Garden Basics with Farmer Fred

124 Mulching the Easy Way. Tomatillo pollination. Breaking Up Clay Soil and Hardpan.

July 30, 2021 Fred Hoffman Season 2 Episode 124
Garden Basics with Farmer Fred
124 Mulching the Easy Way. Tomatillo pollination. Breaking Up Clay Soil and Hardpan.
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Mulching your garden beds provides many benefits: it moderates moisture loss and soil temperature fluctuations; it inhibits weed production; and fertilization chores are reduced because mulch feeds the soil as it breaks down. The hard part, of course, has been spreading that mulch throughout your garden on a regular basis. Today we talk with a noted international garden expert on easing your mulching chores greatly, using his cut and drop method. 

Today’s garden questions tackle tomatillo production issues, and how to improve clay soil while breaking up the hard pan layers below.

It’s all on episode 124 of the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots. 

And we will do it all in under 30 minutes. Let’s go!

A Mulched Garden

Smart Pots
Garden Myths Blog / Robert  Pavlis
Cut and Drop Mulching Method by Robert Pavlis
Video: Farmer Fred on Cool Season Vegetable Gardening
Harvest Day Zoom link registration for Farmer Fred Q&A,  Sat. Aug. 7

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GB 124 TRANSCRIPT Mulching. Tomatillos. Clay Soil.



Debbie Flower, Susan in Idaho, Mary in Sacramento, Robert Pavlis, Farmer Fred

Farmer Fred  00:00

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 slash Fred for more information and a special discount, that's 

Farmer Fred  00:20

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  00:32

Mulching your garden beds provides many benefits. It moderates moisture loss as well as soil temperature fluctuations. It inhibits weed production, and fertilization chores are reduced because mulch feeds the soil as it breaks down. And of course, the hard part though, has been spreading that mulch throughout your garden on a regular basis. Today, we talk with a noted international garden expert on easing your mulching chores greatly, using his "cut and drop" method. Today's garden questions tackle tomatillo production issues; and, how do we improve clay soil while breaking up the hard pan layers below? It's all on episode 124 of the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast, brought to you today by Smart Pots. And we'll do it all in under 30 minutes. Let's go. 

Farmer Fred  01:25

Our favorite retired college horticultural Professor Debbie Flower is here. We like to answer your garden questions, like this one from Susan in Idaho.

Susan in Idaho  01:34

My name is Susan. And I live in Eagle, Idaho, which is zone 7-a. We are really very close to Boise. Just a little bit up in the hills, just a little bit more, but basically the same. First of all, thank you for your podcast. I just ran across you recently, as I'm using podcasts more in the recent years as I've tried to develop my gardening skills. But one thing that I did not realize. I have a great question. This year I grew a purple tomatillo from seed and it was beautiful. But I grew a single one. And I didn't realize that you need to have two. If somebody in the neighborhood had a green tomatillo, is it possible that they would cross pollinate? Next year, I will definitely plant maybe two or three. They start grow large, so I'm not really sure. But I thought I would just ask about what you thought. I wanted to ask to find out as well as I'm hoping to win that garden container because that sounds so super, because all my garden beds are completely full. And I still want to plant a few more things. Well, thank you very much. I hope you have a great day and thank you for your program. Bye bye.

Farmer Fred  02:50

I can tell she's from Idaho, truly because she said Boise. Oh, okay. That's how you say Boise in Idaho? Boise? I think she answered your own question there Susan about the tomatillo.

