Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Catching Up

Once I am caught up, I will spend quiet afternoons puttering around the yard with a pair of bypass pruners and a bucket of newly-pulled baby weeds, just doing a little maintenance here or there.

In reality, weeding in my yard is an athletic event, requiring shovels, loppers, and the occasional saw, and producing heaping piles of brushy trash or four-foot-tall, flowering weeds.
Once I am caught up, I will compost all of my yard waste in an efficient three-bin system.

In reality, I'm thankful that the City of Austin will take, and compost, the bushels of Bermuda grass, bindweed, and other invasive weeds that my yard produces.

Once I am caught up, I will plant, and thin, and trim, and harvest, continually, always on schedule.

In reality, I plant all at once, procrastinate thinning, and harvest in an equal panic, right before everything goes to seed.

Yesterday was one of those catch-up days.  I hurried around the yard like a madwoman, mowing, weeding, deadheading, and watering, all in an attempt to catch up with the growth that was stimulated by last week's rains.  I know that catching up in the garden is just a fairy tale, less likely to happen than turning one of my garden toads into a prince by kissing him, but I still rush after that ideal.  I like the neatness of the freshly-mowed lawn.  I like being able to walk into the backyard, to water the baby fall greens, without creating a mental to-do list.  I guess that, most of all, I like the feeling of being in charge of my yard.  With the lawn mowed, and the weeds pulled, and the plants watered, I can putter around the yard, trying to take a picture of Benji with her head turned my direction.

Monday, September 27, 2010


I am digging up my front yard to create a garden.  I'm not digging up the whole yard, just the section that lies between the driveway and the front walk, a rectangle of about 10 by 20 feet.  It didn't sound like that large of an area until I began digging.  On a humid morning, following a few days of ground-softening rains, I went into the front yard with a shovel thinking, "This morning I am going to remove the dead Bermuda grass from this section of yard."  Nearly an hour later, after reclaiming less than a one-foot strip of soil along the sidewalk from the lawn, I realized that this project was going to require many hours, over multiple days, worth of digging.

If I was just turning the soil, I could work more quickly, but I want to remove every bit of dead Bermuda grass that I can.  Somewhere in the depths of its extensive root system are a few alive cells, waiting to divide and take over my future garden plot.  I would rather take the time now to remove every bit of Bermuda grass than to have to fight it in the future, so I am working methodically, one square of ground at a time.  I am removing not only the sod, clumps of grass and its surface roots, but also the runner roots, or rhizomes, that run between the clumps of Bermuda grass.  The rhizomes are hazardous to a garden because they contain tissues that can divide and differentiate into leaves, roots, and stems, creating new grass plants as they move through the soil.  My garden gloves are caked with dirt from crumbling clods of soil and picking out every bit of Bermuda rhizome that I can find.

As I work I have been finding fat, white grubs that curl up in response to the sunlight.  They are Japanese beetle grubs, which are common in lawns in Austin.  The Japanese beetles are a type of scarab beetle with a one-year life cycle that revolves around lawn grasses.  The beetles mate in the early summer and lay eggs in the lawn.  The eggs hatch into grubs that feed on grass roots through the fall.  The grubs burrow deep into the ground to overwinter then, in the spring, return to the grass roots to feed.  In early summer they pupate, emerge as flying beetles, and mate, starting the cycle over again.  I've been tossing the fat grubs onto the sidewalk, hoping that the birds will find them.  But the local birds, who will follow fearlessly behind the lawnmower, haven't figured out what I am offering.

Sorting through the soil is peaceful work which gives my busy hands something to do while my mind, equally busy, spins through its revolutions.  I have felt the satisfaction of finally beginning a project that I've been wanting to undertake for years and that I have been thinking about for the past few months.  I've also felt the disappointment of realizing how long it was going to take me to dig up this "small" section of lawn.  I've enjoyed working in the softer light that comes before the sun rises over the houses east of mine, happy to be working for myself, finally doing, and in the process, creating something that I want. 

This morning as I worked I realized that I had fallen behind in taking care of the rest of the yard.  While I've been focusing on planting the new backyard garden and creating a new front yard garden, the remaining lawn has grown and now needs to be mowed.  The basil plants by the A/C unit need water, the zinnias by the driveway need to be deadheaded, and the south side of the house needs weeding.  This realization that I am behind which, in reality, happens every time it rains, reminded me of the fears that kept me from starting this project in the first place, fears that I am taking on too much, creating a garden that will need maintenance where I once had a neglected but neat, low-maintenance lawn.

But mostly I feel impatience.  I want to be done with the digging part of this process so that I can move on to the next steps, on to creating beds, amending the soil, and planting seeds.  I feel rushed as if the fall planting deadline is about to pass.  In truth I still have a few weeks to plant greens, and several weeks to plant the real cold lovers like spinach and lettuces.  The lettuce seeds that I planted in the backyard last week are not germinating as well as the beets, bok choy, and arugula, indicating that the ground is still too warm for lettuce seeds.  But, while I rationally know that I have time, I still feel this great rush to be through the work of digging up the yard, this great rush to get to the next step.

