Planning the Spring Garden by Patty G. Leander

We are well into the second month of the new year and I am loving the mild winter weather we are experiencing here in Central Texas. It is perfect for the gardener – sort of makes up for all the gardening we must do in the mosquito-infested heat that often starts in late spring and lasts till early winter!

Kale-collards-mustard greens

A bed of brassicas – kale, mustard and collards – almost too pretty to pick

The spring gardening season will be here soon and I am giddy with anticipation, itching to plant and obsessed with the weather forecast. January is normally our coldest month of the year yet it has come and gone and now February, a month that can bring snow and sleet and 80°F days, even in the same week, is halfway over…and my winter coat still hangs at the ready, unworn.


Gauge planting time by soil temperature rather than air temperature.

The current 14 day forecast for Central Texas shows a string of 60-80F° days with nights in the 40s and 50s. The weather screams, “It’s warm and sunny, come outside, plant some seeds!” But at this time of year soil temperature is a better gauge of when to plant than air temperature. Direct-seeded beans, cucumbers, squash and other warm-season vegetables have their best chance at germination when soil is consistently above 60°F, which usually doesn’t happen around here until early March. If planted now the seeds would likely rot or suffer multiple setbacks as they struggle to get a start in cool soil. And despite the gorgeous weather we could still get a freeze – if you have lived here long enough you know that Easter tends to be a magnet for freezing weather.


Colorful pottery and fabric pots are suitable containers for vegetables.

Planting too much or too early is a perennial conundrum in spring and it’s best to follow the forecast, monitor the soil temperature and have a plan that takes into account the space available in your garden and how long it takes a crop to reach maturity. Right now the soil in my garden hovers around 45-60°, an acceptable temperature for cool season plants like carrots, beets or broccoli. But those plants take 60-65 days to reach maturity and if planted now they will be taking up valuable space when the time comes for warm season planting next month.


Lettuce and mesclun mixes grow happily in containers, large or small.

As we transition into spring I always wish I had more garden, but one way to extend the cool season harvest without taking up room in the vegetable garden is to grow in containers. I’ve grown lettuce, beets, radishes, carrots, broccoli and more in large clay pots, fabric grow bags and steel tubs. And at this time of year containers are less likely to dry out as they tend to do later in the season.


An excellent example of interplanting from a past season in the Children’s Vegetable Garden located at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Broccoli and cabbage, planted 6 weeks before tomatoes, beans and squash, are ready for harvest, leaving more space for the remaining crops.

Another approach to squeezing in more is to plant quick-growing, cool season crops along the edge of a bed or in the area between future plantings of warm-season vegetables with larger space requirements. Mark the spot reserved for larger plants, such as tomatoes or squash, then plant beets, Asian greens, turnips, Swiss chard, cabbage or broccoli in the area between the markers. These plants will be ready to harvest before the tomatoes or squash take over. Commonly known as interplanting, this technique will help optimize space in the garden. It also increases diversity, confuses detrimental pests and attracts beneficials.

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!

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!


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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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.

Gruene Days

This past weekend I tagged along with my son Chris and my son in law Cameron when they went to meet an old high school buddy at Gruene Hall.  It had been about 30 years since I last walked through the doors of the oldest continuously operating dancehall in Texas and I wanted to see how much things had changed. 

blog-gruene Thirty years ago, Gruene Hall was the main reason that folks came to the town of Gruene.  Gruene Hall has been hosting the stars and future stars of country music since 1877.  When my wife was a student at the university formerly known as Southwest Texas State (now Texas State—Go Bobcats!!!), she and her friends would drive over from San Marcos to dance and listen to a tall, skinny kid named George Strait.   King George is not the only country star to get his start there.  Gruene Hall has been providing the best in country music to two-stepping cowboys and cowgirls for the past 135 years. 

No plant says Texas better than cactus and no building says dancehall better than Gruene Hall

No plant says Texas better than cactus and no building says dancehall better than Gruene Hall

Dancing is no longer the main reason to come to Gruene.  The town is now a bustling spot for tourists, shoppers, foodies and wine aficionados (with a great dancehall).  Someone has done an excellent job of preserving the charm of the old parts of the town and then enhancing them with very attractive landscapes and plantings.  All of the common areas are dotted with trimmed native trees and lined with neat decomposed granite or brick pathways.  The unpainted board and batten shops are the perfect backdrop for a host of Texas tough plants like purple sage and southern wax myrtles.  There are also tons of beautiful borders scattered around as well.

