Monday, August 2, 2010

I am back from boot camp and the yard looks great!!

First I would like to thank my loyal readers for not deleting me during my summer absence.

The U.S. Army honored me with an opportunity to take part in boot camp this summer where I immersed myself in the army culture and lost about twelve pounds.   My edible yard was left in the capable hands of my ten year old son Quinton and my wife Shona.  The Greeley Master Gardeners placed my yard on the tour this year and I was conspicuously no where to be found on the day of the tour.  My family and friends spent the week before the show trimming, mowing and pulling weeds in order to get the place presentable. I received text messages updating me about the comments and questions from visitors (more than two hundred) who walked through my yard that day.

I cannot describe the anxiety that was fostered by being away and unable to control any variables relating to the success or failure of presenting my message (through my yard) to hundreds of strangers there to scrutinize my plants, my design, my ideas.  In short nothing less than my artistic integrity was on the line.  I don't think that I am exaggerating when I say this.  Greeley tends to be a place where people judge and remember your every public appearance and they tend to relay stories so that they spread and stick like hot honey on mini toast.  I was very nervous with those annoying questions that populate your thoughts only when there is absolutely no way you could do anything about it anyway.

Did I program the drip timer adequately to compensate for the increasing day length and temperatures?
Do the boys know all of the plants?
What if someone needs specifics information?

What if?

I had a very generous reader who volunteered to continue the blog in my leave but I was unable to coordinate this with her and I hope that her feelings were not hurt.  I had very limited access to internet and the outside world at Fort Sill.  I really appreciated the offer though.  I liked the idea.  Maybe next time.

Back to the show and my yard.

I was nervous but that night my wife, my dad, and the local nursery owner all left messages on my cell phone letting me know that the show was excellent.  I felt so proud of my family.  My sons gave the tours.  Shona had prepared the vegetable gardens and had painted the front yard with exotic red lettuces and black pearl basil.  Feedback was so positive in fact that the local paper was at my house three days after my return to do a feature on my edible landscape complete with pictures and further promotion of my message.

This experience proved something profound to me though.  One of the biggest reasons that people have lackluster outdoor spaces is because they don't want to care for fruit trees, or cultivate a garden, or plant seeds, harvest, put food up, or quest for self sufficiency.  Perhaps if properly done an edible landscape can be  mostly hands free.  Perhaps the key to having a yard that can be managed is in the design.

My space utilizes drip on every plant including the vegetable gardens and the hanging plants.  This eliminates the need for hand watering.  My design concepts include a philosophy of "right of way"  - let me explain.

Strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries have the right of way.  If they spread into lawn areas the grass is eliminated and the berries get the space. I adjust to accommodate the increased yield of fresh berries.  This allows my landscape design to flex and change to suit the needs of the plants.

Right of Way saves me the frustration of attempting to control plants that I planted because they were aggressive and tenacious in the first place. Adopting this philosophy saves time and increases success in the edible landscape.

The orchard is allowed summer growth without pruning.  I prune in winter to open the canopy of the tree without stunting growth.   Winter pruning invigorates the tree and encourages growth and fruit production.  Pruning in the winter frees me from heat of the summer work.

Planting companion plants that control pests reduces the need for chemical sprays.

I started my yard with a foundation of planters mix for a minimum of 12" of topsoil enriched with compost and organics and thus the plants do not have a need for fertilizers. Once again this detail at the very beginning reduces the maintenance.

In summary I think that the lessons learned from my hiatus are related to the initial design and early planning.  Retrofitting a landscape may actually create some new work and maintenance requiring the person taking a leap forward toward self sufficiency to make the commitment and follow through.  If you have the luxury like I did to start from the ground up I would really pay attention to the foundation first.  Bring in enough top soil and install all of the irrigation for every plant including those still in the catalog before you plant your first seed.

Your landscape will pay you back someday - maybe while you are doing pushups in Oklahoma.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Spring so far.

Spring is here and I have been absolutely slammed trying to get the yard ready for show, finish school responsibilities and I leave in exactly two weeks for the Army Warrior Transition Course for six weeks leaving my yard in the capable hands of my ten year old son Quinton.

