A hose is a hose is a hose. Right? Well, no.
Garden hoses and soaker hoses sure make watering plants one heck of a lot easier than back in the days of carrying buckets, back and forth and back again. At 8 pounds a gallon, that water gets pretty heavy. Our handy green garden hose makes light work of a regular garden task, but what’s in that hose and can it leach out into our soil, where it can be absorbed by our plants? The answer is uncertain.
Food grade hoses vs. garden hoses
After living in an RV for 5 years, I understood all too well the importance of my white hose with its blue stripe. This particular hose was used to bring potable water into my home. (Potable means safe to drink.) What made that hose different from your standard green garden hose? Being sold as a food grade hose means it is covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act. This bit of regulatory protection limits the materials that can break free from the hose and enter the water moving through it. Garden hoses are not (but I think they should be). Because garden hoses are not covered, they can contain significantly higher levels of lead and other toxic chemicals.
Garden hose test results
Public opinion and concern have pressured regulators to look into the issue of toxic garden hoses, but it’s slow process. Many garden hoses contain significant levels of lead, BPA, and phthalates. The bass fittings on the ends of garden hoses have been found to contain dangerous levels of lead about 1/3 of the time. BPAs are used to make hard, clear plastic. The Food and Drug Administration says BPAs are safe, but has banned their use in infant bottles and sippy cups. Huh.
Garden hose materials
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actively encourages manufacturers to use “old tires and recycled plastics” to make garden hoses. This is great for reducing the amount of trash in landfills but it begs the question of what, exactly, is in those materials and how tightly are they bound to the hose?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), garden hoses contain chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates, or plasticizers, are used to make plastic strong and flexible and they are found in all standard garden hoses. Drinking water from a hose made with phthalates puts these chemicals in your body. Watering plants with the same hose puts those chemicals in your soil. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) classify phthalates as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Another huh.
If all that weren’t enough, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) warns that garden hoses provide the perfect growth medium for Legionnaires’s disease! Spraying water into the air turns the Legionella bacteria into an inhalable aerosol.
Food grade garden hoses
In the greater scheme of things, the amount of lead and other chemicals that end up in your soil, plants, and food from a garden hose are probably negligible. There is debate about whether BPA molecules, which tend to be large, can even be absorbed by plants. I certainly don’t know. What I do know is that I want to keep carcinogens, lead, and other toxins as far away from me and my garden as possible. These tips can reduce health risks:
If you are concerned about the possibility of chemicals leaching out of your garden hose, you can always do what I did and switch to higher quality products. Companies, such as Water Right, eartheasy, and others, offer garden hoses made to food grade standards. In my opinion, it’s worth it.
Hose trivia: The Irrigation Museum tells us that the first residential hose nozzle was patented in 1877. Who knew there was an Irrigation Museum???
Whether you are talking about rain, plant food, or political arguments, there comes a point where nothing else can be taken in. Saturation is one if those points of perfect, momentary balance between plenty and too much.
To the untrained eye, a garden looks tranquil. The quiet greenery is peaceful and calm. It’s like watching what appears to be a Perfect Family, with everything running smoothly - no conflicts, no stresses, no worries. Of course, in reality, it’s nothing like that. The chemistry and conflicts that occur in gardens and relationships are never as smooth as it looks from the outside.
Saturation tends to sneak up on me. The amount of water I use to irrigate the garden in one month doesn’t work as well in another. The daily 25 minutes of weeding in one week is enough to keep down the competition, but in other weeks, the weeds practically race across the yard. Recognizing the delicate balance between enough, plenty, and too much is part of what separates a successful garden from one that is struggling.
Water is an obvious case of saturation. Whatever your soil structure and composition, there are only so many macropores and micropores that can hold onto water. Sand will have a lot more porosity and better drainage than the Bay Area’s heavy clay. But even clay reaches a saturation point. That’s when gravity pulls the water down and away, preventing your plants from drowning, but also leaching away valuable nutrients. If it can't go anywhere, it pools around your plants, drowning them and creating mosquito breeding grounds. Just enough water for each plant can be difficult to determine. In dealing with California’s drought, our family has reduced the amount of water we use to only 25% of what we were using 3 years ago and guess what? All the plants are fine. In fact, they are better off than they were before. Oops.
