Saturday, September 13, 2014

Welcome to the Texas Toad Spa!

This was the scene the other night at the lid full of water we have on our back porch for critters. (It's actually the lid off one of the barrels we made into rain barrels.) There were six Gulf Coast Toads, but when I came to take the picture, one got spooked and hopped out. To the right there's also a Southern Leopard Frog coming to join them.

Toads are quite common in my yard, but the frog is new. The main difference between frogs and toads is that frogs stay around water, while toads live on land and only go to water to breed. I didn't think my yard was wet enough for frogs, so I was pretty surprised when one showed up and started hanging out with the toads. I've seen this particular frog three times now. He's a bit more skiddish than the toads and can leap much farther if you spook him.

Yesterday I saw another leopard frog in the water. This is a definitely a different individual! I can tell because it's quite a bit smaller than the other one. So now we've got at least two frogs.

The only thing I can figure out is they must be coming from my neighbor's yard. She has some kind of a fountain over there. I've heard male toads singing over there, and now I wonder if some leopard frogs have been breeding in there. That would explain the small ones wandering over here. (There have also been quite a few small baby toads, not just big fat ones.)

During the day, the toads retreat to various burrows they have around the yard, while the frogs must go back to my neighbor's fountain. Here's one that's made itself at home under one of the agaves in our xeric garden in the front. All kinds of small critters love to burrow under agaves, cacti, and other spiny plants. It helps protect them from predators.

Next time I see my neighbor, I really must thank her for having this fountain that's turning out to be such a great population source for all these wonderful amphibians!

Speaking of which, we're still working on our own backyard pond. It's still a big hole in the ground, but my husband has ordered the skimmer, and will order the pump next. It's just been too hot to do much work on it out there, but once it cools off I hope we can go ahead and get it done. The frogs and toads should love it!

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Harvest Moon

Monday was the Harvest Moon, which means fall is almost here. Of course it's still been in the high-90's, but today the first big cold front of fall is supposed to arrive, which is forecast to bring the temperature down by about 15 degrees. I can't wait!

There's not much left out in the garden, but what has survived the summer is probably good to go until it freezes in November or December.

I'm still not impressed with these Rosa Bianca eggplants. After producing some small fruits in the summer that went from purple to yellow-brown way too fast, I picked off all the remaining fruits and blossoms, to let the plants just concentrate on surviving the summer. Now that it's cooling down a little, they're starting to make more blossoms. I'm going to give them one more chance to make a nice crop in fall, but I'm thinking this is just not a good variety for me.

My peppers did lousy this year, and now I think it might be best to start the seeds in the fall, keep them in pots over winter, and then plant them in spring. I had a bumper crop the year I did that (somewhat unintentionally). I think they really liked germinating while the weather was still warm, and then seemed to do fine waiting over winter in their 4 inch pots before being planted as large, sturdy plants in spring.

Which means on my to-do list for this weekend is to start next year's peppers!

After I cut my tomatoes down to stumps, the Cherokee Purple tomatoes never grew back, but the cherry tomatoes look like they  might grow back in fall.  Maybe I'll even get a second harvest of them.

I sprayed I Must Garden brand deer repellent on the sweet potatoes, since it was recommended on Central Texas Gardener. It worked much better than I thought! It looks like the deer completely quit eating my sweet potatoes and they've gotten a chance to grow back a bit (though not yet back to how they were before the deer showed up). It smells to me like a mixture of cinnamon, mint, and garlic, which is not exactly the nicest smell, but apparently the deer think it smells much worse. And I only sprayed it once or twice, and that seems to have been enough. I might re-apply if it turns out that we get a heavy rain with this coming cold front.

The only thing left alive in the back garden is some of the Christmas Lima beans. I hope in fall they'll be able to recover a bit and give me a second crop.

I've been having trouble starting the fall crops in these trays. Some of the seedlings have been damping off, but I think birds have been pulling up some of them. I've never actually caught any in the act, but I know for sure birds have been stealing the tags! I've found them strewn around the yard. I got to the point where I couldn't tell some of my plants apart (is this broccoli, collards, or mustard?), but it didn't matter too much because I had to reseed a lot of them anyway. It's just hard having to start fall crops when it's still 100 degrees outside and then try to nurse them along until it finally cools down.

