Thursday, October 4, 2018

Dry garden update

The dry garden was a qualified success. I watered between 2 weeks and 1 month apart, with the exception of a hard rainstorm in August. Approximately 1 out of 3 of the plants that came up actually flowered—the winners there appear to be zucchini and pumpkin. Only one of the butternut bloomed. Of those that flowered, apx 1 out of 3 got female blossoms and set fruit. This was pretty much expected, since most of these plants are used to a great deal of water. Those that survived and fruited will be more drought tolerant in the next generation.

Sun is much more important with the dry garden than it is with the normal garden. I planted part of the dry garden in partial shade (about 7 hours of sun per day) and only one plant fruited. Blossoms came on a month later than the “sun” dry garden, although the shade dry garden went longer between waterings as well.

I planted zucchini, butternut squash, pumpkins and spaghetti squash. Zucchini was the hands-down winner, probably due to already being acclimated to this area. Most of the zucchini plants came up, and all blossomed, although only one is actively fruiting to this point. I seem to get fruit in “flushes,” apparently based on the watering schedule. When I watered, within a day or two female blossoms popped out, between four and six blossoms each time. This did not happen with the pumpkin or butternut.

The zucchini ripen more quickly and smaller, and the patterns are slightly off from the expected for the variety.

Squash may be a plant better suited to an area with a longer growing period for dry gardening, although I did get a late start. I'll try squash again next year, but in a different area, and protect the seedlings more than I did this year.

The watermelons got "dry" farmed in a sense as well, as the area they're in got watered only once every ten days. They thrived, doing much better under their mulch than the watermelons in the main garden without mulch. The specifically drought tolerant watermelon was actually getting too much water and really struggled until I pulled the watering back to every ten days. I think it will do even better next year, when it's every two weeks.

I think as my soil improves "dry" farming will become a more viable option.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Watermelon landrace update

The watermelon landrace project actually got more interesting as the summer progressed. As the plants started to bloom I discovered that three of them (two landrace and one Hopi Red) were producing perfect flowers. A perfect flower is a flower which contains both male and female parts. It's capable of self pollinating, without the assistance of bees. I have never seen this before on squash or melons.


I wasn't able to find anything about this possibility online, which made me more excited. The idea of a self-pollinating melon had me bouncing off the walls. Since three plants had the same trait, I thought, maybe it's something to do with my soil? With the help of a friend (Joseph Lofthouse) I learned that this is relatively normal for watermelons, which dimmed my enthusiasm not at all but simply turned it in another direction.

If it wasn't in the soil, but inherent in the plant, I can breed for it. Hehehehe.

Most of the watermelons ripening from the landrace plants are icebox size, which isn't what I wanted. I made a mistake last year and bred in the Sugar Baby watermelon, which is slow growing and produces small melons. It appears that the majority of the plants that survived have Sugar Baby ancestry, but I'm trying for medium to large so I need to avoid taking seeds from any of these. Another interesting thing is that many of the melons currently ripening are misshapen, which I've also never seen before. This may be due to under pollination, but the fact that ONLY the landrace plants are doing it suggests that there's some oddity to the way the genes are combining.

Of the surviving plants, 2 have not bloomed at all. This was rather expected, as I deliberately planted in an area with poor soil and little water in order to select for the strongest. Another has produced only male blossoms. Two of my landrace plants have large melons. One of the two had four flowers pollinate, although two aborted later. It was also one of those with perfect flowers. This will be the primary female parent for this year. One of the two remaining melons was pollinated by hand and should include genes from Hopi Red, my landrace (Ali Baba + either traditional or Sugar Baby), and Joseph Lofthouse Landrace.

Most of the surviving landrace plants took after the female parent in shape and color, but after the male parent in size. All but one had the pale green skin of the Ali Baba watermelon and the seed structure of the Ali Baba, but with varying sizes and shapes consistent with the plants used as pollinators last year. The plants also took after the pollen donor, those with the icebox size melons growing much slower on a less robust plant.

All pollinated flowers follow the same general growth pattern, the watermelon being around 3 inches long twenty days after pollination, 6 inches long after thirty days and 9 inches long after 40 days. The watermelon stops growing when it's close to its adult size and gains that last half inch or inch through the rest of its growing period. By the time it reaches its adult size some seeds have already matured. Extending this tendency out, it is likely that any watermelon can mature relatively quickly once it reaches its mature size depending on environmental factors. Removal of water, not enough sun, a cold snap, may all trigger the melon to full maturity quicker than it would normally go. I'll have to test for this in the future and see if it bears out in real life, but based on my observations it's a real possibility.

Next year the primary female parent will be either my "traditional" watermelon or the Jubilee, introducing one more line into the mix. In 2020 or 2021 the lines will start to stabilize and I should start to see the results of the mixing. That's when the real fun begins, choosing for the traits I want.

