Growing Lettuce!

It’s time to grow lettuce. It has been since September, actually. The thing about lettuce and other similar greens is that they need to be planted in succession. One planting is never enough! If you plant one crop and then follow it with another crop then you always have lettuce in the prime picking stage (succession planting). The weather may have turned cool, but the soil temperatures are plenty warm enough to cause Lettuce seed to germinate.

Now, you may be thinking, “Why bother?”

There are some nasty rumors going around about lettuce.  I hear that it is really hard to grow with lots of insect problems.  It has also been said that lettuce grown in Texas tastes bitter because of the heat.  Lies, all of them.

The misinformation comes from the fact that  the instructions on the back of seed packets and those great little farming magazines are written for folks living in the areas of the country that actually have four seasons and one growing season.  Now do not misunderstand me, I love my gardening magazines, but the time lines do not line up. Well, welcome to Texas Gardening.  There is a rhythm to gardening in Texas that is as unique as our Texas spirit.  Once you learn the rhythm you will be amazed at what you can grow.

However, for now we will focus on lettuce and its cousins.  It perturbs me to no end to have to purchase greens of any kind in the grocery store.  Homegrown greens are so easy and tasty!  Also, it is so much easier to have a bed of lettuce and just go pick you some whenever you want, than to have to go to the store when you want a salad.  If you are like me, lots of times what’s for dinner is not something planned very far in advance.  So, having items growing in the garden to have on hand is just the ticket.

One of the perks about lettuce and all the other greens, such as arugula, chard, spinach, etc. is that they can by eaten at all stages.  Baby greens make for a scrumptious salad or sandwich.  Many people, like my children, do not like mature spinach but love baby spinach.  So, while the plants are growing you can pick the outer leaves and enjoy the garden abundance for many weeks.  The greens( the term greens refers to all types of lettuce, herbs, kale, greens, spinach etc.)  do not take a lot of space.  One 5X12  foot bed of greens will keep a family of 6 in fresh greens. If there is only one or two of you, then a container that can hold 3-4 mature plants at a time is sufficient.

Now to dispel the lies.

First, that lettuce is hard to grow.  Not so, you just have to know when to plant it.  If you read many of the labels on lettuce sold in Texas, the labels  say to plant after all danger of frost has passed.  The problem with this is that if you wait that long in Texas you can have as little as 2 weeks until the temps are consistently in the mid- 80′s.  The proper planting times in Texas are February- April and September- December.  Lettuce is a cool season crop.  When most areas of the country are having dead of winter, we are having our cool season.   When we have had a mild winter, I harvest greens from September until June.  That is only 2 months of store-bought greens in a year.  That makes my heart happy!

The second lie is that lettuce has many insect problems. Now there are certain worms- Cabbage Loppers for example- that do like lettuce.  However, these are easily dispatched with Bt.  Bt- (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a naturally occurring bacterial disease that only attacks caterpillars.  Bt is organic and you can eat the produce with no worries that synthetic pesticides bring.  There are other insects that can be a problem at times, but I have found in my gardens that Bt is all I need to keep things in balance.  Also, there are other methods of insect control, but again the Bt is simple, easy and effective so that is what I use.  You can find it at most hardware and garden supply stores.

Lastly, lettuce grown in Texas tastes bitter- hogwash.  Again, you just need to know when to plant and what varieties to plant.  The types that are considered “slow to bolt” are the best for planting in the spring.  Bolting refers to sending up a conical shaft with blooms that will produce seeds.  Warm weather signifies to the lettuce that it is time to make seeds.  So, those lettuces that are slow to bolt will be the most tolerant of warm weather.  While you are looking in seed catalogs for heirloom selections (heirloom refers to varieties that will reproduce consistently if the seeds are saved) look for ones that were developed in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas- of course- or Israel.  These areas have climates similar to ours and those varieties will usually do well here for the summer planting.  Look for varieties labeled “Cool season” or “cold tolerant” on the lettuces, these will be the one for planting in the fall.  When it comes to the spinach, swiss chard, and kale- these are not even stopped by a freeze so they will grow all winter.

