Sunday, December 15, 2013

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - December 2013

Here's what's blooming in my Austin, Texas garden this December 15th.  Sub-freezing temperatures last week knocked out everything but these five bloomers:

gray globemallow (Sphaeralcea incana),
gray globe mallow

Pacific chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum pacificum),
Pacific chrysanthemum

a single, quarter-sized 'Fairy' rose,
fairy rose

a tangle of sugar snap peas in the veggie garden,
sugar snap peas

and, from inside the pop-up greenhouse, a cluster of gloriously-scented Meyer lemon blossoms.
bearss lime blossoms

Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Visit her December GBBD page to see what's blooming in gardens all over the world.

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Soil test results

The results of my soil test results are back from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory. I sampled two areas for testing: the veggie garden beds and the back yard soil, six inches down, green material scraped off and discarded.  Here's what the Aggies had to say.

Back yard sample - this is as close to "native" soil as I have, though the native top soil was likely scraped off and fill dirt added when the subdivision was built in the late Sixties. When Jack bought the house in 2004, the "lawn" was a mix of Bermuda, St. Augustine and weeds. Much of the turf has died off, and horse herb and oxalis have moved in. This clay soil has not been amended in a decade.

The soil test results - iron was low. Nitrate and phosphorus were moderate.  Potassium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc and copper were high.  Manganese, boron and calcium were very high, and pH was moderately alkaline at 8.0. Organic matter content was good at 5.89% (despite no added amendments). If I had turf grass growing here, the Aggies would recommend fertilizing with nitrogen and phosphorus three times a year during the growing season, plus foliar iron every 4-6 weeks, particularly if the grass was noticeably yellow.

Veggie garden sample - this soil is mostly Hill Country Garden Soil trucked in from The Natural Gardener, amended yearly since 2009 with Ladybug brand Revitalizer compost, and fertilized spring and fall with Ladybug 8-2-4 fertilizer according to directions on the bag.  I mulched these beds with Sylvan mulch in the spring.  I tested the soil after harvesting summer crops, before doing any fall preparations.

The soil test results - compared to the back yard sample, the nitrate levels were much lower - virtually nil - and the phosphorus levels were much higher: so high, in fact, that the Aggies recommended I add no additional phosphorus for five years before retesting!  Organic matter was about 2% higher than the "native" soil, and pH was a little lower at 7.7, though still in the moderately alkaline range.  All the micronutrients were elevated, including iron; manganese, boron and sulfur were very high. The Aggies recommended only one additive: 1.3 pounds of nitrogen to every 1000 sq ft every 4-6 weeks during growing season (my eight 4' x 6' raised beds total about 200 sq ft).

Finding a fertilizer that contains only nitrogen and nothing else may prove to be a challenge, particularly one that's fast-acting, organic, and reasonably priced!  Blood meal contains iron, while manures, fish products and plant-based "meals" contain 1-4% phosphorus and/or potassium.  But clearly, the soil in my vegetable garden is nutrient-rich and needs no additional phosphorus, potassium or micronutrients.  Planting cover crops and nitrogen-fixing legumes would be another way to boost the nitrogen content of the soil.

Have you ever had your soil tested?  What were your results, and did testing change the way you fertilize?   Leave a comment and share your soil test stories.

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - October

Happy fall from Central Texas.  My severely drought-stricken garden's been rain-shocked!  Following one of the driest Augusts on record (including the historic 1950's drought), the area's been deluged with rain in September and October. A cold front moved in this week causing flooding and dropping evening temps into the 50s.  Official rain count for my neighborhood totals seven inches over the past six weeks, but my rain gauges claim twice that.

A sure sign of fall is the appearance of the Sternbergia lutea, a crocus-like flower in the Amaryllis family, also called 'fall daffodil.'  A small Queen Victoria and zexmenia lie directly behind.
Sternbergia lutea

'Velvet Violet' salvia, gray globemallow, blackfoot daisies, damianita.
garden in October

Scarlet sage.
Scarlet sage

Caesalphinia mexicana, gray globemallow, and Texas lantana in the foreground; in the back, yellow bells esperanza, and some waterlogged blue plumbago.
fall garden

Mexican bush sage and yellow Knock-Out roses.
mexican bush salvia & yellow knock-out roses

This little patch of oregano dries up to brown sticks every summer and rebounds with the first wet cold spell every fall.

Rosemary in bloom.
rosemary in bloom

Bearss or Tahitian lime in bloom.
bearss lime

'Hot Lips' salvia.
hot lips salvia

In the veggie garden, the snap peas are coming up amongst the Egyptian walking white multiplying onions, and the artichoke that never budded last year has come back from the roots.
veggie garden

Horseherb is popping up everywhere.  EVERYWHERE.

'Sapphire Showers' duranta.

