Taking a Measured Approach to Biointensive Growing

As we plan expansion of our vegetable garden/tiny farm, we’re hoping to grow healthy food by continuing to use organic methods and some principles of biointensive (biologically intensive) planting. The idea of biointensive farming is far from new, but more small and large farmers are applying biointensive principles, which complement organic methods – and for us – water savings.

vegetable garden at dusk
It’s important to grow food sustainably for best results and to avoid ruining the environment.

In biointensive horticulture, rich, healthy soil maximizes a farmer’s yield in minimal space; it also strives to continuously preserve, or even improve, the soil’s health. And that should be the goal of any vegetable gardener. Biointensive farmers loosen soil more deeply by using tools such as broadforks instead of tilling and turning the soil over. Compost is king, building and enriching the soil.

building garden bed
Building a bed in fall by adding compost and recycling healthy plant matter.

So far, so good. We already take those steps. A few more principles of biointensive gardening follow. I want to share our measured approach largely to help gardeners who have less time or experience. Any method with the word “intensive” in the name is going to freak some folks out. But nothing says that gardeners have to follow every tenet of biointensive gardening to the letter. To me, adopting any of the ideas should improve plant health and production, especially if you’ve never gardened organically. There’s no way I can adequately tackle this topic; entire books address it. And I don’t claim to be an expert, but we’re adding to our knowledge base with research, along with trial and error!

Healthy soil for healthy plants

As I said, composting and double digging of beds better prepares soil. If you can produce your own compost on site, even better. That leaves plenty of healthy organic matter on hand and saves money. Another principle is avoiding chemicals in the garden. If soil and plants are healthy, they should need less help and better resist pests and diseases. We spray aphids off with blasts of water, handpick critters like cucumber beetles and use insecticidal soap or diatomaceous earth only when nothing else works.

compost bin
We keep one compost bin right by the garden, another closer to the house, and Tim is starting vermicomposting this spring. You can tell by looking at the yard around the garden how dry the ground was in September 2015.

More yield in less space

Maximizing growing space is another premise of biointensive gardening. One reason is weed prevention and cooling of soil, or “living mulch” from mature plants. The other is efficiency and production, especially for urban gardeners with limited space. We certainly want to grow as much as we can in the space we have. But in biointensive gardening, the design and proximity of plantings is a little too, well, intense for me.

I love the idea of planting lettuces and other low greens close enough to help shade the soil and block weeds. But I’ve seen what happens when people plant tomatoes too close together. Not only do some plants shade others from valuable sun, but they don’t get enough air circulation. Plants also compete for nutrients and water. And why build an above-ground highway to make it even easier for a hornworm to travel from one plant to another? Finally, I want to be able to reach plants for easy maintenance and harvesting. We’ll experiment on the lettuce and maybe another crop or bed to see how close spacing compares.

vegetable garden spacing
Plants need some space, and spacing changes as plants mature. We learned a lot our first year of laying out this space.

Interplanting and companion planting

We’ve read Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener,” and plan to employ many of his methods for building rows. We’ve built up the soil and added compost, and measured the rows so they’re 30 inches wide, with a small walkway between each. That’s just enough room to maximize growing area and minimize plant problems or gardener aches, pains and frustration. We’ve got containers to extend our growing space. I believe we’ll also try a little more interplanting, just to help maximize space or use the shade from a tall or trellised plant to cool another. Many urban gardeners use square-foot gardening to achieve intensive planting.

mature vegetable garden
It’s hard to tell where the tomato ends and the melon begins.

We won’t, however, use interplanting as companion planting. I know there is historical basis for placing particular plants next to one another to improve each plant’s health or yield, but I’m less certain about scientific basis for the practice. Aside from use of cover crops to enrich the soil at the end of the season, I’m not sold on companion planting. Of course, I might have a jaded opinion because I’m so tired of seeing it, along with many garden myths, pushed on Pinterest. We’ll continue to build and improve the soil in our beds and rotate crops.

walk to vegetable garden
The garden is behind this abandoned irrigation ditch. We’ll plant some milkweed and a few transplants to the south side of the bank to attract more pollinators. For now, that’s as close a I’ll come to companion planting.

Whole-minded and open pollination

The biointensive principle of using open-pollinated seeds instead of GMO varieties ensures biodiversity of crops. The reason is that heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants can be saved for use the next year. Saved hybrid seeds are not reliable. Our focus this year has been on organic seeds, and I don’t believe we would try to save seeds for vegetables regardless. We have saved or redistributed seeds from wildflowers.

cosmos and other annuals
Pollinators flock to many annuals and perennials, and these wildflowers spread naturally. The more pollinators we can attract, the more we help all of our gardens.

As with permaculture, biointensive gardening focuses on the whole and how different parts of the garden, or ways of gardening, affect each other. For example, if I don’t apply chemicals to my vegetables, but use pesticides on ornamentals on my property, I still affect the tiny ecosystem. The pesticides can kill bees that might otherwise fly over to the vegetable garden and pollinate a cucumber.

fresh vegetables farm to table
Here’s a healthy yield of fresh vegetables for our kitchen!

Learn more about biointensive gardening from Fortier’s book and from this Mother Earth News article, including a great explanation of square foot gardening. And don’t stress over doing everything suggested or doing it perfectly. The first goal is to grow healthy plants and food for your family.

