Container Gardening for Beginners, Part 1: What to Consider

  Lavender makes a beautiful container plant

Lavender makes a beautiful container plant

 

So you'd like to try your hand at gardening? Wonderful!

But maybe you're not quite ready to commit to building a raised bed or digging up your lawn? The solution: container gardening!

Container gardening is a great way to take baby steps into the world of gardening. Small commitment, easy to look after, and the potential to have wonderful fresh veggies, flowers, and herbs right outside your door. No more buying a whole package of herbs just to use a few sprigs! 

  Beneficial insects will help you with the undesireables

Beneficial insects will help you with the undesireables

 

 

Container gardens are also less prone to insect infestation, especially from ground-dwelling friends. And pots are moveable! If you or the plants don’t like where they’re growing, you can push or pull them to happiness.

So where to begin? The first step is to consider the season. In SoCal we have two: one month of winter, and the rest is summer. 

 

  Calendula doesn't mind cooler temperatures

Calendula doesn't mind cooler temperatures

 

This is how it breaks down:

Winter (and surrounding months of summer-like weather) = greens (lettuce, spinach, chard, collards), peas, herbs (not basil, sorry), some flowers (cosmos, calendulas, zinnias, sweet peas), root vegetables (carrots, beets, potatoes), strawberries*, more greens.

Summer = tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash*, melons*, herbs, any flowers.

* Melons and squash need a very large container, can be difficult to grow, and are prone to insect troubles; I would try something easier to start. Strawberries are also difficult to grow here, so I would try something else first.

  Cabbages are a risky bet in SoCal

Cabbages are a risky bet in SoCal

 

There are some veggies that simply aren't suited to our growing climate, even in the winter. I put most brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) in this category, as our winters are often too warm. They also don't make a lot of sense for containers, as they take up a lot of space and you only get one vegetable. Better to use that space for greens, which will continue to grow through the whole season if you only pick the outer leaves. 

 

  Lettuce and other greens grow well in containers and don't mind some shade

Lettuce and other greens grow well in containers and don't mind some shade

So, next step is to consider your light, as in how much sun hits your growing space.

If you have partial sun (4-6 hours a day) or shade (less than 4 hours), then your options are somewhat limited. In general, greens and herbs prefer partial sun, and can even grow in less light than that. Greens are great in winter months, as the weather (should be) cool enough that they won't bolt (grow flower stalks), as they will in the summer. In the summer, herbs are great in partial sun or even mostly shade.

Full sun (6+ hours) in the summer lets you grow vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, but this can mean scorching. You may find yourself looking for partial shade for the hottest part of the day, or creating it with shade cloth. 

  Tall plants like peas will need some support, especially if they're growing in an exposed spot affected by wind

Tall plants like peas will need some support, especially if they're growing in an exposed spot affected by wind

Another factor is wind exposure. If you plan to garden in a spot that is exposed to our strong Santa Ana winds, be prepared to protect any taller plants, especially tomatoes and peas. You can stake them or have a very sturdy trellis.

Next time we’ll talk about plant selection, so stay tuned!

Resources:

http://www.oregonlive.com/hg/index.ssf/2015/03/10_tips_for_growing_herbs_in_p.html

http://skinnygourmet.blogspot.com/2008/05/ten-mistakes-new-herb-gardeners-make.html

Birding with the Fourth Grade

  Photo credit: Ms. Kelley

Photo credit: Ms. Kelley

Welcome to the world of birding!

Over the last few weeks the Fourth Grade has been getting to know some of the animals that live with us, but who hover just out of reach. 

After the grounding work of the Third Grade curriculum, Fourth Grade moves on to study our relationship with the animal world around us, culminating in their Man and Animal block. In the garden, we use this opportunity to look up at the creatures who work and play alongside us every day. 

  Photo credit: Ms. Kelley

Photo credit: Ms. Kelley

 

February is a great time for bird watching in our region. The deciduous trees are bare, allowing for easy spotting and clear views. It's also a great time to see migratory birds moving through our area, making their way north after a winter in the sun. February also finds local birds looking for mates, which means lots of fun activity like nest building and dynamic mating behaviour. 

 

                Bird Spy Bingo!

              Bird Spy Bingo!

 

In preparation for bird identification, the kids practice observational skills by playing Bird Spy Bingo.  They then list all the birds they know and sort them into major bird groups to help differentiate them by shape and physical characteristics. They learn that bill shape relates to the type of food the bird eats.  They then learn to identify some of the birds we see on the farm.

  Nuttal's woodpecker

Nuttal's woodpecker

 

 

Students work on developing their observational skills during these exercises, including patience and remaining quiet (parents: you're welcome!). While looking for feathered friends, students also learn about their natural environment indirectly. They start to notice things like leaf buds emerging, different ways that branches grow, and what kinds of trees the birds prefer. Many questions arise in the course of each class, leading to fun (and occasionally silly) discussions.

  Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco

 

Here are some of the birds the Fourth Grade has seen around the farm:

Dark-eyed juncos

Gold finches

Mourning doves

Red tailed hawks

  Anna's hummingbird

Anna's hummingbird

Cooper's hawks

Anna's hummingbirds

White crowned sparrows

Nuttal's woodpecker

Garden Work Party

  Garden gloves are so much fun!

Garden gloves are so much fun!

Work parties are a marvelous thing! They not only help us make serious progress on farm projects, but they also help in the invaluable work of building community.

Throughout the school year, students from all grades help with work on the farm; however, we only have each class for 45 minutes at a time, which includes set up and clean up, leaving us with only a short window of time for actual work.

For some projects this isn't a problem, but for others, we need more time and focused attention. And some jobs, like building a pergola, are simply beyond what we can ask of the students. This is why our wonderful volunteers are so precious to us.

  Weeding and mulching around citrus trees in the orchard

Weeding and mulching around citrus trees in the orchard

 

Last weekend we had our first work party of the new year. It was a very windy day (our breakfast almost flew away!), but lots of families joined us to make great things happen. 

Ms. Kelley has been leading a huge effort to sheet mulch the entire lower field this winter. The single greatest villain that we battle on the farm is Bermuda grass. It's highly invasive and takes over any space it can, burrowing deep into the soil and sending out countless runners. It's the cockroach of the plant world. Sheet mulching is the most effective way of dealing with this pestilence, though even then we still need to keep up with the insidious invader. 

  Native plants were planted along the top of the swale

Native plants were planted along the top of the swale

 

 

Sheet mulching (also known as lasagna or no-till gardening) is a permaculture technique that involves layering soil, manure, cardboard, and mulch (wood chips). These layers not only create a barrier between the Bermuda grass and the sun, but also help build healthy soil underneath. Eventually the cardboard and mulch will break down and further feed the soil with organic matter and minerals. 

  Even the smallest hands were able to help, working alongside their parents and friends.

Even the smallest hands were able to help, working alongside their parents and friends.

Another big project we tackled on Saturday was weeding and mulching the big swales beside the greenhouse.

Two years ago we dug trenches (swales) into the hillside above the lower fields in an effort to capture rainwater before it had a chance to flow into the lower parking lot and sewer system. Along the swales we planted a variety of plants, including fruit trees, herbs, and artichokes (the artichokes love being in the swales!). The plants are doing very well and the project has been hugely successful. This Saturday we worked on mulching the last section of the swales, to beautiful effect.

  Weeding the citrus trees is a family affair

Weeding the citrus trees is a family affair

 

Volunteers also worked on weeding and mulching around citrus trees in the orchard, a challenging task given how deep the Bermuda grass roots go! But they triumphed and the trees look so happy now. 

 

 

  Pruning pomegranate trees in the orchard

Pruning pomegranate trees in the orchard

We also started on the large task of pruning fruit trees in the orchard! The Fifth Grade has been working in the orchard over the last few weeks, but there are more trees than they can manage. Trees benefit from regular pruning, especially fruit trees, so we want to do our part to help them live a long and happy life on the farm. Plus, we love fruit.

Besides all of these wonderful projects being worked on, we might love the community-building aspect of work parties even more. Work parties provide a great opportunity for kids and parents to work together, side-by-side, on a common task for a shared goal. Kids also love the chance to spend time in the garden outside of class time. They can explore at will, run and play with their friends without the structure of a lesson plan. They also get to show their parents what they've been working on during the school day, and often learn that they know more about gardening than their parents do.  :)

Thank you so much to all who help us in this great work, we appreciate you and everything that you share with us!

 

 

Third Grade in the Garden

 Gathering broom corn

Gathering broom corn

 

The aim of the Third Grade curriculum is to teach students how to live in the world, "to connect themselves consciously with their surroundings." Throughout the year the students learn the basics of structure building, fiber and clothing, and growing and cooking their own food. The goal is that with these skills as a foundation, children will feel grounded and capable as they leave behind the dreaminess of youth and their feet meet the earth. Bridget Kelley, our beloved biodynamic farm teacher, has developed this curriculum over several years of working with classes and learning their needs and abilities.  

 Planting wheat

Planting wheat

 

 

In the garden, the Third Grade students learn to till the soil, distinguish between different kinds of grain, and learn about the relationships between plants, animals, and human beings.

Their work starts in the early summer of their Second Grade year when they help prepare row beds for planting grains. They plant grains like buckwheat and corn, which they harvest when they return to school in the fall. This year the Third Grade grew special corn that they made into brooms for the classroom.

