Garden Basics with Farmer Fred

230 Establishing Low Water Use Plants. Cover Crops

September 20, 2022 Fred Hoffman Season 3 Episode 230
Garden Basics with Farmer Fred
230 Establishing Low Water Use Plants. Cover Crops
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Autumn begins this week, and fall is definitely for planting. The air is cooler, but the soil is still warm, perfect for establishing new plants. We revisit a couple of segments to get you into the garden during the next couple of months. 

Are you thinking of getting some low water-use or drought tolerant plants for your landscape? America's Favorite Retired College Horticulture Professor, Debbie Flower, has tips to help insure their success. 

Not planning a fall garden? Then at least feed your garden soil over the winter, with cover crops. We have the basics to get you started.

We’re podcasting from Barking Dog Studios here in the beautiful Abutilon Jungle in Suburban Purgatory. It’s the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots.  And we will do it all in just a little over 30 minutes. Let’s go!

Previous episodes, show notes, links, product information, and transcripts at the home site for Garden Basics with Farmer Fred, GardenBasics.net. Transcripts and episode chapters also available at Buzzsprout

Pictured:  Fall/Winter Cover Crops of Fava Beans and Oats

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Peaceful Valley Farm Supply Cover Crops Knowledge Base

Cover Crop Seed

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GB 230 Low Water Use Plant Tips/Cover Crops TRANSCRIPT


Farmer Fred  0:00  

Garden Basics with Farmer Fred is brought to you by Smart Pots, the original lightweight, long lasting fabric plant container. It's made in the USA. Visit SmartPots.com slash Fred for more information and a special discount, that's SmartPots.com/Fred. Welcome to the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast. If you're just a beginning gardener or you want good gardening information, you've come to the right spot.


Farmer Fred  0:31  

Autumn begins this week, and fall is definitely for planting. The air is cooler, but the soil is still warm, perfect for establishing new plants. We revisit a couple of segments to get you into the garden during the next couple of months.  Are you thinking of getting some low water or drought tolerant plants for your landscape? We have tips to help insure their success.  Not planning a fall garden? Then feed your garden soil over the winter with cover crops. We have the basics to get you started. We’re podcasting from Barking Dog Studios here in the beautiful Abutilon Jungle in Suburban Purgatory. It’s the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots. And we will do it all in about 40 minutes. Let’s go!


TIPS FOR GARDENING WITH LOW WATER-USE PLANTS


Farmer Fred  1:24 

There's a lot of interest these days about growing low water use plants, native plants, plants that don't require much water once they're established. And that is the key to establishing a native plant or a low water use plant before you turn off the water. That "mm-hmm" belonged to Debbie Flower, retired college horticultural professor,who is here at Barking Dogs studio with us today. A lot of people make the mistake, when they go to a nursery, they might buy a perfectly good low water use plant thinking, "Oh, it doesn't require much water, I can just stick this in the ground walk away, and it'll do fine.'



Debbie Flower  2:14  

Mm hmm. No, That was something that I did a lot of reading about while I was doing my master's thesis at UC Davis. And there was somebody else's PhD thesis that I was reading about just exactly that, taking a plant, putting it in the ground from a container, planting it into the landscape, and how do you water it so it will survive? When do the roots get established? So let's think about that plant that we just purchased. It's in a container of some sort. And that container contains media of some sort. Everybody's mix is different. There are as many container media mixes as there are people mixing. But in general, they are very high in organic matter and very open to allow water and oxygen to penetrate them and the roots to grow, we are going to put that medium with the roots of the plant into our field soil, which is very low in organic matter. If you have 2% to 5% organic matter in your field soil, that's about normal. If you've used mulch for many years, and it's broken down, it might go up as high as 10%. But in the landscape that's about as high as you're going to get it. In the container, it's 50%, maybe more than that. So this change in texture between the container soil and the field soil creates a problem for water movement. The plant has all its roots in the container soil, has been living in the container, has been watered in the container, has been fertilized in the container. Now, you're going to put that into the ground. It came out to be about six weeks. These were one gallon plants  that I was reading about in that PhD thesis. For about six weeks, you need to water the container soil itself. It's in the ground now. But you have to get the water directly into that container media very frequently. In a hot California summer, it can be daily, it can be twice a day. So it depends where you are, how hot it is, whether you've had any rain, but you need to get water to that container soil very, very frequently for the first six weeks. And then in those six weeks, you watered this field soil around the plant once a week. That's a difficult situation to create. I did create it when I was working on my thesis. We actually cut the tops off of one gallon pots and made little collars around the planted one gallon plants and those collars were raised above ground so we could have pushed into the ground as well so that we could water directly into that container media and it wouldn't flow out into the field soil at home. I don't do that at home. I plant the plant and I lay out a sprinkler of some sort or a soaker hose, set it to a timer on a hose bib and have it go off every day every other day depending on the weather. And water that plant for about six weeks, and then I'll I don't just take it away, I'll move it away further away from the plant. The thesis said that I read said, the roots of the one gallon container plants had grown into the field soil after six weeks. So all of a sudden, these plants were able to take moisture up from the field soil, but they couldn't do it before that. And so you have to create the conditions where you're not saturating the plant, not getting too much water into the container soil or into the field soil, but you're getting enough that the plant doesn't die.



