Three Years Ago We Bought A House

Three years ago we bought a house. If you’ve been a reader for a while, thanks for following along on this crazy adventure! If you are a new, here is a quick summary. My husband and I bought in 2013. The house was built in 1945 and we are the second owners. When the original owners passed away, it rented for a few years, the kids half-assed flipped the house with the cheapest materials possible, then sold it to us. The lot is a bit over a 1/2 acre, and had clearly not been touched in at least a decade. Since day one, we’ve been battling invasive weeds, no drainage, poor soil, and general disrepair in effort to create our urban homestead, to grow our own food, live sustainable and intently.

You can read about our first year accomplishment here, and year two here.

Here is what we’ve accomplished in year three:

The big project of this year was installing 3,650 gallons of rainwater harvesting systems. The 825 gallon Blue Barrel System is off the chicken coop, and a 2,825 gallon tank captures the runoff from my house. Right now we are just using a hose to fill watering cans and to slowly water the fruit trees, but soon I’ll get a booster pump and feed though drip. Both were filled from the first big storm, in January.

blackberries where compost is, then.jpgchicken coop, nowthe jungle, thenrain tank

Every year has been dedicated to fencing. Year 3 saw the completion of the fence on the West side of the property line. We also built the permanent chicken pasture fence, as well as the arbor for the kiwi and a double-swinging gate.

backyard from very back corner.jpgyard, now

On the garage side of the house, we started tackling the “jungle”: an overgrown mess of privet, blackberries, quince, rose, boxwood, wisteria and cranium lily. We built a side fence and gate with an arbor, which hopefully I’ll get the wisteria trained onto sometime this year. side of house, thenside of house

Another big project was getting the disaster of a concrete patio/weed maze broken up. You can read about that project here, and I have been slowly using up the pieces, like in the most recent planter bed and lining pathways. In the area now clear, I’ve established mulched paths and I started to establish planting beds, but haven’t quite finished. This area is a total mess, with uneven surfaces, partially sheet mulched, partially planted, and scattered chunks of concrete. But now I have only a small bit of concrete surrounding my well; permeable surfaces = happy Melissa.

patio, then

patio, nowThe garden continues to grow. Right now, it sees the transition between winter and spring. We just started to build the second row of raised beds on the East side of the pathway, which will hopefully be finished before the big summer plant out. With diligent pulling and sheet mulching, we’ve done some major weed control and soil improvement, but still battling with Bermuda grass (as we probably will be for life.)

garden thengarden nowPersonally, I feel the biggest accomplishment for this past year is that I’ve brought my soil to life. In the first two years, even with digging almost every day, I only saw maybe 10 worms. Now, I find several regardless if I’m digging in my raised beds or the native soil. I hold the 15 yards of horse manure, 40 yards of arbor mulch, 50 yards of compost, about a billion sheets of cardboard, and several plantings of cover crops responsible. I’ve also seen lizards, salamanders, butterflies and caterpillars, tons of beneficial insects, and of course, bees. Nothing makes me happier than to know my garden supports life.  IMG_3041 IMG_2445

One things that has not improved in the three years is the front. We’ve made it worse. Much worse. When we bought, it was a nice mowed lawn, albeit Bermuda grass. We neither watered nor mowed. We drove across it and have used it as a deliver zone. Now, its a mess of weeds in assorted heights, various naturalized bulbs, and suckers from assorted trees. The Blenheim apricot is 75% dead and we’ve got black drainage pipes and ditches from the gutters running all over the place. Plus, its perpetually the home to a giant pile of either mulch or compost. Honestly wouldn’t be surprised to hear if neighbors wonder about our mental state. Hopefully this year I’ll get out there and do something, even if its just sheet mulching the whole thing. front of house, thenfront, now

As we embark on year 4, my goals are to (successfully) keep bees, install irrigation, build a habitat pond, build the rest of the raised beds, and hopefully plant berries. Make sure to follow along!


How Does Your Garden Grow? Different Gardening Methods Explained

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

In today’s world, Mistress Mary might have a hard time describing exactly how she gardens. Silver bells and cockle shells aside, if you look at the gardening section of your library or bookstore or search the interwebs, its easy to get overwhelmed by all the different styles and theories and methods. Square-foot gardening, intensive gardening, organic gardening, permaculture, native, gardening companions….so many ways to garden!  If you’re wondering what they mean and what would work best for you, read on!

Different gardening methods explained

Here’s a basic breakdown:

Organic Gardening can be summed up to not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (things like Round-up or Miracle Grow). Organic gardening can apply to any type of landscape, edible or not. It is a huge umbrella term, acting as the foundation of many other methods of gardening that take the concept further.

