Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Winter is Coming

     Despite Central Texas experiencing brutally hot summers and generally mild winters, it is not uncommon for our area to experience extreme cold snaps due to "artic vortexes". It is a bit counter intuitive, but Climate Change models predict an increase in artic vortexes due to weakening of the mid-latitude jet streams as the higher latitudes warm at a faster rate than the lower latitudes. As the the jet stream weakens, it cannot hold back the air in artic regions as easily, allowing extreme cold air masses to migrate further south more often. Many recall the exceptionally cold Snowpocalypse of 2021 and the major ice storm of 2023 that caused extreme damage to garden and landscape plants. Meteorologist are predicting a severe winter for this area due to the Farmers Almanac and El Nino weather patterns. Although there may be challenging weather this winter for our landscape and garden plants, there are several precautions that can be taken to mitigate freezing temperatures.

   Winterization at RWCEG  

   Many fruit and vegetable plants will die or suffer damage during a freeze due to cellular rupturing in the leaves and stem of the plant as the water in the cells expand into ice crystals. At RWCEG, there are a few methods we practice to help our garden plants through the winter months. 

1. One very important piece of advice is to grow plants that are more cold hearty. Growing warm-weather plants such as tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes are very likely to fail. Better alternatives include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, lettuce, and carrots. Refer to the vegetable growing guide for a chart on planting times. 

2. It is important to be weather aware during the winter to anticipate freeze events. When a freeze is forecasted, the garden bed should be thoroughly watered ahead of the freeze. It seems counter intuitive to add water to the soil since as water expands to becomes ice, it can cause cellular damage to the plant. However, the water helps re-hydrate the plants to improve their cold heartiness. Furthermore, since water has a much higher specific heat capacity than air, the water reduces the rate of cooling of the soil.

3. After the soil has been watered, it should be covered by a few inches of  mulch. The mulch will help hold in the heat of the soil against the cooling air. Good mulch materials include shredded leaves, pine needles, cut grass, straw, or woody landscaping mulches.

4. If feasible, it is best to cover the plants under a think blanket or tarp. However, be sure there is a surrounding structure to prevent the weight of the covering from harming the plant. It can be especially problematic if it rains or ice forms on the covering since the added weight can cause further harm. Many gardeners will use tomato cages or large buckets to surround the plants before adding the protective covering. Since the garden beds at RWCEG are topped with hoops covered in mesh materials to protect the plants from wildlife, the gardeners there typically drape the the hoop structure with a large translucent plastic sheet or a tarp. An advantage of a translucent material is it allows sunlight to reach the plants during day time, and it acts like a greenhouse to raise the temperature of the plant's enclosed environment. Refer to the covered bed picture below as an illustration. This illustrated coving protected bell pepper plants when there were near-freeze conditions during the week of Halloween.

Covered garden bed in anticipation of freeze.

Zilker Garden Classes

On October 21,  Mary Kraemer from the Austin Organic Gardeners organization presented "Artic Vortex Garden Prep" at the Zilker Botanical Gardens . Below are helpful handouts from the gathering that summarize actions to protect plants from freezing conditions. Click on the images to enlarge.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Importance of Soil

    The Natural Gardener nursery (TNG) often provides educational classes on Saturday mornings. On September 30, 2023, the Education Director of Zilker Botanical Garden, Matthew Gaston, gave a comprehensive presentation on "The Importance of Soil" at TNG. The lecture included in-depth details of the physical, chemical, and biological components of soil. Included were insights and recommendations to enhance soil for improved plant growth. From my seat at the lecture, I took pictures of his The Importance of Soil Lecture presentation material. Although the pictures are crude due to lack of resolution, some are rather informative. Also, I found material by Mr. Gaston on how to be a "net-zero-hero". If you have an opportunity to attend a class or presentation by Matthew Gaston, I highly recommend it!

- Glenn Starnes; an RWCEG caretaker

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Garden Revival 2023

     Since the post-days of the COVID pandemic, there had been little activity at RWCEG. However, thanks to the rejuvenated interest of one of the original garden founders, Andrea Sparks, several new neighborhood families joined the RWCEG community to revive the garden beds and plant in late spring of 2023. Long time caretakers, Glenn and Evan Starnes guided the new gardeners on planting techniques and taught sustainability concepts. 

    Unfortunately, due to the exceptionally hot and dry summer, not many of the planting endeavors thrived. Nevertheless, there were some high moments during the Spring and Summer season as illustrated by the pictures below. Now that Autumn has arrived, we are hopeful to start new crops and fun community experiences.

