Fall Chores

It’s been great garden weather for the past week.  We’ve had enough rain to break our hot, dry summer weather and … finally…. a cool front!   Sweet relief!

So what’s on the garden “to-do” list in September?  

Weed & Pest Control:

  • Grass-burs are suddenly making themselves visible and setting seed.  We have much less problem now than we did a few years ago, but it remains something we work on each year to control persistent weeds without relying on chemicals.   My favorite tool-du-jour is a stand-up garden weeder (google that) that allows me to pull out entire grass-bur plants completely hands-free!     The moist soil makes it easy and catching these and other weeds before the seeds mature keeps the weed-seed bank lower for next season.  It’s also the best time to dig nut grass and those deep-rooted bull nettle and yucca.   
  • Rain brings fire ants to the surface – they actually bring their eggs up into those mounds to keep them drier.  And this makes it much easier to drench them and get a good control.  I use an ounce of orange oil + an ounce of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap in a gallon jug for mound kill.  Pour slowly to let it soak as deeply into the ant hill tunnels as possible.
  • Soft, cool soil brings gophers to the surface and makes for a perfect time to set traps.   We try hard to control any that breach our gopher fences as quickly as possible so they don’t set up housekeeping.

Pull out summer garden left-overs

  • One of the most tiring garden chores is pulling out the giant tomato and okra plants, un-trellising the cucumbers and composting all the left-overs.
  • Pull up drip irrigation, take down shade cloth and get the ground ready for winter cover-crops.

Save seeds and order onion and other winter crop seeds.

  • We start onions from seed this month or next to grow in the greenhouse so they will be ready to set out in January.    Order organic seed early – the best varieties (Texas 1015, Red grano and red burgundy) can be hard to find and will be sold out at most seed houses by later this month.  While we’re at it, go ahead and order seed potatoes for spring.  The best varieties of organic potatoes have to be reserved early.
  • Seed saving happens during the summer and fall and many of the plants are just now finishing a bloom cycle – so now is the time to be sure I’ve saved seed from melons, squash, beans, peas, peppers, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and herbs.

Keep planting fall / winter crops

  • We are getting close to the last dates for planting crops that won’t tolerate a freeze.  Our average first freeze is mid-November, so beans, cucumbers, squash and even potatoes can still be planted quickly with hope for a late fall crop.   It’s also prime time for planting any of the brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, kale, mustard, collards), lettuces, turnips and others.   Fall crops are often easier to grow due to less pressure from bugs.
  • Put out seed for clover and wild flowers (for the bees) and Elbon winter rye (for garden cover)

Continue harvest of late summer crops

  • Okra, peppers, eggplant, and late-planted tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, southern peas, long beans, summer greens will continue to produce until first freeze.   Fill the freezer and pantry with canned goods to keep the family fed this winter.

Take care of the bees

  • Harvest and bottle honey.
  • Inspect hives and treat to control mites.   We use an essential oil treatment containing thymol to treat after the honey supers are removed for the year.   This organic treatment allows the bees to go into preparations for winter in a healthy condition.

“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”— Michael Pollan”

Have a little faith!

Reprinted from February 2012. This one seemed appropriate to me, all over again. Hope you enjoy it, too.


It’s garden time again in Texas.   We’ve already planted cool-loving potatoes and onions, spinach, carrots, lettuce and radishes in the soil.   The more sensitive herbs, the tomatoes and peppers and watermelons that want to be coddled in warmth until all danger of frost has passed, are just breaking ground in their little pots, safely tucked away in the $20 greenhouse.

Plant too early and you may lose the crop to a freeze.  Too late and you limit or lose the growing season.   And that is  just one of the many hurdles Mother Nature keeps in her play book to challenge those who dare play the game.  Farming is one part sweat and sore muscles, one part strategy, one part planning and ten parts faith.

If you’ve never planted those seeds with a deep dependence on the harvest, it’s a miracle you might take for granted.  (We all know where tomatoes really come from right?  The grocery store.)  But if you have, it’s difficult to do the work and not be awed by the process and respectful of the limited role we play, which in all our might as modern farmers is truly very small.

I stand in a field of carefully prepared rows.   We have tested the soil for appropriate nutrients and made supplemental changes to raise the pH and add calcium and magnesium to match the scientifically determined targets.  We’ve planned for crop rotation and plant compatibility (did you even know that beans and tomatoes don’t get along?  Or that borage not only draws bees in to pollinate the plants, but also repels tomato worms?).  We’ve put in the sweat and the planning, not to mention the cash.  Consulted the calendar and watched the weather reports.  And then we cover those little seeds with dirt and stand there looking at our bare ground.

