Copyright © Sheryl Williams - Yardfanatic 2016. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Merry Christmas Everyone! We had a southwest inspired dinner

We had Christmas dinner a little early in order to have yummy leftovers all week. It was a beautiful balmy day outside. Perfect for barbecuing the turkey - and quite a climate change from last year. Our menu was derived from the November 2008 issue of Sunset magazine. My favorite issue of all time. We have now successfully eaten every single recipe out of it.

We started off the food frenzy with fresh salad greens topped with roasted beets and fresh carrots - all from the yard. I made a dressing out of fresh squeezed orange juice, rice vinegar and olive oil. It was so pretty!

The bird was gorgeous. It was basted with a chile orange glaze that set the tone for my Tex-Mex inspired theme. I had juiced a bunch of lemons the day before and saved the lemon rinds. I put them into the cavity along with some rosemary and sage. The smell was heavenly.

I made Cornbread Chorizo stuffing to go with it (cooked separately.) I was reluctant to try this one because my previous attempts with cornbread dressing resulted in mush. However, this one seemed to have the right combination of dry and wet ingredients and turned out perfectly. The cornbread offset the spiciness of the chorizo and it was just gorgeous to look at.

Last night I prepared the Cranberry Meyer lemon relish, and I must say, it's the best I have ever had. It was so simple to make; it's just cranberries and Meyer lemons (courtesy of the Master Gardener trees.) It really complemented the citrus infused turkey.

The Chipotle Corn Mashed Potatoes were interesting too. I was afraid the chilies would send Ed over the edge, but the potatoes offset the heat nicely. This recipe calls for roasting fresh ears of corns and then cutting the kernels off. I didn't want to spend the money so I used canned corn. I "roasted" them atop the stove in a little olive oil. The combination was great and beat out the garlic potatoes I usually make.

Dessert was a deep-dish apple pie that we love this time of year. Cranberries are one of the ingredients and it makes for such a pretty pie. This recipe features a crumble topping so I threw in some pecans to make it more southern.

It was a great meal. My only regret is that none of you were here to share it with us. I have given you links to all the recipes. Try a few of them and think of me!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The tomatoes say that winter is here

Uh oh. Freezing temperatures arrived last week and I wasn't ready. I'll admit that my Oregon DNA sniffed when the weather folks forecasted freezing temperatures over night. After all, it was in the 50's during the day and I'm still remembering that hot summer we had. But freeze it did.

The thing about the weather here is that it may have dipped down to freezing, but it doesn't park there like it does in the north. A quick freeze and then it's back up to pleasant fall temperatures. Of course my thin-blooded husband was in long johns, but I was still in sandals and short sleeves.

It was enough to K-O the summer vegetables. The tomatoes (and they were just starting to blush nicely), the summer squash, the cucumbers, and the beans - all mush. I saved a few pieces of fruit, but most of them were already starting to rot by the time I got home. My citrus trees weren't happy either - but I didn't lose any. It was enough of a wake-up call that I covered my trees for the next few nights until the frigid weather relented. Next year I will be prepared and will cover my vegetable beds with a plastic tunnel at night. Hopefully that will prevent the kills and provide a little more warmth during the day so things will ripen faster. I am determined to have vine-ripened tomatoes on Christmas day. And why not? I'm the girl who was going to grow lettuce in Alaska!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I Am A Walking Bug Snack

I have discovered that being a hot sweaty woman here in Central Texas doesn't attract cowboys. Instead, I am a walking all-you-can-eat cafeteria for every blood sucking or biting insect within five counties.

What really irks me though, is that I never catch them munching on me. It's only at two in the morning that the welts start to itch and the rashes crawl up my shins. I get up in the morning and am raw from scratching.

It's probably karmic pay back for gloating about my yard. All my hard work (which is why I am hot and sweaty) is really starting to pay off. I got ten flats of Texas Sedge planted this week, plus installed my two Yaupon Holly trees (latin name illex vomitoria - click on the link and read why it is named this. Pretty funny.) Both plants are natives that are drought tolerant and really pretty to look at. I also added some milk weed and fennel for the butterflies to lay eggs on. Next time all those Monarchs fly by my house they are going to want to stop and leave me some caterpillars! I also planted basil (in November, it felt completely wrong) and some winter savory to flavor my black eyed pea dishes next summer.

My garden is still growing like crazy. I am feeding five people, not including Ed and I, with the greens that I planted. I keep harvesting them and you can't even tell I've touched them. They must grow at least an inch a day. It is amazing.

Yep, things going well out in the yard. Now excuse me, I have to go scratch.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My Garden Is Going Nuts!

If you look closely at this photo, you can see that my kumquat is blushing and nearly ready to pick! How exciting is that?

I traveled to Oregon last week to visit family. Flying in over the Siskiyous the fall colors were just amazing. I drove through the Willamette Valley and the vineyards and blueberry fields were on fire with yellows and reds. Gorgeous. I also stopped by Territorial Seeds and got almost everything on my spring planting list. But as I observed things starting to wind down in preparation for an Oregon winter, here in Austin things are just getting started.

The hot days have given way to cooler day and night time temperatures that are perfect for growing vegetables. Even though we have had a couple of rain storms that tried to beat everything in the ground, my plants are growing before my eyes. We are eating salad greens and spinach. The summer squash will be ready this week. The beans and cucumbers are blooming and we are just now starting to get ripe tomatoes.

It is so nice to eat fresh produce again and not be limited by what's on sale at the grocery store! Ed and I now "shop" in the yard every day. Many times we just stand next to one of the boxes and graze like deer. We've considered leaving the salad dressing bottle in the raised bed, but figured that's pushing the fresh food thing a little too far. One must be civilized after all. I'll have to figure out a way to store the napkins...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The First Harvest From Austin

I am happy to announce that the first produce has been harvested (and consumed) from the Austin yard.

