Saturday, June 11, 2016

Soil: Build It or Buy It

I am continually bowled over by how expensive soil is here in Texas. I’m from the Northwest and didn’t realize how much the wood mill and yard debris industries contribute to making cheap sources of compost. I’d have to get three more jobs to afford to buy enough topsoil to even get started on my gardening projects. But considering that I work full time as it is and barely have enough time to play in the dirt, clearly an alternative must be found.

The answer lies in the garbage: compost it.
Finished compost ready to go to work in the vegetable beds.

The average household creates an incredible amount of waste and most of it can be utilized to build your own soil. Once you start gardening you will also generate more yard debris. All you need is a composting container or bin and a good pitchfork and you can turn this stuff into black gold.

Compost bins can just be piles in a corner, wire enclosures, wood pallets attached together, a barrel, a stack of cinder blocks, or a bin. My favorite is a three-bin system that I first saw in Kent, Washington. The city was touting composting as a way to reduce waste and had the bin in their demonstration garden. It’s plans come with a lid to help keep rain off and critters out – something we didn’t add when we built the bin while living in Oregon and later here in Texas. Here is a link to the plans that University of Arkansas publishes.
Husband Ed Kimball filled with pride over new bin
We keep a large, lidded, Rubbermaid container near the sink to hold all our vegetable food waste until filled and taken outside. The only animal products we include are eggshells. Meat and bones are fed to the dog or placed in the garbage. If you have a fire pit you can burn these, but be careful about the smell - burned bone can be unpleasant. The resulting ashes can be tossed into the compost. You can also use shredded paper. Just try to avoid glossy magazines and cellophane. Newspaper can be used also. Some people are uncomfortable using paper because of toxins that may be in the ink (most newspaper is printed with nontoxic soy ink - but check first.) I use the compost made from paper on ornamental plantings and not my vegetable beds just to be sure something didn't sneak in.

Once you get your compost pile built, it does take a little maintenance. Make sure that it doesn’t dry out by soaking it with the hose on occasion. You’ll also need to turn it in order to keep the oxygen flowing to the microbes breaking it down. I turn mine about once a week. You’ll see a lot of advice on how to layer your debris to make sure oxygen flows through the pile. If you plan on turning the pile, you can chuck the advice and just throw plant material in. 

It’s amazing how fast your pile will break down. I can get finished compost anywhere between two weeks to a month, depending on what’s in there. The process starts on the left in bin #1 and then gets turned into the next bin until it reaches bin #3. Bin #3's contents get turned onto a screen that fits over my wheelbarrow. The finished compost that falls through goes out to the garden, the larger material that stays on top goes back into bin #1 to go through the process again.

It’s a little work, I’ll admit. But it’s a lot cheaper than buying it, that’s for sure. Plus I know exactly what’s in it and am not contributing to an overflowing landfill. A win-win! But be warned, it's very addictive. I've become a leaf and brush thief in the neighborhood to feed my habit. Hey, those paper bags of yard debris fit perfectly in my wheelbarrow. And I can stop at any time.  Really.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Eat Your Lawn

My goal is to have an edible landscape. This means that a majority of plants have some sort of culinary purpose for me or for the beneficial wildlife I am trying to attract.

When you think of food production in terms of a landscape, it really opens your eyes to appreciate all qualities of the plants we grow to consume. You don’t need coleus or begonias when you can have an even more beautiful bed of Bright Lights Swiss Chard. Asparagus fern, why not just plain asparagus? Need something tall in the background? Grow corn. There are several varieties that have burgundy coloring in their leaves, stems, and silk that is just lovely. Forget about morning glories and plant Scarlet Runner Beans instead. They have the sweetest red flowers and the beans are delicious. Another favorite landscape plant of mine is Globe Artichoke. The plants grow into huge specimens with silver foliage. They are very dramatic and can yield a dozen or more tasty appetizers. I also love Fennel. The airy fronds dance in the wind and are a favorite snack for butterfly caterpillars.
I also expand my definition of an edible landscape to include wildlife I want to attract. I need birds in the yard to keep the bugs down, so I grow plants that will attract them. Amaranth (weed them into your salad), Echinacea, Cosmos, Barbados Cherry, Rose varieties that produce hips, Pigeon Berry, Lantana, and Chili Pequin all provide color and treats. Birds like low cover to hide in while they are scoping out the groceries, so I've included Bamboo Muhly and berry producing shrubbery like Agarita and Yaupon.
And what about that grassy lawn? Get rid of it. It is a total waste of water and human resources. Replace the blades with Thyme, Marjoram, Winter Savory, Peppermint or Oregano (or a blend of all of them.) They form a thick, green carpet that you can walk on. Heck, you can even mow them if you want (talk about a head rush though!) They stay low and don’t take nearly as much water to keep green. They also bloom and will attract bees and other pollinators to the garden.  If you want more "real" grass, try a native Texas Sedge (Carex texensis), which is what I put in.

