Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Now I'll show you mine...

Yesterday Pam at Digging put up a post about "pretties and uglies," bravely showing us places in her garden that might be less than their best, as well as the solutions she's come up with for them.

I'm guessing we've all got places like that. Sometimes they're neglected, tucked-away spots that we just never seem to get around to. Or maybe they are particularly troublesome, suffering from too much shade or afternoon sun. Or maybe, try as we might, when we look at that blank canvas, we simply draw an empty bucket from the well of inspiration. To mix a metaphor or two.

Yeah. You know the spot. Here is mine:

This orphaned little corner languished in my garden for all of last summer, mostly because I had Big Plans for it, and Big Plans are always problematic for me, since they mean I'm probably not going to get started on the project anytime in the near future...And, naturally, whilst I'm procrastinating nothing much happens. (I guess that's the definition of procrastination, isn't it?)

Sadly, the spot is the first thing people see when they walk into my back garden, killing any chance at a good first impression. It matters not that I say, "It's going to be a rainwater harvest garden!" because, you see, in this state it is only obvious to me that that is what it is. Oh, people might get a clue from the galvanized rain barrel that's already there, but I dare say that as cute as it is to me, I'm probably the only one that sees its gritty charm.

But now, fair reader, the "Rainwater Harvest Garden" is finally getting its due. I started work on it this weekend, and below I share the fruits of my labor:

Laying out the paving stones, taking care to make everything level.

Here I'm putting down several layers of newspaper to foil the pesky Bermuda grass. For those of you not familiar with it, Bermuda grass is an invasive weed (and originally from Africa, not Bermuda) that will not be discouraged by merely digging it up. It's drought-tolerant, and so I will grudgingly admit that it makes a decent lawn grass in these parts. However, as with everything, there are drawbacks and in this case it is its refusal to go away! once it has found a home. Bermuda grass won't grow when it is starved of light, though, so a light-blocker (such as several layers of newspaper) helps.

Even so, it will be back. Trust me on this. I am loathe to admit that I shall have to resort to the controversial Roundup for the stray bits that pop up. Many years of fighting this particular war of attrition have taught me this much. However, I take some comfort in keeping the collateral damage to a minimum through the light-starvation technique.

Leveling the gravel base for the tank.

Leveling the tank itself.

And there you have it. It looks better already. For a season or two, I'll put drought-tolerant plants in containers around the front. After that the nefarious Bermuda grass should be beaten back enough to allow me to plant directly in the gravel bed.

Next step will be to make the cover for the tank, and connect it to the original tank with an overflow tube. Capacity for this setup will be 150 gallons, for a total rainwater collection capacity of 300 gallons (I have two more barrels on the other side of the house). I can collect that much in a single good spring thunderstorm.

Gritty charm indeed.

Monday, January 26, 2009


The seeds for the vegetable garden came in the Saturday morning mail and I planted them in the afternoon. Now they sit upstairs in my study, on a seed-warming pad, beneath a south-facing window.

I am resisting the urge to check them every hour.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Xtracycle goes to class...and geese

Annette the Xtracycle went to class on Tuesday, accompanied by a colleague (who also happened to be an Xtracycle). This time we were at a local playa, learning to draw geese.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

From the old, new is made again

So I'm in the Starbucks drive-through, when the barrista at the window says, "You've got trees on your car!"

I had spent the weekend getting my mother re-settled in her home, and on the way back to my own home, I stopped off for some iced tea for the highway. And yes, I had some trees on my car.

My mother's neighbors had cut down some big junipers and were getting ready to send them on to the landfill when I said, "Hold on there! I believe I can use that."

And so I shall. Stay tuned for details.

In the meantime, enjoy this day. Every four years we get a chance to renew ourselves as a nation. As with the junipers, we can take the old and make it new again.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A potting bench/bird blind

Some years ago I spent a magical few days at a birding bed and breakfast called "The Inn at Chachalaca Bend," in the Rio Grande Valley. The inn was truly enchanting, for a variety of reasons, but one of the features I liked best was a bird blind they had built for the guests. The blind was pretty fancy--a covered structure deep in a mesquite thicket, with lots of portholes at various heights that looked out over a small, man-made stream with running water. Oh, the birds that came to that water! They were close enough to touch.

