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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Animal Slave

Animals have enslaved me.

Over the past couple of years there have been some interesting programs on PBS and articles in Psychology today by Nigel Barber, Ph.D. about humans domesticating animals. Dr. Barber writes that dogs and humans domesticated each other, producing a symbiotic relationship that benefited both species.

Symbiotic. Right. Tell that to my cat and the birds that bully me in my yard.

I am quite the attraction in my neighborhood for bird opportunists. I have several projects that require a lot of digging, and as I am moving soil around, I uncover a lot of grubs. Big white juicy grubs.

At first I just squished them, but there were so many that I started packing a cottage cheese container to toss them into. My thinking was that I would drown them and then just add them to the compost.

However, there was a Robin that started hanging out. Pretty soon I was just tossing the grubs to her. She started following me around like a chicken and ended up building her nest in my front tree.

Last summer a Cardinal and a Blue Jay regularly patrolled my vegetables and ate up the cabbage worms that kept attacking my cole crops. In an attempt to save my cabbage, I installed a row cover. As I was clipping it into place the Blue Jay flew over and started scolding me for covering up the groceries. The language he used! Turns out I should of listened because I lost the crop despite my best efforts.

This weekend I began digging out an area for a flagstone patio. As soon as the first spade full of soil hit the wheelbarrow, a Mockingbird flew in to investigate. Yes, you guessed it, pretty soon I’m tossing grubs to him. When I stopped to take a break he flew onto the clothesline and started yelling at me to get back to work.

So much for mankind being the dominant species. It’s kind of humbling, really, to think that I am so easily domesticated by my feathered friends. I try to find some dignity in that at least I don’t spend hundreds of dollars on birdseed like other folks I know. There has to be limits to how far we humans should go in accommodating the beast of field and air.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must sign off. The cat wants to be scratched.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Grandpa, Why are their Christmas lights weird?



This was the question posed by my neighbor’s grandson. He couldn’t wait to tell us how he tried to explain that we were protecting the citrus trees from freezing, but his grandson just couldn’t process the information.

That’s okay. I’m used to being misunderstood. But you can bet that the same grandson will be presented with an orange next summer.

Frost protection is a tricky business. I’ve often joked with Ed that what I really need is a couple of smudge pots. There’s nothing like the aroma of burning oil on a frosty morning. It smells like victory.

Instead, I use plastic and lights to ward off the cold. I drape 6 mil clear plastic over bent PVC pipe hoops, and then fasten it with clips I made so it doesn’t blow off. To protect my trees I used the same idea of forming a frame over them then added floating row cover or plastic. The trees are still small enough that this contraption works. I’ll have to come up with a new strategy as they grow.



Finding lights has not been easy. We go to the thrift stores to try to find the old fashioned kind that emit heat. The trouble is that you can't find replacement bulbs. Eventually I think I’ll just have to hang a heat light.

I wonder what the grandson will say about that?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Never For Want Of Projects

I am very project oriented in all aspects of my life. I have a knack for seeing the big picture, creating strategies, goals, and tasks, and then implementing plans to see the project to completion. Hopefully it also requires me to learn new skills or to work with people I haven’t had the pleasure of collaborating with. Once the project is completed though, I am lousy at maintenance. Doing the same thing bores me to death and I find that every time I am in that situation, I end up reinventing the process and creating a new project.

My garden is no exception. If I don’t have a project to work on, I am completely paralyzed. Weeds grow unmolested; watering is sporadic, harvests done as second thoughts. All that hard work and then I can’t be bothered to weed or irrigate? It makes no sense why I am this way. I trick myself by setting appointments to make sure I get out and do the job (just one hour, that’s all you have to do I tell myself.) Anything that isn’t on my drip irrigation system usually burns up in the heat.

But luckily I am pretty good at dreaming up things to do, or re-do. Our next-door neighbor got a new job and moved to Waco, and as part of their move they gave us their smoker. We already have a gas grill, but the smoker allows me to cook items over charcoal and throw in some wood smoke to boot. We’ve cooked ribs, turkey, and chicken so far. The problem is, we don’t really have a place for it. Because it uses charcoal for fuel, it is not a good idea to put it on the deck or near the wood siding of the house. We have a large area near our rain tank, but the ground is covered in bark mulch. It is a disaster waiting to happen. The solution is for me to install a flagstone patio. Ah, a project. And it requires digging. Even better. Suddenly I spring back to life after a languid summer of hiding from the heat inside the house.

