Okra and Butterbeans – Harvest Now, Enjoy Later by Patty G. Leander

okra-butterbean-heart

Butterbean and okra love

Okra and butterbeans are like peanut butter and chocolate – two great tastes that taste great together…and apart! You may be harvesting them now as the warm weather wanes or perhaps you will consider a space for them in your garden next year. Each vegetable stands on its own delicious qualities, but aside from taste there are several reasons that okra and butterbeans are two of my favorite vegetable crops.

butterbeans-1

Butterbeans love the heat and are relatively pest free.

For starters, they are two of the easiest vegetables to grow in Texas and the South. They like heat, they like sun, they are not prone to disease and unless you have nematode-infested soil they are not bothered by many insect pests.  And unless you grow your own butter beans you’ll be hard pressed to find them fresh, even at the farmer’s market (at least where I live).

canned-okra

Okra does so well in the Texas heat and it is easy to preserve in a variety of ways

They are prolific producers, providing plenty of pods for eating fresh in season as well as preserving for later enjoyment. When I am blessed with a bountiful harvest of both butter beans and okra I like to cook them up in a tasty soup or stew, freeze in smaller portions and then pull it out on a cold night. That home-grown taste of summer warms me up in the middle of winter and reminds me why I love vegetable gardening.

Okra and butterbeans are easy to grow and they taste great when combined together into a hearty soup or stew.

Okra and butterbeans are easy to grow and they taste great when combined together into a hearty soup or stew.

Because they are self-pollinated, okra and butter beans are super easy for beginning seed savers. Be sure you are growing open pollinated varieties (as opposed to hybrid varieties) and allow some of the okra and bean pods to mature and dry before harvesting. For okra I usually tag 2 or 3 pods per plant that I am going to allow to mature for seed and then I can harvest all the rest for fresh eating or preserving. Once the okra pods have dried twist or crack open and remove the seeds.

If you want to keep seeds of okra be sure and plant only a single variety.

If you want to keep seeds of okra be sure and plant only a single variety.

One okra pod has lots of seeds so save according to your needs. Try to pick the healthiest looking pods from the healthiest plants and avoid pods that are diseased or deformed. For butter beans set aside enough dried seed for planting in your garden the next year plus a few more for giving away if you are so inclined. If you are serious about maintaining the purity of a particular variety like I am with ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ okra, (http://masterofhort.com/2015/05/stewarts-zeebest-okra-by-patty-g-leander/) only plant that single variety to avoid any accidental cross-pollination.

Here is one of my favorite recipes for using okra and butter beans at the end of the season. It is a very forgiving recipe so feel free to tweak it, substitute sauage for ham, leave the meat out completely, add more vegetables or whatever makes it work for you. I usually double the recipe, freeze in single serving or dinner-sized batches and pull out to enjoy in the cold of winter.

okra-butterbean-stew

Okra Stew

If you don’t have fresh butter beans you can usually find them in the frozen food section, most likely labeled as limas beans or baby limas.

 

1 onion, chopped

1 cup chopped ham

1 lb fresh, sliced okra

2 cups fresh butter beans

1-2 tablespoons oil

2 cups chopped cooked chicken

16 oz can puréed tomatoes

1-2cups fresh or frozen corn

2 cups chicken broth

½ tsp each salt, pepper, thyme

2-3 cups spinach or other available greens, chopped (optional)

 

Heat oil in a large pot and sauté onion, ham, okra and butter beans for 6-8 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients and simmer 30-45 minutes. Serve over rice or cooked grains, if desired.  Yield: 2 qts

 

Very Hungry Caterpillars by Patty G. Leander

cabbage-worm-damage

Caterpillars bring insatiable appetites to the vegetable garden.

Along with colorful butterflies, smaller and more ordinary looking moths flit around the vegetable garden this time of year, laying eggs that hatch into caterpillars whose sole purpose is to eat and excrete. If you are growing brassicas your plants have probably already been under attack by these very hungry caterpillars.

Cross-striped-caterpillar-cabbage-looper

Cross-striped caterpillar (left) and cabbage looper (right).

The main culprits here in Texas are the cabbage looper (mottled brown moth with a small white marking on each wing), cross-striped caterpillar (brownish-gray moth with darker brown spots) and cabbageworm (whitish-yellow moth with a single black dot on each wing).

cross-striped-cabbageworm-eggs

What looks like a small yellow blob (less than 1/8 inch across) on the back of a broccoli leaf is actually a mass of cross-striped caterpillar eggs waiting to hatch.

These creatures are stealth; I seldom notice the moths that lay the eggs (they are more active at night) and the freshly hatched caterpillars are so miniscule and blend so well into the foliage that they can do severe damage before they are detected. Inspect your plants often, especially on the underside of leaves; if you miss them you may be surprised to find your plants decimated the next morning.

cabbage-worm

As the caterpillar grows so does its appetite.

Though these tiny munchers are good at camouflage there is one sure way to affirm their presence before too much damage is done: miniature dark green balls of excrement. Yep, what goes in must come out and caterpillars are prolific poopers.

caterpillar-poop

Dark green droppings mean caterpillars are feasting nearby.

And the bigger they get the more they eat and the more they eat the more they poop. I have had more than one novice gardener tell me that they thought those little green balls were eggs, but if you look above or near the excrement you will almost assuredly find a caterpillar or two or three chewing away.

If you only have a few plants a good defense is to hand pick and destroy caterpillars or infested leaves every time you inspect your plants, but if you have many plants an insecticide will be more effective and a more efficient use of your time. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt for short) is the recommended control for caterpillars, especially in the earliest stages of growth. It is an organic insecticide made from a naturally occurring bacteria found in soil; when caterpillars ingest the Bt-coated leaves it destroys their gut, causing them to stop feeding and die within a couple of days.

cabbage-worms-bt

Note the tiny egg mass inside the black circle (left); so tiny yet so destructive (right).

