Monday, April 25, 2011

The Grackle Moon (belated)

Ok, I know this is a week late, but better late than never. I need to keep my moonly record going of my garden. Even if it's kind of depressing because of this horrible drought we're in.

But there are grackles. In Phoenix Moon Grove's Texas-centric moon naming scheme, the last full moon was the Grackle Moon, in honor of the male Great-tailed Grackles strutting their stuff for the females. A lot of people don't like grackles, but in my usual tradition of finding admirable qualities in critters most people hate, I think grackles are kind of cool in a way, with their iridescent black feathers and strange calls.

Though, I personally think of grackles more in the winter, when large flocks of them gather in the parking lots of malls just in time for Christmas shopping. But I suppose naming a spring moon after them when it's their mating season is fine too.

However, the bigger nature-related story happening this month is the severe drought and widespread wildfires in Texas. First we had that hard freeze in February, which killed (and therefore, dried out) a bunch of plants, and then in April we're having weather more typical of July. Not a good combination. I'm trying to water my garden every day just to keep things alive, but many of the newly-sprouted plants are shriveling up and dying despite my best efforts. I can tell already that 2011 is not going to be a good year for a lot of my crops.

One thing that's helped is I got a couple of bales of straw from my fiance's father to use for mulch. It came too late for a few things, but I'm working on spreading it on now, and have got about a third of my garden done so far.
Here are a couple of watermelons just sprouted. I had several more than just started germinating, but dried out too much and died.
Here's the only two Tromboncino squashes I've managed to get going so far. I planted the rest of my seeds, so I hope at least a few more manage to come up. Last year, my squash grew out into the yard, so this year I planted my Tromboncino squash and watermelons in the yard to begin with, right next to the garden. It's not like any grass is growing!
I also planted some yellow crookneck squash, but despite spraying neem oil, three of the six I had already have borers anyway. Maybe I didn't spray them often enough. You can clearly see in this picture which plants are still hanging on and which ones are probably goners. The squash vine borers came really early this year, maybe because of the early onset of summer heat. They're not supposed to show up until May, which would have given my poor squash plants a little more time to grow before they had to fend them off.
I've got all my sweet potatoes planted so far, and they're hanging in there. It wouldn't surprise me if I didn't get a very impressive crop this year, though.
The most disappointing thing is the garlic. Last year I had such a great garlic harvest, but this year is a completely different story. In this picture, elephant garlic is to the right, and Chet's Italian Red is the shriveled up stuff on the left. That was my best garlic last year, and this year I'm afraid I'm might not get any to survive, let alone give a good harvest. Really, I planted 14 varieties this year, and I'm afraid I might completely lose some varieties. The hard freeze and then early onset of summer heat is just killing them, no matter what I do.

And I was afraid I planted too much garlic last fall!
The pole beans are doing OK so far. I'm surprised that out of the three varieties I planted, Cherokee Trail of Tears, Blue Coco, and Turkey's Craw, that Blue Coco is doing the best. It's already starting to flower.
I'm still losing peppers and eggplants, and I didn't even have very many to begin with. Habanero and Fish all died, and of the varieties I have left, I only have one or two plants of each.
These are some cucumbers wilting in the heat. I hope the straw helps, and wasn't put down too late. Cucumbers seem to be more sensitive to extreme heat than other members of their family.
The bush beans are also just barely hanging on. A lot of them just didn't sprout at all, or started to sprout, but got too dried out and died. It just got too hot too fast. It's supposed to be in the 80's this time of year at most. Mature plants with deep root systems would probably be OK, but not these little baby guys.
Here's my ONE lonely melon. After the first batch I planted all dried up except this one, I used up the rest of my seeds replanting. I hope some of them come up and make it.
I might as well give up on the turnips, and maybe the beets and carrots too. The radishes and cilantro are already starting to bolt.
Speaking of bolting, the escarole (to the right) has pretty blue flowers, which I didn't expect. I thought it would look like lettuce flowers, which are fluffy, white dandelion type things. To the right you can see my poor fava beans, which may also be a total loss. Like with the garlic, I think that hard freeze hurt them, and then they didn't have time to recover before it got so hot and dry. It's so disappointing too, because they were looking so good all through the winter.
The leeks are also bolting before they even managed to get very big. I've eaten a couple of them, but they never got anywhere near as big as the ones at the store. Again, I think it just got too hot too fast for them, so they skipped that "getting fatter" part and went straight to the "making seed" part. I'm not sure if I should let them go to seed or pull them up.
There are a few bright spots of hope (if you grow enough things, then there's always SOMETHING that survives). The tomatillos seem to be doing pretty well.
The tomatoes are also doing surprisingly well. I've even got fruits forming on some of them! This here is a Cherokee Purple. I guess I planted them early enough so they had time to get established before the heat set in. Now the heat just seems to be making them set fruit faster.
I built some tomato cages out of a roll of wire. Managed to get 10 of them out of one roll, so not all my tomatoes are caged yet, but it's a start.

