Thursday, July 31, 2014

Remembering Crop Locations - It's Important for Crop Rotation

Rotating crops is important in order to grow the healthiest plants with the largest harvest. When a plant is in the ground it takes what it needs from the soil. Each type of plant has different requirements. If you plant the same crop in the same location year after year, the soil will become depleted of those things which are required by that specific plant, and crops will suffer.

It is recommended that you rotate your crops, or plant your crops in different locations each season. In order to do that, I have made a map of my small and crowded garden each season.

Some people are blessed with good memory for small details. I am not one of those people. I knew that I would never remember what was planted where in seasons past, unless I wrote it down.

My system works for me, so I will share it with you.

I have a spiral notebook that I use in the garden and garage. I contains lists and ideas. It has plans for garden trellises, maps of our sprinkler systems, ideas for fences, etc.

 I find that having one notebook keeps me organized (as long as I can find the notebook). It is beat up, dirty and priceless. It has been the keeper of my ideas and plans for several years. Looking through it I realize how busy I have been. Many projects are represented there. Including my garden crop maps.

My garden map is roughly to scale and I write down what is planted, and the date it was planted. If I planted seeds I write an "s" next to the date. If the plant was transplanted I just write the date.

This year I have also started a garden map of harvest dates and yields. I am being inconsistent about keeping this map updated to be honest. My vegetable garden is in its second summer season, and last year I kept no records of problems or yields, and I wish I had.

In the notebook I have also been writing down some notes about my crops including pest problems, remedies I've tried, quality of the crop, etc. Gardening is a learning process and this information will be valuable for next season. I guess all that note taking experience I got it school is paying off, my notes are essential in the garden, my new classroom.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Thai Basil

It's basil with a twist of licorice and clove. Thai basil adds a punch of flavor to asian food, soups, pastas and more. Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora is a member of the mint family and grows as a rounded plant 1 to 1 1/2 ft tall and wide. 
The leaves have a strong basil and anise flavor which is stable at higher temperatures than sweet basil, so unlike sweet basil, it does not lose its flavor when cooked at higher temperatures.  

The leaves of Thai basil are smaller than sweet basil as seen in this photo.
Thai basil leaf (top)
Sweet basil leaf (bottom)
The plant is more compact than sweet basil and is beautiful with dark green foliage set off by deep maroon purple stems and seed pods.
Tiny lavender and white flowers bloom without notice as they are indeed tiny, but a closer look reveals the delicate crown.
The flowers are too small to appreciate with my middle aged eyes, so I was fascinated to see the magnified photos.
Stems grow with crowns of flowers which bloom in succession from base to tip.
The ombre effect on this stem is beautiful.
You can see the small black seeds forming in these pods.
Thai basil prefers full sun and well drained, moist soil. In my Southern California garden, summer temperatures can be scorching so mine is planted where it gets some afternoon shade and it is thriving.
I have read that it can be propagated from cuttings. Mine was purchased in a 4 inch pot. I've collected some seeds and will try them for my first time next spring.

To promote a bushy habit (and therefore, more leaves) pinch it often. This means that you cut the stems right above the place where the leaves come off the stem. This is where buds are forming and once the stem is cut, the leaves will sprout creating 2 side branches. If you keep removing the seed pods, it will continue to produce leaves. As you can see from the photos I have not been good about dead heading my plant, it just gets pinched when I need some leaves for cooking.

Thai basil is most often used fresh in recipes as opposed to dried. It can be frozen as well. It can be cut back to 6 inches tall if you chose to harvest the leaves all at one time. 

Living in this climate I am fortunate to have herbs live through the winter so hopefully I will be able to enjoy my fresh Thai basil throughout the year.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Room to Grow

We all need room to grow. 
Without it we cannot reach our true potential. Like the tomato between the posts and the tomatillo squished in the iron bench, people need space, to be left unhindered by others, in order to thrive. 

Sure, we need guidance and support, they are critical.
But the support must be a foundation without being confining. That is the key to raising healthy vegetables and healthy children.

I started my vegetable garden when my children became adults as a way of coping with the empty nest situation. Soon after came this blog. Learning to live a life which is not centered around my children is a challenging process. And truthfully it starts when the children are around 4 years old. Oh boy, I remember the, "I do it myself!" moments when I was forced to take a deep breath and remain patient while watching my child struggle with shoes, or a jacket, or whatever.

My son is a private person, a very competent person who is completely capable, and I trust his judgement without reservation. He is successful professionally and socially. He is an over achiever, calm, determined, amazing. We have a good relationship and I am deeply thankful for that. I know it is a precious thing to be close to your twently-something son as sons tend to pull strongly away from their parents at this stage. That is what we raised them to do, to become independent, but in the process we hope to stay relevant and connected.

I have learned to follow his lead when it comes to finding the right balance with trying to connect with my son. He is private, I want to know everything. That combination could be in issue. 

