A Garden Visit with John Boswell

John Boswell is an organic gardener from Waxahachie. He has been growing vegetables for just about all of his 92 years

John Boswell is an organic gardener from Waxahachie. He has been growing vegetables for just about all of his 92 years

A few weeks ago I headed out to Waxachie to interview John Boswell.  John is an outstanding vegetable gardener that has been growing food for over 80 years.  That is not a typo.  John is 92 years young and each spring he plants and grows a garden that is bigger than most men half his age would attempt to grow.  John is an organic grower that uses barnyard waste and other organic fertilizers to improve the fertility of his soil and also help his black clay drain.

John gardens in black clay that he continually improves with the addition of compost.

John gardens in black clay that he continually improves with the addition of compost.

Years gardening: 80+.  John grew up in Missouri during the depression.  Gardening was not a hobby, it was how his family survived.  In addition to feeding them, John’s dad was able to make a few dollars selling produce.  He literally does not remember a time in his young life that the garden was not a part of his daily routine.  When he got old enough he joined the Navy.  He served in the Pacific as a medic during World War II.  John wound up in San Antonio and retired from the hotel industry.  Except for a few years, he has kept a garden his entire life.

This is only half of John's amazing garden!

This is only half of John’s amazing garden!

 Years in this plot:  5 years

Favorite crop: John loves pickled beets so he grows lots of them.  He also loves to grow zucchini, red potatoes, 1015 onions, tomatoes (Celebrity and Porter), cabbage, Blue Lake bush beans and an unnamed heirloom melon.

John loves growing beets but zucchini is a close second

John loves growing beets but zucchini is a close second

 Best tips:  Set up and use a low water system.  John uses drip tape and emitters to apply just the right amount of moisture to the base of most of his plants.  For his beans, John set up three sprinkler heads and uses them to water a 5’ to 6’ wide row of Blue Lake green beans.

John built his own irrigation system for the garden PVC and off the shelve sprikler heads

John built his own irrigation system for the garden PVC and off the shelf sprinkler heads

Pest control:  While John doesn’t have too many bug problems he tells an interesting story about controlling potato bugs back on the farm in Missouri.  His family used to keep a bucket full of horse manure and water.  They would use a tin can with holes punched in it to water their potatoes.  According to John, this manure tea grew great potatoes and they never ever had a problem with potato bugs.

Weed control: John does not believe in spraying herbicides to control weeds.  Instead, he has set up his garden in a way that allows him to keep the weeds under control early in the season with just his hoe.  As the weeds get more aggressive in the summer he slowly lets most of them go.  He believes the weeds provide shade and cooling that his late season vegetables seem to enjoy.

John's favorite tomatoes are Celebrity and Foster

John’s favorite tomatoes are Celebrity and Porter

Biggest challenge: Rabbits.  His garden draws in rabbits and other four legged pests.  John has done everything he can to keep furry critters out of his beds.  Unfortunately, no matter how much wire or screen he puts up the animals still manage to get in.

Favorite amendment: Compost and   “Barnyard” soil.

Do you preserve:  Yes.  He loves pickled beets so He grows and cans a bunch each year.  He shared a jar with me and I can tell you, he really knows how to pickle a beet!

Favorite advice:  John recommends that you constantly work to improve your soil.  Even though his garden plot was once a chicken yard, he brought in an entire trailer load of “barnyard” waste and tilled it into his garden.  Each year he adds more compost to his garden in late fall.

One of the more unusual things that John grows is comfrey.

One of the more unusual things that John grows is comfrey.

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Saving Lettuce Seed by Patty G. Leander

Lettuce-seeds

A feathery tuft of lettuce seed.

Gardeners love to save stuff. We save vegetable scraps for the compost, dried leaves for mulching, buckets for toting, rocks for edging, small containers for seed-starting and rainwater for irrigation. And we save seed.

