New Feature for the New Year

Happy New Year! 2014 was the best year ever for the blog.  I am truly grateful that you chose to get some of your garden tips from The Masters of Horticulture!

Photo by Bruce Leander

Photo by Bruce Leander

Each year I look for ways to make the blog more useful to all of my fellow organic gardeners.  This year I am going to do a weekly “Tip of the Week” feature on the blog.  This idea came to me when a Texas Gardener reader contacted me about doing a weekly radio segment that would let Houston area gardeners know what they needed to be doing in their gardens each week of the year. I thought this was a great idea. However, since horticulture is just a hobby for me, I referred the reader to one of the best organic gardeners in the state. Bart Brechter is the Curator of Gardens for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. He runs the incredibly beautiful gardens at Bayou Bend and he does it organically.  He also hosts the “Our Garden View” blog.

Bart did a couple of episodes and then the radio changed formats and dropped the segment. While we were both disappointed, we really thought the radio station was on to something. We both feel that a weekly tip list is a great tool for all gardeners. So, we have decided to work together to provide these weekly tips to our readers. Starting this week, he and I will begin posting weekly tips that will let you know what you can or should be doing in the garden that weekend. Be sure to check out the tips on both blogs. Bart and I are different types of gardeners.  By reading both sets of tips you will get a good variety of ideas to try in your own Central Texas Gardens.

Photo by Bruce Leander

Photo by Bruce Leander

Winter Garden Chores

There is always something to do in the Texas garden – even in the winter.  Granted, winter does kind of reduce the number of tasks, but our mild winter ensures that we can be outside tending or growing something every single month of the year.  While there are several tasks in winter that can help us get our gardening fix, winter gardening does have its challenges.  It seems like every time I need to weed or plant or harvest it is either raining or miserably cold.  Sunday was a perfect example of this.  Despite the cold and the standing water in my rows, nature had decided to provide me with a bountiful brassica harvest; as long as I was man enough to brave the elements and harvest it.

The broccoli I harvested this weekend was planted on Sept. 28.  It will continue to produce for me until April or May.  Photo by Bruce Leander.

The broccoli I harvested this weekend was planted on Sept. 28. It will continue to produce for me until April or May. Photo by Bruce Leander.

I am proud to say, I sucked it up and was richly rewarded for my efforts.  Once I got in the garden and started cutting my cole crops I didn’t even notice the cold.  Before long I had harvested six pounds of broccoli, some gumbo onions, a bunch of baby carrots and a three pound head of cauliflower.  I don’t know about you but nothing gets my garden juices flowing more than a good harvest.  As I worked I actually forgot about the cold and enjoyed myself in my muddy little garden.  When I brought the veggies in  I was reminded again why I love gardening in Texas.  I really can enjoy healthy, organic produce year round.

While I was in the garden I also noticed lots of broad leaf weeds that were doing about as well as the broccoli.  So, while I was out I took the hoe to them.  Hoeing is not nearly as much work on a 40 degree day. Because it was such a “pleasant afternoon” I actually enjoyed chopping through all of the dandelions and thistles that were popping up.

This weekend I harvested my first cauliflower of the season - a three pounder!  Photo by Bruce Leander

This weekend I harvested my first cauliflower of the season – a three pounder! Photo by Bruce Leander

Luckily, not all winter gardening chores have to be done outside.  It is currently time to do what I consider the most important gardening task of the entire year —STARTING YOUR TOMATO TRANSPLANTS!!!  If you live in zone 9 you need to get your seeds started by January 15 to ensure you have big, healthy transplants on March 15.  My friend, and MOH contributor, Patty Leander has a great article in this month’s Texas Gardener magazine on growing your own tomatoes from seed.  If you don’t subscribe I really recommend picking up this issue.  Her article is awesome.

It is time to start those tomato seeds!  There is no other way to ensure you have the varieties you want when planting time comes.  Photo by Bruce Leander

It is time to start those tomato seeds! There is no other way to ensure you have the varieties you want when planting time comes. Photo by Bruce Leander

Growing Paperwhites

This weekend Sally and I did a little Christmas shopping.  This is not a part of the holiday season that I enjoy.  To be perfectly honest, I hate it.  So as “we” were shopping I wandered around looking for diversions.  After a couple of stores I found it; paperwhites!  I was truly amazed at how many stores had paperwhites for sale.  I did a little count and discovered that all but one (a sporting goods store) of the shops we went in had little boxes of paperwhite bulbs for sale.  I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me.  Each Christmas season Sally and I grow (and give away) a whole lot of paperwhite narcissus bulbs.  I guess we are not the only ones.  And why not?  Paperwhites are cheap, easy to grow, smell great (in my opinion) and make the house look great for months.  They really are the perfect gift for anyone that has even the most remote interest in horticulture.

This year I am growing my paperwhites in a lovely fluted bowl.  I cover the soil with sphagnum moss.

This year I am growing my paperwhites in a lovely fluted bowl. I cover the soil with sphagnum moss.

Paperwhites are a type of narcissus that originated, and are still produced in, the areas around the Mediterranean.  There are many different bulbs that are generically called paperwhites.  While the paperwhites you and I grow may be different species or varieties they all have one thing in common – they are a type of narcissus that does not require chilling.  Most of the flowers in the Narcissus genus ( narcissus, daffodils, and jonquils) require some period of cold weather before they flower,  Not paperwhites.  This trait allows them to be shipped all over the world and be forced into bloom for several of our cooler months.

