Sunday, May 30, 2010

Be a good Texan and eat your home-grown veggies

Last week I volunteered again to answer the Master Gardener telephone line at the extension service. I love doing this because I get to help so many nice people with their gardening questions and I learn a lot too.

One of my favorite topics is home gardening. Many people are getting increasingly alarmed at news media reports of our tainted food supply. Others are simply trying to join the "slow food" movement and provide higher quality produce for their families. No matter what the reason, interest in home vegetable gardening is certainly growing.

You don't need to have much room to get started; all you need is some sunshine. One of the niftiest things I've seen in a while is this grow box. It is self-watering and is a great way to get started. One box will certainly hold two tomatoes, and you can grow beans, lettuce, even corn if you wish.

When I first moved here from Oregon, I spent a lot of time on this site too: There is a lot of good information on how and what to grow here in Central Texas.

Listen, there is nothing like a fresh green bean that you eat right off the plant, and if you can chase it with a still warm tomato - well that's just heaven.

All that goodness is one of the reasons I'm helping my fellow gardeners bring more awareness to vegetable gardening. We are working now to ask the Governors of each state to promote more backyard and community gardening. Please join us by signing the Dig For Texas petition urging the Governor to help spark more interest in fresh, local food by showcasing the history of the Texas Governor's Mansion garden and visiting community gardens. Politics and gardening go hand in hand - all that grass roots stuff and all!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Weeds and Fire Ants: Garden Help or Hindrance?

The more I garden, the more I realize and treasure what an amazing place our planet is. Mother Nature just wows me every time and never more so as when I am trying to manage pests and weeds. I have learned that in order for my gardening to be successful, I need both; everything has a place and a role to play.

When I moved here to Austin, I immediately set out to replace my St Augustine monoculture yard with a more diverse edible and drought tolerant landscape. I ran into a problem immediately – the heavy clay soil. It is hard to grow things because it’s either sopping wet or bone dry. The only way to manage it is to add copious amounts of organic matter. We built a compost bin with just that in mind.

Just one problem; there was nothing to put in the bins. One can only create a small amount of kitchen waste, no matter how much you cook. My own property lacked shrubbery and I was killing the grass so I had nothing to compost. Another thing we discovered is that people in our neighborhood don’t bag their grass, thus there was very little to scrounge. I found myself driving around looking for lawn debris to chip. Compost is made from decomposing plant material – no plants, no material. Suddenly I was wistful for weeds.

Weeds make great compost when you pull them in their young vegetative stage. Yes, there are some things you shouldn’t use – like nut sedge or any grass that grows from rhizomes. But even then you can toss in the upper green parts and then just dispose of the roots. Now that I have relandscaped and installed my vegetable beds, I have plenty of weeds to compost and I am thrilled.

Let’s talk fire ants. Fire ants have these huge underground cities and are constantly mounding soil throughout their territory. It can be unsightly plus painful if you step on one of those mounds. My yard is infested with them and at first it was a battle to control them. I learned that “control” is really just a joke. They are so prevalent that unless you have a complete neighborhood eradication program, they just move from one yard to the other. I go to Lowe’s and see whole aisles dedicated to all sorts of poisons to pour on the ground.

But here’s the thing. They loosen that heavy clay soil. I’ve had some move into my berms where I just mounded the existing soil and wasn’t able to add much organic matter. They would be one solid brick if it weren’t for the fire ants constantly tilling things up. Thanks to them my potatoes, tomatoes and cantaloupe are all aerated and happy. You bet I have to be careful where I stick my hand and I always scratch in the soil with a garden tool before weeding or harvesting spuds so I can see if ants are going to swarm me. And yes, I do treat parts of the yard with nematodes to help keep the population in check. Maybe this makes me a hypocrite, even though I am using nature to monitor nature; I hope not.

Let’s see, she likes weeds and fire ants – a completely gone girl this Sheryl. Maybe so, but I have discovered that managing the balance of life yields more positive than negative. The cabbageworms, pill bugs, cockroaches and those darn locusts help keep the garden cleaned up and thriving. It is just up to me to help balance things out and to practice cultural methods – like row covers, to make sure there are enough vegetable survivors for my table. I figure I can share a good meal with a pest or two. And by the way – you should see the two-inch long butterfly caterpillars that are decimating my fennel and passionflowers. I couldn't be happier!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

In love with my yard

I can't help it. I am totally in love with my yard. Everyday I go out there and just wonder at the splendor.

No, it's not a showcase. In fact, most people would look askance at what I call my "production" landscape. I've killed the lawn and replaced it with Texas sedge (Carex texensis) in front, and newspaper and leaves in the back. I've got reclaimed-lumber raised beds bursting with all sorts of vegetables. I threw out wildflower seeds so I've got all kinds of blossoms helter skelter everywhere. I've got shredded bark in the paths and crimson clover that's brown and gone to seed. Nope. Not a restful, peaceful, landscape worthy of the front cover of Fine Gardening. Not at all. Not even close. But I love it, love it, love it.

