Sunday, December 4, 2011

Farewell to fall

My urban garden has managed to avoid the handful of freezes my suburban and rural friends have endured, but now that we're into December, it's only a matter of time. I've been quite pleased with the peppers, squash and eggplant my fall garden produced, though the beans and cucumbers were a bust. And although my remaining tomato plant (Chocolate Cherry) is lush, full, healthy and loaded with green fruit, I have no illusions that any of the fruit will ripen before this week's predicted freeze.
Fall harvest

So, it's time to say goodbye to fall garden friends. Here's some of this week's farewell rituals:

Sauteed squash with onions, basil and garlic in olive oil
Sauteed squash, garlic, basil, onion

My mother-in-law's chocolate zucchini cake
Chocolate zucchini cake

The last of the fall flower blossoms floating in a shallow bowl of water
Last of the fall flowers

How are you saying adios to your fall garden?

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Homegrown microgreens

I don't know about you, but I hate thinning seedlings. I know proper spacing is crucial to growing healthy vegetable plants, but I can't help but feel like I'm snuffing the life's purpose out of those tiny, leafy babies. Last weekend, as I pulled gobs of lettuce seedlings out of a raised bed, my thoughts flashed back to a $5.99 package of organic microgreens I'd seen at Central Market. That's when I decided against tossing the thinned seedlings in the compost bin. Instead, I collected them in a little bowl, washed them up, and added them to our dinner salads that evening.

Microgreens from thinned seedlings

Lettuce seedlings are the easiest thing in the world to grow. You can grow them in flats outside in the garden, or in pots on a sunny windowsill inside the house. Use them like you would alfalfa sprouts or shredded lettuce: in salads, on sandwiches, or as garnishes on canapés.

Microgreens from thinned seedlings

These babies are highly perishable, so it's best to eat them the day you pluck them. Soil will cling tightly to their tiny root systems, and too strong a rinsing will bruise them, so grow them in a sterile soil-free mix, or clip the seedlings off at the surface and leave the roots underground.

Microgreens from thinned seedlings

Aren't they pretty with the light shining through their little leaves?

Microgreens from thinned seedlings

These microgreens are a combination of two Botanical Interests seed mixes (Valentine and Q's Special Medley) and a Crispy Winter Greens mix from Renee's Garden Seeds. There's a combination of Glory curly endive, Presto radicchio, Elysee escarole, baby oakleaf, baby Romaine, Lolla Rossa, Marveille de Quatre Saisons, Redina, red oakleaf, Red Salad Bowl, Rouge d’Hiver, Ruben’s Red, Black Seeded Simpson, Summer Bibb, arugula, mizuna, and Tatsoi seedlings in this little bowl. Whew!

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The luckiest lime tree on Earth

Regular readers of this blog know how much I love and baby my in-ground lime trees. I know, I'm crazy, the lengths I go to! But there's nothing like a fresh homegrown organic lime for making Margaritas. Last year, despite our best efforts we lost the key lime in the February freeze. The Bearss lime survived, but suffered severe damage. Luckily, it rebounded in the spring and is even larger than it was last year, but bore no fruit this year at all. So I'm trying once again to protect this lime tree from tonight's possible freeze, in the hope she'll reward us with fresh limes this coming spring.

Yesterday, I went down to Zinger Hardware and bought a pop-up greenhouse: a Planthouse 5 from Flowerhouse. This is just like the one Ronny Bell raved about last year on his blog, The Lazy Shady Gardener. Jack helped me move a raised bed away from the left of the tree, then put together the greenhouse and helped me lift it up and over the lime tree.
Planthouse 5

Here she is: the luckiest lime tree in the world.
Bearss lime inside pop up greenhouse

The greenhouse is as easy to put up as a tent. The waterproof Gro-Tec material lets in 75% of available light. The greenhouse has front and back doors, both with screened inner panels. In the morning, I'll unzip the doors so the tree doesn't suffocate.
Zip off netting over door

There are two tiny Velcro doors for a hose or power cord.
Hose or power cord outlet

The 5' x 5' by 6.5' greenhouse is just big enough for the lime tree and a few potted plants like my aloes, a Meyer lemon and a couple of cacti. As the folks at Flowerhouse suggested, I'm using a small ceramic heater (purchased at Breed & Co.) to keep it warm inside. If this turns out to be a good long-term solution, I'll have to prune the lime tree to keep it small enough to use this greenhouse year after year.

