Gardening Effectively in Times of Drought

Gardening Effectively in Times of Drought

Extreme climate conditions have become the norm. They are no longer a thing of the past. As our planet continues to change and warm, we commonly see more droughts, flooding and extremes in temperature. Here in California, we are facing another summer of extreme drought. In order to continue following Amma’s instructions on growing food, the San Ramon Ashram vegetable gardens have implemented some age-old water conservation techniques.

Saving Water Is Easier Than You Think

Anyone can save water in their garden. These ancient methods have been proven to greatly reduce water consumption and still yield excellent harvests. Along with these practices, there are many other simple water-saving techniques every home gardener should implement in order to have a fruitful garden with low water consumption. One of the easiest things to do in the garden to save water is to water in the mornings or the evenings. This avoids the high noon sun which increases water evaporation. At the end of this article we list several water saving gardening practices.

1Pots

Drip irrigation is thought to be the most water-efficient method of irrigating a garden, however much of this water is still lost in evaporation, particularly in hot, dry weather. Keeping in mind what Amma says that not a single drop should be wasted, the only way to irrigate effectively is to water deep underground. Bringing water directly to the roots ensures that no water is wasted by evaporating on the surface.

There are several buried irrigation techniques, but here at San Ramon Ashram we chose the Buried Clay Pot irrigation method. This irrigation method has been used effectively for over 4,000 years in India, China and Africa. The pots, also known as “ollas”, can be purchased ready-made such as these to the left. If you have budget to spare, they can also be custom made if one has access to a potter. Fortunately, there is also a simple do-it-yourself method that anyone can tackle and is easy on the budget.

We were fortunate here in San Ramon that a local devotee who is also a potter, donated many ollas for use around the ashram, and they are currently being used to successfully irrigate the Rose Garden as well as all the flower bushes at the Main Residence.

How To Make Ollas

2DIYceramicpots

For the Lotus Vegetable Garden, we made over 350 do-it-yourself ollas using simple unglazed terracotta flower pots, water-based, food grade silicone and a little duct tape. Here are some simple instructions for making ollas.

First, seal the bottom hole, with a small piece of duct tape on the outside of the pot. You just need enough tape to cover the hole. Then, fill the hole completely with silicone on the inside, thus plugging the hole.

Second, glue the two pots together with silicone. Once the silicone on the ollas is dry (this usually takes 24 hours), your ollas is finished.

Third, you can bury the ollas in your vegetable garden. Bury the ollas so that only an inch is left above the soil surface, and place a cap of some sort over the top hole. You can use ceramic tiles, stones or inverted flower pot saucers.

3potbowls

Once in the ground, if the tape deteriorates, that is OK as the silicone will hold in place keeping the hole plugged.

Ideally, one olla made of 2 8-inch pots will hold about a gallon of water, and this will irrigate a 4 square foot patch of garden. So, 1-gallon ollas can be placed 2 feet apart, while larger ones can be 3-4 feet apart.

You can hand-fill the ollas individually if you have a small garden, or you can incorporate them into your drip irrigation system by inserting the drip lines directly into each olla, as we did in San Ramon. Take note of the time it takes to fill the olla. Then set your irrigation timers accordingly.

Ollas Can Even Increase Plant Production

4bed
The ollas tied to the irrigation system in the garden before planting.

At the San Ramon Lotus Garden we implemented ollas in most of the rows, and were able collect some very strong comparative data as to the conservation of water and productivity of vegetable plants using this irrigation method versus drip irrigation. Two rows irrigated with ollas produced 400 lbs. of vegetables, while comparatively sized rows using drip irrigation yielded only 115 lbs.

Water consumption for the olla rows compared to the drip irrigated rows was roughly 70% less, and due to the fact that the irrigation is strictly underground. In addition, unwanted weeds in the olla rows were almost non-existent compared to the drip irrigated ones due to the lack of surface water.

In the San Ramon Rose Garden, we were fortunate to receive many hand-made ollas from a devotee who is a potter, so these have been buried beside the rose bushes, at least 2 pots per bush, and are providing effective irrigation and greatly reduced water consumption. The roses are thriving!