 

Bt is only effective against caterpillars; it will not harm humans, cats, dogs or beneficial insects but it will kill any caterpillars that ingest it, including butterfly larvae, so apply it only to edibles that are being damaged. Be sure to follow label instructions for application rate and frequency as follow-up applications may be necessary for control. Bt is sold under different trade names, including Dipel and Thuricide, and can be applied as a spray or a dust. Liquid Bt seems to roll off some of the thick, waxy leaves of cabbage, kale and collards, so I have found it beneficial to apply Bt as a dust.

Dustin-Mizer

The Dustin Mizer is a good tool for applying Bt as a dust.

Several years ago my brother gave me a tool called the Dustin Mizer that I use quite often for this purpose. When cranked it emits a fine dusting of powder over and under the plant.  It is especially important to direct Bt to the underside of the leaves as that is where the caterpillars are usually feeding.

It’s always a good idea to vary insect control methods in the vegetable garden so consider alternating Bt with a product containing the active ingredient spinosad (also derived from a soil bacterium and also organic). One other option is to use lightweight floating row cover to protect cabbage crops; cover plants as soon as they go in the ground so the moth never has access to the plants to lay her eggs.

 

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

The Flutter of Fall by Patty G. Leander

So long, mosquitoes! One of the reasons that fall gardening is such a wonderful season is because {most} pests tend to quietly fade away this time of year, and the one I am happiest to see go is the mosquito. It’s hard to think of anything that sucks the joy out of being outside more than a single, determined mosquito. Good riddance. I hope their annoying buzz and bite is waning in your outdoor environment as well.

mistflower-tithonias

Butterflies love Gregg’s mistflower (left) and tithonias (right).

As the mosquitoes retreat the butterflies arrive in throngs, fluttering gracefully among the flora. We’ve been enjoying the queens and monarchs while they’ve been enjoying the bright orange tithonias in my garden. I highly recommend planting tithonias next year; they are easy to grow from seed and tolerate hot and dry conditions. A good match for summer in Texas!

tithonia-mexican-sunflower

Butterflies are drawn to the vivid orange blooms of tithonias.

I planted mine in the vegetable garden in late March, between some pole beans and peppers, and they bloomed all summer, growing even taller than the 6’ trellis nearby. They outgrew their space and I had to pull them up in early September to prepare for fall planting; with no effort on my part they reseeded and the resulting plants burst into blooms a few weeks ago. They will bloom until frost, providing a bright accent in the garden, nectar for the butterflies and cut flowers for the house.

Schoolhouse lilies appear like magic in early fall, reminding us that school is once again in session.

Schoolhouse lilies appear like magic in early fall, reminding us that school is once again in session.

Another enjoyable aspect of fall is the seasonal color in the landscape. Just as wildflowers herald spring there are certain plants that announce the arrival of fall in Texas. Year after year, schoolhouse lilies, also known as Oxblood lilies, dutifully pop up, usually sometime in September, along with fall asters, Maximilian sunflowers, Mexican mint marigold and native ornamental grasses.

fall-aster

Fall aster and Maximilian sunflowers harmonize in the garden while gulf muhly shows off its spectacular purple plumes.

The rhythm, color and seasonality of plants is amazing and people who say that Texas only has two seasons – green and brown – just aren’t paying enough attention.

big-muhly-grass

Big Muhly grass frames a yellow spray of Maximilian sunflowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Ornamental grasses look their best in fall but not all grasses are native to Texas. There is one type of non-native grass in particular that I have noticed everywhere this year along roadways, medians, fields and even in my own backyard.

It’s called KR bluestem, a clumping grass native to Europe and Asia that was found growing on the King Ranch in the early 1900s. For years it was incorporated into seed mixes that were used for soil erosion and forage, but it outgrew its usefulness when it started “messing with Texas”, spreading to unwanted areas and threatening to overtake wildflowers and other native species.

KR-Bluestem

KR Bluestem, a non-native invasive weed, growing along Mopac near Davis Lane in southwest Austin.

If you find this grass in your landscape don’t let it go to seed. Mow regularly, before seed heads form and dig out clumps if feasible. Keep your lawn watered and fertilized so it can outcompete any KR bluestem that tries to move in.

KR-Bluestem-2

Keep KR Bluestem mowed so it does not have a chance to reseed.

Our Assets Go Home at Night – How Jonathan Saperstein is Changing the Green Industry

I have decided that I am, at my core, a bit of a hippie.  While you wouldn’t know it by looking at me, I am a Subaru driving, yoga doing, no sugar eating hippie.  About the only thing I like better than my Birkenstocks and organic garden are the people that try to make the world a better place by taking care of the earth and the people that inhabit it.  My botanical brother Morgan McBride works for one of these people.  Jonathan Saperstein is an outstanding young man that is proving that you can profitably produce high quality landscape products while taking extremely good care of the people that grow them.

Jonathan Saperstein, CEO of Tree Town Enjoys time with his co-workers at an industry trade show

Jonathan Saperstein, CEO of Tree Town, sharing some trade show antics with his wife and a loyal customer at an industry trade show

When Jonathan Saperstein became CEO of Tree Town USA in 2015 he set out to change the way the green industry produces live goods.  In many agricultural entities labor is an input not much different than seed or fertilizer.  It is an expense to be managed.  Jonathan sees his employees as something different.  To him, his employees are the most important link in the entire production chain.  His employees have a direct impact on the quality of his products and they also greatly impacted the cost at which he can sell his product. This understanding that the employees truly are the main asset of his business lead him to coin his company’s motto – “Our assets go home at night”.

Jonathan with some of Tree Town's most valuable assets - its employees!

Jonathan with some of Tree Town’s most valuable assets – its employees!