My progress has been good.  I have added another 320 square foot of garden space by adding another level of terraces matching the western beds. Shona and I prepped the beds and she has now planted most everything veggie wise for the upcoming season.  We are going heavy on the green beans this year hoping to be able to can at least sixty quarts to last the winter.  I added some new trellises on the fence for the pole beans.  I custom made these from 1200 lb stainless steel cable coated in 200 mil black nylon.  This is the same stuff I use for my espalier and it works really nice as it is very gentle on the plants and very durable.  I added two more bench storage seats and two large planter boxes that hold a yard of material apiece.  These I filled 50/50 with Happy Life Garden's ultimate planter mix which contains the leftover mulch materials from the Budwieser plant with half peat moss so that I could plant my two brand new Patriot Blueberry shrubs. These will hopefully provide a good amount of fruit next year.

I have added a guomi berry, two autumn olives, twenty thimble berries, twenty salmon berries, and a high-bush cranberry seedling.  I additionally have added a few rubarb plants gifted to me by Jason (thank you Jason). He also gave me some of his raspberry plants to add some genetic diversity to the measly four cultivars that I already had.  I planted some Jerusaelem artichoke and two yellowhorn trees. I believe that these will be nice for the food as well as the flowers when they mature and get established.

On the western shady side of my house I have added a few new experiments.  I planted some bunchberry -  
These should prove to be very cool if they survive.  I also planted wintergreen, and an orange spice creeping thyme which smells fantastic.  

I dove into some mycoculture and have made about twenty mushroom logs including some pearl oyster and lion's mane.  I have placed these next to the royal ferns which I am hoping will get big enough that eventually I will be able to harvest fiddle-heads.  

Finally I have added a clump of sunset glow bamboo under a drain spout on the west side of the house.  I would love to see this get big.  I like bamboo shoots and the canes would be very useful in making trellises later.  

Up next: iron trellis for the Kiwi. more benches, and pictures for the blog.  What a couple of weeks.......hah.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finding Space

I have recently run into a problem that had been perplexing me for the past month.  I have been running short on additional space for annual vegetables and fruits.  Because of the rotation I will not have as much room for tomatoes this year and I want to have more broccoli and cauliflower as well as trying some new varieties of watermelon and cantaloupe.

I have a plan.

I am going to build three new vegetable plots, create a few raised beds, build some planter boxes and perhaps rent space in a community garden. This sounds simple but the result of this plan is that I now have to rip out a few large sections of my yard.

I will be exchanging lawn for vegetables.

This is the entire point of edible landscaping and so the time and effort will be worth it.  I will expound on each of my little projects in detail on further blog posts.

In the mean time start looking in your yard for spaces that could be converted!!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Renovating brambles and berries.

If you did not renovate your strawberries and brambles during the fall there is still time to do so.  The process is simple and will help the fruit stay clean and keep canes and rhizomes healthy.  In this blog I will cover how to renovate both strawberry beds as well as raspberry and blackberry bramble patches.

The bulk of the work in the strawberry patch is in the cleaning up of detritus and last years leaves.  The bed should then be given a high phosphorus fertilizer with a 1-2 nitrogen to phosphorus ratio something like a 15-30-X fertilizer would be correct for this application.  the "X" is the potassium content and although potassium is essential for plant metabolic function this number is not as critical as the nitrogen or phosphorus. Don't worry about getting it on the green leaves that are still up from the last season because you are going to trim these off collect them and then mulch the bed with cedar or dry straw.  The new plants will push their way through the mulch and the application of fertilizer will help the plants set blossoms and fruit.  The reason for the mulch comes later in the season when you don't want your berries sitting on wet soil.

