12 July, 2018

Notes on Gardening in July!

I remember as a child in Kansas in the 50's (the really LATE 50's), there was often not much to talk about, but we had, if nothing else, the Weather.  

"Hot enough for you, yet?" was a common greeting - of course, there was the other greeting 6 months later; "Cold enough for you, yet?" Rarely in the sweet spot of California does the weather make it to the first question level of conversation - but this year, July has outdone herself. I will say, in the strongest terms possible: July was plenty hot enough for me!  

Amid rounds of record breaking heat - new records were established all over the place - often replacing two-digit highs with three-digit highs. It has not been an easy ride for plant or beast! Consider this then, that until the end of June did the Learning Garden get its water turned back on! If we had gone into that heat wave without those few days of water, we would have been ruined for the rest of the summer - as it is, one volunteer with hoses cannot keep up the garden watered thoroughly enough to keep it alive. As July approached, I began to plot out which parts of the garden I was willing to let die. We were fortunate and the water was restored - as I write this now on the 12th, the water is off again and I am praying for some Grace - this is not the time of year to have this problem.  

Here's this month's journal entry:  

Our Gardens in July

Tomato Flowers - don't count your tomatoes until you pick them!
July has brought the heat. Now we are sorry we asked for it! More than in most years, this is the time to get a cool drink and say hello to summer in our Southern California gardens. For this reason among others, I insist that no garden should be created without seating for the gardener to glory in the work that has been done. This is not the month to do a lot of planting, if you can help it at all. Water is what your garden wants along with some weeding and harvesting. Don’t just pour water on your garden without exercising your noggin! Monitor the soil moisture and apply water as needed – but before plants begin to wilt. Try to water when less will be lost to evaporation – early or late in the day. I like to water under the full moon, listening to the owls, but I discuss that I my Master Class coming soon to a site near you. Stick a finger in the soil up to the first knuckle. Better yet, turn over a small spot of soil with your trowel. It should be slightly moist down about an inch or so. The surface of the soil can be quite dry and that's fine. A gardener is more concerned with the moisture level in that part of the soil where roots live.

It is most important to have water at the roots of plants – spraying water into the air to fall on the soil, is not very efficient. A lot of that water can be blown away from your plants (on to the neighbors!) and a lot evaporates off into the air. It is not very efficient at all. But there are other ways to to water that are better. All these other ways involve putting the water close to the root zone. The two ways to do this include some of the newest technology and some of the oldest technology. The newest technology is drip irrigation; the oldest is called an 'olla' – pronounces OYE-ya. Variations of ollas are found in several different ancient cultures and there is a move to put them back into gardens today.

But before we get to that, we need to know some things about water and how it moves in the soil. First of all, water 'sticks' to itself. If you over fill a glass of water to where it is actually higher than the edge of the glass, it often can hold together and not run down the side of the glass. The tendency of water to stick together is one of the qualities that make water so valuable a part of our world. So as water moves, it pulls other water along behind it.

Water moves down in the soil because of gravity. Water moves up and out of the soil into the atmosphere because of evaporation. Water moves sideways in the soil when pulled along by plant roots pulling water molecules out of the soil, which drags other molecules along behind. Water fans out from the point it drips into the soil to a more narrow or wider 'fan' depending on the composition of the soil; sandy soil, with it's large pore space allows the water to move more downward than outward. Clay soil, on the other hand, with small particles tightly packed causes water to expand outward much more dramatically than sandy soil.

Now, on to getting water to your plants' roots!

Drip irrigation has gotten a lot of attention over the last twenty years. A number of people who have played with drip, myself included, have come to feel it is less than 'as advertised.' In the first place, drip irrigation is a lot of plastic parts. However, compared to an underground irrigation system that are very expensive and difficult to install, drip systems are cheap and easy.

On the other hand, that means they are also relatively impermanent. Plastic can be easily broken – and therein lies the tale of the drip. The plastic seems to develop a magnetic attraction for shovels and other sharp instruments, which means it must be repaired constantly. Wild animals also find the plastic tubing an easy source for water – they will just make the hole a little larger and there is another repair awaiting your attention. Anyone who depends on a drip system, soon learns to observe the entire system while it's running at least once a month, I'd even suggest once a week – a lot can happen in a month and without this walk through, the first indication you have of a problem is usually a dead plant. The observation, is done more with one's ears than one's eyes, because you can hear the water making noises as it escapes from the tubing.

Furthermore, the pattern of wetness in the soil made by drip is not ideal for a number of plants. Plants did not evolve to gather water from a single spot with no other water than at that spot. For some plants, this becomes a deadly problem. Part of the strategy of these plants is to find water over a much wider range than less drought tolerant plants. As a consequence these drought resistant plants find drip irrigation a problem more than a solution. This is particularly difficult for the California Native plant palette than it is for plants that have been in the care of humans over the past hundreds of years. California Native plants tend to not do well with drip irrigation.