I came away from that trip determined to build my own little piece of enchantment right in my own backyard, and set about creating a habitat designed to attract and observe a diversity of bird life. Planting the garden and setting up a feeding station was fun and fairly easy to accomplish, but there was one thing with which I had a lot of trouble: I couldn't make up my mind about where to put the blind. No matter where I envisioned placing it, I could see that if I situated it for the best light, it had the potential to stick out in the otherwise flowing garden design like a sore thumb.

Back and forth I went with myself: Should I put it here? Or over there? Finally, I decided to be undecided. I built a portable blind. It was a simple structure, not as fancy as the one in the thicket at the B&B, but it was easily moved by two people. So if I tried it in one place and found it wanting, I could move it someplace else. And since I only feed birds in the winter months, it could be stored in the summer months, when I like the garden to be looking its best. Here is a picture of the blind in storage:

You can see that it was indeed a very simple structure, strictly utilitarian in nature. Still, I got a lot of wonderful photos of birds while sitting behind that blind.

But one day last spring, a big wind storm blew up and damaged the blind. However, instead of simply repairing it, I decided to re-design it altogether. It happened that I've also been wanting a potting bench, so I thought it might be fun to see if I could create a multi-purpose structure, a bench/blind, with the material from the old blind.

And so here is the result, along with a few photos of the process:

The legs were put together with lap joints. I cut the joints with a radial arm saw passed along to me earlier in the year by my friend and fellow woodworker, Jim. (The radial arm saw is now set up with a dedicated dado blade.)

Here I am measuring the old blind boards against the back standards to see how many I will need. It is also clear to me at this point that I'm going to have to take the project outside the shop to get a little working room.

The glue-up of the porthole, which is leaning against what will be the back of the bench.

The innards of the bench construction, before putting the final slats on.

The photography setup, with the camera and lens resting on a pot and bean bag.

Through the porthole.

And a full view of the finished product. The whole thing took roughly a day to build.

So far, it seems to work well. Birds know when I am behind the blind, but they settle down pretty quickly if they can't see me moving around. I'm sure there is something I'll wish I could change, but so far it fits my purposes quite nicely.

Right now it is in a back corner of the farm, looking out toward a feeder that has a lot of nice foliage around it for a backdrop. If I get tired of it there, I can always move it, so I have retained the advantage of portability. And, as a bonus, just as soon as my seed order comes in I'll put it to its other use.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ready or not...

The pre-dawn scene in my kitchen, ready and waiting for my seed order:

And here it is, submitted at 6:51 AM to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds:

-----------------Individual Item Breakdown-----------------

Item Ref. Price ea. Qty. Description

Chioggia (beet)
St. Valery (carrot)
Birdhouse Gourd
Fine Verde Basil
Sweet Chocolate (sweet pepper)
Chaco Canyon (runner bean)
Oriole Orange Chard (swiss chard)
Sugar Snap (peas)
Butternut - Waltham (squash)
Turner Family Pumpkin
Lemon Squash
Aunt Ruby's German Green (tomato)
Tomatillo - Verde
Paul Robeson (tomato)

------------------------End of Order-----------------------

Not shown here, but to be added from other sources are poblano peppers, sweet potato, flat leaf parsley, and Chiapas Wild cherry tomato.

I'm going to have to expand beyond the farm and into the ornamental garden, but that's okay. I think some of the vining plants would look good there. I'll just have to watch that the dogs don't get to my harvest before I do.

I used most of the suggestions that people sent in--there were so many good ones that it was hard to edit any out! Even so, I made slight changes in a few instances. For example, scarlet runner beans, according to the seed catalog, like cool climates, so I substituted Chaco Canyon instead. Perhaps not as pretty, but a little hardier for my conditions. Other substitutions were made on the basis of availability from Baker Creek (I wanted to do as much one-stop shopping as possible).