Growing Paperwhites in Soil

In my opinion, forcing paperwhites in soil is the easiest and most reliable way to produce a large fragrant clump of white flowers.  You don’t need a lot of soil to successfully grow your paperwhites. Because of this you can plant paperwhites in a lot of things you might not normally use as a planter.  While I am currently using a large fluted serving bowl I have used gravy boats and a sterling silver fish server in the past. Regardless of the container you use , you want to use a high quality and well draining potting mix,  Fill your container part of the way and add your bulbs.  Once the bulbs are arranged add enough soil to just cover the bulbs.  Once your bulbs are planted soak the soil and drain it well (if the container does not have a drain hole water the soil before placing it in the container).  Place the bulbs in a cool place (55 to 65 degrees) for a week to ten days.  Once the leaves begin to show, move your paperwhites to a warm (70 to 75) area of the house that gets plenty of sunlight.  Keep your soil moist and in about three weeks your first buds will begin to form.   Once the buds open move your flowers out of direct sunlight to extend their life.

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I love the white gravel and cranberries!

Growing Paperwhites in Pebbles

Paperwhite bulbs are almost as pretty as the flowers they produce.  You can highlight the attractive bulbs by growing them in dishes filled with gravel or pebbles.  I love this method and I have seen some creative people create very attractive displays in containers ranging from teacups to vintage coffee tins.  If growing your bulbs in this manner simply place enough gravel or pebbles around the bulbs to support them.  Then fill your container with just enough water to come in contact with the bottom of the bulbs.  Keep the water at this level throughout the plants life and follow the steps mentioned above to extend their bloom.

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I think paperwhite bulbs are almost as pretty as their blooms

Droopy Foliage

About the only drawback these flowers have is their tendency to produce droopy leaves.  While this doesn’t hurt the plant, it can make your arrangement look a little messy.  These droopy leaves are partially caused when your plants do not get enough direct sunlight.  If you have a bright, sunny spot try and grow them there and rotate them every few days.  If not there are many cute and decorative ways to control the droop.  One of the easiest is to glue an attractive ribbon midway up the foliage.  There are also several ways to “stake” your foliage.  Check out this cute “stake” that my friend C.L. Fornari at “Coffee for Roses” made from native vines that grow around her yard.

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Lovely homemade support made from wild vines. Great and decorative way to support your foliage from C. L. Fornari at the “Coffee for Roses” blog. Check it out at the link above.

Growing Paperwhites Outside

If you live in the south, you don’t have to throw your bulbs away after the blooms fade.  Paperwhites do great outdoors and they will be the first winter bulbs to bloom in your beds.  Simply plant them about one bulb’s length deep in full sun and well-draining soil.  Because of their Mediterranean heritage they do well here on normal rainfall so you can plant them in places that are hard to reach with the hose.  Since they bloom so early (November) there is a good chance that an early freeze will nip their buds before they flower.  No worries.  While you may not get flowers every year you will get a lovely clump of green foliage in your bed that will do the photosynthesis needed to replenish the bulb for next year’s bloom.

This post has been shared on The Homeacre Hop.  This week’s hop has a ton of great holiday ideas.  Check it out!

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Paperwhites growing around the perimeter of an abandoned homesite on a friends property.

PERENNIAL GARDEN BULBS FOR CENTRAL TEXAS by Cynthia W. Mueller

Today’s post comes from my friend Cynthia Mueller.  Cynthia and I became friends while I was working on my masters degree at A&M.  She is a volunteer in the horticultural extension department and one of the most knowledgeable plant people I have ever known.  She is also the first person to ever publish any of my garden writings.  Cynthia is an expert on so many things.  However she has a special love for bulbs.  Cynthia recently spoke to a local garden club and she sent me her talk.  It is the most comprehensive list of the best bulbs for our part of Texas that I have ever seen.  While you are sitting inside this winter dreaming of your spring garden, why not peruse her list of the best bulbs for our central Texas gardens.  These bulbs are perennial in our area and will brighten your garden for years.

Amaryllis Johnsonii or Hardy Red Amaryllis.  This was one of the first amaryllis to be hybridized in England, around 1812.  It is more cold tolerant than Dutch or florists’ amaryllis, or hippeastrums.  But in our climate gift bulbs of florists’ amaryllis can be recycled into the garden where they will live except after the coldest of winters.  These are classic hand-me-down Southern bulbs, good in climates to about 7b.

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Lovely bulbispermum crinum in my front bed

Crinums are truly indicative of Southern gardens.  They are found in many different forms.  Everyone has heard of “milk and wine lilies” but these are not just one plant, but any crinum with stripes of pink on a white background, so there can be quite a variety.  These can be crosses between C.bulbispermum, the tough old Orange River crinum and C. zeylanicum, a more tender plant from the tropics. C. x baconi is composed of crosses between americanum and zeylanicumC. x gowenii are composed of crosses between bulbispermum and zeylanicum.  C. x herbertii are crosses between C. scabrum and bulbispermumC. digweedii are crosses between americanum and scabrum.  We are sometimes dismissive of the “ditch lilies” or C. bulbispermum found in abandoned gardens or in cemeteries in Texas, but they have given their toughness and cold hardiness to many crinum hybrids which we do enjoy.

Daffodils – Tazettas – Jonquils

In the South, almost anything yellow might be called a jonquil!  Narcissus are usually multi-flowered, and daffodils single flowered.  Most daffodils cannot be kept permanently here, but some of the narcissi are classics. N. jonquilla x odorus ‘Campernelle’ is the “Campernelle” of Southern yards and graveyards, N.  ‘Papyraceous’ is the ‘Paperwhite.’(1600s).  Very old tazetta hybrids include ‘Grand Monarque,’ (1600s) Soleil d’Or and the old cross ‘Italicus.’  These bulbs need very little help to survive.  Moving them out from under the shade of evergreen trees or dividing them every so many years will aid them in blooming more.  ‘Erlicheer’ and ‘Winston Churchill’ are also good choices for our area.  The Chinese Sacred Lily, N. tazetta orientalis has also been cultivated since the 1600s. The old hybrid ‘Intermedius’ such as Texas Star is yellow and starry looking with narrow foliage.

