Using Sunflowers to Christen a New Perennial Bed

April 22nd, 2018

I’m pretty excited, the last bit of construction on my house is finally done and we’ve moved into landscaping and cleanup mode and that means gardening.

I have ambitious plans and I know it will take me years to fully develop the garden beds I have in mind but I cannot wait to get started.

But, then there is the soil. I’ve got pretty hard red clay type stuff, fill dirt, it’s been compressed by construction activity for years, I can hardly even dig into it. It’s the kind of soil you need to take a mattock to. So we top dress it with a layer of cached topsoil, and then I had some really nice black dirt I had brought in, but still, some inches down, there it is, the crap soil. And this is typical in most new construction. A few inches of top soil over fill dirt. Some of these beds I’ve managed to do more than a few inches but it will still not be ideal.

So yesterday, after the guys were done spreading the soil where I wanted it, and in advance of the rain we will get today and tomorrow, I planted around 100 sunflowers, mammoth ones.

I don’t have a picture, and its just dirt anyway, so here, have a picture of one I grew years ago.

See, as I discussed previously in this other blog post on root depth, one of the best ways to improve your soil is to plant things with long and deep root systems. These roots will penetrate into the soil, even the subsoil, providing a channel for water infiltration and creating organic matter down there over time. Deeply rooted plants are also less susceptible to drought.

What if you’re not aiming for permanent plantings yet though? You don’t want to create a mess of deeply rooted shrubs or perennials that you’ll have to dig up. The best thing is something that will grow, and produce a large root system, and then die. So, my idea, is to use sunflowers.

Sunflowers are heavy feeders, which means they will take a lot of nutrients from the soil, so there is a tradeoff here, but I do not care about that as much. I can always fertilize and add nutrients back into the soil. I’m looking for something to improve soil structure and performance. I also wouldn’t do this in a vegetable bed where it will be dug or tilled on an annual basis. This is for a perennial bed where I will not be digging in unless I’m removing a plant or adding one.

Have you ever tried to uproot a sunflower? It is nearly impossible because of their long tap roots that can reach 5 feet down. I don’t know if they’re as strong as a daikon radish, which is another good plant for this objective, which exudes hundreds of pounds of force with it’s taproot and so I assume is able to penetrate my hard clay, but I’ll find out.

I don’t fully know if this will be successful, mostly because of critters. Everything loves to eat sunflowers and I am surrounded by forest out here, where I’m planting them is not fenced. If the critters do not get at them though I will be able to enjoy their blooms from my pool deck, I will get a copious amount of seeds to feed to the chickens I plan on getting, and I will have used the power of nature to break up my subsoil allowing future plantings to do better.

Growing Morning Glory Indoors

February 14th, 2018

All of my adult life because of a combination of kids, cats, and poorly placed windows, I’ve been severely limited in my ability to grow plants indoors. First I had an apartment, with little room, and I didn’t know as much then as I do now. I had a patio garden and some hanging pots of pothos near my patio sliding door, but not much else.

Then I had a house, and I gardened the hell out of that house. Most of the pictures on my blog are from that house, but it was outdoor gardening. It did not have a single south facing window, not a single one. No deep window sills for plants. We did an addition off the back and I had a deep window sill added there, but it was just one, and not big enough for a large potted plant, 8 inch pots tops. I lived there for 13 years.

Then we moved to Tennessee and lived in a rental a couple years while we built. I had a few more windows and more natural light but with a baby and the cats and the transient nature of the place I didn’t do much.

But now, now I have my forever home, that I designed… and while in some sections of the house I intentionally do not have many windows, in others I do, huge windows, deep window sills, a greenhouse, and…. in the middle of the house…. over the stairs…. a skylight. And not just any skylight, a 22×11 skylight. This thing is a beast of natural light, it filters down to the first floor. 30 feet-ish below the skylight apex I have my amorphophallus titanum in a small pot, the cats and kids don’t bother it though I worry. More like 35-40 ish feet below the skylight and off to the side I have a ginger lily doing fine with just that filtered light. The potential for me to grow around this stairwell under the skylight is very high, and stratified. Shade plants do well on the bottom levels, but sun lovers can do well at the top, because the third floor right under the skylight is super bright and gets a good quantity of direct sunlight. There is a spot or two where a large potted tropical tree would go nicely, but I need the pot, and the tree, and to be fully moved in and not unpacking and whatnot. It will take me awhile to fully take advantage of all the great locations for me to grow in this house… and I haven’t even mentioned the greenhouse.

