This is a good time to address that old saying about a weed being just a plant in the wrong place. Nope. Very few plants behave like true weeds; you won't see corn or zinnias or even wildflowers taking over your garden!
What is a weed then? Garden weeds are plants that fill a specific niche--areas disturbed by humans--with a specific kind of behavior--fast growth and wildly prolific self-seeding. (Or in the case of perennial weeds, fast-spreading by other means.) Aggressiveness is the hallmark of true weeds, even when they have other traits we love and encourage. Most of the weeds that spring up in our gardens are not wild plants that live in the forest or prairie. They are imports, just like our crop plants, and in most cases they evolved alongside crop plants, perfecting over the centuries their ability to thrive where humans have plowed and planted.
Some other invasive weeds are wild plants from other parts of the world with a similar climate but different pests and diseases. They become aggressive when no longer controlled by those elements of their native habitat.
It's not just your imagination; weeds really are super-plants. Many of our common weeds are tetraploids—mutant plants with extra chromosomes that make them bigger, faster, deeper-rooted, and more aggressive than normal. Certainly more aggressive than our vegetables, which have lost many of their natural defenses in order to be more succulent, more sweet, more tender, and more easily harvested for our tables. If cultivated plants are like our pets, weeds are coyotes.
With that in mind, I just treated myself to a good sharp precision hoe. Skimming a sharp hoe across the beds to cut off tiny weeds takes just a few minutes, and this year I started early.
Then, I put down a lot of mulch to keep them from coming back. Minimizing tillage, using mulches of compost and organic matter instead, is an effective way to decrease weeds over time--the seeds in the soil need light to germinate.
Straw is a classic standby for mulching—readily available, cheap, easy to handle, and quickly breaking down into nutrients for next year. You don't need to get your straw from a bale, either. If you're cutting grass and weeds on your property, the easiest, cheapest, and safest thing to do with it is use it as mulch. (Don't pile it up and leave it—the center of a big pile can get so hot it catches fire. Spread in a thin layer, it's safe.)
Another problem-solving mulch is ramial chips. I'll write about them in more detail in another post, but here's the gist: The branches of hardwood trees and shrubs (less than 3” diameter) have more nutrients than wood from the trunk. When chipped, this branch wood (called ramial) makes a good, soil-building mulch.
All over the country, downed trees, dying shrubs, and too-dense saplings are presenting a fire danger. Turned into chips and spread under garden plants (CalFire suggests a layer less than 4” thick) the problem can become a solution, keeping moisture in the soil and plants better hydrated, besides smothering weeds. When you can turn a problem into a solution, you're doing something right.
Just after my last blog post, my life changed quickly. Driving over our dirt road in the rain, my car slid in deep mud and went over the bank into the stream, ending upside-down in the water. In escaping out the window, I cut a couple of tendons.
Over the past days and now weeks, friends and family have kept things going while I recovered. Spring is always such a busy time, for gardeners and even more for a seed company. This has been an opportunity to mull things over, set priorities, and enjoy the season. (We have an amazing show of wildflowers this year.)
I have been learning to use my left hand. I've also been learning just how compassionate people can be--from the strangers who picked me up on the road and took me to the hospital, to the friends who typed, cooked, drove, mulched and sowed for me. Customers too have sent so much goodwill.
Thanks to everyone.
This post is nothing new and earthshaking, but it does reflect my thoughts on what is bottom-line important in the garden this time of year: Do the basics. Don't rush. Adapt for adverse conditions. Enjoy life unfolding.
People often ask me “Is it too late to plant …?” Studies and experience have shown that planting too early reduces yields as much as planting too late does; the poor seedling uses all its strength just surviving. When the time is right, growth is fast and sure. Don't procrastinate when the moment is ripe, but don't rush it.
A garden needs the same elements you do: air, water, soil (food), heat, and a living community. Watch the plants native to your area. The new-leafing trees tell us when the soil temperature and day length are right for peas, spinach, lettuce, cilantro, beets, chard, Asian greens, mustard and other hardy spring crops. As the bees start to fly and birds to nest, you can be sure that its time to plant.
Plant growth is fueled by sunlight and warmth, or by calories stored the previous year. That’s why perennials like rhubarb, comfrey, peonies, and asparagus are able to make growth while it’s still cold. It is also why fall-planted turnips will produce lots of growth in winter and early spring, while kale be later--the calories stored in the large root provide the fuel.
Bees are waking up and looking for food. Allowing your winter kale, cilantro and other fall-planted greens to bloom before pulling them out provides much-needed nectar for beneficial insects at a time when food is scarce.
If you plant spring flowers like bachelor’s buttons, nepeta, milkweed, cynoglossum, catchfly, poppies, johnny-jump-up, phacelia, love-in-a-mist, calendula, sweet peas, and alyssum now, they will feed bees and butterflies for months before summer flowers take over the job. Monarchs in particular need dependable nectar sources all season, as well as milkweed for their young.
Many herbs and perennials also prefer to start in cold soil, including butterfly favorites like echinacea, valerian, yarrow, bee balm, anise hyssop, lemon balm and lavender.
In my experience (and in experiments by Sunset Magazine) smaller transplants suffer less transplant shock and take hold faster than great big starts. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil and other long-season, hot weather crops will be at optimum size for transplant about 6 weeks from sowing indoors. Squashes, melons, cucumbers, okra, sunflowers and zinnias can be sown in pots 3-4 weeks before last frost. Or direct sow into warm garden soil after the last frost date, with beans and corn. (If you don’t know your last frost date you can find it here.)