Farmer Fred  5:34  

So it sounds like a spiral of a soaker hose, for example, that starts off basically, around that root ball of the plant, and then spirals out a little bit more and a little bit more would be the ideal way for moistening. Or maybe it would take two soaker hoses, right, with the one closest to the plant being on more frequently than the outer one.



Debbie Flower  5:58  

Right. And I'm typically planting into a bed that already has irrigation that comes on. Actually sometimes it doesn't come on except once every two weeks. And so I'm using the soaker hose, I just string it around from plant to plant. If I've planted a lot of little plants, then I'll move it from plant to plant and keep it very close to the base of the plant because that's where the media, the container media is. Yes, I'm watering some field soil in between, but there is drier field soil around that plant. And then it gets its usual irrigation once a week or once every two weeks depending on what that I've put it in.



Farmer Fred  6:31

I would think a couple of other strategies for putting in low water use plants would be the timing of this. And that timing could include not only the time of the year, but the time of the day that you put these plants in.



Debbie Flower  6:44  

I will have plants and wait and check the weather. I'll have plants and pots that I've purchased. I have some right now. And I'll check the weather until there's a cooler day. Now we're in the heat of summer. So that's not real frequent, but a cooler day and often plant in the evening when the direct sun is not so strong. And another thing i do, this sounds very odd. I've never seen anyone else do it. But I'll make little paper hats out of newspaper or if you have some large piece of paper, shape them, you just use scotch tape make a little hat and anchor them with irrigation line anchors those metal hooks. And yes, they turn brown and they start to rip. But the first few days when that plant is is out of the container it was grown in a field and it was totally surrounded by other container plants that were about the same size. So the wind was low on that plant. It may have been grown in partial shade, many growing facilities are in partial shade because the plants grow better. Now you're taking it away from all those other plants, it's totally exposed on all sides to the sun in the wind. And it's not under shade, or it's probably under less shade than it was in its growing grass. So it has to adjust all these changes in its environment. So putting that little paper cap on it helps it eliminate some of those things that are hard for that plant to deal with. And the paper doesn't last very long and when it starts to shred and blow around the garden, I go out and throw it away and that's as long as it stays on the plant. But I find it very helpful. I did it to a ceanothus that I planted in summer and it worked very well, both the the soaker hose and the little paper hat.



Farmer Fred  8:35  

Ceanothus is also known as California lilac, it is notorious for hating summer water when established. It needs to be off on its own circuit, away from other plants that are getting regular water definitely for it to have a long life. And frankly, the ceanothus in California...10-15 years, probably, is their life.


Debbie Flower  8:54  

if they're irrigated. Yes, yeah. Yes. So yeah, it sounds counterintuitive to do this to water ceanothus after you've planted it.



Farmer Fred  9:02  

However, you've often preached of the benefits of moistening the soil before you plant. Will you water thoroughly the area before you put in a low water use plant?



Debbie Flower  9:14  

i don't. i water the container to make sure  that water has gotten all the way to the bottom of that container. So the plant has something to live on when I put it in these very difficult situations, meaning increased light, increased wind, and new media but I do not irrigate the hole. That is recommended by many people however. 


