Sprouting Dirt

Large Roma Tomato

I am going to do something I have not done for a long time. I am not ordering seeds from any of my favorite catalogues.

This is breaking my heart, but, it is preferable to breaking my neck. Which, it appears, is what I’ve been doing to myself.

I am not giving up gardening, only cutting back. I will sow the seeds I saved from my tomatoes: Italian Heirloom gotten from Brad Stufflebeam of Home Sweet Farm fame, Carbon seeds saved from a shipment from Home Sweet Farm’s CSA back when I was a working shareholder, large Romas, and small and large Slicers. I call them Slicers because I had planted five varieties of “slicers” in that bed and I’m pretty sure they’re as mixed up as I am when trying to decipher my husband’s handwriting.

Got a couple of varieties of pepper, some herbs and greens. Cucumbers. Melons. Butternut and spaghetti squash. Not a whole lot else going in.   What’s that you say? You think this is a lot? Maybe I saved a lot more seed than I thought I had. Maybe – you don’t have to spend money on seeds to have a garden.   But, and here’s where I steer myself back on track again, you have to grow the dirt to grow the garden.

Cousin Emme Sue always said to put a fifty-cent plant in a five-dollar hole. I have followed that advice religiously. So to build up my soil, the first thing I’m doing is sampling the soil that is already in place. Then I’ll add in the yummy goodness that only compost can bring (My horses’s manure, leaves and kitchen scraps were churned all summer by the chickens and have rested for the past three months, waiting for the time when I break out the front loader on the tractor and dig into the middle of the pile. I have about three yards of compost this year. Should be enough to amend the kitchen garden beds and perhaps have enough left over to fill in that pesky dip in the backyard.

Just waiting for results from the soil lab so I know what to add in addition to the compost. Why would I need to add anything else Micronutrients. Something to raise or lower the pH. Provide balance to the N-K-Ph mix. An excuse to dig in my lovely new dirt?


Sorry — gotta go watch my dirt grow.

Almost planting time!



What the heck? — BioChar

I guess I watch too much CSI: Anytown. When I first saw the term biochar pop up in my garden-related reading, my first thought was an appalled, “Ew!” Don’t  know exactly what I thought they were charring, but plain old wood scraps wasn’t my first guess.

Bio Char is a concept that’s been around for a while, but recent articles are touting a region down in South America (mid-Amazon region) where the soil is so rich, you only have to think about putting seeds in to get a terrific yield. This region’s soil is known as Terra Preta. One lovely fact about the soil there, immensely rich in biochar and other compost, is that it is able to hold onto nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. As you can imagine, plants adore this. What does this have to do with you, the home gardener? It means you have a choice. You can continue to buy chemicals to coax growth out of your plants or you can feed your soil and entice them to grow instead. Terra Preta is soil that was fed a lot of biochar a L O N G time ago, and which is now pretty much self-sustaining topsoil. It may look black, but it’s really pure gold.

It’s a funny thought, feeding the soil. Even though I earned my Master Gardener certificate over ten years ago, and one of our excellent sessions dealt with soil health, up until I interned at Home Sweet Farm with Farmer Brad and Farmer Jenny, I did not fully understand the concept. Feeding the soil, be it molasses to help the beneficial microbes multiply (and the fire ants explode) or biochar to help the soil hold on to those precious nutrients so that they stay where the plants can get them rather than leaching down out of the reach of many root systems, is not just a good idea, it is necessary for healthy plant growth with most soils. Along with making for healthy soil, BioChar is shaping up to be a new tool that can assist in mitigating greenhouse gasses. (That is one cool thought!)


Now that you know all about biochar and you’re rarin’ to make your own, go for it — let us know how your experience is both with creating  biochar and what the results are of incorporating biochar in your garden.


Happy Gardening!



Nitrogen Junkies

I have a love/hate relationship with annuals. Linda Gay, the director of Mercer Arboretum here in Houston calls them nitrogen junkies, because of their dependence on fertilizer — and lots of it — for that signature ‘pop’ of color that they bring to our landscapes.

Here in Houston, we see lots of salvias, the periwinkle blue of Russian salvia, the deep red of Salvia Greggii, even some lovely white varieties, which I particularly like because they make me feel cooler, even when the temps are in the high 90s. (Six months out of our year.) While petunias used to be impossible for us due to the heat, there have been several heat-resistant varieties introduced in recent years that work quite well. Then there are the grasses. Lovely for their contribution of texture and motion to the landscape, I use several in a variety of locations. Grass at least is not as dependent on nitrogen for its allure as the other, more colorful annuals.

So how do we enable these plants in their addiction? The following advice from a Better Homes and Garden’s article shows you the standard advice.

For flowering annuals, use an all-purpose plant food, such as a 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 formula. Flowering plants have a special need of phosphorous and potassium to realize their blooming potential. Foliage plants will flourish with a formula higher in nitrogen (the first of the three numbers in a fertilizer formula).

But do we need to heed this advice? Well, short answer is yes. If you want blooms on your plants, you must provide the food they need to produce the flowers. There are, however, additional ways to provide the nutrition they crave without dumping 5-10-5 on them every two weeks:

  • Build your soil — use compost to amend your soil so that it holds on to its nutrients better.
  • Water every other week with compost tea.
  • Consider using more perennials to build your landscape — still holding to the two above tenants to get them to give you the colorful blooms you want.

Happy gardening!

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.


  • 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.

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!