A garden is the best alternative therapy.

Posts tagged ‘how-to’

Planning The Garden

There are a number of factors I consider when I am planning my garden for the season.

The first thing I consider is, “What do I want to grow?”  That usually gets me looking online or in seed catalogs for seeds.  If you have ever looked at a seed catalog, then you understand what a difficult task it is looking through the catalog to find the variety you want to grow.  Not all varieties are created equal, however, and a prolific variety on the East Coast won’t necessarily be prolific in the Deep South.  That brings me to the next consideration.

What cultivar/variety is right for my area?”  Luckily, one is not without resources.  A simple internet search for recommended cultivars for your area will most likely provide most of the information you need.   When I type in, “recommended cultivars for Central Texas”, I find a helpful article in the Examiner with a long list of varieties growers in our area have particular success with.   I discover that, for best results, if I want to grow broccoli, I should obtain seeds of the following cultivars: Packman, Premium Crop, and Green Magic.

After determining what crops I want to grow and what varieties are best, it is usually a matter of shopping around to find those specific cultivars.   “Where can I obtain seed of the varieties I have chosen?”  Because the big seed companies are not located in my area, I did a search for “seed companies in Texas”.   I found that Willhite seeds carries many cultivars recommended for my area because it is a local seed company.

The next consideration is, “When is the recommended planting time for this crop?” along with the related question, “How long until harvest?”  Sometimes this makes a big difference on what ends up growing in my garden.  I may want to grow okra this fall, for example, but it isn’t the right time of year to plant them.  Or, I may want to grow bell peppers this fall, but it is now too late to start them from seed and I will have to transplant instead.   To determine the right times of the year to plant certain crops, I rely on the Travis County Aggie Planting Chart, which is the most local I can find.  I use this to determine the window of opportunity I have to get seeds or transplants in the ground.  If you do an internet search, you should be able to find something similar for your area.

Once I have chosen my crops, selected the variety for my area, and determined the correct planting time, it is next a consideration of, “Do I have room, and where will I put them?”  For me, this usually entails drawing an illustration of my yard and planting area.  I garden out of raised growing boxes, and I am limited to nine separate areas to grow in.  By drawing out the plan, I can visualize how the crops will be arranged in the garden.

Fall/Winter garden diagram

Another equally important factor is, “What have I grown in those locations before?”  It’s important to rotate most crops, planting them in one location once every three seasons or so.  By keeping record of what you have grown when and where, you can most accurately maintain a good crop rotation schedule to keep your garden plants and soil healthy.

Since I have several different boxes located in varying exposures to full sun, I also have to think about, “What crops do best in the longest amount of full sun and what crops do okay with a little more shade?”

Finally, it is important for me to think even one more season ahead and ask, “What will I want to plant the next season?”.  If I am planning a fall garden, I am also planning my winter garden.   This is because the fall garden will roll right into the winter garden, as I stagger in new crops after harvesting the old.   This is important so as to effectively use as many boxes I can at any given time.  For example, I am growing tomatoes and peppers this fall.  I already have them transplanted and have figured a max of sixty days until those plants have produced and will be done for the season.  According to my calculations, that means I will be ripping them out of the ground at the end of September, leaving that box open for winter planting.  If I plan my garden right, I’ll be able to use that box immediately to start a new crop.


Harvesting and Drying Herbs: Lavender, Oregano, Thyme and Marjoram

The gorgeous lavender flowers kept the bees very busy the past couple of weeks, but I noticed that the majority of the blooms had faded and the bees were absent Saturday morning.  According to some sources, lavender flowers should be cut when the flowers first start blooming, in order to have the highest level of oil retained in the dried flowers.  I couldn’t take the lavender away from the bees, though.  So, I waited until most of the flowers were spent, then cut them down in the morning when the oil is at its highest.   I bundled the flower stalks up using some rubber bands, then hung them to dry upside-down so that the oil  drains down from the stem, concentrating in the dried flowers.  All-bloomed-out, they still smelled wonderfully pungent!