We have every expectation from prior experience that something will grow, no matter that we can scarcely explain the microscopic physical and chemical processes that must occur and we have absolutely no control over the macro-environment.

That’s experience.

We cross our fingers that the weather will cooperate and bring rain as needed, cool temperatures for the right periods of time, warmth when the plants call for it, not too much heat and no hail storms.

That’s hope.

And then we make dinners from the last of last-year’s harvest to make room for the new.  As the cupboards become more and more bare, we pay dues at the Farmer’s Market and spend more than we ought on the new water-saving drip irrigation and build a website promising customers fresh veggies in the spring.  We act on our convictions and stake our livelihood and our reputations on a crop that does not yet exist.

And that’s faith.

___________________________

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  (Hebrews 11:1, KJV).

 

Planning for Pest Control

We have an inch or so of snow on the ground this morning and wind chills in the teens. A hat tip to all of you north of us who are laughing at me right now, but in Texas, we call it a snow day and stay home. Seriously. The roads are an ice rink and almost no-one  knows how to skate. That makes this a great day for blogging!

My favorite gardening activity in January includes daydreaming my way through the new seed catalogs and planning for the awesome harvest I know is coming. As long as we are in planning mode, why not make plans to let the garden control its own bugs this year?

I remember the first year we planted a few veggies on our sandy hillside. We bought a few starts of zucchini at a local store and proudly set them in place. It was only a couple of days before the first squash bugs found them! And what’s a girl to do? I was so squeamish about hand-picking bugs (yeah, got over that one pretty fast!) and when I researched the chemicals for bug control, I knew I didn’t want to put any of it on our food. We tried a couple of the ‘organic’ approved sprays and powders in those early years – until we learned that even OMRI listed (Organic Materials Review Institute) pesticides may not be desireable – and most are not healthy for the bees.

Thankfully, some research – and a few years of experience – have brought us to a place that we no longer need to resort to that kind of control. The garden now mostly controls the bad bugs on its own – with just a little assist from us with a water hose or hand vac. Here’s what we do as we make plans for the garden each year:

1. Rotate the crops. Basically, this means don’t plant vegetables from the same botanical family in the same place more than once every 3 or 4 years (ideally.) There are several other great reasons for rotating crops, including better control of plant diseases and building more fertile soil. But for pest control purposes, you need to know that many garden pests (like potato bugs and squash bugs) leave larvae to overwinter in the soil where they are planted. If you put the same crop back into that place in the spring, those bugs wake up to find breakfast ready and waiting. Moving the crops makes the trip to find that first meal harder and sometimes impossible. In addition, the new crop may actually introduce new plant pheromones that bring new varieties of mycorrhiza (microscopic fungi) and good bacteria that help to control pests and build healthier soil. You can find some excellent advice about this HERE and HERE.

2. Hire some six-legged helpers. Releasing beneficial insects like trichogramma wasps, lacewings, lady bugs or others can give you a head start. We release trichogramma wasps every spring – two or three times, in fact, to help control cabbage loopers, bag worms, army worms and others.  This tiny (1/50th of an inch) wasp doesn’t sting.  Instead, it lays its eggs on the eggs of various moths and as they hatch, they kill the caterpillar before it can hurt your veggies.    Explore some of the beneficial insects you might release HERE (Note:  I’m not involved in any programs that pay me to provide links to their products.  I simply try to find links that will give you a start at doing your own research.)

3. Diversity is a good thing, even in the plant world!  Finding appropriate friends for your crops is truly helpful. Look for which beneficial insects will help with the specific pests you want to address, find herbs and flowers that will attract those to your garden, and plant them close to crops that are good companions. For example, a USDA study found that Sweet Alyssum planted about every 20 feet in lettuce fields in California, would draw in hoverflies which are known to control aphids.  A great list of beneficial insects and the herbs they love was published by The Permaculture Research Institute.  They also have a nice companion planting chart HERE.

4. Keep plants healthy with the right soil amendments.  Healthy plants are more able to tolerate some bug damage.   We have our soil tested every year through the soil lab at Texas A&M as we work to convert our very depleted East Texas sand hill to soil with a more balanced mineral composition. Doing that without any data to guide the process would be just a shot in the dark. It isn’t an exact science, but it does help us to see the effect of our efforts from one year to another and our garden health and yield has really been helped by the process. If you are gardening in raised beds, simply using a good quality balanced soil to fill the beds, incorporating a good amount of finished compost and topping each year with mulch will go a long way!