Paperwhites look perfectly at home in the old cemetery of Calvert’s Episcopal Church of the Epiphany. They are the only plantings here.

Only one of the Leucojums is really at home in Central Texas: L. aestivum, or Summer Snowflake.  It’s called SS even though it blooms in the spring.  None of the Snowdrops (Leucojum vernum) will really survive here.

luecojum

I love the small flowers of luecojum or “Summer Snowflake”

Philippine/Formosa lilies – an old-fashioned favorite with a mixed pedigree from both Philippine and Formosan strains.  It is extremely vigorous, and can flower the same year the seeds are sown.  Cut the stalks after flowering to keep small seedlings from filling your flower beds.  There is a dwarf variety called ‘Pricei’ but the five foot tall stalks with as many as a dozen flowers truly makes a cottage garden-like scene.  Other lilies that may become permanent in your garden are Easter lilies (L. longiflorum) and Tiger lilies (L. henryi).

Rain lilies we usually grow in Central Texas may be either Zephyranthes or Habranthus.  They are quite tough and drought tolerant once they are established.  Take care that rain lilies are not planted in an area where garden sprinklers keep them too wet, as they usually are stimulated to bloom within days of a good rain shower.

Z. grandiflora

  1. candida

Z. x La Buffarosa

H. robustus

Crosses such as Z. x Grandjax, Ajax, Sunset Strain, etc.

Grand-Primo-1

Grand Primo are one of the prettiest and most reliable narcissus for our area.

Scilla peruviana – not really from Peru, but from the Mediterranean, this bulb can bring welcome blue color into the garden.  After the leaves die down the bulb can be lifted and stored in the garage to keep it dry.  This seems to help flowering the next year.

Tigrida or Mexican shell flower, needs a warm, sunny and well drained place in the flower bed.  Some commercial varieties don’t last as well as others – experiment.  Each bloom lasts but one day, but they are a marvel of intricacy.

Iris: Not very many of the German bearded iris do well in our area, or towards the coast.  However, everyone has seen the white Cemetery iris, I. albicans.  It  was brought from North Africa by the Moors to Spain, and travelled to Texas with the earliest Spaniards.  It’s another plant that has established itself almost everywhere, but does not bear seeds.

Siberian iris need more cold than we can offer, but sometimes varieties such as ‘Caesar’s Brother’ can be grown. Louisiana iris, spurias, and some of the small species irises are nice companions in our flower beds.  Iris fulva, cerulea, prismatica, and virginica.

‘Walking Iris’ are more tropical in origin but can grow outside in sheltered places, or in containers that are brought in during the winter.  Trimezia has yellow flowers dotted with brown, and the Neomaricas have fugacious flowers in shades of white to blue, sometimes with darker brown dotted patterns.  Tufts of new offsets grow on the ends of their stems, and ultimately bend down to ground level, where they take root.

Agapanthus – our commercial varieties are hybrids between several species of African bulbs.  If possible, choose ‘evergreen’ rather than ‘deciduous’ varieties.  Agapanthus may be blue, blue-violet, light blue, or white.  Some are much shorter than others.  Be sure to give them full sun and protection from heavy frosts.  They’ll enjoy the alkaline conditions in our area.

Members of the Onion Family, or Alliums, are not very plentiful in our gardens.  The large, ornate and decorative ornamental onions with great balls of purple or white on the ends of 3-5’ stalks, cannot grow here well.  We must make do with the old fashioned Neapolitan onion, flowering garlic, Tulbagia violacea (Society Garlic), or flowering chives.

pink-rain-lily

Lovely pink rain lilies from Cynthia’s front yard

Crocus – Most of the Crocus family are not a good match for the College Station/Bryan area, because of problems with chilling requirements.  The Saffron Crocus, C. sativus, has a long history going back to Egyptian and Minoan times, and not just as a spice but as a medicinal herb too.  Grow these for fun in containers, so that you can keep them dry during the summer.  I have heard of one family living near Somerville, Texas who claims to grow these in the garden, and that they are multiplying.  The scarlet-orange stamens are the part that is picked and used as a flavoring.

Cannas sometimes suffer from the bad publicity of being called weedy, tall and eaten up by leaf rollers.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  There are many attractive shorter hybrids on the market now that can provide excellent summer color.  Just remember that, in a way similar to German iris, once a canna stalk has finished blooming it won’t bloom again, so cut it off at ground level.  Several caterpillars of the “skipper” type of butterfly feed on emerging canna stalks.  This helps in keeping things neat. They can be controlled by policing the plants, or by spraying a little insecticide into the rolled up coil of an emerging stalk.  Some varieties of canna seem to be unattractive to leaf rollers.

Day lily ‘Kwanso’ is an antique double form of Hemerocallis fulva that is still found in Texas gardens.  It does not set seed, but manages to multiply and be discovered in garden after garden.  There are many, many modern day lilies to choose from – let your personal taste decide – but if possible choose the ‘evergreen’ forms over ‘deciduous’ forms, which were bred for colder climates.

Byzantine gladiolus, with their spikes of fiery magenta flowers, are a sought after item in bulb catalogs.  The ones offered from Europe are really not the same bulb at all, and usually disappear after a year or so in the garden.  The Byzantine glad does not set seed for us, but multiplies at a fast rate, and is really a permanent garden resident.

byzantine-gladiolus

In my opinion, byzantine gladiolus are the most romantic of all the old garden bulbs

‘Tropical Giant’ is a large sterile hymenocallis with glossy, dark green leaves that no insects seem to want to eat.  It has spidery white flowers during the summer, and is an excellent permanent garden subject.  C. americanum and C. erubescens are two other good candidates for growing near water.

