Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Butterfly Moon

We've had a few cold fronts now that brought us a lot of rain and some nice autumn temperatures. Highs have been mostly in the 70's and lows in the 50's. The butterflies, bats, and birds are migrating, and in about a month we should have our first frost.

Here are the mini-tubers I grew from true potato seed. The ones that didn't rot the first time I tried to plant them had been waiting in the fridge all summer. I planted them in a window box, and they're sprouting very nicely. I'm going to keep piling soil on them until they get all the way to the top of the container. I hope this time they grow more tubers, maybe enough to plant some in the ground later on. I'll also take this container inside when we get a freeze so they can keep growing all winter.

The first thing I planted in my new raised beds is the garlic. I have Red Toch, Lorz Italian, S&H Silverskin, and Elephant planted. The silverskins are already started to poke out of the ground.

With all the rain, the peppers and eggplants are making a second crop. Here are the Fenguyan Purple eggplants making more very long skinny fruits.

The Lemon Drop peppers are also doing very well behind their protective cage, and so are the other second-year peppers in the front garden.

That one Waltham Butternut squash is still growing, so maybe I'll get ONE butternut squash this year.

Even the Rattlesnake pole beans are trying to make a fall crop, though the deer are still eating all their leaves off periodically. I'll protect them much better next year.

I'm also letting my Thai basil flower and produce seeds. They're very pretty with their purple flowers.

In the back, the Tall Telephone peas are starting to climb their trellis. Along the sides I planted other fall crops like kale, chard, and lettuce, but they keep getting eaten by caterpillars before they have a chance to grow much.

I've harvested one fall Tatume squash so far but haven't eaten it yet. The vines look good but still are mostly making male flowers.

The Bishop's Hat peppers are doing much better too. They didn't really do much over the summer. I still haven't harvested a single ripe pepper. But since the fall rains they suddenly started growing a lot of fruits, and they're doing especially well now that we found and removed that tomato hornworm that was eating them up. I might actually get a nice crop of them before it freezes.

The lima beans are also making some more pods, but I still think they must need bean inoculant. All summer they just grew lush vines but hardly any bean pods. That's not how lima beans are supposed to act, or so I'm told. Next year I'm inoculating all my beans.

The okra is also making a fall crop. I know this one is Texas Hill Country Red, but I'm not sure what the other ones are. I also planted Beck's Gardenville and Eagle Pass (all purchased from Native Seeds/SEARCH), but I lost track of which was which.

The fava beans are also doing well with all the rain. I put some bean inoculant on them, but forgot to on the peas.
The sweet potatoes are also looking great, or at least the Carolina Nugget, Dianne, and Molokai Purple ones are. White Triumph still looks awful. I guess that one is a dud.

Finally, I found this really cool Green Darner dragonfly under the leaves of a mulberry tree in my yard. It was cold out when I took these pictures, so I think he was still sleeping. This is probably where he roosted overnight, and he'll fly away once the sun hits him and warms him up.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Building Raised Beds

Now that it's cool outside, my husband and I have started building raised beds in the front yard garden. I've hesitated about raised beds for a long time, but it's finally time to give it a shot.

I've never built raised beds before for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this is the first time I've actually owned the land I'm gardening on, so I didn't want to make the investment only to abandon them later. But even when we got our house, I wasn't sure if I wanted them. There's the expense, for one thing. The materials for the sides of the beds can get expensive, especially if you have a large garden. Usually people fill them with nice store-bought soil as well, and that can really add up.

I was also skeptical about some of the hype about raised beds. Most garden magazines, books, TV shows, etc. gush about how great they are. A lot of the advantages are things that aren't relevant to me anyway. They're said to have good drainage and warm up in the spring faster. Well, those are actually both bad things if you live in a hot, dry climate. In fact, Native Seeds/Search in Tucson, AZ grows their stuff in sunken beds. In the Southwest, you want your soil to stay cool and wet.

They're also supposed to be good if you have lousy soil, because you add a lot of store-bought soil. Except my soil isn't really that bad. Yes, I have Texas Hill Country soil that's full of rocks, but the soil that's between those rocks is actually quite fertile. I got a soil test that proved it. It's only low in nitrogen, which is a very common problem in many types of soils.

At the house we lived in before, I lined my garden beds with rocks as I dug them up. That looked nice, but the rocks didn't actually raise the bed much, or even contained the soil much. To do a serious raised bed, you have to line it with something like lumber or cinderblocks. Not as pretty as rocks, but more practical.

Sometimes I actually grew suspicious that raised beds were being overhyped by people who want to sell you stuff like lumber, soil, and fertilizer, convincing you that you won't have a good garden without it. I've been doing fine without them up to this point, right? Besides, I don't like the message that gardening has to be an expensive hobby.

On the other hand, I do like the look of raised beds with wooden frames. In May we went to Northern California for a family wedding, and while we were there we looked at the Luther Burbank historic garden. It was really inspirational. They had lots of nice raised beds made of redwood. The lady there said they had just replaced them, and the ones before lasted about 20 years.

Raised beds look nice. They keep people from walking on the beds, so the soil doesn't get compacted. I was getting sick of having to re-dig and re-shape my beds every time I wanted to replant them. I thought it would be nice to just be able to hit them with a hoe or rake a bit and then they're ready to go.

So I decided to go ahead and try them out. We're starting with the front garden, since it's more important that the one in front stays looking neat and tidy. So far I've only gotten positive comments from neighbors about it, but after reading so many horror stories about people getting in trouble for putting vegetable gardens in their front yards, I want mine to be as nice as possible just in case attitudes change.

