Vegetable garden after ice storm
2007-01-25. Austin, TX. The vegetable garden the week after Austin’s ice storm. Only the basil was lost. The cool weather vegetables are as happy as can be.

January 27th, 2007
Week 04: 1/22-1/28

Dateline: 2007
Sunday (1/21) was the first sunny day Austin’s seen in about 9 and everyone was out on the hike and bike trails, packing the parks, or sunning themselves at Barton Springs Pool. This is not a population that could stand winter in the normal sense of the word. I managed to transplant some more sweet peas and rake some more oak leaves (will it never end!) but after all the rain and ice last week our black mud is too mucky to work.

The rest of the week, save Thursday, was gray and dreary. Despite last week’s downpours, lake levels remain low so it’s hard to find fault with more rain.

The ice storm didn’t cause much damage to my plants, as the temperature was never much below freezing. However, bitter record-breaking cold is looming on the horizon. It may be in the mid-60s today but will it be in the mid-20s next Saturday?

The violas, Narcissus tazetta, mahonia, and mealy sage continue to bloom but really there isn’t much flowering in the garden. Both the Tulipa clusiana and the ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils are nosing up this week. The ‘Ice Follies’ are the last daffodils to show themselves.
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photo: frozen viola
2007-01-18. Austin, TX. Inspired by Pam/Digging, I looked for beauty in the destruction. We were lucky not to have much destruction, though.

January 18th, 2007
Ice Flowers

‘Blush Noisette’ was just about to open three buds. She was completely flattened by the ice but has sprung back to shape now that it’s melting.

photo: frozen rosebud

Ditto for the loquat and the magnolia. I don’t think any limbs are broken, just bent. The duranta, however, looks terrible. I should have tried to bring it in. I’m counting on it coming back from its roots but that means I lost a year of growth on it.

All my little cuttings of lavender and Jerusalem sage which I had under cover look fine. So does the vegetable garden, except for the basil, of course. It’s really too early to tell. I wonder how the tomato is doing. The cover over it is frozen solid so I haven’t had a peek yet.

photos: icicles
2007-01-17. Austin, TX. The official temperature remains below freezing but at my house the icicles have been melting since sunrise…not that we can see any sun.

January 17th, 2007
Week 03: 1/15 – 1/21

Dateline: 2007
The garden is a bit under the weather, literally. All the shrubs and shrubby trees are prostrate with ice. The 20 foot cherry laurel is lying across the path and I wonder whether she’ll get up again. It will take a few days to know the damage under the ice. Cabbages? Snow peas (which began blooming last week)? Banana plants (covered with cedar elm leaves)? Sweet peas (just transplanted)? Lettuce? The temperatures never got very cold at Zanthan Gardens, hovering around 30 throughout Tuesday.

The mahonia began flowering during the ice storm. I first noticed it on Thursday (1/18). It really does look similar to its cousin, nandina.

Sunday January 21, 2007
The week ended with a warm sunny day and it seemed that the entire population of Austin was outside.

First flower: Mahonia bealei (1/18).
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January 16th, 2007
Snow! Snow! Snow!

About 10AM, large flakes fell for an hour or so. I can’t tear my eyes away from them.

We’ve gotten mostly ice, so far. Luckily we haven’t had the terrible weather that Oklahoma experienced. But it’s put a crimp on the inaugural events today. Everyone is told to stay home and we (who have been through this before in Austin) know better than to go out. It feels like a holiday. AJM works from home and I try to keep out of his way by reading in bed under the electric blanket.

Ten Acres Enough.
Edmund Morris.
Dover Publications. 2004. (Reprint of the 1867 edition.)
ISBN 0-486-43737-X

January 14th, 2007
Ten Acres Enough

In the sixties Edmund Morris wrote a slim book about how he gave up city life i. his native Philadelphia and moved, with his wife and six kids, back to the land. He used half his life savings to purchase a small farm in New Jersey outright. Although he had no previous farming experience, he had spent years beforehand reading everything he could about farming, talking to farmers at the market, and visiting farms. Within three years he had made more money than he’d manage to save in his previous twenty. He owed no rent and his family ate well off what the farm produced. He believed so firmly that he had found a practical path to comfort and security that he wrote Ten Acres Enough to explain how he did it and encourage others to follow his example. The year was 1864–almost a hundred years before Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, The Mother Earth News, and the Whole Earth Catalogs.

Edmund Morris had studied the economics of the westward movement. Out west land was cheaper but corn and wheat brought low prices at the market and there was the trouble of freighting them there. He decided it made more business sense to grow berries and soft fruits to sell to the Philadelphia and New York markets.

I’m fascinated with the details of this book in the same way I’m delighted with the descriptions of daily life in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books which describe a much more primitive life two decades later. Edmund Morris kept very exact accounts and shares them with us.

