Square Foot Gardening Second Graders


The organic gardens from Mrs. White's second grade class at St. Paul's Christian Day School in Brenham, Texas

This past Wednesday, I got to participate in two of my favorite activities at the same time; gardening and talking about gardening.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, my wife is a second grade teacher at St. Paul’s Christian Day School in Brenham.  Each year she uses the garden as a way to introduce a plant based biology curiculum to her class.  This year, she asked me to come and talk to her class about plants in general and the seasonality of plants in particular.  It was our goal to help these second graders learn that certain plants grow in different seasons and then plant the proper plants to help bring home the message.

I love talking to young children.  They pay very close attention to what you are telling them and they love to participate in the discussion.  My wife’s second graders did not disappoint.  They were such a good audience.  They answered questions, asked questions, and they always put their hands up first.  They were so good!  I truly love giving presentations to young people.  They always reaffirm my strong belief that, no matter what the news media tells us, America is still producing a whole lot of awful good kids.

Showing the kids the proper way to remove the plants from their cells

So, after our very exciting disscussion of which plants do best in Texas in the fall, we went to the garden to put my lecture into practice.  As I mentioned in my earlier post (Going Green For God), my wife gardens in an 8′ X 3′ garden with a trellis on the back.  Her garden is based on the the best selling book “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew.  Since she doesn’t have a lot of space or time, the square foot gardening method is the perfect tool to allow her kids to grow a variety of crops in a small space with out too much effort.  My wife’s garden allows for 24 seperate squares to be planted.  This is good because her classes usually range in size from 20 to 24 kids.

Excellent weeding!

Before we planted, we cleaned out the weeds and left over plants from the spring garden.  Sometimes when I weed, I fail to take notice of the truly amazing things that happen in the soil.  Not these second graders!  While weeding, the kids found a freshly germinated Texas Montain Laurel seed, young pecans trees beginning to sprout (so evidently squirrels are aware of my wife’s garden), crepe myrtle seeds, grubs, worms and milipedes.  Each new find opened up another round of questions.  However, the thing that generated the most interest was the smallest little snake skin shed that I had ever seen.  The kids were VERY interested in that! 

Before planting, we recharged the beds by adding three bags of composted humate.  The kids really loved this part (and I did too).  We sprinkled the compost over the top of the garden and then used our hands to mix it in.  I cannot really describe the method used by these second graders to mix in the new compost, but it resulted in all of us having dirt and compost all over us.  It really was a lot of fun. 

Mixing in the compost

Once the beds were ready for planting, we laid out the strings that divided the garden into it’s 24 squares.  Each child got to plant either a broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage or mustard green plant.  We had twenty plants, so in the four squares that were left over, we planted 64 carrot seeds (16 per square). 

Planting carrots

Over the next few months, these young gardeners will water, weed and OBSERVE.  I hope that my wife’s efforts will instill a life long love of growing things in some of them.  Even though they don’t yet realize it, my wife is teaching a whole lot more than biology in her little garden.  Her garden shows that you can do a whole lot of good things in life if you work together.  It also let’s them watch the miracle of life unfold right before their eyes.  By watchinging that little seed turn into the carrot, she is showing them that the garden is a special place that can feed alot more than just their stomachs.

Great technique

P.S.  Do you remember the first time you watched a seed germinate?  There is a very good chance that your first exposure to gardening was in a second grade classroom.  Teachers work very hard to find ways to get kids excited about learning.  Take time out of your busy day to thank all of the teachers that are doing everything they can to make sure that the kids of tommorrow are as awesome as the kids of yesterday!

Hyacinth Bean (Lablab purpureus)

The lovely foliage of the Hyacinth Bean on my trellis

This past spring I was at a garage sale at the home of a truly extraordinary horticulturist named Lorraine.  She and her daughter hold this sale every spring.  In addition to clothes and knick knacks, Lorraine sells plants.  You never know what she is going to have.  Many folks in town know that she can grow anything, so they bring her pots, seeds and cuttings.  She always turns them into beautiful plants that she then sells at ridiculously low prices.  She grows in compost that she makes herself.  She has a green house, the cutest potting shed in town, and a dang fine vegetable garden that she has been tending in the same spot for over 60 years.  She is truly incredible and I hope to someday be just like her.  I really admire her and I never miss her sale.  This year, she had three pots of hyacinth beans that I snatched up and took home.  Those three little four inch pots of hyacinth beans have turned out to be the best $3 I have spent all year!