Due to our warm climate here in San Ramon, the ollas can remain in the ground even through the winter. However, if you live in a northern climate you will have to dig up your ollas, allow them to dry and store them during the freezing months to reuse the next year.

Simple Water-Saving Techniques

5beds
Mulch on the main vegetable garden at San Ramon.

If you cannot implement a buried clay pot method, then the following tips will be helpful in reducing your garden’s water consumption, no matter where you live.

  1. Mulch, mulch, mulch! Adding an organic covering to your gardens helps prevent water evaporation. This can be wood chips, straw, or dried leaves. Make sure the mulch is at least a couple of inches deep to provide the appropriate protection to your soil. Here in San Ramon we mulch with wheat straw and also hardwood mulch.
  2. Water at ground level, not sprinkling. Sprinklers typically waste a lot of water as they are subject to evaporation more quickly that allowing the water to immediately seep into the soil.
  3. Measure how much water you need. Buy a soil moisture reader to determine how often you need to irrigate your gardens. By testing the moisture content of your soil at the root level, you might be able to stretch out your waterings.
  4. Water only mornings or evenings, when the day is cooler and the sun is not at its full strength. This will give the water a chance to percolate down into the soil before evaporation begins.
  5. Use shade cloth if you have very strong, hot sun in your gardens all day. We implemented this in some of our raised beds here in San Ramon and were able to grow cool season crops such as lettuces well into the summer!
  6. Put a water timer on your hose to better understand how much water you are using, and continue to tweak and modify your consumption.
  7. Replace high consumption plants and grass with drought tolerant and native varieties if possible. These will have a greater chance of thriving in your garden under water restrictions.
6raised beds
Shading plants from the sun can save water.

These methods are mostly for more shallow rooted plants and bushes, so for the three fruit tree orchards here in San Ramon Ashram, we are implementing a different system altogether. Look to a follow-up blog post on the details of this method that is specifically for fruit trees and other deep-rooted plants!

For more information about gardening in general, check out the courses at www.amritavirtualacademy.com/gardening Learn how to help your garden thrive.

Composting: Sadhana (Spiritual Practice) That Can Heal The Earth

Composting: Sadhana (Spiritual Practice) That Can Heal The Earth

Om Namah Shivaya, Everyone! Welcome to my blog on Urban Gardening & Composting coming to you from GreenFriends Mexico!

This month we will continue our discussion on Urban Composting; and we will preliminarily conclude the topic in my next blog coming soon in August 2021 with other specific ways to compost if you live in a city or home with limited outdoor and / or indoor (kitchen) space.

Composting Taboos & Fear of Getting Our Hands Dirty. Ewwww! Composting is gross and smelly! Right? Wrong!

If you learn to compost correctly and start your composting experiments off small, there will be absolutely no smell, no insects, no rodents – all false myths about indoor urban composting!

On June 20, 2021, I offered an Amritaculture Live Q&A Session of Red Worm Composting in urban environments with Hugo Bernal. Here is the link to this session and other amazing offerings from Amritaculture Instructors from around the world which can be found in our YouTube channel (please subscribe!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLEzMbuW04U

After the session on Red Worm Composting, a dear friend of mine called me. She requested that I write a blog addressing cultural and personal taboos which keep people from composting – particularly for the Asian Indian population who may be less likely to compost. I thought it was an amazing idea for a blog!

There may be cultural taboos and personal prejudices around composting. To be quite clear: Indians are not the only cultural group that may be resistant to composting! People from all backgrounds fall into this category. For many people of all backgrounds, compost bins are imagined to be dirty, full of smelly rotting food, and just plain yucky – who wants to touch that or work with that?!

I have a confession to make. I was that guy until about 2 years ago when I began to experiment with my red worm composting bin, and I fell in love with process as well as other composting projects I will share with you in my upcoming August 2021 blog! Stay tuned and watch for it to learn more!

2 Shiva lingam

Many of Amma’s children are from Mother India. Also, millions of Amma’s children globally have been heavily influenced by the thought-world and spiritual biases of Indian culture even when they may have grown up outside of India! It is well known that many Indians would be resistant to composting in general as it is a cultural taboo for Indians to handle dirty things, trash, and (possibly) compost.

