Sunday, September 21, 2014

Promises, Promises

September is a transition month here in Central Texas.  I've been tracking rainfall everyday since 2010. and September is the month that we start to get some rain. It's that glorious moisture that gets my gardening juices going again and I start to plan for what I will be putting into the fall vegetable garden.  Of course we still have the heat - that won't break until October.

Rainfall By Month
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
January 1.89 3.71 3.14 0.54
February 0.81 3.09 0.49 1.03
March 0.22 6.03 1.89 1.58
April 1.48 0.11 0.14 2.45 0.86
May 1.51 1.10 4.73 3.22 7.04
June 5.35 0.94 1.24 2.70 2.47
July 5.09 0.04 6.82 3.99 2.44
August 1.14 0.00 2.02 0.64 0.04
September 10.17 0.00 4.48 4.80 5.55
October 0.05 1.75 0.70 15.32 0.00
November 0.61 2.38 0.00 7.05 0.00
December 1.23 4.66 0.53 0.99 0.00
Annual Total 26.63 13.90 33.49 46.68 21.55
Average 5.33 2.14 5.15 7.18 3.32

We've been lucky this year that the summer has not been as brutal.  We had only a few 100 degree days but it's continued to be pretty dry.  These last three days we've had a nice little rain and it's amazing how transformative it is.  Suddenly plants that look like drooping sticks perk up and start to bloom.  The lantana, salvia, pigeon berry, barbados cherry, chile pequin, oxblood lilies and lindheimer daisy are all in bloom right now - literally over night.  We've even gotten a second asparagus crop.

So amongst all this flush of new growth I venture out and plant my seeds.

They can be such tiny little things but they hold so much promise.  Whether it be a chick hatching, a lamb being born, a butterfly emerging, or a plant germinating, they all just fascinate me.  Watching something be born is to truly see the strength and fragility of life on earth all at the same time.  How can all of this possibly work?  It's such a crap shoot.  Of course all of this wonder disappears as I pull weeds - but you understand.

In the garden I pulled off the alfalfa hay mulch that helped to trap some of that moisture and kick-start the microbial life in the soil.  I raked the beds and then drilled in my seed.  I add a dusting of compost on top to prevent the ground from crusting and to provide a little cover for the seeds.  Once they sprout and I thin the seedlings, I'll add back some hay for mulch.  I mass plant everything to make sure the soil in the vegetable beds are completely covered.   Where I have to plant in a row - like with my snow peas because they climb a fence, I plant something on either side.  This year I side planted a winter greens mix of kale, beets, collards, and dandelion greens.

Once I get my seedbeds planted, I use a piece of woven wire fencing to cover everything.  This keeps the neighborhood cats and opossums from digging everything up.  I'll take the fencing off once the plants are about 3 inches tall.

I also did a little weeding today and am happy to see that the rains have coaxed the wildflowers into sprouting.  I have bluebonnets in the granite gravel.
These will continue to grow and will form nice little rosettes from which will burst those beautiful lupine flowers.  In the front yard I've got gaillardia's starting to sprout and I noticed the Standing Cypress and White Prickly Poppy all have nice little plants started.  I hope this means that my front sedge garden will be a resplendent meadow again next spring.

This is what I love about living here.  Instead of getting ready for the winter to shut everything down, I have thousands of little promises luring me outside to garden.  Now if the humidity and night time temps would just drop...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Zen to Zowie - Gardens in Portland

Portland in the summer makes you forget about the other nine months of gray. Officially there are an average of 68 days that are full sun compared to the 115 here in Austin.  The difference of course is the "Oregon Mist" that falls and keeps everything watered.   No finer irrigation system  exists for those plants that have proper drainage.  True verdant fecundity.

My visit to Portland included some of my favorite public gardens and a few private gardens that have been featured on other PDX tours. To be honest, I have been apprehensive about my visit.  I have suffered terrible bouts of home sickness and was worried that this would plunge me into a funk.  Especially since it's Oregon PLUS fabulous gardens.

