Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fall Color

I love the leaf colors on the Chinese tallow tree in the fall.  Bright red leaves with yellow edges, burgandy leaves with receding green edges, yellow leaves with red veins, and a few almost-orange leaves can be found on one tree in November.  The bright yellow highlights on many of the leaves look sponge-painted and, taken together with the bunches of white seeds held on some of the trees in the fall, give the trees an even more highlighted appearance.  In east Austin, the Chinese tallow tree is the clear winner of the fall foliage competition.

Chinese tallow leaves (Sapium sebiferum) in fall

The bad news about the Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum) is that it is non-native and invasive.  And it's not simply invasive as in occasionally escapes from cultivation, but invasive as in a real problem.  The Chinese tallow tree was imported into South Carolina in the 1700's, where it quickly naturalized and spread up the Atlantic Coast and across the Gulf Coast to Texas.  The invasive tree has also spread to California, where it is listed as a "red alert" pest plant.  In Florida, where the Chinese tallow tree clogs waterways and ditches, planting or moving the trees is prohibited.  Nonetheless, the tree is still available at nurseries throughout the southern United States, where it is sold as an ornamental and promoted for its fall foliage.

Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum) in fall

In Texas, Chinese tallow tree has taken over the coastal plains, replacing the grasses and wildflowers that once supported a diversity of insects and animals with single-species forests.  Almost a quarter (23%) of the trees in the Houston area are now Chinese tallow trees.  In the United States, the Chinese tallow tree is very fast growing, which contributes to its ability to take over pastures and disturbed areas.  Ecologists studying the tallow trees believe that trees are able to grow so quickly because they lack insect pests here in the US, and therefore do not have to manufacture insect-repelling compounds but can instead direct all of their energy into growth.  In Asia, where the Chinese tallow tree is native and has insect pests, the trees grow much more slowly.

Another non-native, invasive tree that contributes to the fall-color landscape is the Tree of Heaven, the colors of which can be seen along the shores of Ladybird Lake downtown or in vacant lots throughout town.  While the Tree of Heaven (Alianthus altissima) does not have leaves that turn colors, the female trees are covered in red-tinted samaras in the fall.  Samaras are flattened, aerodynamic fruits, like the flyers of maple trees, that carry the seeds away from the parent tree.  Huge clumps of reddish samaras, in contrast with the green foliage of the trees, create striking fall color.

Tree of Heaven (Alianthus altissima) with samaras

Unfortunately, each of those pretty samaras carries a seed for an invasive pest of a tree that, like the Chinese tallow tree, is fast-growing, soft-wooded, and does not feed or protect any of our native birds and butterflies.  I have always wished that the Tree of Heaven had a different, less positive sounding name.  In reading about the tree I learned that some people call it the "ghetto palm," which sounds like a perfect name to me.  I imagine that it would be much easier to cut down and poison, as is suggested on many native plant websites, a Ghetto Palm than do the same to a Tree of Heaven.

So where is the native display of Texas fall color?

One option is to travel to Lost Maples State Park, which protects a relic maple forest left from a cooler and/or wetter time.  Which points to the reason why we don't have a lot of fall color in the first place - aside from a few maples in a park, we don't have the right trees.  Fall color is produced by temperate, deciduous trees.  In central Texas we have a mix of semi-tropical trees (like mesquite and acacia), evergreen trees (like cedar and live oak), and temperate, deciduous trees (like cedar elm and pecan). 

Most of our temperate, deciduous trees turn yellow, not red, in the fall.  This is not because the conditions aren't right for red leaves here because, actually, our sunny fall days are perfect for red-leaf production.  The leaves of cedar elms, pecans, hackberries, and mulberries turn yellow because those trees don't have the genetic ability to make red leaves.  In fact, only about 10% of temperate trees do have the ability to make anthocyanins, or the red to purple pigments that are so prized in fall foliage.  New England, famous for its fall color, just happens to have a very high concentration (up to 70%) of trees that have the ability to make red leaves.

The leaves of temperate trees are green throughout the spring, summer, and, in Texas, much of the fall because the leaves are full of green-pigmented chloroplasts, which are busy capturing the energy of the sun to make sugar for the plant.  Auxiliary pigments that help in light capturing or protect the leaves from certain parts of light, such as yellow xanthophylls and orange carotenoids, are also present in the leaves throughout the season.  In the fall, shorter days or longer nights cue the tree to store sugar in its roots and to stop auxin production, which causes a layer of cork cells to form between each leaf and tree branch, so that the leaf no longer gets water and nutrients.  The chloroplasts in the leaf are broken down and, as the green pigment of the leaf disappears, the yellows, oranges, and browns of the auxiliary pigments become visible, producing fall leaf color.  In a few species of trees, such as maples and oaks, sunny fall days also stimulate the production of red to purple pigments, which, unlike the auxiliary pigments, are not present throughout the season.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a vine that grows throughout the eastern United States and is native to the streamside forests of east and central Texas, has leaves-of-five that turn deep red in the fall.  I found this example of striking, and native!, fall foliage in downtown Austin.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) leaves in fall

Another native vine, poison ivy, has leaves-of-three that also turn yellow, orange, and red in the fall.  Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), though native, is invasive in the sense that it is a species that thrives in disturbed habitats.  According to urban legend, over-enthusiastic suburban housewives occasionally make holiday centerpieces out of the attractive fall-colored vines.  I imagine it's not a mistake that is made twice in any given neighborhood.