Seed saving is a natural extension of vegetable gardening. It allows you to replenish your seed supply and share seed with other gardeners. In addition, seeds saved year after year from plants grown in a particular region or microclimate gradually acclimate to that location; each time you plant your saved seed the plants that develop produce seeds that are better adapted to your soil, climate and cultural conditions. Win-win!

Crawford-Lettuce

’Crawford’ lettuce is a tasty romaine type with a striking appearance.

Several years ago, a gardener friend gave me a few seeds of ‘Crawford’ lettuce, a reseeding romaine variety that has been grown and shared in the San Antonio area since the 1980s. I love vegetable seed that has a person’s name attached to it because it also comes with a mix of horticultural knowledge, persistence, pride, faith and history. You don’t get to attach your name to a plant or a seed until you have a worthy specimen that has proved its merits again and again. And if you can trace it back far enough you can even discover a little bit about where it originated. ‘Crawford’ lettuce got its name from Marshall Crawford, a Life Member of the San Antonio Men’s Garden Club. Marshall got the seed from his father-in-law, John Wesley Van Houtan, a long-time gardener in Tulsa, OK. John was born in 1900 and his daughter, Irene (Marshall’s wife), remembers her dad always planting this lettuce in their backyard garden, saving seed from the best plants year after year. And today, thanks to Irene and Marshall Crawford, we can grow that same seed, enjoy the same lettuce and appreciate its history. And we can save the seed and pass it on.

Bolted-Lettuce

As the days grow longer and warmer lettuce sends up a flower stalk.

Lettuce seed is easy to save because it is a self-pollinating annual, meaning the flowers that are produced at the end of the season have both male and female parts and pollinate themselves – no need to worry about isolating plants to prevent cross-pollination by wind or insects. However, seed-saving guidelines do recommend a distance of 10-12 feet between different varieties of lettuce to avoid chance crosses and maintain the true genetic traits of each distinct variety.

Bolted-Lettuce-2

Yellow flowers give way to fluffy tufts of seeds.

Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable and as mild days of spring give way to summer heat, plants signal the end of their life cycle by sending up a flower stalk. The leaves become progressively smaller as they spiral up the stalk, and soon the top of the plant explodes in tiny, yellow flowers that give way to feathery tufts of seed. Like dandelions, these billowy tufts allow the seed to disperse by floating through the air. To collect the seeds before they all fly away, cut or tap the seed heads into a bag or other container and allow them to dry for a couple of weeks. Then shake the seed heads and/or rub them between your hands to loosen all the seeds (there will be many seeds!). To separate the seed from the chaff, press it through a screen or colander a few times. You can also use the wind or a small fan to blow the dried chaff into the air. Be careful because it doesn’t take much to blow the seed into the air as well. Once the seed is clean store it in a glass jar or paper envelope with a label and the date.

dried-lettuce-heads

Cut the feathery seed heads from the plant and place them in a bucket, bag or bin to dry.

My lettuce plants held on longer than normal this summer so I have been collecting seed for various projects and for fall planting. If you would like to try ‘Crawford’ lettuce in your own garden seed can be purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com).

saving-lettuce-seeds

Shake or rub the seed heads with your hands; a screen or fan will help separate the chaff from the seed.

Saving seed from your own vegetable plants has many advantages: it is a frugal way to increase your seed stock, it contributes to the diversity of our seed supply and each generation of collected seed will be more acclimated to your unique growing environment. Plus observing and participating in the rhythm of nature is enlightening and downright satisfying!

Crawford-Lettuce-2

’Crawford’ has its own bed in the Children’s Vegetable Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Organic Control for What’s “Bugging You”

The 2017 spring garden is, so far, one of the best gardens I have had in a long time.  Thanks to a lack of any real winter, soil temps were high, air temps were moderate and rain that came at just the right times allowed lots of us too planted early (I have friends in Austin that put out tomatoes in February!!!).  While a mild winter and almost perfect spring weather are great for your plants, it is also great for bugs.  So while our gardens look great right now, your beautiful plantings will soon (or maybe already are) full of bugs.

