The Most Awesome 30 Minute Organic Gardening 101 Talk Ever

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A friend of mine who teaches high school asked his students what they think when they hear the word philanthropy. One of the clever students said, “I think it’s when rich people have gas” and without missing a beat, my friend said, “Yes! When rich people have so much gas it becomes contagious, that’s philanthropy.”

Of course the student was trying to be funny, but the teacher got the last laugh. The lesson here is that what we think isn’t necessarily wrong; it may just need to be modified.

Oh, and don’t try outsmart a wise teacher.

Before I moved to Texas I thought, dry, dusty, windy, hot like living in a big hair dryer. Dallas, South Fork Ranch, Patrick Duffy, hot, Houston we have a problem, Tom Hanks, hot, cowboys, hot, oil rigs, hot. Now, after living here and becoming part of a community I know that Texas is much more than I expected. It is also hot like living in a big hair dryer.

Don't Fence Me In

I now know there are old growth forests, although development is making them more scarce by the day, and lovely azalea trails in the hill country. There are prairies filled with blue bonnets in the spring and red bud trees are given to third graders to take home and plant. Pecans and grapefruit are plentiful in Texas. I have worked in community gardens that produce thousands of pounds of organic produce for food pantries.

I also know there are volunteers who work tirelessly when there is a flood or wildfire, which is common in Texas. I know there are lonesome towns where people still do an honest days work to feed their families and keep them healthy.

Archer "City"

I also know among the many beautiful parks and lakes there is only one natural lake in the entire state, Caddo Lake, where signs posted all around say DO NOT EAT THE FISH. Something about mercury, I think. Everything is truly bigger in Texas; even the heat. The heat is big, very big, and because it is so hot, gardening in Texas can be brutal, but it can be done successfully and organically despite the severe lack of organic material in the soil.

Butte or Landfill?

What do you think of when you hear the word organic?

  • expensive fruits and vegetables
  • farmers raising crops that are safer to eat
  • growing healthy plants with minimal impact on the environment
  • avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides

People who prefer to have less manipulation in their diet and who want to live in a less toxic environment often feel compelled to defend their choice to use organic methods, but just as we choose the kind of car we drive or the clothes we wear or any of the other thousands of personal choices we are privileged to have the freedom to make, deciding to garden as nature intended doesn’t need a defense. In fact, organic methods are becoming fashionable as evidenced by the number of people choosing organic options and by the use of modified terms that have the same meaning as organic, but with slightly less of the lunatic fringe, hippie tree-hugger stigma attached to them by some whose salaries are paid by grants from non-organic sources.

A professor once said to me that I must be one of those organic extremists.

Buffalo Tongue

One of these other (modified) terms is SmartScape, which has the stated goal of promoting use of native plants that use less water, tolerate Texas heat, attract pollinators and other wildlife to our gardens and reduce storm water pollution by encouraging the practice of using fewer chemicals, as well as mulching to conserve water and reduce maintenance.

The other term is EarthKind which has the same principles of water conservation and reduction of fertilizer and pesticide use, with the added purpose of designing landscapes for energy conservation and less landscape waste ending up in landfills.

Soil Preparation

Soil Preparation is by far the most important gardening activity to ensure plants get the water and nutrients they need. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money and it doesn’t have to be complicated. All you need are the proper tools, materials, and time.

The first thing to do is identify the soil type. Is it clay, sandy, or loam? Most soil in our area is clay; brick oven hard when it’s dry and a gummy muck when it’s less dry. Testing the soils pH is a good idea, but unless you plan to grow plants which have a specific requirement for either more or less acidity, there is no reason to go to the trouble and expense trying to drastically change the soil’s pH.

Bee Mine

What usually does need to be drastically changed is the amount of organic material in soil that has been compacted by construction or for other reasons isn’t yet suitable for gardening. This is done by adding amendments to the soil. There are lots of recipes out there, be aware that no regulatory agency oversees products labeled as soil amendments. What do amendments do?

  • Improve soil structure
  • Encourage growth of beneficial microorganisms (bacteria, fungi) that convert organic material into nutrients to feed plants
  • Create a hospitable environment for beneficial insects and worms

Amendments include yard waste such as grass clippings, leaves and other dead plant material as well as compost. Composted products such as cotton bur hulls can be purchased at garden centers or compost can be made using fruit and vegetable (not meat or bones) food scraps, coffee grounds, yard waste and shredded newspaper. Horse manure that has been properly aged may also be used, but DO NOT USE domestic pet waste for compost. Also, products claiming to enhance fertility should be carefully scrutinized. There’s a lot of snake oil out there. Adding organic material to your garden increases its ability to retain moisture and make nutrients available when plants need them. Be skeptical and be aware that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to create a beautiful, bountiful, healthy garden.