If you want to make a plant "pop" plant it in front of a gray background

If you want to make a plant “pop” plant it in front of a gray background

The thing that got me the most fired up were the impressive container plantings that are scattered around the town.  The massed whiskey barrels that combined lush flowers, cacti and succulents were beautiful.  By using containers of different heights and plants of different textures, the designer created lush gardens that seemed to “tumble” down a hill and spill onto the sidewalk.

The container gardens in front of Gruene Hall are stunning

The container gardens in front of Gruene Hall are stunning

I love container gardens.  I wish I were better at creating them.  The rule for creating beautiful container arrangements is the “Thriller, Filler, Spiller” method.  The container arrangements at Gruene take that concept a step further.  Instead of having a thriller, filler and spiller in each pot, they take a large, tall pot and put a single large scale plant (see the thornless prickly pear) in it to create the thriller part of the arrangement.  Then they arrange pots of different heights that contain plants of different textures to create the fillers and spillers.  The effect was very attractive and as you can tell, I was pretty impressed with it.

This thornless prickly pear makes a great "thriller in the container arrangement

This thornless prickly pear makes a great “thriller in the container arrangement

My wife and I love to dance and there is still no place in all of Texas that is better to do a little belly rubbin’ than Gruene Hall.  However, as I discovered this weekend, dancing is no longer the only reason to go there.  While you can still hear some great music you can also shop, eat at some very nice restaurants and enjoy some really great people watching while sipping a glass of artisanal Texas wine. The Gruene Music and Wine Festival runs from October 10 through the 13th.   If you have never been to Gruene this is a great time to go. Fall in Gruene is a great time to appreciate all of the charm of days gone by while enjoying the best that modern Texas has to offer.

Whisky barrels make great containers

Whisky barrels make great containers

Sustaining My Health, My Soul and My Sanity by Patty G. Leander

Save seeds from this year’s crop or order from seed catalogs for planting next spring

There is a lot of talk these days about sustainable gardening – gardening in a way that builds soil, is gentler on the environment and makes the most efficient use of resources. But after a crazy, busy and hot summer that involved relocation moves for my daughter, my niece, my mother and my in-laws, followed by my husband’s back surgery and topped off with an emergency room visit for my father-in-law, I barely had the time or energy to work on sustaining my vegetable garden. But I was amazed – yet again – at how my garden sustains me.

‘Calico’ crowder (also known as Polecat)

Because of some unanticipated – but completely appreciated – rain in July (almost 8” in my south Austin backyard!) my garden was producing a decent supply of okra, eggplant, crowder peas, butter beans, Malabar spinach and winter squash. By August the rain tapered off and when we left for South Carolina to help with my in-laws’ move to Texas, I figured that was the end of my summer garden. I didn’t have the heart to ask a neighbor or even my daughter to go out and tend my vegetables amid the mosquitoes and the heat, and I was prepared to let it all go in anticipation of a re-start in fall.

Southern peas (left) and butter beans (right) are allowed to dry on the vine, after shelling they are ready for cooking or storage

Not surprisingly, upon my return, the okra and eggplant had withered (they were in pots and never really had a chance) and the winter squash was overcome by squash vine borer damage, but miraculously the crowder peas and the butter beans continued to yield. The pods were not as plump and numerous as production in early summer, but still they kept coming, and I kept picking. Every few days I’d have enough for a small meal, and even after I had picked the last of the green pods, there were plenty of dried pods on the vines.

A mix of ‘Jackson Wonder’ butter beans and ‘Dixie White’ butter peas

Shelling peas takes a little time but the results are well worth the effort. And cooking field peas is a cinch – they require very little preparation and as they simmer they create a rich potlikker that is nourishing and delicious. Dried peas can be stored in glass jars, plastic bags or any other airtight container and should be consumed within a year for best quality. Believe me, a meal of crowder or black-eyed peas, home-grown and dried from your own garden, dished up with a slice of hot, buttered cornbread in the middle of winter, is really a treat and will garner all kinds of compliments. Serve with a side of simmered collard greens (from your fall garden, of course) for a down home-taste of Texas terroir.

Plain and Simple Southern Peas

My dad used to say that “everything tastes better with a little pig meat” and it certainly applies to these Southern peas. He grew up in a time when families subsisted on what they produced from the land and nothing from the farm was wasted. As a result, all kinds of vegetables prepared in southern kitchens were flavored with bacon or ham hocks, which add a hearty goodness. But if you are not a fan of bacon you can sauté the onion in olive or vegetable oil or just throw all the ingredients into a pot and let them cook together until tender. They are so good they practically cook themselves.