Evan teaching about raised garden bed techniques.
String beans, mint, and basil are growing in the foreground.

Evan giving a lecture on raising worms for composting.

Garden students building a worm habitat.

A "bug hotel" built to attract beneficial insects such as mason bees to improve pollination at the garden.

Dozens of snap pea pods were grown on a trellis.

Bell Peppers, basil, and strawberries! Note the pine straw mulch.

A string of cherry tomatoes growing on a vine.

A hornworm caterpillar eating a tomato plant...and the resulting spotted hawk moth!

Wild cucumber vines grew throughout the garden with high yields and no planting! 

Real Mustang grapes and embedded fake grapes to fool local wildlife.

Zinnia and Sunflower flowers to adorn the garden beds.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Shelter-in-Place at the Garden

Winter crops protected from wildlife with a mesh screen.

The Winter Screen Scene

     Happy Spring 2020 from RWCEG! During the Shelter-in-Place restrictions on our community due to the Covid-19 virus, it is sure nice to have a safe and beautiful place in the outdoors like RWCEG to visit. To be clear, the pictures shown above were the winter season crops grown in Bed 1 (the wicking bed). From front to back, our gardeners grew carrots, violas (an edible flower similar to pansies), many varieties of lettuce, spinach, kale, fennel, chocolate mint, coconut geranium, cabbage, broccoli, and a forest of sugar snap peas. You may notice the green mesh screen cover draped over the white hoops. This screen was added to keep wildlife from eating the plants; especially the broccoli that was eaten several times during the fall. After our third time re-planting the broccoli, we added the screen barrier out of desperation. Prior to adding the screen, we had tried using motion detecting ultrasonic pest repellers. Unfortunately, they proved to be ineffective, so adding the cumbersome screen was our next preventative measure against pests. We made the screen such that is could easily be lifted up on the sides to allow gardeners to water and harvest the plants. Although working with the screen was cumbersome at times, it did do a much better job of protecting the crops. We hope to remove the screen as we transition to spring crops.

Bragging Broccoli

A broccoli with a super sized floret crown.

     Although we struggled to grow broccoli at RWCEG this past season, Evan and I were much more successful with growing them at home. The picture above shows one "super broc" we managed to grow. An advantage we have at the home garden is it is in an enclosed "garden house" made of the same green mesh.

The Red Wiggler Roundup

Multilevel worm composter
Red Wiggler worms in their slurry in composter

     A new addition to RWCEG is our Worm Farm! Around Christmas time, Evan decided he wanted to revive an abandoned Worm Composter. As shown above and to the left, a Worm Composter is made of several stacked bins, each with a mesh bottom. The mesh allows for worms to pass to different levels of the composter. As one level becomes depleted of food, they move to the next level. Worms typically used for composting are red wigglers (Eisenia fetida). They appear similar to earthworms (aka nightcrawers), but they are a bit smaller and redder in appearance. The advantage of red wigglers is they can eat and digest rotting organic material from the surface of the soil while earthworms eat already-composted soil that is deep underground. After digesting, these worms "poop out" material called worm castings. There are many benefits of worm castings. They contain minerals such as concentrated nitrates, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus. Castings are considered organic fertilizer that can increase a plant’s yield, protect both soil and plants from diseases, and help the soil retain moisture.

     After Evan received a batch of mail order red wigglers, he introduced them to their new multilevel home. To feed them, he made a slurry by blending up news papers (which is rich in carbon), coconut coir, and raw compostable materials such as leaves, and fruit & vegetable food scraps. The worms were placed into the slurry in one of the levels of their composter housing. Over time, the worms eventually moved to a new level for fresh slurry once they had finished consuming from the initial level. The spent level, now full of worm castings, has been mixed in with the soil we are using for Spring planting. We will let you know if we notice a difference in the how the plants grow with this nutritious supplement.

Winter Harvesting and Spring Planting

Ava with her garden salad harvest

Evan standing next to his bamboo trellis masterpiece built with scout skills.

     As Winter came to a close, we had several good harvests. Above is garden-girl, Ava, showing off one of her harvests of peas and carrots. We estimate the winter pea vines produced about 200 pea pods. Ava made several great salads with her family after harvesting lettuces, peas, and carrots each week at the garden throughout the latter weeks of winter.