Anemones grow from small, claw-shaped roots and if care is given to their situation in the garden, they will survive for several years.

Achimenes, natives of the area between Mexico to Panama, can be kept out of doors permanently in larger containers, sometimes in the flower bed if it does not stay wet for long periods of time in the winter.  They can be purchased in almost any floral color.  They benefit from light shade and moist conditions.

Oxblood lily (Rhodophiala bifida) is a native of Argentina.  All those we see in old gardens and vacant lots descended from those imported in the late 1800’s by Peter Oberwetter, a German horticulturist from the Austin area.  And they did all this without the benefit of plentiful seeds!  They rarely set any, because they are all derived from one single clone.  Occasionally a pink form is found.

Calla lilies are usually hardy here for us.  They do not have to be planted near standing bodies of water, but will thrive in fairly moist soil.  The smaller florists’ varieties are better as houseplants, larger varieties outside, preferably where they will receive sun in the morning, shade in the afternoon.

Tulips need more winter chilling hours than we can offer, but there are several species tulips that might last: T. chrysantha and T. clusiana (lady tulip).

hymenocallis-1

Hymenocalis, or Spider Lily, has large upright foliage that can be used as a hedge. Plus it is resistant to just about all pests

For further reading:

Bulbs for Warm Climates, by Dr. Thad Howard.  UT Press, Austin, 2001.

Garden Bulbs for the South, by Scott Ogden.  Taylor Publishing Co., Dallas, 1994.

Perennial Garden Color, by Dr. William C. Welch, Taylor Publishing Co., Dallas, 1989.

I shared this post on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out some of the best garden and homesteading tips and tricks from some of the best bloggers on the web!

Preparing My Plants for “Texas Winter”

geranium-texas-1

This is a very special geranium that I got from Greg Grant. These tubs are too big to take in during winter. If it weren’t for cuttings I would lose this plant in the first freeze.

Well, Texas winter is here.  It is going to freeze tonight for the first time of the season.  Now in my area it is not going to get that cold; 30 or so.  However, it is cold enough that several people have asked me what they should do to protect their plants.

As a general rule, temps in the 30s don’t really require you to do much.  Especially if you are talking about established trees, shrubs and other perennials.  In fact, if they are well mulched, you don’t really need to do anything.  If you want to give these established plants a little extra protection, simply water them well before the cold weather arrives.  Then, water them again the following morning if you can.  While it sounds contradictory, well hydrated soil actually insulates a plant’s roots much better than dry soil.

geranium-cuttings-1

Many tender perennials like geraniums, lavender, begonias and many succulents are very easy to propagate through cuttings

While our perennials should be fine, 30 is cold enough to get many of our more tender plants.  Because of this, I move most of my potted plants into my garage during our cold snaps.  My garage is detached and unheated.  However, it is always a few degrees warmer inside it than it is outside.

Before I move my plants into the garage I water them well and let them drain.  If you don’t let them drain you can wind up with a very wet garage floor if you over watered (like I always seem to do).  Watering, and the 3 or 4 extra degrees that the garage provides, is enough to keep most of our tender plants safe during our mild winters.

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Make your cut below a node and remove all but two or three leaves

We are lucky to live in a place that has such mild winters.  However, every once and a while, we will get temperatures low enough that watering and the garage are just not enough.  Last year we had an unusually cold winter.  We had an ice storm and three different times when temperature dipped into the 20s and stayed there.  I am sad to say that those cold temperatures killed a lot of very special begonias, geraniums, sedums and succulents.

Now this would have been a tragedy if I had not taken some extra precautions.  While all of my potted plants are special, I have one that is just a little more special than the others.  We have a bat wing begonia that belonged to my wife’s grandmother.  Her family has been able to keep this plant going for well over 50 years.  Can you imagine how much trouble I would be in if I let that begonia die?

geranium-cutting-4

Place your cuttings in well moistened, high quality potting mix

Since I do not want to lose any of my potted pass alongs (especially the begonia), I always take cuttings of them at least a week before cold weather is scheduled to arrive.  Luckily, things like begonias, geraniums, sedums and succulents are very easy to keep alive (or multiply) through cuttings.

Before I take cuttings of my plants I fill my containers with a high quality potting mix ( I use solo cups with holes in the bottom of them that I burned with a soldering iron).  I then water the soil to settle it and to make sure it is fully hydrated for the cuttings.  Next, I make my cuttings.  I select a branch or stem that is six to eight inches long.  I cut it just below a node on a 45 degree angle.  Then I remove all flowers and all but two or three leaves.  This is probably the most important part of the process.  While plants need leaves to make their food, the do not need lots of leaves to make roots.  In fact, some plants (like roses) can produce roots with nothing more than a green stem.

rooting-cuttings

By taking cuttings each winter I ensure that I have lots of plants in the spring

Once the cutting is properly prepared I stick my finger almost to the bottom of the pot.  I then drop in the cutting and firm up the soil.  I give it one more light watering and then move it to a large galvanized tray.  I repeat this process until the tray is full.  Then I move the cuttings to my “grow rack” in my mudroom that I use for overwintering plants and starting seedlings.

While we are lucky to live in a pretty mild climate, it is severe enough to kill many of the more tender perennials that we love.  If you are lucky enough to have room in your garage for all of your pots you will be fine throughout most of our “freezes”.  However, if you don’t have room in the garage you can ensure that you will have these plants next spring if you take cuttings.  This extra step is very easy and takes up much less room than trying to store a bunch of pots.  Plus it can guarantee that no matter what happens with the weather, you will still have your wife’s  prized begonia in the spring!

succulent-cutting

All succulents are very easy to propagate through cuttings

Growing Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoae batatas)

My wife and I love sweet potatoes.  In fact, we love them so much that we eat everything we grow and still need to buy a fifty pound box of “Beauregard” potatoes from a friend that goes to Louisiana every November.

