Man vs. Laziness – The Lazy Man’s Garden

Recently a friend asked me how much time I spend tending to my garden/yard.  I think my answer surprised him – just a couple hours a week.  While many home gardeners like to spend hours each day tending to every aspect of their garden, I have a different approach – maximum edible yield and maximum enjoyment of the garden with minimum effort.  Here is how to keep your garden working for you and not the other way around.
Time Saver #1 – Automatic Irrigation
Seems obvious, but setting up drip or spray irrigation on some kind of timer saves significant time over watering with a hose or a watering can multiple times a week.  If there is a hose bib close to your garden, the process couldn’t be easier.  Get yourself a soaker hose from any home store and connect to a variety of battery powered timers.  If you are a little more handy, try drip line irrigation.  Mixing and matching the perfect emitters for your specific needs can insure your garden gets the perfect drink.
Time Saver #2 – Mulch Mulch Mulch
I can’t stress enough the need for mulch.  Not only will it keep the roots of your veggies at a more constant temperature, but it will also keep out most weeds. The act of weeding sucks the life out of any enjoyment of the garden for me, so anything to help keep weeds away without harsh chemicals is a good thing.
Time Saver #3 – Don’t Weed
I don’t mean don’t deal with your weeds, but remove them in an easier way than getting down on your hands and knees and pulling them up with your hands or trowel.  Hoe.  Using a hoe cuts down your weeds in a fraction of the time and those weed trimmings return vital nutrients to the soil.  Better yet, depending on what weeds are coming up in your garden, you may choose to just leave them grow.  For instance, clover returns nitrogen to the soil, and flowering weeds like dandelions can attract beneficial pollinating insects.
Time Saver #4 – What are you Planting?
The simple answer is that some edibles take a lot more time and effort to properly grow and thrive.  Everyone loves to plant tomatoes, but they require caging, pruning, perfect water conditions,fertilizing more often then other plants, and constant pest control.  Instead, plant vegetables that grow under the soil (Carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, beets, etc).  They need almost no pruning and are less susceptible to pests and extreme changes in weather.  Better yet, grow fruit bushes and trees.  Blueberry bushes can provide an ample harvest with very little weekly work.  Fruit trees, once rooted will give you more fruit than you can eat and all you need to do it fertilize once a season.
Conclusion
So sit back and watch another episode of your favorite TV show or bring your kids to the park for the day.  The garden doesn’t need your undivided attention.

Man vs. Inspiration

It has been quite a long time since my last post.  My garden has been neglected.  The regular job got a bit in the way, but now that I have some more time on my hands, I have hit a new road block – getting inspired and excited about gardening again.  When I feel this way, I have a few go-to places on the web I like to visit to recharge my batteries.  This seems like the perfect opportunity to showcase them, and hopefully inspire you to also get outside and start your personal garden.

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The Tree of 40 Fruit:

Sam Van Aken, an artist and professor at Syracuse University is in the progress of making several grafted fruit trees with 40 different types of stone fruit (peaches, cherries, plums, etc) on each tree.  Why?

  1.  As an artist, he is trying to  make a beautiful tree which will have different color flowers blooming at different times, giving you a kaleidoscope of color for an extended period of time.
  2. As an experiment in horticulture, he is creating a tree which will provide a variety of fruit and nutrition throughout the entire growing season – not just for a few weeks as you would get with a traditional peach tree for instance.

Check out Sam’s wonderful TED talk to learn more about the project.

Grafting trees is nothing new.  In fact all navel orange trees are not grown from seed, instead they are grafted buds from an adult tree onto compatible root stock.   You can even visit the original navel orange tree in Riverside California.  It is one of two trees planted in 1873 which essentially started the entire citrus industry in California.  This grafting makes all of the trees perfect tasting clones of the original tree.  That is the most widely used grafting technique, but what Van Aken is doing is sometimes referred to as multi-grafting, taking a bud from multiple trees onto one single plant.

There are two multi-graft fruit trees in the Man vs. Garden yard – a “Citrus Salad” Tree (Two different kinds of oranges, Lime, and Pink Lemonade Lemons), and a multi-grafted Pear Tree with 4 different kinds of Pears whoch fruit at different times of the year.  Most nuseries sell at least a few grafted trees, or you can go to online sites such as:

Raintree

Four Winds

Dave Wilson Nursery

These trees are great for small gardens/yards which don’t have the space needed to plant several fruit trees and they continue to be a marvel to me on a daily basis.

