Ancient Drip Irrigation: Ollas in the Garden

I’ve had several people watch the garden tour video from my last post and ask me what’s up with all of the upturned bottles in my beds. It got me thinking that it would be a great opportunity to discuss ollas and talk about my experience with this ancient drip irrigation technique.

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An olla (pronounced oh-yah) is an unglazed pot or clay vessel that is buried in the ground and filled with water. Over time, the water slowly permeates through the walls of the pot and delivers water directly to the roots of surrounding plants. This technique for agricultural irrigation is thought to have originated in Africa. Traces of ollas have been found in China, dating back over 4,000 years! This method is still used in many places around the world (I observed many villagers using ollas in kitchen gardens on my travels through Nicaragua last year).

There are many benefits to this watering technique. The most obvious being that it greatly conserves water. Some say it can reduce water usage in your garden by 50-70%. It is particularly helpful in deserts and drylands where water quickly evaporates from the surface of the soil. The micropores in the clay vessel slowly seep water and over time, the plant roots grow around the pots and only “pull” moisture when needed, never wasting a single drop.

I was recently going away on an eight day trip and was concerned about my veggie garden, since the forecast called for sun without a single drop of rain the entire time I was away. I was pressed on time, and opted to order Garden Summit’s Plant Watering Stakes off of Amazon. I gathered every glass bottle I could muster up from both my recycling bin & a friend’s bin and filled them with water. The stakes are pretty small, but since wine bottles hold a decent amount of liquid, the upturned bottle slowly feeds water into the clay stake as it drains. I placed one every 2-3 feet and hoped for the best. To my delight, I returned home to plants that were all still alive and thriving!

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In retrospect, I would probably recommend following along with a DIY online. It seems more cost-effective and you can choose the size of your pot. The benefit of a larger vessel is that it lasts longer without you having to refill the water as regularly. If you’re interested in making your own, I recommend this Olla DIY from Global Buckets. It’s easy!

Full disclosure: during long, hot periods without rain, I do water my garden with the hose, in addition to the ollas. The late afternoon western sun in Charleston during the summertime is brutal and sometimes it’s clear my plants need a boost. Regardless, ollas are an awesome way to cut down on the water you use in your garden, and allow you to skip hand-watering for several days at a time (or longer, depending on your vessel size and the weather!).

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Edible Garden Video Tour!

This past week, I spent time visiting my best friend from high school in her new home located in Long Beach, California. I returned late last night, long after dark, and exhausted from traveling I tucked myself right into bed. This morning, I excitedly awoke and sprung up like a child on Christmas morning to check on the growth that happened while I was away. Sam, my boyfriend and stand-in gardener, did an awesome job of keeping the plants watered and happy while I was out of town.

I was pleasantly surprised to step outside and find handfuls of ripe sungold tomatoes, large purple tomatillos, and bunches of crispy snap peas. The wildflower seeds I sowed a couple of months back are now producing beautiful blooms. The herb garden is bursting with fragrance and buzzing with bees! My friend Anna, an incredibly talented photographer + super-nanny stopped by this morning and together, with baby James in tow, we all harvested and tasted the first ripe tomatoes of the season. What a treat!

After they left, I recorded a video giving a full tour of both my annual veggie bed and my herb garden. Please check it out below! Thanks for watching!

My Easy, Cheap, DIY Worm Compost Bin

This morning I revamped my worm composting bin, after clearing out a ridiculous amount of fruit & veggie scraps from a bag in our freezer. We eat a lot of veggies in this house and sometimes (read: most of the time) we are too lazy to bring it outside while we’re cooking, so instead we usually fill a brown paper bag in the freezer which, unlike a countertop bin, prevents fruit flies and obviously can sit without rotting for as long as my procrastinating little heart desires! Since I was already taking my bins apart and freshening them up a bit, I thought it would be a great opportunity to snap some pictures and show you my totally easy, cheap DIY worm compost bin.

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One of my worm bins with some finished compost/worm castings!

First of all, let me just clarify what a worm compost (or vermicompost) bin is. Many people have asked me “Shouldn’t there be worms in all compost bins/piles?” and my answer to that is “No, not really. It depends.” Helpful, right? Okay so let me break it down (decomposer joke…get it?): Most compost piles and bins benefit from a healthy population of worms and other decomposers; however, there are methods of composting, such as the Berkley “hot compost” method, where the pile reaches temperatures of up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and therefore is not a suitable environment for our sweet little invertebrate friends. It is a damn party for bacteria though.

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So, differing from other composting methods, a vermicompost bin is created specifically as a nice, suitable habitat for worms, where you give them a home and all your fruit & veggie scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells, and brown paper, and in exchange they break it down quickly and give you their nitrogen rich poop, called worm castings.

