Take cover

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Sure is cold today and I am so glad I spent time last week tucking in my little garden beds.  Don’t get the wrong idea– I try to avoid buying new things at all cost, especially petroleum products…but once in a while I do spend some money on that little garden of mine.  Lately I have been in and out of three stores and purchased some really useful stuff I thought I would share with you all.

Row Cover and 9 gauge Wire

Row Cover and 9 gauge Wire

I bought about 60 feet of heavy weight row cover at Plants of the Southwest ( they sell it by the yard) and a roll of 9 gauge wire ( at Lowes in the fencing dept) to make even more hoops over my beds.  This stuff really protects against spring winds, weird weather like today…(is that snow I spy out my window?) and of course animals like chickens, dogs, cats and wild birds that are so drawn to mess around in my tidy, tender greens.  I have over wintered greens under this stuff and some plastic sheets all winter long and now that spring is officially here I am boldly transplanting cold season greens like Kale, Chard and Collards out there as well as direct sowing peas, spinach and lettuce oh and I even put this over the onions sets I planted last week… I say the cozier the better.IMG_2827

So, if you interested in doing your own cover up, the row cover cost about $3 a yard at Plants of the Southwest.  It is 12 ft wide so you can cut it down the middle or into any shape you like. The roll of 9 gauge wire cost $21 at Lowes but I am pretty sure you can get it at any hardware store.

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You will need bolt cutters to cut it, which is a whole other investment, but chances are someone you know has one.IMG_3197

First, I line up the end to the next ring and cut

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In this way I got 24 hoops.

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I space them 3ft apart in my beds and in 20 ft beds I put 7 in each bed….I was able to do 3 beds…maybe more info than you need, but I had fun figuring this all out.  So 24 hoops for $21.23, after tax…$1 per hoop.   The row cover is about $.50 per foot(after cutting it) so to cover a 20 x 3ft bed I spent $17 each. IMG_3259 

That kind of seems like a lot now that I really do the math, but they will last at least 5 years, maybe more if I take care of them and store them well when I am not using them.  I also know that I will be eating $17 worth of veggies from each bed in no time so it is money well spent.

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This is what we had going on last year- Photo taken April 20th, 2013.  So as you can see, a little protection grows a long way, hehhehe!

In my consumer roamings I also found I few treasures I will NOT buy, but would like to.  At Bioshield I found these…

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Haws watering cans

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and these fancy Italian, English and Japanese gardening tools.

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And the cutest Haws cherry red watering can you ever saw!

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They even carry the Stella Natura Planting Biodynamic calendar

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And a few more books I think I need for my shelf…ah someday!

What are the top ten ways to simplify your gardening?

Christina, over at Tumbleweeds and Seeds posed this question to me the very same day I mixed up a fresh load of potting soil, filled my homemade wooden flats and sowed seeds to be pampered in my greenhouse till it is warm enough to transplant them outside under row cover…..All this to say- -my gardening style is hardy simple.  Because I love it and love to do it all myself it is totally worth all the effort, but simple it is not.  So as I worked, I thought of all the ways you (or I if I so choose) could make gardening simpler.

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The first would be simply Don’t garden.  NO seriously I am not kidding, yes I am a garden teacher and yes I would love to teach you how, but seriously like any hobby, life-giving or not, one must consider the time, skills, costs, resources and water, that go into any new endeavor.  Gardening can help take you out of an industrialized food system, it can get you out into nature more, it just might address pressing personal and global shifts, but consider if it is the right fit for you and your time and resources because honestly it may not be worth doing if you can’t do it well.

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I worked as the school gardener a couple of years back and I had a co-worker who told me a great story.