I've been waiting for this moment all summer.  I've been waiting for this exact day, when I can wake to a chilly north wind and enjoy, without sweat in my eyes or mosquitoes biting me, being in the garden.  I've been waiting for years to break ground in the front yard, to feel the satisfaction of lifting up a shovelful of soil and realizing that, aside from being full of rocks, the soil under my lawn has a lovely, crumbly texture.  And, realistically, I will look back on this time with envy, remembering how the light rains came at the right time to soften the ground and the cool wind came at the right time to make the work easier.  This is that time.  Why rush it?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Planting Seeds

Planting seeds is an act of faith.  I don't say that lightly, given that, on the spectrum ranging from faith to doubt, I tend to hang out on the far side of doubt.  I'm not a believer, I'm slow to trust, and I'm a skeptic, always waiting for the part of the story that begins, "But, in reality, ..."  So every time I plant seeds, tossing tiny specks into the vast, brown nothingness of a newly carved row, I always wonder if it will work, if the seeds will really sprout this time.  Yet every year I am back again, buying too many seed packets, carefully preparing the soil, and, once again, rubbing my fingers together in concentration as I try to evenly disperse seeds along a row.  In seeds, I trust.

But I also understand the limitations of planting seeds.  I have learned the hard way that the seeds must be fresh, the soil must be warm enough (but not too warm), and the gardener (me) must be committed to keeping the soil moist throughout germination.  I've also learned the value, in terms of time and money, of buying plants when I want just one or two of a variety.  The first year I had a community garden plot, I bought a seed packet for everything that I wanted to grow.  My tomatoes didn't ripen because I planted seeds after the last frost, when I should have been planting 6-week old transplants, the fall broccoli germinated then perished in the August heat, and the remaining seeds, most of what I had bought, spoiled in the humidity of my non-air-conditioned apartment. 

Now, when planting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants for the hot season, or broccoli and cabbages for the cool season, I buy plants, one or two of each variety.  I get more variety without wasting seeds, and my garden gets a jump-start into the next season.  Within days, the baby plants establish and my garden takes shape, a patchwork of plants, each spaced correctly and already growing to fill its space.  Buying transplants is quick and practical but doesn't compare to the satisfaction of growing plants from seeds.

The best part of cool-season gardening is growing rows of greens from seed.  I love carving straight, parallel rows into the soil.  I tend to use too many seeds, compensating for my inability to distribute seeds uniformly along a row by over-seeding.  As the seeds fall into their row, they disappear into the dark soil, leaving me to question where I've been and to re-seed over the middle of the row.  I rake a layer of soil back over the seeds and use the head of the metal rake to gently tamp down the length of the row, improving seed-to-soil contact and, later, showing me where to water.

Standing on a cinder block, watering the newly-planted garden, I admire my straight and orderly rows.  For a few days, my garden is like a Zen garden, constructed from soil instead of rocks, carefully arranged yet impermanent.  Seeds will sprout, in crookeder rows than I planted, and weeds will grow between the rows.  The garden will be beautiful in its later stages, but that first stage of subtle rows is always the most temporary and always more orderly than the other stages.  I appreciate that neatness, that emptiness, that potential.  It's still an idealistic garden of vision at that point, able to turn into anything that I imagine.  Once seeds sprout and plants grow, it becomes a garden of reality, perfect in ways, but also lacking in ways.  Planting seeds begins one garden, the one made of soil, seeds, and water, but, in doing so, it ends another garden, the one made of planning and imagination.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Crooked Garden Path

Rainy, cooler days and morning fog, the perfect weather for transplanting seedlings and planting seeds, inspired me to finish planting my "backyard" garden, a small (10' x 10') plot in the northwest corner of my backyard.  I created the backyard garden in early August by heavily mulching the corner of the yard that receives sunlight.  I still think of it as an experimental garden, though, because I don't know if the plot will get enough sunlight over the winter to grow vegetables.  So far, the four broccoli plants that I planted almost two weeks ago have established themselves and are growing.

I started by building a path, because I wanted all parts of the garden to be accessible.  And, more honestly, because I really wanted to make a path.  I love garden paths, and my backyard is full of bricks left behind by the first owner of the house.  I've been thinking about those bricks, and imagining an entire backyard path system, over the last few weeks.  Needless to say, I have a tendency to think way ahead.  So it was satisfying to begin an actual path by laying bricks, side by side, diagonally across the garden.  I already love the resulting path, but I have to admit that it looks a little overbuilt for the small garden plot.  Later in the day, when Lee saw the newly-planted garden, he said, "I like your, uh, ... crooked path."  Someday, the path is going to make sense, and, until then, I think it's cool.

The crooked path created two irregularly-shaped planting areas.  In the narrower sections, I transplanted baby plants from the nursery.  A Brussels sprout plant and two cauliflower plants, both Snow Crown variety, joined the Green Magic broccoli plants on one side of the garden.  On the other side of the path, I planted three cabbage plants, one Stonehead, one Ruby Perfection, and one Early Jersey Wakefield, and two Georgia collards plants.  In the remaining space I was able to make six rows of different lengths for planting seeds.

