Permaculture and You

We all want to do the right thing for the environment by reducing our carbon footprint and becoming good stewards of the land. We want to build our landscapes with green products and incorporate sustainable practices in the garden. A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people while providing habitat and other benefits for the rest of nature.

Permaculture is the fancy name for this approach to garden design. When you garden using organic fertilizers and organic pesticides ( when necessary ) you reduce pollution in the environment. When you plant edibles like beautiful fruits, vegetables and herbs in your yard, you create a more natural landscape that takes better care of itself while yielding a plentiful harvest of plants for food.

You can put these ideas to work in your own garden by using water more efficiently and carefully selecting and siting plants. Deep rooted trees like fig, mulberry, peach and plum help break up heavy soil and shade the plants beneath them. Planting drought tolerant trees creates shade which in turn slows the evaporation of moisture from soil and prevents erosion.

Group plants with similar water needs. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects. You might install a rain garden in an areas like this. A rain garden is simply a planted depression designed to absorb run-off from areas like driveways, walkways, roofs and compacted lawn ares. The rain garden acts to replenish ground beds while preventing water from running into storm sewers, streams and creeks.

Plant dry climate plants like lavender, rosemary and sage in open, sunny areas and drought tolerant ground covers like oregano and thyme to shade the soil and conserve moisture. Use less turf grass and more walkable ground covers where possible.

Place hardy perennials like artichoke, butterfly bush and rhubarb under tree canopies to conserve moisture. In general, use deep-rooted, low maintenance perennials that provide food and also shade for plants underneath.

For food, plant fruit trees, berries, nuts, herbs and vegetables. To create habitat, plant fennel, spearmint and yarrow for beneficial insects; butterfly bush and sage for pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds; ceanothus and other native shrubs and trees for birds and other wildlife.

To , plant deep rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter. You can plant rhubarb, bear’s breech or other large leaf plants for a living mulch. Using wood based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too.  To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, legumes like beans, and peas and lupine. To supply minerals as compost or mulch plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.

Sustainable landscapes do not have to look like a weed patch. With a little planning your garden can be beautiful and productive.

Taking Care of your Soil

Gardening is all about dirt-its care and feeding, its microbes and fungi, bacteria and earthworms. So whether you’re planting your vegetable garden or a border of perennials, feed the soil- not the plants. Start by using organic fertilizers and pesticides. Here’s why.

Most of a plants energy goes to producing substances that it drips out through the roots to attract bacteria and fungi. These in turn attract good nematodes and protozoa to the root zones. To make a long story short, the protozoa eat bacteria and the nematodes eat not only the bacteria but also fungi and other nematodes to get carbon. What they don’t need they expel and this feeds the roots much like earthworm castings.

It gets even more interesting down in the soil. If the plant needs different foods it can change what is secretes. Different substances will attract different bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. This huge diversity of soil biota helps the good guys keep the bad guys in check.

A common way to destroy the microbiology of the soil is to add salts ( non-organic fertilizers). The salts kill the bacteria and fungi by dehydrating them. Then the plant can’t feed itself and becomes dependent on its fertilizer fix. Without the good bacteria and fungi in the soil other parts of the food chain start dying off as well.

The soil food web is also responsible for soil structure. Bacteria create slime that glue soil particles together. Fungi weave threads to create larger soil particles. Worms distribute bacteria and fungal spores throughout the soil and create pathways for air and water.

What can you do to bring your soil back to life? 

  • Add 1/4" of compost on top
  • Mulch around perennials, shrubs and trees with dried leaves and grass clippings for annuals.
  • Use aerated compost tea
  • Apply mycorrhizal fungi, especially in a new garden that’s been rototilled or chemically fertilized. You can find this in most organic fertilizers and some organic potting soils.
  • Try to avoid walking on the root zone of plants. This kills fungi in the soil. Install stepping stones to preserve soil structure.
  • After employing the above suggestions if you’re looking to add something new to your newly revitalized shady border consider planting a flowering maple that bears lilac blue flowers. Abutilon vitifolium grows to 6-8 ft in partial shade. Gray green maple-like leaves reach 6" or longer. Flowers grow singly or in clusters on long stalks. Abutilons need good drainage.

    As a ground cover underneath them, grow . Vivid periwinkle blue flowers bloom spring through summer. Campanulas are a large family of perennials. Some are low groundcovers like Get Mee’s to 3 ft tall peach leafed campanulas. Both are easy to grow and are choice plants for borders.