It is so gratifying for me to be able to go outside, pick stuff, then bring it into the house and prepare a meal. What is especially delightful about this first harvest is that I've grown things I've never grown before, and prepared a recipe I've only enjoyed in a restaurant. A first-first-first! Wow.

Many of you know that Ed and I are nuts about Asian food (and Asians, you know who you are.) I am especially fond of hot and sour soup. There was a restaurant in Portland across the street from where I worked at Far West that had a really cheap lunch special featuring the soup. It was so hot that it made me sweat - but the flavor, oh the flavor. Unfortunately Mr Chens closed and I have never been able to find another hot and sour that was as good.

That is, until I moved to Austin. There is an Asian restaurant just a few blocks from our house. It is run by a really nice couple with the most adorable 1 year old twin girls. They serve mostly Japanese and Thai food plus the husband is an amazing sushi chef. I ordered the hot and sour soup the first time I went there and fell in love. It's the Thai version with that amazing lime flavor. It is because of that soup that I snatched up my kaffir lime tree when I saw it in the nursery, and then later added some key limes. I've put those trees on my bricked in patio where they get lots of heat and won't get frost bitten this winter. I also added lemon grass to my herb garden.

I've been noticing that I had two limes that appeared to be ripe. I surfed the net and found this recipe, and it seemed to have the same ingredients as the soup I enjoy at the restaurant. We stopped by the local Asian market while out doing errands today and got a really great deal on shrimp ($2.99 a pound!) Suddenly I was in the soup business.

I went out to the back patio and harvested two of the limes. (I wore my tropical shirt for the full effect.) I snipped off two leaves from my kaffir lime (which is grown only for it's leaves - when you crush them in your hands it almost makes your eyes water.) I have two key lime trees to produce fruit for me and grabbed two little globes that looked ripe.

After that I ran out into the rain and cut off some lemon grass. It was great to be able to harvest the stalks and then trim them into the compost bin. Suddenly my life became normal again after all this change we have been through since moving from Oregon in March.

The soup was easy to make. The scent from the chopped up lemon grass was amazing. I've never had any that I bought at the store smell nearly as good.
My key limes were juicy and easy to squeeze - again, much better than anything I've bought. The house took on a wonderful aroma as the soup was simmering.

The shrimp was thrown in at the end and cooked until pink. I ladled the hot mixture over chopped cilantro to serve. The recipe makes four helpings but Ed and I managed to clean out the pot. Gluttony is a terrible thing but I think we'll just overlook it this time. It is so great to eat out of the yard again -- surely that allows for a little indulgence?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why I Garden

The storm of controversy on twitter over comments being made about Generation Y and why they don't garden has made me reflect on my own journey with dirt. I had no interest in gardening when I was in my early twenties. It was just one more chore for me to do that interfered with my entertainment agenda. I didn't start digging in the yard until I moved to a large city.

It was in Portland that I discovered how connected I am with the earth and how terrible it is to be separated from it. Living in an apartment suddenly made me feel trapped and devalued. My stressful job pushed on me and I had no outlet from which to re-energize. Luckily my friend Jess didn't live too far away, so I gardened in his yard. I finally got my own little weedy patch when Ed and I got married.

But why do I garden? I've discovered that it isn't because there is a definite outcome, like flowers or food, although that is nice. It's not because I think it's the right thing to do or because I need an exercise program. It's not because I am competing with anyone. And it's not because I'm trying to prove to Mom that her lazy daughter can accomplish something. It's because it is a process and a journey that touches my very core. I garden because it is so infinitely satisfying to be outside and smelling the flowers. I love watching the birds and insects that take advantage of my handiwork. The garden is not something I can ever control, so I must accept things as they are and just do my best. Success or failure is part of the process, not a judgement of who I am. Even if I do puff up in pride over an exceptional blossom or vegetable. Nature is so sublime and wonderful, I'm so thankful to be a part of it.

Right now I am listening to the rain after coming in from a morning of ditch digging. The water that runs off the top of the ground is gathering in my trenches and soaking into the ground as designed. The white beacons of yucca blossoms are swaying slightly in the breeze on this gray day. A little bird has taken refuge in the rose bush. This is why I garden.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Summer Squash has been planted. That's so weird.

That's right. I just planted summer squash. Every fiber in my body is screaming at me. Stop! What are you doing!?!?!? WINTER IS COMING!

Not in hot and sweaty Texas. According to the extension service, I should get a nice little crop in before it freezes. I also planted beans and lemon cucumbers. Just to feel a little like normal, I planted greens, carrots, and beets. I resisted the advice to also plant that last crop of sweet corn.

Everything has perked up after that rain we had and the wildflowers are blooming again. We've cooled off from those 100 degree days so everyone is back outside and visiting with the neighbors. I'm back outdoors digging ditches to slow down run-off when we get those huge down pours. It is so strange to me to be thinking of what I need to grow right now instead of planning what I need to start shutting down.

I'm not sure my Oregon born and bred DNA can handle this - except that my lemons are almost ripe. Okay, I'm liken' this new climate!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Rain comes to Central Texas

Finally! It is 75 degrees and I can go outside again.

We have had a week of rain here in Austin and it has cooled things off. So much so that my peas have sprouted.

The most important thing though, is that my tank is full! It is even overflowing. I went outside today and had to dig my trench to slow the water from running into the neighbor's yard. I plan on filling it with mulch to soak up and hold the moisture for the grapes that will be planted and terraced on the berm. I got soaking wet because it was too hot to don rain gear. The funny thing is that I would have gotten just as waterlogged had I been working in the hot sun. I think I prefer rainwater to sweat.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Toughing up the Turf

It is finally time to start planting my new lawn. Be gone with you water-greedy St Augustine grass! There's a tougher act coming to town that will leave you in the literal dust - sedges.

