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!

The Flutter of Fall by Patty G. Leander

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

mistflower-tithonias

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

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

tithonia-mexican-sunflower

Butterflies are drawn to the vivid orange blooms of tithonias.

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

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

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

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

fall-aster

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

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

big-muhly-grass

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

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

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

KR-Bluestem

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

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

KR-Bluestem-2

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

Late Season Legumes and a Pomegranate Tip by Patty Leander

kwintus-trellis

Kwintus’ pole beans

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

savoy-cabbage-growing

Alcosa’ savoy cabbage and ‘Green Fingers’ cucumber

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

cow-peas-leaf-footed-bugs

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

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

worchester-red-beans

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

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

dried-butter-bean-pods

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

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

kwintus-flat-beans

Kwintus flat beans are large and perfect for roasting!

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

Roasted Flat Beans

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

2 ½ lbs flat beans, rinsed and stemmed

½ cup peeled and thinly sliced garlic

2 cups diced yellow onion

2 medium-sized tomatoes, grated*

1 tsp sugar

½ tsp black pepper, coarsely ground

¼ tsp red pepper flakes

1 tbsp kosher salt

3 bay leaves

1 cup water

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

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

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

A POMEGRANATE TIP

removing-pomegranate-seeds

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Fall Into Winter Vegetables on Central Texas Gardener

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Luffas – Nature’s Bath Sponge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fool Proof Summer Color

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

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

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

Foliage Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowering Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gomphrena

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

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

 

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