Tips for Week 26 in the Zone 9 Garden

Can you believe half of the year is already gone?  I can’t.  I saw an article yesterday that said we have reached the point in the year where our days will become 1 minute shorter each day from now until winter.  That means that preparations for the fall garden are just around the corner.  Until then, here are a few things you can do to start winding down your spring garden season.

bee-on-sunflower

Sunflowers are some of my favorite flowers. Mine are beginning to bloom. Photo by Sally White

Pest Control

  • Use flour and wood ash for insect control– OK, I am not sure this works because I have never tried it. However I recently visited with a man that has been growing organically for a lot longer than I have and he swears by it.  He said he mixes a grocery bag with five pounds of flour and a shovel full of wood ash.  He then throws it on everything to control caterpillars and squash bugs.  I would love to hear from any of you who have tried this or other organic bug control remedies.
  • Smother weeds when possible – Plants need air, light and water to grow. Remove any of these from the equation and the plant will die.  If you have fallow ground cover it with heavy cloth, mulch or building material to deprive weeds of the light they need to germinate
  • Solarize future planting areas – If you are going to till and plant a new area in the fall, mow it shortwater heavily and cover with 6 to 8 mil poly. Secure the edges with soil or lumber.  The hot Texas sun will raise temperatures under the poly to over 140 degrees.  This is hot enough to kill almost every plant and weed seed that is trapped under the cover
roma-tomatoe

All of the rains of the past couple of months have delayed my tomatoes. I am pleased to say I am finally beginning to bring in a few each day.

Vegetables

  • Plant fall transplants now- If you want to save a few bucks you can grow your own fall transplants. Start broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, chard, Brussel sprouts and cabbage now 
  • Place spent plants in the compost bin – As you pull up your spent plants throw them on the compost pile. Keep it moist and turn it regularly for best results
  • Pick tomatoes when they begin to show color-Nothing brings big pests like birds, bunnies, raccoons and possums into the garden faster than red, ripe tomatoes.
shasta-daisy

Marigolds and daisies are beginning to be plagued by spider mites. Dispose of infected plants in the trash.

Ornamentals

  • Pull up plants that are invested with spider mites-Marigolds are notorious for spider mite infestations. If your plants are looking bad remove them and dispose of them in a sealed plastic bag
  • Fertilize blooming plants – I use a finished compost to fertilize my flower beds. Along with feeding them it acts like mulch which suppress weeds and conserves moisture. I also make compost tea on occasion and apply as a drench.  Feed blooming plants monthly through August

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!

Tips for Week 25 in the Zone 9 Garden

This past weekend I harvested my first crop of elephant garlic.  This was a new plant for me and I thoroughly enjoyed growing it.  While it is not technically garlic (it is more closely related to leeks) it was a beautiful plant that can be used ornamentally or for its fist sized, mild, garlic tasting bulbs.  My elephant garlic was given to me by a man who has grown it in his garden for 47 years.  He got it from his parents who grew it for years before sharing with him. I absolutely love plants like this.  Whether they are called heirloom plants or pass a long plants, they are a living link to our horticultural past.  I love finding, growing and preserving these living links to our southern heritage.  If you have an heirloom plant that you love, leave me a comment.  I would love to hear about it.

elephant-garlic-scapes-2

With it long curvy scapes and big flower heads, Elephant Garlic is a useful as as ornamental as it is as a food source.

Pest Control

  • Invest in a few select organic insecticides– Bt for caterpillars, insecticidal soap for soft-bodied aphids, neem oil for beetles and squash bugs, spinosad for caterpillars and stink bugs. Follow label instructions, and spray only as needed. Mark the purchase date on the product container and store in a protected location, preferably indoors.
  • When using any insecticide, mix up only what will be needed for the plants you are treating – I rarely mix up a gallon of anything, and often get by using a one pint or one quart squirt bottle, depending on the product and number of plants needing treatment. Once I determine how much a particular product is needed per pint, I write it directly on the pesticide container so I don’t have to scour the label and recalculate every time.
  • Protect bees by applying pesticides in the late afternoon or evening, when bees are less active.
  • Control Spurge and Puslane-These two plants are some of the most difficult to control. Both grow rapidly and produce thousands of seeds.  Chemical control has little effect on mature purslane.  Pull these weeds and place in a plastic trash bag.  Do not compost!  Apply heavy mulch or solarize if possible after you remove the plants.
acetic-acid-weed-control

