Traipsing across the parking lot of the Home Depot this afternoon, I was confronted with a harsh, and deeply unpleasant reality. As the vicious sun attacked my helpless pupils and a band of sweat hugged the back of my neck, there was no more denying the truth. Summer is coming.
Austin has been blessed this year with an uncharacteristically long spring season. A mild winter was followed by an outpour of restorative rains that resulted in a long and fruitful growing season, cool spring afternoons and many a porch beer.
The encroaching heat serves as a disappointing reminder that soon we will replace counting fire flies over IPAs with swatting mosquitoes over profanities. The end is nigh, but I am careful NOT to take for granted the swath of magical spring nights we were fortunate enough to enjoy before the season turned against us. Not just this year, but every year. The garden has seen some amazing transformation since we first made it ours some 4 years back.
Dear Backyard Garden,
Remember when you and I were tight and would hang out all the time?
We had so much in common, so much to learn from each other. Those were the good good old days. But I don’t think you or I can deny for any longer the fact that lately we’ve been growing apart. Well, I’ve been growing apart. You have not been growing much of anything. But I understand. Especially with you, veggies.
I have to take some of the blame. I wasn’t there for you and I’m sorry. But I hope you know that it’s not forever, I am just going through a tough time right now what with this heat and all. And I know, I know, before you say anything, I am fully aware of the fact that there are other gardeners who treat their plants nice even in the summer. But I’m not other gardeners. When it’s sweaty out there, and the raindrops are replaced by mosquitoes and we experience 40 days of triple digit temperatures, I’m just not woman enough to be there for you. I can’t make excuses. I am a weak person. I don’t feel great about it, and it’s time that I come clean and admit that my neglect has changed you.
But as for the rest of you plants, I think you need to take some responsibility for your actions.
I’m looking at you loquat tree. You hurt me. You hurt me bad. We were so good together! When you first started acting sad, I did everything I could to make you happy. Remember the daily dates with the water hose? If not, maybe the $400 utility bill will jog your memory. What did I do wrong? Why do you refuse to cooperate? I am beginning to feel really jilted by how much you take-take-take without giving back.
And you, yaupon holly? You’re a native! You should know better than to behave like a tropical, which you have to admit you have been these days with the water business. I’ll keep it coming, but get real, this weather is suppose to be your jam! I expect you to behave better and maybe act grateful for the attention you’ve been getting. What would veggies say if they they knew you were acting like this?What am I doing? This isn’t me. I didn’t mean to point fingers. This is my fault. I’ll try and be better. I promise you. I’ll turn over a new leaf, and I hope you will consider growing some in return. I love you garden. Maybe in time, we can get back to where we were.
Whelp, the time finally came for Bro to move out of the doodle house. His departure came about a month ago, and with him went the Foosball table (at our request), which meant it was time for us to look into more sit-able table options for our newly naked back patio. Muah ha ha, another weekend project to put on the books.
I did some fact checking and number crunching and figured the best option for us would be to pick up a prefab picnic table from Lowe’s ($88) and gussy ‘er up with a bright coat of paint. It would be affordable. It would be easy. It would be done!
I chose to paint it what my pals calls “P-Terry’s blue” a sort of seafoam blue/turquoise color that is one the trademark colors of my favorite Austin hamburger chain. I’ve eaten many a meal on their blue picnic tables and it seemed as fitting a color as any to bring to the patio. Plus, I’ve gotten so accustomed to painting furniture and walls in shades of blue that not to just seemed wrong some how. You know what’s not wrong? The finished product…
In addition to prepping the picnic table, we also spent some of the weekend sprucing up the garden and freshening up things we had let go over the winter. The pallet planter got updated with some hardy succulents and we put in a handful of fast-growing, drought-tolerant natives along the back and side fence to give us some future privacy from the neighbors (and their incessantly barking schnauzers). Soon enough, I hope to have a really nice backyard space in which to romp with the doodles and host fancy pants backyard garden parties.
And, with luck, we will soon have edible goodies to fill the empty space on our PTerry’s picnic bench. Heath stayed busy by tending to the veggie garden, planting sugar snap peas, lettuce, onions, potatoes, broccoli and carrots.
I’m so excited by all that has developed in the backyard in the last two weeks with the rise in temperatures and rise in our morale. I better enjoy garden season while it lasts, because heaven knows by May the triple digit temperatures will be upon us again. Until then, who’s down for a picnic?
Whoever coined the expression “dirt cheap” was a little misinformed. As we’ve gotten our hands dirty in the world of gardening (pun INTENDED) we’ve learned that all dirt is not created equal, and the good stuff that makes things really grow will cost ya. In fact, good and fertile dirt is so valuable Heath actually packed up the soil from our old garden and brought it along to the new house. That’s commitment.
The run-of-the-mill dirt you’ll find in the average backyard in Austin (zone 8b) is high in pH, or very alkaline. That’s not so bad for veggies, but it will make it difficult if you choose to plant azaleas or blueberries and other acid-loving plants. So if you want to get creative with you’re gardening, you’ve got to outsmart Mother Nature because “you don’t put a $10 plant in a 5 cent hole.” Sometimes, in Austin, our holes are lucky to be worth that much.