Veggies & Fruit trees for Small Spaces

You know that growing your own fruit and vegetables can supply your family with fresh tasting and nutritious food. But what if you don’t have much space for a big garden or an orchard of fruit trees. Now days there are lots of available for smaller yards and containers. Here are some good ones to try.

Tomatoes are always popular to grow whether in the ground or in pots. Bush types don’t grow as large as vines. If you like large size tomatoes, plant Bush Beefsteak and you’ll be harvesting clusters of delicious 8 oz. tomatoes in just 62 days. A half wine barrel can house a taller tomato like the ever popular Sungold . Small gold-orange cherry tomatoes ripen early and are oh-so-sweet. You’ll plant these every year after you’ve tasted one.

Zucchini lovers might try the semi-vining Raven variety which won’t take up as much space as a traditional type. These plants bear black-green, white flesh fruit with a mild sweet flavor and are very tender. If you have a little space to spare grow the round French heirloom squash, Ronde de Nice. Jade colored zucchini produce over a long period. Harvest the fruit when they reach golf ball up to baseball size. They are sublime grilled or try them stuffed. They are unique in the garden and wonderful in cuisine.  A tip to encourage pollination when squash or melons bloom is to pinch off leaves covering the blossoms in order to give pollinators a clear path to the flowers.

Herbs make good additions to the smaller garden, too. They can be kept compact with frequent pinching as you harvest sprigs for cooking. They also attract beneficial insects to the garden. Oregano, chamomile and fennel are good insectary herbs.

Dwarf fruit trees can also find a place in the smaller garden. They can be grown in large pots or half barrels on the deck, too. Dwarf Garden Delicious apple is self-fertile and bears at a young age. Greenish-yellow skinned fruit with attractive red color ripens in late September into October. They grow to 8-10 feet at maturity.

Compact Stella cherry is also self fertile and is a good pollinizer for all sweet cherries. The fruit is large, dark red or nearly black. Firm, sweet, dark red flesh has good flavor and texture. Stella cherries grow 10-12 feet tall and bear at a young age.

If it’s almonds you crave for your patio or mini-orchard, plant a Dwarf Garden Prince almond. This compact 10-12 ft tree blooms mid-season with beautiful pale pink blossoms. Dense attractive foliage and good quality sweet almonds make this tree a nice addition to any garden.

A patio-sized peach for smaller yards is the Dwarf Southern Flame.  Large, yellow, aromatic freestone peaches are firm, crisp and melt in your mouth. Tree height is just 5 ft and the fruit ripens early to mid July.

Don’t let lack of space stop you from enjoying fresh fruits and vegetables this year.

Citrus in the Garden

There’s always so much to do in the garden in early spring.  It can be overwhelming deciding what’s important and what can wait. This is how I tackle my garden to spruce things up in a hurry.

First, I decide what problems stand out and choose what to do based on which areas will be the most noticeable. Which improvements will have the most impact?

Focus your attention where family and friends gather- the patio, a shady spot if it’s hot or a sunny area if it’s cool in your garden. Clean up what catches your eye like dead limbs, tall weeds or clutter. Sweeping the deck or patio will make the whole garden look better.

Flowers attract the most attention. Focus on the beds closest to gathering spots and those places you see outside the windows.  Enhance what you have. Blooming or bright foliage plants can fill in gaps in beds.

Perk up your entry with new plants. Group several containers filled with plants you love.  The bigger the plant you use, the more immediate the effect. Combine shades of all one color like blue, purple or red for a more dramatic look.

What else can you do to spice up your landscape?  Plant a dwarf citrus. They grow to only 8 feet so fit into small spaces. Plant in a spot that gets full sun and has well drained soil. Citrus are slow growing and do great in containers, too.

A favorite lemon variety is Improved Meyer. It a actually a cross between a lemon and an orange and tastes slightly sweeter than a true lemon  such as the Eureka. The fruit is very juicy and holds well on the tree, increasing the sweetness.

If your’e looking for an ornamental specimen for a patio container, consider a Nagami kumquat. Small reddish-orange fruit hang on the tree nearly year round and you eat them whole-peel and all. This small symmetrical tree is Japan’s most popular kumquat.

Another very attractive citrus is the which is also known as the Clementine. Its weeping form, dense, dark foliage and fruit that is held toward the outside make this a very showy specimen either in a container or in the ground. Sweet and juicy fruit hold on the tree for several months. This is the variety you see in the market from December to May. Wouldn’t  it be great to have one in your garden?

