It’s time for fall planting!
I’ve had a very hectic couple of months. Me and my backpack have seen Nashville, Crested Butte, virtually every inch of the Gulf coast from Houston to Pensacola Fl, then drove through Orlando to visit Port St Lucie. And just for fun, we boarded a cruise ship and went to Mexico. Obviously my garden has been neglected.
Every time I returned home between trips, I was certain I’d find a dried up mess, but that did not happen. The sprinkler on a timer did its job; the plot is well mulched and well fed. I’d come home and harvest eggplant, giant cucumbers and all kinds of peppers. The celebrity tomato vine found new energy and started producing a late crop. In fact, the only loses were basil plants that went to seed and okra, which spent all their nutrients enlarging unpicked pods. I experienced more gardening success while I was gone than I did tinkering in the soil every night.
Finally the garden began to feel the effects of fall. Two weeks ago (just before the cruise) I pulled up most of my summer plants, raked in 1/4 cup of MicroLife 6-2-2 fertilizer per square foot and planted the first wave of the fall garden. Little Brussels sprouts, broccoli, fennel, cauliflower, kale and cabbage plants were purchased from Buchanan’s Native Plants in the Heights. I had carrot and bok choy seeds, they went into the ground and have sprouted; they are ready to be thinned. I’ve kept a Habanero plant left over from summer with dozens of nice peppers still growing, the fruit just starting to turn orange. When they are ripe I’ll pull up the bush; I’ve saved about a quarter of the garden for onions. We’ll see how fall goes!
My gardening adventures have helped me develop new relationships.
After exhaustive amounts of research, I have decided to work with nature, not fight it. I’ve incorporated virtually every technique I can find, proven or wives’ tales, into my little plot. Pots of marigolds surround the garden, rumored to ward off rodents and opossums. I was told squirrels eat tomatoes because they are thirsty; I keep a bucket of water near tomato plants so they can have a drink instead. Birds eat bugs, so a bird is feeder and bird bath are near by. I’ve dug up worms and relocated them to the garden, planted flowers to attract the good bugs and keep a Daisy Red Ryder on hand, just in case.
The birds in my backyard fly my way when I fill the bird feeder. A couple of dove will walk right up to my feet as they peck seeds under the feeder, flying away only if my little Westie gets jealous and chases them off. Little green lizards, like the one in the Geico commercials (without accents), climb plants to greet me when I water. I’m not sure if they like me or the moisture, but they always come. There are all kinds of bugs hanging out.
Yet, with all my new friends, things are not harmonious. Something is eating the crops! I’ve experienced huge losses on tomatoes; lost some eggplant and have newly discovered chews on cantaloupe. I’ve been setting rat traps; no luck. I’ve watched for birds and squirrels on the plants and have no evidence of them visiting. But something is doing some damage.
Before going out of town a week or so back, I plucked all the tomatoes (nearly 50 fruits between the 2 vines) to avoid further loses. When I returned, dime sized tomatoes covered both bushes; these have been stripped. Something big enough to break off a large limb from my Celebrity vine was here last night. I’m thinking opossum or raccoon. Time to set out the box trap.
Then I have these little pests, who like playing in the garden more than life itself. Currently they want to pick every marigold for their mother; they are extremely attracted to peppers as they ripen. One made the mistake of taking a bite out of a yellow Cheyenne recently. I heard him howl from upstairs. Racing down, thinking a dog must have bit him, I find his mother trying to give him milk. His lips stayed red and swollen for hours. That was the spiciest meal he’s had since my mother thought blazing hot wings chicken nuggets.
I sneak out to my garden every evening looking for progress. Until recently progress had slowed; it picked up after I did some tree trimming. I return from a three day trip to North Texas to find my pot boiling over! Cucumbers that were barely noticeable when I left are huge, some over a foot long. I picked 23 tomatoes from my Celebrity vine. Peppers are big and ripe, okra pods cover all three young plants and my two eggplant bushes net 8 fruits. Emotionally I swing from celebrating, to being overwhelmed. What the hell am I going to do with all this stuff?
I planted with recipes in mind, I just didn’t realize everything would ripen at once. And, this is a busy time of year for me; not a lot of time to be playing in the kitchen. I decide to do the easiest, funnest project first. I zip down to Pier 1 imports and purchase a 1.5 gallon, spouted drink dispenser. I hit the H-E-B on the way home and pick up some whole, peeled garlic cloves and visit Spec’s, I need vodka!