This is such a terrible drought, I'm wondering if this means any plants I have that make it through had better get their seeds saved, because they must be very tough plants indeed. It's like a major natural selection event.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Earth Day!

I know the full moon was Monday, but I've been crazy busy this week and haven't had a chance to do a full moon garden post yet. I'll try to get one done as soon as I can, but in the meantime, here are some pictures of our recent trip to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. It looks like we were a little early for Golden-cheeked Warbler fledgelings, but it was still an enjoyable hike.

If anyone knows what species of lizard this is, please let me know. He was running around on the rocks near the trailhead. He obviously "owned" those rocks, and would puff up and bob up and down when we got too close. He zipped around really fast, had a rather upright stance, ran with his tail sticking up in the air, and had some really cool stripes on his sides.

Edit: Found out it's a Texas Earless Lizard, and a male one at that. Cool!
This is the fallen tree area along the main trail that has a lovely view of the Hill Country.
Ancient Ashe Junipers with Bear Grass underneath. The blooms make it pretty obvious that Bear Grass is not a true grass but actually in the yucca family.
Here's the ONE Golden-cheeked warbler we saw, though we heard more off in the distance. We'll have to come back in about a month which is closer to the time we went last year and saw lots of fledgeling warblers (and I forgot my camera that time, so I'd better not forget it again next time). Golden-cheeked warblers are one of the two federally listed endangered species that this wildlife refuge was created to protect, the other being the Black-capped Vireo which I've never seen before. They live in a different habitat in a different area of the refuge. Maybe next time I can try to find some vireos too.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

News of the Cold-Blooded

I just remembered I never told you what happened with that frog I found under the rock. Well, after it warmed up, I looked at the rock again, and it looked like the dry grass Daniel had piled around it had been pushed out from the inside. I lifted up the rock, and the frog was gone. Just as I had hoped for! The frog really was just hibernating and woke up and left. I hope it found its way safely back to water.

In other news, yesterday while I was watering my pole beans, I was startled by a very large Texas Spiny Lizard darting from a hole it had dug, partially uprooting one of my pole beans. These lizards live in trees, not in burrows, so I never expected to see one digging a hole. The hole got partially caved in as I watered.

Thinking about it, I realized it might have been laying eggs in the hole, like a turtle. I did some Googling, and found out that yes, spiny lizards lay their eggs like that as well.

I just went out to check on where the hole was, and it's been filled in. I can still tell where it was because of the pole bean plant that's now leaning over at a 45 degree angle. But where the hole used to be looks like someone came and filled the dirt back in and smoothed it out. It really wasn't like that when I left it. The water caved it in a little, but I don't think it got caved in all the way once I was done watering.

I hope that means the lizard came back and finished the job. There could be lizard eggs in there! Daniel said maybe we can dig them up and try to hatch them inside, but I figure it's best to let nature take its course (no matter how fun watching baby lizards hatch sounds). I hope they do well and eat LOTS of bugs in the garden once they do hatch.

Friday, April 8, 2011

My Soil Test Results are In

That was certainly worth the $25. Now I have some real data, and there are some surprises, mainly about how GREAT my soil is! I am never again going to tolerate people saying the soil around here is lousy (like that guy at Lowes the other day trying to sell me a bunch of stuff to fix it). I was careful to send in a sample of soil that I hadn't added much of anything to yet, just to see what I have to start with here, and it turns out that my soil is awesome!

