fall garden update

This summer in Austin wasn’t so bad, compared to last summer’s endless days above 100 degrees. Still, it was warm enough that by the time I pulled my dead, dry tomato plants from the ground and tossed them into the compost pile, I was ready for a gardening solution that wouldn’t require me to spend too much time weeding or tending until October or so, when the weather cools down.

You may remember that I am an apartment-dweller and have a plot in an Austin community garden, so I have the advantage of being able to spy on my neighbors and steal their techniques. My boyfriend-and-gardening-partner and I remembered that last year, a neighbor planted pumpkins in her plot and they completely took over. The big, beautiful orange pumpkins grew out of long, green vines that shielded the soil from the sun, suffocated weeds, and seemed to need very little in the way of “tending,” other than the occasional watering. This seemed like exactly the solution we were looking for, but I’m not super excited about growing Halloween pumpkins. Keeping the same technique, we planted seeds for Lakota, butternut, acorn, and sugar pumpkin squash.

The garden’s going wild. It’s so awesome.

The herb bed is still intact, though some of the herbs are suffering in the heat. The peppers (jalapeno, sahuaro, tiny bells) are going strong and being pickled as fast as I can pick them and get them sliced. The vast majority of space in the garden, however, has been given over to gorgeous, trailing, vining, delicious-looking winter squash.

A couple of the seeds never sprouted, or their plant-lings aren’t doing so well, so over the next few weeks I’ll start planting broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and spinach in the spaces between. Last year, the fall garden was pretty orderly– everything was in beds in nice rows. This year, all the beds have been taken down and we’re just going to let things ramble and see how it goes. I’m looking forward to a winter full of orange, starchy, golden, roasted squash.

P.S. I had a panic moment when I wondered, “How am I ever going to make use of all of this mutant squash [note: link is hilarious, but a lot profane]?” But luckily, Two Peas and Their Pod recently posted a round-up of 50 Pumpkin Recipes! I bet a lot of these could be adapted for any sort of winter squash, don’t you think?

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drying herbs

This is what I’ve learned in the eight or so months I’ve had an herb garden.

Cilantro doesn’t like the heat, despite the fact that I really want to use it when it’s above 90 degrees outside. All of my cilantro right now comes from the grocery store, but it’s only 29 cents a bundle so I’m not too sad about that. The cilantro in my garden has a hard time wanting to live, though.

Basil loves to grow and is incredibly easy, but when the first frost hits, it will die an amazing, spectacular death. Its cells literally explode inside itself, so from one day to the next it just falls completely apart. Fresh basil tastes terrific on everything.

Sage is awesome. I’m growing a silver and a purple sage, and they are both marvelously tasty and miraculously hardy. They survived The Great Austin Snow of 2011 without being covered, and still produce huge, fragrant leaves. The silver sage also sends up stems covered with tiny purple flowers that resemble a smaller larkspur. Clipping these flowers makes a very pretty bouquet, and makes your house smell marvelous.

I’m good at growing chamomile, which is apparently difficult to grow in this climate (who knew?), but I have no idea what to do with it.

Oregano goes crazy. My oregano is a huge bush with long, strong stems. No matter how much I cut it back, it comes back immediately. There will be a lot of Mexican and Italian in my cooking this summer, so I can use up as much of that oregano as possible. Also, you’re all getting jars of homemade dried oregano from me this Christmas. I have plenty.

Chives behave oddly. When they get too mature, they wilt, fall down, turn yellow, and look generally unhappy. Essentially, chives pout when underused. If your chives look unhappy, though, cut them down to about an inch, and four days later you will have tall, straight, marvelously happy chives.

Rosemary, when first transplanted, needs to be watered. Otherwise, like most plants, it will die. If you try to harvest your baby rosemary plant before it’s grown big and strong, it will die. Essentially, when rosemary is young, it’s quite easy to kill. I’m now on rosemary plant #3, but thanks to a rainy couple of weeks, I think this one is going to stick around. Once its taken root, the rumor is that it’s impossible to kill.

And drying herbs is a cinch.

