Sunny Slope Orchard

Sunny Slope Orchard
In the coast range foothills overlooking the Sacramento Valley

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gardening Year 'round

Our second crop figs are all done now, so orchard work is down to cleanup and some summer pruning of low branches to make way for fall compost spreading and cover crop planting. Next up to harvest will be walnuts, pecans and persimmons later in the Fall.

So this might be a good time to share some of our home vegetable gardening tips. Our wonderful climate allows year round vegetable gardening, and being spoiled by the taste of fresh produce, we take full advantage of that. Our main challenges are getting the most mileage out of our limited summer well water, and extending the seasons by protecting plants from temperature extremes.

Taming the summer sun
In summer most water is reserved to drip irrigate the orchard, especially water hungry figs and citrus. So we don't grow any water-needy garden plants like corn or melons. And what we do grow is always heavily mulched and drip irrigated only as much as needed. We also cover all beds with at least a 30% shade cloth, suspended on PVC pipe hoops tall enough to walk under. The shade really takes the heat stress off the plants and also reduces their water needs. We use a 30% shade cloth for most crops, or two layers for 60% shade on heat sensitive plants.
A PVC hoop shade house
Chinese cabbage and broccoli
thriving despite summer heat
Year round cool season crops
We have even found that we can grow cool season crops like cabbage, broccoli and carrots all summer long by adding extra shade and using intermittent misters during the hottest part of the day. Using a special timer that runs an overhead misting line 3 minutes every half hour, these normally cool season crops grow like weeds. They mature much faster than during the cool months, so by making multiple plantings in succession we can keep the garden producing cool season crops almost continuously.

Cold protection
When cool fall weather arrives the shade cloth will come down so plants will get full sun. Then as the temperatures go from cool to cold, we cover the plants with "row cover", a lightweight fabric that helps protect plants from frost, wind, insects and winter bird damage while still letting in light and rainwater.

Crop rotations plus cover crops
May onions and carrots ready for harvest
To maintain soil fertility we rotate crops, never growing the same family of plant in the same bed in close succession. Adding fresh compost and planting a cover crop in rotation also lets the soil rest and, when later mowed down, provides a grow-your-own mulch and fertilizer. The bed at left grew winter legume cover crop last winter, then was mowed and planted with these onions and carrots.

Volunteer buckwheat cover crop
After harvesting the onions and carrots, I planted buckwheat, an excellent fast maturing summer cover crop that adds lots of organic matter and blooms heavily, providing food for beneficial insects. Not needing this bed again until next spring, I let the buckwheat go to seed, then mowed it down and irrigated which caused the new seed to sprout as shown at right. In another few weeks I will mow this down and plant a winter legume cover crop, which will be mowed down early next spring ahead of planting broccoli, cabbage and potatoes.

Young lettuce transplants, protected
from birds by plastic mesh
These successive plantings and mowings along with additions of compost keep the earthworms and soil microbes happily eating away producing nutrients, loosening the soil, and maintaining a healthy balanced soil. As a result these beds never need rototilling, only a bit of hoeing at most.


I planted these little lettuce starts the other day just by using two fingers to scoop a small hole a couple of inches deep in the mowed buckwheat cover crop residue, then plugging in my transplants. No tilling, minimal disruption of soil microorganisms, and they will grow all the way through final harvest with no added fertilizer.

Next post will be a review of some of our favorite vegetable varieties.