I'm happy to report that I'm home and in pretty good shape.  I DO miss the hydrangeas but the truth is, other than this lovely climbing hydrangea, they can be a pain to grow.  Those big ole leaves wilt in summer no matter how much you water.  The climbing variety is better but needs constant pruning.  The stems are brittle and can't be easily fashioned into wreathes like grape vines.  I do have one hydrangea in my Austin yard - a carefully shaded oak leaf that gave me a little bloom this spring and should pop out some red foliage this fall.

This lovely vine was in the Lan Su Chinese Garden.  When this garden was first installed I could not even imagine how they could put a garden in old town.  Not only did the designers pull it off, it is a peaceful respite from the bustle of Portland.  The plants, the water, the carefully placed pebbles in the pathways are all designed to embrace the visiter in a sense of peace and well-being.

We also visited Timber PressCistus NurseryJoy Creek NurseryOld Germantown Gardens and Westwind Farm Studio.  Westwind Farm Studio features a lavender field and the day we were there was part of the Oregon Lavender Festival.

This staircase choked with daylillies at Westward Farm Studio really illustrates the English-style gardening that one associates with Portland.  From my own experience, part of this approach is to out compete the weeds.  All that rain does more than nurture flowers.

Both of the private gardens feature wide beds of plants and it was great to shove my nose in the Oriental lillies at Germantown Gardens  - another flower I can't grow in Austin.  I was completely charmed by this Joy Creek Nursery Clematis texensis and it's yellow inner side.  It should be available for mail order in January so I'll be sure to grab a few - since they are natives.

Even in the midst of all this biomass, I keep getting drawn back to Texas.  It doesn't hurt that I love hot bright colors and have been building drought-tolerent gardens for years now.  Nevertheless,  I employ my Portland-style of gardening here in Austin.  The difference being that instead of blocking weeds I'm focused on shading the ground.  Bare soil dries out quickly and burns off the carbon from my compost.

When I got home I did a quick tour of the yard to see how it survived without me watering it.  It didn't look too bad and I made a note where my design echoes that of the gonzo gardens in Portland.  A plant here, a corner there, a droop of bloom onto the pathway.

I think I'll survive just fine.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Garden of Two Cities

I find myself back in one of my old hometowns - Portland Oregon, for a Garden Bloggers Fling.  The "fling" is an annual get together of garden bloggers at a different city each year.  It started today (Thursday) and continues through Sunday.  We will be bussed around the city to visit public and private gardens, all the while socializing with people - many whom I've never met but feel like I know - who write gardening blogs.

Before the event got started, I decided to take a stroll through Northwest Portland.  I used to work in the area and would walk through the neighborhoods on my lunch hour.   As I looked for my favorite yards in this older part of Portland I just had to smile.  I was surrounded by Texas.

I moved to Austin five years ago and have fallen in love with the city.  Partly because it makes me feel so much like "home".  No wonder, many of the same plants I had in my Portland garden are actually Texas natives and feature prominently in my Austin yard.  Liatris, coreopsis, lipstick salvia, sunflowers, tradescantia, sweet potato vine, all peek through yards and planters.  If it weren't for the hostas and rhododendrons I could be strolling through Hyde Park.

It makes me a little disoriented.

But there are many plants that don't grow in both places.  One of my favorites is the 'Oregon Blue' Hydrangea.  This variety went out of vogue when the vivid 'Nikko Blue' came on the market and now isn't even sold anymore.  It starts out purple and ages to blue.  The more acid the soil the deeper the purples.  You can find it in the old neighborhoods and is cultivated by some in the wholesale flower trade.  Then there are the ethereal forms of the lace-cap hydrangeas.  I actually like them better than the mop-heads.

So as I prepare to see Portland again through a carefully planned itinerary, I am happy to report that my old haunts are as colorful as ever.  And while I can pine away for things that I no longer grow, there is enough in common to keep me firmly planted in both Austin and Portland - even though they are 2,000 miles apart.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Weed On The Way To Weeding

I found myself having a Portland moment this morning.

