Hand Watering

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Volume control makes all the difference.

Hand watering is an art. These days, people tend to go for drip systems and soaker hoses, or use sprinklers. I’m of the opinion that drip systems are good for orchards and vineyards, but in a home vegetable garden, they aren’t really practical. Soaker hoses work well if you plant in rows, but not as well if you use intensive planting techniques, as I do. I admit, that this year I am experimenting with soaker hoses, simply because of time constraints. The jury is still out. My biggest objection to sprinklers is that they are very wasteful of water. In my dry climate on a windy day, I might lose half my water to evaporation. The other issue for me, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the spring that supplies our well does not refill very quickly. I could run something like a lawn sprinkler for about 30 minutes, after which I would have to shut it off to let the well recharge for an hour or more.

The Nozzle

Thus, hand watering. There are several keys to hand watering. First, choose the right nozzle. I like a fan nozzle. First, they’re simple. Most have only one moving part – the lever that controls the water flow. Second, they are metal, and therefore more durable. The fancy ones with a variety of adjustable settings don’t seem to last as long – probably because they’re made out of plastic and rubber. Third, the shape works better for garden beds, which usually have square corners and straight lines. With a round-headed nozzle, the water falls unevenly (more in the center, less on the sides) and you get more water on the paths – again, it’s wasteful. And if you’re watering a narrow bed or don’t want to get a lot of water on a house wall, you can turn the fan so you have a narrow band of water. Finally, it’s easy to clean out the mineral deposits that build up around the holes. Once or twice a year I take a safety pin and poke it in each hole, working it around to dislodge any crud.

Water Flow

After the nozzle, the next most important thing about hand watering is the water flow. If the flow is too high, it dislodges soil around the roots. It can even knock plants over or wash out seedlings. A fan nozzle can be adjusted to produce a very fine spray. Or you can stand at one end of a bed and turn it full on. The force is dissipated, so it’s possible to put quite a bit of water on the other end of the bed without flattening plants or causing runoff. This technique saves you walking the length of the bed and dragging a hose.

Timing

Timing is the last of the important aspects of hand watering. You have to get enough water on the bed to keep the soil evenly moist at least a foot down. If the top foot is moist, the water will percolate down to the lower levels. If only the top six inches is moist, the water tends to move up and evaporate. By the way, hand watering only works well if your soil is light and fluffy, with lots of organic matter. Your soil must also be thoroughly moist to begin with. I check my beds before I plant – if the soil is not evenly moist to well below the 12-inch mark, I water repeatedly over a short time period until it is. When you water by hand, you’re shooting for what John Jeavons calls “the shiny.” As you water, the water will begin to puddle on top of the soil. With my clay soil, I want it wet enough that it takes about 15 seconds for the puddle (“the shiny”) to disappear. In a sandy, soil, you might only need a shiny of five or six seconds. Time yourself at first, until you get a good feel for it. Do not increase the water flow to get done faster – the water won’t penetrate properly but will run off instead.

Hand Watering – Last Words

Your soil type will affect water retention. Sandy soils drain faster. My soil is primarily clay, which means it holds water well (and turns into gumbo when wet). And you can only see the surface. If you practice daily watering, your plants may look lush and grow well even if the soil is moist only in the top four inches. Miss a watering session, and plants will wilt or even die. Don’t make assumptions about whether you are getting enough water on your garden. At least once a week, shove a trowel of some sort deep enough into the soil to check the level of soil moisture. I know from experience that when the weather is very hot and windy, I have to water twice a day. If my soil were sandy, I might need to increase the interval to three times a day or water longer during the twice-daily sessions.

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Solstice Update

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Life around Ye Old Homestead has been a little crazier this spring than it usually is. The pandemic certainly has been a big factor. I went back to full-time, 10-hour days at the clinic, just about the time I really needed to be getting the garden in. While I always grow food, this year the gardening activities took on an extra sense of urgency. Last fall I ordered non-wheat grain seeds (rice and barley) for the first time ever – that little bit of prescience may have been A Very Good Thing. I had also been planning to expand the kitchen garden because I wanted to center more of my growing activities close to the house in preparation for becoming older and more decrepit over the years. And finally, I found a milk cow to replace Maybelle. In other words, the hurrier I went, the behinder I got, and there’s no question the blog suffered from my lack of time. Today being the solstice, which means the countdown to winter has officially started, I thought I would do a quick update.

Lettuce (one head, three meals!) and chard, with summer squash seeded but not yet sprouted.
Sugar Snap Peas making seed for next year.
Karan Barley
Gopal barley

Pandemic

Yep, it’s still there, and in California, the case numbers are still climbing. In our county we’ve had record increases in the last week and we’re at Level 3 (high risk). Our clinic is trying to do all the video visits we can, which is not an easy thing in a mountain area with inconsistent internet connectivity and a high proportion of elderly patients. We’re up to about 80% of our pre-pandemic visit numbers. Unfortunately, we have some very foolish people out there who think that biology doesn’t apply to them and that wearing a mask is an infringement of their personal liberty. One idiot was symptomatic and went to a birthday party anyway, infecting 11 others and putting 20 in quarantine. A local grocery store has instructed its employees not to wear masks and will not enforce the mask requirement for customers – I fully expect a cluster of cases from that location in short order. I also full expect that we will still be dealing with the pandemic at this time next year and possibly the following year.