This year, the first flowers on my hyacinth bean appeared in late July

I planted Lorraine’s starts in May at the base of the trellis that leads to my side yard.  This trellis is over 12’ at the top.  I planted two plants on one side and one on the other.  Since May, those three plants have grown and grown until they almost completely cover this huge trellis.  The foliage is striking and the pinky-purple flower spikes are extraordinary.  The bees, butterflies and wife love them. 

Planting –Plant your seeds outdoors after all danger of frost has passed.  You can also start them inside three or four weeks before the last frost.  Some folks recommend pre-sprouting the seeds in damp paper towels before planting.  However you get them to sprout, be sure and plant them in full sun. Hyacinth bean likes rich, well drained soil.  Water regularly to get them established.  Germination from seed can take about two weeks.  Once the plant starts to grow, provide regular water but do not over water.  They are relatively fast growing and should start producing flowers 45-60 days after germination.

My hyacinth bean bloomed for over a month before it set seeds.  Maybe that was because it was just so hot.  I saw my first flowers in July but I did not see my first seed pods until the first week of September.  The plant is still blooming and it is beginning to get covered in the deep purple, iridescent seeds pods that it is famous for.

The first of the deep purple seed pods appeared last week

Hyacinth beans send out long runners that are perfect for quickly covering a fence, building or trellis. If growing on a fence, they need no support.  To get mine to go up the trellis I tied the tendrils and shoots to the posts of my trellis using a jute-like twine.  Once I had the vines trained over the structure I let them go.  They soon sent out their long inflorescence of magenta flowers that make them so attractive.  The posts of my trellis are 4 ½ feet apart.  The inflorescences of these plants are now so long that you have to push your way through the flowers.

Flower petals from the plant falling onto my yarrow

Harvesting – You can eat hyacinth beans if you harvest them when they are very young.  Many cultures around the world use them extensively in their cooking.  However, if you want to eat them you need to know that are slightly toxic when mature.  So only eat them if you know when to pick them.  In fact, once fully mature, they should not be cooked or ingested at all.

Hyacinth beans are fairly good re-seeders.  Leave them alone and they will come back year after year.  If you want to harvest the seed, wait until the plant has died and then pick the dry, brown seed pods.  Once fully dry, open the seed pod and save the unique black seeds in a cool dry place until next spring.

The 143rd Washington County Fair

This weekend, I am going to be spending a lot of time at the Washington County Fair.  I absolutely love the fair.  Where else can you see a greased pig contest, eat a deep fried Snickers, watch a rodeo, get your picture made with a queen, sit on about a hundred antique tractors, milk a cow, see tons and tons of livestock, watch people pay tons and tons of money for that livestock, hear great country music, dance to that music and still be home before midnight?   There simply is no other place in all of America that offers this much good, wholesome family fun in a single place as a county fair.

Picture from http://leejsackett.com/projects.html

There are two kinds of fair people in the world; those that go and those that PARTICIPATE.  This last group is the one I throw my hat in with.  I did a lot of my growing up at the McLennan County fair.  Each year in high school, I proudly showed my polled Hereford heifers at the fair grounds in Waco.  The Heart of Texas (HOT) fair was the start of the show season for me.  It was also the culmination of a year’s worth of work that involved animal selection, halter training, fitting and grooming.  By the time the fair arrived, I could not wait to walk around that arena with my calf!  I was also lucky enough to have an outstanding Ag teacher who also loved to participate in the fair.  Each year our Ag (FFA) classes made individual and group projects to enter in the various competitions.  Through the years I got to help build countless pic nic tables, round bale feeders and even a complete cattle trailer completely from scratch.  Thanks to his efforts, I won a blue ribbon for my show box (if you are not familiar with livestock shows this is the box that contains all of grooming articles for your animal) in 1977.  That is the only blue ribbon I have ever won.  My Ag teacher was Donald Jones and I truly loved him (and I still do, he is the only teacher that I ever had that I still keep in contact with).  Mr. Jones taught me to weld, how to use a table saw and how to castrate just about any animal that might need castration.  He also taught me a lot about respect, teamwork, and pride in a job well done. 

Tatum Westerfield is the 2011 Washington County Fair Queen. This young lady sold over $68000 worth of fair tickets to earn this year's title. Photo from KWHI.com

I have visited many county fairs all across the country and in my humble opinion, this one is the best.  I can’t really put my finger on why, it just is. The Washington County Fair was the first county fair in Texas and still is the oldest running county fair in Texas.  The first one was held in 1868 and it has been held every year since.  After 143 years the people of Washington County have really learned how to throw a party. 

