Many people have asked about us and the fires--whether they are close, whether we are safe, what is happening. So we are posting our story, not because it was harrowing or unusual--we are much luckier than most--but to answer all of those queries.
To read a truly dramatic story, with photos and some big-picture information on the fires, check this article about our neighbor to the northeast.
Our place is on a dirt road, 15 miles from town and about 3 miles from Mendocino National Forest. There is just the one road in and out. The August Complex Fire started in the National Forest to the east of us. Those are hundred-foot trees the fire is towering over. (US Forest Service photo)
As winds drove the fire nearer, ash fell for days, and one day was so dark that crickets sang thinking it was night. The photo at right was taken at 3pm.
You can see why the terrain made the fire hard to fight in these USFS photos--steep canyons, super-dry vegetation, hot weather, and hardly any roads. When there is wind, fires can jump from ridge to ridge.
When Cal Fire took over the fire line near us, they added jumbo jets to the helicopters and planes that had been dropping water on the fire. So far, over a million gallons have been dropped on this section, to give firefighters a chance to build firebreaks. But many canyons and cliffs make it hard to reach problem areas, even when the smoke clears. The intense heat and smoke made a mushroom cloud visible from our garden.
The immediate concern was that, since we didn't have an automatic irrigation system, our seed crops would die from lack of water whether the fire came or not. Luckily, the thick smoke brought temperatures down from the 90's to the 70's, making less stress on the plants. Bob and Will worked to get the automatic system hooked up while Jamie sorted all the seeds for transport, and Julie ran loads of tools and garden supplies to town. We thought we'd have a few days more to prepare & pack.
In mid-project, the sheriff's deputies came to tell us the fire was moving fast and we needed to evacuate now. That was my cue to pack up the seed packets we had kept out for fulfilling orders. We hurriedly finished the irrigation, caught the cat, and started down the road with virtually our entire seed inventory, as well as the shipping scale, laptop, and supplies. (Also the cat, family photos, and a few books, but I took out the bedding and most of the clothes, to fit more seeds.) The car was so loaded it barely cleared the ground. A friend called and offered a place to stay. Amazingly, they also had a vacant office we could use. The next morning we started to unpack the seeds and find everything. You can see our makeshift packet storage in the center.
The firefighters made a stand on a ridgetop four miles from us, and westerly winds from the ocean helped them turn it back. The fireline is holding, and is under much more control now, but the danger will not be entirely over until we get a serious rain. We are keeping the seeds in their place of safety until the rain comes, and operating Quail from there.
Out at the land, planes and helicopters still are passing overhead all day to make water drops, and things are beginning to look like they did before the fires, when this photo was taken. We look with hope toward next year; in the natural cycle that prevailed in California for thousands of years, ash from forest fires provided essential nutrients and helped prevent disease.
We are so very lucky. The only damage to seed crops while we were gone was from gophers, uneven watering, and falling ash. By and large, they are fine. Thank you to all who have asked after us, prayed, helped, housed, ordered, and supported Quail in a myriad of ways. We are happy to be home.
This is the first in a three-part series on late summer garden problems. So many words are expended on spring planting, when gardeners are already full of plans and optimism. I think folks need inspiration more after their plans and optimism have been subjected to aphids, weeds, drought, and just plain life.
By August, things can get confusing in the garden. Here's how to bring it into focus, accomplish the key tasks, and move on.
First, take a minute to just enjoy being in your garden.
Now, take a look at what is actually happening out there in the jungle. Make a list, or a drawing, or a phone memo or whatever is easy for you. Think about what you've been eating out of the garden and what you enjoy about it. Sort things into 6 categories.
Now you already have a plan: numbers 3, 4, 5,and 6 are where your fall garden going to be. (Or cover crops.)
Number 1 is doing okay and might just need some compost one of these days.
Number 2 is where you concentrate your efforts. This is the part of the garden that will fail without help, but is in good enough shape that your help won't be in vain.
Let's deal with zones 3, 4, 5, and 6 first. If the combined area is small, pull everything out. Or get out the hoe and take it down. Then, either plant fall crops there right now, or cover it up until you can plant. (use a tarp, mulch, cardboard, plywood, bedspread--anything to keep weeds from undoing your work.)
If your renewal zone is larger and out of hand and you don't have time to deal with it, stomp it down with your feet, water it well, and put cardboard or a tarp over it. In a month it will be composted and ready for your fall transplants or your cover crop seed. Keeping it covered not only kills the weeds, it allows the worms to come to the surface and eat them. They will also fluff the soil up for you.
The stomping and covering shouldn't take more than an hour, once you have located the cardboard, mulch, or tarp. And trust me, it will make you feel great.
Start some seeds in pots, flats, or old containers of some kind, and you have a fall garden on the way.