Today, each of the “assets” at Tree Town USA have access to one of the most progressive benefits packages in the green industry.  In addition to paying the employees at rates well above the industry average, every Tree Town employee is eligible for a comprehensive benefits package that includes medical insurance and access to a 401K.  Agricultural workers are also offered an incentive plan that includes safety goals and team development activities that can give them addition pay bumps every two weeks.  The company offers (and encourages the employees to participate in) free GED classes and free English and Spanish classes.

 

This past summer, Morgan told about one of the more unique things that Jonathan has implemented at Tree Town.   Each day at 7:00 am, every employee that is on site at each of their seven farms lines up and does calisthenics.  This was very interesting to me and I asked Morgan if the employees were embracing it.  He said, oddly enough, they were.  While the time is great for stretching cold muscles it is also time for the teams to come together in a relaxed environment and listen as the supervisors and safety leads lay out the day’s work, provide safety briefings and celebrate safety milestones.

7:00 am is exercise time at all seven of Tree Town's farms

7:00 am is exercise time at all seven of Tree Town’s farms

These morning calisthenics were interesting enough to me that I decided to ask Jonathan if they were making a difference for Tree Town.  Something about the way I asked the question made Jonathan grin.   Jonathan said I was not the first to be skeptical about the benefits of his morning workouts.  However, he informed me that since he implemented his exercise program there has been 39% decrease in incidents rates and the average cost of incident has gone from 34 cents per man hour to 4 cents a man hour.

Agricultural workers historically have low wages and very few benefits. tree Town USA is working to change that.

Agricultural workers historically have low wages and very few benefits. tree Town USA is working to change that.

While Jonathan is excited about the decrease in costs his exercise program is producing, he told me the real proof that his policies are working is the increase in profitability that is allowing him to grow his business.  While many live good producers are struggling to stay open, Tree Town is adding farms, employees and products.  His employee focused policies have attracted (and kept) the best trained employees in the industry.  Since he celebrates and rewards the contribution his employees add to the bottom line, they in turn consistently produce top quality products and provide the superior customer service that has allowed Tree Town to differentiate itself and its products in an industry that is often thought of as a commodity.  In regards to Jonathan’s impact on Tree Town, David Stoeber of SiteOne Landscape supply said “As someone who has done business with Tree Town before and during Jonathan’s leadership, I can see what a huge impact Jonathan has made on Tree Town.  They have gone from being a supplier on the list to The Supplier I judge the others by.”

These 670 gallon oaks are indicative of the quality trees that the employees of Tree Town consistently produce

These 670 gallon oaks are indicative of the quality trees that the employees of Tree Town consistently produce

I am very happy that I know Jonathan Saperstein.  As a business man I am excited to watch a new leader in the horticultural industry take chances and implement policies that will positively impact his bottom line and hopefully change the way the green industry operates.  As a humanitarian I am inspired that he is shaking up the green industry by taking care of the workers that produce the trees, shrubs and bedding plants that we use to make our little corner of the world more beautiful.

Late Season Legumes and a Pomegranate Tip by Patty Leander

kwintus-trellis

Kwintus’ pole beans

The transition to cool season vegetables is well underway and my garden has gone from an embarrassing end-of-summer jumble to a reenergized and productive backyard vegetable patch. It seemed like it would never come but that hint of cool weather finally arrived and nighttime temperatures have begun their gradual decline. Even though the thermometer may still hit the 90° mark it takes most of the day to get there and it doesn’t stay there for long. That spells R-E-L-I-E-F for plants.

savoy-cabbage-growing

Alcosa’ savoy cabbage and ‘Green Fingers’ cucumber

Thanks to some timely rains, cooling shade cover and a protective layer of mulch, the beans, squash and cucumbers I planted in late August are now producing and the broccoli, cauliflower, collards, cabbage and mustard are growing strong.

cow-peas-leaf-footed-bugs

The Southern peas yielded several yummy meals before being invaded by leaf-footed bugs.

Southern peas that were planted in April – black-eyed peas, crowder peas and purple hulls – produced like champs all summer long but by October those *#!@ leaf-footed bugs were multiplying like crazy so I decided at this point in the season it was better to remove the plants than try to battle the stinkbugs. I harvested what I could; plenty of fresh pods for shelling and immediate enjoyment and even more dry pods that will be shelled and set aside for winter meals (including New Year’s Day).  Freezing fresh cowpeas couldn’t be any simpler: spread the shelled peas in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze till solid, then pour them into a plastic freezer bag, no blanching required.

worchester-red-beans

Worchester Indian Red’ limas grow into vigorous, productive vines.

Butter beans are coming at me high and low – seems like I can harvest just as many on my hands and knees as I can on a ladder. They have produced off and on all summer and put on a new flush of growth and blooms in response to August rains that were accompanied by an ever-so-slight drop in temperature. I am growing three excellent pole varieties, ‘Sieva’, ‘Violet’s Multicolor Butterbean’ and ‘Worchester Indian Red’.  Their vigorous vines will climb whatever they come in contact with; the Worchesters have engulfed a 10 foot sunflower growing next to the trellis and the Sievas have found their way up into the pomegranate tree. Is this what they mean by companion planting?!

dried-butter-bean-pods

Dried pods ready for shelling – if they don’t shatter first.

If the dried pods are left too long on the vine they will sometimes split open and the seeds will fall to the ground, sprouting up wherever they land. I harvest dried pods every couple of days and keep them in a bowl on my kitchen counter; every once in awhile, without warning, a random pod shatters and the dried beans fly out of the bowl with an explosive POP, landing on the floor or flying into the sink. Makes me jump every time. When I have a full bowl I take them to my mom so she can shell them.

kwintus-flat-beans

Kwintus flat beans are large and perfect for roasting!