Spanish lavender blooming

The above picture was the lavender in bloom just a couple weeks ago – it was such a gorgeous, deep shade of purple.  Each one of the flower stalks run down to the plant, where I cut each one right above the green foliage.  This is what it looks like now:

Lavender after a trim, 4/25

Hopefully this will urge her to send up some more blooms later in the season.  Here’s what the bundles of dried lavender looked like:

In the meantime, the herb garden was just overflowing.  I needed to make room for a couple new plants, but first, I seriously needed to do some harvesting!  If you will remember, last year I had two basil plants in the back.  They produced so much basil that I still have several ziploc bags full of dried leaves.  Basil is best fresh.  It’s OK dried, but it loses a lot of flavor.  I won’t ever eat all of the dried, especially not now until November when this new plant dies.   With two plants, however, we just had too much for the three of us to consume. So, I only bought one this time around …  In the place of where the other plant was last year,  I put a dill transplant.  I saw it at the nursery and thought, why not?  We eat dill at least a few times a month, so that makes sense.  Plus, it attracts butterflies as well.

Herb garden 4.25.10, before its cut

another view ...

Harvesting is a little time-consuming lately!  At least, more so than last fall.   There was so much to cut, it took me two hours to cut, sort and bundle to dry.  The sage was pretty buggy, especially the one that was flowering.  Every one had sugar ants, fire ants, green loopers – that probably took me the longest just to rid the blooms of bugs.  I wanted to hang them upside down and see how they dry.  But yeah – bugs galore.  Obviously everyone is very happy, as the sage didn’t seem to be any worse for the wear.  Needless to say, I didn’t harvest any sage.  That’s okay, too.  I have a large jar full of dried leaves from last fall.  The oregano was probably nearly 12″ tall in some areas.  I cut it back as much as 8-10″ in most places, especially near the back where the chives are trying to get more light.  I had a full bowl of two types of oregano.  They smelled outstanding.  The marjoram was just harvested a couple of weeks ago, so I only cut a small bundle of that.  And, I had the largest thyme harvest I’ve had to date!

one of two bowls (10" wide) of oregano

this gets covered with a bag and hung in a dark closet until dried - 7-10 days

Herb garden 4.25.10 - after!

Thyme to Transplant Between the Flagstones

It was a beautiful day today, was it not?

We woke up at 7 Saturday morning to go down to the Round Rock Farmer’s Market, where we picked up some beautiful carrots, a couple of loaves of tasty homemade bread (one was pumpkin, and the other was cracked pepper and Parmesan) and some homemade natural soaps.   On the fly, my mother-in-law, wife and I headed on down to Round Rock Gardens, a local nursery off of Sam Bass near southbound I-35.   It’s funny, but I was thinking as I approached the gates to the nursery that I was just as excited about looking at plants than I used to be going places like Best Buy.  I spend less time playing with gadgets these days, which is good.  I spend time in front of the computer researching, writing and working, but I mostly just love to be out among my plants.  I find this more rewarding than any gadgetry.


Visiting a nursery, however, is now just as bad as visiting Best Buy used to be.  Every plant beckons to me for its escape with promises of lush foliage and fantastic blooms.  I have to stop myself.  Literally.   Since I didn’t intend to go there in the first place, it didn’t make much sense to go spending money, but … so we picked up a couple of Whirling Butterfly plants, a rose bush and I picked out four yellow creeping thyme plants to intermix among the Mother of Thyme that arrived Thursday.   I wanted more than that, so kudos to myself for a little elf control.

The sun played peek a boo a little this morning as I began work on the flagstones.  I had already installed the stones, but needed to go back and dig out the dirt between them to provide better soil for the thyme plants.   I dug down about 6-8 inches between each stone – a task that took me a couple of hours because the soil was mostly heavy clay with some small limestone pieces.  I worked together some organic garden soil, compost and landscaping soil and put that into the troughs I dug out and firmed it down.  Then I went back through and stuck skewers into the ground to get a better feel for placement of the twelve Mother of Thyme plants and where I would work in the four yellow thyme.   After getting that straight, I dug out holes and dropped the plugs into their new home and watered deeply.  I’m pretty pleased with how they look even now, but here in a few months, when they creep between the stones and fill in, it will be truly nice.  These thyme plants only grow about 4″ tall, but have a spread of 2-3′.  They also spread fairly quickly.  Both varieties blooms pink in mid-summer.


