Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gopher control and When to water

Gophers will eat or eat through almost everything.  You have a gopher problem.  We all do once we begin growing food.

Passive gopher control can be done with a small underground cage to get bushes and trees started.  A box of any size can be built for annual plantings with a galvanized chicken wire mesh cage attached to the box below ground level.  That's a lot of work but worth it, if you don't want to spend time murdering the little rodents.  You can make the decision as to whether you are capable of murder after you watch a mature annual plant disappear down a hole or a perennial lose vigor and sit sullenly for two years while trying to replace lost roots.  I watched an entire, mature artichoke go down a hole over a two day period.  It was amazing.  I only have gopher wire under one box that I use for garlic because the crop takes so darn long to grow and gophers love it.  I dislike losing even one.

Active gopher control is relatively easy (and ultimately satisfying) once you get the right trap and some experience. Young cats are an excellent addition to any gopher ridden garden area.  They love the work and are very good at it but traps are a necessary addendum to their efforts.  To
 protect the cat from the trap just invert a bucket or plant pot over the gopher hole that has the trap in it.  Perennials will grow past gopher cages once they begin to mature, if you give them enough water, and will often grow past gophers efforts to kill them, too, unless you are plagued with a whole gopher civilization.  If this is your situation, make the effort to use cages until you get the problem solved. 
The best gopher problem solver I have found is the cinch trap.  They take some getting used to (surprisingly strong spring) but work well because you never touch the trigger.  The gopher never gets your scent.  This is not the case with any other trap I have used.  Esthetically, the traps are user friendly, if you don't want to get intimately involved with the "remains" when you are successful.  Uncock the trap and the little dear stays in its hole as compost for the plants upon which it wanted to feed.  Just close the gopher hole and water the "compost" in to help get the process started.

When to water can be tricky until you get some experience.  A soil moisture meter is a help in determining when to water.  A meter is inexpensive and probably a good idea, if you are new to gardening, in a hurry, or if part of your garden is in pots.  You can also determine soil moisture the old fashioned way and just dig a small hole into the root zone (this varies depending upon the age and type of plant) with a trowel or your fingers and squeeze the soil in your hand.  If it stays in a clump that shows your hand attributes it is wet enough.  This is most easily used with established plantings in mature, well conditioned soil or with annuals in boxes.  
Where to water.  Mature trees  are best watered from just within the edge of the furthest leaves from the trunk to beyond that 10 feet.  Immature trees need to be watered more closely to the trunk, but never at the trunk,within a diameter equal to the height of the tree or bush for the first two years.  

Root zones can be found by digging holes in your yard, if you are looking for an educational experience about the plants around you or happen to be digging in some compost.  Very few people have done this sort of investigation because you have to dig holes and get on your knees to investigate the small roots you see in the wall of the hole you have made.  Then you have to decide which plants own the roots.  Sometimes that is easy.  I have found pencil thick alder roots twenty four feet away from the trunk of a mature, 20 year old tree.  It is about 20 feet tall and the drip line (the area where the leaves quit growing out from the trunk of the tree) is about six feet from the trunk.  If you were watering it at the drip line, you would be missing at least 18 feet of the diameter of the root system beyond that.   That is an enormous amount of area that, if left unwatered, will definitely inhibit the growth and production of a fruit tree or bush.

If you water using a soaker hose or drip system and are not growing clover beneath and between your taller plantings, squeezing the soil or digging holes with a trowel will not be an adequate measure of when to water.  You will have to determine how much to water by digging holes to find soil moisture in the inverted "V"  or "dome" water distribution pattern below the soil surface and at various distances and depths from each hose.  That will be quite a project.  Or you can just make sure you have soaker hose further from the tree than you think you need it (once the tree is over two year old), water on a weekly schedule, and walk away from the shovel.  If you have a timer on your watering system then...but that involves very small waterings very frequently and is not for the casual gardener but is for the obsessed gardener.  This is not what I will address unless asked because it begins to get more complicated and expensive.

Keeping it simple, Composting, Worm Bins, and Soil Compaction

Composting, and worm bins are something every serious gardener must deal with and both can be messy, smelly, time consuming, complex, and unpleasant in a variety of ways. Here is how to make it all as easy to do as is possible and done in the shortest amount of time possible.  At most, all you need is two plastic five gallon buckets with lids and a shovel.  It can be done without lids but you won't like it.

