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

Friday, December 7, 2012

Building A House On My Own

Journey back with me, if you will, to 1982 to when I was 22 years old and teaching high school vocational agriculture.  I had talked my advisory board and principal into letting me build a greenhouse.

Oh mother, what did I get myself into.  I'd never really built anything outside of a chicken coop or two and here I was in a small rural high school trying to show people that a vo-ag teacher who ovulated was just as good as a man.  Better even.

So my Advanced Ag class and I set out to raise the roof on our greenhouse.  And we did it.  But oh, the sleepless nights I had working out structural problems and trying to brainstorm our next step.  The steps to erect it were simple enough, but lacking the discipline of making things level and straight, the boys and I had quite a time of it.  Eventually one of the neighboring farmers sent his foreman over to help me correct some mistakes.  He was very kind about it.  "Geez Sheryl, I can't believe you haven't asked for help!  You have your hands full with those boys.  You've done a great job.  Let me send my man over to help you square it up and you'll be done!"  Bless you Perry.

We did it get erected.  And the door closed.  And the heater working.  And the lights on.  And the fan inflated the walls to make the whole thing rigid and tight as a drum.  Success.  "We did it Ms Williams!"  We all stood and gawked at it, silently amazed that each of us could do such a thing.  It was a great moment and one that still makes me smile.

We soon had that greenhouse humming and stuffed full of plants.  My boys would drop in on the Horticulture class I taught to tell everyone that THEY had built the greenhouse.  "Remember Ms Williams when we put those hoops up?  And had to screw them together?"  We would laugh.  Silly us should have done it in the shop instead of on top of a ladder.  "Remember when we almost dropped the heater?  You should have seen the look on Ms Williams' face!" they would say.

I miss them.  And why this recollection?  Well, I'm building another house, but by myself this time.  I'm building an insect hotel.  Hopefully it will be something between this more rustic abode.

Photo from
And this swanky chateau from the Jardin des Plantes.

Photo from

I don't have a set of plans, just a series of photos and descriptions (in French of course, thank you Google Translate!)  Plenty for me to obsess about as I toss and turn.  But this time it will be different.  I am making sure things are level, that they fit together properly, and that the engineering makes sense.  Those long ago fall days with my ag boys have taught me to be a better builder.  Even if it's just for bugs.

As I dig my post holes and drill into blocks of wood, my eye catches some nearby movement.  It's my mockingbird friends who are wondering what I'm up to.  Do you think I could teach them to hold a measuring tape?  Looks like I'm not alone after all.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Moon Dance for Sprouting Carrots

Fava beans and snow peas doing well.

One of the many reasons I garden is for stress relief.  When I’m playing in the yard I can let my mind wander as I complete the chores and watch the antics of the inhabitants.  Today a mockingbird landed on a metal sunflower and scraped her beak repeatedly on the petals.  What a racket!

My decision to garden according to the Farmer’s Almanac schedule has changed all of that.  Now I have a schedule to keep!  With the same precision I must employ to navigate my work life, I now have to check in with the almanac to see what days I can plant seeds and transplants.  Often I have just a few days to get the work done unless I am willing to wait another week or so.  My first frost date is looming; if I don’t get everything in the ground and growing, I won’t have a fall harvest.

So is this extra pressure worth it?

Yes, so far.  You see - my carrots have sprouted.

I have always had a hard time with carrots.  I often have to plant multiple times and over-seed to get any to grow.  Carrot seeds like a lot of light in order to germinate.  I always fussed that I planted them too deep, or didn’t keep the seed bed damp enough, or just had a dud bunch of seed.

However this year, it was different.  I had some really old seed that I picked up at a master gardener meeting plus one packet that I purchased earlier in the year.  I held the “good” seed back, figuring it would be needed for the inevitable second planting.  I planted the carrots as directed – during the full moon, noting that the next window to plant wouldn’t occur for two weeks.

Imagine my delight to discover that the seeds sprouted in a little less than a week.

So was it the full moon?  Why not?  If carrots need light to germinate they certainly got a big dose of it during the day and night with that big orb in the sky.  And yes, it didn’t hurt that we got a bit of rain also, keeping the temperatures down and the bed moist.

I’m going to say this was a win for the Farmer’s Almanac.  My other crops of beans, peas and greens are also growing nicely.  The pole beans should start blooming later this week and I anticipate a first greens harvest in two weeks.  I also planted kohlrabi and some creeping thyme last weekend during the aboveground crops days as directed, although Cole crops or herbs were not mentioned.   A few of the kohlrabi have just begun to sprout.

