Climate Crossroads Blog
Lazy Organic Gardener
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 3:24PM PST on October 15, 2010
This year, I decided to take better advantage of the planting opportunities in the fall.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, we have a second growing season. I haven’t planted fall crops for years, however — not because of laziness so much as the shorter days and the wetter, colder weather. By mid-October, it’s dark when I get home from work, which leaves only the weekends. The rainy season hasn't started yet, but will soon.
I was in Santa Cruz this past weekend, so had no time for planting, but I took Monday off, and got home by mid-afternoon with a flat of lettuces, kale, and chard, plus five bags of dry horse manure from Z’s sister’s horse ranch in Soquel.
The eastern bed is still producing tomatoes, though I seem to be down to the sungolds and other small or cherry varieties. That bed also has some peppers and basil that have some life to them yet. The western bed is finished for the year, except for some parsley and strawberries at one end, which are perennial or, in the case of parsley, act like a perennial.
Here's the before picture. I cleaned most of the western bed a week or two ago, pulling out the dry squash, corn, and beans.
Monday, I pulled out the crabgrass, dug up a few roots, and raked out the dead leaves. Then I poured four of the bags of manure onto the bed.
This manure was lightweight and dry. I remember earlier this year how heavy the manure was — it had composted and compressed, and was hotter. This stuff had not composted as much. It still looked like horse poop. But since the horses eat hay and other and other roughage, and the pile had been sitting in the sun without being watered for a while, I don’t think there’s any danger of the plants being burned by the compost. (I’ll know soon enough if I’m wrong.)
It may have been smarter to dump the manure in my compost bin and let it decompose and heat up first, but, well, let's think of this as an experiment. Lettuce does need nitrogen and phosphorus, so I'll need to remember to give it some fertilizer next weekend. The dry manure will work more as mulch and soil amendment than fertilizer.
I scooped out holes in the layer of dry manure and set out 24 lettuce seedlings — including romaine and buttercrunch — plus 6 kale plants, all close to the soaker hose that curls through the bed. Then I watered it all.
It's Indian Summer here in the Bay Area, so we're experiencing our warmest stretch of the year. Hot, still, clear. No fog. The rains will start in the next month or so, but for now, these seedlings, with their shallow roots, need regular watering.
This is when the turnoff valves I installed as part of the drip system earn their keep. (See Garden Beds, Part 2.) I've turned off the water to the tomatoes — at this point in their cycle, they'll put more energy into their fruit when they're deprived of water — and turned it on for the lettuce bed. Ten minutes every morning for now.
It was still light when I finished so I grabbed the weed whacker and took a couple passes along the pathways. I didn’t finish, but I got more weeding done than I expected.
The weed whacker is the only machine I use in the garden, but it sure is a testament to power tools. I've done enough manual weeding to know. It would have taken many hours more without that little bit of electricity.
One of the main weeds I whacked was morning glory, which you can see below snaking its way from the fence, where I want it, into garden beds and pathways, where I don't.
Here's an out-of-control lavatera that I didn't tackle. That will take an hour or so with some loppers. It's too woody for the weed whacker.
One last thing. Corn. I don't think I'll bother with it next year.
It like how it looks growing, and my plants were tall and healthy, or so I thought. But whether I didn't give them the right nutrients or it wasn't hot enough or Jupiter was in retrograde for too much of July, they didn't produce more than a couple of ears of corn, and even then it was more starchy than sweet. (Based on about two minutes of lazy web research, my guess is that they weren't properly pollinated because I didn't plant enough of them. One source says you need three or four rows, each 8 feet long. I didn't do that.)
Here are couple photos of my pathetic harvest. Look at that cob with two measly kernels.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 3:25PM PST on September 29, 2010
I have many good excuses for not having written a Lazy Organic Gardener post since July, but the main one is that I haven't spent much time in the garden.
That's actually a testament to the success of my garden beds and drip irrigation system — that I was able to ignore the garden for most of the summer, and here it is almost October and I have a bounty of vegetables to harvest.
Tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes.
I told myself after last year's disappointing tomato harvest that I wanted to have too many this year. I do. Despite a staggeringly lazy summer. Between traveling and a busy work schedule and some out-of-town visitors and plain old loafing around thinking about doing garden chores and not doing them, well, I didn’t log many hours over the summer in the garden. The beds and the irrigation allowed me to be lazy. Almost like I planned it that way.
The tomatoes thrived, and now, in September, I have more of them than I know what to do with. I’ve sliced them up for sandwiches and salads. I've taken bowls of them as presents to others. But mostly I’ve made salsa. Here's what's left of one of the three big bowls I made. (I've never been much on food processors before, but now I see the light.)
Ingredients: Tomatoes, peppers, onion, cilantro, lime. The first two ingredients came from the garden. Plus salt and pepper. Last weekend, salsa for lunch, salsa for dinner. With tortillas and cheese or rice and beans. (I froze some, though my experience is that it loses its texture, gets mushy when thawed. But I can mix it in with chili or soup.)
When I built the bed, I set out to intentionally segregate the cultivated area from the wild. I filled one bed with tomatoes, peppers, and basil, and though it looks pretty shabby at the moment, it's still pumping out the produce. I could fill a big salad bowl to the rim right now and still leave a lot unpicked.
The second bed is more of a mixed bag. The corn grew tall and strong, though it tasted a bit starchy, The zucchini and other squashes were not as prolific as the cliché would have it, but I came back from one trip to find some baseball bat sized plants. I sliced them lengthwise and grilled them with olive oil and spices. Pretty good. I also chopped up another and added it to the salsa. Not bad.
But the eggplant didn’t produce a single fruit and the strawberries, though delicious, were not prolific like the tomatoes.
This time of year, the garden looks bedraggled and unkempt. The side fence is full of blooming morning glories, and that's about the extent of the flowers. However, as I sit here in my study at home, which looks out on the garden, I can see one manifestation of my laziness a foot from me — a tendril of morning glory snaking into the house through the two-inch crack in my sliding window. There are tendrils like that all over the yard, some of them four or five feet long. Weed-whacker time! You can see the morning glory starting invade the garden, and below that, their lovely flowers covering a chain link fence.
I got a lesson in the importance of water this summer, as if I didn't already know this. One of my favorite easy plants — Peruvian lilies — were blooming like crazy in spring and early summer. Now, with the exception of one patch, they've dried up. The difference is water.
Last year, before I built my beds and segregated the "crops" from the wilder shrubs and flowers scattered around the garden, the lilies were getting regular water — partly on purpose and partly because my drip system was so unfocused and spaghetti-like. This year, I restricted the watering to the beds and a few other spots, and only got a drip line hooked up to one patch, which you can see below. Well, there's always next year.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 12:02PM PST on July 29, 2010
Ooops. Haven't written a Lazy Organic
Gardener post for more than a
There is no such thing as a truly lazy gardener. if you're lazy with a capital L, gardening is not going to be on your to-do list. At its best, it's meditative, absorbing, a feast for the senses. Sometimes there's a feeling of connecting with the sublime or a superior being.
But it is work. There are
deadlines, busy periods. Certainly times when I wish I was done so I
could sit down and enjoy it.
There are zucchini and strawberries to
harvest, but not much else. Lots of green tomatoes yet to ripen. (The
cold foggy days don't help.)
One of these days, I'd better spread some fertilizer in the vegetable beds.
For now, though, I'm taking photos instead of working.
Here are two views from the deck.
The corn is taller
than I am now. The photos below are
from three weeks ago.
You can't tell from this photo, but there are two plastic chaise lounges behind this thriving lavatera in the back of my yard. (Fortunately, there are plenty of other places to sit.)
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 1:37PM PST on May 10, 2010
I planted tomatoes in my new garden beds Saturday.
They look pretty puny compared to the jungle of vigorous fava beans they replaced. Here's a before and after. Not from the same angle, but close enough to get the picture.
Saturday morning, the beds were home to a veritable bumper crop of fava beans, most more than two feet tall and flowering. None had produced pods yet.
I cut them down in one bed. Yanked them out in the other.
When I finished building the beds a few months ago, I planted a cover crop of favas, clover, veitch, and peas. A few weeks later I sowed another round of fava beans, these soaked, on the recommendation of a clerk at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, in Dr. Earth's SuperActive soil and seed inoculant, which is supposed to intensify the nitrogen-fixing potential of the favas.
If I understand my soil chemistry right, the clay soil that I have in my yard has plenty of phosphorus and potassium, the other two primary nutrients that vegetables need. But nitrogen gets used up more quickly by growing plants and is water soluble, so it needs to be replenished regularly. Enter the fava beans.