Farmer Fred  09:24

Including you. 


Debbie Flower  09:27

Well, that's when I go from container to container, right? I absolutely yes, I use moist media, I water what's in the container and I water what I'm putting it into because the container media often contains peat moss, which is incredibly difficult to wet. But landscape soil, it varies all over the world. So I can't say anything general except that it typically does not contain peat moss. Peat moss is a particular problem to get it wet, and so that's why I always use moist container media.


Farmer Fred  10:09  

 And you've gotten me into the habit now of using my five gallon buckets to pre-moist any potting soil that I may be thinking of using that day. Just putting the amount of potting mix that I think I'll be using into a big bucket, topping that with water, and letting it sit there while I go do other things and then come back and take that moist soil and put it in the container for replanting.     


Debbie Flower  10:35 

Yes, I think for container media, it's critical. Field soil, not as much.



Farmer Fred  10:41 

The other thought, too, about putting in low water use plants to reduce the stress is maybe planting in fall, when the days are cooler and the soil temperature is still warm and the weather is just more mild.

 


Debbie Flower  10:52

It's much easier to do. To plant in fall. I prefer to plant in fall. The reason I don't always do it is that the plants aren't always available in fall, right. Having worked at nurseries wholesale and retail and with students at the school growing grounds. You don't want to go through the winter with a lot of plants, material and containers. It takes a lot of labor.


Farmer Fred  11:07

and water.


Debbie Flower  11:08

and water. And they can be persnickety, some don't want water in winter, and some do. It just creates a lot of work. And so the tendency is for nurseries to let their stock quantity decline as you go into the fall so that they don't have to attend to these plants in the winter. So it's sometimes harder to find what you want in fall.



Farmer Fred  11:36 

If only you people would just pay attention to all the signs you see in front of nurseries every September,  that fall is for planting. Yes, we wouldn't have this issue. Yes, yes, it's all supply and demand really. Alright, so we've established a low water use plant, we've planted it. What about adding mulch? Does that help?



Debbie Flower  11:54  

I always try to mulch up to the container soil, not over the container soil. And that helps, as you say repeatedly, do not mulch right up to the  base of the plant. And so if you only go up to the container soil, and that goes back to another, another bypass, when you plant container soil-grown plants into the landscape, you plant them, it's called planting proud, someone is proud, they stand up tall. And so you want the container soil out of the ground, out of the field soil. For a one gallon plant, as much as an inch of that container soil sticking out of the landscape soil once you've planted it. A couple of reasons for that. One, if you dug the hole really deep and had to fill it back in, there's air in that media in that landscape soil that's underneath the pot, and that's going to settle and the plant will go down. If you dug it exactly the right depth, Good for you. But you still want the media to stick out because the media itself is full of organic matter, it will break down over time and that plant will settle. And  once it settles, if it's below field soil, all the water will flow to it and you're likely to drown the plant and I have drowned them. I've done it here, planted proud, you've got that container media sticking out. Mulch right up to it.


Farmer Fred  13:03

The other thing to consider too, when planting low water use plants is, as we've alluded to, they don't like a lot of water once they're established. So think about where you're going to be planting them. Is it in a low, moist area? Maybe you don't want to put it right there. Maybe you want to put it at the top of a slope or even in a raised bed?


Debbie Flower  13:23

Yes, yes. the ceanothus I've had success with most recently is on a mound. And so I still got the soaker hose running past it. And it's doing very well. I have another ceanothus I want to plant in a different location that is not mounded, but I will put some field soil there to create a mound. That's another option.


Farmer Fred  13:44

How do you keep the sides together on a mound?


Debbie Flower  13:47

Well, you have to slope it gently.


Farmer Fred  13:49

Okay, so the eventual height, that mound, would be about eight inches or so.


Debbie Flower  13:54

I don't think I'll go that high. I think I'll just go three or four. And then plant proud in that mound. That mound will settle. Anytime you move soil, you've added oxygen to it and it settles over time. So I may end up with only a two inch mound, but it's still higher than the field soil around it.


Farmer Fred  14:12

And that soil, because you've made it quite wide, actually can act as a mulch, too.


Debbie Flower  14:19

Right. But I will mulch around it too. Alright.