Saucha (a niyama or observance of yoga delineated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) means “purity.” Well-intentioned disciplined spiritual persons from India may be trying to preserve saucha – the conscious practice of inner and outer purity — and that is why they may avoid “dirty work” like composting.

Lord Jesus in the New Testament constructively criticized the spiritual people of His time for being overly concerned about “outer purity.” He smiled to Himself seeing them do lustrations or mikvehs (body washing) before entering the temple (like a devoted Hindu taking a dip in the Ganges three times or more per day prior to doing sadhana).

Jesus pointed out (I paraphrase): “Why are they so worried about washing the outside of the cup instead of the inside of the cup?” By cup, Jesus was referring to the body. We pay more attention to the outside (the body) and not enough to purifying (eradicating) the attachments and aversions which keep us chained to the wheel of samsara.

“He who helps to set up and clean up after a puja attains more merit than he who does the puja.” -Amma

There is the famous story of Amma realizing the Ashram septic system was failing. None of the early residents wanted to go into the septic tank to clean it and get it working properly. Amma – the Purest of the Pure – jumped in first. Of course, when Amma led by example everyone protested, asked Her to stop doing the dirty work, and offered to do it for Her. Amma reportedly did not stop and did the dirty work of cleaning the septic tank with Her truly Divine Hands…

When we do the “dirty work,” although the hands may become soiled – the more soiled the hands become, the purer the hands become; and, the purer our inner and outer realities become, too.

Doing composting seva (inside an ashram and / or in our homes) will be one of the most purifying spiritual practices we can do to conserve the health of Earth and to help Her to heal from the innumerable injuries each of us has caused Her due to our collective lack of education, lack of awareness, and / or lack of personal effort.

I remember living in Amritapuri. I would sweep the trash and do recycling and composting seva everyday all day long. I loved it! I had the divine privilege of serving Amma by helping to keep Her Body (the Ashram) clean! Most of the people doing these sevas noticeably were not of Indian descent. One of the few Indian people doing the seva (who happened to be coordinating the seva) told me, “Amma often says that she admires Her Western children… because they are never afraid to clean and do ‘dirty’ sevas (selfless service).”

I asked my Indian friend, “What do you mean by this?” She said, “It is a cultural thing. Cleaning and dirty work is seen as unsuitable work for many Indians.” Thus, we see a cultural taboo. This should definitively not be taken to mean that ONLY Indians are averted from dirty work due to whatever reason or philosophy.

I lived in the San Ramon Ashram, which has many Western devotees. It is amazing how many of us avoided or “forgot” to take out the kitchen compost, clean the Temple bathrooms, or sweep the dust and cobwebs out of the Temple… Amma has said (I paraphrase): “He who helps to set up and clean up after a puja attains more merit than he who does the puja.” This means that those who do sevas or tasks they view as “unfavorable” or “dirty” get more merit than those who get to do foo-foo sevas or sevas that may seem to momentarily put them in the spotlight. We must never forget that seva is sadhana (spiritual practice that leads to Liberation of Consciousness from samsara).

Composting is seva we can and should do for Amma and the planet in every home. Those who see no task (seva) as below them quickly rise to the top and are examples for all. Amma is the perfect example of this for all of us. No work is lowly. All work (all seva) is valuable. Whether we live in an ashram, offer seva at an MA Center around the world, or manage our own apartment in an urban environment, no work is lowly or unsuitable.

If we do not believe this, we need to carefully reflect on the topic. In yoga philosophy, attachment (raga) and aversion (dwesha) are the two sides of the coin of desire. Desire, according to Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, leads to suffering, frustration, and lack of spiritual illumination or true spiritual comprehension. If we are seeking spiritual liberation, we must be open to transcending attachment and aversion for the betterment of our families, communities, countries, and the globe.

It is no small exaggeration that if everyone in the world began to compost in their kitchens that we would be well on our way to healing and restoring balance to Mother Nature. To reduce the waste going into landfills should be on the mind of every person (especially if he or she is a devotee of Amma Who constantly is encouraging us to actively participate in source reduction, recycling, tree planting, and organic gardening).

If we are not composting yet because of a negative cultural perception or because we do not want to get our hands dirty, we need to roll up our spiritual sleeves and compassionately observe our egos.