Of course, part of the area that I want to place the patio, has a pile of rocks on it. I was saving them to finish a ditch project. This weekend my ambition surged and I leaped into action. Tropical storm Hermine blew out my berm in a couple of places, so I needed to make some repairs and alterations. I created an overflow area in the low spot so the water exits in an orderly manner instead of over the top of the berm. I’ve dug a secondary ditch to dissipate the flow into the neighbor’s wide expanse of a lawn. The area along the back fence has been lined with that rock to slow things down and direct the overflow over another large lawn area.
There shouldn’t be much excess in a normal 20-minute downpour. But just in case we get a really big storm, I’m ready for it now.

The rock has been moved, a ditch dug; now for my patio. Ah, it’s nice to have a project.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Here is Something Truly Frightening - The Elitist Grows Stronger

I am worried. I’m becoming even more of a snob - almost to the point of being militant. And it’s about food.

I love eating, cooking, and growing my own food, and it’s all done with pride. It has resulted with changes in how I shop and spend my restaurant dollars. But I am noticing a change in myself and I am trying to find the root of it.

I think I am turning into Alice Waters.

Part of it is because of my immersion into the gardening community here in Austin and on the Internet. Twitter and Master Gardeners have put me in contact with people that I don’t interact with via the job or neighborhood. I have been able to meet individuals with specific agendas about food preparation, sustainability, farming, food independence and a return to “slow food.” I have been bombarded with messages from films such as Food Inc, An Inconvenient Truth, and articles/books from Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. It reminds me of the transformation I went through in my coming of age discovery of the environmental movement in the 1970’s. Then I was a raw teenager beginning to explore the world outside of my isolation in rural Oregon. I guess it’s only fitting that in my 50’s I am exploring quality of life since I can now see mortality and appreciate how fragile everything is.

Which brings me to salad dressing.

My garden has provided us with some incredible meals. One day this summer I was preparing a killer salad and reached inside the fridge for the salad dressing. As I twisted the lid off a huge wave of indignation overtook me. What? Store-bought dressing on this magnificent plate of greens!?!!?!?!?!? Not only that, but what assortment of chemicals will be polluting my bug-battled organic produce?!?!?!?!? Is this yet ANOTHER evil plot by Monsanto? I sat the bottle down, and with a frenzy not even Julia Child could muster, I made my own dressing (red wine vinegar, olive oil, garlic, herbs, chopped pepper.)

The following Saturday I was at the farmers market and bought some local Texas olive oil. On my way home I stopped at Whole Foods and bought every variety of vinegar they had so I can expand my dressing repertoire. I spent an hour on the intranet looking up recipes. I find myself preaching to others that should reject store-bought dressing and make their own. I find myself growing smugger by the minute.

Its just salad dressing.

I think it’s great that Alice Waters and I can be smug. However, I don’t know that it really solves anything. I think it is one thing to enjoy handcrafting something but quite another to criticize others for choosing mass-produced goods. I think it’s better to serve as a good example than as a foaming, holy-than-thou fanatic.

So I take a deep breath. I go out to the yard and pick my produce, package it up and take it to work. I take some of my salad dressing too. Already I have shared the recipe and have inspired others to grow their own food.

Now, isn’t that better?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

House Beautiful - At Least For Company

What is it about having people over that suddenly transforms me into a cleaning, decorating, landscaping, and cooking machine? I mean, come on, I spend time on the couch under the fan, but it's not like I'm a total slob. My garden is in pretty good shape. I have food in the house. The dust bunnies aren't bigger than the cat.

And yet I am in frenzy.

Of course the cause of all this is my hosting a Master Gardener event next spring where perfect strangers will be looking at my yard. That doesn't really frighten me, but it's all those Master Gardeners that intimidate me into a puddle. These people know their stuff and I have to be ready! Of course they are perfectly nice people and are always kind to me. I have nothing to worry about.

Still.

I've been in sort of a paralysis, a kind of summer doldrums, trying to get my ideas solidified so I can finish up the back yard. I haven't laid all the bark down and I need to configure some sort of pavers in the paths. All of those examples I have clipped out of Fine Gardening and Horticulture seem just too elegant (and expensive) for what I need.

Lucky for me, I've gotten a nudge. I was able to come home a little early on Friday and spent some time with my neighbor. Cindy is very artistic and has such an eye for things. She has pavers, plants, and all sorts of objects in her garden that are arranged so artfully. I dragged her across the street (don't worry, she left with cucumbers and cantaloupe) to throw some ideas at her. We had a good discussion and I gained a little direction. Then on Saturday I spent the morning with another group of gardeners. We talked about landscaping and various gardens that had recently been visited and I became so inspired by the conversations that a couple hours later I was looking at rock.

