Planting Poppies and Larkspur

larkspur

Larkspur are so beautiful and easy to grow. Plus, they re-seed readily so you will have them year after year.

Ever since Hurricane Harvey I have been swamped at work.  Twelve hour days with a three hour commute do not leave a lot of time for gardening.  This past weekend I finally got a break.  Since the weather was great I took full advantage of the last weekend of daylight savings time to plant a few perennials and lots and lots of larkspur and poppies in my latest garden adventure.

I am currently working, very slowly I might add, on a new oval shaped yard flanked by a mixed bed that will include flowering perennials, bulbs and annuals.  While the beds are still far from finished, I used this past weekend to further remove the weeds, prep the soil and plant the first of my foundation plants (Tacoma Sans, Climbing Pinkie rose and a trailing lavender lantana) and some white Datura seeds.  Once this was done I broadcast the entire tilled area with four ounces of Rocket Larkspur Tall Mix and one ounce of red Pepperbox Poppies that I bought online from Eden Brothers (The Seediest Place on Earth).

blue-larkspur

This lovely blue larkspur is grown by my friends at Texas Specialty Cut Flowers

While I absolutely love poppies and larkspur I have not planted any in a few years.  And that is one of the reasons I love them.  Since both of these beautiful spring plants are prolific self-seeders you can generally plant them once and then enjoy them year after year.  Mine did this reliably – until I got chickens.  While my wife and I love our hens, our gardens have paid the price for that love.  Before chickens my poppies and larkspur would bloom reliably each spring and then either drop their seeds naturally or allow me to collect them and spread them myself.  After chickens, all the plants in my beds paid a price for their constant scratching.  However, the poppies and larkspur paid the ultimate price.

This past spring my wife and I missed our bright red poppies and our blue, pink and lavender larkspur so much that we decided that the chickens would get to live in a very lovely and large fenced yard, and we would once again fill our beds with flowers.

I have grown Red Pepperbox poppies for years.

Larkspur and poppies are very easy to grow.  Since their seeds are so tiny, it is easiest to plant them in a broadcast manner.  Broadcast simply means throw them out on top of prepared soil and gently water them in.  As I mentioned earlier I lightly tilled my new beds then I raked them smooth.  After that I poured the seeds in my hand and began to throw them out on top of the soil.  Once complete I raked the bed again and then walked around in it to try and ensure that the seeds made good contact with the soil.  After that I turned on a sprinkler and let it run for about 30 minutes.

If you love to save seeds then poppies are for you. Each plant produces hundreds of seeds that you can gather yourself for next year or let nature plant for you

While easy to grow, there are a few tricks you can use to ensure the highest germination rate of your poppy and larkspur seeds.  First, plant at the right time.  Almost all cool season spring flowers, including wildflowers, need to be planted in the fall.  I actually planted a little late this year.  While I am sure they will be fine I would have preferred to get them in by late September or early October. To get the most even coverage of your bed be sure to spread your seeds when there is no wind.  These seeds are tiny and even a small breeze can carry many of them away before they hit the ground.  You can also get great coverage, make your seeds go further, and reduce the threat of wind loss by mixing them with sand before you spread them.  After your seeds are down water them in gently.  Too much water, or water that has too much pressure, can wash away many of your seeds before they get a chance to sprout.

Poppies come in a colors and forms. From simple California and Icelandic poppies to the beautiful doubles like this pink that my friend Patty Leander grows.

I once read a quote that said “No garden is better than next year’s garden”.  I love this quote because it speaks to me about the optimism gardeners feel each and every time we plant.  I can honestly say that thanks to my poppy and larkspur seeds I am as excited about next year’s garden as any garden I have ever had.  Nothing picks up my spirits more than the promise of beds full of beautiful spring flowers.

My wife recently spent a lovely afternoon with Nelda Eubank of Austin.  Nelda is the mother of an old friend, a long time gardener and a long time reader of the blog.  She has been a little under the weather lately.   Hope the promise of next year’s garden helps get her on her way to a full recovery. red-pepperbox-poppy-2

The Fall Factor Means a Slower Pace by Patty G. Leander

So long summer, fall has arrived

So long summer, fall has arrived

Summer has released its grip, hundred-degree days are gone till next year (we hope!) and being outdoors is invigorating rather than exhausting. The transition to fall here in Central Texas is complete. We got a taste of chilly temperatures recently with a couple of nights that dipped into the 40s but overall the weather looks great: 70s and 80s during the day with lows in the 60s. The weather may seem idyllic right now but the days are getting shorter, the sun is less intense and as the season progresses plants can grow at an agonizingly slow pace. This is often referred to as the fall factor.