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Victory Garden:  Edible Feast:

Edible Feast is the latest incarnation of the long running Victory Garden television show on PBS.  It focuses on small and eclectic farms/people trying to make a difference in their communities or simply doing something completely different.  It opens your eyes to the varied things you can do in your yard – no matter how large or small.  Some of my favorite episodes include rooftop salt making in New York City which asks the question, why would you not locally source salt – which is used in almost every dish you eat – yet you would locally source vegetables for example – and Bantam Cider from Massachusetts who use heirloom apple varieties from local farms to produce their cider which is slowly growing in popularity across the northeast.

While I certainly will never (and would not want to) produce heirloom apples or gourmet salt – the show focuses on the talent, inspiration, and sheer love of nature that these people have for their work.  It’s hard not to see that passion and go outside and try something yourself at a much smaller scale – plant odd vegetables you may not be able to find your local grocery, plant a fruit tree that no one in your neighborhood has, or simply spend a few extra minutes this week cultivating whatever you currently have growing.

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The Urban Homestead:

Nearby, in Pasadena California, is the Urban Homestead.  It is a fascinating “city farm” which uses only 1/5th of an acre to produce enough food for their farmers family AND sell directly off of their porch.  It is simply a marvel in efficient planning and smart farming.  I encourage you to check out their blog to see what they are currently working on.

If one family can can yield 6000 pounds of produce out of their small backyard – why can’t you get outside and water your darn tomatoes!  (note to self)

 

 

 

 

Man vs. Strawberries

My yard is full of strawberries.  Over 100 plants at this point and counting.  Few fruits or vegetables grow with so little work and produce so much.  It’s also wonderful to just stop by a plant once in a while and grab a strawberry and eat it on the go.  Try that with an eggplant – it won’t be as enjoyable.

Over the years I have planted strawberries in almost half of my main garden and this year I planted them in a small raised bed which runs about 50 feet along my driveway.  I wanted the most variety of taste, size, and time of year when the berries ripen.  To accomplish this I made sure to start with a mix of June-bearing and everbearing plants.  While the name “everbearing” would suggest that they will always be producing fruit, the fact is that those plants really just have multiple harvests throughout the year.  In southern California, my everbearing plants tend to get three distinct harvest times spread out from early spring to early fall.  For the most variety of taste, I mixed in some alpine strawberries which are much smaller than your grocery store strawberries, but also have a less sweet and more tangy taste.  Recently I also planted musk strawberries (sometimes referred to as “bubbleberries”) for their spectacularly distinct smell and taste.  [More on my adventures with Bubbleberries in a future post!]

Newly planted strawberries with drip line
Newly planted strawberries with drip line, planted roughly 2 feet apart to allow for growth

Growing strawberries couldn’t be simpler.

  • Just make sure they planted in an area that gets sun for at least 6-8 hours a day.
  • Make sure you buy plants/seeds that grow well in your area of the country.  Certain varieties can handle the extreme heat of the southwest or frost of the northeast better than others.  Any reputable nursery in your area should automatically stock only the strawberries that are best for your climate, but make sure and check
  • Moisture.  Many websites will tell you that one deep watering  once a week is good enough for most plants/trees, but strawberries love consistent moisture.  Make this task easier by installing a drip line when possible and DON’T FORGET TO MULCH.  Strawberries will dry out without some kind of mulch, and as their name suggests, straw is one of the best mulches for strawberries.  You should be able to buy a bale of straw for less then 10 dollars and while the bale may look small, it is under a lot of tension.  Once you loosen up the straw a little it will cover a staggering amount of space in your garden.
  • Have fun with it.  There are scores of strawberry varieties will all different tastes, colors, sizes, and smells.  I guarantee you can find one you’ll love more than anything from the grocery store.
Straw Bale for Mulch (Never use hay bales as they may attract pests and have seeds which will sprout in your garden)
Straw Bale for Mulch (Never use hay bales as they may attract pests and have seeds which will sprout in your garden)

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For more information, try some of my favorite strawberry resources online:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man vs. Sadness – The Death of a Fruit Tree

Having a mature fruit tree in your yard is a blessing for a gardener.  They provide an abundance of yummy edible goodness, look great, and require little maintenance as compared to your average vegetable garden.  When buying our current house I was pleasantly surprised to learn that two mature trees in our front yard were actually a peach tree and an purple leaf plum tree.   The Purple Leaf Plum is considered an ornamental fruit tree, but it does provide a lot of 1-1.5 inch fruit that tastes just as good as any plum you have ever bought from a store.