The pH
I suspected my pH would be alkaline because of the limestone, but it only came up "slightly alkaline" at 7.6. (I was thinking it would be something more like 8.) That's not too bad, really. Most plants would do fine on that except for certain ones that really want acid soil, like potatoes and blueberries.

The soil nutrients plants need the most of are nitrogen (N), phophorus (P), and potassium (K). Those are the three numbers you see on all fertilizer packages, the percents of each of those elements in the fertilizer, in that order. For each of the nutrients, A&M gives me my level in ppm, and a "critical level", which it says is "the point at which no additional nutrient is recommended". What I got was:

Nitrogen: 5 ppm
Phosphorus: 78 ppm (CL = 50 ppm)
Potassium: 338 ppm (CL = 175 ppm)

That means the only nutrient I'm short on is N. My P and K are well above the level needed for any crops I would grow. And here I was going easy on the N if I added any fertilizer, because I'm always hearing that adding too much N is bad for fruit and root crops, because it makes them just grow leaves. In reality, that all depends on what your soil already has, and actually I should be adding fertilizers that have high N numbers and the P and K might as well be zero. Adding more P and K is just going to waste. That knowledge alone is worth getting the soil test, because otherwise I would be wasting money on fertilizers I don't need.

Looking at A&M's website on how much N different fruit and vegetable crops need, it ranges from 0 ppm for beans (which can get nitrogen from the air) to 100 ppm for potatoes. I'm also surprised that potatoes need so much nitrogen, because again I was told too much makes them grow all leaves and no tubers. On the other hand, Carol Deppe says potatoes are relatively high in protein, at least compared to other starchy vegetables, and proteins are made of amino acids, which contain nitrogen. (Legumes are high in protein because they can get nitrogen from the air, but any other plants need it from the soil.)

I think I've solved the mystery of my lousy potato yield last year. Turns out they needed a lot more nitrogen! I didn't bother with potatoes this year, but now I know what to do for next year to get a good potato crop.

Other Elements
Just to be sure, I ordered the full soil test that tested ALL the nutrients that matter to plants, not just NPK. They were all above the CL, except for sulfur which was only slightly low at 11 ppm, while the CL is 13 ppm. A&M said, "Available sulfur may be found deeper in soil profile, thus limiting any response to added sulfur." I guess that means it's not low enough to worry about.

As I suspected, my calcium was high, but I had no idea it would be THAT high, at 9,341 ppm, while the CL is 180 ppm. According to commenters on GardenWeb, that could be because the soil sample I sent in had little bits of limestone in it, which were dissolved with A&M's extraction methods and led to that really high number. Since in nature limestone dissolves much more slowly than that, the actual Ca available to plants is probably not quite so high, though I'm sure it's still plentiful.

Organic Matter
My organic matter is 6.34%, which seemed low, until I started Googling on how much organic matter soil is supposed to have, since A&M didn't mention it. In a natural setting at least, organic matter ranges from 1% in a forest soil to >5% in a grassland. Which means that my organic matter is actually on the high side! That's good. And again, this is without me adding any more. Of course, like any good gardener, I'm always adding more organic matter in the form of compost. As I understand it, you can't really have too much, and it's always being used up and has to be replenished anyway. But it's good to know that I'm starting with a healthy amount of OM to begin with.

Soil Improvement Goals
Now with good, hard data, instead of guesses and people trying to sell me stuff, I can concentrate any improvements on what I really need, which seems to be little more than nitrogen and acid. Luckily, there are a lot of good organic soil additives out there that are high in nitrogen and may also be acidic. Planting lots of legumes is also supposed to help, since they fix nitrogen in their roots, and then when they die and decay, they release that nitrogen into the soil. Though I'm not sure how much N legumes just use for themselves, and how much they really put into the soil for other plants to use.

Daniel wonders if having low nitrogen is typical for soils of this area. The native plant community does have a lot of legumes in it, from bluebonnets to rattlebush to mesquite trees. That may be because the soil is just naturally low in nitrogen.

Well, that shouldn't be too hard to fix, and it's good that nitrogen's the only real problem I have to deal with. It will be interesting to get a second soil test in a year or two to see if I've made any difference. That time I will get one of their simpler tests, since my other minerals are fine, and probably won't change much from now on.