I’m pretty much done with the vegetable planting.  Now all I have are some shrubs and perennials to get in.  Next day for planting is Sunday, October 21.  This is fine by me.  I am volunteering at our master garden tour on Saturday and hope to pick up a few items at the plant sale.  Won’t be able to plant them until Sunday anyway.  However I’ll need to make sure they all go in the ground because the next window isn’t until the 26th.

The pressure!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Gardening by the Moon

I am going to try something different this garden season; I am going to follow the planting advice from the Farmer’s Almanac.

I’ve been meaning to do it for a while just to see if it makes a difference.  There are many who swear by it and do well with it.  I know several farmers who refuse to budge without it and it has played a role in my family too.  But the question remains, isn’t the farmer’s almanac little more than the same hocus pocus that astrology is based upon?  Isn’t modern science and our ability to predict weather much more reliable?

In the 70’s when I bundled myself off to Oregon State University to get my agricultural education degree, farming by chemistry was king.  Whether it was plant or animal, manipulating biology with chemical additives “freed” farming from the capricious behavior of Mother Nature.  Who needed the moon when you had Monsanto?  I cheerfully participated by spraying pesticides and injecting hormones at every opportunity.  Organic was how the old people farmed because they just didn’t know any better.

Ah, youth.

So here I am, the same age as my grandfather at my earliest memory of knowing how old he was, poring over the farmer’s almanac.  And it’s not just me.  It is astounding to me that since I graduated from college in 1981 that the world of agriculture is slowly starting to pivot back to the sustainable practices of my grandfather’s time.  Turns out that chemistry wasn’t the end all answer.

Now please, don’t get me wrong.  I am not going to sit here on my nice couch and bash industrial agriculture.  After all, it is through the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides that have enabled me to live in the city and work in an office instead of out in the fields like my grandparents.  It is also because of the industrialization of our food supply that we can stop thinking about where to find food and actually discuss the quality of it.

As a gardener, and someone who is not dependent on the land to provide me an income, I have a lot more freedom to choose and to consider the impact I am having on my health, the environment, the economy, and my role in the community.  Through my own gardening practices I have seen the benefit of turning away from chemicals and delving back into the natural cycle of life.  I have seen my crop yields increase as I put down the sprayer and actually attract more bugs, and thus more pollinators, into the garden.  Every day I open the newspaper to read about new assaults on the quality of our food supply.  Whether it is from genetic engineering or contamination.  People are dying from eating cantaloupe and spinach.  Scary stuff.

So I have become an advocate of organic methods.  Which is exactly what my grandparents were doing when they farmed.  And now I am going one step further and am trying to garden within the rhythm and influence of the moon.  After all, if that big satellite can cause the ocean to be tidal, isn’t it plausible that it have the same influence on everything else?

I planted my root crops yesterday per the almanac.  Carrots need a lot of light to germinate.  Is it any coincidence that I planted them at the full moon?  Hmm.  Stay tuned.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Congested Air Space

One of the things that makes me very happy is the number of butterflies in my back yard.

Gulf Fritillary butterflies getting a snack.
This spring during the Monarch migration, the backyard became hazardous.  As I gardened I was slammed into several times by wayward fliers.  I could seriously use an air traffic control tower or some guys on the ground guiding the Monarchs, Swallowtails and Gulf Fritillary fliers.

As a kid I was lucky to be surrounded by Monarchs.  In the 60’s the orchards and pastures in Southern Oregon all had masses of milkweed and it was one of the northern ranges on the migratory route.  All of us would raise caterpillars in jars and watch them hatch into those glorious creatures.  Our third grade teacher must have raised thousands in her classroom and instilled in each of her students an awe and appreciation for the whole cycle.

Imagine my delight to discover that my new home in Texas was right in the path of the migration.  I immediately began planting milkweed for the caterpillars and mistflower, zinnias, and other flowers for the adults.  The first spring saw just a few passer-bys but this year I had several and hatched out at least two batches of adults.

Sadly, I watched most of this from my window.

Unfortunately, I had another type of congestion – I came down with allergies really bad.   At first I didn’t know what it was.  I just thought I was losing my health.  I kept getting bad colds or bronchitis and my energy was zero.  I lost all interest in playing in the yard and had to drag myself to things I normally enjoyed.  My boss also seemed to be suffering and we teased each other about passing germs.  When he was finally diagnosed with allergies and put on medication, I was politely ordered to make an appointment.  He was right.  Testing revealed that I am officially allergic to my cat, dust mites, and tree/grass pollen.  Lucky me.

So now I’m on a drug cocktail to alleviate my symptoms and it is just in time for fall gardening.  I feel so much better!  Just the other day I was back out there getting my vegetable beds ready for planting.  I was weeding near the mist flowers when WHAM, I got biffed by a Monarch.  They are on their way back to Mexico.