So does the wildlife. There are two Green Anole's that have staked out a home here - one if front and one in back. There are also what I think are Texas Banded Geckos that like to hang out in the compost bin. Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars are now all over my fennel. I counted over a dozen munching on my four largest bronze and green plants.

The Mexican feather grass in front is quite splendid and dances a perpetual ballet. Five foot tall flower spikes of the red yucca hang over the curb and reach out to passing cars and pedestrians.

I just planted more hardy hibiscus and two passionflowers in the side yard. The 'Lady Margaret' has started to bloom and is just a stunner. The orange Gulf Fritillary butterflies have been hanging about, so I imagine I'll see larvae on this vine soon.

The Agarita shrubs have a full load of berries on them and are starting to turn color. They should help attract more birds into the front yard so I can be fully entertained from my own perch on the front porch swing.

The blackfoot daisies planted with the Agarita form a nice contrast.
They are already starting to spread and will soon hide my irrigation line on the front berm. The red salvia and their sweet little flowers will compliment the Agarita berries.

This whole project has really captured me. Maybe it's because I'm gardening in a totally new climate - or maybe it's just because I'm ready to appreciate it more. I don't really care what the reason is, I just know that I am having a blast and am thankful that I have a garden to love. And you know, I think she loves me back!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Birdbrain or eternal optimist?

A white-winged dove has built a nest in one of our Texas Sage bushes. She was so perfectly camouflaged that I didn't know she was there until she flew away. Ed and I hope it's the same dove that was trying to nest on our clothesline.

The birds here are really extraordinary and it has been fun to try to identify them. Some, like Cardinals, are ones I've only seen in books. Others, like Purple Martins, were only seen rarely. In our Austin yard they are everywhere.

One type of bird that is familiar is the Starling. Our neighbor has a covered patio and the Starlings like to nest in every crook and cranny. It is amazing to watch them squeeze into these little holes between the eaves and the corrugated roofing. This one particular Starling keeps building a nest in the downspout of the gutter.

You would think the bird would figure it out. We sit on the deck and watch how industrious he/she is with the nest building. Our Yuccas are favorite plants for materials although today I watched a marigold stem wing it's way next door. It's an ongoing show because the nest keeps getting washed out. Inevitably, just when it seems everything is done we get a shower. The bird climbs out of the gutter and waits it out in a nearby tree. A few weeks later the process begins again. Last year the bird eventually gave up and, I assume, built elsewhere. This year there have been at least four different attempts to nest in the downspout and today marked another failure.

I can't figure out why it persists. Is the lure of a perfectly protected nest too much to resist? Is this a pecking order thing where this bird is denied the prime real estate next to the eave? Or is this bird just playing the percentages? I don't know whether to admire its tenacity or pity it's lack of forethought.

It got me to thinking though. How many times have I been in the exact same situation? Gamely fighting on even though the flood will inevitably wipe me out? Too many times I'm afraid. Perhaps we are all birdbrains with the tiny speck of hope that THIS time it will work out. Oh geez, look at the time! I need to get down to the store and buy my lottery ticket!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Vegetable Gardening Has Turned Me Into An Iron Chef

And today’s secret ingredient is KOHLRABI!

It’s a good thing I like to cook. The garden has been so prolific that I have quickly gone through my usual bag of tricks. I’ve had to come up with new ways to prepare kale, Swiss chard, beets, and mustard. A person can only eat so many salads after all, no matter how good the dressing!

Today I harvested some kohlrabi and have made two dishes out of it, both from recipes inspired by those I found on the Internet. The first is refrigerator pickles. This is simply peeled and cubed kohlrabi mixed with rice vinegar, salt and pepper. I usually do this with cucumbers, but the kohlrabi is excellent this way. It’s very crunchy and sweet at the same time. Ed doesn’t like vinegar so I have this dish all to myself. I’ve already eaten half of it. Gluttony isn’t pretty.

The second dish is a vegetable curry. I combined carrots, kohlrabi (this time with it’s greens included) and onions from the yard. Then combined with store-bought jalapeƱo peppers, tomatoes and various spices. I used mustard seed, cumin seed, turmeric and store-bought curry. I simmered these in a little chicken broth and then served over jasmine rice. Yes, we are eating well.

The sugar snap peas have stopped blooming so I harvested the remaining pods and pulled the vines. I am going to plant amaranth in their spot. I’m still toying with planting okra and eggplant, but really don’t have the room for them. It’s probably a good thing; my potatoes are nearly ready to dig. I better get busy finding some new recipes!