In Oregon, the definition of gardening is the three minutes per year you have between freezing and weeding.  In those three minutes you have to choose how many other things you can accomplish, all while cursing the rain that causes the weeds to grow.

Here in Austin we've had a pleasantly wet June.  We had the normal 2.5" of rainfall - which didn't all fall in 20 minutes.  It actually rained a little bit here and there, watering the garden rather nicely.  And the weeds.

I've been working 60-70 hours a week on my job so haven't been able to spend the amount of time I'd like out in my yard.  That plus the rain means that things have gotten out of control.  I decided this morning that I was going to head out into the garden at first light and tackle the weeding.  Triage dictated that I start in the front of the house where especially invasive species were taking over and grabbing pedestrians as they passed.

Our Municipal Utility District (MUD) has a weekly landscaping service that will pick up yard debris.  They provide oversize black buckets for you to capture the smaller items.  Tree branches can be stacked on the curb.  Since the weeds in front were seedy and the type that I don't want in the compost, I decided that I would utilize the MUD bucket and get the offending plants hauled away.  I went out the garage and to the back to get the MUD bucket.  Except I couldn't get through the gate.  The sunflowers and trumpet vine had completely taken over.  Should I just go back to the other gate and ignore it?  Or should I weed?  I decided that barring passage was an offensive enough crime that I should just take care of it.
Freed gate with just a few scattered leaves of evidence

Of course, once I freed the gate I noticed that the loquat was now overhanging the path - it too needed a pruning in order to provide free access to that side of the house.  Once the loquat was cleaned away there were a bunch of hackberry seedlings that had to go.  And oh, geez, look at all that chickweed.

The chickweed and trumpet vine went in the MUD bucket that I was finally able to get to.  The sunflowers and loquat were destined for the compost bin.  I carted the four armloads back to the bin and settled in to cut them into small pieces so they will decompose faster.  As I was cutting through the pile I noticed that the sunflower stems were starting to get really woody.  Perfect as nesting cavities for my insect hotel.  As I marched through the debris I cut the woodier stems into 5.5" lengths and left them on my leaf bin to dry.
About an hour later I finally finished cutting up the pile and headed back to the front yard.  However, the path to the front was choked full of weeds, plus the squash was creeping into the path.  I really needed to work in back.  But no!  What about the front?  The place where everyone sees my weeds?  I made a deal with myself.  Go ahead and pull weeds, but only as many as you can carry.  Whatever you pull goes into the MUD bucket out front.  Okay.  A plan.  I pull weeds, I go out front, I put the weeds in the MUD bucket.

Since I carried an armful (yes I used my t-shirt as a carrier), it filled the bucket.  I have three of them, so I made another deal.  Go ahead and go in the back yard to get the other bucket.  Whatever you pull on the way has to go into the compost bin.  Okay.  Another plan.  I pull up a bunch of sunflowers out of the front yard and prune back the beauty berry.  I haul them back to the compost bin, spend 15 minutes cutting them into pieces.

Now I need a break.  I sit by the pond and notice that the upland cress needs trimming back.  Of course I have my clippers handy.  The mint is also taking over - I should harvest some for tea or a nice minty fruit dessert tonight.  Crum, that squash needs picking and geez the beans are coming in thick!  Wait, the peas are also ripe.  I make another deal, go in the house, get something to drink, bring out the harvest basket.  It's okay to pull weeds on the way.

I go in the house, I get something to drink.  I look at the time.  I promised Ed I'd make him a nice lunch today.
Guess I'm done weeding.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Toast to Sheldon Glassberg and the Life Superficial

Today is the day that we uncork the bottle of Cab that we've been keeping. We purchased it in 2004 from our favorite wine merchant - Sheldon Glassberg, and dutifully let it age all these years per his instructions. I even wrote on the label "Drink in 2014" so not to accidentally open it too soon. 