Not all types of worms enjoy the conditions of a contained compost bin. The best choice for this DIY are red wigglers. I ordered 500 live red wiggler worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm (also available on Amazon for anyone with Prime) and I highly recommend! As a gardener, this is an easy, cost effective way to not only make use of your food scraps (and keep them out of a landfill!) but also nourish your plants with premium, nitrogen-rich organic matter. It doesn’t smell (seriously, at all) and it’s also just fun to have a worm farm!

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My worm bin (located to the right) sits on our screened in porch, directly outside of our kitchen door. This makes it easy to access and keeps it cool and shaded. You are less likely to visit a compost bin if it is all the way across your yard! Keep it close.

I don’t have pictures of my building process but they are not really necessary because this DIY is SO. EASY.

1. Buy three 8-10 gallon plastic bins with lids from a hardware store. Any color works, so long as they are not clear!

2. Put one container to the side. This will be your drainage bin and does not require any holes.

3. Take the other two bins and drill 1/4 inch holes all over the bottom “floor” of the bins. Then do the same around the top couple of inches of the “walls”, on all sides, right below where you will fasten the top. This is for ventilation. Don’t worry about the worms “getting out”. They’ll be happy to stay in their new little home.

4. Now, take one of the bins’ lids and drill holes all over it.

5. It’s time to prep the two bins (the ones with holes) for the worms. Shred newspaper or brown paper bags and get them slightly damp. This will be the worms’ bedding and can be placed along the floor of both bins.

6. Next, I added a little bit of dirt from my yard/garden, followed by my food scraps. Then it’s time to add your worms! I added half of my worms to one bin, and half to the other. Lastly, cover your food scraps with a “brown” layer: either dead leaves or more paper, or a mixture of both! You’re pretty much almost done, now you just have to put it all together.

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A layer of fruit & veggie scraps will make for happy worms!

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Always cover your layer of veggie scraps with a “brown” carbon layer to prevent a smell / fruit flies.

7. Grab the bin you put to the side (the one without any holes). You won’t need its top. This will be your bottom tier for collecting all of the fluid (which can be collected and diluted to apply to your soil but more on this later) that drains through your vermicompost bins. Place it where you want your worm farm, (make sure your chosen spot is shady and out of the sun!) and find a couple of bricks or something similar to place inside. This will provide a raised surface for the bin above it to drain.

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Okay so those of you who are new to vermicomposting are probably looking at this picture and thinking “what in the fresh hell is this and why should I care about it?” Many gardeners call this “worm tea” and its simply the solution that drains through your bin. It is high in nitrogen and other nutrients. It can be added to a spray bottle, diluted slightly, and sprayed on the surface of your soil near plants roots for a much appreciated boost!

7. Place your first bin full of worms on top of the raised bricks and cover with the lid that has drilled holes. Stack your last and final bin of worms on top, and cover! This top bin doesn’t need holes in its lid. The ventilation holes along the top of the sides will suffice.

8. Voila! Now just keep an eye on your bin, ensuring it doesn’t become too dry. It might need a slight mist here and there. Just remember, every time you add food scraps, always add a brown layer on top! You’ll be amazed how quickly your worms will break down food waste, and when you apply this “black gold” to your garden, your plants will love you for it!

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My veggie garden this morning after a fresh helping of worm castings. Happy plants!

Hydrate the Bees & Create a Pollinator-Friendly Garden

I’ve spent a lot of time teaching (and therefore learning) about bees. My work as an instructor for a farm-to-school program means spending most of my time outside in the garden with children, ages 4 through 12. Kids are so curious about bees! I’m asked many questions everyday (i.e.: What species of bee is that? What animals eat bees? What is that bee’s name… no, like, its personal name?) so I have to be fully equipped with answers for so many of these eager young minds.

Did you know bees see ultraviolet light? I didn’t until I studied a bee’s vision with my fourth graders last fall. Flowers have evolved alongside bees, developing beautiful patterns that guide the pollinators to the plant’s nectar (and therefore pollen) like a bull’s eye! If you’ve never seen images of how bees see flowers, do yourself a favor and google it.

We also spend a lot of time discussing the importance of bees and the role they play in both their ecosystem and for human food supply. Even students who are slightly fearful of bees in the garden are incredibly respectful of their little garden buddies. “Step back, let ’em drink!” is something I’ve overheard students say countless times to one another whenever a crowd forms around bees pollinating in the school garden. I love the respect they demonstrate for these important creatures.

I think of my home garden as a safe haven for pollinators, too. I know the importance of protecting our at-risk bee populations and do my best to make my yard & garden a safe, non-toxic, abundant space for visiting pollinators. Below are some of the easy ways to create the same environment in your own space:

1. Provide a drinking source for bees and butterflies.

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My pollinator water source, made from an old shallow bowl and some conch shells.