When mixing herbicides or pesticides mix only what you need and clearly mark each container

Vegetables

  • Plant okra, sweet potatoes, winter squash and peppers-Realize this is the absolute end of the spring planting season. It may be too late to plant even these in southern parts of the state.
  • Water correctly- It is better for your plants, and your water bill, if you apply one inch of water every five days. Water slowly in the morning to reduce evaporation loss. 
  • Remove spent plants like green beans to avoid attracting pests.
  • Top dress empty rows with compost and cover with a heavy layer of mulch to prepare them for fall planting in late July
water-sprinkler

Water deeply and less frequently to encourage deep root growth and conserve water

Ornamentals

  • Cut fresh flowers for the house-Cut your zinnia’s, sunflowers, gomphrena, celosia and other fresh cuts early in the morning. Cut stems on 45 degree angles, strip foliage and drop immediately into cool, clean water
  • Plant sweet potato vine from transplant-Sweet potato vine is a great way to add lots of low maintenance color to your pots and beds.  With its bright chartreuse or purple-black foliage this drought and heat tolerant plant will add LOTS of color to your summer landscape.  Sweet potato vine will provide you lots of color right up to the first freeze 

Fruit Trees

  • Pick remaining plums-Plums will continue to ripen after they are picked. Pull when they have half color and allow them to ripen inside;  especially if making jelly.  Over ripe fruit left on the trees, or on the ground, invites in raccoons, possums and mocking birds
  • Pick Peaches-Pick peaches when they are slightly soft to the touch

ripe-plums

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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!

Drought-Busting Rains by Patty G. Leander

As the designated voice of vegetables for Jay’s blog, it seems fitting to commiserate with all the vegetable gardeners out there who are dealing with the challenges of May’s drought-busting rains. First let me say that my heart and deepest sympathy go out to those who have experienced tragic losses as a result of the flooding and I extend my admiration and gratitude to the hard-working first responders, rescue teams and dedicated volunteers who have come to the aid of the distressed.

Here in Central Texas we broke the record for total rainfall for May with a little over 17 inches; our average May rainfall is normally around 4 inches. The experts have declared that we are officially in an El Niño year which means more rain and hotter temperatures can be expected. After receiving almost 10” of rain the last week of May things are starting to dry out around here and a look at the latest drought monitor map indicates that the rains have finally pulled Texas out of the extreme drought category:

http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/RegionalDroughtMonitor.aspx?south

Not the most stylish look but it works!

Not the most stylish look but it works!

All of this moisture has created an ideal environment for lots of pesky mosquitoes and each individual gardener must decide how far they want to go to combat this pest. After a recent morning in the garden spent waving my arms hysterically to shoo the mosquitoes from my face, I abandoned fashion and style in favor of practicality and protection and pulled out my secret weapon: a mosquito hat my nephew bought for me at a Boy Scout Trading Post during summer camp a few years ago. He told me it worked great and he was right. I get tremendous satisfaction when I hear the buzzing around my ears and I know the little buggers can’t get to me. If you don’t have access to a Boy Scout Trading Post, look for these nets at hunting, camping or sporting goods stores – you might even find something more stylish.

container-grown-potatoes

Potatoes growing in open-ended bushel baskets

The excessive rains and water-logged soil caused some rotting among my onions and garlic but fortunately I planted my potatoes above ground in open ended bushel baskets and got a modest harvest of Red LaSoda, White Kennebec and La Ratte fingerling potatoes.

la-ratte-fingerling-potato

‘La Ratte’ fingerling potatoes

tasty-tomatoes

Hoping for tasty tomatoes

It’s been a good year so far for cucumbers and green beans but not so good for tomatoes. From Houston to Austin to San Antonio and beyond I have been hearing reports of delayed ripening and watered-down flavor due to the rainy weather and cool, cloudy days. My favorite variety from a couple of years ago was ‘Marianna’s Peace’, a rich red tomato with juicy, complex flavor, but the first fruits I’ve tasted from this year are washed out and bland tasting. Has this been a good tomato season where you live?  Hopefully the warmth and sun and drier weather will help intensify that flavor we crave in the tomatoes yet to ripen. Hope you are blessed with a good harvest and many sumptuous tomatoes in your future!