Dayflower or 'Widow's Tears'.  A wildflower.
widows tears

'Buff Beauty' rose.  Its leaves are yellowed from the drought.
buff beauty rose

The 'Old Blush' is budding.
old blush buds

'La Marne' is just starting to bloom.
la marne rose

Dwarf Barbados cherry.
dwarf barbados cherry

Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.  Visit her blog for photos of fall blooms from all over the world.

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Fall clean-up and seed planting

I've been out in the garden, turning beds, pulling weeds and scattering fall seeds.
yucca and salvias

I always seem to plant my fall seeds too late.  Anytime between August and November is OK, but the sooner the seeds hit the soil, the more fall rain they'll enjoy.  Central Texas got a couple of solid rains in September, and the clay soil seems to be holding on to it.

In addition to the seeds pictured, I also planted bluebonnet seeds I collected from the few that came up last year, larkspur by way of MSS at Zanthan Gardens, red poppies from Bonnie at Kiss of Sun, and lemon mint from Meredith at Great Stems.

Lots of stuff blooming now, including the mealy blue sage, yellow bells esperanza, and - hey, what's that?
esperanza and sage

It's my red spider lily (Lycoris radiata), blooming for the first time.  Related to the "naked lady" lily, the foliage doesn't appear until after the bloom is spent.
spider lily

'Indigo Spires' salvia and cherry sage (S. greggii) are in bloom,

as are the blackfoot daisies and 'Velvet Violet' salvia.
salvia and daisies

Love these daisies!
blackfoot daisy

It's a little tricky weeding around this bad boy - Agave ovatifolia (Whale's Tongue agave).
whale's tongue agave

Happy fall, y'all.  What seeds are you planting in hopes of spring blooms?  

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

OK, OK, I'll get a soil test

After seven years of gardening in my current spot, four years of blogging about it, and two years with the Master Gardeners, I'm just now getting around to getting my soil tested.  Why now?  Truth be told, my veggie garden wasn't very productive this year at all. The only crops that produced anything of substance were chard, cantaloupes and Juliet tomatoes. Cucumbers, corn, beans, squash, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes and big tomatoes were all a bust.

There's lots of factors to consider when a veggie garden doesn't produce well, including but not limited to soil fertility, the variety of vegetables planted, timing and spacing of crops, pesticide contamination and irrigation.  A soil test can help sort out some of the fertility issues, but not all.  We can't test soil for microbial diversity, for example.

Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), the three major macronutrients in soil, are what most of us think about when we think about fertilizing our veggies and ornamentals.  You'll see N-P-K listed as percentages on labels of commercial fertilizers (10-10-10, 8-2-4).   But there's more to soil fertility than just N-P-K. Micronutrient content, salinity, structure, texture, soil biology and pH all play important roles, too, among other things.  It's complicated!

soil test

Though a soil test won't answer all my questions, it should give me some clues as to what might be going on, and at the very least, end the guessing game of what nutrient might or might not be missing. So, I've decided to test two types of soil in my garden:  the soil in the back yard that's been untouched for about a decade (possibly more) and the soil in the veggie garden beds that I've amended numerous times.  (Not sure why I wrote "Lawn" on that first bag -- it's mostly weeds and horseherb back there!)

To collect the samples, I carefully dug out ten divots of soil from each area, at least six inches down, after scraping the live plant matter off the top.  I mixed the divots together in a clean bucket and removed any visible rocks, weeds, roots, and mulch before bagging the samples.

What's striking to me is how similar the two dry soil samples look.   The unamended soil on the left is a little stickier (due to a higher clay content and less organic matter) and a little grayer in color. Otherwise, I can hardly tell the difference from the amended soil on the right.
soil samples

However, when wet, the difference is clear.  The unamended soil (this time on the right) has the texture of modeling clay, while the amended soil (on the left) is soft and crumbly.
soil clods

Clearly I've improved the soil structure and texture by adding store-bought garden soil, compost, manure, and mulch to my beds once or twice a year for the past seven years. But what about the rest? Time to find out.

More to follow...stay tuned!

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September

Happy GBBD from Central Texas.   At this very special time of year, heat-stricken Hill Country gardeners start seeing welcome signs of fall's approach.   Our last run of hundred-plus degree days broke on September 5; early mornings and late evenings are noticeably cooler, and high temps have fallen back into the nineties.   We've had a few spotty showers; humidity is high, and high mold counts are driving allergic Austinites crazy.  Drought-weary gardeners are crossing their green thumbs for rain from Mexico's Tropical Storm Manuel and Hurricane Ingrid, and I've heard more than one gardener wish we could build a pipeline from Boulder, Colorado to the Highland Lakes. Although we've had worse summers here,  most of us have had enough of the heat and drought and are ready for fall's arrival.

