Now that the leaves have dropped, I can see all the pretty winter birds that don’t migrate south for winter. I’m still learning how to use my telephoto lens and caught these woodpeckers and cardinals on a foggy day. Fog wasn’t my friend when taking these photos of the birds. Low light, fast-moving birds and low contrast makes it hard to get a good crisp shot of them. A more skilled photographer could use the fog to increase dramatic effect (plus they would probably have more sophisticated equipment with a faster shutter speed.)
There is a mating pair of cardinals that live somewhere in our alley. I try to keep my feeders full for them.
Cardinal male is on patrol. His mate is in the same tree but so very well hidden.
I saw the red bellied woodpecker again but today’s bonus sighting is this downy woodpecker.
It’s possibly a hairy woodpecker but the guidebook lists the size of the bill as the only difference between these two species. In this shot it looks like a short bill.
And then there was this death-defying squirrel. he navigated all throughout the cable and rural electric infrastructure.
Then there were honking cranes circling for a landing. I could hear them long before I could see them (it was really foggy).
When the sun came out in the afternoon I tried to photograph the woodpecker again, but he’s just so darn fast. When I looked closer, I think it’s a third species—a golden fronted woodpecker. This means that the tree in our yard, that is dying a slow death, is also full of insects, which is feeding all these woodpeckers.
I’m studying up on roses. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my Canadian friend gave me a bunch of her books about roses. She instructed me on how to propagate roses from soft wood stems, which I’m attempting to do with the flowers from my grandmother’s funeral.
When I was 16 years old I planted a Peace Rose in my mother’s front flower bed for a project in my home economics class. It was my first attempt at flower gardening. That rose grew for nearly 20 years before a drought and grasshoppers got it. One fall it had such big, beautiful blossoms it could be seen from 100 yards away.
It’s amazing how many varieties, cultivars and classifications of roses there are. I’m just now reacquainting myself with the vast varieties of roses available.
But I’m excited to start learning more about roses and experimenting with them in my garden. More to come…
Occasionally, I get to stand in for my dad and play cowgirl on the family ranch. I love being outside, tending to the critters. When you are doing something, you usually can show something for it. Here are a few highlights from the last seven days. It demonstrates how extreme the weather cycle can be here in North Texas. 79 degrees down to 18 then back to 68, a dusting of snow, a light rain and one blustery day with winds gusting upwards to 40mph.
A week ago it was a very cold night on top of a light dusting of snow. The bitter cold nipped back even the hardiest of the winter vegetables.
A few days later it was sunny and 60 degrees. This is a funny picture of the cows at chow time.
A new baby in the pasture. It’s always so sweet to see a new calf, especially a pretty and healthy one like this. My boy named her Marney (like Barney but with an “M,” he says.)
Yesterday we got a little over an inch of desperately-needed rain. As soon as the rain stopped, the chickies went looking for waterlogged worms.
“And a big white hen standing on one leg. And under the hen was a quiet egg,” a line from one of our most treasured board books, The Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown.
Today was a momentous day for our little backyard flock of four hens. It was a day we’ve been waiting for… for 21 weeks since they hatched.
Someone laid the first egg, ever!
It was a small, perfectly shaped, light brown egg. I’m fairly certain it came from Dexter since she is the only one squatting and singing a clucking, egg-laying song. But there were both red and black feathers in the nesting box, so it could be Tollie, our one red chicken.
I am experimenting with rose propagation. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I have read about it and gotten advice from my rose-expert friend, who has successfully propagated roses clipped from bar ditches and yards with a caved-in houses.
According to the internet and my friend, a stem that is about the diameter of a #2 pencil with multiple nodes is ideal. It’s recommended to use a seed starter mix, perlite or vermiculite as the medium and rooting hormone.
These roses came from the flowers at my grandmother’s funeral. They were beautiful and smelled amazing, so I figured I’d give it a go and see what happens. I can’t identify these roses (although they are technically not roses, but rather floribundas,) and I don’t know if they are GMO freaks or their growing history. I’m sure they were bombed with all kinds of chemicals and preservatives.