I think I know how I'm going to finish everything now. Today I worked on the last ditch in the backyard and moved the compost bin. I've budgeted out what I need for bark and patio pavers. I've got Ed working on an arbor. Everything is in motion.

So in a frenzy I go, trying to get everything in its place. I don't know why I do this; I guess it's out of fear of rejection or something. I'd spend time on the couch trying to analyze it, but I've got a garden to get ready!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pretty Little Things

My days of cottage style gardening are over for now. A whole yard filled with nothing but flowers is not what I'm currently doing, gardening-wise, but I do miss them.

Luckily for me I live in a place where wildflowers are exalted. Austin is, after all, the home of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Her program to seed Texas roadways makes the spring here a kaleidoscope of color. There is also a local farm that raises flower seed, which is where I got the sunflowers pictured.

So now I'm thinking maybe I can do this flower thing after all. I can plant native seed all over my berms and between my fruit trees. Those blue bonnets are nitrogen-fixing legumes and will increase soil fertility and tilth. Not only that, but the native flowers will attract bees and beneficial insects that will help my garden thrive.

So I guess all those years of subscribing to Fine Gardening and longing to see the great landscapes of the British Isles is going to pay off after all. Right here. In Texas of all places. I think Lady Bird would be proud.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Gardening in Central Texas - Lessons Learned


This month is my one-year anniversary of gardening in Central Texas. It hardly seems possible that a year has passed since I first put my hands in the sticky muck that passes for soil in my back yard. My first two plantings were some sad looking tomatoes and peppers from Lowe's. I just jammed in them in a strip of raised bed left by the previous owners, and hoped for the best. The best didn't really happen, because I was about to be KO'd by the hottest summer in Austin history. But even so, there have been many lessons learned since then, and hopefully my fall gardening season will kick off a little more successfully.

1. It is freakin' hot here. The hottest summer non-withstanding, the heat here is so much more intense than Oregon. Those 100-degree days in August are nothing compared to the every day onslaught here in Austin. It doesn't cool down at night so a stressed plant stays that way. The bonus though, is that these warm nights really aid the growth cycle and ripens fruit a lot faster.

2. You cannot water enough. I didn't understand why everyone was so upset when water restrictions said you could only irrigate once a week. I'm used to that being just fine and watering any more frequently promotes shallow root growth. Not here. Some of my vegetables and fruit get watered every day during the hot spell. During fruit set I will hand water AND drip irrigate. Believe me, I am not overwatering. I use my trowel or garden fork to dig in the soil to find the moisture zone and spend many days never finding it. I am so thankful that I installed my rainwater collection system.

3. Pestilence rules. If there is an obnoxious bug on the planet, it is sure to be thriving here in Central Texas. I have never seen such a plague of pests. Cabbage loopers, stink and pill pugs, leaf-footed bugs, caterpillars, little black beetles that mowed down my mustard, and a host of others that I discover every day. As I build my back yard habitat I hope to attract just as many beneficial insects, but right now it's just me out there doing battle. I have had to rethink my entire approach to what to plant. Up until now I mixed my vegetative and flowering plants together in the same bed. Not any more. In order to harvest food for the table, I have to keep the vegetative plants under row covers. I lost my kale and cabbage because I didn't get the covers on soon enough. That won't happen again. I am also shopping online for a bug vacuum. I have my eye on one that has a zapper inside. Payback's a bitch baby.

4. The growing seasons are actually shorter. The heat and the cold really shorten the available days for healthy plant growth. This is a problem for something like tomatoes that take forever to ripen. And worse, bloom set stops when the temperature reaches 95 degrees. The only way to combat this is to start seeds very early. I now have plastic to go over my hoops and will be raising seedlings as early as November. I need those plants vigorous and ready to bloom in March. However, notice I wrote "seasons". We have two awesome seasons to grow in, making this my most productive food patch ever.

5. It will freeze here. That hot summer really lulled me into thinking I live in the tropics. Not so. We had several freezes and I lost two of my precious citrus trees and had frozen pipes in the bathroom because I was careless. Not next time. I will actually put up Christmas lights in November - on the plants, not the house, and will let the faucets drip on cold nights. I also have plastic covers ready to go. Bring it on!