Glad to be back.  A little butterfly wing dust never hurt anyone.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ceding the Battle

This weekend I pulled up most of my vegetable garden and threw it in the compost bin.

Am I crazy?

Done for the summer
In Oregon, July 5 meant that summer had usually arrived.  The vegetable garden was in high gear and the tomatoes were ready to blush.  Here in Austin, it means that I am done until fall.  It’s taken me two years to accept this.

It doesn’t help that I get cheerful emails from Territorial Seed Company reminding me to start seeding in the last of the summer vegetables and start thinking of starting the winter garden.  Even though they are targeting the message for my Zone 8 garden (the same zone as Portland, Oregon by the way), putting in seed right now is insane.

Part of the issue is the heat.  Even though we’ve had a couple of rainy thunderstorms, the relentless Texas sun stresses all living things; native or not.   Many of my plants wilt during the day, as they are not able to keep up with the water loss.  Surprisingly, it is possible to over water plants during this time.  I have really had to learn that just because something is wilting doesn’t mean that the ground is dry.

But in the case of the vegetable garden, stressed plants are primary beacons for pests.  As soon as things get warm out there I am plagued with white flies and spider mites.  I usually try to battle against them at first will water blasts.  But as soon as that begins to fail I call it quits.  Part of my goal with gardening is to be in tune with the natural environment.  If plants are too stressed to fight off bugs, using pesticides – even if organic – seems silly.  Best thing to do is to make compost.

I will try to keep a few things alive that like the heat.  I have a couple of okra plants, eggplant, some squash and a few tomatoes that I can water for most of the summer and still get produce.  So for summer, which is like winter for me, we buy most of our fresh produce at the store.  If I have done canning we eat it during the summer, not winter.

I am lucky here in Austin.  Even though the summer is very oppressive, the winter is glorious.  I start planting greens, carrots, broccoli, onions, beans and whatever else looks good at the end of September.  I use row covers if it looks like a freeze and can make it through most cold snaps.

So even though my Oregon DNA is screaming at me to get out there and garden, I’ll just hide in the house and sit under the fan.  Some battles just aren’t worth fighting.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Rock Star

Linda and Missy
My aunt, Linda Williams, is a rock star.  Her Central Point, Oregon rock garden is a real stunner and has legions of fans.  I consider myself her #1 groupie.

Linda and I are the same age.  The two of us have been close our whole life and it is such a treat to garden together.  Linda is very creative and has an artist’s eye for color and placement.  She’s one of those crafty people too and always amazes me with her latest sewing project, table mosaic, stained glass, needlework or even a batch of cookies.  I am the absolute Plain Jane in comparison.  Lucky for me she doesn’t mind when I totally steal her great ideas.  And let me tell you, her garden is an idea worthy of grand theft.
Street view of Linda's garden.
When she purchased a new home on a bare lot in 2006, she wanted to create an ever-changing canvas that would handle the south facing Southern Oregon summer heat.  She was inspired by nearby resident Kathy Allen, whose extensive rock garden was featured in Sunset Magazine. The two women met at the Jackson County Master Gardener Plant Sale, which Kathy regularly participates in.

The tall front berm. 
Linda wanted to do something dramatic, so the two of us went to work.  I advised her to use nondescript rocks to create height for her berms instead of just piling soil.  That way the mounds would keep their original shape instead of slowly sinking away.  As luck would have it, we drove by the Crater Rock Museum on the way to collecting rock along the highway, and saw that the recent remodel had yielded two large piles of broken concrete.  The serendipity was too much to pass up.  The museum was thrilled to have us haul away the debris and thus the bones of the garden were born.
Linda uses gravel in walkways.

Small berm next to walkway
Linda’s home was in a new development so the builder still had topsoil in the area to landscape the remaining houses.  After assembling the concrete mound, we (and my husband Ed) hauled the soil to cover and shape the garden.  Linda then placed her “pretty” rocks throughout and finished the rest of the landscaping.
Blue cascade of glass pebbles

She has also used several other elements in her landscape; glass, wood, and ceramics also play a part to create a sense of whimsy throughout. She purchased many of her plants from Kathy Allen, but picks up new ones at various nurseries and sales. Her plant collection now yields enough starts for her to sell at yard sales and share with fellow enthusiasts.  She installed drip irrigation to water the yard about once a month, even during the hot summer.

