Tuesday, May 26, 2015

For the Love of Homegrown

What would I do for the love of fresh, homegrown produce? So far, all sorts of crazy stuff including this story of the time we built a new vegetable garden in a weekend.

The story starts back in the winter of 2014 when we had some time to start clearing out some dead trees that had succumbed to the drought. When the sight was cleared, I looked around at all this wonderful space with a fabulous southern exposure and said, "We should build a second vegetable garden here."

And so in the Spring of 2014, I ordered a 12 yard dump truck full of soil and with the help of our trusty tractor, my husband and I built a garden. 

The white bags seen below contain recycled material from the House Rabbit Rescue folks up in Pflugerville. The material is comprised of rabbit manure, pelletized pine, Thomas hay, and alfalfa meal. We're composting the material, which appears blonde colored in the photos, in between the beds. It will help to create the paths now and when it decomposes later we will rake it up into the beds.

I had quite a few excess plants leftover from a plant sale, so I planted them in this garden and in an instant I had a growing, productive vegetable garden.

Sounds awesome, right? Well, it was until we started to get some rain. After the first rains fell in Fall of 2014, I knew I had a problem. The new garden was built on a deep vein of clay and drainage was a huge problem. I knew I would have to build the garden up, but that would take time. Apparently, time I did not have.

El Nino was brewing and Texas was about to start getting a lot of rain. My poor little garden just could not cope with all that excess water.  After a recent heavy rainfall, I started to formulate some ideas for drainage.

On Sunday, May 24, 2015, I dug some trenches as a stop gap measure to see if I could get some of the water to drain off. The weather forecasters were predicting a big rain storm for the following day and I was very concerned that any additional rainfall would only add to my existing problems.

Ideally, I would like to continue to raise the whole garden up and install a french drain down the front and side of the garden. I'm not convinced that a french drain would completely fix the problem, but it might be worth a try. I'm still mulling this over.

Another problem is that the beds create mini dams that trap the water within the garden. I dug some additional trenches to further facilitate drainage along the beds and my measures seemed to be working. The water was slowly draining away.

So far, the corn, beans and watermelon don't seem to mind being so wet. The cantaloupe is not happy, some of the tomatoes are wilting due to root loss, and the artichokes have given up the ghost. Of course, at the point these photos were taken, the garden had only been swampy for about a week to 10 days.

The fungal problems are also starting to take their toll on the tomatoes. I'm just hoping I can get my crop in before the plants really go to heck.

Amazingly, I'm still pulling out plenty of produce for now.

But, as long as this garden stays this swampy, it's impossible to get any work done or keep your socks clean.

Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, they did. A huge storm rolled in on Monday and dropped huge amounts of rain. Adding all this rain together, this is our wettest May since 1891. Yikes!

The photo below was excerpted from a video my husband took shortly after the storm ended on Monday, May 25, 2015. The water was already receding at the point this photo was taken of the trench I had dug the previous day.

Here are two interesting comparison photos. The first photo was taken on Sunday and shows our little creek managing the water flow quite nicely.  The second photo was captured from a video taken on Monday after the storm ended.

A year ago we were still in the worst drought ever and I don't think anyone saw this coming, least of all, me. What will I do now? I don't know. Any suggestions? I'm open to hear them.

I know there has been a lot of destruction caused by this storm and we all have very mixed emotions. One the one hand, we're happy to see the lakes are filling up and on the other, the loss of life and property is devastating to so many. My little problems are minuscule in the grand scheme of things. Knowing that helps keeps things in perspective. 

I hope you and yours are safe. Happy Belated Memorial Day.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Heart Breaking Crop Failure

With 30 years of gardening under my belt, I've experienced my share of crop failures. Pests, weather and my own stupidity are the usual culprits, but I recently encountered an unexpected problem that occurred through no fault of my own.