Aphids and other bugs are already beginning to move into our gardens. Photo by Bruce Leander

Aphids and other bugs are already beginning to move into our gardens. Photo by Bruce Leander

To me, organic bug control is the most challenging task in the organic garden.  While there are a few “decent” organic pesticides out there, they do not act quickly and they do kill as wide a range of bugs as I would like.  Since I don’t have a “magic bullet” to kill all of my pests I have had to develop a “system” to help me keep the bugs at bay.

When I was in grad school I took several courses related to greenhouse production.  In those courses I learned that, even though greenhouses are the perfect environment for pests to thrive in, greenhouse use very few chemicals to control them.  Pesticides are expensive and customers don’t like them so greenhouses use a system called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to keep their bugs at bay.  Through the years, I have taken my cues from these greenhouse producers to develop my own Integrated Pest Management System for my organic garden. IPM-Triangle

The IPM system consists of Cultural control methods, Mechanical or Physical control methods and Chemical/Biological methods.  This method is generally illustrated with the “IPM Triangle”.  Cultural methods provide the “biggest bang for the buck” in your garden.  Because of this they are the biggest part of the system and they are represented as the base of the triangle.  Once your cultural methods are in place you can apply mechanical and physical methods to control your bugs.  Finally, if you still have bugs after implementing the other methods, you should use chemical or biological methods to gain control over the pests.

Cultural Control Methods

Pull bugs off of plants and drop them into soapy water. Photo by Bruce Leander

Pull bugs off of plants and drop them into soapy water. Photo by Bruce Leander

The best way to control bugs is to not let them get in the garden in the first place.  Below are list of things you can do to discourage or prevent pests from setting up home in your garden.

  • Grow Healthy plants in healthy soil
  • Grow crops recommended for area
  • Use Crop Rotation
  • Control weeds
  • Water in the morning
  • Plant many types of vegetables as opposed to a single type
  • Space plants properly
  • Clean up mulch and debris
  • Sanitize hand tools, stakes and cages in light bleach

 

Mechanical/Physical Control Methods

MiteyFine-Sprayer

Get rid of aphids and scales from your plants with a strong blast of water. patty and I use the Mitey-Fine water blaster.

If bugs get in your garden you can use several of the methods below to keep them under control.  Remember, as with most things, these methods are most effective when used before the bug problems get out of control.

  • Pick bugs off plants and drop in solution of soapy water
  • Remove eggs from undersides of leaves
  • Spray aphids and scales with water blasts
  • Mechanical barriers (row cover)
  • Traps (Yellow Sticky Pads, bucket of water with lighting attached)

 

Chemical/Physical Control Methods

Control soft bodied pests like cabbage worms with Spinosad

Control soft bodied pests like cabbage worms with Spinosad

If all of your efforts have failed, you will need to spray.  Be careful when spraying for pests.  All pesticides, whether they are organic or not, will kill both good bugs and bad bugs.

  • Last resort. Using sparingly
  • BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) for caterpillars
  • Spinosad controls caterpillars, leaf miners, fire ants
  • Predators (lady beetles, praying mantis)
  • Homemade concoctions

 

 

zinnia-bug-trap

I grow zinnias and other flowers in my garden to lure bugs away from my vegetables

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

It’s Go Time in the Vegetable Garden! by Patty G. Leander

spring-vegetables For weeks now the thought of fresh tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and okra, home-grown and sun-drenched, has been dancing across my consciousness. It’s a form of visualization that I just can’t escape this time of year and it is what drives me to dig, plant, weed, water and sweat. I’m sure you are experiencing similar spring fever symptoms! DSCN2971

Here in Central Texas we may well have even experienced our last freeze (?!?) but Easter, which falls on April 16th this year, seems to be a magnet for cold weather so pay attention to the forecast in case Mother Nature decides to throw us a curve ball. Be prepared to protect or replant if damaging weather ensues. Even if we don’t get another freeze this month our young and tender transplants are vulnerable to strong winds, hail and heavy rains. vegetable-garden

Fortunately the mild days of March are easy on both garden and gardener. Our goal in the spring vegetable garden is to plant as early as possible so we can harvest as early as possible, not so much for bragging rights (wait, this is Texas so that’s not entirely true!) but rather to avoid the misery of insects, disease and stress that comes with summer’s blistering heat.  It’s hard to imagine such torment during these premiere gardening days, but it will come.

