Trowel and Error Symposium at Mayfield Park

This past week should have been one of the busiest weeks of the whole year in the garden.  However, instead of setting out plants, weeding, mulching and making blog posts about it all, I was laid up fighting/recovering from the flu.  If you have never had the flu, I don’t recommend you try it.  This one bout has been enough to make sure that I never ever miss a flu shot ever again.

The water gardens at Mayfield are lovely

The water gardens at Mayfield are lovely

At least something good happened “garden wise” this past week.  Last Saturday, Sally and I got to go Austin to give a presentation on organic weed control at the Mayfiled Park Trowel and Error symposium.  Mayfield Park ( is a 23 acre nature preserve deep in the heart of Austin.  However, what makes it outstanding (as far as I am concerned) are the two beautiful acres nestled behind rustic stone walls.

All of the beds at Mayfield are paid for and maintained by volunteers

All of the beds at Mayfield are paid for and maintained by volunteers

These two acres were once the pride and passion of two remarkable Texans.  Dr. Milton Gutsch (Chairman for the History Department at UT for many years) married Mary Mayfield in 1918.  In 1922, the young couple moved into the tiny board and batten cottage that had served as a weekend/summer home for the Mayfield family (Mr. Mayfield served as the Chairman of the Railroad Commission and Secretary of State of Texas).  Over the next 50 years, the Gutsch’s worked to turn two acres into a beautiful and restful garden dotted with beautiful water features, paved limestone patios and pigeonnier.

A white Banksia is stunning over a limestone archway that leads to a private seating area

A white Banksia is stunning over a limestone archway that leads to a private seating area

After the death of her husband, Mrs. Gutsch gave the property to the city to be used a park.  Unfortunately, there was no endowment.  So for the next several years the park began to suffer from neglect.  Then, in 1986, a group called the Mayfield Park/Community Project came together to return the Mayfield cottage and gardens back to their former glory. This group, headed by Karen Camannati has been at it ever since.  This group receives no money from the city of Austin.  All of the money for the upkeep of this beautiful and historic place comes from an occasional grant, an annual newsletter and the annual Trowel & Error Symposium.

The flock of peafowl that roam the grounds are all descendants from the first peacocks that came to the property in 1935

The flock of peafowl that roam the grounds are all descendants from the first peacocks that came to the property in 1935

I attend a lot of gardening presentations each year.  While I usually enjoy all of them, this year’s Trial and Error was one of the most special events that I have ever attended.  The welcoming and dedicated spirit of Karen, the generosity of the volunteers and the sheer beauty and history of the place made it the perfect place for a spring gardening event. If you did not make it out to this year’s Trial and Error, please make a point to attend next year.  For the past several years Karen and the other members of the board have brought together an impressive array of horticultural speakers.  For a $5 donation, you can support an historic Austin gem, learn from talented and passionate gardeners and buy starts from some of the hundreds of antique plants that bloom in the Mayfield gardens.  And, if growing plants is not your thing, you can still come. The gardens and the flock of peacocks (that have descended from the original birds gifted to the Gutsch’s in 1935) provide a great opportunity and backdrop for all of you shutterbugs out there.

Pigeonneirs were once common throughout the rural south.  today, they are harder and harder to find.  The one at Mayfield is outstanding

Pigeonneirs were once common throughout the rural south. Today, they are harder and harder to find. The one at Mayfield is outstanding

I seldom do personal stuff on the blog, but today I am making an exception.  Our oldest daughter Kate, is in the hospital.  She is suffering from an autoimmune disease called polymyositis.  If you are the praying kind, I ask that you remember her and her husband in your prayers.  She is in constant pain and there is no quick fix.  If you are Catholic and you are participating in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy ( right now, please offer one up for her!


A beautiful hydrangea in the Mize Garden at Stepen F. AUstin State University in Nacogdoches

A beautiful hydrangea in the Mize Garden at Stepen F. AUstin State University in Nacogdoches

As far as I am concerned, the only thing better than gardening is learning about gardening.  For those of you in East Texas (or those that would like to visit), your friends at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches have put together another amazing line up of horticulturists to inform you on the latest and greatest in the horticulture world.  If you have never visited Stephen F. Austin State University, use these lectures as a chance to gather some useful information and see some truly beautiful gardens.  SFA hosts an arboretum, an azelia garden and the Gayla Mize Garden.  The gardens are incredibly beautiful, accessible and incredibly well maintained.  These gardens are always lovely, but spring is an extra treat.  If you can catch the February lecture, you will still see some blooms on their amazing camelia collection.  The March lecture is around the time the azelias kick in and they are spectacular.  Hope to see you there!

My wife enjoys a hug from noted horticulturist Greg Grant in front of one of the many camelias in the SFA arboretum's collection

My wife enjoys a hug from noted horticulturist Greg Grant in front of one of the many camelias in the SFA arboretum’s collection



The SFA Gardens and Theresa and Les Reeves Lecture Series is generally held the third Thursday of each month from 7:00 to 8:30 pm in room 110 of the Stephen F. Austin State University Agriculture Building at 1924 Wilson Drive (between the Art Building and the Intramural Fields) in Nacogdoches.