Instead of chemical fertilizers, in my organic garden I grow cover crops. I encourage beneficial insects to keep pests in check.
Instead of using chemical fertilizers in my organic garden I grow cover crops. I encourage beneficial insects to keep pests in check instead of spraying pesticides.

Permaculture Gardening is a holistic design approach and has been touted as “extreme organic gardening”. Permaculture gardens consider systems (water, energy, food, etc.) and utilizes techniques to live sustainably. Permaculture has a fundamental understanding of ecology and nature, such as concepts of niche, biodiversity, climate, soil, and watersheds. Designs follows listed guidelines (ranging from 4-40, depending on the publication), and include things like choosing elements that have multiple functions, design for resilience, and mimic nature.

There are many ways that permaculture principles can be implemented into the garden. On my homestead, some of the permaculture concepts I’ve utilized include earthworks, rainwater catchment systems, sheet mulching, tree guilds and growing perennial edible crops. Other common principles seen in residential scale are building with cobb (a natural clay/straw medium), spiral gardens, food forests, keyhole gardens and anything that “stacks functions”.

An example of stacking functions: my chicken run roof both collects rainwater and shades my curing garlic.
An example of stacking functions: my chicken run roof both collects rainwater and shades my curing garlic.

Biointensive Gardening is a method that maximizes yield while increasing fertility of the soil. This is achieved by a very specific technique of soil preparation called double-digging. This concept, sometimes also called the French Biodynamic Method was brought to the US by Alan Chadwick, and made popular though the amazing Chadwick Garden at my alma-mater, UCSC. Biointensive gardening also implement plant rotations, close spacing, and compost, compost, compost. Biointensive methods are often used in smale-scale sustainable agriculture, but can work in a home vegetable plot just as well.

In my mom's garden, she gets immense yields from her double-dug beds that are regularly amended with compost.
In my mom’s garden, she gets immense yields from her double-dug beds that are regularly amended with compost.

Square-Foot Gardening is relatively new to the gardening method club, and was invented by a civil engineer. It follows a very specific technique of using a 4′ by 4′ raised bed and the planting space in specific 1′ by 1′ areas. A variety of plants are then grown, but each has its own square, within the bed, and spaced according to the method’s guidelines. You can find out more about square-foot gardening on it’s website here. While I have not used the square foot method exactly, I do plant close together, and grow multiple varieties in one space.

multi crops in one bed
Last year’s summer garden beds were a mix of closely planted sunflowers, zinnia, dill, squash, beans, tomatoes and nasturtium. Pretty sure there was some basil in there, too.

Three Sisters, Companion Planting, & Planting Guilds are all very similar methods, and are based on the theory of beneficial relationships amongst plants. The Three Sisters is a well known one: beans, corn and squash are planted together. The beans fix nitrogen, the corn provides a pole for the beans to climb, and the squash shades the ground to suppress weeds and conserve moisture. Another common example is growing basil with tomatoes, to improve the tomatoes’ flavor and help ward off diseases.

Marigolds are a popular companion plant, as they are believed to discourage nematodes.
Marigolds are a popular companion plant, as they are believed to discourage nematodes.

Ecological Gardening may not be an official gardening method, but its what I use to describe how I garden. I mix and match practices from all sorts of gardening styles, but always under one theory: my garden is as much for me as it is for the nature and the earth. I let seed heads and “dead stuff” stand for the birds. I plant flowers for both bees and insects, and let veggies bolt for flush of flowers. I keep water available for the birds, the bees and the bugs. I keep piles of rocks and sticks for insect habitat. As a result, I’m surrounded by nature at all times, which makes my heart sing and my soul nourished. sunflower headscosmomantis on sunflowerbee on radishsunflower seeds

Is there a gardening method that I forgot? How do you garden? Please leave me a comment below! Remember, you don’t need an account, just an email to ensure you’re not a robot. I love hearing from you!

How I Plan My Garden

As much as I love the rain, enjoy the slowness and solitude that comes with the dark winter afternoons, and appreciate the times spend cuddling on the couch with a cat, book and tea, I start getting antsy for spring about mid- January. I want to dig in the dirt and be surrounded by color, besides the vibrant green that only winter rains can bring, and have new flavors to eat. Coincidentally, seed catalogues start arriving right around the same time that I start feeling the urge. Or perhaps it is the seed catalogues that nudge me from that comfy spot on the couch and give me the urge to be doing SOMETHING.

