Weekend Wrap-Up

Well, the bees are settling in to their new home. Most of the forager bees took flights today to orient their internal GPS - figuring out which way is East, laying scent paths to guide them back home, exploring some of the flowers in the yard. Even the drones flew today, drunkenly weaving their way back to the landing board. The mason jar of simple syrup that I put out yesterday at 5 was already empty at 5 again today and had to be refilled, so they're eating! I very much enjoy perching in front of the hive and watching all the activity. It just feels right that there's bees back in the garden. Or, as Tom put it, "The band's back together!"

Tom finally figured out the very last piece of the drip system (yes, little bits still needed working on, I told you this project was tricky!) and now all the veg is being watered, which is a great relief. Not only is everything getting regular water direct to the roots, the drip system also means I can mulch around plants heavily, preventing evaporation. (And helping to dissuade weeds, and keeping the soil from blowing away, etc - you've heard all this before.) I'm using straw for mulch, since I always seem to have a bale on hand lately, and it's easy to move around if necessary.

The chickens are getting quite large, and a friend lent me two fake eggs to place in the nesting boxes, to convince the ladies that it's the best place to lay. I don't expect them to lay for another two months, but it can't hurt to get them thinking straight early.

I planted some romaine and we got the other potato cage made and planted with the second batch of seed potatoes. We also built a bamboo trellis for the raspberry vines (though the deer have found the leaves, which is sad). But that's about all we got done this weekend in the garden. It was Kate's birthday, so we spent our time in other ways.

I'll leave you with a couple things that made me glad today (besides bees and birthdays):

The red clover I seeded in the grass (or what's left of it) has finally begun to bloom! Ain't it pretty?
Can't wait for a carpet of red!

The first strawberries ripened in the pallet wall! These were eaten immediately after I took this photo.

My shy Wood Sorrel bloomed. It's so sweet in the shade of the front porch!
Hope you all have a wonderful week. Happy Gardening!

Getting it done, one bed at a time

Earlier in the week, we managed to get the tomatoes and peppers planted and caged. We had to make six more tomato cages, and had to use some cucumber cages for a couple of the peppers. But everything is in and that makes me feel good! Especially because we had rain shortly after.

Of course, since then we have had chilly nightly temps, dipping down into the low 40's, so I didn't feel ok leaving the plants exposed. I couldn't cover them, with those cages. So I decided to swaddle them in towels and blankets. It looks mighty strange, but seems to be doing the job.

I also managed to get one potato crop planted. We made this cage out of hardware cloth (wire mesh) last year, and the potatoes did wonderfully in it, until the deer got to them. So, I'm using it again. Half of our seed potatoes are layered in the bottom with some of the good soil we had delivered last week. 

The basket needs to be lined with newspaper (or burlap) so the dirt stays put, and as the potato vines grow, we'll add more dirt, until finally the entire thing is filled. We'll make another cage for the remaining potatoes, this weekend.

I pulled out the chard, as it was starting to look pretty peaked. This was the "Bright Lights" variety from Renee's Garden.

It sure was pretty, and also tasty, and fed us through the winter and into April. So we'll definitely plant that variety again! This weekend, I'll get some romaine in, where the chard used to be. It's supposed to be warm during the days, but still in the 40's at night for the next week, so I'll probably hold off on everything else until later in April.

Today as I was checking on the chickens, I noticed this interesting guy perched on the dead branch of a sunrose:

Isn't he beautiful? Looks to me like a male Flame Skimmer. Of course we have water in the yard, in the form of a water feature, and also some shallow water and mud pits for bees and butterflies, but I never expected to see dragonflies here. But in researching it, I found that only the dragonfly larvae feed on water bugs. The adults feed on moths, flies, and ants, all of which are in great supply at Poppy Corners. I gotta say, when we increased our plant production, we also increased our insect population, which has increased all kinds of other populations. First I noticed lizards and salamanders everywhere, now dragonflies? Pretty cool. I'd say we've got habitat going, for sure. Are snakes next?

Speaking of habitat, I'm already thinking about fall projects. I know, our spring projects aren't even completed yet, but I've got an idea and I can't shake it. I'd like to replace the tiny bit of lawn we have left with a meadow full of native grasses, flowers, and bulbs. This caused me to get out the books. You know, the BOOKS. Do you have a pile of books like this? The ones you consult when you get a bee in your bonnet? These are my favorite resources:

And this time I went right for "The American Meadow Garden," by John Greenlee. I've spent some time over the last few days re-reading this book and figuring out how it will all work. I'm very excited to try this experiment. But - like I said - this is a fall project, because fall is the best time to plant in Northern CA. The ground is still warm and the rains are coming. (At least we hope they are.) 