I bought too many seeds this year.  I was thinking about all the new garden space I was going to have, and I started imagining so many rows of cool-season greens as I stacked so many seed packets in my basket.  I'm still hoping for all those rows, and, to be fair, I still have several weeks for planting.   But, at this time, with the AC-corner garden occupied by basil and Serrano peppers, and the front yard garden still in the planning stages, I only had six, short rows for planting seeds.  I decided to plant two rows of my favorites, Bright Lights Swiss chard and Detroit Dark Red beets, two rows of Asian greens, Kailaan (a Chinese kale) and Mei Qing Choi (a pak choi), and two rows for salad, Italian arugula and a Mesclun lettuce blend.

When the transplanting and planting were done, I raked the soil smooth, rearranged the mulch around the transplants, and watered the garden.  As I watered, clouds rolled overhead and a light sprinkling of rain fell.  Despite the ideal conditions, some of my transplants looked tired from their day of travel and transplanting.  I asked the now-established broccoli to put in a good word for me with the new plants, to reassure them that I would keep them well-watered over the next couple of weeks.  And, no, I'm not implying that I talk with plants in any serious way.  It's more like I talk with plants in the same way that I ask the toilet to stop running or converse with Benji the cat, answering each one of her demanding meows (she's an extremely vocal cat) with a statement of agreement.  We're not talking the same language, and maybe we're not even communicating, but I get to say my intention out loud, and somehow that is helpful.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fall Elm

I have a mild, though occasionally annoying, case of Austin allergies.  The intensity of my congestion seems to correlate with the density of mold spores in the air, so I've concluded unscientifically that I suffer from mold allergies.  When I'm sneezing more than usual, or when I think to, I look up the pollen counts.  Mold spores always make the list, along with a few pollen-producing plants that vary with the season.  In August and September, ragweed and "fall elm" are the major pollen producers.

I've always wondered why "fall elm" isn't called by its actual name, cedar elm, given that cedar elm is the elm that blooms in the late summer here.  Maybe it's a local preference, like calling Ashe juniper "cedar," or maybe it's because cedar elms, though common and widespread in central Texas, are not much known.  Dismissed as one of the "three unimportant elms found in the Southeast" by my very-dated guide to trees of North America, cedar elms obviously aren't among the trees, like pecans, live oaks, and bald cypresses, for which our region is known.

Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) is the most widespread native elm of Texas, and is found throughout east Texas, except for the southeastern corner of the state.  Though they grow to their largest sizes in moist, bottom-land soils, cedar elms can also grow in the alkaline, compacted-clay soils or the rocky, limestone soils that are common in central Texas.  The medium- to large-sized trees provide food, cover, and nesting sites for birds, and host the larval stages of two species of butterflies.  Cedar elms can tolerate part shade or full sun and, once grown, provide dense shade for houses and yards.

Cedar elm leaves are miniature versions of the leaves of the better-known American elm (Ulmus americana), which also grows along waterways or in yards in Austin.  Cedar elm leaves are small, just one to two and a half inches long, but thick, asymmetric ovals.  The edges of cedar-elm leaves are doubly serrate, meaning that there are smaller notches within larger notches along the edges of each leaf.  The tops of the leaves feel like sandpaper, while the leaf bottoms are soft like felt.  Altogether, the small, leathery leaves are well-adapted to the heat- and drought-stresses of central Texas.

Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia)

Cedar elm blooms in July, August, or September, depending when, or if, late-summer rains occur each year.  Because they are wind pollinated and do not need to attract insect pollinators, the flowers of cedar elm trees are small and inconspicuous.  (I rarely notice them until they fall from the trees and get carried into the house in the treads of my shoes, littering my kitchen floor with tiny, brown crunches.)  The tiny flowers release pollen into the air, which, ideally, will carry the pollen to another cedar elm tree that is downwind.  But wind is an unreliable messenger, so some of the pollen reaches our noses instead, creating the potential for allergies.

Pollinated elm flowers turn into samaras, or simple, dry fruits with wing-like outgrowths that are adapted to riding on the wind.  Light green and round with a notch on the bottom side, each fruit has a distinct, more-darkly colored seed in its center.  Following solid late-summer rains, the cedar elms in Austin are covered in samaras this year.  Later in the season, the samaras will turn yellowish-brown and fall from the trees along with the leaves.  Next spring I will be reminded of this year's fall rains, and the large crop of cedar elm fruits, when hundreds of elm seedlings sprout in my backyard.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Killing the Lawn

I want to turn my front yard into a garden.  Before I can grow a garden, though, I have to remove the plants that are already growing in that space.  The removal, or, to be more clear, killing of, previously-existing plants is an unfortunate prerequisite of gardening that doesn't get a lot of press.  As gardeners, or plant growers, we would like to forget about that step, to imagine that our garden began as a patch of well-prepared soil.  But any gardener knows that, where weeds don't grow, our tender, domesticated plants don't stand a chance.  So obviously, there were plants that came before, probably weedy, ugly plants of little value to us, but plants nonetheless, strong and adapted plants ready to put up a valiant fight against their removal. 