On the other hand, too much nitrogen can promote stem and leaf growth at the expense of fruit. Last summer, I had big leafy tomato plants that didn't produce the abundance of fruit that I hoped for. Hmmm.
As I'm writing this, I'm thinking, damn, I probably need to actually read up on this and test my soil to see what nutrient levels I actually have. This whole process of writing about gardening reminds me over and over again how little I actually know. (Back in college, one of our professors printed up a card that said, "The more you know, the more you don't know." We laughed, but it's truer than I knew then.)
The more I get into gardening the harder it is to be lazy.
I truly do want to learn more, and become a better gardener. I just don't want it to become too much like work. I want it to be a respite from work.
I would have liked to let the favas grow to seed, but I planted them late, and now that it's the second weekend in May, and the days are getting longer, it's time to get planting.
I rarely eat the beans anyway, though I have saved the seeds in past years for future planting. They're not bad tasting, but before eating them, you have to shell the beans from the pods, blanche them, then peel the husks, then cook them. Way too much work for the payoff, especially compared to crops like snow peas or raspberries or cherry tomatoes that you can pick off the vine and pop in your mouth. (You can eat the favas with the husk, but you can also eat the cardboard that your pizza is delivered on, and most people choose not to.)
After I cut, pulled, and dug out the favas, I covered each bed with a couple more bags of purchased garden soil. The beds aren't full to the brim with soil and amendments, but close enough. Close to two feet of loose soil. Lots of room for roots to grow.
I laid out the soaker hose in the bed in roughly parallel rows, anchoring it with u-shaped metal stakes. Then I turned on the water spigot and gave the drip system a test drive.
One shutoff valve connector flew off under the pressure, and I wriggled/jammed it back in. It seems secure now. I also found a heavy leak where the soaker hose screwed into an "L" connector (below). A little plumber's tape around the threads, and the leak was gone. If only every problem was that easy to fix.
I planted 12 tomatoes, all different kinds, inside cages or between them, as well as 8 peppers, some basil, strawberries, and zucchini. One garden bed is almost full, the other almost empty. This weekend, more peppers and squash, plus beans, eggplant, and maybe something new that I haven't planted before.
I'm counting on a more productive year, what with the new beds with loose, rich soil, and the new drip configuration. I'd like to do better than last year's disappointing harvest.
Wait. Let me qualify "disappointing." I would have liked a more bountiful harvest, but I love, love, love my garden. I relish in it. The flowers, the hummingbirds and butterflies and bees, the curving paths, the wildness. It's beautiful already this spring, even though the only flowers that have showed up are the poppies and a few Peruvian lilies. Many more are coming soon.
When I started gardening 30 years on the outskirts of Urbana, I didn't care for all this aesthetic stuff. It was all about the produce. Now I love the beauty. It's just that I also want enough tomatoes and peppers for a couple of salsa-making weekends around Labor Day.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 9:38AM PST on May 3, 2010
The primary reason I built garden beds this past winter was to create a more defined boundary between my cultivation space and the wildness around it. A border wall, if you will.
Running a close second was to simplify my drip irrigation system.
Last year, my drip system was a spaghetti-like mess, with as many tentacles as a school of octopuses.
I had a jumble of half- and quarter-inch tubes snaking all over the vegetable patch, dozens of drip emitters, two kinds of soaker houses, and a mini-sprinkler. My drip system was as wild as the ivy encroaching on the vegetable beds, and was in fact watering that ivy. (Ivy does just fine without the help, thank you.)
Here's one of the less egregious examples, with half-inch tubes. The biggest messes were with the more flexible quarter-inch tubes, but I can't find any photos of them.
The most precise way to get the water to a plant is to place a drip emitter, like the one in at the bottom of the photo above, which can deliver from a half-gallon per hour to two gallons per hour. (You can go higher than that, but that's the range I have.)
If all your plants are in a nice even row, you can extend a half-inch tube down that row, punch holes in the tubing where needed and push the emitters in the holes. But because I was going for that curved line and wild-and-wooly look, I didn't have nice even rows. (In the photo above, those half-inch tubes are the ones curving under the lettuce leaves.)
So getting all the plants the water they needed was a challenge. Because I took some long vacations last summer, I had to be sure that every plant got water, and I succeeded at that. However, some seeds never came up, or the plants didn't take, and then as summer wore on, some plants died off early — like the zucchini that got powdery mildew after producing only a few squash. I ended up watering weeds. Mostly crabgrass and ivy.
I'll have more even rows this year — the rectangular shape of the beds will help dictate that — and my plan is to use the less precise soaker hoses in the beds. That's a half-inch soaker above the lettuce leaves in the photo above.
If I spread the hose like a flat "S" along the length of the beds, so there are three or four lines, that should spread water relatively evenly over the entire bed.
I'll cram the plants close together to keep the weeds at bay and to encourage the roots to grow deep into the loose soil.
This past weekend, I bought the connectors I needed, drilled a few holes, and sent a one-half inch tube into each bed.
Below you can see the hole into the bed, then in, the lower photo, the "T" connector, where the tube comes up to go through the hole. There's an "L" connector you can't see just under the ledge.
The other important change I'm making is to put in off-on valves in various places, so once I've got my drip going on a timer, I can shut off areas I don't want watered.
If, for example, I get one bed planted before the other, I can turn that valve on, the other off.
I can't believe that with all this deep, loose soil, which has a lot of manure and compost in it, and a better watering system, I won't get a bumper crop. We'll see.
You may be thinking that all this sounds like a lot of work for someone purporting to be lazy.I like to think of myself as strategically lazy. I'm doing this work now so I will have less to do during the summer. If all goes according to plan — and of course, it often doesn't — my main task in midsummer will be to harvest the bounty of the beds, pull a random weed here and there, and sit in the shade with a glass of iced tea.
At least that's the idea. Stay tuned.
Next time, part 3. Planting.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 10:31AM PST on April 26, 2010
I like the wildness of my back yard. Morning glories and ivy cover the fence on three sides, and in the back of my long and narrow lot, a gnarled old plum tree, full of character though not much of a fruit producer, is surrounded by ivy growing in its shade. Along the western fence, I've got two vigorous sambucas, deciduous trees/shrubs with variegated yellow and green leaves. At the edge of my deck, two flowering perennials are thriving — ceanothus, a native, and red bud, which is not native, but behaves like one.
Then there are two of my favorite "easy" plants — Peruvian lily, a.k.a. alstrameria, and lavatera — both of which are about to burst into flower, and will keep blooming until late summer.
I've also got raspberries, which grow like weeds, and five young fruit trees — apple, plum, pluot, lime, and avocado.
After this past winter's heavy rains, the garden looks as lush as a rainforest. (Slight exaggeration.)For most of the past 20 years, in the middle of this wildness, in a patch that gets the most warm afternoon sun, I've been growing annual vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers and zucchini. I've also been regularly amending the soil in that patch with compost and horse manure and mulch so it's rich and loose, not the thick heavy clay that it was when I moved in.
But, as I wrote about last year, the wildness that I like so much has been creeping into the vegetable patch, and the drip irrigation system has been becoming more spaghetti-like, and I end up watering weeds without intending to.
So this past winter, to reclaim some order, from the wild, I built two 4' x 8' garden beds. I've gone full circle —when I first moved here twenty years ago, I built some ramshackle garden beds, but they've been gone for a long time. The wood rotted and they weren't very well-constructed anyway. Those vegetable beds were all I had back then, and the garden has come a long way since then, with the trees, vines, and perennials I mentioned above. (I used to have grass, and I will say without hesitation that ridding my yard of grass was one of the best things I ever did. Not that it doesn't keep coming back. It's my most pernicious weed.)
Here are two "before" photos of the garden area — the first one with the summer planting, the second from November, after I harvested and cleared it of the veggies.
For someone who calls himself lazy, I worked pretty hard to build these two beds. It took more than a month from start to finish, though with the winter days so short, and the frequent rainfall, I only had those few dry, weekend days to get it done.
Lots of cutting wood with my decades-old old circular saw, nailing pieces together, digging, bending, kneeling, lugging.
The digging was relatively easy because the ground was so soft and wet, but the soil was heavy. Messy and muddy too. By the time I was done with digging the pathways, I had a couple of inches of wet, thick, clay soil on the soles of my boots, and my legs felt heavy when I walked.
I had plenty of scrap lumber to work with — redwood siding I found under Z's deck, as well as pressure treated beam and Trex posts left over from my deck and elsewhere.
