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.