 

Presidents’ Day Reflection: Visiting Presidential Gardens

On Presidents’ Day, I began to think about a trip we made to Washington, D.C., about 10 years ago, and the presidential gardens we visited. In particular, I fell in love with the lawns and architecture of Monticello and Mount Vernon.  But thanks to a friend, we also got tickets to tour some of the White House lawns. If we were not so far away, I would visit these historic sites every spring and summer!

White House grounds. We got to tour the South Lawn about 10 years ago.
White House grounds. We got to tour the South Lawn about 10 years ago.

Presidential Trees

Thomas Jefferson, who grew more than 250 varieties of herbs and vegetables at his Monticello plantation, started a tradition of planting trees on the White House grounds. We got to see trees planted by several former presidents. Among the longest living trees is a magnolia selected by Andrew Jackson.

Of course, the grounds are magnificent, with fescue grass and plenty of shrubs and flowers to enjoy. The first White House gardener was likely Charles Bizet, who was hired by President James Monroe. The gardens had a congruous feel and flow, while also including personal touches of past presidents and first ladies.

White House trees mix the new and the very old.
White House trees mix the new and the very old.

Kitchen Garden Tradition

President John Adams first ordered vegetable gardens on the White House grounds, and Thomas Jefferson refined and expanded on the gardens. After seeing the 1,000-foot long, terraced kitchen garden at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., I can imagine President Jefferson knew how to manage the project.

View of Monticello from near the kitchen gardens.
Our view of Monticello from near the kitchen gardens.

Presidents continued to grow food on the grounds, and elaborate greenhouses were used throughout the 19th century. Victory gardens appeared during wars, but for the most part, White House staff began purchasing produce as local markets became more commonplace.

In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama added an 1,100 square foot kitchen garden to the South Lawn. The garden serves several  purposes, including honoring of past presidents with inclusion of some of their favorite heirloom vegetables, production of food for her family and for State dinners, a kitchen garden dedicated to providing food to the homeless, and education for youth about eating healthy. The White House gives group tours of the kitchen gardens, and tours of the lawns occur sporadically throughout spring and summer.

tulips Monticello
Tulips blooming in Monticello gardens. Credit:
Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In addition, both Monticello and Mount Vernon offer tours of the grounds. If you make it to the nation’s capitol, I hope you can add these to your stops. You can even buy heirloom seeds in the Monticello gift shop.

 

 

Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Growing Edibles: Keep it Simple for Success

As you plan for 2016 gardening and home budgets, you might be considering growing edibles on your patio, in your backyard or as part of a community garden. If you feel daunted by the prospect of first-time-gardening or expansion, keep it simple.

Locally grown food typically is better for you and more sustainable, whether you get the food from your own garden or a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) or Farmers’ Market. You can turn your kids on to healthier food choices when they become involved in growing and harvesting the food.

kitchen garden food
There’s nothing fresher than food from your own yard or a local grower. We harvested all of this in one morning.

Grocery store produce travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to store shelf. I don’t see how it could possible be fresher, more nutritious or more sustainable than produce that travels 10 yards from your garden to your kitchen. It’s easy to grow your own food; here are five ways to keep your edible garden simple, fun and effective.

Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.
Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.

Be selective. If you’re a seasoned gardener or a foodie, it’s tempting to grow nearly every herb or vegetable that you typically buy. But unless you’re expanding last year’s garden or have lots of help and land, grow a few selected plants, at least the first year. The best way to decide which food to grow? Start with favorites for your family; you can even let every family member choose one vegetable he or she loves the most. That helps ease waste and makes it more fun. Other considerations are climate and growing season, and what’s available (or in our case, unavailable), fresh and affordable at local stores. Leave it to local farmers to supplement your stash by learning what’s typically available at stands and Farmers’ Markets.

You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.
You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.

Start seeds or buy plants. Starting seeds is less expensive, or at least the seeds themselves cost less than plants. But if this is your first foray into a kitchen garden, be sure to consider the costs of raising healthy seedlings. You’ll need containers, potting material, and possibly heat mats and grow lights. Of course, you can start some plants directly in the ground or container once it warms up, so practice on one that’s easy to grow or fits well into your growing season length. Maybe it’s easier to buy starter plants (and support local nurseries) instead of growing indoor seedlings. Expand into seed starting next year once you learn and have success.

grow lights on seedlings
Seeds need warmth and light to grow. You can repurpose or recycle containers, but you’ll likely need grow lights and heat mats. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Check production to avoid waste. Although yields from plants can vary according to variety, zone and how the weather cooperates each year, you can estimate how many tomatoes you’ll likely harvest, for instance. Cautious people like me tend to overplant, worrying that one of the seedlings won’t make it and I’ll have too few of a selection. Be realistic and thin seedlings to control the yield. Seed catalogs are excellent sources of average yield, and this checklist from Bonnie Plants is a terrific start. And a caution: zucchini is easy to grow, and 7 to 10 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot of zucchini. But it is.

Were trying yellow summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com
Were trying summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com

Keep sustainability in mind. Choosing the food you and your family like the best and keeping quantity down avoids waste of water, time and other resources. By growing only what you need, you supplement what’s commercially available and waste little. Using organic practices and spending as much time with your plants as possible can keep the plants healthy. This means preparing containers and gardens with plenty of organic matter and watering regularly and deeply. Healthy plants are less susceptible to disease and insects. But if a plant has problems, don’t blame yourself or throw in the towel. You only have so much control as a gardener. Get help from a friend, local master gardeners or extension agents.

Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success with growing them in this trough.
Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success growing them in this trough.

Share your bounty. Once you begin to harvest, if you have too much of any food, try not to waste it. Each discarded zucchini tosses up to gallons of water used to grow the plant, as well as your time and effort. One choice is to preserve extra produce if you have time and materials to do so. The only way kitchen gardening and local farming can remain sustainable is if gardeners can avoid waste. Have a plan in place to share with an eager friend or neighbor or donate extra produce to a local food pantry. Then adjust your plan for next year if you had excessive yields.

When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!
When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!

Finally, start small if you’ve never gardened. Choose one herb and vegetable that you can grow in a container or in an empty spot in your landscape. And spend some time volunteering at a coop farm or with a friend who has more experience so you can learn more about growing your own food.

Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!
Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the experience. There are no perfect gardeners or perfect gardens. Everyone learns by trial and error. The joy comes when you bite into the rewards of your efforts!

Starting Seeds for the 2016 Garden: Patience Required

After a crazy, colder winter from El Nino that’s morphed into 60-plus degree weather this week, I’ve been so tempted to spend a few days outside on gardening tasks I know it’s too early to tackle. It doesn’t help that lots of folks on social media already are starting their seeds, or gardeners on other continents are growing vegetables and flowers!

red bud blooms
The red bud, pear tree (white in background) , and alyssum won’t even bloom for nearly seven more weeks.

Here’s the thing – those gardeners who are starting seeds now either live in a warmer zone than us or can seriously extend their seasons with greenhouses or geodesic domes. I wish they would send me one.

We’re in zone 6B, which means a last frost date around Mother’s Day (in Albuquerque, only about one zone warmer, the last date is closer to April 15). The ground often needs to warm up to successfully germinate seeds. So even though we might safely pass the frost date, a cold week or two prior to that means the ground isn’t ready.

My impatience has caused problems in past years. We received our shipment of lavender plants earlier than we thought, and just because it seemed warmer outside, I decided to get them out of their nursery containers and into the ground. The ground was too cold. And then we got a cold rain. The roots were wet on top of the cold. Although most of the lavender made it, several plants never really got established.

seedlings can get leggy with too little light
Hardening off last year’s leggy basil and tomato seedlings, along with a sage transplant.

I’ve also sowed or started seeds too early, ending up with leggy seedlings, or seeds that didn’t take in the ground. Seeds don’t cost much, but I watered some cucumber seeds for nearly two weeks before realizing it just wasn’t warm enough yet. I don’t like to waste water or time! When sowing seeds indoors, it’s typical to count back about six weeks from when you can plant, depending on how quickly the seed germinates. Poor lighting also can make seedlings leggy.

Our second wave of cucumbers really took off and produced!
Our second wave of cucumbers really took off and produced!

This year, I’m trying a few strategies to keep myself busy “gardening” without moving too soon on seeding, planting and even trimming perennials. If my strategies don’t help, I might have to ask my hubby to hide some tools and seed packets. I hope these ideas will help other gardeners who are impatient for spring:

Order seeds ahead of time. Some of the suppliers are swamped with orders right now; processing and shipping will take longer.

Once the seeds come, put them away in a dark, cool spot. Keep your seeds fresher by storing them out of the heat and sun. That’s after you’ve kissed and read the packet and planned your start date.

store and sort seeds
We store seeds on this cool, dark closet shelf. And we’re using a Seedkeeper Home Farmer kit to sort this year’s edible seeds.

Sort your seeds and plan your vegetable, herb and ornamental garden layouts or new plantings. Count backward from planting time to account for average germination time, and include a week or two to harden seedlings off before planting.

If starting seeds inside, find a warm, light place to place your trays. If possible, purchase both a heat mat and a quality set of grow lights. The warmth helps seeds germinate and is especially important for New Mexico gardeners; chile pepper seedlings need warmth as much as light. And have a plan to pot up seedlings such as tomatoes.

potting up vegetable seeds
Potting up with larger containers or soil blocks gives seedling roots more room to grow and become healthy.

Plant a few cool-temp crops. I’m planning when I can start some cool-season seedlings or crops. At least counting backward from late spring and having an earlier planting for some vegetables gives me a closer date to which I can count down. For example, you can usually plant root crops such as beets, carrots and potatoes, and many greens, as soon as the ground is workable. Just check the seed package and local master gardener or county extension materials for more detail.

arugula seedlings rock rose
Arugula seedlings in a patio container in April last year, about the time this purple rock rose bloomed.

Prep the garden. Make sure you’ve added some organic matter to soil in your vegetable garden and find a good source for compost. Fill and lay out beds if possible. Add mulches or do other hardscaping chores on warm winter days until you can begin trimming perennials.

Extend your season, or plan to do so next year. I’ll use a combination of buckets and row cover cloth to make sure some of our seeds and seedlings have plenty of warmth after they’re planted. And that’s just a preventive measure in case temps drop substantially after our last frost. Planting early crops in containers also helps; container soil warms faster than does the ground. Low tunnels and hoop houses for season extension cost less than greenhouses to build.

buckets to protect vegetable seedlings
Free five-gallon buckets with the bottoms cut out make great mini-hothouses and protect fragile seedlings from wind.