I got this idea from Woodrow’s on Durham. They have a big urn filled with veggies and vodka- great in bloody Marys. I throw 12 ounces of peeled garlic cloves into the pitcher, add a layer of jalapenos and cover those with dozen of my smaller onions. Then more layers of peppers: habanero, serrano, cayenne and finally poblano. Even with the pitcher crammed full of veggies, it takes nearly two big bottles of Teto’s to fill the decanter. This will be ready to start consuming in a few days; the peppers should last for months as long as they stay covered in vodka.
My next project involves the cucumbers. I’m going to combine them with onions and peppers to make Bread and Butter pickles, hopefully with a bit of heat to them.
Bread and Butter Pickles
15 cucumbers, sliced
4 onions, thinly sliced
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
1 Anaheim pepper, seeded and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup salt
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
2 1/2 cups granulated white sugar
1tablespoon mustard seeds
3/4 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
Combine cucumbers, onions, peppers, garlic and salt. Let chill for three hours. Drain and discard liquid.
Place remaining ingredients in large sauce pan and bring to boil. Add cucumber mixture boiling vinegar mixture; heat until beginning to bubble. Transfer into sterile storage jars and refrigerate up to two months. This made made enough pickles to fill 14, 4 ounce mason jars; perfect gift size.
The Bloody Marys were a hit around the pool on Sunday! I combined a 50/50 mix of Clamato and Mrs & Mr T’s Bloody Mary mix with the infused vodka. Finished with Worcestershire, Tabasco, celery salt and fresh ground black pepper. Served over ice in pint glasses garnished with celery and olives. The infused vodka added intense depth and flavor.
I served the pickles with home smoked Texas brisket and potato salad (homemade; store bought ingredients). The pickles were well received, however, they had little to no heat. I’ll use hotter peppers in the next batch. Guests left with little jars of pickles.
The garden is still giving. Upcoming projects include eggplant, okra and tomatoes.
I’ve noticed a slow down. Plants that were surging, growing like crazy, have paused. Beautiful blooms are not turning into fruit; tomatoes refuse to take on color. The routine has not changed. I’m feeding weekly, watering daily and praying a lot. Today I notice shade covers the garden at 11:30.
How can this be? Back in the spring I meticulously tracked the sun, then removed and trimmed trees to ensure the garden was getting at least eight hours of sun a day. Now I see the world turned. The sun is no longer rising in the gap I created. It’s coming up behind my neighbor’s big oak tree and over one of my giant old crepe myrtles. It’s well after noon before the sun hits my tomatoes. Shade starts creeping back over the garden about 4:30, a tall fence and an awning covering the door to the storage area blocking the sun’s rays. Four hours of sunshine ain’t getting the job done.
Obviously these trees aren’t coming down, but after a couple days of research, I find some branches I can trim on the crepe myrtle and gain 90 minutes of sunshine for the garden. Not ideal, but every bit helps. I climb up a ladder and onto the roof of the guest house. I take a long stride from the roof into the tree and begin shimmying up the tall trunk with my trusty tree saw. The view is different from here and I can’t really tell which branches intended to cut. I’m not climbing all the way back down for a second look; I select a branch and start sawing. The limbs are heavier than they look and I worry about fences and pots below as they crash to the ground. It looked like a few little branches needed trimmed. Next thing I know I’ve got a ten foot pile of tree limbs in the yard that need cleaned up. There goes my Saturday!
The results were not instantaneous, but by midweek things are happening. Little cucumbers appear on the vines. Eggplants form and peppers that seemed dormant for weeks gain color. My Tabasco pepper plant had never produced a pepper; suddenly the bush is full. All it took was a few strokes of a saw, and gardening is fun again!
It’s working! I have been breaking off pieces of corn tassels and spanking them against corn silks as they appear. Corn cobs have formed on several stalks.
On a lesser note, I went inside for two minutes to get my twins some water. When I came back out they were running around very excited, each holding a green tomato. Drats!