The raspberry and blackberry patches are a little more involved.  If you have not already done so you need to build a two wire trellis supported by stakes above the brambles.  The trellis should be about five feet high at the top and the middle wire at about three feet. When I first planted my beds I did not think that I needed to do this as my brambles were against a fence. I was wrong.  The process of tying the brambles up to strings fastened to the fence was a big pain in the neck and I quickly learned my lesson.  If you need a more attractive solution try using plastic coated wire and bamboo so that the trellis looks nice and the bamboo blends in with the mature canes.  The brambles are then fastened to the wires so that the trail along the wires horizontally.  The brambles that don't reach the wires or new shoots can be fastened to taller shoots at diagonals.  Then you will need to take pruning sheers and clean off all old leaves and stems from the previous year. Rake and clean the detritus from the bed and apply a general purpose fertilizer like 10-10-10.  Canes that break off during this process can be cut at an angle like you would cut a flower for a vase. Dip the cut end of the cane in rooting hormone and stick it into the ground and voila you have another plant.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Monoculture and the American Table

Monocultural farming techniques helped to create successful civilizations throughout history.  The beginnings of  single crop agriculture are associated with increased population and the ability to produce more food with fewer hours of labor allowing surplus for storage and to process large quantities of  baked goods, beer and wine.  However, monocultural farms do have serious disadvantages, and have many cautionary examples that show exactly how growing a single favored crop leaves a civilization vulnerable to compromised food supply.  Growing a singular genetic stock in a sight specific manner has lead to instances of crop loss due to blight, drought, flood, or infestation and our modern hubris derived from a much better scientific understanding of botany and genetics does not make us immune from the potential consequences of single crop agricultural practice.  I support science and do not have any health concerns over consuming genetically modified foods.  I do however have many concerns over patented genetic seed stock and the vulnerability of our food supply to the ever adapting food crop pests.  Evolution never sleeps.

My biggest concern is the limited dietary selection that will inevitably result from a focus on the shelf life, shippability, and consumer taste demands on the determination of which crops should be grown.  Although these considerations are all valid and important considerations to the agribusinessman there needs to be a way for the average person to grow and deliver varieties of produce the family table.  The most viable way to do this in my opinion is to adopt a philosophy of maximizing the productivity of ones own micro-agricultural spaces.

Biodiversify  your own space and protect yourself against the inevitable problems of large scale single crop farming.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Biodiversity and the Edible Landscape

Many home gardeners limit their crops to maybe a few tomato plants and perhaps some strawberries or a small herb garden.  Although this is a great start I would encourage these gardeners to look for more opportunities to replace purely decorative plants with varieties of plants that bring nutrition and sustenance and the benefits of reduced trips to the store to purchase produce.

A very good way to do this is to look at the landscape like a landscaper. Divide the yard into three stories.  The floor is the story of the landscape that includes ground covers, ferns, mosses and low growing plants.  The second story of the home landscape is the overgrowth which includes shrubs, large plants, vines and brambles. The canopy is the final story of the landscape.  This story is basically trees.

When a gardener walks out into their green spaces they should look for opportunities to include plants that fill all three of these levels in order to create a design that looks natural.  This type of planning is effective because it surrounds the observer in vegetation transporting them away from the hard urban forms that compose most of the scenery throughout their day. This aesthetic is also functional as it allows the gardener to create a microclimate with placement opportunities for greater varieties of plants.

This use of space will automatically increase your biodiversity because you are seeking out plants that produce nutrition and that fill a role within your design.  Tucking in an extra few strawberry plants between the rock retaining wall and the pathway below it or placing an espaliered apple tree against a garden shed are examples of such planning.


Be aware of shadows cast by trees. When planting your dwarf orchard be aware of the canopy and it's shade.  Get a twelve foot piece of PVC and hold it vertically where you plan on planting your tree.  Observe where the end of the shadow falls.  Repeat this process throughout a single day morning, noon and night.  Record your results and then do this day pattern over a four month summer period starting in April.  I know that this puts planting that orchard off for a year but careful observation and planting will allow you to take advantage of every square inch of your usable space.

Every safety railing or piece of wrought iron is a trellis.  View every piece of decorative iron and every safety railing as an opportunity to support a grape, kiwi, or pole bean.  Do not underestimate the value of these ready made supports in creating food opportunities.