I don't press, I give him room, at least I try. And it's working. He is growing rapidly into the man of my dreams, a mother's dream come true.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Adios Amigos - Saying Goodbye to My Beefsteaks

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Today I decided to pull two of my tomato plants which were sick. I am not certain of their diagnosis as I am not a tomato expert, but I know a sick plant when I see one.
The new growth is yellow and stunted. Blossoms fall off before they open. Some leaves are curled. 
The plants were healthy until a few weeks ago. Luckily we harvested some nice tomatoes off of these plants before whatever hit them came along. As a remedy I tried compost tea, Epsom salts and pruning. They only got worse. The cause is not likely a watering or fertilizer problem because my other 3 tomatoes are healthy and they receive the same care as the sick ones. I don't use pesticides so that's not the cause of their malady.

After reading several articles online, I have learned there are several things that can cause tomato leaves to curl. One such problem is a virus called tomato leaf curl virus. It is spread by white flies and causes stunted growth, yellow and curling leaves, and decreased fruit production. The online pictures looked like my poor plants, so although I am not certain mine have this virus, I made the decision to pull these two plants. That way, in case they do have the virus, hopefully it won't spread to the other three tomato plants. 
It was hard to see those plants go after nurturing them since spring. 
Gardening is not for the weak at heart. At least my other tomatoes are thriving!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Asparagus Fern - My Nemesis.

Asparagus setaceus
If you see this plant at your local nursery, turn around and run. Please do yourself a favor and don't buy asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus) to plant in your garden. It takes over. It is a weed which grows where it is impossible to remove, like in cracks and around tree roots. 

It is a vigorous vining plant which tangles itself up and around trees, shrubs and fences sending shoots 15 feet long to cover anything in its path.
Oh sure, the delicate feather-like foliage is pretty, but don't be fooled.
Bower vine flowers covered in asparagus fern.
It has spikes which make wearing thick gloves a necessity while struggling to rid your plants of its grip. The berries are poisonous too, making it even more special. With its twisting habit, removing it from a shrub is a horrible chore.
 There is a corner of my yard which is definitely not Pinterest-ready. 
It's where bower vineduranta, climbing rose and jasmine collide in an entangled riot. It looks especially beautiful set off by the dead lawn and pile of sticks, don't you think? To add insult to injury, my nemesis, the dreaded asparagus fern, came to join the fracas. That was the tipping point. Something had to be done!
This was after I removed at least half of the asparagus fern which climbed 10 ft.
I removed as much of the asparagus fern as I could by just pulling it down. The plant is growing up from around the roots of the extremely thorny rose and it is so twisted around the plants I realized I could never dig it out. That's when I decided my only option was to spray it with Roundup so I headed to a nearby nursery to buy some. I hate using chemicals in the garden but it seemed to be the best option.

Like any gardener who goes to the nursery, I had to browse to see if there were any plants that were calling my name. Who can go to the nursery and just buy Roundup without having a look around? And there it was! I was thoroughly shocked to see it for sale at the nursery yesterday. For three and a half dollars you can bring home a nightmare named asparagus fern. I had never seen it for sale before. To me it would be like going to the store to buy dandelions. And at least you can eat dandelions. 

Knowing that Roundup will kill everything it touches, I had to be careful to avoid contact with the desirable plants. My method was to collect as much of the vines as I could into a mass, sort of like pulling your hair into a ponytail. I sprayed these ends of the vines and wrapped plastic around them to keep the Roundup off the other plants. 

So now in that picturesque corner of my yard there is a plastic bag filled with poisoned nastiness. Hopefully that poison will course through its veins and do away with my nemesis. Time will tell.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Melon Mayhem

It's melon mayhem, muskmelon madness.

As melons will, mine have taken over, spilling over and through the fence and onto the cement. Who am I to stop them? 

Today I counted 13 honeydew melons,
 7 cantaloupes (muskmelons), 
7 Crenshaw melons (my favorite),
 and many fury baby melons too young to identify.

I can hardly wait for them to ripen. It is a daily joy to check them. I have my eye on one honeydew I am certain will be ready soon. Patience is a gardener's challenge!

I just read that honeydew melons lose their fur when they are ripe. I took a closer look and indeed the immature ones are fury.
Can you see the tiny hairs? 
While the most ripe one is clean shaven.
Although it is hairless, I don't smell that fruity scent that tells me this beauty is ready to be picked.
I planted my melons in 4 mounds in one of my beds. As suggested on the seed packet, I made an elevated mound and planted 5-6 seeds in each mound. Almost all of them germinated and grew. Unfortunately I didn't thin them as recommended which contributed to them being so crowded. That's a newbie mistake, I will know better next year.

You can see the melon mounds in this picture taken in May. The soaker hose is looped over each mound. (There are strawberries and parsley planted to the left of them in the bed). I planted them in succession to prolong my harvest.  

