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Successful Backyard Crops: Digging Deeper

Altadena Gardener Christina Wenger gives us the down low on sunken beds and compost pots.

Successful gardening, like genius, comes down to that old "inspiration versus perspiration" quotation -- the one where sweat wins by a landslide.

And it's true -- whatever the color of your thumb -- gardening is a sweaty, dirty business, most particularly if you hope to actually get something edible for your efforts. So whenever possible, stack the deck in your favor.

Here are two tips from Altadena gardener and blogger Christina Wenger. Wenger is notorious around these parts because her trees and vines are so prolific they practically sit up and beg to be picked.

Bury compost pots

Though a compost pile has many virtues, from recycling to providing rich food for the plants, if loaded with sweet-smelling castoffs such as banana peels  and the like, it can be a rat-magnet. So for composting your tasty bits, try this:

  • Cut off the bottoms of  5- or 10-gallon nursery pots
  • Dig holes for the pots close to trees and other plants that can use a regular boost of fertilizer
  • Bury the pots so the lip is flush with the ground
  • Cover each pot with a heavy lid -- a small cement slab works fine 

You now have mini-compost machines, safe from varmints, and the perfect place to dispose of your fruit and vegetable remains. The organic material will break down over time and feed the soil. No need to dump, turn, or distribute.

Try sunken beds

Raised-beds are pretty popular around here, particularly if your garden is more dirt and hardpan than soil. Just build a frame on top of the ground, one to three feet tall, and fill with all kinds of good soil and decomposed, organic mulch. One disadvantage to this method, however, is the water lost through drainage and evaporation.

A sunken bed, on the other hand, rests slightly below the level of the rest of the yard. And this offers several advantages to gardeners in a dry climate. First of all, the temperature of the soil is cooler than above ground, so there’s less evaporation. More importantly, a sunken bed captures and holds water, and keeps the moisture close to the roots longer than in the raised beds. An added bonus, with a lower profile, the plants are less vulnerable to the drying winds of the Santa Ana’s.

The technique to build a sunken bed is simple, though the digging takes serious elbow grease.

  • Stake out the gardening bed
  • Dig out all the soil, going a foot to a foot and a half deep  
  • Line the entire area with hardware cloth to gopher/varmint-proof  
  • Fill the beds with decomposed organic compost and new rich soil

If you dig the beds yourself, the biggest investment will be the soil and compost.  A couple of ways to save some money:

  • Altadena Stables on Ridgeview Drive offers free horse manure for your compost pile; just bring your own receptacles and shovel.
  • Check with some of the larger hardware and garden supply centers. Often they sell torn bags of potting and gardening soil by the pallet, at a discount.

I also asked Wenger if there was anything worth planting in August. And of course the answer was yes:

"While the heat loving beans (limas and long beans) are going strong, I've just pulled out some of my other bean towers and am about to fill that space early maturing heirloom corn, Luther Hill. It matures quickly and gives really nice, sweet, white ears. I've had success planting multiple small patches of corn through the summer as other crops come out.

"Also, planting early maturing melons or summer squash would work well now. Another thing August is really good for is starting the fall crops from seed. In the first couple weeks of August, I'll be planting kale, broccoli, rutabagas, cabbages, and gai lan in six packs and keeping them in a part of the yard that has filtered shade most of the day. I water them every day; they're ready to go in the ground, replacing my fading summer crops, late September/early October."