Tips for Week 24 in the Zone 9 Garden

Patty Leander reminded me of an old adage about Texas weather.  It goes something like this “Texas weather is a series of droughts broken up by an occasional flood”.  These past few weeks have been a great reinforcer of that old saying.  Once it stopped raining the sun came out in a big way.  After the rainiest May in history I found myself watering Sunday night.  Oh the joys of gardening in Texas!  If it is not raining again this week end (as is predicted) here are a few things you can do in your yard or garden.

ripe-plum

Our plum tree is loaded and ready to harvest. This morning Sally and I picked 10 gallons of plums! Photo by Sally White

Pest Control

  • Control squash bugs-The bugs that a lot of us call “squash bugs” or “stink bugs” are actually called leaf footed bugs. While these pests are most often seen on our tomatoes and squash, they will eat just about anything.  In fact I even found them in my plum tree today.  This hard bodied bug is really prolific and hard to kill.  Pick adults and drop into a bucket of soapy water or suck up with a dust buster or shop vac.  You can also leave boards or shingles under your plants.  The bugs will go under them at night.  In the morning step on the board or shingle!
  • Control broad leaf weeds with concentrated acetic acid-Household vinegar is around 6% acetic acid. While it will kill weeds real killing power is found in concentrated acetic acid found at your local garden center.  You can find acetic acid concentrated to about 20%.  This is the “Round up” of the organic world.  It will kill just about every type of weed (or desirable plant) in your garden so use with caution.
Squash bugs are hard to control.  Use a dust vac or shop vac to suck them off of your plants.  Photo by Sally White

Leaf footed bugs are hard to control. Use a dust vac or shop vac to suck them off of your plants. Photo by Sally White

Vegetables

  • Re-mulch tomatoes-Remove old mulch and destroy it. It harbors bugs, bug eggs, blown in weed seeds and fungus.  A fresh new layer of mulch will help you keep an even soil moisture level.  This will prevent both cracking and blossom end rot
  • Continue removing suckers from tomato plants
  • Trim tomato bushes branches that have outgrown their supports
  • Pick cucumbers and okra daily
  • Side dress all plants with hign nitrogen composts like mushroom or cotton bur
Now is a good time to plant fall blooming bulbs like spider lilies and oxbloods.

Now is a good time to plant fall blooming bulbs like spider lilies and oxbloods.

Ornamentals

  • Trim shrubs so they are slightly fuller at the bottom than the top. This will allow sunlight to reach the entire plant and prevent “leggy” shrubs
  • Plant more zinnias and sunflowers
  • Clip back any remaining foliage of daffodils, jonquils or narcissus
  • Plant fall blooming bulbs like oxbloods and spider lilies

Lawns

  • It is now time to apply nitrogen to your St. Augustine
  • Fertilize trees by applying your fertilizer at the drip line of the canopy

Tips for Week 23 in the Zone 9 Garden

Harlequin bugs are a common pest in our area.

Harlequin bugs are a common pest in our area.

As I write this post, sun is pouring in through my window!  Now that sun is back it is time for some serious gardening.  June is always the busiest and most difficult month of the year for me.  Everything thing needs constant attention.  Each June vegetables need to be harvested almost daily and full grown weeds seem to pop up overnight.   While those jobs are normal this time of year all of our recent rains are going to cause some pretty serious, and unusual pest problems.  Patty Leander sent me several tips on how to organically control some of the more common pests in our June gardens.  This is such a big topic this time of year I am going to add a series of pest control tips each week in June.