I wonder if it's even worth it to try to start them in August, or if I should just wait until it cools down. So few of them survive it might not be worth the extra month of growing time they get.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Dog Moon

The Dog Moon is named for the Dog Days of Summer, when Sirius the Dog Star is prominent in the night sky, and it's really, really hot. It's not consistently at least 100 degree every day, if not a few degrees over.

The garden plants are looking pretty toasted out there.

I just harvested one Charentais melon that was about the size of a softball. We haven't eaten it yet, but it smells wonderful. There are two more on the vines, and a forth was doing OK until some type of bug bored into it. But I'm not growing this variety again. The seeds were given to me, but it's struggling in the heat.

The Rosa Bianca eggplants aren't doing too well either, and eggplants are supposed to like heat. The fruits get to be about tennis ball sized and then turn yellow. Aren't they supposed to be a large eggplant? I guess I should start picking them sooner, because eggplants turn bitter when they get yellow.

The mystery yellow cherry tomatoes that were supposed to be Dr. Wyche's Yellow but aren't are the only tomatoes still ripening fruits. And that's fairly typical of cherry tomatoes. They are tougher than large-fruited tomatoes.

I decided the Cherokee Purple tomatoes weren't going to produce any more fruits when it's this hot, so I pruned them back to stumps. That may have been a bit of a drastic move, but I heard that can actually help them survive the summer, and then they regrow in the fall for a second harvest before frost. The plants weren't looking so good anyway, so maybe it will be good for them to get some fresh growth.

I left one pod on each okra plant for seed saving, and now the first two or three are starting to mature and are ready to pick and get the seeds out. They need to be picked before they completely split open and the seeds spill out, but that has to be done wearing gloves because they're covered in irritating spiny hairs. The plants themselves have lost a lot of leaves. Some of them just fell off on their own (maybe because of the heat), but it looks like some got munched by deer, which surprised me.

I forgot to get a picture of the sweet potatoes in front, but they haven't really changed. They still love the heat as long as they get watered enough, and the deer are still eating anything that sticks out beyond the wire. I sprayed some "I Must Garden" brand deer repellant on them last week to see if that helps. Looking at the ingredients list, it's a mixture of rotten eggs, garlic, cinnamon oil, and peppermint oil. The peppermint and cinnamon make it smell nice to humans, but it's supposed to smell nasty to deer. I'll see if it works.

This is what's left of the cucumber vine. I got about three cucumbers off it, but now I'm letting it die. The cucumbers were getting bitter anyway.

The lima beans are the best looking beans. They quit making any more pods, but the plants are still green, which is better than the snap beans or yardlong beans.

The Tatume squash is wilting in the heat but still alive. The Black Futsu squash, on the other hand, looks completely dead. I was afraid a Japanese squash variety couldn't cut it.

Early August may be the hottest time of year, but it's also, ironically, time to start fall crops like broccoli, collards, and mustard greens. I have them right here, and they're already starting to sprout. They're being kept in the shade, and I think this year I'll use a shade cloth out in the garden when I transplant them. I'm still on a learning curve with getting fall crops to do well, because they need to be planted in such hot weather to mature in cool weather. I think the mistake I was making before was keeping them in pots too long, which I think was stunting them. This time I'll set them out earlier under a shade cloth set up over them and plenty of watering.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dog Day Cicadas

During the hottest time of year the afternoons are full of the sound of annual cicadas, also known as Dog Day Cicadas (genus Tibicen), named after the Dog Days of Summer. Their sound is synonymous in my mind with 100 degree heat. The hotter it is, the more they sing. I always thought they sounded like a certain type of sprinkler I think are called "impact sprinklers". You know, the kind that goes around in a circle "tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat" and then goes back around the other way faster "tatatatatatatata". Our cicadas sound like that.

Nymphs spend a few years underground sucking on tree roots, until they emerge on summer nights, leaving nickel-sized holes behind in the yard. Then they climb up a tree, or wall, or car tire to molt, leaving their old exoskeletons behind. By August just about every vertical surface in the yard has cicada shells stuck to it.

Sometimes you see the adults. They're large and green, with big bug-eyes, and long transparent wings. They make a loud buzz when a mockingbird grabs one. They make a louder buzz when a cat brings one in the house and bats it around the living room. But it's rare to see the nymphs since they stay underground and emerge at night.

But the other evening, while Daniel was out watering plants after work, he brought in this to show me.