Sweet-potato-1

Sweet potatoes are delicious, versatile and nutritious. Photo by Bruce Leander

Now I have to admit, I have not always loved sweet potatoes this much.  When I was a kid my family only ate sweet potatoes at “the holidays”.  Our Thanksgiving and Christmas “sweet potatoes “ came in the form of a mushy, orange bowl of goo dripping in syrup and covered in baked marshmallows.  Now you would think that with that much sweetness going for it, I would look forward to the holidays.  Well, I didn’t.  I hated this mushy mess (and so did everyone under 40 that I knew at the time) and it made me dread Holiday dinners.  Even though I loved the turkey and dressing, ambrosia and pea salad, I knew it would all be ruined by that sticky, slimy mess that my mother would force me to eat.

I am not sure how or when it happened, but sometime in the past few years my opinion of sweet potatoes changed.  Sweet potatoes have now become a staple in my (and many other Americans) diet.  As interest in healthy eating has surged the popularity of the sweet potato has sky rocketed.  And why not?  Sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin B6, vitamin C and vitamin D.  They are also full of iron, magnesium, potassium and carotenoids like beta carotene.  Plus, they are full of natural sugars (that make them taste so great when cooked properly) that are actually good for you.

sweet-potato-slips

Patty Leander plants here home grown sweet potato slips in her Austin garden. Photo by Bruce Leander

Making Slips

In my experience, the hardest part about growing sweet potatoes is finding them.  Sweet potatoes are generally grown from “slips” (however they DO NOT HAVE TO BE, read my post on growing sweet potatoes from the actual potato).  Slips are simply sprouts that grow out of a mature sweet potato.  If you have access to a local producer/seller of slips you will have no problem.  In my experience, it is getting harder and harder to find people who are willing to grow, harvest and sell their slips locally.  If this is the position you find yourself in you have two choices – go to the internet and hope for the best or grow your own.

Slips are easy to grow, so I grow my own.  Since we buy 50 lbs of Beauregards each year I always keep a few of those back for seed potatoes.  You can do this with any variety you like.  If you find a variety you like at the store keep a few back.  If using store bought potatoes look at the skins closely.  Some are sprayed with wax to extend their shelf life.  If they have wax on them they will not sprout well for you.  Look for unwaxed varieties if you want to use them for seed.

 

sweet-potato-vines

Sweet potatoes can be planted from March through July in in Central Texas. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Before we talk about how to grow your own, we need to discuss when to start growing them.  Before you grow your slips you have to determine when you are going to plant them.  In my Zone 9 garden I can plant sweet potatoes anytime between March 15 and July 4.  Determine when you want to plant and then start your slips about six weeks before you want to move them to the garden. I like to plant my sweet potatoes a little later than most folks.  I usually plant around June 1.  To meet that planting date I need to start my slip production around the first of April.

I have had good luck making slips by placing tooth picks in the side of the tuber and submerging the bottom half of it in water.  For best results place your tubers in a sunny location where they will be between 75 and 85 degrees.  In a few days, the eyes will begin to produce the shoots that you will use as your slips.  These shoots will grow straight up from tuber.  When they are about 6” long snap them off with a twisting motion where they touch the sweet potato.  If you look closely you will see little roots already beginning to form where the slip grows out from the tuber.  Try and get those little roots when snap the slip off.  Once you have harvested the slips move them to another container of water.  In about a week, the slips in the jar will create a pretty extensive root system.  Once the slips put on roots they are ready for planting.  You can either move them directly to the garden at this point or you can pot them up and let them become established for later planting.

sweet-potatoes-2

Sweet potatoes can easily produce three or four pounds of tubers per row foot. Photo by Bruce Leander.

While I have had success with the tuber in water method, I have had two problems with it.  The first is rotting tubers.  If you leave your potato in water too long it will become mushy and begin to stink to high heaven.  The second issue has to do with the slips.  If you leave them in water for too long the will grow an EXTENSIVE root system.  When I have planted these overgrown slips I have not had good luck getting them to grow when I put them in the soil.  Because of this, I recommend planting, or potting your slips soon after the roots begin to form.

Planting and Growing

Since sweet potatoes grow below ground, it is best to plant them in a loose soil.  Sandy loam is perfect.  Loose soil will allow them to get big and form attractively shaped tubers.  However, the main reason you want to grow in loose soil will become very evident when you try and harvest them.  It can be very hard to get the undamaged roots out of heavy soils like the black clay I grow in.  If you don’t have sand or loam you can still grow sweet potatoes.  Make beds that are about a foot tall and very well worked with compost.

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Sweet potatoes produce lovely and lush edible vines. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Plant your sweet potatoes in full sun.  Sweet potatoes are tropical vining plants.  Because of this they love high heat and full sun.  My beds run east to west so my plants can get the most sunlight possible.

I grow my sweet potatoes in a single bed that is 33‘ long and about 10’ wide.  To plant my slips I drive a large screw driver into the center of the bed and swirl it around to make a hole about every 12″.  I then drop the slip in and firm up the soil around it.  Once the slips are planted I water every other day for a couple of weeks to ensure that those young tender roots get fully established before the heat of our summers really kicks in.

Once the sweet potatoes are in all you have to do is water and wait.  These tropical vines will thrive on a twice a week watering schedule.  Once the vines start spreading do not add any supplement nitrogen.  Too much nitrogen will encourage the plant to make big beautiful foliage and small fibrous roots.