And so starts the planning process for the year’s garden. If I can’t be outside creating my garden, the kitchen table surrounded by seeds, notes, catalogues and calendars is the second best thing.

garden planning

This is the process that I undertake in order to get organized for the year:

Brainstorm what I want to grow, and create a garden wish list. Before I even open a catalogue or start pursuing the racks of the Baker Creek Seed Bank, I think about what I want to grow. And I make a list. What will I actually eat? No need to get tempted by the colorful glossy pictures of turnips and chili peppers if they won’t actually be eaten. For spring, its arugula, spinach, kale, chard, radishes, carrots, lettuce, beets, potatoes, green onions, cilantro and peas. For summer/fall, its bell peppers, winter and summer squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, corn, cucumbers, melons, beans, basil, and dill. For winter, its celery, cabbage, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, bok choy, peas, onions and garlic. This year, I also want to focus on cutting flowers and having blooms year round for the pollinators.a year of gardening

Read though the gardening journal from the following year. I remind myself what varieties did well, what I didn’t like, when things were planted and harvested, and other random notes.

Assess the current garden, available space, and approximate harvest dates. This is a crucial step that in the past I’ve overlooked. I need to consider what I currently have growing, think about when it will be harvested, and therefore when that space is available. In a perfect world, I would have about half the garden beds either fallow or with cover crop, giving me a blank slate to plant out new crops. But I’m not there yet, and have to work with what space is available. Since I’m in a year-round gardening climate, most of my beds are filled with food I’m still eating, or aren’t ready to harvest yet.The garlic, for example, will be growing until late June or July, so that space isn’t available for my early spring crops, or my main April plant-out.January garden

Approximate what can go where, and when. This is where puzzle skills come in handy. Now that I know what space I have, I brainstorm what can go where. I try to keep my beds rotated, making sure I don’t plant the same crops in the same beds for 3 seasons. I keep my space and timing in mind, and when the bed is available dictates what can get planted. I have one bed planted with cover crop, which will be the first to be planted- with potatoes in March. They should be harvested by June, which will be replaced with beans and flowers. The brassica bed that’s almost spent will be replaced with tomatoes in April. The bed currently filled peas and greens will be planted with melons in May. To help me keep track of this, I keep sketches of my beds from season to planning

Create a seeding calendar. Being slightly obsessive with details and planning, this is my favorite part of getting ready for spring. I print off a blank Google calendar for the year, then fill in expected frost dates and the moon phases. Then, working back and forward from the frost dates, I make note of -1, -2, -3, -4…-12, 1+, 2+, etc, to denote how many weeks until the last projected frost and weeks after projected frost. Then, I fill in the seeding details. Tomatoes, for example, I seed 7 weeks before last frost. I try to align my seedings with the coordinating moon phases, which for tomatoes would be the waxing moon. That puts me at February 21. They will get transplanted outside 1 week after frost, also waxing moon, which puts me at April 17. Lettuce can be seeded 5 weeks before, and under a new moon, so I schedule it for March 8. Things won’t always happen on the exact schedule date, but it gives me a good guideline so I don’t miss something.

seeding calendar

Inventory & sort seeds. If you are a gardener who grows from you seed, it is guaranteed you are also also a seed hoarder. Its nothing to be embarrassed about, we all suffer from Seed Acquisition Disorder. Its just part of the job requirement. However, our homestead is on a very tight budget this year, so I just can’t go buy more melon seeds when I already have 8 different types. So the next step in my planning process was to go thought all my seeds. Varieties that I didn’t like, such as Corne de Belier snow peas, get set composted. Because seeds also don’t last forever, anything that is past their recommended germination date gets composted. I had pepper seeds from 2011. Pepper seeds are only good for 2 years. Why they hell do I still have them??? So those went, along with about half the seed stash. What was still viable got composed into a list.

organizing seeds

Determine what is needed. Browse seed catalogues. Make shopping lists. Now that I knew what I had, I can finally treat myself to looking at the pretty pictures of catalogues, and choose what is actually necessary. This year, I’m needing to buy carrot and radish seeds, and am allowing myself to try 2 new squash, 2 new tomatoes, and 1 new type of cucumber. I don’t need lettuce. I don’t need beets. I don’t need beans. I don’t need melons. If you see me buying these things or trying to justify I need them, remind me that I wrote I DON’T NEED ANY. (with a support system and accountability- we can do this!)baker creek

Inventory seed starting supplies. Next, I check to make sure my grow lights are working, I have seed starting soil, and I have enough flats and 6-packs.

Shop. Wheeeeeee!!!!!!!!! Remember to stick to your list…….

Patiently wait. 

Hows planning going for your garden?

How to Plan Your 2016 Garden

What to do in the Garden: June

It is June! The start of summer!  Except the weather here in Santa Rosa has made me feel it is more like November, and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it hard to be motivated. I think my garden feels the same way. It seems like my peppers and tomatoes are frozen in time, and firmly standing still until the weather gets warmer.  The sunflowers or zinnias have yet to bloom, leaving my garden void of color.  Thankfully, the dreary weather has made it possible to stretch the time between watering. I have hopes that summer will come through soon, and I’ll be motivated to do this month’s gardening tasks.