Farmer Fred  14:22

Okay. Have we established those low water use plants?


Debbie Flower  14:25

Let's see. We planted them. We we put in the irrigation, we mulch them. After six weeks, we take the irrigation off and then you can go to low water use irrigation.


Farmer Fred  14:37

Oh listen, I hear a voice saying how much (watering) is that?


Debbie Flower  14:41

That depends. That's another topic. Yes. Yes. I think we have.


Farmer Fred  14:46

Okay, all right. So low water use plants. You can save money. Mm hmm.


Debbie Flower  14:51

But you got to pay attention when you plant them to get them established.


Farmer Fred  14:55

Debbie Flower, thanks so much for your help on this.


Debbie Flower  14:57

Thank you. My pleasure.


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GROWING COVER CROPS


Farmer Fred  1706

If you've never experimented with cover crops, there are a lot of benefits for putting in what's called a cover crop during the fall for both gardeners and farmers. We're talking with the product development manager at Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Grass Valley, Sarah Griffin Boubacar. And Sarah, what exactly are the benefits to cover cropping that people may not know about?


Sarah Griffin Boubacar  1730

Well, there's a lot of benefits. It depends on why you want to cover crop. So there's lots of different reasons to use one, they can obviously fix nitrogen, that'd probably be the number one benefit. It brings atmospheric nitrogen and puts it right in the soil, right where your plants can use it. It also adds organic matter. So when you're amending your garden, the two only two expensive amendments are nitrogen fertilizer and organic matter like compost. So this cover crop will do both of those. It also can suppress weeds over the winter and improve soil tilth and increase biology in the soil. It can reduce erosion, it can help with certain pest problems because it'll harbor beneficial insects. It can even provide winter feed for animals, helps with crop rotation, which is very important. And it just it's more of a natural crop rotation. And it can increase water infiltration in the soil.


Farmer Fred 1828

Let's talk about that last point, because that's important for gardeners and farmers who want to cut down the amount of irrigation they have to do, and that has to do with the deep rooted nature of cover cropping, allowing the water to penetrate even deeper into the soil profile.


Sarah Griffin Boubacar  1845

Well yeah, exactly. Well, it can. Especially some cover crops have very large roots like daikon radish, so you can plant daikon radish, and as it grows it busts through some hard soils that would otherwise be hard to penetrate. And it allows the water to go down deeper into the soil profile, while at the same time, all of those roots and all of that organic matter is like a sponge, holding on to water. So if you have a healthy cover cropping system, then yeah, over time, you would need to irrigate less and less.


Farmer Fred 1920

And as you mentioned, that by having a cover crop you're providing, if you will, a good bug hotel for beneficial insects who may be inspired to spend the winter on your property.


Sarah Griffin Boubacar  1931

Absolutely cover crop doesn't necessarily have to mean a crop you put in between you know your succession planting, it can also be a hedgerow, so something along the border lines of your of your garden area, your farming area, that would work as a protective area for these beneficial insects. So it can provide pollen for the colonizing a lot of our beneficial insects, our pollinators when they're adults, and they're voracious bug eaters as larva. And so it'll provide habitat for them so that if you do have a pest problem in your garden, those beneficial insects are just lying and waiting to gobble them up.


Farmer Fred  2014

There's a lot of confusion among gardeners and farmers about when do you take out a cover crop. Or, what do you do to a cover crop in spring, when it's time to plant? Do you take it out? Do you just mow it down? What do you do with a cover crop? And at what point should you be cutting down a cover crop?


