Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Back To Eden Method Is Destroying My Fruit Trees!

The first summer we lived here (2014), life was pretty easy. Throughout most of it we had at least an inch of rain every week. Toward the end of it I started thinking about adding to the apple, peach, and fig trees we brought with us. Next spring, we added a mulberry, a pomegranate, three jujube, two Chinese chestnut and two almond trees. (No partridge, and the pear trees would come later.)

The summer of 2015 was much drier. In case you don’t know, we are not on the water grid and therefore water everything by hand. No drip irrigation system to flip on and off whenever the trees need a drink. And fruit trees are thirsty animals. 

It was a lot of work keeping them alive, and I was about to give up on buying more trees when I learned about the Back To Eden method.

Long story short, this is a method of gardening using several inches (even up to a foot) of wood chips as mulch. This supposedly eliminates the need for fertilization, and significantly reduces the need to water. So I eagerly purchased more trees, and J and I got at least eight inches of wood chips put around all the trees. 

But I had a choice to make. Howard Garrett, the guy famous for teaching organic gardening in the state of Texas – and also an arborist – says not to put mulch right up against the tree bark. I’d learned to respect his advice and knowledge over the past few years, but Paul Gautchi – another arborist and the dude who put the Back To Eden method on the map – says to go ahead and shove the mulch right up against the tree bark. 
By the way, did I mention that the area where Paul lives gets way less (like one-sixth) of the amount of rain that we do here in southeast Oklahoma?
You would think that – plus my longer acquaintance with “the Dirt Doctor” (as Garrett is known) – would have made my choice obvious. 

Well, congratulations for thinking. Wish I had. 

A few weeks ago, I blamed our high humidity for the blossom end rot on my apples, the sooty canker on my mulberry trees, the fireblight on my Asian pears (which are supposed to be resistant to that disease), the black rot on my grapevine, and the peach leaf curl on my peach trees.
And then, the leaves on my one cherry tree started turning yellow and falling off. I knew it had contracted a fungus. A brief search online offered four possible diseases. I went outside and looked at the trunk near the ground. Sure enough, sticky black goop was oozing out if it.

The tree had phytophthora root and crown rot. The remedy? Pull all the soil away from the crown and roots at the surface, and maybe the fungus will dry up and not kill the tree. Disgusted, I dutifully pulled all the mulch away from the trunk of the tree.

And this is what I saw:

J and I promptly pulled the mulch back away from all the other fruit trees. I hope it’s not too late for the cherry and Asian pear trees. The others will be all right, but as far as a fruit harvest I’ve lost all but one apple and probably more than half the mulberries we could have had. Not to mention every single Asian pear that I so painstakingly thinned out about a month ago.
And it’s all Paul Gautchi’s fault!
Or…maybe it’s my fault. Possibly I should have used my noggin a teensy bit better. 

Well, I’m using it now, and it’s telling me to take food-production advice from someone who lives in a very different climate from you with a grain of salt.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Great Gobs Of GOUMIS! (How And Why To Grow Them)

Ever heard of goumi berries? No? Welcome to my world about seven years ago and prior. I first heard of them on a prepper podcast where the podcaster was listing different fruits to try growing. Being into permaculture, his emphasis on the bush that produces them was that it fixes nitrogen into the soil, as do legume plants. 

Three years after planting my own four sticks labeled “goumi” into the orchard, I’ve come to appreciate them for much more than the benefits they bring to the soil. 

Advantages of growing goumis

Goumi branches up close and personal.

Advantage #1

They do great in our humid subtropical climate…without getting sprayed with a fungicide. They seem to be completely immune to every kind of fungus out there – unlike the strawberries, peaches, Asian pears, mulberries, apples, grapes we’ve planted.

Advantage #2

Their size is manageable for even small backyards. They stay relatively short, six to eight feet tall – no ladders required during harvest – and you space them four to seven feet apart, depending on whether you want a hedge or not. If you plant them four or five feet apart, however, you will probably need to so some pruning once or twice a year.

Advantage #3

This goes hand-in-hand with the first advantage: they are low-maintenance. Unless you have to make them conform to a small space, they don’t need pruning and they can be grown in a wide range of soils.

In my experience, they are somewhat drought tolerant, as I only give each bush about a gallon of water once or twice a week during the dry part of summer and though the leaves do end up looking stressed, the next spring they grow back bigger and more prolific than ever.

BUT…you have to understand two things. First, the bushes have more than six inches of wood chips around them (touching the trunk, the Back To Eden way). Second, because of where we live we begin harvesting in mid-May. Unless the area is suffering through a drought, we get probably half of our annual rainfall March through May, so the bushes get plenty of natural irrigation up until the time of harvest. This will not be true in many northern areas, where goumis are typically not ready to harvest until August.

