Snake Bit (kind of) !!!

Yesterday evening was perfect.  A storm was rolling in so the weather was cool and the sunset was the most beautiful shades of pink, orange and red.  My wife and I strolled hand in hand through the yard and noticed all of the things that were blooming or emerging (castor beans).  We went into to the potager and watched the cotton tail that has taken up residence in our “vine garden” (watermelons and sweet potatoes).  While there, my wife noted that the yellow pear tomato was covered so we walked over.  She stood behind me as I gently pulled and handed her handful after handful of these sweet, succulent delights.  As I reached in for the third handful, BAM!!!!  Something hit me in the foot!  It felt like I had been kicked by a small child.  Confused, I looked down and there I saw this:

Turns out that little kick was no kick at all.  I had been struck by a very large and  aggressive Texas Rat Snake.  Now I am no herptologist, so if my i.d. of this snake is wrong please feel free to tell me. 

According to Houston Herpetological Supply this snake is good to have around as it eats primarily rats and mice.  However, it will also eat birds and bird eggs and it can climb trees to accomplish that feat.  Because it is often found around chicken coops, it is often called a chicken snake.  However, it doesn’t eat chickens and rarely eats their eggs (too big).  This snake can be aggressive when encountered in the wild.  It will coil up and strike.  It will also wiggle its tail in leaves so it sounds like a rattlesnake.  Also, it is the largest snake in Harris (and evidently Washington) county and it can reach lengths of over six feet.  This one must have been a teenager as I am guessing it was only four to five feet long.

I am growing my tomatoes on a cattle panel. They are heavily mulched with straw and have drip irrigation. This pic is from about a month ago. They have now formed a very thick and wide hedge that appears to be ideal for snakes to lay under.

Well, that explains it.  An aggresive Texas Rat Snake just did not appreciate me bothering his tomatoes.  Glad I am not afraid of snakes.  If this would have happened to my dad it would have probably killed him.  I was surprised at how determined this guy was to stay in my tomato bushes.  After striking me, he just laid there and looked at me.  He wasn’t moving.  So, I had a choice.  Catch it, kill it or just run it off.  I am not a snake hater so I just chased him off.  My wife was a little dismayed by the fact that he decided to run in the direction of the house. I ran in front of him and he turned and went under a woodpile. 

So, what have I learned from this?

1. Always take a hoe with you into the garden whether you are weeding or not

2.  Always wear shoes (or boots) when you are in the garden

3.  Look before you stick your hands into places you can’t see very well

4.  Snakes like tomatoes

5.  If you have rats in the house or attic, put a rat snake in there (learned this from the website).  They will eat them and then leave.

Love-Lies-Bleeding

For me, growing new things is a big part of the fun in gardening.  Each year, I like to try at least one new vegetable and one new flower.  Sometimes the new things work out and sometimes they don’t.  This year, one of my flower experiments has yielded a keeper: Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus).

Love-Lies-Bleeding flower heads just beginning to form

Love-Lies-Bleeding (and all amaranths for that matter) is easy to grow, tolerant of poor soils and incredible to look at.  In less than three months, mine have gone from seed to eye catching three foot tall plants covered in long red inflorescence that cascade almost down to the ground.  These plants have been grown for ornamental purposes for a very long time.  A. caudatus was included in a plant survey found in Colonial Williamsburg and it was very popular in Victorian English gardens.

Love-Lies-Bleeding is member of the amaranth family.  Amaranths are a diverse species with plants whose foliage and inflorescence range from yellow to red to deep purple.  In addition to producing very showy inflorescence, amaranths are edible.  Both the leaves and the seeds are harvested as food all over the world.  The leaves are used much like spinach and the seeds are used as grains.  However, since amaranths are not in the grass family, their seeds are gluten free.  Amaranth was a very important crop for both the Aztecs and the Inca.  To this day, the seeds are still “popped” like popcorn, mixed with honey, molasses or chocolate and sold as snacks on the streets of Mexico.

Up close on the developing flower head

The botanical name of Love-Lies-Bleeding derives from Greek and means “unfading flower”.  This is an accurate description as the flowers are very long lasting cut flowers and they can be easily dried  to extend the amount of time that you get to enjoy them.  For fresh flower arrangements, cut amaranths when ¾ of the flowers are open on the stem.  They will last 7-10 days in a vase.  If you want to dry them, harvest when the seed begin to set and the flowers are firm to the touch.  Cut and hang upside down for at least 10 days.  This is great for Texas as high heat during the drying process allows the flowers to better retain their color.

