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The Miller Family's Organic Garden : The Ultimate Outdoor Living Amenity

The Miller family’s new custom home sits like a white citadel, proudly nestled into a wooded hillside in Southeast Charlotte. The family enjoys being outdoors, and with the help of their architect and builder, realized their vision of the perfect outdoor living space. Amenities like a saltwater swimming pool and an outdoor kitchen with refrigerated wine coolers, and an imported Italian pizza oven were thoughtfully placed for convenience and utility. And since growing organic produce was right up there with poolside pizza, their landscape architect cleverly placed three raised beds just outside the home’s backdoor, and adjacent to the outdoor kitchen.

The Miller family’s garden design includes three specially made Kitchen Garden raised beds, that feature supporting stakes placed on the outside of the cedar boards, for a unique look. The south facing garden site sits just outside the kitchen and breakfast area, so the family can harvest salad greens minutes before they're served with an evening meal. 

The garden receives more direct sunlight than a Las Vegas parking lot, and so we fitted each raised bed with 1/2” drip irrigation to make it easy to water the garden, and make adjustments to the watering schedule based on the season. The drip system was placed on its own irrigation zone, so that watering can be controlled independently of shrubs, grass, and other landscape plants on the property.

Our team filled each bed with a loamy blend of pine fines, mushroom compost and Stalite PermaTill, which will help ensure good drainage and soil structure season after season. Once the soil was carefully amended and watered, we planted a colorful assortment of cool season leafy greens including several varieties of kale, mustard greens,and swiss chard. Broccoli and cauliflower rounded out the rest of their fall garden, and we even saved room for three small rows of Inchelium Red garlic, which should go nicely on some of those poolside pizzas next summer. Happy gardening, Miller family!


How to Improve Soil Drainage in Raised Beds

There’s so much to love about gardening in raised beds. They’re smart, stylish, and entice you out into the sunshine more often. They bring the garden a little closer, and for that your back will never stop saying thank you. But best of all, raised beds allow even the novice gardener to begin growing with a light soil that most field farmers can only dream of. After all, what organic gardener would choose season after season of all out war with a stubborn plot of clay over a rich, loamy blend sold and delivered by the cubic yard? 

Our favorite organic soil blend is a mix of aged pine bark fines, mushroom compost, and PermaTill, which creates the ideal soil structure for a wide range of edible varieties. Yet more than once, our team has been called to correct a waterlogged, heavy soil in a gardener’s existing raised beds. Almost always, these raised beds have been filled with topsoil - a deceptively idyllic label for a heavy, sticky substrate with drainage properties that fall somewhere between asphalt and modeling clay. Fortunately this can be fixed by working in organic material like aged manure and compost, and one or more of the following materials:


Coarse Sand 
Easier to find than a parking spot at your local home improvement chain, coarse sand is also budget friendly. And unlike other material, it won’t break down, and lose its drainage and aeration properties over time.



Like sand, PermaTill is strong, durable, and will continue to provide drainage properties in soil almost indefinitely. It’s an inert media, made by heating and expanding small pieces of slate, and PermaTill has the added benefit of storing water soluble nutrients while still water and air to move through the soil.




Aged Pine Bark Fines 
Often made with bark from either the Southern Yellow Pine, or Loblolly Pine, aged pine fines are a staple of organic soil blends, and frequently used as a conditioner to help lighten heavy soils. or help absorb moisture and then release it slowly as the soil dries out. The aging process, along with their small size and shape allow aged pine bark fines to improve air circulation and oxygen delivery to plant roots.




Asian Greens for your Fall Garden

There’s a lot to love about Asian Greens like tatsoi and pak choi. They’re ready to harvest before you’ve even put the seed packet away, and they embrace cold weather like a polar bear. Plus they’re packed with nutrients, and can be planted well into the fall - long after many other cold season varieties. Best of all, they’re famously easy to grow - even for beginners - and a fun way to enjoy the fresh flavors of the orient from your organic garden this fall. 



Often used as a substitute for spinach, Chinese Flat Cabbage, or tatsoi is marked by a dense, flat rosette of thick, glossy leaves. Its included in most mesclun salad mixes for its mild mustard flavor, and is a staple in many braised dishes and winter soup recipes.





A traditional Japanese salad green whose flight green color and spiked leaves add visual interest and a mild cabbage and mustard flavor to salad mixes. Seeds are direcxrt sown in the fall, and plants are surprisingly fast growing and cold tolerant.



Pak choi

Also called bok choi and tsoi sum, this open headed Chinese white cabbage is grown both for the crisp white stalks, as well as the tender green leaves at the top of the plant. Pak choi is often steamed, braised or even pickled, and plays the starring role in many Asian stir fries and salads. 



Pe tsai

Perhaps the most widely grown Asian green, pe tsai is also called celery cabbage, wong bok, and siew choy. Sweeter and more tender than European cabbage varieties, pe tsai forms tightly packed, barrel shaped heads, and has a mild tangy flavor that’s perfect in stir fry, soups and steamed recipes.



Gai choy

With a more prominent mustard flavor than other Asian greens, Chinese Mustard, or gai choi, is a diverse group that resembles open headed cabbage and some kale varieties. Gai choy was developed as a cross between Chinese cabbage and black mustard, and its cultivated like Chinese cabbage.


Benefits of Drip Irrigation : A Tale of Two Gardeners

Your morning routine has always been rushed. But during the hot summer months - when your organic garden requires more frequent watering -  the race with the minute hand really gets underway. Between your second cup of coffee and running that blouse from the dryer to the ironing board, you wade through a gauntlet of holly bushes to the nearest spigot, and eventually wrangle water from a perpetually kinked up hose.