     More recently we have planted a variety of potatoes, bell peppers, carrots, nasturtium, many varieties of beans, and yes, more snap peas. Later in the season, we will plant tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini. Since our pea vines always out grow our tomato cages and 5 ft. back trellises, Evan and I built a 9 ft. high trellis with bamboo and twine. We used our Scout Skills to lash together the bamboo rods with the twine. The newly planted peas have already grabbed the lower rungs of the string lattice with their tendrils. We hope our next picture will show the pea vines reaching the top! We will report back on our garden happenings at the end of the Spring season. In the meantime, from the RWCEG community, stay safe and healthy. During the Covid Crisis, please practice social distancing from other people, but remember, your plants still need your caring touch to thrive!

Posted by Glenn Starnes;  a RWCEG caretaker

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Cool Harvests in the Heat of Summer 2019

Beck and Ava with first cucumber harvest from their giant plant grown from seed!
     It has been a typical hot summer in Austin, but it is still "cool" to be at the Rollingwood Garden. Although the heat prevents us from planting new crops, the gardeners are still diligent to water and tend the spring garden plants through summer harvest. Although the summer heat wiped out a few of our plants, there were still some spectacular harvests.

The Super Cucumber Vine
    The most amazing plant at RWCEG this spring and summer is a cucumber vine that was planted from a very small seed. It rapidly grew, and soon it towered over the girls that planted and took care of it week after week. The leaves grew larger than their heads, and it became covered with small yellow flowers. The flowers started to bulge outward until, after a few weeks, they were fully ripe cucumbers. Time got a way from us and a few over ripened into what appeared to be large, yellow squash. Although past their prime, they were still edible. The cucumber vine continued to produce cucumbers for several weeks.

Ava proud of her tasty carrots
Little but Big
     Another successful crop were the carrots. Although they were rather little in size, they were still big on flavor. Carrots are tricky to grow since the seeds are like grains of sand. It is difficult to space them properly when planting, so many come up too close to each other. The crowding can reduce the vegetable size, so we practice "thinning" in which we purposely pull out some of the smaller, weaker plants early on to allow more room for the stronger plants to thrive. From our results, we obviously have room to improve, but we are still grateful with we got.

Potato Pals

 The Subterranean Easter Egg Hunt
     A long time favorite event at RWCEG has been the Potato Harvest in mid to late May. The kids have a great time digging through the dirt with no idea what treasures they will find.  Since we grow a variety of multi-colored potatoes, the event is akin to a subterranean Easter egg hunt! We harvested a few potatoes at a time for about a month. Some families made delicious dishes with the potatoes by adding chives and rosemary also harvested from the garden.

Can you spot the fake vs real grapes
When The Fake Becomes Real
     The fenced perimeter of RWCEG becomes covered in Mustang grape vines by Summer time. Despite the fact the vines produce a lot of grapes, we usually only get a few ripe ones because our "forest friends" eat them before they are prime. This year, however, with a cleaver idea from my visiting parents, we decided to outsmart the forest foragers by hanging purple, fake plastic grapes along the vine. The hope was that the animals would be drawn to the fake grapes first, and decide they do not taste good.  Then, when the real grapes become ripe, the animals will not be interested, thinking they taste as bad as the fake ones sampled earlier. I am not sure how well this concept works, but we did end up harvesting a tremendous number of ripe grapes one week. There were so many grapes that we became tired of harvesting and decided to pick more the following weeks. However, by the next week, there were virtually no grapes to be found! Most of the grapes were bitter-sweet. I found it best to blend them in a juicer and then add just a little bit of honey!

From the Real grape harvest
Okra in Bloom
     We also harvest a little bit of okra. Although the edible vegetable is not pretty, the flower on the plant is large and beautiful. Okra can withstand the heat quite well.

The Pleasing Pea Vine
      In early spring we planted sugar snap peas from seed. By end of spring we had a remarkable harvest of peas from the vines that grew about 10 feet tall. They were fun to eat from the vine. In many cases I had to help our younger members reach the peas at the top!
     Presently we have a large variety of beans growing at the garden that have been harvested a little bit each week. We also have peppers, tomatoes, and a watermelon growing at the garden, but they are not doing well due to the summer heat. We are hoping they perk back up and start producing once the weather begins to cool in early Autumn. Many vegetable plants "shut down" when temperatures exceed 85'F.

And one for the bugs...
And one for the bugs...
     We make efforts to remove (organically) "bad bugs" from the garden, but many insects and bugs are beneficial. We let select critters share in our garden bounty. One example are the swallowtail caterpillars that are attracted to our dill and fennel plants. Although they eat some of the plant, we know they will become beautiful butterflies that will pollinate many flowers. Besides, we mostly eat the fennel bulb which grows underground.

Happy Gardening to all!
Posted by Glenn Starnes 7/21/2019

Monday, April 15, 2019

Getting “Dirty” at the Garden

Garden helpers making super soil in the new garden bed make of cedar wood. 

