Friday, September 26, 2008

Yellow Tomato Leaves, Another Rattler and Peter's 65th

Since posting a week ago my cherry tomato crop is looking to be 300 plus if I can manage to control the various pests and diseases that challenge these plants. Butterflies are laying eggs, leaves are turning yellow and birds are getting interested. Knowing these are common problems with solutions keep me from throwing in the towel. I marvel when I think about our colonial ancestors who had to solve these problems to survive. Albertsons was not an option.
Since both Chu and I love snow peas, I have planted two whisky barrels in addition to 4 squares in one of my raised beds to reduce the risk of losing some. In my excitement I planted the first crop too early (mid-August) and they have struggled. They may still make it, but look ragged from fighting the consistent 100 degree heat we have been having. The ones planted in the barrels (and shaded) look much happier. My greater concern are the yellow leaves on four of my six tomato plants planted in the raised bed. The fruit looks healthy, but the yellow is excessive. The depth of my two raised beds average 8-10 inches. These 4 plants were planted in an area with only 6 inches of Mel's' mix and 12 inches apart. According to Mel, the depth and spacing should be OK but I'm suspecting due to our desert heat they would do better in at least 10 inches. The two tomato plants planted in the deeper whisky barrel hardly have any yellow leaves at all. Next year I will rotate my peas to the 6 inch area since they are more shallow rooted. Click on these photos to see the tomatoes AND the yellow leaves.
My pole beans are amazing climbers. Without any help from me their tendrils easily grasped the nylon trellis with a death-like grip. Does Jack and the Bean Stalk come to mind?
We are now starting to harvest spinach, radishes and banana peppers. The bell peppers are beginning to take shape and hopefully we can have a crop of these before it gets too cool.
For family members, I've included a photo taken at Peter's (my brother-in-law) 65th birthday brunch. Peter is VERY happy since he now qualifies for Medicare. Peter's wife, Kay, put on a great spread for this occasion and invited all related persons living in Tucson. Even at 65, only the naive will take him on in ping pong (Amber Rose). Chu and I also hiked a trail near Gates Pass this past week. The hike was great and made even more exciting by running into ANOTHER large diamond back rattle snake. I thank God he put rattles on these guys as I would have surly stepped on it had I not been warned!

Friday, September 19, 2008

First Fruits and a Visit to Glenn Cottage

Yesterday Chu and I visited our friend Heidi who defied Tucson's desert environment by planting a "back east" garden. It is beautiful. You won't see salvias, ruellas or daleas in her garden, but you will see hearts and flowers ground cover, holly hocks and morning glory. She waters by hand and her water bill averages around $60 month during the summer. That's less than half of what I pay for my desert landscape on drip irrigation. Much of it is grown in the shade of pine trees. Pam, her next door neighbor, is also an avid gardener. Check out the grape vine that shades her garden in her small patio. Pam grows many
vegetables and has a large watermelon patch that threatens to take over a lot she bought across the street that she is planning to build her house on. Both the grapes and watermelon were delicious.

Heidi has just completed building a chicken coop in her back yard. Unfortunately I became immersed in its construction and forgot to get a photo, but you can see several of her website photos by clicking on Besides providing her with eggs, the two chickens she has just ordered from one of our feed stores will keep her garden free of unwanted insects and other pests that attack her plants and vegetables. I continue to learn about the seemingly endless possibilities that exist for Tucson gardeners. Be sure to click on the above photos to see the planting details.

We harvested our first yellow banana peppers this week from one of our 6 new pepper plants. Peppers are a summer growing vegetable, but our warm fall weather extends their growing season here. My tomato plants are also doing well and if the two Harris hawks that live in our Eucalyptus tree keep the birds away we are looking at a large harvest soon.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hobbits in the Garden

Last weekend was a sleep over for our grand daughters. Amber Rose, age 8, and Alison, age 3, love to "garden" and knowing this I had prepared for their industry. We tend to sometimes overwhelm anyone who will listen to us warble on about our grand daughters, so abandon this post now if you grow faint on this subject.

Amber has gardened with me since she could walk and has become quite handy to have around. Alison, on the other hand, can be like a Sherman tank mowing down a crowded village.

