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 beginning today and continuing through October, I’m going to give 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 that is 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 soil layers just below the surface. To that end,  I’ve been gently turning coarse and fluffy water-holding organic materials into the top 4 or 5 inches of soil — partially decomposed leaves and chopped dry leaves plus slightly chunky (unsifted) homemade compost and molasses. To stretch my homemade compost, I’m also mixing in some Back to Nature Cotton Burr Compost (coarse), and to aid in water retention, I’m adding shale. In years past I added decomposed granite and/or greensand to each of my garden beds as a source of minerals and to improve drainage. Like shale, granite and greensand are one-time additions.

And finally, every bed is getting at least two inches of mulch and 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 plenty of 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 doesn’t penetrate any deeper than the depth of a piece of note paper.  (Where did the water go? Is there a hidden crack or crevice somewhere in my yard that’s filling up with hose water?)

I finally had to use extreme methods to moisten the soil to get it into shape for fall vegetable seeds and perennial transplants. Here’s my method: Turn over a couple of shovelfuls of well amended soil and sprinkle the surface with hose water. In that same spot, scoop up the same soil and turn it again to see if dry areas come to the surface. Then sprinkle those with more water and then poke around in the same spot to see if any more dry pockets remain. If you decide to try this deep watering technique, be sure to stop now and then and test the moisture content of your soil.  Just pick up a handful of soil, squeeze it, and if at least some of the soil particles stick together, you know you’re getting somewhere. If necessary, rinse and repeat. Then move on to another dry section and begin again.

When your bed is well moistened (but neither soaked nor muddy) 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 mulch, but leave a little breathing room around stems. And if afternoon temps reach into the 90s again, consider stretching shade cloth or row cover above your beds so the ground stays cooler and moister longer.

In the past week, using this method of watering and reconditioning the soil, I have set out broccoli (above), mustard and kale transplants and managed to get sugar snap pea seeds to germinate (below).

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. Birds ate the first lima bean sprouts of the seeds I sowed in July. After that, I started setting out more 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

Expanded shale, Great Outdoors


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