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) on a pecan tree in fall

Finally, we do have a magnificent tree that the New Englanders can't claim that gives us four-season beauty - the Bald Cypress tree.  Unique among the conifers, Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is not evergreen but drops its leaves each fall.  The feathery leaves turn yellow, or orange, or rust-colored before falling, and the different rates of the trees in turning color and dropping their leaves create variegated fall color along the rivers and streams of our area.

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) in fall

Saturday, November 27, 2010

First Freeze

I grew up in western Oregon, land of clouds, cold rain, and Douglas firs.  For over a decade, I've lived in central Texas, land of heat, sun, and drought-tolerant shrubs.  Every week I talk to my parents and we compare the current conditions in our respective states.  For several months of the year I complain about the unending heat, while, for the other several months of the year, they complain about the unending rains.  In my mind, we live in opposite lands.

Yet when I look at a USDA Hardiness Zone map, we are merely one zone apart.  Austin, Texas is located in zone 8B, while Salem, Oregon is located in zone 7B.  The problem with the hardiness zone map is that it is created based on only one measure of climate - the average annual minimum temperature in an area.  In central Texas, despite our overall warm climate, we receive arctic fronts that drop the temperatures down to an uncharacteristic 15˚ to 20˚ F once or twice a year.  The opposite is true in western Oregon, where, despite the long months of near-freezing temperatures, the proximity of the ocean keeps the lowest temperature of the year from dropping below 5˚ to 10˚ F.

Recognizing that plants are stressed by heat as well as cold, the American Horticultural Society came up with the AHS Heat Zone map to categorize climate based on the average number of hot days a year, which are defined as days above 86˚ F.  On the heat zone map, central Texas is in zone 9, which experiences 121 to 150 hot days a year, while western Oregon is in zone 4, experiencing only 15 to 30 hot days in a year.  This contrast, of heat zone 9 versus heat zone 4, seems to characterize the differences between our climates much better than the hardiness zone map.

But, while heat may define the climate in Austin, the fact that it does freeze here can't be ignored.  The difference between cold and freezing is the difference between life and death for many plants.  So, every year, around the first of December, I begin worrying about my plants, scanning the 7-day forecasts for potential freeze nights.  This fall, freeze warnings in the midst of an otherwise warm November confused me, causing me to question my mental freeze timeline, which went something like, Freezes begin in December, become threatening around Christmas, get less severe after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and end sometime in March

For the most part, I was right on.  According to the data compiled by Dave's Garden, Austin is "at-risk" for frost between December 6 and February 17 each year, and is most likely to receive killing frosts between December 28 and January 23.  Our frost-free growing season extends from March 15 to November 14, giving us a full eight months, or 292 days a year, without frost.  (In contrast, Salem, Oregon, is "at-risk" for frost from October 24 to April 23, is likely to receive killing frosts from November 16 through March 23, and experiences only 184 safe-from-frost days a year.  Again, the hardiness zone map just doesn't say enough.)

I have noticed that my yard, which seems to be located in a milder microclimate than the Austin weather stations, only experiences a freeze when the official Austin temperature drops below 30˚ F, which only happens a few days a year.  In fact, my first four winters in this house were mild, with nothing but several mild freezing nights each year.  Nonetheless, I dutifully carried my motley assortment of potted plants up the stairs into the kitchen before each freeze, only to haul them back down the stairs a day or two later.  The winter before last I noticed that my curry plant was hosting termites in its heavy pot and declared that, next year, I wasn't going to haul the plants up the stairs.  My mom, who has an uncanny ability to catalog every wouldn't it be nice if I had ... statement that a relative makes, heard my declaration and sent me a pop-up greenhouse for my next birthday.

In any other year, the pop-up greenhouse would have been a perfect solution, but last year we actually experienced, even here in the warmth of town, temperatures as low as 20˚ F, which killed most of the plants in the picture above.  Luckily, in the spring a few volunteer curry plants resprouted from their roots to carry on the legacy of the momma curry plant.  And the greenhouse, I'm confident, will be quite useful in the gardening seasons to come.

Meanwhile, this year's frost season is approaching and I have the front-yard garden to consider.  For the most part, cool-season vegetables do fine with a light freeze.  Kale, spinach, and bok choy aren't harmed by a light freeze, while chard, beets, and lettuce may lose their outside leaves to the frost, but are able to grow back.  My garden is so packed with potential food at this point, though, that I hate the idea of losing any of the tasty leaves to an early frost.

I also count on the frost season to begin after leaf fall, which is currently in progress.  Once the leaves are on the ground, I can rake and pile them on the garden as mulch, which helps to keep the bases and roots of the plants from freezing, which in turn allows the plant to regrow if frost-bitten.

Last night's temperatures were predicted to be in the low- to mid-20's.  I found Plankets at the Home Depot in the 10' x 20' size, almost big enough to cover my whole garden.  The fabric was heavy and soft, and the large size made them easier to work with than narrow strips of row-cover fabric.  Using the wealth of bricks from this property and two Plankets, I covered the garden for its first freezing cold night.  In reality, I think it was only 32˚ F here last night, judging from the unprotected Cosmos plants that were just slightly frost damaged, but now I have a plan for the freezing nights to come, in the killing-frost month of late December through late January.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Whole Lotta Greens

Time or money? is the oldest question of all.  Ever since we as a species figured out how to domesticate the plants and animals that feed us, we've had to decide whether to spend our time producing what we need or to exchange our time for money so that we can buy what we need.  In the twenty-first century, in the developed world, we exchange our time for money for all the things that we need.  Even among the farmers, few are able to choose the other way, to choose time over money.