1. Since it’s off season, I got what they had at the hardware store, putting the starter mix into a tub and watering thoroughly. Water, stir, water, wait, water, stir.
2. Once the starter mix is sufficiently moist, I packed it into a couple pots.
3. Made planting holes several inches deep with my handy chopstick.
4. Clipped the roses down to use just the stems with multiple nodes.
5. Dipped the stems into water, then into the rooting hormone so it would stick, and placed each stem into the holes.
6. Covered with plastic sacks to create a mini greenhouse. I left the pots on the ground in the greenhouse in a partially sunny spot.
Now we wait and hope.
The last time I tried this it didn’t work, but it was July, in Texas, during a drought, and we left for vacation, etc. A north Texas November and a commercially grown floribunda may not work either, but I figure it’s worth a try.
November is here and with it comes the first frost for my garden. I live in north central Texas in USDA zone 7b with an average first frost around November 10.
But I always flirt with danger, hoping to extend my garden season for a few warm season plants. With the impending doom lurking with the first freeze, I will be spending my weekend preserving what I can for the winter.
What’s thriving in my garden at the moment:
Fall okra. No kidding. I planted okra at least a year ago, but it’s just now coming up. [soon to be killed by frost]
Cucumbers … another one waiting to be bitten by the frost… Maybe I can make a makeshift vertical row cover… I had bad luck with my summer cucumbers because the aphids and mites sucked them dry.
Of course my favorite volunteer Porter tomatoes, god love them, they are tenacious, if anything.
Tomatillos. My first endeavor with this plant. I had no idea it would go all over the place. It’s growing habit is more like pumpkins with how it spreads and takes over.
And the ever-resilient Swiss chard. This stuff is hardy and fairest of all. It grows in the winter, spring, summer and fall. It tastes the best in early spring and late fall. It’s frost tolerant to about 25 degrees, which makes it a perfect choice for my winter garden! It’s also delicious, bright and beautiful.
[Editor’s note: it’s been far too long since I posted to the blog. No time like the present.]
Extremes are the normal with North Texas weather. There is constant clashing of warm moist air with cool dry air. The dry air sweeps across the western U.S., over the Caprock then down the draw known as the Llano Estacado and collides with warm moist air coming up from the Gulf.
There is a diagonal 250 mile-wide strip where these prevailing winds smash into each other.
I live is in the center of this strip, so it’s common to have a 40 degree temperature change in a few hours. Friday, November 22, 2013 was one of those days. (it was also the 50-year anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.)
It was still, warm and humid with a high in the 70s. Then what is called a Blue Norther showed up. The wind picked up suddenly and the temps dropped 20 degrees in 30 minutes.
These days, any form of moisture is welcome, even if it comes in frozen pellets of rain or snow. In a day or two the weather will warm up and the frozen moisture will thaw into ground-soaking water—something we need desperately in North Texas.
It is ridiculous when you think about the hullabaloo made over winter weather in North Texas. Every year winter shows up, freezes and ices everything, then is gone as quickly as it came. Yet we are bombarded with severe weather reports and warnings to bundle up, be safe on the roadways, and bring outdoor pets inside.
Everyone is hopefully anticipating a day to blow off school and work. However it is the opposite for nurses, doctors, insurance claims processors, wreckers, firemen, police and ranchers and farmers. Don’t forget the U.S. Postal Service always delivers – rain, snow, sleet or shine.
There is ever-increasing hyperbole and drama surrounding the extreme weather. Handy Husband always jokes with the next door neighbors that we will resort to cannibalism since “snowpocalypse” is forcing everyone inside for three days. Now after two days inside … I think I’ll emulate the Canadians and go outside even with a 100% chance of snow. Because I, like the Canadians, have cabin fever, and must go outside weather be damned (seriously, it’s only 30 degrees –I have wool socks and thermal underwear, it’ll be ok.)
