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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Building a Bog in Midst of Drought

As a gardener, I always want something I can't grow in my current surroundings. While in Oregon it was winecup (Callirhoe involucrata.)   I planted them dutifully each fall and every winter they rotted in the ground.  Putting them in gravel didn't help because the surrounding clay soil was so waterlogged that they ended up swimming.

Of course now that I am in Texas they grow with abandon in my garden.  Duh.  So now what I am I up to now that my heart's desire has been found?  A bog.  That's right.  I'm smack dab in the middle of a region in terrible drought and I want a bog.  In the Northwest my whole yard was a bog, so why the sudden urge to live in a swamp?

Chinese Water Chestnuts.  

My friend Clyde gave me a pot of Chinese Water Chestnuts to grow in my pond.  He had planted a few of the corms he found at the Asian grocery store and found that they multiplied quite rapidly.  When I brought them home I separated what he gave me and planted them in my pond.  What is interesting to me is that the water chestnut itself is a corm that forms off the roots.  I was disappointed that the pot didn't yield anything but figured that it was just too crowded.  I put just a few plants in the pond and composted the rest.

They went crazy!  The are spectacular 5 foot plants that have small catkins like a cattail reed.  However when I went to pull one of the pots out of the water I discovered that they had all grown together.  I had to get out the pruning saw to hack them apart.  And alas, when unpotted the chestnut yield was still zero.

So I spent time on the Internet.  I discovered that the Aussies have great success growing their water chestnuts in bogs.  A few of them have dug special bogs and others are using containers like stock tanks.  They grow them in peat or other spongy material so they are easy to harvest.

So I got to thinking.

I decided to dig a bog and plant a tuff tub in the ground below the pond in front of one of my drainage shafts.  When I put the pond in I actually have it partially sitting on cinder blocks so water cascading down from my neighbors actually goes under it. The cinder blocks are oriented to form a culvert of sorts.  I put the bog right in front of it so when we get a downpour, the runoff goes into the bog.  The tuff tub has holes drilled into the sides about 2/3 of the way up to facilitate drainage.  The Australian gardeners didn't have their plants totally under water so I am following their lead.

Cinder block culvert will fill bog.
I put concrete edging around it to keep things from washing out.  The water will fill the bog, then continue down the gravel pathway like it does today.

I considered putting peat or moss in the bog but my timing, for once, was perfect.  Peat moss is just decomposed plant material that's been sitting in water.  Since it's fall, I can make my own from leaf mold instead.  I layered leaves with the soil from the excavation, using about a 1/3 soil to 2/3 leaf mix.  I compacted the layers by walking on them each time I added leaves.  Sort of like crushing grapes for wine!  Okay, not the same, but fun nonetheless.   

The last step was to add water.  We are expecting rain so I only poured in about 5 gallons.  I'll add more later in the week if needed.  I'm going to let it sit until next weekend then will probably add more of the leaf/soil mix along with the plants.

Aesthetically it should turn out really well.  The plants will grow tall enough to form a nice green backdrop behind the seating area I've built around the pond.  I'll have to add water to it so plan on the rainwater we store for the pond.  Being buried in the ground will keep things a little cooler and the thick growth on top should inhibit some evaporation but I'm not kidding myself.  We'll just add water at the same time we refill the pond.  At the worst of summer it's about every four or five days.

I'm hoping that with more room, more soil oxygen, and looser growing medium I'll have water chestnuts to add to our Thanksgiving dinner!  Wouldn't that be fun?  Now, what to grow in the pond where the water chestnuts used to be?  I'm thinking Minnesota Wild Rice...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Acceptance, Recovery, Defiance - The Garden After A Freeze

It's dark when I get home so I've not been able to do my regular yard tour to survey the damage from last week's freezes.  I'm happy to report that covering the vegetables beds in their plastic hoop houses did the trick (thank you Ed.)  Surprisingly none of the citrus trees seem fazed.  I now have orange oranges instead of their usual it's-too-hot-to-blush-green.  The fig tree and malabar spinach, of course, are not happy and most of the leaves are blackened.  Some of the new sprouts on the roses are wilted.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair
The nice thing now is that my yard truly believes it is fall. The leaves on my peach tree are yellowing nicely, the Santa Rita cacti glows pink, and the cedar elm is daring a bit of rusty orange.  In the pond the Chinese water chestnuts are fading; the golden leaves arching over the bog filter remind me of Rapunzel.