I had enough of the siding for the 8' long sides — each side was two 1 x 8s that notched together. I had four 8 foot long pieces, so one box was made of those. The other one I built with 4-foot pieces side-by-side. From the outside, they look the same, because there's a post in the middle of the eight footer, to keep the walls from bowing under the weight of the soil, as well as to hold up a ledge to sit on.
The short end are where I had to improvise, mixing up 4" x 4" posts and 2" x 4"s — whatever I could cut to fit. You can the short sides in the slide show below — four different kinds of scrap on one wall.
I built the shell of the beds outside the garden bed, essentially nailing two long sides and two short sides into each other, then carried that wobbly box over to the bed that I had raked even. I nudged the box into place, then put in the four corner posts, nailed the sides into the posts, and then did the second level of the sides.
I was able to do everything with scraps until I got to the ledges. Those I bought — six 8' lengths of 1" x 6" rough redwood planks, two of which I cut in half. Those ledges are important to a lazy gardener — that's where I'll sit in between gardening tasks.
I used the level quite a bit, trying to make the ledges as level as possible, not easy because the yard isn't level, and my carpentry isn't that good. But this kind of outdoor structure doesn't need to be precise. These are garden beds, not fine furniture. I wanted the boxes to look neat as opposed to sloppy, rectangles as opposed to parallelograms. But rough was fine. I took care with the ledges because they would be the most visible part. And sitting is usually better on a level surface.
After I nailed the ledges into the posts, then I dug pathways and lay stepping stones around the beds.
Here's a slide show of the construction process.
Once the construction was finished, I had to fill the beds with soil. Some came from digging out the path, some from other parts of the yard, some from my compost pile. Twice over the winter, I was down in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Z's sister's horse ranch, where there's a virtually unlimited supply of manure. I layered the horse compost and weed clippings and soil like lasagna. I added a couple bags of potting soil from the garden store too.When the beds were half-full with soil, I planted the cover crop — a mixture of fava beans, veitch, clover, peas.
Here are the beds this past weekend, the fava beans a couple feet high.
Part 2 to come. Setting up the drip irrigation. Getting ready to plant veggies.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 1:14PM PST on March 29, 2010
Spring is busting out all over. In Berkeley, anyway.
It's as green as Ireland, but with sunshine.
Spring just started but it feels like summer. Fog in the morning and sun in the afternoon. Midday, it's hiting the 60s, even 70s. The windows are open. The furnace is off. All of a sudden there's daylight in the evenings when I get home from work.
This past weekend, I went out to work in the garden, at least a dozen times. (In other words, I took a lot of breaks.)
Pulling weeds mostly, like this monster below. There's a salad and a half right there — that looks like dandelion, which is edible. Even so, the leaves were big and tough. I have mixed dandelions into salad, but only when the leaves were young and tender.
Most aren't monsters like that — the most pernicious weed in my yard is grass.
This time of year, grass looks vibrant and healthy, bright and deep green. Buckets of rain followed by sun and warmth. What's not to be happy about?
Lots of people carefully cultivate grass, fertilize it, water it, mow it. If this were Ireland, maybe it would make sense. But grass in California, with its dry summers, takes too much water, too much maintenance. (I grew it for a while, but it always needed either mowing or watering.)
I got rid of it years ago, but it keeps coming back.
Which brings me to the zen of weeding.
I'm not a serious Buddhist, though I do embrace some of its practices and principles.
Savoring the moment.
Be here now and all that.
The Buddhists would say that any activity can be pleasurable if you pay attention. Maybe so. For me, however, making weeding pleasurable starts with treating it like recreation instead of work.
Earlier this month, I wrote Two Top Ten Lists from the Lazy Organic Gardener — that was tip #10, not to treat gardening like a chore.
It's not so much that I took a lot of breaks, though I did. I spread a day's worth of work over two and a half days, stopping whenever I wanted, sitting on the deck drinking iced coffee.
What made it even less like work is that I didn't map out a list of tasks. No goals and objectives — the garden is a refuge from that. I just went out and started pulling weeds without any specific goal in mind.
I flitted from one task to another, like a stoned hummingbird. Improvising. No doubt, I would have accomplished more had I been focused and linear. I would have enjoyed it less. I had the unusual luxury of an unscheduled weekend, so I let it unfold organically, which transformed it into almost an indulgence.
In truth, I did have a goal, but an easy one that required no planning. Fill up the green bin with yard waste, and wheel it back out front for next week's pickup. (I kept some of the weeds for my compost pile, but there so many, and I also cut back some ivy, which takes a long time to break down, so I leave it for the professionals.)
Here's one area I cleared, at the base of my pluot tree. I added some compost as well. Below, in the back, wild part of the yard, I haven't even made a dent yet.
That was all last weekend. It all seemed so leisurely at the time, then came Monday, the week blurred by, and I never got this post finished enough to publish. So now I've had a second weekend of weeding, this one not as much fun.
I was busy until late Sunday afternoon, but I wanted to make some more progress — the ground is soft, but not muddy, so these are ideal weeding conditions. I set the same goal of a full green bin. This time I did it all in one set. No breaks.
Lot of stooping over bent at the waist, and grabbing a clump of grass as close to its base as possible and pulling, sometimes twisting, the roots out of the ground. The part that required the most attention was where the grass was growing intertwined with plants I want to cultivate. Raspberries peruvian lilies, lavendar.
The poppies in my yard started blooming this week. I came home Sunday to see two clumps, three happy orange flowers in each. The only other flowers in my backyard are the apple blossoms — red, white, and exquisite; the small blue-purple ceanothus flowers, and these wonderful intense purple flowers (below) that pop up every spring. My neighbor Keenie gave me a few plants three years ago — this week they're the stars of the garden. (If you know what they're called, please comment below or email me.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 11:50AM PST on March 15, 2010
With spring coming, Brian, the Climate Crossroads Curator, asked me to write up some tips for getting started gardening.
I hesitated at first, saying that giving tips implies expertise, which I've never pretended to have, and entrusts me with authority and responsibility I don't necessarily want or deserve.
But what the hell. I do want to encourage people to garden. In keeping with my "lazy" brand, however, I'm not promising any research or fact-checking here, nor will I refund your wasted time if the tips don't pan out. Caveat emtor and all that — note: that's the last Latin you're going to see from me today. I'm not looking up any scientific names of plants.
I'm also going to make it as easy for myself as possible by resorting to the hoariest of formulas, the top ten list.
(Looks like I'm not going to be editing out the jibber-jabber either.)
Before I embark on the tips, I want to answer the broader question of why I garden, and why maybe, you might consider thinking of perhaps gardening yourself, if you so choose. (No hard sell here.)
So strap yourself in. There are two top ten lists below. (You can jump down directly to to the tips if you're already positive you want to get started. But then you'd miss half my spiel.)
Why I Garden
1. I like to be outside, doing physical work.
For someone who sits indoors in front of a computer for many hours every day, working with my hands outdoors gives me balance in my life. Walking, hiking, bicycling, running — for exercise, for pleasure, to get from one place to another — those activities are also a big part of my life, but I can garden in my own backyard. I like being home, partly because I like my garden so much.
2. Gardening is meditative/therapeutic.
An hour in the garden might be frustrating now and then, and sometimes it's boring, but it always grounds me, keeps me sane. Sometimes I listen to music, or talk shows, or chat on the phone with my headset on. Just as often, I let my mind wander or percolate over whatever I'm grappling with. Like exercise, gardening almost always contributes at least a little to making my life better.
3. It keeps me tuned in to the rhythm of the seasons, the lengths of the day, the angle of the sunlight.
We're now in the middle of "false spring," with fruit trees exploding with blossoms and wildflowers and weeds popping up everywhere. With daylight savings kicking in, for the first time since the fall, I'll have a little bit of daylight to garden when I come home from work. (Pulling weeds is a good way to decompress from the work day.)
4. It's an opportunity to be creative.
With colors, shapes, textures. I've been a graphic designer for decades, but that's only two dimension. Gardening has four.
One of the designs I'm most pleased with is my curving flagstone path.
5. Food and flowers.
The only thing I'm harvesting these days is kale I planted last fall, but several months from now there will berries to harvest, and flower to cut. Later in the summer come the tomatoes, apples, squash.
6. Replenishing the soil, giving back to the earth.
By applying compost, both from food waste and from the horse manure I get from Z's sister in Santa Cruz, I've been enriching the topsoil that the planet is losing at an alarming rate. It's part of the cycle of nature as much as the changing of the seasons.
By keeping things organic, replenishing the soil with compost, and leaving more than half the yard somewhat wild, I attract a lot of critters. Hummingbirds, robins, and other birds. Butterflies, squirrels, lots of insects. Even an occasional raccoon.