There it is, a cicada nymph in the flesh, crawling up my husband's arm. You can see its front digging legs clearly. It's a little hard to see in this picture, but he also had a long, straw-like mouth pointing down. Looks just like the shells stuck everywhere, but without the split down the back where the bug crawled out. I always thought those shells were kind of gross, but it seems somewhat less gross this way.

After showing the cicada to me, Daniel put it in a tree to let it do its thing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Thunder Moon

I just drove right through a thunderstorm on my way home from work, but when I got here, it looks like it missed my house. Bummer.

The deer found my sweet potatoes, and munched the leaves off of everything that wasn't protected by wire.

I've still got tomatoes ripening, but it's probably too hot for any new fruit to form. The neighbor's chickens have been stealing a lot of them. I've caught them in the act, and they'll grab tomatoes and run off with them.

The Bishop's Hat peppers that survived the winter are starting to make little peppers. I think I'll plant all peppers in the fall from now on, and keep them in pots over the winter. The ones I planted in spring are still small.

The Rosa Bianca eggplants have some golfball-sized fruits on them. I hope they make it to full size. The chickens have pecked a couple of them.

I've also got three Charantais melons forming. They're about tennis ball sized right now. I'm only growing these because someone gave us seeds. They're from France, so I'm afraid they might not be able to take the heat.

The Gardenville okra is like, "Hot? What do you mean hot? It feels great out here!" I just ate some the other day. I like how this variety is short and fat instead of long and slender. Seems to stay tender longer that way.

Here's Basil checking on the cactus garden in the front by the driveway.

In the back, the cucumbers think it's too hot. I got a few fruits, but since then they've been aborting. Oh well, they were getting bitter anyway.

The pole beans are also not looking so good in the summer heat. I just hope they survive the summer and pick up again in the fall. Pictured are the snap beans. The lima beans look better.

This is my one watermelon. It's about the size of a softball. I had another one, but it split. Hope this one makes it.

The squash also aren't looking that great. The Tatume pictured here isn't so bad. I've gotten a bit of fruit off them, and now they're probably going to take a break and grow back in the fall. The Black Futsu hasn't been doing well at all. I should have know a Japanese variety wouldn't like the Texas heat.

Last, the Malabar spinach is still growing very slowly. I did start them late, but they're supposed to like heat.

We've just started getting close to 100 over the last few days. Yesterday it finally hit 100 on my thermometer, but not today. Might later in the week. It's not too bad to make it all the way to mid-July before getting to the century mark, and we've also had almost-normal amounts of rain. Not too bad at all.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Garlic Harvest 2014

The garlic has been harvested, cured, cleaned, and is ready to review. This was the best garlic harvest since 2010. All this garlic except the Elephant garlic was bought from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The Elephant garlic is descended from the original Elephant garlic I got back in 2009 from Seed Savers Exchange. All the garlic was planted on October 5, 2013 in a raised bed in the front garden and mulched with grass clippings.

Elephant Garlic
Harvested: 5/22/2014

I harvested my elephant garlic too late. It's tricky to tell when to harvest garlic. Too early, and the bulbs haven't divided into cloves yet. Too late, and the cloves fall apart once the bulbs dry out. As you can see from this picture, a lot of my elephant garlic fell apart. It's not a huge deal, but they don't last as long this way.

I don't think elephant garlic is as mild as some people make it out to be, but it's true that it doesn't give me the garlic breath that true garlic does.

Lorz Italian
Harvested: 5/22/2014

This was the best variety of garlic I grew this year. It had the biggest bulbs of any of the true garlics I grew (that is, aside from the elephant garlic). Lorz Italian is an artichoke type of softneck garlic, and those seem to be the best garlics for my region (though I haven't given Asiatcs, Turbans, or Creoles a good try yet, since they're a lot harder to find). I haven't tasted this garlic yet, but the various catalogs describe it as strongly flavored. I'm just impressed by how vigorous the plants were and the nice hefty bulbs I ended up harvesting. Definitely growing again!

Red Toch
Harvested: 5/12/2014

This is another artichoke variety. I first planted this variety in 2010 (though it was listed under the name Tochliavri), and it did OK but not great. I gave it another chance this year, and again, OK but not great. The bulbs are usable, but much smaller on average (maybe around half the size) of Lorz Italian. Gourmet Garlic Gardens describes it as having a mild flavor, but I haven't done any side-by-side taste comparisons of my garlics (at least not yet). Will grow again, but if it doesn't start to adapt and improve with some bigger bulbs next year, I may discontinue it and concentrate on some other artichoke varieties.