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To grow the biggest sweet potatoes possible grow them in a loose soil. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Harvest and storage

Sweet potatoes take 100 to 140 days to mature fully.  However, you can harvest them at any stage of their development.  Once they reach that 100 day point start watching their foliage.  When they are ready the leaves will begin to turn yellow and the vines will begin to look less full and healthy.

If you plan on storing your sweet potatoes you must dig them carefully.  Knicks or breaks in the skin will encourage rot during storage.  When you get ready to harvest take a garden spade and work it into the soil just beyond the end of the vine.  Gently turn the soil over to expose your tubers.  Pick these up and then continue moving toward the center of the row.  Sweet potatoes can produce tubers anywhere along their vines.  Because of this you will want to turn over all of the soil in the bed.

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Sweet potato skins are tender. use a spade to carefully remove them from the soil. Photo by Bruce Leander.

When harvesting your potatoes do not wash them immediately.  Separate the unblemished potatoes from those that have knicks or cuts.  Go ahead and wash the damaged potatoes and take them inside.  You will want to eat these first.  Next, take the unblemished potatoes and lay them out in the sun for several hours to allow them to cure.  When the roots come out of the ground their skins are very tender.  Laying them in the sun will allow the skins to “set” or harden off before they go into storage.  It will also dry out the soil that is still clinging to the tubers.  Gently brush this soil off before moving them into storage.

Once you have cleaned your sweet potatoes spread them out in baskets that are lined with newspaper.  Place them in a dry area that is around 85 degrees for a couple more weeks.  At the end of this time the sweet potatoes are cured and can be stored for several months.  Store your potatoes in a cool location that has high humidity.  Proper storage will allow you to store your potatoes for several months.

Jalapeño Sweet Potato Soup

Sally and I eat sweet potatoes year round.  Generally we cut them into fries and toss with peppers, onions, olive oil and spices and then bake them at 450 degrees for 30 or 40 minutes.  However, each fall, we use them to make a soup that is ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!  We got this recipe from our friends at Homestead Heritage in Waco several years ago.  I highly recommend you make this soup.  It is truly the best soup I have ever eaten!

4 lbs Sweet Potatoes

1 medium onion

3 slice smoked turkey bacon or ham

3 cloves garlic

2TBSP Butter

8 cups Chicken Broth

1 tsp cumin

¼ cup pickled, sliced jalapeños

½ cup cilantro (leaves only)

1 ½ cups half and half

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

Optional sweetener to taste

*Scrub sweet potatoes, cut in quarters, place in large stock pan, cover with water and boil until soft

*When potatoes are soft drain them and let them cool until you can handle them.  Peel of skins

*Peel and chop onion.  Finely chop bacon or ham and garlic

*In large soup pot, melt butter.  Add meat, onion and garlic and sautee until onions are translucent

*Add chicken broth.  Cover and bring to a boil.

*Dice half of the sweet potatoes and stir into the boiling broth

*Puree the remaining sweet potatoes with the jalapenos, cumin, cilantro and half and half.  Stir into soup.  Add salt and pepper.  Stir well, heat through.

* Taste.  Add sweetener if desired

 

Surprises

I don’t know anyone that does not like surprises.  The fact that someone thought enough of you to do something nice for you is enough to make even the grumpiest among us smile.  This past Wednesday I was feeling particularly grumpy.  My work had been one problem after another.  I did not get out of the office until late so I did not get home until it was almost dark.  I was both stressed and exhausted by the time I pulled into the driveway.  As I walked out to the mailbox I could see that something was different.  Since it was beginning to get dark I couldn’t immediately put my finger on what the difference was but I had that uneasy feeling that I always get when my wife says “Do you notice anything different about me?”  As I got closer I was able to determine that the “something different” was a five gallon hibiscus sitting in the middle of my yard.  I couldn’t help but smile.

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The lovely blooms of this hibiscus will always remind me of the kindness of a friend

As I walked toward the plant I tried to figure out who would leave me such a lovely gift.  As I came up to it I realized there was more!  Whoever left the hibiscus also left a lovely book on Texas Natives, a touching little inspirational book called “The Dash” and a native Texas coral bean called Erythrina herbacea.

My gifts came from a long-time reader from Giddings, Tx.  He is what I like to call a serious hobbyist.  He loves horticulture and he grows a variety of ornamentals, Texas natives and unusual succulents.  He also has a knack for finding odd and rare plants growing in his local area.  Over the past few months we have become big e-mail buddies and he has even dropped by to visit.

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The buds of the hibiscus are almost as attractive as the flower they release

This act of kindness made my day.  Since both of the plants he left me are perennial, I will enjoy them for years and remember his kindness each time I look at them.  I truly love the plants and I was touched by his thoughtfulness.  However, I enjoyed the books just as much.  The little inspirational book is based on a poem by Linda Ellis called “The Dash”.  “The Dash” is a lovely poem about striving to live a good life.

This poem has been around for a while.  However, it is truly inspirational and it picked me up, and reminded me of what is truly important, just when I needed it most.  Many thanks to my friend from Giddings for this thoughtful gesture.  I am very glad that you decided to share a little of “your dash” with me.

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Sometimes the back of the flower is just as lovely as the front

 

 

This post has been shared on the HomeAcre Hop.  Hops are a great way to quickly gather lots of gardening and homesteading information from bloggers across the web.  Please check it out!

Slow Down!

“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night;  But ah my foes and oh my friends-It gives a lovely light!”Edna St. Vincent Millay

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A couple of times of year I know exactly how Edna St. Vincent Millay felt when she wrote those words.  Lately my life has been a big mess of pressure and hurry up.  I am glad to say that after today I can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Regardless of what happens at work tomorrow I am loading my sweetie into the car and heading off to The Southern Garden History Symposium in St. Francisville, LA tomorrow afternoon.  While we look forward to all of our little get aways, this is one of those where we feel like we have actually earned it!

