Archives for posts with tag: expansion

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

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Saturday was a washout (it rained all day) and yesterday, we spent our time expanding the west end of the garden (see May 26, 2013).  Today it is time to plant!

To start, we installed the tomato cages across north side of the east planter.  In each of the last two years, we added stakes late in the season to stabilize the cages against the unbalanced forces of unruly tomato vines.  Recognizing the inevitability of this step, this year we did it right from the beginning.

For each variety of tomato, we chose the two best specimens (even after having given some away, we had several to choose from), dug a deep hole on either side of a cage, and buried the seedlings and their root balls up to the first set of true leaves.  The buried portion of the stems will produce roots and help firmly establish the plant in the soil.  In prior years, I have relied on my memory to keep the location of the different tomato varieties straight.  This year, I placed row markers against the stakes.

In the south center of the east planter, we formed two rows, staggered, for the eggplant and peppers.  We have room for eight plants and chose three Rosso bell peppers, three eggplant, and two orange bell peppers.  We have no need to identify these with row markers; their fruits will (eventually) identify them.

I read that that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to hold hands—so we placed them with only about a foot in between.  All will eventually need support for their main stems but being short on stakes, we will have to provide them later (they are not yet very tall so there is time).

In the remaining sextant (at the southeast corner), we laid out a relatively dense pattern of staggered rows for the basil.  We planted nine seedlings that had been hardened off (we gave away the others) and added five seedlings from indoors.  The latter had not been hardened off and they showed it with their droopy leaves (I would be disconsolate, too, if I had been kicked out of the house).  These seedlings are also smaller having never been potted up.

With that, the east planter is now full.  We gave all of the newly transplanted seedlings a drink of water (we’ll install soaker hoses later) along with a dose of fish emulsion.

It is Memorial Day weekend and we are looking forward to setting out as many plants as possible before the holiday is over.  It might be my favorite gardening task.

But first, I had to face what is easily my least favorite.  In preparation for setting out the summer squash seedlings and sowing seeds for the winter squash (see May 19, 2013), we needed to remove the sod that is west of the west planter.

I’ve described—and complained about—this process several times already, so I will skip the details and the griping.  I will say, however, that due to yesterday’s rain and the sparsity of grass, the weedy sod (well, mostly it was loose soil) came up with much less effort than ever before.  I’m not saying that it was easy but it didn’t hurt quite so much.

Even so, it took us about two hours to finish the first half.  After a quick break for lunch, we cleared the remaining half in another hour and a half.  Then, we spread, raked and tamped eight bags of cedar mulch.  Now, almost the entire area north of the pool deck—a length of 50 feet—is devoted to garden.  It is a much better use of the space than lawn.

This should be the last sod removal of the year.  I’d like to say it is the last ever but given our tendency to expand, I know that eventually we’ll be removing more.

Future home of the summer and winter squashes (time for a swim!)

Our plan this year is to expand the garden and plant the squashes, both the summer squash seedlings and winter squash seeds, directly in the ground to the west of the west planter.  It is also our intention to grow the cucumbers along the fence, just behind (i.e., north of) the planters.  When we hatched this plan in the middle of the winter (see January 16, 2013), it seemed like we had all the time in the world to make it happen.

Well, five months later, it is still only a plan.  The difference is that now we have two dozen seedlings that are almost ready to be transplanted.  That we have not yet prepared the garden for them is not yet critical (they’re still fine in their pots) but getting it done has increased in urgency.  The plants will continue to grow regardless of what we do—or don’t do.

Sadly, the weather has not been conducive to outdoor activities.  It remains unseasonably cool and unusually rainy (all of the showers we were supposed to have in April arrived this month instead).  The work will have to wait a bit longer.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to refine and better define our plans.

Preparing the ground for the squashes will first mean removing more sod, 160 sq. ft. of it to be specific.  This is almost exactly the same area (158 sq. ft.) as we removed around the planters at the end of April (see April 27, 2013, part 2 and April 28, 2013) so we have a long day (or two) ahead of us.

It’s not something I look forward to but I am heartened by the fact that there is not much that would qualify as sod in that part of the lawn.  It is mostly weeds and bare earth which should come out with substantially less effort than the soil in grassier regions, especially if the conditions are favorable (e.g., shortly after a rainy day).

Once the sod is removed, we will cover the area with cedar mulch to match the adjoining garden.  That will leave us with a blank canvas on which to lay out our squash plants.  According to the seed packets, they should be spaced at about five feet in each direction and we know from experience that squash plants can get quite large.  Even so, we would like to fit as many as possible within the available space.

So I sketched a rough plan of the garden as it currently exists to the east and as we envision it to the west.  The squash zone is eight feet by 20 feet and we will need aisle space on each side and between it and the west planter.  Assuming one foot for the former and two feet for the latter leaves us with a useable area that is six feet by 18 feet.

This divides nicely into 12 sections, each three feet square (and each nine square feet).  We have enough seedlings (and seeds) to plant all of them but that might result in more squash than we can handle.  Also, if we plant the entire area with squash this year, we would have to find someplace else to plant squash next year to avoid replanting in exactly the same place.