It takes courage to do this however, because your yard will not look like everyone else’s. Peer pressure can be hard to overcome and you can bet you’re efforts will generate plenty of comments. However, I’ve always found that including your neighbors in your plans and sharing the fruits of your labor go a long way to smooth the path. They’ll start to think you are a genius as you sit in your lawn chair amongst the fragrant herb lawn, sipping an ice tea watching them slog it out with the lawn mower. Wave to them and ask them to sit with you for a spell. You might just be able to find a second career as a landscape consultant.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Gullible But Still Hopeful

I have a friend that breaks promises, says things to be nice that have no meaning, and is completely unreliable. Doesn't sound like much of a friend I bet you're thinking. But there are other reasons for my affection. Unfortunately I can be gullible to flowery words, something that can make me an easy mark, so I try to be careful and remember who I'm dealing with. 

Trying to grow fruit in Central Texas is exactly the same thing. I carefully prepare the planting area, dig the appropriate holes, add the correct amendments, prune, and do all the other horticultural practices. This time of year my efforts are rewarded with a whole garden of promises.  The grapes, loquats, and oranges have all set fruit (unlike those traitors the apples, plum, and peach.)

I want to believe.

I guess that's the very definition of gullible. My heart leaps with joy as I watch the loquat bend over with the fruit load - and then sinks when I see the mockingbirds swooping in for a snack. The little globes of happiness at the top of the tree seem to be ripening faster than the rest - but that's because they've been pecked and half-eaten. I climb the ladder to inspect the damage and see that it's not just the mockingbirds. The fruit also has tiny pin-prick holes and escaped frass - worms.

I harvested some of the riper ones this weekend and am now cooking them into pulp to freeze and use for smoothies. The next batch, if there is one, will go into a curried chutney. I've left the ladder out so I can pick fruit after work. Hope.

The citrus is also shouting at me. "Look at me!  A whole BUNCH of fruit!  It's going to be amazing!  I promise". Like my friend, I know the intention is there, I don't doubt the sincerity, again, which is why I'm so gullible. Yes, I've been toyed with before - a full tree of fruit one day and the whole crop on the ground the next.  "It was cold!"  "The squirrels were after me!" "Penny knocked them off!" Always an excuse. Gullible, gullible, gullible.

I think the ones that really hurt are the grapes. Those tiny little clusters that promise to be juicy explosions in just a few months always seem to be attacked by thrips and marauding birds before they can be consumed by me. The intoxicating smell of ripening fruit I've enjoyed in prior gardens has been completely elusive here in Austin. But still, right now, I want to believe.

So why go to this trouble? Why risk the heartache and disappointment? Why not just go to the farmers market or HEB and get anything I want? Because there are always other reasons for my affection. The grapes, even with thrips sucking the life out of them, provide a nice leafy screen and shady arbor in the summer. The loquat towers over my roses like a dinosaur and provides a nice contrast for the delicate blossoms at its feet. The orange trees laugh at our Texas heat and provide stunning green foliage all through the summer - not to mention habitat for black swallowtail butterflies as big as wrens.

I know what I'm dealing with. I know I'm at the precipice of defeat and humiliation. I know I'm gullible. So I hope, I believe, I try harder, I think up new approaches, I plan better, I persevere.  I've got this. I promise.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

When Life Gives You Turnips...

This weekend was another iron chef moment.

Here in Austin, my most prolific vegetable season is the winter. I plant in September or October when the heat breaks and we get our first good rain.

I have raised beds for the vegetables, each measuring about 4x6 feet. Within these boxes I mass plant; meaning I don't plant in rows, I just scatter the seeds over the entire bed. As the plants grow we eat what I thin out until the very last when I harvest the remaining crop. Late February or early March is when we eat in abundance, all trying to stay ahead of the voracious bugs, beetles and worms who emerge from their winter dormancy.

