Friday, November 9, 2012


1. Food
2. Water
3. Cover
4. Places to Raise Young
5. Sustainable Gardening
-- National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program (read the full text)
* Water * Cover * Open ground * Mulch * Nectar sources * Fruit * Seeds * Annual wildflower seed 
-- Las Pilitas native plant nursery (read thefull text)
Why Organic?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Getting Wise about Water

Southern California has a bizarre relationship with water.  The water that flows from your tap or garden hose in Los Angeles comes from hundreds of miles away, from the Owens River Valley, from the Colorado River, or from the State Water Project which is basically the Sacramento area.  Meanwhile, all the rain that falls here locally on the city each year is treated like a waste product.  It is whisked away as fast as possible, off our properties, into the storm drains, and out into the ocean (where each year its chemistry and pollutants cause great disruptions to ocean life).

Over the past few years, California has experienced droughts severe enough to merit water use regulations.  Residents complained – a lot – but in our classes at the Community Garden we point out that some of the regulations are wise gardening practices anyway, and that water consciousness is the new normal.

Climate change is shifting our rainfall patterns.  Rain will fall in different places – not necessarily in the locations and quantities that our massive water collection infrastructure has been built to collect.  The Union of Concerned Scientists forecasts that in future decades, Californians will have only 70% of the water supply we do today, and that’s the best case scenario.  If we keep emitting greenhouse gasses at business-as-usual levels, we may change the climate so much that by 2070 Southern California may have a mere 10% of the water supply we have today.

Pumping and processing water in California takes lots of energy: 18% of the state’s electricity.  Thus saving water means saving energy as well.  Since nearly 64% of the state’s electricity is derived from fossil sources (18.2% from filthy coal and 45.7% from not-much-better natural gas ) saving water becomes another big way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

As we leave the era of cheap oil, how will we maintain our water infrastructure?  How will we keep those vast pipelines operational?  Sure, the Romans made aqueducts without the benefit of fossil fuels-driven vehicles to repair and rebuild them.  How will we do it amidst an era of severe economic contraction?  In James Herbert’s novel Dune, characters were forced to stretch far beyond water “conservation” – they had to develop moisture consciousness. 

No matter which way we look at it, the answer remains the same:  the days of opulent water consumption are now over.  The ways of the future include expanding our water sources with localized rainwater harvesting, changing our water use habits to reflect appropriate use, embracing extreme conservation, and changing our attitude about “waste”water.

That said, how do we go about getting high yields in our urban agriculture despite limited water resources?  Oddly enough, the answers don’t begin with drip fittings and hose-end nozzles.  The answers begin on the drawing board, when you’re planning your garden.   And like everything else in organic gardening, the answers begin with the soil – rich, healthy, live garden soil.

We have a misleading expression in our language in that we say “I have to go water my plants.”  The more appropriate phrase would be “I have to go water my soil.”  Recall the soil critters we talked about in Chapter 3.  As we water our garden, our goal is to keep those soil critters happy. 

Organic material within your soil acts like a sponge.  It will soak up water and hold it in the root zone for soil critters and roots alike.  When the sandy soils in my Westchester garden and at the Community Garden at Holy Nativity get dry, the particles within the soil merge together and make a tight surface.  When you water that overdry stuff, the water beads up on the surface and runs off, leaving the soil mass as dry as ever.  As clay soils dry, the soil particles clump together in heavy, thick clods.  Deep cracks form between the masses.  When you apply water, it runs down the cracks and fails to penetrate the clods.

Start building your soil.  Add plenty of organic material – live homemade compost, or store-bought if you have to.  Compost feeds your soil critters, plus serves as a “sponge” to hold moisture.
Mulch is the fluffy quilt on top of your growing beds.  It helps slow evaporation, thus slows water loss from your soil.  In late spring, when the weather begins to warm up and the nights are no longer as cool, it’s mulching time.  Mulch everything.  Put a thick blanket of material across your entire garden.  Remember Emilia Hazelip:  Nature abhors bare soil.

