Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Gardens

My old garden is producing like mad. The tomatoes are by far, the stars of the show. I tried several new things this year, I started my own seeds, I'm using trellis supports instead of tomato cages, and I'm heavily pruning the plants. Add that to 9 years of soil building and it has made for a bumper crop. These pics are from early June. Before this, 2007 was my best year for tomatoes (and yes, I remember because my son had just been born) and 2009 was a pretty good year too (year my daughter was born). 2014 blows them both out of the running, and I'm so pleased I can have a good garden without also having a baby! We have been enjoying fresh tomatoes every dinner, eating loads of fresh salsa, over a gallon of frozen tomatoes so far, plus sharing with friends (and by sharing, I mean texting a neighbor as we head out of town for the weekend and letting her help herself from the garden). The green beans have also produced well. The last two years have been a bust on green beans with some sort of rust or wilt attacking them early and wiping the whole patch out before any harvests. 2014 was a strong year for them. I planted the same Bush Bean Trio Mix from Botanical Interests. The purples produced first, followed by yellow, and a finish with the greens. This all happened over a approximately 3 week period. We ate all we could, shared some and then washed, cut, blanched and froze the rest. It ended up being 6 quart bags of frozen beans. Not too shabby for a 20 foot row. The potatoes were okay this year. I expected more for how many I put in. The onions did well, I had about a dozen that were huge, bigger than softballs and the rest were about tennis ball size, and of course a few piddly little odd ones. The June 9th garden harvest was pretty impressive. It is so encouraging to know that a garden can be like this, because it certainly is not happening like that at the new house. So far, all of the plants there are just limping along. The seedlings that went in over a month ago are now only 6 inches tall, bugs have eaten many of my seedlings to the ground, and all in all the plants just look anemic and pitiful. I know it will get better. In fact, I have even started hauling finished compost from the old house to the new house. After just one application, the poor puny new plants put on a new set of greener leaves. Next will be to improve our chicken composting area at the new house. Ideally, the girls will be situated over a resting garden bed. They will spend a season scratching and improving the soil, then they will get moved to a new spot leaving the rich one for planting.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bamboo with a Story

The bamboo forest is a major feature of our new yard, we love it and a few days ago learned more about the history of our house and now we love our bamboo even more. Here is the story, as heard by Curtis from a neighbor (and it aligns with other house history we have heard as well). The original owner of our house was a pilot who flew in Vietnam. We were told that he flew some of the first troops into Vietnam and also some of the last troops out of Vietnam. On one of his flights, he brought home a clump of bamboo for his house in Dallas. It started as a little patch... back in the 1960s. Today we have an almost impenetrable wall of bamboo along the east side of the property line. It is about 16 feet thick and stretches the full length of the back and side yards of the house. From what we can tell, our forest is made up of two kinds of bamboo. Both grow to about 25-30 feet tall. One is a pale green with a thinner almost cane like stalk, probably 1 inch in diameter or less. It is easy to snip down with a pair of pruners at almost any height. It is almost crispy in texture when cut. It comes up as a thin, fernlike shoot then grows thicker and taller with time. The second kind of bamboo is a deep green that starts at about 1 inch in diameter and grows to 2-3 inches in diameter over time. The cane wall is thick and woody and we need a saw to cut mature canes down. This one sprouts as a thick fleshy spear poking out of the soil. It grows amazingly fast, from first little poke out of the ground, to 8 feet high in a matter of 2 days. The first day the sprouts are easy to kick over, they snap off at ground level, they have a texture almost like celery (so rigid, but not tough). We learned that if you cut off a few day old cane of this bamboo it will ooze water at an impressive rate. Curtis drank some, and said it tasted like plain water, and he did not die from it, yet. This appears to be the more vigorous of the two kinds.