Some of my favorite varieties are:
For Fall Planting: Black Seeded Simpson, Drunken Woman, Tom Thumb, Oakleaf
For Spring Planting:  Oakleaf, Jericho- awesome, Tom Thumb
Spinach- Longstanding Bloomsdale is great year round.

Most of your annual herbs like dill, Salad Burnett, chives are best planted on the same schedule as lettuce.
I like to sow the seeds in wide beds.  I thin the seedlings and use them in salads as baby greens.  Keep the lettuce or greens watered one inch once per week and a little shade is very helpful for extending the growing season in the summer.  The seeds usually germinate and emerge in 7-10 days.

So there you have it- the truth about lettuce.  Now what are you waiting for?  September is coming to a close and October is upon us,  I can just taste the homegrown lettuce now.

Foundation Plantings For Shade

For those of us with shady yards, gardening can be frustrating.  For years I beat my head against a wall planting things that might make it.  After I grew up and stopped trying to force the gardens to look like I thought they should and let the conditions dictate what should be planted, I found that there are some very nice selections for shade.  Some of these may take a little hunting, but the search is worth it. 

AZALEA-  Most found in this area are evergreen and bloom in the spring.  These shrubs range in size from 3′ to 15′ tall, so check the variety before you plant.  All Azaleas like acidic soil.  If you live in East Texas and have pines or oak trees- you have the right soil most likely.  Let the needles and leaves act as a natural mulch- these will break down and add acid to the soil, organic matter & retain moisture.  Prune if needed just after blooming in late spring/early summer.  Encore is a hybrid that will bloom more than once a year.

CAMELLIA-  These beauties bloom in winter through early spring- depending on the variety.  Being evergreen, these add a lot of color in winter and a lovely backdrop for summer flowers.  The old standards can get quite large.  Pruning will keep these to the size you need.  The C. sasanqua hybrids are smaller and bloom in fall- September through December.  Again, if you have oaks and pines you have the soil needed for these plants.  Camellias do not do well if they are dry, so keep them moist.  Letting nature do the mulching with fallen leaves and needles will take care of the moisture and acid.

MOUNTAIN LAUREL- A native woodland shrub does grow in full shade.  However, the more sun it gets the more blooms that will cover the plant in spring.  If the shrub gets too leggy, cut it back to the base branches of the shrub.  You can also pinch back the new growth just after blooming.

PARTIAL SHADE: This means some light is hitting the plants.  Full sun is defined as at least 6hrs/day.  Any less than this is partial shade.

BARBERRY- Beautiful colored leaves, tiny blossoms and small edible berries make this shrub very useful.  Heights range from 2′-6′ depending on the species.  Thorns do line the stems of this shrub, so consider where you will be planting.  The thorns and berries make this an excellent choice for wildlife planting.  If the shrub gets too leggy, just prune it.  Barberry responds well to pruning.  The more sun the more dramatic the color you will have.

NANDINA- Versatile and easy going, this shrub grows well in woodland settings.  There are many varities so pay close attention to the size of the variety you choose.  Easy to grow, most species produce red berries in the fall.  As trees shed their leaves and allow light to hit the leaves of the Nandina- the Nandina produce beautiful color on the leaves- these are evergreens.

5 Reasons Rosemary Should Grow In Your Garden

Upright Rosemary“What’s your favorite herb?”

This is probably the question I am asked most often.  I couldn’t pick a favorite herb- possibly a Top 10 list, but never a favorite.

Rosemary is an herb that would ALWAYS be on this list and very likely in the #1 spot.  The reasons are many- from ease of growing to the powerful medicinal benefits- but for sake of time, I will narrow it down to five reasons you will love Rosemary.

#1 Rosemary loves heat.

I have always gardened in Texas and it is ALWAYS hot in the summer.  Rosemary doesn’t care, in fact- it likes it!  Because Rosemary hails from hot, arid conditions in Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, its DNA makes it perfect for Texas gardens and the great majority of the United States.

