Monday, May 18, 2015

Saving Poppy Seeds

I love growing poppies!  They are early bloomers for us in Texas.  They're easy to grow as well.  Just toss seeds out in the fall and wait.  They germinate and start sprouting in late January or early February and then take off from there.  I haven't intentionally sown any poppy seeds for the past couple of years, yet I get a bumper crop of volunteers every year, like these in the picture above.

After poppies flower, the petals will die off (or get blown off if my case) and leave the seed pod behind.  I think they look like queens wearing crowns.  As the seed heads dry out, the "crown" lifts up and little windows start showing.  This is where the seeds empty when blown by the wind, knocked down by animals (like the neighbor's cat), or if turned upside down when pulling the plants out. 

I snip off the tops and turn them upside down in a tall container, such as a large yogurt or cottage cheese container.  Twirl the stems to empty all the seeds.  Once harvested, spread them out on a paper plate and allow to dry.  Store in a paper envelope or old medicine bottle until the fall and toss them about your garden to bloom in the spring.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes are probably the most planted vegetable in gardens across America.  Who doesn't like a vine-ripened, juicy tomato?  There is nothing store-bought that can compare to the tasty goodness of a homegrown tomato. 

Growing tomatoes in North Texas is always a challenge.  It's difficult to grow beefsteak tomatoes (the really large sized tomatoes) because we just don't have the number of cooler days to grow them to maturity.  I always look for heirloom and open pollinated varieties that have a medium growing season, something about 70-80 days to maturity.  This year, we're growing Marmande, Super Sioiux, Pantano Romanesco, and Large Red Cherry.  We've grown all but Super Sioux previously.

Marmande is a nice, small-medium sized round tomato.  It's very prolific and very tasty.  Reminds me of an old-fashioned tomato.  Perfect for one person, too.  Pantano Romanesco is a larger tomato, but more flat.  They're pictured above.  They have a fantastic taste and are very juicy as well.  Large Red Cherry is the perfect snack size tomato.  Cherry tomatoes are much more prolific and will sometimes produce when the weather is very hot, long after the regular tomatoes have given up.

Prior to planting, be sure to harden off your plants.  This allows them to gradually adjust to the outdoor temps without freaking out.  Over a two week period of time, you want to take your plants outside until they're out full time.  I set mine out starting for about 2-3 hours in deep shade. I gradually increase their time out as well as their sun exposure.  For about the last 3 or 4 days they're out day and night in partial shade.  Because they're in smallish containers (16 oz plastic cups), I don't leave them out all day in full sun.  They're pretty root bound by plant out time and I don't want to stress them too much.  As you can see from the picture above, I put them in an old laundry basket to protect them from the wind.  They're about 2 feet tall and blow over easily.  The laundry basket keeps them upright to prevent any damage.  The vents on the side of the basket allow for air circulation.  If you drill holes in the bottom of the basket, you've got drainage.  Tomatoes don't like wet feet and balk at too much water, so you don't want them sitting in water and you want the soil to dry out a bit between waterings.
Prepare your soil well.  I have heavy, clay soil frequently referred to as "gumbo clay soil".  Over the years, we have added lots of compost, green sand, lava sand, and a little bit of expanded shale to aid with drainage.  I don't till, just dig a hole and plant or sow my seeds. Tomatoes will grow roots along the stem, so plant them deep.  I trim off the lower leaves of my plants, leaving only the top 2 or 3 sets of leaves above ground.  This gives them a more robust root system, more stability, and the potential to produce more fruit. 

 Prior to planting, be sure to loosen the root system a little bit.  This helps them get going once in the ground. 

  In the hole with the tomato, mix a bit of tomato food and earthworm castings into the bottom of the hole along with a handful of leaves or compost.  Water in, then place your tomato in the hole and fill with your dirt.  Pack it in lightly around the root ball and up to ground level.  Sprinkle a bit more of the fertilizer/earthworm castings on top, cover with mulch and water well with a good liquid organic fertilizer.

We use Nature's Guide Tomato & Pepper food and earthworm castings from Texas Worm Ranch. We didn't have any homemade compost this year, so I used mushroom compost.  We get the leaves from our oak tree in the front yard, which drops its leaves in the spring.  Very convenient for us. Placing them in the hole with the plant gives the roots someplace loose to grow and also feeds the soil.  It's a win-win.

 The hubby loves maters, so he's usually in charge of actually planting them out.  I just direct, make sure he's got supplies, and make up the markers so we'll know which variety is where.  In about 2 months, hopefully, if we don't get any damaging winds, late season freezes, or damaging hail, we'll end up with a nice harvest of tomatoes by the end of June to middle of July. Fresh tomatoes by the 4th of July is always the goal.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Time to Plant Tomatoes and Peppers!

