Counting Chickens

We transplanted our summer squash seedlings this weekend – nature it seemed, had provided the perfect combination of warmer weather plus forcasted rain. As I sat on our back patio the next day enjoying a brief moment of full sun in the backyard,  my thoughts turned to dreams of squash recipes.  In that moment, I quickly realized I was counting my proverbial “chickens” before they hatched.

In all liklihood, many of those seedlings will die. The ones that do live will become prey for the vicious hordes of squash bug gangs that patrol our raised beds every year. It’s literally a turf war – Team Elliott vs. Squash Bugs and the body count for squash bugs has sadly been very low thus far. If I didn’t hate chemicals more than I hate squash bugs – it might be a different story.

Such is life when it comes to growing your own food. However, I have a strong feeling that despite all the wrong turns, the first time we pull a full size squash off the vine and bring it inside to cook for dinner will result in a small celebration. And by celebration, I mean me, likely dancing around in my kitchen alone and marveling at my squash growing skills.

Squash transplants
Our summer squash seedlings were the easiest of all to sprout from seed – let’s hope at least a few of these babies make it to full size.

As you can see in the picture above, my husband added drip irrigation this year to all our raised beds – we’re hoping some supplemental watering will improve the harvest.

We planted our onion sets back in early February – they’ve survived a few nights of slightly cooler weather and are doing well.

Onion Sets
Onion Sets! I’m not sure what variety these are – we bought them at the feed store and noted they were only described as “white”. Hopefully they are also “tasty”.

We also started our potato tower again in February – last year we grew Yukon Golds and they did well. This year – we’re going with Red Pontiac potatoes. Our tower is made up of a straw exterior, but we planted the seed potatoes in a growing medium of 50% potting soil, and 50% compost.

Potato Tower 17
Red Pontiac potato tower – can’t wait to harvest these babies!

Speaking of counting chickens, I have some sad news to report regarding our chicken count.We lost our sweet red hen Lucy last week due to an unknown illness. She was still active and lively up until her last day, but she had stopped laying for a period of 4-6 weeks prior to her death. At first I thought she might be egg-bound. I tried two warm baths, which resulted in no eggs, and a bathroom covered in chicken feathers. So, I’m not sure what happened to her – but we are very sad about her passing.

On a lighter note – Phoebe would like to say hello. She’s in a cone as she had to be spayed again. That’s right – I said again. Did you know that was a thing? I didn’t either, but apparently sometimes all tissue is not removed correctly during a spay surgery, and the result is that your puppy will go into heat at about 9 months of age. This is quite disturbing when you believe your pup to be spayed. Anyway – the vet claims that this second surgery was successful. Here’s my sweet pup:

Phoebe cone
Sweet girl is sad about her cone – she wants to run around, and we are not allowing any strenuous activity for a few more days.

We’re working on getting the rest of our spring garden planted – more updates coming soon.


Urban Farm Fails – An Everyday Occurance

The past year of trying to grow our own food as taught me a lot – how important the soil is to plant health, the numerous types of organic pest control methods, and that nothing beats the taste of a fresh heirloom tomato right off the vine. The biggest lesson I’ve learned though – is to expect failure, and a lot of it. For every successful plant harvested – there have been at least 2-3 plant harvest failures.

I had such high hopes for our Lula avocado tree this year. It was finally planted in the ground this spring and grew big enough to bear fruit. These hopes of mine may or may not have included thoughts of guacamole and margarita parties every weekend during summer. Did you know that you can make avocado margaritas? You can – and they are creamy, delicious and insanely addictive. There’s a restaurant in our neighborhood that is famous for these (Austinites – Check out Curras if you’ve never been).

Anyway – our tree bloomed (yay)! And then a few of the blooms turned into tiny fruits- (double yay)! And then all the fruits fell off and died. True story friends. This is about as big as they got:

The tiniest fruit ever!
The tiniest avocado fruit ever!

Our Satsuma tree did a little better – it produced some fruit, but it was all very tiny and not particularly tasty. It was pretty dry in Austin this summer and I don’t think the tree got enough water.

Lesson learned – drip irrigation for everyone. Steven installed drip irrigation for our peach and pear trees a few weeks ago. It has since started to rain again – so we haven’t used it much, but if it proves to be successful and make our watering schedule a little less rigorous, I think we can easily expand and include our other beds and gardens.

We’re currently working on our winter garden beds – we’ve got lettuce successfully going. This tends to be one of the easiest crops for us and grows all winter long. It’s hard to fail at lettuce around here.