 

 Salad walk

Salad walk

 

 

 

The class also planted wheat, which they will harvest at the end of the school year. Their work will include threshing, winnowing, and grinding the grain into flour. The flour will then be used to make pizzas that will be baked in our outdoor pizza oven!

Cotton and flax are two more crops that the students planted recently. Once grown, the fibers will be processed by the students with Ms. Lewis, their handwork teacher.

 Preserving apples

Preserving apples

 

 

 

They've also been working hard planting fall vegetables like kale, sugar snap peas, garlic, collards, beets, and carrots. 

In spring, they will plant tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and basil.   

 

 

 Making scarecrows

Making scarecrows

 

 

 

Throughout the school year the class works hard at planting, hoeing, raking, amending, weeding, and mulching. Proper use of tools and appropriate garden etiquette is emphasized in every class.  They helped build several large biodynamic compost heaps and led our school composting program by gathering compost from the lower classes each week and incorporating it into the compost piles.

 

 

Flight of the Honey Bees

IMG_20171214_142341_789.jpg

Honey bees are marvelous creatures with a simple but effective community structure.

Each hive has one queen who is responsible for laying eggs. She can live up to three or four years! There are many worker bees as well, all of whom are females who do not reproduce. During summer they live for several weeks, while in winter they can live up to a few months. The only males in the hive are drones who are there for mating purposes. They don't live very long. 

23592192_10213904167136250_4358762599177270621_o.jpg

 

For about the first 20 days of a bee's life they stay inside where it's warm and cozy, cleaning cells and feeding other bees and larvae. 

Before these young bees can leave the hive to collect nectar, pollen, water, and materials to make propolis*, they need to figure out their place in the world. Their first flight into their greater habitat is called their orientation flight. 

 Our friend, Gunthur Hauk, getting to know our bees.

Our friend, Gunthur Hauk, getting to know our bees.

 

It's an exciting time in a bee's life. They pick a warm, windless afternoon, if possible, to take their first flight.  They're seeing their surroundings for the first time, getting to know the feel of wind and sun, what their home looks like from the outside.

As they test their wings, they make short zig zag flights back and forth to the hive. As they feel more comfortable, they make greater circles, moving a little further away from the hive each time. They take note of the landscape and landmarks as they go, cues that will help them remember how to return to the hive after harvesting materials. And then they poop.

 Gunther Hauk, showing the inner workings of the hive to workshop participants.

Gunther Hauk, showing the inner workings of the hive to workshop participants.

 

 

Bees are very clean creatures, and until the orientation flight, the young bees have not yet had a chance to relieve themselves (20 days!). So they take advantage of the great outdoors. Imagine the relief. 

After 15 to 30 minutes of flying, they return to the hive for the day. The position of their nest entrance is very important, which is why we always make sure they have a clear flight path to their front door.

After a few days of orientation flights the bees are ready for real foraging flights. They will bring back pollen and water for the next generation of honey bees, little creatures who are so very important to our way of life.  

 

 

 

For further reading, check out this great source on orientation flights:

http://www.arnia.co.uk/honey-bee-orientation/

For more information about Gunther Hauk and his work to save honey bees: 

http://spikenardfarm.org/

* Propolis is like bee glue, made of sap or sticky plant matter, mixed with saliva and beeswax, used to fill in unwanted holes inside the hive. Kind of gross, but pretty cool.

Here are some of our honey bees enjoying an orientation flight in December:

Meet the New Chickens!

 Welcome to the farm little chickens!

Welcome to the farm little chickens!

September 12th was a special day on the farm: we welcomed nine new chickens into our flock! 

The pullets (official name for young hens) were chosen by the Fourth Grade as part of their gardening curriculum. They picked Black Australorps, Easter Eggers (colorful eggs!), and Black Cross Links.

That brings us up to ten different breeds in the coop! 

Most hens start laying at around six months, so we should start to see eggs soon. Keep an eye out for them at the farm stand!

 She's on the fence about the new girls.

She's on the fence about the new girls.

 

The new girls were shy at first, but quickly got used to their new digs.

We put up a barrier so that the older ladies could get used to their new coop-mates. It was only 75% successful thanks to some hens who like to jump.

They new ladies must really have taken to their little enclosure because that's where they still like to roost at night! Silly chickens.

Speaking of sleep, the little Black Australorps really like to dig holes, either for taking a dirt bath or a nap with friends. See if you can see them in one of their holes the next time you come by.

 Feeding time can get exciting.

Feeding time can get exciting.

 

 

In the end all went very well and everyone gets along swimmingly. The pullets were adopted into the flock warmly, though sometimes the older hens remind them of the pecking order (a very real thing in the coop!).

 Their fan club.

Their fan club.

 

 

 

And now they spend every day together cheerfully, pecking their food, enjoying their “eglu,” and waiting for the ECC kids to come by and feed them weeds.  

It’s a pretty happy life on the farm.