Which brings us to the next advantage:

Advantage #4

Wherever you live, the goumis are ready to harvest before or between the harvest time of other fruits. This means two things: first, you’re not slaving away having to harvest several types of fruit at once, and second, you’ve got some kind of fresh fruit coming into your house at a time when you normally wouldn’t.

Advantage #5

Goumis are a great source of nutrition. From the website page
Goumis are high in vitamin A and E, bioactive compounds, minerals, flavinoids and proteins. Their lycopene content is the highest of any food and is being used in the prevention of heart disease, cancers and in the treatment of cancer. Cooking the fruit increases the lycopene content. The fruits and seeds are an excellent source of essential fatty acids as well which is very unsual for a fruit. The seeds are also edible although somewhat fiberous, and are especially high in proteins and fats.

Advantage #6

Goumis are self-pollinating. So if you only have room for one bush, you can grow just one bush. HOWEVER, they will produce more if you have one variety that helps to pollinate the variety you have.

Advantage #7

Both the flowers and the berries are attractive, and will cover the whole bush (especially if you have more than one variety for cross pollination). The blooms are rather odd-shaped, but put off a wonderful aroma that will attract bees from miles around. And after the berries form, as they turn from green to orange to red they add a brilliant, beautiful splash of color to the landscape.

Of course, goumis aren’t the be-all-end-all perfect fruit.

Disadvantages of growing goumis

**1. Goumis freeze to death in temperatures below minus ten Fahrenheit. So if you live in a USDA growing zone less than zone 6, you’ll have to pass on goumis.

**2. The berries taste sour. Perhaps close to the tartness of a sour cherry, although not as unpalatable as a crab apple. For that reason, while you can eat them raw (unlike elderberries, which are toxic if eaten raw), they are generally used to make jellies, pies and sauces. I primarily use them in smoothies, throwing in a handful or so to add nutrition. But I have to make sure the other fruits in the smoothie are plenty sweet.

**3. The branches have an occasional thorn. Not enough to make harvesting difficult or a literal pain, but enough that if you have small children running around you may want to wait until they’re older before you plant any.

**4. The berries overripen quickly. On the one hand, overripe berries are actually sweet. On the other hand, they may get smushed between your fingers when you try to pick them. Regardless, the short harvesting window means you can lose a lot of berries quickly if you don’t stay on top of picking them.

**5. About a third of the volume of the berry is a soft pit. If you’re eating it fresh, you can swallow it, chew it (it has a gum-like feel in the mouth), or spit it out. If you’re cooking it for jelly or whatnot, you have to strain the pits out. The pits are inconvenient, whichever way you look at it.

Now, if I haven’t totally turned you off on these easy-to-grow bushes…

Where to buy goumis

If you live in growing zones 6-9, there are several places online that sell goumis bushes. We use Raintree Nursery to buy all our fruit trees, bushes, and vines.

How to plant, grow, and harvest goumis

Plant your young goumis the way you’d plant any young fruit tree: in well-drained, amended soil. The depth of the hole should be from the bottom of the roots to the where the “trunk” begins, and the width should be twice that of the root ball.

After planting, if the soil is dry give it about a gallon of water or so.

So far, the wood chips we use for mulch seem to be providing our goumis plenty of nutrition. If you choose not to use the Back To Eden method, the bushes would probably appreciate an application of cottonseed meal in the spring before the flowers open.

Water in the usual way. Generally, that means in the absence of an inch of rain, giving them a deep watering once a week. In order to get established, young plants will need a lot more water their first year (especially if not mulched with a lot of wood chips) than during succeeding years.

As I mentioned earlier, if you use the Back To Eden method, the bushes will not require as much irrigation.

Goumi bushes will produce nothing the first year, but for us they began producing their second year. Sometimes you have to wait until year three. They are ready when they are red-orange to red and give a little when you give them a gentle squeeze. Either the stem comes off the branch with ease, or the berry will slide off the stem with ease. In other words, if you need to pull to take it off, it’s probably not quite ripe.
Two to three cups of goumi berries after about 35 minutes of harvest.