I love the idea of beautiful fragrant flowers growing indoors, having little experience with indoor plants thus far I know I have learning to do. I want to explore trying to grow Gardenias as I hear they are very fragrant, but finicky indoors, so I say trying. Right now though I am working on morning glories.

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So a stairwell has a lot of vertical height right? What better place for a trailing vine plant? I’ve always loved the classic morning glory appearance so I am growing those, and it works. Some years ago my parents got me a nice copper planter, a 4′ window box, and I never had anywhere to put it. I tried at one point to mount it on my old house but turns out my house sheathing at that place wasn’t strong enough to support the box. Then I realized, you know? I could put it indoors on my railing around the stairwell, and what a great place to grow morning glories.

So, I did this. And I’ve proved it’ll work I have some morning glories potted and blooming, even though I’ve been barely watering them (apparently they tolerate drought well, who knew). I’ve been barely watering them because apparently the window box leaks so a couple days ago I had to de-pot everything, clean the box out, and apply FlexSeal to hopefully make it water tight (it was dripping down on to my stairs every time I watered). A window box with a tray would be better, but that is not what I have.

I am excited that it worked though. I can just envision in a couple months having a very healthy drape of morning glory showing off in my central stairwell. Now I just need to think what else I want to plant, ideally something fragrant.

How to heat a greenhouse

December 18th, 2017

So I’ve planted my greenhouse and I have things growing. I do not yet have my automatic watering system setup yet, I have drip irrigation run to about half of it, but it isn’t automated. The humidity stays so nice and high in there though that watering needs haven’t been too bad.

I planted some morning glories for color and interest, beans, beets, cabbage, kale, sweet potatoes, lettuce, spinach, purslane, sugarsnap peas, peppers, some herbs, and I also have some citrus trees growing. A blood orange, a tangerine, a lemon, and a lime. Plus an avocado tree I started from the pit.

The veggies are mostly cool weather crops, but the citrus needs warmth, and I have been worried about maintaining the heat in my greenhouse at a minimum of 50 degrees lately. We had some cold weather here in Chattanooga and I’m up on a mountain.

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So originally I was going to do a heated floor in my greenhouse, and I guess I could have. I was going to do it all through my first floor. Radiant heat like that is supposed to be so nice and efficient, but it became a cost problem. Essentially I would have to put in two systems, one for heating, one of cooling, which increases the overall expense. I would also need to invest in a concrete subfloor for my 1st floor (which is above a basement) which is a whole lot more expensive than osb. So I kicked that plan to the curb earlier on. I thought I would put a wood stove in my greenhouse where I could just start a fire on the coldest nights. That would be doable, but I cut that as well. The chimneys and all that were adding to my cost, though in retrospect it may have still been economical. Our plan for the house changes to be a zoned split system that pumped refrigerant around to air handlers, I could have put a dedicated air handler for that in the greenhouse but each zone was quite expensive. Then I thought I would get a propane boiler (we don’t have natural gas) to do my hot water and I could do a side system off that to heat the greenhouse with a radiant baseboard, and that was the plan for awhile, but then we kicked that to the curb as well and just got a straight propane water heater (well, 2 of them). But in the meantime the refrigerant plan with the HVAC went away and now our HVAC system works similarly only it sends hot and cold water, so I could have used radiant pipes in the floor had I not already poured the slab….

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So what I did was install a radiant baseboard that was connected to hvac system. It wasn’t cheap, over a grand in materials plus labor. And you know what it provided? Next to no heat, 1000 BTUs or something an hour. That is nothing. The problem is radiant heat is meant to work off a boiler, off water 180 degrees+, my hvac system uses water more like at 120 degrees or less. This wasn’t producing the heat. The baseboard helped, but was not able to keep up.