Both trees provided my family (and the local squirrels) with a lot of fruit for about 3 years, and then we started to see changes.  Peach production cut drastically in the fourth year – almost in half – and then the fifth year gave us only one or two peaches.  The Purple Leaf Plum was a gorgeous tree for four years and then in the fifth year only leafed out about 50% of the previous year.  This year, it didn’t leaf out at all.

So what happened to my beloved trees?

Plum tree, beginning to blossom in years past
Plum tree, beginning to blossom in years past

Well, the peach tree wasn’t really a shock.  The previous owner planted it in a terrible location.  A much larger ficus tree was slowly shading out all of the front yard and the peach tree was now underneath the huge canopy.  I tried my best to keep the tree properly pruned and fertilized, but with less and less sun each month.  It finally died.  By the time I cut the tree down, the roots were so dead that the tree basically just pushed over.

Peach tree - Dressed up for Christmas as the Charlie Brown Christmas tree in it's final winter
Peach tree – Dressed up for Christmas as the Charlie Brown Christmas tree in it’s final winter

The plum tree’s demise was more of a shock to me.  It was lovely in spring when it flowered and the purple leaf color was a lovely addition to the landscaping.   What I didn’t know, was how short the lifespan of a purple leaf plum is – only 10 years.  We had the house for 5 years and it was already a fully grown tree at that time so I’m sure it was at least 10 years old when it finally died.

Very sad changes to my yard, but this is also a good lesson for fans of fruit trees.  Before buying/planting a tree, check it’s lifespan and keep that information handy to diagnose future problems.

In the end, I will not plant another tree where the peach tree was, since nothing would grow under such a heavy canopy from the larger ficus.  The plum tree, however, was replaced by a young Babcock peach tree (lifespan – 15-20 years).

Babcock peach replacing plum tree (just planted)
Babcock peach replacing plum tree (just planted)

Man vs. Blueberries

Growing up in New England my father had 8 mature northern highbush blueberry bushes.  They were each about 5-6 feet tall and in the summer months we would picked about a gallon of blueberries every couple days.  We ate them like candy all throughout those warm months.  I moved to southern California after college and quickly realized that buying blueberries in those quantities at the grocery store was extremely expensive and really not feasible.  It was then that I said to myself that I would plant a bunch of blueberry bushes if I ever owned my own house.  A decade later I finally had my chance.

What to plant?  Where to plant?  How many do I really want?

My backyard has a brick raised bed garden which is about 12 foot deep by 16 feet wide.  We also have a 2.5 by 45 foot planting bed along side a concrete wall which gets about 6-8 hours of sun each day.  Both are perfect spots for blueberries.  I started off slow by planting five bushes along the wall in the garden – two Pink Lemonade Blueberries and three Star Blueberries.  The hope was that once the bushes matured they would soften the look of the harsh concrete wall and of course give us yummy fruit during summer months.  In our growing zone (9-10) the bushes do not loose all the leaves in the winter so we would have green in that area all year long.

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“Pink Lemonade” Blueberry Planted in Garden

The plants have done well in the garden, but I wanted more than just a few handfuls of berries a year.   I just couldn’t wait until they fully matured, so I did some investigation and found a variety called “Bountiful Blue” which not only didn’t shed it’s leaves at all in the winter (instead turning a lovely red), but also was a heavy berry producer.  They are supposed to grow well in pots, so I placed them outside our french doors in blue pots.  When planting blueberries in pots make sure to add in a lot of peat moss to whatever other medium you are using.  It will help with drainage and is also acidic, which Blueberries love!

Although they are far from mature, we are already getting about a thousand berries per season from these two plants; and since they are right outside of our door it is easy to pick any moment of the day.

“Bountiful Blue” Blueberries in Pots

A year later – with a toddler now in the house and eating all of our backyard berries it was time to think about more bushes…. yes more!  Our long planted bed – mentioned above – was now full of lovely young fruit tress (that story is for another post).  This left a good amount of space between each tree where you could only see the “lovely” concrete wall.  I needed to get some greenery into those spaces.  After some online searches I came upon O’Neal Blueberries.  I liked it because it is a highbush variety that should reach 5-6 feet tall, which is perfect to hide some of that wall.  Also, it is said to be one of the sweetest Southern blueberries.  I bought 4 plants to perfectly fill up space between trees.  Once planted, I noticed that the berries were fairly large and the taste sure was lovely. Can’t wait until this grows taller and provides more berries.

Young “O’Neal” Blueberry Bush Between Fruit Trees

So now after 5 years of home ownership and constantly rethinking what edibles should be growing in my yard I now have 11 blueberry bushes of various sizes, shapes and tastes.  Let’s see if I can stop myself from buying anymore in the future!