When I create a garden space in the backyard, or at the side of the house, I use the mulching method.  I clear the area of weeds, I lay down a layer of corrugated cardboard, and I mulch heavily over the cardboard with whatever mix of leaves, grass clippings, and compost I have at the time.  Then I wait for a couple to several months, during which time garden soil is created.  The layer of mulch keeps the soil beneath it moist, which attracts microorganisms, like bacteria, fungi, and worms, who go to work, converting hard, baked dirt into workable, fertile soil.  It's magic, it's organic, and it requires no digging.

The front yard is different in two big ways.  First, the front yard is in front, which means that I want progress to be faster on that future garden.  I don't want to mulch it for the next several months before creating a garden there.  I want to plant in this season, so that the lawn death and mulching and terrace building (yeah, it's on a slope as well) will make some sense to the neighbors when plants germinate and grow.  "Oh, she's growing a garden, how industrious," they will think, rather than, "When is that woman going to get rid of the cardboard in her yard?"

The other problem with the front yard is that its main inhabitant is Bermuda grass.  Bermuda grass (Cynodon spp.) makes a good lawn for the exact same reason that I fear creating a garden in its established territory - it is indestructible.  Originally from the savannas of Africa, Bermuda grass is adapted to seasonal droughts, which it survives by dying off above ground and re-sprouting from its roots once the rains return.  Bermuda grass is not adapted to freezing, so does not survive the winter in climates where the ground freezes.  Here in Texas, where the ground does not freeze, the tops of the plants die in freezes but easily grow back from the root systems in the spring.  And those root systems are extensive, an absolute wonder to behold, unless they're wrapped around and in-between the roots of your perennials.  Bermuda grass can return, healthy as ever, from a single piece of root left in the soil, and it spreads quickly through a garden, traveling both above ground, through modified stems known as stolons, and below ground, through modified roots known as rhizomes.

The organic method of removing Bermuda grass is to dig it out.  Other methods have been suggested, such as spraying with 20% vinegar (caustic and often leaves the roots unfazed), smothering in black plastic or solarizing under clear plastic (both really attractive options for the front yard), or mulching heavily (sorry, doesn't work for this plant, I've tried), but in the end, the only way to really get rid of Bermuda grass is to dig out each and every piece of root that you can find, and to keep digging out roots for as long as the plant survives.  Which may be longer than your household pets.  I perfected the dig-to-destroy method in my years of tending plots at community gardens, and I still use that method in my established gardens. 

But my front yard, compacted by years of serving as an non-watered, infrequently-mowed lawn, is currently not dig-able.  Mulching, watering, and soil amendment will solve the dig-ability problem, but not before giving the resident Bermuda grass a new lease on life.  Bermuda grass would like nothing more than to spread its mighty roots through a new layer of mulch and amended soil.  As the gardener here, I want a head start.

So I did what many "organic" gardeners have done before me.  I calculated the hours needed to hand dig every root out of the front yard, I revisited my desire to plant a garden this fall, not next year, and I chose the starting area for my garden, a self-contained 10 x 20 foot strip of yard between the front walk and the driveway.  Then I sprayed that space with Roundup.

I felt guilty as I sprayed.  With my back to the street, I worked systematically across and up my future garden space, making sure to spray the Bermuda grass more heavily, noticing that Roundup has a smell, somewhat sweet but also chemical.  Its main ingredient, glycophosphate, acts on a critical plant enzyme and therefore isn't toxic to animals.  And it supposedly breaks down quickly, leaving behind little trace after spraying.  But aren't all chemicals "safe" until we've discovered otherwise?

I try to garden organically, and for the most part I do.  (I don't think twice about spraying poison ivy, but that's another story.)  I'd like to think that this front-yard spraying, which has resulted in a striped lawn, green on one side of the walkway, sickly yellow on the other side, will save me time and effort both now, as I work to create a new garden space, and in the future, with less time spent digging Bermuda grass roots out from between my plants.  I don't know if that justifies the use of chemicals.  I guess that's a question for me to consider between now and when I decide to convert more of my front yard into garden space.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lost Pecan Trees

Looking out my kitchen window, past the top of my neighbor's house, I surveyed the trees of the neighborhood as I washed dishes.  I counted two pecan, two hackberry, one crape myrtle, blooming pink, one sycamore, and one cedar elm tree.  Two years ago I would have counted four pecan trees, but two of those trees had died since then, leaving behind thick trunks and tall, leafless branches that seemed to be locked in perpetual winter.

Driving down Red River south of 45th Street, I was surprised to see another two dead pecan trees standing side by side.  Before this year, they were older, well-established trees of beautiful stature that had survived many droughts.  I wondered if there was a disease, a fungus that was to pecan trees what oak wilt was to oak trees, that was killing the Austin pecan trees.  I began noticing that many pecan trees, including the young pecan trees in the median strip of Airport Road near the Mueller development, had top branches that were missing leaves.

