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The Backyard Gardener Blog

This a round-up of our most recent blog posts.

You can find all of our blog posts at this site: The Backyard Gardener.

 

We also have a 2nd blog that covers our project at the Eastern Sierra Visitors' Center. You can access it at this link.

Recent Posts
  • To Dig or Not To Dig?

    Apr 26, 2021
    IMG 2115

    In the last few years there has been an interest in “no till” methods of gardening that propose numerous benefits such as increased yields, less physical work, and much healthier soil cited as reasons we should stop digging our soils. However I wonder if this method of growing is really suited to the environs of desert areas? Here are some thoughts of mine on the issue.

    Let's start with what “no till” growing is, and how does one go about doing it.

    There is more than one way to accomplish a "no-till" garden but the most commonly advocated method is sheet mulching. (It goes by many names.) As the name suggests, the soil is not dug in preparation for growing food or ornamental plants but rather the top of the soil is regularly amended with organic matter which works its way down into the soil to feed the roots of the plants from above.  To start a new growing bed using this method, a layer of cardboard is put over the surface of the ground in order to suppress existing weeds. Then a deep layer of well-rotted compost is laid over the top and crops are grown in this. Plants are mulched to retain moisture, and over time the cardboard rots and worms take the compost down into the native soil. This is considered to be closer to how plants and soils interact in the natural world.

    By contrast, hand digging or rototilling disturbs the natural profile of the soil by destroying earthworm burrows and bringing the natural and beneficial mycorrhizae to the surface where ultraviolet light and drying conditions kill these fungi. It also interferes with the natural drainage of soil so dug soils drain poorly compared to the compost in no till beds and soil loss by wind erosion is increased.

    There is a lot to be said in favor of the no till method. However, is a no-till method like sheet mulching suitable for desert situations with a very low natural rainfall? Most of those who advocate this method of growing and have the greatest success live in high rainfall areas where precipitation is regular throughout the year, and often the rainfall each month is as much as our desert area receives in a year! We also have very dry air with a relative humidity often less than 10%, with frequent, quite strong, drying winds. Our natural vegetation is sparse and prickly as a result of the climate, and things decompose very slowly.

    Beneficial to the soil as “no till” might be, some arguments in favor do not hold up in our area. Supposedly it is less labor intensive since one does not dig, but to produce the amounts of compost needed in our area for this method to work, one either has to constantly turn compost heaps, or else buy compost in bulk (assuming that you can find a local source), pay for it to be delivered and then barrow it to the growing area! Our environment makes it hard to even acquire something to make compost from in sufficient amounts.

    Then there is the tremendous water usage, both for keeping one's compost heap working and then keeping the applied compost damp enough for these benefits to occur in the garden. Everything dries quickly in our wind, sun, and heat.

    Mulch such as wood chips takes a long time to rot down in the desert but without some protection our desert winds can certainly remove loose topsoil. In my experience they are equally efficient at removing the finer particles of mulch, leaving only the sticks behind. Often I have put a deep layer of shredded leaves around plants and on top of the drip irrigation tubing but this fine mulch, far from rotting down or being taken into the soil by accommodating earthworms has rapidly vanished into the next county during our high wind events. This does not happen so much if the mulch surface is kept wet, but can we afford to use that much water when facing a serious drought?

    When digging I always incorporate generous amounts of compost or manure or any remaining surface mulch into the ground where it will not get blown away and will be in close proximity to the roots of my crops. I dig in winter when earthworms are very deep in the soil but by spring I have an extremely healthy population. 

    In many places in the desert where the soils are sandy and alkaline, earthworms are a rarity - if present at all, so in these cases the downward movement of organic matter placed on the surface is not likely to happen for several seasons, and indeed where I have raked several year's accumulation of leaves from under shrubs, even the bottom layer hardly shows any evidence of the leaves breaking down.

    No till's proponents admit that slugs and snails are common problems in the compost-grown vegetables, although I doubt whether that would be much of a problem here, but I did mulch heavily with straw one year and consequently had the worst European earwig infestation that I have ever experienced.