Pest Control

  • Control mosquitos-All of this rain is going to mean swarms of mosquitoes. Drain all standing water.  Mosquitos can mature in as little as a half inch of water.  If not possible to drain the water treat it with a product that contains the israelensis strain of Bt (also known as Bti) to kill mosquito larvae.
  • Control nutgrass (Nut Sedge) with horticultural molasses-I have not tried this but I found it on Howard Garrett’s website (http://www.dirtdoctor.com/Nutgrass-Control-with-Molasses_vq3266.htm). Since I trust “The Dirt Doctor” and I have a problem with nutgrass I will be trying this in my gardens this week
  • Control slugs, snails, pillbugs and earwigs with a product containing iron phosphate and spinosad- The efficacy of many pesticides can be wiped out by heavy rain so always check the forecast before application and reapply when needed.
Small tomatoes are already for harvest.  All of our rain is going to cause cracking in many of our larger varieties.  Don't worry though.  Just cut out the bad spots and enjoy what's left!

Small tomatoes are already for harvest. All of our rain is going to cause cracking in many of our larger varieties. Don’t worry though. Just cut out the bad spots and enjoy what’s left!

Vegetables

  • Expect to see cracking in tomatoes, especially if rainy weather continues-This is caused by fluctuations in moisture and temperature during periods of rapid fruit growth. Salvage fruit by cutting around the affected areas.
  • Watch tomatoes for signs of early blight-Early Blight is a fungal disease that spreads by air, insects, wind and splashing water. Extension sponsored research from Ohio State University has shown that garlic oil, neem oil and seaweed extract can help reduce the severity of early blight on tomatoes; other organic options for control include potassium bicarbonate and the fungicide Serenade.
  • Start seeds for fall tomatoes in late June so you will have transplants ready to set out in early August.
Spider mites love marigolds.  Control them with strong blasts of water to the undersides of leaves every few days.  I use the Mitey Fine Mister

Spider mites love marigolds. Control them with strong blasts of water to the undersides of leaves every few days. I use the Mitey Fine Mister

Ornamentals

  • Pull or hoe weeds before they set seed.  If you get them before seed set they can go right into the compost
  • Aphids and spider mites are becoming a problem on annual flowers and crepe myrtles.  Control with strong blasts of water to the underside of leaves or spray with horticultural oils
  • Deadhead annual flowers like marigolds to encourage blooming
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch!  Mulch controls soil temperatures, suppresses weeds and conserves moisture.  Mulch often and deeply
  • Don’t forget to feed your potted plants regularly-I use compost tea.  If you use chemical fertilizers like Miracle Grow apply weekly at half the recommended rate.
coleus

Don’t forget to fertilize your potted plants. I use compost tea. If using chemical products like Miracle Grow apply weekly at half the recommend rate

Lawns

  • To avoid fungal disease, do not apply nitrogen to St. Augustine until the soil dries out
  • When soil dries apply 3 to 4 lbs of nitrogen to 1000 square feet of St. Augustine
  • Apply 4 to 5 lbs of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of Bermuda
  • Apply 2 to 3 lbs of nitrogen per 1000 sqaure feet of Zoysia

Tip of the Week – Week 22 in the Zone 9 Garden

I am getting a lot of questions about what to do about all of this rain.  I really don’t know.  According to the weather man we are experiencing “historical rain events”.  This means that nobody really knows how all of this water is going to affect our yards and gardens.  I am certain that if all of this moisture doesn’t kill our plants out right, we are going to have problems with fungus and mold and bugs once the sun comes out.  The only advice I have right now is pray that all of these “historical rain events” end soon!

crowder-peas

Planting time is slipping away. However you can still plant southern peas like crowder and black eyes.

Vegetables

  • Pick cucumbers regularly. With this much rain it is not unreasonable to expect to harvest every day
  • Make pickles with all of those cucumbers
  • You can still plant basil. If you have basil ready to harvest pick often and pick early in the morning when flavors are strongest
  • We are nearing the end of planting season but you can still plant sweet potatoes, lima beans, okra and southern peas.  However, your planting window is closing.
Prune your climbing roses after they finish blooming

Prune your climbing roses after they finish blooming

Ornamentals

  • Prune running roses after blooms fade. Train new growth onto or around structures
  • Feed roses and other blooming shrubs. Add compost monthly and blended fertilizers every six weeks
  • All of this rain is going to make fungal diseases a problem. Inspect roses regularly for black spot or powdery mildew.  Treat with a fungicides easily found at your garden center.
  • All of this rain will leach nutrients from your potted plants. Now is a great time to replant, or at a minimum, fertilize them. I like to use a slow release fertilize like Osmocote so they are feed all summer long

Lawns

  • If you can stand it, do not mow until things dry out a bit, especially if you use a riding mower. The ground is so wet you can damage your lawn and your equipment.
This cool, wet weather has extended the time we have to plant small trees and shrubs.

