Of Mice and Mountain Men

Garden Project 2016 — Part 1

Of Mice and Mountain MenI have another major garden project underway now that the growing season is wrapping up. Here’s what I’m doing.

Garden_Lower 10c
The Lower 10

Starting four years ago I began digging-in a whole mess of 4x4 raised bed boxes. I added some each year, and had 21 at the beginning of this year. I built three sections in my garden: The Lower 10, The Middle 10, and the Berry House. I did this because I live on a mountainside, and it seemed that digging these boxes into the slope would give me garden space that resisted being washed away with every rain. And that much of it worked. I was also enamored of the square-foot gardening method. That part didn’t work so well.

I made the boxes of untreated lumber because I didn’t want the P.T. stuff in my food. So they rotted after a few years, especially the ones up high where the rain water hits them hardest as it rolls down the slope. One of my foster dogs developed a penchant for ripping up rotted wood, so any boxes that were pretending to be hanging on got demolished last month.

Garden_Middle 10b
The Middle 10

I’m removing the Middle 10 and restoring lawn — not because I’m fond of grass, but because it keeps the soil from going AWOL. When the other boxes of the Middle 10 are done growing things, I’ll take them out too and plant a row of small fruit trees.

Removing old Box

I’m removing what’s left of the rotted wood, digging out and moving the garden soil, and pulling up the landscape fabric. Then I fill in the hole with ordinary dirt (I have a pile) and a little of the garden soil on top. Then I move in grass from where I’m digging it out down below.

Lay-out Front
Old boxes removed

What’s happening with The Lower 10 is more complicated.

The Lower 10 is getting expanded and becoming The Vegetable Garden. There will be the Veg Garden, Fruit Tree Row, and The Berry House at the top. The Lower 10 is the flattest spot on our property.

Lay-Out Back

Still, the lowest corner (left, back) is about 6 feet below the high corner (right) and I don’t think I want to try to build a wall that high out of landscape timbers.

I’ll step the wall up the slope to keep the low corner 4 feet or so high. That will leave a slight slope to the garden plot, but not bad.

Then I will go back to traditional in-ground gardening methods and abandon the raised bed boxes all together.

I can reuse the PVC tubing made into fence boxes by reorganizing the parts to form a perimeter fence fastened atop the landscape timber wall. That will keep the bunnies and (most of) the dogs out of my veggie patch. What’s left will become trellises for use in the garden.

Once I have a good start on the wall going, I need to dig out all the landscape fabric in the vegetable garden. It was great for keeping weeds and grass out, but also does not let veggie roots grow down into the soil below. That makes for stumpy carrots, green potatoes, and thirsty plants that would normally seek water deeper in the soil. Hopefully the grass has been thoroughly discouraged now and it won’t be a problem in the future. (Yeah, right!)

Low Corner Hegelkulture

All the rotted wood from the original boxes is getting tossed into the bottom of the deep corner (on top of a double layer of cardboard to smother out grass in the new areas) to become a form of Hugelkultur.

It’s kind of depressing spending so much time and effort undoing all the time and effort I put in to build and dig in these small boxes, but that just didn’t work out ... the plans of mice and men. Those new-fangled flibbity-tufts held much promise, but did not deliver. Time to go back to time-tested methods. So instead of a bunch of little boxes, I’ll build one BIG box and use traditional gardening in that.

Join me next time and I’ll get into layout and getting started.

Mater Munchies and Apple Leather

Of Mice and Mountain Men

 

 

 

Canned foods

For me, late summer means that most of the garden is winding down, but the cherry tomatoes are just hitting their stride and the fruit trees are ready for harvest. This bounty is great, but preserving the excess can be a challenge.

Cherry tomato vines produce prolifically once they get going. We'll eat them as fast as we can, but the vines always get ahead of us and we start handing excess off to friends and neighbors. At least, those friends and neighbors who don't grow cherry tomatoes themselves.

Cherry tomatoes do not can or freeze well (too much goop, not enough meat), so how does one preserve the excess? I like to make "Mater Munchies" out of them. Slice each tomato in half along the “equator” and place skin-side down on a dehydrator tray. Sprinkle liberally with garlic salt and dehydrate. They don't have to be hard as a rock, but they can't be moist at all. Perfection is when they get crisp. Store the dried tomatoes in a glass jar with a tight lid, and use them as a snack when you want something sweet and salty to nibble on.