Anticipation is in the air.  It's still too dry and warm for cool-season bloomers to flush into bloom, and the summer stalwarts have picked up on the subtle seasonal changes and have started to shut down bloom production.  Although few plants are blooming right now, make no mistake: it's gardening prime time in these parts.  Now's the perfect time to plant perennials, shrubs and trees, divide irises, move established plants to new locations, seed wildflower patches, and plant fall vegetable gardens. With time, rain and luck, October should be spectacular.

Here's what's blooming in my garden today.

Purple bindweed, a native morning glory (Ipomoea cordatotriloba). It pops up everywhere. Some find it to be a nuisance.

Esperanza or yellow bells (Tecoma stans).  I plan to prune this in winter to keep it small, bushy and shrub-like.

Blue cape plumbago.  After two years, my one-gallon starter plant is starting to form a nice big mound.

'Sugar Pie' Pumpkin.  The rule of thumb is to plant pumpkin seeds on July 4 for a Halloween harvest roughly 100 days later.   The pumpkin vines start really taking off around mid-August; male flowers appear a couple of weeks later followed by female flowers and fruit set in early September.  With enough pollinators, water and fertilizer, pumpkins should be ready for harvest around Halloween -- theoretically.  Like Linus from Peanuts, the Great Pumpkin has yet to appear in my pumpkin patch, thanks to the drought. Hasn't stopped me from trying, though.

Along those lines, my 'Hearts of Gold' muskmelon patch is still going strong, thanks to the shade cloth I installed last month. Although they're not blooms, I'm posting this photo of baby cantaloupes, because I'm pretty darn proud of them.  Looks like persistence may have paid off this year.

An unidentified varmint made a meal of my biggest melon, so I'm off to the store to get some hardware cloth to fashion cages for the remaining five babies.

Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Visit her GBBD page to see what's blooming in gardens all over the world.

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Cool whites in the summer garden

Cool white blossoms seem to take the temperature down a notch in hot summer gardens.

This native white autumn sage (Salvia greggii) has done very well for me the past three years.  With a hard pruning in late winter and a light pruning mid-summer, it blooms on and off all year.  Bees love it. Easy to find at Austin nurseries.
White salvia greggii

Cape leadwort (Plumbago auriculata) is a South African native.   The white version is more difficult to find than the blue, but it's worth the search.  Some white cultivars to look for: 'Alba', 'White Cape', 'Escapade White', 'Monite'.
white plumbago

Here's an oddball you won't see everywhere: button eryngo (Eryngium yuccifolium).  I picked it up at a Wildflower Center plant sale, thinking it was the blue-purple variety.  It wasn't.  It's an interesting specimen piece, but I wouldn't plant a bed with it!
 Eryngium yuccifolium var. yuccifolium

Another white bloomer for the Central Texas plant collector is white Turk's cap (Malvaiscus arboreus var. drummondii). The white does not spread as readily as the red, alas.
white 'Turk's cap'

In the herb garden, garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) send up white flower stalks for the bees and butterflies.  This is the first year for this two-year old clump to bloom.  It's had virtually no supplemental watering.
Garlic chives in bloom

Blue and purple are considered cooling colors, too, while red, yellow and orange are considered warm colors.  After this hot spell, I'm rather wishing all my bloomers were white!  What's cooling you down in your garden this summer?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Not bad, not bad at all

Despite temperatures well above 100 degrees for most of the past 2 weeks, the garden's looking pretty good.
Front garden in summer

A handful of unexpected but welcome July showers triggered many of the drought-resistant perennials to burst into bloom, like this Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens). We got rain nearly every week in July, totaling more than 5 inches for the month.
Texas sage

Although some plants are not in bloom, their foliage provides texture and color.  Clockwise from upper left: Mexican Bird of Paradise (Caesalphinia mexicana), gray globemallow (Sphaeralcea incana),  Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides), Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima).
Mexican Bird of Paradise, Mexican feathergrass, Texas lantana, gray globemallow

Counterclockwise from bottom left: yellow zexmenia (Wedelia texana), blue-green gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), and purple trailing lantana (L. montevidensis). The spots of red are rock (or cut-leaf) penstemon (P. baccharifolius) while the pink is Salvia greggii.
Zexmenia, euphorbia, lantana, penstemon

Some of the salvias hadn't had their mid-summer haircut before the rains, and look rather woody, but the trims will have to wait until these blooms fade. I think the bees appreciate the reprieve.  This variety of S. greggii is called 'Lipstick'.
bumblebee on 'Lipstick' salvia

Front to back: White autumn sage (S. greggii), , blue plumbago (P. auriculata), yellow bells or esperanza (Tecoma stans).
White autumn sage, esperanza, plumbago

What's happening in your garden this summer?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.