Fruits, Veggies and Herbs May 2014

For Mother's Day May 10th weekend, I was given the first two of the planned veggie planting beds. They are made of pressure treated lumber and measure 4x12 feet and are 10 inches deep. Curtis build them with a 6 inch wide frame along the top of the bed, this makes it look nicer but also makes it much more comfortable to kneel or sit on the edge of the garden bed. Once they were complete, we filled them with about 6 wheelbarrow loads each of professional veggie mix and compost from Soil Building Systems. Bed 1 is planted with Hill Country Okra, Eggplant, Tomatillos, squash and swiss chard. Bed 2 has two transplanted tomato plants (they were about 3 feet high when I moved them, much to big to transplant well, but they are surviving and setting more fruit, they just look awful) and 7 pepper plants. The fence garden is packed full of just about everything else I have bought or hauled in from the old garden. 14 fruit trees, squash, kale, swiss chard, sage, basil (most eaten by bugs so far), asparagus, jeurasalem artichokes, real artichokes, hyacinth bean, luffa gourds, mint. The picture below is before the compost and mulch were added to along the fence. The garden at the old house is doing amazingly well. The last 10 years of working on the soil has clearly paid off. We have been harvesting: kales, mustard greens, herbs, and about a quart of green beans. The tomatoes are still growing, but not showing any signs of ripening yet. May 26th we got a load of acid lovers compost mix from SBS and planted a blueberry bush and a grape vine as well as 2 lantana, and 2 bulbine (in the front yard, near the mimosa tree). We are learning that we have way more shade in this yard than we expected. Great for keeping things cool, but poses some interesting gardening challenges.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Goodfellow Gardens--a new start

I'm getting a completely fresh start as a gardener in our new yard. While the yard itself is huge, it was filled with kneee high burclover (yes, dog burs instead of grass), and bamboo. There are also lots of lovely trees, a huge area covered in vinca major as a groundcover. We have great plans for this plot. The plans for this yard are to be veggie gardens in raised beds. The beds will each be 4x12 feet in area and 10 inches deep. They will be aligned east west along the far north edge of our yard (in front of a south facing fence). We will buy soil from the local dirt store as well as amend with chicken manure and rabbit pellets (Heidi got a pet bunny and it makes a ton of pellets) to get them started and then add extra compost as it is available. The edges of the yard will be filled in with lush greenery and edible perennials as time and money allow. The front yard will be an entirely different project and we may enlist the help of a garden designer to get an overall cohesive look for the public side of the house. I love to do the work, but I lack the vision and artistic eye that it takes to put together a nice looking garden. The backyard will be my wild and green eden of veggies and vines and chickens. The bamboo has been a hot topic since we first saw the house. Curtis and I love it. It is an amazing barrier along one side of the property. The grove is about 15 feet thick and stretches the entire 100 feet of the east edge of our backyard. It makes a lovely whoosing sound in the wind, the filtered light coming down through the bamboo canes is amazing, and it forms a nearly impenetrable forest and wild space for the kids to roam and explore (they already have paths through the forest). We love it, but the reactions of others have ranged from horror to disgust ( I have been told that it will take over the yard, stab through the feet of my children, and come up miles away from its original location and that it cannot be killed with any chemical known to man). I think this bad-boy reputation makes me love it even more. We both see it as a beautiful backdrop and as for taking over the yard, we can see that in 1 year of neglect (how long this house has been vacant) the bamboo sent up about 2 dozen new canes 10 feet into the lawn area. Andrew (age 7) cut these out with hedge loppers in under an hour (and then begged me not to throw away the canes because he wanted them for building material). Since time is short before the Texas heat hits, I have been in a rush to get something, anything, in the ground. The moving trucks rolled on May 2nd and by May 7th we had our first herb beds and 11 fruit trees in the ground. I have been digging and hauling some of my easily divisible herbs over to the new house. Peppermint, speramint, thyme, oregano, lemon balm, comfry and horseradish, all divided periennials from my old garden. My van load from the old house looked and smelled wonderful, well all except the plastic totes and buckets full of compost and chicken run dirt (gold for the gardens, really). I turned and amended the soil (2 bags landscape mix, 2 bags moo-nure, 2 bags mushroom compost) in two areas one in the backyard along the west fence (east facing bed) near the gate and one outside the fence near the entry to the garage (west facing along a brick wall, where some landscaping shrubs have died out). I also put in about half of my started herb seedlings in these two areas: tetra dill, sweet basil, large leaf basil, cilantro, sage. These little peat pot seedlings (about 1 inch tall) will hopefully do well. On a fluke, at the end of my grocery trip, I noticed that my grocery store had clearanced off the fruit trees they had. At just three dollars per tree (and with Curtis egging me on) it was hard to be restrained. I bought 14 trees: 2 White Babcock Peaches, 3 Desert Gold Peach, 4 Nectarines, 4 plums, 1 apricot. We got all but 3 trees planted last night (May 7th) and today, May 8th we have had a lovely day of soaking rains. Perfect timing, unless it is all washed away in this downpour! The lumber for the raised beds is in the yard, ready for assembly and Saturday I will spend the day buying truckloads of good soil for the veggie beds. Waiting in pots are seedlings of squash, okra, eggplant and herbs to be planted just as soon as the soil is in place.

