Whirled Peas

“For the love of Pea, won’t you please grow?”

This is me, nervously watching, and occasionally verbally abusing, my spring plantings. I’ve currently got potatoes, fennel, cabbage (left from the fall) broccoli (ditto) and brussel spouts (ditto). I know I’ll never see actual edible stuff off that broccoli and brussel sprout plants, but I can’t give up on them, I just can’t. (But I’ve planted a few broccoli seeds, just in case.)

So far, the highlight of the coming of spring is the duet of Asparagus tips that appeared this week in the clump I established last year. If I hadn’t noticed them because Buttons was peeing on them, I might have harvested them…but now…thanks to the 6 pound wonderdog, not going there. (Note to self: put up fencing around the clump to prevent future “watering”.)

But those peas…wait…I think I see some green!

What do you mean you can’t see it? OK, I”ll go back out and take a better picture…

Wow those grow quickly! (Actual time-lapse between photos is three days.)

These are Lincoln garden peas, which I look forward to crunching in my spring salads. Last year I only got about three pea pods off my peas, but the year before I got tons, well, was able to freeze about two cups, and had fresh peas in my spring salads for about two months. Mmmmm. Lincoln peas are supposed to do better in warm climates. South Texas counts as warm which is why I’m planting this variety this time around.

Bed Prep:

  • Check the soil Ph. Optimum conditions for peas are a soil with a pH of between 6.0 or 7.0.
  • Add compost to make sure you have a good level of healthy soil.

Planting:

  • Inoculate your seed for better healthy growth.
  • Direct seed, space at 2″.
  • Plant 2″ deep.
  • Create Rows 2″ apart.
  • Sow additional seed in additional bed space every 2 – 3 weeks for succession plantings.

When to plant:

  • Depends on your climate.
  • Like cool weather, but are susceptible to easy freeze damage.

Where to plant:

  • Like raised beds for good drainage.
  • Rotate your crops. (Even if you have a small garden! The bed pictured above had squash and cucumbers in it last season, so the rotation worked out well for me.)
  • If you find that your peas turn dark they may have a fungal disease. Remove and dispose of separately. Don’t turn under as this won’t do you any favors — only continues the problem in that bed’s soil.

Happy gardening!

Divide and Conquer

I have a lovely stand of Mailbox Pink Crinums in my side garden. (So named because the gardening friend who gifted them to me had them planted by her mailbox and she had no earthly idea what variety they really were.) I first planted this set of beds ten years ago and it is certainly grown into a welcoming place.

However, despite all the welcoming feelings, this past year I noticed a snake in the midst of my perfect paradise. (This actually literally happened, but I’m only speaking metaphorically for the moment.) My bulbs were in desperate need of more space. Since that meant that either I needed to dig up the Desert Willow and relocate it — or divide the bulbs, I picked the latter.

  • Outline the area. I used my shovel to put a line in the dirt around the area where the bulbs currently reside. This is more difficult than you might think when you have five different varieties of bulbs in one spot. Hint: Crinums are the big ones; narcissus are the small ones.
  • Decide how large a space you want the final clump to cover.
  • Dig up your bulbs. Some sources tell you to pull everything, some say just the outside areas. I pulled them all.
  • Amend your soil while you’ve got the space. I use compost from my pile plus a little organic fertilizer such as pelleted chicken manure or cottonseed meal.
  • Replace as many bulbs as will comfortably fit into the space you want your future clump to fill.
  • Pot up the rest. Share the wealth with friends.

Once the freezes are over, we can all exchange as many starts as we want! If you’re in Houston and want some of the Mailbox Pink Crinum, let me know.

Growing the Writer Within Me

What does gardening have to do with my work? Nothing, because I am a writer. And yet, everything.

Always one to need a good bit of time alone, I’d hide out under the tangle of forsythia in the yard, just out of earshot of my mother hollering from the back porch for a chore-ready child. I’d prop myself up in the soft dirt, poke a hole in the leaf cover overhead for sunlight, and read.