Fertilizer is another case of enough is great and too much can be deadly. Many fertilizers can burn plants once the point of saturation is reached. If you are up for a fun read, try Don Mitchell’s 'Moving Upcountry' series. He has a hysterical account of using too much nitrogen and destroying his tractor. Of course, there’s nothing funny about burning your garden crops with too much fertilizer, but it happens.
More common, and frequently unseen, is the case of certain minerals saturating a soil and creating an imbalance. After sending soil samples to a lab for testing, I learned that my heavy clay soil has tons of every nutrient, except iron. Unfortunately for my plants, they need iron to be able to absorb everything else. Getting your soil tested by a local, professional lab is the only way to really know what’s in it. It’s a complex dance of chemistry and molecules going on every moment in the garden. A nutrient imbalance or troublesome saturation can change everything.
Saturation can also refer to sunlight, garden design, and your pantry. Are your plants showing signs of sunburn? Are you saturated with tomatoes by autumn? Do you still have butternut squash left over from two years ago? Are you tired of looking at a monotonous sea of green?
Avoiding saturation may mean nothing more than adding some color or a piece of art to the landscape. It may mean planting shade-loving plants under sun-loving plants. Or it may simply mean planting what you and your family (friends and neighbors) will be happy to eat.
Have you ever over-planted something to the point where you never wanted to see it again? How has saturation impacted your garden?
One of my favorite sayings reminds us that, “Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.” This is especially true when it comes to rain.
As most of us learned back in school, rain occurs when water evaporates from the Earth’s surface, condenses into clouds, and then falls back to Earth. In doing so, this water cycle moves minerals, chemicals, dust, seeds, plants, and even insects around.
Now, after years of drought, the Bay Area is happy to receive rain, any rain, all the rain it can get. Thirsty lawns, marginally watered ornamentals, and gardens of every size, shape, and style absorb the rain as fast as they can, except for when they can’t - and that can be a problem.
As rain falls on your garden and landscape, one of the first things that happens is the dust is washed off the leaves. This is good for the plants because it allows them to perform photosynthesis more efficiently and it makes the neighborhood less desirable to spider mites. That dust-filled water falls to the ground where it is probably absorbed right away. In some cases, the ground is so dry that it becomes hydrophobic. Hydrophobic soil actually repels water, causing run-off and erosion.
Assuming your soil can absorb the rain water, gravity and surface tension will pull the water deeper into the soil, hydrating roots at various soil levels, until it reaches bedrock or an underground waterway. If the water cannot keep moving away, it will pool, creating mud bogs that can drown your plants. If it can move away, it will leach nutrients and chemicals with it, which is why it is so important to avoid using excessive fertilizers and pesticides.
When really heavy rain hits many parts of California, we also have to watch out for flash floods. Creek beds that have been dry for so long that no one remembers when they were ever wet suddenly play host to a crashing, raging wall of water, seemingly out of nowhere. That’s not very likely, here in San Jose, but it can happen in flatlands surrounding the hills. More often, rain causes car accidents because so many people forget about the oil on the road (and their good manners), but I digress.
I collect rain water from the roof of my house with three rain barrels. Of course, these 65-gallon rain barrels fill up surprisingly fast, so I have to connect a hose to the spigot at the base and redirect the excess somewhere else, usually to the lawn or, if it’s been raining a lot, to a swale near my fence. I recently learned about rain gardens and I may install one someone in the landscape. You’ve already seen rain gardens, you probably just didn’t know it. Rain gardens are sunken areas with native perennials, shrubs and flowers planted around the depression. Most of the time, rain gardens are dry. When it rains heavily, the sunken area fills up with rain. Because there are so many plants in a rain garden, the water is usually gone within 12 to 48 hours, eliminating concerns about mosquitoes. According to The Groundwater Foundation, rain gardens allow 30% more water to soak into the ground, removing 90% of the nutrients and 80% of the sediments from the water, compared to a traditional lawn. [Looks like I’m going to have to do a bit more research on rain gardens!]