What to do with goumis

  1. Eat them out of hand.
  2. Blend small amounts in smoothies. I have a Vitamix so I just throw the whole berry in, pit and all. Despite the power of this blender, however, you still end up with quite a few pit filaments that you need to either swallow or pick out of your mouth.
  3. Include them in a homemade juice recipe.
  4. Make jelly (recipe here - and no, I am not the Emily at the end of the page. ;) ).
  5. Make a sauce.
There you have it: my take on the glory of goumis! :)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Growing Lettuce Indoors, Easier Than The "Easiest" Way

I was brimming over with enthusiasm when I wrote this post about indoor gardening; specifically, how to grow lettuce indoors. Living where we live, lettuce has a very short growing season either side of the year and absolutely cannot be grown in the hot summer without instantly turning bitter. Also, the sandy soil refuses to stay moist unless I water two to three times a day (or we have a decent rainfall every other day). 

So I started growing lettuce inside as described in the post linked above, with net cups containing coconut coir and the lettuce plants sitting on top of a bed of pea gravel in a plastic cup.
See the plant roots coming out the holes in the net cup as I hold it above the larger plastic cup. The dead leaf is normal, as I've harvested from that plant numerous times (in other words, it's old).

The pea gravel in the larger plastic cup, on which the net cup sits.

This method definitely works, but I found as the plants grew larger that I was spending more time than I wanted watering them. Instead of just watering once or twice a week (on one video I watched of a similar method of indoor lettuce gardening, the gardener said she only had to water once a week - ??), I was watering them every second to third day. It’s tricky to pour water in between a net cup and a plastic cup, and it was even trickier to do with the lettuce on the top shelf.

So my enthusiasm for growing lettuce indoors began to wane quickly. It all but disappeared the first day I had to clean out the plastic cups when the first batch of lettuce started to bolt. It took me thirty-five minutes to clean out twelve of them, including pulling the lettuce with its roots out of the net cups and rinsing off the pea gravel (which you’re supposed to do to get rid of any algae that has grown).

I’m sorry, but I have better things to do with both my time and with water – a precious resource in any event, but even more precious to us because we are off the water grid. No well; we collect rainwater in three rain tanks, two rain barrels, and a small pool.

What happened next?

I decided there had to be an easier way to grow lettuce inside. I noticed that when I start lettuce seedlings in the net cups on a plant saucer, they would grow roots out well before I placed them in their final home and did just fine. 

Also, I knew that with lettuce, as long as you allow some of the roots to have access to air, the plants won’t drown and the roots won’t rot. 
My solution? 

Skip the middle man!

The plants in net cups do just fine sitting in water. So why complicate it?

Here’s what I’m doing now:
Lettuce in net cup sitting right in water at bottom of plastic box. Weird thing on the left is a rotted leaf from next plant over.

Lifting up a net cup so you can see it better.

Yep. The net cups sit at the bottom of a plastic storage tub, and I keep between a quarter and a half inch of nutrient solution (water with hydroponic fertilizer mixed in) at the bottom of the tub. It takes hardly any time to add more water, because I’m just pouring once. I don’t have to fight with cups and net cups. 

As you can see, the lettuce is doing just beautifully.

And, of course, I won’t have to ever wash any more pea gravel ever again!

Two disadvantages

So far, I’ve discovered two disadvantages to this method. First, the net cups being light weight and the lettuce plants causing them to be top-heavy, they are prone to tip over. You have to check them at least every other day and make sure all the cups and plants are upright. Otherwise, you’ll end up with rotting leaves.

Speaking of rotting leaves…since the cups are so close to the water, some of the leaves will grow down and get wet. And, yes, rot. But I think these two disadvantages outweigh the work the dual cup method requires.

Oh, one more thing: I’ve got a mostly-full bag of pea gravel for sale… ;)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

How To Plant Peas

How to plant peas? Easy, with one caveat.

You’ll need a trellis. 

But you probably knew that. Peas grow up, and even the dwarf varieties will lean into and fall over and climb on each other if you don’t provide them with a trellis.

The good news is, building a pea trellis is as easy as sticking two five- to six-foot stakes in the ground and stretching chicken wire or bird netting across both stakes (tie whatever trellis material you choose to the stakes with metal ties or nylon string, not with those fall-apart-in-your-fingers-after-five-months plastic ties).

And now, to the nitty-gritty:

How to plant peas

I grow sugar snap peas, because I love eating them right off the vine, or raw in salads. But the following instructions refer to any kind of pea.

First, never start peas inside. They are directly sown into the soil. However, if you want to speed up the germination process you can soak the pea seeds in water over night and wait a day or two for them to grow little tails. Rinse the peas once or twice in the meantime.

Second, plant peas when you’re within two or three weeks of your last average frost date. Pea shoots can take a mild frost, and if you live in a hot-summer (mostly above 85 degrees F) climate the peas won’t be any good by mid-June or so. Thus, you don’t want to wait too late in the spring to plant them.