Refreshments are served by the SFA Gardens Volunteers before the lecture with a rare plant raffle being held afterward.  The lectures are free and open to the public.  For more information, contact Greg Grant at 936.468.1863 or

Feb 14  MengMeng Gu, TAMU, College Station, TX – Urban Landscape Philosophy and strategies in China.

Mar 21 Ed Bush, LSU, Baton Rouge, LA – Grow your garden and enjoy a sip of tea!

April 18 Leo Lombardini, TAMU, College Station, TX –Everything you wanted to know about pecans but we’re afraid to ask.

May 16  Todd Lasseigne, Director, Oklahoma Centennial Botanical Garden, Tulsa, OK – The OCBG, proving that there’s plant life here.

Jun 20 Darren Duling, Mercer Arboretum, Houston, TX –Making Mercer Magnificent – Opportunities and Challenges.

Jul 18  Julie Shackleford, Texas Programs Director, the Conservation Fund, Nacogdoches, TX – Backyard Gardening for Dummies and wildlife

Aug 15  Paul Cox, retired Director, San Antonio Botanical Gardens, San Antonio, TX – Lessons in Nature: Reflections on the meaning of life from a plantsman’s point of view –

Sept 19 Wayne Pianta, Ball Horticultural Company, Fort Worth, TX – Plant Breeding, Garden Performance and New Product Development: What Makes the Cut and Why? A Survey of Recent Introductions

Oct 17  Matthew Kwiatkowski, Biology, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches TX – The Critters that Slither and Hop in Your Garden: The Reptiles and Amphibians of East Texas –            

Nov 21 Jackie Carlisii, The Grass and Rock Shoppe, Lafayette, LA – Making Organic Gardening Easy

Dec 19  Dave Creech, SFA Gardens, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX – Why raising a garden and raising kiddos is about the same thing; it’s all about breaking rules

A native fern grows on one of the structure in the Mast Arboretum

A native fern grows on one of the structure in the Mast Arboretum

Organic Weed Control Presentation for the Bear Creek Master Gardeners

Last week I had the honor of speaking to the Bear Creek Master Gardener’s group in Houston.  The group invited me to give what I like to call a “lunch and learn”.  They grilled hamburgers for the members and then everyone settled in for the talk.  There were over 150 Master Gardeners in attendance.  Now there is of course a danger of doing a talk at lunch.  You know what a comfortable room and a full tummy can do.  Luckily for my ego, I did not see too many people dozing off during my presentation. 

The cover of the Texas Gardener issue that led to my "Weed Free-Organically" presentation for the Bear Creek Master Gardeners.

The presentation was entitled “Weed Free Organically”.   It was based on an article that I did for Texas Gardener several months ago.  In my talk, I emphasize a four pronged approach (I call it the 4 P’s)to organic weed control.  The first “P” in my program is “Preparation”.    If you are going to have any luck at all controlling weeds organically, you are going to have to do proper bed preparation to remove as much plant material as possible.  Solarization and smothering are the two best methods that I have found to remove all of the vegetation from a large-sized bed.  Proper bed preparation will make the other “Ps” much more effective.

“Pre-emergent” methods are the second part of the 4P approach.  There are not a lot of pre-emergent weapons available in the organic gardener’s arsenal.  Corn Gluten Meal is one.  It has been shown to be effective in field trials at Texas A&M.  However, the most effective pre-emergent tool a gardener has is mulch.  Mulch is by far and away the best thing you can do in your garden.  It deprives young weed seeds the light they need to germinate, feeds the soil, conserves moisture, insulates roots and then turns into compost.  I cannot over emphasize the importance of mulch in the garden.  We talked about when to mulch, how to mulch and what to mulch with.  In fact, probably on third of the one hour talk was dedicated to this very important topic.

The next “P” in the 4P approach is post-emergent tools.  Ideally, you don’t want to have to use post emergent weed control methods at all.  In the ideal world, you would have no weeds that needed to be pulled or killed.  However, since we don’t live in a perfect world, we discussed the use of acetic acid as a safe and effective herbicide.  We also discussed good hand weeding techniques and new tools (the circle hoe) that speed up your weeding chores.  We also talked about burning your weeds ( a very effective favorite of mine) and boiling water (an almost useless exercise).

The final “P” in the 4P method is persistence.  Like I reiterate each time I talk about organic weed control, I use all of these methods in my garden and I still have weeds.  However, by persistently using these methods year after year I get fewer and fewer weeds each season.

A special thanks goes out to Teresa See for inviting me to this very enjoyable afternoon event.

