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

F is for February

The natural order of things in my neighborhood goes something like this. In the spring the grass gets scalped to remove the winter rye so the turf can take its place in the sun. In the summer the grass gets watered. A LOT. The water evaporates before it has a chance to reach the grass roots and much of it just runs into the street. Once a week, the mow and blow team fans out to make the whole place look like a golf course. In the fall the grass gets scalped again and over-seeded with winter rye. I cannot stand this and it drives my blood pressure through the roof.

I have sent photos of the water run off to the owner of the landscape company and remarked to the HOA manager how wasteful and irresponsible this practice is to no avail. (It would cost too much to rip out the existing system and do it right. Why can’t I be satisfied with a nice seasonal color change at the entrance & in the common areas twice a year?)

This very small neighborhood was built by a company that does not care one bit that they destroyed many 100+ year old oaks by compacting the soil and building tree wells that held run off and rain water for days. Those majestic trees were a big selling point for this “best kept secret” neighborhood, but the mosquito infested pools around them became an issue for the builder. Sales were starting to tank, what with the economy and all, and so the site supervisor decided the tree wells should be covered with black fabric and then filled with river rock to abate the water/mosquito problem. (I know, I saw it all go down.) The landscape company was glad to have the work and was obliged to knowingly finish the job and insure the death of those trees with their irresponsible actions.

Once all of the homes were sold, the HOA was turned over from the builder to the actual home owners. We organized and elected members who would look out for the best interest of the entire neighborhood. (HOA’s are not associations of home owners who love their neighbors as they love themselves!) The large trees started to die and posed a hazard to the homes. They had to be removed. I am not an environmental extremist or a gorilla gardener but it was painful to watch those trees be choked to death and then cut down.

Fast forward to February 1st, 2012.

In the winter the landscape crews everywhere have virtually nothing to do. All of their jobs for all of their clients are the same, blow & go. We have had a mild winter so far here in North Texas and most everything that would be dead as a doornail by now is still green. Roses get pruned mid-February and when the weather gets warm, we will begin the insanity of scalp, over-water, mow & blow again.

This morning just as I was about to make coffee, I heard the sound of a weed eater. I said to myself, what the hell could they possibly be using a weed eater for? Everything is dormant; nothing has grown since they were here last week. Now you probably know that landscaping crews stay busy in the summer. They are booked solid. In the winter they have to give the guys who hang in there until spring something to do. Since they had nothing to whack, mow or blow in my neighborhood today, the one man crew decided to hack something and he took his hedge trimmer to an area he had no business hacking.

I have a small patio area which has been my project since I completed the Texas Master Gardener program a couple of years ago. I purposefully removed the grass and installed drip irrigation in two planting beds. Flagstone now covers the area that was grass. I chose native/adapted plants and use water wise methods like mulching to create a place to enjoy when it isn’t 110 degrees outside. In the spring it’s the happiest place on earth for me and all summer my neighbors complement my bloomers and lament their lack of a green thumb. This area is a challenge because it is on the north side of the house and stays very wet because of the poorly placed sprinkler heads. It only gets sun from April through August which is a blessing and a curse. Earthkind is the new organic since most AG colleges get funding from non-organic sources. So I use the Earthkind method in addition to water wise.

This morning I walked outside to a scene that sent my blood pressure to the moon. My little piece of earth had been violated and the perpetrator had moved on to butchering the knockout roses used to disguise a utility box on the corner. That is when the yelling started. I was furious. (I know peace & love, peace & love.) Did I mention I was furious? That means engulfed by an overwhelming, uncontrollable fury.

You see, back in the good old days when our little association of peace & love was first organized, I was “nominated” to chair the landscape committee. The landscape service that the builders had used to create this little slice of heaven in the metroplex , well, they sucked, and we needed a new landscaping company. We accepted bids and the committee met to make a decision. I recommended the company we ended up choosing. They presented the best bid, they were established in the area, and so we went with them. Imagine my embarrassment today not only for yelling obscenities into the air as I surveyed the damage while the one man landscape crew, who did so understand what I was saying took refuge in his truck but also for being the one who recommended their company in the first place. The man was on the phone with his boss when I walked around front to find him and apologize for my outburst. I know his boss and his boss knows me. This man, who no doubt is working to send money somewhere to support his extended family just handed me the phone. I unloaded on his boss, reminded him that I was the one who recommended his company for this job, and then listened to him apologize. (I do not feel good about myself for this.)

A half hour later the boss showed up and when I heard him talking, I stepped out onto the patio to join the conversation. He was sorry, I was sorry, and the whole thing got resolved. We talked about the difference between commercial landscaping and gardening. I had him translate an apology to the worker, who just shook his head like yeah whatever que mujer demente. (Cooler heads prevailed too little too late maybe.) Not a tragedy by any stretch but a dramatic way to begin February for sure.

How lucky I am that a thoughtful person sent me an excerpt today from a book entitled Keepers of the Earth. It is a compilation of Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children. How timely too because this morning I acted just like a child. This is a corn grinding song of Zuni origin from the story The Hero Twins and the Swallower of Clouds. (My Indian name is One of Many Words.)

“Clouds come rising out of my beautiful mountains.
Up in the sky, the rain makers are sitting.
One after another rain clouds are coming.
Over there the flowers are coming.
Here the young corn is growing.”

To all of the keepers of the earth……(Por favor, acepte mis disculpas.)