Third, plant the seeds about a half inch to an inch deep, right under the trellis. If the seeds are less than a year old, plant one seed per hole, because probably at least 90% of them will germinate. If more than a year old, plant two per hole, because the germination rate might have gone down.

Fourth, space the holes about three inches apart. Unless you’re growing enough peas to feed an army, you’re only going to have one trellis, or several in a row right next to each other. So no worries about how far apart the rows should be.

Finally, thoroughly water the area where you planted the peas, then keep the soil moist until you have three-inch tall shoots. In other words, water them once or twice a day if you don’t have any rain or heavy dew. Once the peas have grown a few inches, you can back off on the watering, giving them a thorough drink whenever the soil is dry two inches down.

Also, if you plant two seeds in each hole and both germinate, cut off one of them at its base before it gets more than three inches high.

That’s it! Watch me plant my crop of sugar snap peas in the garden vlog below.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The EASIEST Way To Grow Lettuce EVER!

What’s the easiest way to grow lettuce? Back in this post, I talked about how difficult it’s been for me to grow lettuce in the soil here because it doesn’t hold water for very long. Even if you live in an area with good soil for gardening, thirsty lettuce needs to be watered more frequently than most other crops – the cucurbits (cucumbers and melons) being the possibly even thirstier exception.

Sure, you can set up an irrigation system and a timer, but most backyard gardeners are going to be growing their lettuce together with other crops, which would end up getting watered as much as the lettuce.

This would equal a waste of water.

The easiest (and least wasteful way) to grow lettuce

Last spring I came upon the Kratky method of growing. It’s a hydroponic method that doesn’t require pumps. You fill a small container with a growing medium (not dirt from outside!), put a seed or seedling inside, then set that small container on the rim of a much larger container that contains water with hydroponic fertilizer dissolve into it.

As the plant grows, it “drinks” the water. And as the water level goes down, the ever-growing roots of the plants are exposed to the air they need on order not to drown.

During the past year, I’ve discovered the hands-down, best crop to grow using the Kratky method is lettuce, mainly because lettuce roots don't mind algae growth nearly as much as other kinds of roots.

Making the Kratky method even easier

Ever heard of a floating garden? That’s the easiest way to grow lettuce using the Kratky method. Unlike the roots of most other plants, lettuce roots don't mind mostly sitting in water.

Do you have a backyard pond with fish or some rotted plant material in it? Even better!

If you don’t have such a pond, just buy a few Styrofoam coolers, fill them most of the way with water, and add the appropriate amount of hydroponic fertilizer to it.

You can use underbed storage boxes wrapped in panda film (white side out, black side in), too, if you want. The only thing is, the weight of the water will push the sides of a storage box out. That's okay if you don't mind the look, and you don't plan to move it from it's location during the entire growth of the lettuce.

If you use a cooler, you can cut the lid down so that it floats in the water inside the cooler. If not, you can use foam board, or Styrofoam blocks that you save from packing.
This is a very lightweight piece of foam that came with an LED grow light I purchased.

Whichever way you go, cut a hole big enough to hold the small container the lettuce is going to grow in by tracing the rim of the container and cutting just slightly inside the circle you trace. If you have a big block of Styrofoam, or are using foam board, cut four equally-spaced holes for every square foot.
These are 2-inch holes for the 2-inch net cups the baby lettuce are growing in.

Insert the container (net cup, yogurt container, whatever) with the growing medium and seed or seedling into the hole you cut. Then, set the piece of foam into your pond or water-filled box.
The net cups fit perfectly!

DONE! No watering, no fertilizing. Ever.

The one thing you might want to do, if you have summers where the temperature regularly soars above eighty-five degrees F, is locate the growing system in an area that will be shaded in the afternoon.

In the video below, I show you how I added lettuce to the kale I already had floating in our pond. It’s a vlog, so you see peeks into other areas of my homesteading life. Enjoy! (And subscribe to the channel if you have not yet done so and want to keep up with all our goings-on.)

Friday, March 9, 2018

Look What Germinated! Plus, The BEST Way To Grow Carrots?

I’m so excited! All six of the yellow pear tomato seeds, and one of the two Principe Borghese tomato seed, that I planted five days ago have germinated!!

Why is this so exciting? First, the potting mix the seeds are in had started to get a little moldy on top. Second, I didn’t have any homegrown tomatoes last year.

Generally, I’ve been a busy beaver in the garden the past week, what with getting strawberries planted on our new vertical garden, planting a bed of carrot seeds, and transplanting all the kale and broccoli seedlings.