The malabar spinach still clings to the arbor.  I'm leaving them put because the black berries will make great bird food.  We use malabar in the summer as a cooked green.  It's the only one in the garden that doesn't get horribly bitter.  I make a nice little quick stir-fry with onions, malabar, and okra in the cast-iron skillet.  Pairs well with the chicken that is normally being grilled at the same time.

Now however, it doesn't look very appetizing and as I walked under it this morning it struck me funny.  It's twisted, blackened vines made me think of a Goth wedding arbor.
Goth wedding arbor?

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

So far it doesn't look like anyone has been snacking on it.  The birds have so much to eat at my house right now - chili pequin, beautyberry, rose hips, and flower seeds - that they haven't started working on it yet.

Just before the freeze I picked all the roses and brought them in the house - knowing that they probably wouldn't survive the low temperatures.  We've been enjoying their incredible fragrance as they sit on the dining room table and compete against Ed's chili making.  Yes, total etiquette violation having scented candles or flowers on the table but in this case I think we can make an exception.

One of the roses out front ignored the precaution.  The pink Heritage rose is blooming and has one other bud on the way.  She is tucked into a bed near a tree and was able to keep away the cold.  A few purple gomphrena accompany her and were dancing for everyone who walked by this morning.  I bowed and performed the de rigueur face plant as homage to the queen.  Aah, blood pressure plummets, troubles evaporate.  This is why I garden.

Ice Queen

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Promises, Promises

September is a transition month here in Central Texas.  I've been tracking rainfall everyday since 2010. and September is the month that we start to get some rain. It's that glorious moisture that gets my gardening juices going again and I start to plan for what I will be putting into the fall vegetable garden.  Of course we still have the heat - that won't break until October.

Rainfall By Month
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
January 1.89 3.71 3.14 0.54
February 0.81 3.09 0.49 1.03
March 0.22 6.03 1.89 1.58
April 1.48 0.11 0.14 2.45 0.86
May 1.51 1.10 4.73 3.22 7.04
June 5.35 0.94 1.24 2.70 2.47
July 5.09 0.04 6.82 3.99 2.44
August 1.14 0.00 2.02 0.64 0.04
September 10.17 0.00 4.48 4.80 5.55
October 0.05 1.75 0.70 15.32 0.00
November 0.61 2.38 0.00 7.05 0.00
December 1.23 4.66 0.53 0.99 0.00
Annual Total 26.63 13.90 33.49 46.68 21.55
Average 5.33 2.14 5.15 7.18 3.32

We've been lucky this year that the summer has not been as brutal.  We had only a few 100 degree days but it's continued to be pretty dry.  These last three days we've had a nice little rain and it's amazing how transformative it is.  Suddenly plants that look like drooping sticks perk up and start to bloom.  The lantana, salvia, pigeon berry, barbados cherry, chile pequin, oxblood lilies and lindheimer daisy are all in bloom right now - literally over night.  We've even gotten a second asparagus crop.

So amongst all this flush of new growth I venture out and plant my seeds.

They can be such tiny little things but they hold so much promise.  Whether it be a chick hatching, a lamb being born, a butterfly emerging, or a plant germinating, they all just fascinate me.  Watching something be born is to truly see the strength and fragility of life on earth all at the same time.  How can all of this possibly work?  It's such a crap shoot.  Of course all of this wonder disappears as I pull weeds - but you understand.

In the garden I pulled off the alfalfa hay mulch that helped to trap some of that moisture and kick-start the microbial life in the soil.  I raked the beds and then drilled in my seed.  I add a dusting of compost on top to prevent the ground from crusting and to provide a little cover for the seeds.  Once they sprout and I thin the seedlings, I'll add back some hay for mulch.  I mass plant everything to make sure the soil in the vegetable beds are completely covered.   Where I have to plant in a row - like with my snow peas because they climb a fence, I plant something on either side.  This year I side planted a winter greens mix of kale, beets, collards, and dandelion greens.