She rode her bike to work, shopped locally, she did all she could to reduce her carbon footprint and contribute to her community.  One summer she decided to add growing her own food to her good green efforts.  She built a raised bed, bought fancy soil, invested in little plants from the greenhouse and watered like crazy.  She worked so hard that summer and got very little return that ended up losing money & time, but she did gain the realization of how much effort it really took to grow your own food here in the high desert.  She concluded her tale with,

“After all that, now I happily shop at farmers market and I will never scoff at a $3 bunch of Carrots again.  Those farmers know what they are doing, have the appropriate resources to grow beautiful food, and man, the earn every penny!!”

Did you know that one of the biggest problems with the Santa Fe Farmer market is that the farmers CAN’T SELL all their beautiful food!! So much effort, water, land, money, highly precious resources here in the high desert all gone to waste….So if you can, just buy your food from the local pros and save your water bill and spare time for something else.  Gift your local farmers with the value and respect you give any professional.

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Now if you are continuing to read, it is probably because you love to garden, can’t afford market or have some other very good reason you are set on growing, or like me, you simply MUST, so my dear gardeners, here are a few more tips for you.

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1-Starts

If simple is what you are truly looking for, the first advice I would give would be don’t make your own flats, soil or even grow your own starts.  Though a wonderful and pleasurable task, it is not simple and not always easy to do all the pre-growing yourself.  I would recommend buying starts from your local Nursery, Aqua Fria always has a good selection, and of course plenty of folks at Farmers Market.

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2-Choose your crops wisely

Grow only what you eat constantly, what costs a lot and doesn’t travel well.

Like greens, salad, or herbs.  I say make good friends with Swiss Chard, it can be eaten raw of cooked, grows almost year round, bugs don’t like it, it is truly a loyal pal.  I also recommend people start with potted herbs that come come inside in the winter.  This way you always have them on hand and start to really save money and those darn plastic containers most herbs in the supermarket come in.  Dark leafy greens like Kale & Chard are always giving and take require very little attention and really you can’t eat enough of them!

Grow crops that will supply for your needs all year.

Garlic is super easy, low maintenance and you can grow a whole years worth in your backyard.

Skip field crops

If you have a small yard and are trying to grow some of your own food, skip crops like Onions, Winter Squash, Corn, and Potatoes unless of course you have really great success with them.  You can buy all those in bulk locally and cheaply from farmers at market and store them all winter long.  There is no way I could produce all that I consume, so I save my garden space for things I consume daily.

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3-Consolidate Resources- Small is Beautiful

Plant intensively one area, don’t spread your gardening all over the yard.  Choose a small are and really love it up, water it well, spoil it with compost and mulch and wind protection.  Even use containers on your porch that have great soil and are convenient to water, but make sure this precious area is well cared for.  Your work is a resource too, so make sure you are using your time and energy as wisely as well as your water and nutrients.  A small intensive area that is well cared for will sing, rather than over doing it and spreading you and your garden too thin.

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4-Mulch like crazy & STOP Weeding!!

Mulch suppresses weeds so you don’t have to worry about them.  It keeps in moisture so you water much less and builds up organic material in your soil.  If you do have weeds, let them be if they aren’t encroaching in precious vegetables.  Just change how you see them , call them cover crops, call them water catchment, call them green in the desert.  If they are getting in your veggies way, pull them up and lay them down right where they are and call them mulch.  They will just dry up and look like straw anyway!!

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5-Plan well

I have found good gardening really is good planning.  Sow succession crops so as you harvest you are continually adding more seeds.  This makes so you are always harvesting something, so no time, water or space is wasted.  If you need help, here is my handy planting calendar to help guide your way.

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6-Low till to No till

Build up the soil with constant additions of organic material.  You are building up an ecology that does not need to be disturbed every season.  Once you dig deep the first couple of seasons, a light fluffing of the top soil should do the trick for sowing seeds and transplanting.

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7- Chicken tractors

Have you ever had chickens loss in your yard?  Then you have seen them scratch, pick and rake your garden to a nice fine tilth.  Build a little cage that fits over you beds and put the chickens in there before you sow.  They will do the work for you in day!  No chickens?  I guarantee you have a friend who will lend you a few for a day.  They of course eat bug and weeds too, you don’t need to be the only one working out there!