‘White Russian’ (left) and ‘Winterbor’ kale can handle frigid temperatures that plummet into the 20s

‘White Russian’ (left) and ‘Winterbor’ kale can handle frigid temperatures that plummet into the 20s

 Leafy greens, including spinach, collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard and Asian greens, are easily transplanted now and should do fine since their leaves can be eaten at any size, but broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage are more particular and may not have enough time to head up before freezing weather arrives. Quick-growing varieties of radishes and turnips can be seeded now though slow growth means it may take an extra week or so to reach harvestable size. It’s been my experience that carrots planted this late in the season will likely stall during the coldest part of winter but will take up growing again as the days grow longer in January and February.  So much is dependent on the weather.

kale-collards

Established plantings of kale, collards and mustard seem to handle freezing weather just fine

That said die-hard gardeners will be seeding and planting all winter, covering crops with frost blankets, fighting blustery winds, cussing and arguing with Mother Nature as they go. Been there, done that. Frankly I’m a cold weather wuss so I do most of my planting in late summer and early fall (in the heat, sweating and cursing) and hope to harvest most of my crops in November and December. I grow plenty of kale, collards and mustard since they ask little of me over the winter, but by Christmas I’m ready to curl up with my seed catalogs until mid-January when I’ll take advantage of the occasional warm and sunny days to prepare for late winter and early spring planting. Experimenting is always fun and is a great way to learn what grows best in your microclimate and also gives you an idea of how much work is required.  Over time you’ll settle on an approach that works for you.

cauliflower

Pull the leaves around white cauliflower to keep it bright white

Keep your crops growing vigorously with a regular dose of water soluble fertilizer every 10-14 days. The key to a successful head of broccoli or cauliflower is to grow a big plant with big leaves before the head even begins to develop. White varieties of cauliflower should be shielded from sun exposure to maintain their snow-white color. Some varieties are self-blanching, meaning their leaves wrap around the head to protect it from the sun, but otherwise tie up the large outer leaves with a rubber band, a clothespin or string. As cauliflower and broccoli reach maturity monitor their development closely and harvest the heads while the buds are still tight.

Broccoli produces a main head and then continues with an encore of side shoots

Broccoli produces a main head and then continues with an encore of side shoots

Once the main head of broccoli is harvested you will be rewarded with numerous (and delicious) side shoots. Cauliflower only produces one head and once harvested spent plants can be removed from the garden. Before you toss the plants remove and trim any leaves that are in good condition – they can be added to the pot when cooking collard and mustard greens. If you missed the window for planting broccoli and cauliflower this fall don’t worry, you will have another chance in the early spring season of 2018.

Lettuce can go in as transplants or seed can be broadcast and harvested as baby leaves

Lettuce can go in as transplants or seed can be broadcast and harvested as baby leaves

Lettuce can be grown from seed or transplants. It is a quick-growing winter crop and there are many colorful varieties to choose from. The tiny seed requires light to germinate so scatter the seeds over the soil, press down lightly and mist daily. Don’t plant a whole row at once unless you really, and I mean really, love lettuce. Tender, succulent lettuce just isn’t a good candidate for canning, freezing or drying, so it is best to plant a few seeds or a short row every week or two for a continuous harvest. Combine seed from a few different varieties and broadcast for a homegrown mesclun mix. Lettuce also grows great in a pot or other container. While collards and kale are sturdy enough to handle freezing weather – their flavor actually improves after exposure to frost – lettuce plants will benefit from row cover protection if the temperature is going to drop below freezing.

Purple mustard and Swiss chard add texture and color to the landscape.

Purple mustard and Swiss chard add texture and color to the landscape.

Swiss chard, spinach, collards, kale and other leafy greens can be grown through the winter with minimum care; you can harvest a few outer leaves a couple of times a week and the plant will keep growing from the center. The young leaves are great for salads or sautés and larger leaves are good in soups and stews. Pretty up your edible landscape with pockets of leafy greens in brilliant hues. ‘Osaka’ purple mustard, ’Toscano’ kale and ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard are all outstanding varieties. Culinary herbs and cool-season annuals like violas, dianthus, snapdragons, pansies, stock and alyssum also add color and fragrance to the garden.

If you have not grown vegetables before, now is a great time to take advantage of fall’s cooler temperatures, increased precipitation and best of all – fewer insects. Once you experience the satisfaction and pride of growing your own tasty, nutritious, home-grown vegetables, you may find yourself looking for additional gardening space in spring!