I planted ‘Kwintus’ pole beans in late August and harvested my first pods about 50 days later. They are an early, flat, Romano-type bean, delicious and productive. They are also known as ‘Early Riser’ and their fast growth makes them great for the fall or spring season. If you’d like to give them a try next year order seeds online from Kitazawa Seeds (www.kitazawseed.com) or Turtle Tree Seeds (www.turtletreeseed.org). And be sure to try them in the following lip-smacking recipe.

Roasted Flat Beans

These roasted beans melt in your mouth. I came across this recipe in a Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) publication a few years ago. The ingredients and the technique intrigued me and I had a bounty of beans at the time so I tried it and have been enjoying these beans ever since. The recipe was originally shared by Sheila and Matt Neal of Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, North Carolina. They recommend it as an economical side dish to feed a crowd and they say it tastes even better if made a day ahead. I can attest to that!

2 ½ lbs flat beans, rinsed and stemmed

½ cup peeled and thinly sliced garlic

2 cups diced yellow onion

2 medium-sized tomatoes, grated*

1 tsp sugar

½ tsp black pepper, coarsely ground

¼ tsp red pepper flakes

1 tbsp kosher salt

3 bay leaves

1 cup water

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Heat oven to 350°. Gently and thoroughly combine the above ingredients in a roasting pan. Place parchment paper directly onto the beans. Cover with a tight-fitting lid or foil. Cook until the beans are tender, stirring well every 15 minutes for about an hour and 15 minutes.

*Grating tomatoes is an easy way to “peel” them. Cut the tomato in half and remove seeds with your fingers. Place the cut side down on the coarse holes of a box grater. Run the tomato back and forth until all the flesh is grated. Discard the skin.

A POMEGRANATE TIP

removing-pomegranate-seeds

Hold a pomegranate half, seed side down, over a bowl and whack it several times to remove seeds

Pomegranate season is upon us and if you’ve been to the grocery store lately you’ve undoubtedly noticed pomegranates prominently displayed in the produce section. Or perhaps you are lucky enough to have your own tree. But the mysterious and exotic nature of the pomegranate can be a bit confounding when it’s time to liberate those seeds. I use to cut a pomegranate in half or quarters and turn them inside out into a bowl of water to release the seeds but ever since I saw this tip on the internet I’ve been paddling my pomegranates – it’s so easy!

The following video shows a street vendor in Bangkok who has an even better way; he removes the top and then scores the outside of the pomegranate along the white membranes. When he pulls it apart the membrane is loose and comes right out, then he proceeds – with lightening speed – to whack the seeds out of each section (jump ahead to 1:20 to go straight to his demo):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUsfw-KppCU

Those juicy little seeds (actually called arils) are a perfect pop of color and flavor to brighten leafy salads, rice or grain pilafs, oatmeal, yogurt, orange or grapefruit segments, cocktails or even sprinkled atop your favorite guacamole. I eat the entire seed. Do you?

 

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Fall Into Winter Vegetables on Central Texas Gardener

If you have questions about what to grow in the fall and winter garden, then this week’s episode of Central Texas Gardener is perfect for you.  Patty and I were thrilled to be invited to talk about fall gardening on this award winning  PBS (KLRU) television program.

In my opinion Fall is the best time of the year to garden in Texas.  The temperatures are milder and the weeds are not nearly as aggressive.  Plus, you can grow so many great vegetables!  While it is a little late for tomatoes it is the perfect time to plant broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.  It is also a good time to plant root crops like beets, carrots, turnips, radishes and parsnips.  It is also time to start your salad greens.  Fall and winter are the ONLY time you can grow your lettuce and spinach in Texas.danvers-carrots

I have been a fan of CTG for years.  Growing in Texas is challenging and their experts and guest always have the right answers for the problems I am dealing with in my own garden.  If you are not a regular viewer, or you do not get CTG on your local PBS channel, go to their website (http://www.klru.org/ctg/ ).  Each and every segment they do is available on YouTube on their site or on their YouTube Channel.  texas-lettuce

This was my first time in a television studio and I was a little nervous.  However producer Linda Lehmusvirta and host Tom Spencer (and the Hays County Master gardeners) made the whole experience so much fun.  I would also like to thank all of the people behind the scenes at KLRU for making Patty and I feel  so comfortable in front of your cameras. Heck, I didn’t even get offended when you had to put make up on my bald head to kill the glare!

Many thanks to the whole KLRU, and the Hays County Master Gardeners for a truly wonderful experience!

Many thanks to the whole KLRU crew, and the Hays County Master Gardeners, for a truly wonderful experience!

 

 

Luffas – Nature’s Bath Sponge

Right now, I am growing bath sponges.  Really, I am truly growing bath sponges in my garden.  While this statement makes perfect sense to many of my gardening friends, lots of the non-gardening people that I tell this to, or show the plants to, are truly surprised to learn that the $10 natural bath sponges that they use to scrub their bodies are the xylem fibers of a dead gourd that they can easily grow in their own yard (and you can too).Luffa-Bath-Sponge

Luffas, or loofahs, are members of the same family as squash, cucumbers and gourds.  The luffa is the fruit of one of two plants – L. aegyptiaca and L. acutangula.  Luffas are truly amazing plants.  You can eat them, cleanse your body with them and, thanks to a dedicated and visionary woman named Else Zaldivar, you can build your house out of them.

This little luffa has turned out to be the biggest one we have ever grown

This little luffa has turned out to be the biggest one we have ever grown

Elsa Zaldivar was looking for an alternate crop that could be grown to bring in much needed income for the indigenous people of Paraguay.  One day, while sitting under the shade of an arbor covered in luffa, she had an epiphany.  Luffas were the plant!  She encouraged the women of the area to grow these natural bath sponges for export.  Today, the women have a thriving business that produces bath sponges, mats, slippers, insoles and other beauty products.