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Then I stumbled upon this really cheap hydronic (that is, using water) air handler on eBay (I think I searched for greenhouse heater). For like $200 I got a 100,000 btu air handler that is hung from the greenhouse superstructure. I wish I had known this thing existed before. It isn’t pretty, and I don’t imagine the fan is that efficient, but it works great so far for my greenhouse. For the baseboards I already had the hot water lines run so it was just a T and 7 feet of pipe to hook up this thing. It comes on if temperatures drop to 50 or below and produces a good volume of warm air while also providing circulation. I would have saved quite a bit of money had I known about this thing in the past. Apparently it is also good for garages and warehouses.

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I have a pretty high end and insulated greenhouse. The foundation is insulated concrete forms, the glass is insulated low E stuff, it doesn’t need much heating, especially if it gets sunny. But on the nights after days where the sun is never seen it does need help, and this apparently will do the job.

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes

November 17th, 2017

I am finally moved into my new house after years of construction (its still not done and we’re at more than 2 and a half years since breaking ground) and even more years of planning, and hopefully soon I can get back into my garden more frequently now. Being without a proper garden all this time has been hard on me. I had then put up this garden I think 2 years ago now, but not living up at our build site I couldn’t really deal with it.

So I mostly grew weeds, and some tomatoes, and some other things, but mostly weeds. This year was worst than last year. Last year I actually managed to come up more and do some weeding, and there was also a drought. This year there was plentiful rain and I had less opportunity to come up and deal with weeds. I settled for simply putting plastic straight over some large sections of the garden to kill the weeds but they just grew out of control in other sections or too big for the plastic treatment (my garden is 5000 sq/ft, it is a lot to handle 15 minutes at a time). The weeds grew taller than me because of all the rain, and most regretfully they were able to go to seed before I could do anything like kill them or till them under. I hate it when this happens, allowing a weed to go to seed is a cardinal sin of gardening. I fear next year I will have it even worse.

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Right now my plan for next year is to landscape fabric the whole entire thing, and poke holes for planting. That is the only thing I think will truly allow me to get a handle on my weed situation.

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The only thing that truly grew well for me was sweet potatoes. I planted I think 25 sweet potato slips. I had tilled the section and then immediately planted the sweet potatoes and thanks to the regular rains and hot humid weather they were able to grow enough to shade out most weeds in that area. I still got some tomatoes, not as much as last year, and some peppers, some beans, and the kale is out there still growing strong enjoying the colder weather, but I got so, many, sweet, potatoes.

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This was my first time successfully growing them, I had tried a few times in the past without much luck (but often in Michigan where they aren’t well suited, here now in Tennessee it is a different story). I got I think 300 pounds of them. I completed filled a large two wheeled wheelbarrow and, despite being quite a strong man, could barely move it. They have been curing a week and a half in my greenhouse (it gets cooler at night but is otherwise the only room I have that can get up to 90+ during the day which is what sweet potatoes need I’m told). I’ve lost a few to rot, likely already rotting before harvest. I’m also sure I missed some still out in the dirt. They are supposed to cure for 2 weeks then go somewhere into long term storage (still dry and relatively warm), so I haven’t tried any yet. But sweet potato casserole is calling come Thanksgiving.

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So once the curing is done my family could eat a pound a day and have them last nearly a year. I never really felt like I could truly feed my family off my land until now. But now I think that my garden is capable of providing enough food for that (plus all of my fruit trees and whatnot) and add in hunting in our forest I think we could really live off the land. Not that we need to in our modern society, but there is something primally rewarding about the notion that it could be done.

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In furtherance of that belief I am trying to maintain my sweet potatoes. One tuber I dug up still had small plants attached to it, so this one is already potted up in my greenhouse. There were also many small potatoes I found that won’t be great for eating but I have them half submerged in cups of water to generate more slips. If I can get slips off of these I will plant them (I also bought a 200 gallon fabric pot for my greenhouse for my winter sweet potato patch), and experiment with growing sweet potatoes year round. I don’t much want to be able to generate a large harvest here in my greenhouse, it would be nice but I’m realistic about it. My main goal is to just make sure I have live sweet potato plant material come late spring so I don’t have to order slips or make my own off a store bought sweet potato. I want to have a greenhouse full of sweet potato vines I can divide and root and transplant out in the garden, not just little slips, but healthier larger vine segments, “super slips” if you will, to get a start on the next season and provide the missing link in true self sufficiency. I would like to thus prove to myself that if cut off from the rest of society I could continue to grow these perpetually with my setup.

