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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.

Look at My Plants!

They made it through the winter. Yay!

"Sequoia" strawberry

‘Sequoia’ strawberry

My passionflower kept its leaves this winter so now it's focusing on flowers!

My passionflower kept its leaves all winter. Now it’s focusing on flowers!

Globe artichoke

Globe artichoke

Self-seeded cherry tomato

Self-seeded cherry tomato

Goji berry

Goji berry (Lycium barbarum)

Hardy Kiwi vines -- "Anna" Hardy Female, 74-46 Hardy Male, 'Dumbarton Oaks" Hardy Female

Hardy Kiwi vines (Actinidia arguta) — ‘Anna’ Hardy Female, 74-46 Hardy Male, ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ Hardy Female

Seedless Che tree -- grafted onto native Osage orange, self-pollinating.  I'm crushing hard on this little tree right now.

Seedless Che tree (Cudrania tricuspidata) — grafted onto native Osage orange, self-pollinating. I’m crushing hard on this little tree right now.

Flower forming on the Che tree

Flower forming on the Che.

Lettuce, borage, French sorrel, cilantro, and swiss chard around the Che.

Lettuce, borage, French sorrel, cilantro, and swiss chard growing around the Che tree.

Fig -- I propagated this from one that is already planted in the yard.

‘Texas Everbearing’ fig — I propagated this from one that is already planted in the yard.

L- R: "Apache" blackberry, "Heritage" raspberry, "Natchez" blackberry

‘Apache’ blackberry, ‘Heritage’ red raspberry, ‘Natchez’ blackberry

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.

It Snowed! Sorta.

Icy precipitation is more like it.

Icy precipitation is more like it.

Ah…winter in Austin. One day you’re planting fruit trees in a tank top then less than forty-eight hours later, a snow day! (Yes, that was enough to cancel school today.) But, don’t worry, it’ll be tank top weather again by this weekend.

As you might guess, winterization is not something that tends to be a big concern around here with our mild but wacky winters. Our average first frost is around the beginning of December, the last frost is towards the end of February. We tend to have twelve to twenty-four hours of really cold weather once or twice a month during that time.

So far we’ve had two significant cold weather events this season — last month it got down into the mid-20s for two nights, staying below freezing during day, but there wasn’t any precipitation. Then last night it was 24 degrees with icy precipitation. Otherwise, it’s been sunny and warm.

This pattern tends to be confusing for my fruit trees and I was welcoming this cold front. I noticed a couple of days ago that my peach and plum trees were thinking about blooming. Hopefully this will remind them that it’s winter still.

Blooming peach tree, February 23, 2010 -- The last time it snowed.

Blooming peach tree, February 23, 2010 — The last time it snowed.

Since our cold snaps are so short, I’m kind of a hardass when it comes to protecting plants. I’m not interested in coddling, so anything in the ground gets mulched and watered and that’s it. The mulch acts as a blanket for the soil and the moisture moderates the temperature extremes around the roots.

Right now pretty much everything is dormant with the exception of my artichoke and pineapple guava. They were relatively unaffected by the longer exposure to cold temperatures last month, but the exposure to ice and snow seems to have hit them a little harder. We’ll see what happens.

There are some areas in my yard that get a little more attention when it gets cold though and those are:

  • The hens – I chose cold hardy breeds so I don’t worry about them too much. I did have to thaw their water this morning though which was a first. Their coop is positioned such that it’s protected from the sun more than the cold winds, so I board up the windows and cover them with a tarp when necessary. More for my peace-of-mind than anything, I think.
  • Outdoor faucets — I detach any and all hoses and put faucet covers on. Some of the pipes are exposed and those are insulated with foam year round for convenience.
  • Citrus trees — In past years I’ve brought the citrus trees inside. This was the first year I’ve left them outside, for a couple of reasons. Last year when I brought them in, my orange tree was blossoming by Christmas and, as a result, I didn’t get any oranges this year. Also, I eventually want to plant them in the ground so I need to see how cold-tolerant they really are.

    In addition to thick mulch and watering, I tried to place them in, what I thought was, a warmer and more protected microclimate — hugged up to the south side of the house, by the warm dryer vent and protected by the fence. I put my weather station out there with them so I could test and see if it really was any warmer. Turns out it wasn’t. The ‘Meyer’ lemon took the first freeze pretty hard but the satsuma did great. Knowing that snow was likely overnight, I chose to cover them with a sheet last night.

    I brought the lime tree inside both times since it’s small and has fruit on it right now.

  • Potted plants — I water everything and mulch all of my potted plants with leaves from the yard.

    I have a pop-up greenhouse for the first time this year and while it heats up nicely during the day, it doesn’t really protect my plants from the cold. With the exception of the greens that are planted in there, the fate of everything else remains to be seen.

That's about right.

That’s about right.

Groundcherry Discovery

Ripe groundcherries.

Ripe groundcherries.

On a visit to the Farm, while walking through one of the pastures, we discovered something very exciting — perennial groundcherries! After a little research, I believe they are Physalis viscosa specifically.

This is particularly exciting because I was already really interested in growing groundcherries and had started a few Aunt Molly’s groundcherry plants from seed. However, now that I’ve made this discovery, I plan on propagating these instead, since I know they thrive in this climate. Plus, I hear they’re pretty tasty groundcherries. I had a couple and thought they tasted good, but I don’t have much room for comparison. It was nice to get a more diverse option.

