Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category

My Water-Use Achilles Heel? Fruit Trees   Leave a comment

A couple weeks ago I finally finished the tallying of my summer 2013 water audit. Unlike my trash and energy audits where I have a good baseline from doing these audits since 2001, I have no baseline and no good methodology for a water audit. Until we moved into this house in 2010 I had never lived (as an adult) in a place where I got a water bill, and from 2010 through late 2012 those bills were bimonthly. It’s nearly impossible to use a bimonthly bill to get any sense of your water usage since you end up with summer watering mixed in with cooler months. In the past for my water audits I’ve timed how long showers last, how long it takes to wash my hands, etc. in an attempt to measure my water use. This time I decided to measure my outdoor water use since it’s all through hoses, and then just do the math for indoor use based on my bill. So I got little flow meters for both hoses, and started recording. Unfortunately I did not do a calibration check on either meter and one of them conked out before the end of the month. When I tallied up the amount I had supposedly used in my outdoor watering during the month, it was more than the total water usage in my bill.

Without having a way to calculate indoor vs. outdoor water usage, I’m still having to do this audit based on a lot of estimated numbers and various assumptions. The final tally gave my top 5 water uses as 1-watering trees, 2-showers, 3-toilets, 4-watering lawn, 5-watering potted plants. Assuming that I can use proportioning between the two water meters that were on the hoses, I was using SEVEN times more water on the trees than the lawn.

Now, I’m stingy when it comes to lawns. I don’t water during the winter (rainy season here in Sacramento), and I only water once per week in the summer. Plus we have a small front lawn and don’t water the little backyard patch-o-grass at all. But we have a couple trees in the front yard that are still young and getting established, and a quasi-orchard in the backyard (established nectarine, new apple, new pomegranate, established persimmon, established pear, established orange, established pumelo). But I was “deep watering” the trees by watering monthly and letting the hose water run slowly at the base of each tree for a while. And sometimes would forget to move the hose in a timely manner. They all started producing fruit only after I started watering them, so it is important to me to water them well, but since trees are on an annual cycle there’s no easy way to be sure that if I reduce water by x amount they will still fruit nicely.

I tried looking for suggestions of how much water to apply to fruit trees online, and didn’t get much help. Most of what I found I’m assuming is for commercial growers since it was talking about daily watering. When I did the math those suggestions weren’t far off from what I was applying monthly. I take that to mean I’m overwatering since you have to account for how much the soil can store so I may be applying as much water as the tree needs in a month but since I was doing it all at once much of that water would have been lost as excess.

For the end of last summer I switched to weekly watering for around 5-15 minutes depending on the size of the tree instead of monthly for 1 hr each. But this year with the drought and push to conserve water I’m wondering how to proceed appropriately with these fruit trees, and don’t yet have a plan that I can really feel comfortable with.

Posted May 18, 2014 by mayakey in gardening, water use

Tagged with , , ,

My Cheater Green Onions   Leave a comment

Starting my herb garden has been very slow going, mostly because much of it requires infrastructure: a dividing fence on the property line and removal of the current lawn. But we do have a good start on our alium planter, which is really a planter with rose bushes that will eventually have a carpet of onions and chives underneath (and maybe garlic). I planted chive transplants last year, and they survived to sprout again this spring. This year I’ve also planted chives from seed, so we’ll see how that goes. Hopefully eventually my alliums can crowd out the weeds. My focus has been on chives since I can’t get them readily from the farmer’s market and I feel horribly deprived without a constant source of chives. But we do have some green onions, too, although they are the result of “cheating”.


The main cluster of onion bulbs.

I think this was Mike’s idea, although I don’t really remember. Year before last, I think, he asked if you could grow a sprouting onion bulb to get more green onions. I didn’t think it would root, but we decided to try it to find out. I dug a couple of holes in the soil in a pot whose previous resident had passed on, and we planted the sprouting onion bulbs that had inspired the question. And what do you know? They rooted and kept growing. We were able to harvest green onions (the leaves) for quite a while. Then again this winter we had a week or two in which all of our onions started to sprout, and since we like having a ready supply of green onions we tossed them out into the allium planter. It was midweek, so I literally tossed them in the planter to really plant later. And now I know that onions only have to be contact with dirt to root. By the time I made it outside with my trowel, half the onions (that had landed with the roots down-ish) had rooted right there on the surface, so I just half buried the rest and let them be.


Green onion sprouts from a single bulb.