Yet, I want to choose time, or at least I want to feel like I have the option to choose time.  I don't like feeling like an indentured servant to the industrial-consumption machine.  I think that one of my motivations to garden, to grow my own food, is to practice choosing time.  The reality of it is not as simple as that, given that growing a garden also costs money.  But in spirit, if not in practice, growing a garden is a commitment of time.  I commit to preparing the garden, to planting the garden, and to caring for the garden, and the garden produces food that I can carry straight into the kitchen without paying a grocer, or distributor, or wholesaler, or farmer.  I get food in exchange for my time.

Food costs more that just time in the growing of it.  Cooking from scratch, using raw ingredients out of the garden, also takes time.  Time that I am accustomed to spending, in fact, often happy to spend.  But then there is the time required to get the food from the garden to the kitchen counter, ready to be sliced or dressed or sautéed or baked.  That is where I am finding myself spending a lot of time lately, as I thin and trim and wash the greens from my garden.

The greens in my front yard garden grew more quickly than I expected, with each row turning into a crowded hedge of baby plants desperately in need of thinning.  At first I put off thinning because the garden looked so good.  I loved the look of the fat, crowded rows of greens across the yard, and I didn't want to lose that fullness through thinning.  Once I began, the thinning process was slow going.  The stems of the over-sized baby greens were tightly packed together, so that the leaves were intertwined and stuck to each other as I tried to remove some, but not all, of the plants.  Each row required careful, patient time, and produced a huge bowl of greens.  The thinning process, which was originally a simple, single item on my to-do list, "thin greens and make salads," has turned into a weeks-long process.

Once the greens were harvested, the next step was to trim the leaves from the stems, or the stems from the roots, depending on the type of greens.  I discarded yellowed or brown leaves into the compost bowl along with the stems and roots and tossed the healthy leaves into the sink for washing.

Growing crowded and close to the ground, some of the leaves were quite muddy when they went into the sink.  Luckily the dirt dropped to the bottom of the sink as I sloshed the greens around in the cool water.  I pulled the greens out of the water into a colander, rinsed the dirt out of the sink, and refilled the sink with water.  Then I dropped the greens back into the sink for a second rinse, just to make sure all of the dirt was washed away.  After the second rinse, I dried the greens in a salad spinner.  Now the greens were ready for cooking, or salad making, or to be stored in the refrigerator for later use.

Sunday I spent a few hours trimming and washing cilantro and parsley thinnings, bok choy thinnings, and tatsoi thinnings.  As I stood in front of the kitchen sink, clipping and sloshing, I was painfully aware of time passing and of all the other things that I could have been doing with that time, including writing a blog entry.  The expensive boxes of washed, organic greens at the grocery store started seeming a lot less expensive, given the labor and oil involved in their production.  But, in the end, once I saw the volume of greens that I had washed and readied for eating, I was reminded that having too many greens is a good problem.  We will eat well this week.

Of course, the final, and most important, step of the process was the supervisor inspection.  Benji sniffed each bowl but took a special interest in the cilantro and parsley.  I've read that cats eat plants to cleanse their intestines, and I've also read that parsley is a cleansing herb.  So it should have been no surprise when she decided to eat a fresh, baby sprig of parsley.  At which point her inspection was rudely interrupted as I hauled her screaming self off the dining-room table.  I guess that, even if I was weary from time spent thinning, and trimming, and washing, baby greens, Benji was there with her excellent feline nose to remind me that fresh greens from the garden have a quality that can't be bought in a plastic box from across the country.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


When I made a small garden in the corner of the backyard, I told myself that it was experimental.  I didn't know if that space would receive enough light to support plants.  At the time, several weeks before I began the process of digging up and terracing part of the front yard to make a garden there, that backyard corner was the best potential garden spot that I had, and I was itching to use a pile of mulch that I had to build a garden.  So rather quickly, over just two humid summer mornings, the backyard garden was created.  And just as quickly, my expectations shifted from This is experimental to This is going to work.

Overall, it hasn't yet not worked.  The transplanted broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and collard plants established quickly and grew new sets of thick, dark-colored leaves.  The seeds that I planted germinated into dense rows of seedlings, the thinnings of which made delicious salads.  Soon I had neat rows of seedlings and a patchwork of established cabbage-family plants, each preparing to make a head of flowers, or leaves, or florets.  In the last few weeks, leaves from the cedar elm above have begun falling onto the garden below.  As the yellow and brown leaves accumulate, I can see the quiet, private backyard garden that I imagined coming into focus.

But, of the rows of seeds that I planted, only some of the seedlings made the transition from seedling to baby plant.  The baby chard plants happily grew ruffly fourth and fifth sets of leaves and the beet plants, though still small, responded to the low-light conditions by producing new leaves with deep-red undersides, which reflect light back into the leaf for photosynthesis.  The lettuces grew as well, quickly taking on the look of small, loose-leaf lettuce heads.  The cabbage-family seedlings, in contrast, stalled out at the seedling stage.  The arugula and bok choy rows shrank as the seedlings receiving the least light faded into the soil.  The Chinese kale seedlings simply stopped growing, standing tall with just two or three sets of leaves, waiting.