Below are six tips to help get your vegetable garden off to a good start: harlequin-bugs-kale

Harvest and remove cool season crops. As cool weather crops reach maturity go ahead and harvest and enjoy; leaving them to grow past their prime as the weather gets hotter will only invite pests and disease. The exception, of course, is if you are growing to save seed (more on saving lettuce seed in a future post). growing-vertically

Grow vertical. If you have limited garden space consider growing up instead of out. Pole beans, cucumbers and small-fruited melons or winter squash can be trained to grow on an A-frame, a trellis or other vertical structure. Every couple of years I rotate vining morning glories or moonflowers on my trellises to give the soil a break from growing vegetables. watering-the-garden

Plant into moist soil. Seeds need moisture to germinate; if it hasn’t rained in your neck of the woods then water the area where you will be planting. Really let the water soak in and saturate the soil. The same goes for transplants, water the transplant and the hole before planting.  If, on the other hand, it has rained where you live allow the soil to dry out slightly before you start planting. Working wet soil can damage the structure and form long-lasting clods. Pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball then drop it onto the ground. If it breaks apart it is ok to dig but if it stays in a muddy wad it’s best to let it dry out a little longer. Spring-Weeds

Keep up with weeds. Warm, sunny days coupled with spring rains encourage weeds seeds to sprout and quickly get out of hand. They will greedily suck up any water and nutrients you provide for your vegetables.  Invest in a long-handled weeder to dispatch weed seedlings in and around the garden. Above all – don’t let them go to seed. Even if weeds are not growing in the garden their seeds can blow in and they can also provide refuge for damaging pests. zinnias-vegetable-garden

Plant some flowers. Plant now and you will provide habitat and attractive blooms for beneficial insects and pollinators as the season progresses. Texas-Gardener-Planning-Guide

Keep records. It’s a good idea to keep a simple diagram of your garden plot which will help as you rotate your crop families from year to year. I like to also make note of varieties, planting dates and days to harvest so I can gauge growth during the season and keep track of productive or tasty varieties for next year’s garden. The Texas Gardener Planning Guide & Calendar  pictured above is a great resource – I’ve been using it for years: https://www.texasgardener.com/Store/Products/viewproduct.aspx?id=56.

Last of all (and note to self), show a little restraint. It’s extremely easy to be enticed by warm sunshine, the smell of fresh dirt and the expectation held within tiny seeds, but as everything grows so does the time required to water, weed, scout for pests, harvest, prepare and preserve. Stick with the vegetables that will yield the most satisfaction and dining enjoyment for you and your family and go forth and have a great gardening season!

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Crop Rotation for Healthy Plants by Patty G. Leander

You probably know where you planted squash in your garden last year but what about the year before or even three years ago? Did you also plant cucumbers or melons? This is important information to keep track of so you can maintain a rotation schedule for the vegetables you grow in your garden.

Planting the same vegetables, or even related vegetables, in the same spot year after year can encourage a damaging build-up of pests and disease; crop rotation helps disrupt recurring cycles of infection by moving host vegetables to a different area of the garden, thereby thwarting the efforts of diseases or pests that may be left in the soil from a previous crop.

For example, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins and melons, all members of the cucurbit family, are susceptible to various diseases that overwinter in crop residue from diseased plants, but moving them out of their previous growing area means they won’t be available to support those diseases.

