Archives for category: Drought

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


The last day of summer 2011 is Sept. 23, unless you’re going by meteorologists’ summer, which ended the last day of August. Either way you look at it, summer isn’t over yet. But the bigger question in my mind (and probably yours too) is when is the last day of this drought?

Perhaps you’ve heard that this summer in Texas, June, July and August were the hottest three months ever recorded in the history of the United States. And that the record was formerly held by Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl in 1934. Not happy news.

Gardening in Central Texas has never been easy, but this is getting ridiculous. Will it ever rain again? Do we really have to turn into San Angelo? Should I start making plans to move to Portland? Are my pecan trees going to die? Will I ever feel at peace in my garden again?

This is sounding a little whiny, I know. Perhaps I’m suffering from heat exhaustion. Or perhaps I’m momentarily stuck in Stage 2 of …. THE  FIVE STAGES OF GRIEVING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE IN AUSTIN  (with apologies to Elsabeth Kubler-Ross)

1. DENIAL: “My garden is fine. I don’t have to panic because this drought can’t last much longer. It will rain soon. I know it will. And besides, some people think climate change is just a hoax. Maybe they’re right. I’ll just go buy something fresh and new to plant in all those empty spaces.”

2. ANGER: “Why Austin? Why not Portland? Or Seattle? How come they get mild summers and all that  rain? Where’s our share? It’s not fair. One of my stressed-out pecan trees is dropping limbs. I don’t want a garden full of nothing but cactus and agaves. I want to scream.”

3. BARGAINING: “What can I do to get more water for my vegetables and fruit and nut trees? Dig my own well in the backyard? Call in the Greywater Guerillas? Maybe a nongardening neighbor would let me run his water hose to my garden on his designated watering day. I could trade him water for squash and beans.”

4. DEPRESSION: “I’m so sad. What’s the use of gardening? Everything burns to a crisp. I’ll just buy produce from Wal-Mart. What’s the point of growing vegetables in a desert? I don’t even feel like cooking. I’ll just open a can of  something. Who cares if it’s tainted with BPA and Carbaryl. We’re about  to smother in a big bowl of dust.”

5. ACCEPTANCE: “It’s going to be OK. Even if Austin IS turning into a desert,  it doesn’t have to become a dust bowl like THE Dust Bowl, and I don’t have to give up gardening. Some deserts are nice. I can learn to use more  desert-friendly growing methods. Gardeners in Tucson (with an average annual rainfall of only 12 inches) grow vegetables, right? And dryland farming methods are being explored all over the world. At the very least, I can try sunken beds with mulch-filled trenches and ollas — and then maybe I won’t have to stand for so long in the heat holding a water hose. And more shade. Definitely more shade. And maybe even aquaponics. Hmm… with a tilapia-stocked aquaponics system, I might go back to eating fish more often.”

OK, so you get the idea.  I’d like to report that I’ve worked through the stages and am now  residing comfortably in Stage 5. But no, I’m not quite there.  Last week, the cooler temps made it easy to jump to Stage 5,  but with the temperatures climbing above 100 again this week, I’ve got some Stage 2 grumpiness coming on. That said, I’m feeling optimistic enough that I’m about to set out broccoli and kale transplants (under shadecloth). And I may even try to direct seed some Swiss chard and snap peas later this week. But if the squirrels dig up my moist seed beds and ruin my efforts, I might revisit Stage 4.  I’ll spread some chicken wire over the seedbed, stake it down and cross my fingers.

I guess what it all comes down to is this — if you’re a gardener, you’ll figure out a way to garden.

My grandparents managed to get by during the Arkansas drought of 1930-31. Those years were also the beginning of the Great Depression. They hauled well water to a small vegetable plot, raised guineas, hunted small game (mostly squirrel), and ate a lot of cornbread, pinto beans and salt pork.

So in the spirit of doing what you can to get by (and sometimes even thrive) no matter the weather or the economy, here’s a selection of recipes I’ve been working on using what’s still alive in my summer garden (peppers, amaranth, arugula), what’s keeping well from the spring garden (butternut squash, garlic), plus crunchy Kieffer pears (from Lightsey Farms) and wild hog (from Sebastian Bonneau at Countryside Farm). Lightsey should have Kieffers through September and maybe longer. Bonneau almost always has wild hog for sale a the Farmers Market downtown (4th and Guadalupe).