One of her color "wallops"
Art glass on a hanger.
When asked what advice she has for people who'd like to copy her yard she says,  “Go for it - small or large scale.  Dig deep for the scavenger in yourself and start collecting plants and rocks you like.”  She has found that the easiest to grow are Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) and likes all the colorful varieties.  Her favorite plants in the collection are mini Coral Bells. “I just love the rock garden flowers.  Small petite plants with a wallop of color. “

Linda crafts her own globes.  I love this one next to the strawberries.
The "old man" rock
Petrified volcanic ash.
The garden is constantly evolving as plants or rocks are replaced and rearranged.  The kaleidoscope of color she has created with both rock and plants is stunning no matter what time of year.   It’s been such a success that friends and family have her helping to create more rock gardens at their homes.   Her neighbors are fans too; Linda says they are always commenting, “You did this yourself!”

Part of Linda's heart rock collection
My favorite part of visiting her yard is discovering some new little vignette.

It’s a garden to savor and not to be viewed in a rush.  Just looking at all that rock we moved usually causes us to collapse in a chair to talk about where each stone came from.

It’s a long conversation.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Localized Riots

Small riots have broken out in my yard.  Lucky for me they don’t cause any damage and the only time I have to call in the SWAT team is when the mosquitoes get bad.  Instead, my localized disturbances are a delight to behold and I sometimes find myself clapping and giggling with the discovery.  I’m talking about color riots.

I have an average size lot and house for my neighborhood, about .18 of an acre.  It gives me a nice area to garden in both front and back, without over whelming me with work.  No sweeping lawns or vistas here since my landscaping drifts consist of three plants at the most.  The yard is best appreciated in small bites and vignettes, which is why I love my little color riots so much.

Gardening provides many such moments where, out of the corner of your eye, you catch some tiny wonderment.  Yesterday I was out weeding and two Anole lizards were Tarzan-leaping through the foliage.  I could almost hear the roar of lions and screams of apes as they traveled from leaf to leaf,  making soft “splat” sounds as they landed.  It was then that I noticed this combination of flowers.  I love how the white rose peeks through with the laughing Gaillardia and the wispy pink phlox.

When I refilled my watering can from the rain barrel these characters demanded notice.  In the breeze the orange California poppies dance around the red mountain stage like Moulin Rouge can-can girls.  Careful boys, you’ll loose your hearts with these!

In the backyard, my ‘Crimson Glory’ rose winds through mealy blue sage for another fluff of color and distracts me from turning the compost.

Underneath the grapevine, Nasturtiums turn their faces to the sun and brighten a planter.  

My yard-art chickens and pig cavort through the pink Missouri primroses that are taking over the walkway.  

As I return my digging fork to the garage I walk by a shady spot with wild petunias and purple oxalis having nothing to do with the quiet greenery.  Look at me NOW they call.

And finally, the true riot of color, my wildflower area.  I have offloaded several bags of seeds in this bed and this year with the rains it has really paid off.  These red poppies captivate me every time and completely dominate your eyes.  Never mind that the other flowers are amazing.  

I’d like to brag that all of this was planned but the truth is that in true riot fashion, most of it is by accident.  As a gardener you have a vision of what COULD be, but the true delight is the discovery of what actually happens.  This is why I torture my visitors with yard tours where I point out these little moments and try to share the wonder.  Lucky for me I have patient friends and neighbors whom every now and then see what all the fuss is about.  No riot gear required.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Spot of English "T"

I am a repressed English Cottage-style gardener.
Thyme as of March 2012, one year after transplanting.

For years I have cultivated huge delphiniums, lush peonies, lilies and bulbs of every kind, hellebores, violets, hydrangeas, witch hazels, all of which were inspired from the pages of Fine Gardening magazine.

Then I moved to Austin Texas.  Goodbye big-leaf lush flower water-sucking landscape, hello prickly pear and agave!

The transition has been interesting to say the least, and I still have people saying to me “oh, that won’t survive here”.  The latest casualty is my love affair with hardy fuchsias.  I think of my shrub back in Oregon and tears spring to my eyes.  The bees!  The hummingbirds!  Those dainty little flowers!  The crispy critter it would become in the hot Texas sun!

I’ve repressed most of my urges and have swallowed the “I only plant native” kool-aid mostly for gardening survival.  I only dabble on the edges to see what part of my old gardening life I can get away with in Austin.  I have made a happy discovery.  I can grow Thyme between my pavers.

I’ve always loved the different varieties of Thyme, both culinary and those best suited for landscaping (woolly thyme is not the most pleasant thing to eat) all of which are easy to grow in Oregon.  However there has always been one particular variety that has always impressed me with it’s robust growth habit, tolerance to clay soils, and most important, didn’t need watering; Thymus serpyllum, or Creeping Thyme.  It forms loose mats that you can even walk on.   Yes, yes, in Western Oregon it rains all the time.  However there is a drought period from July 5 to October 15 where it doesn’t rain much at all and my Willamette Valley Dayton soil would crack open from thirst.  I never watered my creeping thyme and it thrived from year to year.