I might have been patient with the slow progress, writing it off as slow growth due to the lower temperatures or shorter days, except that the greens in the front yard, planted a few weeks later, make it very clear that lack of light is the culprit.  The front-yard greens, long grown past the need-thinning stage, are putting out new sets of leaves by the day.

Then came the bugs.  I'm not sure if they were caterpillars, or beetles, or some yet-unidentified creature from the compost, but something made a meal of those poor, struggling baby plants.  Last week, I noticed that, not only were the bok choy, arugula, and Chinese kale seedlings still frozen in time, not growing much, but they were also being devoured.  I decided that it was time to admit that part of my experiment didn't work.  I pulled the remaining bok choy, arugula, and Chinese kale seedlings and set aside the leaves that hadn't already been eaten by bugs for salad.

The bright side of one failed experiment is that I get to start another, which in the garden means planting more seeds.  I planted butterhead lettuce, my favorite type of lettuce, next to the established lettuces.  I also planted spinach, a monster variety, and mache, both of which are cold-loving greens that are known to germinate in cold temperatures.  I have never planted this late in the year before so, given how early we are having freeze warnings this year, I have begun yet another experiment.

Soon the rest of the leaves will fall from the trees that shade the backyard, allowing more light to reach the garden.  While I now know that the light will be strong enough to slowly grow greens - chard, beets, and lettuces - I still wonder if the broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants will receive enough light to make their heads.  Which means that my backyard garden, like all gardens, will continue to be an experiment.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Brushy Trash Holiday

Some people plan ahead for summer break by accumulating TripTiks from the AAA, or for Thanksgiving by building a book of recipes, or for Christmas by hiding gifts in the back of their closet.  I plan ahead for brushy trash collection by stacking every fallen branch, shrub trimming, or cut-down shrub from my yard in a pile by the back fence.  When the spring or fall Brushy Trash Day arrives, all I have to do is haul the branches from my backyard up to the sidewalk for collection.

I always have the biggest brushy trash pile in the neighborhood.  And I'm always extremely proud of my pile, savoring the view of it in the front yard for those couple of days before collection.  To me, a large brushy trash pile speaks of industry and thriftiness, or good use of the city's solid waste program, of which I am an adoring fan.  Living in an old, drafty, leaky house, I am less enamored of the sums that I pay each month for electric and water, but I have been impressed with the thoroughness of the solid-waste program since moving from an apartment to a house.  As a gardener I am especially appreciative of the weekly yard waste collection and, of course, the semiannual brushy trash collection.

Which may just make me a nerd, or reveal that I am a maniac with loppers and a Fat Max saw.  In my defense, I am genetically predisposed to chopping down shrubs and building huge brush piles, following in the tradition of my mom, whose summer brush pile dwarfs anything my yard could produce.  My parents live in the country, though, where they can burn their brush pile and create huge compost systems, while I try to carry out my agrarian urges here in a small city lot.  So I feel lucky that the City of Austin indulges my need to accumulate brushy trash.

Brushy trash collection was this week for my neighborhood.  On Sunday I dragged the accumulated branches of the summer and fall up to the street, revisiting yard projects of the past as I worked my way through the pile.  On the top of the pile were a few branches that had fallen from the trees in the backyard since the cold fronts started blowing through town.  Not far below were the remains of the multi-branched Japanese privet tree that I removed from the backyard.  As the crackly, dead privet leaves fell from the branches I remembered the cloudy, humid July day when I cut down that shrubby tree, exposing the back corner of the backyard to sunlight. 

The next bunch of branches, trimmings from the shrubs at the front of the house, a holly, a yew, and a few boxwood shrubs, were shorter and tangled, making them harder to carry to the growing pile at the sidewalk.  At the bottom of the pile, I dug through a dense pile of privet leaves to find trimmings from a chaste-tree shrub and branches that had fallen from a cedar elm tree in the backyard during a wind storm late last spring.  Those bottom branches of my backyard pile became the top branches of the new pile I created at the street, ready for pick-up.

The thing about having a brushy trash pile in the front yard is that it tempts me to add more.  By Tuesday afternoon, when collection had not yet happened on my street, I decided that it was time to remove the last remaining shrubs from the south side of the house, where I want to create a tomato garden.  I didn't feel bad cutting down the Chinese privet, which, like the Japanese privet that I removed from the backyard in July, is non-native, invasive, and, in my opinion, ugly.  I did feel guilty about taking down the small Texas persimmon tree growing next to the house.  But, if I wanted to plant tomatoes along that sunny wall, then all the shrubs had to go.  That is how my brushy trash pile got even taller.