Romaine, Buttercrunch, and Red Leaf Lettuce Varieties
Romaine, Buttercrunch, and Red Leaf Lettuce Varieties

You can however, fail easily at other winter crops. For example, take a look at my broccoli plants. They have been destroyed by some garden pest – I suspect caterpillars. We’ve tried Neem oil, but it doesn’t seem to be helping:

The saddest little broccoli plants around
The saddest little broccoli plants around

While it may be hard to believe – you can also fail at cover crops. This year I planted Kodiak Mustard. It’s a “green manure” that is supposed to help increase the nitrogen in the soil. We did everything right – the seeds got plenty of water and grew quickly. But then – the chickens. Apparently these greens are super tasty when small and the chickens needed more dirt to take dust baths in. So – they cleared out several portions of my cover crops. Thanks chickens.

Look at that blanket coverage!
Look at that blanket coverage!

I could go on for a while with a few more fails, but will spare you all the details. Let’ s move on to something positive.

Two things we’ve done well that I’m super proud of:

1- Chickens

Of the 4 baby chicks we brought home from the feed store in May of 2015, all 4 are still alive and well! We’ve been through Fowl Pox, a suspected predator attack in the coop, and an unexpected bout of molting and these ladies remain happy and healthy and are still producing 3-4 eggs every day.

The girls enjoying some fresh melon on a hot summer day.
The girls enjoying some fresh melon on a hot summer day.

2- The Pup

We adopted Phoebe back in May of this year and she’s quickly become integrated into our family and wormed her way into my heart. I was worried about her puppy energy and the fact that she was instantly drawn to chase everything that moved. She chased the cats, the chickens, squirrels, other birds, herself…you get the idea. I’ve heard of so many instances where dogs and chickens just can’t co-exist, that I was worried that we were doomed to lose a chicken or keep the dog and chickens permanently separated.

I read a book that helped quite a bit and we worked with her on general obedience and she’s now responding immediately to commands and has learned that the chickens are not to be chased. She’s turned into a damn good dog if I do say so myself. Look at this face 🙂

Watching the GA Bulldogs on TV- best way to spend a Saturday in Austin!
Watching the GA Bulldogs on TV- best way to spend a Saturday in Austin!

Failure or not – you just have to keep trying. A great man once said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; It is the courage to continue that counts”. Thank you Winston Churchill for those wise words – now, to go vote! Happy Election day all



Spring Harvest

We planted 4 heirloom tomatoes plants months ago and have been anxiously awaiting fresh tomatoes –  and not very patiently in my case. After losing quite a few to birds, squirrels, tomato hormworms and the like – I was finally able to harvest some Black Krims and Brandywines. Fresh salsa for me!

In addition to the tomatoes – our perennial pepper plants are churning out tons of sweet peppers. Central Texas has been getting rain like I’ve never seen over the past 4-6 weeks. RAIN. LITERALLY. EVERY. DAY.

The large tomatoes are Brandywines, the smaller and darker ones are Black Krims. There are some Purple Beauty peppers at the top, as well as a few California Wonder peppers mixed in there.

The plants are enjoying the daily showers – and the husband and I are enjoying not having to water anything. We’re still getting sunshine as well – the rain has been occurring mostly at night, which is nice.

The artichoke plants are a constant battleground in which daily wars are waged with stink bugs. I hate those little suckers – and the chickens refuse to help out by eating any of them. Yesterday I pulled a tomato hornworm off the plant and offered it to all 4 hens. Nothing. But they are more than happy to tear apart a poor harmless toad that’s not bothering anyone. Murderous jerks.

Green Globe artichokes, Yukon Gold potatoes, and Belle of Georgia peaches.

Only two of our peach trees produced this year – I don’t think our Redskin received the chill hour needed to be successful with our mild winter. One peach tree was stripped of all its fruits by the squirrels before we could act. We draped the other in bird netting and it seemed to help. The peach harvest was decent from only one tree:

Belle of Georgia peaches – small, but delicious

In addition to munching on my tomatoes – the backyard critters have also stolen off with about 50% of our avocados – grrrr. I was really hoping the green skin of the avocado would camouflage the fruit and prevent it from being noticed. No such luck.

One of the last remaining fruits on my Lula avocado tree.

Any ideas for squirrel-proofing? We’ve tried bird netting around the tomatoes – its is effective for the birds and chickens, but the squirrels are just laughing at us. I can almost hear their little squirrel snickers…


Growing Peppers as Perennials

I’ve tried to grow peppers twice before – big beautiful bell peppers. I dreamed of eating fajitas, fresh salads, maybe even some stuffed peppers, but it was not to be…both attempts resulted in failure. The plants themselves do okay – they get tall and grow leaves. Sometimes they even bloom and the flowers appear to get pollinated. Then, disaster inevitably strikes. The peppers that do grow are small and spindly. Or they fall off the plant before maturity. Or they get devoured by bugs/birds/squirrels/insert critter. Either way – it leads to disappointment all around. All those fajitas that could have been enjoyed… I usually have to console myself with margaritas.