2 slices bacon, chopped

½ cup chopped onion

2 cups dried Southern peas (crowder, black-eyed, cream, purple hull)

4 cups water

1 tablespoon white vinegar

2-3 teaspoons sugar

1-2 teaspoons salt

1-2 teaspoons pepper


Cook bacon until crisp; remove from pan and set aside.  Sauté onion in drippings. Add remaining ingredients, adding enough liquid to cover peas by one inch. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer about 2 hours, until peas are tender and liquid has deepened in color and flavor. Add more liquid and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve with crumbled bacon, chopped onion or chow-chow, if desired. 

Yield: 4-6 servings


Garden Designs by July Moreno

Right now, things are pretty quiet in the garden.  Since there is not that much going on I have been out visiting with gardening friends.  I truly believe that the best way to become a better gardener is to go and listen to, and see how, other people grow things.  Each and every time I talk to another gardener I learn something.  Because of that I try and visit with as many gardeners as possible.

An absolutely adorable birdhouse made by July Moreno of Sweet Dreams Home Decor

I recently had the opportunity to visit with July Moreno of San Marcos, Texas.  July is a great gardener and she has a knack for landscape design.  Her design skills are the reason I wanted to visit.  Even though I can grow just about anything, I am greatly lacking in design skills.  My daughter and son-in-law had been telling me about how cute July’s yard was for a while so I decided to take the camera and stop by for a visit and hopefully pick up a few tips.

A red gate and purple bird feeder made from an old lamp stand let me know that a very colorful garden was coming.

Kate and Moose’s recommendation was right on target.  July’s yard was cute!  We entered through a plain old chain link fence gate that she had painted red and flanked with a purple bird feeder made from an old lamp stand.  Who does that?  These pops of color let me know that I was about to enter a very creative place!  Even though her yard is relatively small, it was perfectly set up for entertaining.  Her garden was full of fun and whimsical creations made by her.  July is one of those people that can take just about anything, slap some paint on it and make it look like a million bucks.  July has combined her love of gardening with her love for craft and created a bright and cheery backyard oasis right in the heart of San Marcos.

Add some turquoise paint, a little stain and some Mexican tiles to your patio to create the perfect place for outdoor dining

July has a passion and gift for taking stuff that other people consider trash and “upcycling it” into very attractive yard art and garden furniture (she also does this with items for the home).  She makes bird baths, reflecting balls, stepping stones, swings, tables and anything else that moves her.  July is very proud of her Mexican heritage and it shows in her creations.  In fact, she calls herself the “Happy Chica”.  Her designs incorporate the bright turquoises, oranges, blues and greens of Mexico.  This love of color makes her creations the perfect punch of color to brighten up the garden.

An adorable birdbath in July’s yard. She made the column and then covered it in tiles that she hand cut and glazed. She then attached a talavera bowl for instant cuteness.

July started making her Mexican inspired “jardin del arte” as a hobby.  However, it was so cute that when her friends visited they wanted to take it home.  So, encouraged by these friends, she started making colorful creations for everyone.  If you would like to buy some of her art for your home or yard, you can contact her through her website Sweet Dreams Home Décor or you can find her on Etsy.  She has ready made things for both your home and garden plus she is available for custom creations.  If you like what you have seen here, give her a call.  She can also help you design and decorate your entire casa!

July does amazing things with spray paint. She even paints her terra cota pots

Borage (Borago officinalis)

When I select plants for the potager, I select on two criteria; form and function.  In my row garden, plants are always selected for function.    I grow food in those beds and I plant what I like to eat.  If I can make it look attractive, that is a bonus but it is not what I select for.  When I plant a bed or border around the house I select solely on form because I am designing something that looks good.  The potager is where my two styles come together.  I want the potager to be beautiful but I also want it to produce food.  So, a lot more thought goes into the plants for the potager.

Young borage in my potager. I planted this at the end of March and this picture was taken on May 25

One of the annuals that almost always makes its way into the spring potager is borage.  Borage is a large scale, leafy herb that produces beautiful little star shaped, corn blue flowers.  The leaves have a mild cucumber taste and can be used in salads and drinks.  As the plant matures, those cumber tasting leaves become “fuzzy”.  A lot of folks, me included, do not like the texture of the leaves when they get to this point.  However, since I don’t grow it primarily for food, I don’t really care about the stiff fuzz on the leaves.  I grow it in the potager because it makes a very lovely three foot tall cone shaped bush.  Plus I love the tiny flowers.