Chu suggested I provide a diversion, like a sand box, for Alison to play with out in our new vegetable garden area. So, after purchasing marigolds and a strawberry plant for Amber's raised garden corner, I also picked up a small inexpensive plastic swimming pool and filled it with sand. It was a hit and kept Alison busy for hours and hours.

After planting carrots, strawberries, marigolds, spinach, lettuce, bush beans and rosemary Amber decided my make shift garden work bench was too high and wanted to make her own. Like her mother, Margaret, she LOVES tools. She has also made it quite clear she would like me to look into getting her a small wheelbarrow if she is to be effective in helping me. I told her I didn't think they came in kid sizes but she was quick to point I could find one at Target in the toy section.
The girls found a small Gecko lizard in the garage to play with. While showing them how safe it was to handle it Chu spotted a large diamond back rattle snake slithering along just outside our chain link fence. An education for all and a wake up call for me to make sure it doesn't decide to take up residence in our nice cool garden spot. Click on the above photo to enlarge for a closer view.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Holy" Peas, Grasshopper Invasion and the Santa Cruz Farmer's Market

The above photo shows what can happen in short order when pests invade your garden. I captured some insects that have been hanging around my snow peas and took them down to the Pima County Extension Gardens yesterday to get the low down.

According to the Master Gardeners on duty they are all grasshoppers and there is nothing you can do about them. I did learn that the damage done to the snow pea leaves is more likely Caterpillar munchings. I've been pulling these wee pests off of my pepper plants (see the peppers grow!) by hand for the past 2 weeks, and apparently they have migrated to the peas. Their recommendation, BT spray, which is an organic way of killing the buggers while keeping me green. While I was there I visited their demonstration desert vegetable garden and was relieved to see their pepper and tomato plants have holes in them too. Just something you have to live with I guess.

Chu and I visited the Santa Cruz Farmer's Market in the afternoon. This small market is now located near the School for the Deaf and Blind on Speedway near Grande. VERY busy and parking was hard to find. The new location has only been open for a couple of months and is growing rapidly. The Community Food Bank takes in consignments which they sell through their booth and allow single vendors to hawk their wares as well. We picked up some tomatoes and miniature
egg plant and ate them for dinner. Mmmmm good!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tomato Proof

I know, I know....anyone can SAY they have a tomato, but now I have proof. I can almost feel it exploding into my mouth and the juices running down my chin. I digress.

The bird netting had tangled up another lizard during the night, so I have rolled it up and will only use it as a last measure. If I must choose between the health of the birds and lizards and a undefiled tomato crop, however, I will go with the tomatoes.

My poor snap peas are being chewed to death by a critter. I haven't been able to catch the chomper at it yet, but judging from the size of the damage it must be a decent size. I did catch one of our push up lizards pounce on a large black bug and drag it off to the desert yesterday, but it was too fast for me to identify. I sowed another variety of snap peas in one of the barrels yesterday to make sure we have plenty on hand for the winter.

This weekend our grand daughters will be having a sleep over here and I am looking forward to getting Amber Rose out into the garden. I have two old porcelain sinks filled with Mel's mix ready for her. My guess is she will pick carrots and cilantro.

The photos displayed were taken this morning in my "non-edible" desert garden. The Turks Cap under the mesquite have been blooming consistently since spring! They love the heat and shade. The purple Ruelia has also done well all over Tucson this summer.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Starr Pass Vegetable Garden, Lizards and Bird Netting

Early this morning Chu and I hiked a Tucson Mountain trail next to the Star Pass Resort. A great little hike that takes only 45 minutes - just enough exercise to maintain your weight after having coffee and a delicious bowl of oatmeal on the patio balcony of the Starr Pass restaurant. While hiking, we passed a group of well heeled guests who looked upon us with puzzled expressions as we clicked our way by them with our walking poles, floppy hats and spider-like gate. Guess they don't see much of that back East.

Having read about a "chef's garden" outside of the resort's El Primo Restaurant we searched it out to see how the pros do it. It is a great little working garden that focuses primarily on tomatoes, peppers and herbs. I read in the paper recently that someone left the gate open and javalina ravaged it, but it didn't look too bad considering we are at the end of summer. Definitely check it out AND the hike if you are ever on the west side. Park on the north side of the guest parking lot on the side of the road next to the little bridge that marks the beginning of the trail. Non-guests are not allowed to use the limited guest parking - and some little guy in a golf cart will come after you if you try.