The ego tells us “I want to do only what is comfortable for me. I do not want to do what inconveniences me (composting is time consuming is common false myth). I think it may be smelly or attract bugs or….” We need to educate ourselves, experiment in small ways to see what kind of composting is best for our urban habitats or small modern-day apartments.

In doing so, we will see that if various methods are done correctly in even the smallest confined spaces, there will be no smell, no insects, no rodents, no dirt to speak of. Instead of contributing to the destruction of our planet and the elimination of animal species at a horrifying rate, we can restore Mother Nature’s health and destroy Mahishasura: The Great Ego within all of us.

If any of us truly seeks moksha (union with the Divine), we must go beyond aversion. If we have negative repelling thoughts about urban composting (or composting in general), read about it with a Google search, buy a book on Urban Composting, and learn. What we do not understand we fear or have prejudices about. The world needs you! Let us go beyond all cultural taboos and personal prejudices about composting and give Earth a chance at healing.

The Benefits Outweigh Perceived Issues

Here are some important environmental benefits achieved through composting:

soil components

It improves the soil in indoor potted plants and outdoor gardens and green spaces – making the soil “living soil” due to the healthy microbes produced in the compost itself.

* Compost helps to restore and filter local water sources. Compost can retain 5 to 20 times its own weight in water. Adding compost to soil increases the amount of water that can penetrate into the soil. The water can seep all the way down to the impervious rock layer where it wells up and can begin to refill local springs, ponds, and lakes. Via downward drainage through compost, soil, and rock layers, the rainwater is filtered as it makes its way to these water sources.

* Composting Makes Our Oceans Cleaner! All water gradually makes its way to oceans. Compost’s ability to filter water as it penetrates the ground means that the water flowing into the ocean will be cleaner. One of the biggest oceanic pollutants are the nonorganic fertilizers and poisonous chemicals used in farming and gardening.

* Compost reduces erosion of topsoil and “living soil” (that is, soil with compost added to it). One-third of Earth’s farmland has been lost within the last 40 years due to erosion and pollution. Erosion is caused by excess water that is not able to penetrate the ground. Water consequently collects and pools on the surface and rushes down to lower elevations, taking the topsoil with it and depleting the agricultural land. Compost can serve as a sponge and permits much more water to filter down through the ground – thus preserving the topsoil.

* When food waste rots in landfills, it releases methane and carbon dioxide. Organic matter dumped in landfills is the third largest form of methane emission resulting from humans. Composting decomposes our food waste without producing methane emission into the atmosphere.

* Compost reduces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To retain microbes in our “living soil,” plant roots will release carbohydrates from their roots to both attract and feed the microbes under the soil. Plants siphon CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the air, absorb water through their roots, and via the science of photosynthesis, turn carbon dioxide into carbohydrates (sugars)! The sugars combined with the microbes that consume them produce humus — a part of the living soil that gives soil its structure, nutrients, and moisture. Humus is largely credited for keeping carbon dioxide beneath the soil.

4 compost process

* Composting saves you money! The average household wastes about $2,200 dollars’ worth of food yearly. When we compost at home, we notice how much food and money we throw away. With this awareness we can buy less and save money; or use the money we have been carelessly wasting to feed the hungry in our communities!

* Composting can create millions of jobs! Advocate in your communities for compost pick up (the same as trash or recycling pick up). When this is successfully accomplished, many people can have good paying jobs while at the same time preserving the health of our local environment!

There are so many wonderful reasons and benefits when it comes to urban composting, they simply cannot be listed exhaustively here in one blog.

Doing an online search or visiting a library is a great way to learn more and to heal the Earth if the topic interests you; or if you need further convincing to get started.

Please stay tuned for my August 2021 Blog delineating “cleaner” ways to compost in small spaces (like indoor apartments or urban homes with little or no green space).

We can make this planet Heaven on Earth. But we must have God’s grace, put in personal effort, and be aware of how our personal positive composting habits can make a big difference!

Please visit the Amrita Virtual Academy blog soon to learn more from environmental and gardening enthusiasts from around the world.

Om Namah Shivaya!