The grading of your soil – the hills and dales and earthforms -- are important too.  Photos of the fields of Kansas have mislead us into thinking our gardens should be flat.  But we don’t have giant combines, thus we don’t necessarily need flat.  As you’ll see in the rainwater harvesting section, sculpted earth forms can be an important tool.

Garden catalogs promote raised beds, but in our Southern California dry season, a raised bed is an isolated block of soil exposed on five sides to the drying influences of the air.  It simply doesn’t make sense. 

Here in Southern California, we should be doing the opposite.  We should take a lesson from the Anasazi of the desert Southwest and use sunken beds.  Sunken beds  are only exposed to the drying air on one side – all the other sides are enclosed by Mother Earth. At my home garden and in the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we have been experimenting with planting in depressions in the earth.

The One-Finger Test

In the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we use what we call "the one finger test."  That means you take your finger and stick it into the garden soil - about one inch down into the soil.  The soil down there should feel moist, like a wrung-out sponge.  If the soil feels moist, your plants in that location don't need watering today.

The one-finger test means getting your hands into the soil.  That means the real dirt, beneath the mulch.  This measurement isn't about whether the mulch is wet, nor about whether the interface plane between mulch & soil surface is moist, but the condition of the garden soil 1" into the soil.

For new gardens, soil surface tension can be an issue, particularly with our sandy soils in Westchester.  If there is no mulch on the surface of a new garden, often times the sand particles seem to lock together.  Water applied on top simply rolls right off, and the underlying plant is gasping for water.  Again, the test is the condition 1" down.  If water is running off the surface, some tricks to use include (1) using a hand rake to gently break up the surface of the soil; (2) using basins, gardening in a depression, using mini dams or earth forms to hold the water in place long enough so that it can infiltrate; (3) enriching the soil with compost -- preferably coarse, homemade -- which acts like a sponge to hold moisture, plus provides food for the soil organisms that make up the real richness of organic garden soil; (4)applying mulch, to break the soil tension, enrich the soil at the soil/mulch interface, and keep the soil cooler.

In clay soils, for instance in parts of Culver City, surprisingly enough, the solution is again enriching the soil with compost.  A rich garden soil has less moisture-regulation issues.  In very heavy clay soils, rather than gardening in a depression, for winter gardens you might need to consider using a raised bed.  I'm hesitant to mention raised beds because they get tremendous kudos in East Coast and English garden books, but they aren't really right for Southern California.  Here, a raised bed means that the block of soil is exposed to baking summer heat and drying air on five sides instead of just one.  For sandy soils, raising your beds is not at all recommended (unless you have soil toxin/lead issues, but that's an entirely different topic).  Thus the first thing try is really building up that rich, healthy, alive garden soil to see if that helps your moisture-regulation issues.

In new gardens, these issues are compounded by the fact that compost cycles and soil life populations are not yet established.  Some portions of a new garden might have received better tilling or more compost than other sections.  Thus there is no other alternative than to use the one-finger test many, many times in different spots around the garden.  Over time, observation will teach you about the condition of the soil.  A hypothetical example: the spot by the fig is consistently dry every time you try it, while the lavendar always seems to be wet.  You'll learn, through many observations over time, that on a rushed day you can water that fig and skip that lavendar.  Probably both spots will need some chunky high-organic-material compost mixed in.

Some plants -- most notably our California natives, our "drought tolerant" or "xeriscape" plants, and most citrus trees (oranges, lemons, and their cousins) -- don't like to be moist all the time.  They like a chance to dry out between waterings.  Thus if your one-finger test reveals any soil moisture at all for these plants, do not water them.  Very often these are the plants we "kill with kindness" by overwatering.  You can observe the overwatering conditions in plants like lavendar and sage when they put on excessive amounts of lush new growth with broad leaves and a rich green aesthetic -- that's not normal.  Their normal leaf is supposed to be slow-growing, grey-green, and a bit lean-looking.  Plants in this category include (but are not limited to) most California natives, most sages including hybrids, lavendar, rosemary, Mediterranean herbs like oregano and thyme, plants of Middle Eastern origin like pomegranates.  In the Community Gardens, we are using a set of signs to mark these water-sensitive plants.  Citrus trees that are overwatered tend to turn yellow and drop their leaves abundantly.  Again, if your one-finger test reveals any soil moisture at all, do not water them.