In my previous blog, That's Intense, I talked about my bio intensive vegetable growing project using 84 broccoli and 84 cabbage plants. The cabbage has produced very well, but I ran into a whopper of a problem with the broccoli.

I grew the Calabrese broccoli seed from the Brim Seed Company located here in Texas. This seed company was new to me, but the packaging convinced me that this would be the perfect broccoli for my southern garden.

The plants started out very normal. The seedlings were big and healthy. I was very excited about the harvest to come.

When the plants were getting close to producing fruit, I started noticing a strange discoloration on the leaves. I had never seen anything like this before and started researching the problem. Was this a virus? Was this a result of the early hard November freeze? I was baffled. 

I harvested some of the formed broccoli heads, which resulted in the plants producing even more peculiar shoots.

Some of the plants were tightly formed liked cabbage and I began to wonder if I had accidentally mixed up the seedlings. When the heads began to open, I knew something was very wrong.

The heads opened to reveal a bouquet that started flowering immediately.

I've been retired for over a year now and I sell produce at the Hope Farmer's Market to supplement my income and off set the cost of my gardening endeavors. This crop of broccoli represented over $400 in sales that I could not make. Additionally, my time, water, electricity, soil and fertilizer brought my losses to over $500. Ouch!

I decided to send an email with photos to the Brim Seed Company to see if they knew what went wrong. I heard back from Terri Brim who informed me that the seed I purchased had been cross pollinated with a flowering kale species. The grower of the seed could not explain how this happened, but according to various articles on the web, it 's not that uncommon.

I recently took this picture of an ornamental kale at Bellingrath Gardens. Look familiar? I imagine a kale similar to this one may have been the culprit.

Since small backyard growers such as myself typically do not have crop insurance, when crops fail our recourse is extremely limited. I've since found out that seed companies have limited liability for the products they sell. In the end, I will probably get back the cost of the seed and nothing more. That's a heart breaking loss!

I just learned a very expensive lesson. Hopefully, you will benefit from this lesson and take this to heart: Not all seeds are created equal, and not all seed companies are created equal either. 

At the end of the day, when your food and other important crops are at stake, purchase your seed from sources that you know and trust. Don't be swayed as I was by fancy patter on a seed packet.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Embrace Spring at Bellingrath Gardens

In the sleepy, little town of Theodore, Alabama (near Mobile) there is a garden that is bursting forth in spring color. 

The Bellingrath Gardens, first developed in 1927, were owned by Bessie and Walter Bellingrath. Since the couple had no children, the 65 acre property was donated to a foundation that continues to run the garden. The garden is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and today I'm taking you on a little tour to check it out. 

By the way, the photos in this blog were all taken with my iPhone5. My iPhone isn't quite as good as my Nikon D7000. That said, some of these photos were very good and I'm not sure I could have done better with my regular camera. You be the judge.

March in the south east is azalea season! My visit was just a little off peak, but I still found plenty of blooms.

Camellias grow like trees in this old southern garden. Sometimes called the "winter rose", because their rose-like blooms grace the garden during the colder months from November through March. 

Walking up to the conservatory, you catch a glimpse of a pretty fountain. As you get closer, the space opens up to the rose garden. There are no roses blooming today, but with over 2,000 rose bushes, I imagine it's quite a show.

The conservatory, built in 1936, is host to all sorts of tropical plants. Back in the old days, a coal fired boiler kept the plants toasty warm on cold winter nights. 

The walkway edging the great lawn was one of my favorite spots. I loved how the gardeners blended the old azaleas, clipped hedges and liriope with the seasonal plantings of ornamental kale, chard, red mustard, flowering bulbs, and annuals.

On my way through the garden, I smelled this mass planting of hyacinth long before I saw it. Ah! The aromas of spring!

This building, built back in 1939, was originally a six car garage with guest quarters above. Today it's an art gallery housing a collection by American sculptor Edward Marshall Boehm.

On the edge of the south terrace of the Bellingrath Home, I found this perfect garden view. Beautiful!

