Friday, August 31, 2007

General Emittence

Irrigation is an essential (though sometimes confusing, frustrating, or enraging) part of gardening. Without it, you might need fewer zen retreats but your plants will suffer and eventually die unless they're native to your locale. While this is a strong argument for growing native plants, it's not always what we want. So we make multiple trips to the hardware store, dig trenches, buy the wrong tubes and fittings, and employ some of the more colorful words we learned in school. In short, we install an irrigation system. Different types of irrigation are appropriate for different circumstances and different plants. One of the most efficient, drip irrigation, consists of watering at the root level with emitters that you yourself have placed along a central line of flexible hose which is connected to a water source. This source could be a series of valves if you are irrigating multiple 'zones' in your garden or could be as simple as a "Y" splitter placed on your house's spigot. The valve or spigot pumps water, at hours regulated by a timer system, through the hose and the emitters allow small pulses of liquid to escape and soak the roots of a specific plant. Tres cool, non? Gardeners use drip for irrigation in order to water right the root directly and not feed any surrounding weeds or boost your water bill. If a plant is too far off the main hose line, you can attach a thin black microtube and attach an emitter at its end--useful for any plants like potted stawberries or high-hanging window boxes making an appearance in your garden. In this same family of microirrigation are microjets. They can't break the sound barrier, but with a spray head instead of a drip head, they can efficiently and automatically water a larger section of plantlife, like a 4'x4' square area, or a tree with widespreading roots. The water only travels a short distance, so you're not going to lose much water to evaporation. Overhead irrigation is an alternative to drip and it means sprinklers, which is the common technique employed for watering a lawn or a largescale crop. Overhead is also a real winner in the Water Waste category. When you water at the root, the water is immediately soaked up by the soil and is not left to the wind or the sun's rays to be taken away. Even though it's a nice thing to do for your city's humidity levels, evaporation is one of the biggest drawbacks to overhead irrigation. The water is passing through the air in order to get to the earth, so it's pretty inevitable to lose water that way. Sprinklers are rated in gallons per minute while drip irrigation is rated in gallons per hour, which says a lot. So even though it's easier to plunk a sprinkler in the middle of your lawn and screw in the hose, it's a bigger waste of water and your money. On the upside: The gardener describes irrigation as merely channeling the water where you want it to be. Isn't that pretty? All you have to do is place your plants in the channel. Maybe irrigation is a zen retreat in and of itself...

Some of the stars of drip irrigation:

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A New One's Born Every Minute

Vining and bush tomato plants are sprawlers. Outside of a controlled agricultural situation they'll grow along the ground, crawling over as much territory as possible, fruiting against the soil. This is not ideal for human consumption, so we train them to grow vertically, then laterally, trellacing them with the clever use of bamboo, green gardening tape, old fences... They like it too, since "up" gets them closer to the sun. A tomato's "stem" grows from the ground and the "branch" branches from the stem. The place where they branch is called the "axil" (much like a human being's axilla, though for the most part much less pungent). "Suckers" sprout from the axil, between the stem and the branch.
A tomato plant loves its suckers because more branch area means more fruit potential, and more fruit potential means more birds will want to eat the redness and spread those yummy seeds. This makes more tomato plants, fulfilling the tomato's plan to take over the world, à la Mussolini. (Very dictorial, tomatoes, really. Almost fascist, one might say.) A gardener doesn't like suckers because they channel growth away from the main branches which are the main energy lines. This is one occassion where diversifying is not a good idea. Leaving the suckers in place gives the plant the chance to make MORE fruit, but not BETTER fruit. You want the fruit that's the best the plant can offer, not the fruit that's built for production. Think of the suckers as mainstream food production, trying to get as much supply to as many people as possible, and when you remove the suckers you get to be the local farmer growing within the season's limits, growing the best you can grow. Smarter growing, right?
Physically, a sucker can't carry the weight of 10 or 20 tomatoes like a branch could. Suckers normally shoot straight up from the axil, aiming for the sun. They grow faster than branches, but they're fleshy and watery, so they have no stability. It's best--and easiest--to remove suckers when they're small. They'll pop right off if you scrape at them with your fingernail. If you miss them, you'll have to make the call later whether or not to remove them. In our case, we found that a lot of our plants were doing well enough in fruit production that when we got around to removing suckers, we were fine with cutting out even those that had clusters of flowers. A few of the plants had sprouted such long, thick suckers that it was worth it to keep them. One in particular is over six feet tall and about five feet wide, and a lot of it is sucker. We couldn't let it go. If we had caught it early enough we could have changed it, but in the face of that mountain, it's too late to worry about efficient fruit production now. It's a judgement call, but remember your goals and the plant's goals are not always the same.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Mulch For All Seasons