Sedges (Carex spp.) are wonderful plants. They are perennials that resemble grass, but don't have the heavy growing requirements that many of our grasses are bred to demand. The sedge I chose for my front yard is a native Texan that is able to grow in shade with limited water. I have interplanted it with some variegated liriope that I moved from a flower bed. The combination of dark green and the white margins of the liriope should be pretty amazing. I might throw in some red Oxalis lasiandra just to punch it up a bit. If I do it right it will look like one of Grandma Clemmy's or Linda's quilts.

The best thing about it is that it will look great all year round and I won't have to mow it, fertilize it, edge it, thatch it, rake it, aerate it, water it, or procrastinate about it. I can walk all over it, park my lawn chair on it, spill beer on it, and generally sit and wave at the neighbors as they slog it out in the heat slaving over their lawn. Oh yeah, I'm likin' this sedge more and more.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Slow Going But Progress Being Made

It is so HOT! We are now into 60 something days of 100 degree heat. Only 45 more to go!

It is very frustrating to have beautiful sunshine outside but be stuck in the house. My DNA just isn't programmed for this. As a native Oregonian, I am conditioned to surge outside when it is not raining. Wearing a hat, soaking my clothes, taking shade breaks, staying hydrated, nothing works. I simply can't take the heat and have to go inside when it hits the century mark. If I push it too hard I get sick. You can't drink enough water to replace all the sweat that just pours out of your pores.

But despite all that, progress is being made. Ed has only two more planting bed boxes to go. The fence pile is now just a stack of boards. I've got two of the beds planted. The rest are just waiting for me to fill them with soil. I'm composting as fast as I can with the help of the neighbors yard debris. My goal is to get them all filled by early spring, even if I have to buy some soil.
From Yard makeover

Today I scored at the local nursery. They are having a summer heat distress sale and I picked up a whole pickup load of plants. I've installed some grasses in the front yard, roses in the back, and more importantly, herbs in the herb bed. We haven't had any new rain, but I'm still able to water everything out of my rainwater tank. I'm very pleased with myself.
From Yard makeover

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Integrated Pest Management - with chocolate sauce!

This week's Master Gardener class was on entomology. It was a lot different from all the other bug classes I have taken in the past, and the reason was the de-emphasis of chemical control.

As a former card-carrying pesticide applicator licensee, I'm glad of it. It just amazes me a bit considering that Master Gardening is a program affiliated with the land grant university system. None of my professors or extension agents from Oregon State University would have even dared suggest row covers or manually picking caterpillars off of crops twenty years ago.

We learned about all kinds of insects; what they looked like, how they derived nourishment, and how to control them in the environment. "Natural" chemicals were discussed, like Neem, as well as soapy water and beneficial insects. We even talked about the type of plants to have in the garden like fennel, dill and milkweed, to serve as hosts for beneficials.

What was interesting about the discussion was the reaction of some of my fellow classmates. These are all gardeners who battle it out with nature every day. Many of them were exasperated and demoralized from losing a war against squash borers, scale, cucumber beetles, or fire ants. They kept pressing for the "good stuff" to use to eliminate these pests. To her credit, our extension agent instructor was fair to chemicals, but kept bringing us back to how the pest lives and how to interrupt it's life cycle in non petroleum product ways. I appreciated this approach. We pour so many poisons into our environment and ultimately our bodies, which is the main reason I decided to go organic.

This holistic approach is called Integrated Pest Management. It's the blending of all effective, economical, and environmentally sound pest control methods into a single but flexible approach to pest control. This includes modifying cultural practices (like crop rotation), using mechanical instead of chemical methods (like pruning), biological, and physical manipulations (like row covers.)

To demonstrate her point, the instructor brought us a treat; chocolate covered crickets. You know I can't resist chocolate, so I tried one. The chocolate was pretty good and the cricket gave it kind of a rice crispy crunch. Now that's a pest management program I can really get behind!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A good idea taken too far.

It was another hot day here in Austin and we had worked in the yard until 11:30 am. Ed built me two more boxes for my raised beds and I prepped a pile of brush so it can be chipped tomorrow. After a quick shower and lunch we headed out to buy groceries. It was 2:30 pm before we got back home and settled. Nap time.

Except it is so freakin hot. We are trying to save on electricity so it's over 85 degrees in the house. Ed wanted to take a nap but couldn't find a cool place to lay down. Then he had a genius idea. Take a cool bath.

We have that awesome tub, after all. Just the perfect size to soak in. We haven't used it much because it's not exactly hot bath weather. Ed turned on the cold water and filled the tub. The cold water is not actually cold. It comes through miles of hot ground, into a water tower, and then through our hot pipes under the house. It's tepid at best - but hey, that's good enough for an overheated human. While laying in the water he had another genius idea. Instead of draining the water out of the tub, bail it out and use it to water the yard!

Of course, I had to have a soak too. Once we both were dried off we set to bailing the water. Luckily the bathroom opens to the patio, so we brought in one of the garbage cans and poured the bath water into it. First we used a white bucket, then Ed got out a Rubbermaid and used it. When we finished I had to mop because the bathroom was a mess and the tub had dirt in it from the white bucket.

Trouble is, all that bailing and cleaning made us hot again. So much for water reclamation. The plants are just going to have to wait for rain.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Water Greed

I cannot emphasize how excited I am over my rainwater harvesting system. We got some rain the other day and my tank is 40% full! I am now using rainwater to hand irrigate parts of my garden. This is a big deal because water is so expensive here in Austin. They double the rates during the summer time to encourage people to conserve. Even the regular rate is way more than we paid in Springfield, Oregon. Not only that, but the water comes from a limestone aquifer which creates a higher pH than plants like. After years of living in the acid soils of the Willamette Valley, it seems bizarre to live in an area that has the opposite problem.