Sheldon died the next year, and I still miss him. Our drinking the wine today is a reminder of those people that touch our lives - those superficial moments that collectively form our existence and influence who we are.

Sheldon was a great teacher of wines and wine drinking. His small shop in Springfield was, sadly, not as successful as it should have been. I did my part and bought as much wine as I could afford - simply because I wanted him to stay in business. Toward the end I even considered investing in him just to keep him afloat. Alas, it was not to be, he closed shop, and I believe the stress and heartbreak is what killed him. He died of heart failure while stocking the shelves at a new job.

I mourned someone I hardly knew. I saw him twice a month or so at his shop. I always went to wine tastings, was part of the wine club, plus I tried to drag others I knew in to meet him. I knew nothing of his family, his life outside of the shop, or even his last name. Really barely more than an acquaintance.

I think of other people in my life who are like Sheldon. Certainly moving to Austin has increased that group exponentially. People here in the south are much more superficial than in the pacific northwest. Ed and I call them our "Austin" moments. We have intense, 20 minute conversations with people in ordinary circumstances and places, and then walk away not knowing the person's name. It is the outward friendliness and willingness to share with strangers that enables this. My niece and nephew were always horrified to be with me when one of these moments arose. They couldn't believe I could have a complete conversation with someone I never met. Here in Austin it is so commonplace that I never notice it anymore. If the same thing were to happen in Oregon the person would end up living in your garage. Oregonians don't have conversations unless they are ready for a long-term commitment.

Now that I live here in Texas I can see that it is my former life that was shallow, not the people. The superficial relationship I had with Sheldon enriched me in so many ways. It doesn't matter that I had to look up his last name. It doesn't matter that I spent time discussing the proper temperature to serve Guinness beer with a guy in an irish bar. It doesn't matter that I spent 20 minutes discussing a woman's problems with her tomatoes the last time I was at The Natural Gardener. What does matter is the connections we make with people, no matter how brief or thin. Just because I didn't know Sheldon well does not detract from the man he was and the friendship we shared.

To you, Sheldon, and all the other wonderful people I've met, thank you for unconditionally sharing a moment. The wine, by the way, was excellent.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Blackberries - the perfect backyard snack

Who needs candy bars when you can go outside and stuff plump, ripe and sweet blackberries in your mouth? No one, I say!

Blackberries are one of the few things that are easy to grow here in Central Texas. They don't get a lot of diseases, don't need a lot of water, and with judicious pruning, stay where you want them.  We are just now finishing up our harvest and have the blue teeth to prove it.

You normally plant blackberries around December or January, but now is a good time to plan where you'd like to grow them.

I went ahead and installed a simple trellis to train them to. Forgoing the more elaborate set-ups, I just put in a woven wire fence. You can also use a cattle panel for this job, but it's not necessary to have the rigidity since the berries aren't climbing on the wire.  I use bits of twine or plant ties to keep the arching canes upright against the wire.  This also makes it much easier to harvest the berries.
   We used 8 foot treated 4x4 posts and installed 2x4's for top braces. My trusty side-kick Ed put the posts in, then helped stretch the wire.   To stretch the wire, we wrapped one end around a 2x4 and pulled! While Ed did the heavy work, I nailed in fence staples to keep the wire in place.

I created a raised bed for the berries to grow in. I live on a slight incline so I created a drainage ditch on one side to capture rainwater runoff from my up-slope neighbors. This keeps my berries from being washed into the next county plus provides for some in-soil water storage. I piled the soil into a berm and mixed in some dried leaves (also from the neighbors.) This gives my berries some extra drainage. I  add compost at the end of each harvest to improve soil texture and fertility.