This cool, wet weather has extended the time we have to plant small trees and shrubs.

Trees

  • Take advantage of the unusually cool temperatures and large amounts of water to plant small trees and shrubs. This extended planting season for trees and woody perennials is the only bright spot I can think of right now.
  • If you grow fruit trees in containers be sure and fertilize them regularly. Right now they have fruit so they need water and nutrients.  Feed weekly with a liquid organic solution like compost tea.  One of my favorite liquid organic applications is John’s Recipe from Lady Bug.

Tip of the Week – Week 21 in the Zone 9 Garden

It finally finished raining long enough for Sally and I to harvest the rest of the potatoes.  While we were out there we also pulled our first cucumbers and picked a small mess of green beans.  We just finished an amazing dinner of cucumbers and onions, green beans and an okra/tomato/sausage/smoked poblano concoction.  Everything but the sausage came straight from the garden or the freezer.  And that my friends is why I garden!

On another note, I recently read an article that said internet readers want their information quick and easy.  With that in mind I am going to structure my weekly tips in a different format for a while.  If you like it, or even if you don’t, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Potato-harvest

Vegetables

  • Pick Green Beans
  • Harvest and cure onions
  • Control aphids, thrips and scale insects with a strong blast of water. If this is not working spray entire plant with neem oil or a water/dish soap mixture
  • Harvest Potatoes-It has rained so much lately that it has washed much of the soil away from my potato plants. I literally have potatoes on top of the ground.  This will cause two problems.  First, the harvest is going to be a muddy mess.  No way around this.  I will have to dig them and then go directly to the hose for a good wash.  I do not normally recommend washing your potatoes.  When potatoes come out of the ground their skins are soft and can be damaged by washing.  Damaged skins let in fungus that will cause the potatoes to rot during storage.  That is why we cure them before we store them.  To cure potatoes we need to let them dry in the hot sun for a few hours.  All of this rain is causing an unusual lack of sunshine.  Because of this I will have to figure out a way to move the potatoes into the garage for curing.  This is a big problem for me because my garage is already covered with the onions that I had to cure inside because of the rain.

marigolds-1

Ornamentals 

  • Pull weeds while the ground is soft.  Throw them in the compost pile if they have not set seed
  • Dead head zinnias and marigolds
  • Plant zinnias (Benary’s Giant are my favorites) and marigolds from seed
  • Plant Sunflowers-There are about a million different varieties of sunflowers and I grow several of them (my favorite is a double called “Teddy Bear” that grows on three to four foot tall stalks and produces gorgeous flowers). For the next couple of months I will plant more seeds every other week.  This “two week planting schedule” will ensure that Sally and I have an ample supply of fresh cuts for our home right up to the first frost.
  • Plant Gomphrena (Bachelor’s Buttons) – I have two places in my yard where I grow gomphrena (Bachelor’s Buttons). Gomphrena is a great plant for our area because it can really take the heat and it will keep flowers until the first frost.  Even though it is an annual it is a great self-seeder and will come back on its own year after year.  That is, it will come back year after year as long as you don’t have free ranging chickens that scratch up all of the seedlings in your beds.  That is what has happened at my house.  Thanks to my chickens I currently have no gomphrena.  So this weekend I will be replanting.  Many of our reseeders (like gomphrena, zinnia, poppies and marigolds) can be planted by running a rake over and area and then putting the seeds out in a broadcast manner.  Once the seeds are down, run the rake across the soil to lightly cover the seeds.  Finally, gently water the area.  Keep the soil moist until the little plants develop their first set of real leaves.