When Innovative Water Solutions installed our system, they tied in every downspout except for one. The very front of the house drained into a downspout that would have just poured water into my driveway. Oh, I don't think so. Even with my ditch works that water would just go to waste. Solution: get a rain barrel.

But you know what? That wasn't so easy. There is not a lot of selection for rain barrels. Most stores carry only one kind, if any, and they aren't very big - only 50 gallons or so. That means that I would have to link two or three together. We broke down and bought two at Home Depot, but they were poorly configured and we would have to retrofit them to get them to drain properly. I could have ordered some better designed containers on-line, but it is expensive to have them shipped. I considered just using a big garbage can, but they aren't sturdy enough to handle the holes that would have to be cut into them for the plumbing. There has to be a way to tie the gutter into the top, and then a tap has to be installed near the bottom to hook the hose to. It also needs to have an overflow hole.

Lucky for us, our friend Blake at Innovative Water Solutions came to the rescue again. The rainwater tanks they use are purchased locally here in Austin. Triple S Feeds carries water storage tanks of all sizes. We jumped in the Mazda and headed south. What a treat it was to go there! It is in a completely out of the way location past the airport and out in the country side. It is really nothing more than a family's barn converted into a feed store. It's located in a hot and dry area that reminded me a lot of Sam's Valley. (I kept expecting to see Kent Bigham wheel up in that big old pickup truck he used to drive.) As soon as I walked into the place I was engulfed in that wonderful smell that only feed stores have. What is it exactly? The mineral blocks? The molasses laced grain mash? The leather goods? The hay and straw stacked up nearby? It had a wooden floor and all kinds of wonderful things stacked up on the shelves. Oh, I just ached with longing and it took everything I had not to fondle every piece of merchandise. Ed and I just looked at each other and sighed.

But! On to the business at hand! These people have serious water tank inventory (and feed racks, and big old water troughs, and fencing. Focus Sheryl! Focus!) We found an exact replica of our rainwater tank, except that it is 319 versus 2500 gallon version. We strapped that dude in the back of the bed and headed on back to civilization.

Ed did a really good job of getting it plumbed in.
From Yard makeover
Once it starts to rain again and I see how much water we collect, I may rig a garbage can to catch the overflow. I can dip my watering can into it or maybe rig a siphon to water my plants in the patio. Or, what if I dug a pond, or rigged up a big water feature, or had a giant compost tea vat? Hmm, see what greed does?

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Blake, from Innovative Water Solutions, pointed out that we could collect water from our air conditioner condenser. It has a discharge pipe that drips water all day; might as well reclaim it and water plants with it.
We brought plenty of 5-gallon white buckets with us from Oregon (I know, but I just couldn't throw them out. You never know when you might need one!) Ed set out immediately to dig a hole.
It was fairly quick work because the ground was so wet. The soil has so much clay in it that it will hold whatever shape you want so you only have to dig out what you need. As soon as he'd finished, he placed a bucket in the hole. I happened to be walking by a short time later and noticed that a toad had hopped inside. We thought that was funny and just left him in there.
From Yard makeover
Ed had to do some additional work on the discharge pipe to get the water to drip into the bucket, so he took it out and set it aside.
The toad seemed unperturbed. Ed finished the pipe work and set the bucket back into the hole. The water soon began to accumulate and we began to worry that the toad would drown. Maybe he/she couldn't climb out because the sides were to slippery. We put in a block of wood to serve as a floating pier, and sure enough the toad climbed onto it.
From Yard makeover

Eventually he did hop out. We still see him/her hanging out near by. We've since installed a flat rock to make it easier to climb out.
From Yard makeover
We get about a half a bucket of water a day - which is a lot when you think about it. We've shown our neighbors and hopefully will inspire them to do the same. We use it to water the various plants in the front yard. Beats paying the city, that's for sure, and we're able to provide a little wildlife habitat for more of the locals. Not to mention entertaining Ed and I. Who needs to go downtown to the 6th street nightclubs when we have a toad to watch?

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Austin is in the middle of a severe drought. Reservoir levels are at new lows, farmers are applying for disaster relief, and water restrictions are tight. Ah, reminds me of the good old days in Talent, Oregon. My whole youth was a quest for water on that dry old hill. We had to haul it in order to irrigate the garden, and sometimes, to provide something for the livestock to drink. Is it any wonder that I have a keen interest in keeping every drop?

I'm in the right city. Austin has a Rainwater Harvesting rebate program for installations of 300 gallons or more. I knew about this before I moved here because This Old House on PBS did one of their projects here a few years ago. The homeowners had a system installed to supplement their irrigation. I looked up the old episode and contacted the company that did their system.

Chris and Blake at Innovative Water Solutions are a complete hoot. I bonded with them immediately. They are former Peace Corp volunteers still out saving the world, even if it is one drop of water at a time. They both have been very enthusiastic about my yard project and have been great to bounce ideas off of. I am so glad I met them and the rest of their crew. I'm very excited about our collection system.

The principle is fairly simple. Channel the rainwater off the roof into the gutters that are tied into a large holding tank.
From Yard makeover

The cistern is a 2,500 poly tank that sits along the side of the house. A small pump has been installed to power the water through my drip system.

I'm hoping that I can water the majority of the time out of my tank and not have to resort to city water. My non-traditional landscape shouldn't need a lot of water so I can concentrate what I have on the vegetables and fruit. Some additional mulching will help as well. The other benefit of using rainwater is that it will be more acidic than the limestone sluiced stuff coming out of the tap. This will help me keep the pH levels in the zone that my food-producing plants should thrive on.