While the beauty business was incredibly successful, she was bothered by the amount of waste that was involved in the process.  One third of the luffas were not good enough to be sold and the process of preparing the luffas for sale resulted in a 30% loss of fiber.  In order to find another revenue stream for the people of Paraguay she teamed up with an industrial engineer named Pedro Palas to find a way to turn this waste into another saleable product.

Luffas are big, aggressive plants. This one plant has now grown to over 20 feet. In fact, it has jumped the fence and is growing up into our Cedar tree!

Luffas are big, aggressive plants. This one plant has now grown to over 20 feet. In fact, it has jumped the fence and is growing up into our Cedar tree!

Thanks to their efforts, you can now build your house out of sheets of recycled plastic that are reinforced with the fibrous waste that comes from the process of turning luffas into beauty products.  The product Ms. Zaldivar and Mr. Palas have created is an eco-friendly substitute for plywood.   With the addition of colors to the recycled plastic/luffa mixture you can now clad your house in a renewable, recycled product that never needs painting.  Click here to read more about Ms. Zaldivar (the queen of the luffa as she calls herself) and the amazing things she is doing with this humble plant.

While it is nice to know we can use to luffas to build a house, Sally and I grow them for the shear fun of it.  Luffas are big leafed, unruly, vining plants that are covered in large yellow flowers that have “crinkly” yellow petals.  These flowers always bring in tons of pollinators (this year they have been covered in bumble bees).  Once the flowers are pollenated small, green, pencil shaped fruits begin to develop.  These fruits grow quickly and get big.   In fact, they grow fast enough that my wife and I can notice the changes in both the fruit and vines on our daily trips to the garden.

The big yellow flowers really bring in the pollinators. This year the luffa flowers have brought in an unusually large number of bumble bees.

The big yellow flowers really bring in the pollinators. This year the luffa flowers have brought in an unusually large number of bumble bees.

Luffas are incredibly easy to grow.  All you need is a sunny spot with decent soil and some type of structure for them to grow on – and a lot of frost free time!  Luffas take 150 to 180 frost free days to go from seed bath sponge.  I planted my luffas the first week of April.  While I got lots of flowers, I did not get my first fruits until the end of July.  Now the vines have several fruits that range in size for 18 to 24 inches.

I have grown BIG luffas and I have grown some that were not so big.  If you want to grow the biggest bath sponges possible (and get the most fruit possible off the vine) you need to make sure they get plenty of food, plenty of water and a regular trimming.  This year we are growing ours on a fence by our compost pile.  Since the soil is well worked with organic material and we water almost every day, this year’s luffas are the biggest we have ever grown.  We do not trim ours vines.  However, if you clip the ends off of your vines they will branch, get bushy and produce up to 25 fruits per plant.

Here is our giant luffa two weeks after the first picture.

Here is our giant luffa two weeks after the first picture.

Luffas will continue to grow and set fruit up until the first frost.  However, their growth will slow as temperatures fall.  I stop watering them around the first of September to encourage their demise.  We leave our luffas on the vine until the vines are dead and the thin green skins of the fruits have turned brown and brittle.  However, you can harvest your luffa whenever they begin to feel noticeably lighter.  Many people like to harvest them green and then bring them in to cure over the winter.

Here is our giant luffa on Sept. 1. Well over 2 feet!

Here is our giant luffa on Sept. 1. Well over 2 feet!

To get your bath sponge you are going to need to remove the skin.  If the fruit is really dry, you may be able to remove the skins by simply pulling it off.  However, I have much more luck soaking the luffa in warm water in the sink for 30 minutes or so before I start trying to remove the skin.  If you “skin” your luffas when they are still slightly green (but definitely turning brown), you can soak them over night and then peel them like a banana.

As you remove the skins, the black seeds will fall out of the end of the luffa that was attached to the vine.  Since I soak my luffas the seeds are always wet when they come out.  This has not been a problem.  I simply gather them up and lay them out on paper towels to dry.  After a couple of days I gather them up and store them in a seed packs that we make from old magazines.

Once you remove the skins and dry the fruit your luffas are ready to use.  When the “sponge” comes out of the skin it is a lovely, “burlap-y” color.  While they are lovely in their natural state, I like to bleach them.  If you want your luffas to be a lovely off white color, place four gallons of water and 1 cup of bleach in a five gallon bucket.  I bleach my luffas over three days.  Each day I remake my bleach solution and let the luffas stay in the mixture for about an hour each day.

This year our vines have grown to about 30 feet in length and jumped into our cedar tree. If you trim vines you will get more fruit and you won't have to get a ladder to harvest them!

This year our vines have grown to about 30 feet in length and jumped into our cedar tree. If you trim vines you will get more fruit and you won’t have to get a ladder to harvest them!

My wife and I give most of our luffa bath sponges as Christmas presents.  We cut them into 9 inch to 12 inch pieces and tie a bow around them with a with a pack of seeds that came out of them.  These are always big hits.  People love getting homemade things for Christmas.  While people enjoy our preserves and homemade wine they LOVE our luffas!  We literally have people ask us if the can get on the Christmas luffa list.

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Fool Proof Summer Color

Summer is a tough time for me.  As someone that likes to be out doors, the oppressive summer heat makes it a whole lot less enjoyable for me to be outside.  While the heat is a bit of a problem for me, I can adjust.  I can always get up earlier or wait until the evening to do my gardening chores.  My plants, on the other hand, are stuck wherever they are and they have to either adjust to the heat or die.  Since our extreme climate makes it impossible for many of the beautiful flowering plants that we love to grow in the spring die by July, it can be a bit of a challenge for we Texas Gardeners to keep our beds and borders looking alive, vibrant and inviting.TurksCap6

A few years ago I was talking about my search for no fail summer color with my buddy Morgan McBride of Tree Town USA.  Before he started selling trees, Morgan worked as a landscape maintenance supervisor for over 20 years in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area.  According to Morgan, the businesses he serviced wanted attractive landscapes at the lowest cost possible.  To fill these requirements, he relied on three very common plants to ensure colorful commercial landscapes throughout the hottest parts of summer –sweet potato vine, purple fountain grass and lantana.

