Friday, May 2, 2014

The Texas Gardener: Growing Your Greens in the Desert

Growing carrots and humans

I'm not a native Texan but I've lived here over half of my life. I love my Texas and there are really very few places on earth I'd rather be. One thing I don't love is our crazy clay soil and extreme weather conditions. As an organic gardener, these factors make growing food for my family a daily battle. I've spent the last 10 years compiling my hard learned lessons and I'm now at a point where I can give Mother Nature one heck of a fight when it comes to defending my turf.

So if you're new to Texas, new to suburban gardening or just curious as to how my effort pans out in the kitchen {and in the pocket} here's my hard earned Texas gardening secrets from my yard to yours:

Make Your Dirt

Our clay soil is the biggest hindrance to plants establishing a health root system. When it comes to growing food, the better the roots the better the grub. Now, I do buy a fair amount of my soil. In fact, that's my largest investment. You should expect to shell out around $200 to get a decent pair of raised beds going and you wont make that investment back in the first season. You will make that money back eventually-usually by your third growing season under "optimal" conditions. Luckily, we have three growing seasons in Texas so if you don't make a return the first year you'll have plenty of opportunities in the next. A word of caution: Don't skimp on the dirt. Tall plants will need at minimum half their mature size in soil depth and while raised beds will heat up sooner (great for getting an early start), they will also dry out quicker. The more soil, the more moisture retention and that my friends is half the battle in Texas. I recommend a mixture of vegetable soil, organic mushroom compost, topsoil and composted manure. It's a good idea to keep an eye on the nitrogen level that you're mixing, too much nitrogen is always a BAD thing-think explosions at the root level. I avoid a nitrogen overdose by using well composted manure and making sure that for every green thing added to the dirt I'm also adding a healthy mix of browns. Composting is a great way to supplement your dirt budget and also a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. You can read about my tips and tricks on that right here.

I also like to purchase live red wriggler worms in bulk and add those to both my compost heap and my garden beds. Red wrigglers are voracious eaters-they can put away up to 2 lbs of food in a single day! All that food means a whole lotta poop otherwise known as worm castings. The worm castings are the most nutrient dense organic matter you'll find and it's essentially like steroids for plants. If you don't want to mess with buying the worms you can just order the dehydrated castings and make your own worm compost tea to feed your plants. I prefer the worms because in addition to significantly increasing the turnover time in my compost pile they also do an amazing job of breaking up all our Texas clay. Nothing makes me happier than seeing worm tracks through chunks of clay. Red Wrigglers can completely condition your clay soil in less than six months so when you factor in the cost of dirt, worms are worth their weight in gold.

At Root Watering

We all know that plants need water but what a lot of new to Texas gardeners don't realize is that water can be your number one enemy in a desert environment. I'm not just talking about the lack of water, although that is a daily battle. In Texas, in ground and at root watering is the ticket to healthy, fruit heavy plants. Our days are hot and our nights are humid. These conditions combined make an optional petri dish ecosystem for bacterial and fungal plant infections to set in on damp leaves and the more you spray the leaves the more opportunity the infection has to spread through infected water droplets. Additionally, by watering the plant leaves and topsoil directly, the convective heat transfer will steam the plant before the water has a chance to penetrate the soil. Loss of water and loss of plants: it's a lose-lose scenario.

Ollas are a Native American system for root watering involving the burial of long necked clay pots right beside the roots of the plants. The ollas act as a "placenta" of sorts for the plant-by watering into the ollas and allowing the water to seep slowly into the soil you avoid the risk of wet leaves and you also have a great vehicle for applying liquid nutrition right at the roots where the plant needs it most. I've made my own ollas by burying hole punched milk jugs but I recently upped my efforts and made DIY ollas out of basic terracotta pots. If you're not into the DIY approach you can always pick some up at my Amazon store!

