Thinking about our Soil

I've been thinking a lot about the garden and how it performed this year. I was disappointed overall. There are three possible reasons for our lackluster harvest:

1) The drought. California is in it's 4th year of severe drought, and because we were told to reduce our overall water bill by 25%, we couldn't water as often or as long as we would normally.

2) Our drip system. We replaced our overhead sprinklers with a drip system, which definitely reduced our water bill, and in theory should water everything even better than the overheads, putting the water where it's most needed (at the roots) and keeping the foliage dry. In reality, we were unsure how often or how long to run them, and probably starved our plants for water.

3) The soil. This year I ordered "Local Hero Veggie Mix" from American Soil in Richmond. It's described as containing "Sandy Loam, Greenwaste Compost, Rice Hulls, Chicken Manure, Grape Compost, and Cocoa Bean Hulls." When we took delivery of the soil, I did think it was quite sandy. And I think, generally, it was fine for amending our current beds. But we had seven new beds to fill, and I filled it with this soil, rather than mixing it in to our regular clay soil.

Now it also says on the American Soil website that this soil is perfect for filling beds, but I do think that the combination of this sandy soil, plus very little water, made it harder for the plants to do as well as they might've. Then on top of that I added well-rotted horse manure which by nature is quite dry. So basically I think it's a combination of all three things listed above which contributed to a smaller harvest.

Now, we've had a good harvest overall. We've had plenty of everything, and even extra to preserve by canning and pickling. But considering the amount we planted, we should have had far more poundage. I'm thinking of the tomatoes especially. We had four plants each of slicing, cherry, and paste tomatoes. We should have had an abundant harvest, massive, filling-the-canning-shelf huge. We were able to put up four quarts of crushed tomatoes and 8 half-pints of tomato paste, but that's meager. We did eat quite a lot of them fresh, and I'm glad we had enough to provide a small caprese salad each day for the last several months, and a pomodoro sauce every so often. Still - not enough to fulfill our sauce and braising dreams for winter.

How to correct these problems? First of all, we wish until it hurts for an El Nino year. It's looking promising, but you'll forgive us all for being dubious (we've been fooled before). Rain would help our personal situation quite a bit, and a few good months of daily rain just might get the entire state out of this drought. (This reminds me to clean the rain gutters and make sure the rain barrels are set up properly. Too bad we don't have a cistern.) As for the soil itself, I wish I had enough home-made compost to put an inch on every one of my 13 raised beds. I just don't. In my small compost bin (the one I call the 'worm bin' because it's too small to heat up very much, and I buy worms to add to it every year) I can get a couple of five-gallon bucketfuls every couple of months. But that's not enough for our growing footage.While I have two other large compost bins (which are positively full to the brim at the moment of material), it just doesn't seem to break down very quickly, and that's probably due to the fact that I can't spare the water to keep them wet. Perhaps they will decompose more quickly once it starts raining. I don't lack for either green or brown matter here and I'm again finding it hard to find a place to put it all.  I'm getting more and more wary of buying compost, even from reputable places like American Soil, because I don't really know how it was made or from what.

So I'm not sure what I'll do, moving forward. I might buy some bagged soil mix from a local nursery - they have a kind that I really like that is full of good stuff. A large bag is $10 each, though, and one  bag is not enough for each bed. I have been putting a buckwheat cover crop in each bed as I clear it, which I then cut down to use as green manure. That gets covered with soiled hay from the chicken coop which I will leave to use as mulch through the winter crop. Hopefully all that organic matter will help. I also plan to seed fava beans in every bed along with the usual winter veg. That will at least add nitrogen as it's growing, and then in late winter/early spring the flowers will provide forage for the bees, and then food for us.

Speaking of food, this coming weekend I plan on harvesting the butternut squash that is now on the vine and curing it, before storing it in our 'warm' refrigerator in the garage (my parent's old fridge, which is in our garage now, and is on it's warmest setting, which is still probably just under 50 degrees). We've eaten some that I harvested a while back, and they're delicious - these are tiny butternuts, the size of my hand. Their color is a deep, brilliant orange, which just advertises how much nutrition they provide. Roasted in olive oil and sprinkled with plenty of kosher salt, they make an excellent side dish or even snack. I'm excited to eat more of them.

Which reminds me to tell you that I've also been thinking a lot about what colors I am eating every day. After reading "Eating on the Wild Side" by Jo Robinson, I reevaluate nearly everything I eat. And actually, I'm doing pretty well, though I've changed my habits in some ways per her advice, especially in how I store fruits and vegetables (you should see the three-column chart I've posted on the refrigerator. I'm only a tiny bit Type A). It's fun to try to eat something from each color of the rainbow each day (though many days there's no way I can get them all in). I realize it's probably easier to do this in California than it is in, say, Toronto.