A Look Back at Spring by Patty G. Leander

scarecrow

Butterbeans on the trellis are slow growing now but will perk up when the weather cools slightly.

Texas has a long growing season. If you know what to plant and when to plant you can grow vegetables year-round, and many dedicated gardeners and farmers {thankfully} do just that. But the triple digit temperatures, lack of rain and water restrictions truly test the limits of both garden and gardener this time of year, leading us into a sort of heat-induced dormancy.

long-beans

Long beans can take the heat and still produce a tasty harvest.

As the squash wilts, the cucumbers droop and the home-grown tomato harvest comes to an end, my attention and my water goes to the few die-hard vegetables that can stand up to this blistering, unforgiving heat and still yield a harvest. Currently producing are okra, long beans, Southern peas, Malabar spinach, sweet potatoes, eggplant, peppers and basil. Butterbeans, mint and sorrel are hanging on, and though their quality is temporarily compromised I know they will perk up when the temperatures “cool off” (you know, into the low 90s).

In between frequent okra harvests I like to review the spring season and make notes for next year. In southwest Travis County where I live and garden, spring came early, stayed long and brought generous rains, at least by Central Texas standards. The average date of our last freeze is March 8, but this year we did not even have a freeze in February. March and April brought warm days and mild nights, perfect weather for growing a vegetable garden and a pretty good season for tomato lovers.

2017-tomato-harvest

It was a good season while it lasted but the 2017 spring tomato harvest has come to an end.

A few favorites we enjoyed this year included ‘Genuwine’, a cross between ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Costoluto Genovese’, ‘Porter’, a pretty, plum-shaped, deep pink Texas heirloom developed by Texas seedsman V. O. Porter, of Stephenville, and ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Japanese Black Trifle’, both reddish-black tomatoes with rich, bold flavor. ‘Juliet’, a productive, oblong cherry, is a perennial favorite and did great again this year, producing right up until the thermometer hit 103°.

2017-cherry-tomatoes

Left to right: ‘Sweet Olive’, ‘Dr. Carolyn’, Black Cherry’, ‘Sunrise Bumble Bee’ and ‘Helsing Junction Blue’

Besides ‘Juliet’, I grew 4 colorful cherry varieties: ‘Sweet Olive’ (red), ‘Dr. Carolyn’ (yellow), ‘Sunrise Bumble Bee’ (yellow with pink striping) and ‘Black Cherry’ (dark mahogany red).  All are good producers and add lively color and flavor to summer salads, sandwiches and wraps. I noticed a deep purple cherry tomato growing in various plots at a local community garden and had to inquire. It is called ‘Helsing Junction Blue’, named after an organic farm and CSA in Washington state. The tomato was bred by Tom Wagner, the same fellow that bred ‘Green Zebra’. It’s a pretty little tomato on large, indeterminate plants but the flavor of the ones I tasted was odd. Harvesting it at the right stage of ripeness seems to be key. Might try that one next year just out of curiosity; plus the blue tomatoes that have been introduced lately are bred to have higher levels of anthocyanins, which help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and may help with memory function.

Tromboncino-squash

My refrigerator was not big enough to hold the Zuchetta harvest – an Igloo cooler held the overflow.

Another recent discovery I’ve enjoyed growing the last few years is a squash called ‘Tromboncino’, also known as ‘Zuchetta Rampicante’. It is so vigorous that it seems to outgrow the squash vine borer and the result is a plethora of pale green, twisted squash. There are so many and they come so fast that I sometimes don’t have enough room for them in my refrigerator and must store them temporarily in a cooler. They were highly productive this year but just couldn’t stand up to the triple digit temps.

shishito-pepper

Leave a few ‘Shishito’ peppers to ripen on the plant then save the seed to plant next year.

‘Shishito’ peppers have been another welcome addition to the garden the last few years. The plants are fairly small but the more I pick the more peppers the plants pump out. The crisp, mild and flavorful peppers are popular in Japan and started showing up in restaurants and on food blogs in the US a few years ago. They are often blistered in a hot skillet and served as an appetizer or sliced into salads or stir-fry dishes.

Texas-Rose-Garlic

Texas Rose’ garlic, purchased from a farm in Arizona, did great this year.

Last fall I planted a variety of garlic called ‘Texas Rose’, purchased from Forever Yong Farms in Arizona. With Texas in its name I figured it had to be worth a try. Upon further investigation, I learned this garlic has been grown for many years in South Texas and was originally known as Hallettsville garlic. Forever Yong farms says they obtained the garlic from a fellow in Seguin named Ray Reininger. It’s an early artichoke type; I planted my cloves in September and harvested most of it by early May. Forever Yong Farms sold out of their garlic last fall but they should have fresh stock later this year. Check their website (http://www.foreveryongfarms.com/products.html) for availability and ordering information.

