Working too hard!

Today marks 30 days in a row without a break from my real job.  Partly because of that and partly because I had a chicken coop to finish and an article due to Texas Gardener magazine, I have not had a chance to work on the blog.  So today, I am going to post a few random things I have noticed in and around my gardens the past couple of weeks.

First, since I mentioned working too hard, I would like to announce to gardeners around the world — YOU ARE WORKING TOO HARD!  I discovered this fact quite by accident.  If you look at the pic below you will see a “garden” that is full of castor beans, zinnias, dill, and datura.  I think it is lovely.  However, I didn’t grow it.  This lovely garden popped up this year on top of last year’s burn pile.  This “garden” has recieved NO SUPPLEMENTAL WATER, no fertilize and no weeding.  The take away?  If you want a no fuss summer color garden next year plant lots of zinnias and a datura or two for effect.  Back it up with a wall of castor beans and sprinkle some dill in for a filler.  Then forget it!

BurnPile1 Second, the chickens are consuming every spare minute.  If I have not been engaged in building them a palace, then I have been sitting in my yard with my wife watching them.  They are hilarious and interesting all at the same time.  Any way, while sitting in our favorite spot in front of a bunch of Maximillian Sunflowers, I noticed little globs of “snake spit” all over the sunflower stalks.  Ever seen “snake spit”?  It is a frothy white liquid that sticks to certain plants and looks a lot like , well, spit.  No other way to describe it.  Turns out though, it isn’t really spit.  It is the frothy protective covering of the nymph form of the Spittle Bug.  As soon as baby spittlebugs hatch they start feeding on the sap of their host and using it to make the “spit”.  They actually live inside the “spit” until they are big enough to fly away.  Turns out the “spit” keeps them moist, warm at night and cool in the day.

"Snakespit" on Maximillian Sunflower

“Snakespit” on Maximillian Sunflower

My buddy Bruce Leander is a dang fine photographer from Austin.  He can shoot anything but he specializes in Texas native flowers.  If I ever need a picture for an article he is the guy I go to.  I truly believe he has photographed every kind of plant and bug in Texas (and beyond).  He sent me these amzing shots of the ugly little bug that lives under all of that “snake spit”.

Spittlebug photo by Bruce Leander

Spittlebug photos by Bruce Leander

Spittle bug Since we’re talking “snake spit”, be aware that it is definately snake season again.  Last week my wife killed another coral snake in the yard and I killed a copperhead.  In addition to that I caught a rat snake that I chose to relocate.  So, when you go out in the garden make sure you wear good sturdy shoes and take a stick with you.  You just never know what you are going to find under those tomato bushes.

Poor coral snake.  he crossed the yard at the wrong time

Poor coral snake. He crossed the yard at the wrong time

 

Copperheads may be pretty, but they are mean!  I personally know three people that were bitten by them in Washington County last summer.

Copperheads may be pretty, but they are mean! I personally know three people that were bitten by them in Washington County last summer.

And finally, not only is it snake season, it is tomato season.  I have 17 plants and I am bringing in about 8 lbs of tomatoes a day.  My poor wife is so busy canning salsa, paste and whole tomatoes.  Below is a picture from Harry Cabluck of Austin.  Harry is a pretty famous photographer.  He is also a gardener and reader of this blog.  Check out the pic of one of his harvests and also take a minute to look at some truly amazing photgraphs on his website (http://www.harrycabluck.com/site/Home.html).

Tomatoes from MOH reader Harry Cabluck's Austin garden - Juanne Flamme, Porter(ish) volunteer, Early Wonder, Gregori's Altai (grafted onto Maxifort).

Tomatoes from MOH reader Harry Cabluck’s Austin garden – Juanne Flamme, Porter(ish) volunteer, Early Wonder, Gregori’s Altai (grafted onto Maxifort).

Almost forgot to mention the Chickens.  Our girls are 8 weeks old tomorrow.  They are still adjusting to their new home.  Each night I sit with them and help them feel more comfortable.  Sally calls me their “rooster”. 

rooster2

 

Harvesting and Curing Onions (Part 2) By Patty Leander

Onions ready for harvest.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Onions ready for harvest. Photo by Bruce Leander

Onions will let you know they are finished growing when their necks soften and topple over; this is a natural occurrence and it’s a myth that they need our help doing this. Some gardeners think that knocking the tops over prematurely will encourage larger bulbs but actually it’s the tops that manufacture the sugars and energy that cause the bulbs to enlarge and when the necks are broken prematurely that process slows to a halt.  As I learned from long-time farmer’s market gardener June Russell, of Midland, Texas, “onions have the sense to lay over on their own”. 

Wait till the tops fall over before  harvesting onions.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Wait till the tops fall over before harvesting onions. Photo by Bruce Leander

Onions also bulb in response to day length and in Central Texas where I live the short day onion varieties that we plant in the winter begin bulb formation in springtime as the day length reaches 11-12 hours. In the northern half of the state gardeners grow intermediate day onions which require 12-14 hours of daylight and in colder parts of the country where onions mature during the longer days of summer gardeners grow long day onion varieties that require at least 14 hours of daylight. If you have onions that don’t bulb properly then chances are pretty good that you are growing the wrong type of onions for your region.