Fingers crossed that this works better than our makeshift rebar-and-frost-cloth greenhouse from last year!

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - November 2011

90% of Texas remains in Extreme or Exceptional Drought. Nonetheless, we had a bit of a sprinkle on the 6th and a goodly amount of rain today (1/2 inch in my garden). As a result, I have blooms to share.

In the vegetable garden, 'Ichiban" Japanese eggplant continues to bloom and produce small, tasty eggplants.
'Ichiban' eggplant

Each purple blossom is a potential eggplant. The sepals of the five-lobed calyx look like a little octopus to me.
'Ichiban' eggplant

In the back yard, a handful of 'Bright Lights' cosmos have popped up.
'Bright Lights' cosmos

But most importantly, the roses are back!

'La Marne' is putting out sweet little nosegays.
'La Marne' rose

'Old Blush' is as big as a hedge and covered in blossoms (and bees.)
'Old Blush' rose

It reminds me of a big rose-patterned quilt. I just want to wrap myself up in it!
'Old Blush' rose

'Dame du Coeur' has put out a dozen soft, velvety blossoms that smell like fresh rosy apples.
'Dame du Coeur' rose

The "Chrysler' rose was hit hard by heat and drought this summer, but has managed one tiny fall blossom with a big rose scent.
'Chrysler' rose

What bloomers survived your summer to tell the tale? Visit May Dreams Gardens and post all about 'em.

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Today I Learned (TIL)

Today I learned how to clone plants. (cue evil mad scientist laugh)

It's true -- plant propagation from cuttings is a bit like cloning a plant. By taking a part of a plant and rooting it, I can create a completely new plant, genetically identical to the "parent." Pretty cool, huh?

Virtually any plant can be propagated from cuttings. In class, we practiced our newly learned propagation skills using cuttings from coleus, mums, salvia, rosemary, shrimp plant and jade plant.

When propagating plants from cuttings, it's important to use sharp, sterilized pruners to make clean cuts below leaf nodes and prevent transferring pathogens from plant to plant. Bleach or rubbing alcohol can be used as a sterilizing agent. The right type of soil-free, fertilizer-free rooting media or "potting mix" is important, too; "Sunshine Mix" is one popular variety, but every gardener has a favorite blend. Another key to success is just the right amount of moisture: not so wet that the cuttings rot, but not so dry that the cutting can't generate roots. Indirect bright light is best for rooting cuttings. Woody plants benefit from a bit of scraping off of the brown outer covering on the stem. Some cuttings benefit from an application of rooting hormone at the cut tip, while others (like succulents) don't like that at all. Finally, all the flowers and half the leaf surface must be removed from the cutting to force its efforts into root formation.

We learned how to build little greenhouses from 2-liter soda bottles and quart-sized plastic pots to keep the cuttings moist until they root.
Soda bottle greenhouses

We also learned how to make self-watering rooting dishes from 9" bulb pots and a small 2" terracotta pot plugged up with non-toxic hot glue.
Self-watering rooting dish

For more information on cloning plants (bwah ha ha), visit the Texas Agrilife Extension Service webpage on asexual plant propagation. The Travis County Master Gardeners also offer a seminar on plant propagation at least once a year; find out more at the TCMGA Educational Seminars page.

(Today I Learned features a nugget of information I learned during training to become a Travis County Master Gardener.)

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

ENDS TONIGHT! Last chance to win nursery gift certificates!

Microb Brewery compost tea house
In honor of Support your Independent Garden Center Month, these eight garden bloggers are holding contests for wonderful prize packages at eight local Austin nurseries. And ALL you have to do is leave a comment on the contest pages linked below. Enter one or enter all eight, but hurry: the contests end TONIGHT at 11:59 p.m.

