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Simple steps for preparing, caring for and harvesting a vegetable garden

The Good Life Garden an edible garden at the at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science includes vegetables, herbs and flowers. Photo credit: Claire Napawan
Whether in containers, raised beds in your backyard or community garden space or integrated into your landscape, growing edibles can be a rewarding experience if done properly. Oftentimes it is easy for gardeners new to growing edibles to become frustrated and give up after one or two attempts because their experience was less than desirable or overwhelming.

There are several ways to overcome these gardening pitfalls to help ensure you have a successful warm-season vegetable gardening experience.

Plan, plan and stick with your vegetable garden plan!

Planning is a key component to having a successful vegetable garden, but is frequently forgotten or overlooked. Planning includes selecting an appropriate location for your garden, choosing the correct varieties of crops for your space and developing a garden plan for what you would like to grow.

When selecting a location it is important that the site receives at least eight hours of full sun, is close to a water source (hose, irrigation or hand-watering) and has good soil for optimal growth. Once you have an appropriate location picked out, creating a garden plan will help contribute to your growing success.

Too often the overall size of the garden area and the size of mature plants is not considered. Keep in mind a young plant can become established and quickly overtake a small garden lot, challenging or dominating other plants for resources.

A garden plan should contain the types of crops, how many, and dates of planting and harvesting.(Photo credit: California Master Gardener Handbook, Figure 13.1)

“A well planned garden can provide fresh or preserved vegetables for use year-round. The plan should contain crops and amounts to be planted, dates of planting and estimated harvest, planting location for each crop, specific spacing between rows, and trellising or support required,” according to the California Master Gardener Handbook (see Figure 13.1 on Page 342).

Invest a little time and develop a detailed plan to help guide you on where, which type and how many plants you will need for your space. Your vegetable garden plan will keep you focused while shopping at your local nursery and prevent impulse buys of tempting transplants!

Caring for your vegetable garden

Irrigation is a key component in a successful vegetable garden. Consistent, deep and sufficient watering will produce better tasting and superior quality fruits and vegetables, especially during the hot summer months when it is easy for the soil to quickly dry out.  

“As a rule” the handbook says on Page 349, “it will be necessary to irrigate your vegetable garden one to three times a week in summer ... The frequency will be determined by the depth of crop roots, soil texture, and weather conditions. Wet the soil to just beyond the bottom of the root system at each watering.” 

Even in a time of drought, vegetable crops require the soil to remain moist during their crop cycle. Poor irrigation practices and infrequent watering will produce smaller yields and poor quality fruits and vegetables. 

Weed prevention and maintenance is an important piece in caring for your vegetable garden. Without monitoring and controlling weeds, your crops could quickly become overrun by these pesky unwanted plants. Apply a three- to four-inch layer of organic mulch to discourage the growth of weeds. Prevent weeds by hand-weeding before they become established and go to seed. The UC Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program has detailed information available on its website about sustainable weed management in the home landscape.

Harvesting (and enjoying) your crop

Food harvested by UC Master Gardeners a "Our Garden" located in Contra Costa County.
After all of your hard work, time and dedication growing your warm-season fruits and vegetables remembering when to harvest can be just as important as growing them. UC Davis' Postharvest Technology Center has easy to navigate Produce Fact Sheets to help guide you on when to best harvest your crops.

“To get the most from your vegetables, harvest them when they are at the best stage for eating and store them under conditions that will keep them as close to garden-fresh as possible,” recommends The California Garden Web. “Vegetables will be crisper and cooler when harvested in the early morning.” (cagardenweb.ucanr.edu)

Once harvested don't forget to enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of your labor. Few experiences can compare with the gratification of eating homegrown fruits and vegetables for the first-time!

Learn more with UC Master Gardeners

Interested in learning more about how to grow a thriving edible garden or home landscape? The UC Master Gardener Program has University trained volunteers who are eager to help. Volunteers are available to answer questions about preparing your soil, fertilizing, mulching and more. With local programs based in more than 50 counties across California there is sure to be a workshop or class near you. Visit our website to find your local UC Master Gardener Program, mg.ucanr.edu.    