Composting and worm bins are portrayed all over the web and in books as complex procedures using expensive containers or tumblers and methods that are far more difficult than need be.  All you are doing is making dirt.  How hard can that be?Plants, especially perennials, will grow in any kind of soil if you amend it with kitchen garbage and yard waste.  The easiest way is to plant the tree or bush then put 4 gallons of garbage (any compostable material, remember the gopher, kept in a covered bucket outside the kitchen door until you are ready to use it)  into a hole dug next to the plant root zone.  Cover the garbage with the soil you took out of the hole then put a rock or other marker on it so you can remember where your compost hole is.  Next time you accumulate 4 gallons of garbage, dig a hole next to the rock and repeat the process.  Just keep plugging the garbage into holes as it accumulates until the plant is surrounded with it.  Then start on the next circle around the plant, if you expect it to grow large enough to take advantage of it (roots usually grow as far out from the plant as do the leaves).  Long story short, just dig a hole, put in the garbage, cover it up, tamp it lightly so it is almost equal with the surrounding ground level.  This provides a composted area into which the roots can grow over a short period of time that is long enough for composting to complete before the roots get there.  You have an instant compost pile already incorporated into the ground and worked over by worms.  However, you have none of the smell, bugs, visual impingement, or mess created by dogs, raccoons, possums, rats, and skunks finding fun things to play with in a compost pile.  If you do have a digging critter problem at your new compost hole, put a paver or large flat stone over it for a week or two.  

Making an annual planting bed is just a matter of putting the plugs in lines instead of circles and doing it far enough in advance of the planting season for the material to begin to degrade so you can plant over the composted holes.  

By composting in this manner you provide ready compost when and where the roots need it and you will grow worms in your yard precisely where you want them to be.  This creates worm inhabited, looser, nutrient filled soil in the root zone.  Plants will grow vigorously when they reach this area.  It is easy to add yard waste to this procedure.   Above ground composting and worm bins are eliminated in one clean operation that saves you time and space while saving your neighbors and you lots of smell, mess, pest problems, and the aggravation of discussing these problems amongst yourselves.    

No plant material (or animal) should have a reason to leave your yard in the trash, green recycle, or down a sink disposer.  None.  It can be a matter of pride to change your small bit of the earth for the better and it only takes moments to do.  

If you want to do some creative composting, separate citrus, fruit, tea bags (paper only), and coffee grounds (with the filter paper) from your other garbage for use with plants that prefer an acidic soil condition.  Check the Western Garden Book or google your plant of choice to determine which plants these are.  Blueberries come to mind immediately.

Soil compaction is what keeps most plants from growing to their full potential. Every time you step on the roots you break some and make it far more difficult for the rest to grow through the hardened soil. Roots need the little spaces between the soil grains for ease of growth.  Step on the soil and those spaces are gone.  Make pathways and stay to them.  Stepping on the ground in the root zone is very much like taking a handful of each of the plants nearby and breaking it off.  It has the same effect on growth of the overall plant.  Where is the root zone?  It is your entire yard.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Weeding with Clover and Water

One way to reduce weeding over time is to pull the weeds before they go to seed.   But you are still pulling weeds and seeds still get into the yard via birds, shoes, wind, on fur, etc. 

The best way to do the weeding is to grow clover.

Clover releases nitrogen into the soil through a bacterial action on the roots of the clover.  It can be "plowed down"  in the winter if your soil needs improving.  Turning it under opens the door for the weeds to come back so you must re-seed the clover immediately after turning it under.  Clover is perfect for bees.  It blooms for a long time and imparts a flavor to honey.  Spreading it to the entire yard is easiest by pulling a bunch out of the ground, taking it to where it is wanted and putting it into soil already loosened and watered for it.  Make certain to keep it watered after that.  If it dries out, it cooks quickly in the sun.  

White clover outcompetes other weeds, fertilizes the soil, improves soil tilth when turned under, re-seeds itself, and can be a good indicator of when you need to water because its roots are so shallow.  Definitely a time saving plant.  Grows to about one foot high.  Red clover grows two to three feet high and can be a problem to other plants you want to cultivate because of the competition for sunlight from a plant that size.