Now if it would only rain!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Compost Challenge

I thought I knew how to make compost. You just throw things in the bin, stir them around, and voila! All cooked and ready to go.

This Texas heat has changed everything.

It is near impossible to keep the pile cooking because it dries out so quickly. I also have a huge infestation of cockroaches and grubs. Again, mostly because I can't keep the pile hot. Ed and I keep adding kitchen scraps. And while I don't have grass clippings, I still get enough leaves and yard waste from the neighbors that should keep everything going. But alas, no rot.

The answer, of course, is to pour the water on it and keep stirring. It's hard to do that when you don't want to go outside because it's over 100 degrees. I didn't want to go outside in Oregon when it was pouring down rain and cold, but I did it anyway. Time to buck up and do the same here. I just have to figure out how to pour all that sweat on the compost so I can keep our water bill down. Hmm...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

My Garden Helper

One of the things I miss from my youth is the constant animal companionship from the farm. Dogs, cats, sheep, cows, pigs, the goat, the horse, chickens, pea fowl and even the occasional little sister followed me everywhere. As an adult I've been lucky to have pets that enjoyed supervising me as I garden, but right now I'm in a bit of a void. Anna, by choice, is a strictly indoor cat and only wanders out on the patio on occasion. Oh sure, there's Ed. But sometimes I'd prefer a little hairier or fully feathered friend.

Help has arrived.

A few weeks ago I noticed a pair of robins hanging out at the bird bath. I, of course, was out digging ditches in the front yard and would take a break to watch them bathe. (I know, indecent of me, but I couldn't turn away.) It didn't take them long to get used to me, and pretty soon they would simply ignore me as they splashed around. I guess they figured I was harmless, because they started following me around as I was digging. At first, they would stay at a discreet distance and wait for me to move off before they flew over to grab whatever I'd exposed. But it wasn't long before they were practically pushing me away to get at the juicy grubs, pill bugs, and occasional earthworm that I turned up with my pitch fork.
From Yard makeover

I guess they know a good thing when they see it, because now they have built a nest in one of the ash trees in front of the house.
From Yard makeover
It's in a prime location because they have a perfect vantage point of all my current ditch projects and can swoop down as soon as I show up to work for them. Ed and I are envious. We wish OUR grocery store was so convenient. I can't wait for the chicks to hatch, but I worry that the robins will be pecking on the windows for me to get outside and get digging. Hey! You! Slacker! Get your butt out here! I've got a family to feed! I guess I should be more careful what I wish for.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sweat of my labor

It is freakin' hot here.  And it's not just me.  Austin is having a record-breaking heat wave right now with temperatures over 100 degrees every day.  It cools down to a brisk 77 degrees at night.  The locals bemoan that it's too early to be this hot, it's not supposed to be like this for another month.  Great.  That means I have three more months of this to look forward to.  

Sunrise is at 6:30 am and I try to be outside as soon as I can see.  There are just two to three hours available for yard work before the heat overwhelms me and sends me scurrying inside.  I can't drink enough water to replace everything that pours off of me and into the ground.  It's best to call it a day and come play on the computer or catch up on housework. (Or watch Ed catch up on housework while I sit on the couch and read a book - I can't lie.)

Even with a reduced schedule, I've been able to make some progress.  The side walkway is dug out and the steps are placed.  I've mounded up the soil in preparation for my citrus trees.  I plan on placing the Meyer Lemon (which has a huge green lemon on it thank you very much) and my Satsuma mandarin orange right next to the house.  I'll have to keep them pruned so they don't grab me as I pass.  These citrus trees have nasty thorns on them - I had no idea - so you have to be careful.
From Yard makeover
Once the trees are planted, they will make a nice screen to hide the air conditioner condenser.  As you can see from the photo I got a little carried away with the Roundup and over-sprayed into the neighbor's yard.  The St Augustine grass throws out rhizomes so I have no doubt it will recover quickly.  Luckily our next door neighbors are really nice and are enthusiastic about my project.  They, of course, will get my SECOND lemon.  Neighborliness only goes so far.

The raised beds made from the fence boards are working out too.  
From Yard makeover
 I fill them with the soil and dead sod from my ditch works projects.  My other neighbor has contributed several bags of dead leaves and yard waste to mix in.  I was hoping to mix in chipped brush but it all seems to end up in pathways instead. 

The chipping is going slowly.  We can't fire up the machine until 10 am (noise ordinances) and by then it is too hot to work.  Ed's been trying to get a least one bag full before he shuts down.  I quickly spread it around and then run back into the house to sit under the ceiling fan.

We're adapting though.  Having the temperature drop to 95 is invigorating and we are outside with the rest of the neighbors taking a walk in the park.  I'm getting really good at Texas barbecue and we eat more salad than we ever have.  I channel grandma Clemmy and stir up a mess of greens with bacon as an additional treat.  It's too hot to make cornbread but I am thinking of getting a cast iron skillet to throw on the BBQ grill.  It'll be just like camping...except I just saw a cockroach as big as the cat.  Dang.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Block (and tackle) Party

This morning I was out digging in the yard when the neighbor came hurrying across the street.  She had awoken to find that another neighbor's hackberry tree had split and fallen on her property.  She was hoping to get some advice on how to cut it up.

Cut it up?  Is she kidding me?  Momma needs mulch.

Turns out the tree fell into two neighbor's yards.  Jack, Cyndi, and I surveyed the damage.  Luckily it hadn't taken out the fence or any of Cyndi's crape myrtles.  We discussed how to cut it up and remove it, and then I pounced for the kill.  Of course I would take all the branches off their hands.  I can even come over and help drag the debris across the street.  Anything too big to chip can be left for the MUD to pick up on Tuesday.

