Gardening Class this Saturday at 9:00am in Rockport!

Friends, join me for an excellent introductory gardening class this Saturday, April 4, from 9:00am to 12:30am, at the Aransas County Extension office in Rockport.

This class, called “Dig It! The DIY of Gardening”, is designed for beginners, but even expert gardeners will benefit from this information.  The class will be led by several wonderful master gardeners, some of the leading plant experts in our area, and I will also lead part of the class.  Your instructors will teach you everything you need to know to start your own garden, and answer all your gardening questions!

The first of two classes is this Saturday, April 4, at 9:00am, in the air-conditioned  indoor classroom at the Agri-Life office.  This class will focus on the basics:  building healthy soil, using tools, selecting plants, and keeping them growing.

The second class, on April 11, is hands-on workshop of planting and propagating.  Tuition is $25 for both days or $15 per class.

Pre-registration is required by the Wednesday prior to each class. For more information and to register, call (361)790-0103, email:, or stop by Aransas County Extension Office.  Presented by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension-Aransas County, Aransas/San Patricio Master Gardeners and Justin Butts.  Overflow parking is next door at the Transfer Station.

What:  “Dig It! The DIY of Gardening” with Aransas County Master Gardeners and Justin Butts

When: Saturday, April 4, from 9:00pm to 12:30pm.  Pre-registration is required.

Where:  Aransas County Extension Office, 892 Airport Rd, Rockport, TX 78382 (361)790-0103

Who: Gardeners of all ages and skill levels!  Click on the Agri-Life logo below for more information.

Agri Life logo 2014-01-14

Drip Irrigation

Kayla with Irrigation Lines

Kayla with Irrigation Lines

The cities of Rockport and Corpus Christi have activated Stage II of the Drought Contingency Plan. In Stage II, homeowners can use sprinklers to water their landscapes only one day per week, and on that day only in the early morning or evening. The fine for using a sprinkler outside of the designated time is $500 per citation.

But there are no restrictions to watering your landscape with drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is not the same as soaker hoses, which are shoddy and unreliable. Drip irrigation applies water in a slow controlled flow through evenly spaced holes along each line. The water saturates the soil at the base of the plants with minimal loss to evaporation.

Drip irrigation is the ideal method for watering your landscape. Plants prefer drip irrigation to everything except a good old-fashioned rain.  It only takes about an hour for drip lines to deeply water the roots of plants–vegetables, flowers, and trees–and you can even water turf grass with durable drip lines buried discreetly beneath the soil.

Drip irrigation is inexpensive and easy to install. The lines last for years, and you can tailor your system to your own unique landscape to maximize the efficiency of your water use.  We use Irrigation Mart for our irrigation materials, and they are excellent at helping assess your needs and fit the right product to your situation, but there are many good companies who supply this material.

Drip irrigation was pioneered on the kibbutz farms of Israel in the late 20th Century. Israel, a tiny state in the desert, possessed limited land and water resources for agriculture, and Israel was surrounded by enemies and locked in a life-or-death struggle for national survival.

Israeli farmers were forced to innovate–to get the most from every drop of water. Drip lines helped transform the barren landscape of Israel into a food oasis, and Israel became agriculturally self-sufficient.

Israeli Farmer Laying Drip Irrigation (courtesy

Israeli Farmer Laying Drip Irrigation (courtesy

In South Texas, we must also make the most of every drop of water. Stage II drought restrictions are meant to cut water use by ten percent. On our farm, we have reduced our own water needs by 50 to 80 percent through drip irrigation, native mulching, and improved soil health. The potential for water conservation through these methods is enormous.

If the drought continues, as it most surely will, sprinkler watering will soon be even further restricted. Drought has become the new normal in South Texas, and drip irrigation is the likely future of our lawns and gardens.

Drip Tape with Connection

Drip Tape with Connection

Fall Gardening Class this Saturday at 2:00pm

Intensive Successive Companion Planting

Intensive Successive Companion Planting

Friends, join me for a “Fall Gardening Class” this Saturday, July 12, from 2:00pm to 3:30pm.  The class will be held at Coastal Bend Health Foods, 111 N. Austin Street, TX 78382.

Due to limited space you are encouraged to click on this form to register in advance.