milk jug olla

Terracotta pot ollas


There's the old adage "you are what you eat" and then there's the hippie take on it, "you are what you eat eats". When it comes to growing your greens, the health of your plants translates to health of the food on your table. To that end, I like to give my plants a healthy mix of "kitchen nutrition" and purchased liquid fertilizers like this kelp spray. Tomatoes and peppers are two huge staples in my garden and both of these require high amounts of calcium and potassium to produce high yields. I save all of our eggshells and banana peels throughout the week and add them to my tomato and pepper beds every few weeks. By allowing the banana peels to breakdown while they hang out in my compost bucket, I avoid the risk of adding an excess of nitrogen to my root's base. If I'm feeling extra enthusiastic I will even bake and crush my eggshells before mixing them into the soil. This step is not an absolute necessity but it does serve an additional benefit as a natural nematode and slug repellent. The rough edges of the egg shells will slice those suckers to smithereens before they can get their scollaxes on your grub. That's garden talk for "come and take it" gauntlet throwing.

Another tip I've used with incredible results is spraying the flowering buds with a 1tbs Epsom salt to 1 L water solution. The Epsom salt acts as a magnesium boost by increasing the uptake of bio-available Mg in the plant. You'll ONLY want to direct this on the flowers and only once they've bloomed. The results have been pretty impressive for me-within 48 hours there are new buds and higher return of fruiting per plant.

Defending the Alamo Arugula

While the best defense is a good offense, and in the garden world that means healthy plants are hardy plants, there comes a time when a little ammunition goes a long way. Since I want to eventually eat the food I'm growing, covering them in chemicals known to cause cancer is not exactly the way I want to go. I've used Neem oil with great success for the past 4 years. It's my "go to" and my "all in one" organic pest control. And while Neem oil will kick the tar out of hornworms, aphids and ants it will also keep powdery mildew and blight at bay. Most websites will tell you to abandon all hope and trash your plant if either one of those show up on your leaves but I've brought plants back from the brink of death with just my Neem oil and a prayer. If you're a local, Schmitz garden center has a pretty good price on organic Neem oil. I'd say tell 'em I sent you but they probably don't know who I am. Otherwise you can find it here. Make sure to only apply this treatment during a cool and overcast day, direct sunlight will cause the oil to burn your leaves if you're not careful.

Handpicking is also an essential skill. I used to get all guilty about picking off hornworms and I even released them into the wild for a year or so before "cowboying up" and squishing them with my fingers as I pull them from my vines. Sorry worms, this girl is ready to go full out Patriot style to protect my tomatoes.  Birds, grasshoppers,and moths (which lay hornworm eggs) are also a huge garden pest so I keep out the flying things with a mixture of bird netting and toulle stapled around the perimeter of my tomato bed.

Single Stemming It

Single stemming tomatoes is a practice which involves the aggressive removal of the plant's suckers to artificially create a single stem on an indeterminate tomato plant. The general idea is that by removing the extra stems you grow fruit instead of leaves.  I'm trying this approach for the first time this year and am a little reluctant to count my tomatoes before they've ripened but so far I'm seeing some really impressive results like multiple fruiting branches and buds by April. Since you will be doing quite a bit of manhandling these plants, it's essential that you watch for signs of infection before pinching suckers from plant to plant. Additionally, since these plants will produce higher yields than they would otherwise, you'll need to give them some extra support by stringing the single vine along a garden twine line as it grows.

Companion Planting

The Native Americans really understood the needs of the land and companion planting is a ancient gardening practice of growing "sister plants" together in order to produce the most beneficial outcome. The basic concept is that what one sister takes out of the soil the other sister puts back in. Corn and beans are the primary example as beans fix nitrogen into the soil and corn is a nitrogen needy plant. Companion planting also allows for the biggest return on your plot as plants can be closely planted and beans can grow up corn stalks or squash and basil can grow in the shade of tomatoes. Here's a list of companion plants in case you want to give it a whirl just as I have in my garden.

Corn and squash companion planting

Three Sisters Garden: Squash, corn and beans

Things I've Grown:

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