Monday, September 26, 2011

It's Finally Officially Autumn!

Friday was the Autumn Equinox, so now for six months the days will be shorter than the nights. That's got to make it cooler, right? We did have a cold front right on the equinox, which made temperatures pleasantly cool... for about a day. We also got some rain, but yesterday it got back up to 102, and they're forecasting a similar day today. I don't think it's supposed to be 100 degrees in late September. Nineties maybe, but the 100's should be over by now.

It's got to cool down sometime, right?

Autumn is traditionally a time to celebrate the harvest, but this year's severe drought has reminded me that sometimes harvest time is a tough time. Sometimes the harvest isn't so bountiful, and you wonder how this little bit of food is going to last you the winter.

It's reminded me that it's probably a good thing I don't have to live off the land myself right now.

I wonder if this is why the fall and winter months have a lot of holidays where people get together. Maybe harvest festivals and Yuletide feasts and gift-giving initially served a survival purpose. Maybe this was a time for the community to get together to help those who didn't end up with as much bounty that year.

And it's not like we're totally immune to that today. The severe drought in Texas is devastating Texas agriculture. Farmers are losing their livelihoods, food prices are going up because of it, and all this on top of the ongoing financial crisis which looks to be headed towards a so called "Double Dip Recession".

Yesterday I finally used a bookstore gift card I received as a gift last Yule to buy a copy of The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe, author of How to Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, which I've already written about on this blog. I enjoyed her previous book so much, that when I found out she had written another, one about how to help your garden survive hard times (and in return, have your garden help you), I wanted it very badly. When I saw that the bookstore had one autographed copy left (she must have done a book signing there some time that I hadn't heard about), I decided that would be a good use for my gift card.

I'm having trouble resisting the urge to spend the whole day reading this book from cover to cover, but I have some stuff to do for my PAID job I should do first! But I will post a blog entry about it when I finish.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Importance of Fertilizer

I've been growing vegetables since I was 12, and as a kid I remember we always had plenty of Miracle-Gro on hand to fertilize our plants with. I followed the directions on the package, and mixed some up every two weeks to feed the plants. Sometimes I'd do it even more, because more is better, right?

By the time I was a teenager I started getting into organics, and trying to work with Mother Nature instead of against her, since that never seems to work out. I started reading about how over-use of chemical fertilizers is bad, how it doesn't do much to help build up the soil, how it gives a burst of nutrition and then runs off quickly and pollutes waterways, and how over-fertilization can actually make your plants less healthy and less resistant to pests and disease.

I still believe all these things, but I think over the years I might have gone too far in the other extreme. When I was an undergrad I had a plot at a community garden, and I never put any fertilizer on my plants besides compost, which we had an ample supply of. I had bumper crops, so it seemed like fertilizer was completely unnecessary and a big waste of money. Plants do just fine with the nutrition Nature gives them, already present in the soil.

But now that I have my own private garden again, I'm starting to figure out that plants really do sometimes need a bit of a nutrition boost now and again. The trick is to know exactly what your plants really need, and in what form is best to give it to them.

Some of the garden failures I've had in the past couple of years have been due to easily identifiable causes. Not having any rain, for example, or squash vine borers killing all my squash. No amount of fertilizer would change that. But a few things have been a mystery to me, and those things might be explained by a nutritional deficiency.

One problem is how my pepper seedlings never seem to thrive. At first I thought it was because they were too cold. I start my nightshade seedlings in the garage around Yuletide, and it's cold in there, though not freezing. The tomatoes do fine, though they do look a bit purple, but the peppers are always pale, grow very slowly, and many end withering away and dying. They never look like the large, green, robust pepper seedlings from the nursery.

However, this year I started some peppers in the middle of summer, in the blazing heat, and they still looked weak and sickly after a while. I was always told that young seedlings don't need any fertilizer, because they're living off stored food from their seed. Except nightshade seedlings stay in their pots for a long time before they're planted out. Maybe they're in there long enough to use up their food reserves, and then need to be fed more. After all, they peppers do start out looking find, and don't start looking weak until about the second set of true leaves. They medium I use for starting seedlings is about a 50/50 mixture of the cheapest potting soil I can find and peat moss to lighten it up. I save the fancier potting soil with built-in fertilizers for plants that are going to be permanently living in containers.

