Thursday, July 25, 2013

Gaia's Garden

I have barely watered my backyard now for two summers in a row. My fruit trees are still alive, but the grass is mostly dead. I am left with a large expanse of plain old dirt.

What is my plan? I could spend lots of time and money replanting the grass. I could leave the dirt as is- my dog doesn't seem to mind it. Or I could try and garden in that area. Of course, gardening it is!

I love the book Gaia's Garden. To revitalize the soil, I plan to use their sheet mulch method. This is where you use straw and other organic materials like manure, and layer them on the wet ground. The bugs go to work breaking everything down. What is left is rich earth where once was bare land.

Gaia's Garden also advocates the use of "swales" or straw filled trenches, to trap water for the land. I might try this. I do not get much rainfall, though, so my trenches might not have as good effect as in areas where rainfall is more often.

A special aspect of this book is its inclusion of many charts showing what nutrients are accumulated by specific plants, which plants are good nitrogen fixers, and even charts to help you decide which cover crops are best for your needs. My favorite is the chart on host plants for beneficial insects. I love attracting ladybugs to dine on my huge aphid population.

I also like all the garden layout ideas from Gaia's Garden. Gardens do not have to be rectangles filled with rows. There are other ways that actually use space more efficiently.

I am thankful for Toby Hemenway for writing this book. After the next good rain (in a few months), I would like to get started on mulching my backyard for my own garden.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Getting rid of dandelions organically

Yesterday I decided to pull dandelions from my front yard. I used the same method my parents taught me - take a screwdriver and try to pull the dandelion plants out with the roots. I rarely managed to get most of the roots. I wondered if there was a better way to get rid of the weed.

(On a side-note, I really do not mind the plant. But my neighbors probably do not want dandelion seeds from my yard blowing into their yard.)

Here is what I found:

UC Davis recommends mowing and watering the lawn appropriately to prevent weeds from becoming established. They recommend watering to at least 6 inches down - up to three times a week in hot climates. They actually recommend that the top two inches of soil be allowed to dry out (unless the grass is new and is getting established). Letting the soil dry out makes sense, as this makes it hard for weed seeds to establish themselves.

As for mowing, UC Davis recommends taking no more than 1/3 of the blade height each time the lawn is mowed. This may mean mowing more frequently, but it keeps the lawn healthier. Having a healthier lawn makes it harder for weeds to take hold.

If dandelions (or other weeds) do grow, UC Davis recommends hand weeding. They recommend removing the entire root. Next time I weed, I will take their advice and try a tool they recommend called a dandelion fork. It is similar to a screwdriver, but has a forked end. I will also water the grass well beforehand so that the roots are easier to pull out.

Another UC Davis page,( ), mentions that dandelions can sometimes regrow from just one inch of root.  Since the roots can be 6-18 inches usually, and possibly up to 15 feet ( ) getting the entire root can be difficult without watering the ground first.

Even if you do not weed, be sure to pick the flowers. Giving a kid 5 cents for every dandelion flower he picks out of your own yard would help prevent the next generation of infestation.

Other websites had ideas such as pouring vinegar over the dandelion. I figure that you might as well as pull the plant up if you are going to go through all the trouble of hunting each dandelion plant and pouring some substance over it. None of the organic options are guaranteed to work, anyways.

My favorite idea that I have come across several times is to think of it as "harvesting" dandelion greens instead of "weeding." The greens are edible by humans and critters like rabbits and chickens. Enjoy digging the dandelions up and eating them.

Since I am a little bit skeptical of my ability to make absolutely sure I'm eating something safe, I just placed the root of the dandelion plant in the compost bin that the city will pick up. I left the leaves on the lawn do be mowed and turned into mulch.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Mirror, Mirror on the wall- Which tree is the hardiest of them all?

I admit, I do not have a very green thumb. So here are my personal statistics on keeping food-bearing trees alive:

Citrus: 6 out of 6 trees still alive. These have been very hardy. 3 have been exposed to severe neglect by me not watering them for a month at a time in hot weather (90 to 104 degrees F). The lemon tree is the hardiest - it has grown very well.

Hazelnut: 3 out of 3 trees dead. I got these from the arbor day foundation. They looked like small sticks with a couple of roots on the bottom. I may have taken too long to plant these.

Peach: 1 out of 1 tree alive, but barely. This baby tree has been neglected of water for months at a time and was planted in the shade. Considering the circumstances, this tree has been very hardy.

Avocado: 2 out of 2 trees dead. I think one was water-logged by being planted in clay soil. I was too lazy to plant the other one, so it dried out completely in its pot.

Cherry trees: 1 out of 1 planted trees dead, but 2 out of 2 existing trees still alive. I don't think the baby tree I planted was able to survive the neglect of water. I also placed it in a spot where I used to keep chickens. The ground may have too much nitrogen from the chicken poop for the poor tree to survive.

Pecan: None planted, many keep popping up. Pecan trees seem to want to grow where I am at. I think there may be animals burying the nuts in my yard. I would love to have pecan trees if I had a larger piece of property. But for now, my property is too small and I know that at least two of my neighbors do not like the tall pecan trees. This may have something to do with the sticky substance produced by aphids. I agree that I do not want sticky stuff on my car or house. I also do not want a tree so high that it poses a large hazard to my home if it falls.

Bay: Every year I cut down at least a dozen trees that I think are Bay Laurel. I cut these trees because they grow tall very quickly.

So which are the hardiest trees that I planted at my home near Sacramento, California? I would say the lemon tree (and all the citrus trees) and the peach tree. These trees have done an excellent job so far of surviving my neglectfulness.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shredding leaves without a leaf shredder

Today my neighbor let me have 3 1/2 extra-large trashcans full of dry leaves he collected from another neighbor's yard.