The winter garden usually has beds of carrots, turnips, kohlrabi, and kale. Other vegetables like garlic, swiss chard, artichokes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, lettuce, arugula, or other greens may also make an appearance depending on how much time I have to dedicate to the planting, care, and weeding.

We've been eating well again this year (along with coworkers, neighbors and friends whom I've shared with,) and I thought I was doing a good job in keeping up with the harvest. Except yesterday I went out to do some weeding and noticed that the turnips had gotten away from me and were now fist-sized beasts. Worse, they were starting to get infested by Harlequin Bugs, who LOVE turnips. I needed to squish these guys into oblivion before they moved to the kale, plus harvest the turnips before the greens were completely shredded. One of the things I love about these vegetables is that you eat the whole plant - therefore, no bug was going to dine on MY dinner.

But what to do with all those turnips? Today's secret ingredient? I love a challenge.

The biggest turnips were turned into soup. Some of them had started to split and were getting a little woody on the inside, so a nice slow simmer was in order. I found this great recipe on Epicurious that completely fit the bill:  Turnip Soup with Turnip Greens. I roasted the greens in the oven until they were slightly charred for an extra smokey flavor for the dish.  That and a batch of southern corn bread made for several tasty meals. I will probably make a second batch next weekend and then freeze it. I'll use chicken or vegetable stock instead of milk and throw in some chopped rosemary instead of the winter savory I use as a thyme substitute. (It's too hot in the backyard for thyme, so I grow winter savory instead and am liking it much better anyway.)

While googling for recipes, I also found this link from Bon Appetit for 18 more turnip recipes. That shepherds pie is going to be on the menu this week too. I also roasted some of the smaller turnips, along with beets and broccoli rabe. I just spread them out on a baking sheet or dish, drizzle with oil, season with salt then bake at 425 degrees F for 40 minutes.  Excellent topping for rice or greens.

And I made refrigerator pickles. This is something my Mom does all the time when the cucumbers are in season. I've applied the technique to all sorts of vegetables. Sadly, I eat them all by myself since Ed is not a fan of vinegar. Wait, be honest, YEY I get to eat them all by myself and Ed can forage on his own.

The kohlrabi is starting to mature so I used this occasion to grab a couple of them, plus onions and carrots from the garden.  Here is my recipe:

In a glass or ceramic bowl mix the following:

1 onion (red if you have it, white if you want extra kick)
1 1/2 to 2 cups vinegar (apple cider with the mother or seasoned rice are my preferences)
1 tablespoon salt (I use pickling salt, but any good quality salt will do)
1 tablespoon pickling spices (optional,  I usually have some on hand but you don't need it)
1 tablespoon dill weed or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill (I've also substituted with fennel which adds that luscious anice flavor.)
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled, and shaved with vegetable peeler

Turnips, kohlrabi, and carrots, peeled (if needed) and sliced into bite-sized pieces, enough to make 2 cups total.

Mix the onion, vinegar, salt, pickling spice, dill weed, and ginger shavings in a non corrosive bowl.  Let sit while you slice the vegetables.  I like including carrots because it adds a bit of sweetness and color, plus they are usually ready for harvesting at the same time as the turnips and kohlrabi.  If the carrots aren't quite to size yet, I take the opportunity to thin them and use the smaller roots whole.

Add the vegetables to the vinegar mixture and stir.  No need to cover them with the liquid, but they should be mixed in to coat with the pickling solution.  Cover and let sit in the refrigerator at least two hours before eating.  Vegetables will keep in the refrigerator up to two weeks - although mine never last that long.  Since I'm growing the veggies, I'll keep adding to the bowl until the abundant crop harvest is conquered, adding more pickling liquid as needed.

Hope this gives you some ideas on how to consume your own harvest.  And let me know if you want some turnips!!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Valentine Flowers

No one will ever accuse my husband of being romantic.

Valentines Day at our house is the same as any other.  We will be married 27 years this May, so I doubt anything will ever change.

But wait, he says, I DID give you a Valentines gift that one year.  Yes, it was a nautical chart of the Puget Sound.  He pasted a doily on it and wrote "Happy Valentines Day."  Was it a clue that we were going to go on a romantic trip through the San Juan Islands?  No, he just liked it.  He bought another chart for the mouth of the Columbia River just for good measure.  To my husband, nothing could be more romantic than imagining himself sailing those waters.  Alone.