I’ve had many failures in my little plot, but now having some success. Jalapeno and Serrano peppers are in the refrigerator, along with six Bok Choys, a bag of radishes and a few ripe tomatoes (plus two very green ones). Onions are ready to pick and I’ve been pulling them up as needed; the herbs, growing in pots around the elevated garden, are absolutely beautiful. I pulled up four of my five unproductive broccoli plants and threw them into the compost barrel (a new purchase). I noticed the fifth had a crown about the size of a quarter, it has grown to egg size in the last couple of days. One of the two eggplants has a fruit and okra has sprouted and stands about three inches tall. Cantaloupe, cucumbers and squash are blooming and climbing the trellis I put along the back of the garden.
There are 10 pepper plants. So far the Serrano is the workhorse, pumping out nearly 20 peppers. Poblano, Anaheim, habanero and Thai peppers have lots of flowers, little to no fruit. Somehow I ended up with two dragon cayenne plants. One has eight peppers; the other just one. I’m hoping the non-producing plants are just waiting for the summer heat and will over perform in a month or so.
Meanwhile, I’m hungry. My wife is at an event, the boys are in bed; I’m dining solo. There is 1/2 of an uncooked rib-eye, some mushrooms and garden harvest in the fridge. Part of my writing job takes me all over the world, at most stops I meet with chefs who teach me their signature recipes, which I recreate for H Texas‘ Dinner Club section. I draw from lessons I received in Mexico and Tennessee for tonight’s dinner.
Seared Rib-eye with Bourbon Mushrooms
6-8 ounce steak (choose your favorite cut)
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
1/8 cup chopped onions
1/8 cup chopped fennel
1 large Serrano pepper- halved
1/2 cup red or white wine
1 shot of Tennessee whiskey
Preheat oven to 400. Preheat small, well seasoned cast iron skillet over high heat. Season meat with an ample amount of salt and pepper, rub into the meat. Melt butter in skillet, add steak and sear for three minutes. Flip steak and put pan and all into the oven for 3-6 minutes (depending on thickness). remove beef, re-season with salt and pepper and set aside to rest. Put the pan back on high heat, scrape bottom with metal spatula to loosen all bits and juices, add whiskey and cook for 30 seconds. Add veggies and wine and stir to coat. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for about five minutes. Remove lid, turn heat to high and cook until liquid evaporates. Top steak with veggies and enjoy with your favorite adult beverage.
Amazing things are happening in my 84-square foot patch of fun. I can literally watch cucumber vines climb the trellis; I’m picking peppers and tomatoes as corn stalks are blooming tassels.
If you’re into gardening, you know how addictive watching things grow can be. My 18-month old twin helpers are as caught up as I am. Yesterday one picked a mint leaf to chew on, and as he slowly negotiated the plant to mouth transition, noticed tomatoes growing on the vine just past the mint plant. He instantly reached; luckily, I was close enough to prevent the premature plucking.
The twins are constantly chewing on mint and parsley, and they love onion tops. They like to keep themselves busy around the garden fussing with dead and dying leaves; they are natural cullers. They also like to throw mulch and dirt on the deck. I think they like the texture of the wood mulch and temperature (and taste) of the dirt. In the past I’ve found ways of distracting them from unwanted actions, but they find throwing dirt and mulch beyond distraction and worthy of a good scolding. I’ve had to resort to old fashioned time out. I start their outside time with a visit to the garden and tell them they can play with the plants as long as they don’t throw dirt and mulch on the deck. When they violate this rule they are banished to another part of the yard for a few minutes. One has caught on; the other really likes dirt!
All my creepy vines are crawling. The speed in which their tentacles can wrap around the trellis, and corn stalks, is mind boggling. My cucumbers can get a couple of loops around the trellis in just a few minutes and be strangling a corn plant by the end of a sunny day. If I had a few too many adult beverages and napped in the garden, I’m not sure I would make it out alive!
My squash and cantaloupes sprouted tentacles yesterday and I assume they’ll start to climb the trellis today.
I’m in a dilemma on fertilizing. Since I put down a heavy layer of mulch, as prescribed in Dr. Randall’s succinctly titled Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston, A Natural Organic Approach Using Ecology, 12th Edition, its a major task to rake MicroLife fertilizer into the top few inches of soil. I have to rake up the mulch, fertilize then lay the mulch back down. The people at Wabash recommended a fish based liquid fertilizer; my wife was unhappy with the odor, “It smells like a bad day at the beach,” she told me as she escaped back into the house. Cousin Steve, who is no relation to me, says he gets great results with Miracle Gro liquid and holds a cold Budweiser in one hand as he sprays Miracle Gro on his garden with the other. The NASA rocket scientist and life long gardener has dropped by to give me some zucchini and crooked neck squash; says he’s picking about 20 per day. I barely have a bloom and he’s harvested nearly a hundred squash. This has my attention; I guess I’ll give the Miracle Gro a try.