Woo hoo!  No driving around the neighborhood today looking for brush!

It was a lot of fun actually.  The smaller limbs were all carefully cut back until just the large trunk remained.  Ed, Jack , and Gary (Cyndi's husband) used our rope to rig a block and tackle system to take the heavy stuff down piece by piece.  Ed and I have learned to do this from several arborists we've hired over the years.  In just a few short hours the job was done and the party was over.
From Austin Yard
What remained was a pile of limbs ready to run through the chipper.  Ed will let them dry out this week and then chip, chip, chip away next weekend.

I better get digging.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ditch Works

There are two things here in Austin that simply amaze me.  This city knows how to move people and water.

Freeways snake everywhere.  You need to go to the store?  A freeway will get you there.  Apparently the state and or city gets lots of highway dollars.

But the thing that impresses me the most is storm water management.  The storm drains yawn open and could swallow a small person. Concrete or limestone lined dry canals are everywhere. Giant depressions that serve as ball fields or parks dot the landscape.  When I first arrived, I was agape at it all.

Then it rained.

This isn't Oregon rain where you stand outside for twenty minutes before you get wet.  This is Texas rain where you don't last two seconds.  Sheets of water pour from the sky and it hurts if it hits you.  The rain bounces off the ground with amazing agility.  Water starts to stream down every inch of ground; down sidewalks, streets, over lawns, down tree trunks, over the gutters.  The canals fill with great rivers of water that rush downstream to somewhere.  It is both exhilarating and frightening at the same time.  Then, as soon as it stops, twenty minutes later everything is dry as a bone.  Like nothing happened.  Amazing.

It is with this deluge in mind that I am working in the yard creating my own storm water system.  Our house is in a neighborhood that sits on a slope.  Water pours over each others lawns and rushes into the street drains.  Only a few homes even have gutters, so all that roof rain gushes into yards and driveways to join the river down stream.

The amazing thing is that the St Augustine grass that everyone has seems to hold everything together.  People here don't use baggers on their lawnmowers, so the thatch builds up and is tightly knit with the rhizomes of the St Augustine.  It seems like the perfect grass for this kind of weather.

Just one problem.  I killed all of mine with Roundup.  Oh dear.

Luckily, my erosion control specialist sister Jeanette and swampland dweller friend Mark have taught me well.  Build ditches.  So I am.

From Austin Yard
On each side of my driveway I am putting in planting beds.  I dig down about eight inches and pile the soil in the middle to form a berm.  The plants will be placed in the berm.  Mulch created with our chipper goes into the ditches.  The idea here is to slow down the flow of water and hold some of it long enough to let it soak into the mulch and berm.  Hopefully this will decrease run off and my watering frequency.

Two days ago we had a doozy of a storm.  It poured for hours.  Of course it was at night so I couldn't observe my ditches to see if they worked.  I worried that all the mulch Ed had chipped for me was ending up in the Colorado river along with the neighbor's small car.  When I went out the next morning, I was happy to see that none of my mulch had moved.  Plus, my ditches held the moisture into the 100 degree heat of the next day.  Woo hoo!

So today I went out at first light and dug some more.  Why should my down slope neighbor get any of MY water?  IT'S MINE.  ALL MINE.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

One Man's Trash...

As the old proverb says, one man's trash is another man's treasure.  That's certainly true of me.  I have brought my scrounging habit to Austin.

When we lived in Seattle, I forced my husband to drive around with me and scavenge broken pieces of concrete.  I was building a retaining wall in the garden, you see.  In Oregon, we drove around looking for cool rocks (took both of us to lift them) for my raised flower beds.  We also drove around grabbing the neighbor's bagged leaves in the fall so I could mulch everything for winter.

I am happy to announce that I have hit the jackpot here in my Wells Branch neighborhood in Austin.  Our municipal utility district (MUD) has a yard debris program.  All you have to do is place your yard waste in one of their handy containers or pile your brush on the curb, and they send a truck around on Monday to gather it up.  Quite a nice little service - and dang handy for me.  All I have to do is wait for the weekend warriors to get their yard work done and I pop round in my own truck to gather the spoils.  I return home with the loot, get out the pruners and get it all prepped, then get my husband Ed to fire up the chipper.  Voila.  Mulch. Chips for the paths. Compost starter.  Beats paying $25 a yard.
From Scrounging
But wait, there's more.

A couple of days ago I noticed that there were cedar fence panels stacked up in a waste area next to a church.  They were obviously old boards and next to them gleamed the new concrete wall replacement.  I mentioned it to my husband and he said he'd noticed them there for weeks.  Silly man, you think he would learn.  
From Scrounging

Yesterday we hauled the pile to the house.  There are plenty of perfectly good boards to use.  Anything we can't build with can be run through the chipper.  I've already placed my order; Ed is building raised beds for my vegetables.  He's already got the first one done and ready for me to fill.

Let's see, chipping, hauling an old fence, building boxes, what else can I find for Ed to do to support my gardening habit?  Don't answer!
From Scrounging

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Life is full of surprises.  

Just when you think your roots have you so firmly anchored that nothing can move you, something comes along and rips you right out.  I didn't think I would ever leave the Pacific Northwest, but here I am, living in Austin Texas.

My, my, my.  And you know what else?  I like it.  Austin is a great city and it provides me the opportunity to landscape a whole new yard in a climate that is very different from the one I just came from.  

Here in Austin it's all about the heat.  Even though, technically, it is in the same Sunset climate zone as Portland, Oregon (same average rainfall too) it couldn't be more different.  Austin has a humid subtropical climate, characterized by hot summers and mild winters. On average, Austin receives 33.6 inches of rain per year, with most of the precipitation in the spring, and a secondary maximum in the fall. During springtime and sometimes in August, severe thunderstorms occur. Although tornadoes are rare in the city, we've had several warnings.  