I have apple, pear, and peach trees. The peach tree just sprang up years ago, and we let it grow. It's big now and puts on a heavy crop most years, but they almost always rot before they're ripe. Maybe the ground is too wet (it is near a spring), or maybe it doesn't get enough sun. I'm not sure, but we seldom have excess peaches. If we get any at all, it's just a few, and we eat those. Our pears are (I think) Seneca pears, and are too hard and gritty to be used as “eating pears,” fresh or dried. These and the apple tree were planted by our predecessors who preferred cooking with fruit rather than eating fresh fruit.

The apples are okay as eating apples, but not the best. Far better suited to pies and apple sauce.

I don't douse the fruit with insecticide, so the apples tend to come in pretty ugly. They can be cleaned up and made into sauce, but a single, small tree doesn't produce enough apples to to make much sauce. A couple of jars, maybe. But I can cut around the ugly spots and slice them up for apple leather. Dehydrating them to a leathery state concentrates the sugars, making for a sweet, chewy snack that is almost as satisfying as candy — and much better for you.

Again, seal them up in a jar (vacuum pack some for longer storage), and you'll have a tasty treat to enjoy through the winter and into spring that needs no refrigeration.

Any tree-fruit that you grow can be dehydrated and made to last for months. These can be eaten as dried fruits or rehydrated by soaking in water for use in pies and tarts.

Even an inexpensive dehydrator can serve to help you preserve excess food and make special treats that you and your family will enjoy all winter long.

How to Grow and Use Elderberry Plants

Of Mice and Mountain Menelderberries_black

Overview

The elderberry is a large shrub or small tree (often 8-30 feet tall depending on variety) that produces small berries commonly used for jam, jelly, pies and wine. The fruit of the elderberry is a berry: 1/8- to 1/4-inch in diameter and about 50% of the berry is seed. It is native to the United States and is referred to as a ditch weed in some areas because it grows wild. Some residents curse the elderberry because birds eat the berries then leave large red or purple glops of bird poo all over their car and outdoor furniture.

Elderberry has a long history of culinary and medicinal uses. According to the Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 30, Issue 6, June 2003 issue, excavations of a late Holocene village uncovered tens of thousands of red elderberry seeds. This lead researchers to believe that red elderberry was a diet staple of the native peoples living there.

Most of the elderberry plant is poisonous to humans, many pets, and cyanide sensitive livestock, so you must know which parts to avoid and how to prepare the berries. While leaves and stems are considered poisonous, herbalists have for centuries used dried elderberry leaves in an herbal tea for treating respiratory ailments like bronchitis and asthma. Perhaps drying the leaves then brewing them (along with other components) into tea neutralizes the cyanide producing component. Do not eat or press green leaves into your juice.

Elderberry grows well in low-lying areas, in the back of a garden, and makes a good hedge. Elderberry enjoys well composted material and good drainage. Plan on watering your elderberry plant weekly for its first summer, and pinch off flower heads during its first year to encourage root growth. Then stand back and watch it grow! If your elderberry bush becomes too big for your space, control its size through pruning. Keep the area around it mowed to prevent spreading by root suckers.

Varieties of Elderberry

There are several basic types of elderberry: black, red, blue, American, European, Mexican, and many ornamental varieties. A full discussion of all varieties would be lengthy, so I'll focus on the most popular.

Black Elderberry

(Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis) is the variety best loved for its culinary and medicinal uses. The Black Elderberry in its various forms grows throughout the world and is known by those who cherish it by many different names.

The European Elder (Sambucus nigra L.) is a deciduous shrub that grows between twenty and thirty feet tall and can be pruned and trained into a tree form. It prefers a cool climate and is common in hedgerows in Ireland and England. It is cultivated for commercial use throughout Europe.

The American Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. ssp. canadensis), is a deciduous shrub that rarely exceeds 13 feet in height.

Elderberry_American

Image courtesy www.TheTreeFarm.com

The American elderberry grows well throughout the US in zones 3 to 8. It is commonly found growing wild in low-lying areas, along streams and lakes, in ditches, in fence rows, and along road sides. The American elderberry produces new suckers each year and can be cultivated into a dense hedge.