From top to bottom they are: 
cantaloupe planted on 05-05-14 (They have not germinated in this photo.)
crenshaw planted on 03-30-14
honeydew planted on 03-01-14 (the largest plants)
and at the bottom are cantaloupe planted on 03-20-14.
Melon mounds planted in succession.
May 8, 2014
It astounds me how rapidly they grow. Here they are a couple of weeks later, spilling over onto the empty area next to the bed.
May 23, 2014
And today my cup runneth over.
Melon patch on July 18, 2014.
When you plant your melons, consider that the vines will grow toward the sun. I chose that spot to plant them because there was room for them to spill onto the empty area. Next year I will plant them in another bed which will not be as convenient, but rotating crops is important to keep yields high.

It is not all laughs and giggles in my melon patch, oh no. We have issues. Lots of issues.
One look from this angle and you can see problems in the middle, the leaves are looking a bit yellow.

A closer look tells a tale of mayhem.
It's a multitude of problems including aphids, chlorosis, powder mildew, leaf miners of some sort, and who knows what else. There's a battle going on and I'm losing. I have tried Neem oil which burned the leaves, soapy water which helps somewhat with the aphids, Epsom salts which definitely has helped the chlorosis (yellowing leaves). Despite how pitiful some areas are, the fruit is growing.

I just hope the fruit matures before the war is lost and the vines die. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Drought, No Doubt - Tips for Conserving Water in the Garden

Standing at the top of Hoover Dam in Nevada, the view is stunning. And disturbing. Yes, I've heard we're in a drought in California. Yes, I try to be conscious of my water use, try to conserve. But seeing that bathtub ring around Lake Mead really stunned me. The water level is shockingly low.

Recently I visited my brother who lives near Las Vegas. We went on a tour of the Hoover Dam which is nearby. The dam was built in the 1930's and it is a marvel. 

It was built to tame the Colorado River which had an unruly tendency to flood. It was built to allow man to channel the water, to carry it to the fertile valleys so that future generations could grow organic food in their urban gardens (and take a shower afterward). The hydroelectric power supplies electricity too.

In Southern California we rely on a system of aqueducts to bring us water since we get so little rainfall. Seeing this source of water so depleted had an impact on me, it made me even more aware of the need to conserve water. Gardening obviously requires water, so I take steps to use water wisely. 

I thought I would share are some tips on conserving water in the garden.

1. Amend the soil, add organic matter. Rich soil holds moisture. My soil tends to be sandy so adding compost is a must.

2. Apply a layer of mulch. This prevents evaporation as it holds the moisture in and keeps the soil cooler by blocking the sun.

3. Water only when the plants need it. Every plants has its wilting point, the point where the moisture content is so low that the plant wilts. Clearly you want to water the plants before they reach that point. Some plants require more moisture than others, so grouping plants with similar requirements is helpful. 

4. Adjust how deeply and how frequently you water as the plants grow. When plants are young their roots are shallow, so they need to be watered more frequently since the top few inches of soil dry out the fastest. As the roots grow deeper, you need to water longer so the water goes deeper. Because the deeper soil stays moist longer, you can water less often as the roots grow deeper.  So as the season progresses I water for longer duration and less frequently.

5. Use soaker hoses. Soaker hoses reduce water loss through evaporation and run-off. They also target the water where you need it. I find that I still need to do some hand watering in my garden as there are inevitably a few dry patches between the hoses, but at least I'm not watering the pavement with sprinklers.

6. Water in the very early morning hours. This reduces water loss through evaporation. It also ensures the plants are well hydrated to face the heat of the day. Watering in the evening can lead to problems with mildew.

7. Let the lawn suffer a little in the summer. I love a perfectly lush lawn as much as the next guy, but it is such an extravagant waste of water. I'm guilty, lawns are present both in the front and backyards at my house. I water them just enough to keep them mostly green but they are not lush, that's for sure. Lately I've noticed more and more lawns being replaced by xeriscape gardens and I love them. Maybe someday I'll take the plunge too, maybe.

Seeing the dam gave me a renewed appreciation for the miracle which is running water and it made me proud of my American roots. The size is awe inspiring. 

What a feat of engineering and gusto. Knowing it was built in the depression gives it a nostalgic feel for me. What a source of pride and financial security it must have been to our depleted Americans at that time of struggle. Men toiled in the Nevada heat for fifty cents an hour, and they built this mammoth damn which is 726 ft high and 1,244 ft long and contains 4.5 million cubic yards of cement. The Hoover Dam Tour is a nice side trip if you find yourself in need of a break from the lights and chaos of Vegas.

A small community was needed to house the laborers who built the dam, so Boulder City, Nevada was born. I mention this because an extraordinary thing happens in that town each evening. Down from the mountains come a herd of big horn sheep, walking right down the city street to Hemmenway Park. They come to graze, and people come to watch. 
Big horn sheep with Lake Mead in the background.

Big Daddy
My nephew standing 20 ft from the normally elusive big horn sheep.
We counted 61 sheep in the park.
Baby horns
What a treat to see these beauties up close.