Sarah Griffin Boubacar  2033

Right? Well, that's a really good question. So there's a couple different schools of thought on that. If you're a tiller, if you till, then there's one way to do it. And then there's if you're a no-till person and no-till is is pretty hip right now, because,  you know, maintaining the mychorrazae in the soil. And so if you tilled and you bust up all that mychorrazae and it's hard for it to really get established, mychorrazae being the beneficial fungus in the soil. So the no-till method is pretty popular. But the key thing to remember, whether you're tilling or not tilling, is that you don't want to cut the cover crop and just let it lay. Because if you let it lay, all of that nitrogen that's in the plant, it's been sequestering, it's been grabbing from the atmosphere and putting it into the plant, it's all just gonna go back into the atmosphere, and it can happen within minutes. Within an hour, most of that nitrogen is gone. So the key thing is that once you cut it, you have to cover it, whether you cover it by tilling it into the soil, or whether if you're doing a no till, then you're going to cover it with another layer of something, finished compost or something else. So just to keep that nitrogen in the soil rather than going back into the atmosphere. So the key is to cut the cover crop when it's about half in bloom because if you allow the cover crop to go to seed, then you've got weed problems. And not to mention, a lot of that nitrogen that you've been keeping from taking from the atmosphere is now going into seed production. Through all that energy rather than going back into the soil as now fertilizer or green manure is then going into seed production. So you don't want your cover crop to go to seed. So the key is to cut it when it's about half in bloom. So you just start to notice the blooms, about half the crop is in bloom, then you're going to cut it and immediately cover it. Whether you're covering it by tilling it in or covering it with a mulch, then you're going to wait at least three weeks. If you're tilling, perhaps even longer depending on how thick your mat is. If you're doing a no-till you're going to wait at least three weeks in planting to give the green manure a chance to break down. If you don't do that it actually gets quite hot in the soil. And you can burn your seedlings or your seeds. And nothing will grow for about three weeks until that's able to break down. It could be sooner, could be longer depending on how active the soil biology is at the time.


Farmer Fred   2305

For both the small scale gardener and the large scale farmer, what are some alternatives for mulching that cut cover crop if you're practicing no till?


Sarah Griffin Boubacar   2315

I mean, you can use straw you can use alfalfa hay, you can use a finished compost anything to cover up that that layer of the green cover crop. You just really don't want it to go limp and have all the water come out of it because with the water will go the nitrogen.


Farmer Fred  2331

Let's talk about some various cover crops. And I imagine it depends on what you're growing and where you are and what sort of soil you have. But among the fall sown cover crops, what are the most popular?


Sarah Griffin Boubacar   2345

Well, we have formulated here at Peaceful Valley, we formulated a couple of mixes that are really popular. We call them soil builder mixes because they will build your soil if you use them every year. And the soil builder mixes have a mix of grasses and legumes. So the legumes are those nitrogen fixers. So that's the ones that we've mainly been talking about as fixing nitrogen. But grasses also have a lot of benefits, mainly being just a lot of biomass that they they grow quickly and put a lot of organic matter into the soil. So soil builder mixes have that and Bell beans, which are a kind of fava beans, so they're they grow really well in the cold weather. And the vetch is like a vine, and it climbs up the bell beans. And it climbs up. There's also white oats and peas in there and the  peas and the vetch to use the oats and Bell beans as scaffolding to climb up. So it'll be quite a tangled mess. Ideally, it'll be full of beneficial insects.


Farmer Fred  2501

And then when you chop it down, you want to do that before it's fully blooming. And I imagine when you chop it down, you want to do it in segments of no more than six to 12 inches before you take it to the ground.


Sarah Griffin Boubacar  2509

Right? Well, hopefully  by the spring your cover crop is quite lush and prolific. And so you want to chop it up as much as possible, because the more it's chopped up into little pieces, the quicker it breaks down. And so you will chop it up and then either till it in or cover it up.


Farmer Fred  2529

So maybe mowing it after you've chopped it up would help.


Sarah Griffin Boubacar   2533

Yeah, yeah, definitely. The key is to really cover it up


Farmer Fred   2536

This mix that you're talking about, your premium soil builder mix, can get rather high can't it? About what, four to six feet?


Sarah Griffin Boubacar  2543

It can. So what I use is, I use a weed whacker when I go to chop it down and I'll just chop like you said the top six inches, then do another layer, then do another layer until it gets down to the ground.


Farmer Fred  2557

And what is the application rate for the garden? What is the application rate for a farm?


Sarah Griffin Boubacar   2601

Let's say you're gonna do three to five pounds for 1000 square feet. For the soil builder mix, keeping in mind that because it is a lot of different size seeds, seed spreader can be a little bit challenging because you've got the smaller batch seeds, and the larger bell beans and that so it will be a little bit harder to spread. Also, it's not pre inoculated. And so if you add it, if you add the inoculant, it can get a little bit sticky, so I usually just spread it by hand. Now if you're a farmer, it's 70 to 120 pounds per acre, depending on how rich your soil is, obviously, if your soil is, is quite poor, you're going to go the higher application rates and that case, using a more professional grade seed spreader would be best or even a seed driller. If you're drilling the seed, then it would be you could go the lower application rate as well because you'd have more germination.