Without their leaves, the trees at Mirror Lake create the perfect spring sculpture. Just weeks ago, they were asleep, but now you can feel them vibrating with life.

It's spring! Embrace nature. Get there and enjoy the beauty of it!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Mystery of the Rocks

My husband and I live on a two acre property in the Post Oak Savannah of Central Texas. Caught between the clay soils of the Blackland Prairie and the sandy soils to the east, we seem to have an interesting mix of the two soils, but no good landscaping rocks. We're just too far from the Texas hill country and seem to have completely missed out on the fabulous limestone rocks that are ubiquitous throughout the western part of Central Texas.

Smooth Texas hill country field stone
We do have rocks, but the rocks we have are small and more gravelly in nature. An amateur archaeologist once told me that she thought our neighborhood was once much closer to the Colorado River. We're about 5 miles away now, but she believed that we were once right on the banks or perhaps part of a sand bar piled with silt and river rock.

Miscellaneous rocks from our swimming pool dig serve as a dry creek
I think she was probably right. When we had our swimming pool dug years ago, we found rocks that were as round as melons and as smooth as eggs. Within the 9 foot deep hole, we could see fascinating layers of rock and clay. Some of the clay was as thick and sticky as modeling clay. When I saw those layers, I better understood why we had such bad drainage in certain areas.

Rocks found in swimming pool dig
As someone who has a love for rocks in the garden, our lack of large stone creates somewhat of a problem. Sure, we could buy rock, but I have a huge garden and rock is surprisingly very expensive around these parts. My thrifty nature has encouraged me to look for other alternatives and over the years we've found many people willing to share their rocks.

I think the first free rocks we ever collected were from a friend out in the Dripping Springs area. He was trying to clear a horse pasture, so his horses didn't twist a leg. If you've never seen Dripping Springs rock, it's really quite fascinating. The limestone has been eaten away and is full of holes. This rock is loaded with character and makes a great accent piece in a garden bed.

I remember years ago when a friend cued us in on a new development that was going in out in Burnet. The site was loaded with these thick, beautiful, nature flag stones. We spent several weekends collecting (with permission) as many as we could before the bulldozers cleared the remaining rocks away. Today many of these stones can be found throughout our garden.

Small path leading to water feature

Steps leading to a bird bath

Pond edging stone

Garden bed brimming with heartleaf skullcap
When it comes to rock, I'm happy to help those with rock abundant landscapes to thin the herd, so to speak. Our friend Ely owns one such property that I've visited several times in the last few years. He definitely has plenty of rock to spare and is trying to clear some of it out. I've totally drooled over some of the beautiful rocks that were just too big for us to move. Fortunately, a neighbor with a tractor volunteered to help us load them on our last visit. The rocks were so heavy, we couldn't fit many in the truck. They were the devil to move when we got them home, but oh so worth it.

Another Dripping Springs area property, owned by our friend Tom, has been supplying us with lots of stone for our dry stack garden bed projects. I'd like to eventually outline all of my garden beds with stone as a visual cue to the dogs to stay out, plus it looks good too. Last time we needed stone, Tom loaded a huge trailer full of stone for us. The stone has lots of interesting shapes and colors. Somehow my husband pieces them together in a way that they don't fall over. I either don't have the skill or the patience for this work, so I just lay out the basic shape shape and wait for Richard to put together his artistic rock puzzle.

These boulders are our latest acquisitions. I'm not sure where they are going yet, but luckily we have a small tractor to help move them into position. I'll be sure to think long and hard about placement, because I have a feeling they will probably stay where ever they land.

This blog made me realize just how many rocks we've amassed over the years and I couldn't help but chuckle as I was taking the photos. I wonder if archaeologists thousands of years from now will scratch their heads and wonder how all these hill country rocks came to rest so far away out here in the Post Oak Savannah. Hehehe. I know and now you do too.