#2  Rosemary Protects Against Alzheimer’s

Rosemary may also become useful in preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease in the near future. Researchers have discovered that certain phytochemicals in the herb prevent the degradation of acetylcholine, an important brain chemical needed for normal neurotransmission. A deficiency of this chemical is commonly seen in Alzheimer’s patients.  See full article here

I, personally, am not waiting for all the test results, I have started including rosemary in our family’s diet on a daily basis.  An easy way to use rosemary medicinally is in a tincture.

#3 Rosemary Makes A Great Hedge

Rosemary can be utilized as a shrub.  If you are feeling creative, rosemary can be shaped into topiary.  But more simply, plant as a hedge and trim like any other landscape hedge- except save the clippings and make a tincture!

Rosemary is heat and drought tolerant so it saves on water usage.  Very few pest or fungal problems exist with rosemary.

It blooms!  Very pretty light blue flowers appear in spring and continue for several weeks.  Some years, rosemary will bloom again in the fall.

#4 Bees LOVE Rosemary

Its becoming common knowledge (THANK GOD) that our bee population is in trouble and if the bees go, we go.  Two of every three bites we eat are pollinated by bees.  As we have said, Rosemary needs little care and won’t need spraying of any kind to look beautiful, so it is a great choice for feeding bees, butterflies and a whole host of beneficial insects.  So, plant some rosemary for the bees.  Don’t worry about getting stung, the bees have way too much work to do to worry over you.

#5 Rosemary Will Make You A Great Cook

Well, I may be over-selling rosemary’s abilities just a bit. However, it can’t hurt.  Rosemary can transform a dull chicken or homely sweet potato into something fantastic with very little effort.  Just sprinkle the chopped rosemary in the pot and – VIOLA!

Not only does rosemary taste great, but by adding it to your food you are taking advantage of the health benefits and those are many:

“Indigestion

Rosemary leaf is used in Europe for indigestion (dyspepsia) and is approved by the German Commission E, which examines the safety and efficacy of herbs.

Muscle and joint pain

Applied topically (to the skin), rosemary oil is sometimes used to treat muscle pain and arthritis and improve circulation. It is approved by the German Commission E for these purposes.

Alopecia

Historically, rosemary has been used to stimulate hair growth. In one study of 84 people with alopecia areata (a disease in which hair falls out, generally in patches), those who massaged their scalps with rosemary and other essential oils (including lavender, thyme, and cedarwood) every day for 7 months experienced significant hair regrowth compared to those who massaged their scalps without the essential oils. But the study was not well designed, and it is impossible to say whether rosemary caused the hair growth.

Neutralize food-borne pathogens

Several studies show that rosemary inhibits food-borne pathogens like Listeria monocytogenesB. cereus, and S. aureus.

Improve memory or concentration

Rosemary is often used in aromatherapy to increase concentration and memory, and to relieve stress. One study suggests that rosemary, combined with other pleasant-smelling oils, may lower cortisol levels and help reduce anxiety. Another study found that the use of lavender and rosemary essential oil sachets reduced test taking stress in graduate nursing students.

Cancer

Several studies suggest that rosemary extract may inhibit tumor growth by preventing cancerous cells from replicating. One study found that rosemary, on its own and in combination with curcumin, helped prevent breast cancer. A second study found similar effects of rosemary on colon cancer cells.” Article here

 

So, you see, Rosemary should really be in your garden or at least in a pot on your patio!

I am also sure that you understand that I am NOT a doctor nor have I tried to diagnose or treat any of your ailments.

Bee on the Rosemary Bloom herb

upright-rosemary.jpg

Fall Gardening Prep List

Fall Gardening Prep List

It may be hot now, but fall is closer than you think!  That makes me very happy!  Fall is the best time to begin a garden.  Below is a check list that I use during this time of year.  Most of the annuals are shrinking from the heat and its time to begin to think about the change coming.  Even vegetable gardening is very rewarding in the fall- more about that is coming soon!