Sharing Nature's Garden -- $50 gift certificate from Emerald Garden Nursery and Water Garden
J Peterson Garden Design -- $50 gift certificate from The Great Outdoors
Go Away, I'm Gardening -- $100 gift certificate from Sunshine Landscape and Garden Center
Great Stems -- $50 gift certificate from Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery
The Whimsical Gardener -- $25 gift certificate from It's About Thyme
Rock Rose -- $50 gift certificate from Shoal Creek Nursery
Digging -- $100 gift certificate & a Fall Power Package (valued at $50) from Barton Springs Nursery
Growing Optimism -- $25 gift certificate from the Natural Gardener

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

October GGW Picture This! Photo Contest - "Fill the Frame"

This is my entry for Gardening Gone Wild's Picture This! Photo Contest for October. This month's theme is "Fill the Frame" and the judge is Saxon Holt.

Plumbago auriculata
Plumbago auriculata

You can enter a photograph, too! But you'd best hurry -- the deadline is 11:59 PM Eastern time on Tuesday, October 25.

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

The secret life of insects

"There's some good eats on this salvia," said the spider to the bee.

Spider & bee on salvia

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Today I Learned (TIL)

Today I learned how to tell the difference between bacterial plant infections and fungal plant infections.

During our 6 hour class on plant pathology, Dr. Kevin Ong, Director of the Texas Plant Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, explained that both bacteria and fungi can cause blight, wilt and leaf spots, but there are some visible differences between the two, if you can catch the disease early on.

Fungal leaf spots tend to spread across the veins of leaves, while bacterial leaf spots start off as angular-shaped lesions confined within leaf veins. Other clues: spore accumulations may be visible in fungal infections, while bacterial infections more commonly have a wet appearance. And if a cut section of a leaf or stem is placed in water, a bacteria-infested plant is more likely to ooze a gummy substance than a plant suffering from a fungal infection.

Fungus on coreopsis

I wish I'd known this a year and a half ago, when a mystery disease struck and killed an established Salvia greggii, a Mayfield Giant coreopsis and a Pringle's Bee Balm. Dr. Ong says that fungi are responsible for 85% of common garden diseases, so when the culprit's in doubt, it's probably a fungus. Looking back at the photos, I think my suspicion of a fungus was probably correct. The leaf spots on my coreopsis spread across the leaf veins and I could see what looked like visible black spores on the leaves. I detected no angular leaf spots confined by the leaf veins, and the spots didn't look wet. But if such a calamity were to happen now, I'd cut off a stem or leaf, stick it in water and look for ooze, and I'd dig up the roots to look for root rot or nematodes. I might even send off a specimen to be tested for $35.

And the white growth I saw underneath the Bath's dianthus that spring? Probably benign. Dr. Ong says that of the 100,000 known fungi, only 8% are pathogenic; the other 92% are innocent bystanders.

For more information on the Texas Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab, visit their website or their Facebook page.

(Today I Learned features a nugget of information I learned during training to become a Travis County Master Gardener.)

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - October 2011

An inch of rain earlier in the month and a good mulching shortly after has brought forth purple, blue, yellow and pink blooms in time for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Normally I would have cut back the salvias in late summer to stimulate blooming, but held off as the plants were under severe drought stress. Turns out there was no need to prune.

In front of the house:

'Ruby Crystals' grass & 'Violet Velvet' salvia
'Ruby Crystals' grass (Melinis nerviglumis) and 'Violet Velvet' salvia (S. greggi 'Violet Velvet')

'Mealy Blue Sage'
'Mealy Blue Sage' (Salvia farinacea)

Non-native trailing purple lantana
Lantana montevidensis, a non-native variety

Winter daffodil
Winter daffodil or Southern Fall Crocus (Sternbergia lutea), an heirloom bulb from 1596.

In the back yard:

Barbados cherry
My Barbados cherry is blooming for the first time.

Barbados Cherry blossom
Close-up of a Barbados cherry blossom

'Sapphire Showers' duranta
Duranta repens 'Sapphire Showers'

Pink portulaca
Pink portulaca

Passalong buddleja
A passalong buddleja from my mother-in-law in Virginia

What's in bloom on October 15 in over 100 gardens around the world? Visit May Dreams Gardens and see.