8. Gardening builds community.
It's something I share with my neighbors. While I grow most of my annuals in the backyard, which is where I get southern sun and shelter, I also have a small patch in the front, and I like working out there because it's more social. I'm surrounded by gardeners who are more serious than me, so I often end up with their leftovers. This year, for example, I may not need to buy tomato seedlings because one of my neighbors planted a few flats of seeds and won't have room for them all.
9. It's an opportunity to learn new things.
There are always new plants to grow. New designs to test. New chances to do things better. For example, this past winter, I built garden beds, partly because things were getting too wild and the drip irrigation was getting too spaghetti-like. I've only sown some fava beans and other cover crop so far, but I'm looking forward to a much improved vegetable patch with these beds.
A garden is a great place to sit and veg out. It's an outdoor room, and, because I have a smallish house, my biggest room is my backyard, with its deck and garden. One of the best parts of gardening is not gardening, but sitting and savoring what I've accomplished, or imagining what I'm going to do next. Here I am sitting on the ledge of my new garden beds.
Ten Easy Tips on How to Get Started
1. Start small.
Fewer plants means less work. (But get enough so if some fail to flourish, you won't be left with nothing. At least a dozen.)
2. Ask questions.
Go to a local nursery where there are people who know what grows well in your ecosystem and get a recommendation. For example, where I live, in Berkeley, it's not hot enough to grow melons. I tried, and got one, the size of a tennis ball.
3. Get seedlings instead of seeds.
Some plants, like beans and zucchini, are easy to grow from seed, but starting with seedlings is easier.
4. Buy garden soil and/or compost.
You can plant directly in the ground, but if you're starting anew, chances are the soil is less than ideal. Where I live, the clay soil is hard as a rock, though it's excellent once amended and loosened up with some digging and compost. (But that process took years.) Dig a hole, and fill it with the soil and compost you bought.
5. Grow vegetables that you love to eat. In most parts of the country, tomatoes are the best bet. It's easy, prolific, and who doesn't love fresh tomatoes? Kale is easy, too, and I eat it, but it screams "healthy vegetable" a lot louder than it does "decadent pleasure."
6. Water regularly — every day or every other day when plants are young, two or three times a week once they get established.
I recommend a drip system with a timer, but that takes some upfront work to set, so you might want to put that off until later. If you do drip, the easiest is the soaker hose or the hose with emitters every six inches or so. You can set one of those up quickly. If you're going to be away for a while and not able to water, you might try filing up a wine bottle with water and turning it upside down quickly and pushing it into the soil. The water seeps into the soil gradually as the soil dries. Not as reliable as drip on a timer, but free and low-tech. Try it out and let me know if it works.
7. Plant a tree or perennial.
When I started back in college in central Illinios, I was totally focused on food, so I didn't bother with shrubs and bushes, but they're actually easier. For example, where I live, lavendar and rosemary are very easy, and last for years.
8. Try natives.
Once established, they act like they belong there, and they will propagate themselves. A few years ago, I scattered California poppy seeds around my garden. Now, every year, around now, they pop up all over. Beauty without work.
9. Get good gloves.
You can get the loose kind that fit all size hands, but I like the ones that fit more snugly, with a velcro strap to tighten them above my wrist. With gloves on, I almost feel like a real gardener.
10. Don't treat gardening like a chore.
Gardening can involve a lot of work, but you don't have to treat it like work. I work for a while, then rest. See #10 above. Sometimes at a logical stopping point, like last weekend I filled up the green bin with ivy and grass and other weeds.
Sometimes I feel like I'm in a hurry to get something done, like get lettuce in early before it gets too hot, but then I say to myself, "There's always next year."
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 6:50PM PST on January 12, 2010
I'm a gardener, lazy or otherwise, so I may be biased, but really, what is the Atlantic doing blasting school gardens?
In Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens are Cheating our Most Vulnerable Students, Caitlin Flanagan begrudges the hour and a half students at Berkeley's King Middle School spend each week in the garden or the kitchen, and she infers that Hispanic students do poorly at King because of the garden program.
I suppose it's a man bites dog kind of story -- when everyone is saying great things about kids and gardening, why not write something counterintuitive? It's a good idea to question things, even our sacred cows. But the idea that a school garden program is damaging because those hours in the garden could go to studying for standardized tests -- well, that doesn't pass the laugh test.
Hours spent in the garden are good for mental health, not to mention the fresh vegetables.
Let me know what you think. I don't pretend to be objective about this, so maybe I'm missing something.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 9:11AM PST on November 12, 2009
We've had a run of gorgeous warm Indian Summer days here in the Bay Area, stretching now into the second week of November. But with daylight savings time ended and night falling before I get home from work, the only time to work in the garden is the weekend.
The spring-forward, fall-back is true for the garden. Spring is for planting, moving forward. Fall is for retreat. Getting ready for next spring.
I've managed to get in a few hours each of the past two weekends, and it's mostly cleanup time. I have some fall crops going that I planted in two raised beds along the fence, and the kale and lettuce seem to be doing fine.
So I concentrated my cleanup on the main garden areas, where I grew my summer crops — tomatoes, peppers, squashes, beans, and eggplants. I was still able to harvest a couple bowls of tomatoes and hot peppers, and the pepper plants seem to be thriving still. I've pulled most of the veggies, but will leave the peppers to ripen (and get hotter) before I yank them out.
I grew up in the Midwest where we had winters that made for a definite end to the growing season. We don't have that here. The sungold cherry tomatoes would keep blossoming into January and February if I left them in the ground (though the fruits would be small and long to ripen and nowhere near as sweet as in midsummer).
The biggest chore for this time of year is to tame the wildness in the yard. I love the wild. I live in the flatlands of Berkeley, half a block from a main street, and I can hear the blaring horns of the frieght trains and Amtrak from my deck, so I'm not exactly talking about leave-nothing-but-footprints-and-take-nothing-but-pictures wilderness.
But there's a grand old knarled plum tree in the back of the yard. The fences are covered in morning glory and ivy. On the right of the flagstone path that curves through the yard is a clump of fruit trees and sambucus (elderberry) and sage and rasberries that looks and is wild.
My neighbors have big trees in their yards, so even though I live in the city, there is a feeling of being in the forest. Squirrels are always climbing around on the big trees. Hummingbirds come for all the purple and magenta flowers. I used to have regular visits from a raccoon, though I haven't seen him or her lately.
Here's a picture from the weekend before Halloween — still pretty lush and wild.
But, but...while this wildness can co-exist with the cultivated, "productive" garden, left to itself, the wild would take over. And over the past number of years, I have let that happen maybe more than is a good idea. Part of it is laziness, part of it is how much I like it.
But now is the time to prune it back. So in addition to harvesting and pulling up my veggies, I spent a few hours these past two weekends with clippers, cutting back the morning glory and ivy, pulling up the crabgrass, trimming back the lavatera and Peruvian lily, the shrubs and flowers that are in that fuzzy area between cultivated and wild.
I was thinking that what I ought to do is build a moat of sorts separating the wild around the outsides from the cultivated area inside. But of course a real moat would only feed the roots of the morning glory and other invasive plants. I've got more to do, but you can see that I got a start on the taming before running out of daylight.
I've been to Japanese gardens that are stunning and they're meticulously maintained. This summer I did a lot of hiking in the Sierra, in designated wildernesses like Desolation and other areas just as wild. More stunning, in my opinion, because they're not maintained. The harmonious chaos of nature. The forest floors are covered with rotting logs and dead branches. Maybe the Forest Service saws off a tree trunk when it's in the path, but no one collects the decaying plants and puts them in a compost bin. The forest floor is the compost.
But a backyard in the city is not a real wilderness and while the ivy is growing thick enough in the back ten feet that it's home some of my own dead branches, I do need to maintain the garden so that I can enjoy the wild without letting it take over.
The past few years, I've let the boundaries between the wild and cultivated parts of the yard blur, and the results are positive on the aesthetics and not so positive on the food production. There are other factors as well, like the weather and fertilizing and such, but I'm leaning now toward making those boundaries more solid.
One other reason being that I've got a pretty good drip irrigation system set up, but to reach all the plants that need water, I've created a spaghetti like maze of black tubes snaking through the yard. And it seems that I need to redo that maze every spring. Otherwise I'm watering weeds.
I recently knocked out a wall inside my house and I have lots of scrap wood, like the posts that went from floor to ceiling. My plan is to build raised beds out of them. That will allow for simple straight lines of drip tubes. The old wood won't last forever outside, though it lasted pretty well inside my walls for 80-plus years, so if I get 5 or more years, that's plenty. I may want to redesign things by then. That's what makes this lazy gardening not so lazy. There's always more to do.