You can bring the summer to a triumphant close instead of letting it peter out. These tasks will really make a difference with area 2 on your list--plants that are basically well-grown and ready to produce for you, but getting tired, hungry, stressed, or drained by pests. These are the tasks that bring big rewards.
Zucchini can get pretty tired and hungry after pumping out squash all summer. Any plant that produces over a long season, like pole beans, okra, peppers, chard, or cucumbers can use a snack about now. Solution: Give your hard-working plants a layer of compost, a dose of fish emulsion, a dusting of alfalfa meal, or some other nitrogen source. To make your own probiotic fertilizers, see our directions HERE. (Tomatoes shouldn't get too much nitrogen--compost is perfect. To cure blossom end rot, give them some fast-acting calcium--CalMag or wood ash.)
Problem: Weed Competition
Weeds can take over in a hurry, especially when really hot days make hoeing or weeding a misery. Solution: If possible, set aside a time in the morning or evening to do 15 minutes of weeding. The key is to keep it simple, manageable, and repeatable. (I like to take a glass of wine out with me and watch the day fade and the birds go home to roost.) As you deal with the weeds, make a plan for prevention. Weeds need light and moisture. If you can deprive them of one or the other, with mulch, cardboard, plastic tarp, or shutting off the water, you will have less of a problem.
As you finish each area, even if it is only 1 sq ft, mulch it. I have big swathes of weeds where I was waiting to mulch when I finished the whole bed. Don't follow my bad example!
If there are patches that are too overrun to be worth saving, fine. That's a perfect place for fall vegetables. Get out the hoe and erase the problem. Remember that Fall is the Season of Forgiveness in the Garden; you get a fresh start.
Problem: Tiny Bloodsuckers
Thrips, mites, whiteflies, and their ilk are the bane of the late summer garden. Often too small or hidden to see, you don't know they're there until there are lots, which is now.
They attack the lowest leaves first. They suck sap out of the leaves. The leaves develop a silvery or white speckled or stippled appearance on top, where the juicy middle of the leaf has been sucked away from the outer skin. Sometimes the leaves curl. With spider mites you sometimes see webbing, like spiderweb. You can often see dark specks of excrement and discolored patches that have been sucked dry. What you often won't see are the bugs themselves. They are tiny. You might want to invest in a little pocket microscope. Thrips are large enough to see with a hand lens or even your naked eye sometimes. But mites are pretty much invisible. Aphids, scale, and whiteflies are all visible, but small. Unless you turn the bottom leaves over, you may not see them.
Solutions: These should be multi-pronged and repeated over time. They include keeping weeds down; having lots of small flowers in bloom, especially alyssum, which hosts a major mite predator; mulch; removing lower leaves and branches that act as a ladder for the pests; and spraying with solutions that knock down soft-bodied pests while not damaging their predators. (The photo above shows a minute pirate bug eating pests.) I would start by spraying compost tea. It is the least disruptive to beneficials, and it strengthens the plant so it can fight back. Soap-based sprays can work, especially when they include essential oils like peppermint and oregano. Enzyme-based sprays work well. They are non-toxic and work by digesting the outer skeleton of the pests. (Using an enzyme found in the guts of earthworms, which dissolves the skeletons of the soil organisms they eat.) The brand I am familiar with is called Dr Zymes. I also use it for mildew, which is another late-summer plague. The key for mildew is often to change the pH of the leaf surface, and to add probiotics that prevent the mildew organism from spreading. Compost tea is a good place to start.
In August and September, you want to harvest high-quality produce from your productive summer crops, and get a healthy batch of fall crops going in the areas that are starting fresh. Here are some tricks I have learned to get a good stand of new seedlings in spite of the heat, and get the most out of your summer corn patch.
Getting lettuce to sprout in hot weather
Most lettuce has spotty germination in hot weather. (Just when you really want salad,) If the seeds have been stored in temperatures over 80, they can go into deep dormancy and be difficult to sprout. Two solutions:
Getting a good stand of root crops
Root crops are winter comfort food. They aren't demanding, either. Ordinary garden soil with no extra fertilizer should do. The hard part is getting them started. They need to get going while the weather is still hot, or they won't be big enough when cold weather comes and growth stops. Their seeds take longer to sprout than greens do. You have to keep the soil moist for a long time so the seeds don't dry out and die. This can be a challenge. Try this:
Growing well-filled ears of corn
For some reason, I never see cucumber beetles damaging my cucumbers, or any other cucurbit. What I do see them doing is eating cornsilks. Now this is a big problem because the silk is the pollen tube of the corn ear. If pollen can't go down that tube to pollinate the ear, kernels won't form. So check your ears; if the silks are cut off short, or missing, you need to go get cucumber beetle traps. They are sticky like flypaper and have a pheromone that attracts the beetles.
When to harvest sweet corn?