    Our desert soils certainly need a lot of help in the form of organic matter if they are to produce crops, but it is difficult to know which is the best way to achieve that. As with most horticultural endeavors there are pros and cons to both methods but it pays to think of different options, and perhaps do a trial bed before embarking either method on a large scale.

    ____

    Editor's note: Another consideration is the population of weeds present. At least in the Owens Valley, our perennial weeds, especially Bermudagrass, emerge through the cardboard layer quickly since it is insufficient to stop them. A gardener would have to eliminate perennial weeds first. Our wind also brings in fresh seeds of wind-dispersed annual weeds that grow well in the rich, organic layer.


  • Mosquito Season

    Apr 13, 2021
    A light colored bush with a sky with some clouds taken at sunset.

    I was out last night above the river to take some pictures, and I noticed that as the sun went behind the mountains I was joined by some unwelcome visitors: mosquitoes. 

    I suspect they were males as I didn't end up with any bites, and they were mostly hovering above me. A few landed so I squished them. I don't know what kind they were other than "generic mosquito." I was in the same area last week and didn't encounter any, so I think it's just starting.

    All this to say, it's probably worth thinking about taking typical mosquito precautions when recreating outdoors in the evening away from town. Here is some information about mosquitoes from UC IPM.

    The Owens Valley Mosquito Abatement Program has a good page on Facebook that updates progress. You can like their page to keep informed. https://www.facebook.com/OVMAP/ 


    By Dustin Blakey
    Author - County Director / Farm Advisor
    Topics:
  • Fun with Bug Identification

    Mar 31, 2021

    There is a lot of variety in the job of a farm advisor. Some days I'm working with water quality. Other times I answering tree questions. Today I had an insect to identify.

    It took a little work, but the insects were banded ash borers.

     
    I guess it's not a particularly common insect in California, but apparently it is here in Owens Valley.
     
    I thought it might be useful to go over the steps I used to identify it, in case there are other amateur insect sleuths out there!
     
    First I noted that the insect had a hard shell instead of forewings. That means it's a beetle (Order Coleoptera). Since that's the biggest insect order, that doesn't narrow it down much, but it did have some distinguishing features:
    • obvious yellow stripes
    • a slender form
    • long antennae
    • sturdy legs
    That was enough to get me on the right path. 
     
    I suspected it was a long-horned beetle based on it's shape, but being an amateur that was an educated guess. Those are wood borers (Family Cerambycidae).
     
    Getting closer but I needed to be sure I was on the right path. I often find a good place to narrow down an insect search is bugguide.net. If you use the "browse" feature it shows a collection of specimens with pictures in that taxonomic group. I navigated to the long-horn beetles. That's no easy task. Beetles are such a large group there are things like sub-orders tribes and super-families to get through which is a chore if you're not an entomologist!
     
    Another site that has many good pictures of insects with where they were spotted is inaturalist.org. The only problem is that searches are not able to be filtered by any taxonomy other than insect so there is a lot of scrolling. And the insect may not be there! It's best when you want to check on something you already have a close ID for.
     
    Eventually I found the genus Neoclytus. This insect resembles a Neoclytus we had in Arkansas so I felt that at least I had the genus correct. After that it got hard.
     
    At least 3 species on bugguide.net looked similar to mine. Of the 2 best matches, one was strictly in eastern North America. The other, N. caprea, was mostly in eastern North America also, but sometimes found in the Great Basin. No mention of California on BugGuide. That was disconcerting. Was I right?
     
    There is an obscure online resource listed on bugguide that's a catalog of Cerambiycidae which thankfully had this insect in it. The only pictures in the catalog were in the California State Arthropod Collection and 2 were collected in Big Pine. Bingo! It looked exactly like my insect. Neoclytus caprea was a match.
     
    The common name for this insect is the banded ash borer, and sure enough, my specimen came from an ash tree. 
     