Lawns

  • Do not fertilize until things dry out. Nitrogen, moisture and cool temps encourage brown spot

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I share my posts on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  It has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

teddy-bear-sunflowers

Tip of the Week – Week 20 in the Zone 9 Garden

When it rains it pours!  In addition to almost nonstop rain, bad luck has been falling down on me in waves!  Last week my transmission went out, a snake ate my two baby chicks, my son’s dog passed away and two of our daughters barely dodged tornadoes!  Things have to get better!  Hopefully there is some sunshine right around the corner that will lift the clouds that seem to have settled over the gardens and gardeners of this part of Texas!

chicken-snake

I am not normally a snake killer. however, this guy or gal ate my two baby barred rock chicks. I am afraid this is the beginning of a series of snake problems in the coop!

Vegetables

As Patty’s latest article reminds us (Stewart’s Zeebest Okra), now is a great time to plant okra.  Zeebest is Patty’s favorite because it was developed by her friends and garden mentors.  While not an “heirloom” yet it soon will be.  When you are planning your garden this fall why not include some heirlooms in your seed picks.  Many of these heirlooms taste better and produce better than the hybrids that are sold in the big boxes and garden centers.  Each heirloom has a story.  Someone bred it, or saved it and has grown it for years – each one has a story.  One of my favorite heirlooms is a shallot called “Gumbo Onions”.  A family from Louisiana has been growing these tasty and productive green onions for over 100 years.  It makes me feel really good to know that I am doing my part to keep this plant, which is not available in the trade, going for future generations.

Here are the artichokes I mentioned in last week's post.  Very excited about our first harvest.  Photo by Sally White.

Here are the artichokes I mentioned in last week’s post. Very excited about our first harvest. Photo by Sally White.

Ornamentals

My yard is beautiful right now.  Everything is blooming, the grass is green and there is fruit on the trees!  With all of this rain, mowing and weeding will be the things that keep me outside once the rain stops.  Before you weed I really suggest you go and pick up some mulch.  Mulch will greatly reduce the number of weeds that sprout. Weeding is not my favorite garden chore so anything that reduces weeds is a no brainer for me.

All of this rain has my yard and vegetable garden looking good.  Here you can see my heirloom elephant garlic in full bloom.

All of this rain has my yard and vegetable garden looking good. Here you can see my heirloom elephant garlic in full bloom.

Yards

With all of this rain and low temperatures, brown patch is going to become a problem in your St. Augustine.  Unless it is really bad it will correct itself once things dry out.  Help it out a little by laying off the fertilizer for a while.  Too much nitrogen acerbates the problems.

I have hundreds  of daylilies on my property.  This is a pretty one that was bred by a friend in the DFW area

I have hundreds of daylilies on my property. This is a pretty one that was bred by a friend in the DFW area

Trees

Some of my peaches are beginning to show color.  This is already bringing in the birds.  If you have problems with birds getting you fruit, this weekend will be a good time to cover them in nets.

I share my posts on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  It has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ Okra by Patty G. Leander

 

Southern-Living-Seed-Guide

The Southern Living Seed Guide

A little over a month ago I was thumbing through the February issue of Southern Living while waiting for a dental appointment. I skipped past the kitchen redo, the make-your-own-berry-wreath and the South’s new hotels to land on a piece titled The Southern Living Seed Guide. As a seed-admiring, seed-saving vegetable gardener I am drawn to stories and articles about seeds, varieties and the stories behind them.

My favorite seed story, of course, is the one I am most familiar with and one I have a personal connection to – ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ bushy okra, developed by my all-time favorite garden mentors, teachers and encouragers, the late George and Mary Stewart. So when I saw ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’  listed as a Southern Living pick it made me smile real big, and then my smile turned to disbelief and dismay when they referred to it as a Louisiana heirloom!

Stewart’s-Zeebest-okra

‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ okra harvest.