Bev A Huntsberger July 30, 2012 at 03:02 PM
great article. chock full. locale appropriate advice. and simple! I'm passing this around. THANKS!!
Andy Haynes July 30, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Great advice! If your looking for class A organic compost at a great price, go to Stone/Yard Landscape Center on Woodbury. They sell KELLOGG COMPOST in bulk! I used it to jumpstart my garden while waiting for my compost pile to mature.
Ellen Fontana July 30, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Question: What is the best way (natural) to manage the mole population? Thanks!
Pasadena Adjacent July 30, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Big fan of Christina Wenger's blog. She is incredibly generous with information and has a great sense of wit. If I was more inclined toward sweat I'd volunteer to be her groupie
Otis July 30, 2012 at 09:41 PM
I had a disaster with Corn this year. Some stalks made it to the point they had a couple of ears, but none matured. Maybe the soil was bad? Tomatoes went crazy but now plants are brown yet still producing? Not sure how that works. Having great success witth Pumpkins and watermellons. Maybe I still have time to plant a few more, where the corn was, if I can find some baby plants anywhere. Yes, beans still look very healthy. I have a giant fig tree but I hate figs and the birds get them first. The Finch's love them. Had a great crop of avacados but seems like the tree has stopped producing and they were always popular with varmits. I put a lot of work in this summer, think I'll wait on the winter stuff for a while. My garden gets massive sunlight.
Christina July 30, 2012 at 11:36 PM
I don't quite know where my comment went, but I tried to reply to the questions here. In brief, Ellen, if you've got tall weeds, grasses, or thick, low bushes, try to thin them out a bit. Voles travel mostly by tunneling through plant material, not dirt (though they do tunnel through dirt for the short sprints, to get around for distances, they go above ground). Weedwhack away, so that there are fewer places for the voles to hide themselves. That allows our hawks to do their work, and they WILL do their work (it is fun to watch). I've had no luck with traps for voles, though I've had decent luck with gopher traps. Stay away from poisons and let predators do their work safely.
Christina July 30, 2012 at 11:46 PM
Otis, I don't know how big a plant population you had for your corn, but if it was fewer than 30 or so plants, you probably needed to help the pollination along. Corn is wind-pollinated: each kernal needs a grain of pollen to meet up with its corresponding silk for it to develop. In big fields of corn, the silks are surrounded by floating pollen, but smaller groupings don't have as much pollen available to them. If the pollen doesn't hit the silk, no kernal will develop. You can help this along by manually dusting the silks with pollen you hand collect. You can brush the corn tops and get pollen all over your hands and then brush the silks. Or, you can just vigorously shake the corn tops in the direction of the silks. It sounds crazy I know, but since I grow small plots of corn at a time, it is what I have to do to ensure good crops. Also, if bugs such as grasshoppers or beetles eat the tasty pollen heads, you won't get kernals to set. That's another thing to keep your eyes on. It sounds like you've got a great garden, Otis! Watermelons are a challenge to many, and having success with them should feel really rewarding!
Christina July 30, 2012 at 11:54 PM
Also, a couple minor additions to the suggestions I make in the article: 1) I didn't discard all the soil I dug out of my sunken beds. Instead, I discarded the top few inches that were riddled with Bermuda roots, then sifted out the stones and roots of what remained. I returned what remained, a greatly reduced volume, to the beds and amended with the composted and compostable material. (Thanks for the great suggestion for compost, Andy!). 2) If you're placing the in-ground compost buckets near trees, place them near the trees' driplines. Driplines are the rings around trees where most of the water falls off the leaves when it rains. This is where there are the most feeder roots that can use the food from the compost. If you place the bucket closer than that, you risk damaging/rotting bigger roots that provide anchorage to the tree. Thanks for the kind words, folks!
Christina July 31, 2012 at 02:09 AM
Oh, I just reread Ellen's question, and I realized I talked about voles and gophers, not moles. I don't have an answer about moles--I haven't encountered them on my property. Instead, we've got a few voles and a whole heck of a lot of gophers. I really wish I had a pet gopher snake . . .
Ellen Fontana July 31, 2012 at 10:12 PM
I appreciate the advise, voles, moles or gophers! I'm not even sure who's having fun in my yard. I'd just love to plant a vegetable garden and be as prepared as possible beforehand. Someone suggested trying raised beds using the metal mesh used with drywall under the first layer of soil. What do you think...?

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