For years I would, from time to time, look up Central Texas Gardening on the internet. This usually coincided with a complete gardening fail of some sort and the inevitable”Does anything grow here?” that I would ask myself. It’s been a real lesson in trusting the Lord for our provision and seeking Him in prayer for what we should be doing, if He would have us to grow anything here at all.
In that internet search, I found blogs that were given up on after a year or two of blog posts detailing the few successes and many failures the harsh conditions here gave. I found sites that said growing vegetables here was no problem, if you had plenty of money to plunk down upfront on shipping in compost and oh yeah, don’t forget to spray with heavy chemicals for a gar-an-teed yield in spite of the grasshoppers, fire ants, rabbits, and squash bugs.
Neither of those were options for us. We did try out the Back to Eden wood chip mulch concept but found that seeds did not germinate well in the soil abutting the wood chips, that this was more a long-term (4+ years) solution to building soil, and that it did nothing to improve the layer of soil 12-18 inches below the wood chips that remained hard as a rock.
Every year, by the Lord’s mercy in providing seeds and resources and teaching us new things, has yielded a better garden than the previous. This year has been the most successful by far, again only by the Lord’s mercies in having the water, building up of the soil, and the resources and physical energy for us to do the work needed.
After five years of Texas gardening, here are ten things we’ve learned:
- Manure. Seriously, give me a huge pile of steaming poo composting away and I am a happy girl. Adding plenty of manure and straw and then letting it sit for a season before planting has made one of the biggest differences for our garden. If you want to know why manure is so good for your soil, this is a good article.
- Dig Deep. We are big fans of the concepts of no-till gardening. The problem is that you have to have established top soil rather than hard clay to begin with in order to practice such an endeavor. So when the Back to Eden gardening was proving problematic for short-term soil building, we began mixing things in. It took us a couple of years but now much of our two main garden spaces – the pallet garden and the chicken field – have had the clay turned over and mixed in with a great deal of soil amendments and manure/straw mixture. The best beds are now ones we can add layers of organic matter to but do not need to be tilled in the same way every planting.
- Raw Milk. Stewart has been adding raw milk to the garden as per this article and we really think it has helped the health of the soil and the plants.
- Grow short-season crops to avoid the very dry/hot months of July, August, and September. The two major seasons for us are March – early July and September through November. In between the sweet potatoes and cowpeas and collards can survive, if given enough water. This concept is one that is elaborated upon in Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land.
- Use fowl as bug control. We had a crazy grasshopper issue before we ramped up the number of guineas and chickens we kept on the property. I think it was in a Geoff Lawton video that we heard a bug problem is usually a lack of turkey or chicken problem and that proved very true for us.
- Getting a cat for rodent control. Likewise, when the rats began eating tomatillos, sweet potatoes, and more; we realized a cat was needed. That is how Rover came to the homestead.
- Starting seeds inside, away from pests and harsh conditions, early. This looks like Jan/Feb for spring and September for fall. Again, focusing on these two shorter seasons has helped us to avoid the toughest months of the year for plants.
- Heavily seed beds. We do a lot of direct sowing for crops like greens, roots, brassicas, and herbs. When we have rain in the forecast, or literally heading our way, we have been known to make a bed ready and broadcast the seed and barely cover it with soil. Unlike the usual method of poking a hole and planting a single seed, this method gives us a bed of seedlings we can thin as needed. Those thinnings we eat in salads or soups and in the end we have more food and fewer holes in beds where poor seed germination or critters were an issue.
- Learn to eat what grows, not the other way around. If we lived in the lush Willamette Valley we could choose heirloom tomato varieties, cucumbers of all kinds, and whatever vegetables we loved eating simply because we were used to eating them. Not here. Okra isn’t everyone’s favorite but it grows well so we eat it and it can be delicious if cooked right. Cowpeas are not as yummy as green beans but are more prolific so we eat them. We all prefer white potatoes to sweet (though we love both) so we learn to eat the ones that grow that year. Furthermore, when we find something that works, we plant it again and again, whether or not it is our favorite food. Turnips, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, collards, mustard, chard, and squash are all on that list. Things like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers have all been far too hit and miss so we are waiting until we get the staple nutrition and calorie crops down before we venture into the more “fun” stuff.
- A move towards more animal foods. I read a book recently that detailed the life of the Texas settlers near this area before railways could bring staple foods consistently. In Interwoven Sallie Reynolds Matthews said they ate primarily meat, eggs, milk, and bread made from large stores of wheat and corn meal they would purchase in huge quantities. She also said that, having been exposed to the concepts of vitamins and minerals in later days, she was shocked at how healthy her whole family was despite the very rare intake of fruits and vegetables they had. Milk, eggs, and meat/organs/broth are all incredibly nutrient and calorie dense. Along with a staple crop like potatoes, corn, or squash and some greens; these homegrown foods could completely sustain us if grown in large quantities.
Having said all that, I want to emphasize two things. The first is that we are not experts by a long shot; these ten lessons were learned the hard way and I’m sure we have much more to learn. Secondly, food is only as good as the soil it comes from. Likewise, animal foods are only as good as the food they eat. Really focusing on organic matter and minerals in the soil has made a great deal of difference for us in the gardens.
As does choosing the right vegetable varieties for this area. Someone recently asked me what has worked well in our gardens, which sort of inspired this little blog series. The list I gave her I will share with you next time.