Archives for category: Watering

Milder afternoon temperatures and gorgeous cool mornings are making me smile. And if I’m smiling about the weather, you will usually find me working in my garden at some point in the day. Sure it’s dry, and yeah, it’s still a little too warm out there on some days. And I know the soil in our drought-ridden town is so dead it’s barely able to absorb more than a tiny sip of water on designated watering days. And yes, it is definitely sad and discouraging, but I’m not dead yet, and neither is my compulsion to mend the soil and get something growing in it.

In other words, a gardener’s gotta do what’s gotta be done if he or she wants to continue being a gardener.  And given last winter’s killing freezes and this summer’s murderous heat and drought, what’s gotta be done doesn’t fit on one list.

But before I get to my gotta do list, I’d like to thank Austin garden blogger Pam Penick for declaring October “Support Your Independent Nursery Month” and featuring a different nursery in her blog every week. I’m happy to sing the praises of independent nurseries because I can’t imagine be a happy gardener without them. When cooler temperatures gave me the nudge I needed to get my fall garden going, I found a fresh crop of seeds, transplants (vegetables and perennials) and tools ripe for the picking at all of my favorite nurseries. So I’m giving thanks to local independent nurseries by adding their names to a materials source list that I’m compiling as I write about overhauling (and nurturing) my stressed out garden.

If you find you have a few extra dollars for fall seeds or a new drought-tolerant perennial, don’t forget your neighborhood nurseries. I know a lot of local gardeners (myself included) who might start filling rainbarrels with sad, salty tears if any of our favorite nurseries close because of the drought or the economy. All that salty water would not be good for our gardens.

(Find links to what other Austin garden bloggers are saying about homegrown nurseries this month at Pam’s blog.)

And now back to my gotta do list. First on the list is to revive the soil. When the soil is so dry and barren that it sheds water instead of absorbing it, planting fall seeds or transplants is risky business. In dry dusty soil, the microbes that support healthy plant growth have either died or gone dormant because they have no food or water. Also of great concern to me (in part because I recently read  “The Worst Hard Time”) is that soil too dead to support any kind of plant life has nothing to hold it down when the wind blows hard or when a heavy rainstorm blasts through town (as one surely will at some point in the future).

The best way to help the soil is to feed the microbes and entice earthworms and other beneficial deep soil dwellers to venture up into the topsoil layers. To that end,  I’ve been gently mixing organic materials into the top two inches of soil — partially decomposed leaves and slightly chunky (unsifted) homemade compost. To stretch my homemade compost, I’m mixing it with some Back to Nature Cotton Burr Compost (coarse).

And finally, every bed is getting at least two inches of mulch on top of the compost layer and lots of careful handwatering, even if there are no plants in the bed. The microbes won’t thrive (or excrete plant nourishing byproducts) until the soil can hold some moisture.

And therein lies the rub.  I’ve had a heck of a time getting my tired and dried out garden soil (example of dead soil in photo above) to hold any  moisture —  even after digging in compost and leaf mould. I’m sure I’m not the only gardener who has been standing around for what seems like forever watering, watering and rewatering a particularly dead patch of bare soil only to find that the moisture hasn’t penetrated at all. (Where did the water go? Is there a hidden crack or crevice somewhere that’s filling up with hose water?)

I finally had to use extreme methods to moisten the soil enough for fall vegetable seeds and perennial transplants. Using a fork I scratched the surface of the soil and sprinkled with water. After it soaked in, I scratched  the same spot again, and watered again. I kept repeating until scratching the soil no longer revealed dry patches. Finally, the soil started absorbing (instead of repelling) the water.

You can test to make sure your soil is absorbing all the water you’re giving it by poking your finger down about two or three inches into the bed. If your finger finds dry soil, you need to keep watering.  If you pick up a handful of soil, squeeze it, and at least some of the soil particles stick together, you know you’re getting somewhere.

When your bed is well moistened,  cover it with mulch (wood chips, pine needles or chopped leaves).  When you’re ready to plant, push the mulch off to one side long enough for seeds to germinate and transplants to take hold. Then replace the mulch, but leave a little breathing room around the plant stems. And if afternoon temps reach into the 90s again, consider stretching shade cloth or row cover above your beds to help keep the ground cooler.

In the past week, after a round of intensive watering and topping the soil with compost and mulch, I planted kale and mustard  transplants and sugar snap pea seeds. The seeds germinated in a few days, and now, a week later, some of the seedlings are taking off. (Big sigh of relief.)

Last month, after two tries, my lima bean seeds finally sprouted. They’re starting to bloom now, so I may squeak in under the first freeze with a bean harvest. The birds ate the first lima bean sprouts of the seeds I sowed in July. After that, I started setting out bird seed. The birds are happier now, and so am I

Sources for materials mentioned in this post:

Mustard and Kale seedlings: Breed and Company, The Great Outdoors

Lima Bean and Snap Pea seeds: The Great Outdoors

6-pack of broccoli transplants: Barton Springs Nursery

Shade cloth, row cover: The Natural Gardener

Back to Nature Cotton Burr Compost (both fine and coarse versions), Barton Springs Nursery

Stay tuned for more about fall garden projects and plantings, including a minor miracle: yellow squash plants that have not been decimated by squash vine borers.

And smile! It will rain again some day.

Photos by Renee Studebaker/Do not use without permission

A sensible gardener knows better than to try to grow vegetables in extreme heat and extreme drought. Right? Right.

A sensible gardener throws in the shovel and the hoe (and the soaker hoses) when record breaking temperatures make April feel like June and June feel like August. Yes. Definitely.

But what if you’re the kind of gardener who hates to give up the fight until you absolutely have to? The kind who somehow thrives on the hot sweaty challenge of growing vegetables during one of Austin’s hottest, most rain-starved summers ever.