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8-Swap and share

Your friends have chickens and you have Chard- just trade, we don’t all need to do it all the time!  Things are only worth the value we put on them.  Create your own little underground swapper market.

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9-Perrenialize

You can plant your whole yard in edible berries, trees, herbs and shrubs and have a lot less work to do weekly.  You may have bumper crops one year creating a lot of work at one time, but I am sure you will have tons of friends all of a sudden who want to come over and help pick.  Also Perrenialize annuals too.  Let things go to seed and they will be sure to sprout up in odd places next year.  You can wild harvest out of your own yard if you let things naturalize and learn to eat your weeds! Generally perennials take less water too and you can use grey water on them more easily.  All our dish water goes onto our perennial front yard.

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10- Only garden if you love it!!

Forgive your self if you don’t love gardening and use your precious time and energy on some other righteous earth healing soul nourishing endeavor, I am sure you can think of one that is calling to you right now!

The Step by Step of Bed Prep

Ready to getting digging, to break a sweat and work out those winter kinks.  Well I know I am, and bed prep is a great way to get spring started.  Once you read this you may think– ‘Well that it a lot of WORK, do I really need to do all that!!’

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The answer is of course no, you can do whatever you and your garden deem fit…There is no-till, there is lasagna gardening, there is digging in cover crop, there are raised beds, and of course rototillers & tractors could to the hard tilling work for you… oh I could go on, but if you do have in-ground beds, and want to get digging….. it goes like this….

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First I raked off all the straw that was placed there to mulch the tomatoes that grew here last year.  I removed the tomatoes and left the straw covering the beds all winter– though this is in the hoop house I like to keep my beds covered– Reduces erosion, keeps the soil warmer so it can be worked earlier and keeps in the moisture.

*Before prepping a bed, checking the moisture level is really important– If it is too hard you will be digging rocks, if too wet you will be slopping in the mud, lifting HEAVY wet soil, working you back twice as hard and of course compacting the soil where ever you walk….So always check the moisture level before you start. It should feel cool to the touch, leaving dampness on your skin, but not water…It should crumble in your hand into chunks rather than into dust….If your moisture level is too high, dry it out of course, if too low water it well and plan on digging a couple of days later, even the worst looking soil can be transformed with a little water.

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Once the moisture level is just right and the is bed clear, you can get digging.  I began with my Spade to edge the beds, that is cut a line along the bed edge to make sure my bed is nice and straight by just sticking the spade in as far as it will go all the way down each side of the bed.  This gives you a nice border to work within.  Then I use my beloved digging fork, starting at one end and working backwards down the bed, flipping up the soil ad I go.  That way I dig where I step, not vis versa, so the bed is nice a fluffy when I am done.

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Next, I add my compost.  This was harvested from my backyard pile that had been resting since last summer.  I was delighted that I got 3 wheel burrows of compost from what looked like a pretty small pile.  It may not be enough for my whole garden, but it was good to note that with our food scraps, leaves and garden waste we can produce about 3 wheel burrows worth of compost per season.  I took my spade and sprinkled it on the bed, about 3/4 inch thick.  I used 1/2 the wheel burrow for a bed measuring 3X20 ft.Image

Once it was spread I went back with my spade in the same way I passed with my fork and dug and flipped and smacked, incorporating the compost and continuing to break up the chucks.  A big part of what I did that day was in fact break up chunks, but I have to say it felt good!!  I worked up quite a sweat in that hoop house, sure beats the gym!!!IMG_9576Now with smaller chucks I went back over, yes again, with a rake.  This is the zen part. There is still a little smacking of clumps but mostly just smoothing it all out.IMG_9577

