Gardening By the Moon

This past weekend, I made sure that I planted potatoes, carrots and radishes. Why this weekend? Because it was the full moon, and I try to plant based on the cycles of the moon.  full moon

Also known as agricultural astrology, it is the practice of sowing, transplanting and harvesting according to the cycles of the moon. Evidence of its practice dates back to the early civilizations of the Euphrates River valley and it can be found in the folklore of ancient societies ranging from the Celts in Britain to the Maoris in New Zealand. Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote about planting by the moon in his History of Nature.

growing potatoesThere are two factors that agricultural astrology takes into consideration: the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac. The phase of the moons effect the amount of light and, just like how the moon effects tides, it moves the water present in the soil. The zodiac gets factored in because different signs are associated with the different elements, which correlate with different crops and garden activities.

Confused? Here are some of the main guidelines:

  • New Moon (1st quarter): Gravity from the moon is pulling water up, which balances root and leaf growth. Plant those plants that produce seeds outside of fruit, such as lettuce, spinach, cabbage and grains during this phase.
  • Waxing Moon (2nd quarter): Increasing light from the growing moon is good for leaf growth. Plant those that produce seeds inside of fruits, like beans, melons, peas, peppers, squash and tomatoes at this time.
  • Full Moon (3rd quarter): Energy is drawn down, and after the moon has peaked, the light starts to decrease, good for root growth. Plant root crops, such as beets, carrots, onions, and potatoes. This is also a good phase to transplant.
  • Waning Moon (4th quarter): This is the time of rest and maintenance. Harvest, weed, prune, fertilize, and graft during this moon phase.
  • Zodiac: Consider that water signs are preferred by many plants, roots like earth signs, flowers like air signs, and fire signs are good for harvesting and destroying pests. moon part

There are many nuances to the moon astrology, and, like everything, there are exceptions for certain plants or certain cycles or periods of transition. I am in no way an expert. A great resource to learn more and see detailed guidelines is from Caren Catterall, at www.gardeningbythemoon.com. She also produces a great calendar that has detailed info for different growing zones and exactly what to do each day based on the zodiac and the moon phases.

It is touted that when plants are sown at the right timing of phase and sign, they will show increased growth, better resiliency against pests, larger harvests, and take longer to go to seed. But, there is not much scientific evidence that astrological gardening has any beneficial effects. I have honestly not taken enough detailed records to notice if it has made a difference in my garden. Of course, there are many other factors that effect plant growth- like seasons and weather and chickens who scratch up your beds. IMG_3074

But in my opinion, a practice that has such deep roots must have some value, so I always take the moon into consideration. At the very least, it makes me more in tuned with the natural cycles of the earth, and you can’t go wrong with that!


How to Garden based on the Moon

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All About Strawberries, and Setting Up My Own Patch

In general, I don’t like strawberries. I think the ones available at the grocery store, like tomatoes, are hard, tasteless and basically, are inedible. Ebecause I never know if they are organic, and I want to avoid the 45 pesticides commonly found on strawberries. Strawberries that homegrown, or freshly picked purchased from the farmers market, however, are a totally different story. These are picked at their peak, are they are juicy, luscious and fragrant.

bowl of strawberries
homegrown strawberries, from our last garden

How strawberries got their name is unknown. It may have came from medieval Europe, when street vendors sold the berries strung on pieces of hay. Or, from the fact that the fruit ripens as the same time of as hay, with the Anglo-Saxon word for hay is streaw. Their genus name, fragaria, is derived from the Latin fragrant, after their delightful smell.

Wild strawberries are found worldwide. One of the first references to them was written in the 1st century, by a Roman poet. In the 13th century, a Greek doctor wrote about using them as a treatment for depression. Over the next few centuries, wild strawberries were being grown in European apothecary gardens, and all parts of the plant were used to treat a variety of illnesses, ranging from throat infections to broken bones.

wild strawberries
wild strawberries, foraged while hiking in Big Sur

At the same time, in the “New World”, tiny wild strawberries were foraged for and eaten fresh by native people, and in Chile, wild strawberries were being cultivated. As Spaniards traveled North into different countries of South America, they brought the strawberry with them, calling them frutilla, or little fruit.

In 1711, a French spy was sent by the King of France to gather info on the Spanish West Indies. While secretly documenting ports and analyzing Spanish fortresses, he also noticed the strawberries growing. When returning to France, he brought back 5 strawberry plants. These cultivated wild Chilean strawberries were all female and would not reproduce on their own, but crossed with with a European strawberry, and this hybrid became the start of the commercial strawberry grown thought the world today.

strawberries

Strawberries are a perennial plant, and there are regionally adapted varieties for almost any garden. In Northern California, the best time to plant them is now, when they are available in the nursery as bare root. Harmony has them right now in bundles of 25, for only $7. We built and prepped a raised bed last fall, in anticipation for planting out the strawberries, which I did earlier this week.

strawberries at Harmony

There are three types of standard strawberries: June-bearing varieties, everbearing, and day-neutral varieties. June-bearing produce one large crop per year, in late spring or early summer. This is the type of strawberry usually grown commercially, and the standard practice is to remove the plants each year after harvest to get a large, consistent crop each year. Everbearing plants bear one crop in early summer and one in fall. Day neutral types continue peak in early summer, and the continue to produce into the fall.