Weeding the driveway or sidewalk happens when cooking dinner.   Take the used boiled water and pour it, while still very hot, on those cute little weeds (or the big ones) growing in the walkways.  Tomorrow they will be brown and dead.  Very inexpensive and satisfying.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Naturally formed honey comb

This is how wild bees build their honey combs.  The white dots are capped cells filled with honey.  The honey colored cells are waiting for the nectar to evaporate enough to become honey before capping.  The pure white area is the comb before honey is deposited into the cells.

The picture below is four layers of honey comb with enough space between for a bee to walk.


Have you ever bought organic produce wrapped in plastic and/or styrofoam and wondered what you were doing?

Buying food at your local farmer's market allows you to know it was grown locally and not wrapped in plastic and shipped across the country by a corporation that cares little how fresh it is or how good for you it may be.  There is potential for plastic to leak toxins into the food they cover or the water they contain.  Organic food in plastic is an oxymoron.

Here is another one:  Ever think about "free range chickens" roaming free and happy ?  At the corporation farms that grow birds all they have is a door to the outside that the chickens never exit because they are afraid of being outside after having grown up indoors.  The "free range" afforded them is a very small fenced area that meets government standards for creation of the terminology "free range."  No such thing as a truly free range chicken for sale unless you find it at the farmers market or in your own yard.  

At the farmer's market,  ask the egg/chicken vendor how they handle their chickens.  You will enjoy the answers.  It is interesting what you can train a free ranging flock of field birds to do.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Difference

These homes sit side by side...

This is how our yard looked at first.  The home has the same footprint and lot dimensions as ours.

The yard shown above uses more water than the one below, has to use herbicides and petroleum based fertilizer to attain the color and health of the "crop", and takes more time and money to maintain.  They have to buy, use, and maintain a lawn mower as well as hand tools.  It produces not one edible item.

The photos below show a similar yard changed to a greener style of usage.

It looks far different from the street and...

...once you are inside, it is a beautiful, restful, and productive place to be.

This yard can easily produce 1/2 ton of fruits and vegetables over the growing season.  Harvesting one ton of edibles in a year is not unreasonable.   The growing area is less than 3,000 square feet.  Part of this is in non-harvested ornamentals, plants that attract beneficial insects, and plants that provide fertilizer to others sharing their root space.  The rest of the property is driveway, sidewalk, patio, pathways, sitting area, fireplace, work shed and house. 

Only hand tools are used.  


Philosophy and insight:

The Secret Garden by David Bodanis
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan


Sunset Western Garden Book 
The New Complete Guide to Beekeeping by Roger Morse
Mastering the Art of Beekeeping by Ormond Abie

Life cycles:

Destructive and Useful Insects by Metcalf, Flint, and Metcalf


Google it.  Info from universities, colleges, university extension services, or groups not trying to sell you something is worth the most.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The goal is to show how to produce, with minimum effort, an environment in your yard that will be beneficial and useful while gaining an understanding of what is going on out there.  It is possible to harvest throughout the growing seasons without concern for your health while creating an  attractive yard for mammals, birds, and insects you want for biocontrol.  

Reliance upon pesticides and artificial nutrients is not necessary for success in the process of building an environment that takes very little effort to maintain once it is established.  


Monday, July 14, 2008


While reviewing "green living" sites it seems there is a need for more detail in how to make the reality of it practical.  Specific details are needed about how to help your immediate environment and make a better place for everything to enjoy.  Except gophers.

Beekeeping will be included because bees are an indicator species for the health of the environment nearest us.  They thrive or die based upon how healthy the area you live in is for you.  

The reasons for eating your home grown food or food grown in a nearby farm whose owner you have met are obvious from this recent article about salmonella poisonings being impossible to trace to their origins:
and from this article from the USEPA stating that in 1998 over 50% of food had pesticide residues:

and this article shows why you want to know and buy from a local grower:

In the latter it states:  "Some foods sold as organic may also be mislabeled, either because of fraud or because of lapses in maintaining the identity of foods as they move from the farm to the consumer."  I would add, that when buying at a farmer's market all the middle men are removed.

Growing your own or buying local eliminates all of the above potential problems or makes them immediately accessible for analysis and quick correction, if there is a problem.