A Recap and a Fresh Start

While I may have been bad at keeping up this digital garden log, I have not stopped gardening. 2013 proved to be a hot and dry year in the garden with a few amazing new successes. In the spring, I sold over $200 worth of volunteer seedlings from the garden (mint, purple basil, garlic chives, oregano, parsley) I grew 12 foot tall sunflowers with dinner plate sized flowers. The 2013 tomatoes were lackluster, but I learned a great quick preservation method that served me well. As random small handfuls of tomatoes would ripen, I'd rinse them and drop them onto a baking dish in the freezer, once the dish was full of frozen tomatoes, I dumped it all into a gallon zip top bag and stashed it for later. Later, when it was cool and lovely out those frozen tomatoes became spaghetti sauce and chili. It was easy to peel the frozen tomatoes after floating them for a few seconds in warm water. In this way, I was able to make great use of an otherwise slow and spotty harvest, and also took care of the icky thick skinned tomatoes of late summer. Some sort of weird rust attacked my beans and I ended up loosing the entire crop after just a few harvests. Bummer. I also grew luffa sponge gourds for the first time and got over 20 finished gourds. I gave luffas away as gifts and I have a stash of them in the house for personal use. The luffa vine was vigorous to say the least, it took over my arbor, ran along the fence and up into the neighbors trees. They loved the heat, and worried me that they did not flower until August and no fruit set was apparent until end of August. After that the squash grew incredibly fast, baby fruit in the morning had grown more than an inch in length by evening. Very impressive. They are edible, but not tasty in my opinion, kind of like a soapy flavored cucumber with the texture of overripe zucchini. Before the first freeze in November, Heidi and I harvested tons of Geonovese Basil from the garden and put up 4 pints of pesto. We love pesto, but the genovese basil had a bit of a harsh licorice taste to it. I don't mind it, but definitely prefer sweet basil. Winter 2013-14 started and ended with ice storms and snow days. On Dec 7th we got cold rain followed by ice followed by snow that shut down schools for both Friday and Monday. Icemageddon was the unofficial name of the weekend. In January 2014, I tried starting my own seeds for the first time. In typical Horton fashion, my wonderful hubby amped up this hobby for me by gifting me lights and a seed heating mat. I had SO much fun with my little seedling babies. Seed starting was a fantastic success and a real joy. Some of my lessons learned from seed starting, which I plan to do again and again. 1) good light bulbs, all the time. At first I was frugal with the light usage and used a timer to turn the lights on and off. By the third round of seedlings I started, the lights were on all the time and my baby plants were compact, deep green and just lovely. 2) As much as I wanted to love the handmade newspaper pots, they were just not that great. Perhaps it was technique, or materials (I used both newsprint and brown packing paper) but the pots did not hold up well, dried out too fast, and the seedlings did not flourish in the paper pots. 3) I liked the dehydrated peat pellets fairly well, they were the easiest and most fun to use. I had best luck with these by backfilling the rest of the container with vermiculite granules. 4) The best containers I used were styrofoam cups with holes poked in the bottom. 5) EACH and every plant needs a marker. I won't remember what I planted no matter how excited I am. The 2014 garden looks amazing, possibly my best year yet. My home started tomato seedlings are growing great, today, on May 8th they are taller than the garden fence and have good fruit set. I am trying two new trellis methods, and heavy pruning to encourage fruit more than just pretty foliage. The onions are bulbing nicely, the potatoes are growing great and blooming as of late April. The beans are late, but not yet affected by any rust or virus. This success in the garden is bitter sweet because I probably won't be able to enjoy the final harvests of this year's garden. On April 30th we closed on a new house, just a few miles away. It offers us much more space both inside the house and outside in the yard. The odd way that the contract period went on this purchase, we were never really sure if we would end up buying the house or not. So I planned and planted for both gardens, full steam. All of my early veggies and seedlings went into the garden on Mount Castle and then I started a whole new batch of heat loving veggies for the new house on Goodfellow. We will be keeping our old house as a rental property, so I have been visiting my old garden every few days. I am harvesting tons of kale (red russian, lacatino, and blue curled), mustard greens (5 varieties!), and herbs. Depending on when we get renters, I may or may not get to harvest the potatoes, beans and tomatoes, but that is okay. My hope is that we will find a renter who loves gardens, or at least is willing to learn. If not, it is all just annuals anyway. We have already started the fun at the new house.