I love the fuzzy white flower buds

Borage is a great choice for containers, the garden and the flower bed.  It is fairly drought tolerant.  Botanists believe it originated in Syria so it is perfectly designed to take high heat and low water.  It is also fairly pest and disease resistant.  Like most herbs it prefers a loose, well draining soil.  I plant from seed in March in full sun and give it about an inch of water every five days or so.  This treatment makes it thrive.  There are some bugs that nibble on the leaves, but what plant doesn’t have a few leaf munching predators?  Borage is also a great companion plant for tomatoes, squash and strawberries.  Some say that it is actually a deterrent to hornworms.

The blue, star shaped flowers are lovely

As I mentioned earlier, the flowers are really why I grow this plant.  I love those little blue stars (the fuzzy white buds are almost as cute)!  These pretty blue flowers are edible and they also have the mild cucumber flavor of the leaves.  Add them directly to your summer salads for a quick way to liven it up.  You can also freeze the flowers in ice cubes and add those flower filled cubes to your summer drinks.

Terrariums-A Great (and Cheap) Horticultural Gift Idea for the Holidays

This post marks a first at the Masters of Horticulture.  Today, I bring you my first ever guest author.  Today’s author is an incredibly intelligent, beautiful and charming museum professional.  She is also my daughter.  Heather is the Tour Programs Coordinator for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH).  Heather is a young professional that shares my love of writing, gardening and saving money.  When I saw what she had I done with these terrariums, I wanted to do a post about them.  I was thrilled that she volunteered to write it.  So, without furhter ado, here is Heather:

Terrariums-A Great (and Cheap) Horticultural Gift Idea for the Holidays

While browsing through a magazine article about gift giving, I came across a description of terrariums that contain tiny vignettes (see examples here:   I thought they were very cute.  As a frugal shopper, and the daughter of a DIY gardener, I was inspired to create my own glass container gardens, with just as much character as those in the magazine, but without the big costs. With just $30 and a few hours of time, I put together 8 terrariums that will make great holiday gifts.

Here’s how I did it:  After some research, I made my shopping list of the few key ingredients that I would need to create my terrariums:

  1. Glass Containers with or without lids
  2. River rocks or gravel
  3. Spanish Moss
  4. Plants
  5. Character additives

To find my terrarium containers, I hit my favorite local thrift store, St. Vincent DePaul’s Resale Shop. Most thrift stores are full of unwanted glassware, and I found perfect vessels priced from $0.25 to a whopping $2.50. As usual, signs in St. Vincent’s remind you that “If you steal from St. Vincent DePaul’s, you’re stealing from Jesus.” Since I paid my bill of $7.50 in full, all was well with the Lord.

My terrarium that I call "A stranger in Strange Land". This glass container was purchased for $2.50 at the thrift store.

Next I went to a home and garden store and bought a few plants. For some of my terrariums, I purchased small succulents, choosing varieties that included multiple plants in single pots so that I could split them into multiple containers later. I also grabbed a few easy to care for ivies, like Fig Ivy and Devil’s Ivy. You really don’t need a lot of plants per terrarium and I had more than enough plant material from just 6 single 4” containers. I also picked up a bag of dry Spanish moss. Finally, I needed river rocks. I found them in the potted plant area. A small, one pound bag of beautifully packaged “decorative” river rocks was listed at $5. I then visited the gravel and mulch area, where I found a 40 pound bag of the exact same river rocks, in less attractive packaging, for the same price. The large bag provided more than enough rocks, and I’ve used the leftovers for other garden projects. If you have decent gravel or pebbles around your house, you wouldn’t need to buy rocks at all.

The last item on my list, character additives, were mainly things I had around the house. I did find one small Asian-warrior-with-a-sword sculpture at St. Vincent’s for $2. I also used a small robot bought in Chinatown during a trip to NYC, some sculpty sculptures that I has made previously, and two small ceramic chickens inherited from family. You can use any small sculpture that will bring a little story or personality to your terrarium. For example, in my robot terrarium, dubbed “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a small lonely robot has wandered into a rocky alien wilderness of ornamental cabbage and Aloe Vera.