Earlier on in our marriage, I remarked that it would be nice to get flowers once in a while.  He was shocked!  Shocked!  Why, no ones grows more beautiful flowers than you!  I couldn't possibly bring home inferior florist flowers!  Foiled again.

I blame myself.  When we were dating he bought me a ladle for my kitchen.  I already had two ladles, a large one for soup and a smaller one for adding liquid to other dishes (like risotto.)  The one he gifted me was a regular size with a white enamel handle.  All my other tools are wooden or stainless steel, not a piece of enamel in sight.  However, he was having his kitchen remodeled and all the cabinets were going to be white.  In his mind that ladle was a full-out declaration of love.  Look honey, I'm buying you a gift that matches my kitchen!  That way when you move in it will look lovely in the utensil caddy on the counter.

This year he remarked that Valentines Day was on a Sunday and someone he knew asked what he was going to do for me.  He COULD see if he could get reservations somewhere, but he has classical guitar rehearsal. I sighed.

He has other nice traits I remind myself and look out the window onto my garden.

There, unabashed in the cold prairie wind and undamaged from the hail storm last night, are my roses glowing softly in the first light of morning.  Pink, yellow, peach, carmine, white, orange, red, the whole group of them are blooming - every single one.  And not just a blossom here or there, but a full-on display of petals that weigh down the canes they are suspended from.

Excuse me?  It's Valentines Day.  This is the time that we prune our dormant roses here in Austin so that we get that first flush of bloom in March or early April.  But not this year, my roses haven't STOPPED blooming since fall.  We've gotten an unusual amount of rain these past several months and all my plants are giddy with the excess.  And while we've had a few freezes, the brutal late January early February freeze we normally get has not arrived.
Even my 'Marilyn's Choice' Albutilon has been blooming like crazy - normally a tender perennial here in Austin. 

So, as a proper gardener, I tell myself that the pruning must be done, and I'll just wait for this round of blooms to finish.

Except that it's Valentines Day.  Maybe my husband was right.  How could any florist compete with my roses?  And since I need to prune, I think a full vase of flowers will be delivered to my table as a reward.  I must be honest to myself, there really isn't a greater love than seeing my hard work pay off in such a beautiful form.

Who says romance is dead?

Friday, January 1, 2016

My favorite photos from 2015

One of my other gardening friends (Laura Heldreth who blogs at Gravy Lessons) posted her favorite photos from 2015.  What a great idea!  The bonus is that I revisit my photos and the memories associated with them.

I found that my favorites all came from my June trip on the Toronto Garden Bloggers Fling.  I guess that's no surprise, we visited some incredible gardens and all of us were there to photograph them.  I learned a lot about plants, photography and writing from my fellow bloggers so this post is a tribute to them.  I'm incredibly lucky that I've found this gardening community and that they've accepted me as one of their own.  Between them and the Travis County Master Gardeners, my other friends and family are enjoying ACTUAL conversations that don't involve gardening.  Well, mostly, anyway.

You, however, dear visitor, are stuck with my love of all things horticulture with a good dose of gourmand, politics, and love of pets and bugs.

#1.  Damsel Fly on a Japanese Maple Leaf
This Damsel Fly was so patient while I snapped away.  I squatted down right in front of her (knees cracking) to get this photo and she still stayed on that leaf and looked right at me.

#2 Japanese Maple Canopy
When I lived in Oregon, Japanese Maples were almost as common as Rhododendrons.  In Austin I can grow neither, so it was such a treat to see these old friends in Toronto.  To me this photo captures everything I love about them - the lacy nature of the leaves, the cut edges, the burgundy color, all set against the chartreuse of a larger tree in the background.

#3 Honey Bee coming in for a landing.
My Grandpa Jess's favorite flower was the peony, and were were lucky enough to visit a garden dedicated to them.  Every possible shape and color danced in the breeze that day.  The bees were everywhere and I love this bee getting ready to land on the allium that was growing alongside this incredible fuchsia colored peony.

#4 Viburnum
Alas, another shrub that doesn't grow well in Austin, and another I took for granted when I lived in the Northwest (although I had several in my garden.)  I really like how these flowers glow against the dark leaves and blue flowers in the background.

#5 Turtle Laying Eggs
While visiting the Iris Gardens at one of Toronto's Botanical Gardens, we came upon this snapping turtle laying her eggs.  I was lucky enough to get this shot of the egg being dropped in the hole.  She was there quite a while and must have laid at least a dozen eggs during our visit.