I don’t have enough corn properly planted to ensure pollination. Evidently this a common problem for recreational farmers; I found plenty of instructional articles on line. I’m helping the birds and the bees by hand pollinating. Corn plants sprout tassels at the top of the plant that contain pollen. When enough corn is planted properly, wind blows the pollen onto silks sprouting along the sides of the plant. By cutting off part of a tassel and rubbing it on the silks, one can get pollen on the silks and hopefully cause a cob to grow. My research says to repeat the process several days in a row. My garden is a very loving environment.
Things are looking up! I have plucked some early tomatoes from my Celebrity vine. The mocking birds have been watching them ripen; I beat the birds to the punch and moved the tomatoes to the inside windowsill when two thirds of the fruit were pink.
I count another 8-10 fruits and tons of blooms. I plan on letting some of these stay on the vine and note at what stage the birds attack; going forward I’ll start picking just before the birds are attracted. I’ve also got about a dozen Serrano peppers and half a dozen jalapenos that can be picked at anytime. I can combine my harvest and make garden fresh salsa.
I’ve overcome obstacles and garnered some mild success with radishes, Bok Choy, peppers and tomato.
I’ve kept the soil loose around the base of my onions and they have started getting fat at the bottom; I’m hopeful. I’ve had complete failures with Brussels Sprouts and cauliflower (planted too late) and cabbage (did not feed properly). I have two more failures looming. I starved my broccoli the first half of their young lives. I began aggressively feeding and they grew like crazy, but it looks like too little too late; I see no signs of florets after ninety days. My corn is also in jeopardy. I planted two rows, 8 stalks each. I have since found out I should have planted four rows of four to ensure the wind does its job during pollination. I’m trying to pollinate by hand, we’ll see how that works out.
Cantaloupe, cucumbers and squash are planted to crawl up a trellis I installed at the back of the garden. The cucumbers have already started the climb. I notice a couple of plants had latched on, so I propped a third cucumber up next to the trellis with a small stake, within thirty minutes it had grabbed hold. I put four okra plants and two eggplants in the ground and gave them a good feeding. Hopefully they will be feeding me soon.
I returned last night from a whirlwind trip to Ireland’s Ballyfin Demesne. The exclusive manor sits on 614 acres of orchards, gardens and rolling pastures.
Ireland shares the same latitude as my birth place, Edmonton, Alberta Canada. My parents claim it was 30 degrees below zero when I was born in March. The waters of the Atlantic Ocean hold some heat and protect Ireland from these frigid temperatures, but it’s safe to say the Emerald Isle has different growing seasons than the Bayou City. When I arrived on April 30th, they were planting cabbage, carrots and cauliflower, things we sow September – October. They rarely get temperatures hot enough to grow tomatoes or peppers (unless done in a greenhouse) and their harvest is completed by August; the gardens stay dormant until March when they sow onions and leeks. The gardeners at Ballyfin grow all they can in this limited season and can usually reap enough fruits and vegetables to feed resort guests nine months out of the year.
After nearly a week of sleeping in a castle, hobnobbing with Lords and Ladies and enjoying the Irish countryside, I’m ready to see my babies. My 18 month old twins are out for the night by the time I get home; it’s too dark to get a good look at the garden. My wife is still up; she tells me there is a problem with the boys and the garden. The twins really like the mulch I recently installed to retard weeds and prevent water evaporation. They want to play with it, throw it, chew on it and make a general mess. She suggests I put up a fence.
When I first planted, I tacked up some chicken wire around the garden to keep the boys from pulling up my seedlings. I left some established herbs I have growing in pots outside the little redneck fence and encouraged to them tear off leaves and taste the mint parsley, sage and rosemary. This was a decent distraction, but I soon realized they were far more interested in the colorful plastic identification spikes that came with the plants. They would reach over the fence, pull up the little markers and bring them to us as gifts, so we made a big game out of thanking them, then sneaking over and hiding the markers back amidst the plants. It’s like a never ending Easter egg hunt. They have so much fun with the plastic spikes they ignore the plants and I took down the little fence. However, the mulch is new and has too much texture to ignore.