True confession: I’m one of those kind. The harder it gets, the more determined I become. In many matters I consider myself to be quite sensible and pragmatic, but when it comes to gardening, especially growing food, every day is a new day and anything is possible — even rain.  So until another rain shower comes along, I get up a little earlier each morning to make time to stand around in the garden holding a water hose on my summer survivors: tomatoes, beans, eggplants and squash.

2011 backyard beefsteak

(Sidenote: Strange but true — I still have several relatively bug free and disease free tomato plants with lots of green tomatoes hanging on them. The photo above is a tomato I plucked from the vine just a few days ago. Check back here for a spring-summer 2011 tomato report — which will include an assessment of my best performing varieties, most successful soil amendments, best tasting fruits, etc, etc.)

Now back to today’s post — the not-so-sensible gardener’s guide to keeping a home vegetable garden limping along even though our state has just been declared a natural disaster area because of relentless extreme drought. It’s also almost time to start a fall garden. Yes, garden friends, late June and July is typically when Austin area gardeners start preparing their beds for a fall garden. Early to mid-July is generally considered a good time to set out tomato plants for a fall harvest.


What follows is a list of things I’ve been doing for the last couple of months to keep a little bit of food coming out of my hot hot garden and onto my dinner table. Feel free to add your own extreme gardening methods to my list (just leave a comment or send me a message (  I’m willing to try just about anything (at least once) to keep my heirloom tomatoes going a little longer. And if you’re a rain maker, I really want to hear from you.

1. Mulch mulch and more mulch. Mulch decays faster in high heat, especially with regular watering. So check to make sure you still have a depth of  2-3 inches of chopped leaves, coarse compost, pine needles or whatever you’re using. Spread a thin layer of good compost on top of the soil before topping with mulch to feed microbes and improve water retention. Lately, I’m using a heavier, chunkier pine mulch because it seems to hold moisture a little longer.
2011 amaranth seedlings

2. Dig trenches. Dig a 5-6 inch deep and 3 inch- wide trench around your beds (or even around individual plants) and fill with mix of coarse compost and chopped leaves, or compost and mulch). Best to do this at planting time so you don’t disturb roots. If you’re adding trench after plants are established, start your trench farther away from plants. I’ve known tomato roots to travel as much as a foot through loose garden soil to reach an area of steady moisture.

3. Add shale pieces to your garden soil: Mix a couple of handfuls of shale into each planting hole or dig in 1 or 2 cups per square foot of your growing beds. A UT geologist friend of mine confirmed that shale does indeed hold water, more than vermiculite and much more than decomposed granite. As the soil dries, it draws on additional water stored in the shale pieces. I have several pepper plants that are hanging in there and producing peppers. They only get a few hours of morning sun, and then dappled light in the afternoon. The planting area is loaded with compost, chopped leaves, and several big handfuls of shale. (Note: shale isn’t not cheap, but it doesn’t break down like compost and mulch, so you only have to add it once.)

4. Water at the root zone: Use sunken plastic plant pots, milk jugs or soda bottles to direct water straight to the root zone of each plant. It’s best to install pots and bottles when plant roots are still small so you don’t disturb the roots. If your plant is mature, you can still add a watering pot, but poke around gently in the soil and try to avoid roots. You may need to install pot 5 or 6 inches away from the plant’s stem to avoid damaging roots.

Several vegetable gardeners around town are reporting success this summer with the buried watering pot method, including Iris at Society Garlic and Carla at Austin Urban Gardens. And longtime garden blogger  MS at Zanthan Gardens has for several years planted her tomatoes alongside sunken water bottles. My grandmother used to save 1 gallon milk jugs to use as garden water bottles. During really dry spells, she ran a hose from her kitchen sink drain out to her tomato beds, so that every drop of water from the kitchen faucet was doing double duty. (In Austin, direct watering with gray water is not allowed; it must be properly filtered first. By the way,  in the near future I plan to take a closer look at the dos and donts of gray water garden watering in this space.)
2011 watering pots

5. Suspend shade cloth over plants: Create a hoop- or stake-supported shade cloth tent. I’ve found that 40 percent shade cloth works well. It’s available at some local nurseries and online. If you use shade cloth that shades more than 40 percent of the sun, many plants will have difficulty thriving, so the 70 or 80 percent shade cloth commonly sold for shading outdoor patios is not your best choice for vegetable plant shading. In the picture below, I reached for a quick fix with shade cloth to cover one of my sprawling heirloom tomatoes when I saw that some of its leaves were scorched. I know it’s not beautiful, and I could make the setup more aesthetically pleasing, but I’ll save that project for a cooler day.

2011 tomato shade
6. Try lowered instead of raised beds:  A well-mulched vegetable bed that’s a few inches below the soil’s surface will hang on to moisture longer than a raised bed. But when a big bad thunderstorm comes along, make sure fast pooling rainwater isn’t trapped in your recessed beds. An overflow trench to take excess water away from the bed is needed during rainy spells (remember when we used to have those?).

7. Hand water: If your vegetable plants are looking thirsty and stressed even though you’re giving them two deep soakings a week using drip irrigation or soaker hoses, you may need to hand-water most mornings to help your plants survive between soaks.

8. Use liquid seaweed and/or Thrive: Heat stressed vegetable plants need extra TLC. Weekly foliar feeding with liquid seaweed solution will help them cope. Monthly drenching with a gallon of water dosed with a few drops of Thrive will also help.

I wonder, is there something like Thrive that works as a tonic for gardeners as we hunker down and wait out the drought? Perhaps I should consult an herbalist. Or maybe a bartender.

Stay cool, and happy gardening!