Both varieties produce deep purple/black berries commonly used in wines, extracts, syrups, jelly, jam, and pies. Current research on the American Black Elderberry indicates that it contains more of the anthocyanins and polyphenols that give elderberry its health benefits. The seeds, stems, leaves and roots of the Black Elderberry are all poisonous to humans and some animals. They contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside that causes a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body and will put you in the hospital.

Cooking the berries destroys the glycosides in the seeds, making the berries, with their seeds, safe to eat. As such, the fruit of the Black Elderberry should always be cooked before consumption, unless pressed for juice and the seeds are filtered out. Research indicates that exposing elderberry to heat actually concentrates the healthful polyphenols and anthocyanins.

Red Elderberry

Elderberry_red

(Sambucus racemona var. racemona) is named for the bright red berries it produces. This elderberry is restricted to cool, moist sites along coastal mountain ranges from California to Washington, and from Newfoundland to Alaska. It is also found in the Appalachian highlands of Georgia and Tennessee. Most people believe the seeds of the red elderberry must be removed before the berry is safe to eat, and that the berries should be cooked as well. The rest of the plant is toxic and should not be eaten.

Blue Elderberry

Elderberry_blue

Image courtesy www.OregonState.edu

(Sambucus mexicana or Sambucus nigra var. caerulea), also called Mexican elderberry, this variety will grow in US Zones 6-10 and is native to California. It prefers canyon habitat in sunny, well-drained locations at elevations of up to 9000 feet. The Blue Elderberry was highly prized by both the Spaniards and Cahuillas as a food staple. A favorite use of the dried blue elderberries was to cook them down into a rich sauce called “Sauco”. Only fully ripe berries should be consumed, and again, cooking the berries destroys the glycosides present in the seeds which causes nausea, cramping, and even a catatonic state. While the other parts of this plant have been used for everything from making baskets to flutes, all are toxic and can not be eaten.

Propagation Through Cuttings

Propagate elderberry plants by taking softwood stem cuttings in late spring through early summer. Early morning hours are preferred; when the air temperature is cool. Softwood cuttings are tender and dry out quickly but have the benefit of rooting quickly.

Things You Will Need:

• Sharp knife
• Gallon size plastic zipper bag
• Damp towel
• Rooting tray
• Rooting medium and potting soil
• Plastic covering for rooting tray: i.e. large plastic bag
• Water
• Rooting hormone
• Misting spray bottle
• 4-inch growing containers

Prepare the Cutting

Cut 6-inch long softwood sections of elderberry stems with a sharp knife. The stem sections should be from new growth that is just beginning to firm and mature. Remove the leaves from the lower 3 inches of the elderberry stems. If the upper stem leaves are large, cut the outer halves off. This will conserve space in the rooting tray and reduce the moisture required by the stem. Place the cuttings in a gallon plastic bag with a damp towel to prevent drying.

Prepare the Rooting Tray

Prepare a rooting tray by filling it with a well-draining rooting medium. Moisten the medium with water so it is damp but not wet. Dip the cut end of the elderberry cutting into rooting hormone. Tap the stem to remove excess hormone. Poke the cutting into the rooting medium to a depth of 3 inches. Arrange the cuttings in the rooting tray so the leaves do not touch each other.

Care For the Cuttings

Mist the cuttings and rooting medium with water and place the tray inside a clear plastic bag to create a humid environment. Set the tray in a warm location with filtered sunlight. Open the plastic bag several times a week to refresh the air. While it's open, check the moisture level of the rooting medium and mist the medium with water if necessary.

Transplant the Cuttings

After four weeks of growth, pull gently on the cuttings to see if there is resistance from root development. When the roots reach 1 inch in length, transplant the elderberry cuttings to individual growing containers filled with a well-draining potting soil. Grow the cuttings indoors or in a protected environment for the first year, then transplant outdoors.

Pruning Elderberries

Elderberry shrubs need an annual pruning, during the dormant season, to maintain an appropriate size and shape for your bed. Without pruning, elderberries develop a coarse, open appearance and form large colonies through root suckers.

Things You Will Need

• Gardening gloves
• Bypass hand pruners
• Bypass loppers

Ragged cuts invite disease. To produce clean cuts, keep pruner blades sharp. Check them often and sharpen when they become dull.

Start by checking for broken, dead or diseased branches and remove these. Shorten healthy stems as necessary to shape and reduce size of shrub.