Mulch! Mulch! Mulch!

There are many types of mulch on the market. Organic options without artificial coloring are preferable. Pecan shells make excellent mulch for garden paths. Mulching is vital to the success of your garden because it:

  • Slows evaporation
  • Reduces weed germination
  • Keeps soil cooler to protect plant roots
  • Creates a pleasant appearance in the landscape
  • Decomposes to provide nutrients for plants

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Plant Selection

It’s true, you don’t really know a plant until you’ve killed it at least three times. I can attest to that fact from my own experience, but you can’t go wrong with perennials. If you choose the right ones for your location, they will come back year after year.

Recommended plants for North Texas are available online. Several excellent websites are listed below. Best rule of a green thumb, grow what you like.  If you like tomatoes and zinnias, grow them. Enjoy fresh herbs for cooking or roses? Select healthy plants from a reliable retailer or start plants from seed and get busy!

There are thousands of resources available for gardeners of all skill levels.  Visit a garden center or nursery that has a knowledgeable, friendly staff to help you find the plants you love or ones you just want to discover how much it takes to kill them.

Organic gardening provides us with fresh food choices and beautiful flowers to enhance our lives. I encourage you to create a healthy habitat for wildlife and reduce toxins in the environment by choosing organic methods. The return on investment is bigger than Texas and less expensive than you may think.

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Recommended Books

Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac

The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control

Rodales’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening

The Rodale Book of Composting

The Southern Living Garden Book

Heirloom Bulbs For Today

Stewards of the Land

The Flower Farmer

Flower Confidential

Recommended Websites

Texas Master Gardeners Association

Texas SmartScapes

Water Wise

Earth Kind

Soil Tests

33 thoughts on “The Most Awesome 30 Minute Organic Gardening 101 Talk Ever

    1. It was. It was the most awesome talk I’ve ever given. The group was amazing and very appreciative. It truly made me feel awesome. I’d love to do that every day. Okay, three times a week.

  1. When I think of organic, I think of more natural, back to nature. I know what you mean about moving to a place you really don’t know. I just moved to Arizona. Yes, it’s hot, but it also has pecans, peaches, citrus fruit, palm trees, nearby walking trails, colorful tile and friendly people.

    1. Discovering the opportunities a new place has to offer has always been so much fun for me. Years ago I would take adventure drives whenever we moved to a new state. I’ve done that less here in Texas, mainly because everything is so spread out, when we first moved here gas was $4 bucks a gallon. I delivered meals on wheels for a while and then I found the community garden. Not working and not having kids in school really limited me socially. So, it has been a wonderful experience getting to know others who have similar interests.

  2. Mass quantities of LIKE for this post. It makes me wish I had a garden so I could use all of the tips you mention. The best I can do is a box of some sort on my balcony. And what the King’s Speech did that professor mean, you’re an organic extremist?? Because you care about the environment and you want less toxins in your diet? You FREAK, you. Also, I love how you said you don’t really know a plant until you’ve killed it three times. Sadly, I know from personal experience that this is, in fact, true.

    1. I love that – “mass quantities of LIKE” – Madame, you are the best!
      I gave this talk last night to a group of very smart women; mass quantities of smart. They are pure geniuses, organized, hilarious, thoughtful and know how to get a job done. Not knowing much about the group, I decided to write my talk outline (this post) to boost my confidence and I’m glad I did, they asked lots of questions and were very engaged in this topic.
      As for the prof, I chalk it up to everything being bigger in Texas. Even the male ego. HUGE! I challenged him…
      Hey, I bet you could grow a salad garden on your balcony. Does it get a lot of sun? My husband coaches the new plants I bring home to give them a fighting chance. “okay boys, let me give you the lay of the land. if you don’t preform, you’re outta here, she doesn’t mess around with stragglers.” It usually works, but I’ve killed plenty with ninja skill.

  3. Here in Arizona, also a hair dryer, perfect description, I don’t attempt to grow anything and admire the courage, knowledge and patience of those who do. I can kill a cactus here in Hell. I do only buy organic for my juicer though and I am so grateful there is more out there. Good for you,this is very interesting.