Walking down the Boggy Creek Greenbelt trail, my feet crunched over fallen pecans that were still green, and still tightly wrapped in their protective coat.  Squirrels skittered overhead, seeming both excited and disappointed by the unripe pecans as they chased each other from tree to tree.  I wondered if the squirrels were responsible for the premature pecan fall, or if the trees were dropping pecans to conserve water.  To answer my questions, I found out what I could about pecan tree health.

Although there are fungi (including cotton root rot and downy spot) and insects (including webworms and the twig girdler insect) that damage pecan trees, there isn't a widespread biological epidemic affecting Austin pecan trees.  Instead, the drought of 2008 and 2009, the worst two-year drought in 60 years according to the Austin Tree Experts, was the most likely killer of so many pecan trees.  Those pecan trees didn't leaf out this spring because they didn't have enough water last summer and fall, near the end of two years of drought, when the water was needed to make another year's leaves and to store sugar before winter dormancy.  Winter and spring rains arrived too late for those trees, which were already dead, though it wouldn't be obvious until leaf-out time in April.

Pecan trees (Carya illinoiensis) are native to the floodplains of the Mississippi valley and the bottom lands of east Texas and northeastern Mexico.  The pecan trees growing in Austin represent many different varieties of the tree, some native to central Texas, some native to the Mississippi valley, and some developed for agricultural production.  The varieties that are native to this area are better adapted to survive through drought years, while the non-native and agricultural cultivars need more water and are therefore more likely to die during water shortages.  This explains why I've been seeing dead pecan trees in backyards and along streets, while the pecan trees along the greenbelts (more likely to be native varieties) seemed to have fared okay.

Because pecan trees are adapted to the hot summers and relatively cool winters of river valleys, freezing temperatures can also injure the trees, especially if the freeze occurs before the tree is fully dormant for the winter.  Pecans are among the last trees to drop their leaves in the fall, hanging on to them well into November in Austin.  Last year was colder than usual in Austin (it was actually the coldest winter since 1983-1984 and the 8th coldest winter on record), with more frequent cold fronts and fewer warm days than usual, especially in December and February.  Several hard freezes happened in December, which is after pecan trees should be dormant.  Given how slow pecan trees are to drop their leaves, though, it seems possible that a tree or two might have been caught with still-active phloem (sap-carrying tissue) during one of the December freezes.

Early leaf drop, and the early dropping of unripe nuts, is normal for pecan trees that are water stressed.  In late summer, when temperatures max out and water is scarce, trees can increase their chances of survival by dropping some leaves, each of which is a site of water loss from the tree.  This "drought-deciduous" habit helps many native trees, including live oaks and hackberries, survive the extended Texas summers. 

Pecans reach the "water stage" of nut development in late July to early August, when kernel development begins in pecans that are now full size.  If the tree is stressed in the water stage, up to half of the developing pecans on the tree may be dropped in the interest of the remaining pecans, and in the interest of the long-term survival of the tree itself.  So I guess I don't get to blame the squirrels.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Greenbelt in September

Greenbelts sold Austin to me.  To be able to live in a city, yet to also have a trail that ran along a creek and through the woods within walking distance, felt like having the best of both worlds.  That first greenbelt was the Shoal Creek Greenbelt, a trail that I was walking and running within days of arriving in town.  It was along Shoal Creek that I first learned to recognize the pecan, hackberry, cedar elm, and mulberry trees of Austin, and to distinguish between the trifoliate leaves of wafer ash and poison ivy.  In the years between I explored abandoned sections of Waller Creek Greenbelt, was surprised by the length of Bull Creek Greenbelt, and stumbled across several neighborhood greenbelts hidden throughout Austin.  These days, the closest greenbelt to me, and the one that I travel the most, is the Boggy Creek Greenbelt, which winds along Boggy Creek from East 12th Street to Pedernales Street, creating a hill-free, pecan-shaded route from my neighborhood to east-side destinations below 7th Street.  But, while the Boggy Creek is "my greenbelt," it still isn't "the Greenbelt."

"The Greenbelt" is the Barton Creek Greenbelt, no matter where I live in Austin.  It is the longest greenbelt in town, and its creek, Barton Creek, is an order of magnitude or two bigger than Shoal, or Boggy, or the other creeks that wind through town.  And, unlike Shoal, or Boggy, or Bull Creek, which have been so thoroughly cemented that they begin to resemble over-sized drainage ditches along some stretches, Barton Creek is still allowed to be a creek along most of its length.  Which means that, just as the experience of walking the trail, defined largely by which plants are in leaf or bloom, is new in every season, the topography of the creek itself is reinvented every time it floods.

The Greenbelt has multiple entrances and many destination points, some of them publicly known, like the falls, and some of them private reference spots, like the mother cove, that I share with Lee.  In the car, heading down Mopac, we always debate which entrance to use and decide based on the season, the water levels, and our recent hikes.  This weekend, wanting to enjoy the water left behind by last week's tropical storm, we opted for the Mopac service road entrance and walked upstream, toward the falls.