Find edible flowers. Edible landscapes can include amazing flowers and spring displays.  Day-lilies, Jerusalem Artichoke, Cherry tree blossoms, Sunflowers, Cone Flower, Roses, Arugula, Lavender, Nasturtiums, Marigolds,  Crocus  for harvesting saffron, Clover, Bachelors Buttons, and the controversial dandelion are all edible and add color to the garden.

Consider insect diversity. Bees offer good pollination and honey. Lady bugs and Lady birds control harmful insects as do mantis, mud daubers, wasps, masons bees, lacewings, predatory mites, mealy bug destroyer, and beneficial nematodes.  Some of these can be introduced into your gardens and landscapes and will self sustain offering years of protection.

Be willing to experiment. Cold hardiness zones and soil types are guidelines that should receive some consideration.  However, testing a sample plant now and then might yield unexpected results and opportunities for greater diversity.  Try new and unusual varieties of annual vegetables as well as trees and shrubs.  Be willing to accept some losses and test the boundaries of commonly accepted local gardening advice.

Consider Dioecious Fruit Trees. Instead of using self pollinators consider the two variety option where there is room to do so.  This practice forces the gardener to increase the biodiversity and resilience of their garden. It may be necessary to graft additional varieties onto existing trees where space is limited in order to gain the same benefits.

Look at plant limitations as opportunities. Instead of looking at a label or planting guidelines as a limitation change your thinking into the question: "Where would this work in my garden?" this simple shift in thinking can reveal ways of filling up those nooks and crannies of unused space and increase your yield.

Research, Research, Research. I find new and interesting plants everyday that I am ready to add to my edible landscape and I encourage readers of my blog to share what they know with me or anybody else I enjoy learning everything I can about new edible varieties that will survive in my climate.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Virtual seed swap

The past few days have been a great source of amusement as my facebook lights up with messages concerning the first annual seed swap on the "an honest to god gardening group" FB page.

 I created two forums one for a seed swap and the other for a scion exchange.  A few of the over three thousand members of the group have decided to participate and the number of plants made available were also slim pickins but somehow I managed to find a very nice scion exchange to get some grape vine starters which will fit well trained over my walls next to the flagstone patio on a south facing wall.  These will be very nice.

I was still very excited about the exchanges though as they have stirred my imagination with the possibility of virtual seed and scion exchanges that could provide diversity to the edible landscape.  Even in a small urban setting a diversity of productive plants is necessary if you want to insure bounty in the fall.  My yard is a 1/8th acre plot.  On this I have planted:
Kristin Cherry
Lapins Cherry
Nanking Cherry (2 different cultivars)
Black Currant
Red Currant
All In One Hardy Sweet Almond
Allenia Hardy Sweet Almond
Service Berries (4 different cultivars)
Blackberries (5 different cultivars)
Strawberries (2 different cultivars)
Sweet Basil
Bush Basil
Meader Persimmon
Aronia Berry (3 different cultivars)
Taylor Paw Paw
Sunflower Paw Paw
Bartlett Pear
Gooseberry (4 different cultivars)
Hardy Kiwi (2 different cultivars)
Grapes (3 different cultivars soon to be 4)
Honeyberry (2 different cultivars)
Superior Plum
Methley Plum
Granny Smith Apple
Golden Delicious Apple
Reliance Peach
Red Raspberry
Golden Raspberry
Black Raspberry
Goji Berry
and about one thousand square feet of vegetable garden space with the usual suspects strategically placed including tomatoes, peppers, green beans, watermelon, cantaloupe, broccoli, carrots, beets, onions, egg plant,  lettuce, and various herbs.

I will continue to build on the diversity which I see as a good start but not really good enough yet.  I would still like to see some more edible plants despite my already highly unusual variety of edible plants.  I would encourage gardeners to consider the possibility of increasing the biodiversity in your own landscape.

I think that the logical extension of this concept is the online seed swap/scion exchange and perhaps a perennial trade.  Think about the possibilities!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Open bowl peach trees.