So my plan is to get out there a few more times in the next few weeks with the clippers and the shovel, keep working on that "moat," pull up the remaining peppers and plant a cover crop for the winter. Primarily fava beans, which will grow a few feet high with white flowers. Then in the spring, I'll cut off the stem an inch above the ground and leave the nitrogen-fixing roots in the soil.
I'd like to build the garden beds before next spring, but that depends on my motivation and when the winter rains come.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 3:37PM PST on October 6, 2009
How I Became an Almost 'Real' Gardener
(But Stepped Back from the Brink)
When I first started gardening, as a college student in Urbana, Illinois, a town surrounded by corn, I only grew crops I could eat. I didn't have any sense of being a gardener. If anything, I was a farmer, though of course, I wasn't.
I was a city kid, but my parents grew tomatoes and rhubarb and other vegetables in the yard, so the concept was not foreign to me. And in the 1970s, what could be more politically correct and virtuous than growing your own food organically?
I may have planted a flower or two, but pretty much it was all working vegetables -- tomatoes, beans, corn, squash. In August in Urbana, if someone were to say, "Is that a zucchini in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" well, nine times out of ten it would be zucchini.
I remember there was a lot of digging involved to get the garden started. The soil was probably rich Midwestern loam, enriched by floods over the millennia -- but it still needed to be loosened up after decades of civilization. What I don't recall was how productive the gardens were, other than the aforementioned zucchini. Tomatoes were prolific as well.
I liked the look of the those big vegetables pumping out food to eat, but I didn't think in terms of design, how the garden looked. I didn't care. I didn't know what I didn't know.
I didn't garden every year, but more often than not, I'd plant at least a few tomatoes.
Then over the years I became a graphic designer.
Eventually I became a real designer. I had done some newspaper layout and paste-up in high school and college, but it wasn't especially creative. When I worked for Gemini House, a drug abuse agency in Champaign, Illinois, I designed a bunch of newsletters and brochures, and I made columns by typing on adding machine tape. Creative, I suppose, but also pretty amateurish. Then I took some classes, learned by doing, and by paying attention to the design in everyday life, from menus to magazines, and now I've worked as a designer for more than 20 years, though it's only a tiny part of my job now.
Somewhere along the way, I started applying design principles in the garden. Which may have been the beginning of the end for vegetables.
I have lived in my current house for going on twenty years, and started building garden beds from the beginning.
When we moved in, there were wooden fences fallen on their side buried under thickets of bermuda grass. Random trash buried too. I reclaimed the yard slowly, pulling the grass and building some rectangular raised beds out of wood. Other than a few trees, those beds were really the only place I tried to grow anything.
But ten years ago, I made a curving walkway that bisected the garden and that made me first start thinking of the yard as a canvass. The walkway has evolved over the years, and at least for the past several years, now that I have a deck where I can sit and admire the garden, I love how it defines the garden. Most of the year, even in the winter, I am ecstatic about how lovely the garden looks. Even now, in early October with the tomato and squash leaves yellowing and weeds all over the place, the design of the garden is holding up well. The proud Peruvian lilies, which I wrote about a couple times ago, stand tall right there in the center, with their juicy orange and purple blossoms.
But here it is October and my harvest has been disappointing, and I'm starting to think I may have sacrificed productivity for aesthetics.
I love the curved lines in my garden and the way the vegetable beds and the perennials and trees and shrubs and flowers and containers and walkways all fit together into a pleasing design. But I'm thinking that maybe next year, building raised beds in a rectangular shape may be an easier way to grow my veggies. That's part of what has hooks me about gardening. It's a moving target. There are always opportunities for do-overs. It's always a work-in-progress.
Or maybe the answer is to go the other way and forget the vegetables. The trees and shrubs and vines and native or native-like perennials are so much easier. Maybe trying to grow vegetables and cultivate a wild, curvy garden are mutually exclusive.
I don't need to decide that now.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 10:01AM PST on September 11, 2009
September is a gardening month where I live. It can be, anyway. I could just harvest my tomatoes and peppers and well, there's not that much else to harvest. It's been a disappointing summer. Not as much garden bounty as I'd hoped.
But because the fall is a planting season, which was not the case in the Illinois I grew up in, I can start again, while my spring planting is finishing.
If there's room. This year, there is. There are plenty of plants that did poorly.
I suppose I could blame it on the fact that this is the first year I've spent any time writing about my garden and taking photos.
The peppers and eggplants are thriving, but the tomatoes are not. I was all set on making salsa. And I still may. But it's hard to imagine having enough tomatoes. I picked one yesterday, a beauty, but I want a big heaping bowl of tomatoes like that, not just one or two at a time.
Here's one of the tomatoes. I'll get at least three lovely fruits from this plants. In other years, in other people's gardens, this plant could yield dozens of tomatoes.
I feel like I should know why they didn't do so well. I did say when I started writing this blog that I wasn't pretending to be an expert, but that doesn't mean I should be an ignoramus.
The potential is there for plants to thrive. I've been amending the soil with homemade compost and horse manure and wood chips for going on 20 years. I've got a good drip irrigation setup. A sheltered south-facing garden. I choose this year to start writing about gardening and it would be more fun to be bragging about my huge harvest. Yeah, I'm lazy, but the bounty keeps on coming.
I do believe it's possible to be lazy and undisciplined except for now and then, and still get bushels of produce for your pleasure. I'd like to believe that it's not my laziness that is the reason.
It would be useful to figure out what went wrong, but I tend to troubleshoot the garden the way I do my computer. If things are not working right, I turn it off and turn it back again. Wait until next year, in other words.
I read in the paper that it was a bad year for tomatoes all over the Bay Area, that the summer heat hardly showed up. Maybe. But my neighbors vegetable plots are doing better than mine. As are those of my retired friend Jim, who put a fish at the bottom of the hole where he planted his tomatoes. Z came back from Santa Cruz last weekend with a bag of beautiful tomatoes from her dad's garden. All his plants are thriving. It's hotter there. He's retired and works in the garden every day.
There may be some luck or magic ingredient, but it's probably that they all spend more time caring for their plants. Checking them more often. The drip irrigation is a wonderful thing, but it also allows me to ignore the garden for many days at a time. I may have been scrimping on the watering, though.
Early in the season, when I was trying to get my seedlings established, I watered six mornings a week for 30 minutes. In July, I lowered it to three times a 40 minutes. We're in a drought in Northern California. I thought I'd see how the plants did with less water. I think they did fine. I don't think this poor season is because of the watering schedule.
What could it be? Fertilizing, quality of the soil, disease or pests, watering, sun. Isn't that about it. How important is going out and pulling off diseased leaves, pruning the stem to keep it from getting too tall? (I think that's what happened with the kale. If I had nipped the bud to shape the growth, they may have done better.)
Here's one of my pathetic kales.
The missing ingredient, at least to some degree, is attention. Which, one could say, disproves my whole reason for being, for donning the mantle of the Lazy Organic Gardener. I promised, in my subtitle, to have a pretty good garden without a lot of work.
Well, I do have a pretty good garden. I just didn't grow as much food as I'd hoped. Does the garden make me feel good? Yes. Do I like how it feels and looks? Yes. Do I love the wildness, the color, the curves? Yes.
My Peruvian lilies still look great — they've been blooming since May.
It's just that I wanted a bowl brimming with tomatoes and it's not going to happen.
I didn't fertilize until recently. That could be it. Or it could be the locations. The center of the garden, where the soil has been amended the most over the years, is where the peppers and eggplants are. They're doing better than anything else.
Well, there's still hot weather and more tomatoes ahead. And meanwhile, I did plant a fall crop that I'm determined to pay more attention to — kale, chard, onions, lettuce, peas, and arugula.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 4:15PM PST on August 18, 2009
At a certain point, laziness doesn't work. Like around now, in mid-August when the weeds are growing faster than the veggies.
I've got a drip irrigation system set up on a timer so that I can go away for a week and everything is still alive when I return.
Only problem is I'm watering the weeds as well as the vegetables.
Sometimes I enjoy weeding. Once I get some momentum. Getting started is the hard part, especially in the dog days of August.
In the spring, it's hard to be too lazy -- I've got to get the garden beds ready, get the seeds and seedlings in, set up the drip irrigation. There's a deadline. I need to get all my veggies in during May, the earlier the better.
I may have been a little sloppy here and there and didn't prepare the soil well enough in several places, but I made my deadline. I got the garden planted. Now it's August and there are no hard and fast deadlines. The drip system takes care of the watering, so all I have to do is get out and harvest every few days. That's fun.
Weeding, not so much.