It is not as straightforward as a tomato. There is no visible sign when the sugars that make it sweet are fully developed, or when they (very quickly, alas) turn to starch and lose flavor. Once you see shriveled silks at the tip of an ear, watch it daily. When the ear is well-filled, feel the tip to see if it feels pointed under the husk or if it has filled out into a more rounded or blunt shape. The husk should still be green, and the silks should be brown and dry. Eventually, when you think it may be ripe, you can peel back the husk enough to check the kernels themselves. Pop one with your fingernail. If it has clear juice, it's not really ready (but don't throw it away, its just not as sweet.) If the juice is milky, it is JUST RIGHT. If it is pasty or gummy, it is past its prime but still edible. Once you have peeled back some of the husk to make this check, watch the ear carefully for insect damage.
I invite you to bury your troubles in the dirt for an hour, even if it is just the dirt in a single flowerpot.
In times like this, people plant and tend gardens. We plant to save money. To have something for the family to do at home. To have food even when the store shelves are empty. To get exercise and lessen stress. To have some control over something. To have fresh herbs for fragrance and well-being. To see a red zinnia or a sunflower bright against the sky. To forget the news and the noise for a bit and be part of the bigger living world, along with the bumblebees and the robins.
The first question is—What do you want or need most? Cut flowers for the house to cheer you up? As much food as possible? Teas and body care products? Medicinal herbs? Special foods with cultural or personal significance? All good reasons to plant a garden; all with different needs for space, sunlight, soil, and amount of labor. The point is to be clear about your priorities. There are always trade-offs.
Consider adding to our community's resources by planting extra food for those who can't. Or perhaps you could take up the challenge of growing medicinal herbs for local use. You don't have to know how to prepare and dispense remedies, if you connect with an herbalist who does. Perhaps they have the knowledge but not the materials.
If food security is your goal, these tips will help:
One of my favorite things about gardening is being part of a cycle. Whether it is a favorite rosebush, ripe apples, or the first tomato, greeting old friends is a comfort and a delight. This year, I am giving more space to my favorites, and to plants that come back again in their season.
My other favorite thing about gardening is that you can always try something new. Most gardeners can think up far more projects, plantings, and experiments than they actually have time and energy for—never mind space. So I'd like to suggest some ways that you can try new stuff without adding a lot of new garden space.
One new idea that is gaining momentum is growing perennial vegetables. Like many new things, perennials are an old, old thing rediscovered. Before modern supermarkets, perennial vegetables were what people in Europe ate after their stored produce was gone and before new crops could sprout and grow.
Not only do perennials provide food at a time when nothing else does, they do it in a space that few other food plants want. Many of these crops disappeared because they didn't fit well into plowed fields. But they are just right for subsistence farms and homesteads—or for suburban lots--because they fill a variety of niches in the landscape.
Like berry bushes, perennials can go where vegetables would be difficult--fence lines, along the foundation of the house, under trees, and shady, rough, rocky, steep, or odd-shaped spots. I especially like them next to paths and patios where you don't want to be digging and disturbing things, but want something low and manageable.
Some are happy to live near fruit trees, benefiting from both summer shade and the yearly mulch of leaves, undeterred by tree roots. Chives, Garlic Chives, Good King Henry, Miner's Lettuce, and Sorrel are all good in this niche. Others, like Sylvetta, can make a permanent erosion barrier on slopes. Caucasus Mountain Spinach is actually a vine, and loves to grow on the north side of a building. Rhubarb and Lovage are a big, handsome plants that are perfectly at home in the front yard or back patio, with shade-loving flowers like bleeding hearts.
Of course, flowers themselves come from every sort of niche from desert to swamp. If you have evergreen shrubs that don't add much but greenery, consider a pollinator and beneficial insect border instead. Street frontage, lawns, and front porches are perfect for butterfly and bee habitat that provides pest control for the rest of the yard, but is pretty enough to please the pickiest neighbor.
Herbs are another category of plant that will live in marginal conditions that vegetables would disdain. Most familiar herbs like poorish, very well-drained soil, but others want the opposite—a marsh. You can take advantage of a rocky spot for Thyme, Sage or Grindelia, and plant Marsh Mallow, Meadowsweet, or Figwort next to your leaky faucet.
Self-Heal spreads by runners, making a carpet in shade. Instead of worrying about it taking over your herb beds, why not use it to carpet the ground under trees or berry bushes? Even a plant as aggressive as Mint can make a pest-fighting groundcover under big vines or mature trees. Vigorous bulbs like big daffodils and lilies (not tulips) pair well with peppermint, marjoram, or oregano as a groundcover. Next time you walk around the garden, lift your eyes past the boundaries to see what niches are boring, empty or filled with weeds. There is usually something interesting that needs to grow in just that kind of spot.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin and commercial fishing. She wrote the Bountiful Gardens catalog from 2009 to 2017, and now is proprietor of Quail Seeds.