Also known as ‘golden berries’, a popular health food, these groundcherries have the possibility of becoming one of our cash crops.

A member of the nightshade family, they could be toxic to livestock (the unripe fruit in particular) so we’re going to have to fence off the area where the plants are growing as long as we have livestock grazing that area.

Starhair groundcherry (Physalis viscosa) plant, flower, and husk.

Starhair groundcherry (Physalis viscosa) plant, flower, and husk.

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:

Cooking with Sweet Potatoes

I subscribe to a local produce delivery service and they’ve been delivering a lot of sweet potatoes lately. Sweet potatoes aren’t something I eat very often (ever) but, in addition to all of their other benefits, they can be grown as a perennial here, so I’m trying to develop a taste for them.

My only sweet potato experience up to this point was with the marshmallow-covered, orange mush, so when picking recipes, I tried to keep as far from that as possible. I decided to try fries and bread.

Sweet Potato Bread

Sweet Potato Bread

The Bread

The bread was delicious! I expect this to become a staple around here, because Ed’s hooked on it now. I’ve made it twice already and I still have a couple of potatoes left, with more on the way, so I will be making more very soon.

The Fries

The fries were less of a success. Ed loved them but I fell squarely into ‘meh’. I cut them too thick (like steak fries) so the outside was overcooked and the texture inside resembled the orange mush casserole a little too much. I preferred the fries that were on the thinner-side so I am going to make these again, but next time I’ll cut them more like shoestring fries. (The fries were no where near cute enough to photograph.)


I chose lemons as my ingredient for November specifically because I could use my own, homegrown lemons! I made eighteen jars of Spiced Honey to give away as holiday gifts and two Creamy Lemon pies for Thanksgiving.

My Lemon Tree

My Lemon Tree

My Lemon Tree

Four years ago, for my 30th birthday, my brother and sister-in law gave me a Satsuma tree. I loved it so much that every birthday since, I’ve gotten myself a new citrus tree companion for it. This Dwarf Meyer Lemon was the first companion, 2010, my 31st birthday. It’s my favorite by far, (Sorry, Satsuma), because it’s been the most productive. This is the third year I’ve gotten lemons from it — the first year I harvested four, last year eight and this year eighteen.

Spiced Honey

I chose the Spiced Honey recipe from my Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving for a few reasons: I thought it would make a great gift, I had enough lemons for it, and I could buy honey in bulk from the farmers’ market. (Next year, when I make this again, I hope to make it with honey from my own hives, in addition to the homegrown lemons.)

Since I’ll be giving the jars of honey away as gifts, I’ve made the recipe its own page and will be including the link on the jar labels so that anyone who likes it can make it again.

Lemons floating in honey

Clove-studded lemons and cinnamon sticks floating in honey.

I made two batches and tripled the recipe both times. The first batch, I mis-read the instructions and cut the lemons into wedges. I realized my mistake and cut the lemons into the rounds pictured above the second time.

The first batch was delicious — the honey was much less sweet, with very subtle hints of the lemon, cinnamon and cloves. We used an entire jar in one weekend, just in our tea. But I’m sure it would be just as good on biscuits or freshly baked bread.

We haven’t tried the second batch yet, but I’m curious if the lemon flavor will be more pronounced in those jars with the lemon rounds, as opposed to the first-batch jars with the lemon wedges.

Creamy Lemon Pie

This pie is quickly becoming an annual, holiday tradition for us. I made this lemon pie recipe for the first time, three years ago, and it was the first thing I ever made with an ingredient I had grown myself. I proudly took it to Thanksgiving that year and it was a huge hit. I made it again last Thanksgiving, that time with two of the ingredients coming from my yard: the eggs and the lemons.

This year, I messed the whipped cream topping up and wasn’t going to put my pie out for Thanksgiving (there were seven other pies after all), but despite the whipped cream flub, it ultimately ended up on the table by popular demand. (‘Demand’ being the key word there.)

Anyway, I love making this pie for a many reasons that have nothing to do with how it tastes. (But don’t get me wrong, it tastes amazing!)

Lemons being juiced for the Thanksgiving Lemon Creme Pie

Juicing the lemons for Creamy Lemon pie.

* The title of this post is totally a nod to the U2 song. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I started writing this.

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City

Paradise Lot by Eric Toesnmeier and Jonathan Bates

Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates

I’m very happy I started my diploma process off by reading Paradise Lot. I had been struggling with forming a vision for my process and this book really helped me clarify that vision. It was spiritual educational more than facts, tips, and theory. Although there was a good amount of that as well.

The main thing that I’ll take away from Eric and Jonathan’s story is how, by living and doing what they love, it just naturally began to support them. By producing items for themselves that they would have had to pay for otherwise, they were also creating value for other people. Instead of throwing away the useful “weeds”, they potted them up and sold them. As people became interested in what they’d created on their lot, they started giving educational tours. That’s permaculture design at its best, in my opinion.

I’m very lucky because, starting this week, I am reducing my day-job hours, voluntarily, in order to focus more on my permaculture education and training. In a moment of anxiety about it, I said to Ed, “Well, at least I can work more hours again, at any time, if we need me to.” His response: “I’d rather you start selling duck eggs to bakers.” And that’s the vision, right there. To start selling ducks eggs…and plants, and mushrooms, and whatever else. But to be able to support myself by creating value, doing the things I enjoy.