Archives for category: Fall garden

The Inside Austin Gardens  tour is only two days away, and I’m feeling surprisingly mellow. Yes, my garden is on the tour, and yes, I’m one of the featured speakers that day. And yes, I’ve been incredibly busy getting the garden spruced up and ready for viewing.

So why am I not freaking out? Well, I’ll tell you. But first, a little about the tour:

On Saturday, from 9 am to 4 pm, my garden will be on parade along with six other area gardens chosen by the Travis County Master Gardeners. This is a great chance to get an up close look at the gardening methods and different design sensibilities of a handful of experienced gardeners. This year’s tour focus is edible gardening, a topic near and dear to my heart, so I am thrilled (and honored) to be part of this event.  Funds raised from ticket, plant and book sales will help to support the continued good work of the master gardeners of Travis County,  a group of hardworking and talented volunteer gardeners dedicated to demonstrating and teaching the art and the science of good gardening. Here’s a link to find out more about the event:

And if you missed “Central Texas Gardener’s” pre-tour show and interviews last weekend, you can catch up here:

OK, so how to explain my Zen attitude despite the fact that about a hundred people (or more!) will be descending on my garden in less than 72 hours? I have a new hard-working, motivational helper (and no, I’m not talking about xanax or adderall) who has inspired me to keep working toward my goal, regardless of the heat, the rain, the chigger bites, the sore back and the occasional  “huh?” I get from friends who stop by to see what I’m up to.

Here’s a picture of my little Zen buddy hard at work in the garden:


This is not to say that I’m not grateful for the several hours of real help — weeding and mulching — I’ve received from human friends (thank you, dear friends; you know who you are), but this little fuzzy buddy (who I’ve started calling Bud) is amazing. His work in my garden is all about food gathering  — snipping pecan clusters from my tree (and my neighbor’s tree), burying some of the nuts and eating the rest. (Not all that different from what I do with my vegetable and fruit harvests, now that I think about it.)

Bud’s nut clusters usually contain 3 or 4 nuts, but I saw him carry one limb that had six nuts on it. That was the day he stumbled  and missed as he leaped from one tree to another. He landed with a big plop on the ground, and the nuts went flying. He snatched up what was left of the little pecan limb (now lighter after losing a few nuts in the fall), looked up at the elusive tree and bounded up the trunk. I couldn’t help but smile — despite the fact that he is slowly but surely stealing all my pecans.

Sidenote: I am not the only one who’s paying extra attention to fox squirrels lately.  In a new research project, a team  at UC Berkley is documenting all sorts of interesting things about what it means to be a fox squirrel. Fox squirrels are loners, for example,  and are apparently quite happy that way. Here’s my favorite part of the study: Using GPS technology, researchers are tracking squirrels’ nut-stashing activities in hopes of learning once and for all how they are able to accurately retrieve so many of their own nuts. So far, about 1,000 nut burial sites have been recorded and mapped. And contrary to popular belief, according to these professional squirrel watchers, these little guys are actually quite good at remembering where they buried their nuts.  Researchers think there’s a special cognitive talent not related to a sense of smell that guides their nut recovery missions. Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m a nature nerd. But if you are too, here’s a link to the squirrel project: The Berkley researchers have also noted that when a squirrel is blocked from something he wants, usually some sort of food, he doesn’t just shrug and walk away. He studies the problem and tries to solve it. Well, yeah, duh. That’s no big surprise to an urban gardener.

Bud is also fond of Swiss chard. Twice I’ve planted yellow chard seeds and twice Bud has nibbled and shredded the seedlings into nonexistence. (He’s no dummy; Swiss chard and pecans taste great together!) But instead of getting pissed, I have been inspired by his great determination and problem solving skills to take action.  I purchased several large transplants from a local nursery, planted them, and then covered them with hardware cloth cages, which I secured to the ground with long metal stakes. That was three days ago and so far Bud has left them alone. I don’t think this means necessarily that my problem solving skills are better than his.  He may yet revisit the chard and figure out how to get under the cage. I’ll just have to wait and see.

I’m applying the wait and see approach to other parts of the garden too. I have some green heirloom tomatoes on the vine that don’t seem to be attracting any 4-legged attention.  And the army worm march across the green bean plants has been averted (squish, squish).

But I know no matter how diligent I am over the next two days, not all of my garden projects will be finished by tour time. And no matter how many army worms I squish, my planting beds will not be bug free. But that’s ok. Just like Bud, I’m willing to hang in there and solve problems as they arise — all for the love of growing and eating good food.  Bud and the worms will get some of my harvest, but not all of it.

And finally, although I’m feeling pretty chill about the tour (and my resident squirrel), I can’t quite shake the tiny worry in the back of my brain that a plague of grasshoppers or a freaky hailstorm might swoop in and flatten everything. So just in case, here are a few photos to document how my garden was looking earlier this week:

In the backyard garden, Mexican tarragon is ready to start blooming just in time for the tour.

Fall asters are coming on next to Siam basil and Chinese cabbage in the front yard garden. Love it when summer, fall, and winter plants share garden space so happily.
And finally, for those who know me and my garden: I rounded up enough vintage bricks to finish the path! So the brick path that for so long has gone nowhere now has a destination — the big compost pile behind the back picket fence.
Happy gardening and hope to see you on tour day…..

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