 

Man vs. Tomatoes

Growing tomatoes.  This is the reason most  home owners start a garden.  There is no other fruit or vegetable that tastes so much better grown at home versus buying in a grocery store.  I was never a huge fan of tomatoes until my wife suggested I grow them one year.  The taste was spectacular, but I found that growing tomatoes isn’t as straight forward as it may seem.  As with everything in life, some research and trial and error over the years does wonders.  Here is what I have learned.

There are several things to decide upon before choosing the right plant and planting method:

  1. Location location location.  You always need a location in your garden with a good amount of sun, but you also need to keep the plant about 2 feet away from any other veggie in your garden.  Tomatoes (especially indeterminate varieties) need room to grow.  You also want to make sure the tomato plant at its full grown size doesn’t shade out any other veggie from much needed sun.
  2. Support.  To cage or not to cage.  In my opinion, always cage.  Even determinate tomatoes can grow too high to support themselves.  The alternative is to let the tomato plant do what it would do in the wild – snake along the ground like a vine.  If you have the space to do this, great, but you will also have to deal with more diseases affecting the leaves and possible rot on the tomatoes as they come into contact with the ground.  Standard cages come in a variety of sizes and shapes.  Just be sure to buy sturdy cages that can weather multiple seasons, otherwise you are just going to need to buy new cages every year.
  3. Water.  Tomatoes tend to like a lot of water, focused on their roots, not on the leaves themselves.  If you hand water, this is easy.  If you have an automatic sprinkler system, see what you can do to convert to a drip line.  Not only will this make your tomatoes happy, but you’ll need to use less water.
  4. Determinant or Indeterminate.  Determinant tomatoes will only grow to a certain height and generally all fruit will mature at the same time.  Great for a smaller garden, but be sure to only trim dead or diseased leaves otherwise you can severely stunt the growth of the plant and the tomatoes.  Indeterminate varieties can easily grow 8 feet or more in height with proper support.  You can trim them back without affecting their output too much and the tomatoes will grow consistently throughout the season.
  5. Variety.  Really think about what you will be doing with the tomatoes you grow.  Cherry tomatoes for salads, beefsteaks for sandwiches, roma tomatoes for canning, any low acidic variety for just snacking on…

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This year I am growing only two plants – one is an Early Girl and the other is Mr. Stripey.  They have thus far produced far better then expected.  Here is my tomato tally:

WEEK ONE:  20 Tomatoes

WEEK TWO:  25 Tomatoes

WEEK THREE:  49 Tomatoes

WEEK FOUR:  12 Tomatoes

WEEK FIVE:  4 Tomatoes

WEEK SIX:  18 Tomatoes

I’ll keep up this count for the remainder of the season.

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Man vs. Potting Bench

Every garden needs a home base – a place to go for your basic tools, pots, soil, etc.  I needed a potting bench.  I have been using our patio table up until now and it simply was getting too messy or simply inconvenient to work at.  There are many options for buying potting benches online, but I really didn’t want to spend a few hundred dollars on a bench that I knew was going to be used and abused.  This means I would have to build it myself.  The good news is that I could build into it everything I could want.  The bad news is that I really don’t have a lot of experience building anything more complex than a box, so I started researching potting bench plans online.  I was happy to easily find some sites with detailed plans and videos.

Can’t do better than starting with This Old House.

Family Handyman was a great possibility too.

Ultimately I found myoutdoorplans.com, which seemed to have the best step by step plans and a simple design which hit all of my needs.  The plan looked something like this:

Building-a-potting-bench-600x354

I liked that the construction seemed straight forward enough for someone of my skill level and I liked that the frame seemed very sturdy with 2x4s.  What I didn’t like is that it wasn’t wide enough for my needs and 2×4 boards for the suface seemed like overkill.  I also decided against the need for any special modifications which would make the construction harder.  Yes, drawers for tools and a potting bowl built in would have been nice, but it’s just frankly not needed.  Ultimately I widened the bench.  Modified the shelves a bit and used 1×6 for the main work surfaces.  Materials cost about $120.

A little wood filler and paint later – and it’s time to get planting!

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Man vs. Web Site

I bought my first house about 5 years ago.  It was the first time in my adult life that I had any real space for a garden and since I live in Los Angeles, the temperature is perfect to grow some of my own food all year long.  I do not consider myself an expert, but through experimentation I think I can create a lovely yard that will also provide some tasty food.

These are the chronicles of creating that dream garden of mine.

[Image Credit:   peter werkman]