The bummer this week has been running out of my sweet potatoes, thanks to the sweet potato weevil ruining my large crop. The non-organic sweet potatoes at the local grocery are tasteless compare to either mine or the ones we buy from Whole Foods. They also are often at the point of going bad – yes, even this time of year, when they still should be fresh.

The best way to plant carrots?

In the second of two garden vlogs that follow, I talk a bit about my experience with growing carrots. Long story short: the results so far have been dismal. Based on the cost of carrots in the grocery store, you’d think they’d be easy to grow. But I get a lot more production from the vegetable-fruits (cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers) – which are considerably more expensive than carrots.
Here are some things I’ve learned about growing carrots.

  1. Loosen the soil, then smooth it out in preparation for planting.
  2. Broadcast the seeds. Don’t kill your back trying to plant just two or three seeds every three inches. At least half the seeds aren’t going to germinate, and you will have put all that time and effort into planting for nothing.
  3. Sprinkle organic dry fertilizer over the whole area, and water in the seeds and fertilizer.
  4. Water the seeds two to three times a day until at least half the seeds have germinated. If there’s dew or frost on the ground in the morning, just water around lunchtime and suppertime.
  5. If possible, if a thunderstorm is predicted before the seeds germinate, cover the seeds for that day or night when it’s supposed to storm. Use row cover, cardboard, or big plastic bags, and weight them down with old boards. If you don’t, the pounding rain is going to wash a frightening number of the seeds either right out of the growing bed, or cause them to accumulate in one small spot.
  6. Be sure to thin carrot seedlings to three inches apart once the plants are an inch or two tall. Yes, even if you grow them in wood chips or a loose potting mix. Unless you want carrots so thin that a wisp of a breeze will blow them out of your hand.

Enjoy the following two videos, for more goings-on of my garden the past couple of days!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The DEFINITIVE Way To Keep Cabbage Moths Off Your Kale (and broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, etc.)

How to keep cabbage moths away from your cabbage family plants?

Those little yellowish butterfly-looking things flying around your kale and cabbage are almost cute. Aw, look, they’re so small. And pretty.

But if you’ve been gardening for more than two weeks, you know what they really are. Nasty scoundrels looking for a place to lay their eggs. And the place preferably will be a plant belonging to the Brassica – or cabbage – family: cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, and kohlrabi. Why?

Because that’s what their little green babies like to eat!

Cross-striped cabbageworms and cabbage loopers can destroy your precious crop in a matter of days. And it only takes a couple of days for a couple of hungry grasshoppers to obliterate a small crop of broccoli or kale seedlings. When cucumber beetles can’t find cucumber plants, they’ll migrate to any other crop that tastes halfway decent to them – including the Brassicas.

You can spray, but who wants to eat homegrown food that’s been soaked in chemicals? And the natural pesticides only kill what’s there right now. And if you miss a single caterpillar – too bad, so sad! It will keep on munching happily.

If you want to keep pests away from your kale and broccoli and any related plants, the best way is to cage them.
Kale seedlings underneath cage. Take that, grasshoppers!

I recommend either PVC or treated lumber for the frame. I speak from experience: if you use scrap wood that’s not treated, it will rot after the first year or two.

We used PVC because we had some leftover from projects we either never built or that didn’t work out. (But see – we’re using it up anyway! Like the good homesteaders we are. ;) ) The trick is to build your cages small enough so that you can lift them easily off the plants when necessary.

The cages for my garden are three-by-two-by-two feet, the last measurement being the height. In the ideal world, they would be three feet high to accommodate their eventual “bolting” height, but that would be a bit heavy for me, and definitely more awkward to lift. Besides, by the time the plants are going to seed, I don’t care all that much anymore if the pests start snacking on the leaves.

The two “front” and “back” bottom pipes connect with the “right” and “left” bottom pipes via “T” fittings, one on each side of each pipe a few inches from each corner, as well as elbow fittings right on the corners.
"T" fitting at bottom.

The vertical side pipes connect with the top pipes via elbow fittings.

We also had leftover elbows and T’s from previous projects, so we didn’t have to buy them all.
The whole cage is covered with beetle netting, which you can buy at Amazon.

It won’t keep out the smallest of insects, of course, but it will keep out the cabbage moths and grasshoppers. To keep out the cucumber beetles, we’d have to use window screen or shade cloth. I may drape window screen over it later in the season; we’ll see how it goes.

I’m looking forward to (finally!) a year when I don’t have to constantly worry about grasshoppers and little green larvae eating down my broccoli and kale!

Build a cage, preferably out of found materials. That’s how to keep cabbage moths off your broccoli and other Brassica plants.