It has been such a blast learning to garden in a new climate. And even though I have had some spectacular failures, my successes are far greater. Home grown citrus, lemon grass, and cantaloupe bigger than my head, sweet corn in June - I really couldn't ask for more. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for me to check my inventory and get ready for fall planting. Yee haw!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Let there be dragons and other monsters

There are monsters in my yard.

Every day in the garden is a complete adventure because I am constantly discovering creatures I have never seen, or have never seen such a variety of, before. Dragonflies are an example. The breadth of dragon and damselflies is simply amazing. I have never encountered such colors: carmine, bottle green, lipstick red, orange, Sapphire blue, white, and variations in between. I am constantly running to the house for the camera and the computer to try to figure out what I am seeing. Check out this website that has over 100 listed just for Travis County! Yesterday I saw a new one that just knocked me over. My digital camera just won't focus on these guys, so click here to see a picture of this male Plathemis lydia. I have the females too but they don't have that stunning white abdomen.

There are also a plethora of caterpillars that are munching various plants to the ground. The only one I knew by sight was the swallowtails. Imagine my horror when I saw these monsters chowing down my citrus trees! They are HUGE. I'd never seen such a thing. Turns out they are swallowtails too. They are a type of black swallowtail that specializes in citrus trees. I have them everywhere and it is very, very, hard to allow them to stay. My poor trees are still just recovering from the freeze and don't have a lot of leaves to spare. One of my limes died back to the graft, so I allowed the rootstock to go ahead and grow. My thinking was that I could use it as a swallowtail cafeteria and move the other caterpillars off my good trees. Well, that was a good idea that lasted for about a week. The new growth couldn't keep up with all the "relocated" creatures. Now I am picking them off and rotating them around to whatever is growing most robustly at the moment. Thank goodness the cardinals, blue jays, and anole lizards are helping me keep the population in check so I don't have to resort to caterpillar-cide.

There are also all kinds of interesting bees and wasps that hang about. They are very brightly colored also and vary in size. I found a dead wasp in the garden that makes the largest hornet I've ever seen look like a ladybug. Between them and the giant cockroaches, I can see a nightmare cooking some hot restless night. Right now I also have a swarm of leaf-footed bugs in my black-eyed peas. Every time I go to pick them I get thwacked in the face with a rapidly flying-away bug. They are about a half inch long and have a long needle snout for boring into things. Lovely creatures. Here's a link if you want to marvel at them yourself. They are also known as "stink bugs" so they aren't one I want to handle for a photo.

When the air warms up in spring, the air becomes resplendent with the sound of cicadas. Their chittering can be quite a cacophony during the day and I am always amazed at how they call to each other from tree to tree. Since they are high overhead, you usually don't see them unless a bird has dropped one. I was lucky to catch this newly hatched one underneath the front yard rain barrel. It is called a Superb Green Cicada and I don't think it could be more aptly named. It really is a pretty thing for such a big bug. Their white grubs are commonly found in lawns. I'm always finding them as I dig ditches or turn over soil. I usually just throw them out in the road so they can become street food for the jays and mocking birds that are always supervising me.

I think my fascination with all of this is mainly because they are so new to me. I've always been interested in things in nature and discovering all these new creatures sends me back to Mrs. Holdridges third grade classroom. It was there that we used to do science projects and hatch out Monarchs in jars. I find that same sense of joy and wonder bubbles out of me as I drag poor Ed out of the house to look at some new thing I've found.

Why just yesterday I was out weeding and came across a tiny reddish-brown toad. We also had hawks nest in the neighbor's tree and their two chicks have fledged. Ed and I watched them chase two tomato-thieving squirrels, and then later one landed on my patio trellis. I tell you, all this wildlife sure saves on zoo admissions!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bushwhacking Texas Style

To be honest, I didn't even look at the package. All I saw was "sunflower collection" and I immediately grabbed the item off the shelf at the Wildflower Farm. I love sunflowers. I have always had several in the yard and delight in finding new colors and schemes to try. They are just gorgeous on the plant and in the vase. Plus they are easy to grow and are relatively pest free.

Then I moved to Texas.

First of all, there is some sort of caterpillar that has just mowed through most of them. I think the likely suspect is a pretty little Bordered Patch (Chlosyne lacinia) buterfly that's been hanging out. I have learned not to immediately drown caterpillars in soapy water until I have identified the adult, and in this case, they were only eating the sunflowers. Plus, these plants are HUGE. I planted them on the berm between my fruit trees, and they have reached a height of at least ten feet. The side branches are over an inch thick and the trunk is at least three inches at the base. A little defoliation was in order just to let some light in for the apple trees.

