Self-watering plant containers are an excellent way to conserve water while keeping your plants healthy.
Container gardening makes it possible to garden in small spaces or in those areas with poor soil quality. One of the biggest problems with container gardening is the need for frequent watering. This is especially true for unglazed ceramic pots, which allow a large amount of water to evaporate, and for gardeners in areas with a lot of hot, dry weather.
Self-watering plant containers feature a water reservoir below the plant medium (soil), separated by a perforated platform. The platform keeps the soil out of the water, but it allows roots access to the water supply. Being relatively sealed under the soil, water evaporation is significantly reduced, while providing your plants with all the water they need.
You can make your own self-watering plant container out of discarded 5-gallon buckets. Give it a try and let us know how well it works for you!
Drought can wreak havoc on farms and mature trees, but gray water can be used to reduce the impact on your yard. According to UC Davis, "Gray water is untreated waste water which has not come into contact with toilet waste." This includes water collected from the shower, bath, washing machine, or sink.
You should check with your local authorities to learn about specific restrictions on the use of gray water in your area. Gray water should never be considered potable (safe to drink). Personally, I avoid using it on food crops, but it does wonders on ornamentals, trees, flowers, and the lawn without wasting fresh drinking water.
I discovered a new bug while pulling weeds under one of my apricot trees this morning.
It is 1/4" long, somewhat flattened, and it has a distinct light green triangle on its back. After a little research, I learned that it is called a Lygus bug.
According to UC Davis, Lygus bugs (Lygus hesperus), also known as western tarnished plant bugs, or just plain tarnished plant bugs, are a serious threat to strawberry growers, causing "irregularly shaped, cat-faced strawberries". Getting rid of Lygus bugs is tricky. Most pesticides available over-the-counter are ineffective on adult Lygus bugs and can be devastating to natural enemies of spider mites.
The best organic solution is to reduce the number of weeds in your area and to be alert, squashing the Lygus bug whenever it is spotted. There is a commercially available parasitic wasp, Anaphes iole, which attacks lygus eggs, but its effectiveness is thwarted by the fact that new Lygus bugs can enter the area repeatedly.
New research in the use of trap crops is being explored. I’ll keep you posted!
It's a war zone out there!
It took plants 50 million years to develop roots as we know them today. Everyone knows that roots provide anchorage and access to water and minerals in the soil. But they do far more than that!
The first structure to emerge from a sprouting seed is called the radicle. The radicle becomes the primary root. If the primary root continues to grow and develop, the plant will have a taproot system. Carrots are taproots. If several smaller roots develop, the plant will have a fibrous root system.
Adventitious roots may arise from stems, branches, or leaves. These opportunist roots come in a variety of growths, such as buttress roots, aerial roots, and stilt roots.
There are also storage roots. Beets, carrots, ginger, horseradish, licorice, radishes, rutabagas, sassafras, sweet potatoes, and turmeric are all storage roots. You may think that regular potatoes are a root crop, but they are not. Potatoes are tubers, which means they are the starch storage structures for rhizomes, or underground stems.
Unlike twigs and stems, which have regular branching patterns, roots start out large and then divide, repeatedly and randomly, getting progressively smaller, in their search for food and water. At the end of each root is a root cap. The root cap is like a hard hat, worn to protect the growing meristem tissue, as the root moves through the soil, looking for water and mineral nutrients. Behind the root cap is where cell division takes place. As these new cells are produced, the root cap is pushed forward. As more new cells are produced and the root moves forward, these older cells stretch and create storage pockets called vacuoles. This is called the zone of elongation. Finally, growth and elongation are complete and root hairs can begin to emerge. This is called the zone of maturation.
Transplanting and repotting plants often shears off a large number of these root hairs. This is what causes the initial wilting. Rather than tamping down your transplants, try mudding them in to protect those important root hairs.
Tree roots can damage sidewalks, patios, and your home’s foundation, so plan ahead before installing trees and large shrubs. Poor health or branch die off on one side of a tree or large shrub can often be directly linked to damage to the root system from construction, digging, or heat islands.