Once I get my seedbeds planted, I use a piece of woven wire fencing to cover everything.  This keeps the neighborhood cats and opossums from digging everything up.  I'll take the fencing off once the plants are about 3 inches tall.

I also did a little weeding today and am happy to see that the rains have coaxed the wildflowers into sprouting.  I have bluebonnets in the granite gravel.
These will continue to grow and will form nice little rosettes from which will burst those beautiful lupine flowers.  In the front yard I've got gaillardia's starting to sprout and I noticed the Standing Cypress and White Prickly Poppy all have nice little plants started.  I hope this means that my front sedge garden will be a resplendent meadow again next spring.

This is what I love about living here.  Instead of getting ready for the winter to shut everything down, I have thousands of little promises luring me outside to garden.  Now if the humidity and night time temps would just drop...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Zen to Zowie - Gardens in Portland

Portland in the summer makes you forget about the other nine months of gray. Officially there are an average of 68 days that are full sun compared to the 115 here in Austin.  The difference of course is the "Oregon Mist" that falls and keeps everything watered.   No finer irrigation system  exists for those plants that have proper drainage.  True verdant fecundity.

My visit to Portland included some of my favorite public gardens and a few private gardens that have been featured on other PDX tours. To be honest, I have been apprehensive about my visit.  I have suffered terrible bouts of home sickness and was worried that this would plunge me into a funk.  Especially since it's Oregon PLUS fabulous gardens.

I'm happy to report that I'm home and in pretty good shape.  I DO miss the hydrangeas but the truth is, other than this lovely climbing hydrangea, they can be a pain to grow.  Those big ole leaves wilt in summer no matter how much you water.  The climbing variety is better but needs constant pruning.  The stems are brittle and can't be easily fashioned into wreathes like grape vines.  I do have one hydrangea in my Austin yard - a carefully shaded oak leaf that gave me a little bloom this spring and should pop out some red foliage this fall.

This lovely vine was in the Lan Su Chinese Garden.  When this garden was first installed I could not even imagine how they could put a garden in old town.  Not only did the designers pull it off, it is a peaceful respite from the bustle of Portland.  The plants, the water, the carefully placed pebbles in the pathways are all designed to embrace the visiter in a sense of peace and well-being.

We also visited Timber PressCistus NurseryJoy Creek NurseryOld Germantown Gardens and Westwind Farm Studio.  Westwind Farm Studio features a lavender field and the day we were there was part of the Oregon Lavender Festival.

This staircase choked with daylillies at Westward Farm Studio really illustrates the English-style gardening that one associates with Portland.  From my own experience, part of this approach is to out compete the weeds.  All that rain does more than nurture flowers.

Both of the private gardens feature wide beds of plants and it was great to shove my nose in the Oriental lillies at Germantown Gardens  - another flower I can't grow in Austin.  I was completely charmed by this Joy Creek Nursery Clematis texensis and it's yellow inner side.  It should be available for mail order in January so I'll be sure to grab a few - since they are natives.

Even in the midst of all this biomass, I keep getting drawn back to Texas.  It doesn't hurt that I love hot bright colors and have been building drought-tolerent gardens for years now.  Nevertheless,  I employ my Portland-style of gardening here in Austin.  The difference being that instead of blocking weeds I'm focused on shading the ground.  Bare soil dries out quickly and burns off the carbon from my compost.

When I got home I did a quick tour of the yard to see how it survived without me watering it.  It didn't look too bad and I made a note where my design echoes that of the gonzo gardens in Portland.  A plant here, a corner there, a droop of bloom onto the pathway.

I think I'll survive just fine.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Garden of Two Cities

I find myself back in one of my old hometowns - Portland Oregon, for a Garden Bloggers Fling.  The "fling" is an annual get together of garden bloggers at a different city each year.  It started today (Thursday) and continues through Sunday.  We will be bussed around the city to visit public and private gardens, all the while socializing with people - many whom I've never met but feel like I know - who write gardening blogs.

Before the event got started, I decided to take a stroll through Northwest Portland.  I used to work in the area and would walk through the neighborhoods on my lunch hour.   As I looked for my favorite yards in this older part of Portland I just had to smile.  I was surrounded by Texas.