They won’t grow another bulb (at least the first batch didn’t), but I’m not at this time growing them for the bulb. We’re primarily growing them for the greens, and I’ll consider it a major bonus if I can get a flower. But whatever we get I consider it a bonus since onion bulbs at the farmers market are pretty cheap, but now we’re saving money by not having to buy green onions (of which part of the bunch usually goes bad before we can finish it anyway. You can see from the picture of the single bulb that you end up getting multiple sprouts from each bulb.

I didn’t snap a picture of it, but I’m experimenting with cheater garlic, too. Again, it’s just a couple cloves of garlic that had started sprouting, so I decided to plant it and see if I can start growing my own garlic. We’ll pass on the green garlic since I predict the farmers market will soon be inundated with it, and see if we can get a bulb.

Posted March 12, 2012 by mayakey in gardening, photos, shopping

Tagged with

Compost Trials: Pallet Composter   2 comments

Apparently this winter is all about making changes to my compost systems. Last month I wrote about converting my failed 5-gallon bucket compost “bin” into a vermicomposter, and now I can write about transferring the Heap into a pallet composter. I guess the idea of using pallets to create a compost bin isn’t new, but either I just hadn’t seen it anywhere before or I just spaced it out until now. A couple weeks ago I went to a master gardener workshop and while wandering around afterwards I noticed some compost bins made out of pallets in the corner. Considering that I had a bunch of pallets sitting in my backyard, and they had been on my mind lately, I was immediately intrigued. The pallets are from a remediation system I am running at work that uses nutrients that ship on pallets. While pallets are valuable in bulk, when you are using 2 per quarter and they are exposed to the weather all the time, they end up just going to the dump. Unless, of course, you find a way to salvage them. Originally, I started bringing them home because I thought the wood would be great for a half-height fence in the front yard. I  soon discovered, however, that it is really hard to break down a pallet and they have been stacked in the side yard since then. Last weekend I switched gears and converted four of them into a compost bin, and then transferred the old compost heap into the bin. When needed, I have four more pallets to build into a second bin.

This seems like such a good idea because it is cheap (assuming that you can find free pallets somewhere), easy (all you need are four pallets, four hook-and-eye closures, and a drill), not ugly (at least not compared to just an unstructured pile of compost), and should really work. Since the pallet slats have space in between them, there’s plenty of aeration for the pile, and the inner volume of the bin should be large enough that the compost can actually heat up.

Pallet Composter


The Heap was actually working, but it was slow going. That is partially because I wasn’t trying to make it go fast, and partially because of structural problems. Without any support the pile couldn’t get very tall, so I don’t think it really warmed up properly. And of course the rose bush prunings that formed the base of the Heap were going to take forever to decompose. In the process of transferring from Heap to pallet bin, I removed all branches, so the process should go quicker now. The parts of the Heap that had kitchen waste were decomposing relatively well, and the parts of the Heap that were almost entirely yard waste were just a little moldy. Now everything is mixed up or layered in the pallet bin, and we’ll see if this really does work.

Posted February 6, 2012 by mayakey in frugal living, gardening, resource use

Tagged with ,

Compost Trials: From 5-Gal Bucket Compost to 5-Gal Bucket Worm Bin   Leave a comment

Even though I had declared the 5-gallon bucket compost experiment to be a failure back in May, I never emptied the bucket into the compost heap. I had no plans for the bucket; what can you do with a hole-y bucket? So it just sat there, and functioned as one of the edges for the compost heap for the last several months. No longer.

I’ve really been wanting to start vermicomposting, aka, composting with worms.  A while back I had managed to talk the man-who-doesn’t-like-anything-that-doesn’t-have-four-legs into letting me vermicompost as long as it was in the garage and not the dining room like I originally wanted. I’ve heard that if properly managed there’s no odor, and the closer to the kitchen the easier to use, but since I can’t convince him that the worms aren’t going to escape it stays in the garage. However, a worm bin, even one made of plastic storage bins, is pretty far down on the house wish list, and I didn’t have any suitable containers to make one for free. Or so I thought!

Then at the Green Festival in November I acquired some worms for free! I went to a vermicomposting workshop where the presenter was giving away a few containers of worm castings. She had collected the worm castings in a hurry so they still had a few baby worms in them. When I got back home I put the bag aside and wasn’t able to get to it for over a week so I thought I’d probably killed the worms. Lo and behold, though, when I peaked in there were a few full sized worms wiggling around in there. I punched a couple holes in the container and threw in an old piece of lettuce. Fast forward a month to around Christmas and I peaked in again to realize that the lettuce was gone and the worms still alive. But they couldn’t stay in a clear plastic snack-food container forever, they needed a home upgrade.