Posted on Tuesday, April 12, 2016 at 2:01 PM

UC Cooperative Extension takes community gardening to a new level in Riverside

UC Riverside student volunteers, recruited by Global Food Intiative Fellow Claudia Villegas, set up new garden beds at the Community Settlement Association.
For low-income Californians who can't afford to purchase fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables, the suggestion to simply grow their own is well-intentioned, but overly simplistic advice.

UC Cooperative Extension in Riverside County is bringing together students, agencies, nutrition educators and gardening experts to work alongside families to grow produce in garden plots at a community facility.

“Many people don't know how to get started gardening,” said Chutima Ganthavorn, the nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor for UCCE and manager of its local UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program. “Gardening takes space, water, resources like seeds and transplants, plus guidance and support. Our group is going the extra mile in Riverside County to help people grow and eat healthy food.”

This year, the local coalition received $10,000 in support from the Kaiser Permanente Heal Zone project to expand a vegetable garden at the Community Settlement Association (CSA), a center where community members gather for UC CalFresh nutrition classes, weekly food distributions and other services.

“A few years ago, the garden plots at the Community Settlement Association were neglected and weedy, while families struggled to get healthy food,” Ganthavorn said. “UC CalFresh teamed up with UCCE Master Gardeners and CSA staff to turn them into bountiful and beautiful edible gardens.  Now our coalition is growing to include UCR Community Garden and Heal Zone members, including folks from City of Riverside Parks and Rec and Riverside Community Health Foundation.”

In 2014, UC Master Gardener volunteers, nutrition educators and members of the community planted vegetables in five existing garden boxes at Community Settlement Association, 4366 Bermuda Ave. in Riverside.

For planting day, neighborhood families – many who had taken part in UC CalFresh nutrition classes at the CSA – tilled the ground and planted seeds and transplants to grow tomatoes, bell peppers, summer squash, lettuce, green beans and Swiss chard.

“We're fixing up a garden for the children,” said Gonzalo Rodriguez, who joined planting day with his family. “We're planting chili and tomato transplants and seeds, food that will provide vegetables and give the children the joy of caring for the plants.”

In 2015, UC CalFresh arranged a $500 grant from Wood Streets Green Team, a local group that promotes sustainable living, to purchase fruit trees. Master Gardeners led volunteers to plant blackberry bushes, and peach, pluot, nectarine, plum, fuji apple and mini mandarin trees. They also planted quince, pomegranate, lemon and lime trees donated by a Master Gardener.

With the Heal Zone funds and support from UC Riverside student Claudia Villegas, the recipient of a Global Food Initiative Fellowship from the UC Office of the President, an extended garden began to take shape.

Villegas recruited students from Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Phi Chi Theta fraternities to transform a lawn at the community center with cinderblock raised beds. She is coordinating training sessions and encouraging local families to visit.

“I want the community to feel comfortable coming to the garden,” said Villegas, a senior psychology major. “I want them to just come in and hang out and interact and talk about gardening problems.”

The raised-bed plots have been assigned to families in the community.

“They feel ownership and maintain the gardens,” Ganthavorn said. “They can keep the produce they grow, and any extra produce goes to the weekly food distribution program at CSA.”

A gardening club now meets from 9 to 10 a.m. the first Thursday of each month at the community garden. UC Cooperative Extension coordinates gardening workshops with UC Master Gardener volunteers and nutrition and cooking sessions with UC CalFresh educators.

A 4-H club for children in the community is also being developed at the CSA site by Claudia Diaz Carrasco, UCCE 4-H Youth Development advisor. The purpose of 4-H clubs is to help diverse young people discover and develop their potential and grow into competent, contributing, and caring citizens.

“We believe that CSA children will benefit a lot by participating in 4-H learn-by-doing activities within the club,” Diaz said. 4-H clubs usually meet in the evenings or on weekends and offer self-chosen multiple learning experiences.

Posted on Friday, April 8, 2016 at 2:37 PM

Agroecology, internationally and at home

For many years, a key international strategy to ending hunger has been to grow more food: push for higher yields, develop ways for farmers to intensify their farming, focus on technologies that drive both. But that focus may be shifting towards another strategy that better accounts for the environment and human well-being – agroecology.

Barbara Gemill-Herren, a retired officer from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, spoke recently at UC Davis of the ongoing process at the United Nations to determine an international strategy for agricultural development.

For many, a new paradigm needs to strike a balance between supporting small-scale farmers, supporting healthy ecosystems, and bringing in the technology that can help meet changing challenges for growers.