He planted 804 peach trees, six acres of strawberries, two acres of raspberries, one acre in tomatoes, one in clover, and the remaining in miscellaneous vegetables such as cabbages and pumpkins. His wife and eldest daughter were in charge of a large vegetable garden. Whenever they went to town to shop, they took their surplus to the town general store to sell on consignment. At the end of the year when they settled up their grocery account, they were surprised to discover that the merchant owed them money.

Edmund Morris was an advocate of what we call the “French intensive” method of gardening. He believed in digging deep and adding a lot of organic material. He collected leaves from all over the neighborhood and built huge composting trenches. And he believed, more than anything, in the power of manure. His biggest expense ($248) for manure. When you consider that his 11 acres and the house cost $1000 and that he paid his live-in help an annual salary of $144…it’s mind-boggling. Eventually he embarked in a system of manure production in which he bought spring calves which he raised to maturity and then sold, not for the profit on the cows (which was about $2) but for the manure they produced (saving him $248). He developed a system of watering his crops with manure tea by putting a large watering tank on wheels.

Morris was ahead of his time in his views on birds and dedicates an entire chapter to explain how beneficial they are to farmers and gardeners, who considered them pests and thieves. When he discovers “three great, overgrown boobies, with guns in their hands, trampling down my strawberries, and shooting bluebirds and robins,” he evicts them. “I suggested to them that I thought their own township was quite large enough to keep its own loafers, without sending them to depredate on me, warned them never to show themselves on my premises again, and then drove them out.” Another time a neighboring farmer was killing some birds in his wheat field. To prove that the birds did more good than harm, they “opened up its crop, and found in it two hundred weevils, and but four grains of wheat, and in these four grains the weevil had burrowed!”

He embraced innovation and science. While still living in Philadephia he had invested almost $1 a piece for six root cuttings of a newly discovered and improved blackberry (discovered in 1834 by Lewis Secor but made famous by William Lawton)–known as the Lawton or New Rochelle blackberry. He felt cheated when the plants came in a letter, “mere fibres of a greater root–certainly not thicker than a thill quill, not one of them having a top. They looked like long white worms, with here and there a bud or eye.” Two summers later “they bore a crop of fruit which astonished me. From the group of bushes I picked fifteen quarts of berries superior to any thing of the kind we had ever eaten.” When he moved to the farm, he brought 200 blackberry plants with him. His neighbors laughed at him for planting blackberries that grew in every hedgerow and which they struggled to dig out. However, when he sold the superior fruit at market at high prices, they clamored for plants. He ended up selling $460 worth of blueberry plants which is what put him in the black his first year on the farm.

He faced problems with his tomato crop because early and late tomatoes fetched a high price at the market but in mid-season the market was glutted. Morris describes as hopeful the new technique for tinning tomatoes so that they can be preserved for winter use and save the waste of letting them rot in the fields when the effort to ship them to market is not worth the gain. He marvels at the dexterity of the tinmen who can solder lids on cans at the rate of almost 100 an hour.

Another problem was the expense of the cartons and cases required to ship his produce by train to the cities. A certain portion were not returned. He longs for some disposable form of packaging which would reduce his cost and perhaps encourage people who do not want to mess with returns to buy produce. Well, we all know where that led us.

I enjoyed this book so much that after checking it out from the library, I bought it for myself. The writing is a bit old-fashioned. And, especially in the last two chapters, it has the distinct tone of a proselytising self-help book. That was it’s aim, to encourage other people to go back-to-the-land. He includes plenty of details of his methods and lots of facts and figures. I’m stunned at the enormity of his labors but he seems to think life in the country is much easier than the stress of living in the city and “working for the landlord”.

Texas Flood
2007-01-13. Austin, TX. I didn’t mulch one part of the paths because I needed to remove the old mulch (to use in the beds) and dig it out a bit. As you can see, this is a bit of a problem spot.

January 13th, 2007
When Our Prayers Are Answered

Whoo, boy! Austin needs rain. But I wish we didn’t get the entire year’s supply in one 4-hour deluge. It began pouring rain about 5:45 AM and got worse between 8 and 9. It’s just slacking off a bit now at 9:45. I’m guessing we got about four inches, so far. The rain pounded down and ran off instead of soaking in, like good rain.

Texas Flood
2007-01-13. Austin, TX. Although the meadow has one of the gentlest slopes in the yard, it can wash out. Look at my new path!

I garden on a hill. I started terracing it when I began. I build planter boxes, too. But this rain overflowed my boxes and rock walls and paths and berms. It overflowed the retaining walls and flowed up against the garage and left three inches on my covered, concrete patio.

