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Water Garden

Arrowhead, 'Georgia Peach' Hardy Waterlily, Violet-stemmed Taro

Left to right: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), ‘Georgia Peach’ hardy waterlily (Nymphaea ‘Georgia Peach’) , Violet stemmed taro (Colocsia violacea)
Floating: Azolla (Azolla caroliniana)

I’d been warned that one of the nuisances of urban beekeeping is when your bees venture into your neighbors’ yards to drink from their dog bowls, pools, and/or birdbaths. Since I wanted to experiment with a water garden anyway, the idea was that this would also be a large, reliable source of water for my bees….Sadly, two months later, they have yet to use it. I have no idea where they are getting water but it’s not from the big, fancy water bowl I built for them. Plenty of other insects are using it, just not my bees.

Luckily, as with any good permaculture design, this wasn’t the only function that the garden was meant to serve. Most of the plants are edible, other neighborhood wildlife does enjoy drinking from it, and it’s attracted a resident dragonfly, an Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), who darts around the yard all day long eating mosquitoes and other unpleasants. Plus, it’s another 100 gallons or so of collected rainwater.

Fred, the Autumn Meadowhawk

Fred, the Autumn Meadowhawk

I used a 3-foot round, galvanized livestock tank for the garden. I think stock tank ponds might be a Texas thing, but they are a very popular Texas thing. I came across a really good blog post about building water gardens in stock tanks and, luckily for me, the author lives in Austin so I was able to use the same places for procuring materials, specifically Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery.

The plants in the garden include: violet stemmed taro (Colocsia violacea), arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), ‘Georgia Peach’ hardy waterlily (Nymphaea ‘Georgia Peach’), cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), and, at the time the top picture was taken, azolla (Azolla caroliniana).

There are also five hardy goldfish in the pond. They eat algae and mosquito larvae, while contributing fertilizer. Turns out they eat azolla too.

I put the rocks in so that birds, squirrels and various sized insects would have access to the water. The plants and rocks are elevated on cinderblocks, which are positioned such that the holes are open, giving the fish places to hide from predators.

There’s chloramine in the City of Austin’s tap water, so I had to initially treat the water with a chloramine remover. Luckily, we’ve been getting enough rain since I installed this that I haven’t needed to add any more water to it yet, but once I do, rather than using city water, I’ll top it off with rainwater from the chickens’ rainwater barrel instead.

Pretty fancy goldfish bowl.

Pretty fancy goldfish bowl.

Cosmo’s Garden

Enjoy the sun spot, Mo Cat

MoCat in the sun.

Back in October, we found out that our 14 year old cat, Cosmo, had cancer and only a few more months to live. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, the time came and we had to let him go. It was, by far, my longest relationship with an animal, so I wanted to commemorate our time together by building him a garden.

An indoor cat most of his life, Cosmo loved when he was allowed to spend time outside on the patio. He was pretty well-trained and knew that stepping onto the grass meant having to go inside. (Trust me when I say that being outside was the one and only thing that was motivating enough for him to exhibit some self-control.) But that said, he couldn’t resist the butterflies. If a butterfly flitted too close by, before he could stop himself, he would be joyfully bounding after it, trying to keep up with the erratic pattern and elevation changes. Those moments, watching him unabashedly enjoying himself like that, are some of my favorite memories and it makes my heart happy to know that he’ll be surrounded by butterflies for a long time to come.

The Design

I knew that if I was going to do this I needed to design a system, not just plant a tree. This is permaculture design afterall, where systems are the name of the game, but also, the idea of Cosmo endlessly cycling through a system built just for him is very appealing to me.

After some site analysis, I designed a plum tree guild in a large boomerang berm, sited towards the top of a southeast-facing slope, close to the house for easy access to water, in an area that already has some peach and Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana) trees growing.

Garden Location

Garden Location

Garden Design Drawing

Garden Design

Since no one currently lives out at the Farm, irrigation presents a design challenge. Timed drip irrigation is not possible because we turn the city water off whenever we aren’t there, so my options became earthworks, adapted plants, and ollas — all three of which are being used in this design, along with cover crops for quick soil coverage.

The ollas I’m using hold two gallons of water and I’ve realized that I probably need to add a third one, just up-slope from the plum tree. They are currently emptying in about a week so it looks like I’ll be making weekly (more in the Summer) watering visits for a while.

One thing I didn’t pay enough attention to ahead of time was what was already growing on that spot. The day we installed the garden I noticed it was mainly pioneer plants and annual wildflowers, with some perennial wildflowers and bunch grasses. Had I noticed that sooner, I would have planned to have more organic material on hand to work into the soil as we built the garden because I suspect it’s going to need it.

The Plants

I chose a ‘Methley’ plum tree (Prunus salicina ‘Methley’) to anchor this garden because it is self-pollinating, has a low chill hour requirement (about 250 hours), is heat-tolerant, and, as opposed to Mexican plums which make good jellies, ‘Methley’ plums are good right off the tree.