The flooding last week was quite extensive.  Flood debris - branches, leaves, garbage - was stuck in the branches of trees 4 to 6 feet above the current creek level.  One of this summer's landmarks, a picnic table that used to sit on some rocks in the middle of the creek near a good swimming spot, had been carried about a half mile downstream, where it was lodged in a grove of young sycamore trees.  Along the trail, broken ragweed stalks showed where the water recently flowed, and a think, spongy layer of silt covered most of the ground between the trail and the creek.  I've seen a lot of floods along the Greenbelt, and a lot of flood debris work its way downstream, but I've never seen so much silt left behind by one flood.  I wondered what eroded upstream to create all the sandy soil that now covered the ground along the creek.

The creek was raging, calmed down from flood stage to fill its full creek bed.  The water was deeper than it had been earlier this summer and it was running stronger and cooler with the addition of spring water from all the mini springs along the creek that had been brought back to life by heavy rains.  We wanted to cross to the trail on the south side of the creek, so we squished through the silt on the bank and stepped into the rushing water.  Crossing was harder than it looked, partly because my great fear of drowning was activated by the knee-deep water, and partly because the creek bed was green and slippery from a season of fluctuating water levels.

Along the trail, the bright magenta berries of the American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) shrubs were the most visible color.  The berries, now almost ripe, will stay on the branches long after the leaves of the shrub have fallen, providing winter food for the birds along the creek.

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Drummond's Wild Petunia (Ruellia drummondiana) was also in bloom at the side of the trail, adding purple to the shady spaces beneath the larger shrubs and trees.  (The picture below also captures some flood debris piled under the base of the plant.)

Drummond's Wild Petunia (Ruellia drummondiana)

Back on the higher elevation and more rocky north-side trail, on our way to the falls, we passed a blooming Lindheimer's Senna (Cassia lindheimeri or Senna lindheimeri) that was growing in the limestone soil.  The seeds of the fall-blooming Senna will provide food for the birds this fall.

Lindheimer's Senna (Cassia lindheimeri)

As we walked, we checked our favorite lounging-in-the-creek spots from earlier this summer, but the water was flowing too quickly, creating foamy rapids where the water crashed over rocks that often sit above the current.  In a few places, we waded into the creek to enjoy the cool water and the creek view, but we waited to jump in until we reached Sculpture Falls.  Refreshed, hungry, and nearing sunburn, we headed back downstream on the north-side trail.

Friday, September 10, 2010

First Fall Transplants

I love fall gardening.  Seeds germinate quickly, seedlings grow quickly at first then slow down as the days shorten and become cooler, and planting times are more forgiving.  I don't have to race against the impending heat and stress of summer the way that I do when planting in the spring.  Fall planting can be done a few plants, or a few rows of seeds, at a time, from late August through October.

Despite the flexible planting schedule, or perhaps because of it, I always debate when to begin.  According to the planting guides, broccoli and other cabbage family plants can be planted starting in late August.  Depending on the year, though, late August and early September can be brutally hot.  I don't mind giving newly-transplanted seedlings, or freshly-planted seeds, daily watering and attention, but I don't like to struggle to keep the plants just alive, so I try to wait until cooler temperatures have shifted from distant dream to distinct possibility.

But it's never that simple in Austin, and all of my rules have been broken.  I decided that I would not plant until the first ground-soaking rains of the season, but some years there were no fall rains.  I told myself to wait until the third cold front, but cold fronts varied so much that I lost track - does that count as the second or the third front?  I planned to wait until the high temperatures dropped into the low 90's, but the temperatures would fluctuate, or would refuse to drop, even in October.

So far this year we've had one mild cold front and one, long ground-soaking rain.  The rain and cooler temperatures of this week's tropical storm inspired me to plant.  At the garden center, though, only a few flats of one variety of broccoli were available.  I chose a few plants and decided that it was probably for the best.  This way I will return for more plants - different broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage - later in the month, which will space out my planting.  I also bought many seed packets for planting lettuces, greens, and cool-season herbs like cilantro, but I don't plan to plant the seeds for another week or two, depending on the temperatures.

Yesterday I planted four broccoli plants in the far corner of my new backyard garden space.  They are Green Magic hybrids, an early- to mid-season maturing variety that produces uniform blue-green broccoli heads.  I dug a hole for each transplant and was relieved to find that the soil beneath the mulch was moist and workable, nothing like the baked, hard ground that I had covered in mulch about a month before.  Once planted and watered in, the baby broccoli plants looked small and far apart, surrounded by mountains of mulch.  Grow, Green Magics, grow.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My 0.15 Acres

I want to create more gardens in my yard.  It's not a huge yard and, as I look at the survey of my property, I realize that the house and its cement empire of driveway, sidewalk, porch, and carports, take up about half of the mere 0.15 acres that I own.  So that means I have, very roughly, about 0.075 acres of yard to cultivate, most of which is shaded, on a slope, or right next to the house.