S&H Silverskin

Harvested: 5/11/2014

This is the first silverskin I've ever grown. Silverskins are another sub-type of softneck garlic, but they're supposed to store much longer than artichokes. They're also supposed to be the last to mature, but I harvested these first, and they were ready. The bulbs turned out to be small like Red Toch. I'll have to see if it really does end up storing longer than the other varieties. Growing different varieties of garlic is a good idea so you can have different harvest and storage times. I wanted to add silverskins to my repertoire specifically for their storage abilities. I'll grow S&H again, but will try some more silverskin varieties in the future to see if any do better than this one.

In summary, Elephant garlic needs to be harvested in early May, and Lorz Italian is a keeper. Red Toch might not be worth it. S&H Silverskin might be worth growing, but other silverskins might be better.

I will grow all these varieties again next time, but have ordered Nootka Rose (a silverskin) and Inchelium Red (an artichoke) from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for this fall. Not sure yet if I want to order more new varieties besides those.

All in all, this was a good harvest. Even though a lot of the bulbs were small, they're still usable, and I shouldn't have to buy any garlic at the grocery store again for a long time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The 200th Post

This blog now has 200 posts! I thought I'd do a bit of an overview of how things have been going since I first started this blog.

Most significantly, when I first started this blog, I was unemployed and living in a rented house with my boyfriend. Since then I've found a job, we've gotten married, and bought a house. I don't post nearly as often as I did when I was unemployed and had a lot of time on my hands, but I still try to at least do my garden updates every full moon.

Since we moved into our house, we've done a lot of work on it, but there are still a lot of projects on our to-do list.

Here is the garden in the front. This used to be a patch of mostly dead-looking Bermuda grass that the previous inhabitants parked cars on. Now it has four 4'x20' raised beds made of cedar on it. In the future I'd like to make pathways between them with landscape fabric and cedar bark mulch, and put a small fence around it to keep out the deer and chickens. Right now I have cylinders of wire around a lot of the plants to protect them from getting dug up and eaten, but I'd like a more permanent solution. Still, I think this is a big improvement over what this patch used to look like.

This is mostly my husband's project. In addition to our personal vehicles, he has a work truck, so he built an extension to our driveway with crushed granite, and in between he made this xeric garden. The cenizo was already there, so he built the garden around it with more crushed granite and lined with limestone. Right now it has two prickly pears, an agave, and some Indian blanket. We'd like to add more wildflowers and some type of round or cylindrical cactus, and maybe some kind of yuccas. Except there might not be enough room for that, so now we're looking at the other side of the front yard.

This flowerbed on the other side of the driveway came with the house, but it's not in very good shape. It goes from the driveway all around to the side of the house, and it's made of landscape timbers that are pretty rotten. A lot of the soil is washed out of it, and it's full of weeds. I planted the irises and cannas my mother-in-law gave me here, and there is a dwarf yaupon and boxwood that were there when we moved in. There are also several lantanas, but everything else in there are undesirable weeds. What we've decided to do is make this match the xeric garden on the other side of the driveway. We'll remove the rotten timbers are replace them with more limestone rocks. My husband actually wants to expand it a bit so it comes out further from the house, and that's good because it will reduce how much lawn we have even more. The main difference between this area and the xeric garden along the driveway is this side is much shadier from the big oak trees, so we'll have to put in more shade-tolerant plants. That might be a good thing, though. Limestone and crushed granite can make it match the garden on the other side of the driveway, but having it transition into different species of plants will make it more interesting.

We also discovered something nice when we put the crushed granite in on the other side. The color of crushed granite matches the color of the bricks of our house, so that looks even better than we thought it would.

My husband wanted to plant a hedge along the front of the front yard to provide more privacy. The big oak trees make a nice canopy near the house, but there wasn't really any understory. He planted a few native shrubs right under the oak trees, like yaupon and evergreen sumac, but out here which is not directly under the oak trees, I wanted fruit trees. In the foreground of the above picture is a fig, then after that is a loquat.

Then beyond the loquat we have a kumquat, Satsuma, Myer lemon, and pomegranate.