Keep plants healthy. Our south-facing windows begin to get less light as the sun moves higher in the sky in spring. Sometimes, we have to move houseplants around or give theme artificial light to keep them warm and happy. If you haven’t gotten to trimming trees that need it this year, choose a warm day to finish the task before the trees begin to bud out.

houseplants in sunny window winter
Less sun will enter these south-facing windows as spring and summer approach.

Trim roses if you have them. Roses need to be cut back closer to late winter and early spring. We have a forsythia bush, and when it blooms, I know it’s time to trim roses. Nature is the best garden timer. Gardeners like me just have to work with her…

Save Water by Growing Food: How to Add Edibles to a Low-water Garden

Growing edibles can be a smart xeric strategy, especially for anyone looking to begin a garden or use less water in the lawn and garden. Many edibles are attractive and some are evergreen. If you live in an arid zone, applying more water to edibles than to ornamental plants is the right thing to do. Here are a few strategies for making your lawn and garden attractive while saving water and helping to feed your family.

container edibles
Tomato and rosemary make gorgeous edible container plants, especially interspersed with herbs and flowering plants.

Grow perennial herbs and vegetables

Luckily, several delicious and useful perennial herbs require little water. My favorites are rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme. All of these plants thrive in our xeric garden at zone 6B, and many are hardy to even colder temperatures. Providing well-drained soil helps these herbs survive; some of the only diseases that attack them are related to prolonged wet roots or poor air circulation around wet leaves. Other useful perennial herbs for the xeric garden include bee balm, yarrow and oregano.

Lavender is one of the prettiest xeric herbs. Use it in recipes, to make gifts, or to attract pollinators to your garden.
Lavender is one of the prettiest xeric herbs. Use it in recipes, to make gifts, or to attract pollinators to your garden.

Once you’ve mastered a successful season growing food, consider a perennial vegetable such as asparagus. One plant can survive for more than a decade. Growing asparagus requires some patience until the plant produces and a commitment, but harvesting fresh asparagus for several years would be worth it. Although the vegetable requires more water than some for the first few years, you’re likely to use less water over the life of the plant than you would by planting a crop of zucchini or other vegetable year after year. Asparagus is hardy in zones 3 to 8. Some spears showed up along our ditch bank last year. They were leggy, but the plants have survived several winters with no irrigation or other effort on part, since we didn’t know about them. Here’s an article from Gardener’s Supply Company on how to grow asparagus.

This apricot looks beautiful all year long and shades parts of the house, patio and garden, even though frost has kept it from producing fruit for a few years.
This apricot looks beautiful all year long and shades parts of the house, patio and garden, even though frost has kept it from producing fruit for a few years.

Shade with trees that produce food

Shade is a must for lawns in hot, dry climates. If you’re going to plant a shade tree, why not choose one that produces food? I believe that fruit trees get a bad rap as being “messy.” It takes less time to harvest from the trees or pick up dropped fruit every few days than it takes some of us to make a grocery trip! Enjoy the shade of an apricot or apple tree and delicious, fresh fruit in summer, depending on the year’s frost. Fruit trees also have beautiful spring color and attract pollinators. Some nut trees thrive in warm climates.

We had to climb ladders and compete with birds for our tart cherries this summer, but they were worth it.
We had to climb ladders and compete with birds for our tart cherries this summer, but they were worth it.

Dwarf fruit trees provide less shade, but use less water and space and produce a more reasonable amount of fruit. Busy working parents likely will appreciate that dwarf fruit trees entail less work than full-sized ones in an abundant year. Dwarf trees require less climbing and pruning, and often produce fruit earlier than their larger counterparts. A single dwarf tree that requires no companion for pollination can add a little shade, color and interest to a xeric lawn or garden. Just be sure to choose a variety hardy for your zone. Many dwarf pears, plums and apples are hardy to zone 5; Stark Bro’s helps you choose a dwarf variety based on your zone. Mulching around the tree can reduce water needs.

Use shade for other edibles

Trees provide shade for people and plants. Take advantage of shade to grow edible crops under trees, shrubs or other vegetables. Many herbs and vegetables tolerate partial shade or grow best during cooler weather. Planting basil where it gets afternoon shade can help the plant thrive and use less water. Just be sure to estimate where the shade will be come the height of summer, not where it is when you plant.

These containers grew short-season tomatoes, basil and marigolds. We could move them to adjust to shade, then back into more sun as late summer shadows shifted.
These containers grew short-season tomatoes, basil and marigolds. We could move them to adjust to shade, then back into more sun as late summer shadows shifted.

Planting edibles in containers is a smart water choice and can give the gardener more flexibility in controlling sun exposure. I planted several tomatoes in containers and moved the pots slightly as summer became hotter, giving them plenty of sun, but afternoon shade on our patio. Of course, you need a properly sized container for the plant you choose. Grape and cherry tomatoes need a little less space than full-sized varieties. You can place containers in the shade of trees, right in the garden, to complement your garden’s design.

Choose cool-season crops

Providing shade extends the season of crops that grow better in cooler temperatures. Choosing some cool-season crops also can save water because these edibles produce in early spring or late fall, using less water than those grown in hot summer sun. We’ve used shade to grow lettuce mixes and spinach. Again, using containers for these crops allows you to easily move the container when summer sun or drought stress the plants. And containers help you grow edibles close to your kitchen for more months of the year.

spinach in metal container
Lettuce and spinach prefer cooler temperatures; our apricot provided afternoon shade for a spinach container.

