"And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress and keep it". Genesis 2:15

Friday, June 26, 2009

How to Make Beautiful Compost

Yippee! I finally made some beautiful compost! 

I recently discovered that to make beautiful compost you need a 12 year old girl.

For years I have had the shame of being compostedly challenged. There my dad was making beautiful compost seemingly effortlessly, bringing it to me by the tub full, and there I was turning horrid mountains of moldy too dry stuff that never turned into compost. My composting experience was a lot of sweaty, hot, back breaking work, and in the end my pile just sat there and refused to decompose.

When my father past-away my mom gave me his old homebuilt rotating barrel system -Two 55 gallon drums supported on a wooden frame, with wheels underneath the drums to allow you to turn them. There is a hatch cut into one side with a door attached with hinges. 

For a few years, yes years!, I diligently tried to make compost in those barrels. Ok, add green stuff (fresh vegetable scraps, weeds, green grass), add brown stuff (old leaves, old grass), make sure it is moist (not too wet, not too dry), and turn drums every day. 

Actually I wasn't all that diligent. I always seemed to have more dry brown stuff than fresh green stuff. I could never remember to go out there and turn those barrels. Plus those drums were not easy to turn. They were very heavy and a few turns was about all I could manage. I could never get the moisture level just right. The barrels were either too dry or sopping wet.

Well those barrels ended up kinda neglected. One day I noticed they looked a little lop-sided. The stuff in the barrels had not decomposed, but the wooden structure had been eaten by termites! 

Ok. Reorganize. Throw those barrels on the ground. Remove wooden structure and cinder blocks supports. Hmmm, these barrels roll easily across the ground! Maybe I wont give up, maybe I'll try one more time. 

Enter 12 year old girl who would rather roll barrels along the ground then weed the family garden. Claire loved rolling the barrels for me. She rolled one barrel all the way up and down the yard everyday. (The other barrel has volunteer Black Soldier Fly  larvae in it, and did not get rolled. I have plans for those larvae.) I added brown and green stuff, and checked on the water periodically. After a while when it looked good and decomposed I stopped adding anything, and just had Claire roll. It looked pretty good but was this compost? It still had quite a bit of undecomposed stuff in there. My dad always sifted his compost, maybe I need to sift this. 

I rolled the barrel into the shade. Sat up a chair, a big plastic tote to hold the compost, and the sifter Garry made for me. I started sifting and the girls came over to help. The stuff in the barrel had reduced in size so that it was half full. Out of that I got about a third of a big tote of beautiful, delicious compost. Yes delicious! (No I didn't eat it but my plants will love it.) In addition to the beautiful compost, we picked out about a cup of Black Soldier Fly larvae that I didn't know were in there. We will give these to my chicken raising friend. The not-all-the-way-decomposed stuff got put back in the barrel, and we are ready to start all over again!

Now just look at that picture of beautiful compost held by the lovely Anna. Doesn't that look delicious?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Water Conservation

Its close to the end of June, we can expect little to no rain from now until the end of August, and my rain barrels are all empty. About this time every year our water bills go up about 100$ a month. Even I can see that this is not self-sufficiency and that my garden is not saving me money. If we are to have an urban homestead that actually produces anything, then I have to find ways to conserve water.

I am already using a deep mulch on all my beds including the vegetable garden. I also use soaker hoses instead of overhead watering. Even with the soaker hoses I tended to waste a lot of water. I would forget that they were on and flood everything. I would forget to set a timer to remind my self to turn off the water. I bought timers that would turn the water off after a preset time. They worked for a while, then they started leaking. Then I had to remember to set a timer to remind myself to check the water timer to see if it was leaking! This is obviously not working the best.

I tend to think that plants really need a lot of water, but what plants really need is consistent moister. You can grow bean sprouts just by keeping them damp. Some hydroponics systems grow plants just by misting their roots. I need to find more efficient systems.

I remembered an old trick that I used to use. I took an old plastic milk jug, poked small holes in it with an awl, and buried it in the ground next to my newly popped up pumpkin seedlings. You fill the buried jug with water from the hose and the water seeps into the ground through the holes. None of the water is wasted on top of the soil where it will evaporate and encourage weed seeds to sprout. However with this system I am still left with the question of how often do I fill this thing?

Buried plastic milk jug.

I also remembered something I had read online once, about how in Mexico and South America farmers would burry porous unglazed clay pots in the ground and fill them with water. The water seeps out very slowly and waters plants planted next to the buried pot. I checked on the price for some of these pots and they really were too expensive for me. I thought that I ought to be able to use a regular clay flower pot with the hole plugged and something set on top to keep out mosquitoes. 

I looked online and found many people who had done just that. I also found many scientific papers on the benefits of using buried clay pots! I found out that a buried clay pot can save 10 times the amount of water over a soaker hose! The reason for this is that the pots keep the soil around them consistently moist. The water is not running along the ground where it evaporates and encourages weeds. It also seeps slow enough that it does not all flow down too deep for the plants roots to reach, as it may do with my buried milk jug.