I am certainly happy to have the leaves, but I needed the leaves to be smaller to take up less space and decompose faster. I did not feel like pulling out my leaf shredder that I got for low cost from a city rebate program.

The way I dealt with shredding leaves without a shredder last week was I mowed over them with my lawn mower. Most of the leaves collected into the bag, and I poured the leaves where I needed them.

Today, I did not have my mower out. So I put the leaves in a plastic kiddie pool and stomped all over them. Since the leaves were very dry, they crumpled easily. This was a lot of fun. It would be even more fun for a kid!

To store all those leaves I put set up a short piece of chicken wire fencing into a circle. Then I dumped the crushed leaves into the center. Some of the leaves fell through the wire, but that is okay. I was able to put all the leaves into an area the size of a single trash can since they were crushed.

For now, the leaves can compost in place for leaf mold. I also plan to use the leaves as needed for carbon material in the compost pile in the summer.

The best thing about shredding leaves without a leaf shredder is that I do not have to worry about rocks and sticks stopping up the shredder. Also, saving energy is really great.

Unfortunately, this would not work on leaves that are not dry. But a simple remedy for that is to leave leaves out until they are dry!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Seeds for Kids from Bountiful Gardens

Today I decide to sort through two packets of last year's "Seeds for Kids (of all ages)" from the Bountiful Gardens store. ( These packets contain an assortment of seeds from the company, non-genetically modified and pesticide free.

They do not have to be sorted, but I find it kind of relaxing to sit and the table and pick through the seeds.

There are probably over 5o varieties of plants in these packets. Quite possibly over 100. I like this because I get seeds I would not normally get if I were paying for each packet individually.

I am a little bit concerned because I do not know what most of the seeds are. When do I plant them if I do not know what they are? I plan to try anyways. They are affordable enough for the surprise. I ordered 12 more packs, one for every month, since they are only 50 cents. However, with all the seeds they have, I do not think I will get around to using all the seeds!

There are a few random types of corn. I might use these as stalks to grow peas on.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Using Rocks as mulch

Here is a picture from the side of my house, a very neglected area water-wise. I live in a very dry area during the summer. In the past 4 months (it is nearly November here), I can only remember a couple of days of rain. This area is not watered by sprinkler, so it is at my mercy to water it - which I only did a few times.

Yet, the plants are alive! In this picture there is a mandarin tree, a thin pomegranate tree, a large succulent, and nitrogen - fixing clover. I credit the success of these plants to the rocks that shade their soil. This prevents moisture loss and hardening of the soil despite my neglect.

The first thing I did to prepare this area was make sure the ground was well watered from rain we had in the winter. Since it rains in the winter, a bunch of clover had grown here. I pulled that clover, chopped it up with a knife, and laid it over the soil. I then covered the area with cardboard that I had soaked in a tub of water. I left the cardboard for a couple of months, occasionally watering it. The neighbors must have thought I was crazy to water cardboard!

The soil was very nice after that. I found the biggest earthworm I have ever seen there when I dug into the ground.

When using mulch, you can put a special fabric down to prevent weeds from growing. I did not do this because I wanted to plant seeds and have a variety of plants growing to improve soil health. So I just placed my rocks down, slightly overlapping. I used fist-size rocks that I got for free from someone who was redoing their backyard.

The first summer I planted "Seeds for Kids" from This is a mixture of non-toxic, non-GMO seeds. I also planted fodder radish from the same company, since it is known for being able to break up clay, as well as sunflower seeds from my local nursery.

I was a bit lazy about watering this area. Despite this, I ended up with a few random plants. Two sunflowers grew. I am so glad they did. From those two sunflowers I gathered many more seeds than is provided in a single packet at the store. I also had a couple of large radishes grow from the radish seeds I planted. I gave those to a neighbor who actually knows how to cook. From the kids seed packet I had a couple of squash and a few bean and black-eyed peas grow. I gave the neighbor the squash for her family. The beans and black-eyed peas I kept to grow again later.

That was a pretty good crop considering my failure to water the area sufficiently in an area of little to no rainfall in the summer. I highly recommend using small and medium rocks as mulch. The heat that might be absorbed by the rocks is more than made up for by the benefit of the rocks in shading the soil.

I know have two dwarf citrus trees and a pomegranate seedling in that area. Having a well established plant may be helpful if you can't (or can't remember to) water your plants. Drought tolerant plants like rosemary may also work well in the heat.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why I "harvest" my leaves

My neighbors are nice, but they laugh a bit when they see me outside pulling leaves off of branches I have cut down. Sometimes a tree needs a bit of pruning.

I'd love to have a composting system strong enough to take the woody branches, but that just isn't happening in my average - size backyard. And I already have a small supply of dried out branches in case I need fire wood.

So what I do is let the branches I cut sit for a few days. This allows the leaves to dry up and become much easier to pull off. Dry leaves tend to crumple off easily when I rub my hand along them. I can put the leaves in a bucket and squeeze them into small bits in my hands. The small pieces of leaves can be put into my compost bin or spread around the garden as mulch.

Why do I do this? I believe each leaf holds the building blocks to make a new leaf. If I can save a few hundred to thousand leaves, they have the basics necessary to provide a few hundred to thousand leaves next year.

Also, I purchased my own home. I consider the soil to be part of my property. Why would I throw away such a rich resource?

Unfortunately, I currently need to put the branches in the "green waste" bin. At least someone else can make some beautiful soil (and some money) off the trees grown in my yard.