Long and Slow and Deep

When your one-finger test says the soil needs water, apply the water long and slow and deep.  When people lightly spritz an area, with “making the surface turn brown” as their guide, the water does not penetrate to the root zone where water is needed.  Plants are trained to put out surface roots to capture the water, and plants trained this way are far less tolerant of drought and heat conditions.  Instead, train your plant roots to dive deep into the earth to get water.  Apply the water slowly to the surface of the soil, and allow time for it to soak in deeply. Apply adequate water to moisten the deeper layers of your soil, rather than merely the surface ¼ inch.  In many cases, using this technique will result in you needing to water your garden much less often.

John Jeavons refers to a "3 second shiny."  That means after you water a well-prepared garden bed, you water until the soil has a shiny layer of excess water which disappears within 1/2 to 3 seconds after watering stops.  This is a guideline for a well-prepared bed, and might not be applicable for new gardens or places with tough garden soil issues.  Again, ongoing applications of chunky high-organic-material compost will eventually gain you a well-prepared bed.

Water the Soil, Not the Plants

We have an unfortunate construction in the English language in that we typically say “I need to water my plants.”  But thinking back to the Soil chapter, and the fact that all garden watering reverts back to what is good for the soil critters, we don’t water plants, we water soil.

As you learn more about healthy, alive, organic garden soils, you'll discover that the place we need the water is to keep our vast populations of soil organisms happy.  The leaves of most plants (short of rain-forest plants, but they aren't appropriate to Southern California anyway), don't do much as far as water uptake.  It is the roots that can access the water, with the assistance of the soil organisms.  We don't want to drown the soil organisms (thus the wrung-out sponge analogy).  Additionally, there are plants -- most notably our squash family, cucumbers, and other fuzzy-leafed plants -- that absolutely hate to get their leaves wet.  These plants will rot away if you hose their topsides.  Thus you must bend down and apply the water where it needs to go -- at the soil surface.

It is not recommended to wait until your garden plants are droopy and pale to say they need water.  Those visual signs indicate an extremely stressed plant, that has been neglected too far.  It is very difficult for a stressed plant to regain full vigor -- some can be stunted and never ever recover.  In an in-ground garden situation, this phenomenon often results from improper planting techniques followed by abandonment.  If the plant (or vegetable 6-pack or plant plug) was rootbound, and it was planted without fluffing out the roots, water will simply run off the exterior of this tightly wound rootball.  For trees, a long-term rootbound problem might not be recoverable; you might have to replace the tree.  For vegetables, pay attention as you plant them: don't shove a geometric cube into the ground.  Instead, gently fluff out the rootball with your fingers before you slide the plant into the soil.  Water the transplants immediately, and in those first few days, don't allow them to dry out.  Apply the one-finger test many times around new plantings.

In the Community Gardens, we use signs to mark new plantings and newly-planted seedling beds.  These spots need watering attention every time a gardener comes to the garden.  Seedling beds are particularly challenging in our Southern California sun.  Sometimes to sprout seeds, particularly in less-than-optimum soil conditions, you may need to use shadecloth and other sheltering devices to shield them from the searing sun.  Another way to manage the water needs of seeds is to sprout them in pots in a more sheltered area, then transplant; all but root vegetables can be handled this way.  Carrots are difficult to sprout, particularly if you have a soil-tension problem as described above.  Carrots (and onions) need very consistent soil moisture to sprout, thus probably won't work very well unless we're having a stretch of foggy cool overcast weather.  Carrots can sometimes be helped along by interplanting with radishes; the lusty radishes sprout easily and heave the soil upward, breaking the crust for the more delicate carrot seeds.