Do this: make an herb garden. Use the sunny part of your porch and an old container, and plant 2-3 herbs per large pot. When you think the herbs are getting too big for the container, clip a few bundles with a pair of scissors. Tie them with some kitchen string and hang them in your pantry or another dark closet or cabinet, and enjoy a few days of that closet smelling herbacious and lovely. When the herbs are dry, remove the leaves from the stems and store in an airtight container. Don’t mince or crush the herbs until you’re ready to use them. They keep for about a year. And give them as gifts!

fall gardening

Handsome and I acquired a 20×20 garden plot at Sunshine Community Gardens back in October. For those of you not familiar with the concept of a community garden, they’re a way for urban people and apartment dwellers (like us) to garden without having to buy a house with a backyard. In Austin, a single-family home is cost-prohibitive for a lot of folks, and young couples seem to wait longer to buy their first home, which frequently is a condo, townhouse, or duplex that may not have space for a garden.

I like this trend toward smaller living, especially in my peer group. It’s very easy to worry about what those Joneses are doing, but the expectation that we will live in the houses of our parents at the ripe old age of 25 is pretty silly. I, for example, live in a much more expensive city than any of my parents do. I also took a different educational path, one which I don’t regret but has resulted in my having my first “real” job in my mid-twenties. There has hardly been time to save a down payment amidst finals, research papers, and ramen noodles.

But I digress. Our community garden in particular places emphasis on the fact that we are a community, so part of the contract is that we will do one hour of service per month that benefits the garden as a whole, plus put in some extra time to help the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which owns the land we work on. Our garden maintains a well-kept stock of heavy tools, we compost our own vegetable matter, and we are provided with wood chips  and leaves to use as mulch.

The garden plot itself was not set up at all for us, and previous gardeners had let most of it go to weed, so the process for transforming the entire 400 square feet into usable, arable space has been tedious. Instead of clearing the entire plot (which would have put us long past any planting season), we cleared one 4×8 space at a time, enough for a raised bed, and went from there. We now have four beds.

The first, and most successful, holds herbs (most of which were transplanted, not planted from seed). We have three varieties of thyme, two of nasturtium, two of sage, one oregano, marjoram, savory, dill, chamomile, parsley, basil (which has died for winter), and rosemary. Our other plots have had mixed success. We have three varieties of broccoli in one, which are doing fine, but they share space with turnips, radishes, and beets, none of whose seeds have germinated at all. Our brussels sprouts, in another bed, are pretty hardy so far, and the shallots we planted with them are trucking along. But we also planted two varieties each of spinach and mustard, and have had decidedly mixed success. One variety of mustard is slow, but growing, and I seem to have killed the other, while I think the spinaches just grow at different speeds. The final bed holds peas, which are doing fine, and carrots and onions, which refuse to sprout.

Part of the problem, we’ve been told, is that we may not have kept the ground wet enough for the seedlings initially, so we’ll try again in the spring. We’ve also heard from other, more experienced gardeners who have had trouble with getting some vegetables to sprout. In January, we’ll be able to try the beets, carrots, radishes, and turnips again. I’d also like us to try our hands at leeks, kale, and bulbing onions (what we attempted initially were green onions).

For the past month, our gardening attempts have been admittedly lame, mostly because we’ve been out of town each weekend. There’s been a few inches of rainfall in the past week, which will assuredly help, but we’ve hardly made time to water, much less to tend. I would not be surprised when I go out to the garden this afternoon, to perform my service hour, to find that the few successful things we have are on death’s door. I’ll resurrect them as best I can this weekend, and we’ll start the gardening new year fresh on Sunday, with renewed spirit and an eye toward keeping our things alive.

It’s a work in progress, and mistakes are part of the deal.

Still, I’ve never had a garden. Never cared whether the bean sprout between the paper towels grew, never watered the seeds I would get as gifts in some sort of set as a child. I’ve never kept anything green alive. It’s a unique challenge for me to both maintain interest in this activity and find the time to put effort into it. I enjoy gardening, but it’s so easy to stay home and go “tomorrow.” The garden is several miles from my home, but it needs to be an extension of my home. I need to treat it as I would my kittens, who need affection and nourishment every day, and as I do my house, which needs to be cleaned and maintained regularly.

Then, I might get my carrots to sprout.