And it’s been extra hot this summer, so your garden is thirstier than a Las Vegas golf course. Minutes fly by like your twenties as it it guzzles water. By the time the soil is fully saturated, the sun is soaring high above the tree tops, and text and email alerts from work vibrate your phone right off the back porch. 


Meanwhile, your neighbor never seems to water her garden. And not that you really noticed or anything, but her garden doesn’t just look healthy, it looks like a professionally lighted product photo from a fancy organic gardening catalog. And there she is, sipping coffee on the patio, while writing poetry in her journal.

Perhaps she might dedicate a verse or two to the low pressure drip irrigation system that makes her mornings so pleasant. True, the humble plastic tubing may never ask how your day was, but it can give you more time, which is really better anyway, and improve the success of your organic garden.


Besides the obvious time saving convenience of having an automated watering system, drip irrigation has several big advantages over supplemental watering by hand or with sprinklers 

Drip irrigation tubing buried in the top six inches of soil makes water immediately available right in a plant’s root zone. As water is passes slowly through each drip emitter into the surrounding soil, it moves through the soil in all directions ; downward by the force of gravity, upward and outward by capillary action. This slow delivery of water below the soil surface allows the plant to absorb more available moisture through its roots.


Even when special care is taken to avoid surface evaporation by watering in the morning, a substantial amount of water directed from overhead will still be lost to evaporation. Wind, surface runoff, pressure, and other factors can result in even more wasted water from larger overhead sprinkler systems.


Another advantage drip irrigation has over hand watering and overhead sprinklers is that it keeps plant foliage dry. This helps prevent fungal diseases like powdery mildew, that thrive in conditions with wet foliage and poor air circulation.  


But surely drip irrigation must have its weak spots, right? What if you forget the drip line is there, and accidentally puncture it with a trowel? Or what if the drip emitters get clogged by soil particles or roots grow into them?


Sure, your irrigation system won’t bring in the groceries, or turn the compost pile for you, but the high tech drip emitters are designed not to clog, even when buried several inches below the soil surface. If a line is severed, which can happen, the leak is easy to spot by the puddle that forms above the cut, and the repair is as simple as connecting the severed line with a barbed plastic coupling.


Best of all, a simple low pressure drip irrigation system for your organic garden can be connected to a nearby hose bib, and controlled by a battery powered timer. There’s no need to hire a contractor to install an expensive irrigation system with multiple zones and a complicated control panel.

Just make sure you have plenty of room in your journal, because you’ll want to write a lengthy ode, or perhaps even a love ballad to your new flame - drip irrigation.









Cool Down Your Greenhouse This Summer


On a sunny winter day, your greenhouse can feel like a magical refuge inside, where the signs of life provide a welcome diversion from the cold weather ouside.  

On a bright, summer day, your greenhouse can feel like an overcrowded sauna on the planet Mercury.


By design, your greenhouse allows sunlight to pass through and then retains that energy inside in the form of heat. This is what it is supposed to do, of course. But your greenhouse doesn’t have to be demoted to a tool shed just because it’s summertime. With thoughtful planning, and a few simple steps, you can cool your greenhouse’s environment so that it’s productive all year long. 


Shading Your Greenhouse
An excellent way to shade your greenhouse in the summer months is to site it where it will lie in the shade of a deciduous tree for part, or even most of the day - preferably during the afternoon, when daytime temperatures peak. This isn’t always possible of course, and many a hardworking greenhouse only dreams about the luxury of a shade tree while earning its keep out in an open field. If you are able to site your greenhouse near a shade tree, remember that your plants will still require a minimum of four hours of sunlight. 

Polyethylene shade cloth is another effective, low cost way to cool your greenhouse environment, and is sold in densities that block anywhere from 25% to 70% or more of light transmission. Greenhouse growers in warmer climates will almost always benefit from shade cloth designed to block more light. While shade cloth can be secured to either the inside or the outside of the greenhouse glazing, it cools the greenhouse environment more effectively when placed on the outside where it can prevent heat from passing inside the glazing. Some professionals even position the shade cloth just above the glazing, with a small space of a few inches between the cloth and exterior of the greenhouse. This design allows air to flow between, and help vent away heat. Remember to securely fasten exterior mounted  shade cloth so that it stays in place during extreme weather.



Ventilating Your Greenhouse
While ventilation systems vary, the idea is the same : replace hot air leaving the greenhouse with new air from outside. Because heat rises, exhaust vents are almost always placed at the apex of the greenhouse roof, or high on an end wall, where trapped heat can easily escape and rise into the atmosphere.

Intake vents are best placed near the floor, which allows fresh air from outside to pass over plants, helping to prevent fungal diseases and mildew from damaging the plants. Size recommendations vary, but at a minimum, exhaust vents should be at least 10% of the Greenhouse’s floor area. 20% or even 30% is better.

Remember to screen vents placed near the floor with hardware cloth to keep out wildlife. Exhaust vents can be fitted with automated solar openers that open ad close vents based on the temperature inside the greenhouse. In winter it may be necessary to remove these to avoid venting supplemental heat.



Evaporative Cooling

Evaporative cooling systems use the heat in the air to evaporate water from leaves and other wetted surfaces, and can cool the greenhouse as much as 10-20° F below the temperature outside the greenhouse. Portable, self contained evaporative cooling units also called swamp units, are common used with smaller greenhouses.

The pad and fan evaporative cooling system has been used by commercial greenhouse growers for decades, and relies on a system that circulates water through a network of cellulose pads. Air drawn through the wetted pads by an intake fan placed at the opposite end wall, becomes saturated, and cools the air inside the greenhouse.