French Mother’s Cucumber Salad made with ‘Vertina’ cucumbers

French Mother’s Cucumber Salad made with ‘Vertina’ cucumbers

My favorite cucumber this year was a pickler called ‘Vertina’. The dark green, crunchy fruit was very productive, great for pickling and eating fresh. My friend Carolyn shared a favorite recipe that came from her niece who spent a semester living with a family in France. The family ate daily from their garden and the French mother made a cucumber-tomato salad that Carolyn and her sister still enjoying making every summer. It’s quick and delicious and can be made “to taste”. They call it French Mother’s Cucumber Salad:

1 large or 2 small cucumbers, peeled and sliced

Equal amount of cherry tomatoes

Mozzarella balls

Basil to taste

 

Mix together 1 part balsamic vinegar to 2 parts olive oil, salt & pepper then add

to cucumber mixture. Chill slightly before serving.

 

As you can see from the photo I don’t peel my cucumbers and I added purple onion. But that’s the beauty of this salad – you can’t go wrong plus it’s easy and yummy. Thanks, Carolyn!

 

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Saving Lettuce Seed by Patty G. Leander

Lettuce-seeds

A feathery tuft of lettuce seed.

Gardeners love to save stuff. We save vegetable scraps for the compost, dried leaves for mulching, buckets for toting, rocks for edging, small containers for seed-starting and rainwater for irrigation. And we save seed.

Seed saving is a natural extension of vegetable gardening. It allows you to replenish your seed supply and share seed with other gardeners. In addition, seeds saved year after year from plants grown in a particular region or microclimate gradually acclimate to that location; each time you plant your saved seed the plants that develop produce seeds that are better adapted to your soil, climate and cultural conditions. Win-win!

Crawford-Lettuce

’Crawford’ lettuce is a tasty romaine type with a striking appearance.

Several years ago, a gardener friend gave me a few seeds of ‘Crawford’ lettuce, a reseeding romaine variety that has been grown and shared in the San Antonio area since the 1980s. I love vegetable seed that has a person’s name attached to it because it also comes with a mix of horticultural knowledge, persistence, pride, faith and history. You don’t get to attach your name to a plant or a seed until you have a worthy specimen that has proved its merits again and again. And if you can trace it back far enough you can even discover a little bit about where it originated. ‘Crawford’ lettuce got its name from Marshall Crawford, a Life Member of the San Antonio Men’s Garden Club. Marshall got the seed from his father-in-law, John Wesley Van Houtan, a long-time gardener in Tulsa, OK. John was born in 1900 and his daughter, Irene (Marshall’s wife), remembers her dad always planting this lettuce in their backyard garden, saving seed from the best plants year after year. And today, thanks to Irene and Marshall Crawford, we can grow that same seed, enjoy the same lettuce and appreciate its history. And we can save the seed and pass it on.

Bolted-Lettuce

As the days grow longer and warmer lettuce sends up a flower stalk.

Lettuce seed is easy to save because it is a self-pollinating annual, meaning the flowers that are produced at the end of the season have both male and female parts and pollinate themselves – no need to worry about isolating plants to prevent cross-pollination by wind or insects. However, seed-saving guidelines do recommend a distance of 10-12 feet between different varieties of lettuce to avoid chance crosses and maintain the true genetic traits of each distinct variety.

Bolted-Lettuce-2

Yellow flowers give way to fluffy tufts of seeds.

Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable and as mild days of spring give way to summer heat, plants signal the end of their life cycle by sending up a flower stalk. The leaves become progressively smaller as they spiral up the stalk, and soon the top of the plant explodes in tiny, yellow flowers that give way to feathery tufts of seed. Like dandelions, these billowy tufts allow the seed to disperse by floating through the air. To collect the seeds before they all fly away, cut or tap the seed heads into a bag or other container and allow them to dry for a couple of weeks. Then shake the seed heads and/or rub them between your hands to loosen all the seeds (there will be many seeds!). To separate the seed from the chaff, press it through a screen or colander a few times. You can also use the wind or a small fan to blow the dried chaff into the air. Be careful because it doesn’t take much to blow the seed into the air as well. Once the seed is clean store it in a glass jar or paper envelope with a label and the date.

dried-lettuce-heads

Cut the feathery seed heads from the plant and place them in a bucket, bag or bin to dry.