If you are not from a rural area you may not be aware of the significance that county fairs play in rural America.  County fairs are THE social event of the year in rural communities.  They are the culmination of a year’s worth of by parents, children, Ag teachers, county agents and countless other volunteers.  They are a time for friends to gather, and a time celebrate the traditions that make rural America what it is.  And it has been that way for at least 143 years.  I love knowing that my grandfather, my great-grandfather and my great-great grandfather looked forward to going to the fair as much as I do now.  So I guess that is really what makes the fair special: Tradition.  America is a place that honors hard work, self reliance, competition and community.  The fair allows us the opportunity to practice those values and celebrate those that cling to them.   Not too long ago, America was mostly rural and American agriculture and agriculturists gave our nation the resources that we needed to grow into what we are today.  The fair is an annual reminder of this.

Tonight, the weather is going to be great!  The temperature should be in the 70s after the sun goes down.  Perfect fair weather!  So, grab your sweetie, put on your boots, gas up the truck and meet me at the fair!

Shallots in the Potager

I love my little potager.  It is truly the best gardening gift that I have ever given to myself.  Not only does it provide my wife and I with all of the veggies, herbs and flowers that we need, it allows me to constantly experiment with plant selection and design concepts.  Even though I want to produce as much food as possible in my small space, it is just as important to me that the beds of my potager are as attractive as they are functional.

Shallots and cauliflower in my triangular beds

Every August and February, I get out my graph paper and sketch out where I want to plant the several varieties of plants that I am going to grow.  I pick plants that are tall and plants that are small.  I will find plants that have interesting textures or colors that will break up all of the “green” in the beds.  Even though I try several different varieties in each design, the one plant that I use in each and every one of my garden designs are shallots.

Shallots are the perfect plant for the potager.  They are highly productive, easy to care for, have very few issues with disease or pests and their upright foliage is the perfect border.  I use shallots in my designs much like most folks use mondo or lariope in their flower beds.  Last year, I used them to line the fronts of my exterior beds.  This year, I am using them as a middle planting in my triangular beds.  The design for my triangular beds is based on the “Thriller, Filler and Spiller” design model.  The beds will be made up of three different types of plants.  I have selected cauliflower for the “thriller” component of the bed.  I love the large scale and course texture of cauliflower and it will contrast nicely with the upright form of the shallots that I am using as my “Filler”.  The outside border will have different varieties of leaf lettuce and spinach acting as the “Spiller”.

A handful of shallot "offsets". Some folks call the offsets bulbs. Whatever you call them, stick them in the ground just deep enough to cover the neck.

Background – Shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are often called dividing onions.  They grow in clusters of offsets that make them look somewhat like garlic when harvested.  Technically a perennial, they will continue to “divide” as long as they are left in the ground.  Because of this, I never harvest all of my shallots.  I always leave a few in the ground until I am ready to replant in the fall.  This year I pulled up a single clump that had 43 offsets.  Additionally, shallots are extremely cold hardy.  Last winter was brutally cold by Texas standards.  It got down to 18 at my house and we had several days below 24 degrees.  Still, my shallots thrived.

I got my original shallots from Plants and Things nursery in Brenham.  They are the only folks in the area that carry shallots.  In fact, they grow them in their own garden on the back of the nursery property.  This year, I needed a few more shallots to finish my bed design so I stopped in and visited with Mary Stolz.  She told me that the shallots they sell came from a start she got several years ago at a Master Gardener’s event.  Through the years, those few starts have yielded enough for them to be able to eat all they want and still offer plenty to their customers.  In spite of this year’s drought, they have harvested three wash tubs full of these tangy little onions.  That should tell you a lot about how prolific and reliable these small, bulbing onions are. 

The yupneck's youngest daughter planting shallots in the potager. The round thing in the background is a fully ripe tatume' squash that I am drying for seed.

Planting – Shallots are grown just like regular onions (except you don’t have to worry about any day length issues).  Plant them in the fall for an early summer harvest.  Do not plant them in soil that has been recently manured.  Shallots should be planted with the root scar down and the pointy end up.  Stick them in the ground deep enough to just cover the top of the offset.  Now all you have to do is water and weed.   Some folks suggest pulling the soil back from their base once the roots set, but I have not found this to be necessary.

Harvesting/Curing/Preserving – Just like “regular” onions, the tops of the shallots will “fall over” when they are ready to harvest.  However, you do not have to wait until they are fully mature to enjoy them.  My wife and I use young shallots just like we use “green onions”.  The tops are excellent chopped into a salad and the young offsets have a very strong flavor that I enjoy raw. 