Austin summers are usually hot and humid, with average temperatures of approximately 90 degrees Fahrenheit from June until September. Temperatures above 100 °F are common. The highest recorded temperature was 112 °F on September 5, 2000.  For the entire year there is an average of 111 days above 90 °F and 198 days above 80 °F.  I have struck up a friendship with a gal who works at a local nursery here.  She is originally from Bend, Oregon and has lived in Austin for eight years.  She warned me that I have to change in order to survive.  "Just because it's a nice day doesn't mean you go out and work in the yard."  She said that when summer arrives I am to force myself to go into the house at 10 a.m. in order to avoid heat stroke.  She said that her first summer here she would come home and just lay on the floor to cool down.  I can already see what she means.  I have sweat from pores I had no idea I had.  You cannot drink enough water to replace what pours off of you.

Winters in Austin are mild and dry. For the entire year, Austin averages 88 days below 45 °F and 24 days when the minimum temperature falls below freezing. The lowest recorded temperature was −2 °F on January 31, 1949.  Snowfall is rare in Austin, but approximately biannually Austin may suffer an ice storm that freezes roads over and affects much of the city for 24 to 48 hours.   The weather here changes very fast.  And even though it may be chilly in the morning it warms up to 70-80 °F by the afternoon.

So what does this mean to me, gardening wise?  Citrus trees darling, I can have citrus trees.  And I can grow okra, southern greens, summer peas and beans, melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and everything else that pouts because it doesn't get hot enough in Oregon.  What will I miss?  Rhubarb and the smell of lilacs.  Everything has a price.

I'm excited.  I have already sprayed the lawn to kill the grass.  I have a contractor coming in the next few weeks to install a rainwater collection system (all that research into cisterns for our Alaska project is paying off), and I've gotten some help with an edible landscape design.  I've signed up to become a Master Gardener and have my first application interview next week.  Another gal at another local nursery that I met is on the board and she says I have a good shot of getting in.

Now that Ed and I are all moved in and settled, I'll do a better job of keeping everyone up to date on what's happening in my yard.  And guess what?!  My Meyer Lemon tree is blooming. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Oregon Eden

The days are longer, the sun shows up now and again, but it still isn't really Spring. My restless heart yearns for the sweet green shoots of newly planted seeds, the first tentative blossoms from peas, the riot of color that erupts from the flowering plums; but I must be patient. For solace I take myself on virtual strolls through my favorite parks and gardens; remembering what everything smelled like, hearing the birds and water, letting my minds eye settle on every delightful nook. Inevitably I end up at Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon.

Lithia Park is my Eden. I grew up on a dry hillside in Southern Oregon, and every now and then my Mom would swing by Lithia Park when we had errands in Ashland. It was always green, cool, and lush. Plants are crammed into beautiful tapestries. Paths snake through the woodland where the mallard ducks rush out of the undergrowth and demand you feed them. Ashland creek was always inviting and there was a little area where you can go wading. If you stand in the right place on the footbridge you can watch the trout swim by. There is a small playground where I would play on the swings (okay, I still do at every opportunity.) In the 60's there was even a zoo. It has two duck ponds; the lower often had swans.

I've had many life events in that park. My first sighting of a naked hippy, my first memory of my grandpa playing in the Old Time Fiddlers group, my many swigs of that awful Lithia water, my first honest to goodness picnic lunch, my high school graduation, and countless walks with friends and family from one end of the park to the other. Heaven. Please go there if you are in the area, but don't forget about the ambushing ducks - they get really cranky if you don't have treats for them.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Winter Fireworks

From Yard

The darkness presses everywhere this time of year. Even though the days are getting noticeably longer, the drizzle or fog shroud of a western Oregon winter can make for very gray days. It seems that spring will never arrive.

But in the front yard an old friend is having a party. Defying the freezing rain, wind, and just general nastiness, a burst of color shoots into air like exploding fireworks. The witch hazel is blooming.

I remember the first time I ever saw these little wonders putting on their extravagant show. Friends and I were trawling our favorite Seattle nursery one January, clutching our Starbucks (mocha with everything for me,) presumably there to look at camellias. We walked down the aisle and there on scraggly branches was an amazing site. Sulfur yellow, watermelon red, and camp fire orange blooms were bursting out of the gray. You could hear the cannons thunder they were so loud. I'd grown up around hazels my whole life but I had no idea these plants had such amazing blooms. I applauded and spilled my mocha. I grabbed one before it could skitter away and planted it in my Federal Way garden.

When I moved into my home here in Springfield, I again found a nursery and hunted it down. This time it was in the middle of summer but I was undaunted. The staff didn't think they had any and waived me over to the shrub section. I spent a half an hour before I spied it. It was tucked between sun burnt rhodies and a sad spirea. Score! It's been rockin' my Willamette Valley winter ever since.