 

Fall Prep List

  • Clean out spent summer annuals
  • Remove and dead or diseased wood from trees & shrubs
  • Prune Roses and remove any dead or diseased wood
  • Sow cover crops on bare soil or beds
  • Mulch where needed- not on your seed beds
  • Top dress established beds with soil amendments such as green sand, rock phosphate, Epsom salt, lime
  • For clay soils- prep new beds by tilling in compost and expanded shale
  • Plant fall color- dianthus, pansies, Johnny-jump-ups, etc
  • Plant spring bulbs
  • Plan next year’s gardens & order seeds
  • Order Seeds
  • Get supply lists ready

vegetable seed germination chart

 

summer squash

A Sunday Stroll

One of the fun things about living in an actual neighborhood is the ability to walk all over.  I can walk to the park, restaurants, the grocery store, Strand shopping and to the beach.

I. LOVE. IT

I can also walk to church.  Along the way, I see all types of architecture in the homes.  Many of the homes in the historic district in which I live were built before 1900.  These homes survived one of the most massive hurricanes in history.  How I would love it those walls could talk!  There is great beauty all around us, its a different kind of beauty from the farm life we lived just a short time ago, but it is beautiful.

Here are a few of the sights I see on my Sunday stroll.

There’s A Fungus Among Us

There’s a fungus among us and I don’t mean mushrooms.

If you have attempted to grow any sort of vegetation for any amount of time, you have probably dealt with an unfriendly fungus.  While a great many varieties of fungus are essential to plant life and a great many others are neither good or bad, there are a  few bad varieties and they really cause problems.

Before moving to the island, the only real battle I had with fungus was black-spot on the roses and powdery mildew on my veggies.  But, one summer in a tropical setting and I have had a crash course in fungus!

As I will chat about later, watering the soil is very important.  One day, only one day, I got lazy and got out the hose and sprayed everything down instead of using the watering can.  JUST ONE DAY! And, I even did it in the morning. BUT, in 72 hours, my Belinda’s dream roses were covered in black spot.  Lesson Learned- water the soil NOT the plant.

Fungi live in the soil, on our skin, in our house, basically any and everywhere.  The problems arise when conditions are just right, and the fungi populations begin to multiply at breakneck speeds.  When this happens, the host of the fungi population will be destroyed- this means your vinca will wilt and turn to goop, or your zucchini will disappear under gray fuzz or your rose bush will turn brown and yellow before becoming naked stems. Or, all of the above if its are really bad day.

In the garden, this hyper-growth of fungi will lead to plant death or really fabulous compost.  The problem is when the garden beds are turned to compost piles because the fungus took over where it did not belong.

So, instead of focusing on how to kill the fungus, we should focus on how to prevent the colonies from getting out of hand.  The environment is what determines if the fungus will thrive or simply exist and not cause problems.  As gardeners, there are several things we can do to set out gardens up for the best possible outcomes.

  • Soil Health
  • Plant Selection
  • Effective Watering

Soil Health

Soil heath is essential for any aspect of plant life.  A plant cannot thrive without healthy soil.  Soil health will also determine the health of a plant’s immune system.  Very few of us have perfect soil and even if you do,  if you constantly take from the soil and never put back, you won’t have healthy soil for long.  By amending the soil, you can put back into the soil.

Essential amendments are organic compost, green sand, lava sand, and rock phosphate.  For a deeper look at fixing you soil, click here!

Plant Selection

Choosing the right plant for an area is essential to success as a gardener.  A plant that loves  the sun will not survive a shady spot and a shade loving plant will die in the full sun.  This seems like it shouldn’t need to be said, but I deal with folks everyday who just can’t accept the fact that a rose bush won’t bloom in a backyard that gets only 3 hours of sun per day.  Plants have DNA and we can’t simply rewire them just because we want it that way.

Also, if there is a disease resistant variety- choose that variety.  There are a lot of hybrids out there and some are bred to be resistant to fungal diseases.  If those are available to you, then choose that plant.

If a plant is in a poor location or in poor soil it will be stressed.  If a plant is stressed it will be compromised.  A compromised plant will not have an immune system that can fight off disease.

Effective Watering

More damage is done by overwatering than by underwatering.  Fungus thrives in warm, wet conditions.

If you are keeping the soil soaked you are laying out a welcome mat for fungus.

If you water at night, you are laying out a welcome mat for fungus.

If you are spraying your foliage instead of watering the soil, you are laying out a welcome mat for fungus.