Cut off one third of the oldest stems at ground level. These older stems have coarse bark and large diameters. Removing some of the old wood rejuvenates your elderberry bush by making room for new growth.

Elderberries are ambitious and multiply by underground root suckers. Prune unwanted suckers to the ground at anytime during the year.

Clean your pruners thoroughly after pruning to prevent the spread of diseases.

Summary

The berries of the elderberry plant have been used for thousands of years in making wines, jelly, jam, pies and sauces. In addition, they contain anthocyanins and polyphenols that give healthful benefits when prepared as extracts, syrups, and ointments.

These shrubs are easy to grow in most locations, easy to maintain, and spread readily to become a hedge if you desire.

A little annual maintenance is all that's required to keep your elderberry shrubs doing their best and producing crops of those berries. Being a late summer or fall crop, adding elderberries to your berry patch extends your berry season so you can have something being harvested through the entire growing season.

References

North Caroline State University: Plant Propagation with Stem Cuttings
Oregon State University: Grow Elderberries
Garden Guides
Norm's Farms
CDC

Gifts From the Garden

Of Mice and Mountain MenWe've had a pretty dry spring. As a result I've been watering regularly, but well water is not as effective as rain. It's been hot too. My lettuce and beets bolted early. The spinach just burned up and died. We’ve been running daily highs in the mid 90’s.

Still, I am getting some gifts from the garden. My berries are doing well. They seem to like the heat. And the tomato plants looked bad for a bit, but have perked up and are setting fruit.

For the past three days we have been getting a nice rain shower or two each day.

And this:

Possible Pawpaw sprout

... might possibly be a Pawpaw tree sprout.

I planted a mess of pawpaw seeds in a BIG pot this spring (after they wintered in my fridge) and nothing came of them. I gave up and was going to re-use the pot, but in tilling more compost into the soil I found sprouted beans (Pawpaw seeds look like enormous brown lima beans) so I buried them again and waited. Either they were trying and being slow or they tried and failed. But I’d give them a shot at life anyway. This morning I found this sprout. It was the rain, I’m sure. I water the pot regularly, but rain water is magical. Of course it could turn out to be a weed that's blown into the pot, but it doesn't look like any weed I've seen before.

Also due to the rain is this:

Canteloupe Youngling

That’s a cantaloupe about the diameter of a baseball. It was not there yesterday. I'm sure of it!  I see a couple more marble sized candidates, too. I was getting concerned because the plant is doing well and had many flowers, but no sign of fruit beginning. Last year I lost all the melons because I was waiting for them to ripen into cantaloupes when I planted honeydews. (Sigh).

I got two nice zucchini off my ENORMOUS plant this morning. So far it’s looking very healthy. I need to mix up about ten gallons (kidding) of Neem oil to keep it that way. The cucumber vines have been covered in flowers, but few fruits until just recently. Again: the rain.

This spring I planted a whole mess of onion seed. I figured I’d seed heavy then thin them to get some that could be used like green onions. That sorta worked, except the biggest onion got to be almost the size of a golf ball, then they all withered and fell over despite daily watering. So I pulled all the bulbs out and am drying all but the two biggest. We'll eat those. When the rest are dry I’ll plant them as sets and try for a late fall harvest.

The mild winter means we have a bumper crop of bugs to fight off this year. Japanese beetles are especially bad right now. I'm about to go Hiroshima on them. Nothing I've tried seems to deter them. They love my grape plants. Once those are dead, they move on to blackberries, then the beans.

I'm seriously thinking about moving the grape plants out of the berry house (under bird netting) and onto a fence line where the birds could get at them. Even if the birds also got my grapes, at least they'd take down the beetle population. The berry house has turned into a beetle orgy.  Of course, Marie feeds the birds sunflower seed, so they may not be hungry enough to go after these beetles.  Not all birds do anyway.

A Master Gardeners group at the University of Tennessee offer some advice on Japanese beetle control and I'm looking into these. Maybe I can avoid the nuclear option.

 

Growing and Picking Berries

Of Mice and Mountain MenOne of my favorite parts of late spring and summer has become the ripening of berries. We've had a mix of blueberry varieties and a small bed of strawberries for several years.

I got just a handful of black raspberries from the two canes that were mature this year. I've planted several more plants and look for a better crop of these next year.