My next garden will feature a little hedge, I think, resplendent with all the available colors. I can't wait.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Victory Garden

I have always tried to have a utilitarian landscape wherever I have lived. My rules were that the plant had to either be food or could be used for flower arranging. Either way it had to end up on the table. This year I am going to take it one step further. I am going to try to convert as much as my yard as possible to vegetable gardening.
Every day we read about something new that is out there in the food supply trying to kill us. The miracles of modern farming and food preservation means that mass produced substances move from market to table astonishingly fast. Even when problems are discovered it is often too late to prevent harm. If you ever get a chance to visit a food factory, whether it be a cannery, egg farm, or slaughter house, you'll see what I mean. There simply aren't enough humans available to inspect every item that is produced and packaged.
I'm not naive enough to believe that we should stop producing food this way. I'm a farm girl after all. Mass production means cheaper, and yes, more reliable goods are available for everyone. If everything was "hand reared" no one would be able to afford to buy it.
Growing your own food and preserving it has it's own risks too. The neighborhood cats, rats, dogs, birds, and even toddlers can contribute body-borne pathogens to your soil, e. coli being the tamest bug you can get. Then there is the helpful home canner who unwittingly serves botulism as the first course. It's a dangerous world.
But the good thing, in my opinion, is at least I have some measure of control over the food I ingest. I know where the cats like to spray, know how much to rot a pile of chicken manure, know how to wash my own pesticide free vegetables, know how to spot a bad jar of home canning.
From Yard
Which brings me back to the yard. My first piece to tackle this year is the front courtyard. I am moving the rhododendrons, peonies, and roses to the perimeter against the wooden fence. Perversely this makes the yard more "normal" because it opens it up from just a path through a jungle of plants to a lawn area of sorts. I plan on using this area to grow onions, tomatoes, thyme, and dill. Hopefully I will be able to arrange it in a way that will be pleasing to the eye as well as, eventually, the palate. Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Leaf Mold - Hot or Cold?

I am a scrounge. There, I said it. I blame it on my mother. Sorry Mom, but you know it's true. Okay, so maybe Dad was a bad influence too. You don't have to remind me of his "junk" pile next to the shop.

I grew up in rural Southern Oregon with, let's just say, "resourceful" parents. Mom always carried a shovel around with her in case she was driving by an interesting plant or rock she just had to have. Dad was not above throwing a piece of metal, abandoned fencing, or any other thing that might be useful into the back of the pickup or in the chain box on the logging truck. When the state redid the freeway, he came home with several loads of concrete road bed. Therefore it is not my fault that I am forever snagging broken sidewalk pieces, interesting sticks, conifer cones, pretty stones, and yard debris from the neighbors.

My favorite thing to do though, is to pack off leaves. Leaves are the perfect garden amendment. I use them instead of bark for weed suppression. I tuck them around my winter vegetables like a snug blanket. I spread them in my garden paths to keep the clay from sucking me down to China. And I make leaf mold. I am lucky to live in Springfield because the city has a leaf pickup program in the fall. All they ask is that you bag your leaves and leave them on the curb. Every fall my neighbors dutifully line the street with plastic globes of perfectly good leaves, conveniently poised for me to drive around and pluck them like ripe fruit. No fuss, no muss. I am in scrounge heaven.
From Yard
Normally mold is the bane of any gardener. But in this case the term is used to describe the process of leaf decomposition. There are two ways to get those leaves broken down: a hot compost process or a cold "mold" process. I use both.

A lot of the leaves I gather are raked up from the street. I am an organic gardener and don't really want petroleum product residue in my soil. These leaves are spread out on my garden paths. It usually takes about a full year for these to grind down into nothingness. The rainy Oregon weather and constant foot traffic both contribute to the process, as well as the natural fungi that mold away the cellulose fiber.
From Yard
The bags that contain leaves from yards are used as mulch. My closest neighbors already give me their grass clippings and yard debris. In the fall they usually just use the lawn mower to pick up fallen leaves as they try to get in those last grass cuts in. These leaves go right on top of the soil or are added to the compost bin. The added grass clippings make it a hot process and the whole mix breaks down in just a few months.

Any leaves that aren't mixed with grass clippings are used as plant blankets or left in the sack.
From Yard
I add water if the leaves aren't already soaked and tie the bags off. I let the mix stew in their black plastic homes until spring. Part of my vegetable bed prep is to upend the bags and mix them in with existing soil and fresh compost. The resulting seed bed is light and fluffy and ready to germinate something for me to eat.

Not bad for scrounged mold.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

In Pursuit of a Greener Greenhouse

I am determined to have an off-the-grid ecological sound greenhouse. My friends in the horticulture industry tell me it can't be done. They are right to a large degree; the output from my endeavor will never match the yields they get with their full-powered pest-free hot houses. Lucky for me I am not trying to support a family or a business. Yet.

There are commercial growers out there that are trying to change the equation. Many use non toxic methods to control pests. Some use solar energy to power fans, hot water to heat benches, even oil or wood burners to heat air. I take my inspiration from them.

My greenhouse is a cobbled together affair. I’ve successfully pieced it together after salvaging it from my cousin’s property. There have been many times where I had to fabricate solutions in order to get it erected. It’s been a good problem solving exercise. I’m not too proud to admit that the neighbors got an earful on those occasions where things weren’t falling into place. Luckily young children don’t live near.

Today I took the first step toward my greener greenhouse, I installed louver openers. I know, kind of anticlimactic, but let me tell you the features of my 1st solar powered endeavor. I got it from Charley’s Greenhouse & Garden. Charley’s is a local company, well, what passes for local in the Northwest – they are in Mount Vernon, Washington. For years I have spent hours pouring over their catalog and now stalk them on-line. I saw the Sesam Liberty Louver Openers appear a few years ago and considered buying them to operate cold-frame lids. They are made in Denmark. The trick to them is a slender black canister that is filled with wax. When the wax heats it moves a piston that pushes the louvers open. It is supposed to open at temperatures ranging from 60° F to 77°. They suggest you buy the 5-blade louver window to go with it for $119. As you can see, I stuck with my rusty hand me down. The opener is designed for side mounted operation. Of course, my louvers have center mounted mechanisms. Once again I had to find a solution. A trip to Jerry’s hardware in Springfield yielded a threaded bar, some locking washers and properly fitting nuts. Hopefully it will work. It’s a sunny day out today. Maybe it will get hot enough for some action! Isn’t that all a girl really wishes for anyway?