This is the yellow thyme, which can withstand fairly heavy foot traffic once established.


This is the Mother of Thyme


Flagstones before any work


After digging out between the stones and filling with soil


Figuring out plant placement - brown stakes represent the yellow thyme


after plugging in the thyme plants


another view


And, just so you can visualize with me, this is what I hope to have it look like:

creeping thyme between stones

Update: Garden Path and Butterfly Garden installation

***UPDATE*** (I have transplanted creeping thyme between the flagstones on the path, click here to view Thyme To Transplant Between the Flagstones)

The landscaping project is well on its way now.  After coming home early yesterday, I drove down to Austin Landscaping Supplies and picked up a 1/2 yard of soil for the native plant beds.  With a little help from my daughter, we cut open a bag full of paper grocery bags, then used those to line the bottom of the bed (after the sod was removed).  Then we unloaded the dirt and dumped it in one of the beds.  The half yard was enough to fill one of the beds completely.   Then Michelle and I got up early this morning so I could strip the sod from the other bed, then we ran down to ALS again for another half yard.  With my daughter and my wife’s help, we had completed the beds before noon and were sitting enjoying an ice-cold glass of tea while we marveled at our work.

We arranged the plants in the bed to get a feel for how they will look.  We had to play with them a little – and we still have about thirteen plants that are being shipped and haven’t arrived.  Ten of those are milkweed plants and three are black-eyed susans.  They were on sale with reduced shipping, so I thought, “Why not?”  Butterflies love B.E.S., and mine that I’m growing from seed are not looking great.  We haven’t yet transplanted any of the plants, but that is something we’ll tackle today or tomorrow.  I just wanted to put out a quick update of the progress.

Native bed 1: Verbena, Aster, Milkweed, Lantana, Black Eyed Susans ... and more

Native bed 1: Verbena, Lantana, Fall Aster, Milkweed, Thyme, Black-Eyed Susans and more

Native bed 2: Indigo Spires, Salvia Greggii, Rosemary, Mexican Mint Marigold, Black Eyed Susans, Copper Canyon Daisies, Trailing Lantana, Zexmenia, Butterfly Weed, Milkweed, Four Nerve Daisies

Another view of the second native bed

Installing a gravel path and butterfly garden – WIP

***UPDATE** Please visit my new post for updated progress on this project

We have wanted to do something with the backyard now for quite some time.  The garden boxes are nice and all, but we really wanted to create a butterfly garden and a little place to sit and relax.  I’ve never done any landscaping before, but I thought I’d try a small landscaping project to make some of those dreams a reality.  The area right off the back stoop gets so much traffic from us coming in and out – and letting the dog in and out, it has become quite an eyesore, and a muddy one at times.  The same goes with the area in front of the garden boxes.

I started by drawing up the backyard then playing with a few ideas to see what worked.  I ended up deciding on a gravel path leading from the back stoop left towards the garden boxes and wildflowers.  I then thought of adding another path going the opposite way to the corner of the yard where the mint bed is.   That looked kinda funny all by itself, so I drew in flower beds on either side of that path and created a little corner of the yard surrounded by flowerbeds.  As I did some research, I learned that gravel paths are nice, but you don’t want to have them lead directly to your back door because you’ll end up tracking rocks into the house and driving yourself crazy.  So, I decided that I would transition the gravel paths to the back stoop with flagstones.

It started with a drawing...

Here are a few pictures of the yard before I started any actual work.

