All Farmers Are Gamblers

“All farmers are gamblers.”

This could have just as easily been the tagline for this blog, but it just wasn’t hopeless enough. To say that a farmer gambles is to say that the weather, or the market, or biblical-type pest infestations puts the farmer’s investment at risk. He knows how to grow vegetables. Much of what he knows won’t mean diddly in the face of severe drought, or monsoon, or the fact that the previous winter was too mild to kill off vast numbers of hungry garden pests. Therein lies the gamble.

My garden is not a gamble. It is an experiment; a classroom. It has been, in the past, an absolute failure. One might say, a complete waste of time and resources. That is, if the only benefit were vegetables.

What I’ve learned about gardening fills pages of a binder reserved just for that information: planning and preparation, recommended and tried and true vegetable varieties, companion plants, organic pest control, composting, storing options and recipes fill the pages. Yep, I’m kind of a nerd that way. And, yet, I know it is only a drop in the bucket of the knowledge, insight, and instinct I hope to possess in the years to come.

What I’ve learned in my garden is mostly about myself. Playing in the dirt, like riding on a bicycle, is as fun now as it was as a child. In the garden, I can accept not knowing everything and not be paralyzed with fear. I allow myself to fail over and over again and I’m totally okay with that.

To outsiders, it does not seem rational. My neighbors shake their head at the crazy garden lady out in the heat. My friends are just glad it’s a healthy occupation and have no hopes of ever being on the receiving end of a bounty of seasonal produce. My family celebrates by beautiful garden, but help me save face by never asking about the harvest.

Some day, I tell myself, some day…

So, maybe, I am a gambler.

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Ten Things I’ve Learned So Far…

  1. Always use a bigger container than you think you need.
  2. Thinning seedlings always feels a bit cruel, but it must be done.
  3. Plants in containers need to be consistently watered, and often!
  4. That being said, plants can drown.
  5. A healthy garden is its own little ecosystem.
  6. Plant flowers!
  7. Don’t kill all your bugs. You’re really going to need some of them.
  8. Never underestimate the tenacity and perseverance of an armadillo.
  9. Soil is a living thing!
  10. Start small.

Creek Critters and Other Catastrophes

Pink Eye Purple Hull cowpeas 08/31/2015
Pink Eye Purple Hull cowpeas 08/31/2015

So the armadillo who was rumored to have made a buffet from the cowpeas planted in my guerrilla garden turned out to  just be a rumor. I started to doubt it myself when I saw the perfectly round-shaped, little holes in the mulch, too. Whatever’s getting in there has got tiny little hands that dig, not scratch. This morning, I got my answer: a family of skunks. The dog went for them and I immediately flashed back to the skunk incident of ’08. (Where on earth did I leave that large bottle of peroxide?) The dog was lucky, but the cowpea control group, less so. Probably less than half survived. I’d even reseeded after the first raid, but then something started eating the tender little seedlings from the soil line up. Those few plants that did survive seem to be doing just fine. Now if I can just keep my dog from trampling them when she investigates the rustling leaves along the back fence, they might just produce.

Sweet Italian Peppers
Sweet Italian Peppers “Carmen” 08/30/2015

Summer’s just a tough time for my garden. The intense heat causes leaves to wilt midday. The containers require, at the very least, once daily watering. In the case of tomatoes and peppers, sometimes twice daily to ward off the types of soil moisture fluctuations that cause blossom end rot. That brought up another issue I’m still investigating: when all the leaves on my peppers went from deep green to pale yellow. Too much water? Too little water? Too much crappy, chlorinated municipal water? Nitrogen deficiency? Micro nutrient deficiency? Probably a combination.

“Twiggy”

None of this is helped by the infestations that have begun. Things were really going well there for a while. I had birds and little anole lizards, and ladybugs, and paper wasps protecting my garden. We even have a few neighborhood cats patrolling the grounds. There seems to be a rodent problem on the opposite side of the property. Not here!

Heart breaking!
Heart breaking!

And then it happened… first the mosquitoes, then the aphids, then something lopped off the tops of my cabbage and broccoli seedlings. If I get my hands on the lousy vermin that ate the only two tomatoes that August produced, we are going to have a nice, short, and succinct come-to-Jesus meetin’!

Summer’s tough. Maybe I got a wee bit too confident because I was getting a lot better at spring planting. It’s not all bad, though. I’ve got some okra and a nice early tomato plant that I nursed all the way up from seed this summer. I am torn, though. A nice, typically mild winter will make it fun to grow all sorts of cool weather crops, but I can’t help but wish for a freakishly hard winter freeze. I can’t imagine I’ll be too heart-broken to let all them skeeters, fleas, flies and other nasty pests die in frozen soil. I know, chances are the skeeters and I will both be wearing shorts and a light sweater come Christmas Eve, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

Still lots of fall planting left to do!

Fall planting is underway! It’s not too late if you’re still looking to get some seeds in the ground. Okay, so it is late for some long-growing heat lovers like ‘maters and peppers, but don’t worry, there’s plenty other yummy things that we’re just in time for!

