Even though I refer to my notes from past seasons for precise planting times, for a glance at which vegetables I can plant at any given time I always go to Vince Lazaneo’s “Vegetable Planting Guide.” Vince is a retired farm advisor for San Diego County with the University of California Cooperative Extension and he supervised my Master Gardener training class. He has been growing vegetables in Southern California for longer than I’ve been alive. His guide is to the point at only four pages, but below is the most important page in case you’re in a rush.
Are you “coastal” or “inland”? Consider yourself coastal if you are less than two miles from the ocean. Consider yourself inland if you are more than two miles from the ocean. If you are right around two miles from the beach, maybe in Oceanside or Costa Mesa or Torrance, then think about your elevation: if it’s over 200 feet, then consider yourself inland.
How do you know if a plant needs water? You can look at the plant’s leaves and make a guess, and you can get a rough idea based on how you’ve watered it in the past.
And if you’ve just watered a plant, how do you know if you’ve given it enough? You can estimate the number of gallons it needs using the size of the plant and the season, and taking into consideration your soil type.
But there is one sure way to answer both of these questions, and that is to put a knee down and start scratching. The truth about whether a plant needs water or whether you’ve given a plant enough water is only to be found by getting your hands dirty, by digging into the soil where the roots of the plant are.
I’ve made a personal commitment to getting my hands dirty more frequently this summer. The other day, June 10, I took some photos as I went through the soil-moisture discovery process for a couple of fruit trees that I was thinking might need water and for some vegetables that I had just given water. Follow along.
Should I water the fruit trees?
I suspected that my deciduous fruit trees might need water. It had been 20 days since my last irrigation, on May 21. I scraped away the mulch and dirt under this apricot tree until I encountered roots. The shallowest roots were about one knuckle (about one inch) below the soil surface, here:
I scooped up a handful of the soil there, squeezed it in my palm, and then opened up to look at the dirt. People usually call this the soil moisture “feel method.”
Immediately, when I opened my hand the dirt broke apart. That meant there was very little moisture in it, which meant yes, I should irrigate my apricot tree today.
Next, I walked over to my Pinkerton avocado tree. Should I water it today? I guessed not, since I’d watered all of my avocados only five days prior, but I had to be sure.
Same process: scrape mulch and soil until encountering shallowest roots. However, this time the soil kept its form in my open hand. I bounced it and it still didn’t break apart. Stains were left on my palm from the moisture in the dirt. This meant that the soil still had plenty of moisture in it. No need to irrigate yet.
My soil is a sandy loam. If yours is a clay soil, it would react a little differently in your hand when you squeeze and bounce it. Here is a document from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help you gauge the moisture in your specific soil. And here is a video from U.C. Davis to help you figure out your soil type, if you don’t know.
Also, here is a video from U.C. Davis showing the process of feeling for moisture in the soil, just as I did in the photos above.
Did I water enough?
Then I wanted to know if my regimen of drip irrigation on my vegetables was sufficient. Just that morning I had run the drip lines in my vegetable garden for 25 minutes and wondered specifically if that had wet deeply enough to satiate all of the roots of a bed of tomato plants. So a few hours after watering, I got my hands dirty again.
I used a shovel to dig a hole a foot deep between two tomato plants. Then I grabbed a handful of dirt about six inches down and squeezed and bounced it. Stained, held form: wet soil.
Next, I grabbed a handful near the bottom of the hole and squeezed. The soil ball broke in two when I opened my hand and bounced, but it wouldn’t crumble further. So the soil had moisture down there but wasn’t thoroughly wetted by my 25-minute irrigation.
That was fine because I also noticed during my digging that there were no roots that deep. Maybe there were roots a foot down directly below the plant, but over here they went no deeper than about six inches.
My take-away was that I had certainly watered the tomatoes enough, and next time I might water a little less so as not to waste any through deep percolation. I could water less by reducing the time to 20 minutes, or I could lengthen the interval between irrigations.
There’s no substitute for the proof you hold in your hand when you use the “feel method” to discover the moisture in soil. You’re holding the truth when you get your hands dirty and see and feel the dirt right there around a plant’s roots. It makes me feel confident every time I do it.
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Transplanting vegetable seedlings is such a simple act, and yet there are better and worse ways to do it. There’s even an artfulness and fluidity to the process. Here are photos with captions describing the five motions that I go through.
It’s about getting the plant into a new piece of ground in the least stressful way, and it’s also about being efficient. This is the best method I know of, after having tried variations and additional steps. Below the photo sequence are details about and reasons for each step.
1. Pinch bottom of container with one hand while tugging gently on stem of plant with other hand
2. Tease roots straight if they are circling around the sides and bottom
3. Insert trowel with tip angled toward you, then pull dirt up and out in order to create an opening; immediately place seedling into opening and then remove trowel
4. Slide dirt around sides to fill opening
5. Water around seedling
Step 1. Removing plant from container: Pictured is a small eggplant seedling in a six pack. If dealing with a larger plant, in a four- or six-inch container, I make a Star Trek sign with my left hand and put the V around the plant’s stem, then I turn the container upside down. A squeeze with my right hand is sometimes necessary to get the root ball to slide out.
