As we’ve gotten settled in at the new homestead, one of my first goals was to get a garden established. Texans are blessed with a long growing season, and the Fall garden usually does as well as a Spring garden. Days are warm, sun is abundant, and the first frost is really late in the year. Even more exciting was the dirt I have here at the homestead. I have over an acre of dark brown sandy loam. Beautiful dirt in the eyes of anyone wanting to grow things. I couldn’t wait to start getting my vegetables in the ground. After checking for proper planting dates, I put seeds in the ground before we had a functioning kitchen or the dining room table set up. I’m not sure Sarah agreed with my priorities, but she’s very tolerant of my craziness.
I opted to start small and work with an area on the south side of the house. There was dirt that had recently been worked into a water control feature to keep run-off from running up to the house. It was already loose, so I didn’t have to really break any ground. I dug through my seed packets to see what was date appropriate. Early August is perfect for a variety of squash. Yellow Crookneck, Butternut, and Black Beauty Zucchini all got the stamp of approval and went in the ground. The girls really wanted some pumpkins for the Fall, so I obliged and planted five little mounds of two varieties of them. Tomato and Pepper transplants were also due, so a trip to the local nursery netted a few of each. Some heirloom and a couple of hybrid tomatoes, a couple of Bells and a couple of Serrano plants went in the ground next. I raked up a lot of dried grass clippings from the field to act as a temporary mulch and set out on a routine of watering to offset the hot, dry weather.
At first, everything was going perfectly. The transplants took off without many signs of transplant shock. Within a few days, I had little baby squash and pumpkins emerging for their first taste of air and sunlight. In another few days, they all started putting on their big kid leaves. I was one excited gardener! I was already planning on how much we would eat fresh, how much we could can, and how much would be a goodwill gesture to the new neighbors. Never count your chickens before they hatch!!
In my excitement, I overlooked a major part of the Texas ecology. Late summer is hot and dry. Anything that isn’t irrigated starts to die, including all the grass. That wipes out the primary food source of a plague. So much a plague, that it is literally of biblical proportions. Grasshoppers by the thousands start looking for new sources of food. My garden turned into a buffet. I’ve learned that grasshoppers had preferences. They prefer summer squash over everything else. Once that was gone, they decided on winter squash. Then they set their sights on pumpkins. Sorry girls, no pumpkins to carve for Halloween!
(One of the culprits actively engaged on the carcass of a squash plant)
I thought the grasshoppers were content there. Turns out I’m not that lucky. Did you know that grasshoppers will eat pepper plants?? I do now! The only thing they don’t seem to ravenously destroy are tomato plants. For now at least.
Even after having my heart ripped out and consumed by evil, ugly, jumping insects, I’m not one to accept defeat. So if the grasshoppers don’t care for tomatoes, I certainly do! All that real estate left vacant by my my poor, defenseless squash plants will soon be occupied again. We just picked up several varieties of tomato plants. As the sun starts to set tonight the planting will begin. I’ll be going from 6 tomato plants to 16. By God, if tomatoes are the only thing I can grow, then I’ll grow a lot of them!!
Once it cools down a little, I’m hoping the grasshopper invasion will lighten up a little bit. I should still have time to get cool weather plants established before it gets too cold.
So far, the Fall garden has been a harsh lesson but I’m determined to get something to produce. At least I can walk away with more knowledge. Learning from mistakes might hurt a little, but it makes that hurt sting a little less when we can garner information to make the next attempt a little easier. Now that I know the evil that lurks in the Texas summer, I’m planning defensive measures. If I have to build a grasshopper screen for next year, I have a year to plan it. Grasshoppers are jumpy little things (pun intended!), so I’m going to mess with their heads. I’m going to try putting several mylar pinwheels out to spin in the breeze and throw crazy reflections all over the place. Bird feeders will be going up all over the place to draw in some natural predators. The grasshoppers have won this battle, but the war has only begun!
Stay tuned for other (Mis)Adventures on the new homestead. Sarah and I are talking about soapmaking, so if we pull it off without chemical burns we’ll work out a how-to tutorial. If we end up with caustic burns, we’ll post up some home remedies for chemical burns!
*No grasshoppers were harmed in the making of the article. Yet.
Gardening is a tradition that goes way back in my family. I’m not sure how many generations, but I do know that my grandfather put in a garden so large that it required use of his Farmall Cub tractor. That’s no surprise considering he had 8 kids to feed on a working man’s salary. I remember being impressed as a kid by the rows of green beans that literally stretched for a couple hundred feet. I wasn’t so impressed when it came time to pick those beans. Wheel barrow load after load would be picked and carried over to the porch where we would string the beans or run them through a roller he had to remove beans from the hull depending on what kind of beans we were harvesting. Then my grandmother would take over and fire up the pressure canner. This process would be repeated as different produce came into harvest time. Sadly, my grandfather passed away many years ago so the garden spot now sits fallow. My grandmother still loves canning though, and it’s a treat to go visit and get a jar of her famous salt brine pickles. Just make sure you take the empty Mason jar back or you’ll never get another pickle, and her memory is amazing on who has her jars!