Texas Flood
2007-01-13. Austin, TX. Looking at this photo it’s difficult to believe I’ve dug a drainage ditch here and filled it with gravel. The water is at least six inches deep and seeping into the garage.

How much cleanup time will I have before the big freeze tomorrow night? Currently the forecast shows 100% chance of rain the rest of today, 70% tomorrow, and 80% Monday–when the rain turns to ice pellets. I’m crossing my fingers the rain will slackk off a bit and give what’s fallen a chance to soak in.

Damn. Sounds like it’s starting up again.

PS. Bill, did you get hit with the ice storm yesterday? How are you faring up north?

I need a long, hot bath and a glass of wine. Make that two glasses of wine.

January 12th, 2007
32 Bags of Mulch Later

garden paths

“Just one more trip,” I kept telling myself. How can I turn away from a huge pile of free mulch? I can’t! I figure each lawn and leaf bag hold about the same as one bag of mulch from a big box store. So 32 x 2 x $3 = $192. If a penny saved is a penny earned, then I made $12 an hour–and didn’t have to pay taxes. Of course, if I bought mulch by the yard it would be cheaper but because I don’t have a truck, I’d have to pay a delivery charge.

I also bagged 58 paper grocery sacks of ground pine needles that I’ll compost with the oak leaves I’m still raking up.

garden paths

At any rate, even when we had a truck, I never had enough mulch to cover all the paths in the meadow evenly. This is a first. And it looks so nice. I’m always pleased with how the garden looks when the paths are tidied.

garden paths

An ice storm is headed our way. If we’re lucky it will rain first. Bearing this in mind I kept at it. In a couple of days, I’ll be huddling indoors enjoying our week of winter and wondering how the rose bushes, which are beginning to bud, and the vegetable garden will do. I picked enough lettuce for a big salad and three cherry tomatoes today. I don’t think I’ll be able to coddle the tomato through this storm.

If the forecast is correct, my next photo may be of the garden covered in snow.

“The possessor of a garden, large or small, should have a seed-bed, where seeds of perennials and some of the annuals can be sown and grown until large enough to be permanently placed…The knowledge that you have raised them gives a thrill of pride in the result which no bought plants, however beautiful, can impart.” — Helena Rutherfurd Ely “A Woman’s Hardy Garden”

January 7th, 2007
Seed Buying

Carol at May Dreams Gardens asks What kind of a seed buyer are you? Actually she posted a long questionaire.

Q: Do you carefully read all of the seed catalogs sent to you and then browse the Internet to compare and contrast all the options, then decide which seeds to buy?
A: I love reading descriptions in seed catalogs and I carefully compare the descriptions with any information I can find in books and, now, on the internet.

Q: Do you buy seeds from ‘bricks and mortar’ stores and get whatever appeals to you as you are browsing?
A: I typically buy my seeds from ‘bricks and mortar’ stores; companies I like such as Renee’s Gardens, Seeds of Change, and Botanical Interests are easy to find at our local nurseries and even at supermarkets like Central Market. I do my research by reading the catalogs and then go to the stores to buy. If I wait to send in an order, the seeds often arrive too late for our climate.

Q: Do you buy vegetable seeds in bulk where they scoop them out of seed bins, weigh them and put them in hand-marked envelopes?
A: The only seeds I’ve seen sold this way are seeds for winter groundcovers at The Natural Gardener.

Q: Do you buy seeds for just vegetables, or just annual flowers? Do you buy seeds for perennial flowers?
A: I buy seeds primarily for annuals and some vegetables. However, I’ll buy any type of seed if I’m interested in growing the plant. I like to experiment.

Q: Do you know what stratification and scarification are? Have you done either or both with seeds?
A: Yes. Yes. The advice for growing bluebonnets often suggest scarification because it has a tough seedcoat so that not all the seed sprouts at once. That way if conditions prove unfavorable (typical in Central Texas) some seeds are left to sprout when conditions improve. I find, however, that fresh seed (my own) sprout readily. I have the most success with soaking tough seeds overnight–or until they swell up.

Q: Do you order seeds from more than one seed company to save on shipping or buy from whoever has the seeds you want, even if it means paying nearly the same for shipping as you do for the actual seeds?
A: I typically get seed from one source; whoever has the most thing I want to buy. I haven’t ordered from a catalog in several years because we have such a good selection in our many local “brick and mortar” stores.

Q: Do you buy more seeds than you could ever sow in one season?
A: Of course! I’ve stopped buying tomato seeds, though, because I always end up with far more plants than I have room for.

Q: Do you only buy seeds to direct sow into the garden or do you end up with flats of seedlings in any window of the house with decent light?
A: When I worked in an office I sprouted seedlings on top of my computer monitor. Great bottom heat. Now I sow in a seed bed and transplant. Many of the plants I originally started from seeds are rampant self-sowers so I don’t have to start them anymore…just transplant them from wherever they sprout.