I moved to Austin five years ago and have fallen in love with the city.  Partly because it makes me feel so much like "home".  No wonder, many of the same plants I had in my Portland garden are actually Texas natives and feature prominently in my Austin yard.  Liatris, coreopsis, lipstick salvia, sunflowers, tradescantia, sweet potato vine, all peek through yards and planters.  If it weren't for the hostas and rhododendrons I could be strolling through Hyde Park.

It makes me a little disoriented.

But there are many plants that don't grow in both places.  One of my favorites is the 'Oregon Blue' Hydrangea.  This variety went out of vogue when the vivid 'Nikko Blue' came on the market and now isn't even sold anymore.  It starts out purple and ages to blue.  The more acid the soil the deeper the purples.  You can find it in the old neighborhoods and is cultivated by some in the wholesale flower trade.  Then there are the ethereal forms of the lace-cap hydrangeas.  I actually like them better than the mop-heads.

So as I prepare to see Portland again through a carefully planned itinerary, I am happy to report that my old haunts are as colorful as ever.  And while I can pine away for things that I no longer grow, there is enough in common to keep me firmly planted in both Austin and Portland - even though they are 2,000 miles apart.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Weed On The Way To Weeding

I found myself having a Portland moment this morning.

In Oregon, the definition of gardening is the three minutes per year you have between freezing and weeding.  In those three minutes you have to choose how many other things you can accomplish, all while cursing the rain that causes the weeds to grow.

Here in Austin we've had a pleasantly wet June.  We had the normal 2.5" of rainfall - which didn't all fall in 20 minutes.  It actually rained a little bit here and there, watering the garden rather nicely.  And the weeds.

I've been working 60-70 hours a week on my job so haven't been able to spend the amount of time I'd like out in my yard.  That plus the rain means that things have gotten out of control.  I decided this morning that I was going to head out into the garden at first light and tackle the weeding.  Triage dictated that I start in the front of the house where especially invasive species were taking over and grabbing pedestrians as they passed.

Our Municipal Utility District (MUD) has a weekly landscaping service that will pick up yard debris.  They provide oversize black buckets for you to capture the smaller items.  Tree branches can be stacked on the curb.  Since the weeds in front were seedy and the type that I don't want in the compost, I decided that I would utilize the MUD bucket and get the offending plants hauled away.  I went out the garage and to the back to get the MUD bucket.  Except I couldn't get through the gate.  The sunflowers and trumpet vine had completely taken over.  Should I just go back to the other gate and ignore it?  Or should I weed?  I decided that barring passage was an offensive enough crime that I should just take care of it.
Freed gate with just a few scattered leaves of evidence

Of course, once I freed the gate I noticed that the loquat was now overhanging the path - it too needed a pruning in order to provide free access to that side of the house.  Once the loquat was cleaned away there were a bunch of hackberry seedlings that had to go.  And oh, geez, look at all that chickweed.

The chickweed and trumpet vine went in the MUD bucket that I was finally able to get to.  The sunflowers and loquat were destined for the compost bin.  I carted the four armloads back to the bin and settled in to cut them into small pieces so they will decompose faster.  As I was cutting through the pile I noticed that the sunflower stems were starting to get really woody.  Perfect as nesting cavities for my insect hotel.  As I marched through the debris I cut the woodier stems into 5.5" lengths and left them on my leaf bin to dry.
About an hour later I finally finished cutting up the pile and headed back to the front yard.  However, the path to the front was choked full of weeds, plus the squash was creeping into the path.  I really needed to work in back.  But no!  What about the front?  The place where everyone sees my weeds?  I made a deal with myself.  Go ahead and pull weeds, but only as many as you can carry.  Whatever you pull goes into the MUD bucket out front.  Okay.  A plan.  I pull weeds, I go out front, I put the weeds in the MUD bucket.

Since I carried an armful (yes I used my t-shirt as a carrier), it filled the bucket.  I have three of them, so I made another deal.  Go ahead and go in the back yard to get the other bucket.  Whatever you pull on the way has to go into the compost bin.  Okay.  Another plan.  I pull up a bunch of sunflowers out of the front yard and prune back the beauty berry.  I haul them back to the compost bin, spend 15 minutes cutting them into pieces.