How To Grow Delicious Tomatoes, Part 2

How To Grow Delicious Tomatoes, Part 2

Spacing

When planting tomatoes one of the first considerations is how far apart should I put my plants. Spacing will be determined by the plant variety you choose.  The smaller ones can be planted closer together.  Those that get pretty big need room to grow.  If you are staking the plants, then you can bring them closer together. General guidelines are about eighteen inches to two feet apart in the rows and about three to five feet apart between rows.  It really depends on the variety.  If using raised beds that are not walked on, then you can reduce the spacing.  

tomato seedlings

Seedlings, Hardening-off 

Seedlings are really essential in almost all parts of the US, as the growing season is not long enough for the plants to fully develop.  Seedlings should be started 6 to 8 weeks before you can place them outside.  The temperature outside needs to be warm enough, as I stated earlier.   When using seedlings it’s important to harden them off by gradually placing them outside and reducing their watering and fertilization and not allowing them to get exposed to cold temperatures in the evening.  Covering or sheltering them in the night is very important, as you don’t want seedlings to be exposed to temperatures lower than 60°F.  This way, they slowly adapt to the winds and hot sun of the outdoors.  Once they have gone through about four or five days of this adaptation, then go ahead and plant them.

If the soil is not warm enough, then place black plastic on the bed to warm it up during the time you are hardening off the tomatoes. 

Transplants have been grown in 70° weather.  Therefore, putting them in temperatures that are much colder than this is not a good idea, as they tend to develop catfacing (indentations and scars around the blossom end of the fruit versus the stem end.  These scars can develop deep inside the fruit.  It allows for disease and animals to move in and makes the fruit look really ugly.)  Therefore, keep the plants above the temperature in which they are normally grown or very close to it, especially at night, by providing protection until the temperatures outside get into the 70°s F. 

tomato transplant

Transplanting and Liming Tomatoes

Tomato plants are one of the only plants where you should plant deeper than the soil (3) line in which the seedlings are grown.  The transplant should be less than a foot tall.  You can dig a trench about four to six inches deep and carefully bend the stem of the plant so the root is at an angle and the actual stem is partially planted, allowing only two or three sets of its true leaves above the soil.  The stem will develop roots and establish itself and make the plant stronger.

Before you plant, add about a ¼ cup of lime to the soil where the tomato plants will go.  Incorporating this additional lime will help prevent blossom end rot.  Use powdered lime, as lime takes time to dissolve and incorporate into the soil.  The powdered version will dissolve quicker than the pelletized version. Do this for each plant hole or area right before planting.  

Water well once you have finished planting and immediately place the cage or stake into the ground.  The stake should be around six foot tall, and placed no more than a foot away from the plant. Do a small application of organic fertilizer or compost tea.  Do not over fertilize.

Watering

Regular watering is a must with tomatoes.  A good inch or two per week is acceptable, depending on the type of soil.  If it’s sandy, then two inches of water is good, during the hot summer days and if it’s a more clay type, then one inch will suffice.  The main thing is to keep it evenly moist and not to allow it to dry out.  Mulching with straw, partial compost, or shredded leaves is really key, as this will prevent the roots from drying out.  Tomato roots are near the surface and can easily be impacted by drought, after which they would immediately begin to develop blossom end rot.  

During the hot summer months, it is best to water deeply twice a week or between one to two inches per week in two separate intervals. 

Why Do Huge Plants Bear No Fruit or Very little?

The main reason for this is over fertilization.  Once the plants are planted in good organic soil and lightly fertilized, it is best to not fertilize again until the plant starts flowering.  The reason is that, in the beginning, the plant is in the growth phase.  If you fertilize early on, then it stays in this phase.  You will get a huge plant but no fruit.  Therefore, wait until you see flowering and then give it a side dressing.  This makes sure that the plant has moved into a reproductive stage.  

Disease and Insects

blossom end rot

Blossoom End Rot

This is damage to tomatoes in the blossom end of the fruit.  The fruit forms a tan or flat black spot, and then secondary bacteria or fungi enter and cause further damage.  Usually, this occurs in hot dry spells.