Would it grow in Austin?  More importantly, would it SURVIVE in Austin?  I was determined to find out.

Since I had no idea if it would survive here, I opted to grow my own plants.  The area I wanted to plant in is 120 square feet and would have taken at least 5 flats of plants that could cost $150 to $250.  So I ordered a ¼ ounce of seed from one of my favorite Oregon seed sources, Territorial Seed Company.  They are very nice folks and are even recommended as a supplier by the Travis County Master Gardeners because they sell many of the recommended varieties.  Lucky for me they have a large mail-order business.

Planting bed.  You can tell where the soaker hoses were!  Seeds planted October 2011
I planted the seed in October 2010 in one of my 6’ x 4’ raised beds.  I scattered the seeds evenly in the bed to encourage it to grow into a mat.  I watered them regularly through the summer and fertilized them once.  (I use homemade compost high in organic material in all my planting beds so don’t have to fertilize often.)

Transplanting the plugs March 2011
In March 2011 I cut 4 to 5 inch “plugs” out of the planting bed and transplanted them in between limestone pavers I had half buried in bark mulch.  I spaced the pavers and the plants  6 inches to a foot apart, making them true stepping-stones versus a spaced paved area.  My thinking was that with the summer heat load the pavers would fry the plants if everything were too close together.  By spacing them out I gave the new plants some breathing and cooling room to grow.  I tucked bark mulch around the plants to also buffer them from the heat.

My garden was on a tour in May and they made it fine through the foot traffic.  During the run of those 100 degree days we had Summer 2011 I hand watered every other week or so.

And now?  They survived!  I lost a few plants that got shaded out by my monster Mutabilis roses, but for the most part the planting is thriving.  A few weeks ago they really started growing again so I watered in some fish fertilizer and now they are deep green and getting ready to bloom.  I am thrilled and plan on seeding in a new bed this fall so I can extend my pavers.

For me, the key takeaways are these:

  1. Plant your own plugs.  My plants had well established root systems that hadn’t been constrained by pots.
  2. Mind your heat load.  
  3. Give them room to grow. 
  4. Mulch around the new plantings.  Eventually the plants will cover the mulch if you are not crazy about the look. 

Could someone living on the escarpment do this?  I’m not sure.  My clay soil was not amended, but it IS soil.

Please share your experiences in the comments section.  I’m curious to know what successes, challenges, or crispy critters you’ve grown.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Petal Pruner

Today I finished pruning my roses and my fruit trees like a dutiful daughter finishing her chores.  It’s February, and that means that it’s time to lop off the exuberance of the past growing season while the plant is still dormant.

Except my roses never go dormant here in Austin.  All winter they put on new growth, bloom, and otherwise carry on as if it were spring.  It’s winter, I tell them, time to go to sleep, it’s way past your bedtime.  Like errant teenagers they flounce and ignore me.  Ed is no help.  He likes practicing his guitar while the roses outside the window dance and nod with appreciation.

Discipline must be enforced.  If I don’t prune them they get too big, the canes rub against each other and weaken, and I can’t barbecue or open the windows because there are plants in the way.  It’s for their own good.  It hurts me way more than it hurts them.  Where have I heard that before?

But like my own well-intentioned parents, I must bring the roses back into form.  I snip, I lop; all while the bees buzz around me gathering nectar and pollen.  Petal after petal falls into the wheelbarrow.  All the while I keep my internal mantra of “they will grow back, they will bloom again, ohmmmm” going full blast in my head lest I weaken.

There are so many things in life I don’t want to do but force myself into for the greater good.  Going to work springs to mind.  Not eating that second piece of pie.  Doing my taxes.  Driving under the speed limit.  Cleaning the cat box. Not flipping off the 432nd person to cut me off in traffic.  Confronting a friend with something unpleasant.  Scrubbing the shower.  The list goes on.  None of them earth shaking or game changing, but all things I need to gird myself up for.  All any of us want in life is to be like my roses – dance in the sun, bloom, make people smile, ignore the weather and warnings that we must sleep.  And when someone comes along and prunes us to the ground, we gather our strength and come right back even more beautiful.

I wheel the chopped roses to my compost and fork them into a bin.  I sprinkle some coffee grounds over the top and cover with leaves.  In just a few hours their remains will heat up and dance with the microbes.  The party never ends.  Now back to my taxes.