The summer before I turned ten, I read The Secret Garden. I decided I needed a garden like Mary, Colin, and Dickon had. I tore all the leaves off the branches overhead, fluffed up the soil in my hideout and planted flowers.

All petals and no roots, they weren’t destined to do well. I’m not stupid. I learned from my mistakes. Start from good seeds. Pull weeds. Pat the soil. Sprinkle liberally with water. That was when the initial stories flowed within me. As I worked, I planted my stories, telling them to each flower, branch, and stone.

Now, at the beginning of my day, I weed. I pat the soil. I sprinkle the various plants with various amounts of water. And I remember those tales I told so long ago. Like good garden compost, the stories are richer for having been buried all this time.

I’m working on one of those now, a children’s story for all those kids who want a horse more than anything. My own dream come true.

Ground Down

I made a sweet deal with my friendly neighborhood coffee shop. I provide a 5 gallon bucket with a lid, and they will dump their used coffee grounds in for me to take home for free!

 

First load home is destined to go on the roses in the morning. I’ll swab out the bucket to make it nice and clean before returning to the shop for more grounds to add to the spring carrot bed.

 

Why coffee grounds? Well, for one thing, they are filled with coffee goodness and the plants need perking up. Wait, seriously? Coffee grounds are filled with phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and copper. All things that plants need to grow up healthy and strong. In addition, it’s just plain old good for your dirt. They actually improve the soil’s texture…helping to improve the air and water movement through the dirt under your plants roots. They are acidic, so make sure your Ph is compatible with this before plunking them into your beds. You can neutralize the Ph to your garden’s needs by adding some agricultural lime to the beds at the same time as the grounds. Here on our farm, everything is pretty alkaline so the grounds actually help me keep the soil’s Ph where my plants like it.

 

I am truly excited about having a ready source of “green” matter for my compost heap. No matter now much I trim the shrubs or put kitchen scraps in the compost bucket, I cannot keep up with the horses’ “output”. (I spread the manure in the pastures out on the pastures and the manure from the stalls the area close to the house goes in the compost heap.) Coffee grounds count as Green for the compost. (According to the EPA, no more than 25% of your compost should be coffee grounds.)

 

Added benefit? Ants hate coffee. Good thing. I used the last of my agricultural molasses this week.

 

Happy Gardening!

Pushing Up Daisies

I just finished my fellow Master Gardener and landscape mystery writing author’s first book, Pushing Up Daisies. Rosemary Harris has delivered a delightful story with a solid lead character who knows her way around a Connecticut garden.

One of the things that frustrated me with the Three Dirty Women series was the fact that the publisher wanted to have the setting for the books be located somewhere I don’t actually live. This hampered my ability to get enough gardening into the books to satisfy myself. I was grateful to gardeners in the Carolinas for answering any questions, and I did get a trip in to do some on-site research. (No fun was had of course, as it was a business trip!)  As the series goes on, I fit more and more information in, but I liked the way Rosemary was able to make the gardening such a huge part of her story right from the get-go. If I were ever to go back to garden mystery writing, I would set the books on the Gulf Coast so that I could more easily weave in more plant lore.

One of the reasons I read gardening mysteries is to learn. Fellow Texan Susan Wittig Albert was the first such author I read, and I fell in love with her China Bayles series. Ann Ripley is a fine example of this section of the mystery gendre. Mary Freeman is another. Naomi Hirohara is a particular favorite of mine, with her gentle, complex weaving of tales about Mas Arai.

So while it’s winter outside, grab yourself a good read about your garden, be it one of mine, or one of these other fine writers, and dream.

Happy Reading!

Stop and Smell the Roses

Souvenier de la Malmaison, courtesy Antique Rose Emporium website

I was browsing back through my blog entries and noticed something strange. For someone who writes about landscapers, I sure do post a lot of veggie tales.

So, today, I’m going to stop and smell the roses. Specifically the roses of the Texas Rose Rustlers. These legendary folk actually still exist, and here’s the website to prove it. You can even join up if you want.