5. Build a healthy soil microbiome. If your garden is small enough, simply spreading good quality compost each spring will go a long way toward building a healthy microbiome in your soil. Additions of worm castings are particularly advantageous in this regard. We add worm castings to our potting soil for starting seeds as well as adding them to soil as we set out transplants. You can buy worm castings – but the fresher they are the more helpful they will be. Do some local research to find local sources or consider setting up your own wormery. It’s much easier than you might think.  Texas Worm Ranch in Garland, TX is an excellent source of information.

6. Fertilize carefully. Again, if you are growing in small raised beds, you may not need to add any fertilizer more than good cured compost, some worm castings and a good mulch on top. But if you do use other fertilizers, be aware that too much nitrogen may actually encourage bugs like aphids. Different crops require a different balance and timing of nitrogen or potassium especially, and it should be applied at the right time in the right manner.  Other times, an imbalance of soil minerals fostered by improper technique can kill needed soil organisms and leach into ground water to create other problems. There’s some good science to learn and experiment with here. We use only organic fertilizers when we need them and we use a spreadsheet we built to help us stay on track with this.

7. Use cover crops or amendments that provide ‘bio-fumigation’ as they break down. One of the pests in our sandy soil are root-knot nematodes. These little microscopic critters infest the roots of plants – especially okra, tomatoes and melons – and prevent the plant from taking in nutrients from the soil. We plant cover crops of elbon rye in the fall and let it grow all winter. When it is tilled in the spring, the breakdown of the rye kills many of the nematodes.  We also use “Mighty Mustard” pelletized mustard seed fertilizer for additional organic control.  Various clovers, buckwheat, mustard and other cover crops help to control other pests.

8.  Control weeds and dead leaves around your plants and around your garden area.   Weeds provide cover and breeding areas for bugs, so keeping the weeds controlled by mowing, cultivating, weed-eating or with weed-barrier materials in some situations is paramount.   Plan your weed control carefully.

9.  Plant trap crops.   Use specific plants to attract the pests so they will gather there and allow you to use a simple soap spray or vacuum (see below) to remove them.  Sunflowers, for example, attract leaf-footed bugs – the ones that pierce the skin of tomatoes and peppers to suck the juice.   If they are on the sunflowers, they aren’t on your tomatoes.  I plant the giant sunflowers not too far from the end of my tomato patch.   Hubbard squash will draw off some of the squash bugs.

11.  Don’t plant the same variety every year.  Every squash bug in your area knows how to find your zucchini and yellow squash.   They won’t necessarily recognize a unique heirloom variety.  When you find a particular variety you like – don’t plant that one every year, either.  Keep planting new varieties until you find several you like and rotate through them each year.   Keep the bugs guessing.

12.  Hide the veggies.   Use a light floating row cover to cover your susceptible plants immediately after you plant them.   Seal the edges of the row cover by pushing a little dirt over the edge.  Bugs and birds won’t eat what they can’t find.   And the row cover will protect your early crops from a little low temperature or frost, too.   Different row covers serve different purposes.  Here’s one link, but if you can’t find it locally,  I recommend you shop the internet carefully for best pricing and shipping.

10.  Choose your tools.   When we do need to intervene physically, I seldom resort to hand-picking the bugs anymore. In a big garden, it just isn’t feasible.  Instead, we use a little rechargeable wet-vac (hand sized) and simply walk down a row sucking up any bad bugs we see.   A quick dip in soapy water when we’re done and the bugs are gone.   Aphids sometimes require a quick blast of water from a hose.  Oddly, they seldom seem to come back when the other measures here have been taken.

May your plans reward you with your best-ever garden this spring!

No bees (or people) were harmed in the making of this blog. 

 

 

Happy New Year!

 

We haven’t talked to you here in quite a while and you might be thinking we were washed away with the record rains of 2015.  We actually measured a little over 86″ of rain at the garden last year.

 

Farm pic

So yes, it’s pretty wet out there.   Still, lots of good work is going on to make this spring the best garden yet.

For example,  when the summer crops died off, we removed most of the leftovers to add to the compost pile and then planted a cover crop of Elbon rye.     As it grows, it binds nitrogen (aka natural fertilizer) which will be returned to the soil when it is mowed and/or tilled later. The cover crop also prevents germination of weed seeds that might be looking for a start,  prevents erosion from all our rain, and when it is tilled in later, the decomposition will help to eliminate the harmful root knot nematodes that infest many of the vegetable crops in East Texas – so it’s also a natural pesticide.     That’s a lot of good to come from a little grass, no?