Below are nine plant families that are primarily grown in vegetable gardens, along with the different vegetables that belong to each family. For simplicity’s sake I’ve used a common vegetable name for each family, followed by its botanical name:

Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae)

 

Arugula, Asian greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, radishes, turnips

Arugula, Asian greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, radishes, turnips

Beet Family (Chenopodiaceae/Amaranthaceae)

 

Beets, spinach, Swiss chard

Beets, spinach, Swiss chard

Legume Family (Fabaceae)

 

Butterbeans, green beans, peanuts, cowpeas, soybeans, fava beans, garden peas

Butterbeans, green beans, peanuts, cowpeas, soybeans, fava beans, garden peas

 

Mallow Family (Malvaceae)

 

Okra (note the broccoli plants in the adjacent row, sheltered from hot afternoon sun by the late summer okra)

Okra (note the broccoli plants in the adjacent row, sheltered from hot afternoon sun by the late summer okra)

Nightshade Family (Solanaceae)

 

Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatillos, tomatoes

Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatillos, tomatoes

Onion Family (Alliacaeae)

 

Chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots

Chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots

Carrot Family (Apiaceae)

 

Carrots, celery, cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnips (Look at those impeccably groomed beds – my friend Paul is an engineer, and a master at creating and maintaining perfectly coiffed and rotated beds)

Carrots, celery, cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnips (Look at those impeccably groomed beds – my friend Paul is an engineer, and a master at creating and maintaining perfectly coiffed and rotated beds)

Squash Family (Curcurbitaceae)

 

Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash

Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash

Lettuce Family (Asteraceae)

 

Artichoke, endive, lettuce

Artichoke, endive, lettuce

Since vegetables in the same families are generally susceptible to similar pest and disease issues gardeners are encouraged to rotate crops by family, thereby thwarting the efforts of diseases or pests that may be left in the soil from a previous crop. This may not prevent re-infection completely, but it does slow down the spread of soilborne diseases and pests so that plants rotated to other areas have a chance at a vigorous start.

How you choose to practice crop rotation will depend on the size of your garden, the number of different vegetables you grow and how much effort you want to invest. The idea here is to rotate crop families to different areas, rows or beds in a vegetable garden over a 3 year period. For example, my garden consists of 5 wide rows numbered 1-5. Each year I maintain records of my plantings and a simple diagram of my garden. This year tomatoes, eggplant and/or peppers will occupy Row 2, next year they will move to Row 3, then to Row 4 and eventually back to Row 1.  I also have four raised beds as well as large pots and straw bale gardens that I sometimes utilize in the rotation – these allow me to expand my plantings or even rotate a crop family out of my garden completely if I notice a persistent pest or disease.

 

Sweet potatoes (left) and a fallow bed covered with alfalfa mulch

Sweet potatoes (left) and a fallow bed covered with alfalfa mulch

Additionally, I may incorporate a row of sweet potatoes (morning glory family) or corn (grass family) into the rotation since these represent two completely different families, or I may leave a bed fallow and cover it with a layer of mulch – all of these efforts to remove and relocate a host vegetable means there is less opportunity for a pest or disease to reproduce and spread once it emerges from the soil.

 

Morning glories and moonflowers, both related to sweet potatoes, are striking rotations for vertical structures. This is my favorite morning glory: ‘Scarlett O’Hara’.

Morning glories and moonflowers, both related to sweet potatoes, are striking rotations for vertical
structures. This is my favorite morning glory: ‘Scarlett O’Hara’.

If you have a permanent trellis or vertical structure in your garden think about rotating vining or climbing plants, such as cucumbers, pole bean or even tomatoes in the warm season and vining sugar snap peas or sweet peas in the cool season. I also like to incorporate climbing flowers, such as moonflowers and morning glories, as part of my vertical rotation.

