Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Watering your garden in the warm months

Hello all -

As we enjoy the warm days full of light and increasing garden greenery, I think this is a good time to have a discussion about watering.

You don't need a very green thumb at all to be able to list watering as a basic gardening chore. It is common for new gardeners to think of watering as it is shown in movies or TV - light overhead watering that lasts about two minutes. Novices tend to lightly water their plots at least once a week, sometimes more.

Unfortunately, frequent shallow watering doesn't accomplish very much other than use up water. A few minutes of watering won't put down enough water to soak the first few inches of soil, and will really only distribute enough to evaporate or osmose deeper and farther away from your plants' tender, thirsty roots. According to Adam, one of our garden workers, "The problem with light watering (just wetting down the top of the soil) is that it promotes shallow root development which in turn requires more watering and a lot of the water evaporates before it is accessible for the plants".

Instead of light watering, optimize your time and resources by planning to only water when you really need to, and then water DEEPLY. "Stick your finger in the ground and if it's moist 1/2 down no water is necessary," explains Adam. "If it's dry an inch down then it's time to take the time to water." Look out for these conditions after a week or more without rain.

Watering deeply is the best practice which can be done lots of ways (hand watering, soaker hoses), all of which water the plant's root zones, not the plants themselves or the soil surface. Thorough watering also takes considerable time, as the water is slow to soak down deep into the soil. If watering is indicated by the soil conditions, don't plan to get in and get out quickly. Be patient, and really take the time to soak the soil. 
Adam points out, however, that "the trick to watering is to prevent the need to water". This can be done easily and cheaply through the use of mulch. He advises putting down mulch (including leaf mulch or straw) around plants at least 3 - 4 inches thick, and an additional 3 - 4 inches after the first deposit of mulch has settled (ideally, a final total of 6 - 8 inches). You can do this serially as the plants grow up, putting down the first layer as soon as the first true green leaves of your spinach and carrots poke up out of the soil, and the second at the end of Spring when transplants go in and the plants are more developed. Take care not to cover your plants, but of course pile leaf mulch on top of weeds to your heart's content. Leaf and straw are also great mulch for paths, and can be laid down even thicker. "If you do this," counsels Adam, "unless we have an extreme drought year, you'll only water once a month... at most". Sounds good to me.
Only water fruiting plants during flowering and fruit set. When watering fruiting plants, don't lazily water overhead; it's not good for the plant foliage to remain wet. Instead, water at the base of the plant, with an eye on soaking the roots. Adam's final word of wisdom: NEVER water ripening fruit, no matter how long it has been since the rain. "In fact, if it's going to rain on your ripening fruit it might be best to pick it a little early and finish ripening inside. Ripening fruit can split (like tomatoes), go mushy (raspberries), go mealy (melons) and flavor gets watered down (all fruit) if the plant gets an influx of water."

Regardless of how you choose to water, be mindful of garden rules and neighborliness. We have already had an incident this year involving a sprinkler left on overnight in the gardens. While we understand that deeply watering is a long, involved, tedious task, we have to insist that you be present for it. If you choose to use a sprinkler to water, you must remain in the garden to oversee it and turn it off when ready. We do really prefer that people not use this approach; sprinklers may be great for your lawn at home, but at EHCG they are rather wasteful, sending water great distances with no regard for whether it lands somewhere helpful (carrot roots) or harmful (the paths already populated by grass and all manner of weeds). 

Please also consider your neighbors with whom you share access to a spigot. There are probably at least 6 other plots that call your spigot their own, and it is impolite to monopolize the shared water source for very long. Finally, when finished watering, be certain to shut off the water flow completely, to avoid water dripping into the path. Even a minor drip adds up over several minutes or, worse, hours, wasting water and encouraging weed growth in the path. If you find a spigot that just won't shut off, email Gretel the registrar right away ( and we will get it sorted out.

Thanks for dropping by the blog, and don't hesitate to send us your questions and comments.

Happy gardening!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Manure deliveries in the gardens

Hello all - 

The blog got a question submitted via the "Blogger Contact Form" last week:

What is the best way to use the horse manure that was delivered this week?

We are fortunate enough to have deliveries of manure provided by the UW Hoofers. According to Will, one of our garden workers and committee members, we used about 14-15 yards of manure from the Hoofers barn last year. We continue to find this resource helpful for our gardeners and our gardens alike, and are working on future deliveries.

To answer the question about how to best use this resource, I turned to our other garden worker, Adam. He responded: "Use in tomato or pepper beds. If they haven't been planted, rake in the top of soil and use a cup in the transplant hole. If planted side dress the plants." Manure could also help support the growth of other heavy feeders, like squashes and melons. Some gardeners prefer to use manure around crops whose skin is not eaten (winter squashes, melons); however, the manure we get from Hoofers is well decomposed and these measures are merely personal preference.

If you have other questions for our garden workers, check out the EHCG facebook page. Adam and Will are both admins on this page, and are also extremely knowledgeable and likely able to answer any question about any gardening topic under the sun. "Like" the page to keep updated on garden worker advice as well as activities (sales, work days), deadlines, and more.

On an unrelated note - I would love to add more pictures to this blog, and keep forgetting my camera at home on the weekends. If you have any photos you'd like to share, please email this blog account ( with them, and I will feature your images in a future post.

Happy gardening.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Tomato weather

Hello all - 

We enjoyed some wonderful weather this weekend, including a beautiful Sunday that was a perfect setting for our warm weather plant and compost sales. Scott Williams of Garden To Be sold over 3,500 plants at EHCG this Spring, including 1,400 this past Sunday. Compost was sold at Eagle Heights, and Adam, one of our garden workers, oversaw its transportation to University Houses gardeners, cartload by cartload. We do sell this compost at cost, and this year scaled back to $2 per 1/3 cart load. We hope that you had a chance to get some of this wonderful compost. We are discussing selling off the remainder some time in the near future, and will keep you updated.