But then the caterpillars got their fill and the dang plants recovered. Pretty soon, my trees completely disappeared. Today I decided I'd better tackle the job or lose the trees. It took me over an hour to trim up two sunflowers and to chop up the branches into the compost bin. Whose ever heard of having to trim up a sunflower to save a tree? I mean really?



Next time I think I'll read the package.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Deep in the heat of Texas

Summer is here in full force. We have humid, 90-degree days (although balmy compared to the 100+ weather of last summer) and the nights are not much cooler.

It is these temperatures that bring me closer to understanding my southern genes. The heat and humidity really take it out of me, and I find myself moving, talking, and even thinking much slowly. Suddenly things lose their urgency as I gravitate toward the porch or any piece of furniture under a ceiling fan where I can find a little air movement.

The easy ways of my grandparents and great aunts suddenly spring to mind. Those folks couldn’t be hurried into anything and the lazy way they framed their thoughts sometimes seemed alien to me. I’ve always been prone to rushing around and doing too much at once. The only time the pace slowed was when I spent time with the McCasland clan. It was from grandma that I learned to love chickens, corn bread, bacon fat, greens, and anything else she would let me help cook. Grandpa and I spent many hours sitting in the boat waiting for the crappy to bite on Emigrant Lake a tonic for an A-personality granddaughter prone to talk too much. It seems he never ran out of stories about Arkansas and I never tired of listening.

I think of Jack and Clemmy often now. I think I can understand them a little better and I wish they were both alive for me to tell them so. I’d like to tease Grandma and tell her how I relish greens and bacon. Grandpa would be urging me to drop a line into the Colorado River to see how big a bass I could pull in. I hear the crappie bite really well on lawn grubs I can hear him say. I would tell them about my lazy summer days and how now I can appreciate the phrase “come and sit a spell.” I would show them my garden and laugh as the drying pods on my black-eyed peas pop and crackle in the sun. We’d talk about the merits of the tomato varieties I’ve planted and wonder how much taller these sunflowers are going to get. We would sit in the chairs that Ed made out of fence boards, swat at the mosquitoes and admire the fireflies.

I could never imagine the life I lead now. I could never even conceive of slowing things down and actually enjoying the heat of the day. I had no idea that the south would ooze out of my pores like the gallons of sweat I didn’t know I could produce. I didn’t know I had a southerner in me. “I swan Sheri”, I can hear Grandpa say, “we knew it all the time.”

Sunday, June 6, 2010

If only things were different

Yesterday I ran across some news that struck me profoundly. The first was a picture of an oil-soaked bird in the Gulf of Mexico http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127482022. Then there was a post about an Prescott Arizona elementary school mural that is going to be “whitened” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/04/arizona-elementary-school-mural_n_601436.html. Last, a thought-provoking article in Mother Earth News discussing the morality of industrial agriculture (among other things) http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-community/the-truth-about-vegetarianism.aspx

At first I became very sad and wondered how it could possibly be that we live in a world where such things happen, where people cap cop such attitudes. Why doesn’t somebody do something? Why don’t people see how wrong they are? Why are these mistakes made over and over?

Then my indignant and morally superior attitude hit me right back in the face. Want to change the world? Change yourself.

What these three articles have done is turn me completely inward to evaluate what role I have played in perpetuating a society that allows us to destroy ourselves and others without a backward glance. What is it about us that require one to be right and the other wrong? Why do we feel the need to bully each other or nature into submission? What genetically predisposes us to dominate, destroy, isolate, and control?

I think part of it has to do with our complete disengagement with community and family. We live an anonymous existence that allows us to write things on the Internet or hurl insults from a speeding car without any fear of retribution. We are free to air our hurts and hatreds, perhaps hoping that if we spew it from our bodies it will somehow heal us. Sort of like throwing trash on the ground; get rid of it and it’s no longer my problem. But it doesn’t heal, it doesn’t go away, it just gets worse.

I am not above all of this. I am part of the problem. These past years have not been fun for me and I now can see that the root of the problem has been inside me all along. The anger and viciousness I have hurled at others to express my dissatisfaction with life makes me no better than those people in Prescott. My assertion that other people have it easier than me and that I deserve better means I am just as greedy as BP oil trying to take shortcuts in order to make more money. My speechifying about my greater understanding of the food chain due to my agricultural background still sees me going to the grocery store for the bulk of my meals – despite what I claim to know.