The backyard is a generous rectangle of almost-flat yard, but it is largely shaded by a white oak tree, four cedar elms, and a hackberry.  Luckily, the backyard is on the west side of the house, where the shade is desperately needed on summer afternoons.  This summer I removed a Japanese privet, an ugly, non-native, invasive shrub, from the NW corner of the backyard to create space for compost bins.  As I cleared the tangle of overgrowth and bindweed that had grown over the privet, I realized that corner of the backyard was sunny for part of the day and decided to create a vegetable garden space there.  Over the next year, as I plant broccoli and greens and then, next spring, if the greens were successful, summer vegetables, I will really find out if that corner gets enough light.

Narrow strips of yard, four feet to ten feet wide, run along the sides of the house.  The north side is shady, rocky, and needs little weeding, a strong indication that plants would not do well there.  The south side is sunny and hot, capable of supporting huge, multi-stemmed weedy shrubs.  I created a tiny but productive vegetable garden in the nook beside the AC unit last summer, which was where my peppers and basil grew this summer.  I would also like to grow a row of tomato plants along the south wall, but that space has been challenging to prepare.  I cut down the shrubs, and weeded and mulched, but stumps, and huge root systems, of the monster shrubs remain.  And, given that the ground slopes both away from the house and towards the backyard, I will need to build walls to hold the soil before I plant.

So that leaves the front yard.  East facing and sunny all day, the front yard should be a perfect gardening space.  Except that it's in the front.  A couple days ago I made a to-scale drawing of the front yard to get a better sense of the available space.  I dug through a huge envelope of "house purchase documents" that I had saved in the bottom of a drawer to find the survey that came with the title to the house.  Using the survey, I learned the dimensions of my plot of land (50' x 130') and was able to locate the house within that plot.  But I couldn't get any more specifics for my map, like how many feet were between the driveway and the sidewalk or how far it was from the front porch to the cement retaining wall, without measuring it.

Which involves going into the front yard with a tape measure and clipboard.  Which is the biggest reason why I haven't yet made gardens in the front.  It's so exposed.  All the world, from every car entering or leaving the street to all the nearby neighbors, can easily see what I am doing in the front yard.  And, while they probably don't care, given that I live in an eclectic, laid-back, east-side neighborhood, I am hugely intimidated by starting a project that would be so public.  The idea of having my process, from the roughest stages of uncertainly through the messiness of execution, on display for the neighborhood goes against the grain of my personality.  Whether I'm writing a story or painting a room or just cooking dinner, I like to finish a project and then say, Look what I did.

Which is why I am writing a blog yet have told no one about it.

So gardening in the front yard is about more than just planting and watering.  It means committing to plants and beds that need maintenance rather than a lawn of weeds that only has to be mowed after it rains.  It means being willing to be messy, in the form of layout and digging and mulch, in public.  But it also means choosing the yard that I want over the neat, boring yard that I think I should have.  And it's hard to argue with that.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Too Many Peppers

I like hot peppers but I'm not in love with them.  In fact, I like growing hot peppers more than I like cooking with them.  All the hot peppers that I've grown, including JalapeƱos, Serranos, Chile Piquins, and Habaneros, have been beautiful plants.  Hot pepper plants are to a vegetable garden what American elm trees are to the northeastern forest - distinctive and attractive, with V-shaped profiles filled in by thousands of small, asymmetric leaves.  Hot pepper plants are well-adapted to the heat of the Austin summer and are able to thrive, even when the rest of the garden has wilted, on a few morning waterings a week.  Long after the tomatoes and eggplants have stopped producing because of heat exhaustion, and the basil has flowered and gone to seed to please the bees, the hot peppers are still going strong.

Despite my love for the plants, I'm not one of those cooks who throws hot peppers into everything.  Maybe it's because I grew up eating non-spiced food in a climate that was too mild for hot-pepper growing.  Or maybe it's because hot peppers require so much work, so much tedious slicing and de-seeding and mincing, just to produce the small pile of minced pepper needed for a stir fry.  After which, the knife, the cutting board, and my hands have to be thoroughly washed or I will manage to get hot-pepper oil on my face or in my eyes before the meal is finished.  I like hot peppers the best on weekend mornings, when I pick them fresh and hand them to Lee, who happily slices, de-seeds, and minces them as he makes our migas.

This year I only have two Serrano pepper plants, but they are producing more than we are cooking.  This weekend I realized that my plants were covered in red peppers.  Once the Serrano peppers turn red, they don't last long on the plant or in the refrigerator, so I knew it was time to pickle some peppers.

Pickled hot peppers are candy.  I know, I just explained how I'm not one of those people who are nuts about hot peppers.  I'm not.  Even so, I have to admit that pickled hot peppers are delicious.   I like to eat them in tacos, or in quesadillas, or straight from the jar.  And, what's more, hot peppers can be pickled and eaten whole, which means that de-seeding and mincing are not required.  Hooray.