After the warm weather plant sale and the recent temperatures, I think it is safe to declare that we have begun the part of the late Spring that can be classified as "tomato weather": it is now safe to grow tomatoes outside. But how do you know if tomato weather has truly begun?

Everyone has different superstitions and anxieties about when it is ok to put fussy warm weather plants outside. I have put together a very simple chart (below) with very general guidelines about tomatoes. Feel free to respond with your own perspectives and experience.

I will be transplanting my peppers, eggplants, and basil next weekend as well. 

Along with the sales, I walked through Eagle Heights garden with the registrar yesterday to get an impression of how far along our gardeners are with their Spring garden work. Many of you have beautiful, well-managed, robust plots already bursting with gorgeous lettuces and carrot tops. I look forward to continuing to admire the work of our gardeners as the season progresses.

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Compost and caring for the soil

This coming Sunday, in addition to the warm weather plant sale, with weather permitting, we will be selling compost at EHCG:

Compost Sale

11 AM to 1 PM
Eagle Heights Community Garden
$3 per half cart load

We are very excited to bring this important soil amendment to our gardeners. We sell this compost at-cost, ie we don't make any money off of it. This is sourced from the West Madison Agricultural Station, and composted of well-aged barn manure and food waste from campus. While that doesn't sound very appealing, I promise that this stuff is perfectly pleasant soil amendment gold. 

Speaking of soil amendments, let's have a brief discussion of what soil amendments are, and why we use them. Vegetables, fruits, and flowers require both macronutrients and micronutrients to grow. While carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are important macronutrients for people, plants require nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (N-P-K) for their health. Each year that a volume of soil is used to grow plants, a fraction of the N-P-K is used up, making that much less available for next year's plants.

It is important to restore these nutrients through soil amendments, including compost, fertilizer, and/or leaf mulch, to get the most out of your garden. If soil amendment is neglected, your yields will drop, and your plants may show symptoms of either nutrient deficiency or disease. 

The compost sold at EHCG, as well as the leaf mulch available free in the gardens all season long, are inherently organic and therefore suitable for our organic gardening spaces. These amendments are also lower in N-P-K than fertilizer, slower-releasing, and generally can be applied liberally without running into any issues. This contrasts with fertilizer, which can be bought either organic or synthetic, both of which are higher in macronutrients. (Organic fertilizer is generally lower in N-P-K that synthetic.) While these nutrients are important for plant health and growth, too much can result in fertilizer burn, a leaf "scorch" resulting from exposure of a young plant to too much nitrogen. If you apply a lot of strong fertilizer all at once, there is also the possibility that most of it will be washed away or lost instead of being taken up by your plants.

It is a good idea to invest in both a low N-P-K, slow release amendment (compost, leaf mulch) as well as a high N-P-K, quicker release fertilizer. I incorporate leaf mulch into my plot all season long, both for weed suppression when laid down thickly, and nutrient incorporation when I turn it into the soil in the Fall. (It has all season long to break down in my plot.) I also buy a half-cart of compost every Spring to surface-dress the soil. As I plant heavy feeders, such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and squashes, I bury a small amount of organic fertilizer into the soil as I transplant, and periodically fertilize, in small quantities, throughout the season.

When applying fertilizer to tomatoes, keep in mind that nitrogen will spur the growth of green foliage, but not fruit. Tomato fruiting is actually encouraged by calcium, not nitrogen, so I hold off on fertilizing tomatoes once the plants start putting out flowers. I also bury eggshells into the soil as I transplant tomatoes to provide a slow-releasing calcium reservoir.

I hope to see you all at the transplant and compost sales this coming Sunday. Happy gardening.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Warm weather transplant sale: warmth and rain returning

Hello all -

After a warm weekend and a rainy day, I am feeling better about gardening than ever. I transplanted my tomato and ground cherry plants this past weekend, and have sown directly melons, squashes, corn, and beans. I tend to start a little early, but soon many warm weather crops such as these will be popping up in the gardens, adding color and life.

I would like to remind everyone that there will be a warm weather transplant sale this weekend:

Warm Weather Transplant Sale

11 AM to 1 PM
Eagle Heights Community Garden Arbor
Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, basil...

For a full list of transplants expected this Sunday, follow this link.

I have previously posted a transplant guide; please consult either this or some other resource ahead of transplanting time. Planting depth and use of fertilizer or other soil amendments are very important parameters in the transplanting of starts. If you read nothing else, please read the next 16 words: transplant tomatoes DEEPER than they are in the pot, up to the bottom set of leaves!

We are having a committee meeting Wednesday night, 05/14/14, at the Eagle Heights Community Center, room 139. All EHCG gardeners are eligible to attend. I am mentioning this meeting specifically because we are electing a new co-chair to replace the departing Josh Parsons. If you are interested, show up and lend a voice to how the gardens are run!

One final note - I hope that you are having a pleasant, neighborly interaction with your fellow gardeners. While sometimes we have issues with our plot neighbors or other gardeners or visitors at EHCG, patience, cordiality, and forgiveness can go a long way toward rectifying injury and healing relationships. Our gardeners are all equally interested in having an enjoyable gardening experience, and letting go of honest mistakes or misunderstandings can help to foster the kind of community we want at EHCG. That being said, every once in a while a serious incident may precipitate. If you have any ongoing issues in the gardens, please email Gretel the registrar at

I look forward to seeing you all at the transplant sale this Sunday. Happy gardening!