That’s when it occurred to me that the 5-gallon bucket with holes in it could work as a worm bin. I hope. The original holes are quite large so I’m hoping that I don’t lose my few worms through them. The hole-y bucket has holes on the bottom and sides, and I drilled a few more (much smaller) holes on the side to make sure there will be enough ventilation. I grabbed another then-unused 5-gallon bucket to use as the moisture collector. The outer bucket is wider than the hole-y bucket so I didn’t need to drill ventilation holes in it, but if it had been the same dimensions I would have drilled a row of ventilation holes in the sides below where the bottom of the inner bucket would be. Instead I propped the inner bucket on some scrap plastic bits and there’s a narrow annular space between the buckets. I put a really thick layer of dampened hand-shredded newspaper on the bottom since I didn’t want the worms to fall through the drainage holes, added a few rotting lettuce leaves, strawberries, tea leaves, and a well crushed egg shell (or as well as I could crush it), and dumped the castings container and worms on top. I don’t mind sacrificing that worm gold fertilizer if it means I’ll get a head start on creating my own. After topping it off with some more hand-shredded newspaper and another good misting, I created a lid with a peace of plywood we had laying around.

Now I just have to remember to check on them occasionally. At this point they’re not going to create much fertilizer since I’m starting with just a few worms, literally. It’s more of a test run to see if I can keep them alive before I actually order my first pound of worms. I’m really excited at this.

Posted January 9, 2012 by mayakey in gardening, unshopping

Tagged with , ,

Orange Oil Cleaner As Weed Killer   4 comments

One of the things that happens when you accidentally buy a case of 32-oz bottles of orange oil cleaner, is that you have A LOT of orange oil cleaner to get rid of. Even shipping a few bottles to interested friends and family hardly seems to make a dent in the volume. We typically use probably 1-oz in a year since most of our cleaning is done with just castile soap, vinegar, or baking soda (none of which are sensitizers like d-limonene, a sensitizer makes your body more susceptible to allergens and toxic chemicals). So a few weeks ago I read somewhere about using vinegar or orange oil cleaner to kill the weeds growing in the cracks and spacers in concrete, and I immediately thought it would be a great way to make some progress on our stash of orange oil cleaner!

Do you know what? It works.  It doesn’t actually take that much, but we have lots of concrete, lots of cracks/spacers, and therefore lots of weeds. Some of the weeds in the concrete are too large to pull out and repeated weed whacking just seems to make them tougher. But a dose of orange oil immediately shriveled them up and within days they were completely dead. It mostly worked on bermuda grass as well, although not all of the runners got killed. Since d-limonene is not a toxic chemical I don’t have a problem using it as an herbicide, and since it is extracted from orange peels I’m guessing that it is biodegradable so that there’s not a problem with harmful residues remaining on the concrete or contaminating storm water runoff.

Now there are two followup experiments: vinegar and time. Vinegar is cheaper, so if it works as well then it would be a better choice for anyone who didn’t accidentally buy a case of orange oil cleaner. And I’d also like to know how permanent of a solution it is. My guess is that any of it that soaks into the soil in the crack and stays will just help keep more weeds from growing for a while.

Posted October 24, 2011 by mayakey in environment, gardening, resource use

Tagged with ,

There Are Native Plants, And Then There Are Native Native Plants   Leave a comment

Okay, the Sacramento Valley California Native Plant Society fall plant sale is coming up September 24-25, and it’ll soon be time for me to get that native plant garden in the ground to replace the outer third of our lawn (aka the dead third). I have a grand plan that I’ve been developing all summer and a great plant list. Oh, wait a minute, I have done NOTHING. So instead it’s crunch time to develop a plant list, and I think I’m going to do the “wing-it” landscaping design strategy.