So now I am running several experiments. I took one milk jug out and replaced it with a big 12" clay pot next to the pumpkin seedlings. I left one milk jug buried and will plant some cantaloupe next to it. I buried a clay pot in the center of a large plastic pot that I plan to plant lettuce in. I buried a clay pot next to a butterfly bush that always wilts when all the plants around it are OK. Yes it will be work to fill these pots up, but the few that have been in the ground for several days have lost very little water. I am anticipating the water lasting at least a week or more. As much as I have always wanted the ease of an expensive in-ground sprinkler system, I know such a system would definitely not meet my goal of saving water, so I am content to lug hoses and watering cans around to fill pots.

12" unglazed clay pot next to pumpkin seedlings, uncovered

I use clay or plastic saucers to cover the buried pots.

Clay pot in a plastic pot. You can see the moist soil around the clay pot. The pot actually is almost full of water, but it disappeared in the photo. 

We plan on adding more rain barrels and are on the hunt for a 275 gallon water storage drum. We see them advertised used a lot, but have no pickup to go get one with. There is a place we drive by that has them, but we need to figure out a way to contact then and see if they will sell us a used one. I know just where I would like to put it. Meanwhile in the absence of rain we are thinking now of grey water.

Garry and I are looking into ways to use the grey water in our home. Grey water is the water from your laundry and bath. This water is just wasted down the drain when it would be perfectly good for watering plants. In Texas its legal to use grey water as long as you are not just pouring it on the ground. It has to be going through a layer of mulch seeping from a pipe buried under the mulch, or be going directly into the ground. 

I have seen very simple systems that just utilize a hose out the laundry room window that goes into a barrel outside. More elaborate systems will use valves that let you choose if you want the water to go down the drain, or out to your garden. If you collect the water in a barrel it has to be used right away, after a few days it can go bad, so we plan to use a barrel with a hose spigot so we can connect a garden hose either to our existing soaker hoses, or I can use the water to fill buried pots. Our laundry room window faces the back yard right in a corner where I am planing to try and plant a Forest Garden. More on that later.

Laundry room window. This shady corner is the future Forest Garden.

Until we get this set up I am going to feel criminal every time I let my laundry water go down the drain!

The last thing I am still thinking about is using a shade cloth over the vegetable garden. Plants out of the direct sun, and the sun can be brutal here, use less water.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Planting Chart for Texas

There is a great month by month planting chart for just about everything you could want to plant at
What to Plant Each Month of the Year in North Texas

This excellent chart (which lives on my refrigerator door) is put out by the Texas Cooperative Extension Service and has sections for vegetables, flowers, trees/shrubs/grasses.

According to the chart in June you can plant Okra, all melons and squashes, and southern peas. I planted recently some cantaloup, okra and pumpkins. Hopefully everything will survive the terrible heat - its been close to 100 all week. If we can afford the water we will hopefully have a fall garden. I have always wanted a huge shade cloth for this time of year, but they are pretty expensive. Yesterday Garry was also talking about getting one - I think a shade cloth would be cheeper than paying for all that water.

Take a look at the planting chart. You might be surprise to find that you can plant something every month of the year in this part of Texas!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How Does Your Garden Grow

I thought it would be fun to keep an on going picture album of the garden progress. This will help me with evaluating the stuff I am doing this year. A clickable picture in the sidebar will take you to this post in future.

Spring 2010

Grape Hyacinths and Daffodils

Peach Blossoms

Look at the shape of this snow on the pots!

Bumblebee on Red Bud Blossom

Baby Spirea bush. I love the arching shape of these bushes.

Ajuga with fountain


Same shot as the header only a year later.

Mariposa Skies 

Early December Snow

Wednesday we woke up to a surprising site - big puffy flakes of snow falling from the sky! No snow or freeze had been predicted so no one was expecting this. It snows so infrequently here - maybe once or twice a year, usually in January. Our first freeze was two weeks late, then snow. What next? Of course it did not stick to the streets and by late afternoon it turned to rain and the snow was all gone. Here are a few pictures of the garden. Anna took all these pictures for me.

Looking over the side fence at the vegetable garden.

Lantana and iris in the snow.

Frozen Vegetable Garden

Cute Cabbage in the snow.

Frozen Okra flower.

November Update

Garden Mid November. Since this picture we have had a slight frost which only cut the pumpkins back a little and didn't hurt anything else.

First time for growing cabbage. It looks like they are starting to form heads. We plan to try and make sour kraut with these. Unlike some people we really love cabbage. We will eat it just steamed with a little yogurt and salt added. I did have some worms but a little Safer Caterpillar Killer (which is organic) killed them all.

First time I have grown mustard. I think tonight I will try to make some fried mustard greens with bacon!

Bell Peppers
I have just picked a bunch of bell peppers. Now I have to decide if I want to freeze them or figure out something to cook them in. I usually just eat bell peppers in salads, but these wont last that long. I could make a peck of pickled peppers I guess.

Green Tomatoes
Some of the tomatoes are starting to ripen. I have to figure out what to do with them all. I love to just eat these raw sprinkled with a little salt.