Northern California Gardening Checklist: June

  • Plant! We still have time to put in a summer garden or plant another round in your current one, but now is about your last chance. From seed, plant beans, carrots, squash and radishes. From starts bought at the nursery, transplant corn, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, peppers and tomatoes. Look for varieties that will be ripe 150 days or soon, which is about what we have left until the first projected frost of fall.
  • Protect ripening fruit from birds by covering trees and bushes with netting, or try hanging old cds or other shiny things. A popular method in my neighborhood is to attach streamers made from plastic sheeting to the top of a very high pole. It seems to work well to scare off the birds, but only if there is a breeze blowing.
streamers flying above the neighbor's cherry tree
streamers flying above the neighbor’s cherry tree
  • If you notice the leaves on your plant are yellow with green veins, it likely has cholrosis, which is an iron deficiency. Common in citrus, azaleas, rhododendron and jasmine, my tomatillos also seem to be suffering. Apply chelated iron.

    possible iron deficiency in my tomatillos
    possible iron deficiency in my tomatillos
  • If you have uncovered south or west facing windows, move away any houseplants to prevent sunburn.
  • Feed roses.
  • Keep downy mildew in check. This common plant fungal disease found on plants in the shade or caused by wet, damp weather can be controlled by spraying leaves with neem oil. One of my gardening books suggests a homemade brew of 1 tablespoon baking soda, 2 1/2 tablespoon veggie oil, 1 teaspoon liquid soap, and 1 gallon of water.
My Lady Banks rose has signs of powdery mildew, likely because I planted it in a poor location and it needs more sun.
My Lady Banks rose has signs of powdery mildew, likely because I planted it in a poor location and it needs more sun.
  • Pinch off flowers from basil and other herbs to promote more growth.
  • Keep an eye on growing plants and stake, tie or otherwise direct on trellises to keep order (and pathways clear) in the garden.
  • Weed. If you don’t have time to dig up the whole plant, at least pull off the flowers so they can’t set seed. I’m on the constant battle to control bindweed in my yard, so I pull off any of the white morning-glory like flowers that I see.

    my nemesis: bindweed
    my nemesis: bindweed
  • For summer color, plant drought tolerant plants like gaillardia, lions tail, penstemon, salvias and yarrow.
  • Harvest garlic. If you fall planted, your garlic is likely ready. If you haven’t stopped watering, now is the time. I’ll be doing a post later in the month on harvesting and storing garlic, but here’s a quick summary: when the tops are about half dead, stop watering for about a week, and then dig up. Resist the urge to pull up plants by the stalk, instead lift out with a spade or a fork. Brush off any surface dirt, but don’t wash and don’t cut the tops off. Leave in a dry, shady area for about a month to dry and cure.
  • garlic ready to pickHarvest potatoes. If you planted in February or March, your potatoes are likely ready. If the plant is flowering, you can dig up “new” potatoes, which are eaten fresh and not stored. Once the plants start dying back, hold off on watering and harvest about a week or 2 later.
  • Watch summer squash closely. Don’t be a victim of the dreaded baseball bat zucchini, and check your plants frequently to see if you have fruit of harvestable size. Look under leaves and thoroughly inspect the plant. It seems like a joke, but I check in the morning and the evening, as they have the capability to double in size overnight, and they must be shy because they like to hide out of sight. I like to pick mine around 6-8″.

harvestable zucchini  And don’t forget to enjoy outside! We see the longest amount of sunlight this month, so make sure to take advantage!

There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart. ~Celia Thaxter

what to do in the garden in June

How to Garden in a Drought

In case you’ve been living under a rock (which, if said rock was in California, it probably was very dry….), California is in a drought. Practically every other post in my facebook feed is an article shared with the latest statistics, praises for Governor Brown finally imposing restrictions, or rants about Governor Brown not doing enough. Daily conversations, regardless with friends, patients at work, neighbors, or strangers at the store always have some mention of it. And rightly so, California is pretty much up shit creek, except there is no creek.

One topic that often comes up is if its worth planting a garden. And if you are growing food that you will eat, then I say YES! Everyone has to eat, and regardless of where your food is coming from, it needs water. Chances are, food grown in your backyard had less of a water impact than that grown on a large farm. If you make good choices, it’s still possible to have a flourishing garden and be sensitive to the current water crisis. I’ve consulted about a gazillion articles and pulled together a comprehensive list of drought gardening tips. If I’ve forgotten something, make sure to let me know in the comments!

even after yesterday's rain, my soil is cracked and parched
even after yesterday’s rain, my soil is cracked and parched

How to Garden in the Drought:

Consider how much water your planned planting area will need, and calculate how much water you have. An average summer vegetable garden needs about an 1 inch of water per week, or 0.623 gallons per sq ft of surface area. For example, my raised beds give me 480 sq feet of planting space, which means I need about 300 gallons of water a week. If you’re on water rationing, can you spare that much? Can some of that water come from a reclaimed source or rain barrels? Check out this handout from the Sonoma County Master Gardeners for great info on how to read your water meter, calculate your current water use, and how to determine how large of garden you can plant based on how much water you have.

