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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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
Texas Master Gardeners Association