Now I need a break.  I sit by the pond and notice that the upland cress needs trimming back.  Of course I have my clippers handy.  The mint is also taking over - I should harvest some for tea or a nice minty fruit dessert tonight.  Crum, that squash needs picking and geez the beans are coming in thick!  Wait, the peas are also ripe.  I make another deal, go in the house, get something to drink, bring out the harvest basket.  It's okay to pull weeds on the way.

I go in the house, I get something to drink.  I look at the time.  I promised Ed I'd make him a nice lunch today.
Guess I'm done weeding.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Toast to Sheldon Glassberg and the Life Superficial

Today is the day that we uncork the bottle of Cab that we've been keeping. We purchased it in 2004 from our favorite wine merchant - Sheldon Glassberg, and dutifully let it age all these years per his instructions. I even wrote on the label "Drink in 2014" so not to accidentally open it too soon. 

Sheldon died the next year, and I still miss him. Our drinking the wine today is a reminder of those people that touch our lives - those superficial moments that collectively form our existence and influence who we are.

Sheldon was a great teacher of wines and wine drinking. His small shop in Springfield was, sadly, not as successful as it should have been. I did my part and bought as much wine as I could afford - simply because I wanted him to stay in business. Toward the end I even considered investing in him just to keep him afloat. Alas, it was not to be, he closed shop, and I believe the stress and heartbreak is what killed him. He died of heart failure while stocking the shelves at a new job.

I mourned someone I hardly knew. I saw him twice a month or so at his shop. I always went to wine tastings, was part of the wine club, plus I tried to drag others I knew in to meet him. I knew nothing of his family, his life outside of the shop, or even his last name. Really barely more than an acquaintance.

I think of other people in my life who are like Sheldon. Certainly moving to Austin has increased that group exponentially. People here in the south are much more superficial than in the pacific northwest. Ed and I call them our "Austin" moments. We have intense, 20 minute conversations with people in ordinary circumstances and places, and then walk away not knowing the person's name. It is the outward friendliness and willingness to share with strangers that enables this. My niece and nephew were always horrified to be with me when one of these moments arose. They couldn't believe I could have a complete conversation with someone I never met. Here in Austin it is so commonplace that I never notice it anymore. If the same thing were to happen in Oregon the person would end up living in your garage. Oregonians don't have conversations unless they are ready for a long-term commitment.

Now that I live here in Texas I can see that it is my former life that was shallow, not the people. The superficial relationship I had with Sheldon enriched me in so many ways. It doesn't matter that I had to look up his last name. It doesn't matter that I spent time discussing the proper temperature to serve Guinness beer with a guy in an irish bar. It doesn't matter that I spent 20 minutes discussing a woman's problems with her tomatoes the last time I was at The Natural Gardener. What does matter is the connections we make with people, no matter how brief or thin. Just because I didn't know Sheldon well does not detract from the man he was and the friendship we shared.

To you, Sheldon, and all the other wonderful people I've met, thank you for unconditionally sharing a moment. The wine, by the way, was excellent.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Blackberries - the perfect backyard snack

Who needs candy bars when you can go outside and stuff plump, ripe and sweet blackberries in your mouth? No one, I say!

Blackberries are one of the few things that are easy to grow here in Central Texas. They don't get a lot of diseases, don't need a lot of water, and with judicious pruning, stay where you want them.  We are just now finishing up our harvest and have the blue teeth to prove it.

You normally plant blackberries around December or January, but now is a good time to plan where you'd like to grow them.

I went ahead and installed a simple trellis to train them to. Forgoing the more elaborate set-ups, I just put in a woven wire fence. You can also use a cattle panel for this job, but it's not necessary to have the rigidity since the berries aren't climbing on the wire.  I use bits of twine or plant ties to keep the arching canes upright against the wire.  This also makes it much easier to harvest the berries.
   We used 8 foot treated 4x4 posts and installed 2x4's for top braces. My trusty side-kick Ed put the posts in, then helped stretch the wire.   To stretch the wire, we wrapped one end around a 2x4 and pulled! While Ed did the heavy work, I nailed in fence staples to keep the wire in place.