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

October is Support Your Independent Nursery Month

Pam Penick at Digging has declared it, and I concur -- October is Support Your Independent Nursery Month. And boy, do they need our support.

Dromgoole's Natural Gardener nursery
Orchard entrance at The Natural Gardener

Indie nurseries are hanging by a thread and some are closing up shop altogether, as the linked article describes (thanks to Diana at Sharing Nature's Garden for the link). Here are some of the reasons why we are at risk of losing our friendly local nurseries (or Independent Garden Centers, as they're known in the trade).
  • The stagnant economy. In a down economy, you might think that expenditures on do-it-yourself projects like gardening would rise. But with threats of a double-dip recession, inflation and a global economic crisis, consumer spending is down across the board.
  • Record unemployment. Job loss means budget cutbacks, even in two-income households, and niceties like gardening supplies are among the first to go.
  • The mortgage crisis. Many Americans have lost their homes and gardens. Those who are "under water" on their mortgages are naturally reluctant to sink more money into upgrades like landscaping.
  • People are driving less. Even if the car is paid for, gas, insurance, registration, and repairs are costly. Folks are parking (or selling) the car and getting around by bus, bike or scooter, or driving only when necessary. It's darn near impossible to haul home plants and garden soil without a car.
  • The weather has been terrible for gardening this year. More than 95% of Texas has been in an exceptional drought for months. Up north, gardeners are suffering from an exceptionally wet and rainy year, making the soil too wet to work and drowning plants.

Compost tea brewhouse at The Natural Gardener

So if you are one of the fortunate ones, like me, with a house and a job and a car and a garden, please join me in supporting our independent nurseries! I have a list of my favorites to the right, under the title "Where I Get Stuff." Some on the list are located out of town, but most are right here in Austin, including one of my favorites, The Natural Gardener, which I blogged about in a 2009 post. We just had 7 cubic yards of their fabulous Sylvan Formula Mulch delivered to our house, and Jack is in the process of laying it down around every tree and shrub in our garden. This nursery's a bit of a drive from my place in North Austin, but well worth it. For quick in-town nursery trips, I frequent Shoal Creek Nursery at Hancock near Mopac, and Sledd Nursery on West Lynn in the Clarksville district.

Check out my blogroll, too - every Wednesday in October, bloggers are posting about their favorite local nurseries. Be sure to visit Digging, where Pam got this ball rolling, before heading out to visit your favorite independent nursery (or to explore one you've never visited)!

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Today I Learned (TIL)

Today I learned that if soil is "worked" (tilled, turned or amended) when the soil is too wet, it turns into a brick-like substance that can take years to rehabilitate.

This weekend, Austin finally got a good, slow, soaking rain. So far, my garden's gotten a little over an inch of much-needed moisture, and some lucky ducks in Austin have enjoyed 2 or 3 inches. And after months of heat and drought, a gardener's first inclination is to run right out after a nice rain like this and turn those beds!

But as Dr. Mark McFarland, Professor and Soil Fertility Specialist at Texas Agrilife Extension explains, soil is amazingly delicate. Working a soil that is oversaturated with water alters its very structure, turning a loose, crumbly collection of granular soil particles into a compacted mass of plate-like soil particles. The damage may not be apparent until the soil dries into a thick, hardened layer of crust which is difficult for water, air, roots and seedlings to penetrate. (Walking repeatedly on soil, wet or dry, can cause the same sort of damage.)

Pea seedling poking through soil that was turned 2 weeks ago, when dry

Once the damage is done, it's difficult to remedy and requires repeated tilling of organic matter into the hardened soil over several seasons to loosen it up again. So resist the urge and wait until the soil dries a bit before giving it a workout. With our limited rainfall and warm fall temperatures, it won't take long. You can tell when the soil is ready to work by digging up a bit of soil and forming it into a ball in your hand. If the soil ball crumbles when you squeeze it, go for it. If it's muddy or smears in your hand, wait a couple of days and test again.

For more information on soil from Texas Agrilife Extension, visit their Soils and Composting page.

