Thursday, April 25, 2013

Gardening in Layers

One of the reasons why I love to grow things here in Tucson in the summer time is to see my garden turn into a miniature jungle. On a small scale, I can use the intense light to my advantage by packing in as many vegetables as I can into as small as a space as possible. This is what I call “intensive planting”.

My understory here has squash and sweet potato vines.

Intensive planting can occur in an area where the intensity and duration of sunlight is so great that you can cover every square inch of ground with vegetables. In areas of the country where there is minimal light (or in partially shaded areas with a lot of moisture) gardeners may not be able to grow their plants so close together without experiencing negative side effects such as bacterial or fungus problems.

As I plan my garden based on where the sun will be and based on how much light my plants will receive throughout the day I am getting the most light out of the area that I have. As I decide where to plant vegetables, I think of my plants based on their eventual size, and imagine what my “miniature jungle” will look like later on in the summer.
One method of intense planting is to consider plant height

 The lowest canopy of my garden is often covered with sweet potatoes – which spread like ivy in all directions – only a few inches off the ground. The next tallest area is populated with peppers, tomatoes, squash and other plants that grow between 2 and 4 feet tall. The highest area of my garden is populated with cucumber or bean vines, some of which will grow as high as I can trellis.

Vigorous tall pole beans grow next to squash of medium height

By thinking about layers when planting, gardeners can avoid having to do much weeding, especially later in the season. Though this method may not be for everyone, it is definitely one approach that has served me well for me here in Arizona.

One of the few problems with a crowded garden is where to walk

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wrong Carrot and a Good Seed Company

Each time I trial a new vegetable I take on some form of risk. Perhaps I won’t like the taste of the vegetable or perhaps it won’t grow well in my climate. Most of what I expect in my trials is for a plant to be as advertised, with the assumption that the conditions of my desert climate may be far from ideal. Unfortunately, this last trial of Atomic Red Carrots was quite a disappointment. Some of the carrots turned out orange, while the majority turned out purple on the outside with orange interior – just like my purple dragon carrots. Though the purple carrots from this seed packet were a bit spicier than my Purple Dragon carrots (they were probably cosmic purple), the orange carrots from this packet were reminiscent of the aftertaste of a bland store bought carrot. Fortunately, my family is not too picky when it comes to carrots.

These are definitely NOT Atomic Red carrots

I know that companies occasionally mix up or mislabel vegetable varieties often because a supplier mixed up seed or did not isolate varieties enough. However, when I buy a vegetable variety I exhibit minimal tolerance if a vegetable’s shape or color does not match what is advertised. I would not worry too much about the variety’s characteristics if I did not buy my vegetable seed hoping for specific characteristics – such as carrots that are red.

Good customer service can often make up for mistakes

I did end up talking with the company, and they sent a substitute variety for me. They said that there was probably some mix-up on the part of the supplier. Based on my recent experience I really didn't want to try atomic carrots again, so I decided to try another red carrot variety. While even really good companies occasionally make a mistake, their customer service can often make up for their mistakes. I always give a company several tries to correct their mistakes before I write them off altogether.

When I first find an interesting online seed company, I first try to find more out about it. Because anyone can set up an online company, it is wise to have a healthy dose of skepticism when first dealing with a seed supplier. Dave'sGarden is a good place to look for seed company reviews, and seems to be a pretty good resource for reviews. If 75% of people who buy from a seed company, such as Reimer, have experienced terrible seeds or service - it is probably a good idea to avoid this company in the future.

Though I was hoping for something different - these were tasty.

While I often ignore outstanding reviews such as "This is the best company ever!" I often give consideration to average reviews that tell a story about experiences - and are very specific in their descriptions. By doing so I am being fair to the company that makes a few mistakes while ensuring that I protect myself from an online scam. With all of the seed companies out there, I have often had a lot of good experience with obtaining seeds from a company that produces its seed locally or from a friend who grows in the same climate and conditions as I do.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Please Don’t Kill my Pollinators!