As proud as I am of my large brushy trash piles, I always think that next year's pile will be smaller.  I have removed most of the shrubs that I don't like, or that have grown in unfortunate places, so I should have less brush to remove.  But I also know that the hackberry tree needs to be trimmed, as does the cedar elm by the back door, and winter ice storms or spring wind storms have a way of dropping branches when least expected.  So I am confident that, by the time of spring collection, I will once again have a pile of brushy trash to offer to the city.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pickle Factory

Oh so innocently on my to-do list: harvest and pickle peppers.  With a few free hours, I skipped out to the garden with my scissors and a bowl, and I began picking peppers.  This was to be the end for my Serrano pepper plants.  They produced and produced through the summer, spicing our eggs and tacos and stir fries.  In early September, when pepper production began to outpace consumption, I picked the plants clean and pickled that harvest, making five half-pints of pickled peppers.  We've been enjoying the picked peppers since, and the fresh peppers that the plants kept making.  By the end of October, both of the plants were covered in peppers once again.  Early November brought freeze warnings and the realization that, if I wanted to plant cool-season vegetables in the small garden by the AC unit, I needed to harvest those super-productive pepper plants.

Super-productive, indeed.  I only planted two pepper plants this year, but both of those Serrano plants grew into tall shrubs with extensive root systems over the hot summer.  And quite by accident, by cleaning the plants of fruit just before the rains and cooler temperatures of September, I encouraged the plants to go super-production mode for the fall.  It ended up taking me over two hours to harvest the peppers from those two plants, filling my harvest bowl four times.

This is the point at which I could have done some calculations.  My harvest bowl holds four quarts, or one gallon.  Which means that I picked about four gallons of peppers.  Four gallons equals 32 pints equals 64 half pints, or about 5 cases of half-pint jars, given that the final volume of the pickled peppers will be somewhat less once the peppers are de-stemmed and tightly packed into jars.

But I did not do any calculations.  I was proud of my harvest and figured that I would need another case or two of half-pint jars and a quart of vinegar.  I also figured that I would need, roughly, an afternoon to complete the pickling project.

So yesterday afternoon, with supplies and ingredients gathered, I put Maná in the CD player and started popping the stems off peppers.  Except for a few stubborn receptacles (the caps that hold the stem on the pepper) that I had to pry off, most snapped off easily.  Soon I was working in a quick rhythm, picking up a pepper with one hand while snapping off the receptacle with the other hand, then placing the pepper into a bowl and receptacle/stem into the compost.  But, even with assembly-line efficiency, de-stemming each pepper took a couple of hours.

After de-stemming, I dropped the peppers into the sink for washing.  At this point I had handled each pepper two times - to harvest it and to de-stem it.  I still needed to handle each pepper individually one more time - to cut a slit in each pepper so that the pickling brine could be absorbed into the peppers.  Again, I worked with assembly-line efficiency, holding each pepper still with my left hand while cutting a slit in the pepper with a paring knife with my right hand.  Again, the process took over an hour.  But, finally, the tedium of handling each pepper was over.

While the brine heated and simmered in a saucepan, I peeled and halved garlic cloves.  Then came the fun part, setting up jars.  I lined up all of my clean half-pint jars on the counter and dropped halved garlic cloves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, rosemary leaves, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and caraway seeds into each of them.

Next, I packed peppers into the jars and realized that I did not have enough half-pint jars.  This is where things got a little nuts.  The brine was simmering and ready to use, the hot water bath was boiling, the entire kitchen counter was covered in half-pint jars, and I was holding another bowl full of peppers, wondering where to set it down.  I dug six pint-size jars out of the cupboard, washed them and filled them with spices and peppers, then repeated that process with another five, the last five, pint jars from the cupboard.  I processed half of the half-pints in the water bath while making another batch and a half of brine.  Altogether, I filled 33 half-pints and 11 pints with peppers.  By the time I was done, I had used up every garlic clove, peppercorn, coriander seed, bay leaf, and fresh canning jar lid in the house, and had long ago switched from apple cider to white vinegar.

I'm not sure where the line between project and undertaking is, but I am quite sure that last night, at the point when I was on my hands and knees, cleaning spilled brine and peppercorns off the kitchen floor, and the house smelled like a pickle factory, and the windows were steamed as the third batch of jars jangled in the boiling water bath, and Lee was poking his head into the kitchen wondering if it was safe to approach, that I had crossed that line.  But now that it is over, and the pantry is stocked with peppers to last us through the cool season, I feel a sense of satisfaction that must be written deep into my human genes, the comfort of knowing that I have put away some food for the days to come.  And while putting away food is no longer necessary, I like knowing what happens between the garden and the jar of pickles.

Pickled Serrano Peppers

It is helpful, as I found out the hard way, to calculate approximately how many jars you will be filling before you begin the pickling process.  This will allow you to calculate roughly how many quarts of vinegar, how many bulbs of garlic, etc, you need to have on hand.  One gallon of peppers will yield about 8 pint jars, or 16 half-pint jars, of pickles.  This will require about 8 cups of brine, which will require 4 cups (32 oz.) of vinegar.

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 tablespoon of pickling salt and 1/2 to 1 tablespoon 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.

1 gallon Serrano peppers

The Brine:
4 cups water
4 cups apple cider vinegar or white 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

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.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Revolving Annuals

I like the idea of a perennial garden - a productive garden that attracts birds, bees, butterflies, toads, and lizards; a garden where the soil is built from the surface of the mulch down, season after season, without being disturbed; a yard where vegetable-garden beds are surrounded by established, drought-hardy perennials that bloom throughout the year.  But the closest plants that I have to perennials, aside from the motley assortment of boring, hardy shrubs that came with the property, are the Cosmos flowers that reseed themselves year after year in the garden by the driveway.