My lettuce plants held on longer than normal this summer so I have been collecting seed for various projects and for fall planting. If you would like to try ‘Crawford’ lettuce in your own garden seed can be purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com).

saving-lettuce-seeds

Shake or rub the seed heads with your hands; a screen or fan will help separate the chaff from the seed.

Saving seed from your own vegetable plants has many advantages: it is a frugal way to increase your seed stock, it contributes to the diversity of our seed supply and each generation of collected seed will be more acclimated to your unique growing environment. Plus observing and participating in the rhythm of nature is enlightening and downright satisfying!

Crawford-Lettuce-2

’Crawford’ has its own bed in the Children’s Vegetable Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

It’s Go Time in the Vegetable Garden! by Patty G. Leander

spring-vegetables For weeks now the thought of fresh tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and okra, home-grown and sun-drenched, has been dancing across my consciousness. It’s a form of visualization that I just can’t escape this time of year and it is what drives me to dig, plant, weed, water and sweat. I’m sure you are experiencing similar spring fever symptoms! DSCN2971

Here in Central Texas we may well have even experienced our last freeze (?!?) but Easter, which falls on April 16th this year, seems to be a magnet for cold weather so pay attention to the forecast in case Mother Nature decides to throw us a curve ball. Be prepared to protect or replant if damaging weather ensues. Even if we don’t get another freeze this month our young and tender transplants are vulnerable to strong winds, hail and heavy rains. vegetable-garden

Fortunately the mild days of March are easy on both garden and gardener. Our goal in the spring vegetable garden is to plant as early as possible so we can harvest as early as possible, not so much for bragging rights (wait, this is Texas so that’s not entirely true!) but rather to avoid the misery of insects, disease and stress that comes with summer’s blistering heat.  It’s hard to imagine such torment during these premiere gardening days, but it will come.

Below are six tips to help get your vegetable garden off to a good start: harlequin-bugs-kale

Harvest and remove cool season crops. As cool weather crops reach maturity go ahead and harvest and enjoy; leaving them to grow past their prime as the weather gets hotter will only invite pests and disease. The exception, of course, is if you are growing to save seed (more on saving lettuce seed in a future post). growing-vertically

Grow vertical. If you have limited garden space consider growing up instead of out. Pole beans, cucumbers and small-fruited melons or winter squash can be trained to grow on an A-frame, a trellis or other vertical structure. Every couple of years I rotate vining morning glories or moonflowers on my trellises to give the soil a break from growing vegetables. watering-the-garden

Plant into moist soil. Seeds need moisture to germinate; if it hasn’t rained in your neck of the woods then water the area where you will be planting. Really let the water soak in and saturate the soil. The same goes for transplants, water the transplant and the hole before planting.  If, on the other hand, it has rained where you live allow the soil to dry out slightly before you start planting. Working wet soil can damage the structure and form long-lasting clods. Pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball then drop it onto the ground. If it breaks apart it is ok to dig but if it stays in a muddy wad it’s best to let it dry out a little longer. Spring-Weeds

Keep up with weeds. Warm, sunny days coupled with spring rains encourage weeds seeds to sprout and quickly get out of hand. They will greedily suck up any water and nutrients you provide for your vegetables.  Invest in a long-handled weeder to dispatch weed seedlings in and around the garden. Above all – don’t let them go to seed. Even if weeds are not growing in the garden their seeds can blow in and they can also provide refuge for damaging pests. zinnias-vegetable-garden

Plant some flowers. Plant now and you will provide habitat and attractive blooms for beneficial insects and pollinators as the season progresses. Texas-Gardener-Planning-Guide

Keep records. It’s a good idea to keep a simple diagram of your garden plot which will help as you rotate your crop families from year to year. I like to also make note of varieties, planting dates and days to harvest so I can gauge growth during the season and keep track of productive or tasty varieties for next year’s garden. The Texas Gardener Planning Guide & Calendar  pictured above is a great resource – I’ve been using it for years: https://www.texasgardener.com/Store/Products/viewproduct.aspx?id=56.

Last of all (and note to self), show a little restraint. It’s extremely easy to be enticed by warm sunshine, the smell of fresh dirt and the expectation held within tiny seeds, but as everything grows so does the time required to water, weed, scout for pests, harvest, prepare and preserve. Stick with the vegetables that will yield the most satisfaction and dining enjoyment for you and your family and go forth and have a great gardening season!