#6 Garden Gate
We were very fortunate to visit the Niagara Falls area and this private garden.  No expense was spared here.  This garden gate against the checkerboard pavers was quite stunning.  The infinity-edge pool overlooking Lake Erie was nice too. 

#7 Rose at Jean-Talon Market in Montreal
Ed and I took advantage of Montreal's proximity to Toronto and started our Canada visit in that beautiful place. We visited the Jean-Talon public market one morning and visited with the nurserymen there.  One merchant was selling roses and they were all covered with the morning's rain drops.

#8 Reception Gardens, Montreal Botanical Garden
 Tulips!  Just at the tail end of the season but beautiful none the less. This walkway to the administration building was so majestic and seemed to stretch forever.

#9 Chinese Gardens, Montreal Botanical Garden
Speaking of entrances, doesn't this just scream CHINESE GARDEN THIS WAY.  Love the rock, the tree, and the chartreuse of the spring growth.

#10 Cedar Cones, Montreal Botanical Gardens
Oh, how I miss my evergreens and that sweet resinous smell.  I do so miss that perfume these trees produce and the flush of new growth in spring.  I was a bad girl and picked some needles that I crushed under my nose for the entire visit.

#11 Wattle Shade
This Piper auritum is growing under a heck of a shade structure.  Love the branches woven into the cattle panel which was held up by a sturdy pipe trellis.

#12 Magnolia
At the end of our visit to the Montreal Botanical garden, Ed and I grabbed some lunch at the cafe.  We'd just finished eating when this magnolia blossom fell onto our table from the tree hanging over the patio.  Honest.

#13 Gratuitous Kitty picture, Toronto Skyline
We were on Ward Island, which is directly cross the bay from Toronto, admiring the view and the garden when this cute cat joined us.  Reminded me of my Gwen who could never pass up prowling the yard with me.  Or photo bombing.  Miss her.

Hope you've enjoyed these as much as I have.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Portland Garden Schooling in Texas Succulents

We've had an incredibly wet year so far. After a long period of drought where we begged for rain, the heavens have answered with storm after storm and days of endless gray. It's so wet that it's like I'm living in Portland again.

Except for the humidity.  

Except for the heat.  

Except for the gargantuan mosquitos.

Okay, so it's not like Portland.  

But it IS wet and while many of my plants have gone gonzo (clearly, I don't water enough) others have drowned. I've had more than a few succulents rot in planters and in the ground, plus the winecup and black footed daisy aren't that happy, which brings me back to Portland.

Last year I visited my old home town as part of the annual Garden Bloggers fling and was really struck by what a funny bunch we gardeners are. We're never satisfied with the native plants and attributes of where we live, but instead lust after what we can't or have difficulty in growing. Here in Austin my friends lust after hydrangeas, azaleas, hostas, lilacs - all the things that are ubiquitous in Portland. And the PDX gardeners? They grow succulents. (I just got back from Toronto and their passion?  Lantana. They overwinter it in greenhouses.)

But I digress. Succulents in Portland? With all that rain? I'm not talking about the sedums that hug every rock face, but agaves and prickly pear and other cacti.  I think back to my own unsuccessful attempts to grow winecup, evening primrose, and other prairie flowers in my wet clay soil. Growing succulents in Portland just seems a crime against nature.

But the gardeners are doing it and with fantastic results. Not only that, but they taught me a lesson on how to appreciate these great plants and how to use them in the garden whether in the ground or container. Both Portland and Austin are in zone 8, so many of the same plants that grow on the roadside here can survive in Portland - with some modification.  

Drainage is the key and with that comes some creative use of space.  

To grow these in the ground takes some serious soil replacement.  Loads of aggregate, sand, and other porous materials are used as life preservers.

But I also like how they hung those plants on walls and combined them for visual interest.  It's  a forehead slapping moment for me. Why am I fussing with plants that fry in pots when I should just jam in an agave? I had to go to Portland to learn that.

And while I love grouping herbs and other flowering plants  for a profusion of bloom, my dog seems to think they all need treats buried in them. If I switch to cacti my problem will (hopefully) be solved. (Note, she still dug up one of my succulents that didn't have thorns.)

And where else should you be growing "hens and chicks" sedums beside an old chicken feeder?

I love it that I have to travel back home 2.000 miles to be taught how to grow succulents.  And today when I look outside at the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill graying up my Saturday, I have to smile at yet another mashup of Portland and Austin.

Except for my heat rash.