Debbie Flower  03:03

Alright, Susan, I was up in in Boise. Early in July. And I have to say you have a great Botanic Garden there. I don't know if you visited it. It's deceptive. If you just drive through the parking lot and look through the fencing. It looks like it's very small. But once you get into it, there's all kinds of wonderfully themed gardens, they're edible, drought tolerant, different. One's a meditation garden, so many different themes. They have event space, I saw when it was just beginning. And that was about 1995. And it was nothing and they have made great strides. It's a wonderful place to go. So I urge you to maybe join you can get to know other gardeners, your daughters can join, that would be really wonderful. But the day I was there it was 106. So I didn't spend a lot of time in the garden, but I loved every minute of it. But about tomatillos, you're absolutely right, they just need to be two different plants. You can start the second one with seeds out of the same packet. They can be the same cultivar or they can be different cultivars. Yes, the green one, which would be a different cultivars can pollinate your purple one. And if you know someone in the neighborhood who has that green one, if you can run over there with a Q-tip, generally, that's a morning job, with a Q tip, and get some pollen from their flowers or maybe they'll just give you a flower and touch that pollen onto the flowers on your plan,t then you will get fruit. It's called self incompatible. Some plants do that in nature, nature prefers cross pollination, nature prefers variation and differences because that sets the plants up to be able to handle different things that happened in the environment. And so hopefully somebody will live through whatever the next cataclysmic event is. And so nature's plants will do things that prevent them from self pollinating. And tomatillos are one of the things that have done that. They can be caged like a tomato, they are often grown like a tomato And their care is like a tomato. They are pollinated by a flying, typically a bee, a flying pollinator. So I don't know what your bee situation is. Planting, once you do have two planting things around them, that attract bees to come and get pollen and then they'll find your plant that will help you ultimately get fruit as well. And if they are naturally the two plants yours and the other one in the neighborhood, at least less than 800 feet apart, you're likely the bees will find both of yours. If you go further than that, then the chances of the bee finding both and carrying the pollen from one to the other is diminishes. So yes, you're right you need two. 

Farmer Fred  05:41

The Idaho Botanical Garden, by the way is in Boise at 2355 North Old Penitentiary Road. Until 1973, the site served as the old Idaho State Penitentiary farm and nursery. Did you know you were in a prison?

Debbie Flower  05:56

Yeah, that's right there. The building is right next door. It's not I don't believe it's used as a prison anymore. There are other government buildings around. I didn't delve into that. I think you can actually tour the old penitentiary as well, which is not something I did.

Farmer Fred  06:12

And it's 50 acres, it says.

Debbie Flower  06:14

Yeah, it's deceptive when you you drive in the parking lot. But it's really got lots of interesting stuff going on there.

Farmer Fred  06:24

All right. Good to know. And yes, Susan, you are a winner of a Smart Pot because we used your audio question during the month of July. You got in by the hair on your teeth, the hair on your chin, whatever.  Today is July 30, as this episode's coming out, so yes, you will be getting the six foot raised bed Smart Pot to have even more room to grow plants. Susan. So thank you for doing that. 

Farmer Fred  06:58

You've heard me talk about Smart Pots, the award winning fabric planter here on the Garden Basics podcast. They're durable and reusable. I've been using mine for five years now. And once again, they're being pressed into service in my yard. Yeah, I have this problem. I grow too many tomatoes for the amount of allotted sunny space I have for them. So those extra tomato plants go into the Smart Pots. I place them in scattered areas around the yard where I know they'll get enough sun, which is a premium in my yard. And even five years later, I can pick up those Smart Pots, plant and all, and move them around without fear of the Smart Pot tearing or ripping. Smart Pots are made of breathable fabric, which creates a healthy root structure for plants. And, Smart Pots come in a wide variety of sizes and colors. Visit for more information about the complete line of Smart Pots, the lightweight fabric containers. And don't forget that "slash Fred" part. Because on that page are details of discounts when you buy Smart Pots on Amazon. Okay, now I understand maybe you want to see the Smart Pots before you buy them. That's not a problem. Smart Pots are available at independent garden centers and select Ace and True Value stores nationwide. To find a store near you, visit slash Fred.  

Farmer Fred  08:18

Oh, by the way, Debbie Flower when I'm talking with the Smart Pot people, they said, "oh go ahead and give two away on the last day". Oh, so let's hear another question. All right. All right. And we'll answer that one, and that person, too, will get a Smart Pot.

Mary in Sacramento  08:36

Hi Farmer Fred. My name is Mary. I live here in Sacramento. I believe we're in zone nine B, and I know you've done a couple of shows regarding soil amendments. Our issue is we've got the clay soil, but then we got a few inches down, hard pan. I am looking at taking out about a 12 foot by 10 foot area of one and replacing it with California native plants. But I see so many options for doing so. Do I dig up the grass there and then do my amending? I'm thinking of going with cardboard with a mulch on top. Should I add some worm castings or some other amendments to help process a lawn? Oh, and the soil we're amending is going to be it's a south facing area. And at some point north facing will be done as well. And I'm sure this would possibly help other people. I mean no matter where you live, you're looking to increase the quality of the soil. Thank you very much for your help, and enjoying your show for years. Sure do appreciate your work. Thank you. 