(Today I Learned features a nugget of information I learned during training to become a Travis County Master Gardener.)
Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Today I Learned (TIL)

Today I learned that compost isn't a fertilizer, it's a soil amendment. In other words, compost doesn't feed your plants, it feeds your soil. Yes, soil needs food, nom nom nom. Soil is hungry. Soil needs to eat because soil is ALIVE! Good soil, anyway. Somewhere in the back of my head, I knew this. I've heard about soil microbes. But somehow I had it in my head that the compost I work into my garden beds every season was feeding my plants. Although compost does have some nutrient value, its primary purpose is not to provide nutrients to plants -- at least not directly. Compost feeds the soil microbes; in turn, the microbes convert the compost into plant food. Or as Skip Richter, former Texas AgriLife Extension Director for Travis County, says, "Good soil fertilizes itself."

Teaspoon of soil
This is how it works: in each teaspoon of soil are millions and millions of microscopic good-guy organisms: bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes (most of which are not disease-causing, but beneficial), and something called Actinomycetes, which are bacteria that have some fungal-like properties. Add it all up, and you can have more than 75 pounds of these critters in 1000 square feet of healthy soil, not counting the critters you can see, like earthworms and pillbugs and ground beetles. Every day, these invisible life forms are hard at work in your soil, doing important jobs like decomposing plant material, fighting disease-causing organisms, breaking down chemicals, and making nutrients available to plants. Soil microbes fix nitrogen, chelate minerals, and produce nitrogen waste, which plants can then take up through their roots.

So what makes soil microbes happy? Carbon-rich organic matter, particularly plant material, green or brown. For example, kitchen scraps. Or composted leaves. Or aged manure, which is what's left after an animal eats, ruminates and eliminates plant matter. Or cover crops, which are planted and turned into the soil before the next season's planting. Organic matter improves the structure of the soil, making soil more permeable to water and air, and improving its ability to maintain pH (a balance between acidity and alkalinity). This creates an environment where soil microbes can thrive and flourish.

Good soil teeming with microbes makes for happy plants. Some soil microbes have a symbiotic relationship with plant roots: the roots secrete stuff that the microbes like, and the microbes create a protective shield around the roots, or convert a particular nutrient to a form the plant can absorb and use. Other microbes break down stuff like leaves and manure and kitchen scraps and grass clippings and insect shells, releasing the nutrients into the soil. Some microbes eat other microbes, keeping checks and balances on the system.

As the foundation of a garden, nothing can replace or make up for lack of good soil. But creating good soil is a process and there are few short cuts. In forests, soil microbes turn layers of decomposing leaves into nutrient-rich humus; rain percolating through the leaf cover acts as a natural "compost tea." A natural, gradual sort of rototilling occurs as the roots of understory plants continually die and regenerate, releasing nutrients into the soil and creating small pockets for air and water to flow through. This process goes on for years, often decades. We can mimic this process by adding compost to our garden beds, mulching with leaves, planting cover crops, keeping tilling to a minimum, and wisely using water, fertilizers and pesticides. But even with good cultural practices, it can take 3 - 5 years to turn poor soil into good soil. So be patient and keep at it.

For more information on soil biology and soil organisms, visit the United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service's Soil Biology website.

(Today I Learned features a nugget of information I learned during training to become a Travis County Master Gardener.)

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Today I Learned (TIL)

Today I learned that the term "pesticide" includes a lot of stuff that I didn't know were pesticides. I knew insecticides were pesticides, but there's lots more pests than just insects. Other pests include birds (pests to some people! not me!), fungus, weeds, mites, mollusks (like slugs and snails), nematodes, fish (pests to some people! not me! well, ok, maybe Asian carp), animals and rodents.

pesticide free zone
So now I have to go take this "Pesticide-Free Zone" sign off my back gate, because I'm a big fat liar. Although I don't use insecticides, I've used fungicides. I've used Sluggo to kill slugs. And yes, I've used glyphosate to try and kill bermuda grass. It didn't work. It killed the green stolons or runners on the top of the soil, but it didn't kill all the rhizomes deep, deep beneath the soil, so it came right back.