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Late January in the Texas Garden

Have you ever stopped to buy plants on the way to a funeral?  Well, I can now say that I have.  A couple of days ago we were in Waco for a funeral.  On the way to the burial we passed Brazos Feed and I could see that they had a new shipment of transplants out front.  Now I am not sure of the protocol for such an opportunity so I asked my wife if it would be disrespectful to swing in and pick up a few things that my Brenham sources did not yet have.  She told me stopping would not be disrespectful but being late would.  So, with her blessing (and a strict admonishment to make it quick) I pulled in and grabbed 18 broccoli plants, 6 cabbage, 6 cauliflower and a bunch of Yellow Granex (Vidalia) onion sets.

If you can find brassica transplants there is still time to plant them and get a crop done in time to replant the row in beans or Southern peas.

If you can find brassica transplants there is still time to plant them and get a crop done in time to replant the row in beans or Southern peas.

January is a busy time for those of us in Zones 7 through 9.  Right now is the perfect time to replant all of the brassicas you love (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, collard greens and mustards).  If you put out your brassica transplants now they will be ready for harvest just in time for you to plant your beans and Southern Peas in late March or early April.  Plant your transplants about a foot a part and make sure they receive nice, even moisture.  Dry soil will stunt their development.  Since brassicas are almost all “greens” they love nitrogen.  Feed monthly with the highest nitrogen organic you can find.  I like Sweet Green (11% N) but have been unable to find it.  I am using MicroLife Ultimate (8-4-6).  Not as high in nitrogen as I like but it is a very good balanced product.

MicroLife-Ultimate

MicroLife Ultimate is a very nice pelleted organic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen (8-4-6)

January is also about as late as I like to wait before planting my onion sets.  I usually plant my onions in November or December but I forgot to order them from Dixondale this year.  Because of this, I had to wait until now for the feed stores to get in their sets.  It is not too late to grow big, sweet onions though.  Just make sure to keep the rows weed free and side dress with an organic fertilizer once a month.  Onions have a very small root mass so they need lots of fertilizer and regular water.

Yellow-Granex-Onion-Sets

If you haven’t planted your onions do it now! The longer you wait to plant the smaller your harvested bulbs will be.

Asparagus is my favorite thing to eat from my garden.  If you have never planted any now is the time (check out my article on planting here).  If you already have an established asparagus bed side dress it now with a high nitrogen fertilizer to ensure lots of shoots in the spring.  I love having fresh asparagus for Easter dinner and since Easter is late this year we should have plenty.

Now is also a great time to plant potatoes. My favorites are Red LaSoda and Kennebec. However, there are over 800 varieties of potatoes so they are great plants to experiment with.

Now is also a great time to plant potatoes. My favorites are Red LaSoda and Kennebec. However, there are over 800 varieties of potatoes so they are great plants to experiment with.

And don’t forget the potatoes!  January is a great time to plant them in our part of Texas.  Right now I have my red LaSodas and my Kennebecs cut up and curing on the dining room table.  Some people like to dust their cut seed potatoes with sulfur to prevent rot.  I don’t do this and I have not had a problem.  However, it is a good idea if your soil does not drain well.  Potatoes are the only thing that don’t need a lot of nitrogen right now.  High nitrogen encourage the potatoes to grow stems and leaves.  Dig a deep furrow (a foot or so) place your potato pieces in the bottom of the row and then back fill with compost.  If you plant deep enough you will not need to “hill” the plants as they grow and the compost will provide enough nutrients to ensure a great harvest.

We are getting some spectacular sunsets right now. My wife Sally captured this one the other evening.

We are getting some spectacular sunsets right now. My wife Sally captured this one the other evening.

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Grow Tomatoes in Egg Shells – Part 1

If your tomato tastes yearn for something different than the standard hybrids or heirlooms that are available at the nurseries and box stores in March, then you need to grow your own plants.  Growing your own tomatoes from seed is fun, pretty easy and the only way to ensure that you have the varieties you love when planting time comes.  For those of us in Zones 8 and 9 planting time is generally thought of as March 15.  Since it takes about three months to turn a tiny little tomato seed into a healthy transplant the time to plant those seeds is now.