Speaking of rain, I suppose you've heard of California's mandatory water restrictions. Our new drip system is basically going to take us down the required 25%. We're thrilled. Of course we'll also continue to use the rain barrel when it's full (as it is right now, hooray!) and cut down our use in the house. We won't water that tiny lawn at all, and I'll let it die in preparation for the fall meadow planting - it couldn't be more perfect.

I think that's all I have to share with you for the moment. I'll leave you with a beautiful flower I found while hiking in Shell Ridge the other day. It took me a long time to identify it - finally I asked East Bay Regional Parks to help me, and they sent me the greatest resource! A website with all the wildflowers of the parks listed by color. And there it was - this purple salsify. A European transplant - but lovely all the same!

Drip System Conversion

Another guest how-to post from Tom...

When we first bought the house in 2004, we had a number of large-scale renovations done – central heat and air, new kitchen appliances, a fence around the property (at the time, to keep the kids in), and a sprinkler system. I'd had some experience installing sprinkler systems myself, having created the system for our back yard in the old house, but this was a major renovation for us, so we contracted it out. They installed a pretty typical system – sprays for the lawn areas, mostly sprays covering the fence border areas as well.

As we've worked to convert lawn into growing area, the old spray system became less and less appropriate. It threw a lot of water into the air, and did a pretty good job of spraying the driveway and the sidewalk. We did a little bit of renovation of the spray system to support the beds in the south garden, but a spray system was still very inefficient, watering the mulched areas between the beds as much as the beds themselves. Now that we're converting more lawn to growing area, and entering the "new normal" of California drought, it was time for a change. So, for the past month worth of weekends, I've been working on converting our existing spray system into a drip system. While it's fundamentally a pretty straightforward process, there are definitely some lessons learned.

A basic converted sprinkler head to drip line looks something like this:

Our old sprinkler heads were attached to 1/2" PVC risers, so we had to remove the sprinkler head, possibly add a higher riser, attach a pressure regulator, then a 1/2" PVC to 1/2" poly coupling, and then a length of 1/2" poly hose to act as a water main (secured with a hose clamp). The individual drip system components would then get hooked to this 1/2" poly hose main.

Before actually doing any work, my first step was to walk around the whole house, mapping out where the spray heads come up, thinking about where I'd like the 1/2" poly main lines, and thinking about the kind of drip emitters that would be appropriate to use for the different areas of the garden. Finding all of the existing spray heads was sometimes challenging – I had to turn on the existing sprinklers occasionally to see where they were, and to re-learn exactly which sprinkler system valves controlled which sprinkler heads.

Next, I had to cap off the vast majority of the sprinkler heads. Our old lawn sprinklers were installed around the perimeter of the lawn, about every 6-8 feet, and nearly all of them had to be capped. This meant excavating the old sprinkler head, installing a cap over the end of the PVC riser, and burying it again. I consider myself fortunate that we do not live in an area where the ground freezes, or I would have had to excavate all of the pipe, too. All in all, I probably capped about 40-50 sprinkler heads.

Pop-up sprinkler on left, cap on right
Installing the pressure regulator, PVC to poly coupling, and poly hose wasn't too hard. Based on some advice I got from one of the innumerable YouTube videos I watched about this, I used a little WD-40 on the end of the coupling to help get the poly hose onto it. I had to make sure to apply pressure in both directions (holding the coupling on the riser, opposing the force of the poly hose), so that I didn't snap the pressure regulator.

The ends of the 1/2" poly hose mains are secured with these easy little clamps – you just bend the end of the hose onto it. For drip emitters, I used different things in different areas:

The woodland garden, the pollinator garden, and a few other areas have some sprays installed on some risers.

The raised beds are getting some drip-a-long hose – 1/4" poly hose that has inline drip emitters installed every 12 inches. I also used this in some narrow areas along the fence.

It's important to use tie-downs to keep the hose on the ground
In other fence areas, a couple of strawberry patches, and a few other spots have 360º or 180º little microsprays.

Finally, I've got 1 gph (gallon per hour) emitters installed directly into the 1/2" poly hose running to individual plants, like the blueberry bushes and raspberry canes.

Elizabeth posted recently about learning and mistakes, and there are definitely some lessons learned from this experience. Here are some:

Pressure regulation is important. The pressure regulators are among the most expensive parts of this operation (about $7/pop), but they're vitally important. Without lowering the pressure in the system to about 30psi, you're just asking for those 1/4" hoses to come loose and your drip system to turn into a small fountain system. It's also important for the drip-a-long hose – without pressure regulation, the water comes jetting out of the emitters, instead of dripping out.

The right tool for the job. There are a couple of tools that will make this job easier. One is a PVC pipe cutter. Mine looks something like this:

In addition to working on PVC pipe, it works wonders on the 1/2" poly hose, making quick clean cuts.

The other little tool I got is used to punch emitters and 1/4" hose couplers in the 1/2" poly hose. I initially bought a cheaper punch, but it's nice to have a tool that you can put the emitter in directly, and so it just punches the hole and installs the emitter in one step.