Uh-uh, no way. We love you, Louisiana, but the Lone Star State’s reputation is at stake here: ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ is not a Louisiana heirloom though you certainly get some credit since George was born in Westlake, Louisiana and ‘Zeebest’ was selected from a planting of ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ okra. But all the toil and sweat that George and Mary put into developing ‘Zeebest’ – planting, selecting, saving, replanting and ultimately sharing – occurred in the 1980s at the Stewart homeplace in Houston, right down on South Main where George and Mary spent most of their adult life, across the street from the train tracks and a few doors down from the auto repair shop. And to add a little more perspective, George and Mary had lived in Houston so long they could remember the installation of Houston’s first traffic light and gleefully shared tales of the days before air-conditioning.

houston-chronicle-stewart

Houston’s premier garden educators, George and Mary Stewart, profiled by Kathy Huber in the Houston Chronicle, 1990

George and Mary Stewart were extraordinary gardeners, full of wit and wisdom and a special gift for entertaining while educating. They drew the audience into their horticultural adventures with stories and laughter, inspiring a can-do attitude that made you want to go home and grow-your-own. For posterity’s sake and to keep the record straight, here is a brief history of ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’:

George-Stewart

A proud George with one of his branching, productive ‘Zeebest’ okra plants. Photo by William D. Adams

In the 1980s George and Mary were given a few pods from a highly productive planting of ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ okra from the garden of family friend Joe Ziegler. The seeds were planted in the Stewart garden and George recognized that some of the plants developed a strong branching pattern. They began carefully selecting for tender, productive and heavily branched plants which George enthusiastically referred to as ‘Stewart’s Zeebest Bushy Okra’; over time it was shortened to ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ or simply ‘Zeebest’ and soon they were promoting their home-grown Texas variety and giving away seeds. That was almost 30 years ago so it hasn’t yet reached heirloom status. An heirloom is generally defined as an open-pollinated variety that has been grown and maintained by an individual or a community for 50 years. Well, George and Mary are gone now but they left ‘Zeebest’ in our hands and we in turn need to keep it in production for future generations. Today, thanks mostly to the efforts of Bill Adams, Retired Harris County Extension Agent and good friend of George and Mary, seeds are available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Rare Seeds) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Southern Exposure).

Whether you are a native Texan or a transplant, if you live in Texas I hope you have learned to love okra. If you haven’t planted seed yet now is a good time. Okra not only survives but it thrives in our heat and looks pretty good while doing it, thanks to being a member of the mallow family which also includes hibiscus and hollyhock. Most varieties produce in 60-65 days and will continue to produce right up to the first frost. Overgrown okra can be fibrous and tough and should be picked when it is 3-5” long. It grows fast so check for pods every other day.

stewarts-zeebest-okra

Flag the best okra pods for saving and let them dry on the plant.

Saving seed of okra is very easy to do as the seeds are big and the pods are a perfect receptacle.  To ensure the purity of the seed it is recommended that you grow and save seed from only one variety at a time. Select one or two pods (or more if you want to have plenty to share) from your healthiest specimens, flag the chosen pods with brightly colored tape, and let those pods dry on the plant.

I met George and Mary in 1989, when Mary was 79 and George was 83. I was in my early thirties and they could run circles around me in the vegetable garden. They gardened intuitively and frugally, generously sharing what they knew about growing vegetables to scores of home gardeners along the Gulf Coast.  George and Mary were proud of the vegetables that they grew and their produce needed no enhancements. But George was a born storyteller and was known to sometimes embellish the truth. Though he tried to keep his exaggerations to a minimum, it seemed to be Mary’s lot in life to keep George grounded in truth. In fact, at the age of 83, after some 60 years of marriage, Mary wrote and dedicated the following poem to George:

Tell any tale you like, m’love,

Embroidered with lies and fiction;

I’ll not interrupt to correct, m’love,

                   Your facts or figures or diction.

Embellish your stories to any degree

                   With fables and falsification;

Just don’t turn to me and expect me to give

                   My unqualified verification.