I finally see the boys this morning. I steal a few minutes of playtime and cook them a healthy breakfast, then sneak out to look at the garden. Mulch is scattered all over the deck. Otherwise, the garden looks great. Plants have good color, some of the peppers have fruit more than two inches long, a couple of celebrity tomatoes are showing shades of red and my radishes have really taken off. The Sevin Dust got rid of whatever was dining on the cabbage, broccoli and Bok Choy. Everything has grown.
I’m a little concerned the garden is doing better because I was gone; my wife is certainly taking credit for the success. I plan to give it another good feeding. The cauliflower and the cabbage are failures; today I’ll rip them out and sow eggplants and okra in the space. I also need to devise a new strategy to keep my assistants out of the mulch.
The complexities keep building. I have rebuilt my elevated garden with a plastic liner and multiple layers of filler to give my veggies the best chance to thrive. I gave Miracle-Gro garden soil too much credit and lost six weeks of growing time; then planted several out of season plants. What a rookie! Now the sun is finally shining; I watch the shadows creep across my garden.
Historically, this area of my yard gets the most sun. Unfortunately, a couple of giant old crepe-myrtle trees and some forty year old magnolias are flexing their muscles; they’re showing the sun who is boss. Shade is hampering my harvest; corn stalks in the sunny part of the garden are three times the size of their shaded siblings. This is not the my first fight with these trees, but this time I’m fighting for my vegetable garden.
I spend a sunny Sunday charting which trees are causing problems, then call the tree trimmers. I have three trees completely removed and give the giant old crepe-myrtles serious haircuts. Now the yard looks completely different. I was thinking only of the garden; when the trees were gone I began thinking of my wife, her attachment to the missing trees and her opinion of my decision to make the trees go missing. Luckily she loves the new look. The trees were not hiding buildings or neighbors, now we see a big patch of Texas sky framed by large oak and magnolias. We can even lay in the sun by the pool. The garden will get 10 hours of sun, and we still have lots of trees.
During a recent visit to the Inn at Dos Brisas (the only Forbes five-star restaurant in Texas) I got to tour their organic gardens. Their operation is impressive. The farmers harvest seed from the crops, which sprout and grow in greenhouses and are transplanted as soon as threat of frost is gone. The chefs pick fresh produce everyday for their tasting menus. I shared some of my gardening issues with Farmer Jane. She encouraged me to replant the radish and Bok Choy, even though it’s no longer the ideal planting time. By her instruction, I planted where the tomatoes and corn will protect them from my newly found sun.
My Bok Choy sprouted, and with plenty of food, quickly grew a couple of inches. Overnight most of it disappeared. As I look more closely I see the plants are still there, something has eaten the new leaves. The eating has continued, now spreading to the broccoli and cabbage.
We’re having friends over for some good old Texas BBQ. The smoker is puffing away when one of my guests tells me I need some Seven Dust. I don’t know what Seven Dust is I confess. He explains Seven Dust will cure most of the bug problems in my garden. Moments later another friend asks if I’ve ever heard of Seven Dust. Ten minutes after that, 70 year old Robert says, “Tommyboy, you need to get to the store and buy you some Seven Dust.”
I guess bugs are eating my plants, and the cure is Seven Dust. At Buchanan’s Native Plants I find and purchase a shaker of Sevin Dust.
Something is not right. The cold, wet weather seems to have frozen my garden in time.
It’s not that the garden looks bad, it looks exactly like it did before the first freeze hit, and the day I planted it. I have Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and onions that have not grown an inch. My Bok Choy and radish seeds sprouted, tiny leaves just peeking out of the soil, and stopped growing. The weather has been wintry; we haven’t seen the sun in weeks, but I have winter crops in the ground. Shouldn’t they be rejoicing, growing and thriving as the “polar vortex” pushes through Houston?
It’s time to review. My elevated garden has been lined with plastic so it will hold water. I have poked several holes in the plastic three inches off the ground as an outlet for excess water. The bed has several layers of filling: about a foot of small rock, sand, some fill dirt and about 15 inches of Miracle-Gro garden soil on top. I was suppose to mix the Miracle-Gro soil with native soil at a 50/50 ratio. I didn’t have that much native soil, so it’s 80% Miracle-Gro. I begin to think this is my issue. At the same time, I wonder if the garden is set to explode when the sun finally comes out.
