We’ve had backyard vegetable gardens most of the last 22 years. Until 2008, we had two to four raised beds, but in the Fall of 2008 we started expanding the size of our garden and we now have about 2600 square feet of gardens tucked in different places around our 1 acre yard. Although we live in East County San Diego, where we have a lot of sun, we have so many trees in our yard that we’re limited in where we can grow. The trees provide needed shade in the middle of our hot summers, but they love the garden water and every time we replant a bed we have to remove roots. We've found we can do this easily with a broadfork, a wonderful tool with 12 inch curved, pointed tines, that is pushed into the ground and rocked backwards.
We’ve really learned a lot in the last six years. We started with a mix of heirloom and hybrid varieties, trying different varieties each year, but grew more and more heirlooms as we discovered more varieties that do well in our area. We now plant almost entirely heirloom varieties with the only exception Sun Gold tomatoes.
Our first challenge was from insects, particularly earwigs that were having a REALLY big year. No sooner did seedlings come up or were planted out than they were devoured. After some trial and error, we started cutting the bottoms out of quart sized cottage cheese containers and putting them around the seedlings. This worked wonders and allowed them to grow large enough to become less interesting to bugs. I also discovered that the earwigs didn't eat the Kestrel beet variety while devouring everything else around them.
The next challenges were from animals – gophers and rabbits. Rabbits have no problem getting under a 3 foot rabbit fence and gophers have a LOT of relatives. We hatched a scheme… We rented a ditch digger from Home Depot to dig an 18 inch ditch around our largest garden – about 20 feet by 108 feet. We planned to sink 18 inches of mesh screen into the ditch, put a 3 foot rabbit fence above it and sew the two together with lamp wire. There were a couple of fatal flaws with this plan. Ditch diggers probably do really great on flat ground, which is not what we have. After the second (smaller) ditch digger and a whole lot of yanking and tugging, we had a ditch. Because the metal half inch mesh screen was really expensive, we decided to use the plastic type. That wasn’t a very good decision. We discovered that it did sort of deter gophers – we found tunnels that changed directions when they hit the screen – but it didn’t stop them. When motivated, they have no trouble chewing through. It did completely stop the rabbits, though, except for one teeny, tiny one that Jim found in the carrots last year.
Those challenges behind us, we started having some really great gardens, though the gopher destruction was heart breaking at times and somebody was chewing holes in our best tomatoes as soon as they were ripe. (More about how we solved those problems later.)
Feeling the need for some guidance, I happened upon the book, “Gardening When It Counts” by Steve Solomon and it’s my favorite book that I refer to all of the time. It’s particularly aimed at people who grow a substantial amount of their food (he grows the majority of what his household eats) and his methods are labor- and finance-efficient. His “Complete Organic Fertilizer” that he calls COF, is made from rock powders such as rock phosphate, agricultural lime, gypsum, and dolomite plus a nitrogen source such as seedmeal or chicken manure, all of which can be purchased relatively inexpensively in bulk, though it may take a bit of effort to find a source for bulk rock phosphate. I got mine from City Farmers Nursery in San Diego. They had it in stock the first couple of years and special ordered it for me the third.
We also found that adding organic matter to the soil was critical for plants to thrive in our garden. By organic matter, I mean compost, leaves, manure, kelp or any of a wide variety of plant materials. These help the soil hold moisture, allow air into the root zone, and encourage microbial growth. We were fortunate to have a very old neighboring horse with poor digestion. Hay came out the end of the horse looking pretty much like it did when it went in. This gave us a lot of semi-broken down plant matter with the added benefits of manure microbes. Also, CRITICALLY, this horse did not eat Bermuda grass.
I’ll diverge… At our last house we had a neighbor who piled horse manure in his yard with a “Free” sign on it. I remember once when I hadn’t known my husband for very long, I asked him to get some manure for the front lawn and vegetable garden and he brought 18 trash cans full. He told me later that he liked the fact that I was more interested in manure than jewelry. Well, you probably guessed… we had a wonderful crop of Bermuda grass in the front yard and vegetable gardens and were never able to get rid of it as long as we owned the house – about four years. Where we live now, horse manure isn’t allowed on the property unless it’s from a trusted friend who doesn’t feed their horse Bermuda.
Now back to the holes in the tomatoes and the gophers. We were really tired of watching our beautiful tomatoes slowly ripen and then, as soon as they turned red to have large holes chewed in them. We tried wrapping them with the type of bird netting that’s used on fruit trees and weighting down the bottoms. This made almost no difference. We pointed a wildlife camera at the area to try to find out who was doing it. We saw a bird flitter its way down through the mesh and back out. No other suspicious activity. Jim decided to take drastic measures. He pounded 6 grape stakes into the ground around the bed and wrapped half inch wire mesh around the outside and over the top, making a door out of mesh at one end. (See picture.) This was a lot of work and not cheap, but it REALLY works. For the last two years every ripe tomato is ours! Crop rotation is important, though, and we’re going to put the tomatoes somewhere else next year and plant something else in the tomato house.
We didn’t lose a single thing to gophers last year. Although adopting two stray cats that were good hunters didn’t hurt, the main reason is that two years ago we started planting things in chicken wire. Yes – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, kale, broccoli, onions. It’s a bit more work. Actually the first year it’s a lot more work because you have to make little baskets, but they can be used over and over, and it saves so much anguish from a gopher killing a whole row of peppers when it’s too late to replant. For the onions, we dug the bed out about a foot and laid down chicken wire, leaving it out of the ground about 6 inches around the edges. This year I hope to leave the chicken wire in place and dig in organic matter. We’ll see how that works in a few weeks when we do the Fall planting of onions.
Every year there are new challenges and new things to learn. The weather is a bit different each year, favoring some types of plants over others, some insects, fungus, and bacteria over others. Our old horse friend died and we need to find a new source of organic matter. We dug in a lot of leaves last year and it was a help, but not as good as the manure. We dig our kitchen waste into the garden and have a compost area where we pile organic matter and it sort of partially breaks down. I’ve thought about bringing home some kelp from the beach, but is it legal? They use kelp a lot in their gardens in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Do you have any ideas for sources of organic matter?
Well, it’s the end of September in San Diego and time to start planting the Fall garden. We’re going to plant less for the Winter because building this website takes a lot of time and I already have a job. We’ll plant onions, Dinosaur kale, spinach, other greens, and maybe some broccoli. I can’t wait to get my hands in the dirt!