I started this particular landrace for a couple reasons. I wanted to learn the principles before I started on any of the major food crops, and I had seeds for several different varieties of heirloom melons.

I am desperately concerned about food security. The majority of the population has no idea where their food comes from or how it gets to them. They're perfectly satisfied that THIS WEEK the grocery store has what they need. With more and more farmland being sold off because of taxes and other economic problems, we rely to a large extent on food produced in other areas and trucked in. Often from other countries.

When (not if) that supply chain stops, we must be able to provide for ourselves. In order to do that we must be able to grow the maximum amount in local conditions, and we can't do that with seeds sourced from the Oregon coast or Arkansas. Even seeds from other desert or semi-desert areas wouldn't precisely fit our environment. They have to be produced here, grown here, without fertilizers or soil additives, and to the extent possible without additional water.

The simplest way to do that, and to make sure that those plants will be able to adapt when conditions change, is a local landrace.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Bean Notes (ongoing, will add to this in subsequent years)

I've been trying to work with dry beans for a couple years now. Unfortunately, real life information isn't available for many of the varieties I have, so here goes.

The failures first, taking into consideration that I plant sporadically, sometimes early and sometimes late, in different areas. But I don't eliminate a bean entirely until it's been grown on my property for at least two years in different circumstances.

Calypso--eliminated. A black and white bean, probably bred for appearance rather than production. In my garden only one or two beans per pod, many of them empty, and while there were a lot of pods on the plant, that makes harvest a serious problem. Not too productive in terms of real numbers.

Hidatsu Red--eliminated. Planted by the corn last year and failed to produce. Planted by the bean towers this year and also failed to produce. Right now, in mid September, the first beans are just starting to come on. Chances are good that nothing will ripen before the first frost. NO seeds last year, NO seeds this year, end of experiment.

Hidatsu Shield--Ditto.

Whipple--First year planting these. One plant survived. Supposed to be 70 days, but just starting to produce after over 100 days. I'm guessing they need a little stress in order to ripen. I removed the water last week and got my first ripe beans this morning.

Monos Negros--First year planting these. One plant survived, a good crop but mostly still green.

Oland Brown--First year planting these. One plant survived, a good crop but mostly still green.

Kidney--Fabulous. Planted these last year with 100% mortality. This year one plant survived, and got more off that one plant than from any of the others so far. It ripened quickly, fully finished by mid-August.

Pinto--Good producer. It did OK last year as a climbing bean but produced little. This year I used last year's seeds and it did well for those plants that survived. From the three plants I already have more than I harvested last year total.

Tepary--Two varieties. Neither has produced this year. The blossoms are just starting to come on. They're supposed to be highly drought tolerant so I don't know whether they're getting too much water, too little, wrong soil, not enough sun, etc. I can't find any information on how these are supposed to grow.

Blue Lake--First year with these. A green bean, seeds out of a box. Good production, good seed production.

Rattlesnake--first year with these. They ran rampant over the corn and strangled it. Good production, but they'll be on the bean towers next year rather than by the corn. This is also supposed to be drought tolerant.

Tendergreen--first year with these, and they produced well. Good seed production as well. Low germination, but that's normal for my yard with seeds I didn't grow.

Black Turtle--3rd year. First two years they produced OK, so this year I thought I would do them as a main crop. Chose the wrong area, with only half a day of sun, lots of bugs, and bad soil. Will try again.

Idaho Pink--Established. This was supposed to be the second half of my main crop. See Black Turtle notes.

Great Northern White--Established, didn't grow it this year. An OK producer, half-runner. Many of the plants had just a few beans in each pod, so I took my seeds from the full pods.

Scarlet Runner--I was just given seeds this year so I have nothing yet. These will be planted the first time next spring

Tiny mystery bean--Foraged from the same area as the Scarlet Runner. I have no idea what these are. The beans are tiny and brown, the pods probably 8 inches long. These will be tested next spring.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Is my watermelon ripe?

Figuring out when a watermelon is ripe (i.e., ready to pick) isn't rocket science. See the curlique at the base? In this picture it's green (unripe). When it dries up, the watermelon is ripe.


If the curlique is dry or mostly dry, thump the watermelon. If it sounds hollow, it's ripe. Thump a couple in the area to see if you can tell the difference.

Look at the bottom. The color should be (note the qualifier "should") gold or yellow. This one isn't as absolute as the others, as I've eaten fully ripe watermelons that were still white on the bottom. Different breeds have different habits.

The problem comes in when you're picking one from the grocery store. The curlique got left behind when it was picked, it was probably picked at the same time as all the other melons without concern for peak ripeness, it's probably been bred for storage life rather than taste, etc. At that point, the thumping is the best option, but it takes practice to tell a ripe watermelon from unripe.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Parkstrip update

I've been watering the parkstrips every ten days. Since it sometimes catches overflow from the lawn certain areas are getting more water. I'm trying to eliminate that. The parkstrips are doing quite well, and even the sweet potato is thriving. Next year I'm hoping to drop the watering to once every two weeks.