I created a raised bed for the berries to grow in. I live on a slight incline so I created a drainage ditch on one side to capture rainwater runoff from my up-slope neighbors. This keeps my berries from being washed into the next county plus provides for some in-soil water storage. I piled the soil into a berm and mixed in some dried leaves (also from the neighbors.) This gives my berries some extra drainage. I  add compost at the end of each harvest to improve soil texture and fertility.

I initially purchased four bare-root Rosborough blackberries. Whenever you buy plants bare-root (meaning they aren't in a pot) soak them in water first to help rehydrate the roots. You don't need to do it for long - I just put them in a bucket while I dig the holes. I planted the berries about four feet apart. Once planted I gave them a good soaking and then spread leaves over the ground for a mulch. You need to keep them watered the first year, but once established mine only need irrigation once a week or so when they have fruit and once a month when they don't.  I use a soaker hose that snakes around them on the berm.  They spread out and fill in as they age - often to places far from the original plant. You can actually dig up these wanderers and replant them.  Most often I chop mine up and put them in the compost.  Be careful doing this though unless you have an active pile - otherwise they will re-sprout and you'll have a new blackberry patch.

The best way to keep your berries productive and healthy is to remove the spent canes every year.  As soon as you pick the last berry, cut that cane all the way to the ground.  Blackberries fruit on second year canes, so the new ones that are sprouting and growing right now are the ones that will bear fruit next year.  The old canes harbor disease and aren't going to flower well, so take them out!  Be gone to the compost bin I say!  Not pruning the canes is the most common mistake people make and is why many berry patches eventually just stop producing.

The Texas AgriLIFE Extension service has a great article on blackberries if you are interested in growing some for your family. Berries are a great source of vitamins and are fat-free, guiltless eating pleasure. I always intend to freeze some or make preserves, but somehow they never make it into the house. I blame the birds. Those stains on my hands and mouth? Mind your own business!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Best Garden Tools Ever

My life changed forever in 1989.

That was the year Ed and I were married and I moved into his home on Sherrett Street in Portland, Oregon. Ed came with serious landscaping issues. The front yard was nothing but dandelions, and the back yard had a huge pile of dirt snuffing out some clumping bamboo.

I made short work of the dandelions and then turned my energy into freeing the bamboo. Turns out it was a junk pile of yard debris, car parts, tin cans, and a garden fork.

The garden fork was in surprising shape, the wooden handle was horribly warped, but the tines were rust free. I really didn't know what to make of it. First of all, who would bury a perfectly good tool and second of all, what the heck was it used for? I grew up on a farm and a pitchfork was one of the primary tools in use. We had a regular hay fork and another type we used to muck out the stalls. But this fork was different. It had four tines that were broad, flat, and thick. I cleaned it up and put it in the garage.

Weeks later I was trying to dig up more dandelions and not doing well. The roots kept breaking off in the heavy clay soil and wrenching on the plants with a hand tool was killing my back. I thought of the garden fork tucked into the garage and gave it a try. I've never looked back. Turns out, it became one of my two favorite tools. I use it for almost everything in the garden. It is the perfect tool for digging up weeds, breaking up dirt clods, turning the compost, aerating a bed, prying up rocks, moving sod, turning over soil, and chasing off raccoons. It's the first tool I mention whenever people ask me what they should have for gardening. My fork has replaced the hoe completely and most times I use it instead of a shovel.

My second favorite tool is my Felco hand pruner. I've had other types over the years. People used to give me pruners for Christmas gifts because mine were always so beat up. I went through brand after brand and nothing would last. Most couldn't be sharpened and others simply fell apart. Yes, I was hard on them. I'd use them to cut branches that were too big or dropped them onto hard surfaces. My biggest frustration was that none of them would keep an edge, thus making the pruning all the harder. I finally broke down and decided to spend the extra money to get a pair of Felco's on the advice of another gardener. It became one of those moments when you say to yourself - "Why didn't I do this years ago!!"  I've owned the same pair for almost fifteen years and they have never failed me. We sharpen them about three times a year and they hold their edge under the most abusive circumstances. I use them as pruners, not to mention tin snips, hose cutters, wire cutters, box cutters, staple pullers, grafting knife, and a handy tool to pry on things. They've been dropped, run over, squished into mud, stepped on, lost in the compost, and left out in the rain. Despite this horrible treatment they can be cleaned up, sharpened, and put away for another day. They are more reliable than I am, that's for sure.