Onions and garlic drying on a bench in the shade.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Onions and garlic drying on a bench in the shade. Photo by Bruce Leander

My short day onions are usually ready to harvest in late May or early June. Once the necks start to fall over it’s a good idea to cut back on water for a few days and let the soil dry out before harvesting. After the soil has dried out for a few days hold onto the stem of each onion and coax them gently from the soil then spread them out in a dry, shady spot to cure for at least 5-7 days.  Go ahead and harvest any onions that send up a flower stalk – they are perfectly edible but they will not store very well so eat them first. Prepare dry onions for storage by trimming the roots and cutting off the dried leaves then drop them, one at a time, into a mesh bag or a length of nylon pantyhose. Tie a knot or a twist tie between each onion, then when you need an onion for cooking just snip off the lowest onion just below the knot, leaving the others for later. I hang my onions on a hook inside the pantry so they are always at the ready. They can also be stored in a flat box or crate in a cool, dry place with good air circulation (in other words do not store them in a closed bin or box). An alternative method that works especially well with smaller onions is to leave the tops intact and braid them together. Short day onions do not store as long as long day varieties, but if properly cured they will last about 3 months.

After drying, onions tops and roots are trimmed in preparation for storage.  Photo by Bruce Leander

After drying, onions tops and roots are trimmed in preparation for storage. Photo by Bruce Leander

The organosulfides that give onions their pungent taste and smell also have powerful cancer-fighting properties. Since heat can destroy these compounds raw onion will have the highest concentration, but eating lots of raw onions can be hard on those with sensitive digestive systems so a quick sauté is the next best thing. It will lessen the pungency of the onions while retaining most of the organosulfide compounds.

Don't through out those old panty house.  the make great storage for your onions!  Photo by Bruce Leander

Don’t throw out those old panty hose. They make great storage for your onions! Photo by Bruce Leander

The Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

 

Image from the Texas A&M Tree Selector website at http://texastreeplanting.tamu.edu/Display_Onetree.aspx?tid=80

Image from the Texas A&M Tree Selector website at
http://texastreeplanting.tamu.edu/Display_Onetree.aspx?tid=80

I am often asked “What is the fastest growing shade tree for my yard?”  When I recommend the bur oak I am often met with skepticism.  A lot of people initially argue with me about my suggestion (which always makes me wonder why they asked for my opinion if they didn’t want it).  They are quick to bring up all of the common issues associated with oaks (in general).  We’ve all heard them.  Oaks are slow growing.  Their roots grow on top of the soil and damage your slab or your sidewalks.  They get oak wilt.  While each of those statements are true in some measure in certain oak species, none of them apply to the bur oak.

The bur oak is one of the fastest growing and the largest of all of the oaks in Texas.  With normal water, you can expect the tree to grow a minimum of one foot per year.  With ample water and a little fertilizer it is not uncommon to get two or three feet of growth per year out of your bur oak. 

This 95 gallon Bur oak is about 5 years old and is already 14' tall.  Photo by Morgan McBride

This 95 gallon Bur oak is about 5 years old and is already 14′ tall. Photo by Morgan McBride

Bur oaks are truly impressive specimens. Besides cottonwoods, they are the only deciduous tree in Texas that can get over 100’ tall.  Plus, they can develop a canopy that spreads to 80’.  There are not many trees that can support a canopy that is 80’.  The bur oak can do this because it is an amazingly well built tree.  It develops a thick trunk and an intertwining mass of heavy branches that are seldom affected by winds or ice storms.  This structure is very pretty and can be appreciated when it drops its yellow leaves in the fall.

The bur oak has lovely, deeply lobed leaves that turn yellow in the fall

The bur oak has lovely, deeply lobed leaves that turn yellow in the fall

Another reason I love the bur oak is the fact that it is native to most of Texas.  This tree has been adapting to our soils and our climate for thousands and thousands of years.  Because of its adaptability, you can be pretty certain that the bur oak will thrive for you whether you live in the deep, rich alluvial bottom lands of Texas’ river basins or if you live in the Hill Country that is famous for its the thin, alkaline  soils that cover a limestone pan. 

Because it is native, the bur oak also takes the extremes of our climate in stride.  The drought of 2011 killed many, many live oaks.  The live oaks died because they have a shallow root system that grows right at the soil line (and breaks slabs and sidewalks).  The bur oak survived the worst drought in our history because it develops a deep tap root that can find the underground moisture needed to sustain it when the rains fail us.  This deep rooting structure not only keeps it alive in low water situations but also makes it a great choice for the landscape.  Deep roots do not break slab and sidewalks.

buroak3 As much as I love this tree, it does have one little problem – it produces golf ball sized acorns.  I have to admit, that since the acorns are large enough to interfere with mowing or heavy enough to ding a new car, you should think long and hard about where you plant it.  The good news is, it doesn’t produce a ton of acorns.  And, since they don’t fall but once a year in autumn, they can be managed by setting your mower a little higher or picking them up (they look great in a bowl on a table) before you mow.  Besides, since the squirrels and the deer love them you will have a little help getting them out of your yard.

I truly believe the bur oak is the best choice for a fast growing Texas shade tree.  Even though my friends are often skeptical, my buddy Morgan McBride is not.  Morgan is a salesman for Tree Town USA and a bona fide tree expert.  Tree Town produces many varieties of trees that Morgan can recommend to his many customers.  However he always recommends the bur oak first.  Despite the large acorns, this Texas native is almost entirely pest free and its roots grow down instead of out.  With its beautiful foliage and growth rate of 1 to 2 feet per year, the bur oak really is hard to beat.