I checked with the city this morning, and Santa Rosa has no individual household rations planned, but thats not a reason to be mindless with water use. Even if there is nothing mandated, give yourself a limit and figure out how to grow within that. What would you be able to do if you had 100 gallons a day? What about 50? In Winter, when my outside watering level is low, my household of 2 people uses about 2,000 gallons a month (about 70 gal. a day), but last year, in the middle of summer watering, my usage jumped up to about 5,000 gallons (about 170 gal. a day). With diligent conservation inside, and smart watering outside, my goal for this summer is to be at about 110 gallons a day.

Water the correct amount. As mentioned above, it is recommended to water an inch a week, or 0.623 gallons per sq ft. In the middle of summer, when vegetable plants are full sized, its recommended to water every day. One of my 15×4 foot beds would require about 37 gallons a week, or about 5 gallons a day. Of course, this number can change depending on weather and soil type. Ideally, use drip. If you have to use a hose, like I do, make sure to have a shut-off on the sprayer, and water at the base of the plants. Can you get by with watering a little bit less, or make sure that inch a week is best used?

Water at the right time. The best time to water is early in the morning, the cool hours in the evening. Avoid watering in the middle of the day. Sonoma County has mandatory restrictions that prohibit irrigation outside of 8pm-6am, but that doesn’t apply to drip or otherwise supervised watering (like using a watering can or a hose with a sprayer).

Only grow varieties and amounts of what you know you’ll eat. One of the funs of gardening is being able to try out new things, but think about what you know you’ll eat and love, and grow just those. I’ve really wanted to grow gourds, a luffa in particular, but I don’t actually need a luffa, nor would I eat it. Instead, I’ll grow a watermelon that I know I’ll enjoy. I might have space for 6 jalapeno plants, but I will only need a few chilis for salsa over the summer, so I’ll only be planting one plant.

I have grown eggplant for years, but don't actually like it that much. So this year, we're skipping it.
I have grown eggplant for years, but don’t actually like it that much. So this year, we’re skipping it and dedicating water to things we will eat.

Grow plants best suited for the season. While it is possible to grow some crops year round, like broccoli, lettuce and spinach, its best to keep those types of veggies limited to fall and winter growing. Growing during the summer requires lots of extra water just to help them stay cool.

Spinach is a great fall and early spring crop, but water intensive if grown in summer.
Spinach is a great fall and early spring crop, but water intensive if grown in summer.

Plant drought-tolerant varieties.  Choose varieties that are known to be more drought-tolerant or drought-resistant. Sonoma County Master Gardeners have a great list here, and Bountiful Gardens from Willits also has a section dedicated to drought-tolerant seeds. Note that “heat-tolerant” is not the same thing as drought-tolerant.

Understand your plants’ water needs. Water is most critical during the first few weeks of seeding, immediately after transplanting, and during flowering and fruit production stages. According to the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, “beans need water most when they are blooming and setting fruit. Corn needs water most during tasseling, silking and ear development. Peas need water most during pod filling. Other vegetables, such as cucumbers and squash, and fruits, such as melons, need water most during flowering and fruiting.  Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant need water most during flowering and fruiting. After tomatoes set, they can do very well with reduced water.” For other crops, check out the information on critical watering stages here. During these critical times, give them the recommended amount of watering, but see if you can get by with a little less other times.

Mulch. Mulching reduces surface evaporation up to 50%.  Apply 3-4 inches of material over your soil. I like to use alfalfa because it adds nutrients to my soil as it breaks down, but growing alfalfa is super water intensive, so I’m reconsidering my mulch choice. Straw, leaves, shredded bark and newspaper are all good options as well. I’m going to experiment using sheets and burlap. Avoid plastics, which make the soil to hot in our climates. Keep a few inches away from the base of the plant. Run drip lines under the mulch, so your watering the soil and not your mulch. If you hand watering, pull back the mulch so you’re not just watering your straw.

A well mulched pepper plant
A well mulched pepper plant

Check if you need to water. Before watering, dig with a trowel or stick your finger in the soil. Irrigate if the top 2 inches of the soil feel dry. Some plants, like squash, will wilt if its hot, so don’t assume you need to water more.

Squash leaves will droop when hot, and its not necessarily a sign they need water. Don't be a fool like I was last year and water them in the middle of the day because you saw droopy leaves.
Squash leaves will droop when hot, and its not necessarily a sign they need water. Don’t be a fool like I was last year and water them in the middle of the day because you saw droopy leaves.