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This latest bout of “busy-ness” has kind of robbed me of the best fall bulb season I have ever had.  I have been propagating oxbloods (Rhodophiala bifida), spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) and yellow spider lilies (Lycoris aurea) for years.  Over the past few weeks my bulbs have bloomed in record numbers and their petals have been bright and gloriously colorful.  I have been planting and dividing these southern heirlooms for several years now and Mother Nature finally rewarded my efforts – and I was too busy to take the time to enjoy it!

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I don’t want to sound like a whiner.   As the old saying goes “You can curse the rose bush because it has thorns or you can thank God that the thorn bush gives us roses”.  I am very thankful that God sent me the best bulb season ever.  While I might not have been able to spend as much time with them as I wanted, I did get to see them and I am truly thankful for that.

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This “missed” bulb season has me in a bit of a melancholy and reflective mood.  One of the things that kept us busy this past month was the birth of our first grandchild.  He was born to two exceptional young people.  My daughter is working on her PhD and her husband is finishing his residency.  THEY are extremely busy people.  Looking back from where I am now I know that I did not take the time to truly slow down and observe the miracle of my own children’s new life.  Now, I wish I had.  My prayer for them is that they do not repeat my mistakes.  Life is beautiful!  Whether it comes in the form of a precious new baby or in the form of a beautiful new flower.  It is beautiful and it is fleeting.

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My friends, slow down!!!!  Take time to watch the flowers bloom!  Hold your children, and smell them!  There is no better smell in the entire world than a new baby!  It may be many, many years before you get to smell it again.  Tempus Fugit, Memento Mori!!!!

P.S.  If you have figured out how to actually take my advice, please leave me a comment here or on Facebook!

Grow Luscious Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)

Lettuce is a very interesting crop to me.  Most people I know eat a ton of it.  However, I have never had anyone tell me that lettuce is their favorite vegetable of all time.  In fact, if you asked ten people to name their favorite vegetables, I am willing to bet that lettuce would not make anyone’s list.  At its best, lettuce is a just an exceptional supporting character.  While you won’t find many recipes that feature lettuce, we all know that our salads and sandwiches are much better when lettuce is a part of them.

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Lettuce may not be your favorite food but it sure makes a lot of your favorite foods better!

People have been eating lettuce for a very long time.  Scientists believe that lettuce was domesticated about 5000 years ago in ancient Egypt.  Sometime around that time period, the Egyptians started turning a weed whose seeds they used for oils and medicines into a leafy food source.  The Egyptians eventually shared lettuce with the Greeks and the Greeks eventually shared it with the Romans.  In fact, the term “lettuce” came from the Roman name for the plant “lactuca”.

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Since lettuce readily cross pollinates, breeders have built a wide array of varieties

Since lettuce cross pollenates easily, breeders have produced a wide array of plant types and colorations.  Lettuce types range from loose, frilly leaved varieties to the tight balls of leaves you see in iceberg lettuce.  Lettuce coloration can vary from pale green to deep burgundy with some varigations that have both colors.  Because of this range of colors and forms I use lettuce as an ornamental as much as I do for its nutritive qualities.  Lettuce is generally broken up into seven categories based on leaf structure and use.  These categories are leaf, romaine, crisphead, butterhead, summercrisp, stem and oilseed.  Seeds of the first five are readily available to the home gardener.

Lettuce's many colors and textures make it as useful in the flower bed as it is in the kitchen garden. Photo by Patty Leander

Lettuce’s many colors and textures make it as useful in the flower bed as it is in the kitchen garden. Photo by Patty Leander

Growing Lettuce – Lettuce is a great crop for the beginning gardener.  It is fairly easy to grow and it is quick to harvest.  However, lettuce does have a couple of problems you need to be aware of before you plant.  First, lettuce of all types hates high heat.  Sustained temperatures over 75 degrees will make lettuce “bolt”.  Bolting is a term that is used to describe the process where some trigger (heat or stress like drought, weed competition or pests) makes the leafy, edible plant we eat produce a tall stalk that flowers and seeds.  Once this happens lettuce leaves become tough and bitter.  Second, just about every pest known to the gardener likes lettuce as much as we do.  Be aware that if you grow lettuce for many seasons you will eventually have problems with mammals, bugs, bacteria and viruses.

Baby lettuce in a square foot garden.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Baby lettuce in a square foot garden. Photo by Bruce Leander

Here are some basics for growing lettuce.  In addition to cool temperatures (45 to 75 F are preferred by most varieties), most lettuce prefers a soil that is slightly acidic.  Most lettuce varieties do best in soils with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8.  With so much crossbreeding going on with lettuce you can find varieties that will tolerate more alkaline soils.  Lettuce also likes loose, nitrogen rich soil.  Since the plants have a relatively small root system they need ample water and nutrition in the soil to help them thrive.  Also, even though many varieties will tolerate some shade, most prefer at least 6 hours of sunlight a day.

When it comes time to plant remember that lettuce seeds actually need light to germinate.  Because of this, cover them lightly with soil when you plant.  If you plant the seeds  too deeply they will never germinate. When I grow romaine or heading type lettuces I start my plants indoors in coir pellets around the first week of September.  I then transplant them in late September or early October.  I place my transplants about a foot apart for head types and six inches apart for upright types.  Lettuce that is planted too close together deprives the plants of sunlight they need to thrive and also invites in a large number of pests.

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I use lettuce to line the beds of my potager

When planting leaf type lettuce I direct sow the seeds in my garden beds.  I dig a shallow furrow with my Cobrahead Hand Hoe and then sprinkle the little seeds down the row.  Once the seeds germinate I thin to allow at least 6” between plants.  Lettuce needs sunlight to develop color and nutrients.  Lettuce that is planted too closely together will be stunted, pale and low in nutrients.

