Tools of the Trade: Watering

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The Big Pond.

The Big Pond.

The issue of water use is a very hot topic in the West, especially in my state of California, where the expectation is to reduce water use by 25 percent across the board. I’m acutely aware of the problem because the water for my kitchen garden comes from a well fed by a shallow spring. The pump doesn’t have to pull water very far, but the spring refills relatively slowly. If I water too heavily, the pump can’t refill the pressure tank fast enough. Not to mention that it will pull sediment (which is not good for the pump, water lines or appliances). So I hand water the kitchen garden once a day – sometimes twice in really hot, windy weather. The key to water retention is lots of humus in the soil, but I think it helps if you have the right tools.

Pistol nozzle.

Pistol nozzle.

Pistol Nozzle
As you can see, this one’s been around a while. It’s not really useful for hand watering in many cases, because it throws a heavy jet of water. However, the handle does help control the output, and I can throttle it back to a slow drizzle to water seedlings in individual containers without getting everything else wet. What I mostly use it for, though, is washing the milking equipment and mixing the grain we soak for the pigs.

Adjustable nozzle.

Adjustable nozzle.

Adjustable Brass Nozzle
This is another oldie but goodie. Being brass, it will probably outlast me. The adjustable ring allows you to get everything from a jet stream to a fine spray. If I’m misting just-sprouted seedlings, I use this one. Since it’s round, it does tend to waste water, because I’m rarely watering things that are round. A jet from this is also good for drowning aphids; it washes them right off the plant.

Lots of choices with this patterned trigger nozzle.

Lots of choices with this patterned trigger nozzle.

Patterned Trigger Nozzle
The multi-purpose nozzle offers different options. There’s a fine spray, a heavier spray, a jet, a fan spray, a bubbler, etc. Although it’s convenient to have all those choices in one nozzle, I have to say that it doesn’t do any of those tasks as well as the single-purpose tools. And again, it’s round, when most of what I’m watering is rectangular garden beds. If I were working in a nursery, though, I could see that this tool could be pretty useful.

Volume control makes all the difference.

Volume control makes all the difference.

Fan Spray
I once had a fan sprayer that belonged to my grandmother. After about 60 or 70 years, it (not surprisingly) finally died. Being the cheap sort, I got by, but eventually it became apparent that I really did need another one. This is pretty much my go-to nozzle for garden watering. It throws plenty of water in a fairly short time without washing away soil as a jet or the round multi-purpose would do. If I’m watering fragile or small plants, I just stand farther away from the bed. And unlike many modern iterations of old tools, this one has a useful addition (as opposed to a frou-frou nuisance addition that just gets in the way). It has a volume control, so I can cut the water flow down considerably if necessary. Let’s hope I can get 60 or 70 years out of this one, too.

What’s your favorite watering tool?

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Variety is the Spice of … Everything!

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You can't see them, but this wild plum thicket is alive with red-winged blackbirds.

You can’t see them, but this wild plum thicket is alive with red-winged blackbirds.

Someone asked me the other day why I choose certain varieties of fruits and vegetables. The answer to that question is a bit complex, as I choose them for different reasons, and in some cases, they chose me because they were here when we bought the place.
First, I only plant open-pollinated varieties. I do this for several reasons. Most open-pollinated varieties are also heirlooms. The definition of an heirloom can vary, according to the expert you talk to. For some, anything that was available prior to the end of WWII is an heirloom, as that was when hybrid seeds first began to take over the garden catalogs. For others, the definition is a plant either 50 or 100 years old. A few real diehards say an heirloom should be a plant that has never been commercialized but only passed down through a family from one generation to another. Although I grow some in each of those categories, I often prefer the older plants that have withstood the test of at least a century. That means they have been grown in a wide variety of conditions, offer some appealing qualities that make people want to keep growing them and save their seeds, and that they taste good.

Apple blossoms against a spring sky.

Apple blossoms against a spring sky.

Second, I choose plants that are productive. By that I mean productive under the conditions in my garden. I don’t fuss over my plants — they get basic care. The older trees in the orchard don’t even get summer water. I need them to be able to produce well under those conditions. I don’t use a lot of soil amendments, fancy fertilizer, soil testing or such. Just the basics: composted animal manure and bedding, adequate water and Azomite for minerals. No sprays other than the occasional jet of water to knock off aphids. So my plants have to be tough enough to make it under these conditions and still produce well.
Third, I choose varieties that have some special qualities that may make them valuable to me. For example, my summers are typically very hot, but not humid. I need plants that can take the heat and continue to flower or set fruit. I also have springs that can go from 34 degrees to 84 degrees within a week; my garden has to be able to stand up to such extremes.

Cloud cover moving down the mountain.

Cloud cover moving down the mountain.