During the winter months, rainfall can have influence on watering patterns.  More likely, the cool nighttime temperatures of our winter months have a greater influence.  When soils are cool, moisture evaporates slower.  Thus during the cool months, your garden demands far less watering.  Simultaneously, the possibility of overwatering our natives, xeriscapes, and citrus is far greater.  If we have had recent measurable rainfall, this probably means you'll need to decrease your garden watering.  (Turn off those automatic sprinklers!)  Measurable rainfall can be determined very simply:  by putting a bucket or pie plate outdoors in the garden in question.  If a given storm puts an inch or so of water in your measuring device, that will affect your garden's watering needs.  But because we have erratic rainfall in any Southern California winter, you must become very diligent at using the one-finger test.

In the Cool of the Night

For dry summer months, LADWP's watering regulations aren't limitations, they are good gardening sense.  Don't water if it's running off the surface (fix the surface problems - see "sandy soils" above).  Don't water before 4pm or after 9am because evaporation in the hot sun means your plants aren't getting the benefit of the water you apply.  By watering in the evening, your soils and plants have the entirety of the cool evening, relieved from baking summer sun, to soak in the water you apply.  If you are watering in the evening and you are experiencing mildew problems (happens a lot with roses), first, be sure you are keeping the leaves and tops of the plants dry.  Water the soil, not the plants.  Secondly, examine your plant spacing.  Is there adequate space between the plants for air to circulate?  It might be that you need to lift and resituate an ailing plant.  Mildew issues are far less due to evening watering patterns than they are an indicator of other problems in the garden.  Thus, follow LADWP recommendations and water as the sun eases from the sky.

In the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we have a watering responsibility schedule.  If it is your day, that means it is your day to do the one-finger test and evaluate watering needs, not just simply wield the hose.  Our volunteer coordinator tends to populate the calendar for 2 or 3 volunteer visits per week in cool moist months, which we bump up to daily volunteers in hot dry weeks.  All volunteers are asked to observe garden signage ("new plantings like moist soil" or "likes dry conditions") as well as using the one-finger test prior to applying the hose.  As a volunteer, upon arriving at the site you can make a quick pass around the garden to do all your observations and one-finger testing.  You'll then know, later when you have hose in hand, what needs water and what doesn't.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Lost Art

“Can she bake a cherry pie?” chants the American folk song.  That didn’t mean opening a can of goo from the supermarket and dumping it into a frozen pie shell.  It mean knowing when the cherries were sweet and ripe, harvesting and pitting them, creating the pie shell from scratch (perhaps hand-churning the butter), and knowing what other local and available ingredients to mix in to make it all taste good.  The song referred to a real and necessary skill base which our ancestors recognized was essential to survival.  A skill base that most of us alive today no longer have.

Most of our ancestors grew food.  They preserved food.  They knew the seasons of their food, and they knew how to “get by” with limited food supply between harvests or through tough times.  Today, food production is a lost art.

Most people alive today have grown up on a food supply produced by industrial-style agribusiness.  Massive fields.  Massive combines. Factory farms.  Global transportation networks.  It is a system which is deeply dependent on nonrenewable and now‑depleting fossil fuels.  This system is pillaging irreplaceable topsoils, polluting our waterways, draining nonreplenishing ancient aquifers, generating atrocious waste, perpetuating socio-economic and cultural repression, and drawing enormous financial subsidies from our government in order to continue to do so.

The system is doomed and failing.  And we have no backup plan.  We have no “Plan B” for our food supply.  We need to reclaim the lost art of food production.

Into the middle of this, global warming is throwing a swift left hook.  Even as we scramble to recover great-grandma’s lost knowledge and create a backup to the broken industrial system, even as we scurry to discover what might work here in Southern California, global warming-driven weather disruptions are bringing wild weather surprises.

In Winter 2004, funnel clouds touched down in the Ladera Heights part of Los Angeles.  In 2006-2007 we experienced extreme drought conditions.  The next January we had record-breaking freezes.  In December 2010 rain clouds dumped record rainfall.  Looking to the future, scientists forecast heavier rains in some places, amplified droughts in others.[i]  For large-scale industrial farming operations – the food system we have depended upon – these weather shifts present challenges for which they do not have answers.  We desperately need to have backups in place.