Mulch is good stuff. You've seen it around town, covering the ground in between ornamental plants in front of the dentist's office and the bank. It's great at filling negative space, but apart from that, the similarities between mulch and Paris Hilton end. It's often a reddish shredded bark, or maybe a dark brown hairy shapeless creature-looking thing. Our horticultural expert (horti-pert?) treats mulch as the answer to all gardening questions. Too much water? Mulch. Too much direct sun? Mulch it. Frigid winters with gusty winds and frozen earth? Why, mulch, of course!
Though it appears soft and fluffy, and perhaps even lifeless, it's actually hard at work. A happy layer of cedar, spruce, pine, or even nutshells or crumbled rubber serves a number of plant needs. For instance, temperature control: A layer of mulch insulates tender roots when it's cold and shields them from sun when it's warm. Similarly, winter: Mulch keeps the plant safe while in hibernation mode during cold winter months. Nutrition: Mulch feeds roots with its constant, steady (so selfless!) degradation, amending the soil when you don't have time. Weed control: Weeds love sun as much as the next plant, so they're hard to eliminate. But if you lay down some friendly mulch at some point during your planting, you can black out the little buggers that are already there and prevent new ones from sprouting. Moisture retention: In dry climates, a layer of mulch traps the moisture, keeping your plant roots safe and saturated. Drainage/aeration: Conversely, harmoniously, mulch helps air circulate above your plant roots, helping them to breathe and not rot.

There's also an earthy phenomenon called green mulch, or living mulch. Case in point, our peas. Our peas are towering pea-producing powerhouses whose own leaves and stalks block out the sun, limiting weed-growth and protecting the roots. At their genesis, we planted them at about 3" apart, which gave them plenty of room to breathe and receive the sun, and they've grown with just enough room around them to be beneficial. In contrast, our greens are an example of high density seeding, which is less than good. When you over seed an area, you create a stagnant environment, aka, an insect haven. Tight greens mean protection from the wind, plenty of water, and a warm incubated habitat--basically a five star hotel for snails with a free buffet. So our chard is a bit munched and our romaine hosts a few more cocoons than we'd like but all in all the greens are doing just fine. Of course they are, we mulched them.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Abundant Solstice

Summer has flown by with us exploring the new delights of co-habitation, traveling to the northwest and friends and family blowing up our doorstep. Without really being conscious of it, the longest day of the year was upon us, the vegetables had gotten humungous, and we had not posted even a hint of progress to share with anyone?? Let's review...
From humble beginnings came our sweet and sugar snap peas. These nimble, twining vines innocently climbed our bamboo stakes until they decided one fine day it was time to take over like a swarm of locusts. Once they started flowering the growth was unstoppable! At our weak attempts to tie and re-stake them, they laughted heartily and poured right over the restraining strings, flowing in a giant tumbleweed mass of shoots into the yard. It was quite wild and beautiful actually, and we found ourselves more in awe every morning as our small yard was steadily consumed with deliciously crisp and tasty peas. Definitely the bumper crop so far!
Not to be overshadowed were all the greens we direct seeded into the garden. The spinach turned out to be the best the horticulturist has grown so far. Previous attempts were always spotty, and he was always happy to steal away with just a few mediocre leaves. Our heirloom 'Bloomsdale' variety must be at home in this cool coastal climate, because some of the leaves this season easily exceeded the length of a hemp sandal. Note the Spinach Bandit above, rarely caught on film. The bunches of dark green leaves were packed with flavor, and had a pleasant sagittate shape. No more dreaming of handpicked spinach salads sprinkled with tomatoes and feta cheese, we were there! Our 'Bright Lights' chard was a winner as well, giving us radiantly-colored, tender stems with giant leaves, and we delighted in wrapping up everything in the kitchen with them. From burritos to morning egg dishes, chard leaves are a refreshing break from the old flour tortilla. Our meslun mix has been equally prolific, but a word to the wise: Arugula is a THUG. We recommmend thinning to prevent a monarchy. This taprooted herb dominated our mix, pushing humbler lettuces and greens to the side and bursting into flower at the slightest provocation.
Our tiny tomatoes that we grew in a cold winter closet are now happily scaling the fences at about 3 feet. It is so cool here, the fruit is developing extremely slowly (we only have a few tentative flowers yet), but we're hoping our daily fertility dances will speed maturity. We even have a variegated tomato from Cal-Poly that continues to amaze with its striped leaves and flowers.

As you can imagine, we have been eating more greens than a pack of wild vegetarians just to keep up with production. To celebrate the success, we broke in the grill--salvaged from the side of the road somewhere--for the first time this summer. A feast of medium rare tri tip, grilled corn and pineapple, and you'd have never guessed it: Greens!