I will let you know how it goes. I also just learned that sweet potato greens are edible and nutritious, so I might nibble on those over the winter as well.

My biggest concern, both with my curing and my overwintering, is the temperature swings in my greenhouse. It gets up to 95 or 100 degrees if the sun is shining, but at night it can drop to 60. It has a heater but the heater is not capable of keeping it very warm at night. Humidity is no problem. So I’m not sure if this is going to consistently provide the summer mimic temperatures for the potatoes to thrive or if it will be too cold at night. I’m also not sure what the swinging temperature will do to my curing process. This will be an experiment for sure.

Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar, Cedrus atlantic ‘Glauca Pendula’

May 4th, 2017

I’ve been pining after a weeping blue atlas cedar Cedrus atlantic ‘Glauca Pendula’ since I first saw it on Paul James’ Gardening by the Yard way back when. It is hard to put into words what I like about it, or all the cedrus. I remember it being one of Paul’s favorite trees so maybe his enthusiasm rubbed off on me a little bit.

Overall I enjoy this species because of how the needles are presented, maybe. The needles are not long like a pine, nor do they fully cover the branches, like a spruce. Instead they are held in tufts, and this leaves a large amount of the structure exposed which then allows you to appreciate the architectural nature of the trunk and branches. The weeping form of course has very interesting structure. Left to it’s own devices, like many weeping plants, it would grow prostrate along the ground, the wood cannot support the foliage or itself until it is several years old so it requires training as it grows, training into whatever interesting shape you want, and then the side branches will all droop down like old moss clinging to something, it always evokes a prehistoric feeling in me.

So when I lived in Michigan I couldn’t grow this. I had seen some people try to make it work, with a microclimate, but even the one nursery nearby that sold any recommended against it (and said they sometimes would lose inventory to the cold). Hardy to zone 6, they just weren’t going to cut it in zone 5 where I lived. But now I live in Tennessee, zone 7, and it was high on my list when I moved down here. I finally saw one at a Lowes and picked it up.

My Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar

I planted this on a berm near the driveway of my future (under construction) house. Right now I just want it to get established, which is hard because my little corner of the world is (was) having an epic drought. Eventually I will figure out how I want to train it. They get really pretty when they get big, you can make an archway, or like a big leaning dinosaur like thing. They’re just very architectural with their branching.

The below picture is a good example of a smaller tree.

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Then this picture is a good “creeping dinosaur” example of a mature tree.

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Great Flowering Groundcover: Homestead Purple Verbena canadensis

April 27th, 2017

I have always liked flowering groundcovers, something about a carpet of blossoms just does it for me. Plus the more ground covers I have, the less mulch I have to buy.

When I lived in Michigan my go to was creeping phlox, which I had planted all over my yard like in the below photo. It spread reliably though not super fast, bloomed like mad in the Spring, and the foliage was not unattractive… and yet it bloomed like mad in the Spring only, no other time.

Creeping Phlox Emerald Blue, Back Garden

Creeping Phlox Emerald Blue, Back Garden

Now that I live in the South I still like creeping phlox, and I drive by this home regular that has a whole front slope covered in it and it looks great, but I’ve been trying to get it going and not having as much luck. Meanwhile, I’ve discovered verbena, something not hardy up in Michigan. I can buy it down here at Lowes for 5 or 6 bucks for a gallon pot, less when it’s on sale. I recall buying maybe a 3 inch pot last year for maybe $2.

So I planted this one solitary plant late last summer. I spent all summer trying to find it, I had read about verbena, thinking it was the plant for me (even deer resistant! which is important, because organic free range venison has been getting all up in my business), and couldn’t find it, mail order nurseries were all sold out, then I go to Lowes one day and boom, trays and trays of it. I buy one I think, to give it a try. I planted it early last Fall, witness below:

Newly planted Homestead Verbena

Newly planted Homestead Verbena

Cute, but small, yes? Not really florific yes?