 It's that time in Texas, folks.  This year, I planted my spring tomatoes and peppers two weeks ago.  I usually start them sometime around the first of the year, but I'm running behind this year. (Go figure!)  My set up is very basic.  I use old shop shelving units with bed slats for shelves to allow for circulation and two old shop lights with one "cool" bulb and one "warm" bulb.  This year, I have a heat mat, but in years past, I've just used a space heater on the bottom shelf of my set up and hung old shower curtain liners from shower curtain hooks around the top of my shelving unit to hold heat in.  I also run the ceiling fan in our spare bedroom to keep mold and mildew at bay. 

So far, I've planted:
  • Pantano Romanesco tomatoes
  • Super Sioux tomatoes (new for us this year)
  • Marmande tomatoes
  • Jalapeno peppers
  • Bullnose bell peppers
  • Purple Tomatillos
I also make my own seed starting mix.  I start with a good, organic potting soil.  I like Ladybug Brand Vortex Potting Soil.  To that, I add some compost, earthworm castings, green sand, and lava sand.  I mix about 5 parts potting soil, 3 parts compost, and 1 part everything else.  I water with warm water to help raise the soil temperature and to aid in soil germination.  I water the soil with a very weak liquid fertilizer and then drop my seeds on top of the wet soil.  Cover with a bit of planting mix and spritz with warm water in a squirt bottle.  Until the seeds germinate, I spritz with warm water once a day.  For the cups on the heat mat, I spritzed twice a day. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

DIY Butterfly Cage (Helping the Butterfly Population)

About a week ago, I found a Black Swallowtail egg on my dill.  A couple of days ago, I found this wee little 1st instar caterpillar chowing down on my dill.  He's very tiny, probably about 1/4" long.  I knew that I'd need to get some butterfly cages ready to keep some of these inside and away from predators, such as wasps, if I was to help the butterfly population.  

Not only are butterflies pretty to look at, they are important pollinators.  Some species, like the beautiful Monarch butterfly, are in danger due to their food source being taken out by pesticide use, urban sprawl, and drought.  I'm not a huge butterfly lover, but I do try to plant butterfly friendly plants, not necessarily to attract them to my garden, but to help them along in their journey and reproduction cycle. 

Several years ago, I planted some dill in my garden for my husband.  He has a life-long goal of making dill pickles using fresh dill, dill seeds, and cucumbers from our garden.  I freaked out when I saw a huge caterpillar destroying "his" dill!  I immediately snapped a picture of it and posted it on my favorite gardening website to find out what it was and if was friend or foe.  I was quickly informed it was an Eastern Black Swallowtail. It's a keeper and should be "protected", raised away from harm, and then released.  I grabbed a plastic container, an old medicine bottle that I'd washed out, a paper towel, some dill, and some orange tulle and began my butterfly cage journey.  Over the years, I've redesigned my cage with the help of a couple of fellow gardening buddies.  If you'd like to make your own butterfly cage (or caterpillar cage), they are inexpensive and easy to make.

What you'll need:
  • Floral Foam or floral clay (I prefer the foam)
  • Scissors
  • Glad Press 'n Seal cling wrap
  • Scissors
  • Box opener
  • Deep food storage container (approx. 64 oz)
  • Tulle (Wedding netting)
  • Water bottle, if using floral clay
  • Hot glue gun 
  • A nosy kitty is a nice accessory and helper (NOT!)
 ** I buy my food storage containers from Family Dollar, similar to this one from Glad..  Be sure to get the deep rectangular ones so your caterpillars will have enough room in the container with your host plant. 

First off, using your box cutter/box opener/razor blade, cut out the center of the lid.  Leave enough space to put a bead of glue around the edge without getting into the grove for the lid to snap onto the bottom.  This one is actually cut a little too close to the edge, but I went with it anyway.  Then, cut your tulle approximately 2" -3" larger than your lid.  I just lay the lid on the tulle and start cutting.  No measuring required!

Using your hot glue gun,  run a bead of glue around the cut edge.  Place your tulle on top and press down.  You can use a popsicle stick or orange stick to press it down.  If you like to burn your fingers, you can just use your fingers.  I'm really not into that, so I used a popsicle stick. 

While the glue job is drying, cut your floral foam to fit the bottom of your cage.  You're going to set your cage on its end, so make sure your piece fits.  You can use one side of the scissors as a knife to cut your foam.  I like it to be about 2" deep so it has enough room to hold the stems of the plants.

 Tear off a piece of the Glad Press 'n Seal wrap large enough to wrap your piece of floral foam.  I dare you to do this without trying to kill yourself on the cutter on the box.  If you're really lucky, the cutter on the box won't even work!  (Not fun!)