I was away for several short vacations in July and early August -- you can read about my hikes to Ralston Peak, Echo Peak, and Glen Aulin in Sierra Club Trails -- so I haven't had many weekend days at home. And those I had I didn't want to spend weeding. So I got behind.
Sunday morning, I started in the garden while it was still cool. I didn't have a plan. With weeds, you don't really have to. I started with clippers and tackled the ivy and morning glory that had crept into the vegetable beds. Then I pulled the crabgrass that was thriving around my pepper plants, drinking the water meant for the peppers.
I didn't finish, but I made a dent -- I filled my big green waste bin to the top. At least the crabgrass isn't about to swallow my pepper plants. And now you can see the paving stones.
Not finishing is fine, but what I don't like to do is stop and leave the garden more of a mess than when I started. So lately I make a point of sweeping the walkway. That helps create the feeling of closure, even if there's lots more weeding to do.
Then I harvested some of the garden's bounty, and ate a simple and delicious salad with tomatoes, peppers, basil, salt, pepper, and salad dressing. A fitting reward.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 6:26PM PST on August 5, 2009
It's August, and that means tomatoes. I've had a few bad tomato years, but they're the most reliable high-production-to-labor-cost vegetable there is. Except that it's a fruit, not a vegetable. Whatever.
Already I have a dozen or so stupice -- that's the variety above. I used to grow it a dozen or so years ago, back when Czechoslovakia was still a country. (That's where they're from.)
Which reminds of one of my favorite jokes. The Czech goes to his eye doctor, who asks him (or her), "Can you read the first line on the chart?"
"Read it? I know the guy."
I also picked and ate the other night the first of what will be hundreds of sungolds, an orange cherry tomato that is as sweet like a fruit and incredibly prolific, so much so that most years I've planted it, I haven't been able to harvest it all. (I planted two sungolds this year -- one upside down, and a third one has shown up as a volunteer in the barrel I planted a blueberry bush in.)
Tomatoes rarely disappoint. They are harbingers of good news. Easy bragging points.
But what's more fun than bragging is complaining. So a few words on the plants that did disappoint. Or seem like they will, given that the growing season is in the home stretch.
First, two seemingly thriving fruit trees didn't bear any fruit. A pluot and a plum. (A pluot, one of my favorite fruits to eat, is part apricot, part plum, and looks more like a plum than an apricot.)
Both trees about three or four years old. (I should know which it is, but I don't. I may have written it down. In fact, I'm sure I did. But that's only the first step. The tougher, second step is remembering where I wrote it down, and keeping it somewhere I'll be able to find it later. I still use paper for my garden maps, where I plot out what I've planted and where. But where are they now? I do keep a lot of my old papers -- drafts of my unpublished novels, to-do lists that are as telling as dear-diary-entries, grocery lists, you name it. But I can't type in a search term and track them down.
But I was talking about my promising young fruit trees. Last year, the first significant year of fruit production, I got maybe thirty pluots and almost as many plums. These trees were just getting started.
In the blocks near my house in Berkeley, I have to watch where I'm walking this time of year because of all the plum trees dropping their fruit on sidewalks. The plum is, I thought, a big producer, like the tomato. What happened?
I don't know. I pruned the trees severely, according to seemingly credible instructions, and they have long and strong branches. Maybe all their energy is going to getting bigger and they'll crank out the fruit next year. Maybe I pruned too far. Maybe I didn't fertilize enough, though I have read that you should err on the side of under-fertilizing rather than giving them too much and burning roots. (Of course, I haven't given them any except for the worm castings and composted horse manure, but there's definitely some nutrients there.)
It's possible the winter wasn't cold enough -- deciduous fruit trees need a certain amount of chilling to set fruit. Come to think of it, we had a pretty warm winter.
One friend suggested it has to do with pollination -- my real gardener neighbor Keenie has some fruit trees she hand-pollinates -- but no, there were no blossoms for the birds and bees to flock to.
Any ideas? Let me know in the comments area below.Other garden failures:
I planted a lot of beans that didn't germinate, though the scarlet runner beans seem to be thriving. You can see her how the bamboo-pole tee-pees has the scarlet runners climbing one of the poles. But the other set of poles is not getting any action. Maybe the birds ate the seeds.
I planted an avocado tree that hasn't died yet, but has been losing branches. I was warned that they are tough to get started, but I tried anyway. They seem to need more attention that this lazy gardener can muster.
I planted a strip of kale, chard, and bok choy, and they're growing, but not thriving. They're partly shaded, but they're still probably getting too much sun and heat. They're better as spring or fall plants. I also tried growing a broccoli plant that allegedly can become a perennial. But it bolted too soon. My yard is sheltered and gets a lot of southern sun, so the tomatoes and peppers and raspberries love that, but the cool season vegetables, not so much.
Here's one of the better-looking bok choys. Of the cool season greens, they fared best, but you can see this one is about to bolt.
My squashes are doing well -- and there's one squash I planted for the first time this year that's really quite tasty in addition to being easy to grow. I'll write about it once I track down what its name is. The peppers are coming along nicely, so once those tomatoes ripen, I can make buckets of salsa.
And here's my first eggplant of the season.
You can find all the Lazy Organic Gardener posts here.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 5:42PM PST on July 22, 2009
My friend Alex, a real gardener, read my post on morning glories, what I called the easiest of easy plants. We were on the phone, but I could see her shaking her head, almost in embarrassment for me.
"You might want to be more careful what you say."
Diplomatic, but clear enough.
Yes, I intentionally planted morning glories -- and for a good reason, to cover the cyclone fence on the eastern side of my yard. It looks beautiful, especially when it's blooming, which is all summer. But here in midsummer, with its lazy long evenings, morning glory is a weed, pretty or not. My biggest weed. More invasive than ivy. Nothing in the garden grows this fast. In four or five days, a strand of morning glory climbed to the top of one of my tomato cages, and was halfway up the tomato's main stalk.
I planted a weed. On purpose. And I water it, though not intentionally.
I guess I feel a little defensive about it. I planted a weed. And because I have drip irrigation, where some plants within a foot or so of the morning glory, you can be sure this weed is drinking some of California's precious water. That's laying out the welcome mat. Come on in.
One quick aside. I got home late tonight, but there was still time to sit in the back of the yard with a glass or wine. I walked for an hour earlier in the day, but otherwise, it wasn't an especially demanding day. I could But the default was to sit with the wine instead of put on the gardening gloves.
I got an email yesterday from Angelita Sanchez, from Pleasant Hill, California, not that far from where I live. She said she enjoyed the blog, that my lovely garden "almost sounds like pure luck."
I am a relatively clear-eyed assessor of myself, or so I think. I'm not truly lazy. The garden that I have today, which I am extremely happy with, has been twenty years in the making. And some very hard work. Going slow works with nature.
I was away for six days and other than unraveling a few of those morning glory strings and picking some squash, there wasn't much to do other than weeding. But weeding is not only never finished, not for me anyway, it's also something that can be postponed. So lazy is not the correct word. Undisciplined is more like it. But that doesn't have the same ring to it. The Undisciplined Organic Gardener. Too many syllables.
Back to weeds and easy plants.
While I may feel sheepish about my glorification of morning glories, that doesn't invalidate my premise that relying on easy plants is two-thirds the battle. (And the other two-thirds is at least a moderate level of vigilance. You can be lazy, but you can't disappear altogether.)
There are plenty of easy plants in my garden that are not invasive. There's ceanothus, a.k.a. California lilac, a native, which I have in my back and front yard. The top one below, is two to three years old. Under that is one in the front that gets less sun and has been there for more than a decade.
Its flowers, a fuzzy bluish purple bulb, are lovely, but infrequent. When I planted the two in the back, there was a manzanita in between, also a native that I see in the wildlands around here more than ceanothus. But the ceanothis smothered it.
I do have to cut it back, but it doesn't wind itself around other plants and strangle them like morning glory or ivy. They're drought tolerant and require no maintenance except maybe a light trim now and then.
Another super-easy one is red apple, which I have planted all over the place. I have taken cuttings, stuck them in the ground, and watered haphazardly, that have grown into new plants. Here it is climbing the lattice under my back deck.
And here growing through the deck planks.
Once established, it doesn't need water, but I do water some of them -- they look greener and more vibrant with a little water. Here's one that hasn't been watered at all.
Here's the licorice plant -- a native of arid South Africa -- that takes no care at all. More than a few times, I've cut off a few stalks, poked them into the ground, and grown new plants. They get leggy over the summer, but they're easy to pull up and not invasive.
And then there's jasmine. No maintenance. No water. Not as perky and full of flowers in midsummer as it was a month or two ago, but still looks, and smells, good.
