Posts tagged ‘gardening’

How I spent my spring

This is my latest project.  Building a series of giant self watering planters.

If these function as planned, plants will draw water up from a reservoir below the growing medium through capillary action. This means that the roots can draw up water as they need it and the plants will have nice, moist soil most of the time. Subsurface irrigation not only requires less water than standard gardening methods, it can also help reduce the risk of fungal disease.

We started by selecting a location with lots of sun, removing the grass and leveling the ground under each tank.

A clean, empty tank was set on each pad.

The bottom of each tank was filled with 8 to 10 inches of 3/4″ washed river rock. We conveniently had a lot of this laying around leftover from another landscape project. This coarse, well-sorted gravel has lots of large pore spaces and creates a reservoir at the base of the planter. A gravel like this can have a porosity of up to 50%!

I installed a section of 1 1/4 inch galvanized pipe at one end of each tank. The pipe has a 8 inch elbow at the bottom and a screw cap on top. I made sure that the gravel at the discharge end of the pipe consisted of pieces that were much bigger than the inside diameter of the pipe to keep it from being blocked. The pipe will deliver water to the gravel reservoir at the bottom of the bed.

The gravel was covered with a layer of landscape fabric. The fabric will allow water to wick up to the soil while keeping the soil out of the gravel below.

I drilled a half dozen drain holes at the top of the gravel layer at the end of each tank opposite the intake pipe. This will encourage the water to flow across and fill the entire reservoir before it hits the overflow.

I filled the section above the fabric with good topsoil. Audie supervised.

I read in several places around the web that “wicking bed wizards all agree that water cannot be wicked further than 300mm (or about 12 inches) in soil”. The wizards didn’t provide any kind of calculations for their magical prognostications and their numbers didn’t make any sense to me. So, since I did rather large amount of hydrogeologic consulting work in my previous career I looked up some general data on capillary rise and then went ahead and put a foot or more of soil over the rock in each of my beds.

For those who may be interested, capillary action pulls water upward in materials against the force of gravity. The empty spaces between soil particles are called soil pores. Below the water table the pores are filled with water and above the water table they’re filled with a variable combination of air and water. Adjacent pores are connected to each other somewhat analogously to pipes in a water system. The sizes of these ‘pipes’ and the degree to which they are connected can vary over several orders of magnitude.

Capillary rise occurs when water migrates upward through soil pore spaces against the pull of gravity. Capillary action involves two types of attractive forces — adhesion and cohesion. Adhesion is the attraction of water to the solid surfaces of the pore walls. Cohesive forces attract water molecules to each other. Adhesion pulls a mass of water upward along the pore walls and cohesion pulls more water upward with that mass.

Capillary rise occurs when the upward pull of adhesion and cohesion is equal to or exceeds the downward pull of gravity.

Anyway, I was comfortable enough with my off-the-top-of-a-former-hydrogeologist’s-head calculations to put 16-18 inches of soil on top of my gravel reservoir. I will update you on how this works.

The beds operate very simply. The male end of the garden hose conveniently fits snugly into the intake pipe, so when I want to fill the reservoir I just pop the hose in, turn the water on and let it run until I see Chucky attack the spray of water discharging from the drain holes.

So far, so good. This is a bed I completed about three weeks ago. Radishes, turnips, beans, kale, chard and a bush-type summer squash (I’ll let it cascade over the side) are already up!

I’ve completed three beds and may put a fourth one in later on. They look pretty good and planting and weeding chores are much easier in these 24 inch tall beds than the ground level beds.

June 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm 8 comments

A Few Smart Things

Smart discussions on breeding and closed registries at Querencia and Atomic Nerds.

A scary case where a dog survived because he was apparently smarter than his owner.

Smart but poorly trained dog travels miles back toward her home after a not-so-smart owner let her run off leash.  Smart, alert late-night shoppers and Craigslist bring her the rest of the way back.

Smart Dog Chuckie chillin’ with his peeps

Part of my garden (smart or not? you decide)

In a small intensively planted area I’ve got field violets, roses, clematis, wisteria, Asiatic lilies, cone flower, ox-eye, yarrow, garlic, rose finn potatoes, arugula, three varieties of carrots, Persian cucumbers, lemon cucumbers, two varieties of heirloom summer squash, deer tongue lettuce, peas, poblano peppers, anaheim peppers, morning glory, rhubarb, milkweed, nasturtium and purslane. Also lots of weeds and a yard (not lawn, note the preponderance of clover) badly in need of mowing.

July 14, 2010 at 7:40 pm 4 comments

Is that a weed?

The only thing I hate worse than weeding is herbicides.  I love my garden. I love the way it looks. I love the way it smells. I love the way it tastes.  I love the idea of growing my own food. And of using something other than generic labor and water intensive ornamentals in the landscape.

What I don’t love is the work it takes to keep my garden in magazine cover condition. So I don’t.

I’m a lazy gardener and I take shortcuts. I plant most of my beds very intensively. More plants means less space for weeds.  I let spreading viny plants like pumpkins and other cucurbits take over much of the garden in late summer. They conveniently crowd out weeds when I get tired of pulling and hoeing them.

I mulch. I do what I can to water plants directly instead of watering the whole garden (though in a place like Minnesota where we get regular rain I’m not sure this makes a real difference). I pull handfuls buckets of weeds and feed them to the chickens.

But sometimes it makes more sense to call a freaking truce.