Farmer Fred  09:58

Thank you, Mary, for that. and by the way, you too, are going to be winning a Smart Pot, the six foot raised bed, Smart Pot fabric planter. Well Debbie Flower is still with us because I took away your car keys. Debbie, Mary has it right, You have very few opportunities to really improve your soil. And if you're doing a conversion from lawn to native plants, there's the opportunity, right?

Debbie Flower  10:21

There is an opportunity there but native plants well depends what native plants you're gonna want to use, right? There's a set of native plants that would love amendments and topsoil and richness and lots of water. So organic matter in the soil to hold that water. They tend to be the riparian plants, which means they live on the side of waterways. And so that would be big leaf maple, Buckeye, spicebush, buttonwillow, Ash, Platanus racemosa, which is Sycamore, the Cottonwood, all of those are trees. Plus, California Rose and the grape which can have beautiful red fall color if you get 'Rogers Red' as a cultivas, and then willows, some willows can be shrubs or trees. So if that's what you're looking for putting into your garden, then yes, you want to amend the soil, add organic matter and add nutrients like you talked about worm castings. If you're gonna go with other native California plants, like Californi, fuchsia, some salvias, there's a perennial sunflower, sort of shrubby kind of plant, redbuds, even then you're going to not want to improve the nutritional value of your soil or the water holding ability. For those you want to have excellent drainage and low fertility, if you grow California natives. Ceanothus is another one that's a shrub and they're most of them are evergreen, and they are thought of in some circles as having a short lifespan. But the reason they have a short lifespan is they're treated to lots of water and lots of nutrition. And they grow very fast and they just peter out. So if you want a real carefree, low input garden that can that can handle these other California natives you do not want to add lots of organic amendments to the soil nor add lots of nutrition which worm castings and such would add. The clay and the hard pan can be a problem. In some places for commercial orchards, they'll actually go in and blast the hard pan with TNT to create places for water to drain, I think I would try to create mounds in a yard like that, try to raise the plants, give them a root zone, and the water can drain away from them to the places that it might puddle which would be where you have the clay soil and the hard pan but below it,  it's not an easy process. So let's go back to where you are. Now you have a lawn, you want to get rid of it, I would right now go out and buy thin, less than two mil thick plastic and I would solarize it, I would. So that means you're going to prepare the soil to be solarized. Till it if you can, then water it thoroughly so the water goes about four inches down. Then you're going to take the plastic, lay it on the tilled and watered area, dig a trench all the way around at the edge of the plastic and you need to bury the plastic edges, not just hold it down with bricks or stones but you need to bury the whole thing. And then you leave it for about six weeks. And in the sunny side, especially your south facing side. In six weeks, everything will be dead in there, you'll have lots of organic matter naturally from the roots and the grass blades or weed blades, whatever you have growing there. And that's okay, you can then bring in a good mix of soil for natives, so it's going to be well drained. And that's something you have to talk to your vendor about. So you're probably gonna have to buy this in and you're going to put a layer of about three inches on top of the solarized part and till it again, that's creating a transition zone between the media you're going to ultimately put on top and the field soil that you have down below. And that helps water move and then you're going to bring in your mix that you purchased for your natives and create high spots and they don't have to be very high. They just have to be higher than the soil around them so that you can plant into them. And then when you water, the water will go into that soil and excess water will drain away so that hill can be eight inches, three inches, doesn't have to be very high; just higher than the soil around it. The way to improve existing clay soil is with organic matter and that would be to bring in arborist chips. I woke up the other day and I heard hammering and I know my neighbor is working on his house. Then I heard a saw, oh, the neighbor is working on his house. Then I heard a chipper and I sat bolt upright said there is an arborist taking down a tree near me! I got in my car and drove around till I found that arborist and I said, Can I have your chips? And he said, Sure. And I handed him my name, phone number and address written on a piece of paper. He said, I'll be there at four o'clock. Well, he showed up early, but now I have a giant pile of chips. And I've done this several times over, it helps to control the water, and the temperature of the soil, the moisture level and the temperature of the soil and the weed, it's great weed control. And ultimately, it breaks down. And the microorganisms and larger macro organisms like worms that break it down, bring some of that organic matter into the soil at a rate that improves the soil and improves the clay. So ultimately, that's how you improve clay soil is repeatedly bringing in organic matter, you have to lay it four inches on top and spread it out. You don't want a thin layer, you want something nice and thick. And you're going to have to repeat it and it will take years to improve that clay soil using that method.