There are more. But I'll save them for another time. Meanwhile, here's my second most invasive plant — ivy. (This wicker sofa was already far gone. Believe me, it looks better now.)
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 4:10PM PST on July 9, 2009
One of the keys to being a successful lazy gardener -- by that I mean having a pretty good garden without doing too much work -- is feeling comfortable always being behind. There's always more work to do, and for some people, that adds stress to their already stressful lives.
I'm not sure if it's a virtue or a flaw, but I'm pretty good at sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, seeing tasks that need to be done, and not doing them.
Feeling comfortable being behind is a useful coping mechanism outside the garden as well. I try to do that at work, to stay sane, and it works to a point. I do have real deadlines where other people are expecting something from me, or maybe I'm the one who imposed the deadline. Either way, that's why they call it work.
Not so the garden. No bosses in the garden except nature and, in my sunny backyard in temperate Berkeley, nature is awfully kind. I need to add water and pull weeds, but you're definitely working with nature, not against it. Plants want to grow, after all, so I let it happen.
I got home on Sunday night after five days at Echo Lake in the central Sierra, one sunny day in paradise after another, and it did not escape my notice how gorgeous it was up there in the meadows and mountains where there's no one tending the garden. When the trees fall, they stay where they've fallen and then eventually decay. When the wildflowers have peaked, no one cuts off the deadheads, they just fall off naturally.
But a garden is different. I'm trying to grow some vegetables. There aren't any wild tomatoes sprouting in the Sierra.
I put in an hour before dark on Sunday evening, mostly weeding. A little harvesting. I noticed the raspberries have stopped producing, though there are new blossoms, so there will be another batch later this summer. After almost a month of picking dozens of berries a day, I went away for five days and came back to only four or five ripe berries.
There's basil and squash to harvest -- here's what I picked for dinner.
But the weeds. Well, hand me a fork. I've got some humble pie to wolf down. Over the past few months, I've been saying that easy plants are essential to being a lazy gardener. But here in midsummer, when the living is easy and there's not a whole heck of a lot of work to do in the garden, some of these so-called easy plants are turning into weeds. The morning glory especially can send out tendrils that grow a foot a week and twist like a snake around steps, hoses, whatever. Now they're easy to yank out, but left unchecked they'd probably smother most of the garden. You can see the morning glory and ivy attacking the hose bib below.
Meanwhile, my lime tree is bearing fruit. I had a key lime tree for six years that never bore a single lime, so I dug it out and got a new one, a bear's lime, which I was told by the guy at Spiral Gardens just a few blocks from my house, should produce well in this climate. So far, so good.
And the sunburst squash are not only good to eat, but beautiful to watch grow. I hear you can eat the blossom as well, but I haven't tried it.
And lastly, a couple weeks ago, I wrote about my two tomato experiments, one of which was planting them in a raised bed made from shrubs and sticks and rotten logs with dirt and compost piled on top. You can't tell the height of these tomato plants from the photo below, but they're about seven feet high — they've outgrown the tomato cages. So I have to assume the roots like the loose soil created by piling up the brush. There plants are twice the height of any of the others in the yard, some of which are planted in excellent soil that I've been adding amendments to for years.
Only small green tomatoes so far. In a few weeks, before the end of July, I'm guessing I'll have my first ripe one.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 4:03PM PST on June 25, 2009
When I started this writing this Lazy Organic Gardener blog last fall, I wrote a manifesto of sorts entitled “Who am I to Write About Gardening?” We were just getting started with Climate Crossroads and so the number of readers of that post was in the low single digits, if that high. Now that I’ve been writing for the past couple of months, I thought I’d revisit that introduction.
I am a gardener, as in a gardener is one who gardens. But I am surrounded by serious gardeners – my next door neighbor Sally and my across-the-street neighbors Keenie and Carol – that I feel like an amateur compared to them.
Their gardens are prettier and more prolific than mine.
They know the latin names of plants. They have more flowers and fewer weeds.
Most of all, they work harder.
But last year, one of them called me the smartest gardener on the block -- and I took that as a compliment even though I know it's hyperbole.
I earned my reputation because I manage to have a relatively attractive and productive garden without investing anywhere near as much time or money as they do.
[Here's a slide show of my backyard garden from last weekend. The flowers – those magenta ones are lavatera and the orange ones are peruvian lilies, both easy plants that I rely on for bursts of spring color – are a little past their prime and the vegetables are mostly just getting started. You can see the baby sunburst squashes as well as my first-ever blueberries.]
In my humbler, younger years, I might have said I'm not a real gardener. But I am. What I'm not is an expert. My goal in writing this blog is to share my experiences and ideas and encourage you to share yours.
One of my gardening books is an counterculture classic by John Jeavons called "How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine." A friend used to call it "How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible By Doing More Work Than You Could Possibly Imagine." Jeavons is a proponent of bio-intensive farming, which uses less water, land, machinery, and fertilizer, but which, he would freely admit, requires more human labor.
I support that theoretically, and I even live it more often than I care to admit, but over the years, I've developed my own system based on doing less. Spending less. Watering less. Sweating less. Weeding less.
I'm not advocating laziness per se, only making gardening a pleasure instead of a burden.
And I'm not saying my way is better -- I promise to keep my soapbox rants to a minimum -- but I do have one guiding principle that I'm absolute about, which is that my garden is organic.
If my livelihood depended on what I grew, and some pest or weed was wreaking havoc, maybe I'd consider using some toxic substance to get rid of it. Maybe. My goal is not hauling in the biggest harvest or sporting the showiest flowers -- it's nurturing a healthy and sustainable space, feeding and giving back to the soil, welcoming wildlife, and all that natural, groovy stuff. If a plant can't survive without pesticides or herbicides or lots of work, well, it doesn't belong in my garden.
Tell me about your garden, easy or not.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 4:29PM PST on June 18, 2009
I'm trying two experiments in my garden this year -- and in both cases it's the tomato that's the guinea pig.
I'd read about growing tomato plants upside down somewhere, but had never seen it done until a few weeks ago, when Z and I went down to Santa Cruz to visit her family. Her dad had cut a hole in a deep black plastic pot, hung it from a tree, and there was the stalk of the tomato coming out of the hole in the bottom. Bending back up to reach for the sky.
I placed a sungold seedling in upside down, guiding the ten-inch stem and leaves through the hole, then filled the pot with potting soil and some of that composted horse manure I picked up in Santa Cruz last weekend. I planted some basil on top. Z's dad didn't plant anything on top, but I've got a deep pot and an extra basil plant, so let' see how it works.
So far, so good. The basil is going gangbusters. Of course, it's getting watered regularly by a 2-gallon per hour emitter and getting a lot of sun.
There it is below shortly after planting, and then about three weeks later.
The second experiment is something called hugelculture or hugelkultur -- it's a practice from Germany that seems to be a variation on raised beds, with the plants growing on top of a pile of rotten wood. Or on top of a compost pile.
I've done this in three places, one a month and a half ago, and it's doing pretty well, and then two more spots last weekend.
Here are the tomatoes in the new bed, first a week after planting, then a month. They're obviously thriving so far.
This technique is recommended for plants with big roots, like tomatoes, or potatoes, which grow large in those small air pockets. My neighbor, a real gardener, is doing something very much like this. She wrapped wire hardware cloth around a pile of brush to make a cylinder a couple feet in diameter and four feet high, and she's growing potatoes, which are poking their leaves out of the pile in every which way.
So the evidence will be anecdotal regardless. Delicious, too, I'm hoping, sliced with freshly ground pepper and vinaigrette salad dressing.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 2:10PM PST on June 12, 2009
The morning glories are back. It's the second week in June and there are few enough blossoms I can count them. Ten. Soon there will be hundreds.
Being a lazy gardener would be impossible if not for easy plants. I've tried growing carrots -- you have to plant the seeds in sand and keep them moist for weeks to get even a pathetic crop. I've tried melons, and I got one puny one. Not enough heat, apparently.
At least 90 percent of my garden, by volume, consists of easy plants, and it's probably more if I count the easiest of them all -- the morning glory and ivy that grow on my fences. They take no care at all to grow. The only work is pulling them out.
That's my definition of easy. There's little, if any, work involved in helping the plants grow. The work is in holding it back.
I'm going to post a short video here from last fall that shows my morning glory vine. I'm still new to using the video feature of my camera and I'm pretty green when it comes to editing video, but hey, I've already copped to being lazy. If I wait until I've actually read the camera instructions on how to use video and read the user manual for iMovie, well, it would be next spring by now, and time is zipping by too quickly already.