Farmer Fred 2706

What depth is ideal for planting the seed?


Sarah Griffin Boubacar  2708

Well, because it's tough, like I said, because it's so many different size seeds, you don't want to go too deep. So I would only go about a quarter inch deep because of the vetch mainly, it's the smallest seeds and the oats as well. So you don't want to go too deep, I'd say a quarter inch to a half inch deep  at the most. A lot of people just spread it over the top. And that works too.


Farmer Fred 2732

Does it need irrigation after planting? Or can you just wait for the fall rains to begin?


Sarah Griffin Boubacar   2737

It really depends. A big mistake what I see a lot of people do. They might say, "Oh, I just didn't have success with my cover crop." Well, usually it has to do with irrigation. Like all seeds, it needs to be completely moist the whole time. And so if it's allowed to dry out, then the seed will just die. And so I like to time it when the fall rains have started, but the soil is still warm. If the soil is too cold when you plant it, then the seeds won't germinate or they'll take a really long time to germinate. So you have to time it right. Sometimes Mother Nature doesn't cooperate with you with the timing and the fall rains will come later. Or they'll come too early. When  the rest of your crop is still in, you can irrigate, to get the timing right, you have to keep the soil completely moist while it's germinating. Once it's germinated, you can let it dry out in between especially because it'll be cooler and so you don't need to water as often. But you still need to pay attention to dry spells. And if we do have a dry spell, which oftentimes we do and January, in particular, is a pretty dry month, most often so you know giving it a good drench once a week or so even when it's cold you don't really need much more than that. What that will really help those cover crops thrive and you'll get the most out of that.


Farmer Fred 2904

So, I guess ideal planting time for this really depends on the weather but basically sometime between Labor Day and Halloween. Yeah, I'd


Sarah Griffin Boubacar   2911

Yeah, I'd say that's that's pretty safe. I mean, you don't want to get your summer crops out too soon because you want to really you know maximize how much you get out of them. But then there comes to be a point where  those tomatoes, while you may or may still have some green tomatoes on the plant, if the tomato is really suffering and not looking very healthy, you got to pull it out sooner rather than later because otherwise you're just inviting pest problems.


Farmer Fred  2935

Peaceful Valley has a wide array of cover crops and cover crop mixes and you can check out what they have online at Grow Organic dot com. It's all about cover cropping. Sarah Griffin Boubacar is the product development manager at Peaceful Valley farm supply. Sarah, good talking with you and happy cover cropping.


Sarah Griffin Boubacar 2955

 Thank you, Fred. 


BEYOND THE GARDEN BASICS NEWSLETTER


Farmer Fred  30:01  

Wondering what to do with all that end of season corn. How about fresh corn soup? On this week’s Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter and podcast, Master Gardener and professional chef Andi MacDonald has the chilled corn soup recipe that’s rather special - it uses the corn cobs that usually get tossed!

Find a subscription link to the newsletter in today’s show notes, or visit our website, Garden Basics dot net, where you can sign up to have the free, Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter and podcast delivered to your inbox each Friday. Also at Garden Basics dot net, you can listen to any of our previous editions of the Garden Basics podcast, as well as read a transcript of the podcast episode you are listening to now. 

For current newsletter subscribers, look for All About Phytonutrients in the next Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter, coming out on the morning of Friday, September 16th, in your email. Take a deeper dive into gardening, with the Beyond the Garden Basics newsletter. And it’s free. Find the link in today’s show notes or at garden basics dot net.



Farmer Fred  31:13  

Garden Basics With Farmer Fred comes out every Tuesday and Friday and is brought to you by Smart Pots and Dave Wilson Nursery. Garden Basics is available wherever podcasts are handed out. For more information about the podcast, visit our website, GardenBasics dot net. That’s where you can find out about the free, Garden Basics newsletter, Beyond the Basics. And thank you so much for listening.




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