We had a drought late last year, really really bad, extreme on the USDA drought map, many of the plants I planted alongside this verbena did not make it (I planted it where I’m building a house, not where I’m living, and so it wasn’t able to get reliably watered). The verbena not only survived that drought, it thrived. Winter came, then here, in Spring, look what this plant has done:

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That is the same verbena, two seasons later, not two growing seasons later, two seasons, call it 6 months. It did that in 6 months. And those flowers, and they’re still blooming strong. That is why I think this will be my new favorite groundcover, it blooms from early April until November. My understanding is that the blooms will lessen later in the summer and I can deadhead or cut back to encourage more heavy bloom flushes, but still, blooming at all for that long of time, and drought resistant, and deer resistant. Sign me up. It is taller than creeping phlox, getting up to 8 inches or so in height.

I like this so much I planted a bunch at my business too, and bought more for the slope where this first test went, and I think I will get more still.

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The plant will spread, which of course you want it to do as a ground cover, rooting where it comes in contact with the soil, and it is also easily propagated from cuttings. It needs sun for flowering, the more full the sun the better.

Vibrant Variegated Holly

September 24th, 2016

Recently on a Saturday between kids birthday parties I had some time to kill so wandered over to a nearby Lowes to look at the plants and I’m glad I did. I shop a lot at Lowes and Home Depot but generally their plant selections aren’t too great, especially the sort of stuff I like, but every once in awhile I get lucky, and I should say Lowes here had a much better selection of what I like than Home Depot, and I still haven’t found a really great local source for what I like (rare interesting conifers).

So I got lucky and picked up three trees, a weeping blue atlas cedar which I’ve wanted since I saw it on Paul James all those years ago, but could never grow before because where I was in Michigan it wasn’t hardy. A vibrant blue upright juniper, which I’ve grown before and I love it as an accent landscape planting, and finally, the one I want to talk about today, a variegated holly.

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I had quite frankly never seen a variegated holly before. Overall I’m not a fan of regular hollies, they just don’t do it for me, I think they can end up looking sloppy. I do like the columnar varieties like ilex ‘sky pencil’ though. I see the value in them for the red berries which can be bright and food for wildlife, but I can’t see myself growing a plant just for decorative berries.

However, add the variegated foliage to the mix and I got really excited about it. Not just dark green and red, but dark green, yellow, and red, so much more interesting. Mine of course doesn’t have berries, not yet, but when it does it will look attractive.

It is also nice because while it may feed the birds, it doesn’t feed the deer. The spiky leaves are generally immune to animal browsing, and in my new garden there is definitely deer pressure.

I’ve planted it in the front ornamental garden (in progress) of my future house (in progress). My overall goal with this garden is to make it a cacophony of contrasting foliage plants, similar to a Japanese style garden but not limited to Japanese plants. Flowers are all well and good but a vibrant blue evergreen will be blue all year round, and my hollow will be yellow and green all year round. These are my favorite sorts of gardens and so of course I want one for myself. I will be a showcase for the wide variety of rare dwarf conifers I hope to cultivate,, and this holly will make a nice focal point.

Sunscald: White rot on the sides of my peppers

September 18th, 2016

I am learning a lot of new things gardening in a new state. Including something recently. I really like growing peppers, all kinds, I think they’re relatively free from pests and diseases (especially hot ones) and we eat a lot of peppers. Bell peppers are one of the few vegetables neither kid complains about.

So I planted a lot of peppers this year, and they grew well, but I’ve had crap for yield, they keep rotting on the plant. They’ll get this spot, and it’ll be yellowish white, then it’ll turn more white, and then it’ll get bigger and bigger and bigger. It looked to me like some sort of fungal infection.

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I finally looked it up, this isn’t a pest or a disease, but the effects or heat and direct sunlight. In Michigan we always worried about peppers getting enough heat and sunlight, apparently here in Tennessee-almost-Georgia its the opposite. Too much heat and too much direct sun causes the flesh to simply get scalded away, and then it does become an avenue for infection, and the fruit rots. I was glad to find out the cause wasn’t going to require fighting another infestation, but I’m not sure a good solution. The leaves need sun to develop large fruit, but the fruit needs to be as shaded as possible. Fruit socks anyone?