My compulsion to garden began with my quest to grow an abundance of tomatoes. I didn’t even like tomatoes until I was about 22 years old. The first time I remember loving the flavor of a freshly-picked, salted tomato was when I lived in Chicago working my first post-college job. I visited friends in Champagne one weekend and bought tomatoes at the farmers’ market. That first bite of beautifully ripe tomato was like heaven on a plate and since then I’ve been hooked. Two years after that tasty bite, I moved to Michigan—where the climate is just right for tomato growing.
My first garden was a success in Michigan, which has a much milder climate than North Central Texas. The harsh Texas summers and drought conditions make gardening a challenge. I decided to approach the objective from a different angle by looking for the best-performing vegetable varieties for my area.
I consulted the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service’s list of recommendations but only found a few tomato varieties for sale at local vendors– Celebrity, Beefsteak and Big Boy are the most commonly available. So I started looking to seed sources and catalogs, hoping to find varieties that would grow well where I lived. Over the last few years, I’ve amassed quite an assortment of seed stock and catalogs. The more I learned about the plentiful tomato varieties, the more intrigued I became with open-pollinated and heirloom varieties of all plants, not just tomatoes.
Even though Texas “technically” has a long growing season, the hottest part of the summer is about keeping things alive, not producing. So really we have two short growing seasons with fall being best of all. In the spring I try to grow bush-type tomatoes that ripens (55-70 days) all at once. In July I pull the spent vines and start seeds in the same beds. What sprouts and makes it will produce the best fall fruit. If a volunteer tomato comes up, I let it grow. Every time I’ve done that, it’s produced the most awesome fruit.
After three trial-and-error growing seasons of starting tomatoes from seed, I’ve found that Porter and Porter Improved are the top performing tomato cultivars in my backyard; Willhite Seed has the highest germination rate of all the sources I’ve used; and when a volunteer tomato plant starts growing, let it grow because you will be rewarded for it.
My favorite resources:
Texas Agri-Life Extension http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ — a great resource for all Texas gardeners. If you live in a different state, look for your local extension service. It will be affiliated with the land grant university in your state (Auburn, Michigan State, University of Illinois, Purdue, Texas A&M, etc.)
Willhite Seed www.willhiteseed.com – everything I’ve ever grown from this supplier has been top notch. They breed their own watermelon seeds! The first year I grew their Porter tomatoes, I had a 98 percent germination rate – that is quality seed!
Botanical Interests www.botanicalinterests.com – this company is part of the coalition of non-GMO growers and suppliers of seed. They have the best information on their seed packets – tons of information about each variety and cultivar.
Totally Tomatoes www.totallytomato.com – the 2013 growing season is the first year I’ve used seeds from this supplier. So far so good. They have the most comprehensive selection of tomatoes I’ve ever seen. They also have a wonderful selection of other seeds, especially night shade plants (tomatoes are part of the night shade family).
RH Shumway www.rhshumway.com – this company has the coolest retro-style catalogue and is one of the best sources for beans. 2013 is the first growing season I’ve used this seed provider. The germination rate has been excellent. It will be awhile before I can report on production.
Victory Seeds www.victoryseeds.com – one of the best sources for open-pollinated and heirloom seeds that grow in most parts of the United States. They produce their own seeds and are a non-GMO seed source.
Baker Creek (rare seeds) www.rareseeds.com – another comprehensive source for heirloom, open-pollinated and non-GMO seeds. I have not grown any seed from this supplier but they have great reviews.
Almost every night I go out into my greenhouse and garden and look at all the wondrous things that are growing. I’m always surprised when I see little sprouts emerging, even when I’m expecting it. It’s the awesome miracle of life in one tiny little seed and the journey of nothing to something from start to finish. I love witnessing the plant’s lifecycle, growing from seed to blossom then returning to its genesis.
Seeds are a beautiful promise of the future. They represent both the result of nurturing and just plain science. There are some seeds that need coaxing to sprout and coddling to produce fruit.