As I look for holes in my plan I realize I’m missing one key ingredient, knowledge. I have absolutely no knowledge or experience in growing vegetables. My thirst for results pushed my expectations straight to the “reap” and I’m beginning to feel their was something wrong in my “sow.” My schedule has not allowed me to visit Wabash on Saturdays, and when I finally get there the knowledgeable plant waterer is nowhere to be found. I start buying books on Texas gardening and examine their content. Texas is a big state. We have desert ecosystems out west and wetlands in the southeast. Texans can be snowed in in Dallas, hot and dry in Laredo, mild and misty in Corpus Christi and perfectly comfortable in Austin- all on the same day. I start to question why I’m reading about rose gardens in Tyler. I need to read about growing broccoli in my backyard. At Buchanan’s Native Plant Store in the Heights I find a piece of work by Bob Randall, Ph.D. I spend $40 on Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston, 12th Edition.
It’s a stretch to call it a book. The spiral bound pages look like they came straight off of an office copier. Pictures are grainy, the writing is suspect and it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. Dr Randall understands the giant body of water just south of town influences our weather. He doesn’t write about Texas, he gives planting instructions for north of FM 1960, west of Hwy 6, and perfect for me, Montrose. Dr. Bob is an ecological anthropologist, and writes like one. I can’t really understand ecological anthropology, but quickly learn how to use his book. The first section I grasp is the Planting Calendar. Virtually every veggie you can plant in Houston is listed along with the ideal planting date. My first batch of crops went in the ground around February first. Looking through the planting calendar I see the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower were suppose to be planted in October; they aren’t growing and likely will never grow in February. However, my other crops should be thriving. I turn to the “how to” section where he gives specific individual growing instructions and learn my broccoli is hungry; they need 1/4 cup of organic plant food every two weeks. I have fed them nothing. I head back to Wabash to buy some MicroLife.
The results are instantaneous; visible growth within days. I have five broccoli plants, but only fertilize four. The fertilized plants suddenly dwarf the other. After a couple weeks, I look around the little farm and realize I’m starving my crops and begin feeding every single plant.
I’ve wasted six weeks of growing time and will probably lose my first harvest, but learned some valuable lessons. Lowe’s sold me cauliflower and Brussels sprouts in February; I no longer expect plants to grow just because they are available at the store. I worried my 80% Miricle-Gro garden soil would harm or burn my tender young plants. I now realize there was no miracle in my Miracle-Gro; in fact, there was no grow. I am fertilizing weekly.
It seems to be working. I’ve added two tomato plants and eight varieties of peppers; all have fruit. I replanted radishes and Bok Choy and see growth; most of my corn is popping up in rows. I’m not out of the woods yet. Now that we are well into March and the sun is shining, I see shadows cover my plot most of the day. It’s time to call the tree trimmers.
I awake feeling pressure of an impending deadline. My buddy Gary would boast every year how he got his tomatoes in the ground before the end of February. Today is the 26th, we have just suffered through a rare winter storm (hopefully the season’s last), the sun is shining and I’m going to get dirty.
The garden needs top soil. My research on the web tells me I can use Miracle-Gro garden soil. It has enough fertilizer mixed in to feed my garden up to three months and “grows vegetables twice as big.” This option is more appealing than visiting the Wabash guy’s hen house, shoveling chicken poop into my SUV, driving it home, carting it through the yard and mixing it with generic dirt. With tape measure in hand, I make some quick measurements, head to Home Depot and buy nine big bags of Miracle-Gro garden soil.
The easy to follow instructions suggest a 50/50 mix of Miracle-Gro garden soil and native soil. I don’t have that much native soil in my elevated garden, so it’s more like 80-percent Miracle-Gro. An uneasy feeling sets in. Is excess fertilizer going to burn my seeds and baby plants? Am I dooming my families hopes of fresh vegetables? I finally decide what’s done is done. The bed looks great; fluffy, fertile and yearning for plants.