The Chaco Canyon beans come from one of my native states, New Mexico. Seeds from this plant were unearthed in an archeological dig, and so they go way back. It feels right to plant these, both for climate/enviro reasons and cultural ones, since it ties me to a long tradition.

And how could I not grow a gourd called "Birdhouse?"

Thanks so much to everyone for all your ideas. It makes the farm a community effort and a richer experience. I'm a little overwhelmed and intimidated--I've never tried to grow an entire kitchen garden from seed before, let alone one so large. I'm excited to see how it goes.

Now I wait and check the mail...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Woot! Tagged by Garden Rant

Susan Harris over at Garden Rant did a nice little write-up about a couple of courses I teach. There's even a nice pic of student Matt McEwen doing good things for the Lesser Prairie Chicken. Check it out!

I love our little program and am grateful every day that I get to be a part of it. Thanks much, Susan, for the very nice write-up about it.

And, just for grins, here's a photo from one of our class trips down the Brazos River.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Help me plant the farm

Okay, I’m faced with a blank canvas here. I’ve dabbled in veggie gardens in the past, but last summer I had so much fun with “the farm” that I’m prepared to go whole-hog this year--from seed-to table, as Michelle would say. ;-)

There is just one problem: the seed catalogs are in and I am overwhelmed with choices. So I’m turning to you, my good gardening friends, to help me plant this year’s farm. What do you recommend? What are your favorite, must-have, can’t-live-withouts? Can you help a fellow gardener out?

Here are the parameters:

The canvas is not large (see the photos.) The best stretch of land is right down the middle, with one large planting bed (the one surrounded by stones). There will also be two raised bed boxes—the one that is already there and full of garlic, and I’ll move the cold frame to the other side of it after I harvest my carrots.

I have room at the far end for a tripod bean structure (that Christmas tree you see in the photo is destined to be recycled into one leg of the bean pole), and I plan to build a pergola for sitting, and that can also support a climbing plant. There is a trellis in the shade (not shown, but to the right in the photo). I have space along the fence to the right, but it is in shade all day. However, the light is so strong here, and the heat so fierce, that some plants may tolerate the shade.

Another planting parameter has to do with the climate, which is hot and dry. My ornamental garden is xeric, and I’d like to be water-wise in the vegetable plot as well. All plants will be on a drip system, and I’ll use as much harvested rainwater as possible.

I don’t use pesticides on the ornamentals if I can help it, and not at all on food crops. Last season I had a squash that had a bad case of powdery mildew, and I’d like to avoid that again if possible. So disease/pest resistance is a priority.

Given all this, what would you plant? I should let you know that I’m not wild about broccoli, cauliflower, or zucchini, since they all seem pretty bland to me.

I’d also like to stick as close as I can to heirloom veggies, but I’m not a purist in this (or anythings else, for that matter).

Other than that, I think I’m open to any suggestions, wild or mild…

Oh, and of course I’ll let you know how it all turns out!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dad died on Wednesday, January 7, 2009. The funeral was yesterday. Because his service during World War II had been an important part of his life, he was laid to rest in a very moving ceremony with military honors.

Thank you to everyone for all of your heartfelt comments during the past week. It was difficult time for my family and me, but it was made better by the all the kindness we received from so many different sources, including, among others, the friends I've made here on the blogosphere and in the running forum in which I participate. Bless you all.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Sad news

I am sad to report that my father's condition has continued to decline and at this point there is no hope of recovery. We will keep him on IV fluids through the weekend to keep him comfortable, and then remove them on Monday and place him in hospice care.

Thank you for all of your good wishes. I will not be posting for a few days, but I have found comfort in reading the many blogs of my friends during this difficult time , and so will continue to check in to see what you're up to. Reading about your gardens, adventures in art, cooking, and nature, and (in Dave's case) a Jedi's take on this wacky world (;-)), helps me remember that life goes on.