Do you see a pattern?

Fungi LOVE moisture.

So, water in the early morning so that what water does get on the leaves and foliage can dry.  One inch of water once a week is sufficient water, except in times of high heat and drought, then water twice per week.  If at all possible, water the soil, not the foliage.

One thing that a human cannot control is the weather.  If you live in an area that is high humidity and warm, fungus is something with which you will battle.  Galveston Island is my home and this year has been crazy with the fungal shenanigans.

Organic controls of fungus are fairly limited, but what is available is effective.  Sulfur and copper are excellent fungicides but they can only be applied with the temperature is below 85′.  Bicarbonates can be used at anytime.  In an effort to be proactive, I spray a bicarbonate weekly, before signs and symptoms appear.  For an indepth look at fungicides, read this article.

Don’t let challenges keep you from gardening- educate yourself and keep planting.

May the odds be ever in your favor!

pink zinnia
Zinnias are an excellent choice for disease resistant summer color

 

Feeding Your Soil- 101

“Regard your soil as the living, breathing entity it is- to be nurtured, fed and sustained.” – Peter Fossel

Garden Boxes Rock

 

Soil is the Soul of your Garden!

It doesn’t matter what you plant or where you bought your plants or seeds, if your soil isn’t healthy- you will not be successful.  Soil may not be very exciting to a new gardener, but once you really understand the complexity and the vitality of healthy soil – you will look at soil with new eyes!

Micronutrients and Microbial Organisms are essential to healthy soil!

Microbes- the unseen, unsung heroes of soil and organic gardening.  They serve first to break down organic matter into a form plants can use, and then to improve the soils structure and the ability of plants to draw sustenance from it.

Micronutrients are those minerals and elements that are not needed in great quantities but are essential for plants to be healthy.

Where to begin?

The first step in bringing your soil into the best shape possible and into a state of high fertility is to know what type of soil you currently have.

A soil test is important to do in the very beginning.  Once you have a base line, deciding on amendments will be easier.  After the initial soil test, it isn’t necessary to keep having the soil tested- the plants will tell you if the soil is lacking.

To do a soil test- get a sample bag from the county extension office or from the lab that you want to use.  With a bucket in hand, dig 6-8 inches down with a small shovel and place the soil in the bucket.  Take samples from all over the area you are testing.  Even on a small piece of property, the soil can vary from on area to another.  Collecting from multiple points will give you a better picture.  Stir all the soil together and then fill the bag and mail it to the specified address and follow the lab’s instructions.

When the results come back- take the results to your county extension office and the agent can help you read and analyze the test results.

Now, it is important to understand that you don’t have to have a soil test to begin improving your soil.  The following amendments are perfect for every garden and cannot be over used as they are organic in nature and mild in their effects.

But, you do need to look at your soil and determine what kind you have:

Sandy Soil

Clay Soil

Loam

Or a combination of these types

 

Regardless of what you grow- fruits, herbs, vegetables, or flowers- it all starts with the soil.  The plants will only be as healthy as the soil that their roots are anchored in.  Therefore, it is imperative that attention is given to the health of the soil.

Key elements are:

Friability– the texture of the soil.  It should be soft and crumbly- think potting soil.

Most people do not begin with perfect soil of just the right texture but that does not mean you cannot be successful at gardening.

If your soil is too coarse (sandy) texture will be improved by adding compost and other organic materials such as mulch, leaves, etc.

If your soil is too fine (clay), which causes it to be compacted’ then it is going to need organic matter and other amendments such as green sand or expanded shale to loosen up the soil.

The Ph Balance- the Ph balance in the soil should be slightly alkaline.  If the soil is acidic the Ph can be adjusted by adding lime. However, I don’t think this point is worth getting worked up over unless you are growing a plant or crop that is extremely picky.  There are also many acid loving plants out there.  So, know what you are dealing with but then focus on using what you have versus feeling like you must change your soil.  If a soil is alive with microbial activity, plants can tolerate a Ph balance that is not quite right.