Since shallots are actually onions, they can be “cured” for later use.  Cure your shallots just like you would cure any other onion (click the link to read the details of how to do this).  The only difference in curing them, as opposed to regular onions, is that you need to divide your clumps into individual offsets before you cure them.  Cured shallots can last up to six months if kept in a cool, dark place.

Another advantage that shallots have over regular onions is their ability to withstand your freezer.  My wife and I chop up several small Ziploc baggies full of shallots and then stick them in the freezer.  This makes it very easy for us to use them later in eggs, soups and casseroles.  They do lose a little of their texture when frozen but they maintain that spicy flavor very well.

Store bought shallots are very expensive.  If you eat a lot of shallots, then they are one of the few vegetables that you can grow and truly save money in the process.  Because they are so productive, carefree, tasty and ornamental, shallots have earned the title of the only vegetable that has a guaranteed spot in my fall garden.  Why don’t you stop by Plants and Things today and give them a try in your own garden?

Tree Gators, Aggies and Wildfires

Well, Mother Nature finally sent a little relief to all of us that have been suffering under the heat of the HOTTEST AUGUST ON RECORD.  This cool front was much appreciated by all of the fall gardeners who really needed to get their seeds and seedlings in the ground.  The milder weather encouraged me to tear up and haul off an old brick side walk.  I was also able to get the beds of the potager ready for a slightly late Fall planting.

I also got to install my latest “garden gadget”.  Because of the drought, all of our neighbors are watering much more than normal.  This leaves us almost 0 water pressure at our house.  Due to the low water pressure, our sprinklers are just not covering the same amount of area that they used to.  It has made it somewhat difficult to get enough water on our trees.  So, to help ensure that my trees make it, I bought five “Tree Gators” If you are not familiar with Tree Gators, they are basically a big ziplock baggie that wraps around the base of your tree.  You fill it with 20 gallons of water and then tiny holes in the bottom of the bags drain the 20 gallons over a five hour period.  I was very impressed with this little invention.  It has an incredibly simple design, is ridiculously easy to use, and entirely effective.  What more could you ask of a gadget?  You can check out the entire line of Tree Gator products at http://www.gardenhomedirect.com/Treegator-Original-Slow-Release-Watering-Bag-by-Spectrum-Products_p_3.html.

Over 80,000 Aggies showed up for Sunday’s game. It was the fourth largest crowd ever at Kyle Field.

Despite getting to watch A&M beat up on SMU, the weekend was not perfect.  The tropical depression that brought a ton of much needed rain to Louisiana, brought us extremely high winds for most of Saturday and Sunday.  These winds caused a small personal tragedy for me.  I lost my greenhouse to the winds.  I know that this is in no way comparable to losing one’s home.  However, to me it was pretty heart breaking.  I just bought my little greenhouse a month ago.  It was very disappointing to drive up my road on Sunday morning and see all of those dreams of fall and winter propagation wrapped around a barbed wire fence.

My little greenhouse fell victim to the high winds on Saturday

The Texas Wildfires

I would also like to take a minute and talk a little about the fires that seem to be consuming most of Texas.  Right now, there are 64 wildfires burning in Texas.  Things are so bad that on Saturday, I heard something I have never heard in all of my 49 years.  The Brenham radio stations were making public appeals for all volunteer firemen, regardless of where they lived, to grab their gear and head to Bastrop.  The fire in Bastrop is awful.  I heard this morning that Bastrop State Park is gone!  How can that be?  Bastrop State Park was a huge stand of ancient pines covering acres and acres of beautiful rolling hills.  I have spent many painful hours pedaling up and down those hills on my bicycle.  While my thighs hated the hills, the place was so beautiful that I gladly accepted the burning in my thighs as the small sacrifice that my body paid so my mind and soul could be invigorated by the scenery.  I will miss this place dearly.

While Brenham is still fairly safe, all of the counties around us are burning.  Two of my nephews that live close to Bastrop were forced to evacuate on Sunday.  I cannot imagine leaving your home and all of your possessions knowing there is a very good chance they will not be there when you return.  According to the news wires, between 600 and 1000 Texans have lost their homes to wildfires this summer.  Please keep these people in your thoughts and in your prayers.  Also pray for the men and women that are battling these fires.

If you would like to see where these wildfires are currently burning, the Texas A&M  Agrilife Extension site hosts a Google map with data provided by the Texas Forest Service.  Here is the link: http://ticc.tamu.edu/Response/FireActivity/.