A “potting” bed and the soaker hoses stretched out to get rid of the kinks.
New garden site – admittedly it doesn’t look like much right now.

Garden

Since I knew there was no way to get the new garden done in time for spring planting, we’ve been working on the current garden. First, hubby and the grandkids renovated all the beds and the grandkids helped me build four new ones. The renovated beds have nice, light, fluffy and very fertile soil, thanks to generous applications of compost and chicken litter. And I admit I cheated, by buying a pallet of potting soil to add to the fluffiness – didn’t have enough compost. I had a space between two beds that was wide enough to build another one but couldn’t do that because we couldn’t get the backhoe in. So we bought/collected a couple dozen 5-gallon pots and lined them up in the middle of the two existing beds. I basically gained one more bed. Next, hubby used some pig-trashed fencing panels to erect a couple of trellises along two beds. I also got some soaker hoses, since watering is the most time-consuming garden chore in the summer, and with the expanded area I wouldn’t be able to keep up. They should go in today, or at least this week. The new garden site has been cleared of brush and hubby will be digging out rocks in between the usual chores like irrigating. Once it’s (relatively) rock-free, he’ll dig, fill and edge new beds. It will at least double and I think triple my growing space. Then we need to fence it. I hope to put in fall crops and grain in about four months.

Meet Just Earth Kaia.
Violet and Daisy.

Milk Cow

As my long-term readers know, we lost our milk cow Maybelle a couple of years back. I had planned to use her daughter Violet as a replacement but Violet was too darned rowdy for this old woman. Violet, by the way, found a new home with one of the women who works with me and has just presented her owners with a heifer named Daisy. In the meantime, I had been looking and found a likely cow up in Oregon. Kaia is a Dutch Belted and Jersey cross, from a long line of good milkers who have stayed productive well into their teens. She is due to calve July 27th (and hubby says she’s big enough he wouldn’t be surprised to get twins). She came home yesterday, which means we need to add cleaning and setting up the milking barn, and checking/testing/repairing the milker, belt and compressor to our list.

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Seed Saving

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Rattlesnake pole beans forming seeds.

If my quick perusal of various seed sources is anything to go by, you may find that it will be tough to get the seeds you need for next year’s garden. For that matter, there are plenty of seed companies tacking “Out of Stock” notices on many of their current offerings. But it’s still early enough in the year for you to plan to save at least part of your own seeds. While this is by no means a full primer of seed-saving, here are some useful basics.

There are a few rules when you’re looking to save seeds. First, it’s easiest to save seeds of annuals that self-pollinate. You can save seeds from beans, peas, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and (if you have enough room to grow at least 100 plants) corn. If you move on to biennials or more esoteric techniques like hand pollination, you can add pretty much every vegetable in the garden to the list. Second, if you’re a beginning seed saver, stick to a single variety of each plant. That will quickly simplify your life because you don’t have to worry about distancing, caging or otherwise protecting your seed plants from outside pollen sources. There’s a caveat, however – if you garden in suburbia and all your neighbors do, too, you’ll have to protect your seed plants to keep the strain pure. Third, you have to grow open-pollinated varieties rather than hybrids to be assured of getting the same thing next year. Fourth, do save and replant seeds from several plants to promote genetic diversity.

Beans and peas are the all-time easiest plant for the beginning seed saver. Eat your fill of them in green form and then walk away and let them dry on the vine. Yep, that’s it. they are also among the most productive vegetables, especially if you plant pole varieties. Lettuce is next – harvest a few leaves to check for flavor in your potential seed plants, then let them go to seed. It’s best to pick the plants that take longer to flower rather than those that immediately bolt when the weather heats up. When the flower heads have dried (they look like tiny dandelions), cut the stalks and rub the seeds out of the flower heads over a sheet of paper.

Peppers, tomatoes and eggplant have “wet” seeds, meaning you want to collect the seeds from mature, dead-ripe plants. In addition, tomato seeds should be fermented to destroy substances in the seed that inhibit germination. Let the fruits go well past the eating stage to the point of being over-ripe. Cut peppers and eggplants open and pick out the seeds – dry on paper towels. For tomatoes, scrape out the gelatinous pulp with embedded seeds and put the pulp in a small jar of water. Store in a warm place (usually one to five days) until the mix starts to bubble. Pour into a strainer, gently massage the pulp though the strainer and rinse. Repeat until the seeds are clean, then let them dry on paper towels.

You can grown 100 ears of corn in a 10-foot square plot. As with beans, eat your fill of corn and then let the remaining ears dry on the stalk. Most corn plants produce two ears per stalk, so you can eat one ear from each and leave the second for seed. Shuck the husks and rub the kernels from the cob. Let dry completely.

Next week – squash, cucumbers, biennials and non-seed plants.

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