Shopping. I like supporting our local hardware store, but for this project, I found I needed to visit that big orange home improvement store. Their selection of products was vastly superior (our local store just didn't stock things like the pressure regulators), and they had quantities that I needed.

You don't have to be perfect. When setting up the system, you'll be tempted to obsess over getting the various emitters to drip directly on the roots of your plants, but you don't have to be that obsessive – the water will get into the soil and spread out.

All in all, it probably cost us around $400 and four(ish) weekends to get this project done, but it's very satisfying. We've got the drip running in the mornings, and it's great to see water going directly to where it's needed, and not just all over the place. I'm especially looking forward to its use in the raised beds, where the drip-a-long hose gets the water right down into the soil, instead of spraying on top of the leaves and hoping the water gets down where it's needed.

Living Wall, part 2

Back when we made our Vertical Strawberry Wall, Tom also prepared a second pallet for me. It's been sitting out on the front porch for weeks now. I'm sure my neighbors were wondering....  This weekend I finally made another living wall out of the pallet.

Our front porch is tricky; it's in shade most of the day, but around 3:30 the sun starts creeping up and by 4 the porch is in full direct sun. It gets about two hours before the sun starts dropping behind trees. So, not a lot of sun, but very hot when the sun is there. Plus the porch traps heat and in the summer can be quite warm. I've only ever been able to grow coleus in this location. so my original idea was a wall of coleus - which would be pretty, right? All those different leaves. But when I visited The Moraga Garden Center, I changed my mind. I hadn't been there in years and had forgotten how many interesting plants they carry there (thank you Jo for the suggestion!). The staff is knowledgeable and I had lots of help.

I got sidetracked picking out Lewisia for a different part of the garden - I've always wanted this plant and it's always sold out everywhere that carries it, which believe me isn't very many places. I scored three - one white, one peach, one pinky yellow.

But eventually I got busy picking out stuff for the living wall. I chose several colors of sedum and some campanula for the base plants, then added some different kinds of low-growing geraniums and fuchsias for accent. Kate helped me plant everything, and I think it turned out beautifully.

The thing I've experienced from the strawberry wall is that for a few days, dirt comes out. Gravity happens! It's a bit messy for a while, and then the roots start holding on to the dirt and everything starts to look cleaner. You could plant practically anything in a pallet - lettuce? If you've got a small balcony or porch, this is the way to go, I think. Regular containers are expensive!

In the vegetable beds, I pulled out the Asian Braising Greens as they were bolting. I fed what I could to the chickens and composted the rest. Then I seeded some carrots in that bed. The whole bed will eventually be carrots, but I plan to succession plant them so we get a harvest over several months.

Tom finished the drip system; it ended up costing about twice what we thought it would, and I'll let Tom tell you in a separate post all about the process. We both certainly have learned a lot. I'm looking forward to hand-watering only my containers.

I cleaned the chicken coop as I do every weekend. It takes about an hour. I don't clean the whole run: I am using the Deep Litter Method there and will only clean that out once or twice a year. But I do clean the hen house once a week. I pull out the soiled straw and add it to my compost bin, and then replace with fresh straw. I change the water and add food to the feeder. I rake the run and add another layer of pine shavings. There is absolutely no smell at all in the coop except for pine. The chickens are getting big, and every so often, amid the 'peeps,' we hear a 'BWAK!' They're growing up.

I spent a good amount of time today painting some new garden markers. I enjoy this task, and it was a pleasure to sit on the back porch in the sun and make another ten markers or so. Here's a few:

I can't tell you how many times I hear, whilst folding laundry in the bedroom, folks walking by the garden and saying, "What's that? Oh, I see, it's broccoli!" or whatever. Especially parents with kids seem to enjoy pointing out the signs and holding the kids up to look. I told Tom today, I used to hope people would stop and look at my flower garden and noticeably enjoy it. But that happened rarely. Since we put in a vegetable garden, not a day goes by that someone new doesn't stop and take a long look. It is my goal to make our vegetable gardens look as beautiful as our flower gardens, and show others that a yard planned this way can look wonderful. Hopefully it will inspire other folks to do the same.

Speaking of the flower garden, I planted about 50 sunflower seeds today, of five different varieties. Sometimes I have luck, sometimes not. The salvias are starting to bloom; I have them in every color, and I've never met a salvia I didn't like. Soon they will vying with the poppies for attention. Bumblebees and carpenter bees are all over the Western Redbud. I can't wait to pick up my new honeybee colony on April 11 (still hoping to find a swarm, though). Butterflies have started visiting.

And speaking of butterflies, here's a photo my co-worker took of a Pipevine Swallowtail, which are hatching in great quantities all over the property near our school. They are really gorgeous.

Isn't that a great shot?

Happy Spring! Hope you're able to garden, whatever your weather!