Day neutral types do best for my area, so we chose two varieties to fill our bed with: Alibion and Aromas. I like having more than one variety in case one fails, I’ll have a backup. More variety means more resilience in the garden. Its also fun to do comparison to see which is best suited for my garden, and if I can tell a difference in the fruit.

bare root strawberry
bare root strawberry

Strawberries need full sun, and well draining, acidic soil. Before planting, I amended the soil with E.B. Stone’s  5-5-3 fertilizer, to add essential nutrients to the soil and to raise the acidity level. I spaced my plants out in 3 staggered rows, each 18″ apart. When planting strawberries, the most important thing is to keep the crown above the soil level, otherwise, it will rot.  Make sure the roots are completely covered, so they don’t dry out.

measuring out the plants, 18" apart
measuring out the plants, 18″ apart
plant the strawberry with it's crown right above soil level
plant the strawberry with it’s crown right above soil level

Once my plants were all set out, I then laid drip line. I don’t have piping out to the garden yet, and am still irrigating with a billion hoses strung together to reach the one spigot near the house, but I’m hopeful we’ll get it together this year. I knew it would be significantly easier to set the drip line out now, when my plants were itty bitty, and connect to the main line later, then to try and weave tubing though full grown plants. Plants will produce for about 3 years, then need to be replaced. If I have to wait another 3 years to get a irrigation pipes out into the garden, I might go crazy.

drip line

Then, I gave a light water, mulched around the plants with a thick layer of alfalfa straw, and put up bird netting! Now, I just have to keep an eye on if I need to water, and I patiently wait until my plants grow, bloom and fruit!mulched strawberry bed

strawberries growing
growing in our last garden 

Planting Bare Root Trees in Clay Soil. Or…we now have an orchard!

January is a month usually spend curled up inside, listing to the pouring rain while looking at seed catalogues, and lustfully waiting for spring to come. Except this winter has shown us NO rain, and the days have been warm. I want to be outside, planting seeds. Except we wake up each morning to a thick layer of frost, prohibiting any real gardening from happening.

Thankfully, the restlessness of winter is broken up by finally being bare root season!

Bare root means they are plants sold, literally, with bare roots. These are plants that are dug up from the commercial nursery while dormant and sold with no dirt attached to their roots. And now is the time where nurseries are filled with things that can be sold as bare root, such as: roses, fruit trees, flowering shrubs, blue berries, black berries, currents, raspberries, grapes, strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish!

rows and rows of bare root trees at Harmony Farm Supply, our go-to nursery
rows and rows of bare root trees at Harmony Farm Supply, our go-to nursery

Because these plants are sold without a pot or nursery soil, they are usually more affordable. They also tend to adjust quickly to a new location. Bare root season has a fairly narrow window, and its best to get them soon after arriving at the nursery. By March, they will be potted up as they start sending out roots and leaves, and sold for much more.

bare root

At the nursery you will find bare roots fruit trees just buried in a box of sand or dirt, and to purchase your pull them out of the sand, bag them up and head home. Sometimes they will be pre-bagged, usually at the big box stores, but I recommend finding an independent nursery so you can check the quality of the root crown.

bringing the trees home

We’ve been prepping for fruit tree planting since last fall, when we planted cover crop in a strip along the East side of the property. I’ve spent HOURS pouring though all my gardening books and catalogues. Did we want semi or dwarf? How many peaches did we want? While we are planning on eventually turning the back third of the lot into an orchard, right now we were focusing on the side strip, which would fit 6 trees spaced 15 feet apart. This past weekend, we were finally able to buy our trees and get them in the ground.

Traditionally, bare root plants are planted by digging a hole in the ground two times the size of the roots and creating a cone in the middle. The roots are then draped over the cone and then the native soil is backfilled back to ground level. However, fruit trees won’t survive in poorly-drained or heavy soil, which we are plentiful in, so we went a different planting method: on a mound.

The goal was to never have the tree’s roots in standing water. We chose trees that are on a root stalk, “Citation”, that is more tolerant of wet soils than others, but we still needed to get our soil amended and draining better. And since we’ve had every neighbor tell us our yard floods, we had some work to do.

First step was to loosen the soil directly under the root crown, which was achieved by digging a 2 foot hole about 2 feet deep. Our cover crop helped significantly to soften the soil, but it was still a pain in the ass to dig though. We also used the pick ax to chip up the sides, preventing the smooth “side of a bathtub” effect.