The nitrogen fixer I chose to accompany the plum tree was more of a sentimental choice. Because of its name (Mi-MO-sa), its thorny nature, and its butterfly appeal, I decided that a Fragrant Mimosa (Mimosa borealis) would be an excellent addition to the garden that would be the resting place of my thorny-natured, butterfly lovin’ MoCat. This native shrub/small tree is extremely heat-tolerant and its adorable pink puffballs are an excellent source of nectar for both bees and butterflies.

As far as the understory goes, I intend on putting my beehives in this area as well so I’ll be looking at plants that, in addition to supporting the plum tree, also support the pollinator population. Luckily those priorities are not mutually exclusive since most companion planting information emphasizes planting for pollinators and other beneficial insects.

I plan to start with heat and sun loving natives like Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), Mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea), and Drummond wild onion (Allium drummondii). Other non-native, less-well adapted edible and beneficial perennials will be introduced once the system has had some time to mature, since they will probably be more successful then.

The Garden

The morning Cosmo passed away, we drove out to the Farm straight from the vet. Once we got there, I used my A-frame level to find the contour line on the slope, then I marked the line and the berm with flags, and the digging began.

When planning for the eventuality of building this garden on a day that was going to be pretty hard mentally and emotionally, I decided that the priorities would be getting the earthwork dug, the ollas in, and the plum and mimosa trees planted. I knew that I would have help that day for all of that, and the rest I could do myself later. In hindsight, I should have paid a little more attention to soil preparation and amendment. As we dug and planted, I added compost, mostly to the trees, but I didn’t have anywhere near enough for the entire garden. Thankfully, I do have an endless supply of cow manure on-site, so I’ll be working to amend the soil with that going forward.

In addition to planting the plum and the mimosa trees that day, we also planted a couple of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) tubers, spread leguminous cover crop seeds over the berm, transplanted some of the disturbed wildflower plants into the garden (mostly Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) and Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis)), and threw out a bunch of wildflower, chicory, yarrow, and sunflower seeds.

The digging begins.

The digging begins.

The ollas are in.

The ollas are in.

End of Phase One.

End of Phase One.

I went back a few days later to add the mulch.

I went back a few days later to add the straw mulch.

Cosmo's Resting Place

Cosmo’s resting place.

Catnip — It’s Pretty Awesome

Dried catnip (Nepeta cataria).

Dried catnip (Nepeta cataria).

I’ve been geeking out on catnip (Nepeta cataria) lately — learning about it, growing it, drying it, and trying it. A good choice since growing it is almost fool-proof and the plant itself is super useful.

For the Garden

Catnip attracts beneficial insects that eat aphids, repels cockroaches and mosquitoes, and honey bees love it!

For Humans

The tea has so many purported health benefits (sleep aid, migraine relief, anxiety reduction) that I had to make some on the spot.

From The Canadian Veterinary Journal: “Other uses for catnip have been as a cold remedy, for hives, as a diaphoretic (induces sweating), a refrigerant (cools the body), and an anodyne (relieves pain).”

For Cats

Cats are attracted to the organic compound, Nepetalactone, found in catnip. When cats sense the bruised leaves or stems, they start rubbing on the plant, rolling on the ground, pawing at it, licking it, and chewing it.

My interest in catnip started with the refillable catnip pillows that I make for my cats. It’s been a goal of mine to sell them somewhere in town, so, as an extension of that, I decided to grow the catnip for them as well.

I currently have four plants in my greenhouse and I’ve harvested from them twice. The first time I bundled and hung the catnip upside-down to dry it. That bunch took two months to dry, way too long. The second time, I removed the leaves from the stems, placed them flat on paper towels (stacked about five layers high), and put them onto the rack in my gas oven, letting the low heat of the pilot light dry the leaves. That batch dried in 48 hours, much better.

Once dry, I gave some of the homegrown catnip to my quality control team. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at their testing process:

Some of My Backyard Buddies

Inspired by the beneficial insect talk I attended at the Natural Gardener, I wanted to learn more about the creatures I have seen in my own yard.

The resident Anole saying hello from atop one of my citrus trees.

The resident Anole saying hello from atop one of my citrus trees.

Below is a list of some of my garden helpers and some reasons why they’re good to have around.

Anole

From the Galveston Master Gardeners, “There’s no need to worry about this lizard as it is not harmful to humans or your pets. In fact, if you’ve seen these lizards in your yard or home, it most likely means you’re not using pesticides that could harm it. In fact, these lizards are beneficial, as they do feed on a wide variety of small insects such as crickets, cockroaches, moths, grubs, beetles, flies and grasshoppers.”

Black-and-yellow Argiope

From the Galveston Master Gardeners, “They are carnivorous predators, attacking flying insects that get trapped in its web. Their orb web captures aphids, flies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, wasps and bees.”

Butterflies (Monarch, Viceroy, Queen)

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. Adults feed on nectar from numerous wild flowers. The monarch butterflies are distasteful to birds because of chemicals obtained from caterpillar feeding on milkweed leaves.”