Here is what I have learned. There is no Right. There is no One Way. There is only Me and what I do right Now. Want to change the world? Start right here, with me. Want people to treat me better? Start right here, with me. Think other people have it easier? I have a perfect example of an acquaintance that is wealthy and is one of the most miserable people I know. It’s better to be me with all my flaws and anemic bank accounts.

Here is what I am saying to myself. Live your life the best as you can with less. Grow as much of your own food as you can. Sew your own clothes or buy used. Drive less. Consume less – I mean, how many pairs of shoes do you need any way? Treat others with more kindness. Stop envying people you think have more. More is meaningless. Things don’t matter, they are just things. Stop trying to change other people; instead, be an example. Stop doing things that make you crazy. Stop hanging out with people that make you crazy. Seek a higher path instead of judging others.

Wishing things were different will not make it so, becoming different will. Change the world one smile, one more vegetable garden inspired, one less mile driven, one less object bought at a time.

This I can do. So can you.

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: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/travis/lg_e_vegetables.htm. 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!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Austin Texas, One Year Later


It's been a year since we moved here, which is very hard for me to believe. So many things have changed that sometimes I lose my breath. Some things have turned out better than expected, others not so much, and I am an awfully long way from my friends and family, but all in all I am very glad to be living in Austin, Texas.

One of the things that has been an absolute hoot is starting fresh in a new yard. This house was a virtual blank canvas and I have enjoyed turning into something that shouts "Sheryl lives here!" Some of my neighbors may disagree - after all, I had the best lawn on the street prior to my flirtation with Roundup. However, I remain very satisfied with how it is shaping up.

The Texas sedge I planted is flowering and setting seed. Hopefully that means that this fall it will fill in quite a bit when the rains return. My shrubs are blooming and setting berries. The wildflowers are growing and starting to bloom. The red Yuccas I transplanted from the back are throwing out flower spears and will be awesome in a few days.
The vegetable garden is the best I have ever planted. The raised beds Ed made out of scrounged fence boards are just the right size and the hoops enable me to put on row cover whenever needed. It was an idea I was developing for the Alaska project and I'm glad to be able to put it to use here in Austin. I've been concentrating on the garden's foundation plants and haven't been able to put in my usual riot of flowers, but my Mutabilis roses are doing what they can to make up for it. They don't need a lot of water and are very easy keepers. I have five of them planted around and all of them are cheerfully blooming.

The bird baths, mulch, and large trees in front also attract quite a few birds. I've never lived in a place with so much bird song - and that includes growing up on Yank Gulch. The cardinals, doves, wrens, chickadees, starlings, grackles, and a bunch of other tweety birds I haven't identified are constantly singing. I think my favorite has to be the Mockingbirds though. I have never seen more enthusiastic singers. They have really long phrases and are incredibly loud for their size. They also have funny personalities and are fun to watch. They seem to have it in for the squirrels. It's not unusual to see them chasing a rodent down the street or along a fence line. I've even seen two of them faced off in a duel - the bird won of course.

There are other awesome birds like hawks and egrets that hang about. We get migrations of Purple Martins and Monarch butterflies this time of year. We also have these huge turtles - about dinner plate size or larger, that you can see in ponds and sloughs around town. Soon the cicadas and fireflies will be active with their own shows. There is a lot to be thankful for and to appreciate.

So I'm glad that fate (and Kent - even though he ran off and returned to Oregon) brought us here. I think leaving the Northwest has been good for me all and all. Everyone needs a little adventure and risk once in a while to put things in perspective and starting out fresh has been both fun and terrifying. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going out on the deck to enjoy the evening. Ed has my chair waiting.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Psst, little catapiller, do you want some candy?

Hello, my name is Sheryl, and I have lured a butterfly into my garden. Not only that, but I encouraged eggs to be deposited for the sole purpose of entrapping a young, innocent butterfly child in my back yard. I am unrepentant.

I am thrilled to report that the dozen fennel plants I put in the ground last fall are doing their job. I was hoping that a swallowtail butterfly would lay some eggs on them so I could hatch butterflies in the yard. It worked! I've been inspecting my plants since it warmed up a few weeks ago and discovered the tiniest little creature last weekend. He was barely as long as your fingernail and just a sliver of a little thing. Today he has ballooned into a two-inch behemoth who is munching down on one of my bronze fennel plants. I am hoping that he continues to grow and doesn't end up as lunch.

I've got eggs on other stems, but I think they are too bright yellow to be Swallowtails. I suspect these are from the Gulf Fritillary butterflies that I've also seen hanging around. I really don't care, I'm just honored that my fennel was chosen as a nursery.