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Crop Rotation for Healthy Plants by Patty G. Leander

You probably know where you planted squash in your garden last year but what about the year before or even three years ago? Did you also plant cucumbers or melons? This is important information to keep track of so you can maintain a rotation schedule for the vegetables you grow in your garden.

Planting the same vegetables, or even related vegetables, in the same spot year after year can encourage a damaging build-up of pests and disease; crop rotation helps disrupt recurring cycles of infection by moving host vegetables to a different area of the garden, thereby thwarting the efforts of diseases or pests that may be left in the soil from a previous crop.

For example, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins and melons, all members of the cucurbit family, are susceptible to various diseases that overwinter in crop residue from diseased plants, but moving them out of their previous growing area means they won’t be available to support those diseases.

Below are nine plant families that are primarily grown in vegetable gardens, along with the different vegetables that belong to each family. For simplicity’s sake I’ve used a common vegetable name for each family, followed by its botanical name:

Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae)

 

Arugula, Asian greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, radishes, turnips

Arugula, Asian greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, radishes, turnips

Beet Family (Chenopodiaceae/Amaranthaceae)

 

Beets, spinach, Swiss chard

Beets, spinach, Swiss chard

Legume Family (Fabaceae)

 

Butterbeans, green beans, peanuts, cowpeas, soybeans, fava beans, garden peas

Butterbeans, green beans, peanuts, cowpeas, soybeans, fava beans, garden peas

 

Mallow Family (Malvaceae)

 

Okra (note the broccoli plants in the adjacent row, sheltered from hot afternoon sun by the late summer okra)

Okra (note the broccoli plants in the adjacent row, sheltered from hot afternoon sun by the late summer okra)

Nightshade Family (Solanaceae)

 

Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatillos, tomatoes

Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatillos, tomatoes

Onion Family (Alliacaeae)

 

Chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots

Chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots

Carrot Family (Apiaceae)

 

Carrots, celery, cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnips (Look at those impeccably groomed beds – my friend Paul is an engineer, and a master at creating and maintaining perfectly coiffed and rotated beds)

Carrots, celery, cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnips (Look at those impeccably groomed beds – my friend Paul is an engineer, and a master at creating and maintaining perfectly coiffed and rotated beds)

Squash Family (Curcurbitaceae)

 

Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash

Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash

Lettuce Family (Asteraceae)

 

Artichoke, endive, lettuce

Artichoke, endive, lettuce

Since vegetables in the same families are generally susceptible to similar pest and disease issues gardeners are encouraged to rotate crops by family, thereby thwarting the efforts of diseases or pests that may be left in the soil from a previous crop. This may not prevent re-infection completely, but it does slow down the spread of soilborne diseases and pests so that plants rotated to other areas have a chance at a vigorous start.

How you choose to practice crop rotation will depend on the size of your garden, the number of different vegetables you grow and how much effort you want to invest. The idea here is to rotate crop families to different areas, rows or beds in a vegetable garden over a 3 year period. For example, my garden consists of 5 wide rows numbered 1-5. Each year I maintain records of my plantings and a simple diagram of my garden. This year tomatoes, eggplant and/or peppers will occupy Row 2, next year they will move to Row 3, then to Row 4 and eventually back to Row 1.  I also have four raised beds as well as large pots and straw bale gardens that I sometimes utilize in the rotation – these allow me to expand my plantings or even rotate a crop family out of my garden completely if I notice a persistent pest or disease.

 

Sweet potatoes (left) and a fallow bed covered with alfalfa mulch

Sweet potatoes (left) and a fallow bed covered with alfalfa mulch

Additionally, I may incorporate a row of sweet potatoes (morning glory family) or corn (grass family) into the rotation since these represent two completely different families, or I may leave a bed fallow and cover it with a layer of mulch – all of these efforts to remove and relocate a host vegetable means there is less opportunity for a pest or disease to reproduce and spread once it emerges from the soil.

 

Morning glories and moonflowers, both related to sweet potatoes, are striking rotations for vertical structures. This is my favorite morning glory: ‘Scarlett O’Hara’.

Morning glories and moonflowers, both related to sweet potatoes, are striking rotations for vertical
structures. This is my favorite morning glory: ‘Scarlett O’Hara’.

If you have a permanent trellis or vertical structure in your garden think about rotating vining or climbing plants, such as cucumbers, pole bean or even tomatoes in the warm season and vining sugar snap peas or sweet peas in the cool season. I also like to incorporate climbing flowers, such as moonflowers and morning glories, as part of my vertical rotation.