Pickled Serrano Peppers

1 gallon Serrano peppers

The Brine:   (makes enough for about 16 half-pint jars)
4 cups water
4 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)
3 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons pickling or Kosher salt
4-5 bay leaves

Spices for each Half-Pint Jar:
1 medium garlic clove, peeled and halved
6-12 black peppercorns
4-8 coriander seeds
2 rosemary leaves
pinch of: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and/or caraway seeds

Safety note about pickling recipes:  The ratios of the ingredients in the brine are important.  The brine recipe can be halved or doubled or tripled, as long as the ratios are maintained.  Using 5% vinegar, the ratio of vinegar to water should always be 1 to 1, with approximately 1 T of pickling salt and 1/2 T of sugar added for each cup of vinegar used.  The bay leaves in the brine and spices in each jar are for flavor, and can be adjusted or omitted based on taste preferences and/or what you have on hand. 

Pick fresh peppers the day that you plan to pickle them, especially if you are pickling red Serrano peppers.  The red peppers spoil quickly.  Wash the peppers and discard any that are damaged or soft.

Remove the stem and receptacle (the green cap that holds the stem to the pepper) from each pepper.  This is optional - you can safely pickle peppers with their stems on - but I found it easy to slip the green cap off each pepper with my fingers, and I prefer to eat stemless peppers.

Thoroughly wash and dry your canning jars.  Add the garlic and spices to each jar.

Using a paring knife, make a small slash in each pepper for vinegar absorption.  Pack the peppers into the canning jars.

In a non-reactive saucepan, make the brine by combining the water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and bay leaves.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the peppers to cover completely.  Leave about 1/2 inch head space in each jar.  Wipe the rims of the jars clean and seal with clean rings and lids.

Process in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.  If you are new to canning, please educate yourself about water-bath canning before proceeding.  A jar lifter will be very helpful for this!

Store in a cool, dark place for a week before consuming.  Refrigerate after opening.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Late Summer Stress

Early September in Austin has a never-ending quality.  The calendar page, the return of students and teachers to school, the fall clothes catalogs - all suggest that summer is ending.  Outside, the cicadas buzz, the yellowing trees hang on for their lives, and the sun continues to bake the ground in the land of eternal summer.  I find myself wondering not when, but if, the heat will end.

I remember my first summer in Austin.  I was amazed by the rainy, humid days of June.  I felt like a newcomer to the rain forest.  When the rains of June gave way to hot and sticky July days, I walked so many miles that I got a heat rash.  Undaunted, I walked right through the oven-blasted days of August, tolerating every minute of triple digits.  I like the heat, I kept telling myself, remembering the dark and rainy place that I had left behind.  Then came September, and the furnace of summer kept blasting, and the sun felt even closer, hotter.  Only then did I begin to understand that the Austin summer was a new season, not a variation on the northwestern summer that I knew, but an entirely different season that I had only begun to appreciate.

I watch the older, established trees in the late summer.  I worry for them.  In drought years, August and September are the months when another year of survival is an open question for a tree.  If a tree dies, we see it in the spring, when the new leaves don't appear, but, for the tree, death happened last year, in the late summer.  Next year's leaves were not made, or not enough sugar was stored, to power another year of growth.  Either way, not having enough water the summer before was the deciding factor.

A large hackberry tree grows in my backyard, at the southwestern corner of my house.  When I first bought the house I wanted to have the tree removed because it was ugly, it shaded my backyard from any southern light, and, honestly, I didn't like hackberry trees.  But I realized quickly that, without that hackberry tree, my drafty, under-insulated house would be even hotter than it already is on summer evenings.  I have also learned that hackberry trees, though messy and hated by many, are valuable native trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife.  In particular, many native birds of central Texas eat the fruit of the hackberry trees.  So I have learned to accept my hackberry tree.

Late summer, when I need the shade of my backyard trees the most, brings out the worst in the hackberry tree.  This year it is covered in aphids.  I can't see them but I know they are there because they are raining honeydew down on the yard, the fence, and the air-conditioning unit below.  The tree is also dropping its sticky leaves.  I have been finding yellowed, curled-up hackberry leaves glued to the bottom of my shoes.  Benji (the cat) has been leaving sticky hackberry footprints next to her food dish.

The aphids march on.  The cedar elm by the back door is so sticky that the clothesline T beneath it has a coating of sugar, as if somebody poured red-label Karo over the top of the bar.  My hair sticks to the metal post as I walk by it.  Beneath the cedar elm, the barberry bushes are shiny with sugar, while, just to the east of the hackberry tree, my pepper plants are covered in aphids as well.  I tolerate aphids in the trees, where I view them as a consequence of the season, but I get annoyed when the bugs spread into my garden.

Luckily, the solution for aphids is satisfying.  I use the spray nozzle on my hose to spray the aphids off the pepper plants, holding each branch of the plant as I spray from different angles.  As I spray, I'm doing something in the garden, and I'm cooling myself with over-spray, both of which are a welcome break from the routine of late summer.