A double decker with chickens

To assemble the terrariums, I created a bottom layer of river rocks. Not only do the rocks provide a decorative element to the terrarium, they also help with drainage. Next I added a layer of Spanish moss. The moss ensures that the soil in the next level up, does not filter down into the rock layer. The terrarium doesn’t require much soil. An inch or two will be more than enough for the third level. It is this third level in which the plants are arranged. In your own terrariums, you can make infinite plant combinations. Plants with different textures will be most interesting when used together; just make sure that they all have room to grow. In some of my terrariums, I added a final layer or moss or rocks for visual interest, and then placed my robot/chickens/sculptures where they fit best in the final “landscape.”

I am a beginner terrarium creator, and my 8 new terrariums are only about a week old, but they seem to be doing really well so far. I plan to continue experimenting as I make more terrariums for the holidays. There are lots of great websites that can provide more information. I’m sure some of my open air “terrariums” aren’t quiet self-sustaining, but nevertheless, they are attractive and fun to make and give as a gift.

So this Christmas, if your list is long and pockets are shallow, why not head out to local thrift shop and nursery? With a little effort and creativity you can make a very creative, gift that will continue to brighten someone’s home for as long as they continue to add water.

Another great terrarium in a great and inexpensive glass container

Lone Star Gourd Festival

One of Judy Richie's stunning art gourds. Photo by the artist

This past weekend, my lovely wife and I headed out for a much need mini-vacation.  For our “romantic get away” we decided to go to the Lone Star Gourd Festival in Fredericksberg, Texas.  We picked the Gourd Festival for several reasons.  First, I love gourds.  The gourd festival is a great place to see some really incredible art being made with gourds.  Second, I just submitted an article to Texas Gardener about gourds and I wanted to meet Judy Richie.  Judy is an incredibly talented gourd artist and her art will be featured in that article. 

A classic example of the finishes and deep front cuts with weavings that Judy has pioneered

Judy has been making gourd art for over ten years.  She is a pioneer in the gourd art world and many of her pieces are featured in several galleries through out the US.  Judy is a talented artist in every skill that can possibly be used to convert an ugly brown dried gourd into something that is truly museum quality art.  She is a master carver, engraver, weaver and finisher.  She was the first to deep cut into the side of a gourd and then adorn those openings with intricate weavings.  She has also developed several of her own finishes that make her art unique and instantly recognizable.

This vibrant piece shows all of things that Judy is famous for: incredible finishes, carving, weaving and inlay. the small piece inlayed in the bear is an ancient Native American pottery shard.

I first discovered Judy’s art at the “The Copper Shade Tree” in Round Top, Texas.  Gerald Tobolo and his wife are the owners of this gallery.  Gerald is a master coppersmith and he started this gallery to highlight his work and the work of other craftsmen working in Texas.  Judy’s art is one of the centerpieces of his collections and one of his better sellers.  According to Gerald, “Judy’s work is so versitile and varied.  Some of her pieces have a distinct Western flair while others resemble art pottery.  In fact, I recently had a customer buy one of her pieces for his craftsman style home.  This customer is a stickler for accuracy in his home.  Even though, no gourd was probably ever featured in a craftsman style home, he loved the fact that the Judy’s piece would “fool” his guests by making them think it was a very fine piece of hand thrown pottery.”

Judy’s business is called “Redcloud Originals”.  Please check it out.  Her website is full of great examples of her work and it also lists the galleries that she exhibits in and her show schedule.

Even though Judy was the main reason I went to the festival, she was not the only artist there.  Once again, I was amazed at the variety and quality of art being created out of gourds.  Scroll down for some pics of things that caught my eye at the 2011 Lone Star Gourd Festival.

The "Traveling Gourd". This is a HUGE gourd that was sent to each chapter in the Texas Gourd Society. There, artists from each chapter added to it to make a gourd that is truly representitive of all of the great things in the Great State of Texas.


I thought this was a cute and original treatment. Great for a child's room.


My favorite creation in the competition room

Tree Town USA

Have you ever wondered what $100K worth of trees looked like? These trees are in 670 gallon containers and have been container grown their entire life.

Last week, I got to spend two very enjoyable days at a 1200 acre tree farm south of Houston.  This farm is owned and operated by Tree Town USA.  Tree Town USA is the largest tree farm in the US.  They have several farms and sales offices all over the country.  This one is located just south of Wharton in beautiful Glen Flora, Texas (Click on the link and you can see the farm from the air, pretty amazing).