Garlic and shallots are already planted.  Onions will be out soon.   Carrots, peas and spinach are being planted in the garden right now (under floating row cover).  And it is already time to start sets for many of the spring veggies.   Right now (or last month, whichever comes first)  is time to start seeds indoors for cabbages, kales, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, lettuces,celery, herbs and spring greens.

Starts 1_9_16

We won’t be starting our seeds for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other summer crops for a couple more weeks.  Some cannot be safely set out until after our average ‘last frost’ date of March 15.   (Many will require frost protection even then.)  We don’t want the starts to become root-bound or grow too large in their pots before transplanting, so we’ll wait a couple of weeks still to start those.

We expect to start regular CSA deliveries the first of May, but hopefully the earliest spring greens will be available by March.  Sure hope so!  We’re getting hungry for that fresh spinach!

Welcome to 2016!  It’s going to be such a great year!!

Summer Leftovers

We’ve had a great summer break here on the knoll (that’s a ‘hill’ to most Texans).   Now. just as the weather begins to cool a bit, it’s time to get back out to the garden and take care of fall chores.

Even though our summer CSA ended at the end of July, the garden has continued to produce on a smaller scale.   The heat-loving crops that were so very slow to start last spring finally got going.  Better late than never, right?

Melons and okra were both particularly slow getting started across East Texas.  Everyone was a little disappointed not to find their favorite summer treats ready for the 4th of July picnics, but I have to say you are missing a treat if you don’t take advantage of these fall bonanzas!   Get yourself down to the Farmer’s Market and find some on Saturday!

I pickle some of the okra (the littlest ones) and dry others for chips.

What’s that?  You haven’t tried okra chips, you say?  Maybe we will bring some for sharing to the Fall Festival at Athens Organic.  That’s October 24, so you might want to pencil that in to your calendar.  <hint> <hint>.

Herbs, of course, love summer!

Hidden among the weeds are some nice stands just perfect for harvest; basil, mints, sage, oregano, lemon grass, ginger, and lemon balm,   Not to mention some of the natives like blackberry (root) and Sassafras leaves (gumbo file).   We’ll make some of the basil and mint into pesto.  Whatever survives fresh eating will be frozen in ice-cube trays to use later.  Other herbs will be dried to use as spices and teas.

Ginger is one of the best to keep around.  It’s one of the healthiest herbs out there!    We add fresh ginger juice to a hot lemonade/raw honey/ginger tea to soothe (or prevent) colds and flu. (Disclaimer:  I’m a gardener, not a doc.  Just sayin’.)

Of course, since we work hard at finding and developing heirloom varieties that grow well in our sandy East Texas soil, we also save a lot of seed for next year’s garden. It assures us of a good source of seed and contributes to preserving this genetic resource for the future.

Seed saving isn’t the most picturesque of our chores.  Plants gone to seed blend in well with the weeds that got away from us somewhere along the way.

summer weeds

How to resolve this?   Most of the area (except for the smaller winter garden area) will be mowed, tilled and planted in a winter cover crop of elbon rye (prevents erosion, helps control root-knot nematodes and provides for lots of nice organic nitrogen in the spring.)

Then we’ll get busy on our winter projects.  A new composting area, planting of fruit and pecan trees, removal of invasive trees, fencing….    I’ll keep you up to date on those as they come about.

In the meantime, would you like to have coffee and talk garden?   I’ll be at the Athens Organic coffee shop (Hwy 31 E of Athens) about 9:00 AM for the next few Tuesday mornings.   We could plan winter gardens or seed-starting schedules for spring.  You bring your seed catalogs and I’ll bring mine.

Market on the 4th!

And what better way to start the celebration than by meeting friends at the market!

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We’ll have lots of blueberries and wild blackberries in the morning!

A few of the great heirloom tomatoes – Cherokee Purple and Black Krim.   Cherry tomatoes – Ildi (a little yellow burst of sweet) and my favorite – Texas Wild tomatoes.  

The Texas Wild is a ‘currant’ type tomato and is the only one I know of growing naturally in Texas.  The size is small – but the flavor is Texas size!

Peppers:  Pasillo Bajio (the traditional pepper for mole), Cayenne, Pepperoncino

Herbs: Sweet Basil, Peppermint, spearmint, sage, lemon balm and lemon grass.  

Potted herbs:  Lemon Balm and Calendula

Hope we see you there!

Tomato Time!

We can’t be at the market every week, as much as we miss seeing you all.

But it’s TOMATO TIME!

Black Krim and Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes.
Black Krim and Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes.