Group together water needs, plant closer together, and plant in blocks, rather than rows. Group plants that have similar water needs, like cucumbers and squash together. Plants should be spaced so that leaves will touch, and plant in a block pattern as opposed to rows so roots and the soil are shaded.

Planting in blocks, rather than rows, help keep the soil and roots shaded.
Planting in blocks, rather than rows, help keep the soil and roots shaded.

Remove weeds. Weeds compete for water and nutrients, so make sure to stay on top of weeding. If you only have so much energy and time, forgo keeping your paths clear and focus on your beds and among your edible crops.

Re-pot terra-cotta. If you have herbs or other plants in terra-cotta pots, considering repotting into a glazed terra-cotta or plastic pot. Unglazed terra-cotta is porous, so it dries out much faster. I have a collection of mint and other herbs in pots near my porch, and I’ve noticed that the ones in the plain terra-cotta need exponentially more water than the ones in plastic do.

I need to re-pot this mint into a glazed or plastic pot to keep in moisture.
I need to re-pot this mint into a glazed or plastic pot to keep in moisture.

Plant varieties that mature faster, are heavy producers, and are determinate. Choose varieties that are ready in less time, like Emerite Runner Beans, Lemon Cucumbers, Early Girl and Sungold tomatoes, which are ready in just 50-60 days. You’ll get more for your water with high-yield plants like beans, squash, peppers and tomatoes. If you have the option, plant determinate varieties. Determinate plants grow to a certain size and produce for a specific amount of time, as opposed to indeterminate varieties that will continue to grow and produce until frost. The determinate types, with their shorter growing season, will use less water.

Squash is always a good choice for high-yielding plants!
Squash is always a good choice for high-yielding plants!

Understand stresses of drought and prioritize your watering . Common symptoms on plants include wilting or drooping of leaves that do not return to normal by evening, curled or yellow leaves that may fold or drop, or foliage that becomes grayish and loses its green luster. If a plant shows signs and you want to save it, re-prioritize your water allotments to make sure its getting enough. Your first priority for watering should be trees and perennial bushes and shrubs (which are the most expensive and take the longest to replace). Your lawn is the very last thing you should be watering.

Maple tree suffering from drought stress. source: Oregon State University

Consider Out-of-the-Box solutions. Consider permaculture based solutions like watering with Ollas, an ancient method of watering using unglazed clay pots; or longer-term projects like hugelkultur beds or creating swales to divert what precious rain we do have into your garden’s soil. Explore what farms and gardens are doing in other dryland areas of the world, like parts of Mediterranean and Australia, or places with very little or no water, like parts of Africa.

buckets left out in the garden captured what little rain we had fall the past few days
buckets left out in the garden captured what little rain we had fall the past few days

If you have questions about the current water situation in your town, call your water department. Santa Rosa’s is at 543-4200, and everyone I’ve ever talked to is super friendly and helpful. They can help you understand your bill, give you water conservation tips, and explain the current regulations.

Even if you are not in California and have plentiful water, our drought could be a rallying point for you to put in your own garden, or encourage you to buy locally grown produce. California grows about 50 percent of the nation fruits, vegetables and nuts, and most of it comes from the areas that are most affected by the drought. And since fruits and vegetables are considered a “specialty crop”, they aren’t subsidized by the government and the cost will be passed on to consumers. Demand will still be high, but supply is less, so my guess is produce is about to get super expensive or harder to get. Some of the big commodity crops, like almonds, appear to be ignoring the fact that water is becoming more and more scarce, but other farms are abandoning leaving fields, or selling what water they have, like this 2014 article discusses. Relaying on your standard supermarket produce will either leave you with boring meals or broke.

I, like any person who’s slightly paying attention, could go on a long rant about how restrictions are on households but ignoring commodity crops, beef and dairies, how Nestle is bottling up all our water, the lack of groundwater regulations and fracking’s water use, but I won’t. While these concerns are real and justified, I’m focusing my energy on doing the very best that I CAN DO in my own garden, instead of pointing fingers and placing the blame on someone else. Unless you’re still watering your lawn….then yes, I do blame you.

“I think we are bound to, and by, nature. We may want to deny this connection and try to believe we control the external world, but every time there’s a snowstorm or a drought, we know our fate is tied to the world around us”. — Alice Hoffman

how to garden during a drought, tips for growing your own food in a drought, water-wise gardening

What to Do in the Garden: April

Author and poet Margaret Atwood said “In the Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” And what a glorious time Spring is in the garden! The lengthening hours of daylight give us more time to be outside, and each day brings hope and possibilities. Meals from my kitchen are transitioning from the winter kales, carrots and leeks to the first of the spring artichokes, peas and baby lettuces. And eggs. So. Many. Eggs! Now is the perfect time to start a garden, or get to work on the tasks for an existing ones. Make sure to take time to notice the flowers, listen to the chatter of birds, and observe how many shades of green are out there.