Although you might not think you’re saving water when soaking tomatoes, consider the amount of water that goes into tomatoes you buy at the store, along with the energy used to transport them. Most of all, take a bite of a tomato right from the vine and you’ll quickly lose your taste for any store-bought fruit.

Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers fresh from our kitchen garden.
Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers fresh from our kitchen garden.

Our Garden is Hard at Work This Winter

Winter is tough for gardeners who live in zones with shorter growing seasons. In New Mexico, we can typically get outside in winter to work on between-season chores because we usually have dry, sunny conditions. Not so much this year. We’ve had unusual cold, wind and now about 18 to 20 inches of snow.

Our latest snow covered many xeric plants in the garden and keeps wildlife from eating grass and insects on the ground.
Winter storm Goliath dumped at least 18 inches of snow that covered many xeric plants in the garden and keeps wildlife from eating grass and insects on the ground.

Even with snow and cold, there are a few things gardeners can do in winter to satisfy their outdoor cravings and grow a bit of their own food. And our gardens certainly don’t rest all winter; with a little help, the soil rebuilds to nourish next year’s plants. Dormant or dried plants feed wildlife while their food is scarce.

Extend the season with row cover

Like I said, most winters are relatively mild in New Mexico. Although nights in the high desert cool considerably, the days can warm up to at least 50 degrees F. I covered an existing carrot trough to keep the carrots from freezing; they keep much better in the ground than anywhere I can store them once harvested. If you live in zone 8 or warmer, you can grow carrots in winter. We’re trying a new crop and storage/preservation of an established crop in our trough planter.

These carrots were planted in late summer and we're still harvesting after Christmas.
These carrots were planted in late summer and we’re still harvesting after Christmas.

We constructed a small hoop house with row cover cloth to extend the season for early spring or late fall. We spread our carrot, lettuce and spinach seeds inside the hoop tunnel in fall and had a really good germination rate. The carrots are growing slowly, however, and I hope to plant them a little earlier next year. Then again, I also hope for a warmer winter.

We got hoops and row cover cloth from Johnny's Seeds. I've harvested spinach and lettuce. The carrots are growing slowly, but hanging in there.
We got hoops and row cover cloth from Johnny’s Seeds. I’ve harvested spinach and lettuce. The carrots are growing slowly, but hanging in there.
Considering this winter has brought many nights below 20 degrees F, the covered hoop house appears to be working.
Considering this winter has brought many nights below 20 degrees F, the covered hoop house appears to be working.

Prepare the vegetable garden for spring

Before the snow came, we got outside a few times to at least prep our vegetable and herb gardens for next spring. We didn’t have a chance to plant cover crops, and that’s on our list as a strategy for next year in part of the garden. But we want our gardens to rebuild important soil nutrients, so we pulled up some of the frost-bitten plants. Any that looked unhealthy went into a weed pile, but we added much of the material to our compost bin, and left some in the garden. We chopped up the healthy plant material left in garden rows to help it break down faster.

A friend introduced us to mushroom compost, and it's our favorite choice for amending soil and fertilizing grass.
Although we would prefer to buy fresh compost in bulk, there are no certified compost sources nearby. We have to buy these bags in Albuquerque and transport them down. Mushroom compost is our organic matter of choice for building beds and fertilizing grass.

Although we compost, we don’t generate enough to cover our entire vegetable garden, so we purchased mushroom compost, our favorite organic matter. We busted up compacted dirt and built the beds up so they’re slightly raised. Next, we used a small cultivator to work the compost into the top few inches. It’s not the same as tilling, which turns up deeper soil and weed seeds. We’d love to cover the beds with leaves or other mulch, but the wind rules that out. So we used plastic or black fabric cloth on hand. The purpose is mostly to keep weed seeds from blowing onto our clean beds and taking root. In spring, we’ll add a little more compost and mix the soil lightly a few weeks before planting.

Tim works the mushroom compost gently into a row.
Tim works the mushroom compost gently into a row.
We ran out of plastic, which we prefer so that sun reaches the soil. So we used black landscape fabric on one bed. We'll see how they compare in the spring.
We ran out of plastic, which we prefer so that sun reaches the soil. So we used black landscape fabric on one bed. We’ll see how they compare in the spring.

Leave some plant material for wildlife

Schools of thought about fall garden clean-up differ. On the one hand, the more leaves and other plant material you leave on the ground, the higher your chance of insects and weeds using your garden as their winter home. And I agree in many ways with that school of thought. We didn’t want the mess of dried annuals everywhere, and I wouldn’t want a giant pile of leaves up against areas of the garden or house.

Our garden and landscape are partially wild in winter, just enough to help feed wild turkeys!
Our garden and landscape are partially wild in winter, just enough to help feed wild turkeys!

Leaving leaves on grass as mulch for the winter is a great idea, but only if you have a way to break the leaves up with a mower or other method. If you don’t, they’re not likely to compost down before spring. Not cutting back any ornamentals can leave your winter garden looking sad and messy. Plant debris can build up and leave you with more work than you bargained for in spring, when you’d rather spend your time planting than cleaning.