Love-Lies-Bleeding is easy to grow and extremely well suited for our hot Texas climate.  Plant seeds when the soil is around 70 degrees.  It is tolerant of both drought and poor soils.  In fact, too much nitrogen and the flowers will not be as bright.  Give it too much water and the plants may break.  Water deeply but infrequently.  It does not like wet feet.  Once it sprouts, thin to about 18” since it is not uncommon for these plants to reach five feet in height and spread to over two feet.

This is what the flower head looks like two weeks after the first picture was taken. Notice how the flower color has begun to fade. The soil in my potager has too much nitrogen for this plant that loves marginal soils.

Like all things that are easy to grow, Love-Lies-Bleeding does have its problems.  Since each plant can produce over 100,000 seeds, it can be a bit invasive (it is in the same family as pigweed).  However, when young, the plants have a shallow root system and are very easy to pull.  And, since I know I am going to have to pull weeds anyway, I might as well pull something that will grow into a beautiful plant if I miss it!

Heirloom Gardening in the South – Yesterday’s Plants for Today’s Gardens


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Bill Welch and Greg Grant are the premier “Masters of Horticulture” in the country.  Both of them have ample credentials to back up my claim.  However, what really sets them apart is their deep knowledge and sincere love of the plants and gardening traditions of the South.  They have worked for years to document, preserve and re-introduce “time tested plants” that have helped to color the fabric of the southern landscape tradition.  These true southern gentlemen share a common, and almost evangelical zeal to share that knowledge (which is another southern tradition). 

Heirlooms, a whirligig and a tire planter in a Louisiana garden. You can learn all about the origins of these southern garden accesories in this book.

Their latest book, “Heirloom Gardening in the South – Yesterday’s Plants for Today’s Gardens” is a masterful compilation of their many years of saving, growing and educating others on the value of heirloom plants.  Combining equal parts history, plant catalogue and how to information, this book is the perfect resource for all of us that garden in the South. 

The book is easy to read and full of eye catching photographs that document everything from stunning gardens to geranium cuttings.  The book is divided into five sections that tell you the history of the southern garden tradition, how to find and propagate these living antiques, where to plant them, and how to use them.  It also includes an exhaustive inventory of the heirloom plants that grow here.  Each plant in the inventory includes an in depth discussion of its history and habits.  This section alone would be worth far more than the cover price.

Byzantine gladiolus and a bottle tree in an East Texas garden

As an avid reader of gardening books, I have come to realize that most of them fall into two distinct categories: picture books and books that tell you how to grow things.  Rare is this book that combines these two elements.  “Heirloom Gardening in the South – Yesterday’s Plants for Today’s Gardens” is just such a book.  If you are serious about growing heirlooms in the south, then this book has to find its way to your bookshelf!

How to Harvest and Cure Onions

This past weekend, I pulled up 52 pounds of 10/15 onions.  Definitely my best onion harvest ever.  Now the question is, “What do I do with 52 lbs of onions”?  Since my wife and I are empty nesters, it is going to take us a while to eat all of those onions.  Especially when you take into account the fact that I just harvested an apple box full of shallots and I am still growing Egyptian Walking Onions.  I am sure we will be sharing with our kids and neighbors, but we are still going to have to preserve a large number of these onions.  Here’s how we preserve our onion crop:

10/15 onions in the potager two weeks ago

First, if you are new to gardening, you may wonder when to harvest or pull your onions.  The general rule is “Pull when the tops fall over”.  Below is a picture of what that looks like.  I believe in letting nature take its course.  I do not pull until 75% or more of the tops have fallen.  Once they fall, you can leave them in the ground for a week to ten days.  This starts the natural curing process.  However, do not leave them in the ground much more than ten days as that makes them susceptible to soil borne pathogens that can cause mold and rot in storage.  Just a little note,  I have heard several people say you have to cure onions before you can eat them.  This is not true.  Onions can be eaten at any time in their growth cycle (tops and all).  You only have to cure onions that you want to preserve.

The same onions from the first photo after their tops have fallen over

Once you have pulled your onions, spread them out in the sun.  Make sure they have room between them for air circulation.  I put mine on an old screen door up on saw horses.  The length of time varies.  If you pull them on a dry, hot day in Texas, then a few hours should be sufficient.  If it has rained recently, the onions moisture content will be higher and you will need to leave them out until the roots become noticeably harder than when they were harvested. 