Fall is a wonderful time of year to garden in South Texas. You can grow all of your favorite produce in the Fall, the pests are not so bad, and the weather is gorgeous. Your small garden can deliver a delicious harvest that will grace your table through Thanksgiving and beyond.

In this class, we will discuss what and when to plant for a bountiful Fall garden. By using successive companion planting, you can plant your garden in the Fall and keep it producing all the way into next summer. We will show how your garden design helps minimize pests, conserve water, and increase harvests. We will also discuss steps you can take now to prepare your garden for planting.

Attendees will receive a free copy of the CD from our radio program, “Your Wholesome Heritage Garden”. There is a $10 registration fee for this class.

Gardeners of all ages and skill levels are welcome!

What:  “Fall Gardening” with Justin Butts

When: Saturday, July 12, from 2:00pm to 3:30pm

Where:  Coastal Bend Health Foods, 111 N. Austin Street, TX 78382 (361) 729-4443

Who: All gardeners of all ages!

Watering the Garden

Kayla watering newly seeded garden bed, five feet wide.  She is standing in between beds on leaf mulch pile that we will place on the bed after the seeds sprout.

Kayla watering newly seeded garden bed, five feet wide. She is standing in between beds on leaf mulch pile that we will place on the bed after the seeds sprout.

In South Texas, we can go for weeks, or even months, without a single good rain.  To survive, your plants depend entirely upon you for their water, and it helps to know how much and how often to water your garden.

The water needs of a garden can vary greatly in the extreme weather conditions of South Texas.  The key to knowing when to water is to check the soil.

Ideally, the top five or six inches of soil should remain moist at all times.  This top layer of soil is where most of the healthy bacteria and micro-organisms live, and they require even moisture to thrive.

The garden dries out from the top layer of soil on down.  Use your finger to dig into the garden bed to check the amount and depth of moisture around the plants (see pictures below).

When it is time, water the soil slightly deeper than the lowest level of the roots.  Watering past this point is simply wasting water.  Let the soil mostly, but not completely, dry out, before watering again.  This deep and infrequent watering promotes vigorous root growth by forcing the roots to reach into the soil seeking water.

It is best to water the soil, not the plants.  In fact, most plants, like tomatoes, don’t like water on their leaves, which causes the leaves to turn yellow and wilt.  Use the rain setting of your garden hose to drench the soil at the base of your plants, but not the plants themselves.

If possible, water the garden in the evening.  Plants do a lot of their growing at night, and they need plenty of moisture in the soil to optimize their nighttime cellular functions.  If you water during the morning, or even worse, at mid-day, you will lose a lot of water to evaporation and leave the soil dry during the night.

To prevent the soil from quickly drying out, add a thick, insulating layer of native leaf mulch around your plants.  A thick layer of native leaf mulch can reduce the water needs of your garden by up to fifty percent.

As you dig into the soil to check the level of moisture, carefully observe the plants in your garden.  You will quickly see the relationship between the health and appearance of your plants and the level of moisture in the soil.  Your soil will tell you exactly how much, and how often, to water your garden.

Checking Soil Moisture, Step 1:  Companion Bed with tomato transplant center left, cilantro far left, lettuce lower left, kolh rabi to right.  Live oak leaf mulch.

Checking Soil Moisture, Step 1: Companion Bed with tomato transplant center left, cilantro far left, lettuce lower left, kolh rabi to right. Live oak leaf mulch.

Step 2:  Dig finger 5 to 6 inches into bed to check amount and depth of soil moisture.

Step 2: Dig finger 5 to 6 inches into bed to check amount and depth of soil moisture.

Step 3:  This is day after a good soaking rain, soil is still wet--holds shape in a clump.  No need to water today.  You do not need to remove soil from the hole to check moisture, this handful of soil is for illustration only.

Step 3: This is day after a good soaking rain, soil is still wet–holds shape in a clump. No need to water today. You do not need to remove soil from the hole to check moisture, this handful of soil is for illustration only.

Step 4:  Gently replace any soil and re-cover with native leaf mulch.

Step 4: Gently replace any soil and re-cover with native leaf mulch.

More Techniques for Growing Tomatoes

Two More Weeks of TomatoesIf you would like your own ripe, red tomatoes this summer, freshly-picked from your garden, the time to plant them is now.

In addition to companion planting, and growing in healthy soil, look for tomato varieties that will thrive in the brutal heat of a South Texas summer.