A next-door neighbor of mine saw a colony of bees swarming in her tree earlier today. As the bees were moving around quite a lot in the area, she immediately called a company to come take care of the bees. By the time I arrived on the scene all that was left of this colony was a bunch of half-dead bees. I know that no one wants to be stung by a bee, but the last time I saw a colony like this, they moved on within a day.

Before you call to kill - try a beekeeper!
We don't need colony collapse disorder to decimate our bee population. The city of Tucson has laws against keeping bees in the city limits and I counted 20 bee exterminating companies listed in the yellow pages. That being said, local bee-keepers will often come and remove a colony of bees without killing them – at a discount price of what others will come and spray the bees for.
The few living bees are trying to make sense of it all.
This tragic event leaves one to ask questions such as, "Does anyone know how most of our fruits and vegetables are pollinated? Will I have to self-pollinate my veggies this year? Does anyone care?"

Who will pollinate my garden this year?

I found this poster in New Mexico. To find more like it, go to

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Simple Watering Systems

One of the biggest concerns I hear from people about gardening here in Arizona is that they do not have the time to maintain their garden. Often the main time concern here in the Southwest is watering the plants. Watering the garden need not be a time-consuming enterprise or require that you know how to connect an elaborate drip system or hook up your watering system to your home’s wiring. All I started with was a garden hose, a timer and a soaker hose. Though some maintenance of the system is required, it is usually pretty simple to determine the cause of the problem because I can quickly replace a gasket or hose, if needed.

Blocks keeping Soaker hoses in place. Water jugs to protect seedlings from slight frost.

The timer: A simple watering timer can be purchased at any hardware store for 30 dollars or more. They can cover from 1-3 zones, which can be watered, each at a different time of day and a different length of time. When compared to hand-watering a garden, the amount of time, energy and maintenance saved by using such a simple timer is enough to make the most frugal gardener want to run out and buy one.

In the Southwest, Heavy Infrequent watering Helps: Here in the southwest I start my summer timer out at watering only 90 minutes, once every 2 days then later in the summer I set it to water for 120 minutes, once every 3 days. The longer delay between watering, as well as the longer duration of watering, forces my summer plants to develop deep roots. If I watered 2-3 times each day during the summer I would grow plants with large shallow root systems that are exposed to the terrible heat (and potentially disease) that is present at the surface of the soil. Dealing with the brutal heat of the summer, it can be tempting to turn the water on wilting plants in the middle of the day. However, if those plants are well established and they are supposed to live through the summer then watering them often is doing more harm then good. It took me a while to believe that this actually works but now that I have tried it, I’m so glad I did!

My old one-outlet water timer.
Drip hoses: Simple drip hoses seem to work alright. They do occasionally break and they should be kept insulated from the elements when not in use. Some of my hoses are buried while others are not. Burying hoses can be a bad idea if you need to dig in the area a lot but a good idea if you are planning on not digging up the area very much. I find that leaving the soaker hoses on the top of the area where I grow sweet potatoes to be very helpful at harvest time because I can just remove the hose from the area and dig around as much as I want without fear of hitting the soaker hoses.

Some timers have more options then others

The hose and spigot: With such a simple system sometimes problems can occur. The fact that I use a spigot for my water source does create a problem because my children could either turn the water all the way up or all the way off. It only took one time of my children turning the water all the way up to determine that I needed a regulator between my main hose and the soaker hose. I currently also have a regulator between the main hose and the timer, to keep too much pressure from destroying any components should children decide to play with the spigot. Then I occasionally deal with a problem on the other side of the spectrum. More than once I have looked at withering plants in my garden only to find that someone had turned the water off.

My very simple spigot - I really need to insulate the pipe!

To sum up: As long as you don’t have some kind of animal that completely destroys your watering system, watering your garden in the desert southwest does not need to be difficult. It can be as simple as a hose, a timer, and few soaker hoses. Just make sure to put a note on your outside water spigot to not turn the water off while you are on vacation.