This week pruning peach trees is on my schedule. I would like to offer my advice on this even though my trees are somewhat different than the standard orchard tree. One of my peaches is espaliered the other is being grown as a spindle in order to save space, so neither is an ideal peach.

The ideal peach is pruned into an "open bowl." the concept is that up to four or five main branches are selected that are stemming out at a similar height. These branches would hold a bowl like fingers without the main leader of the tree. What I am going to say next is going to freak you out if you have never done this before so brace yourselves.

You need to take everything above these branches out. Now remove any branches that cross. What you have left is the "open bowl"  This might seem very extreme, but to produce quality fruit you will need to prune the tree back hard.  The tree will put its energy into these branches and the fruit. Pruning the tree will strengthen the branches and increasing the productivity of the tree. The late summer will produce new growth and next February/March you will need to repeat this process.

During the late summer you can prune to promote dwarfing of the tree.  At this time you could also "head" the branches by pruning them at the end back to a smaller stem that has a nice angle that you like (30-45 degrees)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Getting ready for the Garden Tour

I had the pleasure today of attending a tea.  I am not normally the type to get invited to a tea.  But here I was surrounded by a group of very nice and very sophisticated gardeners all sipping from expensive china and snacking on little sandwiches without crusts and eating those delicious little finger foods that had been frosted or dipped in chocolate. I of course had some tea and let me tell you it was very good.

The purpose of this tea was to discuss the upcoming Greeley Garden Tour an event which the very name of which I have to admit stresses me out a little. The idea here is that a committee of experienced master gardeners select a group of about a dozen homes in the city of Greeley with outstanding or unique gardens in order to showcase them and to raise money for a scholarship for nursing students. Needless to say they invited me to this tea because I have been selected, screened and approved for this honor.

I was amazed at how real gardeners share so many of my values. They were excited to have my weird ideas about productive and intensive produce plantings shown alongside the traditional flower gardens prevalent in this area. They were excited about the varieties of plants and my experiments.  I described a few of my specimen plants including my persimmon and almond trees without criticism or the raised eyebrow that usually stares back at me when I usually describe my yard.  A group of open minded people excited about plants.
This just might be the definition of gardener.

My stress comes from the reality that on the last weekend of June over 350 people will be walking through my yard!  I have so much to do.  I really need to address finishing the cedar benches for the west side of the house where people will walk to return to the front of the house. I need to plant the ground cover of creeping strawberries or emerald raspberries in the stone pathway.  I need to make repairs to the flagstone patio, I still need to turn the garden and clean up the strawberry patches.

As every gardner knows - when it rains it pours!

Friday, February 26, 2010

About Bare Root Stock

I have heard many people bad mouth "mail order" or bare root plant materials over the years but I believe that they have their place and if properly planted and cared for can actually have some advantages.

The first thing that you will need to know is that now is the time to order the bare root plants.  Do not wait until late spring because the nurseries will have already sold their plants and if nothing else varieties will be very limited.  Most good nurseries have been around for enough years to make good estimates on the number plants that they will need to sell and this fact means that you need to plan ahead if you want to take advantage of this kind of plant shopping.

The bare root tree, shrub or bramble arrives in a cardboard box wrapped in a plastic bag with some moist paper towels loosely wrapped around the roots.  The stock is usually dormant and may have a rubber band securing the bag around the trunk to keep the moisture in the bag.  It is best to coordinate with a bare root nursery that specializes in this type of plant material and has a good track record.  The timing of the shipment is one of the main keys to success. Your lines of communication with the nursery will need to be open and a clear understanding of the weather in transit and the conditions where you are will be essential for successful plants.

When the nursery ships your material you will need to go out that day and purchase liquid rooting hormone in a large container.  You will want a quart for every twenty or so plants you put into the ground. You will also need to go out and place markers for each of the plants exactly where you want to dig the holes.  I do not pre-dig the holes because I do not want to dry out the soil in the whole and digging the dirt the day the plants arrive one-by-one seems to work very, very well.


When the plants arrive, unpack them immediately and soak the roots in water deep enough to submerge the roots.  You will want to soak these plants for about 24 hours.  At this point, you will need to grab a sharp spade and one by one dig holes and plant the materials.