Finally with drip in the food garden, every replanting of a crop, requires the drip lines to be rolled up to facilitate preparing the bed and planting. This is a cumbersome project at best and is a disaster for the drip system at worst.

Drip has a lot of drawbacks even though it does deliver water to the roots with relatively little loss of water to the atmosphere and does reduce water waste. There is one other product called a 'leaky pipe or hose.' This technology has most of the good qualities of drip but is easier to deal with and the leaky hose sweats water all along its length which means there is a zone of wetness in the soil, more closely approximating natural conditions and the hose is less of a hassle to repair or move. It's not perfect but this is a reasonable choice for non-permanent plantings.

Ollas on the other hand, are a lot more
permanent and are not made of plastic.

Olla with a tomato plant in a ceramic planter- a good use of an olla that shows off all their good qualities perfectly. 

Made of clay, an olla (Spanish for 'pot,' as in 'soup pot.' ) is porous and water 'leaks' out. The olla is buried in the soil, then filled with water which seeps into the soil, spreading out to water nearby plants. How far the water moves in the soil is different according to the soil's texture, and needs to be tested for some accurate figures, but one can make some educated guesses in short order. Ollas are not a good candidate for trees and perennials with woody roots. They are somewhat fragile, but not as much as drip parts and they are not made from oil like plastic. Ollas do not have to be moved to plant a bed, as long as you are not tilling the soil in any way, and, of course, in my style of gardening, that isn't done. Ollas are absolutely fabulous in planted containers.

Do take steps to find ways to control the amount of water that is put in your garden – and no matter how you get water to the roots, make sure you mulch the beds thoroughly and save the water you do put down from evaporating off into the atmosphere.

Check the mulch level this month; insure it is deep enough to keep roots cool and prevent evaporation of the precious water you are putting down. I don't use fertilizer, which means my plants are never over-fertilized and with the constant use of compost and mulch, they are well supplied with all they really need to thrive.  I am cautious about using really good compost that might have a lot of nitrogen in it on tomatoes. They tend to use up all the nitrogen you give them by growing very large and healthy-looking plants and not setting fruit. For our climate, this isn't a disaster, you just have fresh tomatoes in September and October. But if you don't want to wait that long for tomato season to start, skip fertilizer or so-called 'hot' compost or anything with manure in it. Save all that for corn which is a notoriously heavy feeder.

Lavender Honey Ice Cream

It's time to cool down! At the Learning Garden we have a 4th of July Ice Cream Social and this is one of our annual favorites – one day I hope to supply the honey for this ice cream from one of my hives!

INGREDIENTS (for 2 quarts):
1½ cup honey
2 sprigs of fresh lavender
2 cups half and half
4 cups of whipping cream
6 egg yolks

Warm the honey with the lavender in a non-corroding saucepan. Taste after five minutes to check the strength of the lavender flavor and leave a little longer if necessary, until the flavor pleases you.

Heat the half and half and cream in a non-corroding saucepan and whisk the egg yolks in a bowl until they are just broken up. Whisk in some of the hot cream and return to the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the spoon. Strain into a container and stir in the flavored honey. Chill thoroughly.

Freeze according to the instructions of your ice cream maker and serve cold!

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers

Find a nice shady spot and with a cold drink, turn on the Dodgers and watch your plants grow. You can sit in your chair or put up a hammock to indulge yourself.

August 4th – It's the very next What To Do and When To Do It... believe it or not, we'll start some of our WINTER seeds! It's getting close to the time of our next wonderful growing season! You can redeem yourself if the summer garden wasn't up to snuff – or work to top your success! We'll also see if we can't do something to handle the summer produce that is pouring in right now! See you then!

Honesty in advertising forces me to tell you that the class activity, in opposition to my written word, was to plant seeds of two plants this month.  We planted one seed each of two different colors of cotton (yup, the plant produces colored cotton - more on that one day when I have the time and the bandwidth - and another round of tomatoes, specifically, one of my favorites, the Burbank Slicer, which is a determinate tomato, growing about 24 inches high, when it stops, sets some of the most tomatoey tasting tomatoes and dies. If you haven't grown it, do it! I plant it now knowing I will be able to harvest the tomatoes before the nights turn cold. It is an amazing container plant too, where I often plant it with basil and oregano and call it "Growing a Pizza!"  


1 comment:

  1. I know this is a bad time of year to plant anything but my gardener "accidentally" pulled up all of the flowers from my side yard. (I can't garden anymore. I used to have a huge vegetable garden but arthritis has killed my hands.) All that's left now are rose bushes over by the fence, which are doing okay to fabulous, and a whole lot of dirt. Is there anything (edible or not) that I can plant there that will survive full sun in the San Fernando Valley? Thyme? Lavender? Something that gets planted underground, maybe, like potatoes?