I initially purchased four bare-root Rosborough blackberries. Whenever you buy plants bare-root (meaning they aren't in a pot) soak them in water first to help rehydrate the roots. You don't need to do it for long - I just put them in a bucket while I dig the holes. I planted the berries about four feet apart. Once planted I gave them a good soaking and then spread leaves over the ground for a mulch. You need to keep them watered the first year, but once established mine only need irrigation once a week or so when they have fruit and once a month when they don't.  I use a soaker hose that snakes around them on the berm.  They spread out and fill in as they age - often to places far from the original plant. You can actually dig up these wanderers and replant them.  Most often I chop mine up and put them in the compost.  Be careful doing this though unless you have an active pile - otherwise they will re-sprout and you'll have a new blackberry patch.

The best way to keep your berries productive and healthy is to remove the spent canes every year.  As soon as you pick the last berry, cut that cane all the way to the ground.  Blackberries fruit on second year canes, so the new ones that are sprouting and growing right now are the ones that will bear fruit next year.  The old canes harbor disease and aren't going to flower well, so take them out!  Be gone to the compost bin I say!  Not pruning the canes is the most common mistake people make and is why many berry patches eventually just stop producing.

The Texas AgriLIFE Extension service has a great article on blackberries if you are interested in growing some for your family. Berries are a great source of vitamins and are fat-free, guiltless eating pleasure. I always intend to freeze some or make preserves, but somehow they never make it into the house. I blame the birds. Those stains on my hands and mouth? Mind your own business!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Best Garden Tools Ever

My life changed forever in 1989.

That was the year Ed and I were married and I moved into his home on Sherrett Street in Portland, Oregon. Ed came with serious landscaping issues. The front yard was nothing but dandelions, and the back yard had a huge pile of dirt snuffing out some clumping bamboo.

I made short work of the dandelions and then turned my energy into freeing the bamboo. Turns out it was a junk pile of yard debris, car parts, tin cans, and a garden fork.

The garden fork was in surprising shape, the wooden handle was horribly warped, but the tines were rust free. I really didn't know what to make of it. First of all, who would bury a perfectly good tool and second of all, what the heck was it used for? I grew up on a farm and a pitchfork was one of the primary tools in use. We had a regular hay fork and another type we used to muck out the stalls. But this fork was different. It had four tines that were broad, flat, and thick. I cleaned it up and put it in the garage.

Weeks later I was trying to dig up more dandelions and not doing well. The roots kept breaking off in the heavy clay soil and wrenching on the plants with a hand tool was killing my back. I thought of the garden fork tucked into the garage and gave it a try. I've never looked back. Turns out, it became one of my two favorite tools. I use it for almost everything in the garden. It is the perfect tool for digging up weeds, breaking up dirt clods, turning the compost, aerating a bed, prying up rocks, moving sod, turning over soil, and chasing off raccoons. It's the first tool I mention whenever people ask me what they should have for gardening. My fork has replaced the hoe completely and most times I use it instead of a shovel.

My second favorite tool is my Felco hand pruner. I've had other types over the years. People used to give me pruners for Christmas gifts because mine were always so beat up. I went through brand after brand and nothing would last. Most couldn't be sharpened and others simply fell apart. Yes, I was hard on them. I'd use them to cut branches that were too big or dropped them onto hard surfaces. My biggest frustration was that none of them would keep an edge, thus making the pruning all the harder. I finally broke down and decided to spend the extra money to get a pair of Felco's on the advice of another gardener. It became one of those moments when you say to yourself - "Why didn't I do this years ago!!"  I've owned the same pair for almost fifteen years and they have never failed me. We sharpen them about three times a year and they hold their edge under the most abusive circumstances. I use them as pruners, not to mention tin snips, hose cutters, wire cutters, box cutters, staple pullers, grafting knife, and a handy tool to pry on things. They've been dropped, run over, squished into mud, stepped on, lost in the compost, and left out in the rain. Despite this horrible treatment they can be cleaned up, sharpened, and put away for another day. They are more reliable than I am, that's for sure.

I love to garden, but I also don't want to work harder than I have to. My garden fork and Felco pruners have made my life so much easier and allows me to get done what I need to in order to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Speaking of fruit, I need to trim that tree. Never mind that the branch is over two inches thick - honey, hand me the Felcos!