I've also scattered dill seeds and have some tropical milkweed starts growing on the patio. I am hoping to lure some Monarchs with these. And then of course there are the citrus trees. There is a particular Swallowtail that loves to eat those leaves and now that I know what they look like I won't pick them off like I did last summer.

I also found a snake today while I was hilling the potatoes. I am not sure what kind it is, but I think it is a Rough Earth Snake, Virginia striatula. It was a tiny little thing and at first I just though it was an earthworm - but he wasn't moving. When I picked it up for a closer look it stopped playing dead and wriggled out of my hand. Lucky for me I'm not afraid of snakes. This particular kind of snake eats slugs, snails and earthworms. It likes to live in leaf litter - which is where I found it, so I've got plenty of habitat!



From a sterile patch of lawn has emerged a neighborhood hangout. To see that all my hard work has not gone unnoticed by the local wildlife is immensely satisfying. Now if I can just figure out what will eat the cockroaches that invade my compost I will be set. Maybe the fire ants will keep them out. Hmm, fire ants as a garden helper? Who knew?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Resurrection of the Citrus Trees

Slowly, slowly, the citrus trees are coming back to life.

My Kaffir lime, the Mexican Key Lime, and the Variegated Eureka Lemon have all put out new leaves. The other lime still has a tiny green area on it's stem and is putting out a leaf. It's near the graft though so I'm not sure if it is the tree I want to be growing.

The banana and Bird of Paradise did not make it, so I've put sunflowers in their pots. I planted Mammoth, Velvet Queen, and Teddy Bear - all sure to cheer me up. The pineapples also died but I've sprouted two new crowns as replacements.

I learned a good lesson here. Just because I am hot and sweaty ten months of the year, doesn't mean that a cold wind from the Pacific Northwest can't come find me. What is frustrating is that I knew better. Those trees weren't cheap and I should have taken better care of them. Instead, I thought I could get away with just having them in the patio enclosure and not having to do anything else. Guess not. I will be prepared next time. I've already figured out how I can rig a cold frame and keep them all under plastic. It won't be the most attractive thing, but I can't afford a retractable awning or other fancy doo-dad.

I am also happy to report that my in-the-ground trees are doing well. The two oranges and Satsuma Mandarin are all blooming and setting fruit. My Meyer Lemon and kumquat are growing their leaves back and should be blossoming soon too.

I am thrilled with my mini citrus orchard. The flowers have the sweetest scent and the leaves are pungent with that citrus tang. They are so much more fun than my other fruit trees. Now if I could just keep the fire ants out of my compost bin - life would be perfect!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

You know, I think things ARE bigger in Texas

I've lived in Austin for a year now and there are still a few things that make me pause. Well, not the cockroaches, they make me run for a swatter.

It's mostly the climate; it's just so warm here compared to the Northwest. In the garden I am perpetually lagging the recommended planting dates. (It's just so WRONG to plant squash and sweet corn in March.) If it weren't for my handy chart from the Master Gardeners, I'd never get anything in the ground on time. Here the price to pay for being late is that you don't get a harvest before the summer sun fries everything to dust. I had it easy in the Northwest where the grace periods were much longer.

I'm not complaining. This place is literally exploding with growth right now. Overnight the wildflowers carpet the roadsides with a complete riot of colors. The redbuds erupt into the most exquisite pink clouds only to be rivaled by the white of the Mexican Plums. Butterflies and birds are everywhere. It really is a celebration to spring. Almost makes me want to turn pagan and run naked through the neighborhood.

The vegetable garden is also just amazing. My garlic, onions, Swiss chard, kale, second crop of radishes, beets, spinach - everything has just taken off. I planted the same variety of Oregon Giant Snow Peas that I do every year, and here they really are gigantic.
In Oregon, I was very lucky to have them reach their mature height as stated on the seed packet before they dried up and I had to pull them. Here they are three feet tall and are just now starting to bloom. It's not the soil or any sort of different cultural practice, it's totally due to the warmer nights. I have cabbage planted in the same bed, and I don't know if I am going to be able to get the row cover over my hoops to keep out cabbage moths. Maybe the huge peas will fool them and they will fly off to plague someone else.

And then there is the fruit. How can it be possible that I have bud break on my apple trees and cantaloupe sprouting at the same time? My citrus trees have recovered from the freeze and are blooming now too. I just noticed that one of the oranges has actually set a little tiny orb. Huh? It's like I'm a symphony conductor - all the instruments are playing at once and it's up to me to bring out the music.