Instead, we will plant six of the sections in a staggered arrangement and leave the other six sections vacant (next year, we will swap locations).  We will plant two of each type of summer squash (crookneck and zucchini) and one of each variety of winter squash (Kabocha and Delicata).

When they mature towards the end of the summer, the squash vines will be more circular than square in extent and that means there will be a narrow space between them (about 15 inches, or three feet times the square root of two minus one).  This will provide some additional access.

The cucumbers are a bit easier to configure.  We will plant three of each kind (slicing and pickling), spaced at two feet, behind the east planter.  We planted cucumbers in the west planter last year and will plant them behind it next year.  It is neither a long-cycle crop rotation nor a long-distance one but we hope that it will keep the striped cucumber beetles guessing, at least for a little while.

Rachel predicts that we will next decide to convert the area east of the planters (about 64 sq. ft. are available there) and jokes that eventually, the pool will be surrounded by the vegetable garden.  At the rate we are going, it is probably no joke!

This weekend is the first time this spring that is has been both warm and free of snow.  Finally, we can start our outdoor planting.

But first, a little planning.  I mean, it’s not like we can just throw some seeds in the ground, right?  Well, I suppose we could (and many people do, successfully) but then there would be less to write about.

Our main consideration is crop rotation and making sure that we do not plant anything in the same place we grew it last year.  Because we are doing the same vegetables again this year and have two raised beds, this simply means swapping everything from west to east and vice versa.

Our secondary consideration is expansion.  At the end of last season (see September 25, 2012 and January 16, 2013), we concluded that the zucchini and the cucumbers need more space than the raised beds can provide while still accommodating other vegetables.  Therefore, we will move them elsewhere (posts will follow).

So, without further ado, here are the planting layouts for the raised beds:

East planter:  Tomatoes in the north half; lettuces in the southwest sextant; eggplant and bell peppers in the south central sextant; and basil in the southeast sextant.  We have already started the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and basil from seed indoors (see March 24, 2013) and will direct sow the lettuces in a week or two.

West planter:  Sugar Snap peas in the north half; turnips and carrots in the southwest quadrant; and radishes and beets in the southeast quadrant.  Starting all of these from seed—sowing them directly into the soil—was today’s activity.

The Sugar Snap Peas will expand to a row the full width of the planter which will, hopefully, increase our yield proportionally.  The duration of the harvest should not change—we planted the entire row today—but each day’s crop should be greater.

Last year, we alternated rows of radishes and beets and this year we did the same.  Unlike last year, however, we planted the seeds in longitudinal rows.  It might not be the most efficient use of the available space (we could fit a slightly larger total length of rows if arranged transversely) but it will be much easier to water.  We took the same approach with the carrots and turnips, sowing their seeds in parallel rows.

By moving the peas farther back in the planter (and strictly speaking, they will occupy less than half of the bed), we can fit five rows of the root crops.  We planted one row of carrots and radishes (half of each) and one row of turnips and beets (again, half of each).  We will follow this in a week or two with another row of carrots and radishes and of turnips and beets and wrap up with a final row of carrots and radishes a week or two after that.  Our harvest will be staggered and should last well into summer.

We measured the rows and marked them by removing the mulch.  The seeds went in quickly—even the teeny-tiny carrot seeds—and we brushed a thin layer of soil onto them for cover.  Rain is expected later today so we will let Mother Nature do the watering.

Well, Mother Nature answered my question (see January 14, 2013), and how.  The Christmas snow had completely disappeared and the ground was warm and soft.  But this morning, it is once again covered by four inches of fluffy (but strangely sticky) snow.  It took an hour and a half to shovel the walk and dig out the cars but at least I got some exercise.

Being otherwise confined indoors gives me the opportunity to finish up my recapping of last year’s garden.  Our main take-away from the entire season is that there is never enough space.  Two years ago, one four foot by twelve foot planter seemed huge.  That is, until we started planting, at which point it seemed to shrink.  We had to give away about half of the seedlings we had hoped to grow but for which we could not find room.

Last year, we doubled our acreage (using that term wishfully) by adding a second planter; we now have almost 200 sq. ft. of arable soil (that’s 0.5% of an acre).  And for most of the season, it seemed like enough.  We started vegetables from seed in about half of the available space and planted seedlings in the remainder.  Using more conservative planning in conjunction with the increased planter space, we were able to find room for everything we wanted to grow.

But then the zucchini went berserk.  We started with two plants—grown from seed—within one quarter of one planter.  They started off enthusiastically and shared the space amicably.  By the end of July, however, they were crowding each other (and the surrounding string beans) and both seemed irked to be crammed into such a small space with another plant.  The close quarters stifled their growth and probably contributed to one of them succumbing to disease (which we never identified).  By the end of the season, the remaining plant filled and then overflowed its allotted space.