Drought Friendly Recipes for the New Recession (or the New Expansion, or the New Climate, or whatever happens first):

Pan Fried Wild Hog Chops with Ginger and Garlic

1 Tbsp soy sauce

1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil

2 Tbsp rice cooking wine

2 tsp minced garlic

2 Tbsp peanut oil

1 tsp minced serrano pepper

1 tsp minced fresh ginger

1/2 tsp Chinese chili paste (or cayenne powder)

1 tsp brown sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

1 rack of wild pork, sliced into 1-inch thick chops, 6-8 chops (or substitute farmed pork chops)

1 tsp coarsely flaked sea salt (optional)

In a mixing bowl, combine first 8 ingredients. Add chops and turn a few times in the marinade to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour, or up to 8 hours. To cook: Heat a well-seasoned flat-bottom wok or stainless steel skillet and then add about 2 Tbsps peanut oil. Place chops, two or three at a time, in hot pan and sear over medium high heat. Do not crowd. When well browned, turn and brown other side. Then reduce heat and cook for a few more minutes or until meat is cooked medium well (internal temperature of 150 degrees). If using a touch test for doneness, the meat should be firm, but with a slight yield.  (Some cooks serve farmed pork medium or medium rare, but to be on the safe side, I like to cook wild pork until it is done, but not a second longer.) Allow the meat to rest for a few minutes before serving. Scatter sea salt lightly over chops. Serves 6-8, depending on size of rack.


Curried Butternut Squash and Keiffer Pear Hash Browns

3/4 cup butternut squash, grated (see notes)

1/3 cup Kieffer pear, grated (or substitute crisp Asian pear)

1/3 cup onion, grated

1/4 cup yellow or orange bell pepper, grated

1 or 2 ripe red serrano peppers, minced

2 generous dashes of curry powder

1/2 tsp minced fresh garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

1 large egg

1 Tbsp flour (optional)

Enough vegetable oil for frying

Press and squeeze grated ingredients between kitchen towels or paper towels until dry. In a mixing bowl, whisk together egg, flour (if using), curry powder, garlic, serrano, salt, and pepper. Gently stir in squash mixture. Add a drizzle of oil to a hot stainless steel skillet. Place small scoops of mixture in pan and gently press to flatten to about 1/4 inch thick. Don’t crowd patties in the pan. Cook over medium high heat until well browned; then carefully turn with spatula and brown other side. (If pan seems dry, drizzle in more oil before turning.) Slide hash browns out of pan and onto a plate. Serve immediately or place in a warm oven until serving time. Makes 6-8 small hash brown patties

Notes: When grating, for best texture, use the largest holes on your box grater and press the full length of grater so squash strands are longer. Flour helps the mixture bind and hold together better while cooking. Without flour, the hash browns will be looser, but gluten free. If your basil hasn’t burned up, shred a few leaves and use as garnish.


Arugula and Pear Salad with Honey Lemon Thyme Dressing

1 tsp honey, more or less to taste

Juice of 2 lemons, about 1/4 cup

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped

1tsp Dijon mustard

1 clove garlic, smashed and minced

Generous pinch of salt, or to taste

1 or 2 Kieffer pears, peeled and sliced in thin wedges (or substitute crisp Asian pears)

Arugula, washed and dried

Whisk together first six ingredients and set aside. Arrange arugula on salad plate, top with a handful of pear slices. Drizzle lightly with dressing. Leftover dressing will keep in the fridge for at least a week.

Note: If your Kieffer pears seem too hard, let them sit out on the kitchen counter for a few days and they will ripen. Arugula will make it through most summers if you give it plenty of afternoon shade, or all day dappled shade. It will, however, become even spicier in the heat. Which makes it just right for pairing with with crisp pears and slightly sweet vinaigrette.


Amaranth Greens with Sesame, Lime and Garlic

1/4 cup raw sesame seeds

1-2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced

About 2 cups amaranth leaves, washed and dried

Salt and dash (or two) of cayenne pepper

1 lime

Olive oil

Heat a stainless steel skillet (or well-seasoned cast iron skillet) and toast sesame seeds over medium low heat until brown, stirring often. Remove seeds and set aside.  Add splash of olive oil to hot pan, add garlic and cook for about 1 minute or less, and then add amaranth leaves, garlic, salt and cayenne. Stir and cook over medium high heat for just a couple of minutes, or until greens are lightly seared and wilted. Serve with squeeze of lime juice and sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.

Note: The Tricolor Amaranth (in the top photo) have been hanging tough in my summer garden. Of course it helps that they get only about 3 hours of  direct sun. Most of the day they’re in dappled sun or bright shade. During a drought, in order to look and taste their best, most species of Amaranth, including the Tricolor, will require some handwatering between designated watering days.


Easy Pear and Pepper Chutney

About 1 1/2 cups Kieffer pear, peeled and sliced in thin wedges

2 or 3 ripe red serrano peppers, seeded and julienned

1/2 cup onion, sliced thin

1/2 cup brown sugar, or more or less to taste

2 Tbsp organic corn syrup

3/4 cup water

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp salt

1 Tbsp lemon juice

3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar


Place all ingredients in a large sauce pan or skillet. Bring to slow boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to simmer and cook until pears soften a bit and water reduces to about 1/4 cup. If pears seem too firm, add more water and cook a little longer. Serve with wild pork chops.


* For more about Kieffer pears (and more recipes) check out this piece I wrote 2 summers ago for the American-Statesman.
Recipes and 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!