My garden and this climate have also changed the way Ed and I eat. We continue to lose weight as we stuff ourselves with vegetables and grilled meats. Our fat and wheat consumption has really plummeted, plus we get out and walk more. We discovered that I now fit into Ed's old jeans and shorts, so I have a much wider selection of gardening clothes than before! Plus, did you know that men's pants have much deeper pockets? We women get short-changed on everything.

Of course, today it is raining and 80 degrees. I went outside and had to gasp for air because it is so steamy. But the plants are happy and therefore, so am I!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Irrigation is installed. Of course it's raining.



I got my drip irrigation installed in the vegetable beds - so of course I was rained on.

Even so, I am very proud of the job I did this time. It's my best installation yet. Luckily I had most of the materials on hand. I brought the black plastic main-line and the soaker hoses with me from Oregon. Unfortunately, they take 5/8" fittings - something you can't find on the shelf at Lowe's. Home Depot had some tees and elbows so I was able to finish the job. Neither place had any in-line shut off valves which means I'll have to order them. Oh, I miss Jerry's in Springfield!

I ran a main line along all the beds, then ran a tee up from the ground. I opted not to use emitters and cut up some soaker hoses instead. I need more coverage than an emitter will give me and I don't want to use a micro-sprayer on the vegetables. Wet foliage invites too much rot. I'll run the drips in the landscaping in front.

A good day in the yard followed by a nice hot bath. Life is good.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Plum Dandy




I bought tomato seeds last year with the intent of starting them in my newly erected greenhouse. They never made it - which is a good thing actually. Had I planted them the same weekend as the celery, I would have had to abandon them for my journey to Austin. Instead, they made it into the moving truck with the rest of my stuff, and came 2,000 miles away for another chance to be fruitful - like me!

I've created my seed bed out of some pots I saved from my Texas Sedge project. I filled them with the same soil I use for the raised beds. They will live in the house until they are big enough to transplant out in the cold frames.

I've planted a few seeds from each of these varieties: Purple Tomatillo - okay, not a tomato but it starts with a "T", Plum Dandy sauce tomato, Sun Gold cherry tomato, Glacier eating tomato, and Taxi, a yellow tomato that is supposed to be great for cooler areas. All except Taxi should do well here in Austin.

Believe it or not, this is the first time I've tried to start seeds in the house. I've never lived in a home that had enough light or space for the project. I've thought about getting or making a grow light contraption, but they just take up too much room. And even if that were solved, the cats would dig everything up. The planets seemed to have aligned for me at last. I have some great indirect light off the deck, and Anna has not been at all interested in the dirt. I've had the flat up on the TV tray for over a week now and she's only given it a passing sniff. Now all I have to worry about is Ed knocking it over on his way to the freezer. I have made them both promise to be good. Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Frozen Assets



We've had quite a week of cold temperatures - and I am embarrassed to say that I wasn't prepared. Me, Miss-I-have-property-in-Alaska and I-can-cut-my-own-wood-thank-you-very-much. We had several nights in the 20's and two in the teens, plus daytime temperatures weren't exactly tropical. I wore socks to bed all week. And while my toes are still perfectly toasty, some of my plants are just plain toast.
Let's start with the walled in patio. The citrus trees are holding their own, but the banana is not happy. My bird of paradise and pineapple are also both a sickly brown. The tropical hibiscus is dropping all of it's leaves in protest. I don't know if they will recover.


Stuff inside the house was affected too. One of our pipes froze - luckily it didn't burst. Ed got it back to normal with some deft blow-dryer work. We moved some of the leaves against the house for insulation and left a faucet running the next night.

Good thing I hadn't spread them all out in the back. For once my procrastination paid off.

The vegetable garden isn't doing well either. My beets, Swiss Chard, and greens were all hit hard. I put a row cover over the greens so maybe some of it can be saved. Luckily I have installed a cold frame where my kale is happily sprouting, so we won't be without green things to eat for long.


Plants in the front yard are hit and miss. My prickly pear cactus pretty much sums it up though. I've never seen a plant look so downtrodden and defeated. Hopefully it will bounce back and grow new pads.




But summer will come. And when it does, I will be ready with my lessons learned and my yard in a better state of preparedness. I'll need a little rest and relaxation by then. Good thing Ed is making Adirondack chairs out of old fence boards. He's nearly done with the first one. Looks amazing doesn't it? The only reason I'm not sitting in it now is because it lacks, well, a seat! Ah, the projects never end. Stay warm everyone and think spring!