So, if you are dealing with rain, keep a look out for soggy areas that need better drainage and enjoy the time you would have spent watering by doing something relaxing indoors instead!
How do you handle too much rain in your garden?
Brown rot is a fungal disease of stone fruits, such as nectarine, peach, apricot, cherry, plum, prune and almond trees. It is caused by the Monilinia fructicola fungus.
Brown rot identification
Brown rot appears as brown, withered blossoms (blossom blight), cankers, and rotten fruit. Infected twigs may also display brown, sunken areas that ooze a sticky brown goo that contains millions of fungal spores. Fruit mummies can contain even more potential infestations.
Brown rot control
Removal of mummies and pruning out diseased tissue is the best solution, once an infestation has occurred. Copper fungicides can be used to minimize fungal populations.
How to prevent brown rot
Pruning for better airflow can reduce the likelihood of infection, as can furrow irrigation. Do not allow sprinklers to wet blossoms.
If we say something is sustainable, we mean that it can keep going. Since agriculture and gardening are critical to our food supply, being sustainable is pretty darned important.
Until the 1980’s, food production was focused on the industrial production of single species (mono crops), using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, until the soil was exhausted. You can only do that for so long, before you run out of places to grow food.
In 2002, at the International Society of Horticultural Science’s First International Symposium on Sustainability, it was agreed that sustainable agriculture and gardening were critical for the “well being of human societies”.
Sustainable gardening incorporates practices that reduce water, energy, time and chemical consumption, while producing food year-round and protecting the environment. These practices take the following issues into account:
Design for sustainability
Whether you already have a garden or are just starting out, you can design a garden or landscape for sustainability. Native plants are always your best bet because they put millions of years of evolution to work for you, conserving water, reducing the need for chemicals, and freeing up your time. Lawns are notorious water wasters and, quite honestly, most of us are not British aristocracy. Other plants, such as oregano, yarrow, or clover, make excellent, low-growing ground covers that use less water and rarely, if ever, need mowing.
These tips can help you create your own sustainable garden:
Mites are tiny spiders that suck the living juices from nearly a thousand different garden plants. Being closely related to ticks, some varieties of mites also suck blood from mammals, like us! The study of mites and ticks is called acarology.
Mites prefer soil that is high in organic content with plenty of moisture. Unfortunately, that describes nearly all of our container plants and many of the microclimates found in Bay Area gardens. A highly adaptable critter, there are over 42,000 species of mites worldwide. Aside from nest mites, dust mites, varroa mites, and many others that attack birds, animals, and bees, respectively, common garden mites include gall mites, spider mites, and thread-footed mites.
How could something so small be a threat to plant health? Well, normal leaf behavior includes water regulation. This is done by opening and closing small valves (stoma) on the underside of leaves. If there is too much water, the plant will drown. Not enough water, and critical life functions cannot occur. It’s an elegant balancing act until spider mites enter the scene. Using piercing mouthparts to puncture the leaf surface to feed, a mite-infested leaf will have thousands of tiny holes poked in it, allowing too much water to escape. A plant can go from healthy to near death in just a few days. Mites can significantly reduce citrus, berry, almond, and annual vegetable crops. They are a serious threat in our hot, dry climate.
Galls are areas of abnormal plant growth, similar to warts or benign tumors on animals and people. Gall mites get their name because, as they feed, deformations appear. Fuchsias are especially susceptible to gall mites in San Jose, California.
Spider mites get their name because they build protective webs around eggs and feeding areas. The most common spider mites in the Bay Area are the two-spotted spider mite, the strawberry spider mite and the Pacific spider mite. They are often found on the underside of leaves, where they pierce plant cells to feed. These mites are very small, usually less than 1 mm (0.04”) long, so they are all too easy to overlook until the damage becomes significant. It doesn’t take long for a population to develop, either. A single female can lay 20 eggs a day and live for up to 4 weeks. Since each offspring hatches within 3 days and becomes sexually active in only 5 days, a single, fertilized female and her offspring can produce millions of spider mites in a single season!