Baby Bush Limas 08/19/2015
Baby Bush Limas 08/19/2015
  • Lima Beans: these come in both stubby bush types and vining pole types. For fall, use the bush types. These are low-maintenance like cowpeas. I’ve planted them in some bare, unworked soil just off the sidewalk to test just how low-maintenance they can be. These are Henderson bush limas. So far, so good!
  • Snap Beans: also available in both bush types and pole types. Again, use the bush types for fall planting. I’ve tried a couple varieties. So far, Blue Lake is my favorite.
  • Broccoli and Cabbage: I’m trying myhand at these this year. I’m struggling to understand how these cool-weather veggies will be able to survive an autumn hotter than most folk’s summers, but I’m trusting the process and am prepared to be either humbled or amazed, or both! I  planted a variety named DeCicco, but there are other varieties that have been recommended by the local extension service.

    De Cicco Broccoli 08/15/2015 (Wooden skewers help to deter cats.)
    De Cicco Broccoli 08/15/2015
    (Wooden skewers help to deter cats.)
  • Cucumbers: my favorite! There are so many varieties to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start. Check out the above link for some great suggestions. There are short-vining types, like Spacemaster, that are great for containers, but even longer-vining types can be trained up a trellis to save space. If you don’t have bees around to do the pollinating for you, choose a parthenocarpic type like Sweet Success that self-pollinates, or be prepared to “help the process.”
  • Summer squash: If you’re planting in containers look for a compact
    Dirani Lebanese Squash 08/19/2015
    Dirani Lebanese Squash 08/19/2015

    variety with a bush-type habit. Those will work in something as small as a five-gallon bucket, but don’t be fooled, it will eventually pour out of the bucket anyway and keep on going!

A Cowpea’s Chance in Texas

Long-podded cowpeas
Long-podded cowpeas

Alright, folks! If you haven’t put in those cowpeas, yet, now is the time. Yes, really, right now! Take that commercial break and jam a few cowpeas into the poorest soil in your garden, cover with soil and water in. Voila! Gardening done for the day! You and I can go back to watching the Criminal Minds marathon.

Okay, so maybe that isn’t the best way to go about planting cowpeas in the garden, but given how well these bad boys do under the Texas heat and drought conditions, it’d probably still work.

So let me tell you a bit about these cowpeas. Cowpeas make their way under quite a few aliases. They’re also called Southern peas and field peas and come in different varieties including creams and crowders. The best known cowpea is probably the black-eyed pea, but there are several others. I’ve grown pink eye purple hulls, red rippers and black crowders in my garden. Most are bush type plants that grow about three feet high, but there are a few climbers. The black crowders I planted in my patio garden grabbed onto one of my hanging planters and was looking for a way on to my neighbors’ balcony right before production halted! A different cultivar, the yardlong bean, or long-podded cowpea, grew ten-foot vines, and loads of pods. I was picking them at just over a foot long, but one did get lost under the stairwell and grew to about two feet long!

Chances are good that even black-thumb gardeners are going to have success with cowpeas. They’re pretty low maintenance. They don’t like too much water or too much fertilization. Basically, until they’re bloomin’ and fruitin’, don’t pay ‘em too much mind.

Cowpeas, like other legumes, develop a good bacteria on their roots that help them pull nitrogen right out of the air. They can also drill a tap root about eight feet deep, which helps them pull nutrients from deep in the soil and makes them incredibly drought resistant. This is the reason you don’t really need to fertilize them, and too much fertilization will just grow a lot of foliage and few beans, anyway.

Plant your cowpea seeds about an inch deep in the soil. If you bought pea and bean inoculant, sprinkle a bit of that over the seeds and cover with soil. Remember that good bacteria I was talking about earlier? Well, it will get there naturally in its own sweet time, but if you want to push things along a bit faster, this stuff will help. Whether you use the powder or let the plant do it on its own, from that point on the soil will have this good bacteria living in it and you shouldn’t have to inoculate the soil again.

Go ahead and water it in and wait for the magic to happen. In this August heat, I’d venture it would be just a few days before you see seedlings. These cowpeas are pretty tough and push through most soil like champs, but we have some serious clay in areas, so don’t let it crust over. They’ll need some light watering until they become established, but then you can pretty much ignore them until they start flowering. If you’re gardening in containers like I am, remember that our plants can’t drill a long tap root and will need more frequent watering than their terra firma counterparts. Either way, once those flowers bloom, they’ll need a little more water; and when the pea pods come in, they’ll need a little more water. Remember, cowpeas and all the other delicious goodies in our garden are, just like our bodies, made up mostly of water. So when you have stuff fruiting, don’t drown ’em, but don’t be chintzy with the water, either.

Now just stand back and let them do their thing! Cowpea pods can be eaten like snap peas when young. Leave them on a little longer and the beans will fatten up and you can use those as a fresh shell peas, or just let them dry on the vine and you’ll have a nice dry pea for storage. If you want them to keep producing, keep them picked. At some point, it will seem like they’re done producing, but they’ll get a second flush of pods. If you want to help those along, just add a wee bit of fertilizer or some compost.

I’d wish you luck, but you won’t need it. These plants love this purgatorial south central Texas weather.