I love to garden, but I also don't want to work harder than I have to. My garden fork and Felco pruners have made my life so much easier and allows me to get done what I need to in order to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Speaking of fruit, I need to trim that tree. Never mind that the branch is over two inches thick - honey, hand me the Felcos!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Steal this idea! Tool Cleaning Bucket

I struggle with taking care of my gardening tools.  I usually manage to clean them off - somewhat, but invariably the handles get all muddy and I have rust spots popping up.  Shovels, hoes, rakes, cultivators, pitchforks, hand weeders:  all of them rusty.

A couple of years ago I heeded the advice of a gardening show and bought linseed oil to rub onto the metal and handles - with the idea of putting up the tools for winter.  This worked for the Vermont-based show host, but I lived in Oregon and gardened all winter.  There was no tool storage for me - just many days of working in the wet maritime Pacific Northwest.  I used the oil off and on when I remembered until the day I dropped the can in the driveway.

That's all changed now thanks to Holly and Carolyn, two master gardeners that passed on a tool cleaning bucket idea during their roses workshop.  Carolyn relates that she got the idea from a Bob Villa program.

It's really very simple and works great!  You need a lidded bucket (I used an empty kitty litter container,) a bag of builders sand (got mine at Lowe's), and a quart of motor oil.  You can also use mineral or boiled linseed oil.  Mix the sand and oil in the bucket and you're ready to go.

With my heavy clay soil I still have to use a putty knife to clean off the worst of it, with lighter soils you can use steel wool.  Next I dip the tool in the bucket, then use a rag to polish.  The sand acts as an abrasive and the oil coats the metal plus softens the dirt.  As an extra bonus the sand cleaning helps keep everything sharp.  I use the rag to clean and lubricate the handle too.


I keep the bucket in my tool cabinet so it's nice and convenient.  

I have a tool chest on the back deck where I keep all my hand tools like trowels, cultivators and pruners.  For them a yogurt container suffices and it fits into one of the drawers.


I'm really happy with the results and the containers are great reminders to take the time to clean the tools.

I hope this inspires you to create your own tool cleaning bucket.  Let me know how it goes!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bake and Shake Composting

It's getting that time of year to start planting the summer vegetable garden, but before you do, make sure that your soil is ready to produce a whole new crop of edibles. I refresh my planting beds with compost that I've made from yard trimmings and kitchen scraps.

I've been using a three-bin compost system for years and really like the tidiness and speed in which I can create usable compost. Raw material goes into the first bin, and then is moved to the next second the following week. Moving it to the next bin helps keep everything aerated so the microbes, earthworms, and various other creatures can continue breaking down the plant material unfettered. After another week it is turned again into the third chamber.

By the time it has spent a week in bin three, it is pretty much ready to move out. Just to make sure, we built a screen to fit on top of the wheelbarrow. I fork the compost onto the screen and then shake it vigorously. The material that has broken down completely sifts through, leaving the chunks on top.

We build the screen out of materials we have on hand and make sure that it's not too heavy for me to manipulate. One year we made it entirely out of two-by-fours and I was barely able to shake it when it was loaded down with compost.

Our latest iteration is comprised of one-by-twos, 1/2-inch square galvanized mesh, and two handles from a wheelbarrow that we had to "put down" because it had completely worn out. The frame is built to sit on top of the rim. This way the wheelbarrow supports the weight and gives a smooth track surface to aid in sifting. Since there isn't any lifting, it's really saved my back from getting strained.

I shake it a good dozen times until I can see that what remains on top will not fit through the screen. This material is then tossed back into the first bin to go through the process again. Depending on what else is happening in the garden, I may take the chunky bits and place them around my ornamental plants as mulch.

The compost that remains is then wheeled over to the vegetable beds. I usually mix it into the top six inches of existing soil with my garden fork. Then I rake it level, set my irrigation, and plant my seeds. I'll also use it in established plantings as a side dressing or to mound hills for potatoes and corn. No matter how much I make there is never enough to go around. When I get really desperate I will buy compost in a bag - but it is never as good as what comes out of my bin so I try to hold out. I scrounge grass clippings and yard debris from the neighbors whenever my own fresh supply gets low, just to keep my piles cooking. I know, I should probably find other hobbies.