You’ll find our heirloom tomatoes (Cherokee and Black Krim)  for sale out at Athens Organic Supply – just about a mile outside the loop on Hwy 31 toward Tyler.   BLUEBERRIES, too!

Hope you’ll stop and get some!  And we’ll see you next week (a special July 4 First Monday) at the market!

Silver Linings……

Just want you to know there are silver linings behind all those rain clouds we had for so long.

bull nettle

One might be that really difficult ‘weeds’ like bull-nettle are much easier to dig out when the ground is so soft.

Not easy, mind you.  Just easier.

We had to dig this one now because sweet potatoes are waiting to be planted right there.

Another plus would be the pretty Cherokee Purple tomatoes in the background.  They have such a great set of fruit this year, thanks, in part, to the cooler weather.  They are not quite ready for market yet, but getting close.  By next First Monday weekend, we’ll have plenty of heirloom tomatoes for you.

We won’t wait that long to see you again, though.  We’ll be at market this weekend, too!

Lots of good heirlooms are already ready!    By Friday,  we should be able to drive past the mud-holes and down to the garden to pick up harvest.

This weekend, we’ll have new potatoes – Purple Majesty, Mountain Rose and Fingerling potatoes.  Quite the treat for the eyes as well as the palate.  Purple Majesty, in particular, has the highest level (among potatoes) of chemicals called anthocyanins – the anti-oxidants that help our bodies repair damage from sun and stress.

We’ll have Texas sweet, white bermuda, and sweet red onions as well as some red scallions.  We’ll harvest a few of the smaller garlics, too.

Rat-tail radish will be back this week!  This is the aerial radish we introduced last year.  We eat the seed-pod rather than the root.  They have the bite and crispness of a radish in a finger-friendly package.   We’ll have some for sampling, as well as some kohlrabi.   This will be our last week to offer kohlrabi until fall.  Hope you won’t miss the chance to try it.

We’ll have New Zealand spinach, Swiss chard, a small amount of Scarlet, Dutch Blue and Lacinato kale.   Some huge, beautiful Frisee endive.

Plenty of fresh herbs:  oregano, thyme, peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, dill, sage, and cilantro.

Hope we get to see you there!

 

 

Still paddling….

Anyone up for a slide show?  We can look at what’s working in the garden and forget our troubles for a little while.

This is some of what has made it through the spring so far.

I haven’t taken any pictures of washes that reappear or grow with each rain, or the weeds that are certainly outgrowing the corn.

But sometimes, it’s good to just count our blessings.

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We’ll be at Farmer’s Market this weekend with some of this.    Come try a kohlrabi and learn how to make kale chips.

We’ll be in the parking lot at First State Bank off the square in Athens because the carnival for Old Fiddler’s Reunion will have our usual site.  Look for Henrietta!  If the weather breaks, she’ll come out to join the fun.  🙂

Curious about Kohlrabi

That weird looking vegetable in your CSA box and at the market stand.  The one that looks like an alien spaceship.  Or maybe the vegetable version of an octopus.  You know.  The one that is too strange to take a chance on……

Kohlrabi

It’s kohlrabi.

And not trying it would be a mistake, because kohlrabi has made the superfood list for it’s combination of super nutrition (it may help lower blood pressure and support healthy hearts) and great flavor.  You can delve into the details of nutrition by clicking HERE.

You may have received either Green or Purple kohlrabi and they are just the same – once they are peeled, that is.  We plant both in our garden because green kohlrabi tends to be ready for harvest about 2 to 3 weeks earlier than the purple.  Planting both extends the season for one of our favorite veggies.

Part of the cabbage family, it has a mild, slightly sweet flavor that complements almost any meal or stands on its own as a snack food.

As you would with a root vegetable, the first step to prepare or store your kohl is to remove the leaf stems.  They will break off easily at their base.  Clean and save them as you would kale or collard greens.  They can be used exactly the same way and have a pleasant flavor somewhat reminiscent of broccoli.

If you want to store the kohlrabi for a while, it will keep on a counter top for 3-5 days or in the crisper section of your refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

To use, you’ll want to peel off the outer tough skin with a paring knife or potato peeler.  The white, tender, inner portion can be cut into matchsticks for snacking or shredded and used raw in salads or coleslaw. You’ll find some great pictures if you click HERE.

You might also slice it thinly to add to a stir-fry or cube it and add to soups or stews.  As with all things, a quick internet search for recipes will most definitely bring you a variety of ideas.

I do hope you’ll give this super-vegetable a try.  It isn’t just healthy.  It’s really good eating!

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