I must have had too much wine with last night’s dinner. There are very few plants to choose from at the local stores. Lowe’s has some Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, Wabash has cabbage, broccoli and few herbs. No one has tomatoes. I hear my late buddy’s voice reminding me to get tomatoes in the ground before the end of February, and suddenly it hits me. This isn’t the end of February, but the end of January. The motivation of the deadline evaporates and feel a slight throbbing in my head; more side effects of the wine.
After a day of thinking it over, I have a new plan. My soil is yearning for plants, I’m eager to provide for my family, we live in Houston where gardens can produce all year long. I make the decision to throw in some cold weather crops. I purchase the Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage plants, plus a set of onions. Red radish and Bok Choy seeds will take up more space, but still leave enough room for a couple tomato plants when they come in. I dig, plant and water, then look with pride at the little plants poking out of the ground. I envision my toddler sons enjoying Brussels sprouts (steamed, pureed and mixed with diced roast chicken). My wife’s going to love the garden fresh broccoli in her morning omelets and I can’t wait to stir fry the Bok Choy and radishes. I’ve done my part; it’s time to let the sunshine and soil finish the job.
On day five I see sprouts. I’ve been studying the my plant bed intently for nearly a week and I’m finally rewarded with straight lines of little, infant radish and Bok Choy. The cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, onions and broccoli look the same as the day they were planted, but my little lines of new plants show undeniable progress. My chest swells with a sense of accomplishment. This little winter garden, hastily planned as it was, is producing. And I’m glad it’s winter crops. It’s an odd winter; more chilly weather is in the forecast.
The wintry weather hits with a vengeance the very night my sprouts emerge from the ground. Even though they are winter crops, I’m worried. The little plants are young and frail; all I can do is wait and see.
It started in December, 2013. Our brand new backyard deck will contain a small elevated garden; a little 12′ x 7′ patch of fun.
Gardening is not new to me. Every spring for decades I’ve turned soil, mixed in peat humus to raise the beds and planted assorted flowers, which bloom beautifully until I get tired of weeding and feeding. At some point during late summer or early fall they fall into a state of disrepair, and usually stay that way until spring. This garden is different; we plan to eat the bounty! Yes, enough vegetables to feed our family of four, plus guests, will be harvested year round from our 84 square foot farm; I’ve been researching new recipes since we finalized the deck plans. The farmer, me, can’t wait to get started.
I wander into the Wabash Feed Store on Washington Ave. as soon as they open on Saturday, eager to see their plant selection. A nice man watering the plants asks if I need help. “I’m just browsing,” I inform him. “I’m having a new garden built and I’m exploring my options.” He puts down the hose and informs me we need to talk, starting with a description of the new garden.
I live in a home built in 1916. Ninety-eight years ago, my back-yard deck was a driveway leading to the carriage house. When we pulled out the old deck we found the whole area was covered in concrete. On top of the concrete was 6 – 8 inches of colorless dirt. I had the deck contractors scrape up this dirt to fill my garden. The man at Wabash tells me this was a big mistake. Evidently a garden sitting directly on concrete will have trouble holding water. The water draining out will ruin the the woodwork. When the water drains out it takes the nutrients with it. Without nutrients…
“What do I need to do?” I ask the plant waterer, who has earned an incredible amount of respect in a two minute time span. His recommendations:
—Line the interior with thick black plastic to hold water and protect wood walls. Staple the plastic at the top of where the the soil line will be, cover interior sides and bottom of the garden. Allow excess water to escape by punching a small hole every three feet along the sides three inches from the ground.
—Use multiple layers for filler. You don’t want soil sitting in the pool of water atop the plastic, so the first foot of my three foot garden should be rock. The second layer should be sand to fill the gaps and even out the floor of my garden. The next layer can be the filler soil scraped from the concrete under my old deck. Reserve the top 12- 18 inches for a high quality top soil, mixed with large amounts chicken poop, which I can get free If I go to his house and shovel it.
I leave the Wabash feed store visibly shaken, nervously dialing the deck contractor from my cell. I share the bad news and he promises to bring extra help on Monday to dig out the old dirt and he’ll get the supplies needed to build it right. My gardening ego has taken a major blow and I haven’t even planted a seed. At this point I’m extremely thankful for two things. 1) My mistakes were pointed out very early 2) The knowledgeable plant waterer (who is a top rate teacher during the week) hands out free advice every Saturday at the Wabash Feed and Garden Store