Bird netting can be lethal. About noon today I discovered a large "push up" lizard trapped in my bird netting protecting my tomatoes. I encourage lizards in my garden as they patrol the insect population. This one was really tangled up tight and was literally choking to death in the sun. It took about 10 minutes to cut him free. I'm going to have to re-think the bird netting issue.

Monday, September 08, 2008

eee-gads! Tomatoes!

They are small.....very small. But they are there. The bird netting went up this morning just in case one of the 50 birds that hang out on the electric line above my house want a taste. Danny, a good friend and all-around-fix-it and remodel genius for Chu and I (and several other family members) gave me one of his tomato plants several years ago. I learned then that birds find them quickly. That was the first time I had ever tried to grow a vegetable. It was a dismal failure only providing me with one intact cherry tomato.

The pole bean seeds erupted with a vengeance after an all night soak. Thugs they are after only 5 days. I am totally amazed at how quickly the life process works - a miracle indeed. More seeds are on the way and will be sown in the coming weeks.

My snow peas have grown long enough to crowd out adjacent carrot and spinach seedlings. The string trellis I erected was too high to attach them to so I placed a narrow piece of chicken wire to give them something to grab on to for now. Unbelievable, but you can actually see their slender tendrils try to grip the wire when placed on it. Like the babinski reflex in babies, they only need to touch something and immediately curl.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

How Time Flies

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Since my last post two years ago I retired from the credit union after 34 years of service. I was blessed with a rich and wonderful career and find I am still passionate about the credit union movement. BUT, retirement is awsome and I am excited with every morning the Lord gives me.
My desert garden keeps me busy, but since adding battery operated automatic timers to my irrigation system, including all outside potted plants, I have found time to start a vegetable garden. I have always wanted to grow my own vegetables, but it took the urging of my 8 year old grand daughter Amber Rose to get me going.

In the Tucson mountains, much of our soil is quite horrible. Most of it is interlaced with caliche - a hard white crumbly substance that prevents easy planting. It is also rocky and alkaline and needs amendments galore to support growing vegetables and anything else not native. To get around this, many desert gardeners construct raised beds to allow for easy soil management and planting. Using Mel Bartholomew's book "Square Foot Gardening" I began constructing my raised beds towards the end of July. Square foot gardening allows you to grow more in less space. Gone are the 3 foot spaces between rows and the majority of labor normally associated with tending your garden.
My first challenge was finding a location for my beds. Javalina and rabbits would love the tender vegetables, as would the many birds that now visit our desert sanctuary daily. My grand daughter suggested using our old dog run area which is protected by a chain link fence on the Northwest side of the house. NOT the perfect location exposure wise, but being already protected and close to a water source I decided it would do.

Wood is the most popular frame for a raised bed and is the easiest to build, but concrete block in this neck of the woods lasts longer. With end caps resting on top of the block I also have a nice wide sitting area to work from. The thought of gardening on my knees is NOT how I see myself spending my golden years! So, after calculating what I needed for two 4' X 8' beds, I went about purchasing the following:
Split faced block (8" X 8" X 16") and end caps (8" X 2" X 16")
Heavy duty pond liner (Home Depot)
Wire mesh (heavy duty, 1/4" openings)
Weed Block

I laid the block without mortar and directly on the ground. If you want an attractive looking structure keep a level and string handy to make sure the block is level and straight. The split faced block is very handsome looking and costs just a little more than regular block. I considered the newer inter-connected block you can find at the big box improvement centers, but be prepared to pay about double the cost of split faced block.

I used pond liner to cover the inside sides of the bed. It is not necessary, but I was concerned about excess evaporation. DO NOT use the liner to cover the bottom of the bed (unless you change your mind and want a wading pool instead of a garden bed). Weed block fabric is placed in the bottom of the bed and covered with the wire mesh to keep both weeds and gophers out. Don't skip this part. We have gophers all around us who would love to take up residence in a nice cool, dark place.