We used to think of tree roots as going down, down, down, into the Earth. In some cases, that is accurate. One tree in the Kalahari desert has a root system believed to be over 220 feet deep, but, in most cases, tree roots don’t look anything like that. Tree roots are most easily pictured as a goblet set on top of a dinner plate. The goblet represents the aboveground portion of the tree while the shallow, far-reaching dinner plate represents the root system. Very often, a tree’s root system is 4 to 7 times the diameter of the aboveground portion. Trees are often classified using a ‘root-to-shoot’ ratio. This ratio refers to the weight of the aboveground portion of the tree to its below ground growth. Normally, this ratio is 1:5 to 1:6. This means that the 5,000 lb. tree you see probably has a root system that weighs over 1200 lbs.
The majority of a tree’s root system is found in the top 18 inches of soil. This is why trees fall over when the soil gets waterlogged. Trees growing in heavy clay soil, such as we have in San Jose, California, tend to have smaller root systems. This is because clay soil holds far more water and nutrients than other soil types.
Most garden plant root systems are relatively shallow. Rooting depth of garden vegetables can generally be classified as:
What does all this mean?
This means that it can get crowded down there, if you are not careful. If you have deep raised beds, save them for the medium-sized root systems. Most deep-rooted perennials are best planted directly in the ground. The most shallow-rooted plants can often be grown in containers. Root depth also plays a big role in how drought tolerant a plant can be, and how deeply they need to be watered.
Root pests and diseases
Root systems are subject to specific pests and diseases. Common root diseases in California include:
Peach root knot nematodes, crown and root aphids, root weevils, flea beetle larvae, and root borers are just a few of the garden pests that attack root systems.
When removing plants from your yard or garden, it is best, whenever possible, to cut the plant at ground level and leave the roots in the ground. As the roots decompose, they will feed the local soil microorganisms, which will migrate, over time, to help another plant thrive.
Whatever type of root system your plants have, good soil health and soil structure are critical to plant health.
Keyhole gardening is a method developed for areas experiencing severe drought and limited resources, specifically Africa. However, the concept is just as useful in other parts of the world and in your backyard. Keyhole gardens conserve water, and they provide plants with easy access to nutrients.
Keyhole gardens are a variation on raised bed gardening. Keyhole gardens are round raised beds that feature a notch in one side that provides access to a composting tower, or basket, in the middle. As compostable materials and water are added to the center of a keyhole garden, the water and nutrients spread out within the keyhole garden to feed and irrigate your plants. The loose, nutrient-rich soil makes it easy to grow edibles in even the worst conditions.
How to build a keyhole garden
Keyhole gardens are easily made with curb-scored old bricks, stones, or cinderblocks. You can also use landscape cloth, wood planks or branches, wine bottles, old fencing panels, corrugated metal sheets - really, you can use anything that isn’t toxic. Use your imagination! Follow these steps to create your very own keyhole garden:
Sources of compostable materials
Most people know that yard and kitchen waste are compostable, but there are many other sources of perfectly acceptable materials for the basket of your keyhole garden or any compost pile. Remember that compostables are designated as “browns” or “greens” and that you should aim for a 50:50 mix of the two. Some interesting source of “green” compostables include coffee grounds and tea bags, often available for free from coffee shops, and fresh manure from local barns. [Manure from veterinary clinics is not recommended.]
We throw away a profound amount of compostable “brown” material. Some sources you may not have considered include any paper or wood products (simply avoid the colored, slick, or waxed varieties), dryer lint, vacuum cleaner waste, shredded, unwaxed cardboard, and even clothing made from 100% natural fibers. Rather than adding these materials to local landfills, you can transform them into plant or worm food in your compost pile, worm farm, or in the central basket of your keyhole garden.
Building a keyhole garden can help you get around the problems associated with heavy clay, compacted soil, and difficulties bending over. Check out this video about a heart-warming solution to starvation around the globe and a fun new way to grow edibles in your own backyard!