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Everyone has their fix, right? We purposely decided to go overboard with tomatoes this year... Just because we can. Kicking the habit of cultivating everything possibly tasty hasn't been easy, but we're not so worried about the addiction. Can you ever have too many brightly colored globes of goodness to eat and share with your friends I ask? Nope! So we're making sure of a summer cornucopia by handing out plants to everyone with a pad of soil and a heartbeat.
Our crop of tomato seedlings' roots were sneaking and creeping out of their seed cubes, telling us it was time to get them into the ground. They were accustomed to the comfy warmth of the grow room, so we reduced the heat night after night, and eventually transitioned them to the garden, still in their cubes. Also, because they'd only experienced relatively low light from the closet's fluorescent tubes, they needed to be gently acclimated to the intense spring sunlight. We slowly moved them out from beneath the eave of the roof a little more each day, 'til they were in full backyard sun. After a little cube time we planted six of the plants directly into garden soil, gave many away, and the rest we potted into 4" pots to grow for future endeavors.
As if we weren't deep enough into tomato mania, we heard of Cal Poly's annual event dedicate to you know what... We were greeted by a maze of rooms and hallways in the hort dept stacked with tall gangly specimens in 1 gallon pots. Their names were Yellow Jelly Bean, Henry's Mortgage Lifter, Silver Fir Tree, Bloody Butcher, Black Cherry, Sweet Chelsea, Tiny Tim. We left with a shopping basket of 10 that will do well through a foggy coastal summer, and others carted off 20 or more. All in all, Poly sold around 8,000 plants. Are you thinking what we're thinking? That's a whole lotta salsa! These new tall guys will dwarf the seedlings we started from seed, so they're going to live against an opposing fence. No need to intimidate the little guys, right?We thought of everyone we could possibly introduce to the fabulous world of homegrown produce, and got them a plant. We pulled out of campus surrounded by a jungle of tomato skunkiness, and high on hopes of a fruitful summer.

Choy To The World

Say what?? Choy, baby... Choy... You know... It's the other white Asian vegetable, and the newest edition to our seed garden. It's the the pork of your veggiepatch, the honkey in your harvest basket, the cracker in your collection. The simple crunch of its stalk will leave you breathless, desperately seeking another bite of cchhrrrrunnnchhhhh and a wild fondess for its mild cabbagy flavor. So where can I meet this Asian wonder, you wonder.

The species has gone through many incarnations and sometimes shapeshifts from plant to plant. Bok choy, Pac choi, and Pac choy, are all spellings for the same leafy vegetable that rocks your stir fry's world. Asians are quite picky about their choy and have preserved certain forms over the years for their distinct features. Some rosesttes are dwarfed and stay low with their wide spoon-shaped leaves , and others get tall, plump, meaty petioles for the ultimate crunch. With titles like Mei Qing choi, Tatsoi, there's no need to resist the asian invasion... Now go get your crunch on...

Friday, April 6, 2007

My Node Or Yours

Was it Shakespeare who first said "A node by any other name would smell as sweet"? And Gertrude Stein who wrote "A node is a node is a node"? Those people knew what they were talking about. Their houses were probably littered with glasses half-filled with water and stuck with cuttings, just like ours is. Because what's more inspiring than a full glass of new growth? Not much? We thought so.
The beautiful thing about plants is just how willingly and dilligently they'll propagate themselves, even from small slices of their original flesh. Plants accumulate their energy in growth points called "nodes," and from there sprout new shoots and leaves. This means that if you're going to pilfer your neighbor's coveted Brown Turkey Fig, it's wise to cut just below a node. From there you can cultivate your prize in a container of water until lengthy white roots form. Roots sprouted in water are different from roots that push against the resistance of soil, and are pretty tender. When you translplant them to soil it's good to be gentle with them. And actually, if you're going to propagate, it's better to just stick your cutting in soil. With a plastic pot of earth you can increase the aeration around the roots by adding lots of Pearlite, which cuttings want. We chopped this maple (shown here in two parts) at a low node to encourage it to grow low and bushy. The top part we jabbed into a patch of open ground, watered it in, and wished it good luck.

The "apical meristem" lives atop any green growing thing, and is basically the plant's brain. It regulates the growth pattern of the whole plant, deciding which leaves will grow the biggest, which flowers will bloom first, how tall or compactly to shape itself (think team captain). The meristem or "leader" is easily identified as the tallest point in the plant that isn't a flower. Since flowers are more temporary, and die off more quickly, they can't be the boss. If they happen to be a part of the same stalk as the apical meristem, however, they have a chance of taking the leader out when they kick it. Obviously, being in charge has its risks. Other branches grow at the Alpha Stalk's feet, waiting to take over should anything happen. Just for fun, you can give your plant a lobotomy if you want other branches to vy for first place. Don't be fooled by their pretty leaves; plants are cutthroat, just like the interns on The Apprentice. Everyone wants to be Donald Trump.