Tomato Varieties

Look for tomato varieties that 1) mature quickly, and 2) are tolerant of high heat.  In South Texas, we go from freezing cold to burning hot very quickly.  Tomatoes will not set fruit if the night-time soil temperature is below 55 degrees, or above 70 degrees.   So, we need to make the most of the warming period between winter and summer to grow tomatoes.

Plant Early Girl, Cherry Sweet and Cherry 100, and Juliette; these will mature within 50 days and begin delivering tomatoes very quickly.  Also plant heat-tolerant varieties, such as Solar Fire, Heatmaster, and Heatwave.  These varieties produce when nighttime soil temperature is slightly above 70 degrees, and allow you to get tomatoes even when the weather gets very hot.

Rooting Down the Stem

Bury the tomato transplant deeply, about 2/3rds of the way into the ground.  Each of the tiny hairs down the stem is a potential root, and planting the tomato deeply helps maximize the root strength of the plant.  The more vigorous the root system, the more prolific the plant will be.

Homemade Wood Ash and Crushed Oyster Shells

Before you bury the transplant, throw a handful of homemade wood ash, and another handful of crushed oyster shells, into the bottom of the hole.

Wood ash is rich in potassium, and potassium helps unlock the sugar molecules in tomatoes.  Homemade wood ash is the absolute secret weapon for growing the sweetest, most flavorful tomatoes.  But use only wood ash from native trees; pecan, live oak, or mesquite.

Crushed oyster shells are rich in calcium; they help prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes, which is a common problem in South Texas gardens.  After you bury the transplant, sprinkle another generous handful of wood ash and crushed oyster shells around the base of each tomato plant.

Crushed Oyster Shells and Homemade Wood Ash should touch roots

Crushed Oyster Shells and Homemade Wood Ash should touch roots

Corn Meal for Disease Control

Next, dust the plants with stone ground corn meal to prevent the fungal diseases that cause yellow or black spots on tomato leaves.  Corn meal stimulates the natural microorganisms that eat and destroy fungal diseases.  Grocery store corn meal won’t work on your plants because it’s too highly processed.  Look for horticultural corn meal from a feed store or nursery.

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Native Leaf Mulch

Mulch your tomato plants thickly with native leaf mulch.  Use leaves from live oak, pecan, or even mesquite trees, whatever you can easily rake up in your neighborhood.  As the weather turns hotter, continue to add native leaf mulch until it is twelve inches thick over your plants.  This ultra-thick layer of leaf mulch will keep the soil cool and moist, and keep your tomatoes producing even in the hottest weather.

Increasing Yields and Flavor

The average tomato plant yields about 5 to 20 pounds of tomatoes during a season.  However, by using these ancient, inexpensive, and highly effective techniques, you can produce 50 pounds or more of delicious tomatoes from each of the plants in your garden.

Planting the Three Sisters

Kayla with Harvest in a Three Sisters Garden

Kayla with Harvest in a Three Sisters Garden

If you are ready to start your own garden, but aren’t sure where to begin, you might consider the Three Sisters method of planting.  Now is the perfect time.

The Three Sisters is the Native American technique of inter-planting corn, beans, and squash.  This method is an easy and sustainable way to grow a great deal of food on a very small space with minimal work or expense.

In a Three Sisters garden, the corn grows thick and tall.  The bean vines climb the corn stalks as a trellis.  Squash plants cover the soil as living green mulch.  The plants don’t crowd one other.  They actually grow better when planted together, than when planted separately.

Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

Purple Bean Flowers on a Corn Stalk Trellis

Native American Indians grew a tremendous amount of food in these gardens without the use of a plow, and without any chemicals whatsoever.  They used the same tools as a modern backyard gardener.

The Aztecs fed a crowded city of 200,000 people from their Three Sisters gardens.  Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) was an island city on a lake when Cortez discovered the Aztec Empire in 1519.  Between 60,000 and 100,000 people shopped the downtown farmers’ markets each week, with the vegetables carted down from thousands of small Three Sisters gardens ringing the city.  Tenochtitlan was possibly the largest, most complex, and best-fed city in the world, rivaled only by Paris, when the Spaniards seized possession of it.