The finer you go, the tilth better for your seeds.  And the more even you go the more consistently moistened when watered.  Now this stage seems to be the most appealing for toddlers to step right in the make their mark… So I baby trapped the bed by putting in a few stakes and wrapping with twine about a foot or two high.  This seems to work well for a person of 22 months– though past 2 years they can just hurdle it with ease– I guess I will cross that bridge when we come to it.IMG_9579  There is drip tape already in the hoop house so I just re-laid it.  It won’t be turned on for another month, but having it out gives me nice straight lines to plant along and a sure thing my babies will get the water they need as the season progresses.  Now we Plant!!IMG_9581These are cool season crops started in the greenhouse, ready to have more space!!  I divide them ever so carefully and placed them individually in the ground.IMG_9585

As I transplant I make sure to make holes deep enough for all the roots to rest in without being scrunched, I also make a little moat around each plant to ensure water pools around each and doesn’t run off.  IMG_9587Now we water & wait– though with the warmth in the hoop house it shouldn’t be long now!!

IMG_9513I had to go away for week before posting this– so here is what it looks like a week later!!  We should be eating in no time!!IMG_9517

Growing up

Tomato harvest a few years back, this year hoping for even more!!

We are going for it this year in the garden.  We made a big investment in compost, drip tape and mulch, as well as time, effort & love.  In exchange I am really hoping to yield some serious garden bounty.  We now have 85 tomato plants out back, over a dozen varieties, in our newly dug garden.  We have planted, mulched and now it is time to stake so we can actually get at that fruit.  We planted pretty intensively, as the garden is freshly dug and filled with lots of compost, we well as tons of leaves and Straw.  Technically we could just let the tomatoes ramble all over the ground, which some people swear by,  for easier harvesting and better use of space we will trellis.  Trellising also keeps those precious fruits away from pests and robbers.  There are lots of ways to do so and gardeners love to debate about it; Towers, Cages, Remesh, Twine, but guess what I picked….Yep you got it, Willow.

Lots of fresh-cut willow

Remember my willow fence, well the willow patch by the river just keeps giving and actually the more I prune it back, the better the yield.  I harvested, yes, 85 tall thick straight willows, (it is a lot but the patch is huge and it barely makes a dent, I am always careful to wild craft gently and respectfully) I will use one for each tomato plant.  The inspiration, you see was Italy……

The Cinque Terre, Italy

We were there a few years back attending Terra Madre,

Proud Bean Farmer at Terra Madre

an international gathering of Slow Foodies, which is totally amazing and really worth learning more about… but more than a food tourist, I am a farm tourist.  I love nothing more than seeing the gardens of a place, touching the soil, smelling the blooms.  In fact I plan on reporting back here in my own personal column about my garden tourism, but that will have to wait for a rainy day….Back to tomatoes…..Here are some trellis’  we saw while traipsing the Italian countryside.

Tomatoes in a hoop house in Tuscany, Italy

Tomato trellis in Tuscany, Italy

Seems to me the basic idea is just one vertical stake per plant with one strong cord across the top holding them all in place. So with 85 willow, some Cedar Posts, and tie wire, this is our Whimsical version of Italian style tomato staking.

Willow leaning in on one tie wire line pulled tight between cedar stakes

Now when you grow intensively like this you generally prune tomatoes as well.  I will be training each plant up one stake and will be pruning to one main stem.  Here is a video I found that explains this well from Fine Gardening, another twist on this is from Johnny’s Seeds which includes twine weaving for trellising.  Tomatoes don’t NEED to be pruned, but if you are growing intensively it is good idea, just to avoid too much vegetative mass rubbing against each other creating opportunity for disease to spread as well as encouraging the plants to put their energy into fruit rather than shoot.

Each plant is tied to it’s stake with reused bailing twine, don’t throw that stuff out, it is good & strong, and lasts for years and years!

So there you have it, Let’s hope they grow up well!

June Gardening=Mulch!!

AHHH, Yes you may take a deep breath, everything is in the ground, water system set up, things are growing, sun is shining and so now what?  We pray for rain & wait of course for the bounty of our hard work to come rolling in….