Q: Do you save your own seeds from year to year and exchange them with other seed savers?
Yes. And I’ve given away seeds, too, via this blog. But I’ve stopped doing that because I discovered that too many people were demanding and unappreciative.

Q: Do you even buy seeds?
A: Yep. There’s a stack of seed packets right here at my elbow making me feel guilty.

Q: Do you have a fear of seeds? Some gardeners don’t try seeds, why not?
A: Obviously not. I started with bulbs and then moved to seeds because I didn’t have the money to spend on large plants. Because I wanted year around flowers I did then move on to perennials…thinking that in the long run that they’d be more cost-effective. This year, though, after losing many perennials to drought, I’ve decided to go back to seeds and have a spectacular spring and then take a rest through summer. I also propagate plants (such as lavender) from cuttings.

Q: Do you understand seeds? I once bought seeds at a Walmart in January (Burpee Seeds) and the cashier asked me, “Do these really work? Yes, they do. “Isn’t it too cold to plant them now?” Well, yes, if you are planning to plant them outside. I don’t think this cashier grew up around anyone who gardened.
A: Yes. Well some of them. A lot of information about seeds is written for gardeners in a different climate than Austin’s. Sometimes it’s difficult to know when to plant them. I’ve decided to do more trials on my own to see what’s appropriate for Austin.

Q: Do you list all your seeds on a spreadsheet, so you can sort the list by when you should sow them so you have a master seed plan of sorts?
A: I don’t use a spreadsheet for my seeds but I do make other kinds of lists. One of my resolutions for 2007 is to consolidate all the data I’ve collected so far and figure out what I’ve done. I do have a spreadsheet for my oxblood lilies and for my irises.

Q: Do you keep all the old seeds and seed packets from year to year, scattered about in various drawers, boxes, and baskets?
A: Every once in awhile I throw them out and then regret it and begin hoarding them again. Maybe someday I’ll make a huge collage of seed packets on the side of the garden shed.

Q: Do you determine germination percentage for old seed?
A: Nope. At some point I just throw them all into the seed beds to see if anything will come up.

Could it be that I’m really a cold climate gardener–or more precisely, a cold season gardener? I consider giving up gardening in summer.

January 2nd, 2007
Cold Season Gardening

The New Year dawned cold but sunny. I discover that I do like the sun! but only when the temperatures are below 70F. Reading over my garden journal I see how every fall and winter I plan and plant anew. The amount of plants I’ve killed over the years is sobering. And reading about my excitement and hopes and how my many plans came to nothing puts a damper on plans for this new year. For the first time I see the downside of keeping a journal.

Yet it’s difficult not to throw oneself into gardening when the days are so fine. Add the fact that we had a bit of our usual December rain and you’ll understand why it’s said that hope springs eternal. The success of my first winter vegetable garden encourages me to make new plans.

I spend a lot of time writing about the reversal of seasons down south. Lately I’ve been thinking that if summer is really our dead season, why shouldn’t I treat it as such. Why not help the garden go completely dormant, cover it up with mulch, and wait out the worst of summer. As long as this drought continues (the one in the 1950s lasted seven years), our summers are getting hotter and we have more and more days over 100F degrees.

Kathy Purdy at Cold Climate Gardening posted recently about the USDA hardiness zone maps and I replied that in Austin I’m more concerned with the data in the relatively new AHS Heat Zone Map. Some plants suffer heat damage in temperatures as low as 86F degrees. In Austin, temperatures top 86F degrees 50 to 65 percent of the days in the year. Finding the right heat-loving plants is part of the fun of gardening, a challenge tempered with failure. We plant native plants but I, for one, want something more than plants that merely survive. If we try Mediterranean or desert plants in our dry years, we risk losing them to humidity in our wet years. If we plant tropicals, we worry about that one hard freeze a year wiping them out.

The number of days in a row where temperatures are above freezing but below 86F is hard to calculate but generally speaking Austin has two short prime growing seasons from mid-September to mid-November and mid-February to mid-May. Here at Zanthan Gardens plants receive more sunlight in December after the leaves of our large deciduous trees have fallen than in July. And, on the average, more rain.

As I spend my days tending my cool-weather vegetables and planting out my cottage annuals (which don’t require a struggle to dig deep holes in the clay and endless roots of bindweed), I wonder why not just stop here? Enjoy the spring flush of flowers and pack it in for the summer. Forget the short-lived perennials and roses which never receive enough light in the summer and yet demand water, feeding, and attention. Sling a hammock in the deep shade and forget about gardening in summer. Become a cold season gardener.

Is it possible?