Since I know that Sweet Mother Nature can (as Gene Logsdon is fond of saying) just as easily be Old Bitch Nature, I grow different varieties of a particular vegetable to hedge my bets. So in addition to the pole bean that does well in hot summers, I also grow some of the ones that like a cool, moist environment. The latter may not do as well most years, but if we have weird weather, they might be the ones to give me a crop. I also try to grow multiple-purpose vegetables. Tomatoes that are good for both eating fresh and canning, and a bean that can be used as green beans, shell beans and dry beans, are more useful to me than a single-purpose vegetable. Take tomatoes. Mortgage Lifter is almost exclusively an eating tomato, although it does make pretty good juice. Amish Paste and Romas are good for tomato sauce and drying to preserve in oil, while Principe Borghese is strictly a drying tomato. However, if you mix all of them and cook them down, they make good sauce or ketchup, because of the differences in the tomatoes. Rutgers was developed as a canning tomato, but it’s also pretty good eaten fresh; St. Pierre is even better on both counts. Matt’s Wild Cherry, Chadwick’s Cherry and Yellow Pear are snacking and salad tomatoes. I’ll grow about 70 tomatoes, about two-thirds of which are specifically for preserving, and toss any excess eating varieties into the ketchup and tomato sauce.

Yellow Delicious apples ripening in the north orchard (as opposed to the house orchard).

Yellow Delicious apples ripening in the north orchard (as opposed to the house orchard).

Although I have some regulars I’ve been growing for years, I periodically add to my stock. Sometimes that’s because I run across a cherished heirloom variety grown by a single farmer or family that has become available through the efforts of one of the seed exchanges. Or it may be because a plant breeder has created an open-pollinated variety with important qualities. For example, a guy named Dave Christensen set out to create a corn that would help to preserve the many indigenous corn varieties of the desert highlands in America. He used 70 different corns to create what he called Painted Mountain Corn. It’s a beautiful corn, with a wide variety of different colors, very hardy and high in antioxidants. It may be the most genetically diverse corn on the market. When you’re living in an era of rapid climate change, this kind of diversity can help ensure that you will continue to have corn no matter what.
So, those are the reasons I grow what I do.

Cleaning up the tomatoes before frost.

Cleaning up the tomatoes before frost.

Here’s what’s on this year’s seed list. The ones marked with an asterisk are new for this year.
Asparagus (it was here when we bought the place; if I had to make a guess, I would say it’s Mary Washington, one of the most common older varieties from 50+ years ago)
Broccoli, Di Ciccio
Broccoli, Waltham
Bush Bean, Black Turtle
Bush Bean, Blue Lake
Bush Bean, Cannellini
Bush Bean, Dark Red Kidney
Bush Bean, Pencil Pod Black Wax*
Bush Bean, Pinto
Cabbage, Brunswick
Cabbage, Copenhagen
Cabbage, Pak Choi
Cabbage, Red Acre
Carrot, Danvers Half Long
Carrot, Red Core Chantenay
Chard, Fordhook Giant
Chard, Lucullus
Corn, Anasazi*
Corn, Daymon Morgan’s*
Corn, Golden Bantam
Corn, Reid’s Yellow Dent
Corn, Six Shooter
Cucumber, Boston Pickling
Cucumber, Crystal Apple*
Cucumber, Lemon
Cucumber, Longfellow
Cucumber, Marketmore Eggplant, Black Beauty
Eggplant, Long Purple
Eggplant Ping Tung
Garlic, Unknown variety
Kale, Mix
Lettuce, Blend (Lord knows what’s in this, but it includes romaine, loose leaf, crisphead, Batavian and butterhead varieties in many colors)
Cucumber, National Pickling
Lettuce, Mix
Melon, Crenshaw
Melon, Eden Gem
Melon, Hales Best
Melon, Honeydew
Onion, Australian Brown*
Onions, Green
Onion, Potato
Onion, Red Wethersfield
Onion, Walla Walla Sweet
Pea, Amish Snap *
Pea, Mammoth Snow
Pea, Tall Telephone
Pepper, Alma Paprika
Pepper, Ancho
Pepper, California Wonder
Pepper, Habanero
Pepper, Jalapeno
Pepper, Paprika
Pepper, Round Cherry*
Pepper, Tabasco
Pole Bean, Kentucky Wonder Pole Bean, Lima King of the Garden
Pole Bean, Rattlesnake
Pole Bean, Romano
Pole Bean, Wax
Popcorn, Japanese Hulless
Potatoes, German Butterball
Potatoes, Red (I think the variety is Sunset)
Potatoes, Russet
Pumpkin, Small Sugar
Radish, Mix (Like the lettuce, this one has several varieties in it — purple, pink, red and bicolor) Radish, White Icicle
Summer Squash, Black Zucchini
Summer Squash, Cocozelle
Summer Squash, Early Straightneck Prolific
Sunflower, Edible
Tomato, Matt’s Wild Cherry*
Tomato, Amish Paste
Tomato, Chadwick’s Cherry*
Tomato, Mortgage Lifter
Tomato, Principe Borghese
Tomato, Roma
Tomato, Rutgers
Tomato, St. Pierre
Tomato, Yellow Pear
Winter Squash, Blue Hubbard
Winter Squash, Spaghetti
Winter Squash, Waltham Butternut

Now, I don’t necessarily grow all of these every year. For one thing, I don’t have room. For another, if I’m growing a squash variety for seed (you don’t have to save seeds every year for everything you grow, with the exception of onions, which don’t usually store well) and I want to make it easier on myself, I won’t grow another squash in the same family, to decrease the risk of cross-pollination. But with a lot of plants — such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas and lettuce — it’s not an issue because they self-pollinate. In other cases, I may grow a few of a particular variety to have some to eat, but grow a lot of another variety if that’s the one I want to save seeds from.