After my visit with Morgan I realized I was looking for color in all the wrong place.  Instead of trying to brighten my beds with colorful annual flowers I should get my summer color from the many of the perennials that do well for us despite our oppressive summer heat.  Thanks to his advice I have finally come up with my short list of Texas tough plants that will reliably provide tons of low maintenance and low water color in your summer landscape.

Foliage Plants

Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) – Purple Fountain Grass is one of many grasses that do well in our climate.  However, it is the only one that will add a lovely burgundy color to your landscape.  Combine that striking color with the lovely and graceful flower spikes and you have a very showy and useful plant that can be used in mass, as a specimen and even in pots.

Purple Fountain grass is so versatile that i grow it in pots.

Purple Fountain grass is so versatile that i grow it in pots.

Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoae batatas) – With its rapid growth rate and varieties that come in colors that range from almost black to the brightest chartreuse, there is no better way to bring a lot of color to your summer landscape than with this cousin of the edible sweet potato.  Sweet Potato Vine is incredibly easy to propagate and it tells you when it needs water.   If you want more vines simply snip off a piece and root it in water and if you see your vines wilting, give them a little drink.  Sweet potato vine is great as a ground cover, spilling over a wall or tumbling out of a pot.  If you live where winters are cold and wet, you can dig up the tubers and store in saw dust for next year.  Otherwise you can leave them in the ground for years of beautiful foliage.

Coleus (various species) –   I love coleus and grow several varieties every year.  Coleus are one of the few plants that you actually have to work very hard to kill.  Coleus can take a lot of drying.  If you forget to water your coleus they will wilt down pretty quickly.  However, you can take some very wilted coleus, trim them up a bit, water them and watch them miraculously bounce right back.  Coleus work as well in the ground as they do in pots.  Group them together for a very colorful display.

Artemisia (var Powis Castle)- Artemisia is a woody perennial plant that is known for its gray, feathery foliage and its distinctive smell.   There are many artemisias out there but the variety Powis Castle is the best one for most of Texas.  Powis Castle loves full sun, high heat and well-draining soil.  A single plant will create a silver mound that is three feet tall and five feet wide in a single season.  With its lovely silver-gray color, Powis Castle is the perfect companion for plants in a variety of colors.  It is lovely when paired with pink Knock Out roses or pink antique roses like “Old Blush

Powis Castle artemesia has lovely silver foliage that pairs well with a wide range of plants. Here is pairs nicely with "Hotlips" salvia

Powis Castle artemesia has lovely silver foliage that pairs well with a wide range of plants. Here is pairs nicely with “Hotlips” salvia

Setcreasea purpurea ‘Purple Heart’ – In my mind, Purple Heart is one of the most versatile, yet underutilized plants in the Texas landscape.  Talk about color!  This plant is all purple!  While it does get lovely, small, pink flowers in the spring, Purple Heart is used for its lovely purple foliage.  I love this plant and I grow it in mass as a ground cover.  While it can get aphids and spider mites it is a mostly carefree plant that loves full sun and crowed conditions.  Purple Heart will spread rapidly by sending out runners up to 3’ long.  Plus, it is so easy to propagate.  If you want more purple heart just break a piece off, stick it in moist soil and it will root.  Truly an awesome plant for bringing lots of color to your landscape!

Nothing brings in more intense color to a summer landscape than a mass of Purple Heart

Nothing brings in more intense color to a summer landscape than a mass of Purple Heart

Flowering Plants

Lantana – There is really nothing bad to say about lantana.  This mounding perennial starts blooming in the spring and blooms and blooms and blooms well into winter.  Right now I grow a yellow variety called New Gold.  However, I have grown many others through the years.  One of my favorites is a red and yellow variety called “Dallas”.  Lantana is the ultimate hands off plant.  While I water, most varieties will survive on annual rainfall.  If you water it occasionally, it will reward you with flowers for six to eight months of the year.  Then, when the freeze does finally get it, just cut it back to about six inches and wait for spring.

If lantana can thrive in the middle of an HEB parking lot, it can certainly thrive in your yard. In my opinion lantana is the most versitile, tough and pest free color plant you can use in your Texas landscape.

If lantana can thrive in the middle of an HEB parking lot, it can certainly thrive in your yard. In my opinion lantana is the most versitile, tough and pest free color plant you can use in your Texas landscape.

Salvia greggii-There are many salvias that thrive in our climate.  One of the more colorful and more reliable is Salvia greggii.  Salvia greggii is a woody, bushy perennial that gets about three feet tall.  Its upright braches are covered in little muted green leaves.  However, the little flowers of this hardy plant are what make it a standout in the summer garden.  Salvia greggii comes in many colors including red white and pink.  However there are other variants available.   A red variety called Cherry Chief is one of my favorites.  However, I am also found of a variety called Hot Lips.  Salvi greggii is a mannerly bush that stays where it is planted.  Besides its almost year round flowering, the best thing about Salvia greggii is the fact that hummingbirds absolutely love it.

Salvias are great color plants for Texas. Many of them are native to the Southwestern United States so they bloom all summer long on annual rainfall.

Salvias are great color plants for Texas. Many of them are native to the Southwestern United States so they bloom all summer long on annual rainfall.

Gomphrena (Bachelor’s Buttons)– Talk about a showy plant!  Gomphrena grows into three foot mounds of foliage that are covered with round, button like flowers.  You can find gomphrena in most colors.  I have a lot of yellow flowering plants in my yard so I use two shades of purple.  Gomphrena is a self-seeding annual.  That means if you leave it alone the seeds from those hundreds of flowers will fall to the ground and remain dormant until spring.  I like this plant because it does not really start blooming until most of my other flowers have faded.  Look for blooms in June and enjoy them until the first good freeze.

gomphrena

I love gomphrena. This Texas Tough self-seeding annual blooms just as things begin to really heat up and then keeps blooming right up to the first freeze!