Step 2. Teasing roots straight: Why tease the roots straight? Roots can’t move within the dirt. However you place them is how they’ll remain for life. Elongating them gives them a larger and deeper zone of soil to draw water and nutrients from right off the bat. I have to admit though that I’ve never compared the growth of seedlings whose roots are left circled and seedlings whose roots I’ve teased straight — nor have I seen such a study — so I don’t know for certain that this step is effective.
Step 3. Putting seedling into dirt: No biggie if you don’t own a trowel. Dig with a butter knife, or a stick, or just your fingers. My earliest memory of gardening is of my mother using a butter knife to do almost everything in her garden. I used a stick to do all vegetable transplanting in my gardens for a decade until my mother-in-law recently gave me a trowel for a Christmas present. I like it a lot, but it’s not required. Also, note that I call it an “opening” and not a hole. What’s the difference? Nothing, except that I want to imply that it doesn’t need to be big or deep and take a long time to make.
Step 4. Filling opening: Now’s the time to make sure the plant is upright and at the same level in the soil as it was in the container. Tug up on the stem or press down beside the stem as needed for adjustment. You may hear that tomatoes should be planted deeper. You can and they root along the stem, but I don’t bother. I’ve planted them deeper and planted them level and never noticed any difference in growth. On the other hand, seedlings of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale can get long-stemmed and top heavy, and I usually plant them deeper in order to help them stand more erect.
Step 5. Watering: Watering around the seedling is usually sufficient to establish good contact between the roots and soil, so no need to tamp around the seedling. Plants with big leaves might topple over when you water them. I make the Star Trek sign with one hand, palm up, and support the stem in the V as I water those plants in. (Until writing this, I never realized how often I make the Star Trek sign while transplanting. What does it mean?)
That’s the process. But what about adding fertilizer? I do know some very experienced gardeners who add fertilizer to the hole when they transplant, and that works for them; however, that’s not my style. I only add compost to the surface of the soil in my vegetable beds. (I wrote a post about this: Fertile soil can be child’s play.)
There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you start transplanting. First, it’s ideal if the soil in the seedling’s container is not dry. You want the plant to be full of water and not stressed before going through a transplanting. Also, the soil to be planted into should be moist — but not wet or dry. If it’s wet or dry it will be difficult to dig in.
Lastly, there is a best time of day to do transplanting: the cool of the late afternoon or evening. This gives the plant roots a whole night to establish a relationship with their new soil surroundings before needing to perform and support the leaves as they must do during bright sunlight. That being said, in winter or when it’s cloudy, time of day is not a concern.
And I said it’s such a simple act. Well, so is eating and sleeping and running and singing and . . .
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It’s nearly spring, the time of year when many people think of planting a vegetable garden. If this will be your first one, or if you’ve moved into a new house, or if your past vegetable gardens struggled, here are what I consider the two most important factors related to where to plant.
In the sun
The top concern is, by far, sunlight. The more, the better.
Vegetable plants are photosynthesizing machines. Photo means sunlight. Plants literally eat sunlight. Without enough of it, they’re slow, they’re weak, they’re starving, and they can’t produce leaves or fruit for you.
I once lived in a house near Balboa Park in San Diego, nestled in a canyon that was filled with eucalyptus and ficus trees. It was the most pleasant environment; the tree canopy moderated even the hottest days of summer. For my vegetables though, it was torture. They were constantly munched by bugs as they stretched toward the dappled light. During one summer, I got so desperate to give my plants what they wanted that I lugged multiple pots onto my roof and grew a garden up there.
I now live just outside San Diego in Ramona, a place nicknamed “Valley of the Sun”, where commercial solar farms find it profitable to operate. My vegetables grow like lightning. And I feel like a pro. Well, not quite a pro, but I do feel much better about my gardening skills even as I know it has more to do with the sunny location as with anything else.
If a location gets full, direct, 100% sun for half of each day, that’s sufficient. That’s about six hours of full sun that vegetables need at a minimum. Anything less is going to engender less than great results.
Remember, too, that the sun’s angle changes throughout the year such that a spot in full sun in summer might be in full shade in winter because of a building or tree or wall to its south. If you want to grow vegetables like cabbage or garlic that need to grow through the winter in Southern California, then keep this in mind.
What might it take for you to find this half day’s sun in your yard? It might take removing a section of your lawn, as my mom recently did in order to locate her vegetables in more sun. The vegetables are showing their appreciation. Ask yourself if you really need every square foot of your lawn, and be encouraged by knowing that a vegetable garden requires less water than a lawn.