So I went to the store and bought a bottle of fish emulsion, with an NPK of 10-1-1.

My pepper seedlings now smell like cat food, but look how happy they are only a week after feeding! It took a day or less for them to turn much darker green, and then they started growing more leaves right away.

I also put some fish emulsion on my brassicas, and it made them take off growing too. I do remember the warnings that too much fertilizer can make a seedling grow too fast, and they can get weak and spindly instead of stocky, but now I know what to do when I have seedlings that are looking a bit pale and yellowish and seem to not be growing much at all.

Now to move on to problems out in the garden. If you recall, this past spring I got a soil test done. I think it's extremely important to find out exactly what your garden needs, rather than having to guess. I was surprised and happy to find out my garden is doing great for just about everything except nitrogen. It was very low in nitrogen, which makes sense since nitrogen is the nutrient that gets depleted and washed out of soil the fastest.

My first potato crop here was very disappointing. I grew great potatoes at the community garden, but here I barely got back more than I planted. I could have just eaten the seed potatoes and saved myself some trouble. According to Texas A&M's soil testing website, potatoes need relatively high amounts of nitrogen. Much more than my soil has, that's for sure. Though my soil nitrogen is so low that A&M indicates only legumes would be truely happy in it. I probably got good potatoes out of my community garden because previous tenants of my plot had already built up the nitrogen levels in the soil.

But what would be the best way to get a lot more nitrogen into my soil? I want something that would be slow-release and long lasting, since nitrogen washes out of soil so easily, and I want something cheap since I don't have a lot of money.

Probably the best and most natural way is through legume cover crops, but even though we got some rain this weekend, I'm afraid that trying to grow a cover crop will end up costing me a whole lot of money just in water to keep it alive and growing. I use up too much water already just trying to keep my edible crops alive. Mixing some sort of nitrogen rich additive into the soil looks like it might be the best way to do it right now, at least until La Nina finally goes away and I can rely on rain to water any cover crops I might plant.

I've been doing some comparison shopping trying to find something that would be a cheap source of nitrogen. I'll probably end up trying several different things, but after looking at expensive bags of fertilizer at the stores, I finally decided to gives something a bit unorthodox a try.

I went to the grocery store and got the very cheapest brand of dog food they had. It was 44 lbs. on sale for about $16. I know it sounds a little crazy, maybe even wasteful, to pour "food" (even food for dogs) onto the ground and till it in, but the ingredients start out, "ground yellow corn, meat and bone meal, soybean meal, chicken byproduct meal, wheat middlings..."

If I had a dog, I'd probably give him or her food that's a bit better than that, but this ingredient list sounds like it has a lot of good plant fertilizers in it. After all, some popular organic fertilizers include corn gluten, blood meal, bone meal, and other waste products very similar to what they put in cheap dog food. And I'm pretty sure "fish emulsion" is mainly blended up fish guts. Plants love that kind of stuff.

I was a little surprised that Googling "NPK of dog food" didn't turn up anything, but I'm going to give this a try anyway and see what happens. I scattered some of the kibble over the bed I have cleared and ready for fall crops and raked it in a bit, then covered it with store-bought compost (since, like I said in a previous post, my compost pile is all dried out and won't decompose). I have a feeling I'll lose some of that dog food to scrounging wildlife, but I hope most of it is buried enough to get a chance to slowly decompose and add nitrogen to the soil over the winter.

This 44 lb. bag is going to last me a long time, but since I'm not sure exactly how much nitrogen is in there, I'll probably end up buying some of the more expensive stuff that's actually marketed as fertilizer for the crops that really need nitrogen badly, like potatoes. Since my soil test said I only need nitrogen, I could even go with "lawn fertilizer" that has a high N and hardly any P or K. But for my other crops that have been doing ok so far, even in my nitrogen deficient soil, I'll see how the dog food does for them.

This morning I went ahead and planted some of my biggest cauliflower seedlings in the bed that had the dog food mixed in. I saw one dung beetle rolling away a nugget of dog food a few times bigger than himself, but I was kind of impressed by that and let him have it. Haven't noticed any other wildlife digging around and stealing the food yet, so hopefully now with the rain it will start breaking down

I'm sure I still have a lot to learn about the best and cheapest way to keep up my soil fertility, but at least now I know a probable reason why some of my plants have failed to thrive.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

More Autumn Weather and Another New Bird

Yesterday I caught a quick glimpse at another bird I haven't yet seen around here before. Two of them were grabbing snack from my next door neighbor's feeder before they disappeared. I was only able to snap one quick photo.