The front garden consists of four 20'x4' beds, with 3' pathways between. It looked great when we first rented the tiller and tilled it up this spring. Then I shaped the beds out of the nice, fluffy soil. Since then the weeds and Bermuda grass have been encroaching, and what's worse is the neighbor's chickens dug into the sides of the beds a lot and eroded them away. Now that's it's fall, they were looking pretty bad

We decided to do one bed first and see how we like it. Daniel shopped around for lumber and compared prices. It turned out even with the best prices in town, it would cost about $100 for each bed. We decided to go with cedar, and he thought it would be best to do two 10'x4' frames that we put together in the garage and then set in place in the garden. We had some trouble deciding whether to use 6"x2" boards or the harder to come by and more expensive 8"x2" boards. I told him I think six inches would be deep enough (the more raised up the beds get, the more soil we'd have to get to fill them, and the faster they would dry out). We can always do eight inches for future beds if that doesn't turn out to be enough.

And here is the result of our (mostly my husband's) handiwork. The bed we did first was one that only had a few dead or mostly-dead tomato plants with it, and three Serrano pepper plants. I pulled out the tomato plants, and we just worked around the pepper plants.
It took four 12 ft. boards and two 8 ft. boards. The 8 ft. boards were sawed in half to make the end pieces, and the 12 ft. boards were cut down to 10'4" to make the sides. The left over ends of the boards were used to reinforce the corners. That was all screwed together in the garage and then moved to the garden. We then had to do some digging to get the frames level in the ground. We dug the soil from around the sides and piled it in the middle, then once everything was done I raked it smooth.

Here it is from another angle. Once they were level, Daniel hammered some 2"x2" stakes into each corner to keep it stable, and on the outside in the middle of each long board to keep them from bowing out.

The soil actually ended up looking really good. With the height the beds already had left over from the tilling this spring (not much was left but there was a little), plus having to dig around the beds to level them out, they ended up about half full of soil already. The one in the foreground here has higher soil than the other one, probably because of how the ground slopes. It seems to me that the six inch wide boards are fine. It's deep enough to pile lots of goodies like compost and mulch on top and hold it in, but shallow enough to let plants stick their roots down into the native soil to get more water and nutrients deeper down.

Last thing we did was layer flattened cardboard boxes we'd been saving up on the side closer to the driveway (the one where it soil doesn't come up as high). I decided we should dig out the Serrano peppers after all, so they wouldn't be in the way. We put one in the ground with the other peppers, and the other two in pots until I can decide what to do with them.

This is the side where the Bermuda grass is encroaching the worst. We dug a lot of it out, but a lot got left in. That stuff is horrible! I hope the cardboard will help smother some of it out. There's still 2 or 3 inches to go, so I'd like to fill it the rest of the way with compost or something similar. Then I can plant in that. The cardboard should smother weeds, but eventually break down and allow my plants to grow through it to the soil underneath.

I almost put cardboard on the other side, the side with the deeper soil, but now I'm tempted to plant it right away. It looks so inviting!

I plan to eventually lay landscape fabric in the paths between the beds, and cover that with cedar mulch. That should look really nice and also help control weeds. Then to finish it off, we need to build a fence around the whole thing to keep out the deer and chickens!

That is going to take a while, but I don't mind working on it a little at a time. Once raised bed down, three more to go.

Friday, October 4, 2013

It's Finally Fall

Recent events have put made updating my blog a low priority. The Autumn Equinox and the full moon of September have come and gone, and now it's finally fall. It feels like fall outside too, but by Texas standards, which means it's only in the low 90's. We've had some of our first cold fronts come through, and last weekend we got a whopping 5 inches of rain.

I think fall is my favorite season, because that's when we can breathe a sigh of relief that summer is over, and start indulging in things like pumpkin pie flavored everything.

The rows of tomatoes in the front garden look like this now. On my to-do list is to pull out what's left of the tomato plants and till it up. I've decided to build raised beds out of cedar (with my husband's help!), and I think I'll start here.

The butternut squash that survived being eaten repeatedly by deer are still trying hard to make some fruits before it freezes. I hope they have time.

The peppers are doing great, and have started making more fruit. These are all peppers that survived last winter. I wonder how many years I can keep them going.

The eggplants are doing great too. I really need to cook some of them. A lot of them are getting overripe before I get the chance.

In the back, the Tatume squash that survived the summer is also making a comeback with lots of flowers. Most of them seem to be male flowers, but I might be able to get some summer squash to eat from them before it freezes.

I've gotten a couple of okra pods from my three healthy plants, but not enough to make much of a dish out of. The watermelon probably won't manage to make a fruit before winter.

The sweet potatoes still look good, at least aboveground. No telling what's going on below until it's time to harvest them.

Meanwhile, I'm just starting to plant fall crops. Here are my fava beans starting to come up in the back garden. I planted two varieties from Baker Creek to compare: Broad Windsor and Aquadulce.

Here's the nice trellis my husband put up for the Tall Telephone peas. That should work much better than the netting I used last time. TT is a big variety that needs a sturdy trellis.

The brassicas, chard, fennel, etc. are still in pots. I brought them in the garage because something was digging them up. No idea what it was, but some critter was obviously digging them up out of the pots. I would find the poor plant lying beside the pot and kept having to put them back. I hope now they can recover soon so I can plant them in the ground.

I also finally got the garlic I ordered from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I got three varieties this time: Red Toch, Lorz Italian, and S&H Silverskin. The first two are ones I've already grown before that did pretty well, though I still haven't gotten a harvest anything like 2010. Then there was bad weather the next year, then the move, then I made the mistake of planting the garlic in the shade. Well, this time I'm not moving, and I'm going to plant them in an ideal spot with plenty of compost and mulch, so it's just up to Mother Nature to do her part