Invasive plants are those non-native plants that infest an ecosystem. Unlike normal weeds, which have evolved within a specific ecosystem, invasive plants generally do not have any natural enemies, so they grow out of control. They use up water and nutrients, pushing out local flora and fauna. Some, such as Scotch broom, can be poisonous to your pets.
Invasive plants are often introduced to your yard on purpose, by buying and planting something just because it "looks nice”. According to the UC Davis IPM (Integrated Pest Management) page: a 10,000 acre infestation of giant reed (Arundo donax) on the Santa Ana River in Orange County is estimated to use 57,000 acre feet more water per year than native vegetation. One group, PlantRight, has developed a list of invasive plants that should be avoided. Another group, Calflora, offers extensive lists (with photos) of plants that are invasives and plants that are under consideration as invasives.
Taking the time to plant species that are native to your area reduces water waste and prevents the disruption of the natural lifecycle of countless plants and animals.
Erratically flying white butterflies that look more like moths and favor members of the cabbage family are insidious garden pests. If that weren't bad enough, chemicals found in their favorite foods make them distasteful to birds.
Cabbageworms start out as tiny yellow, green, or white, rocket-shaped eggs that are laid singly on the undersides of leaves. If you have a hand lens, you can see distinct ridges on the eggs. Whether you can see that well or not, do your plants a favor and extermigate the eggs whenever you see them.
Cabbageworm butterflies tend to be white or off-white with one to four black spots on the wings. Larvae are green and fuzzy and can grow to one inch long. Larvae often have a faint yellow stripe on the back and broken yellow lines along the sides. Pupae are a mottled brownish gray. The chrysalis matches the leaves and is often found along the midvein.
There are actually several different white butterflies that lay eggs on plants in the cabbage family. Collectively, they are called ‘cabbage whites’. Native species of cabbage whites include:
The imported cabbageworm, Pieris rapae, has largely replaced these native cabbage butterflies.
Damage caused by imported cabbageworm
As soon as the eggs hatch, fuzzy green caterpillars start feeding, and feed they do! They start by eating their own eggshell and then they chew round holes in leaves at an alarming rate. Healthy plants can look tattered in only a few days. Leaving trails of brown fecal pellets on leaf surfaces, larvae may also burrow into cauliflower and broccoli heads, making them inedible.
The first sign of cabbageworm infestation is random, round holes in the leaves of cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli and other members of the Cruciferae or cabbage family. You may also notice greenish brown fecal pellets littering leaf surfaces.
Since cabbageworms are active year round in California, the damage they cause can be extensive. A single adult cabbageworm can fly over 7 miles in a single day, so you really need to be on the alert.
How to control imported cabbageworms
Unlike many other invasive pests, imported cabbageworms actually have some enemies already. Tachinid flies and a handful of parasites feed regularly on cabbageworm eggs and larvae. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that those natural controls will not be enough once cabbageworms have found your crops. You can spray Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or spinosad for a measure of organically acceptable control. Handpicking larvae and extermigating eggs really are really your best control measures. And get rid of any nearby weeds from the cabbage family. Adult cabbageworm butterflies feed on nectar from flowers, preferring blooms of purple, blue, and yellow.
Personally, in addition to regularly monitoring plants for the presence of cabbageworms, I have trained my dog to chase cabbage butterflies out of my yard. It helps, and it's pretty fun to watch.
(This one's for you, Sabrina!)
Sheet mulching is touted as one of the easiest ways to reduce weeds in your yard or to get rid of a water-hungry lawn and replace it with something more drought-tolerant. (Solarization is a more extreme method that can rid an area of many fungal diseases, as well as weeds.)
To sheet mulch an area, trim any current plant growth to the lowest possible height, water the area (to provide for soil microbes) and then cover the area completely with a 4" layer of wood chips.
We used to urge people to cover the area with layers of newspaper or cardboard, but then we learned that those materials attract voles and termites. Those layers also interfere with evaporation, percolation, and gas exchanges. Your local tree trimmer will be happy top give you a truckload of fresh wood chips, perfect for blocking weeds and protecting your soil.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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