Agroecology has recently entered the vocabulary at the UN as a potential unifying principle for agricultural development.

As its name suggests, agroecology studies the ecology of the entire food system, focusing on environmental, economic and social dimensions and how they interact with one another.

Beyond that definition, the term is used and understood differently by different groups. For some, agroecology is a scientific discipline, for some it represents a way for farms to be managed. For others, it is a social movement that brings local and indigenous knowledge to the center of agricultural development.

At the United Nations meetings on agroecology, each of these interpretations of agroecology have been on the table for discussion — how they can be used to improve international agricultural development will be revealed in global conversations in the years to come.

Agroecology endowment at UC Davis secures research opportunities

Here at home, agroecology is on the upswing as well. Funding for a $1 million endowment in agroecology was recently secured at UC Davis to help fund the research, education, and outreach conducted by an agroecology faculty member. Collaborating with UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources will be a key way for future work to connect with growers. 

Endowments offer reliable funding every year that allow faculty to plan longer term research. For research like agroecology that looks at how agricultural systems function, that flexibility is important, if not essential.

Tom Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, which helped raise funds for the endowment, says, “The endowment represents at a broad spectrum of philanthropists and shows that scientific approaches to agroecological systems science is appreciated by our stakeholders in California. It's a form of legitimization of systems science applied to agriculture.”

Opportunities for collaboration between researchers and farmers

Amélie Gaudin, assistant professor of agroecology at UC Davis.
For Amélie Gaudin, assistant professor of Agroecology at UC Davis, agroecology is on a promising path toward sustainability for California agriculture. Gaudin started working at UC Davis in 2015 and is building her research and community relationships.

Below are some thoughts from Gaudin on how she approaches her work and how she sees this agroecology endowment impacting research and education at UC Davis.

How do you define agroecology?

There are different definitions of agroecology for different people. Mostly I see it as research to understand dynamics of ecological processes and to apply ecology to agricultural systems design. Agroecology merges the food security and production goals of agriculture with resource use efficiency goals and environmental goals in agriculture. For many people, agroecology is a social movement to make systems socially just. While my focus is largely on biological processes, it's also about learning from small-scale farmers who have been successful in their management practices to see how we can translate those successes to other contexts. And that is very social in nature.

At what scale do you research?

Usually we tend to work at the field scale, looking at cropping systems and the landscapes that surround them. Looking at the field, we can see how the long term management of a farm has affected the soil and its functioning as well as productivity and provision of multiple other ecosystem services. Looking at the surrounding landscape, we can understand what the natural environment has provided to the farm system, and what the farm system provides back to the natural environment. Sometimes we look a meter out, sometimes a kilometer out.

But beyond just the space we look at, we're really looking at time. Nature takes time. When you look at the field, it's an observation of what has been going on there for a very long time.

How does agroecology research work with farmers?

Working with farmers helps give research the long-term lens and management gradients we need to understand these agricultural systems, and gives us a landscape lens that many research fields can't provide. It also helps relate our research to production constraints that farmers have.

There is also tremendous innovation in what farmers are coming up with. They have a specific problem and they usually have tried specific solutions. They test things out, they monitor their fields and see results, but maybe don't understand fully the underlying mechanism and potential impact on the environment. We try to get to the why; we try to connect the dots to enable scaling up and better understanding of the ecological processes regulating resource use efficiency.

We're also looking a lot at resilience to stresses. And we find more and more interest in this because resources are not plentiful anymore and we now have to produce more with less. So how do we build resilience to the multiple stresses that come along? Are there ways that the management of a farm can impact productivity when a stress like drought occurs?

We have a lot to learn from small growers and a lot to learn from growers who have constrained resources about what they have been implementing and experimenting with. How can we transfer those practices to different environments? How can we scale them up?

How can we make it work in large-scale agriculture? There's a huge opportunity there. I want to see agroecological approaches to management implemented all over the Midwest, all over the Central Valley. I think agroecology is compatible with large-scale agriculture and critically needed.

How do you approach research questions?

I start with the problems a farmer didn't have. One project started with a tomato farmer who didn't have the same insect problem that surrounding farms had. So we ask, what is he doing that created this insect resistance, and how can that be used by other farmers? We met with several different farmers to discuss the issue, and wrote a grant to investigate specific hypothesis across a management gradient.