Sunchokes before and after (the after picture has watermelon in the foreground)



















Sweet potato before and after



















Iris/echinacea before and after with borage and watermelon

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dry Farming update

This year I’ve been working on a number of projects, but because we live in a desert the water takes precedence.

One project that I was able to start this year is a dry garden.

Dry gardening (or dry farming) is the practice of planting and growing without water. Technically in order to be considered “dry” farming, the area has to get less than 20 inches of rain per year and the farmer doesn’t use supplemental irrigation.

Many areas considered “dry farming” areas leverage mild winters to plant winter crops, such as wheat, then let the land sit during the dry summer. Others plant in the summer but use mulch (often dust mulch), wide spacing, alternate year planting and other procedures to get a crop where none would otherwise grow.

I decided that for the purpose of this test I would water no more than twice a month, so it’s not technically dry by definition, but considering that the main garden gets watered every other day (more or less) every two weeks is a huge improvement.

Tucked between our house and the neighbor’s fence is a strip of dirt about six feet wide and 20 feet long. Nothing grows there, it’s in shade after about 3, it has grapevines on one side and the house on the other. The water source is our 275 gallon water tanks that collect water from the roof. The soil is sand and rock.

Call it a personal idiot-cyncracy, but I don’t like seeing dirt (not soil in this case) going unused. Since in many areas grapes aren’t watered at all, I figured it was both a good test for them and a good place to put a dry garden.

It gets about seven hours of sun. Last summer I dug down into it sometime in July and it was bone dry at least a foot down. Last fall I mulched it deeply, and this spring I planted through the mulch.

The bugs had a heyday, and all but one of the seedlings perished.


I planted again on 6/11, this time under cover. Milk jugs are incredibly versatile.


That same day I also planted a single zucchini plant / butternut combination in an area with the same circumstances but in full sun. Deeply mulched, same soil. I gave each seed 2 gallons of water.

On the same day that the picture above was taken, one month after planting...


It had no additional water—the only difference was the sun. That’s a castle block in the bottom corner, about 11 inches wide.

The dry garden was replanted on 6/11. The sun version was watered on 7/1 but probably could have gone longer. The shade version was watered for the first time on 7/9. They were all watered on 7/24 because I decided (erroneously, I now believe) that I should stick to the same watering schedule for both.

So the sun version was watered on 8/8. Today, we have this.


And this...


And then we have all the other plants in the dry garden. At least the grapes are thriving.


The one in the middle is another zucchini, of the same variety as the other.

The sun made a much larger difference than I expected. The sun garden needs to be protected during the worst of the afternoon heat, but the butternut has male blossoms and the zucchini is bearing, so the little bit of extra work is worth it.

Watering every two weeks is probably too much if you have good soil. My soil is sand and rock but I could probably still stretch it to once a month if necessary. The true test will be next year, when I use the seeds I get this year and stretch the watering schedule to once a month.

I figure if they survive and fruit under these conditions they’ll be better adapted in the next generation. The ideal would be to find varieties that are already adapted to drought conditions (massive root systems, primarily) and start from there.

I never could do anything the easy way.

The first update

The second update

Original post on Dry Farming

Monday, June 18, 2018

Park Strip Conversion Project Update

This spring I started a new project--it's been planned for a while, but this year I asked a bunch of friends to come help me. We pulled all the grass out of the parkstrips. I was able to get a chipdrop a few days later and filled the space with wood chips. Then I spent a couple weeks transplanting drought tolerant plants from other areas of the yard.

When it fills in it will be AMAZING, and in the meantime I'm not paying the city to water "their" grass three times a week. The park strips abut my property but are technically owned by the city--however, the adjacent land owner is responsible for maintenance. Grass takes a LOT of water, so I decided to take care of the problem.

I now have echinacea, groundcovers, irises, tarragon and a bunch of other drought tolerant or borderline xeric plants in there.


The rocks create a little bit of a protected zone, where the sun doesn't hit the soil directly and the water doesn't evaporate as fast.

This week I planted a sweet potato. I'm not sure if it will survive, but I figured it's worth a try.


This morning I noticed something interesting. It's wet enough out there, even in full sun, that fungus has started to grow. This was a dog vomit fungus, which is technically a slime mold and not a fungus, but it normally grows in shade and in very wet areas. What is this doing in a bed that was supposed to be dry???! In full sun, no less.

I've been watering this area for five minutes once a week and everything has been thriving even in full sun and with the summer heat (Mid to high nineties during the day)--except a few items that can't stand wet feet. They've mostly died. That should have told me what was going on.

I dug down in the soil and it's wet for a good six inches down. Probably more, but that's as far as I dug. I'm extending the watering schedule out to 9 days--I think we'd be good to go to two or even three weeks, but I want to do this gradually and let the plants get used to the change.