I would like to say a great big Thank You! to Teresa See for inviting me to talk with this outstanding group of gardeners.  Teresa is the the second Vp for the group and she is also responsible for the Library and Welcome Garden.  She was so welcoming and her spirit was indicitive of the entire group.   Their hospitality and receptiveness made for one of the most enjoyable afternoons that I have had in a long time.  The Bear Creek Master Gardeners regularly feature speakers on a wide range of topics.  All of their programs are at the Bear Creek Agrilife Extension facilities.  On Oct. 18, Jeanie Dunnihoo will be presenting “Herbs” at 7:00 p.m.  Joe Masabni, from Texas A&M Agrilife Extension will present “Raised Bed Gardening” on Nov. 1.  That is the “Hamburger Tuesday” meeting.  Burgers are $3. The meal is optional so feel free to attend the lecture “sans food” if you like.  Also, all of these talks are open to the public so be sure and invite all of your non Master Gardener friends!

Square Foot Gardening Second Graders


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

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

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

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

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

Excellent weeding!

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

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

Mixing in the compost

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

Planting carrots

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

Great technique

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

A Garden Shower

Andrew and Bridget with their new container garden

Bridget O’Brien and Andrew Hoyt are getting married!  Bridget is the Tours Program Manager at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and her betrothed is an English teacher at the Christo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School in Houston.  To celebrate their upcoming nuptials, my daughter Heather and her friend Lindsey Smith threw them a “Garden Shower” this past weekend.  Now from what I gathered, a “Garden Shower” is much like any other bridal shower.  Invitations were sent, punch was made, cakes were baked and gifts were presented.  However, where this one differed was in the entertainment.  Now I have to admit, I have never actually been to a bridal shower before.  But, from what I am told, the entertainment usually takes the form of silly party games.  Not this one.  This shower, being garden themed, featured a very engaging, entertaining and educational garden speaker. 

If you haven’t guessed by now, that garden speaker was me.  While I am not really all that famous, I do love talking to others about gardening.   Most of the attendees were young museum professionals that have the desire to garden but are somewhat lacking in the space.  So, we covered several topics related to container gardening.  As one of Andrew and Bridget’s gifts, the group worked together to create a 15 gallon veggie/flower garden that they got to take home.  In that garden, they will be growing and harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers and marigolds. 

The yupneck explaining the finer points of plant selection

Most of the attendees are recent college graduates that work for non profits (translation-they are still poor), so we also talked quite a bit about plant selection and propagation.  My friends at A&M donated a very large coleus that we proceeded to chop up and turn into about 20 new plants.  Each guest got the opportunity to take cuttings and root them in their own 5” bio-degradable peat pot. 

The betrothed and a large portion of the Education Department of the MFAH. From left to right: Andrew Hoyt, Bridget O'Brien, Lindsey Smith, Sarah Wheeler, Margret Mims and Heather White

All in all, it was a lovely event.  We laughed, we learned and we gardened; a perfect afternoon!  I would like to thank everyone that came and say a special thank you to my daughter for inviting me to participate in this celebration.  Andrew and Bridget, I wish you all the best.  May your life and your garden be bountiful!

Going Green For God

Kate is thinning the carrots in the St. Paul's organic garden

How do you get a bunch of second grade students excited about science?  If you are Sally White, you have them grow an organic vegetable garden.  Sally is the second grade teacher at St. Paul’s Christian Day School in Brenham.  She is also an avid gardener.  Each year, as a part of her science curriculum, she introduces her students to several plant related concepts.  She then uses the hands on experience of the garden to reinforce those concepts.   She calls her program “Going Green for God”.  According to Sally “The kids love getting their hands dirty.  The garden provides a way for me to get their initial interest level up and maintain it through out the year by constant visits to observe and document the changes in the garden.”

Sally built a raised bed garden at the school based on Mel Barthalomew’s square foot gardening methods.  Her garden is an 8’ X 3’ raised bed with a trellis on the back.  Each year her class plants both a fall and a spring garden.  The kids get to plan their garden by selecting the appropriate plants for the appropriate season.  This exercise in planning reinforces lessons learned about seasonality and helps develop their graphing skills.  The kids are responsible for all of the care of the garden.  They water, compost, weed and harvest. This fall, her class has harvested broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and lettuce.  Spring plantings include carrots, lettuces, cucumbers and tomatoes.  This year, she will be adding potatoes to the mix.

Sally's class harvesting the fall garden

Sally also uses her garden to demonstrate and reinforce the Christian principle of stewardship.  She teaches her students to be good stewards of God’s creation by caring for the garden with organic methods.  Compost is a big part of this.  She teaches kids about the processes involved in making compost and the value that it provides to the soil and ultimately the plants.  Her compost lectures are always a hit.  The kids love the fact that they can make something good out of “cow poo and garbage”!  The compost lesson is reinforced before each planting when the kids add compost to the planting bed to “recharge” their soil.  Good stewardship also means learning to live by the “waste not, want not” motto.  Nothing grown in their garden goes to waste.  The lunch staff often prepares the vegetables for the kids or the kids are allowed to take home the fresh produce.  The greens and foliage go into her compost pile.

Our world is going through a lot of changes right now.  Things like climate change and overpopulation are serious threats to the future of our planet.  Kids across our world are going to grow up in a world that has much fewer certainties than the world their parents grew up in.  By teaching her kids to be concerned, self reliant, good stewards of the earth, she hopes that she is “growing” a huge crop of great kids that will be a positive force on our future.