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Then, moving in a circle around that hole, we turned that loosened soil into the hole, breaking apart our cover crops as we went. After a few more concentrically circles of turning over the soil, we had a tilled area of about 5 feet.

turning the soil

On this, we dumped about a wheelbarrow worth of compost, then turned over again to mix in with the native soil. I chose to work the soil this way so we didn’t create a hole just filled with compost, which could cause the roots just to hang out in that area. The gradual transition between straight compost to part compost to broken up native soil will hopefully encourage a wide root system.  Fruit tree roots don’t go down that deep, but outwards. We will gradually turn the rest of the cover crop over and work in more compost.

turned soil

In the center of the worked area, we created a mound about a foot high and sprinkled about a 1/4 cup of fish-meal based organic fertilizer with Mycorrhizal fungi, to stimulate root development. Then we placed our tree on top, positioning it so the graft knob faced north (to protect it by the tree’s shade). We then covered the roots with more compost. General rule of thumb is to bury your tree to the same level it was at the nursery, which on our trees was a few inches below the graft. We filled in more compost around the mound to level it out a bit and create a sloping mound, more so than a volcano.

At this point, we then pruned the tree, taking off about half to 1/3 its original height. This was scary at first, but because lots of the roots were lost when being dug up, the nursery staff recommended doing so to better balance the tree. I confirmed this with my elderly neighbor who has many fruit trees and does her own pruning and grafting. We also pruned back the branches to one or two buds.

pruning

Trees get most of their water from smaller feeder roots, that are at the outer edge of the root system, not near their trunk. Called the drip line, this is the same distance from the trunk as the branches extend. A brilliant evolutionary technique of trees, as falling rain moves along the canopy to the outer tips of branches and falls onto the area where these roots are. For now, my tree is small, so I created a moat about a 2 feet diameter surrounding the tree to act as a water trough. After giving them about 2 gallons of water, I heavily mulched with alfalfa to keep the soil moist. Until we get rain, for the first year we will need to give our baby trees 1.5-3 gallons of water, 3 times a week.

creating water moat
creating a moat to keep the water at the roots

Choosing what type of tree to plant was difficult, and there are lots of things to consider.  There was an epic amount of notes taken, diagrams, and pro-and-con lists. The first way to narrow it down was to only look at trees that worked with our amount of chill hours, between 700-1000.

Then was to look at the rootstalk, as we wanted to only have the Citation type. This root stalk also is a semi-dwarf, causing the trees to only get between 12-18 feet tall. Some trees require a pollinator of a different variety, and I didn’t want those- in case one of the pair died, I could be left with a non-producing tree, so all trees needed to be self-fruitful. I also then considered the climate range each tree can live in. Some trees are only good in a few zones, but I wanted to have trees with a wide range so they may better survive climate change. Having fruit that ripened throughout the season was also an important consideration: we didn’t want everything to ripen at one time, nor did we want everything to be blooming early or ripening late in case of rouge frosts. I also wanted all fruit preserving to be done with by early September, so I can focus on canning tomatoes. Trees with fruit that were recommended for freezing, canning or drying were also preferred, as there is only so much fresh fruit one can eat. After preserving 50 pounds of clingstone peaches last summer, freestone stone fruit was crucial. I also valued varieties that are historic or listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.

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So what types of trees did we end up getting? There are many other varieties I’d like to get in the future, but for now, our orchard now contains (from South to North):

July Elberta Peach: Developed by Luther Burbank, this peach is described as “large fruit, skin blushed or red streaked over yellow. Juicy, sweet, melting, very flavorful yellow freestone. For canning, freezing and fresh use.” Ripens early July.

Fantasia Nectarine: Described as “very large fruit with full, rich nectarine flavor. Sweetest when soft-ripe.” Ripens mid July.

O’Henry Peach: Originating in Red Bluff, this peach is described as “A favorite fresh market yellow freestone- renowned for its firm texture, rich flavor and consistently high quality. Large fruit, mostly red, yellow flesh heavily streaked with red when fully ripe. Heavy bearing tree.” Ripens mid August.

Blenheim Apricot: We already have an ancient Blenheim in the front yard, so we wanted to make sure we got one producing before the other one died. Blenheim is a Slow Food Ark of Taste. Described as “A longtime favorite in California. Low acid, sweet, aromatic, flavorful. Used for canning, cooking, drying and fresh-eating.” Ripens late June.

Santa Rosa Plum: Luther Burbank’s most famous variety of Japanese plum. Described as “when firm-ripe, has reddish-purple skin and tart, amber flesh. Soft-ripe fruits have dark purple skin and sweet, juicy, aromatic, crimson-streaked flesh, with some tartness near skin and pit.” Ripens Late June.

Tilton Apricot: Discovered in 1885 near Hanford, California. Described as “traditional canning apricot, also used for fresh or dried. Medium size, firm, very flavorful when fully tree-ripe. Buds are more resistant to frost than Blenheim.” Ripens early July.

line of trees

“To be able to walk under the branches of a tree that you have planted is really to feel you have arrived with your garden. So far we are on the way: we can now stand beside ours.” -Mirabel Osler