This also happens to tomatoes which explains why I had these whitish gashes on them as well. Although for those, since I basically make sauce with all my tomatoes, I just cut off the damaged portion and still used them.

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It is probably extreme this year. Last year around this time it was far more rainy and cloudy down here. This year we’re in the midst of a drought and rarely even have an overcast day, let alone rain. We’ve had one overcast day, the only one with rain, in the past 4 weeks. Lots of plants are dying, trees are dying, the drought stress is significant. I’m keeping my finger’s crossed for rain tomorrow, it is in the forecast.

In the meantime I will water my peppers and maybe try moving them (many are in containers) to where they get morning sun but afternoon shade.

I don’t mind spots on my apples, but save me the leaves, please: Apple-and-thorn skeletonizer Choreutis pariana

September 3rd, 2016

We’ve been having a drought here, and up where my house is being built my fledgling fruit orchard is not doing super great, just not the sort of summer where they’re going to put on a big fat growth ring.

But a few of my apples, specifically my Honeycrisp, are doing particularly bad. They’re invested with something. Two have damage on every leaf, and have lost many leaves, if it continues unabated I could lose the trees.

The leaves are skeletonized in a very very fine fashion, more fine than like what japanese beetles will do. There are also bits of webbing, curled leaves, and black debris that is either droppings or eggs.

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I believe what I have is an infestation of Choreutis pariana, or the apple leaf skeletonizer, or apple-and-thorn skeletonizer. It is a little moth, an invasive species from Eurasia introduced in 1917. It is a tiny little moth only about a quarter of an inch long. It’ll hit apples, crabapples, birch, cherry, hawthorn, willow, and ash. It’ll lay the eggs, the pupa will hatch and eat my leaves and poop all over and curl the leaves and leave bits of silk, and then turn into a moth and start all over again with a 30 day life cycle.

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Luckily it looks like they can be controlled with Sevin and similar pesticides. I don’t really like using these products, especially on a fruit tree, but this IS an invasive species, and I don’t have any apples on the tree currently, and if I don’t do something I may never have any apples. So. these bugs have a date with the sprayer.

The truth about those expandable hoses

July 31st, 2016

I’m sure we’ve all seen this commercial, you turn the water on and this hose grows, stretching to where you need it, you turn the water off, and it shrinks back, neatly putting itself away.

It does not actually work like that.

I was given this hose for free to try out, and now I get to let you know how it went.

Expandable Hose

So, the outer canvas wrap is mostly for looks, it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose (but it does, read on), instead there is some sort of very stretchy rubber hose on the inside. It does stretch, but more in girth than in length. As it fills with water pressure builds up inside and the rubber inner house expands, as you spray water out of the house pressure is relieved and it shrinks. The canvas wrap is there as a backstop, to prevent it from expanding too much, and bursting like a balloon. Picture a balloon inside of a pillow case.

So you turn it on, it expands slightly (I would say no more than 20% in length), and use it to water. Then you turn the water off, and it shrinks…. nope! It doesn’t, you can turn the water off but so long as pressure is still inside the hose it will not shrink. After you turn the water off you need to run the hose for some time, I would guestimate 30 seconds, in order for it to shrink back down in size.

The house does not take standard fittings, it came with it’s own fittings, and they seem nice and are quality enough, but in the end, the “expandability” is a gimmick. This hose certainly functions as well as any other hose, but I don’t see much use in the expandability, at least in the garden, because something that stretches in girth is not helping us keep our hoses neat and tidy.

Where I can see a use is if you need to pack the hose away, or travel somewhere with it. That a very long hose can fit into a little box is certainly useful, and overall it is lighter as well. You could certainly more easily tuck it away into a planter or something. this 100ft hose came in a box about the size of half a two liter bottle, and it included a spray nozzle in the same box, that is really small, a standard 100ft hose is big and bulky to carry, and may even be too heavy for many people, this is light.

So, buy it if you need a hose that can be stored in a small container, or a lightweight hose of reasonable length, don’t buy if the commercials gave you the same impression they gave me, that of a hose that more or less puts away itself.

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