Speaking of glyphosate, the other thing I learned is that when stored in galvanized steel containers, glyphosate can explode. Glyphosate reacts with the galvanized steel to form hydrogen gas, which is highly combustible. It's right on the label, in the Directions for Use section. So don't do that!

(Today I Learned features a nugget of information I learned during training to become a Travis County Master Gardener.)

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The fall garden...huh?

No, I'm not crazy, this really is the start of my fall garden. Daytime temperatures remain in the 90's in Central Texas, and my little plot hasn't had measurable rainfall in nearly three months. Since the climate is acting like it's summer, with meteorologists predicting a warm, dry winter (thanks, La Niña!), I decided to plant some heat-loving seeds. And with weekly drip irrigation and daily hand-watering, they've sprouted!

I planted summer squash (this is the 8 Ball variety)
Eight-Ball squash seedlings

Armenian cucumbers,
Armenian cucumber seedlings

and Tiger's Eye bush beans, a new variety from Botanical Interests that were in a Seattle Fling swag bag.
Tiger's Eye bean seedlings

I'll thin the seedlings when each has two sets of real leaves, then mulch around the plants.

The pepper plants I planted in the spring sulked all summer, but two are starting to flower now that temperatures are below 100: this serrano,
Serrano pepper

and this red bell pepper.
Red bell pepper

I left a habanero in the ground, too, but it's not doing anything, phooey.

But this Japanese eggplant plant is covered with new blooms.
Japanese eggplant

The Bright Lights chard is still going strong. (After two years, the Fordhook Giant chard is fully worn out; its knarled hearts and roots will be dug out and new seeds planted later this month.)
Bright Lights chard

This spearmint died to the ground in July but came back from the roots with a little drip irrigation.

Now, if we only had a bit of rain and a drop of about five degrees, I'd feel comfortable planting carrots, broccoli, and fall herbs. C'mon, fall! Texas is ready to welcome you with open arms.

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Today I Learned (TIL)

Today I learned how to effectively water a tree.

Although many trees have tap roots, most of an established tree's roots are in the top 6 to 12 inches of soil, and extend out horizontally from the trunk, far beyond its canopy or drip line (the area under its branches). April Rose, Executive Director of TreeFolks, likens the relationship of a tree to its roots as "a wine glass sitting on top of a dinner plate." And despite its name, the root flare on a tree is primarily trunk tissue, not root tissue. Trunks don't take up water; roots do. So watering a tree directly on top of its root flare is a lot less effective than thoroughly watering the soil underneath its full canopy. In fact, keeping the trunk's root flare constantly moist can cause fungal rot.

To keep trees well hydrated in the home landscape during this exceptional drought, water according to age of the tree and the diameter of its trunk in inches. There's a nifty chart on this page from the City of Austin. Baby trees need about 10 gallons per diameter trunk inch every two to four weeks for the first two years. Established trees need fewer gallons per diameter trunk inch (although more gallons overall) and tolerate less frequent watering. Both young and old trees benefit from slow watering methods which allow water to penetrate about 8 inches into the soil under the canopy around the perimeter of the tree. You can use a screwdriver or soil probe to gauge how deeply the water is penetrating the soil; the screwdriver will penetrate easily in moist soil. Mulching under the tree's canopy to a depth of three inches helps hold moisture in the soil and reduces weed growth, but pull the mulch back away from the trunk about 4 inches, to keep the trunk and root flare nice and dry.

For more information on growing healthy trees in Central Texas, visit the TreeFolks resource page.

(Today I Learned features a nugget of information I learned during training to become a Travis County Master Gardener.)

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I am hopeful

This weekend I decided to heck with the drought, the unrelenting heat, and the stage 2 water restrictions. I will have a fall garden. I must. I limited its size to the area I am willing to water with a hand-held hose or watering can, once we go to stage 3 restrictions: one big 4' x 24' bed. And I'm only planting vegetables Jack and I both like, meaning no turnips, no beets, no cabbage, and no Brussels sprouts. Yes, you can just imagine Jack's disappointment.