The strawberries have run their course for this year, they were sweet and juicy. The early blueberries started ripening just as the strawberries were fizzling out. The mid-season blueberries are going great guns now.

Blueberry Bushes

By great guns I mean that I'm getting a pint of berries every other day. We keep a two pint box of mixed berries in the fridge. I fill that up each harvest day, any excess goes to the freezer. To most people that's not a lot. For the two of us that's plenty for us to enjoy fresh berries every day and still have some to freeze for use this winter. We do not do jams and jellies.

Watering Berries

This spring I planted more black raspberries, some red raspberries and some boysenberries. Most of these are … surviving. It's been a dry year. I've been watering, but that never does the plants as much good as rain. I don't water new plants too much after they've started growing because I want them to put down deep roots. Pamper them and they won't.

I suspect the dogs have been watering a couple of them. That doesn't help at all! I've erected fences around these to keep the canines at bay and they seem to be recovering. Those I water daily until they turn green again. I also do a daily watering for the plants that are bearing fruit. They require extra water if you want big juicy berries. Watering early (like just after daylight) gives the leaves a chance to dry before the sun gets hot and could scorch them if wet (water drops act like magnifying lenses in the sunlight).

Picking Berries

My general rule of thumb in picking berries is to let the berry tell me when it's ripe. There are external signs: blueberries turn a deep blue all over (no more pink or purple), blackberries show no more red and get shiny. Blueberries are downright tart if picked while even a little pink.

But I find that when the berry is perfectly ripe, a gentle tug will remove it from the stem. If it fights me so I have to tug harder: it's not ready, thus it is not quite as sweet as it could be. If I get zealous to gather as many berries as possible, it will be a less than perfect haul – show some patience and the reward is sweet.

Ending Berries

Once each type of berry has run its course the plants need to be cut back and prepared for winter. Most of this work is done in the fall. My strawberries are one exception. Being June berries, they yield one crop early in the year. So once they have stopped producing, the leaves start to die off and I might as well cut all the plants back to ground level, remove all the debris, thin the bed if it's getting over-crowded, and mulch the bed with a thick layer of pine needles. These will protect the plants during winter and break down to feed the plants in coming years.

Thinning the bed will take one of two forms. One is to remove the small, new plants that formed from runners off the mature plants. Just snip the runner and pull the young plant out.

These little upstarts make an excellent way to establish a new bed if you are extending or moving the bed. Just bury the sprout and they will take it from there.

Strawberry plants produce well for about three years, then decline sharply. To combat this you can establish a new bed each year with the sprouts you took out while thinning, then dig out the three year old bed and start that bed over the following year. If you don't have room for multiple beds, allow some runner sprouts to stay and pull out the oldest plants when you thin (after the third year). By allowing multiple generations in one bed, you can keep it thriving.

Second year raspberry canes fruit in the spring. Once all their fruit has been harvested (early summer) go ahead and cut those canes off at ground level and remove them to make more room for the first year canes.

The other berry maintenance is done in the fall, so I'll get into that closer to that time.

Blackberry Bushes

So far, the berry production has been the highlight of my garden. The vegetables are doing well, but somehow this berry crop has been more fun than all the rest. Especially the Triple Crown Blackberries, they're just scrumptious! I must admit, a fair number of those never make it back to the house (wink).

Trying New Things in the Garden

Of Mice and Mountain MenSix years ago I tried something new: gardening.

As a youngster I had been slave labor in my Dad's garden, but I didn't learn anything from that except “THOSE are not weeds, THOSE are my plants!” When I decided to try gardening for myself, I knew very little about it. Six years later I'm still trying new things.

My very first garden was a very small patch (6 feet by 12 feet) next to our storage shed: the only almost flat spot on our property. That went okay, so I expanded the following year … and ran into trouble. Planting on a slope means all the dirt I tilled up, amended, and planted washed down the slope and is gone.

Starter garden

So I tried something new: raised beds. Four foot by four foot boxes eight inches deep, dug into the slopes to level them up. I started with a half dozen boxes in the up-slope end of the garden and a tilled patch below for things like corn and potatoes, which I didn't think would grow well in boxes. The boxes broke up the flow of water rolling down the “lawn” and would help keep the tilled soil in place … or that was my theory. It didn't work that way, so the next year I built more boxes.

