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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.