IRRIGATION: I love drip irrigation. It is cheap, easy to work with and conserves water. Mel Bartholomew recommends watering your plants by hand using a pail of sun warmed water. This would be fine with a smaller 4' X 4' bed back East, but in Tucson where 100 plus degree days are common, I would be spending all of my time watering and worrying. All you need is enough 1/2" irrigation hose to go from an outside faucet to each bed, and then enough to run two hoses adjacent to each other the length of the beds. (Click on photos to enlarge)

The sprinkler heads I chose are made by "Dig" and allow you to adjust the volume of water that is emitted by turning the heads clockwise and counter clockwise (truly a tremendous leap forward for drip systems!). I have placed one every 12" in between two squares. I may change this to one every 6 inches, but want to experiment with this placement for the time being. Having two beds and seven large pots I ran three 1/2" lines, one to each bed and one to my collection of fiberglass whisky half barrels and two old enameled sinks. You can purchase a multi-hose connector (up to four) which allows control of your three zones plus faucet connection for your garden hose. The timers are battery operated, and will allow you to water each section separately. All of these items can be purchased at Home Depot.

SOIL PREPARATION: OK, here is the IMPORTANT part. Mel Bartholomew has been working on his soil mix since the 80's. According to Mel, his soil mix allows superb moisture retention (a must in the desert) excellent drainage, all the proper nutrients WITHOUT adding fertilizers and you will never have to turn your soil. Too good to believe? I'll let you know, but so far the stuff is fantastic. His recipe follows:

1/3 compost - compost must be made from at least 5 different types of bagged compost. Weird, yes, but he has his reasons.

1/3 COARSE Vermiculite - You can also find this at some Home Depots. Very expensive, but a must have. I had to settle for medium grade. Mel stresses coarse if you can get it. Don't substitute Perlite.

1/3 Peat Moss

Mel's tip to use a tarp to mix the ingredients together makes this part go much faster. I started by dumping 2 shovel fulls each from the 5 different compost bags on the tarp and mixed together by pulling the corners of the tarp around. After the compost is well mixed add 10 shovels full of the vermiculite and 10 shovels full of the peat moss. Again, pulling the corners of the tarp around mix the whole batch together. Mel's mix is light enough that I was able to heave it easily over the walls of the raised bed. Mel swears you only need a 6 inch depth of mix to grow most vegetables. I went a bit farther and ended up with 10 inches on average. The ingredients for this mix is expensive stuff, but if his claims are true, I shouldn't have to replenish ever again.


The secret to keeping Mel's mix nourishing and maintaining your plants for years to come is home made compost. About 10 years ago my wife went to a beginner's composting class and came home with a roll of vinyl with large holes in it. Until now, it has taken up space in my storage room. Knowing home made compost is an essential step for success, I've taken the plunge. I'll let you know in future posts how all this works out.

Protecting Your Investment
The "hoops" constructed over the beds provide a means to easily protect your garden from sun, birds and varmints. Using 1/2" PVC conduit the hoops are easily constructed and connected by small screws at the top. I used rebar for the ends of the conduit to slip over to provide additional stability. Now I can place bird netting, sun screening, tarps etc. over the beds to control just about any situation that would be harmful to the garden.

Vertical Structures

The whole idea behind square foot gardening is growing more in less space. I urge you to read Mel's' revised book called "All New Square Foot Gardening" and visit his website listed at the beginning of this post. Eventually, anything that can climb (tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, etc. ) should be trained to climb away from the garden to allow more space to grow other vegetables. Based on Mel's' recommendation, I used 1/2" electrical metal conduit and polyester netting to construct four 6' structures for this purpose. Cutting the conduit is easy with a hack saw and slipping the ends of the metal conduit over 24" rebar provides the necessary stability needed. 90 degree corners and the necessary connectors hold all of this together. Again, Home Depot is the place to pick these things up.
The Grids
I must admit I was a bit reluctant to install square foot grids as Mel recommended at first. They looked gimicky to me. BUT, if you want to save time sowing seeds and organizing your garden it is a must. I used slats
from four foot vinyl blinds and stapled them together with a regular hand stapler - cheap, quick and easy. When it comes time to calculate the spacing between seeds or transplants you'll be grateful you did. I also diagrammed my two beds and collection of whisky barrels to help me remember what I planted where, the date planted, and seed/plant type. This way, if something works (or doesn't work) I won't have to rely on my memory.

So that's it for now. I'll keep posting to this site to keep you updated as to my progress.