    1. Thanks S.W. Yeah, it’s the first thing that came to mind when I found out we were moving here. I’d been to Texas twice before, once in winter and once in summer. Both times, yeah, big hair dryer! 🙂

  4. Great post Honie! I think Australia must be a lot like Texas because it gets hot here too and conserving water is a must. Where I live is shale and clay, plus it’s a steep block. One of the first things I did was to put in shallow terraces to catch and hold the water. Then I slowly fill up the terraces with composting material. It’s not a quick fix but does build up some reasonable soil after a while, plus I have endless amounts of alpaca poop – the worms love it. 😀

      1. The shale doesn’t seem to be doing much for my clay. 😦 Then again the block is on a slope so maybe that has something to do with it. Alpaca poop? That’s easy as they tend to use only certain spots and poop in nice neat piles.

  5. Wonderful post Honie, I love that phrase Earthkind…
    I do the Japanese method of composting, ( dang, the name’s gone out of my head) using a couple of buckets and a fermenting agent. The liquid is wonderful, and the rest makes marvellous compost…

  6. Your Texas techniques sound very much like those my brother is using as he attempts to garden in the Nevada desert. Clay soil, compost, mulch – He has used the square foot method for years. I always think I will grow a garden and then I realize that in a decade I’ve only managed to grow bamboo on my place successfully. That line about not knowing a plant until you have killed it three times – I have killed three wisteria vines, no one in the nursery here believes that was possible, but I am an overachiever. The description of Texas as a giant hair dryer is spot on – best description ever.

    1. Raised beds are the way to go when growing vegetables for sure. The community garden has them, and they are perfect for gardeners who don’t want to do battle with native soils. Wisteria killer eh? That takes some skill. Too much water?

      1. He has been using raised beds and building new soil with compost for some time now – there is a university orchard there that mulches all the tree trimmers waste and composts it – you can pick up a truckload as often as you like for almost nothing.

        The wisteria is a puzzle. I had a sandstone patio and pergola put in a few years ago and nothing will grow near it – so the pergola is bare, I wonder if the cement did something to the soil. I have tried wisteria, hyssop, passion vines – nothing grows except the bluegrass around it.

        1. It’s great when municipalities make mulch available like that. Even if you have to pay a small fee. Although, I know someone who got a free truck load of mulch from the power company once after storm debris removal that was full of termites….so….
          Puzzle indeed, since wisteria is supposedly impossible to kill. You could do a soil test yourself with a kit from a garden center to see what’s going on or just let the bluegrass do its thing.

            1. I was giving this some thought because I know how much I wanted to have a fragrant climbing rose to cover our pergola. You could try planting wisteria in a container and training it up the post. The birds will love having plant cover and if you get the right plant (I found out that there are male and female wisteria and the males don’t bloom) you’ll have a sweet fragrance to greet you while photographing all of that wonderful bird activity you have going on there. Just a thought.

              1. I may give that a shot – I have always wanted that viney shade out there – I actually have a pergola on both sides of my place and it would add so much to have something natural up there.

  7. I’m not into gardening much, but I found your description of Texas both fascinating and eye-opening. I have close friends who live in the Dallas area, but I haven’t visited them since I was a child. One of these days, I keep saying. And I’ll admit to having my own stereotypes about Texas, mainly that it is hot like living in a big hair dryer. And flat, and treeless, and very Republican.

    1. Well the big hair dryer thing is correct. Here in North Texas where the wind comes sweeping down from Oklahoma, it can sometimes fell like a big hair dryer at midnight!
      Parts of Texas are flat and parts have gently rolling hills. There are magnificent 100+ year old oaks here as well as many other varieties of trees. Pecans are a major crop. There are more democrats here than most people may think, but no matter the politics, every person on the planet has to eat, and the food has to come from somewhere.

    1. I am a certified master composter. Yes, it’s real. Unfortunately my HOA doesn’t allow composting. So, I don’t do it at home. I take kitchen scraps to the community garden in a neighboring town.

        1. When I first became a refugee from corporate America, I had to find something to do with my time. Fortunately for me there was a community garden nearby that had plots available. There are two gardens, both prominently placed in the city center and city officials are very proud of them. Once I got to know some of the gardeners and discovered the Master Gardener program offered as an extension of Texas A&M, well, you know, I went full speed and the rest is (recent) history. 😉

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