Yesterday I hosted the first, of what hopefully becomes a regular event, neighborhood garden open house. It was nothing formal, just a get-together of other amateur gardeners like me. The purpose was to share ideas and gardening expertise with others and create an engaged community of people with similar interests. While meeting with many people who decided to stop by, a few common topics came up which I would like to make available to everyone here. The flow of discussions began with a sense of excitement about the plants growing in our garden and those of the visitors, the conversations naturally turned to the various pests – squirrels, voles, gophers, birds, snakes etc. Towards the end of the second hour, the conversations had entered the area of types of food to eat for best health, and water-related policies of the state. Here are some excerpts:
1. How to deal with those pesky gophers: It seems that many people are having trouble with gophers attacking their garden and ruining crop yields. Gophers, being subterranean creatures, go for root plants. One of the solutions that came up was using small noise emitters that can be placed in the dirt to scare the critters away. Among the group of people who came, the success rate seemed to be quite low, so this method is probably not the best course of action.. A second-hand idea that a guest suggested was to keep pieces of chewing-gum near the roots of plants. It seems Gophers eat the gum and then get choked on it or it clogs their stomach, which should reduce their appetite. If you are really fed up with gophers and morality is no longer a concern, poison pellets can be sprinkled wherever you see a gopher tunnel in the garden. One of the guests wasn’t happy with this idea though. In seems that there is a possibility that such a poisoned rodent may get picked up by a neighborhood dog and in turn get poisoned. Another idea was to sprinkle copious amount of coffee grounds around the garden. The Gophers have a dislike for this smell and choose to leave. Finally, a product called Shake-Away (www.shake-away.com) was mentioned. It is essentially crystalized Fox urine. Since Foxes are the natural predators of rodents in the wild, the Gophers have a strong sense of that smell and will choose of leave the area on their own accord.
2. Other Pests: Some of the people that stopped by had either cats or dogs which seemed to do the trick for some of the pests. Having a pet roam the backyard is most likely an effective way to keep away birds and squirrels and above surface rats and voles but perhaps not gophers. To keep birds away from fruits that are high up in a tree, maybe one should invest in a falcon or hawk! Another idea proposed specially to keep birds and squirrels at bay are to hang small shiny objects ion the fruit trees. It could be CDs or swirly things one can buy in a garden store.
3. Improving Soil: The issue with the native soil in Fremont is that it is very clay rich. VERY clay rich. No, seriously…it is pretty much all clay. This means that before growing anything, one should try and make one’s own soil. Several, if not all the gardeners have used soil amendments for several years to make their soil workable. Peat Moss and Compost were the most mentioned components. I mentioned my use of the cow manure from Whole Foods (from www.prcompostco.com), which needs to be solarized for a few days prior to application in the beds. A guest mentioned that her secret recipe this year has been Chicken Manure, which was added to the planting beds in January and has used the rains to break down into essential nutrients and get absorbed by the soil. Previously, I have published a guide on my blog (Starting a Garden) which will take you through the necessary steps. This soil mix should ensure a nutrient rich medium as well as be easy to turn once you have harvested. In a later article I will write about the nutrient analysis of each of the amendments I use. Clay-rich soil can be very difficult to dig up and turns into an absolute nightmare once is it watered; it becomes extremely dense and hard to work with. I have previously used E.B.Stone’s (www.ebstone.org) Green Sand and Earthworm Castings to loosen the soil over several seasons.
4. What can be grown in Fremont? One of the guests was new to California and relatively new to gardening. He posed this question. Now, this is California, so most anything can be grown. Our summers get quite warm, but not too hot, so most sun-loving crops do just fine. Further, we have a long growing season – almost 7 months long. One can begin the growing season in the fall by laying down the seeds or saplings for lettuce, spinach, coriander, purple-tops, carrots, onions, garlic and various flowering bulbs. In the spring one can come back and put more leafy salads in the soil, and then as the soil thaws get going with basil, radishes, tomatoes, eggplants, okra, corn, bell peppers, various beans, watermelons, cucumbers, etc. Just be sure to water them when you have ample sunlight, maybe even twice a day on rather warm days. California winters aren’t too cold for gardening either.
5. Composting: One of the gardeners made a strong pitch for having a compost pile. I had tried it a few years ago and had given up as it began to give a rotting smell and became a strong breeding ground for mosquitos. My frustration was my inability to procure ‘brown matter’ to counter-balance all the green matter I was adding into the pile. I had found out that one can use newspapers or hay to substitute for the brown matter. I was uncomfortable with all the ink and other chemicals in a newspaper leeching into the soil and since hay and isn’t available in a suburban environment such as ours and it is difficult to buy in small quantities, I had hung my gloves on that project. It didn’t help that the compost pile had ended up being near my parent’s bedroom window! One of the guests mentioned that they add Peat Moss in lieu of the brown matter and that works quite well for them. I am convinced enough to give composting another try and join the august company of Thoreau and Rodale, who in their time were strong proponents of such a responsible way to returning to the earth what we took form it. Parenthetically, it seems the principal use of the Compost is perhaps not as the organic fertilizer that many people know it to be, but as a way to improve the structure of the soil. It helps the soil become loose, improve its water carrying capacity and helps trap more heat into the evening. One can simply add left-over fruits and vegetables, cooked or uncooked to the pile. Add peat moss and some compost accelerators such as Alfa-Alfa meal. For bonus point, one can buy a pound of earthworms and let them loose on the compost pile! Regular turning of the pile is essential to aerate the composting mass.
6. The conversation turned to use of ancient grains rather than modern day variants of grains such as wheat and rice. One of the guests had strong convictions on this matter and pulled up a chart of the nine types of millet on his smart phone with their relative values of nutrients especially as compared with new varieties of wheat and rice. That was an eye-opener. I will investigate this further, but a large part of my decision on this will depend on the taste of these grains rather than the nutritional science!
Hopefully I can make this into a once-a-month event, as the turnout was good and everyone learned a lot from each other. Several of the guests showed enthusiasm to host this event at their place next week. Later that evening one of the guests emailed me that she would like to hold the event next Saturday at her garden. Great! I am excited!