Off the back stoop (before)

This shows the corner of the yard (before)

The side of the house nearest the mint bed (before)

Here is the view of the yard from the herb garden - see all of the dead grass? (before)

Flagstones are kind of expensive!  Luckily, I found some flagstones on Craigslist for $1-$2 each, so I went and picked them up and put them in the back yard right off the back stoop.   After doing more research, I decided I wanted to allow room to plant creeping thyme between the flagstones to make the arrangement a little more attractive.  I have obtained about a dozen Mother of Thyme plants that will spread up to 3′ each.  I plan to lay a little more dirt between the stones and transplant the plugs in between the stones and let them do their thing.  The enticing part about having thyme between the stones is that every time we walk on the stones and brush against or step on the thyme, it will release its fragrance into the air!  How wonderful!

Flagstones as laid out.

The flagstones are mostly all the same level, but I do have a couple of them leading directly up to the stoop that I inset a little higher than the others.  This is to lessen the huge step from the stones to the back stoop.  I think the stones will look really nice once I lay more dirt and plant the thyme.

As you can see by the above picture, I also laid the gravel path.  I installed landscape edging around the path to contain the gravel, then purchased the gravel from a local landscaping supply for $14 for a half yard.  I went back and forth between types of gravel for some time.  I decided against the decomposed granite and smaller pea gravel because I didn’t want to track it anywhere.  I also edged the path with a quartz rock border.  The rocks I’ve had in a huge pile on the side of the house since pulling it out from around a few trees in the front.  This is a better use of the rock.

This is the gravel path after laying the gravel on one side

I’ve stripped the sod from half of the beds, and will have to buy some soil to put in, but this is the basic layout.  In the far corner, I put a few more flagstones around an area where I want to put a bench.  I will also get a couple of chairs and a birdbath to put in there somewhere.

I spent about $75 on plants here and there.  I got several from the Natural Gardener.  These are the varieties I chose:

Mexican mint marigold (2 plus the seedlings I sowed)

Indigo spires salvia (2 plants)

Four nerve daisies (1 plant)

Fall aster (1)

Salvia greggii (I chose two: one white and one orange.)

Zexmenia (1)

Texas Lantana (2)

Copper Canyon Daisies (2)

Purple moss verbena (2)

Butterfly weed (1)

Trailing lantana(1)

I also have a few rosemary plants, two Tuscan Blue and one Prostrate to add in the mix, as well as alyssum, dusty miller, black-eyed susans, parsley and fennel.  Oh, and I almost forgot the 10 milkweed plants.  I’m sure that butterflies will eventually find our backyard irresistible!   Most of these plants are Texas natives, require low water once established and should do quite well for us.

What do you think?

*****UPDATE***** Please visit my new post for updated progress on this project.

Saving the broccoli + Burpee growing pellets

I had to rescue the broccoli seedlings this morning.  They started to droop a few days ago and they only got worse.  I read that this often happens with young broccoli plants, especially if they aren’t moved under lights soon enough.  I don’t know if that is the issue or not here, but I replanted each of them in an effort to save them.  One was already looking pretty rough, with one of the leaves beginning to die.  I pulled each one out of their individual cells and replanted them in a larger paper planter using Jiffy Mix.  I gently removed the soil from around the roots, so that it would sit further down in the new pot and then I buried the stem almost up to the first set of leaves.

I think this will give them support as they spread their roots and strengthen the main stem.

As I was already transplanting, I decided to go ahead and transplant the peppers and spinach.  I also transplanted six lettuce plants for my mother-in-law.  I’ll be going over there this afternoon to build her some boxes and help get her garden going.  The lettuce will need to be hardened for a few days before she can plant it, so I have them sitting outside in the shade.  They’ll be “good to go” by mid-week as I gradually set them out longer each day.

After I finished transplanting, I set the tray in the sunlight coming through the back patio door.  Not five minutes later I found one of our cats sitting happily in the sun next to the tray.  Then I realized The Gut (as we affectionately refer to him, a.k.a. Fatty, a.k.a. Mr. Boones, a.k.a. Roadkill) had already eaten the spinach plant, a broccoli plant and half a cayenne plant!   Needless to say, I chased him off and the plants are in a safer place.