 

With that in mind, below is a description of ‘Zeebest’, taken right out of Mary’s garden notes:

“The parent plant of these seed had 28 branches and 243 pods on it at one time.  We started with Louisiana Green Velvet and over a period of 9 years of selection for branching tendencies, this is the result.  To save seed, let a fine pod on a good specimen plant dry on the stalk,
then shell out and let dry completely in open tray at room temperature.  Store seeds in a tightly closed container in the refrigerator.”

mary-stewart

Mary’s collection of recipes and remembrances, published at the age of 80

Mary learned to use a computer when she was 80 years old and proceeded to write a cookbook which she titled, “Kitchen NostalgiaAn Incomplete Cookbook–A Collection of Heirloom Recipes, Past and Future”.  The preface of Mary’s cookbook begins “This is in memory of Mamma.” Here is a favorite recipe from the files of vegetable gardener and home-cook extraordinaire, Mary Stewart, in her own words:

Okra and Tomatoes

“This has been a summer mainstay as long as we have had a garden, which has been forever. Some add browned beef, but I never have. It is good served over rice or just as a side vegetable. Searing the cut okra in hot fat at the start takes away some of the slickness and makes it more palatable. The amounts are really variable, so feel free to deviate.”
4 cups sliced fresh okra

¼ cup oil (or bacon fat)
1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped bell peppers, red, green or mixed

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce or 1 can tomato paste (or 2 cups peeled, chopped tomato)

1 cup water

Heat the oil in a heavy pot or skillet; add okra, stirring to sear the cut edges. Don’t let it burn. Add onions and sauté till limp, then add garlic and pepper and simmer about 5 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Then add the tomato sauce or paste, thinning with water to have it a bit on the “soupy” side. Add the seasonings and simmer about 15 minutes, stirring now and then until the okra is tender but not falling apart. Yield: 8 servings

George and Mary Stewart in their Houston vegetable garden in the early 1990s. Photo by William D. Adams

George and Mary Stewart in their Houston vegetable garden in the early 1990s. Photo by William D. Adams

I hope that if you decide to grow ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ bushy okra, you will share it with compliments of George and Mary, and take the time to reflect on the heritage of gardeners from your own family history, passing these stories down to a future generation of vegetable growers.

Tip of the Week – Week 19 in the Zone 9 Garden

Yesterday I heard a meteorologist say that we have a two thirds greater chance of having a cooler and wetter summer than normal.  While that is great news it is still Texas and it is still going to get HOT out there.  I bring this up because even though May is the beginning of harvest time, it is also the first month where high temps begin to be a problem.  Each year I pay hundreds of dollars to have pre-cancerous spots burned off and I always manage to dehydrate myself.  Patty Leander has a great article full of tips that will help you stay cool and safe in the garden this year.  Click here to read her tips.

blog6Vegetables

While there is still time to plant lima (butter) beans, southern peas, gourds, winter squash and sweet potatoes, May is really the beginning of harvest time.

I am excited to say that we will soon be harvesting artichokes for the first time.  We will also start picking green beans soon.  If you don’t already have green beans you will in the next week or so.  Your green beans should produce until temps start to stay in the 90s.  Harvest often for best yields.  Summer squash should soon be on your plate as well.  Again, pick it early and pick often.

In my opinion, the big harvests of the month are potatoes and onions.  My potatoes still have a couple of weeks to go but my onion tops are beginning to fall over.  My onions have been in the ground since December and I am ready to get them up.  Not only do I need the space for my purple hulls, I truly love onions.   If you have a large harvest, be sure to cure, or dry them before you store them.  Patty and I both have articles on how to properly harvest and care for your bulbs.  Check them both out.

Patty’s article – Harvesting and Curing Onions

My article:  How to Harvest and Cure Onions

poppies-potagerOrnamentals

Last week I wrote about how much joy I get from my daylilies.  While that is true, they are not the only thing blooming right now.  All of my salvias have started blooming.  I also have datura, dianthus, crinums, yarrow and petunias that are in full bloom.  All of these flowers are filling my yard with bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.  Keep flowering plants well watered to extend bloom time.  Also dead head often to encourage re-bloom.

If you grew poppies this spring, they should just about be ready for you to harvest the seeds.  I collect my poppy seeds each year.  Because of this I have been able to spread them all over my property.  Read more about collecting your own poppy seeds by clicking this link: Remembering our Veterans with Poppies.

I share my posts on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  It has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

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