We're now working with five different growers and using Russell Ranch, our long-term agricultural research facility, as a benchmark.

I think conversation with farmers and their advisors is critical to develop relevant research questions and alternatives which have conservation of natural resources, biodiversity and provision of ecosystem services as a basis for improvement. It is also important to keep a positive feedback loop and bring results back to the community to foster farmer-to-farmer knowledge transfer.

What excites you about this new investment in agroecology?

The context of agriculture is changing and we now have a tremendous opportunity to promote agroecology as a viable and necessary strategy to build the sustainability and resilience of our agriculture. Farmers are seeking solutions, they are aware and interested. With climate change and depleted resources becoming more of a reality, growers are interested in putting soil improvement and ecological principles back into their management framework. And I think we ultimately care about the same things, we just need to find common ground and start speaking the same language. To do it we have to be open minded, both on the researcher and farmer side.

Investment in agroecology will help us reach this objective and gives us an opportunity to think outside of the box. This gives an opportunity to be creative, cope with some of the pitfalls of science funding and take a participatory approach to interdisciplinary research to design holistic solutions that better use nature for a sustainable agriculture.

Posted on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 at 8:35 AM

How one farmer’s invention is reducing postharvest losses around the world

In many developing countries, more than half of all fruits and vegetables are never eaten, but instead are lost, damaged or spoiled after harvest. These “postharvest” losses can mean that farmers need to sell their fresh produce as soon as it is harvested for whatever price they can get, before they lose the crops that represent investments of labor, water, and agricultural inputs. Improving how fruits and vegetables are handled after harvest can significantly prolong freshness — and cooling is key.

“The three most important aspects of postharvest handling are: temperature, temperature, temperature,” said Michael Reid, UC Cooperative Extension postharvest specialist who works with the Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis. “In the developing world in particular, affordable cooling technology is mostly absent.”

Cooling can be expensive — even for American farmers 

As a farmer in upstate New York, Ron Khosla knew this problem too well. His vegetable crop was spoiling too quickly, but he could not afford to buy a walk-in cooler for his small farm. So he invented a solution: a small electrical device he called a CoolBot that tricks an air conditioner into getting colder without freezing over, turning a well-insulated room into a cold room at lower costs than refrigeration. 

“I was hoping for a cheap, DIY solution that I could maintain. But mostly I just needed to keep my leafy greens and strawberries cold,” Khosla said. 

The CoolBot tricks an air conditioner into getting even colder, seen here keeping vegetables fresh in Cambodia, as part of a project with the Horticulture Innovation Lab.
One of his farming customers suggested he sell this device to other farmers, so he started a small business called Store It Cold, LLC. 

Khosla's CoolBot invention caught the eye of postharvest researchers, including Reid, who saw it in action on farms in California and decided to try using it in developing countries too.

CoolBot goes global with the Horticulture Innovation Lab

In one of his first projects with the Horticulture Innovation Lab (a program led by UC Davis with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development), Reid partnered with agricultural scientists from Uganda, Honduras and India to test the CoolBot in their climates. The four scientists also tested different local materials as insulation for each of the cold rooms.

Since that first project, the Horticulture Innovation Lab has tested CoolBots for farmer cold storage in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and Honduras. 

Jane Ambuko of the University of Nairobi is another Horticulture Innovation Lab partner who has worked with the CoolBot. She received a grant to pilot this technology with mango farmers for a program called the Kenya Feed the Future Innovation Engine. Her project was featured on an NTV Food Friday news segment about the CoolBot earlier this month.

“I see the CoolBot making a whole lot of difference,” Ambuko said during a TEDxNairobi speech. “But for it to make that desired difference we have to make it cost-effective and affordable for the smallholder farmers.”

Adapting, troubleshooting and scaling up

In many places, the most expensive part of a CoolBot-equipped cold room is the structure for the insulated room, but both Reid and Khosla expect foam building materials to become more widely available and affordable.

From left, farmers Pak Ry and Brap Yart carry a bin of sponge gourd and banana leaves into a CoolBot-equipped cold room in Cambodia, to keep the produce fresh before sale. (Horticulture Innovation Lab photo)
Reid has contacted Khosla, the farmer-inventor, to troubleshoot challenges and discuss results from new locations. In places without reliable electricity, Reid has tested options for solar power.