Wrap it all up nice and neat.  Make sure it's nice and tight.  The reason I wrap my piece of floral foam is to make clean up of the cage quicker and easier.  Caterpillars create an enormous amount of frass (aka "poop") and the wrap keeps the frass from contaminating the foam.  It wipes off easily and quickly to make daily cleaning quick.

*  If you're using floral clay, cut the bottom of your water bottle off, about 1" - 1.5" from the bottom with your box opener or scissors.  Fill with clay and wrap the foam and bottom of the water bottle with the plastic wrap.  Poke some holes in the wrap and clay, wet, and then place your sprigs of host plant in the clay.

Using a toothpick, poke some holes into the foam.  I like to wiggle the toothpick around a bit to make holes large enough for the stems.  Make several different sizes to accommodate the possible various stem sizes.  If you don't have a caterpillar ready to move it, place the foam in the cage and place the lid on top and store it for when you need it.  If you've got a resident ready to move in, continue reading.

Place your square of foam into some water.  It'll float, so you'll need to place something on top of it to hold it down.  A cat food dish worked great for me.  Allow it to soak while you collect your host plant stems and occupant, if you've not already brought them inside.  I had an Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar waiting, so I went and collected several sprigs of dill and the little caterpillar.

Once your foam is watered and full (it turns a dark green), place it on a paper towel in the bottom of your cage.  The paper towel also helps ease cleaning.

Prior to placing your resident and sprigs of host plant into your cage, be sure to rinse off, upside down, in some slow running water.  This helps rinse of any predators or other buggies that might attack the caterpillar.  Once the sprigs are rinsed off, gently place them into the holes in the foam.

Snap your lid on and move your cage to a safe place.  You want it in a sunny location, but not in direct sun.  I use a rubber band around the cage not only to keep the lid on securely, but also to help keep my inquisitive cats out of the cage.  They don't normally bother the cages, but I don't want to take any chances.

There you have it!  Very easy to do and the clear container makes it easy to see what's going on inside.  It also provides easy clean up once you release your butterfly.  These are easy to store and last for several years.  If you have kids, they can decorate the outside with paint or stickers to personalize them.

A few tips:
  •  Be sure to change the paper towel daily and clean out any frass on the foam.  
  • I can usually change out the food source every other day.  
  • I also keep a spare piece of foam wrapped up to use when I change out the food source.
  • To transfer the caterpillar to the new sprigs of food, just lay the sprig it's on in the mess of the new sprigs.  It'll figure out how to get onto the new stuff. 
  • Learn the stages of your caterpillar's growth.  When it gets to the advanced stages, but before it pupates (eliminates all waste from its body, goes into the "comma" position, and starts making its chrysalis), put a larger twig or small stick in the cage.  It will use that to build its chrysalis on and won't need any food source.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Spring Cleaning...Finding Surprises

Before starting to spring clean

The big flower bed by the driveway and curb in the front of our house has been sadly neglected since the middle of last summer.  It barely got watered, yet everything flourished.  I didn't cut anything back in the fall or late winter like I should have, so I decided today was the day to get started on it!  As you can see by the pic above, it was looking pretty dead.  I pulled off dead passiflora vines from the obelisk. I cut lots of dead branches from shrubs and I did a bit of weed pulling and yanking of plants that spread by underground runners.

Cut off the dead branches from the Mealy Blue Sage and the Shrimp Plant.  Thinned out some of the Willow Leaf Asters and American Germander.

Already looking much better!!

In the process of thinning out some of the plants that have overstepped their boundaries, I found some treasures.  I've tried growing John Fannin Phlox for several years.  It barely produces in my garden and I'm not sure if it's the soil or the sun exposure.  Last year, I pretty much gave up on it.  This year, I found a lovely little clump of phlox and some babies!  The fork is there because I used it to mark where the original plant was planted 3 years ago.  It also helps me not step on any new babies as I tromp through the bed.

John Fannick Phlox clump
In addition, I discovered this plant growing amongst the Willow Leaf Asters.  At first I thought it was a Willow Leaf Aster until I looked more closely at the leaves and noticed that the leaves on this plant have a more serrated edge whereas the aster has a straight edge on the leaf.  I vaguely remember broadcasting seeds from the mother plant last fall.  This is such a beautiful plant to have flowering in the fall.  The bees love it!

Yellow Goldenrod
I was also surprised to see a few flowers blooming. 

Wood Violets growing in between the bricks on the walkway.
Four Nerve Daisy will bloom away until the heat sets in, then slow down.  They pick up again when it cools off in the fall.
May Night Salvia stinks, but is such a glorious flower.  This little plant is several years old, has been divided a couple of times, and continues to put out new growth and flowers in the early spring.