Earlier this spring as we were discussing our garden plans, my husband pointed out that while our pepper plants had survived winter, they weren’t looking great and he mentioned that he wanted to pull them up. My response was a very whiny and resounding “Nooooooooooooo!”. I wanted to give them one more chance. You see – winters here in Austin are notoriously mild. And my theory was that pepper plants that make it through the few cold spells we have exhibit stronger stems & deeper roots and are much more likely to thrive in the harsh Austin summer than a newly planted young pepper.

California Wonder Bell Pepper – a little over a year old and almost 3 feet tall.

I’m half afraid that writing this post will doom my pepper plants to failure, but so far so good! I’m holding my breath as I write this, but it seems for once that our pepper plants are producing like crazy. We have 3 bell pepper plants and one Serrano pepper plant. I use the Serranos in my salsa recipes – I just need some ripe tomatoes and a few onions. Delicious!

Purple Beauty Peppers – gorgeous color right?
California Wonder Bell Peppers
Serrano Peppers are fairly spicy and turn red when they ripen.

Crazy Texas weather is finally good for something! Any other pepper tips out there?

Potato Tower Update

Ya’ll…I think this latest gardening endeavor is actually going to be successful!

Our Yukon Gold potato vines are growing and thriving. Austin was hit with 5 straight days of rain last week and all of our plants are very grateful for the moisture.

We built this potato tower back in January and planted 10 seed potatoes, which have now developed into some very tall potato vines. I added some more straw over the weekend and continued piling up soil around the vines.

The potato tower is growing a little bit higher with new straw and soil.

Anyway – I think we’ll see some flowers soon, which means I should be able to harvest a few potatoes. I’m sooo excited. I see some potato, egg, & cheese breakfast tacos in our future.

A view from the top

I think the vines will probably begin to die back toward the end of April, or early May and we can pull up all the potatoes at that point. Until then… a few facts about Yukon Gold Potatoes:

  • This variety was developed in Canada and released to the public in 1980
  • Early marketing campaigns described them as the “the potato with the butter already in it”.
  • Unlike other potatoes, Yukon Gold potatoes can stand up to both dry heat and wet heat cooking methods, making them perfect for boiling, baking, or pan frying.

One Yukon Gold potato also contains 50% of your daily requirement of Vitamin C, and 15% of your daily requirement for Iron. Nutritious and delicous!

Camellias and Peach Blossoms

There’s no doubt about it – summer is my favorite time of year. I love the long days and warm nights, best enjoyed with a cold beer. And fireflies – there’s something magical about sitting outside as the sun is setting and watching fireflies dance across the night.

Summer feels closer than ever now – we’re starting to see blooms on the peach trees and the bees are loving it.

Belle of Georgia peach tree. One of three in our mini-orchard.

Our Camellia is also in full bloom and is gorgeous. Camellias can be tricky to grow here in Central Texas. We tend to have high levels of alkalinity in our soil and Camellias thrive in a more acidic environment. Ours lived in a container for years but eventually became root bound and stopped blooming, so we decided to try to amend our soil and plant it in the ground. As you can see – it’s a pretty happy little plant now. It gets about an hour, maybe 2, of direct sunlight a day in our courtyard and does really well as long as it gets watered regularly and fertilized each year.

Camellia Japonica in bloom.

Our garden is still producing from the cole crops we planted in the fall. We’ve harvested the kale several times to add to omelets and salads, and we’ve had really good luck with broccoli this year.

Looks like I’ll be cooking some broccoli for dinner tonight – Yum!

The brussels sprouts haven’t been quite as easy. I’ve been watering those suckers for months and the sprouts are still tiny – it seems like we’re still months away from being able to harvest them.

Cole Crops
Red Russian Kale & Jade Cross Brussels Sprouts

Urban farming at it’s best!

Goodbye 2015 and hello…strawberries?

So I’m thinking that Central Texas has decided that we won’t be participating in winter this year. Outside of one VERY brief cold spell in December, it hasn’t dropped below freezing at all. In fact, just yesterday I was painting the chicken coop and sweating in the 70 degree sunny weather.

Needless to say – all of this weather nonsense has my plants very confused. My avocado tree is blooming, so is my lime tree, and my Sequoia strawberries must believe it’s June because they’ve decided to bear some fruit. I guess I’ll get on board with this since there’s not much I can do to stop it. Strawberry jam is coming soon!

I can’t wait to eat these strawberries – they look super tasty!
Can you tell I’m excited for strawberries?

In addition to strawberries – we are hoping to harvest and enjoy some Yukon Gold potatoes very shortly as well. We purchased some seed potatoes this weekend and constructed a quick and easy potato tower to save some space in our raised beds. We constructed ours using some rebar stakes and chicken wire – super easy and only about 3 feet high. Then we lined the outside with some straw, filled the interior with potting soil, and planted our 10 seed potatoes. According to the infinite wisdom I’ve obtained from Google – this should give us 60 – 100 potatoes in just a few months!

Inside the potato tower
All along the potato tower – no reason to get excited.

Any tips/tricks out there for growing potatoes?