So when this mullein plant sprouted in an out of the way corner of the rock garden I let it go. Baby mullein plants are fairly easy to control and the fragrant spikes of the mature plants provide a nice contrast to the pumpkin, tomato and lily plants in this area.

I let wild field violets fill in the border next to the anchos. They crowd out just about everything else and contrast nicely with the oxeye sunflowers thriving next to the drain spout. Wild violets, being much more invasive, are not allowed to gain a foothold anywhere.

Another common ‘weed’ I tolerate is purslane. Purslane, colloquially known as little hogweed, is an annual succulent that’s been grown as a leafy vegetable for centuries. Purslane doesn’t just add a hearty crunch to your salad – the leaves contain more omega 3 fatty acids than any other land plant. Add beneficial quantities vitamins A, C, B, magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, cyanins and xanthins and you’re crazy to toss this pretty little invader in the compost heap.

Purslane may be invasive but it’s shallow-rooted and requires little water or nutrients. Given its relatively innocuous nature there has been some interest in using it as a living mulch. Because I think the plant is both attractive and quite tasty I’ve decided to give the living mulch thing a shot. I’m going to experiment with letting it go in the places it sprouts to evaluate how good it is at crowding out other more problematic weeds.

What does one do with a surfeit of purslane? Today I made purslane potato salad. I took a dozen or so golfball-sized redskin potatoes, half a large sweet onion, 3/4 Cup of purslane leaves, 2 ribs of celery and a handful of fresh dill leaves and dressed them with a nice homemade lemon vinaigrette. It was delicious.

And no, I’m not going to provide detailed directions. This is salad people, not rocket science!

The stems and extra leaves were pureed with tomatoes (also from the garden) and added to tonight’s dog food. Nom nom!

June 30, 2010 at 11:10 pm 13 comments

In The Garden

We’ve all got jobs to do


Digging, hauling, removing rocks – darling husband does the heavy work


Watering, weeding, planting, pruning – the one-armed wonder does the light work



Audie does double duty – hauling a bucket of bugs, worms and weeds feed to his chooks and acting as chief of vermin control


The peeps manufacture mulch and fertilizer
Yup – in the garden, everyone’s got a job to do


 Well…. almost everyone

June 5, 2009 at 3:11 pm 1 comment

Dogs in the Garden

It’s not so unusual to find a dog in the garden.  Sleeping in the shade, chasing the sprinkler, patrolling for squirrels and other pests or just hanging out with their humans.  Dogs like gardens.

Still, other than pest removal, there aren’t many gardening jobs that dogs excel at.  Most dogs, that is.

From the June 20, 2008 issue of the Christian Science Monitor the story of Else, a German Shepherd that helps her family keep the garden free of weeds. 

But while she has had plenty of jobs to occupy her, she remains convinced that she was born to weed. That’s probably because at heart, she’s a team player; she likes to work in tandem.

So when my daughter, Abby, and I revamped the weed-filled raspberry patch last fall, we recruited Else.

The patch was a mess. In addition to monster pokeweed and a miserable tangle of bindweed, we were dealing with deep-rooted, invasive white mulberry – fair-size saplings that had sprung up in the patch over the course of a year’s neglect.We were frustrated, but Else, now part of a response team, was in her element.

Fortunately, she has matured. She has learned not to grab my hand the minute I go for a weed. She also knows to stand by – quivering in anticipation, but not doing anything until given the order – while we dig the deeply entrenched weeds.

In the course of the morning, she helped yank out wads of bindweed, taught the pokeweed who was boss, and patrolled the fence for rabbits while we carefully dug out the surviving raspberry canes.

But her favorite piece of the project was getting rid of the white mulberry trees that had taken stubborn root. This was major weeding, and she was delighted to discover that she had a crucial part to play.

At each tree, Abby and I dug down to loosen the dirt around the long yellow taproots, exposing a big chunk of root while Else waited, ears erect and twitching, eyes riveted on our spades. When we reckoned there was enough root to grip, Abby deployed her. “OK, get it, Else!”Legs splayed out like the platform on a drill rig, Else went at the root with gusto, growling (no doubt to let the root know that resistance was futile) as she yanked and yanked and yanked that thing out of its lair.

After wresting it free, she brought it to Abby and spit it out at her feet, clearly pleased.

Else’s accomplishments are pretty impressive, especially considering that she reportedly ONLY digs up the vegetation she’s told to.  Lots of dogs are happy to root around in the soft, cool soil of a garden.  Problem is, all too often they end up getting in trouble for digging up all the wrong things.

I haven’t managed to teach my dogs to dig up weeds on command.  Considering what I know about my dogs (especially Zip, who is most definately afflicted with kelpie-compulsive disorder) I’m more than a little paranoid that if I did, they’d take things into their own hands and ‘reorganize’ the entire landscape of my yard.  Not a good thing.

So, instead of cultivating their skills at excavation, I’ve harnessed their desire to fetch and carry — and put them to work.  Zip and Audie spend most of every day with me and as I putter around, we mix training exercises into our daily routine.  Here are some photos I took while we worked today.  I just figured out how to do the photo-merge thing.  Enjoy!

Zip balances on an up-ended flowerpot. She's quite good at this

Audie has a bit more trouble, but manages.

Audie has a bit more trouble, but manages.

Audie pulls a small spade out of the ground and brings it to me.

Audie pulls a small spade out of the ground and brings it to me.

Not to be outdone - Zip fetches my clippers from the rock garden

Audie brings me the garden hose


A well-deserved break

A well-deserved break

August 6, 2008 at 2:27 am 2 comments

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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