If I like perennials so much, why don't I plant them?

First of all, I need a plan.  Perennials are long-term commitments and, while most plants can be transplanted, moving an established plant is always a risk, especially during heat or drought.  Every plant differs in shape and size, flowering season, water needs, growth pattern, and maintenance.  Aside from researching plants, I also need to figure out how I'm going to turn the rest of my front yard, and the adjoining strip of side yard, into a garden.  I need to measure where my property line is, figure out where I want to grow vegetables, and decide how to deal with the slope.  In the last few years, I simply haven't had the time to research plants and map out the yard and devise a plan for a full-yard garden.

Second, perennials are not just a commitment in terms of garden space and maintenance time, perennials are a long-term watering commitment.  In Austin, a watering commitment is a serious vow to take.  For the past few years, I have planted zinnias in the garden by the driveway.  This year the zinnias bloomed and grew, and bloomed and grew, all summer and fall, still pleasing the bees with flowers late into October.  Last year, when we had the hottest summer on record in the midst of a two-year drought, I realized in June that keeping the zinnias alive was simply going to take too much water, so I stopped watering, let them die, and pulled the plants.  I felt bad about letting the plants go, but, given the heat, it was a reasonable decision, and one that I know I can make each time I buy a cheap flat of annuals. 

The perennials that I would like to grow are drought-tolerant and, with some extra water, would be able to make it through brutal summers, but only once they are established.  In the spring, when a variety of perennial starter plants are available locally and by order, I always wonder: will this be a good year for planting, or will it be 105˚ in June?  Because, for the first summer, even the most drought-tolerant plants need favorable conditions and reliable water to establish themselves.

Third, I am indecisive.  Recently I decided that I wanted to buy two Bougainvillea plants to go on either side of the front walk.  At the store, I realized that, not only would the Bougainvillea plants grow to be much wider than the narrow spaces on either side of my front walk, the plants were also quite thorny, not a good trait for a plant growing into the front walk.  I abandoned the Bougainvillea idea and researched smaller, native flowering shrubs for the front walk.  I took a list of suitable red-, purple-, and blue-flowering plants to the nursery, where I walked up and down the perennials aisles reading tags and thinking.  I did this walking, and thinking, and staring-into-space routine for so long that a few different nursery employees tried to help me.

Eventually, I decided on sage plants and spent the next, well, eternity, debating color - true red or deep magenta?  I preferred the color of the red-flowered plants but the growth shape of the magenta-flowered plants.  I chose two red-flowered plants.  Then I looked at them and realized that their tiny flowers, though bright, and their tiny leaves, would get lost next to the dense shrubs at the front of the brick-colored house.  So I put the sage plants back and choose two plants of a yellow-flowered milkweed with a dense, upright growth habit.  Later I found out that my new milkweeds will freeze to the ground in a month or two, so I will, once again, have empty spaces on either side of the front walk until spring.

Finally, annuals are cheap, pretty, and easy.  I find it difficult to walk past a display of zinnias and impatiens in the spring, or pansies and snapdragons in the fall, without choosing colors.  Last week, I decided that, despite their heroic late-season blooming, the zinnias had to go to make way for the cool-season flowers, so that they could get established before it freezes.  I choose a variety of pansies and snapdragons to plant in the garden by the driveway and along the sidewalk edge of the front-yard garden.  As I planted this season's batch of revolving annuals, I told myself that next year, next spring, it's time for perennials.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Less-Visited Lost Pines

One of the features that I enjoy about central Texas is that, ecologically speaking, we are located on an edge.  Austin is built across the Balcones Escarpment, the fault line responsible for all our springs and a geologic line across which soil type changes.  More broadly, we are also located where east meets west on this continent, or where the humid forests of the east give way to fertile savannas and prairies and then to the arid mix of dry savanna and shrubby deserts to our west.  Here in the middle we have a little of everything - fields of wildflowers, shrub- and cactus-filled pastures, oak savannas, cedar woodlands, and, where the water flows, deciduous forests.

Not far to the east, we even have a pine forest.  Which is where Lee and I spent the day on Sunday - hiking in the piney woods of Buescher State Park.  I am now a fan of quiet and lesser-known Buescher, but I have to admit that we ended up there somewhat by accident.  We intended to hike at McKinney Roughs Nature Park, but twice now we have arrived at McKinney Roughs to find that the gate was closed.  The first time was on New Year's Day - we thought it would be a good day to hike - and the second time was last weekend, when we found out that the park does not open until noon on Sunday.  Noon?  For hiking in Texas?  Seriously?

Frustrated and annoyed, we consulted the guidebook and considered other hiking options along Highway 71.  Bastrop State Park was twelve miles down the road, but I had already hiked that trail and, though it was lovely, I was specifically craving a new place to hike.  Another ten miles down the road was Buescher State Park with its own hiking trail through piney woods, described in the guidebook as "an underhiked trail in an underutilized state park."  Now that sounded like my kind of place, and they opened before noon, so we headed farther east on Highway 71.

Buescher State Park, like its more-famous cousin to the west, Bastrop State Park, is located in the ecological region called the Post Oak Savanna, which is characterized by grasslands interspersed with clumps of hardy trees, mostly Post Oaks, that are adapted to drought and sandy soils.  In the Post Oak Savanna, forested areas are usually restricted to the bottomlands along rivers and streams, where flooding and clay soils support a diversity of deciduous trees and shrubs.