That is a Western Scrub Jay. It's got to be because there are only so many blue colored birds around here, and it's too big to be an Indigo Bunting or Eastern Bluebird, and they didn't have crests like Blue Jays.

I tried to crop the photo to see it up close, but it came out blurry. Birds are really hard to photograph. They don't stay in one place for long, and don't let you get very close.

The Texas Hill Country is on the very eastern edge of this bird's geographic range. As you go east, they get replaced by blue jays. I see blue jays pretty much every day in my neighborhood, but never any other kind of jay, until now. I seem to remember hearing that scrub jays don't do as well as blue jays in more urban environments.

One thing I have been wondering during this drought is if Climate Change is going to make Texas drier, as well as warmer, and if so, will western species expand their ranges eastward. Scientists have already been observing southern species, such as Green Jays, much farther north than their previous ranges, and are attributing that to average temperatures becoming warmer, allowing these species to tolerate more northern latitudes.

Except Texas doesn't just have a temperature gradient going North to South, but also a moisture gradient going from East to West. East Texas is swamp and pine forest, while West Texas is grassland and desert. I'm in the middle of Texas, so there's an overlap here of a lot of typically eastern species (like Blue Jays) with a lot of typically western species (like Scrub Jays). I wonder if that's going to shift, and maybe some day Central Texas will end up looking like El Paso or something.

Well, after the Scrub Jays left, those dark clouds that had been teasing us all day finally gave us some rain! It will take a LOT of rain to undo this drought, but yesterday we did get an inch of rain, which ain't bad. It filled up the rain barrels and really cooled things down, and today we still have a 50% chance of getting more. Every little bit helps. I'm really itching to start planting my fall crops now that it's so nice and cool and wet out there.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Gold Moon

The name of this moon is supposed to refer to the golden crops and grass, but this year things have already been brown and yellow for a long time. It's really depressing driving through the countryside and seeing so many dead trees, standing out golden-colored among the dull green of trees still hanging in there.

The only good side I can see to this is the Ligustrum (aka Privet) seems to be one of the trees suffering the worst in this drought, and it's an invasive species. Maybe that will cut back on its numbers a bit.

On the other hand, the invasive Chinaberry trees seem to be doing fine, and some native trees also look terrible. All the red oaks look completely dead, their leaves look like parchment (rather than turning bright red like they're supposed to in the fall). Most elms, ashes, and bald cypress also look bad. About the only trees that are still green are the Ashe junipers and the live oaks, but they're a sickly, dull green.

Oh, and of course the mesquite and huisache are fine, but those are trees that are right at home in far south and west Texas. Maybe if drought conditions persist, those are the trees that will end up being the dominant ones in the landscape. Well, at least we'll have something.

The garden hasn't changed much in the last month. In August we got NO rain. Not a drop! The only things alive are the things I'm watering. Everything else is toast. That cold front we had for Labor Day was nice for a little while (well, for those of us who didn't get displaced by wildfires), but it's already crept back up to being over 100 every day again.

In the foreground is the Ms. Burns Lemon Basil, and some Asia Red Amaranth in bloom. In the background you can see what most of the rest of my garden looks like. I'm planning on preparing that bed for fall crops, but it's too dry to till. When I try to hoe, big clouds of dust billow up. I think I'm going to just add a layer of compost on top and then start watering it a bit before I plant anything. Hopefully that will soften the soil up a bit. It will have to be store-bought compost too, because my compost pile is completely dry as well, and therefore no decomposition has been going on all summer. Everything's just mummified.
I have two fall tomatoes left, one of each variety, Cherokee Purple and Bloody Butcher. They've barely grown, though, so I doubt I'll get a fall crop out of them before it freezes. I also have two fall eggplants left. Same story with those.
I've been planting basil plants of various varieties in the slots left when tomatoes and eggplants die, to make better use of the soaker hose. Most of them are doing ok. Basil is pretty tough when it comes to heat. It's the only thing I've been harvesting all summer. Yesterday I made a batch of pesto with my Ms. Burns Lemon Basil, and put it on some baked fish.
I started out with 10 tomatillo plants, but they've been dying off one by one, and now I have four, with one that looks like it's about to die soon. Still haven't harvested any fruits from them.
The California Wonder bell peppers are still the best looking things out there. I have one pepper on there that I'm letting ripen to save seeds from, but that's all I've gotten so far. I don't expect to get a lot to eat from them.