This year I am growing tomato transplants in egg shells. The tomatoes I am trying this year are "Old German", "Black Vernissage", "Black", "Barry's Crazy Cherry" and a pass-a-long tomato we call "Brenda's Delight".

This year I am growing tomato transplants in egg shells. The tomatoes I am trying this year are “Old German”, “Black Vernissage”, “Black”, “Barry’s Crazy Cherry” and a pass-a-long tomato we call “Brenda’s Delight”.

This year, I am going to try something new.  My friend and plant mentor Cynthia Mueller of College Station told me that country people used to start their tomato plants in egg shells.  According to Cynthia, these frugal, and practical, old timers would poke a drainage hole in the bottom of an opened egg shell, fill it with a little potting media and seeds and then place them in a sunny window.  Once the plants were ready to up pot they would gently crush the shell and plant both the shell and the seedling in a bigger pot.  I love the simplicity and frugality of this tip so much that I have decided to try it and compare “egg shell transplants” to the ones I grow in my high tech grow center.

Adorable-chicken-coop

If you are going to do a tomato growing experiment that requires egg shells it is a good thing to have your own chickens!

For this test we are going to grow “Old German” tomatoes that I purchased from the Territorial Seed Company.    Since I live in an area that is full of people of German descent I thought this would be the perfect tomato to use in my egg shell experiment.  Old German is a large (fruits over a pound) open pollenated, non-determinate tomato plant that produces sweet “orange-y” tomatoes.

After the egg shells are cleaned, fill with a high quality potting medium

After the egg shells are cleaned, fill with a high quality potting medium

To prepare our egg shells my wife went out to the coop and picked up a dozen eggs.  She used a serrated knife to take the tops off of the eggs and an ice pick to make the drainage holes.  After that she washed them very gently with warm soapy water.  Once the shells were clean she used a kitchen spoon to fill the egg shells with a commercial potting media.  Finally, she watered the media thoroughly and added the seeds.

Sally and I used tweezers to place three tomato seeds in each egg shell.

Sally and I used tweezers to place three tomato seeds in each egg shell.

Through the years I have seen gardeners that have grown great transplants with very simple set ups and others that produce their plants with incredibly elaborate systems.   While this experiment is just for fun, it is a great illustration of just how easy it is to grow your own tomatoes from seed. If you have never tried growing tomato transplants I highly recommend that you order some seeds and give it a try.  It is a fun and inexpensive way to explore the incredible amount of variety that exists the tomato genus.

BTW, now is also the perfect time to plant peppers, eggplants and tomatillos.  Be sure to check back in March and see how my “egg shell” experiment works out.

 

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!

2016 Holiday Gifts for the Gardener by Patty G. Leander

broccoli-transpalnts

Now is a good time to plant seeds of your favorite brassicas indoors under grow lights; in 5 or 6 weeks you will have transplants for a new season of vegetable gardening.

Baby, it’s cold outside! The weather forecasters have been talking about “plunging temperatures” – a sure sign that winter has arrived in Central Texas. We have already had a few light freezes here in Austin but at this point in the season I have to finally admit that winter is here and these colder temperatures will come more frequently and stick around a little longer. Broccoli, carrots, kale, collards and other cold hardy vegetables that are established in the garden generally make it through these “plunging temperatures”, but recently transplanted vegetables that haven’t had a chance to acclimate may suffer cold damage. Though I have harvested the last of the peppers, tomatoes, butter beans and eggplant my garden has taken a back seat to other obligations in my life recently so the cool-season vegetables I planted in fall will have to fend for themselves through the cold. Hopefully they will make it unscathed but if not I am prepared to start again in January.