Dragonflies

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Nymphs can be found in vegetation and hiding around underwater structures. Adults feed on insects such as mosquitoes, midges, flies and winged ants. They often follow the same path and return to a familiar perch.”

Earthworms

From the Galveston Master Gardeners, “Earthworms ingest soil and digest the organic matter as they tunnel, producing castings. The castings increase the nutrient level and organic level of the soil. Nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other nutrients are produced daily for the use of plants. The equivalent of about 1/3 lb. of top grade fertilizer is produced per worm each year.”

Fireflies

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Immature stages of lightning beetles are predatory on other small insects, earthworms, slugs and snails. Adults of some species are also predatory. Larvae and adults are active at night (they are nocturnal), and immobilize their prey by injecting them with inject toxic digestive enzymes before sucking out the liquefied body contents.”

Geckos

From the Galveston Master Gardeners, “[T]he Mediterranean gecko helps provide year-round insect pest control in our landscapes and homes by feeding on cockroaches and a wide variety of other insects.”

Green Lacewings

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Adults are poor fliers, active at night and feed on pollen, nectar and honeydew (the exudate of aphids and other sucking insects). Some species are predaceous as adults to a limited extent. The larvae, called “aphid lions”, are extremely carnivorous and predaceous on many soft-bodied insects and mites, including insect eggs, thrips, mealybugs, immature whiteflies and small caterpillars. Larvae have sickle-shaped jaws that contain tubes with which they can inject prey with a paralyzing venom and then suck out the body fluids. They can consume over 200 aphids or other prey per week.”

Ground Beetles

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Ground beetles are commonly encountered under stones, bark, logs and other debris laying on the ground. When disturbed, they run rapidly. At night they seek prey and some species are attracted to lights. Larvae are also encountered under objects or in burrows in the soil or under bark of trees. They feed on other insects both as larvae and adults. One group of species feeds on snails.”

Honeybees

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Mostly considered beneficial because they pollinate many fruits, vegetables and ornamental flowers; they produce honey, beeswax, pollen and royal jelly.”

Hover flies

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Adult flies can be found hovering around flowers, feeding on nectar and pollen. They are often attracted to honeydew covered leaves characteristic of infestations of sucking insects such as aphids. Legless larvae of these (Syrphinae) species are slug-like, adhering to leaf surfaces of infested plants while searching for aphids and other suitable prey (small caterpillars, thrips, etc.). Each larva can consume up to 400 aphids during development. Larvae of other species feed in the nests of ants, termites or bees, and others live in decaying vegetation and wood.”

Lady Beetles

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Larvae and adults feed primarily on aphids, but they will also feed on scales, eggs of caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects and mites. Adults occasionally feed on nectar, pollen and honeydew (exudate of aphids and other sucking insects).”

Paper Wasps

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Paper wasps prey on insects such as caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae which they feed to larvae. They actively forage during the day and all colony members rest on the nest at night.”

Praying mantis

From Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, “Wingless nymphs and adults feed actively on many pest and beneficial insects, including each other! Older mantids can feed on flies, honey bees, crickets and moths. They are not effective for the control of aphids, mites or caterpillars.”

Texas Toads

From herpsoftexas.org, “Bufo speciosus is nocturnal and burrows in the loose soil. It feeds on insects and other invertebrates.”

Know Your Allies: Beneficial Insects with Jeff Ferris

A couple of weeks ago, I went to an hour-long beneficial insect lecture at the Natural Gardener. The talk was given by staff horticulturist, Jeff Ferris (who I found out afterwards is also a permaculturist). I really enjoyed Jeff’s presentation style, he repeatedly reminded us that most horror movie plots come from the insect world.

Green Lacewing's lifecycle

Jeff Ferris explains the Green Lacewing’s lifecycle

I went into this not really knowing anything about the beneficial insects of Texas so it was definitely time well spent. Here’s some of what I took away from this talk:

  • The juvenile (teenager) beneficial insects are what you want in your garden, they eat most of the harmful insects. You want the adults around mainly to reproduce.
  • Harmful insects tend to be in groups, beneficials are often alone.
  • Beneficials are omnivores for the most part so pollen and nectar sources will attract them as well.
  • If the plant looks good, don’t worry about the bug on it. If the plant looks bad, worry about the bug.
  • Of the 980 species of spiders recorded in Texas, there are only two groups to worry about: the recluse and widow spiders.
  • To control Root Knot nematodes he recommended growing Elbon cereal rye as a “trap-crop” over the winter and turning it in one month prior to Spring planting. He also recommended spreading peel-and-eat shrimp shells. The introduction of the chitinous shells stimulates soil-dwelling fungi that feed on chitin. The fungi then feeds upon the chitin in the nematode eggs, killing them before they hatch.
  • I need to get a handheld blacklight. In addition to scorpions, tomato hornworms will also glow.

I plan on covering species specifics in more detail when I write about what I’ve seen in my yard so far and what I hope to attract in the future.