Square Foot Garden

Originally I went with the Square Foot Gardening Method because the idea of maximizing my crop for space consumed and never having to weed appealed to me. These claims were – misleading. Weeds are perfectly happy to grow underneath other plants, and being underneath other, closely packed, plants makes them harder to spot and harder still to pull without damaging their hiding places. Cramming lots of plants into a small space means using fertilizer to keep the mass of vegetation growing. Lots of fertilizer. And having many plants crammed into a small space greatly promotes disease like leaf blight, especially in a damp environment like The Great Smoky Mountains.

Scratch the square foot method. Keep the boxes, but build more of them.

Compost piles

To deal with soil depletion, I tried something new: making compost. I tried old fashioned compost piles, compost bins, compost doughnuts, and lasagne beds. None of these made compost fast enough to keep up with the demand, but it helped. I still had to buy composted cow manure, but not as much.

Expanding the garden

The garden grew and I tried something new: berry bushes. Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, boysenberries and grapes. To keep these safe from birds and rabbits, I built a berry house. The base is wrapped in poultry mesh to keep out the hoppy vermin, and the bows are covered in bird mesh. It works well.

Square foot gardening did not work out for me, but traditional gardening calls for long rows with walking spaces between: not workable in 4x4 boxes, so I tried something new: hybridized planting methods. Basically this means I ignore most of what the planting guides say about row spacing and use the plant spacing (and a little common sense) as my guide. Of course, common sense is something that grows from making mistakes. For instance, dry bean plants …

Garden Box-Beans

If you plant a whole box of beans spaced 4 inches apart, the plants in the center don't do well and the over crowding causes problems with pest and disease control. So this year I tried something new: I planted the bean plants around the perimeter of each box and am building a lasagne bed (composting technique) in the center. This avoids wasting that space, helps keep moisture in the soil, yet allows for plenty of sunshine and air flow to all of the bean plants. At least, that's my theory, I'll let you know how it turns out.

Potatoes are difficult to grow in raised beds if you line the bottoms with weed barrier – and you have to at first or grass will snake in under the box sides and be almost impossible to keep out. Now that the beds are 5 years old, I could cut the fabric out of some of the boxes and allow deep root crops to grow down into the clay below. Or … I could try something new.

Garden Box-potatoes

Last year, the big rage seemed to be growing potatoes in barrels, stacked tires, boxes, bins, or straw-lined cages. Everyone promised huge yields because the soil level would continue to rise as the vines grew up through the containers, offering much more space for the spuds. What most of them forgot was to plant indeterminate varieties of potato. Determinant (most types of potato) grow tubers at the base of the plant, spreading out and down as the roots grow. Only the indeterminate types will put out roots (and tubers) from the stems if they are buried. There are huge numbers of videos on YouTube of hopeful gardeners digging into their potato experiments and being vastly disappointed.

So I took a different approach. I raised the soil level in the bed by lining the fence box with straw and planted the seed spuds 4 inches down like I normally would. I added a layer of straw on top to help protect any that breech the surface from the sunlight, which makes them toxic. I am expecting the plant roots to travel out and down just like they would in standard potato hills or rows that get mounded up a bit as the vine grows.

I did plant two layers: Main crop potatoes in the lower layer, early crop on top, but staggered so they are not right above the main crop plants. I can pull out the early crop during summer as small potatoes (Yukon Gold are great for this) and leave the main crop till fall for big spuds that will cure and last through the winter. Not that we'd get enough to supply us all winter from one 4x4 box, this is an experiment. If it works, I can plant more boxes this way next year.

If it doesn't work … I'll try something new.

Hard Won Watering Wisdom

Of Mice and Mountain MenI've been dabbling around with my little mountain-side garden for, oh … five or six years now, and I've learned a few things along the way. It seems like I've learned more about what doesn't work than what does, but that's probably because failure is more evident than success. Unless it's spectacular success. Average success tends to go unnoticed.

One of the first lines of wisdom I gathered was about watering. This wisdom breaks down into three categories: what kind of water, how much water, and when to water.

What Kind of Water

I learned early in that rainwater is magical stuff. I can water and water with the hose and our well water and get only a marginal response from our plant life. But one decent rain and everything greens up and bursts into bloom. What gives with that? We don't even have all that chlorine, fluoride, and who knows what else in our water. There is no mineral taste to it. It's great water!