Celosia (Cock’s Comb) – When you are a gardener you just kind of assume that everyone knows as much about plants as you do.  Each year, my celosia reminds me that this is not true.  I guarantee that each time I use celosia in an arrangement someone is going to ask me what it is.  Celosia comes in two types – the big velvety brain like varieties and the plume type.  I love them both.  I grow several colors and several varieties.  These unusual flowers are also self-seeding and, like gomphrena, the start to bloom in June and then go all the way up to the first freeze.

 

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

A Garden Visit with Carolyn Williams by Patty Leander

Peggy-Martin-Rose

Reve d’Or’ and ‘Peggy Martin’ roses spill gracefully from a trellis in Carolyn’s backyard. ‘Peggy Martin’ is the rose that survived Katrina (see postscript).

When Jay told me at the beginning of the year that he wanted to start a regular feature on gardeners from around the Lone Star state – not necessarily professionals, he said, but regular people who just happen to have a garden instinct and a green thumb – I immediately jotted down the names of several people. Right near the top of that list was this month’s featured gardener, Carolyn Williams.

Carolyn-Williams

Carolyn and her husband, Michael.

Hailing from a line of Texans five generations long, Carolyn has a certain credibility and contentment in her role as a gardener. She is not just a good gardener but a fun gardener, with a deep love for her family, her roses and tomatoes, her Texas roots and her Longhorns.

Garden-shed

A labor of love – the garden cottage that Michael converted from an old cinder block storage area.

Our paths first crossed in the spring of 2000 while attending the training course for the Travis County Master Gardeners. At the time Carolyn was the office manager and travel coordinator for the University of Texas Longhorn Band. Can you imagine the logistics involved in such a job? From booking travel and lodging for the band to locating misplaced uniforms, she shepherded thousands of students through the frenzied and demanding season of marching band and football, all the while lending a supportive ear to their queries and quandaries. And as fate would have it one of those band kids was my oldest daughter, Katie, who earned a spot on the UT drumline in the fall of 2004. During those years Carolyn would occasionally lend ME a sympathetic ear; but as quickly as I could voice a concern over Katie’s studies and other responsibilities outside of band, Carolyn would calm any worries with comforting assurance of the organized, cooperative and capable environment of the band family.  

Potting-shed

A peek inside the garden cottage reveals items recycled from work projects, salvaged goods and freebie finds.

When she retired they had to hire two people to take her place – that tells you that Carolyn is a take charge, get-it-done kind of person, and after retiring from the Longhorn Band she eagerly began to transform her backyard, utilizing the knowledge gained as a Master Gardener to give her garden new life.

Carolyn-Williams-Garden

Crushed granite paths invite you into the garden to explore or just relax

As Carolyn says, “It’s so much better when you have a garden that sings to you rather than one that moans to you.”

Name:  Carolyn Williams

Location:  Austin, Texas

Years gardening:  50+, started helping my grandmother in her garden when I was young.

Years gardening in this garden: 37

Favorite thing to grow:   Spring – roses & tomatoes; fall – salvias/sages/roses, etc.

Tomato-Tasting

Serious business – a tomato tasting in the garden cottage.

Best growing tip:  Learn what grows naturally or easily adapted in your area! Amend your soil with compost every year. Keep records and learn from your mistakes.

Best pest control tip:  Empty all water in the summer for mosquito control (somewhat), pick tomatoes when they first start turning pink or the birds/squirrels will eat them. If you have deer, make sure you research what plants they (mostly) will not eat.

Best weed control tip:  After a rain and/or watering an area, pull up weeds in order to get the roots out or you’ll just have to redo a week later.

Biggest challenge:  To maintain a large yard/garden and try to improve it along life’s path.

Medicine-Wheel

The four openings of the “Medicine Wheel” herb garden, built with salvaged bricks from an old Texas ranch house, represent birth, youth, maturity and end of life.

Favorite soil amendment:  Compost always first, followed by a good overall fertilizer.

Preserving your harvest:  This year I put up some Purple Hull peas and by the end of summer I will put up some fresh tomatoes to use for soups/stews during the fall and winter. Always freeze cut-up basil & oregano with olive oil and then pop them into freezer bags. Great for using throughout fall and winter!

Favorite advice: Gardeners make great friends to share life’s bounty with!

carolyn-williams-garden-shed

A view from inside the cottage shows Carolyn’s favorite thing about the cottage project – the heart with their initials carved by Michael.

Postscript: Though Carolyn bleeds orange, I believe she has a little soft spot for the Maroon and White. The beautiful ‘Peggy Martin’ rose that survived Katrina would never had made it to the retail trade – and Carolyn’s backyard –  without the concerted efforts of retired A&M horticulture professor and rose expert Bill Welch. Read the story here: http://aggiehorticulture.tamu.edu/southerngarden/PeggyMartinrose.html.

And she would not have had the opportunity to become a Master Gardener in the spring of 2000 if it hadn’t been for an Aggie – Skip Richter – Travis County’s Extension Horticulture Agent at the time. With an earnest desire to become a Master Gardener, Carolyn contacted the organization to sign up for the spring class only to be told that it was full. Because of her UT obligations taking a fall class was not feasible so she contacted Skip to plead for a spot in the spring class, explaining her involvement with the Longhorn band. This was just a month or so after the Aggie Bonfire tragedy in November 1999, and when Skip realized Carolyn’s connection with the Longhorn band and their moving halftime tribute at that year’s post-Thanksgiving game (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rLj3vw5fwI) he arranged for her to take the class. A wise decision on his part as she went on to lead the organization as President and continues to be actively involved 15 years later. As I said, she is a get-it-done type of person, with a kindhearted and gracious spirit – just what we need more of these days.