Yet Buescher State Park and Bastrop State Park are forested, supporting not just forest, but the westernmost stand of Loblolly Pine trees in the United States.  Separated from the Piney Woods of east Texas by 100 miles of savanna, the Bastrop County pine forests are called the Lost Pines.  The Lost Pines may be a remnant of a larger pine forest that once covered more of Texas in a wetter time, or may have been planted by Native Americans.  Either way, the Lost Pines have existed in the Bastrop area for over 18,000 years and require less water than their Piney Woods relatives, from whom they have become genetically distinct.

Loblolly Pines (Pinus taeda) prefer deep, sandy soils and, if provided with sufficient water, are fast-growing trees that can grow over 100 feet tall.  Loblolly Pines are extensively cultivated in the south for pulp and lumber.  Loblolly forests attract butterflies and provide nesting sites, cover, and seeds for birds and small mammals.

Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)

The Buescher Hiking Trail, which is a "balloon" hike, or an out-and-back with a loop at one end, is seven miles round-trip from the main trail head.  We shortened the hike to four miles by parking across from the entrance of the University of Texas Science Park, which is 1.7 miles up Park Road 1C, and picking up the trail where it crosses the road to the science park.  Complete instructions for getting there, where to park, and the hike itself can be found in the guidebook

The trail was sandy and covered in pine needles, which were also draped over the understory vegetation, giving the forest a decorated look.  As promised, the trail was quiet, and we saw only one other hiker as we walked through the woods.  The trail meandered through the pine forest, down into dry ravines and back up again, crossing park roads three times during the loop.  The forest varied along the trail, with dense understories in the ravines giving way to open woodlands on hilltops, but was composed, throughout, of a mix of Loblolly Pine, Blackjack Oak, and Post Oak.

Buescher Hiking Trail

Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica) is a red oak with distinct, triangular-shaped leaves with narrow bottoms and three-lobed tops.  Blackjack Oak is grows to be a small- to medium-sized tree and is able to grow in thin, sandy, dry, or rocky soils where few other woody plants can survive.  Blackjack Oak provides cover and nesting sites for birds, and its acorns are food for small mammals and deer.

Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica) leaves

Post Oak (Quercus stellata) is the most common oak tree in Texas and is so common in east Texas that it has an ecological region, the Post Oak Savanna, named after it.  Post Oak prefers acidic soils, but otherwise can tolerate a wide range of poor soil conditions, including dry, sandy, rocky, and gravelly.  Post Oaks are white oaks whose leaves have round lobes, but the exact dimensions of the lobes vary greatly.  The first or second set of lobes is often larger than the others, giving the leaf a cross-like appearance.  Post Oaks provides cover and nesting sites for birds, and its acorns are food to small mammals and deer.

Post Oak (Quercus stellata) leaves

Post Oak and Blackjack Oak are the primary trees of the Cross Timbers region of Texas and Oklahoma, the region north of us where the rainfall-determined "tree line" of the southern plains occurs.  In the Cross Timbers, where oak savannas give way to prairie, Post Oak and Blackjack Oak are the only trees that can tolerate the dry, poor soils away from the waterways.  As a result, both oaks have gotten the reputation of being ugly, slow-growing, small trees.  Though slow-growing, Post Oak and Blackjack Oak are also long-lived, providing shelter and food for wildlife, and timber and firewood for people, in a region where trees are scarce.  When Post Oak or Blackjack Oak trees have the opportunity to grow in deeper, more fertile soils, they can grow to be large, attractive trees, much like their more-loved oak relatives.

The dominant shrub in the understory along the trail was Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria).  In sunnier spots, the shrubs were covered in red berries.  According to one source, the red berries of the Yaupon shrubs are poisonous, but another source said that they are food for mammals and birds, who only eat the berries after several freezes.  The evergreen leaves and twigs of the plant are high in caffeine, and can be steeped to produce a maté-like tea.  The dense shrubs provide good cover for birds and small animals and their spring flowers attract butterflies.

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)

Sunday was a hot, sunny day, probably the hottest day for the rest of the year, and the forest seemed weary from the weeks of heat and dry of October.  I saw American Beautyberry shrubs in the understory, looking wilted and heat-stressed, with fewer, smaller berries than those I have seen on the plants along the Greenbelt.  Along the sandy section of the trail that paralleled the park road, I saw Small Palafox plants at the end of their bloom, as well as various, small sunflower-family herbs that were done or near to being done blooming for the year.  Dead pine trees were a common site along the way, standing bare among other trees or lying across the trail.  We had to make several detours over, under, or around dead pine trunks.  

I wondered, as I noticed the bare trunks along the way, what had caused so much tree death.  My first guess was that the drought of 2008-2009 was the culprit, given all of the other tree death that I have seen around Austin since those years.  But Loblolly Pines are also susceptible to southern pine beetle infestations and various fungal diseases.