A shipment of high quality oak trees leaving Tree Town USA

I was the guest of one of their salesmen named Morgan McBride.  Morgan and I have been friends for most of our lives.  He and I share a great sense of humor and a deep love of all things horticultural.  Morgan has worked in the green industry his entire life.  He is a Texas Certified Nursery Professional and a true master of horticulture.  Since I had never visited a tree farm of this magnitude, he thought I might enjoy getting up close and personal with the inner workings.  He was right.

To say I was amazed is an understatement.  Until you see a working 1200 acre tree farm you just cannot grasp the amount and the scale of the work that it encompasses.  To support this much intensive agricultural production, Tree Town USA employs a huge amount of infrastructure.  The watering system was truly an engineering marvel.

The water for all of the trees comes from a 1600' well. The well is that deep so that the water contains no salts or other minerals. The water is pumped into retaining tanks where it settles and then leaves through a 10" main. That main is then tapped by 4" irrigation tubes. Drip systems are then attached to the 4" lines.

Morgan and the other sales people regularly visit the farm to pick the best inventory for their top customers.  On this trip, He needed to pull several small quantities of oaks and then 120 30 gallon yaupons.  Helping him was going to be a very pleasant way to spend a Friday away from the office.  I arrived late Thursday afternoon.  He had just finished a lot of his work so he took me on a tour of the place.  I thoroughly enjoyed learning the ins and outs of the tree business.  This farm employs between 200 and 250 workers.  It takes all of their efforts, seven days a week, to keep an operation of this size moving.

Since it takes so long to grow a tree, tree farms are much different than a traditional nursery.  Their quickest crops typically take three years to develop.  Some of their larger trees have been grown for 3, 5 and even ten years before it is ready for sale.  I cannot even begin to imagine the management required to keep a plant alive for 3 to 10 years in a pot in the wildly variable Texas climate.

45 gallon Nellie R. Stevens hollies before the storm

This past month, Morgan was the top salesman in the company.  While I was happy for him I was a little confused.  I asked how he could sell so many trees in the middle of the worst drought in history.  Many of his biggest customers are landscape architects.  In order to get paid for a large commercial project, everything has to be complete.  That includes the landscape.  So, even though this has been the hottest AND driest year on record, these firms still have to install trees, shrubs, ground cover and turf.  Since there is a lot of building going on in the DFW metroplex, Morgan has been selling a lot of trees and shrubs.  He did tell me that the cities of Austin and San Antonio have been making some concessions to the builders because of the drought.  Trees and shrubs still have to be planted, but they are amending the contracts to allow the firms to come back later and plant the water sucking ground cover and turf.

These crepe myrtles are typical of how the winds affected much of the stock

Another very interesting thing happened on my trip.  Around 6:30 pm on Thursday night, a MASSIVE thunderstorm blew in.  This storm brought some much needed rain.  However, it was accompanied by 60 mph winds.  High winds are not the friend of a tree farm.  These high winds blew over an INCREDIBLE amount of stock.  Even though they were all well anchored, the wind pulled the anchors up.  Friday morning was a very sad day on the tree farm.  All 200 employees had to stop what they were doing and walk the property and stand up and re-anchor the stock.  The blow down was so massive that at the end of the day, 200 people did not finish standing everything back up.

The blow down caused problems for Morgan and I as well.  We still had 120 30 gallon yaupons to find and tag.  What was supposed to be a very enjoyable learning experience for me turned into an awful lot of work.  These yaupons were all six to eight feet tall and had a spread of six to eight feet as well.  Before we could find the best ones, we had to stand up a whole bunch of very heavy shrubs.  I do not know how many 30 gallon yaupons are on a two acre pad, but it is a bunch!

My friend Morgan tagging yaupons for his customer

Despite the hard work, this was truly the most enjoyable “field trip” that I have ever been on.  Thanks a ton to my buddy Morgan and to Tree Town USA for allowing me to visit.  Tree Town USA only sells to the trade.  So, while I wish I could make a product placement plug for them, you can’t buy from them directly.  However, you can request Tree Town USA trees from your local Home Depot or your independently owned nursery.  Since I have had this experience, I can tell you that if you buy Tree Town trees you will be getting a very high quality product that was grown with the best science possible by a whole lot of people who truly love trees!

Very interesting berry arrangement on one the yaupons we tagged

Square Foot Gardening Second Graders


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

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

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

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

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

Excellent weeding!

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

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

Mixing in the compost

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

Planting carrots

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

Great technique

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