Transplanting from Burpee Growing System using Jiffy Mix:

Removing the plants from their individual cells is not especially easy given that there are 35 other plants in the same tray with the one you are trying to remove!  With a little practice, patience and care, it is do-able without destroying the cell and therefore keeping it intact to use again.  The best way I’ve found is to turn the tray to a 45 degree angle, gently push upwards from the bottom of the cell, and then pinch the plastic together while grabbing the emerging soil and pulling out.

Jiffy Mix is a very light, dry and loose material.   It doesn’t soak up water immediately without some help and if you use it dry it will take awhile for water to penetrate the soil fully without leaving any dry spots around your transplant.  After trial and error, I’ve learned that it’s best to put a small amount of Jiffy Mix in the new container, about half-way full, then fill the container about 3/4 full with water.  I gently shake the pot side to side to incorporate the water into the mix and add a little more water if the soil isn’t watery and sit flat.  Then I take the transplant and stick it into the Jiffy Mix, pushing down gently at the base of the plant.  If the mix is wet enough, the transplant should push easily down into it, and it will rise around the bottom of the root ball.  This helps hold the plant upright as I use a cup and add dry Jiffy Mix around it until it’s about an inch or so from the top.  Then I fill the pot with water to the top and let that settle in.  This takes a few times to get the soil saturated.  Using a spoon, I gently pack down the dirt around the plant, and if needed, put in a little more mix.

Fill the paper planter half way with jiffy mix

Paper planter 1/2 full with dry Jiffy Mix

Pour water into planter until it is 3/4 full, shake until incorporated

Carefully remove the seedling from its cell

Place the seedling in the wet Jiffy Mix and press down gently

Fill with a more Jiffy Mix to top off

Using a spoon, gently firm the the dirt around the seedling

The finished transplant

Finished transplants

Burpee Growing Pellets

The Burpee pellets are a cool mini-experiment in and of themselves.  They are super compressed, and after adding water they grow six times their size.

Dried Burpee growing pellet

Burpee pellet, slightly expanded

Fully expanded

I snapped this neat little video on my camera:

I especially like the sound as it expands!   These pellets are really simple to use.   All you have to do is make sure they stay flat.  Don’t drop them in on their side or they’ll expand sideways and become stuck.  Also be sure that they don’t float over on their side after adding water.

My backyard stinks.

Hey, not because I don’t take care of it.  Precisely the opposite.  I fertilized this morning using fish emulsion and bat guano.  The backyard smells like a big dead fish.  My dog loves it, no doubt.  I caught her rolling on her back on the ground only to chase her away and find the cap to the fish emulsion bottle.  Gross.  As a friends uncle once put it to us, “Dogs love stank.” (Fish emulsion is safe to use around dogs, but don’t let them eat it because it stinks something nasty.  It won’t hurt them, is organic, and all fish fertilizer has a maximum allowable heavy metal content, so if they do get into it, they should be fine, albeit stanky.)

So I fertilized this morning.  It’s been about two months since I’ve fertilized and I think the garden veggies could use the extra boost.  I mix about 1 – 2 TB of deodorized (that’s right, this is the low odor formula – don’t ever get the straight up fish emulsion unless you want to smell like fish for days!) in a gallon of rain or filtered water and water each box with that after spreading bat guano around the base of each plant by the teaspoon.  Both guano and emulsion are safe organic products that won’t burn the plants.  Guano provides good nitrogen and phosphorus content as well as a host of microorganisms and beneficial bacteria.  Emulsion contains almost twenty trace minerals and a dozen different vitamins as well as being a good nitrogen source.  Nitrogen is needed to make DNA, amino acids and proteins, the very building blocks that are needed for optimal plant growth.  Phosphorus is also needed to produce the plant’s DNA, but acts to stimulate root growth and therefore is critical in the uptake of nutrients from the soil.

Most important, these organic fertilizers condition and help build soil.  The nutrients in these products allow the microorganisms in the soil to flourish and improve its quality, texture and health.   These products do not leach into the soil and ground water destroying life like synthetic fertilizers.  From nature and back again just as it has been done for ages…


Every bat guano's nutrient analysis is different depending on where the bats were and what they ate.

bat guano