And backups – particularly when they involve acquiring new skills, creating new habits, and cultivating widespread social change – take time to set up.  We have to get it moving.  Now.

Organic techniques are a critical element in all this.  “Organically farmed soil stores carbon.  A lot of carbon.  So much, in fact, that if all the cultivated land in the world were farmed organically, it would immediately reduce the climate crisis significantly.”[ii]

As you’ll learn in Chapter 2, “organics” is much, much more than just subbing out the chemicals with a few homemade sprays.  Organic techniques demand an entirely  different outlook upon farming, land, soil life, air, bugs and butterflies, our seed heritage, ecosystems, and humanity’s place within those vast systems.

Organics works.  It’s the way humanity has farmed its food since the dawn of the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago.  Compare that to what we think of as “regular” agriculture which has only been in existence since the beginning of the 20th century.  Some might debate that we have “better living through chemicals” but that’s only because the marketing departments have told us to think so.

And organics is cheaper.[iii]  (But the chemical companies don’t want you to know this.)  When the natural ecosystem is working on your behalf to feed and nourish your plants, there is no need to buy stuff.

Facing a world which will soon be without cheap petroleum and petrochemicals, a world where the economic situation continues to worsen, we’d better rediscover organics.  We’d better get back in the habit.  We’d better figure out how it was done in the past – plus how we can make it work for a very different present with more than 82% of Americans living in cities and 7 billion people to feed.  We need to rediscover a lost art, and we need to modify it for a dramatic new future.

The plot thickens:  Here our particular local spot on earth – in Southern California – agriculture is a relative newcomer.  Native Americans in this area didn’t “farm” in the European sense.  For 5,000 to 8,000 years since coming over the Bering Straight, they obtained much of their food by being careful stewards of the existing terrain.  They harvested native oaks in their season, and gathered local plants like chia, Miner’s lettuce, cattails, and manzanita berries.  The Spaniards farmed a little, but they had the luxury of vast tracts of land and relatively few mouths to feed.

Humans do not have an agricultural history with the land here in the way that people do in other places.  In communities like Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico and St. Helena Island in South Carolina, people have cared for the land and cultivated its fertility, nurturing it into ongoing production in some cases for hundreds of years.  In Europe, some lands have been producing food since the time of the Romans.

Thus here in Southern California, we are not merely rediscovering the art of long-term, ongoing, sustainable food production and soil fertility.  In this place – with its unique year-round growing season – we are the pioneers, exploring it for the first time.

Welcome to the journey.  We do not have the answers yet.  You are part of the discovery process – you and all around you who are engaged in growing food.  Share this precious knowledge as you discover it.  Share what worked and what didn’t.  We need you.

“There’s too much to learn!”

But look at what you already know.  Look at the massive amount of knowledge you have acquired in the past 3 to 5 years to learn to effectively use that electronic communications gadget you carry in your pocket or purse.  A decade ago, you didn’t know those skills.  You acquired them recently and rapidly.

Look at the vast warehouse of knowledge you have about how to get around in a consumerist society.  Need new sports shoes?  I’ll bet you know where to go, where to get the best prices, what route to drive to get there (not to mention the skills of driving), and what hours the store is open.  Salad for dinner?  Another store, another set of memorized characteristics.  You think nothing of knowing how to best get across L.A. or O.C. in cross-town traffic, how to use the internet or Facebook, and a bazillion other peak-of-petroleum skills.

Growing food effectively with great yields sounds daunting to us because we are on the front end of the learning curve.  We haven’t yet acquired the body of knowledge   But unlike cell phones (which are completely optional in my regard), at this point in human history, learning how to grow food is no longer an option.  It is essential to survival.

[i] Union of Concerned Scientists, “Climate Choices,”
[ii] Maria Rodale, Organic Manifesto (p10)
[iii] Why then is “organic” more expensive at the supermarket?  Government subsidies are awarded to the biggest mega-farms (80% of the subsidies go to x% of the corporations).  In most cases government subsidies keep the cost of conventionally-produced food artificially low.