And that's pretty much it out in the garden.

I do have a bunch of fall crops started in yogurt cups on the porch. So far I have cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, broccoli raabe, mustard greens, and chard. Part of me wonders if I should give up on the garden completely, but I guess gardeners just never give up. There's always another season, and I already had the seeds, so I might as well give them a chance. I really need to be more efficient with my water usage, though, because they predict this drought will continue into the winter. At least there's less evaporation in cooler temperatures.

I never did plant my fall peppers. They're still really small. Peppers from seed always grow so slowly for me. I'm going to try an experiment with them, and see if I can keep them in pots through the winter and plant them out in spring. Maybe by then they'll be big. Peppers are perennials in their natural habitat anyway, so maybe this will work out. We'll see.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Cold Front and a New Bird for Labor Day

Happy Labor Day! Hope you are all enjoying the fruits of your labors.

Last night we got the first cold front of the season, though it was a dry cold front. You know it's September in Texas when the weatherman is describing a forecast with a high in the low 90's as "nice" and "pleasant" and "fall-like weather."

The extreme dryness continues, though. The cold front brought cooler weather, but also dry air and high winds. Yesterday it smelled smoky outside, and I hoped that meant a neighbor was grilling for the weekend, but burning grass smells differently than grill charcoal. The local news confirmed my suspicion. In fact, it seems that there are wildfires burning all over the place, with an especially bad one in Bastrop. Pine forests are very fire-prone ecosystems. The Lost Pines are beautiful, but I don't think I'd ever want to live there, with how many fires they seem to have.

Saturday we put up a second bird feeding station in the back yard, with a seed feeder, suet feeder, and birdbath. I also put out some fruit in the front yard to see if that attracted any critters. If nothing else, I would think they might appreciate some nice juicy fruits for the moisture. The apples were gone in one night, probably chomped up by raccoons or opossums, but the oranges are still out there.

This morning I saw a bird eating out of one of the orange halves. At first its black back was turned to me, so I thought it was yet another European starling. I'm having a lot of trouble with huge flocks of starlings gobbling up all the suet and chasing the native birds away. But this turned out to be no starling, but a native bird I had never seen before!

Sorry the picture quality isn't good. There's always a lot of glare trying to take pictures through the front window in the morning. But that is a male Baltimore Oriole! I looked it up in my bird guide. Black head and back, white on the wings, and neon orange belly. Isn't he striking? He's surrounded by white-winged doves eating the seeds that other birds spill on the ground out of the bird feeder.
The bird guide says our area is in their migratory range, so I guess he's on his way to Mexico already. I'm happy to have provided him with a nice refreshing orange during his journey.

Later I found his wife up in the tree. She was a little more shy, and a more muted pumpkin color with grey rather than neon orange and black.
She decided to have some suet to fuel up for migration. It's probably extra important to have plenty of food out for birds during the spring and fall because that's when you get the migrants. Texas is right smack dab in the middle of a major migratory route, with birds going to and from the northern part of North America to Mexico and South America. It's the reason why Texas is one of the best birding sites in the world.

That means having feeders set up is basically a roadside diner for birds. Having a variety of food helps too. Some birds prefer seeds, while others like suet, and now I've discovered others like fruit. I'd better make sure to keep them well-stocked. I went ahead and put out another fresh orange, and a peach that was getting a bit mushy.

Finally, right before I post this entry, I checked again and saw that there were now THREE orioles out there. (And the house finches have already started on the mushy peach.) The third oriole looks a lot like the female, so I'm guessing it's a youngster, maybe this pair's baby of the year. Our pair of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers also had a baby this year that looked a lot like the mother woodpecker when he was young, before he started getting his red forehead spot showing he's a boy. Right now there's also a family of cardinals at the seed feeder with a father, mother, and some fledgelings. I'm kind of surprised that these bird families are managing to raise kids in such a horrible drought. I wonder if my feeders are really making a big difference.