out.

Alas, there was still quite a bit of chaff. Remembering that I had some 1/8 inch hardware cloth in the garage, I used it to screen out most of the last chaffy bits. You can buy expensive screens for processing seeds, but the amortization on that equipment would take years for our tiny garden.

A huge mess was made. Good thing Kelly is off camping.

In the end I managed to harvest nine ounces of flax seeds. Plans for a flax oil pressing fest were canceled.

Meanwhile, as yet unnamed new kitten ponders the absurdity of the world’s smallest flax seed harvest from her pillow perch.

Till vs. No-Till

A 3-D view of tilling in Russia c1915

My post on lasagna gardening, which linked to a brief article by horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott seems to have opened a can of worms, so to speak.  Two issues came up in the comments on my post: the wisdom of using cardboard in a lasagna mulch and the pros and cons of double digging/tilling. Let’s address them in separate blog posts, beginning here with double digging/tilling.

There are some very persuasive arguments in favor of a no-till, leave the soil alone approach. Chalker-Scott in the comments section of her post on lasagna gardening says,

. . . double digging (the equivalent of tilling in agriculture) disrupts natural soil building. No-till agriculture is increasingly preferred as being more protective of the soil ecosystem. I think the same philosophy could be applied to home gardens as well. You’re right, you can boost production with a more aggressive approach to soil amendment – a similar argument is often made in conventional agriculture (compared to organic agriculture) to till, use excessive fertilizers, pesticides, etc. I guess it depends on how you regard the soil – as a medium for growing vegetables or as an ecosystem (and I’m not being judgmental). It’s a philosophical choice.

No-till agriculture advocates argue that tilling oxidizes organic matter leading to a loss in soil fertility and the creation of carbon dioxide which, in turn, leads to global warming. A case can also be made that tilling creates a soil “crust” that interferes with water penetration. And tilling disrupts mycelial networks and other soil organisms that, research has shown, form important symbiotic relationships with plant roots. 

But what about heavily compacted soils? How do you turn a lawn or driveway into a garden? It’s in these cases that I, in the past, have used double digging.

Double digging proponents would argue that the practice should be distinguished from tilling in that, unlike tilling, you don’t invert the soil structure as much when you double dig. Double digging keeps the same soil profile while loosening heavy compaction. Double-digging advocates distance themselves from the use of roto-tilling machines which invert deeper layers of soil with surface layers that contain more organic matter.

But there are alternatives to double digging and tilling that will break up compacted soils. Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch turned a former construction parking lot into a productive edible landscape without double digging or tilling. Kleinrock used what I’d call a kind of toolkit of de-compaction strategies:

  • The application of a thick mulch (Chalker-Scott suggests a minimum of 12 inches). It’s surprising how many earthworms start doing the tilling for you with a thick mulch layer.
  • Planting soil busting cover crops with thick tap roots like Daikon radish
  • The use of a broadfork or deep spader
Peaceful Valley’s “Deep Spader”
A broadfork in action

Broadforks and deep spaders get air and water into compacted soils without the damage tilling can do. Unfortunately broadforks and deep spaders are very expensive (around $200) and heavy. The deep spader Kleinrock used came from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply. I’ve tried it and it works nicely, though it’s still hard labor. If you knew how to weld you could probably make a home brew deep spader or broadfork. I’ve also successfully used a regular, inexpensive garden spading fork in moderately compacted soils.

This is clearly a topic on which reasonable people can disagree, but the no-till folks seem to have the upper hand in terms of the science. As with all gardening problems, though, context is king. Environmental factors and economic issues (those expensive broadforks) intersect in our urban gardens in complex ways. You have to make up your own mind. I’d say if you’re going to double-dig do it only as a last resort and after considering all the alternatives. While, under some circumstances, I might double-dig I would never till with a roto-tiller or invert soil structure with a shovel. But after seeing the dramatic improvement in soil at the Huntington Ranch in less than a year, I’m more inclined to try de-compaction alternatives. You could also just build raised beds and import better soil (though that strategy gets expensive).

I’ve created a poll on the right side of this blog on which you can cast a vote on tilling vs. not-tilling vs. double digging. And consider leaving a comment–I’m interested in what readers think about this complex issue.