    This is not a major pest, but it is common in firewood. The critters can emerge in winter when firewood from ash trees is brought indoors but not used all that quickly. In our area, these emerge from trees in March or April. Since they only live in living wood, there is no risk of your furniture being attacked. Virginia Tech has a fact sheet on them
     
    It took about 15 minutes of work, but it was rewarding to get the species level ID correct!
     
    As a side note: this is NOT the insect you may have heard on the news that is causing much concern across the country: the emerald ash borer.

    By Dustin Blakey
    Author - County Director / Farm Advisor
  • Starting New Garden Beds

    Mar 30, 2021
    Trina's Garden

    It's spring again! Time to start preparing your garden for planting. Read on for some tips to make this year's garden your most successful yet.

    The first step in planning a garden is to select a site and amend the soil. Pick a site with good drainage, full sun, access to water, and low traffic. Leave walking room between rows. Never walk on the soil in your garden beds. 

    Prepare your soil three weeks before you plan to plant. Weed your garden and turn under any cover crops, if you grew any. You will want to loosen the soil 10-12” deep and break up big clods of soil to make it easy for the roots to grow. Do not till very dry or wet soil; soil should be dryish but still able to loosely clump with some effort. You can learn how to double dig your soil by watching the video on YouTube made by our own Master Gardeners: https://youtu.be/KHvgDUd0VS8 .

    Next, you can mix in amendments if needed. Soils throughout most of Inyo and Mono Counties are derived from sources in the Sierra. Most soils in our area are well-drained, do not have accumulated salts, and have a good pH for growing plants. However, some communities in our area, such as Chalfant, have soil that is derived from other mountain sources producing alkaline soils that require amending with sulfur before planting. See our local soils page for more information about your local soil.https://ucanr.edu/sites/newinyomonomg/Eastern_Sierra_Gardening/Soil/Your_Local_Soil_487/ 

    Garden beds should be amended with compost annually. That is especially true here because our desert soils drain water excessively and hold few nutrients. Organic matter, such as compost, improves both the fertility and the texture of the soil. Inorganic fertilizers aim to feed plants and do not affect tilth or the holding capacity of soil. Mix 1-2” of compost or high-quality organic material into the top 4” of your soil with a hoe or a spade. If using manure, make sure it is fully composted. After mixing in the compost, water the bed evenly. Then, let it rest until planting. 

    If you have terrible soil, you can make raised beds and bring in external soil. Soil in raised beds should be composed of about ½ topsoil and ½ organic matter (mostly compost) by volume. No need to be exact! For more information on raised gardens, visit our website: https://ucanr.edu/sites/newinyomonomg/Eastern_Sierra_Gardening/Vegetables/Raised_Beds/

    For best results, many plants require an additional fertilizer. The three primary nutrients plants need are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium Too much fertilizer can affect growth, so only add enough to meet the feeding needs of your plants so be sure to carefully follow directions for application.

    Have an irrigation plan before planting. Soil needs to remain evenly moist during germination and throughout the growing season. Soil will dry out to a depth of a few inches in the sun. Below that, only plants can remove the moisture. Insert your finger into the soil to determine if the soil is moist or dry and adjust your watering accordingly. For water efficiency, irrigate at the base of the plants early in the morning or late in the evening. Drip irrigation is best. For information on irrigation, visit our websitehttps://ucanr.edu/sites/newinyomonomg/Eastern_Sierra_Gardening/Irrigation/

    Remove weeds as they arise because they compete with your plants for resources. Usually, weeds can be easily controlled by pulling. If not, you can hoe or possibly use herbicides. Be extremely careful when spraying. Never spray when it is windy because most herbicides will kill your plants too. Always read the label and follow the directions when using herbicides. Most gardeners in our area are able to control their weeds with pulling and hoeing, however.

    Now you are ready to plant!