Grab the trunk of the tree or shrub so that the graft is just above the top of your fist.  Place your elbow on the edge of the hole so that the roots drop into the deepest portion of the hole.  If the roots touch or bend at all you need to dig deeper.  When the roots no longer touch after adjusting the hole then you will begin immediately pushing the dirt from the tailings into and around the roots gently without compacting.  When the hole is full the graft should be one fist (@ 4" above the ground.

Water the plant heavily and mix a one gallon bucket to the specifications listed on the label.  Each plant gets one gallon of mixed rooting hormone.

At this point you will need to protect the plant from deer, rabbits and dogs.  But if you can do this you will succeed and that is definitely the point of gardening - success!

Time to fertilize your fruit trees.

This weekend is the best time to fertilize stone fruit and apples to get them ready for the next season.  I would recommend a bloom boosting fertilizer like 0-10-X with a predominant phosphorus load or ask your local nursery what they would recommend for your area and soil conditions.  This early spring fertilizer will have a chance to break down and will get carried with the spring melt into the roots giving the tree what it needs when it breaks dormancy.

For those who do not have their fertilizer numbers memorized the first number represents Nitrogen content.  The zero in the first part of this number 0-10-X indicates that there is little to no traceable Nitrogen.  This is good in the spring as Nitrogen will boost tree growth and leafing.  You want blooms so the middle number (Phosphorus) is the number that you want to pay attention to for this application.  The final number is Potassium. Potassium is essential for the metabolic function of the tree regulating dozens of tree functions and so this number can be as high or even higher then the Phosphorus rating.

Wood ashes are a good spring fertilizer for trees containing mostly Phosphorus and Potassium but it will also alkalize the soil so excessive application can cause problems if used later than the las spring rain as rain tends to be a little acidic and will correct for the alkali of the wood ash.

If there is still snow on the ground this is actually a good thing as it will begin to dissolve the granules and any further freeze cycles will break apart minerals and aid in absorption.

Apply the fertilizer around the drip line and use about a half a pound of fertilizer for a small tree up to 3 pounds for a large tree.  In my estimation it is best to guess on the low side as you do not want to burn the roots.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Time to start seeds.

This week is the week to start seeds if you live in areas with growing periods of less than about 100 days.  Tomatoes, peppers, bush beans, herbs, melons, and gourds can all be started in trays with humidity domes and adequate sunlight.  Cool weather veggies like broccoli and cauliflower should be started in humidity domes starting in sunlight and then moved to a cool place after germination.  Some peppers require tray heaters to get them to germinate.  If you do not have tray heaters a good alternative is a closed oven with the oven light left on.  This will keep a temperature of just over 100 degrees perfect for germinating these warm weather seeds.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How it started...

I moved into my standard suburban home in the conservative small city of Greeley Colorado in 2008 with my wife, two boys and my dog April. The home was virtually brand new as it had been a builder foreclosure due to the overbuilding in the area combined with the slump in the housing market. The home had not been landscaped yet and as a result my first task was to battle the enormous weed forest that had taken over every square inch of the outdoor space. There was no fence, no irrigation, no topsoil and a backyard that looked like a ski slope.
Over the past three years I have transformed my yard into something unique and beautiful as well as sustainable and productive. This was accomplished on a very restricted budget as well as within the confines of the usual gardeners problems including a gopher, space restrictions, my home owners association, and a community of stepford wives along with all of the limited imagination that accompanies that type of attachment to the past.
What makes my approach to landscaping unique is that I have not only created a yard that is almost completely edible but I feel that I have uniquely fused design elements taken from asian and french gardens. The result is something that I believe to be not only one of a kind but leaves me room to continue my personal growth and experimentation.
The intent of this blog is to share my experiences, lessons learned, knowledge, and offer up my philosophical views on sustainable living and create a resource for this new type of landscaping.
In the next Blog I am starting my seedlings and getting ready for the next season. Join me for ideas on gardening in high altitude climates with short growing seasons.