I really believe that the reason I am able to successfully grow food for my friends and family is due to my plant recycling efforts. The compost I produce smells great, really holds moisture, and my living plants love it. I never have to use commercial fertilizers and the compost contributes to a healthy soil environment. I encourage every one to start their own rot pile and give the "bake and shake" method a try!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

House Worms

Composting with worms is both fun and rewarding.  Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be outside in the heat of Central Texas, you can keep your worms in the house.

Done correctly, worm composting is odorless, insect-free, and a great way to compost your kitchen’s vegetable scraps.  Your reward is years of fun, worms for your friends, and most importantly, rich worm castings to add to your plants.

The worms used for home composting are Red Wigglers.  These are a smaller variety than the earthworms in your yard and are better suited for living in shallow soil.  If you can’t find worms locally, you can always mail order them.  I got mine from

There are several great resources for bin plans made from a variety of materials. I opted to make mine out of three 10-gallon heavy-duty, lidded plastic totes.  I chose this size because it will hold about 2,000 worms and it’s not too heavy for me to pick up when filled.  You can use smaller or larger bins depending on your situation.

The bottom bin is to catch excess moisture called “chelate”.  This is the moisture that drips down from the worm bedding and can be used as compost tea.

The next two bins are to hold the worms.  The first sits right on top of the bottom bin.  The third bin isn’t used until your original bin fills and will be used to start a new colony.

Chelate aeration holes
Start by drilling ¼” holes in the first bin about 2 ½” to 4” apart and 2 ½” from the bottom.  These holes are to provide aeration for the chelate and keeps away odor.  You may never generate excess moisture, but if you do, you can drain it out and use it directly on your plants.  It should smell very earthy.  If it stinks like rotting garbage, throw it away because that means that you have bacteria instead of healthy microbes.  Rinse out the bottom bin before placing your second worm bin back on top.

Drill holes bottom of 2nd bin
The second bin will be your first home for the worms.  Using a ¼” bit, drill holes on the bottom about 2 ½” apart to allow excess moisture to escape.  Drill another line of holes at the very top of the bin along each side.  These holes are important for aeration.  Repeat this pattern on the third bin.

Bin 1 and 2 with holes.
Place shredded paper into one of the bins with holes on the bottom.  Moisten with water then add your worms.
Moisten the paper

Add worms.
Top them with vegetable matter and more shredded newspaper.  Now stack this bin on the first one you made and put on the lid.  Done!
Add scraps and more paper to top it off.

Once this bin get’s about 6” of finished castings and compost, you’ll want to move your worms to a new container.  Add shredded paper and vegetable scraps to the third bin that you made.  Stack this bin on top of the other two.
Worm bin with all 3 stacks.
The worms will migrate to the third bin on their own in search of the fresh food, thus eliminating the need to screen or dig around to move them manually.

Here is what I have learned to be a successful worm farmer.
1. Place the bin in a cool area away from sunlight.  Under the sink or against an interior wall are examples.  I have mine in the dining room against the wall.
2. Refrain from adding new scraps until they have consumed the previous meal.  Excess feeding will cause the vegetable scraps to rot and smell.
3. Only use raw vegetable scraps.  Do not add oils, meat or dairy.  Try not to add too many citrus peels as the acid makes it hard for the worms to digest and could cause a harmful build-up.  I only add them occasionally and only if all other citrus has been digested.  I also don’t add eggshells because they also don’t break down fast enough.
4. When adding scraps, cover them with newspaper to prevent odors and fruit fly development.  If you find that you still get fruit flies, freeze your vegetable and fruit scraps to kill the fly eggs.  No need to thaw it before adding to your bin.  We eat a lot of fruit and I got so frustrated the first time I raised worms in the house I evicted them to my outside compost bin.  Freezing the peels restored harmony.
5. Worms usually only live for a year but lay eggs to replace themselves.  You can keep a worm bin going for years and rear generations of progeny.  Just think of it, your own worm dynasty!

I use the castings directly on my vegetable beds, container plants, and roses.  It’s great stuff and quite the conversation piece.  You will give a whole new meaning to “I have worms.”  Happy vermicomposting!