To locate your vegetable garden in the most sun it might also take an adjustment of your sensibilities. You might need to place your vegetable garden in the front yard instead of the back. My current vegetable garden is in my front yard (as seen in the photo above). I planted it there because that’s where the sun is. At first, it felt strange to grow my vegetables in the front yard, but I’ve found that my neighbors particularly enjoy it. As they walk by with their dogs they ask what I’m growing these days, and I have opportunities to share with them whatever is harvestable at the moment.
In your face
The other most important factor in locating a successful vegetable garden is planting it where you’ll run into it, every day, unintentionally. It ought to be in your face, in a place where you look and walk often already as part of your daily routines, not in a remote corner of the yard that is out of sight and that you’ll have to remember to visit.
Even though my vegetable garden is in my front yard and mostly in my face, I continue to find that the beds closest to our front door and in view of our living room window look the best. They have very few weeds, they are always fully planted, and they are always well-watered. Then there are the beds down by the road. They have more weeds, are spottier in their plantings, and if I sow seeds down there I sometimes forget to keep them moist until germination.
Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the way we humans operate.
A vegetable garden that is in your face also gets harvested more often, key for something like peas which go from slim to plump and pickable in a single day. Yesterday, we ate our daily dose on the porch.
For you and your vegetable garden, a place in your face might mean planting right outside a window that you sit by as you work in your home office or a window that you look out as you wash dishes after every meal. Or it might mean that the vegetable garden is right outside your back door because that’s the door you use every day to access your car to get to and from work. The idea is that you bring your vegetable garden into the path of your routines, if at all possible.
Sure, there are other things to think about when it comes to locating a vegetable garden, such as proximity to a water faucet or being protected from your pet dog. But those other qualities can be altered. You can lay pipe and install a water source, and you can erect a fence to keep your dog out of the garden. The sunlight a location receives, however, is nearly impossible to change. And your routines are your routines — what’s harder to change than those?
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I love hummus, so when I saw a garbanzo bean plant at the nursery last April I bought it. Rookie mistake. Just because you see a plant at the nursery doesn’t mean that now is a good time to buy and plant it.
Different vegetable plants prefer to grow in different seasons, of course. And contrary to the beliefs of people who don’t live here, we do have seasons in Southern California. Sow cauliflower in May and see how well it does.
But it had been a fine spring day, and I had been infected with the fever of that warming season. (Here in March it is that warming season again — beware!) Forgetting to consider when garbanzo bean plants like to grow in Southern California, I bought it and put it in the ground among my other vegetables. Soon it formed bean pods. Excited, I squeezed a pod, but it dented. It was empty. All of the other pods were hollow too. Then in the heat of summer, the plant started to brown and eventually, it died. I forgot about it.
Then a couple months ago I heard someone mention that farmers in California’s Central Valley grow garbanzo beans as a winter crop. Duh, Greg. Beans are not beans. Some grow in summer, like black beans or pinto or green beans, but some grow in winter here, like fava beans. I should have done my homework. Once I did, I learned that actually some other farmers do grow garbanzos in the summer, but this is in places like Morro Bay, where summers are cool and foggy — in other words, where summers are like our winters.
Oh well. Lesson learned, again.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for making this timing mistake, right? I forgive myself for forgetting that lesson primarily because of the way grocery stores are stocked. Judging by the appearance of grocery store shelves, there are no seasons. How should I know when garbanzo beans are grown in my area? I only see them in cans, 365 days a year. And how should I know when cauliflower is grown in my area? It’s fresh on the shelves 365 days a year.
Grocery store shelves may carry all fruits and vegetables all of the time, but your garden won’t. Unless it’s warm like summer, tomatoes won’t ripen. Unless it’s cool like winter, broccoli will shoot for the sky and become a yellow mass of flowers that is candy for the bees before you can say, Wait, please!
We usually eat the immature broccoli flowers, but bees are grateful when we let some grow up.
Wait . . . sometime in January, I noticed little plants popping up that weren’t my usual weeds. As they grew, I began to recognize their leaves as those of garbanzo plants. How did that happen? All of the pods had been hollow. The plant had died. Who knows? Nature has forgiven me, too.
That photo at the very top shows foliage of one of the garbanzo bean plants now, pretty happy among spinach and winter grass weeds, growing in their season of cool. If the pods are not hollow this time, I have a dream: I’m going to use the beans to make hummus mixed with avocado and spread it on sourdough toast.
. . .
From now on, let’s grow our vegetables at the right time the first time. When to plant what? Consult these resources:
The best online resource I know of is Vince Lazaneo’s Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. (You may want to see my note here about determining whether you live in the “coastal” or “inland” zone.)
The best offline resource I know of is Sunset’s Western Garden Book.
You might also like to have a look at my “Month by Month” posts where I list vegetables to sow and plant each month in Southern California.
My dream of making hummus has been dashed by my sons, who discovered how good garbanzos taste fresh off the plant. At least the pods weren’t hollow.