Once they have completed this initial drying period, place them in a dry, shady place to allow them to complete the curing process.  Many people put them on their porch.  If you do not have room on your porch or in your garage, put them outside on a board or screen door to keep them off of the ground.  Place a sheet over them for shade.  Do not use plastic or canvas as this traps moisture.  You can cut the tops off at this time if you wish but if you do, leave about one inch of top on the onion.

Placing the onions on an old screen door. Allow plenty of space around them so they will cure properly.

While they are drying, turn them every few days to make sure they are drying evenly.  This part of the process can take two or three weeks.  You will know they are ready when the outer skins are papery and the roots are dry and brittle. 

Once your onion’s have cured, you can place them in mesh bags (or braid their tops together) and hang them in the garage for a little more drying.  If you are going to put them in a root cellar where humidity is high, you want to make sure they are as dry as possible.  Properly cured onions can keep for several months.  Check them often and discard any that are becoming soft.  If you see any sign of sprouting, eat them immediately, replant, or discard.

Surviving the 2011 Drought

Right now it is so dry at my house that when I went fishing the other day I had to throw everything I caught back because all the fish were infested with ticks!  Now that ‘s dry!  Seriously though, it is dry at my house.  In fact, according to the US Drought Monitor (http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html) it is EXCEPTIONALLY dry at my house.  Exceptional is the highest drought rating assigned by the US Drought Monitor.  If you look closely at the map below you will note that Washington County and half of Harris County are experiencing an exceptional drought.  The last time it was this dry was the drought of 1917-1918.  While this is extremely bad news for farmers and ranchers, it is pretty bad news for us gardens and yardners as well.  Hello high water bills!  If I were a betting man, I would be willing to bet that forced water reductions are on the way for many of us in Central Texas.  Since it is so dry, I thought this would be a good time to review some watering best practices.

 

How Much

As a general rule, most vegetables and flowers (and your yard too) need about an inch of water per week.  How do you know if you are putting out an inch of water?  The best way is to measure.  If using a sprinkler, put several cans out in various places under the sprinkler’s pattern.  Let it run for 15 minutes and measure the water in the cans.  Average those numbers.  If those cans averaged ¼” of water in 15 minutes then you will need to run that sprinkler for one hour. When measuring flow for soaker hoses or drip lines it is better to use tuna cans.  Also, if using soaker hoses do not use more than 100 foot runs.  The average garden faucet can push water through 600’ of hose.  However, at distances of greater than 100’ pressure drops drastically beyond that 100’ point.

When to Water

Most experts suggest watering in the early morning.  Especially if using sprinklers.  Winds are lower in the morning, humidity is high and temperatures are low.  This is the ideal time to maximize water usage and minimize loss to evaporation.  Also, many plants are prone to disease if their foliage stays wet.  Watering in the morning will let the foliage dry up rapidly as the day warms up.

Mulch

You know the yupneck loves his mulch.  In addition to reducing evaporation and keeping the soil cool, mulch suppresses those pesky weeds that compete for your plants water.  One thing to remember, mulch not only helps keep water in, it can keep it out too.  A deep layer of mulch can trap alot water if it is applied from above.

Mulch and soaker hoses in the yupneck’s 2010 fall garden

Soaker Hoses and Drip Irrigation

I love soaker hoses.  They are cheap, easy to use and they put the water where it is needed.  If you use soaker hoses, you can water anytime you want since you are not going to be wetting the plants foliage.  Place your soaker hoses under a good layer of mulch and you will be doubling the benefit.  Drip irrigation works the same way.  The only thing I don’t like about drip systems is the cost and maintenance.  That is a personal thing though.  I know lots of folks that swear by their drip systems.

Trees and shrubs

Watering trees is considerably different than watering veggies or flowers.  While most garden plants need one inch of water per week, most trees need gallons of water.  A mid-sized fig tree needs at least five gallons of water per week.  Also, you shouldn’t water a mature tree at the trunk.  Use a sprinkler or drip hoses to saturate the area under the trees drip line.  Water to runoff and quit.  This deep watering should get the tree through about 10 days.  If the ground around a tree stays too wet for too long you can kill young roots.

Newly planted trees and shrubs should be watered differently than mature ones.  While trying to get these plants established it is alright to water right at the trunk.  Water to run off every five days.  Here is a trick I learned from my wife’s very frugal and very Czech grandmother who believed in wasting nothing (especially not water).  Take an empty 5 gallon bucket and drill a hole in the side right above the bottom of the bucket.  After planting the tree, put this bucket beside the tree so that the hole is pointing toward the base of the tree.  Now, simply fill the bucket once a week during the hottest part of the year.  As the bucket drains it will give exactly 5 gallons of water to the new tree.