The cause is a lack of calcium as the fruit develops.  This doesn’t mean there is no calcium in the soil but rather it is not available to the plant.  Some causes of this are uneven watering; as a result of water fluctuation, the calcium becomes less available to the plants. Excessive fertilization causes the plant to go into a fast growth spur, especially if using non-organic fertilizers that are heavy on salts.  Weeding done too close to the plants can damage too many surface roots, and this will stress the plant and not allow it to take up as much water.  

The best solution is keeping the moisture even, mulching, avoiding weeding with a hoe or tool at least a foot from the plant, but rather hand weeding.  

Growth cracks – the fruit grows very quickly and literary cracks open. 

This occurs if you get heavy rains and hot temperatures or if, after having gone through a drought period, all of a sudden you get a lot of water and the growth occurs very rapidly.  The cracks are not a problem, as the fruit forms a film and quickly heals itself.  The problem is that sometimes bacteria and fungi attack the fruit and cause it to rot.  

Click here to learn more about our gardening courses inspired by Amma!

It is best to keep the plant evenly watered, to use mulch, and to use varieties that are less susceptible to cracking.  Some good hybrids have been produced.  

When using mulch, use straw or any of the others mentioned earlier.  If using dried grass clippings, make sure they are not treated in any way with any type of chemicals.  Tomatoes are very susceptible to chemicals used on lawns.  If plants are exposed, they will grow distorted, or they can twist or just get stunted.  

tomato diseases

Fusarium wilt, Verticillium wilt, Early blight and Tobacco mosaic virus

These diseases cause the plant to suddenly wilt and die quickly. They may look different but the result is early death. I feel that, if you grow resistant varieties, it’s the best thing.  But if you do grow some heirlooms, there are some varieties that are more susceptible than others, and this is the chance you take.  

Keeping the garden free of debris by, cleaning up old plants from the prior year, using a three-year crop rotation, not smoking in the garden and washing your hands after smoking before touching the plants, and disposing of any plants that get infected – versus composting them.  The disease resistant varieties are labelled when grown and for the seeds sold.

tomato pruning 1

Pruning of Tomatoes

Intermediate and indeterminate tomatoes are the ones that need pruning due to the vast amount of suckers they send out.  The suckers can be from the base of the plant or in between the main stem and the leaves.  These suckers develop into full-fledged plants that bloom and produce tomatoes.  So why prune them at all?

Many studies have been made to determine the value of pruning.  The results are very consistent in showing that pruning will increase your yield, as the tomato plants tend to send so many suckers.  These suckers take up a lot of the plant energy by producing lots of leaves and a whole new plant.  Therefore, less energy is going into fruit production; instead, it’s all going into making leaves.  So, if all the energy is going to produce leaves, there will be less fruit.  So many leaves increase the potential for disease due to decrease in circulation and aeration.  

tomato pruning 02

But the pruning has to be done right versus just any old way.  Otherwise, the yields will be less.  Many people think it’s the top that gets pruned, and the tips.  This is not the case at all.  When you see suckers coming up from the roots or the base of the soil, prune these away. There is one sucker that does not get pruned.  You must look for the first flowers to appear.

Once this flower appears, there will be one sucker right below it, no exceptions.  This particular sucker does not get pruned. All other suckers between the main stem and the leaf get removed at the junction, except that one right below the first flower.

Why don’t we prune away the one sucker right below the first flower? There have been several studies that found the additional growth hormones that come into play as the plant goes from a growing stage to a fruiting stage are found in great numbers right by the first flower.  As a result, they positively influence this sucker, resulting in a very large productive plant that produces lots of fruits.  The yield is just as high as the main plant.  Proportionally, the fruit ratio is higher than the leaf ratio.  Unlike the rest of the suckers, which produce a lot of leaves and less fruit by comparison.

tomato plant

If you observe closely, you will notice that the suckers below this particular first flower – sucker you are leaving behind will be larger than those below it.  Despite the fact the other suckers lower in the plant are older and came out maybe a week or two before.  

You will then remove all the other suckers growing between the stem and the leaves.  You will also remove any suckers from the one sucker that you have allowed to develop, as all suckers behave in the same way as a regular plant. The end result is a two-plant system developing with one root stock.  When you stake the main plant, also have a second stake for the extra plant you will allow to develop.  

Happy growing!

All photos are copyright protected. Photos 1-4 by Patricia. Photos 5-8 by Marleny.