The hang-up on this yard project is the fact that I’m picky (I know, shocking). I don’t just want plants native to the US, or native to California, but plants native to right where I live! It’s a genetic diversity thing. Plan communities are local communities. Plants within a given area are different genetically than even the same species of plants living in a different area because they adapt to their local climate. And when selecting specific plants, if it is native to the specific place where the garden is located, accounting for the various microclimates even on a small lot, it will likely survive and thrive with less work/inputs. Unfortunately, the only way to get local cultivars is to propagate cuttings or seeds collected locally. I know I’m certainly not going to do that, and I’m assuming most people feel the same. Plus there may be legal issues with collecting from wild plants. The next best thing is a local native plant nursery that propagates locally collected cuttings and seeds. Fortunately, in Sacramento we have Elderberry Farms Native Plant Nursery, a project of the Sacramento Valley CNPS. I think that most native plant nurseries probably have a mix of local natives and broader-area natives.

You do have to be smart when it comes to a native plant list, though, and check what their native ecosystem is. This is especially true in the west where we have big states that have many different ecosystems. A plant native to shady mountain forests isn’t going to thrive in an open desert garden, at least not without a lot of water. So my plant list will be developed first from the list of plants found at Mather Field, then from a broader central valley list, then from anywhere in the state. And there will be at least a few non-natives that will probably find their way in, especially since I have a 5-gallon bucket of paperwhites that need to go somewhere!

Posted September 15, 2011 by mayakey in environment, gardening

Tagged with ,

Compost Trials: And We’re Back to The Heap   Leave a comment

So back in June I posted about our compost heap, and at the time I was planning to go back to pit composting for the summer to avoid any issue with odor or gnats/flies. That worked, very briefly. Unfortunately since we aren’t regularly watering that patch of grass it soon became baked hard. As in: I spent 45 minutes digging one day and got 6 inches. We don’t have a pick, and I’m not inclined to buy one just so I can continue on this ridiculous project of pit composting. So we’re back to using the heap. The plan is for me to keep sufficiently ahead on my yard work that I have enough dirt/yard waste waiting to cover the kitchen waste right away so it retains some moisture and doesn’t attract so many flies. Theoretically I could start pit composting in early winter before the ground becomes soggy again, but let’s be honest: it’s not likely to happen. Sometimes my lazy streak wins out. Yeah, it would greatly improve the fertility of that patch of soil, but at what (labor) cost? I watched my dad go round and round the yard for my entire childhood and if there was any significant improvement, I never noticed it.

I am dreaming very hard of starting my worm bin now, since I think I can do it cheaper than the cost of a compost bin, but there are so many projects going on now that for now it will stay a dream. Besides, since Mike won’t let me do it in the house it’ll have to be in the garage and the temperature fluctuations out there may still be to large.

Posted August 27, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

Tagged with

Compost Trials: The Heap   Leave a comment

Now that the rainy season is over (ahem) and the ground is dry enough to start digging again for our pit composting, I’m finally getting around to doing a post in this composting series about what we’ve been doing over the winter/rainy season. At first I slogged on with the pit composting but that didn’t last long after the rains really started. You know how shovel-fulls of dirt are heavy? Well shovel-fulls of saturated dirt are even heavier. My back was complaining bitterly as the rainy season started and I was still trying to dig. Plus, it is extremely messy (and a bit sisyphean) to dig a hole in mud, fill it with kitchen waste and then refill the hole with mud. And since I wasn’t keen on actually doing the work in the rain, we reached a point where the holding bucket was overflowing and a backup holding bucket had to be recruited as I waited for a dry daytime hour to allow me to dig. I confess to being a bit mulish, and I am aware that a sane person would have given up way earlier than I did, but I finally realized that I needed to try something different and that the best alternative at the time was “the heap”.

The heap started by accident/through laziness last summer as I was removing dead brush from the planters in the front yard. At first I was chopping branches into smaller chunks by hand and using the pieces as mulch, but as I started working on the rosebushes that strategy broke down. I procrastinated chopping up the dead rose branches and just threw them in a pile in a corner of the driveway where it grew to be quite tall. Then I de-thatched the front lawn and since I was exhausted by the end and could no longer think straight I just threw the armfuls of thatch on top of the rosebushes to deal with at a later time. Eventually Mike prevailed on me to at least move the pile into the back yard where it wasn’t publicly ugly, and when I did so I realized that the stuff in the pile was already starting to decompose. At that point it was officially declared part of our composting strategy, ostensibly to deal with large amounts of yard waste (like several dead rose bushes and a couple cubic yards or so of thatch).