As Christmas approaches you may still be thinking of a little something for the gardener in your life. Below are a few last minute ideas:

Trisha Shirey’s Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest and Skip Richter’s Texas Month-by-Month Gardening are great gist ideas for organic-minded gardeners in Texas

Trisha Shirey’s Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest and Skip Richter’s Texas Month-by-Month Gardening are great gist ideas for organic-minded gardeners in Texas

Garden Related Books – two recent publications include Trisha Shirey’s Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest and Skip Richter’s Texas Month-by-Month Gardening. Both Skip and Trisha are organic-minded gardeners with Texas roots and they share plenty of wisdom for gardening in the Lone Star State.

 

Dr. (Bill) William C.Welch, Greg Grant and Felder Rushing are all some of the most beloved horticulturists in working in the South. Books by this trio are perfect gifts for those of us that garden south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Dr. (Bill) William C.Welch, Greg Grant and Felder Rushing are some of the most beloved horticulturists working in the South. Books by this trio are perfect gifts for those of us that garden south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Heirloom Gardening in the South by William C. Welch and Greg Grant reminds us of the plants, customs and cultures that have contributed to our Southern heritage; the book includes numerous colorful photographs for inspiration. In Slow Gardening, fun-loving Felder Rushing shares his stress-free approach to gardening, encouraging us all to slow down, break a few horticultural rules and add some whimsy to the garden. A quote from his book: “Life has lots of pressures – why include them in the garden?”

 

This metal sign was purchased at Callahan’s General Store in Austin – it makes me smile and hum every time I see it.

Garden Bling – speaking of whimsy, how about a sculpture, a birdbath, a sign, metal artwork, sun catchers or other decorations that match the gardener’s personality?

coir-pots

A coconut coir block and transplantable coco pots

Coconut Coir Blocks – coconut coir is a by-product of the coconut industry. Marketed as a natural, renewable and disease-free planting medium, it is created from the coarse fibers of the outer husk of coconuts. The lightweight blocks or bricks of compressed coir fiber expand to several times their size when mixed with water.

coconut-coir-blocks

A block of coconut coir fiber the size of a brick expands to approximately 10 liters of planting medium when mixed with water.

Once hydrated, coir fiber can be used as an alternative to peat moss in seed starting or container mixes. A Master Gardener friend recently introduced me to coir fiber pots that can be used for growing transplants. Once seedlings have reached transplant size the entire pot can be planted directly into the garden. The coir pot will gradually decompose allowing the roots to grow unimpeded into the soil. A really cool idea!

garden-tools

All gardeners appreciate the tools that make their tasks easier!

Garden Tools– these tools make garden tasks easier and more efficient: a good pair of pruners, a CobraHead weeder, a moisture meter and a small, inexpensive knife to keep outside for harvesting (I like the white-handled brand called Dexter – it’s cheap, it’s sharp and it can be found at most restaurant supply stores). I recently acquired a weed-puller called Lawn Jaws. Like a pair of needle-nose pliers with back-slanted teeth, the Lawn Jaws grips weeds securely and pulls them out by the roots – works like a charm on tough weeds that invade my backyard. They run about $16; I bought mine at the Zilker Botanical Garden gift shop in Austin.

Laminated Field Guides – these foldout pamphlets offer quick and easy identification of snakes, birds, spiders, butterflies and more. Available at most bookstores, garden centers and gift shops at botanical gardens or nature centers.

 

Field guides make are incredibly useful in the garden and they are so easy to slip into a stocking.

A gift of seeds or books about growing and preparing vegetables is always appreciated by food gardeners.

Miscellaneous Ideas – any gardener would appreciate the gift of seeds, whether the latest tomato introduction or seed saved from your own garden. In addition, books about seed starting, seed saving or vegetable preparation are useful resources for anyone interested in growing their own food. And for the gardener who just wants to start small, how about a portable fabric planter called a Dirt Pot or Smart Pot? Filled with commercial planting mix these reusable containers can be planted with root crops, herbs or compact vegetable varieties. Look for the 7 or 10 gallon size for best results.

Cheers and warm wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Healthy, Happy New Year!

fiber-pot

Fiber pots are great gifts for beginners or for experienced gardeners looking to expand their potting area.

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!