I saw many juvenile pine trees along the way, a sign that the forest is regenerating.  Hopefully our pine forest, whether a relic from a different time or a gift from a different region, will continue to thrive in Bastrop county for another 20,000 years.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Two Weeks After Planting

I planted in the front yard because the front yard gets the day-long sunlight that the backyard does not.  Still, I am surprised how fast the seedlings in my front-yard garden are growing.  Just two weeks after planting, thick rows of greens cross the garden.  Compared to the backyard seedlings, these seedlings are sturdier, shorter, and more deeply colored, with wider leaves.  While their older siblings in the backyard are just hanging on, waiting for the leaves to fall from the trees that shade them, the front-yard seedlings are thriving in the light, becoming baby plants.

Front-yard garden two weeks after planting

All but the latest-sprouting seedlings now have their second sets of leaves.  Their second sets of leaves are actually their first true sets of leaves, which, unlike the original seed leaves, or cotyledons, are miniature versions of the adult leaves of the plant.  So, while the rows the cabbage-family seedlings were indistinguishable from one another at one week after planting, now that they have their second sets of leaves, their identities are becoming obvious.  The diversity of the second set of leaves is most visible in the row of Asian greens, a "Pan-Pacific Stir-Fry Mix" from Renee's Garden.  Wavy, purple-stemmed kale leaves stand out among the rough, mustard leaves and the round leaves of Pac Choi.

Asian greens (Brassica spp.) after two weeks

The Lacinato kale (Brassica oleraceae) seedlings are the deepest green in the garden, so green that they almost have a bluish tint.  Their second sets of leaves are wavy and textured, beginning to resemble the long, crinkly, blue-green leaves of the adult plants.

Lacinato Kale (Brassica oleraceae) seedlings at two weeks

Pak Choi and Tatsoi, two varieties of Brassica rapa, both have round leaves with complete (not wavy or serrated) edges.  The leaves of the Tatsoi seedlings are deep green, a color that I associate with the vitamin-rich nature of greens, and so round that they are almost circular, while the Pak Choi leaves are larger, more oval-shaped, with almost parallel veins, and more yellow-green.

Tatsoi (Brassica rapa) seedlings at two weeks

Green Fortune Pak Choi (Brassica rapa) seedlings at two weeks

True to their bean-family nature, the fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) seedlings are starting to resemble mini pea plants as they grow their second sets of leaves.  One leaf of each second set is a simple oval on a long petiole, while the other leaf is compound and trifoliate, with three leaflets, like a clover leaf.  The trifoliate leaf is on a shorter petiole (leaf stem) than the simple leaf, intensifying the asymmetric appearance of the seedlings.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) seedlings at two weeks

The spinach (Spinacia oleracea) row is the most unruly, with long cotyledons and newer, triangular leaves poking in all directions. This year I am growing the Bordeaux variety of spinach, which has red-tinted stems.  It looks like the major veins of the leaves will be pink-tinted as well.

Bordeaux spinach (Spinacia oleracea) seedlings at two weeks

At two weeks, the beets and Swiss chard, two varieties of Beta vulgaris, are beginning to take on different appearances.  The Swiss chard leaves are green and crinkly, with yellow or pink or red stems, while the beet stems are uniformly magenta.  Many of the leaves of the beets, the red-colored Bull's Blood variety, are tinged with magenta as well.

Bright Lights Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris) seedlings at two weeks

Bull's Blood beet (Beta vulgaris) seedlings at two weeks

The lettuces, a mesclun mix of varieties of Lactuca sativa, have grown into a crowded row of baby greens in two weeks.  The leaves of the lettuces are oblong and wavy, ranging in color from yellow-green to burgundy.  The lettuce plants have grown so intertwined that it is difficult to distinguish between individual plants.  Thinning the lettuces is going require patience.

Mesclun lettuce (Lactuca sativa) mix at two weeks

The sorrel (Rumex acetosa) seedlings have not grown as much as the other greens.  Their second sets of leaves are only slightly larger than their cotyledons, though they are longer and some of them are starting to take on the the more-pointed appearance of mature sorrel leaves.

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) seedlings at two weeks

As predicted by their slow germination times, the carrot-family plants are lagging behind the rest of the garden in growth.  The fennel (Foenicucum vulgare) seedlings have been germinating over the past week, with only a few of them now revealing their feathery sets of second leaves.

Florence fennel (Foenicucum vulgare) seedlings at two weeks

More of the carrot (Daucus carota) seedlings have their feathery second leaves, or their first true carrot leaves.  The seedlings are still tiny however, leaving me to hope that they are busy below ground, growing the thick tap roots that will become the carrots.

Scarlet Nantes carrot (Daucus carota) seedlings at two weeks

Cilantro, or coriander (Coriandrum sativum), seedlings, faster growing than their relatives, have grown into a healthy row of bright green.  The second leaves of the cilantro seedlings, which are distinctly different from their narrow cotyledons, are simple versions of the compound leaves of the older plants, giving the plants their identity.

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) seedlings at two weeks

And, last but not least, the parsley finally decided to join the fall-garden party.  Two weeks after planting, the parsley row now looks like the other rows looked a week ago.  But I have to admit that once the parsley seeds decided to germinate, they made a good show of it, and I now have a respectable row of parsley seedlings.  Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) cotyledons look like the back side of a two-tailed round brad, the kind that is used to hold together a thick stack of papers.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) seedlings at two weeks

At two weeks, dense rows of seedlings call for thinning and promise to produce delicious thinnings salads.  But I am so enjoying the sight of such thick, healthy rows of greens in the front yard that I am having trouble motivating myself to do any thinning.