I have seen a lot of creative ideas (shoutout to Pinterest) about how to provide drinking water for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The simple concept is that, differing from a bird bath, insects need a dry place to land and sip, so they don’t drown. I’ve seen people use marbles and large stones for this purpose, but I didn’t have either, so I used some conch shells I collected from a nearby beach instead. I found this pretty leaf bowl at a thrift store a few months back, added the shells, and filled with water while not fully submerging the conchs. Voila! An easy, inexpensive (and potentially free) way to keep pollinators hydrated on a hot summer day. (Side note, I do pour the water into a garden bed every couple of days and refill with fresh water to prevent breeding mosquito larvae.)

2. Let your annuals bolt/flower/go to seed.

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African Blue Basil in bloom

In my garden, I let some of my basil plants begin to flower. The bees go crazy for basil flower nectar! Every few days, I pluck the flower heads off the top and sprinkle them in the soil. I repeat this process for as long as possible until the plant totally ends its life cycle. I do this for many of the annuals in my garden including lettuce, cilantro, and dill. Not only does this provide an additional food source for pollinators, but it is also results in the beautiful process of self-seeding! There’s nothing quite like returning to your garden in early spring and finding plant babies from last year’s garden sprouting up from the soil! (Obtaining a maximum yield with minimum effort is one of my favorite of the 12 permaculture principles for obvious reasons.)

3. Plant pollinator-friendly flowers, of course!

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Gulf fritillary butterfly drinking from a marigold flower

I sow most of my flower seeds directly into the soil in early spring. When planting transplant flowers from your garden center (especially from a big box store like Lowe’s or Home Depot), just ensure that the flowers haven’t been treated with chemicals. Local, independently-owned gardening stores are usually more conscious of consumer’s organic demands and can tell you if anything they sell has been treated with pesticides. When in doubt, just ask!

4. Let the non-invasive weeds in your grass bloom!

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Crimson Clover in all its wild beauty

If you’ve been following along with my posts so far, you know how I feel about growing a natural, organic yard. I love watching bees dance through tiny chickweed blooms popping up in my grass. Chickweed, by the way is an incredible edible. You can eat the stems, leaves, flowers and seeds! But more on that in another post.

Thanks for reading!

Growing a Wild Lawn

We are first time homeowners. Last January, we bought our little brick house sitting on 1/4 acre of property. Moving from a small apartment in a more urban downtown area, we didn’t own a lawnmower. During those first winter months, it was no problem. “The grass grows so slowly anyway!” I remarked one afternoon as I walked across dormant grass (ignorance is bliss). We left for a trip to Nicaragua for 10 days right on the cusp of spring. When we returned, we discovered that our once slightly brown yard had bursted to life. Milk thistle, dandelions, watercress and winter cress, spiderwort, dollar weeds, crimson clover, and vetch had awakened from the ground and were thriving in our balmy backyard.

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Clovers and Common Vetch covered in morning dewBoth plants are known to repair nitrogen in the soil.

At the time, I was exactly halfway through my Permaculture Design Course. One of my instructors was a passionate herbalist and she sprinkled our lessons with tidbits about the benefits of many of these wild plants. I became entranced with these wild weeds: the volunteer pioneers in the land’s natural process of succession. Nature doesn’t like bare soil. These plants were filling in the dead parts of our lawn, some (such as the clovers and vetch) were even working to restore nitrogen levels in the soil. The flowers were attracting beneficial pollinators.

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A hoverfly paying visit to a Spiderwort flower beside one of my herb beds. These blooms are abundant in my yard at the moment.

Of course, the grass continued to grow and the wild plants in our garden began to become a bit too tall to comfortably run around the yard with our dog, Maya. We were in the process of sheet mulching (a simple no-till method involving the use of cardboard to act as a grass/weed barrier to build a garden above the native soil), but we still wanted some open space. (Side note: I read an interesting theory recently from an ecologist, John Falk, who has studied lawns for many years. He, and other scientists, believe that humans have a preference for savannah-like terrain similar to conditions in East Africa. The concept is that as a species, we have spent nearly 90% of human history in this environment and the predilection for this type of landscape could be genetic.)

After reading a tremendous amount of information during my PDC about the importance of building our depleted soil with organic matter, along with the knowledge of the detrimental effects of weed killers like Round-Up, I refused to pour any type of toxic chemical onto my land. I decided instead to just regularly mow the grass (on a tall setting, having it mulch as I go), letting these wild weeds remain amongst the grass. I know this may not be a crazy concept to any organic gardeners out there, but many people have become so preconditioned to applying chemicals to their lawn that they most likely don’t pause before grabbing a bottle of liquid-bee-death off the shelf from their local home improvement store.