Right now they look very unnatural, with cages around them to protect them from deer, and lined up so regularly. I hope that once they grow bigger they start to look more interesting. All these different species get to different sizes and shapes, with the fig and loquat getting pretty large (which is why we put them on the end) and the citruses staying short and shrubby. Eventually we'll take the cages off when they're bigger and not as vulnerable to deer munching on them or rubbing their bark off.

We used to have a key lime out here too, but last winter really hurt it bad, even though we covered all the citrus with frost blankets. Most of its branches got killed, and we thought it was a goner, until it sprouted back from the stump. So we dug it up and put it back in a pot, and replaced it with the kumquat. I guess key limes are not quite cold hardy enough to plant in the ground here.

Here is one of the rain barrels we had at our previous residence (with the potted key lime to the right). Another thing on our to-do list is getting some big water tanks. This little rain barrels are nice but just not enough. In a heavy downpour they overflow in only minutes, and in the middle of summer when it's really dry, we use them up quickly. Now we have room for a couple of really big tanks that hold hundreds of gallons. We'd need to first put rain gutters on our roof (weirdly, our house didn't already have them), and then we think we have room for one tank on each side of the house. We can keep the rain barrels and attach them to our garden shed or something like that.

I think it would be great to hook up the soaker hoses for the vegetable gardens up to the big rainwater tanks. I wonder if I might be able to do all the watering for the vegetables from the rainwater tanks once they are full. That would sure be nice.

After that, I also want to set up some kind of greywater system. My husband says it wouldn't be too hard to divert the washing machine and shower drains outside to water plants.

Along the side of our house we have a patio that cuts into the hillside a little bit, and is lined with bricks to form a bit of a ledge. When we first moved in, there was nothing growing there except for two esparanzas and two rose bushes. I thought this was a perfect place for an herb garden, so that the patio would be lined with fragrant herbs. Plus it's right by the back door which opens straight into the kitchen.
The right side is a little shady, so here I planted things like mint, catnip, and lemon balm. My husband planted some yarrow, and has been decorating it with interesting rocks and fossils he's collected over the years.
The left side is sunnier, so here's where I have things like rosemary, oregano, thyme, marjoram, sage, etc. Also right now I have basil flourishing in the heat, and parsley going to seed. 

Then right along the house I planted some of the more tender herbs so they can be better protected: bay, lemongrass, and pineapple sage. I really should have put the lemon verbena and Mexican mint marigold here too, so I might move them over. My husband put some extra crushed granite here, but I think that actually makes them too hot. My plan is to mulch the herbs with cedar bark eventually, and I think I'll put some bark over here too. When the afternoon sun is hitting this area directly, the pineapple sage gets badly wilted.

Speaking of my husband, this is a project he's been working on. This big hole will eventually be a water garden. It's directly behind the house, and used to be just an open grassy area. Since then my husband has been digging away at it, by hand. He used a shovel for about a foot down until he hit bedrock, and from then on has been using a rock bar. This weekend he finally rented a jackhammer to finish it up. It will eventually have a waterfall, and water plants in it. We thought about putting fish in, but after we read up on it more, it sounds like a lot of trouble. Now we're leaning towards just letting frogs and toads colonize it. We're also looking into powering the waterfall's pump with a solar panel to make it more eco-friendly.

Here is the compost pile in the back that needs some work. Right now it's built of cinderblocks we already had in the yard, and those got full so I had to start piling new stuff beside it. I planted my extra sweet potato plants in it as an experiment. I'd like to make it more permanent and expand it so it has at least two sections, since one is turning out not to be enough.

And finally in the very back corner of the back yard is the other vegetable garden. It's looking a bit messy and neglected, but it does have pole beans, squash, cucumbers, and melons planted in it. I've been putting more effort getting the garden in the front looking nice. The back garden is right next to the old garden shed (which I should have included in the photo, now that I think of it) that came with the house. We'd like to replace it some day, because it's rotting and falling apart. After that I'll probably redo this back garden to make it neater and tidier, maybe putting in some permanent beds and pathways like the front garden is going to have. Removing the old shed will also give us more room. It's taking up some of the sunny area back here, so we're going to put our new shed in the shade, to leave us more room in the sun to plant edibles.

So that's the work we've done so far in the two years we've been living in this house, and what we still have on our to-do list. But we're both very happy to have a big yard like this we can do so many things with. I always wanted a really big vegetable garden and fruit trees, and my husband always wanted a garden pond, so now we can have them.