We take a middle-of-the-road approach. We pulled up many, but not all, annuals to keep the garden from being a messy jungle and home to critters we don’t want. We left some for birds to land on or feed from. They take shelter in and eat from roses and other bushes left unpruned until early spring. And we don’t mow our grass late in the season; that’s proven to attract and feed wild turkeys, deer and elk.

Three fawns graze on grass and a pyracantha in our front yard.
Three fawns graze on grass and a pyracantha in our front yard right outside the kitchen window (which explains the mysterious reflection of my coffee cup planter).

In some areas, we cleaned up fallen leaves and used them to mulch tender perennials. But we didn’t try to rake leaves down by the river. That might help butterfly and other larvae through the winter, and if it also helps insects we don’t want, at least it’s far from the gardens.

What? More snow? Yep, as I was wrapping up this post. El Nino ...
What? More snow? Yep, as I was wrapping up this post. How about a break, El Nino?

The bottom line is that even if you can’t do much in your garden in winter, your garden and soil are doing lots for you and other living creatures. I try not to stress over whether I’m handling it perfectly, but choose and alter our approach based on what works best and what makes me feel best as I stare out the window at a blanket of white, itching to get back outside.

Safely Use Rain Water on Vegetables and Herbs

It seems that Los Angeles officials are considering installing cisterns with smart technology to catch rain water for irrigation. It’s about time. Even when rain barrels and cisterns fail to collect all of the water that falls from the skies or flows from the roof, they still make use of water that might otherwise run off and go to waste. And homeowners can use the water for ornamentals and even edibles.

rain barrel metal roof
This is one of two rain barrels by our house. We used it to water the carrots in the pot next to it one year, along with container tomatoes. It also serves as a handy drinking spot for the mutts and apparently as a shelf for my wind chimes when they annoy my husband as a storm such as this one comes in.

I don’t know much about LA and its politics, but I do know that when I made a trip to southern California recently, water restrictions were forcing patches of brown grass more than landscape alterations. Pulling up some of the grass, replacing it with a few vegetables and herbs, and then watering those edibles with rain water seems like a really smart and sustainable solution.

We’ve been using rain barrels for many years. When we had a flat tar and gravel roof and city water in Albuquerque, N.M., we limited use of the rain barrel to ornamentals only. But now that we rely on a well, grow more food on more land and have metal roofing, we use rain water on our vegetables and herbs.

rain barrel for watering ornamentals and edibles
Here’s the same barrel up close and right after we put it into service in early spring. I know I can’t water everything with it, but we don’t need to. Most of our ornamentals are xeric and need no regular watering. Why not capture some rain to use where we can?

Before collecting rain water for edibles, I researched the topic and found little information, but enough to make me feel comfortable using the water. Since then, more data is out there confirming that for the most part, collected rain water from common roofing materials is safe for edibles as long as you follow a few preventive collection and watering practices. Most of my tips are about barrels, which is all I have so far. I would love to have a cistern; it’s on my wish list! To learn more about the data and specific roof material information, check out the Resources page under Rainwater Collection and Rain Barrels.

Safe Rain Water Collection

None of the research claims that collected rain water is potable. There are just too many variables. In urban areas, pollution settles on rooftops. Where I live, critters and birds fly over or hang out on the gutters, likely leaving droppings. Here are a few ways to make your collected water safer for vegetable use:

  • Clean rain barrels with a bleach solution before using them for edibles. Rutgers also recommends adding eight drops of bleach per month for a 55-gallon barrel, and waiting 24 hours before using the water so the bleach can dissipate.
  • Rinse out barrels once a year, removing sediment and using either bleach or a vinegar and lemon solution to clean the barrel.
  • Keep gutters clean and free of debris, which also makes good sense for roof maintenance.
We installed a new rain barrel system on the shed near our vegetable garden this spring. We can see the roof well enough to know whether there is anything we need to clean off!
We installed a new rain barrel system on the shed near our vegetable garden this spring. We can see the roof well enough to know whether there is anything we need to clean off!
  • When installing a new system, it’s recommended to have a first-flush diverted added. This washes the first flush of downspout water, along with debris and contaminants, away from the barrel before it begins filling.
  • Most commercial barrels have screens to keep debris (and birds or other small animals) from getting inside the barrel. Be sure to wipe the screens off from time to time. Even leaves can rot and drip into the rain water.

Safe Watering 

Of course, you can choose to water only ornamental and house plants with rain water if you have any doubts. I also tend to alternate watering between my barrel and well for vegetable rows, just to mix up the nutrients and potential metals from both, and because the barrel by the garden usually empties before the next good rain. For safest edible watering, be sure to follow these tips:

  • After a barrel fills, use the first full bucket or so on ornamentals, not on vegetables or herbs. This first flush from the barrel usually contains more contaminants because of settled water at the bottom.
  • Always water the soil and not the plant, a best practice for gardening anyway. And the soil absorbs the water, not the leaves. This is especially important for any edible you harvest from above the ground (or other than root vegetables).
Drip irrigation is the best method for watering efficiently and safely, and can work with some rain collection systems.
Drip irrigation is the best method for watering efficiently and safely, and can work with some rain collection systems.
  • Water in the morning and wait to harvest, after the sun’s rays have dried and disinfected the plants.

Finally, those folks in California can water their lawns (hopefully less by switching to native, low-water grasses) with cisterns, which typically have pressure valves. Most smaller rain barrels lack the pressure required to drive soaker hoses. Raising your barrel a few feet can increase the pressure to allow use of a hose or drip system, but likely not enough to run a lawn sprinkler. In the past, we’ve used stacked square pavers or cement blocks to raise ours.