So here’s what we’ve learned when it comes to soil solutions.
- Get tested. Your soil, that is. This way, you can know exactly what you’re working with as far as pH, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and other elements are concerned. You can either send soil to a lab or buy a testing kit from a home improvement store. We did the latter and felt the results were trustworthy, and now I’m tempted to test a batch of fertilizer to see if the results read “full of crap.” (I laughed at my own “joke” there for far longer than I’d like to admit.)
- Count your blessings. And by “blessings” I mean worms. Worms are to soil what twitter users are to the Internet. They keep things fresh by constantly circulating and rotating the good stuff through, and their poo is dynamite fertilizer. (That is probably not true, however, of twitter users.) Finding 10 worms in a square foot of soil is like striking gold. We had 5. We are the 99 percent.
- Till baby till. There are two schools of thought when it comes to tilling. The first says you should till the soil to a depth of 8-10 inches to truly provide plants with the proper amount of aeration. The other says you really only need 6 inches of soil and you can experience good results by simply digging to that depth and adding compost. In Austin, with Blackland Prairie soil as thick and hearty as it is, double digging or tilling to a depth of 10 inches (the way we would do it in fantasy land) is not doable, at least if we want to use our back, legs or arms ever again. So we make do tilling what we can, which is still a whole heck of a lot of tilling.
- Compost counts. Decomposed organic matter is rich in nutrients, helps condition and fertilize the soil, adds Humic acid and acts as a natural pesticide. Is there anything sexier than a steaming, decomposing pile of compost? Besides being steroids for gardens, compost reduces the amount of trash we humanoids send to the landfill. Basically, if you’re not composting, you’re a bad person. I’m just joking. But not really.
- OK, but what the heck is Humic acid? It’s an important chemical to know about especially if you have clay soil because it improves the texture and can enhance water penetration resulting in better root zone growth and development. At the atomic level (impressed?) it frees up nutrients for plants to absorb. For instance: if an aluminum molecule is bound with a phosphorous molecule (impressed now?) Humic acid will separate the two, making the phosphorous available to the plant. This is very important for fruiting plants. So, in a nutshell, Humic Acid = Good.
You don’t win the Kentucky Derby on a donkey and you don’t grow quality plants without well-cared-for earth. Even if you’re starting with soil that resembles a miniature pony more than a champion steed, you can do a lot to improve your conditions and be a real contender. Test your soil, add compost and soil balancing nutrients (like the iron potassium silicate Texas Greensand) and you can easily be off to the races.
To start the new year off with a bang (and to undo some of the damage we inflicted upon ourselves over the holidays) Heath and I vowed to go on a two week binge of micronutrients. No savory poultry, no delectable cheese, no fluffy breads or creamy desserts or salty snacks. Just a lot of this…
Think blueberries for breakfast, salads for lunch and veggie stews for dinner. Snacks of Hershey’s kisses have been traded for fistfuls of Craisins, and desserts of red wine are being subbed out for freshly squeezed OJ. The dining table is topped with celery and salsa instead of chips and dip, and a shiny, substantial juicer is taking up valuable real estate on the kitchen counter. Overhaul indeed.
The fruit/veggie cleanse/fast was inspired by some friends who endured a juice fast (and swear by its powers) and further spurred on by agenda-pushing documentaries like Food Inc., Supersize Me and Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead. We realized over the last few months we ate far too many processed Cheez-Its and far too few fresh spinach salads. We wanted to do something that would make us more conscious of what we put into our bodies and perhaps influence our future eating habits. Boy has it.
It’s day 10 of vegging out and here’s what we’ve discovered:
–It’s nearly impossible to dine out. I’ve heard vegans make this complaint before, but didn’t understand just how saturated modern menus are with the things we have declared temporarily forbidden. You can be hard pressed to find a salad without cheese and croutons or a soup made without chicken broth. The diet has certainly pushed kitchen creativity to the limit.
–Fresh foods–turns out they really do keep you fuller longer. On lazy days, or days where I thought I earned a treat, I’d be known to grab a breakfast taco or two to start the morning. About 4,000 calories and 2 hours later I’d be hungry again…and usually for something equally greasy and icky. But on the fruit/veggie diet I can stay full for hours on a freshly blended smoothie or guac salad. It really gets you thinking about how your body digests food.
– I really miss cheese. I miss bread and eggs and fish too, but cheese…that’s the kicker. I know cheese rounds out the the top of the list of foods that are pretty horribly unhealthy, but I can’t help but fantasize about chomping down on a slice of cheesy goodness. I have even dreamed of swimming through pools of queso. It’s been the hardest habit to kick, hands down.
With 4 days of apple juice drinking, pistachio snacking and salad munching left, I feel pretty good about the whole experience (and by “pretty good” I mean, confident I can survive the remaining days without cheese). I know we are no heroes; we didn’t endure a month of vegan-ing, or a 60-day juice fast or 2 week Master Cleanse, but we did find a way to incorporate more of the good stuff into our routine and think differently about how the food we eat affects our mood, mind and waist line. I think it’s the beginning of a major diet overhaul and hopefully a longer life.