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

2016 Holiday Gifts for the Gardener by Patty G. Leander

broccoli-transpalnts

Now is a good time to plant seeds of your favorite brassicas indoors under grow lights; in 5 or 6 weeks you will have transplants for a new season of vegetable gardening.

Baby, it’s cold outside! The weather forecasters have been talking about “plunging temperatures” – a sure sign that winter has arrived in Central Texas. We have already had a few light freezes here in Austin but at this point in the season I have to finally admit that winter is here and these colder temperatures will come more frequently and stick around a little longer. Broccoli, carrots, kale, collards and other cold hardy vegetables that are established in the garden generally make it through these “plunging temperatures”, but recently transplanted vegetables that haven’t had a chance to acclimate may suffer cold damage. Though I have harvested the last of the peppers, tomatoes, butter beans and eggplant my garden has taken a back seat to other obligations in my life recently so the cool-season vegetables I planted in fall will have to fend for themselves through the cold. Hopefully they will make it unscathed but if not I am prepared to start again in January.

As Christmas approaches you may still be thinking of a little something for the gardener in your life. Below are a few last minute ideas:

Trisha Shirey’s Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest and Skip Richter’s Texas Month-by-Month Gardening are great gist ideas for organic-minded gardeners in Texas

Trisha Shirey’s Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest and Skip Richter’s Texas Month-by-Month Gardening are great gist ideas for organic-minded gardeners in Texas

Garden Related Books – two recent publications include Trisha Shirey’s Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest and Skip Richter’s Texas Month-by-Month Gardening. Both Skip and Trisha are organic-minded gardeners with Texas roots and they share plenty of wisdom for gardening in the Lone Star State.

 

Dr. (Bill) William C.Welch, Greg Grant and Felder Rushing are all some of the most beloved horticulturists in working in the South. Books by this trio are perfect gifts for those of us that garden south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Dr. (Bill) William C.Welch, Greg Grant and Felder Rushing are some of the most beloved horticulturists working in the South. Books by this trio are perfect gifts for those of us that garden south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Heirloom Gardening in the South by William C. Welch and Greg Grant reminds us of the plants, customs and cultures that have contributed to our Southern heritage; the book includes numerous colorful photographs for inspiration. In Slow Gardening, fun-loving Felder Rushing shares his stress-free approach to gardening, encouraging us all to slow down, break a few horticultural rules and add some whimsy to the garden. A quote from his book: “Life has lots of pressures – why include them in the garden?”

 

This metal sign was purchased at Callahan’s General Store in Austin – it makes me smile and hum every time I see it.

Garden Bling – speaking of whimsy, how about a sculpture, a birdbath, a sign, metal artwork, sun catchers or other decorations that match the gardener’s personality?

coir-pots

A coconut coir block and transplantable coco pots

Coconut Coir Blocks – coconut coir is a by-product of the coconut industry. Marketed as a natural, renewable and disease-free planting medium, it is created from the coarse fibers of the outer husk of coconuts. The lightweight blocks or bricks of compressed coir fiber expand to several times their size when mixed with water.

coconut-coir-blocks

A block of coconut coir fiber the size of a brick expands to approximately 10 liters of planting medium when mixed with water.

Once hydrated, coir fiber can be used as an alternative to peat moss in seed starting or container mixes. A Master Gardener friend recently introduced me to coir fiber pots that can be used for growing transplants. Once seedlings have reached transplant size the entire pot can be planted directly into the garden. The coir pot will gradually decompose allowing the roots to grow unimpeded into the soil. A really cool idea!

garden-tools

All gardeners appreciate the tools that make their tasks easier!

Garden Tools– these tools make garden tasks easier and more efficient: a good pair of pruners, a CobraHead weeder, a moisture meter and a small, inexpensive knife to keep outside for harvesting (I like the white-handled brand called Dexter – it’s cheap, it’s sharp and it can be found at most restaurant supply stores). I recently acquired a weed-puller called Lawn Jaws. Like a pair of needle-nose pliers with back-slanted teeth, the Lawn Jaws grips weeds securely and pulls them out by the roots – works like a charm on tough weeds that invade my backyard. They run about $16; I bought mine at the Zilker Botanical Garden gift shop in Austin.

Laminated Field Guides – these foldout pamphlets offer quick and easy identification of snakes, birds, spiders, butterflies and more. Available at most bookstores, garden centers and gift shops at botanical gardens or nature centers.

 

Field guides make are incredibly useful in the garden and they are so easy to slip into a stocking.

A gift of seeds or books about growing and preparing vegetables is always appreciated by food gardeners.