This is the view of the new barrel from the vegetable garden, just before a storm. The barrel is slightly uphill, so we get good flow, but I might raise it more next year.
This is the view of the new barrel and shed from the vegetable garden, just before a storm. The barrel is slightly uphill, so we get good flow, but I might raise it more next year.

Book Review: The Market Gardener

I can’t remember now where I saw the post or news story that led me to Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener” (New Society Publishers, 2014). But I recall that the timing was perfect for us. We’re considering expanding our garden and using a small portion of our acreage to launch some small-scale organic farming to provide local fresh food.

book review of The Market Gardener
This is a great book to encourage people to try small farming or just help them find resources.

Fortier’s book is an excellent guide for anyone considering a small-scale organic farming operation. Even though his location and the circumstances surrounding Les Jardins de la Grelinette in Quebec are quite different from ours, there are some things all start-up operations must consider, and certainly challenges all gardeners and growers face!

What I found most helpful about the book is that the author was willing to share so much practical detail. He provides as much useful information about his biointensive approach as he does about timing of crops and layout of the farm. Even more helpful for us, Fortier offers tips for saving money, resources for buying tools and how he keeps records. He also reveals which crops have been most profitable for the farm and has a brief section covering specifics about the crops La Grelinette grows.

The book is full of charts and illustrations; the author basically shares the farm's records with readers.
The book is full of charts and illustrations; the author shares the farm’s records with readers.

For those looking to buy land and set up a new small farm operation, Fortier even discusses how to look for the best small acreage and how to lay out gardens and buildings. And he shares European techniques for weeding, as well as how he and his wife use green manure, cover crops and organic matter to replenish soil nutrients.

There are few drawbacks to this book for anyone like us exploring the idea of small organic farming. One is that I would have enjoyed seeing some actual photos of the farm and techniques. Having said that, the book has some excellent illustrations. In addition, I didn’t receive the book, which I ordered directly from themarketgardener.com, after a few weeks. I think the sellers were overwhelmed by publicity back in August when we ordered the book. But the reason I didn’t receive my copy was that my order was flagged – and this is a common problem with our address (and a long story). I heard back from someone within 24 hours of sending an e-mail inquiry. They not only responded, but more than made it right by providing me with a free, immediate electronic version of the book!

I like having both a hard copy and electronic version of the book.
I like having both a hard copy and electronic version of the book.

As with any garden or farm book, you have to weigh the information against your own zone or climate, soil and other factors that differ from those of the author.  But when an author gives so freely of practical, hard-earned advice, it’s so much easier. After both my husband and I have read the entire book, our copy already is dog-eared and marked up. I’m glad I have the electronic version now, so I can go back and search words to find advice we’ve discussed but might not have marked.

If you have an aspiring microfarmer on your gift list, I'm just sayin'...
If you have an aspiring microfarmer on your gift list, I’m just sayin’…

I highly recommend Fortier’s “The Market Gardener” as a practical guide for small local farmers, or anyone wanting to learn more about organic and microfarming.

Note: Neither Fortier nor the publisher asked me to write a review, nor did they provide the book for free (other than the complimentary PDF to make up for the late mailing). I wrote the review on my own.

Favorite Green: Arugula, Even the Wild Ones

Arugula, with its bitter flavor, is considered a gourmet green by many and way too bitter by some (namely, my husband). But the green is one of my favorites, partly for the flavor and partly because it’s so easy to grow in containers or in our high desert garden. It also grows wild around our property!

Wild arugula growing in a patch in the orchard. I just want to reach down and eat those bitter leaves!
Wild arugula growing in a patch in the orchard. I just want to reach down and munch on those yummy bitter leaves!

Maybe arugula grows so well here in New Mexico because the plant is native to the Mediterranean. We don’t water the wild bunches that grow near our house or out in our orchard, and I have no idea how they came to be there. I just know that I kept getting a whiff of arugula when mowing in certain portions of the lawn. This year, conditions were such that I was able to spot the leaves and have a bite. By late summer, the yellow flowers followed and I have asked Tim to join me in not mowing a few bunches. I prefer to grow a milder variety for my salads, but I like having the wild plants around for their scent and appearance. And there are much worse plants spreading in our yard than these tasty greens!

The wild bunches later flowered, making them pretty to smell and look at.
The wild bunches later flowered, making them pretty to smell and look at.

The taste of arugula is strong, but I love to add it to spinach or mesclun mixes, or really any greens. In fact, traditional and tangy mesclun mixes usually include arugula. The green is particularly good with blue cheese dressing and can spice up a chicken or turkey sandwich!

A single leaf of Astro Organic arugula. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.
A single leaf of Astro Organic arugula. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Baby arugula is harvested when the leaves are younger, and offers a milder flavor than mature plants. Like most greens, arugula grows best in your garden in cooler spring or fall weather. You can typically harvest the greens within 4 weeks. And if you let it go to flower, the flavor might become too intense. Most garden varieties of arugula have edible, attractive white flowers with purple veining. The wild variety has yellow flowers.

Arugula in our garden in early summer. It's best to cut from the outside. I also plan to cover it a little longer this year to keep bugs off.
Arugula in our garden in early summer. It’s best to cut from the outside. I plan to cover the young plants a little longer next year to keep bugs off.