Planted up and ready to grow

but wait one more thing.

MULCH!!!

It feels to me like this may actually be the single most important thing about southwest gardening.

All that precious water simply evaporates away if you don’t mulch, all those little weeds grow up too quickly if you don’t mulch….

and that soil, well it just bakes to hard clumps if you don’t mulch,

and what about all those critters who need to be kept moist and cool, they are lost without mulch cover!!…

So my friends mulch if you can, and generously!! Here is an article that will tell you all you need to know and more about mulching from Organic Gardening and here is another about a straw mulch extremist who I adore, Ruth Stout.

Ruth Stout in a bed of straw

But if you would rather not click away just yet, here is the short of it:

I use old cottonwood leaves, because they fall on my garden and my neighbor rakes all that fall on his yard, bags them up, and passes them over the fence to me so it is a no effort system, so if you have such a no effort system, do that!!

But I also use straw.  I prefer old straw, half rotten and wormy if possible.  I try to buy a few bales every year and rot them down a bit, but if you used some for a chicken house, compost bin or garden bench you want to retire this season, perfect!!  If you must buy new, well do what you have to do, but they seem to be going up in cost every minute!!

Now a word about straw…Straw is a wonderful mulch for Southwest gardening.  If you live in a wetter area like I know some of you do, straw, when wet a rotting can harbor mold, slugs and all kinds of stuff you may not like in your garden if you live in wet place so read the article above to find what the best mulch is for your area….

…Here in the southwest straw is great but only one problem…..it blows away!!  Most likely you have wind in your garden, and once dry, straw blows away very quickly, so here are a few tips on making straw mulch stay put.

Sheets of mulch in the cattle tank, so none is lost in the mulching process!

1- Sheet Mulch-Straw bales come apart in layers, or sheets.  Leave them be!! Don’t shred the straw into a million strands, though kids love to do that, leave the sheets and just lay it down flat, like tucking in those little veggies under a blanket (kids learn to love that too).  The bales will naturally come apart in sheets about 2 inches think, and that is fine, wonderful & thick and good.  If you work around what is planted and make a huge blanket over your garden, only what you leave holes for will grow.  This method is great because the straw is matted together and doesn’t blow away as easily.

Straw bales break apart naturally into sheets

2- Pre-soak your straw– even if it is older, straw can always benefit from pre-soaking.  I like to use our cattle tank, but a wheel burrow works just fine too, or a baby pool, whatever you have.  Break the hay into sheets, lay in one layer in the bottom of your pool, and cover with water.  Let steep over night and the next day take the sopping wet straw and tuck those plants in.  Also a great job for kids, (who don’t mind getting wet and dirty)It is ok if it fall apart a little bit, it is inevitable.  If you can’t pre-soak, post soak.  Mulch well and just water the heck out of it with a hose.  If your garden is on drip irrigation you may need to do this anyway once in a while to just keep it down.

Old straw soaking in rain water

3- Weigh it down– Traditionally mulching was done with rocks in many fields out here in the high desert.  Rocks keep in moisture, create thermal mass, and suppress weeds…so why not mulch with them now?  Many people still do rock mulching, but I find a combination works well when straw mulching.  Flagstone is great because it covers a lot of surface without being to hard to carry and you can step on them, river rock is good too…I actually had a pile of old tiles I use for my jewelry markets lying around (resting this season), so I layed them on my mulch to keep it from blowing away and so far so good, though my garden looks a bit like a kitchen floor which I am not so sure about, hmmmm…..

Sheets of soaked straw mulch covered in stray kitchen titles to weigh them down, catch rain water, provide thermal mass, and suppress weeds.

But I tell you, since I did this mulching a few days ago my garden seems to be beaming with delight, I truly think the plants love mulch.

Tomatoes delighted by mulch

So mulch, well and mulch often and happy waiting for that garden bounty, I know I am!!