    Start warm season crops indoors six weeks before planting. You will want to plant as soon as possible for the longest growing season but after the danger of frost, since frost can kill your plants. As a general rule of thumb, transplant when the soil 4 inches deep is 60 degrees at 10 am.

    In Bishop, the last frost occurs after May 5 50% of the time and after May 14 25% of the time. Most years the soil is warm enough to transplant well before the end of frost season.

    If there is a frost after you plant, protect your plants by covering them. For more information on starting your vegetable garden, visit our website: https://ucanr.edu/sites/newinyomonomg/Eastern_Sierra_Gardening/Vegetables/Getting_Started/

    Have fun with your new garden!


  • Growing Sesame in 2020

    Mar 22, 2021

     

     

    As I was browsing through a seed catalog a couple of years ago, I found something I'd often eaten and enjoyed, but had never seen growing, sesame. Out of curiosity I ordered a packet of seeds.

    A little history and other information

    Sesame is one of the earliest oilseed plants to be cultivated. According to the University of Wisconsin's Alternative Field Crops Manual (AFCM) it has been grown for at least 4000 years, and the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center reports that production records are known from 1600 BC from the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. Because it can grow in more dry and hot conditions that many crops, it is now cultivated widely in Asia and Africa. Thomas Jefferson was very enthusiastic about the oil and tried it in test plots, but never had a good yield. It had been introduced into Georgia by enslaved Africans and Jefferson knew it as Benne.

    Because the pods shattered easily, it could not be harvested by machinery until the 1950s when non-shattering varieties were developed. Most sesame products used in the US are imported from Asia or Africa, but some oilseed crops are now produced mostly in Texas and Oklahoma.

    Sesame is used in many cuisines, as whole seeds, crushed seeds (tahini), meal or flour, or oil. The oil may be made from raw seeds which produces a light cooking oil or toasted seeds which produces a darker oil used more for flavoring.   The oil is high in polyunsaturated fats and has a longer storage life than many oils because of an antioxidant component called sesamol. Sesame oil is also used in paints, soaps, and other non-food products.

    My sesame growing experience

    The seed packet said ‘Sesame, common', but the seeds weren't the ‘normal' white sesame seeds. These were black sesame seeds that are more often used in Asian cuisine. They arrived with a brochure that seems to have been designed for growing a field of plants, rather than a few in the garden. While researching this blog post I found that the AFCM has a very good Cultural Practices section for more information. Too bad I didn't find it before I planted. Maybe I will have to try again.

      I planted them in a raised bed that is about 10 inches deep, in full sun. They germinated in late June, 2-3 weeks after planting. The directions suggested not irrigating much after they became established, but I decided those directions had been written for places with summer rain. Sesame doesn't do well in waterlogged soil according to the AFCM, so the soil must be well-drained. I hand watered them every day after observing that they weren't going to survive on Owens Valley rainfall.  The plants didn't reach the height of 2-3 feet described in the brochure either. Most were about a foot tall.

     

     

     Blooms appeared in August with flowers resembling those of a desert willow or a relative of snapdragons.

    For people like me who like to know how this species fits into the taxonomic scheme, the scientific name is Sesamum indicum L. and they are in the family Pedaliaceae, which is in the Order Scrophulariales. This means that sesame is in the same taxonomic order as snapdragons and desert willows. Yay, Cal Poly botany program!

    The flowers developed seed capsules (pods) that grew pressed close to the stems. The capsules turned brown and were ready to harvest in about a month. Each one held at least 20 seeds in four rows. I harvested about 20 plants and got about 1/3 cup of seeds.

    If the pods were entirely dry, the seeds would pour out of the openings at the top of the capsules, but for some I had to crush the capsule, which made separating the seeds from the chaff much more work. Must work on my winnowing skills.

    Dried capsules and seeds.
    Dried capsules and seeds.

    I've used the seeds in several recipes, and they are just as delicious as I'd hoped. So far my favorite is a recipe for sesame crusted fish that highlights the sesame flavor.

    Sesame Resources:


    By Sue Weis
    Author
    Topics: