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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Annual Herbs for Summer Gardens

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Summer 2013

Summer 2013

It’s easy to get focused on growing big, luscious summer vegetables. After all, who can resist just-picked succulent tomatoes, glossy peppers, sweet corn or tender zucchini?

But don’t overlook growing a few warm-season annual herbs, too. Fresh basil, dill, cilantro and the like are tasty in summer dishes. Dried, their leaves flavor winter meals. And while still outdoors, they attract beneficial insects and repel pests.

It’s Time to Get Growing

From seed or transplants, annual herbs grow fast. They’re quick to harvest, since you typically snip leaves, rather than wait for flowers. And they’re not terribly fussy, once you know what they need.

Some of these fair-weather herbs have shallow roots and grow well in pots; others send down tap roots and are best in the ground. Some insist on plenty of sunshine; others, a bit of shade. Watering needs vary, too, as does soil. A few require the fluffy, vegetable-quality stuff, while others are fine with whatever is on hand.

But regardless of their location — container or vegetable bed — they must have soil at least 6 to 8 inches deep. Don’t keep them in 3-inch or 4-inch pots, no matter how cute those pots might be. Tiny pots simply don’t provide enough room for roots below to sustain abundant growth up top.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is one of the best reasons to grow annual herbs. Its aromatic leaves are the perfect complement to flavorful tomatoes and an absolute necessity in many Italian dishes.

Grow your basil in the ground or in a pot at least 6 inches wide. Either way, provide loose, fertile soil, frequent water and lots of sunshine. Sweet, purple and Thai basil are usually available as transplants. For anise, cinnamon, lemon and other flavors, sow seeds. Basil is often short-lived, so sow or plant every few weeks from now through August. Plants turn to mush in cold weather, although occasionally one might survive winter.

Oil is most concentrated in the leaves when flower buds begin to form. But pinch off fully formed flowers to prolong your plants’ lives. Once those flowers mature, your basil will decline.

Borage (Borago officinalis) is a beautiful garnish and edible flower, with both its fuzzy leaves and blue, star-shaped flowers tasting of mild cucumber. Or leave it in the garden next to tomatoes, squash or strawberries, where it will deter tomato hornworms and cabbage worms and attract green lacewings, which lay their eggs in the foliage, and bees.

Borage plants are difficult to find, but they’re easy from seed. Indeed, plant one and you may have borage for life, as it joyfully volunteers throughout your garden. Fortunately or not, it grows well in most soils, including poor and dry. To contain it, grow it in a pot surrounded by a paved surface.

Chamomile in its annual form (Matricaria recutita) makes a nice herbal tea. The dainty, upright plants sprout easily from seed, volunteer freely and bear small, white daisy flowers. For brewing, snip off the flower petals, then dry the yellow button centers.

Note, there’s also a perennial Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), which forms a low mat and is popular grown between stepping stones. But it tastes bitter and is best used in potpourri, rather than as a seasoning or tea.

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) does double duty, providing fresh leaves for salsa and fish early in the season, followed by coriander seeds for baking and making curry later on.

One of the tap-root annuals, it sulks in a pot. But in the ground, it grows up to 3 feet tall, albeit with a rather spindly look. However, with a touch of afternoon shade, decent soil and regular water, there will be plenty to harvest. Let it flower to attract beneficial insects, then harvest the coriander seeds after they go brown. A companion plant for both edibles and ornamental plants, it repels potato beetles, aphids and spider mites.

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is another tap-root annual, so again, plant it in the ground. It favors moist soil, especially early on, and some afternoon shade. Interestingly, the wispy plants do not like to be crowded and are prone to bolting if they’re not at least 6 to 12 inches apart.

From seed, dill may take several weeks to sprout. For transplants, choose the tiniest seedlings possible so that their fast-growing tap root isn’t stunted in the nursery container. Harvest the delicate, bluish-green leaves for seasoning and collect the seeds for pickling.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is technically a biennial, since it takes two seasons to run its course. But it’s generally grown as a warm-season annual. Curly parsley, a popular garnish, is attractive in the garden, where it makes a nice, ankle-high, ornamental edging around flower or vegetable beds. Italian parsley bears flat, broad leaves and is much larger, stretching up to 3 feet tall.

Parsley is finicky from seed. You can eliminate the fuss by buying transplants. Like basil, it needs fluffy soil and regular water. It also prefers morning sun and afternoon shade.

Summer savory (Satureja hortensis) is surprisingly uncommon, given that it’s just as pretty as borage and certainly better behaved. Dainty pink flowers travel up erect, foot-tall stems all summer long.

Give summer savory full sun, occasional water and average soil. Harvest the aromatic leaves and flowering tops, then blend them with fennel, marjoram, rosemary, sage and thyme to create an herbes de Provence mix.

This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Conserving Water: Making Every Precious Drop Count

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Summer 2013

Summer 2013

In a grand sense, conserving water in the garden is imperative. Limited supplies, uncertain rainfall and drought are all very real issues on the Central Coast.

It’s easy enough to shift your ornamental plantings to a wide variety of California native and Mediterranean species that require little water or no water. But putting edibles on a water diet can be tricky.

Folks converting to edible landscapes often see their water bills rise after they plant their first crops. The natural inclination is to keep the plants well hydrated, and some edibles — including annual vegetables — need lots of water to sprout, grow and produce delicious food in short order. Sweet summer corn, for instance, is a water hog. I let mine go too dry too frequently last year. The result: stunted stalks and tough, shriveled kernels on the few ears that formed.

However, some veggies, such as garden-fresh tomatoes, actually benefit from reduced irrigation. So while you may use more water to grow your own food, you can also take steps to avoid wasting it.

Getting Started

Good soil prep is essential. Work at least 3 to 4 inches of compost into the top 12 inches of soil. Along with boosting fertility, compost acts like a sponge, retaining moisture and offering nooks and crannies for oxygen to reach the roots of your plants. In clay soil, compost works by pushing apart tiny soil particles to facilitate better air and water movement. In sandy soil, it encourages water to linger, rather than whooshing through.

Run drip irrigation or soaker hose between your plants to apply the water directly to the soil and the roots below. Or hand-water from a bucket or hose. Just don’t splash water everywhere. If you save warm-up water from your shower, store it in a rain barrel so you can water when you need to, rather than arbitrarily emptying a bucket every day. Shape basins around your edibles to prevent runoff, or plant on raised rows with furrows along each side that you can flood. Some water will evaporate, but not as much as if you use sprinklers.

Avoid sprinklers, which can throw water indiscriminately, lose significant moisture to evaporation and hit the leaves and fruit, possibly leading to disease.

Apply an inch or two of mulch to retain surface moisture. Use fine-textured compost, topper, straw or other loose, organic material. Some folks suspend lightweight, translucent row covers over their crops to slow down evaporation. I’ve not tried them, but they might work.

Ongoing Care

Whatever your method, water in the morning. Your plants will appreciate the moisture as they greet the day. And it’s generally cool and still, so any exposed water won’t evaporate as quickly as when daytime temperatures and breezes pick up.

Do not use an irrigation timer. Most veggies — even those that require regular water — don’t need the next round until the top inch of soil dries out. That moment depends on your mulch, soil type, wind and what’s happening overhead with brilliant sun or overcast skies. A timer is not a substitute for your personal touch.

Check the moisture with a screwdriver or hand weeder. Either one will slide right in if the soil is still damp, or be tough to poke if the soil has dried out. If your plants wilt mid-day, then rebound in the evening, you may not need to water. But if the leaves stay seriously limp, you’re not irrigating enough.

When you do water, soak the soil. As with permanent plantings, you want to promote deep rooting, which comes from saturating the soil, then letting the top inch or so dry out before watering again.

Low-Water Crops

Tomatoes easily top the list. For years, I’ve been promoting teasing out their flavor by limiting the water. Stingy irrigation is simply the best way to concentrate their rich, full taste. Your plants may look terrible, but your harvests will be fabulous. The technique works with tomatillos as well.

As for other summer veggies: once they’ve gained enough size to shade their own roots, peppers and eggplants haven’t been super thirsty in my garden. Potatoes don’t require much water, either. I grew a nice batch of reds this spring without irrigating at all — although a few rain showers undoubtedly helped. This season, I’m planning to limit water to my zucchini plants to see if that can slow down their over-abundant, late-summer production.

In your own garden, there’s bound to be trial and error. You don’t want to water so much that you dilute the flavor. But in withholding water to intensify the taste, you probably don’t want leathery, thick-skinned fruit that yields just a tiny blast of savory goodness.

Yet tinkering with those nuances is what many of us enjoy about gardening. It has a lot to say about how connected to nature we feel when growing edibles. And nothing beats getting it right.

Dry Farming

Santa Barbara County has a rich history of this centuries-old technique, which banks winter-time moisture for dry, summer days.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, local growers dry-farmed wheat, barley, hay, beans, corn, peas, potatoes, garden vegetables and fruit. With the advent of irrigation, first for alfalfa and sugar beets, then for vegetables and other crops, dry farming faded away. But not entirely — Stolpman Vineyards in Ballard Canyon dry-farms its grapes, and last year, I spotted a few acres of dry-farmed tomatoes in Carpinteria.

Dry farming takes prep, space and heavier soil that hangs onto every drop of water. While it’s too late this year, the following is the general idea for vegetable crops.

Grow a cover crop over winter. Next spring, while the soil is damp — but not saturated — till in the cover crop at least a foot deep. Till every few weeks, several more times. The goal is to push the organic material deep into the soil while bringing up residual moisture that’s otherwise locked in below.

A crumby “dust mulch” of dryer soil should begin to form on the surface. Tamp down the dust mulch in late spring to “seal” the soil, then plant your seedlings. Their emerging roots should seek out the subsurface moisture, then follow it downward, developing such a broad, deep network that they won’t need further watering from above.

Your yields may be smaller, but the flavor is often unsurpassed.

This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue of Edible Santa Barbara.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Summer Standouts

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This article first appeared in the August 2011 issue of Fine Gardening under the theme “Summer Standouts.”

Fine Gardening used my photos of Big Magenta African daisy and San Miguel Island buckwheat in the article.

However, other photographers provided the images of Limelight Mexican sage and Vancouver Centennial pelargonium. I’ve swapped in my own images of those two plants here, in order to avoid violating those photographers’ copyright.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Beneficial Insects: The Good Fight

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Convergent lady beetles at the ARS Beneficial Insects Introduction Research Laboratory in Newark, Delaware.

Stand in the middle of your garden, close your eyes and listen.

Mentally screen out any urban noise — planes overhead, barking dogs, traffic, children — and focus on the natural world. You might hear the hum of honeybees, chirping of birds, wind rustling through leaves or tall grass, or rhythmic drips of moving water.

Those familiar sounds bring a feeling of peace, right?

But take out a magnifying glass and you’ll find that that sense of calm masks a silent war of sorts. On a microscopic level, pests and predators are battling to the death amid the leaves and soil of our gardens.

That’s not a bad thing.

To flip it, predators of pests are actually beneficial. They help keep our gardens healthy by combating pests that might otherwise damage or destroy our crops.

Use of predator insects dates back some 1700 years, when citrus growers in China colonized yellow fear ants to protect against insect pests. The growers linked their trees with bamboo strips so the ants could more easily move from one infestation to the next.

Most of us were introduced to beneficials when we were children, via ladybugs. The cute, round bugs are real charmers. However, their ability to annihilate pests should not be underestimated. Indeed, the importation of Australian ladybird beetles to southern California in the 1880s saved the fledgling citrus industry from a deadly wipeout threatened by cottony cushion scale.

The Big Three

Today, aphids are often the gateway pest that sparks interest in beneficial insects.

Ron Whitehurst, a pest control advisor and co-owner of Rincon-Vitova Insectaries, a company in Ventura that produces and distributes insects and other organisms, supplies and tools for biological control of pests, advises first simply blasting aphids with water. Next up, a soapy solution of an ounce and a half of liquid soap to a gallon of water.

If neither works, he then suggests releasing beneficial insects.

Convergent ladybugs (Hippodamia convergens) are a good start, especially early in the year when other beneficials might not be as active. They are voracious eaters: a single black and orange-spotted alligator-shaped larva may eat 400 aphids before it pupates, while an adult may eat 5,000 aphids during its year-long life.

A green lacewing larva dines on whitefly nymphs.

When temperatures warm up, green lacewings can be even more effective.

The larvae devour not only aphids, but caterpillar pests, eggs and young larvae of Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, leaf hoppers, mealy bugs, psyllids, scales, spider mites, thrips and whiteflies. As a bonus: unlike ladybugs, green lacewing larvae can’t fly away.

Also, it’s interesting to note that once the larvae mature to gossamer-winged adults, they become vegetarians, supping only on pollen and nectar.

A third aphid-eater Whitehurst recommends is Aphidoletes aphidimyza.

“The mamma Aphidoletes comes around and finds aphids. The baby, a little orange maggot, spears the aphids and sucks them dry and throws them off the plant,” he said. “They tend to colonize. You could do one release, then let them grow and develop.”

Beyond Aphids

To conquer spider mites, thrips, moths and other pests, a second tier of beneficial insects awaits.

“If people are growing lettuces and culinary herbs, spider mites would be one of the things that would be a major pest problem,” Whitehurst said. “From a cultural standpoint, use overhead watering. Spider mites like it hot and dry. So increase the humidity and decrease the temperature to make them less competitive.”

Absent that, he recommends predator mites. Neoseiulus californicus battles spider mites as well as persea mites, which are especially pernicious bugs that suck the chlorophyll from avocado leaves and eventually defoliate the trees.

A minute pirate bug feeds on whitefly nymphs.

Minute pirate bugs (Orius insidiosus) go after western flower thrips, onion thrips and whiteflies.

Or for a one-two punch, Whitehurst recommends Ambleyseius cucumeris, which tackles thrips on the upper part of a plant, and Hypoaspis miles, a soil-dwelling mite that feeds on thrips as they drop on the soil to pupate.

“If you grow a bunch of culinary herbs, it would make sense to inoculate early in the season with those two predator mites to bring down the population of thrips,” he said.

Trichogramma wasps are parasitic insects that lay their eggs within the eggs of over 200 pest moth species. The trichogramma larvae eat the innards of the pest eggs, pupate, then emerge as winged adults, ready to lay ever more eggs. The wasps are especially effective against cabbage caterpillars and worms.

Creating a Habitat

You can grow your own beneficial insects by the way you garden.

“We want to emphasize the whole basic organic or biological approach to gardening,” Whitehurst said. “Focus on feeding the microbes in the soil so the roots on the plants are healthy. Then fertilize with compost and use mulch where appropriate. That will again feed the soil microbes and feed the decomposer insects that feed the predator insects, like the predatory ground beetles and wolf spiders.”

Golden trichogramma wasps parasitizing insect eggs.

Now you don’t have to be a purist. It’s fine to buy beneficials. But to entice them in the first place, or encourage them to stick around after they’ve devoured your pests, sustenance is a must.

The trick is to plant plants that provide a succession of pollen and nectar year-round. The patch can be left a little weedy or wild, and should never be sprayed.

“Dill is a real champ as far as having this umbel-shaped flower that has nectar available to big insects and little insects,” Whitehurst said. “Several others in the Apiaceae family are fennel, cilantro and anise. You can grow more moderate versions. Ornamental bronze fennel is a little more reserved than the wild fennel.”

Other herbs to sustain beneficials include angelica, anise hyssop, borage, caraway, chamomile, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage, teucrium, thyme and yarrow.

Native plants include milkweed (Asclepias), saltbush (Atriplex), coyote brush (Baccharis), wild lilac (Ceanothus), buckwheat (Eriogonum), toyon (Heteromeles), bladder pod (Isomeris) and coffeeberry (Rhamnus).

A handful of miscellaneous plants includes golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria), bell beans, black-eyed peas, bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), corn, cosmos, sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis), sunflowers and white clover (Trifolia repens).

Lending a Hand

An adult assassin bug, Zelus renardii, feeds on a Lygus bug, which disfigures and damages strawberries.

After you’ve built up an ecosystem and colonized beneficials in one spot, it’s easy to move them to wherever trouble is brewing by spraying an attractant.

For instance, if aphids are massing on your broccoli, Whitehurst advises the following.

“Mix equal parts sugar and dried brewers yeast. Add water. Then spray large droplets, widely scattered. That simulates the situation where you have plants that are real sticky with honeydew. That will draw in the lacewings and ladybirds and syrphid flies and such… It’s pretty effective as far as drawing in the aphid predators.”

Helping Combat the Enemy

While beneficial insects dominate their prey, they are vulnerable to ants.

“Ants collect the honeydew, the sugary poop from aphids, whitefly, scale,” Whitehurst said. “If they’re working the plants, they will be collecting that honeydew and driving off the beneficial insects that are trying to eat the pests that are generating their candy.”

Controlling ants, then, is an important aspect of supporting and maintaining your beneficials. Whitehurst recommends buying or mixing up a borate-based bait. The ants will eat the bait, take it back to their colonies and perish.

Thanks to the California Department of Food & Agriculture for providing these photos.

A slightly condensed version of this article was first published in Edible Santa Barbara.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

First Tomatoes of the Season

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Sweet 100s - ripening beautifully and positively delicious!

Sweet 100 tomatoes – ripening beautifully, and positively delicious!

July 4th is always our target date for picking our first fresh tomatoes of the season.

This year, we lucked out. We planted our tomatoes late — in early May, instead of late March or even April.

But a recent run of sunny days speeded up their ripening and sure enough, later today we’ll harvest what I’m sure will be the best tomatoes that we’ve ever tasted.

Of course the next time we pick them, they’ll once again be the best ever. As well as the time after that and the time after that… Truly, nothing beats a home-grown tomato in my book.

What’s interesting about our first tomatoes this year is that there are two very different varieties on the exact same schedule.

The first are Sweet 100s, which are not much of a surprise, since they’re cherries and always seem to ripen quickly, then produce forever.

But the other tomatoes are plump, medium-sized yellows on a volunteer plant.

Our mystery volunteer.

Our mystery volunteer.

Last year, we grew heirloom tomatoes in that bed, including two Yellow Pears.

Although I can’t find the remaining plant tags, I seem to remember the rest of the bed being comprised of Stupice, Carmelo and Black Prince, all in shades of medium to dark red, and all heirlooms as well.

Now the great thing about heirloom tomatoes — unlike modern hybrids — is that they’re true to seed. So future generations should bear like fruit.

So the big mystery is how plump yellows came to be. Since we grow our tomatoes shoulder-to-shoulder in raised beds, did our Yellow Pears somehow cross-pollinate with one of the other heirlooms? Or did a bird bring it in?

I may try to save some seed at the end of the season to see what results next year.

In the meantime, I’m more focused on what will be on our table tonight — perfectly delectable, perfectly sun-ripened, perfectly fresh tomatoes for the 4th of July.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

Build Your Own Raised Vegetable Beds

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A series of weathered redwood beds allows for intensive planting of summer vegetables, including Serrano peppers, tomatillos, eggplant, red bell peppers and two dozen tomatoes. These beds are spaced 3 feet apart to allow crops to spill over the sides, and to provide room for pushing a wheelbarrow in between.

Do your summer vegetables need a lift?

Raised beds are an excellent way to amp up your harvests.

Few of us have naturally occurring vegetable quality soil. It can be tough to create the rich, loamy stuff in the ground. Instead, start fresh, by building up.

An elevated growing space makes it easier to improve your soil’s fertility and tilth, and to water, weed and harvest crops.

With a few modifications, raised beds protect against rabbits and rodents. You won’t step on productive soil or waste it between rows. You can garden more intensively. And you’ll quickly find that raised beds are easy on the back.

The Basics

UC 157 asparagus, a perennial crop, will flourish for up to 20 years in a raised bed.

A traditional, stripped-down version is a rectangular wood frame with four posts.

The wood is typically redwood or cedar, although you can get creative with materials. For instance, stone beds are beautiful. But they’re pricey and their thick sides require more space.

Also beware of old, pressure-treated timbers or railroad ties that might leach nasty chemicals.

Given a standard board length of 8 feet, 4 x 8-foot beds are a common size. That width is great for larger, perennial crops, such as asparagus, blueberries and raspberries.

But I think it’s too wide for seasonal edibles, including tomatoes, beans and peppers. You’ll be tempted to plant three rows. But the middle row will be nearly impossible to reach once the veggies gain size. Beds that are 3 x 8, with two rows each, are easier to manage.

The ends are nearly complete.

As for height: the boards should be at least 1 foot tall and 1 to 2 inches thick. A single, foot-wide board for each side is the simplest approach.

However, to save money, you can stack several narrower boards.

Just be sure the boards are straight and flush, so that soil and water don’t leak out between them.

Just one side to go!

Use sturdy 4 x 4-inch posts. Cut them 1 foot taller than the height of the bed, to allow for 1 foot to be buried in the ground. If you build a 1-foot tall bed, you’ll need four 2-foot lengths, or one 8-foot post.

Use long wood screws, rather than nails, to connect the boards and attach the posts. Angle brackets at each corner will provide extra stability.

Build your frame upside down on a flat space, such as a driveway or patio, with the posts in the air.

Prepping the Space

Carrots love crumbly soil.

Summer vegetables need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day, while winter vegetables need at least four to six hours.

Mark where the raised bed will go, then excavate a foot of soil. Set the frame in place and level it.

The wood should rest on the finished soil level, rather than be buried, which will hasten deterioration.

Line the cavity with quarter-inch or half-inch aviary wire or chicken wire to thwart gophers, moles and other tunneling varmints. Bend the wire up against the interior sides of the frame, then secure the edges with a staple gun.

Also break up any dirt clods in the excavated soil.

The finer the texture, the more easily your edibles can gain a toe-hold in the bed.

The Soil

The beauty of a raised bed is that you have total control. The soil should be deep, fertile, hold moisture and drain well. It should smell fresh and sift easily through your fingers.

All done, and filled with a rich, sift-through-your fingers mix of topsoil, existing soil and redwood compost.

How much? A 3 x 8 bed, 1 foot tall and filled to the brim, requires 24 cubic feet of material. But your soil won’t go all the way to the top. Eighteen to 20 cubic feet is sufficient.

If your garden soil is free of weeds and reasonably loose and fertile, go ahead and “harvest” some.

But at least two-thirds of what goes into your raised bed should be high-quality soil builder, compost and/or topsoil.

Specialty products, like chicken manure and kelp, should be one-third or less. Do not use potting soil. It’s expensive and settles significantly.

Packman broccoli and green onions are flanked by orange calendulas in this raised redwood bed. After harvest, I’ll reinvigorate the soil by mixing in several inches of compost.

If you’re planning to grow your edibles organically, start with the soil. Kellogg’s sells a soil-enriching compost that’s certified organic. E.B. Stone offers an organic flower and vegetable planting mix as well.

Home-made compost, loaded with beneficial microorganisms, is fabulous. But not many of us have 20 cubic feet of the good stuff on hand. Yet even if you only have a bucketful, use it.

Start filling your foot-deep pit with 4 to 6 inches of the excavated soil. Add an equal amount of new material. Mix it thoroughly with a rake or by hand. Try not to tangle with the aviary wire below.

Add another 4 to 6 inches of excavated soil. Mix it in. Add the new material and mix it in.

Continue layering and mixing until you’ve filled the bed to within a few inches of the top.

Run your fingers through it one last time, and you’re ready to plant.

This article was first published in the Summer 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

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