But our well water is on the hard side. Our fixtures calcium up after a short while and things like shower heads and sink aerators have to be soaked in vinegar regularly to keep them flowing. Can that calcium be affecting the plants? Maybe temporarily messing with the pH of the soil? I don't have a definitive answer to that yet, but it is my working theory.

Harvesting and storing rain water is a good answer, as long as you don't store it too long. Even Unicorn Drool – I mean rain water – will go septic if stored too long. Building a solar still using a sheet of clear plastic is pretty straight forward, uses no fuel or electricity and works mostly unattended while turning out some distilled water for use on plants. You do have to rinse out the evaporator trays every morning, so it takes water to continue making water, but its one way to remove the calcium.

How Much Water

Early on, I figured, “If some water is good, more is better” and I tended to water every day. This is bad. Okay: it's good for seedlings. Seedlings need a SMALL amount of water regularly so their teeny little roots don't dry out and cause the baby plant to wither and die. But even here, too much water at once causes the seedlings to flop over in the mud and rot.

Once the plant is better established, daily watering causes the plant to become lazy. Its root system will grow only to where it finds enough water to survive. By watering it daily, the roots will be under-developed. If you then miss a day or two, the plant suffers. By watering once or twice a week, the roots will reach farther out and down and will be better able to support the plant.

Most plants seem to do well with 1 inch of water (per square inch) per week. This is actually more water than I would have thought, and when I'm watering with a wand, I have to force myself to stay on each raised bed long enough to give it a thorough soaking.

In a 4 x 4 foot raised bed we're talking 2,304 square inches of surface. One inch of water on each is 2,304 cubic inches of water. There are 231 cubic inches in a US Gallon. 2,304 divided by 231 is 10 gallons of water per 4 x 4 box per week. If it takes 3 minutes to fill a 5 gallon bucket with my watering wand, then I have to stay at each box for a full 6 minutes to do the job once a week.

But I find it works better to split it in half and do the job twice a week: the plants suffer less that way. And, of course, if you get rain, you can deduct that from your weekly watering quota.

When to Water

The short answer is “early”.

Just as bright sunshine will cause you to sunburn faster if you come out of the pool and stay wet (without sunscreen) your plants can sunburn if left to stand in the summer sun while wet. Water before the sunshine gets strong.

You also don't want to leave wet leaves standing overnight. Watering in the evening can encourage fungus and blight in the leaves because they stay wet too long.

This, of course assumes you are using a standard watering system: sprayer, wand or sprinkler. If you're using a soaker hose, then this point is moot because the water stays at ground level or below. Turn it on when it's convenient.

Other Nuggets

Watering once or even twice a week can seem like not enough if you have soil with a low water retention factor. Our red clay has properties similar to concrete when it's dry, but when water comes along the crystalline structure of red clay allows water to flow through it surprisingly quickly. This is great when you desire to install a septic system, not so great when trying to keep your plants hydrated. Increase water retention by adding coarse ground vermiculite or organic matter such as compost or peat. Or both. Garden soil made of equal parts composted cow manure, peat, and vermiculite is great stuff.

You can also help keep the sunshine from sucking surface moisture out by using mulch: wood chips, straw, or grass clippings (added in thin layers so they dry out or they'll mold). If you use straw, watch out for slugs.

If you use a sprinkler system, set a rain gauge inside its pattern so you can gauge how much water has been delivered.

You can make a great liquid fertilizer too. Put a couple big handfuls of comfrey leaves or grass clippings in a 5 gallon bucket. Weight them down (a disk cut from hardware cloth and a few rocks does well) and cover with a couple gallons of water. Put a lid on and let it steep for a couple of weeks, then filter out the goop and store the “tea” in a sealed container. It smells awful, but a few tablespoons of this in your watering can (with water) is like Red Bull to your plants. Do this just as your veggies or berries are setting fruit and you'll get bigger, better produce.

Some things: tomatoes and watermelons, for example, need a lot more water when they are producing fruits than other plants. Others, such as radishes, prefer less. Grouping plants with similar water needs together in your garden helps to remember their needs and reduces over-watering things that don't need so much.

That's what I can think of. What watering wisdom do you have to share? Feel free to chime in via a comment.

Watering

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