When trying to establish seeds it is important to keep your seed bed consistently moist.  Since these little seeds were basically planted on top of the ground, their first roots are often exposed to air.  If your seed beds are too dry, these little roots will dry out and die.

Lettuce does not compete well with weeds.  Keep your beds weed free to ensure the best quality lettuce.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Lettuce does not compete well with weeds. Keep your beds weed free to ensure the best quality lettuce. Photo by Bruce Leander

Once your little plants are established you want to keep the area around them weed free.  Lettuce has a small root system.  Most plants only have some type of small taproot and then a few lateral roots.  Weeds can easily suck up the moisture that these plants need to thrive.   Also, if lettuce feels stress from weeds it will begin to bolt.

Since most varieties of lettuce are ready to harvest in about 45 days you should not need to fertilize if you plant in a bed that has been well worked with organic material.  However, if you want the biggest and greenest leaves possible you can provide a weekly supplement of compost tea or other liquid organic product.  If using a commercial product (like Miracle grow), mix the solution at half the recommended rate and apply weekly.

Lettuce is plagued by a variety of pests.  Once your plants are established begin to watch for bug damage or signs of disease

Lettuce is plagued by a variety of pests. Once your plants are established begin to watch for bug damage or signs of disease

Once your plants become established begin to watch for problems.  Bunnies love lettuce and so do many different caterpillars and bugs.  If bugs become a problem you can apply a translucent row cover to help keep them away.  Diseases are a different matter.  There are several bacterial and viral agents that can attack your lettuce crop.  These agents can cause leaf wilt, leaf spot, curled leaves, rot and even death.  If you believe you have a virus or bacterial infection you need to remove the plants as soon as possible.

Since lettuce is a cool season plant you always have to be prepared to manage unexpected freezing temperatures.  Luckily, even though lettuce is about 96% water, it is a fairly hardy plant.  Most varities can survive temperatures as low as 28 without much damage.  If it is going to get colder than that you will need to cover them.  While some varieties can take a freeze down to 24 degrees, temps this cold will burn the leaves of almost all varieties.  To extended their life as long as possible in cold weather, mulch heavily and set up hoops so you can easily apply row cover.

20121030-007One more thing, lettuce is a great container plant.  I love growing lettuce in containers because I can keep them close to my house for easy harvest and so I can easily bring them inside when temperatures plummet.  With so many textures and colors it is easy to make lovely and edible potted arrangements to keep by the back door.  Plus, if you plant the leafy or romaine types, you can snip off the outer leaves for smaller harvests and keep the same plants producing for months.

This post has been shared on the Homestead Barn Hop.  Hops are great way for you to connect with and learn from some of the best bloggers on the web.  Be sure to check them out!

Plant Happiness – A Mural for the Guest House

Funny how some of the smallest things in life make the biggest impact.    Last year my wife bought a dish towel to hang on our oven door.  This towel had an embroidered bouquet of flowers with “Plant Happiness” stitched above it.  Something about that dish towel made my wife and her best friend (Margaret Hartley) decide that the back wall of our little guest house would be the perfect place for us to paint a mural that featured that cute little phrase.

Sally and I are so thankful to Kat Hartley for our making of al mural dreams come true!

Sally and I are so thankful to Kat Hartley for our making of al mural dreams come true!

To make our “mural dream” come true, we hired Austin artist and graphic designer Kat Hartley.  Kat is the daughter of Sally’s best friend (and “partner in wild ideas”).  Sally has known Kat all of her life.  We were totally blessed that the tiny little blond girl with the sweetest little voice ever grew up to become a beautiful and talented young woman with so many gifts and skills.

The process begins!

The process begins!

Kat came for a visit to get a feel for us and our property.  Then she sent us sketches back and forth so we would have a basic idea of what to expect.  Her designs were AWESOME and we could not wait for her to get started!  Kat showed up this past Friday evening ready to work.  After setting up some scaffolding she started the process of transforming the tiny little sketch that we agreed on into a great big mural.  We had so much fun sitting under the stars, sipping wine, listening to good music and watching her work.

Thank goodness Kat had awesome friends to help her knock or mural out in record time!

Thank goodness Kat had awesome friends to help her knock or mural out in record time!

Getting the sketch on the wall was the easy part.  Since she did it at night, it was cool and enjoyable.  However, Saturday was a different story.  I swear it was 120 degrees by 10:00 am!  We felt so sorry for her painting out there in the hot Texas sun.  Luckily Kat had two INCREDIBLY GOOD friends that came to help her knock out the heavy lifting.  Michael Brown and Yasaswi Paruchi met Kat in Japan where they all went after college to teach English to rural Japanese school children.  Together again, they laughed, joked, sang, danced and painted!  To keep them from passing out we brought them lots of iced mint tea, sunscreen and big floppy hats!  They had fun in spite of the heat and we made new friends.  It was such a joy to have all three of these outstanding young adults at our house.

Almost done!

Almost done!

Thanks to the help of her friends, Kat finished the bouquet part of the mural early on Sunday.  By the end of the day on Sunday she had finished the lettering.  After a few final touches on Monday we had a mural!

The piece isn't done until the signature goes on!

The piece isn’t done until the signature goes on!

We are absolutely in love with the cheerful wall art that now greets travelers as they approach our house and gardens.  We also absolutely love our young friend for sharing her talents with us!  If you would like your own Kat Hartley masterpiece be sure to leave me a comment.  Kat paints and she also does very high end antique letterpress work.  If you are looking for a one of a kind announcement, invitation, cards or artwork, Kat is your girl! (and BTW, she still has a precious little voice!)

There is no cuter guest house in all of Washington County!

There is no cuter guest house in all of Washington County!