Dealing with Early Blight by Patty G. Leander

Though I am still singing hallelujahs for the abundant rains earlier this year (lakes are full and, for now, exceptional drought is a faded memory), the moist environment did contribute to an unfortunate outbreak of Alternaria solani, known in gardening circles as early blight, or EB for short.

Early-Blight

Warm, wet conditions encourage the spread of early blight.

Early blight is a fungal disease that afflicts members of the nightshade family and though it’s never been a problem on my eggplant or peppers, tomatoes are especially susceptible. The fungal spores can be introduced into the garden in a number of ways – they can arrive on infected transplants, can be carried by wind, rain, people or equipment and can also overwinter in the soil. If you have grown tomatoes for several years you probably have fungal spores in your soil. Infected fruit that is left in the garden can transmit the disease to seeds yielding volunteer seedlings that carry the spores and perpetuate the cycle.

Early-Blight-Symptoms

Infected leaves have dark, dry spots surrounded by a yellow halo.

The fungus starts as a small dark spot on the leaf; round or angular in shape and often surrounded by a pale yellow halo. A pattern of concentric rings may be observed as the lesion enlarges.

Early-Blight-SideBySide

The fungus generally strikes lower leaves first, infecting healthy foliage as it spreads up the plant.

Symptoms generally appear on the oldest leaves at the bottom of the plant and gradually progress upward. If conditions are favorable, meaning wet leaves and warm temperatures, spores can multiply rapidly and spread.

Early-Blight-SideBySide-2

Diligently removing infected leaves may slow the progression of the disease and prolong the harvest slightly but a stressed plant facing summer’s heat without good leaf cover is a no-win situation.

One of the basic concepts of plant pathology is the plant disease triangle. In order for disease to occur there must be a pathogen, a plant host and a suitable environment. Remove any one of these factors and voilà – no disease.  In the case of tomatoes we have a host and most likely a pathogen already present and if the environment is conducive the disease will occur.

disease-triangle

Developed by: University of Kentucky Multidisciplinary Extension Team

Controlling the environment thus becomes our primary way of controlling the disease. If early blight was a problem in your garden this year, here are some steps you can take to minimize its effects in future plantings:

  • Space tomato plants 2-3 feet apart to provide adequate air circulation around plants. Fungal spores will germinate and reproduce on wet leaves so the quicker leaves dry out after a rain event the less chance that spores will spread. Also cage or stake tomatoes to encourage air flow and minimize foliage contact with soil.
  • Plant in full sun for optimum photosynthesis and to insure that wet leaves dry quickly.
  • Mulch around the base of the plants to prevent soil (and potential spores) from splashing up onto the leaves.
  • Avoid overhead watering. Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to minimize wet foliage.
  • Rotate nightshades to another part of the garden for a minimum of 2 years.
  • Fertilize and water tomatoes as needed to maintain healthy growth; stressed plants are more susceptible to disease.
  • Remove and discard infected plant debris and volunteer seedlings which may harbor plant pathogens. Weed the garden regularly as weeds can also harbor disease-producing spores.
  • Seek out tomato varieties that have resistance or tolerance to early blight, indicated by the capital letter “A” (for Alternaria) after the variety name on plant tags or seed packet descriptions. A few varieties to look for include ‘Iron Lady’, ‘Jasper’, ‘Mountain Magic’ and ‘Big Beef’.
  • Purchase seed and transplants from a reputable source.
  • Use a fungicide. Most fungicides work by altering the environment (in this case the leaf surface) to prevent development or spread of disease. They are most effective as a preventive control and should be used as soon as symptoms appear – once the disease takes hold it is dang near impossible to get it under control. Products recommended for control of early blight include Serenade®, sulfur or copper based fungicides, potassium bicarbonate and fungicides containing chlorothalonil. All are considered organic except chlorothalonil. For maximum control continue to treat plants as long as environmental conditions are favorable for disease development. According to Dr. Joe Masabni, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Vegetable Specialist, chlorothalonil is the most effective; potassium bicarbonate is the least effective. If the thought of using a non-organic control concerns you it may be worth noting that the dilution rate for chlorothalonil concentrate is low; one tablespoon product to one gallon of water. Whether to use organic or synthetic products is your choice, but no matter what you use, read the label and apply according to the directions.

    Natural-Gardener-Tomatoes

    These healthy tomato plants are mulched, staked and have plenty of room to grow.

Watering, fertilizing, mulching and otherwise tending tomatoes through the heat of summer can become a full time job, even more so if they have lost their healthy spring vigor.  If yours have succumbed to pest or disease it is better to pull them out than to let them fester in the garden.  Harvest the healthy fruit, dispose of the diseased foliage, enjoy a plate of fried green tomatoes and start thinking about plant rotation and tomato varieties for the 2017 season.fried-green-tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes

This is a non-traditional take on a Southern classic from the folks at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.

6 large green tomatoes, sliced ¼” thick

White flour

Pat tomatoes dry and dip both sides in flour to absorb moisture. Set aside.

Batter

1 package (12-14 oz) silken tofu

2-3 Tbsp water

Crumble tofu in blender and blend, adding water gradually until the mixture becomes creamy. Pour batter into pie plate and set aside.

Breading

1 cup panko bread crumbs

½ cup cornmeal

2 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes

1 tbsp onion powder

1 tbsp garlic powder

1 tbsp turmeric

½ tsp cayenne

½ tsp salt

Parsley flakes

 

Stir all ingredients together and transfer to a shallow pan. Dip tomatoes in batter then into panko mixture, patting the breading onto tomatoes so it adheres well. Heat about ¼” of oil in a cast iron skillet and fry tomatoes on both sides until browned. Serve warm.

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!