Arugula also is called rocket or rocket salad. Some people use arugula more as an herb, sprinkling it sparingly on dishes for the peppery flavor. All fresh greens are healthy, but apparently arugula is packed with vitamins and antioxidants. To me, it’s packed with flavor and aroma!

Learn more about growing arugula in your garden in this article from Bonnie Plants, and check out Johnny’s Seeds for several varieties of wild arugula.

Five Reasons To Plan Now for Next Year’s Farm-to-Table Garden

As the first frost threatens, I know it’s time to plan next year’s vegetable and herb garden. And I’ve got five reasons for new or seasoned gardeners to do the same. I might be a little late for some of these ideas; that’s what happens sometimes! But I’ll hold onto them for next year and share some I’ve learned – like use of cover crops (no. 4), something I want to learn more about for waterwise gardening.

fresh tomato and basil from home garden
Mourning the end of the gardening season is easier with some planning, and while enjoying home-grown tomatoes and basil on some fresh mozzarella as a snack or side. Add salt, pepper, olive oil and balsamic and you have a yummy and easy Caprese salad!

1.Extend Your Season

First, can you extend the edible growing season with some fall or winter crops? If your zone allows, and it’s not too late already, then get started! We’ve planted some spinach, head lettuce and more carrots under a small hoop house with row cover fabric. Aside from many greens, favorite cool-season vegetables of gardeners are cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and several forms of broccoli. Several types of onion and garlic also grow in winter or are perennials in many zones. For example, chives are hardy to zone 3.

mini-hoop-house
Our simple mini-hoop house uses Hoop Loops, twine, row cover fabric and inexpensive brick pavers. We’ll see how long we can grow a few cool-season crops.

2. Add New Herbs

Speaking of perennials, maybe you want a perennial herb to thrive next year, and if you live in a zone that offers time to establish the plant before your fall freeze, head out and get it now! Low-water perennial herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary survive down to at least zone 4 or 5. Or consider a window herb garden if you can’t let go of your favorite herb as the season ends, or want to try a few out for next summer! Here’s a great article on growing herbs indoors from Grow a Good Life.

close-up of thyme leaves
Thyme is an attractive herb even before it blooms. It can spread nicely in a low-water garden.

3. Prep Soil and Plan

Clean up and prep soil; make a winter to-do list. Your soil is even more tired than you are after a season of growing food for you and your family. If you’re using the same space or turning part of your lawn into a new edible growing space, you’ll likely need to prep and enrich your soil. Pull up spent plants (or whatever takes up the space now) and be sure to discard any diseased plant materials. Add compost and let it cook. Here’s what we did early last spring (did I say I’m often late?), and an article from Mother Earth Living in 2012 that has some great ideas. This is also the time to make a to-do list of fall and winter projects, such as repairs to fences and drip lines or adding raised beds. Or, let’s say you want to expand because you’re nuts like us.

Our early spring garden preparation last year to kill any remaining grass and enrich the soil with organic matter.
Our early spring garden preparation last year to kill any remaining grass and enrich the soil with organic matter.

4. Plant a Cover Crop

If it’s still warm enough to sow cover crop seeds, this is one of the best strategies for enriching your soil, depending on your zone. Field peas, hairy vetch, many clovers, oats, rye and buckwheat are popular nutrient-restoring crops that can grow in winter in your edible garden. Plant cover crops with a few caveats, however: First, in drought-stricken and normally arid areas such as New Mexico, it only makes sense to plant cover crops that can grow in our typically dry climate. I’d like to investigate more about using water for something I will mow down and mulch into the ground after a few months vs. the benefits such as erosion control and soil improvement. And I hinted at another important caution: keep cover crops mowed or otherwise under control so they don’t go to seed, and be sure to cut them down in late winter to mulch into your garden. Otherwise, they can seed and spread, becoming invasive.

5. Note Ups and Downs

Finally, if you’re like me, you want to take notes about this year’s successes and “issues” now, because it was so hard to keep up with that during the peak of the working summer and harvest season. If you didn’t create a map or somehow record where you planted each crop, make a quick inventory before cleaning up so you can easily rotate next year’s planting. Think about how to improve your garden. I need to plant a few of my crops further apart (the reason for the expansion, or perhaps more accurately, the justification for the expansion!), and I need to time my succession planting a little further apart, just tweaking it enough to spread out the harvest, but still allow seeds to sow and fruit to grow within our normally short season. Something tells me that we won’t be so lucky with our frost date next year. We also want to invest in a better seed starting setup. I can’t wait!

confused tomato
No wonder I’m up and down. I’ve got confused tomatoes. New blossoms are appearing in mid-October, but the fruit isn’t ripening and the leaves on the apricot tree in the background are turning and falling.

Personal/bonus reason: Planning now might help overcome the impending sense of loss. Maybe it’s just me, but the unseasonably warm mid-October here that has me still harvesting a few tomatoes and cucumbers is dragging out the inevitable. When the hard freeze finally hits and I wander out to the garden the next morning to see what resembles a scene from a horror movie, I know I’ll be devastated and in need of a project. If planning while enjoying my last tomato with some fresh mozzarella cheese and basil gets me through, then so be it.

I'll miss the fresh salad ingredients!
I’ll miss the fresh salad ingredients, too!