Drainage- this is more of a location issue.  If the location of your garden does not have good drainage you can fix this with using raised beds.  Sandy soils tend to drain too fast and clay soils tend to not drain fast enough.

If you have sandy soils you need to slow the drainage down by incorporating organic matter into the soil.  Any type of compost will work.  Compost acts like a sponge and holds onto water which helps correct the problem of drainage with sand.

Clay soils do not drain fast enough, so incorporating expanded shale or rock phosphate, you can spread the molecules out and allow the water to flow through.  Clay is very nutrient dense, so if you can solve the drainage issue, you can grow beautiful things in clay.

5 Key Amendments for Organic Soil

Organic Matter– compost, manure, etc

Lava Sand- The sand-sized and smaller waste material left from lava gravel mining is an excellent, high-energy soil amendment material.

Rock Phosphate– a finely ground rock powder, contains minerals and will enhance the soil texture

Greensand- a material from seabed deposits, contains minerals and improves soil texture.

Limestone (Lime)- rock powder used to sweeten acidic soils

 Micronutrients- these may be missing from your soil but are essential for crops and blooms.  Magnesium found in Epsom Salt is a good example.

Organic matter from a wide array of sources and greensand will ensure that you have micronutrients galore.

 

Earthworm Castings

Worm castings have been long known to be a highly fertile component of organic soil.  Compared to the average soil, worm castings are said to contain 5 times more nitrogen, 7 times more phosphorus and 11 times more potassium.  They are rich in humic acids and improve the structure of the soil as well.

How To Apply- use these methods with any of the amendments

Top-Dress- this is simply sprinkling the amendments over the top of the soil.  This method would be used in existing beds.

Working It In- In using this method, you would apply the amendments to the soil and then turn the soil over.  The soil can be turned over by hand with a shovel or by machine such as a tiller.  This method would be used in new beds or in row cropping.

Fertilizers:

Compost!  LOTS of it-  This is one of the best fertilizers you can use.  If you have your own compost pile then it is free- which makes it even better!

Animal Manures– any animal that chews its cud produces manure that can be added directly to the garden.  This would include Llamas, goats, and sheep.  Other animal manures need to be composted first for about 6 months then added to the garden.  Rabbits are an exception to this rule, their manure can be added directly to the garden.

American Blue Rabbits
Not only do these cute things produce excellent fertilizer for your garden- they are easy to keep!

Carl Poole Fertilizers- this is a good company that makes some great products.

These should be applied in September thru November for Spring and Summer gardens and June – August for Fall Gardening.  Top dressing is the best way as tilling can disturb soil biology.  The less disturbance the better.  Most beds are still in good shape from the summer garden and just need to be cleaned up and top dressed.

Bringing soil to a point of great texture and high fertility is an ongoing process- once you have achieved beautiful soil, you will still need to maintain it with these same amendments and fertilizers.

Even though your plants will tell you if something is wrong, don’t wait for a struggling plant to address the soil.  Make amending the soil part of your garden schedule and then happy plants will greet you all year long!

An herb garden
Beans, and Texas natives make good companions with herbs.

 

I Love Grit Magazine!

I really do love Grit magazine.  They have so many fun and interesting articles, great pictures and awesome recipes.  My little face just lights up when I find it in my mailbox!

Some times they also say the cutest things…. Like this issue for instance.  The article tag line is “An ancient plant with staying power, spinach will keep your salad fresh all summer long”.  That may be true in areas that are just beginning to thaw in May, but here in Texas where the temps may hit 100′ before May turns into June- you won’t be growing spinach in the summer.

That said, I love growing spinach.  It is easy and tasty.  You just have to know when to plant it.  Spinach planted in September will grow through most of the winter.  Only the hardest of freezes lasting several days will knock it down.  Then you can plant again in about February and enjoy it for several more months.  Once the heat starts hitting 85-90′, the spinach will start to bolt.  Bolt means it starts sending up seed pods and is done for the year. 

All picking aside- I do love Grit magazine.  This is a great publication to have coming to your home.  All of us take turns reading every issue.  Gardening in Texas is a completely unique endeavor, so keep that in mind when you read articles on planting.

Spring Spinach- you can harvest this by March in most years