In Berkeley, morning glories grow all over the place, and they're pretty and distinctive enough that I knew what they were without having to look them up.
About a dozen years ago, on a run to the marina from my house in the Berkeley flatlands, I took a jag through Strawberry Creek Park, when I "discovered" the morning glories for the first time. Sort of how Columbus "discovered" America. Around 1980, the city had removed the abandoned Santa Fe railroad tracks and "daylighted" a several hundred foot segment of creek that had been flowing through an underground culvert. The creek banks were mostly chunks of concrete, piled without rhyme or reason, but the view from the little footbridge over the creek was magical because the whole area was overgrown with deep blue and purple morning glories.
They require no watering, only pruning. Once or twice a year, it's a good idea to walk along the fence and yank out the dead growth, but mostly the new growth hides the brown leaves, so that's not even essential. I know I'm taking the risk of being labeled a heretic or anarchist by recommending the morning glory. Many consider it a weed. But hey, a weed is only a plant you don't want. In my garden, grass is a weed because I don't want it. Morning glory I do want, though left untouched, it would probably smother the entire garden. Once I found a tendril of morning glory that had snaked under the deck from one side of the yard to another, and there was a blossom more than 20 feet from the fence where it started. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to pull, and that's what I did.
I'm not sure of the origin of my prolific morning glory. I took some cuttings from Strawberry Creek Park, put them in a vase with water, and planted them along my fence. But I also purchased a starter plant from the nursery. I'm not sure if one or the other or both has led to my thirty-foot long vine.
At one time, I had potato vine and trumpetvine entwined in the fence, and now and then a red trumpetvine flower peeks through the morning glory, so I know it's still there, but hardly. The potato vine seems to have disappeared. Ivy, which is equally vigorous, is in the mix as well, and in the back of the yard, under the shade of the tree,
But it hasn't actually succeeded in crawling all the way across the yard and establishing itself on the opposite fence. I believe that would happen if I left the yard to its own devices. But I'm not about to.
Update: Since I started waxing rhapsodic about the morning glory, I found a tendril of it wrapped around a dodonia plant in the back of my yard, about to strangle it. I unwrapped it and all was fine, but had I not noticed it, the dodonia would surely have been smothered....
So easy, in this case, is just another word for invasive.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 4:06PM PST on June 4, 2009
Here's another easy plant -- the Peruvian lily.
Looks great outside like this:
I'm just not going to go studying about how it's a tuberous-rooted plant or anything like that.
I started with one clump of these lilies in my front yard, maybe six or seven years ago, and there are two thriving patches there now. And another four or five clumps in the back.
These are photos from the front yard, taken at dusk, so they don' t look as vibrant as the ones above.
That first one is the site of the original planting, and the second one is more recent. You can in the background of the second photo that there are lot more of them. Those are in my neighbor's front yard, and she's a real gardener, so they do even better when you're not so lazy.
Case in point: It's in the backyard, on the edges of the vegetable garden, where the Peruvian Lily have kicked ass the most. (That's where the first photo, at the top of this post was taken, and where the ones in the vases came from.) The stalks are taller, the flowers more bountiful.
For two simple reasons: They're on the drip irrigation line, so they're watered more regularly, at the same time as the veggies, and they get more sun.
Talking about the garden reminds me of an email conversation I had recently with my brother Mike, whose dog Miles died in May. "He left behind surprisingly few great accomplishments," he (my brother, not the dog) wrote, "but what a great friend he turned out to be."
There are far more than enough blooming outside that I can clip another batch for indoors and still have plenty left in the garden.
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 1:16PM PST on May 29, 2009
About ten years ago, my son walked over to Longfellow Middle School, where he was a student, to participate in a Saturday morning school garden work party. I came home with a 5-gallon black plastic pot with a small lavatera plant growing in it. I had no idea that it would become the centerpiece of my garden.
The lavatera, a.k.a. tree mallow, grew to its current size in about two years, and I prune it back several times a year. Not with any special care. I just go in with the clippers and clip, and now and then lop or saw off a branch.
I've been told that it doesn't live more than four or five years, but this plant is going strong a decade after I brought it home.
One interesting development this year that makes me wonder if maybe the plant won't last much longer is that six or seven seedlings have taken root nearby -- I don't think that's happened before, or if it did, I didn't notice and they died off.
This year, I am paying attention, and now that the rains have stopped, I'm watering some of them, and have transplanted a couple of others, which popped up in inconvenient places like in between two paving stones, into pots.
[Another easy plant I wrote about a couple weeks ago: raspberries.]
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 1:27PM PST on May 14, 2009
It's a tough time of the year to be a lazy gardener. There's a wheelbarrow full of things to do. Planting mostly, since I actually got most of the weeding done already.
The weekend before last it rained on Friday and part of Saturday, so I was able to pull almost very weed I put my hands on without tools.
Weeding may not be huge fun, but there's no thinking involved. I wasn't linear about it, because so what? The weeds got pulled, mostly, thank you.
Planting requires some planning. Or so they say.I came home from Mother's Day weekend with Z and her family with a car full of manure. My third annual pilgrimage bringing home compost.
It didn't smell at all. It was manure. After sitting in a pile outside the stables in the Santa Cruz Mountains, it was almost all broken down into rich compost.
Recipe: Pile up the hay and manure from the stables. Wait.
Clarification: I didn't just shovel the manure into my car. I used bags.If I 'd been pulled over, I would have said that I was carrying ten sacks of horse feed. Which was sort of true. The cycle of life and all that.
Sunday evening, a little before dark, I carried the bags, one at a time, clutched to my chest, to the back, and dumped them directly into the garden. Seven of the ten.
Tuesday, I raked them out and planted broccoli, tomatoes, basil, and chard.
And took some photos.
First, the path. I started this flagstone path at least five years ago, in the center. But this is the first spring that the path has been finished on both ends, with spurs.
Those magenta flowers are lavatera or tree mallow -- an easy plant if there ever was one. And below is the garden bed at the end of the path -- you can see the newly planted tomatoes and basil, and that dark brown color is the manure compost. Good stuff.
And here are some piles of the manure fresh from the bag. Some experts say you should dig it into the soil. I leave it on top, as a mulch of sorts. But I will rake it out so it's more even.
The rain was more than a week ago, but there are still plenty of mushrooms growing all over the yard, mostly in the areas covered with wood chips. I'm tempted to research these mushrooms and find out what kind they are so I could take them into the kitchen and sauté them with some eggs, but that sounds like too much work.
Oh, and look, there's the first raspberry of the season. Too hard (and too blurry) to eat yet, but maybe tomorrow.
(You can read more about raspberries here in my last post.)
Posted by: John Byrne Barry at 4:15PM PST on May 4, 2009
Lazy gardening would not be possible without easy plants, and raspberries, so far, seem to be one of the easiest.
(This is not an expert opinion. Just mine. To make it expert, I would have to look it up, and sort through all the chaff on the web, and then how could I call myself lazy in good conscience?)
I've got a choppy video clip here, so you get the gist of things from that, and then I'll walk you through my raspberry story in chronological order with some photos.
The winter before last, maybe 15, 16 months ago, my friend Alex -- she's a real, non-lazy gardener -- gave me a dozen or so skinny little sticks, with wiggly little black taproot wagging like a puppy's tail.
I dug up a patch in my garden, loosened the soil, then stuck those sticks in the ground. I watered them with a soaker hose fed by my drip irrigation system. About 40 minutes three times a week at first, then two. (We're rationing water this summer, so I'm going to see how the vegetables and fruits do on half that. Make them send their roots deeper into the soil for sustenance.)
By last summer, the canes were long and full of leaves and blossoms. I had to push them back and weave them through a trellis, so they wouldn't droop over the flagstone pathway.
Then, for a couple of months -- August and September or thereabouts -- I would go out to the yard several times a week and pick ten or twenty raspberries. If I had a guest, some of the berries might have made it into a bowl in the kitchen. Mostly I ate them as I picked them. Quite enjoyable.
Once the winter rains came and the raspberries lost all their leaves, I pruned them way back, to about waist height, and then loosely tied them in three clumps with this olive green rubber coated wire. You can see one of the three clumps below -- looks a little like the skeleton of a tepee, with its bamboo poles all leaning toward a center spot.
Then we had a lot of rain in February.
By early March, the berries had exploded with greenery and new canes popped up in every direction, some two feet from their "parent," some them growing in the spaces on the winding flagstone path. I dug up about ten of these new canes, and planted them in a more suitable place.
You can see them are, a week after transplanting. Looks like they're going to take. And below that, the happy parents. No berries yet, but blossoms. Maybe I'll get fruit earlier this summer.
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