What happened was that awhile back there were a bunch of abandoned homesteads in far flung areas of the state. Passionate rose-lovers would drive by, spot a specimen they couldn’t identify from their car,  pull over, and go in search of more information. First they’d go up to the house, calling out just in case the owner’s out in the garden, or shed, or barn. (Any real Rose Rustler always asks permission first of any available landowner before wandering someone’s property. It’s courteous — an important part of the Texas Rose Rustler Code — plus it’s pretty darn prudent. Texas has a law saying that you can shoot trespassers.) Once permission is obtained to look, (Or, in the beginning of the movement when such things were more common, abandonment of the homestead was verified.) the interested party then goes to the beauty in question and pokes about a bit, trying to figure out from the hips, blooms, leaves and habitat just what it could be. If permission is granted to take a cutting, then selections are made, clippers are pulled, and the deed is done.

I have a bed of Katy Road Pinks that came from a Rustler’s foray onto an old abandoned farm just west of Houston. Lovely single pink roses, compact and fragrant. These pinks are an ever-blooming variety cultivated long before such things were patented and sold under a trade name. Other roses have been identified and re-propagated for sale by those professionals among the Rustlers. One of my favorite nurseries is outside of Brenham, Texas and run by one of the original Rustlers. The Antique Rose Emporium offers a multitude of specimens that settlers to the area carried with them when coming to establish their homestead out here in the wilderness of early Texas. I trek out there at least twice a year to smell their roses — and bring a new specimen home for a trial. Belinda’s Dream, Caldwell Pink, and Old Blush are three of my favorites. This coming spring I’m adding a Paul’s Scarlet climber to the gate on the west side of the house. Took me ten years to get an arbor that would stay up longer than an hour so that I could put this one in. (I am not very good at building this sort of thing. Bought this arbor already made.) I planted one of these in honor of my husband, Paul, two houses ago and I loved it. Too large to dig and move with us, I had to leave it for the new owners. I hope they appreciated its handsome blooms.

Happy gardening!

Adding Up – Fertility

Photo from www.ncagr.gov website

I know it’s only the end of November, but it’s never too early to get a good head-start on planning for the spring garden. To that end I have been investigating ways to increase the soil’s fertility in ways that contribute to the long-term life of the soil.

What have I found? Well, the first thing I found is that I need to discover the state of my soil. To do that requires a soil test. Soil sampling should be done a few months in advance of any planting so that the nutrients have time to do their magic before the plants arrive to make use of them.

Wait until your soil is medium on the moisture meter — not muddy, but also not dusty — should clump in your hand when you pick it up and sqeeze it, like a good cookie dough. Dig a hole in the ground with a clean(!) shovel, get all the active organic matter (AKA roots, leaves) out of the hole, then take a slice about an inch thick down one side. Dump this into a clean(!) container. Do this in several places within the area you want to grow one particular “crop”, be that your garden, the perenial flower border, or your expanse of green, green lawn. Once you’ve got all the samples in the clean)!) container, mix well and put a sample in a clean(!) paper lunch sack. (In case you missed this point, cleanliness is next to Godliness in soil sampling.) The sack should be about half to two-thirds full to enable the lab to run an effective test on your sample. Tape shut and label with your name, sample location (ex: Front Field, Back Garden), the date you pulled the sample, and what you want to grow (ex: veg, flowers, hay) in that location. Each soil lab has their own form for you to fill out, but labeling the bags themselves will help you complete those forms and help the lab figure out which bag goes with which form.

Effective soil sampling can give you all kinds of nifty information, from the basics of Ph, Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus ratio up to and including what trace minerals are missing from your soil. The Texas Agricultural Extension Agency runs samples, as do private labs. Some are better than others, so be sure to use a reputable firm.

So you’ve got the results of your soil samples in hand and want to do something productive to help your soil grow healthy plants. A few rules:

1) Only fix what’s broke.

Seriously, don’t add amendments that will increase the factor that is already present. These items you’re testing for all work in concert with each other. Throwing the ratios of say, Nitrogen to Phosphorus off only hurts you.

2) In for a penny does not mean in for a pound.