I spent Saturday pulling up weeds and spring-planted vegetables. It was hard to pull up tomato and cucumber plants that still had green leaves, but they were half-dead and spent-looking. I yanked them out fast, like ripping off a Band-aid. I left the Japanese eggplant and pepper plants, as they still look healthy, and they started to flower last week when the temperatures dropped below 100°F. After weeding and culling, I amended the soil with organic 8-2-4 fertilizer and some cottonseed meal for good measure, added some compost-rich garden soil, and turned the bed. Well, I turned a third of it, before it got too hot to continue. I'll turn the other two-thirds when I'm ready to plant.

It was hot, sweaty work, in 102 degree heat -- again. My instinct says that's much too hot to plant cool-season vegetables. Even though the Aggies say plant now, I'm waiting a few more weeks to plant carrots, dill, garlic, snap peas, lettuce, spinach, and cool-season herbs like cilantro, chervil and dill. I may be forced to plant broccoli before then, only because I imagine the nurseries won't have any transplants in 3 more weeks. But I'd rather wait.

In honor of La Niña's return, I decided to do something crazy. On Sunday, I planted summer squash, cucumbers and bush beans in the third of the bed that I'd turned. I planted varieties that will mature to harvest in 55-60 days, just before Austin typically experiences its first frost. The Aggies say it's getting a bit late for such nonsense, but the meteorologists say it will be a warm, dry winter. I have floating row cover just in case, but something tells me I may not need it.

I'm not sure what to do about wildflowers this year. Without rain, the seeds will need supplemental watering. I'm also not sure what to do about the the front garden in general. I have some ideas for some drought-tolerant additions, but they would all need supplemental watering until they become established, and I won't have the time or money to hand-water both vegetables and shrubs. I need to think about that some more. I have time.

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Today I Learned (TIL)

Texas ash
Texas ash (Fraxinus texensis)

Today I learned that moving firewood kills trees. When people transport firewood from their backyard to, say, a campsite three hours away, they introduce forest pests and diseases from one ecosystem to another. Here's one horrific example of how devastating this seemingly innocuous act can be.

Minnette Marr, Plant Conservationist at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, says that the Emerald Ash Borer has already wiped out tens of millions of the 8 billion ash trees in the U.S. This lethal pest was first identified in 2002 near Detroit, MI. It likely entered the U.S. in wooden packing crates from Asia, where it is indigenous. The Emerald Ash Borer has already spread to 12 states, and firewood has been implicated in dozens of infestations found in or near campgrounds, including the first infestations in Missouri, Indiana and West Virginia.

As ash trees die, the ecosystems they support are disturbed or destroyed, affecting understory trees, shrubs and wildlife, and providing invasive species the opportunity to invade. The Emerald Ash Borer has not yet reached Texas, but is expected to enter the state within the next decade. When it arrives, our native Texas ash is likely to fully succumb to the pest. Because the Emerald Ash Borer has defied all efforts to eradicate or control it so far, the National Ash Seed Collection Initiative was created in 2005 to collect and preserve ash seed for the purpose of replanting trees once a solution to the Emerald Ash Borer can be found. The Seed Bank at the LBJ Wildflower Center is participating in this project and in the Millennium Seed Bank Project as well.

For more information about the campaign to stop Americans from moving firewood from site to site, visit For more information on the National Ash Seed Collection Initiative, visit And for more information on the Wildflower Center's conservation efforts, visit their Seed Bank page and their Plant Conservation page.

(Today I Learned features a nugget of information I learned during training to become a Travis County Master Gardener.)

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Today I embark on a new adventure.


For the next eleven weeks, I'll be in training to become a Travis County Master Gardener, i.e., trying to fit alllll the information in this great big book into my tiny little brain, with the help of educators and speakers from Texas A&M, Texas AgriLife Extension staff, Master Gardeners and more.

Provided I show up for the classes and pass the final, the real fun begins -- as an edumacated TCMG intern, I'll have a goal of completing 50 volunteer hours over the next year in service to my community, in order to disseminate allllll the information in that great big book to home gardeners in the Austin area.

And if I manage to accomplish all that by October 31, 2012, I'll have the title of Travis County Master Gardener bestowed upon me, with all attendant rights, privileges and responsibilities thereof.

Weee! Wish me luck!

Words and photos © 2009-2011 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.