When pit composting became impossible due to rain, I realized that the heap was a viable alternative. Neither Mike nor I is really comfortable with throwing kitchen waste in an open pile in the summer because of odor and insect swarms, but in the winter those negative side effects are significantly less to non-existant. So the pile has a layer of rose branches at the bottom, then a layer of grass and weed thatch, then a layer of kitchen scraps with some yard waste mixed in, and is now topped off with some interspersed layers of grass clippings from the waist high beauty that was our back lawn, and grass plants and iceplant ripped from the planters. The top layers of grass and iceplant will keep the noxious gnats and flies from being a problem from the old kitchen waste and hopefully keep in moisture. The next plan is to get a black tarp to cover it for the summer and just let it be. I have no delusions that it will be particularly fast composting since it is on concrete, contains lots of large hard branches, and was not strategically layered; but eventually everything organic decomposes.

Posted June 28, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

Tagged with

A Garden Is A Small Piece of a Larger Whole   Leave a comment

One of the exciting things about being a homeowner now is that I get to design the landscaping! This being me doing the planning, however, means that the process of designing a landscape is more involved than “that’s pretty, lets plant it”-type planning. In my world I’m not just designing a personal garden because it is not just a few few square feet of ground, instead I am designing one small part of a larger world and my decisions can make a difference in that world.

Obviously the landscaping has to fit and support our lives, needs, and desires. We want increased resale value, spaces to relax, beautiful views, shade, an area for eating and entertaining, an awesome herb garden, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, minimized watering and maintenance, and practical spaces like clothesline, solar oven, composter, rain barrels, and place for the garbage and recycling cans. This is where most people stop in their planning, but our yard isn’t just something that affects our lives.

Our garden affects the environment around us because it is part of it. The same climate and geology that shapes the native landscapes around us influence our garden, and a garden has the ability to influence the world around it. While as a society we have used water and other inputs to force landscapes to diverge from the native forces, there is a cost to that which is becoming greater and more apparent. Likewise we have brought plants into new areas where sometimes they become invasive weeds, crowding out the native plants and animals.

  • Landscaping that needs more water than what is natural for a region means that much more water acquired, treated, and transported, with all the losses and energy consumption along the way, and may reduce water available for other uses.
  • A yard that releases little to no stormwater to the storm drains means more water infiltrating the ground, and less water transporting sediment, oils, metals, pesticides, herbicides, and animal wastes into surface water bodies.
  • Landscaping that provides shade on a hot day reduces the cooling load and therefore energy needs of the house and electric grid.
  • Landscaping that includes lots of flowers encourages pollinators and can help gardeners and local farmers out, as well as reduce the need for harsh pesticides.
  • A garden that provides vegetables and fruit reduces food-miles. Although I am also considering that my purchases at the farmers’ market support “local” agriculture and farmers’ livelihoods so I don’t necessarily want to grow the fruits and vegetables that I can easily purchase at the farmers’ market.

A garden may be an individual thing, but it is also important to keep in mind that it is not independent of the larger systems that surround us, and that while it may be small it can have an effect, good or bad.

Posted June 7, 2011 by mayakey in conscious living, environment, gardening

Tagged with

Compost Trials: 5-Gallon Bucket Update   1 comment

As I wrote previously, the first experiment with composting that I did when we first moved into our house last summer was a 5-gallon bucket. To summarize: I thought it would be perfect since I had access to free buckets, and would be able to roll them easily to turn the compost. Unfortunately the free buckets did not have usable lids, which meant no rolling. Additionally, I had difficulty with getting drainage right.

Over the winter I left the bucket to sit and completely ignored it. I thought of turning the compost a few times with a trowel, but since the compost was growing a nice crop of an unknown plant I thought that might be more trouble than it was worth. This weekend I finally checked in on this experiment and I now deem the lidless 5-gallon bucket composter a complete failure. The easy stuff is degraded, sure, but there’s still plenty of easily identifiable bits of plant matter and kitchen waste. I’m inclined to guess that even if I had been more diligent over the winter it wouldn’t have made a difference since it is too small to generate sufficient heat, and many of the bugs were probably killed before I got enough drainage holes drilled.

I still think the original concept would work. A 5-gallon bucket with a lid and plenty of holes drilled in it should be a halfway decent composter for someone with limited space. The lid should help it stay moist and trap heat, and enable easy turning-by-rolling. Since I was interested in the “free” thing for this experiment, though, I’m declaring the experiment over. Now that the new car is paid off, buying a not-free composter (aka Expensive! sheesh) is within sight.

Posted May 23, 2011 by mayakey in gardening

Tagged with