If you really want to give your garden its best chance for success, concentrate your efforts now on good soil preparation! Cover crops and even weeds can be a source of fertility if turned under or smothered. I like to leave soil moisture and fungal networks in place, so I use cardboard or mulch to smother weeds. Not only do I not have to pull them, but they will turn into compost for worms to carry into the soil. If you chose to till your weeds under, allow 2 weeks for them to decompose underground before planting.
Increasingly, gardeners are having to deal with extreme weather conditions. If flooding is part of your new normal, remember that mounded beds drain better, warm up faster and provide an oxygen-rich environment for plant roots. For fast--warming beds in spring, mound soil into rows about a foot high and no more than 24" wide. In moist conditions diseases spread easily, so maintain plenty of air circulation with wide spacing.
Where I live, rainfall has been far below normal, so I'm planning now for a dry summer. For drought, a good strategy is to space your plants further apart. You can further reduce competition for available moisture by hoeing out weeds as soon as they sprout. Two to three hours of afternoon shade, whether from trees, taller crops or shade cloth, conserve water and may even improve yields because plants are less stressed. Adding a top layer of mulch will retain water both by preventing evaporation and by shielding the soil from the sun’s heat.
Whether your soil tends to be too wet or too dry, organic matter will provide the right balance of air, water and nutrients in the root zone. When all three are present and in balance, soil micro-organisms create fertility. Adding humus in the form of compost, earthworm castings, aged manure, etc., is the best way to retain water and provide slow-release nutrients to your plants. There is still time now to get a big compost pile going for May-June planting and mulching.
No matter what your conditions, it’s important to be at home in your garden. What people call a “green thumb” is the result of familiarity and love. The more you enjoy and observe it, the more of an oasis your garden will become.
February marks a new season in the garden. Instead of shutting down more and more, the world is moving toward new growth. This is the time to plant or prune trees and shrubs before they come out of dormancy and start to grow.
What's growing outdoors now is mostly perennials, bulbs, or biennials—established plants that have stored-up energy from last year. Kale, carrots, daffodils, onions, beets, turnips, foxgloves, mullein, and asparagus are all getting ready to make a flower stalk and set seed before summer. The trick is to get some new seeds started and producing by the time they all quit.
The gardener works with three very different kinds of seeds this time of year, with three very different life cycles.
Most of the seed-starting information out there lists plants one by one. All that detail quickly blurs into a mountain of confusing instructions and fussy details.
Instead, let's look at the patterns, so you can go beyond those you already know and get more use from the land available to you.
In our gardens, climates from around the globe collide. Our beloved tomatoes and peppers (tropical perennials we grow as summer annuals) need a long, warm season. Frost will kill them. We start these indoors from February til April, for transplant in May or June. We make artificial tropics with grow lights, heat mats, and indoor sowing. We water them to reproduce the summer rain of their homelands.
Our traditional spring and fall crops--cultivated for centuries in Europe and the Middle East--are the opposite. Biennials like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, beets, chard, kale, and so on, make leaves and roots in late summer, live over the winter, and set seed in spring. Their main seasons of growth are spring and fall, and they are adapted to survive winter weather.
Italy, Spain, and the Middle East--as well as much of the Pacific Coast--have a winter rain/summer dry pattern. Mediterranean annual crops--like lettuce, peas, broccoli, chick peas, favas, mustard, barley, and wheat--are hardwired for growing fall through late spring.
Spinach, California Wildflowers, Breadseed Poppies and Winter Wheat are all examples of adaptation to this climate type. They will sprout with the first rains and snatch at chances to make some growth whenever the soil is 40 degrees or more. Once the weather starts to warm, they race to mature while there is still moisture in the soil. To them, warmth is a signal of impending death. We artificially prolong their life with irrigation and selective breeding, but none of these are really summer plants.
Those of us who live in areas without summer rain and want to be prepared for a future with less electricity, less water, and less plastic would do well to learn how to grow and store wheat, peas, garbanzos, barley, favas, mustards, scallions, endives, and other traditional fall/winter/spring crops.
All of the above types of vegetable are familiar to anyone who gardens. After centuries as farm crops, they sprout and grow quickly when planted. To grow more kinds of things, and use more niches on your land, you need different seed-starting skills. You need to work with wilder seeds.
A shady corner under fruit trees is no place for annual vegetables, but it could host many shade-loving perennials that are beautiful and useful: lemon balm for tea; wild strawberries; Good King Henry (a perennial vegetable); self-heal and skullcap (flowering medicinal herbs) currant bushes or berries. All of them are from temperate climates with freezing winters, and all of them need cold-conditioning before they will sprout.
Just like trees and perennials, seeds can go dormant, (which means “sleep.”) Besides tropical seeds and cool-season annual seeds, there is another kind—seeds that need to sleep in cold, moist soil before spring wakes them. They sprout when the soil warms up, but if you plant them in warm soil, they won't sprout. Where they come from, a seed that sprouts as soon as it ripens in summer will be doomed—the young plant wouldn't survive freezing. So they have developed coatings that keep them from sprouting until they have experienced winter and then spring. Sitting out the winter in a seed packet doesn't count—they have to be in moist soil. See the seeds you stratify here.
I encourage you to explore the world of perennial flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and even trees that you can grow from seed once you know about cold-conditioning (AKA stratification). You can plant them now in pots outdoors, or you can give them an artificial winter in a bag of soil in the fridge. Herbs like Lavender, Nettle, and Echinacea, popular flowers like Gloriosa Daisy, fruit like Blueberry, Mulberry, and Hardy Kiwi are all available cheaply as seed, as long as you know how to wake them up.
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 if we evacuated, 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. (Another section of the same fire advanced more than 20 miles in one night.) 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, or mulch.)
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.
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.