These sunflowers will soon be chicken food.

These sunflowers will soon be chicken food.

In addition to these typical garden fruits and vegetables, I grow herbs, both culinary and medicinal, and flowers for pollination, beauty and medicinal use. I also harvest wild herbs for medicine, such as horehound for cough syrup and St. John’s wort for an antiseptic salve. We have a variety of apple, pear, domesticated and wild plum, sour cherry, sweet cherry and peach trees, as well as oddities such as one Asian pear, a mulberry and one apricot. Then there are fruit trees that probably came from a passing bird or a human pitching an apple or pear core after lunch. I’m pretty sure they aren’t planted-on-purpose trees, as they’re in odd spots all over the ranch and usually just single trees all by themselves. We also have wild blackberries and I’m hoping to start some blackcap raspberries, hazelnuts and mulberries from seed this year. As you can see, when it comes to our food supply, variety is not something we lack!

Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings.

Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings.

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Double Duty

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Bok choy and celery in water.

Bok choy and celery in water.

Look, I’m lazy; I make no bones about it.
There are benefits; as Robert Heinlein was wont to say: “Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men [and women, says Bee] trying to find easier ways to do something.” I’m not quite sure where I fit on that continuum, as I’m also an early riser and have been since I was a tot.
But my point is that I’m always looking for faster, easier, more efficient ways to do things (which gives me more time to do other things as well as read the odd book!). So when I first read about the idea of growing vegetables from food scraps, it sounded to me like a great way to have your food do double duty. After a bit of experimentation, I can now report that this method has had mixed results.
According to the articles I’ve seen, you can regrow leeks, scallions (also called green or spring onions), fennel, lemon grass, celery, bok choy, romaine lettuce, cabbage, ginger, potatoes, garlic, dry onions, mushrooms and pineapples. I haven’t tried them all — for one thing I’m highly unlikely to buy a fresh pineapple for any reason — but here’s what I’ve learned about the ones I have tried.

Green onions.

Green onions.

Green onions/scallions/spring onions/leeks were very successful. Of the two dozen green onions I replanted recently, 16 regrew. Unlike some of the others, which must be started in water first, these should go straight into the ground. You need about half an inch of the white root end. Although you can keep them in the fridge for a week or so, they’re more likely to grow if you plant within a day or so of using the tops. Keep them moist until you plant and water in well. Cover the root completely, as otherwise the top dries out and they don’t sprout as well. You can also hold these over the winter, at which point they’ll make a small round bulb before going to seed.

Bok choy upper right, cabbage upper left, celery lower and far right.

Bok choy upper left, cabbage upper right, celery lower and far right.

I’ve had mixed results with celery. So far all the plants have sprouted after I put them in the ground, but about half just sat there while the other half grew back quite rapidly. None have made big thick stalks yet, but even if they don’t, they’ll be fine for flavoring stew, soups and such.

Bok choy

Bok choy

Bok choy has been very successful, probably the best choice of all these if you have limited room and want something you can count on. I suspect chard, with its similar thick fleshy stems, will also do well, but haven’t tried it yet. If you grow celtuce — a plant that’s sort of like a lettuce with fleshy stems — I bet it would also work.
Romaine lettuce and cabbage also gave mixed results. The romaine tends to rot unless it’s very fresh. About half the cabbage rotted as well. The cabbage that did grow (you can see it in the picture above) looks as though it’s going to bolt to seed fairly quickly, but it put out lots of leaves that are good for salads and stir fries.
Jury is still out on ginger, as it’s a perennial that will take a year at least.
All the dry onions I’ve tried rotted, so I may be doing something wrong. You’re supposed to leave about half an inch of the root end and plant straight into the ground.
We don’t eat fennel or lemon grass, and I almost never buy mushrooms.
Garlic and potatoes, of course have long been staple kitchen-to-garden crops. Separate the garlic cloves and plant in either spring or fall (I prefer the latter). Let the potatoes sprout and plant small whole or cut chunks of large ones.
I find it interesting that several of the biennials in this bunch are tending to go to seed when replanted. It makes me suspect that something about the process of being harvested and replanted signals the plant to bolt. If that’s the case, it might be a way to get seed from biennials in a single year, instead of having to hold them over in the garden. This could be a boon to the lazy gardener, as otherwise you have to arrange your garden to hold over your seed plants. If you were doing this with grocery store offerings, it might be a moot point, as those are often hybrids. If you’re replanting your own open-pollinated plants, as I am, then this system could have some unexpected benefits. I haven’t been doing this long enough to make a recommendation, but I’ll keep you posted.
The other thought that occurs to me is that I might also be able to force biennial root veggies to seed in this fashion. Carrots, for example, will regrow from their tops, but only the top grows, not the root. I plant to experiment with them as well as beets. I probably won’t bother with radishes, as they’ll go to seed so quickly on their own. Again, I’ll keep you posted.

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