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Crimson Clover growing on my front lawn, a beautiful nitrogen-fixer and an early spring food source for the bees.

I’ve come to really love my wild lawn. I marvel at the plants who volunteer to pop up in the soil. Of course, some are invasive (kudzu!) and I work to quickly pull up unwanted plants at first sight. Early in the morning, I bring my field guides outside and walk the garden, learning slowly as I identify new species.

It’s funny, I even get compliments on our grass now! I always tell people it’s because I am building healthy soil: by leaving fallen oak leaves in place to mulch, by setting the mower to drop the grass clippings, and with big help from many of the beautiful wild weeds that are pumping nitrogen and other trace minerals into the ground beneath our feet!

Did Dinosaurs Eat Tomatillos?

Okay so I love tomatillos. These saucy little plants are a staple in my spring/summer garden. I grow most of my vegetables from seed; however, each spring I head over to an herb farm located on an island about 10 miles from my house and splurge on beautiful heirloom tomatillo varieties.

A member of the nightshade family (along with tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, tobacco, and eggplant), tomatillos bear small spherical fruit which are encased in an inedible paper-like husk. As the fruit matures it fills the husk, eventually tearing it open by harvest time. Just like their cousin the tomato, they love full, hot sun and so they are especially happy in my backyard garden.

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Sweet pollinators helping a sister out | Honeybee on a tomatillo flower

For a long time, scientists believed the nightshade family came into existence around 40 million years ago. Only in the past year have paleobotanists (cool job award) discovered a fossilized tomatillo with the berry, husk, and stem preserved in Patagonia, Argentina which dated back to 52 million years ago! This little plant had been growing in a temperate rainforest beside a volcano long, long, long before humankind ever roamed the earth. The most fascinating part of this discovery is that it indicates that the nightshade family dates back way further than recently believed, as tomatillos evolved relatively late compared to that of other nightshades. This means the ancestors of tomatillos and tomatoes were most likely around during the age of the dinosaurs (65 million years ago). Amazing.

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Tomatillo flowering (Physalis philadelphica)

Why Basil & Borage?

First off, welcome to my first blog post! I honestly started this site as an outlet for spewing all of the interesting things I have learned (and continue to learn) through permaculture gardening.

On a recent trip to visit my parents in St. Petersburg, FL (what’s up, hardiness ZONE 10!), I realized I was overwhelming my mom with plant knowledge. We sat in her garden (an herb garden I planted her as a Christmas gift last year) and I rattled on and on about soil, pollinators, and medicinal uses for her plants. She humored me, smiling with a mint water in hand. But I realized then that there may be plant nerds out there like me who would be interested in some of the tips & tricks (through much trial and error) that I have picked up along the way. I am located in Charleston, SC but I hope to help and inspire those living far beyond just the southeast! While some plants I’ll discuss may be specific to my region, most are commonly grown all over the world.

So, why basil and borage? These are my two very favorite plants! They both play a beneficial role in the garden, and in our bodies!

Borage: (also called starflower or bee bush) The bees LOVE this beautiful plant! Beyond attracting pollinators to your garden, it also helps deter unwanted pests such as hornworms. It is particularly helpful in the garden when planted next to tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and squash by increasing resistance to disease. Borage is called a dynamic accumulator, meaning that its roots reach deep down into the soil and help pull trace minerals up toward the surface, benefitting both its own growth and the plants surrounding it. It’s also great for composting and mulching!

Borage contains essential fatty acids that can benefit mood and decrease feelings of depression. It is also an anti-inflammatory and contains high levels of calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, and vitamins B & C. Its flowers and leaves are both edible! We grow borage at a school garden where I teach and the students love snacking on these pretty star-shaped flowers as they explore their space.

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A honey bee sipping nectar from the borage flowers in my front-yard pollinator garden.

Basil: This warm-weather-loving plant is a favorite in my garden and my kitchen! During the spring, summer, and fall, I put basil on almost EVERYTHING from eggs to pizza to curry. Also, PESTO. Need I say more? Basil is used in the garden as a companion plant, meaning it has beneficial properties that help the growth and overall health of plants nearby in the soil. My favorite pairing in the garden is planting my tomatoes next to my basil. The root hormones of these two plants interact and are believed to increase the overall taste of the tomatoes (♪ I’m a believer ♪). Additionally, many pests dislike the scent/flavor of basil, and so it can help shield your juicy tomatoes from pesky insects.

I don’t have to tell you basil is delicious. You already know. What you may not know is the health benefits of this wonderful plant. A member of the mint family, basil is an anti-inflammatory, reduces swelling, an antibacterial, and is rich in antioxidants.

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African Blue Basil growing in my medicinal herb garden.

Many pictures to come of these beauties in my garden. Thanks for reading!