In the meantime, Khosla's small business has been growing — selling to not only farmers, but also florists, micro-brewers, and other artisanal food businesses. Now with six employees, the company has sold more than 27,500 CoolBots in 51 countries.

“I'm thrilled and so grateful to be a part of helping lots of people. Working with USAID has gotten us known in other countries, and I'm looking forward to the day when we have enough in-roads in India and Africa where we can work directly with farmers there,” Khosla said. “People didn't believe the CoolBots worked at first. But now we get the most amazing letters from people whose businesses have doubled or quadrupled. Good postharvest care makes such a difference. Once they try it, then they see.”

A previous version of this article appeared in the newsletter for Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, and also in the Horticulture Innovation Lab blog.


Event - Sustainable solutions and extending California's agricultural expertise to the world: The UC Global Food Initiative and UC Blum Centers will host a Global Food Summit on Sustainable Solutions, May 5-6 at UC Irvine. Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab and UC Cooperative Extension postharvest pomologist at UC Davis, will be speaking about technology transfer for horticulture-related technologies such as the CoolBot, seed drying beads, UC Davis-designed chimney solar dryer, pest-exclusion nets, and other tools the program adapts to the needs of farmers in developing countries. She will also be on a panel with two other UC Davis-based directors of Feed the Future Innovation Labs (UC Davis leads five Feed the Future Innovation Labs with funding from USAID — more than any other university). More info about this event.

Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 at 8:55 AM

California food choices won’t save much drought water, researchers find

Can you help fight the California drought by consuming only foods and beverages that require minimal water to produce?

One cup of lettuce uses only one gallon of drought water. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
Well, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. In a recently published paper, Daniel Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis, and research assistant Nina M. Anderson mine the details of this issue to help us all better understand just what impact our food choices can have on conserving California's precious water.

To begin with, not all water drops are equal because not all water uses impact California's drought, the researchers explain.

Drought-relevant water

So just what water does qualify as California drought-relevant water? You can definitely count surface water and groundwater used for agricultural irrigation as well as water used for urban purposes, including industrial, commercial and household uses.

And here are a few examples of what water is not relevant to California's drought:

Rain that falls on un-irrigated California pastureland is not relevant to California's drought.
-- Water used in another state to grow animal feed that is consumed by California livestock;

-- Water used in another state to produce young livestock that are later shipped to California for food production; and

-- Rain that falls on un-irrigated California pastureland. (Studies show that non-irrigated, grazed pastures actually release more water into streams and rivers than do un-grazed pastures, the researchers say.)

In short, California's drought-relevant water includes all irrigation water, but excludes rainfall on non-irrigated California pastures as well as any water that actually came from out-of-state sources and wound up in livestock feeds or young livestock eventually imported by California farmers and ranchers.

Also, the amount of water that soaks back into the ground following crop irrigation doesn't count – and that amount can be quantified for each crop.

Comparing water use for various foods

I think you're getting the picture; this water-for-food analysis is complicated. For this paper, the researchers examined five plant-based and two animal-based food products: almonds, wine, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, milk and beef steak.

In teasing out the accurate amount of water that can be attributed to each food, the researchers first calculated how much water must be applied to grow a serving of each crop or animal product. Then they backed off the amount of water that is not California drought-relevant water, arriving at a second figure for the amount of drought-relevant water used for each food.

They provide a terrific graph (Fig. 3) that makes this all quite clear, comparing total applied water with California drought-relevant water used for the seven food products.

Milk and steak top the chart in total water use, with 1 cup of milk requiring 68 total gallons of water and a 3-ounce steak requiring 883.5 total gallons of water.

But when only California drought-relevant water is considered, one cup of milk is shown to be using 22 gallons of water and that 3-oz steak is using just 10.5 gallons of water. (Remember, to accurately assess California drought-water usage, we had to back off rainwater on non-irrigated pastures and water applied out of state to raise young livestock or feed that eventually would be imported by California producers.)

“Remarkably, a serving of steak uses much less water than a serving of almonds, or a glass of milk or wine, and about the same as a serving of broccoli or stewed tomatoes,” write Sumner and Anderson.

Still skeptical? Check out their paper in the January-February issue of the “Update” newsletter of the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at http://bit.ly/1XKZxxC.

Bon appetit!

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at 4:45 PM

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