Friday, April 12, 2013

For the Love of Tomatoes

I started my tomatoes from seed in January.  My husband LOVES tomatoes, so this year, we've decided to give prime garden real estate to more tomatoes than we've ever grown.  Since tomatoes don't produce after the temps in the evenings get above 80ยบ, we have a very short time to produce a good tomato harvest.  Also, plants basically fry in the heat of the Texas summer.  The plants were ready to go in the ground on our last average freeze date, March 15th.  I took off a week from work to plant the tomatoes and the other spring veggies.  Here is the hubby planting the maters.

Planting the babies March 18, 2013

Root system of transplants.

Planting deep so that roots can develop along the stem.  We also mixed in a handful of organic veggie fertilizer, a handful of compost, and a handful of earthworm castings. Once planted, we watered with a weak combination of liquid organic fertilizer and fish emulsion.

We planted 3 Homestead 24 plants, 4 Pantano Romanesco plants, 1 Rutgers, and 2 Beefsteak tomatoes.  (We still have some large cherry tomato and tomatillos to plant.)

We got 10 of the tomato plants planted, stopped for the day, watched the news and discovered that a freeze was heading our way in a couple of days.  How frustrating!!  We haven't hardly had any freezing weather and then as soon as we try to start the garden...WHAM!  We spent a couple of days watching the weather and coming up with a plan.  We decided that since the plants were planted deeply (at least 18" deep) and not much top growth was showing, we'd cover them with buckets and hope for the best.  We watered them well to help protect the roots.  My husband also decided that we could use Christmas lights to generate a bit of heat inside the buckets at night to raise the temps inside a bit.

Under the buckets 3/25/13  (obviously from Home Depot!) with Christmas lights.  Wonder what planes flying overhead thought!!  LOL

Freeze burn on leaves.

Some green remains, but a lot of freeze damage.

This one looks really sad.  The poor thing was already in trouble to begin with.  It's stalk had bent during some winds, so we went ahead and planted it about 2 days prior to the cold front.  We planted it deep so that the bend was underground and hoped for the best.

After we uncovered the plants, we gave them some more fertilizer (just diluted fish emulsion this time) and started babying them.  Thankfully, the weather cooperated until this week when we got lows on Wednesday night in the upper 30s.  We once again watered and fertilized well in anticipation of the cooler temps.  Once again, the buckets came out and we covered the babies.  This time, they did fine and everything is green!  We haven't lost one tomato plant yet!  Now, if they'd just start producing, I'd be happy!!

This is the same plant as the middle pic in the set above.  We've cut off all freeze damaged leaves and it's put on new growth and doing great!

This is the little one that had the broken stem and almost died during the first freeze in late March.  Look at it now!  

This is the same plant from above that had almost no green growth on it after the freeze in March that I thought would die.  Lots of new growth now!

I heard today on the news that we might get more cold weather next week.  I have my lights and buckets ready!!  All I can say is that these guys had better produce a HUGE crop with all this attention they've gotten!!  What we do to save our plants!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Where We Are

As expected, February was a wild ride weather-wise.  We have had several cold days and lots of freezing temps.  Great for the garden, but bad for me when I've got spring fever.  The tomatoes are growing like weeds, I tell ya!  I need to start taking them on field trips during the day so they can begin hardening off.  I'll be ready to get these guys in the ground in about 2 weeks.

The picture above was taken on 2/24/13.  They have grown several more inches since then and are about 18" tall with thick, hairy stems.  Four days later, I walked into their room and found this:

This little Pantano Romanesco mater is getting a bit anxious for spring!  I clipped off the bloom so the plant would spend its energy making leaves and such rather than on trying to produce tomatoes.  This morning, I noticed some buds on one of the Large Red Cherry plants.  I have been watering them from the bottom every other day and weekly with water and fish & seaweed combination.  They love that fish and seaweed!  It smells up my house for the whole day, but if it makes the maters happy, that's okay by me.

The pepper seeds never sprouted, so I've got to replant those.  I've had horrible results trying to sow peppers the past 2 years!  What is up with that?!?

Meanwhile, out in the sunroom where we have all of the planters from outside stored for the winter...

My aloe vera has a flower stalk on it!!!  Unbelievable!  This thing is overcrowded to the point of sadness and it only gets watered (inside) about once every 3 weeks.  Guess it's happy because it's going to make me a flower.  I just hope it's not some really bad smelling thing!

Lastly, the onions did get put in the 2nd week of February.  It was actually nice, just before the freeze settled in.  They're doing great and came through all the dreary, cold weather just fine.  (I need to snap a pic of them since you can actually SEE them now!  LOL)

Coming up soon, I need to get my carrots started and I still need to put my potatoes in the ground.