     A lot has been happening at RWCEG this Spring, 2019. We recently have had additional families join our garden community. To provide more growing capacity for our newest members, one of our deteriorated garden beds has recently been rebuilt. Special thanks to the Nyer family for obtaining building materials and constructing the new raised garden bed frame. The new bed is built of wood to complement the existing concrete-cinder-block and composite-plastic raised beds. Untreated Cedar wood was chosen since it will decay at a much slower rate than most other woods, and it will not leach harmful chemicals into the garden soil that could be absorbed by the plants. For additional protection against weathering, the wood bed has been completely varnished with two coats of raw linseed oil. Linseed oil is derived from pressed flax seeds (a super food!), and it is considered a very safe, non-toxic wood preservative appropriate for organic gardening.

     Of course, the most important part of any garden bed is the soil. An informative class was held at RWCEG to educate our gardeners on the components of good garden soil based on the guidelines of Square-Foot-Gardening methods. With a lot of help from our youngest garden members, the soil ingredients were measured, mixed, and spread in the new garden bed. Our soil components included:
   1. Multi-sourced Compost - This is the primary food for the plants.
   2. Peat moss & coconut coir - Used for improved water retention.
   3. Vermiculite - A heat expanded mineral full of air pockets. It is very light and used for water retention and aeration. It helps make the soil friable (loose) and reduces compaction for improved root growth. 

Glenn & Evan teaching gardeners about soil components.

Garden helpers mixing soil ingredients. 

     The RWCEG community would like to give a shout out to the primary supplier of our garden soil resources, Brite Ideas: Aquaponics, Hydroponics & Organics.

     We could have just bought pre-mixed potting soils, but as an Education Garden, we wanted our members to understand how the unique properties of each soil component contributes to plant growth. Thanks to Brite Ideas, we were able to obtain each soil component in raw form in the quantities desired and at excellent prices. In addition to carrying garden and hydroponic supplies, the store owner, Troy, and his staff are very helpful, and they are very knowledgeable of their products and various types of organic gardening methods. This locally owned business also offers classes open to the public. We highly recommend checking them out for any of your garden supply needs or as a resource for learning more about various organic growing methods. Our Garden Treasurer, Becky, also bought a wide variety of seeds from Brite Ideas that will likely be planted soon in the new bed. Refer to their website for additional information: http://www.bihydro.com/

Getting soil supplies at Brite Ideas with help from store owner, Troy (right). 

Seed packets bought at Brite Ideas

Blog posted by Glenn Starnes; garden caretaker

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Spring & Summer Harvests 2018 at RWCEG

 by Evan Starnes

          We have had many successes and have learned a lot from the crops that were grown this spring and summer season. Thanks to the help of the RWCEG members and interested visitors, we were able to plant peas, peppers, and potatoes. These are crops that have grown well in the past, yield a lot, and are simple to prepare. I have had fun cooking the potatoes on a stove with olive oil. The peppers and peas however, can be be eaten straight once washed.

          A little latter in the year, I began to experiment with growing beans since I knew that the produce are shielded from bugs in thick pods. They are also heat resilient, making them a good choice for this climate. The beans that I selected where lima, kidney, black, and pinto. I soaked each bean seed that I wished to germinate in water for about 24 hours before I planted them in the ground. The black beans were a vine variety, grew very tall on a trellis, and yielded the most beans. The lima, kidney, and pinto beans that I grew were a bush variety and weren't as robust as the black beans.

          Unfortunately, the leaves of the plants were nibbled on by grasshoppers, and the extreme heat slowed down the plants productivity. The bean plants still were able to produce very nice bean specimens, even though the harvest wasn't as great as I had hoped. I plan to simmer the beans, so they they can be eaten! Next year I hope to plant event more beans, and plant them earlier, so they can start to grow when it is cooler.

          After The Rollingwood Fourth of July parade I was glad to have many different families wander down to the garden when they were done with the party festivities. Many people got to learn about what was currently growing, and kids got to help water the garden with watering cans. Around this time, Mustang Grapes were ready to be harvested off the vine which served as a fun attraction. The kids were also amused by the many rubber snakes that were placed around the garden with the intention of  scaring away birds.

Banana Bell Peppers
          Gardening this season was a blast! I hope that our Fall planting season will also be successful and will teach the people of Rollingwood important gardening skills. I wish for there to be more gardening participants in the near future who can experience the excitement of gardening.

Black Bean Vines



Fourth of July Expiernce
Harvested Kidney Beans