The Northern California & Sonoma County April Checklist

  • Weed! I could spend entire weeks pulling and digging up weeds, and have little to show for it. But really, try and dedicate some time each day to this chore. If it seems to daunting to tackle them all at once, choose just a section and deal with the others later. At minimum, make sure to get them pulled before they go to seed. I’ve taken up the practice of going outside first thing, often still in my pajamas, and pulling the burmuda grass and bindweed around my fruit trees while my tea cools.
  • Transplant seedlings and start hardening off. If you started your own seeds inside, you’re likely at the point of needing to transplant into 4″ pots. I transplanted my tomatoes yesterday, and plan to transplant peppers early next week. Its also time to start hardening off starts, by gradually acclimating them to the outside.

transplanting seedlings

  • Shop for starts. If you didn’t start your own seeds, or you had some varieties not germinate, now is the time to start shopping for starts. Nurseries now have all the summer veggies in stock, as well as 6-packs of annual flowers. Check back in a few days for a post on my recommended places to shop, what to look for, and what to avoid.

tomato starts

  • Plant veggies!!! For the first few weeks of April, you can still sow seeds or transplant lettuce, beets, carrots, radishes, chard, kale and spinach. The summer veggies need to wait until the later part of the month. Remember we still have a change of frost until around April 10. Even if there is no frost, heat-loving veggies like tomatoes need day and night temps of 55 degrees and up, so planting out earlier likely won’t jumpstart your season. Keep an eye on the weather and take your chances, but we are still in the 40’s right now at night. Once we past the frost date, follow these planting guidelines:
    • Tomatoes, 0-1 week after
    • Basil- 1 week after
    • Corn- after
    • Cucumbers- 1-2 weeks after
    • Eggplants, melons, peppers & squash- 2 weeks after
  • Plant citrus. Once the danger of frost has passed, plant citrus trees.
  • Bulbs. Plant summer blooming bulbs like dahlias and gladiolus. Leave the faded foliage on spring blooming bulbs, instead of cutting away, so the nutrients are drawn back to the bulb.
  • Watch for pests and beneficials. If you’re having an aphid invasion, its tempting to spray them all away, but consider giving nature a chance to find balance. Ladybugs and other beneficials are arriving to the garden in masses, and for them to stick around, they need to have food. Before you deem a plant lost and pull it out for the chickens, check to see if there are beneficial larva or eggs present, and consider leaving the infested plant.

ladybug eggs

  • Prune off frost damage. If you had plants that suffered any frost damage, its now safe to prune off the dead or damaged parts.
  • Feed. If you didn’t get to it yet, feed roses and citrus. Feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons when they are done blooming.
  • Help out the bees and birds. The drought is also hard on birds and bees, so make sure to have water available. If bees have to spend all their effort finding water, they won’t be able to pollinate and the constant stress will shorten their life. In my garden, bees drink from my birdbath, as its rough sloping sides make it easy for the bees to gradually approach the water. You can also set out a tray filled with rocks or float branches or corks in a bucket.

water for the bees

  • Watch for mosquitos. While it is important to have water out for the birds and the bees, you don’t want to provide a breeding ground for mosquitos. Empty any standing water every few days (make sure to water plants with it!) and ensure rainbarrel openings are covered with a screen.
  • Thin fruit. When baby fruits are about as large as a dime, thin so the remaining fruit gets larger and weight on young branches is reduced. Cherries, figs, persimmons, citrus and pomegranates usually self thin, dropping what they need to around June, but stone fruits like plums and peaches, and pomes like apples and pears will need thinning. Keep the largest of fruits, and thin to every 2-5″, depending on final size of fruit. University of California has a great handout for more information. Some people think thinning isn’t necessary, and according to neighbors, my Blenheim was never thinned. I’m unsure of my philosophy on thinning yet, so I’ll be doing more research.


  • Water. We are now in irrigation season, and California is still in our epic drought. I’ll have a post soon about gardening in a drought, but here’s a quick summary on some water guidelines. Deep-water trees and established plants, and prioritize watering young trees, perennials, and edibles. Before watering, check the soil’s moisture content. Hot days may cause plants to wilt, giving the impression it needs water, but a well mulched bed may still be moist. Dig down a few inches with a trowel or stick a finger in the soil to see if still wet or if it needs water. Water at the base of plants, not overhead on the foliage, so the water goes where it is most needed.
  • Kill your lawn. We don’t have water we can waste, and your lawn should be the first thing to go. Especially if you don’t use your lawn. Nothing screams asshole like keeping a perfectly manicured and bright green front lawn you never step foot on in the middle of a drought. Add an extra notch of douche-bag is you’re overhead watering in the middle of the day! (which is also now illegal, btw.) Let it go into a wild meadow, sheet mulch, plant natives, or replace with a low-growing groundcover. If you’re still convinced you need your lawn because your kids/dog/etc. love it, consider if a trip to the park could satisfy that need. Save your water for your shade trees or for things you can eat. And I now climb off my soap box….