Only add what will fix the problem. This is the flip side of cautionary number one. If you over-fix one of your elements — the ratio will be thrown off by your actions — and you just paid good money to compromise your soil’s fertility.

3) Go organic.

It is worth it to put life back into your soil instead of chemicals. While those chemical fertilizers may have been manufactured and marketed as fixing the problem, chances are an organic solution will last longer and not cause as many unwanted side-effects.

The Extremely Green website has a wonderful fertilizer guide page giving you some idea what to add to amend your soil for the desired results.

As an endnote, I wanted to share the following link to Sunset’s article about adding coffee grounds to your compost heap. I have a hard time convincing my local coffee shop that *I* should have those grounds, so I wondered if they were worth fighting for. Have a look at the article and decide for yourself.

Happy gardening!

Swiss Chard — not as neutral as you’d think

Photo of Swish Chard from GardenGuides.com
Image from GardenGuides.com

I grew up in a family rabid about Ohio State Football. I never quite understood how this logically translated into a vegetable eating exhortation, “Julie, eat your spinach like Popeye, so that you can grow up to play football for Woody Hays,” but it was one I often heard. My parents would have been better served to have chosen Swiss Chard as the vegetable they associated with Ohio State Football as it actually comes in red.

I live in the Gulf Coast region of Texas and Spinach does not do well here — too much heat and too much rain. Swiss Chard, however, loves the climate. Also known as Spinach Beet (It’s actually a relative of the beet family.) this grew all spring and through the summer for me, although I did find evidence of insect damage at the height of summer.

I direct seeded the beds with seed from one of my favorite sources. I prepped the bed with the usual mixture of compost and some additional fertilizer, covered the seeds with about 1/2 to 1 inch of soil, and watered it in. They sprouted in about two weeks — a long time during which time I was certain the ants had enjoyed quite the picnic at my expence. Once they were up, I followed safe advice to thin the seedlings to six inches, using the thinned plants as garnishes in salads.

I harvested leaves as they got large enough to look good to eat. For me this meant anywhere from six inches tall to ten. The more I harvested, the more leaves appeared. I harvest from the outside in to allow the fresh leaves room to grow.

Nutritional Info: Leaves and stalks come loaded with vitamin A, C, and contain Vitamin B, Calcium, Iron, and Phosphorus. Does not contain the Oxilic Acid present in Spinach that blocks absorption of Calcium! Weight watching junkies like me will appreciate that they are very low in calories, while being high in fiber.

My favorite way to cook them is to stir-fry both the stems and the leaves together with some garlic in a little olive oil. Mmmmm!

Happy Gardening!

Julie

(Under) Ground Cherries

Spending time with my brother in Ithaca is always entertaining. Harold is a long time vegetarian and he and his wife are wonderful cooks. Each time I am with them I learn new ways of preparing food — plainer, simpler, yet yielding more complex textures and tastes.

Ground Cherries on the Counter

Sabrina has a lovely kitchen garden growing outside the back door. A hop, skip and a jump down the steps and you start tripping over greens, tomatoes and ground cherries. Yup. Those same free-to-me ground cheeries I’ve been ripping out of my garden all these years because <sob> I did not know they were edible — no, more than edible, delicious!Tomatillo looking things, these tiny yellow-green spheres pack a delicious whelp of  flavor. I could taste a tomato influence, but the taste was sharper, more More — if that makes any sense. I scarfed up handfuls at a time.

 

We had burritos one night, a delicious blend of stir fried tofu (Use the extra firm — worth it!) and vegetables, with a dolop of beans to hold it all together. Salsa of the homemade variety would go really well with this. Found an excellent recipe or two for Ground Cherry Salsa through my online search for ways to use this magnificent little vegetable that I am dying to try. I even found a recipe from Mother Earth News for a Ground Cherry Pie. Now that would be interesting.

I’ve been wondering what other wonderful treats I’ve been missing, so am off to do a collection and identification project on my weed collection. I excel in weed production so it would be some kind of wonderful if they all turned out to be as terrific as the ground cherry. Wish me luck.

Happy gardening!