Tomatoes are very tricky in the fall, because if you let them get the slightest bit frozen they will rot and not ripen. You have to really keep an eye on the weather and bring them all in green if freezing is forecasted. They will ripen on their own sitting on the counter. I almost always have to bring them in green, which is really aggravating, because after the first frost we can have weeks of great frost free weather - too bad you can't put them back on the vine!

 I've got lots of broccoli in the fall garden. Its so fun to pick your own.

Baby Pumpkin. The pumpkins were hit by a slight frost we had a while back, but they didn't die completely. I have quite a few baby pumpkins still on the vine, but I am not sure how they will do now. So far we have harvested 4 10-15 lb pumpkins and I hope we get a few more.

Garlic coming up.
This is my first time to plant garlic. I'll let you know how it turns out.

I made sure I planted a sweet, non-bitter cucumber for the fall garden (Cucumber Sweet Slice hybrid from Park Seeds) as the bitter kind attracts cucumber beetles (and nobody likes bitter anyway!) I planted them under a row cover to keep off the beetles that were already out there until they were big and ready to flower, then I uncovered them to allow pollination. This strategy worked great and I hardly have any beetles in the fall garden, or any bad bugs compared to the late spring garden. I will use this strategy in the spring with all the vegetables in the melon family, because cucumber beetles killed every single one of my cantaloupe plants this year. These cucumbers taste really good too.

Garter Snake- I don't grow these, (though it seems like it.)
I run into one of these frequently in my garden. I thought they would be eating insects, but I looked it up and they eat what other snakes eat - rodents, lizards, snails, frogs, birds, spiders, worms and fish. These guys are pretty small, that's a soaker hose it is next too, so what could they be eating in my garden? I hope it is snails and not frogs! I love all my frogs!

Early October

Garden, early October

Cabbages and broccoli, early October

Large pumpkin blossom.

Our first pumpkin 12.5 Lbs

After So much rain I now have this mystery fungus to contend with. It is growing on the woodchips and this cabbage leaf.

Here are a few photos from late September.

I have been refurbishing the front flower beds.

Giant Pink Autumn Crocus

Golden Rod gift from the birds.

Yellow Autumn Crocus in front of the Pyracantha.

I have forgotten the name of this already. It is a spreading ground cover for under the pink Knockout roses.


My first cup of tea from the herbal tea garden.  In this picture the blue flowers are Borage flowers with a borage leaf on bottom of the pile, the white and yellow ones are Camomile, and the ferny sprig is fennel.

Four-O'clocks. Pyracantha on left.

Four O'clocks.

Morning Glory.

Our first pumpkin! Mid September.

Spider Lilies. I love things that bloom in the fall.

Pyracantha berries. One day I will make jelly with these.

Oxblood Lily. A rare native Texas bulb.

Garden mid September.

Okra Bloom.

Okra Early September

Marmalade under the okra, early September

Pumpkin and squash patch. Summer, butternut, and acorn squash. This takes up the entire south half of the garden.

You can see in the middle part of the garden the buried watering pots covered with tin pie pans. Next to them are planted broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts. Early September.

North half of the garden. Bell peppers, lima beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, summer and butternut squash.

Lima Bean Pods and Flowers. Early September.

Morning Glories. Early September.

Crepe Myrtle early September

Turk's Cap. Grown from wild collected seed.

Stink bug Nymphs on a Pomegranate. Early September. These have been sprayed off with a strong stream of water from the garden hose twice now. The first spray they just came right back. The second spray was longer and more vigorous, and only a few have come back. Will keep checking and spraying.

Ground cover with little blue flowers. I think it might be a type of spiderwort. It hitched a ride from my old garden to this one with the other plants I transplanted. August

Turk's Cap. I collected this seed wild from a country Neighbor. It makes "edible" berries.

Rain Lilly blooming after our 2 inch end of July rain.

Pink Lilly blooming for the first time. It took two years to get this to bloom. Flowers that bloom in July and August are my favorite. August 3rd.

Vegetable garden August 3rd. Okra, tomatoes, yellow squash, two winter squash, pumpkins, peppers, lima beans growing, broccoli and cabbage just planted.

Most of what you see here is left over from Spring and not doing too well, except for the yellow squash. August 3rd.

Pumpkins and winter squash August 3rd

Purple Cone Flowers, Mid June

Hibiscus, Mid June

My Mannerly Tomato Vines, Mid June

Butternut Squash Bloom, 9 inches across, Mid June

Vertical growing of squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans
Mid June

Vegetable Garden Mid June

Nile Lilies, Liatris with Daylilies, Mid June

Vegetable Garden, Early June
Onions, lettuce, Spinach harvested
Tomatoes, Beans, Squashes growing

Part of the Onion Harvest, May

Daylily Bed, May

Hail and Shredded Leaves Early May

Vegetable Garden Late April

Wildflower Bed Late April

Joseph (or Jacob's ?) Lilies Early april

Irises Early April 2009