What are you looking forward to this month?

“To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves”. — Mahatma Gandhi

Northern California Gardening Checklist April

Two Years Ago We Bought a House

Two years ago, we bought our house. The process of turning it into what we want and need continues, a well as the slow progression of building our garden. First year projects included removing blackberries, building the hen house and run, building the fence on the East side of the property, and taking down shed #1 of 2. In case you missed it, you can see the progression what we accomplished the first year here.

While the first year was all about learning what we had to work with and starting to work outside, year two focused on the house: painting the exterior, updating the kitchen, pulling up the carpet, and rearranging the living room more times than I can count. Here’s the journey of accomplishments from our 2nd year adventure in creating our homestead.

When we bought the house, it was painted a color I could only describe as “1000 Island Dressing” and HATED it with every fiber of my being. I tested several shades of grey before settling on this shade, which is Mercer Charcoal from Sherwin Williams, the trim is Swiss Coffee. The front door is Queen of Hearts. I still have to finish the trim, and there are sections on the back and side that need to still be painted grey, but I don’t see the hideous color anymore when I pull in the driveway, so I’m significantly happier.

front of house, then

year two

The fence on the West side of our property is slowly reaching the finish point, we’ve got about a 1/3 of the way to go. Once that’s done, we’ve still got a back section of the existing East line to rebuild, and then the front sections. So many fucking post holes. Pretty sure that when we finally get done, I’m going to have a Scarlett O’Hera moment…”As god as my witness, I will never dig another post hole AGAIN!”.

fence line, then

fence line, now

The garden is coming along nicely, with all efforts focused on this east side of the property. To date, we’ve brought in 43 yards of compost. We’ve got all the permanent raised beds on that side built, and are finally harvesting good quality produce. The fruit trees are also doing well. Hopefully we can get the beds planned for the other side done this coming year, as well as some more trees and bushes, but first we have to get a tractor back to do some grading to solve our flooding issue.

garden, may

garden, now

building the fence, then

fruit trees, now

We removed shed #2, which was the well shed with the broken pipe saga. The well hole is under that plastic container, needing to be re-lined and a new pump. It doesn’t look like getting that fixed is in this years budget, but we are hoping to get all the concrete around it broken up soon.

shed, then

shed gone, now

When we bought the house, we were told their was maybe hardwood under the boring beige carpet. Quickly after moving in, I pulled a corner up in the guest room closet, but only found pressboard. But then, while rearranging the furniture in the living room, I noticed a small slit in a carpet and peeled the corner back, to see the seams of hardwood. Unplanned chaos then commenced as we procedded to rip out all the carpet, revealing mostly hardwood- there are a few sections of pressboard and plywood. Because there is a door or an opening on every wall, and the front door opens into the middle of the room, the room is hard to arrange. I think I’ve finally got the living room set up in the most efficient layout.

living room, then

living room, now

And the most expensive project of the year: the kitchen. We replaced the cheap Home Depot stove with a 6-burner Blue Star Range. The standard flipped-house pressboard cabinets got upgraded to custom cabinets, which we saved thousands of dollars on by painting and sealing myself. They are painted Cloud White, by Benjamin Moore, and hardware is from Restoration Hardware. The counters are a brushed granite.  Top cabinets were replace with open shelves, made from boards reclaimed from the shed demo. The tile floor was replaced with the unfinished oak, and then stained. I haven’t sealed it yet, as I’m wanting to to get some scratches and scuffs in it to match the rest of the old flooring. Eventually, probably next year, we will refinish all the flooring and stain and seal to match.

kitchen with stove, then

kitchen with stove, nowAs we enter year 3 of home ownership, we are turning our focus back to the yard. Finishing the fence will be the first thing, and then we hope to have the mess of concrete from the sheds and the patio removed. I’ve got one quote to break and haul, but its WAY out of our budget, so I’m now looking into just having it broken up and I’ll dry-stack it somewhere into a wall. After that happens, we need a swale dug and the yard graded, hopefully solving the drainage issues. That will likely take all our house funds for the year, but hopefully we can squeeze in some rain barrels along the chicken run, and rain tanks from the house. Oh yea, we also need new gutters and a sump-pump installed under the house.

The joys of home-ownership! Make sure to follow along in our third year adventure!