Companion plants for the Vegetable Garden

Many of us are growing our own vegetables this year. Homegrown vegetables taste better and can be picked fresh from the garden preserving valuable nutrients. We can reduce our carbon footprint as our own produce doesn’t have to be delivered by truck. It’s also a good way to get the kids involved and spend time together.
And there’s nothing quite like picking a warm tomato or raspberry from the vine while you work in the garden. 
Whether you’ve started your garden already or are still in the planning stages, here are some useful tips.

Group vegetables together that have similar watering needs. A good guideline is to group plants by how big they get and how fast they grow. The bigger and faster growing they are, the more water they will use. Corn, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes and squash, for instance,  all grow rapidly and use similar amounts of water.   Deep rooted  melons, beans and tomatoes, however,  can get by with a deep soak (down to 4 feet) after they have flowered and started to set fruit.

Growing companion plants with your vegetables is one way to avoid problems with pests and diseases. Companion plants that repel pests or attract beneficial insects work best when planted from 1-6 feet away. Plants, when attacked by pests, exude chemicals and hormones that actually attract nearby beneficial insects.

Flowers make great companions in the vegetable garden

  •  Dahlias repel nematodes.
  • Geraniums repel cabbage worms, corn ear worms and leaf hoppers.  Plant them by grapes, roses, corn and cabbage. 
  • Marigolds discourage beetles, whiteflies and nematodes. They act as trap plants for spider mites and slugs. Don’t plant them by cabbage or beans.
  • Nasturtium act as a barrier trap around tomatoes, radishes, cabbage and fruit trees. They deter whiteflies, and squash bugs and are a good trap crop for black aphids    ⁃     
  • Herbs that help deter pests include:
  • Catnip/catmint which repel mice, flea beetles, aphids, squash bugs, ants and weevils
  • Chamomile improves the flavor of cabbage, onions and cucumbers. It also accumulates calcium, sulphur and potassium, returning them later to the soil. It also hosts hoverflies and good wasps and increases productions of essential oils in herbs.
  • Summer savory repels bean leaf beetles and improves the flavor of beans. All beans enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen. They are good for planting with all of your vegetables except onions, garlic and leeks.

Your garden may be one raised bed or a few containers on the patio. Whatever the size, plant some of these colorful and useful combinations and you, too, will be bragging about how many vegetables you grew this year.

New Plants for the Garden

Every season new varieties of colorful flowering annuals and perennials are introduced by hybridizers. These new plants are field tested and bred for better performance, disease and insect resistance, flower size, color and heat tolerance.  Where does this happen?  What goes into that gorgeous vivid red geranium you see on the bench at the nursery?

Over 30 breeders of flower seeds and perennial starts each spring showcase their new varieties in trials held throughout the state.  Professional growers visit the trials to choose which new varieties they will grow this year and offer to local nurseries and garden centers.  Goldsmith Seeds in Gilroy is one of the locations that hosts the colorful spectacle.

Fragrant, wisteria-covered arbors shade paths that wind throughout the landscaped grounds . The grounds are open to the public to enjoy throughout the summer.  Also on site are the greenhouses where breeders work on creating new and better flower varieties.  It was interesting to see several acres planted with fava beans as a cover crop. Soon the fields of this flowering legume will be cut down and tilled into the soil to add nitrogen. Legumes attract soil dwelling bacteria that attach to the plant’s roots and pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and soil, storing it on the roots as nodules.  When the plant is cut down and chopped up to decompose that nitrogen remains in the soil to feed new plants. After a few weeks of decomposition the energized soil will be ready for planting test flowers that Goldsmith seeds will further evaluate.

All of the seeds are actually grown in greenhouses in Holland and Guatemala. Cool season flowers like primroses, cyclamen, violas and pansies are produced mainly in Holland while warm season flowers like dahlias, geraniums, gazanias, and verbenas are grown at different elevations in Guatemala. I learned Goldsmith Seeds has been developing and growing seed in Guatemala for 40 years.

What new cultivars really impressed me at the trials?  There’s a new geranium that combines the best features of ivy and zonal geraniums. I liked the amazing color of Calliope Dark Red but all the colors were show stoppers. They would be perfect for baskets or beds in full sun or part shade. And you should see all the colors that calibrachoa now comes in-light blue, dark blue, deep yellow, peach, orange, even white with rose veins. These have now been bred to bloom earlier in the season which is why you’re seeing them in nurseries now.  There were many fragrant flowers like . I always looks forward to them when they arrive at the nursery. 

Try something new in your garden this year. There are so many good choices.
 

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