The cucumbers also would have preferred more real estate.  Despite some very aggressive pruning on my part, the six vines we planted in one quarter of one planter quickly grew up and around the three cages we installed to support them, wrapping each tier with several lateral branches.  When the vines reached the top of the cages, they launched themselves overboard in search of other supports.  Some of the vines did belly-flops onto the soil surface below but at least one successfully landed on the neighboring trellis.

So how to deal with these space issues?  For the answer, I had to think outside the box.  Or, more specifically, outside the planter.

What I have concluded about the zucchinis is that they are not well suited to long, narrow planters such as ours.  They want to grow in large circular spaces so that they can extend in all directions, without restraint.  But building a circular raised bed or even an octagonal one would be beyond my carpentry skills.  And a square raised planter larger than four feet across would be impractical.

So instead, we will clear a space to the west of the west planter and build it up with new soil to create a low, raised bed without sides.  Planted there, the zucchini vines can sprawl as far as they want in whichever directions suit them.  We will need a large area—six feet by six feet per plant—and can probably fit two plants.  The only immediate problem will be a lack of sunlight but more on that in a future post.

Similarly, the cucumber plants are unhappy with the aspect ratio of the raised beds but unlike the zucchinis, they would prefer to be planted in a longer, narrower arrangement.  Instead of being wrapped around circular cages, they would like to be planted single-file with room for their main stems to grow upwards and their lateral branches to grow outwards.

Luckily, our pool fence is conveniently located just a few feet north of the planters.  It is certainly long enough (it extends for at least 50 feet) and even though it is only about four feet high, we can readily extend its height with posts and netting or chicken wire.  (Okay, this will probably take more effort than I think but it seems doable.)  In addition to providing more breathing room, spreading out the cucumbers laterally should make it easier to harvest the cucumbers and pick off the inevitable beetles.

In the garden, it seems, expansion is inevitable.

We’re visiting my family in California this weekend.  One of my sisters suggested a day trip to Santa Cruz (her daughter is considering a transfer to the University of California campus there) and we jumped at the chance.  Rachel lived there for five years while she got her PhD and I joined her for the last two of those years.  We have many fond—if somewhat fuzzy, after 25 years—memories of the town and campus.

We made an early start, setting off on the three-hour drive a little after 5:00 am (when we travel west, jet lag actually works in our favor).  The first two-thirds of the trip were on Interstate Highways 80 and 680, roads that have become so popular (if that’s the right word) that they are trafficky at any hour of the day.  Still, we made it to San Jose before the morning rush began in earnest and crossed over the Grapevine (California Highway 17) into Scott’s Valley and then Santa Cruz without much trouble (easy for me to say, of course, I was not driving).

We arrived at 8:00 am which was fortunate because that is when Harbor Café opens for breakfast.  We frequented this joint when Rachel lived here—it is just down the street from a former apartment—and we were relieved when a web-search confirmed that it is still in business.  The day before we left home, we spent an afternoon looking things up on the internet and there were some disappointments (our favorite Chinese and Italian restaurants, for instance, closed long ago).

After a hearty breakfast, we made our way up to campus.  It appears to be mostly unchanged—still beautiful and serene, nestled amongst the coast redwood and eucalyptus trees—but it is noticeably more crowded.  When Rachel was attending UCSC, College Eight consisted of one building; now, additional classroom buildings and dormitories have been built around it.  Two new colleges, imaginatively named “Nine” and “Ten”, have been constructed as well.

From there, we drove down the western edge of town—stopping by another former apartment—to Natural Bridges State Beach.  I’ve mentioned it before (see May 27, 2012) and have been thinking about it more since reading some of the recent posts from Late Bloomer (see, for example, “Monarchs and Milkweed—Episode 16”).  A eucalyptus grove adjacent to the beach is the winter destination of Monarch butterflies who migrate from the Rocky Mountains.  They start arriving in October and by late November, there will be thousands of them hanging from branches, clustered together for warmth.

When we first reached the end of the boardwalk which traverses into the heart of the grove, we did not see many butterflies.  There were only a dozen or so early-birds flitting between the limbs of the eucalyptus trees and the occasional laurel.  But as we stood and watched, our eyes adjusted to what we were seeing, not unlike when stepping into a dark room after being out in the sun.  Gradually, we could begin to make out the wings of Monarchs that had alit on the overhanging branches.

When resting, Monarchs fold their wings together so that only the undersides are visible.  The brightly-colored topsides are hidden and the muted undersides blend in with the pale, tan-colored eucalyptus leaves.  The effectiveness of this natural camouflage is increased by the dim lighting caused by dense coastal fog.  When the fog burns off in the afternoon—always a magical moment—the Monarchs should be easier to see.

It’s hard for me to say because my memory is vague (at best) but it seems like the boardwalk (the one on the Monarch trail, not the famous one on the main Santa Cruz beach) is farther from the butterflies than it used to be.  I can recall being practically within arm’s reach but now, the nearest branches are twenty feet away.  Of course, this is probably a good thing.  The Natural Preserve is visited by many people—including busloads of field-tripping school kids while we were there—who could still be a nuisance to the resting Monarchs, even when using their “butterfly voices”.