Since I was a kid, my dad and I have put in a garden. It’s nothing near the size of my granddad’s, but we are notorious for planting too much in our small space. When the tomatoes start producing, we usually can’t give them away fast enough. The canner runs all summer and we still make our co-workers happy with bags and bags of tomatoes going to work with us. I do have to say we get stuck in a rut though. A lot of the same crops get planted year after year and the only variation is decided by how many jars we have put away. For instance, we still have a ton of canned green beans, so this year we won’t be planting any.
This weekend was garden time again. It’s usually a time of concern for us since Texas is bad about throwing a late frost at us after we plant the garden. This year there was no doubt that it was a good time. Winter was almost nonexistent this year for us. We could have safely planted weeks ago, but our main indicator hadn’t triggered yet. We watch the Mesquite trees in the area. Being a non-native, awful, invasive species from much further south, they will not bud out until they are sure winter is over. They have only lied once in the collective memory. I’ve been watching with guarded caution as the fruit trees flowered and the grass turned green, but this week the Mesquites budded so winter in Texas is gone and Spring is upon us. Learning to garden is a generational thing. My dad taught me as his dad taught him. We normally use a conventional approach. Till it up, plant in rows, and water like crazy. Listening to guys like Jack Spirko and Paul Wheaton started me questioning this methodology. Their talk of No Till and Permaculture sounded a lot like voodoo at first, but their results can’t be argued with. My dad isn’t one to be convinced by talk. He wants to see results before he is willing to change his entire way of thinking.
Enter the experimental garden! The regular garden spot is tilled up and now planted in rows just like always. We have an old chicken run that has been fenced off and unused for years. When the chickens were there, they left manure all over the place. Then leaves fell in a 6 inch layer. It stayed this way for years. It was the perfect compost pile. Nature has been working its magic. When I pull those leaves back, the soil is some of the blackest, loosest dirt I’ve ever seen. It’s full of life. I’m sure it would be the envy of organic gardeners everywhere. This should be the perfect case study for chemical free, no till gardening. I’ve started small with this area and over the next couple of weeks there will be more going on. We’ve got a few tomato plants randomly placed with some peppers along the fence. A little bit of spinach will be going in this week, and maybe some green beans along another section of fence so they can trellis and go vertical. Planting was easy enough in the loose dirt. All I needed to do was pull back the leaves, dig a hole by hand and transplant the seedlings. As they take root I’ll pull leaves back around each plant to mulch. Nature has provided everything but the seedlings. The only place I used any sort of tool was for a small Hugelkultur bed. This is more of that Spirko/Wheaton voodoo. For those that have never heard of Hugelkultur, it is simply placing a bunch of topsoil on top of a bunch of woody material. I have an abundance of oak branches available, so that was my material. The concept is that as the wood breaks down, it acts as a sponge to soak up water. This water is slowly released out so the plant can access it. This should reduce irrigation requirements. I used a mix of fresh hardwood and partially rotten wood to give this little bed a head start. I set it up like a typical science experiment so I can see if there is any difference between a plant grown with this method and a plant grown in the normal soil. The variable and control are habenero pepper plants of similar size. If the Hugelkultur pepper does better, then the concept will be going into much larger use next year. I have high hopes for this little experimental garden spot and think it will be a driving force in getting more natural approaches applied to the rest of the garden spots we plant.
Since I didn’t want my fiancee’s little girls left out of the gardening experience, we decided to get them involved at their house in the city. Each girl got to pick out a couple of vegetable plants at the nursery and learned how to transplant them in the back yard. Once again, I went with a no till method. We picked an out of the way spot in the yard that should get good solar exposure and started planting the seedlings in a semi-random pattern. The only thought I gave was to place them so that larger plants wouldn’t shade the smaller ones. Both girls really enjoyed getting to play in the dirt, and seemed to like the idea that we would be able to eat the produce of our labor later. The concept that we might need to work on is patience. I was asked if we could pick tomatoes in the morning. Don’t we all wish it worked that fast!! My biggest hope is for this little urban garden because we’re not just planting seedling, but planting the seed of self sufficiency in two young minds. This should pay dividends when Sarah and I can finally realize that dream of establishing our homestead and raising children to know where their food comes from and how to be independent from the systems we all seem to depend on.
Now that the dirt time is done for the weekend, I’ll be spending time figuring out how to get pictures posted so everyone can see the results of a day of dirt time. Rumor has it that Wordpress is pretty user friendly about posting pictures, so hopefully I won’t have any trouble. Stay tuned for pictures and updates of the three very different gardens!