Farmer Fred  16:05

If you're going to soil solarize, do it quick, Mary, because the heat and all that sunlight is going to go away, and before too long. The ideal time for soil solarization is four to six weeks, in June, July and early August. But if you get started now and do it for the whole month of August that should do a good job.

Debbie Flower  16:25

I think so. Okay, I think it will. And one more I want to mention one, actually maybe two websites. One is 

Farmer Fred  16:33

And well you should, Yes.

Debbie Flower  16:36

You go to Calscape ca l s c a p And  I think it's on the landing screen, you can put in your zip code. And it will tell you what plants are native to your location. You know native is relative, something that grows up at Lake Tahoe won't necessarily do well at my house down in the valley.

Farmer Fred  16:58

But we'll try.  

Debbie Flower  17:00

Sometimes, I will yes. I'm always interested in seeing where I can push the envelope. So this will give you what is native to your exact location. It may not be what you want, but it gives you an idea of a place to start. Another great nursery for natives is, They are in Southern California, I visited one of their nurseries. their owner, Bert Wilson, was there at the time. He's now deceased, and his family is running the nursery. But they grow plants and try them out on their property with no water. Lots of information (on their website). If you're into reading articles about growing natives, how to irrigate them, how to plant them, what would do well in different environments. They describe them. It's, I think, a lifetime to read their whole website, but you can get good information at both of those sites.

Farmer Fred  17:55 Two great websites for California native plants. Mary, I hope that helps you out. Also, for more information about soil solarization, go back and listen to Episode 24 of Garden Basics with Farmer Fred, that was from June of 2020. And it could have been you and I talking about soil solarization it very well could have been Yes. All right. So Episode 24. Well, a q&a doubleheader. Debbie, thanks for your help on this.

Debbie Flower  18:21

Oh, it's a pleasure, Fred. Thanks for having me.

Farmer Fred  18:26

The Sacramento County Master Gardeners have a new video posted at their youtube channel about choosing and planting many of the cool season vegetables you might be considering. The downside is, you’ll have to look at my face. But there is a lot of good cool season veggie info to make up for that. Again, that video can be found at the Sacramento County Master Gardener Youtube page. We will have a link to it in today’s show notes. Plus, coming up on Saturday August 7, the Master Gardeners have a full morning of garden presentations on their Harvest Day Zoom channel. I’ll be one of the presenters, live from the abutilon jungle here at Barking Dog studios in suburban purgatory, answering your garden questions. That’s Saturday, August 7. You need to register for this Zoom garden class, find a link in today’s show notes, or check out the Harvest Day page at the Sacramento County Master Gardener website, Like I said, the link is in the show notes.

Farmer Fred  19:33

One of my favorite blogs to read is the Garden Myths blog at The author is Robert Pavlis. A Canadian based gardener, he is science based, he has a lot of great advice. He explodes a lot of gardening myths. And in a recent post about using weed tea, really weed tea, or fertilizer tea, he brings up the point about how he basically feeds his garden with mulch, but it's it's a 'cut and drop' method. What's that all about? Let's find out. Robert Pavlis is with us now. And Robert, tell us about your 'cut and drop' method of feeding your plants.

Robert Pavlis  20:12

Well, this started about 15 years ago, I moved to a larger garden, I've got six acres. And I learned very quickly, if you walk around on six acres a lot, you don't get anything done, and you get very tired. So one of the jobs I've always done is composted. You know, I'd have the traditional three bin composting, I haul all the things, I collect the cuttings and the weeds and everything, I haul it down there and turn it a couple times, make some compost, haul it back to the garden. And I realized, that's a whole lot of work. So I had to come up with a better way. So I now use the cut and drop method. And what I do is, when I'm in the garden, anytime I get plant material in my hand, so these could be dead flowers, and cutting things back, I pull a few weeds, you know, whatever it is, I just drop it where it is. Now, if I know I have visitors coming, I usually kind of shove it behind a plant. So it's not so obvious, but for the most part, I just drop it. And what happens is that in two or three days, the sun heats it up, the part dies, turns brown. Couple weeks later, you don't even see it, all those nutrients stay in the garden, and they don't leave, I don't have to move them around. And I don't fertilize my gardens, there's no need to fertilize. So as long as you're not taking things out of the garden that have nutrients, you don't have to add nutrients back. Now, in my vegetable garden, that's a little different, because there, of course, I harvest things. So I may fertilize a little bit, I put on a little nitrogen once in a while. But even there, I fertilize much less than most people. But in my ornamental beds, I leave everything where it is. I do most of my garden cleanup in the spring, you know, we're starting to understand that  garbage that's laying around the garden is critical for native insects to live. And so we leave it in the fall. And what I do is I come up in the spring, and if it's laying on the ground, I just leave it. You know, things like hosta leaves, they'll be laying on the ground, I don't have to clean those up. Nature does that for me, the flower stalk, they're still standing up in spring here. Our winters aren't long enough, I guess, to knock them down. So I cut those out into sort of six inch pieces and just drop them around the hosta. So cleanup is very quick because I don't have to move things around. I just cut it all. And once everything is you know, on the ground, I've done cleanup, and I leave it there. And I agree that, you know, very early on in the spring before the plants start growing, you do see little bits of stuff here and there. But very quickly those things grow. You know, the tulips come up, the daffodils are up, you're looking at the flowers, you don't notice the rest in a couple of weeks. It's all covered with new plant growth. And it all compost on its own. We don't have to put all that effort into it. Same with leaves, they drop off the trees, and for the most part, they stay where they are. I have a couple areas with big maples that get too many leaves. So those I rake half of them off and move them somewhere else where they they can be used. I stopped raking leaves out of beds, I go around the lawn and I rake those leaves into the bed that's closest and I'm done. I don't want to spend time, you know, playing around with leaves. And I find the system works really well. And if you go in nature, if you go into woodland, that's what happens. Everything drops to the ground. And magic happens. You know, the insects come out. The bacteria come out, the fungi come out. They digest it all. You know six months later, it's all gone and underground. And that happens automatically in my garden as well.

Farmer Fred  23:58

I noticed in the post for that, on the cut and drop garden that you posted at garden myths dot com that a lot of people were commenting that, "Well yeah, sure, that's gonna work for you because you get summer rain." Does this work in dry climates?

Robert Pavlis  24:14

Yeah, well, what will happen is these In fact, summer rain here in late July and August. We typically have very little rain I can go six weeks without rain. So it's kind of a weird place here we get lots of rain and spring and fall but that summers can be very dry. But what happens is you have this leaf of something, it dries very quickly it goes Brown. Now it may not decompose as quickly as in a compost pile. Because you know, a compost pile is hot. We keep a higher moisture level there. It's piled high so it retains the heat and so on. So composting works faster, but this leaf will go brown. It will get crumbly or break up, worms will come up and grab some and take it underground. And I can tell you, in a few months, it's gone.

Farmer Fred  25:09

Robert Pavlis, good advice on easing the fertilization of your plants. It's a great way to have time to do other things in life. Garden Myths is the name of his book, you can find out more information about it at, plus his other writings, and he has a YouTube page as well. And that YouTube page Robert, is...

Robert Pavlis  25:30

Garden Fundamentals, 

Farmer Fred  25:32

Garden Fundamentals. Robert Pavlis, we learned a lot about easing our fertilization chores, thanks so much for the quick tip. 

Robert Pavlis  25:39

No problem. Pleasure being here. 

Farmer Fred  25:45

The Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast has a lot of information posted at each episode: transcripts, links to any products or books mentioned during the show, and other helpful links for even more information. Plus, you can listen to just the portions of the show that interest you, it’s been divided into easily accessible chapters.  Plus you’ll find more information about how to get in touch with us. Leave an audio question without making a phone call via Speakpipe, at speak pipe dot com slash gardenbasics. it’s easy, give it a try. And you just might hear your voice on the Garden Basics podcast! If you’re listening to us via Apple podcasts, put your question in the Ratings and Reviews section. Text us the question and pictures, or leave us your question at: 916-292-8964.916-292-8964. E-mail: . If you tell us where you’re from, that will help us greatly to accurately answer your garden questions. Because all gardening is local. In the show notes you’ll find links to all our social media outlets, including facebook, instagram, twitter, and youtube. Also, a link to the website. And thanks for listening.

Farmer Fred  27:07

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Q&A: Tomatillo pollination, dealing with clay soil and hard pan
Smart Pots!
Sacramento County Master Gardeners' Harvest Day on Zoom
Cut and Drop Mulching Method
Check Show Notes for More Info