Miscellaneous Ideas – any gardener would appreciate the gift of seeds, whether the latest tomato introduction or seed saved from your own garden. In addition, books about seed starting, seed saving or vegetable preparation are useful resources for anyone interested in growing their own food. And for the gardener who just wants to start small, how about a portable fabric planter called a Dirt Pot or Smart Pot? Filled with commercial planting mix these reusable containers can be planted with root crops, herbs or compact vegetable varieties. Look for the 7 or 10 gallon size for best results.

Cheers and warm wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Healthy, Happy New Year!

fiber-pot

Fiber pots are great gifts for beginners or for experienced gardeners looking to expand their potting area.

Very Hungry Caterpillars by Patty G. Leander

cabbage-worm-damage

Caterpillars bring insatiable appetites to the vegetable garden.

Along with colorful butterflies, smaller and more ordinary looking moths flit around the vegetable garden this time of year, laying eggs that hatch into caterpillars whose sole purpose is to eat and excrete. If you are growing brassicas your plants have probably already been under attack by these very hungry caterpillars.

Cross-striped-caterpillar-cabbage-looper

Cross-striped caterpillar (left) and cabbage looper (right).

The main culprits here in Texas are the cabbage looper (mottled brown moth with a small white marking on each wing), cross-striped caterpillar (brownish-gray moth with darker brown spots) and cabbageworm (whitish-yellow moth with a single black dot on each wing).

cross-striped-cabbageworm-eggs

What looks like a small yellow blob (less than 1/8 inch across) on the back of a broccoli leaf is actually a mass of cross-striped caterpillar eggs waiting to hatch.

These creatures are stealth; I seldom notice the moths that lay the eggs (they are more active at night) and the freshly hatched caterpillars are so miniscule and blend so well into the foliage that they can do severe damage before they are detected. Inspect your plants often, especially on the underside of leaves; if you miss them you may be surprised to find your plants decimated the next morning.

cabbage-worm

As the caterpillar grows so does its appetite.

Though these tiny munchers are good at camouflage there is one sure way to affirm their presence before too much damage is done: miniature dark green balls of excrement. Yep, what goes in must come out and caterpillars are prolific poopers.

caterpillar-poop

Dark green droppings mean caterpillars are feasting nearby.

And the bigger they get the more they eat and the more they eat the more they poop. I have had more than one novice gardener tell me that they thought those little green balls were eggs, but if you look above or near the excrement you will almost assuredly find a caterpillar or two or three chewing away.

If you only have a few plants a good defense is to hand pick and destroy caterpillars or infested leaves every time you inspect your plants, but if you have many plants an insecticide will be more effective and a more efficient use of your time. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt for short) is the recommended control for caterpillars, especially in the earliest stages of growth. It is an organic insecticide made from a naturally occurring bacteria found in soil; when caterpillars ingest the Bt-coated leaves it destroys their gut, causing them to stop feeding and die within a couple of days.

cabbage-worms-bt

Note the tiny egg mass inside the black circle (left); so tiny yet so destructive (right).

 

Bt is only effective against caterpillars; it will not harm humans, cats, dogs or beneficial insects but it will kill any caterpillars that ingest it, including butterfly larvae, so apply it only to edibles that are being damaged. Be sure to follow label instructions for application rate and frequency as follow-up applications may be necessary for control. Bt is sold under different trade names, including Dipel and Thuricide, and can be applied as a spray or a dust. Liquid Bt seems to roll off some of the thick, waxy leaves of cabbage, kale and collards, so I have found it beneficial to apply Bt as a dust.

Dustin-Mizer

The Dustin Mizer is a good tool for applying Bt as a dust.

Several years ago my brother gave me a tool called the Dustin Mizer that I use quite often for this purpose. When cranked it emits a fine dusting of powder over and under the plant.  It is especially important to direct Bt to the underside of the leaves as that is where the caterpillars are usually feeding.

It’s always a good idea to vary insect control methods in the vegetable garden so consider alternating Bt with a product containing the active ingredient spinosad (also derived from a soil bacterium and also organic). One other option is to use lightweight floating row cover to protect cabbage crops; cover plants as soon as they go in the ground so the moth never has access to the plants to lay her eggs.

 

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

The Flutter of Fall by Patty G. Leander

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

mistflower-tithonias

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

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

tithonia-mexican-sunflower

Butterflies are drawn to the vivid orange blooms of tithonias.

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

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

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

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

fall-aster

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

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

big-muhly-grass

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

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

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

KR-Bluestem

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

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

KR-Bluestem-2

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

Fall Into Winter Vegetables on Central Texas Gardener

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

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

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

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

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

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