An interesting note: female spider mites have two sets of chromosomes, like we do, but males only have one. If an egg is fertilized, it will hatch female. If it is not fertilized, it will hatch as a male. Also, female spider mites are able to “decide” whether to lay male or female eggs, depending upon environmental conditions. To control spider mites, insecticidal soap is your best bet. Neem oil can also help. If chemical pesticides are used, repeated applications will be necessary (and progressively ineffective, as mites can develop resistance).
Most thread-footed mites, also known as white mites, feed on fungi and algae, a few varieties have evolved to attack leaves. Specifically, the cyclamen mite and the broad mite are able to inject toxins that thin the cell walls of mature leaves. Damaged leaves display puckering, twisting and stunting.
The only known effective chemical pesticides against mite infestations are endosulfan, dicol, and ethyl bromide fumigation. Endosulfan was globally banned due to its toxicity to humans and its ability to accumulate in an environment, Dicol is considered a “moderately hazardous” pesticide, closely related to DDT, and the state of California classified ethyl bromide as carcinogenic and a reproductive toxin - not anything you want to be spraying on food plants.
Broad spectrum pesticides do more harm than good because they also kill beneficial insects that feed on mites. You can buy predatory mites that help control mite infestations. If an infestation is discovered, sprays of water can be used to displace mites and make life harder for them. Garlic extract and oil of clove, rosemary, cinnamon, mint and others can also be effective. These natural treatments can be dangerous to plants, however, so use them carefully. The same goes for sulfur, especially on cucurbits. Observation and prevention are far easier than eradication.
One of the easiest ways to avoid mite infestations is to create a quarantine area for new plants. This protects established plants from new infestations and gives you the time needed to see if a new plant is carrying any pests or diseases. Also, proper irrigation reduces water stress in established plants, making them better able to protect themselves. Mites prefer dusty conditions, so keeping garden paths, trees, shrubs and other areas clean can significantly discourage mites. Encouraging beneficial insects, such as lady beetles, lacewing, and pirate bugs, by providing water and habitat, can significantly reduce mite populations without the use of pesticides or sprays.
Over-watering container plants is surprisingly common. According to the University of California, improper irrigation is the #1 cause of plant problems.
Unfortunately, the signs of too much water look an awful lot like the signs for not enough water: yellowing, wilted leaves, stunted growth, and leaf drop are just a few of the signs for both problems.
Rather than drowning your plants, allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Don't guess! Physically look at the soil at root level to check on the roots' living conditions. An inexpensive moisture meter can be purchased at any garden supply store.
As critical as water is for good plant health, this is not a time to assume your plants are getting the water you give them. Soil structure can move water away from roots. When plants show water stress symptoms, dig down next to the root system to make sure the water is going where it is needed.
Blossom end rot is the bane of tomato growers. It starts as small brown spots on the bottom of the fruit and expands to a large, sunken brown or black leathery area.
Contrary to popular belief, calcium deficiency in the soil is rarely what causes blossom end rot.
Most soils contain plenty of calcium. There are exceptions and the only way to know for sure is with an affordable, lab-based soil test. I urge everyone to get their soil tested every few years. The information is invaluable. But back to blossom end rot.
Blossom end rot occurs when calcium and irrigation are out of balance. Calcium is an “immobile” nutrient, which means it is very difficult (i.e., uses a lot of water) to move around inside the plant after it has been absorbed. Regular, frequent irrigation during the growing season provides plants with the water they need to get calcium where they need it.
Blossom end rot conditions are made worse when salt levels are too high due to over-fertilizing. Lime can be added to provide calcium. When watering, be sure that the roots are neither dried out or saturated.
Blossom end rot can also affect summer squashes, such as zucchini. A similar problem, called bitter pit, affects apples. In either case, the rotten part can be cut out and the rest of the fruit is fine for eating.
Now you know.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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