Then there are those seeds that need nothing more than a drop of water and something for roots to cling to. Some seeds need to be in the cold for extended time while others need fire to crack the hard seed coat. Some seeds lay dormant for years waiting for the perfect conditions before they will sprout.
I’m thankful that I have this hobby and get to see the true value of time. A garden helps you understand the difference a day, week or month can make. It also teaches delayed gratification and the payoff of hard work.
I’m fortunate to have a handy husband who has been willing to work beside me while I guide (more like boss) him on what goes where and when to do this or that. We don’t eat exclusively out of our garden and I’m thankful that there are many, many farmers around the globe who produce food abundantly so that we have plenty with a variety on our plates nightly.
Most days I go to look at the plants, monitor their progress and contemplate whatever comes next – what’s for dinner, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow, did the washer’s spin cycle work … Sometimes I get to harvest the crops and enjoy a special dish or meal – maybe it’s the one rewarding, sweet bite of strawberry that makes me offer thanksgiving. Some days I look out on our garden plot and feel like shouting—prideful Tarzan style—”I have grown this!”
Then there are times when I go to my garden at the end of a hard day to find peace.
On those days I go looking for something to be hopeful about, something positive, something to remind me of why I have made certain choices. It helps me right myself and to remember that all I really need is all that I already have.
I have been salivating over gardening books, seed catalogues, blogs and ag extension websites for weeks. It’s only January and I’m anxious to start a spring garden. My seed box has many great leftover seeds from previous growing seasons. There are numerous sources for all kinds of seeds—organic, heirloom, F1 hybrids, new plant breeds, etc. I want to plant them all.
Over the last three years, I’ve noticed a surge in the availability of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. Considering the growing popularity of locally-grown, non-GMO or organic food, it’s not surprising that the market is meeting the demand. This trend toward organic and local foods has sprouted the long-dormant victory garden concept. Urban and community gardens have become all the rage in big cities and small-town classrooms.
The victory garden’s inception came during WWI, but really took off in America during WWII. It was a way for the war department to send all available food supplies to the troops. The idea was for private citizens to grow their own produce in their backyards, so the large-scale farm production could be sent to the war overseas. Eleanor Roosevelt championed the first victory garden planted on the White House grounds in 1943 to publicize gardening as a patriotic act. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 20 million Americans planted gardens during the WWII years.
Today’s victory garden trend is a more grass-roots movement. People are driven by health consciousness, environmentalism, self-sufficiency, and the emerging “food culture” in America. Fueled by available resources focused on cuisine, there is a schmorgesborg of food blogs, print publications, websites, TV programs, all focused solely on cooking methods, recipes and food preparation. When celebrity chiefs cook, they use the best ingredients, which are fresh, locally-grown produce and meat.
Market demand for homegrown food—favoring organic, heirloom and specialty items—is the byproduct of our food culture. Thus, boosting demand for seeds, especially the unique and old varieties. The benefits of healthy eating is a major contributor to the new victory garden effort. The first spring in the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama created a kitchen garden as part of her healthy living initiative. Ironically, Mrs. Obama’s kitchen garden is the first White House vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s.
Other groups advocating gardening are Americans who want to be self-sufficient, or are ecologically minded. There is also a group of people who are opposed to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). There is big debate about the long-term safety of consuming food from GMOs. Stewardship and nostalgia factor in too, since many gardeners and horticulturists want to preserve the world’s rare and unusual plants.
For me, I’m just happy these forces are culminating into a perfect storm for gardens and seeds, both rare in nature and scientifically cultured.
I love to see city folks growing nutritious food in whatever space they have available. It’s a reconnection to our roots (no pun intended) as Americans that carved out a way of life in a harsh and rugged environment. It’s also gratifying as an “ag woman” to see a renaissance of agriculture—growing our own food so we don’t have to travel, scavenge or starve. And the important lessons of knowing where food comes from; the work involved to grow it; and the patience required for a bountiful harvest.
I will be planning an entirely new garden space this year … more to come.