Pocahontas saved the colony at Jamestown by sending them corn, beans, and squash.  When Captain Smith left the colony, she taught the technique to her new husband, John Rolfe, and he became the first great plantation owner in America.  Pocahontas taught John Rolfe the secrets of Three Sisters agriculture, and also showed him how to grow and cure tobacco.  Tobacco became the chief cash crop from the New World to the Old, and Three Sisters gardens fed the army of workers required to produce it.

Squanto taught this method to the Pilgrims.  Three Sisters agriculture helped establish the colony at Plymouth Rock.  In fact, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated with corn, beans, and squash.  Following that first Thanksgiving, Governor Bradford gave each family their own plot of land, rather than all families cultivating a communal plot, as in Europe.  Each family was free to grow their own Three Sisters gardens and to sell or trade their surplus.

The Mayflower Compact is considered to be the origins of democracy in America, and this act to privatize farming in Plymouth Rock is the birthplace of American capitalism.  For the next 50 years, corn, beans, and squash constituted up to 70% or more of Pilgrims’ diet, and the trade of surplus produce allowed them build their practical wealth in the New World.  Plymouth Rock, in a sense, was built on Three Sisters gardens.

Even a tiny three foot by three foot garden will produce with this method.   Plant the corn and beans seeds on the corners of a 12 inch square, and plant the squash seeds along each straight line.  This is a perfect starter garden for children.

To plant a one hundred square foot garden, prepare three garden rows, each ten feet long.  Plant the corn and bean seeds together down each row, 12 inches apart.  Plant the squash seeds in between these pairs, 24 inches apart.  This little garden can produce 60 ears of sweet corn, 30 pounds of beans, and over 150 pounds of summer and winter squash.  You can even grow melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, herbs and flowers in this garden.

Black Diamond Watermelons at Edge of a Three Sisters Garden; Bean Vines on Corn Stalk on Left

Black Diamond Watermelons at Edge of a Three Sisters Garden; Bean Vines on Corn Stalk on Left

The Three Sisters were cultivated extensively across America until the early 1900’s, when industrial farm equipment replaced small-scale farmers.  Vast chemical monocultures soon dominated the landscape, and the old ways of farming were forgotten.

The Three Sisters method is possibly the best-kept gardening secret in America, but you can use this method to pioneer your own space.  The Three Sisters will happily make themselves at home in your garden.


Companion Planting with Tomatoes

Collards Growing at the Base of Tomatoes.  Hog Panel Trellis.

Collards Growing at the Base of Tomatoes. Hog Panel Trellis.

The sun is slowly heating up in the sky over South Texas, and the soil is ready for spring planting.  Now is the time to get those tomatoes into the ground.

To achieve the greatest production from your tomato plants, you might consider companion planting.

Companion planting is the close spacing of two, three, or more plants together, where each plant helps and strengthens the others.  Every plant in nature—every vegetable, herb, fruit, and flower—grows better when planted in the right combination with other plants.

Nature always strives to create diversity in plant life, and companion planting harnesses this productive power of nature and channels it into the garden.

The best companion for tomatoes is collard greens.  Plant four collards closely spaced around the base of each tomato, and continue this pattern down the row.  The leaves of the collards will grow together and form a dense canopy over the soil.  This canopy preserves soil moisture, prevents weeds, and provides a sanctuary for beneficial predators–frogs, toads, lizards, and lady bugs.

Collards emit a subtle odor that repels many of the insect pests that attack tomatoes.  The tomatoes will vine thickly up their trellis and offer much-needed shade to the collards, while the collards keep the soil at the feet of the tomatoes nice and cool.  And best of all, you can harvest your collards along with your tomatoes all through the hot summer season.

Marigolds make excellent companions for tomatoes.  Densely plant a couple dozen marigolds around the base of each tomato plant.  The perfume of marigolds pushes nematodes away from the roots of your tomatoes.  And the vibrant yellow and orange flowers set a colorful stage for the lush green tomato vines.

Dill, basil, and cilantro are also excellent companions for tomatoes.   Plant these herbs generously throughout the tomato bed and let them go to flower.  These herbs are beautiful, edible, and their aroma repels many insect pests from the garden.

The best combination of all is to plant collards, marigolds, and herbs all together throughout your tomato bed.  The plants will not crowd each other.  Instead, they will work together to maximize the beauty, fragrance, pest resistance, and food production in every square inch of your garden.

Collards Companion Planted with Tomatoes

Collards Companion Planted with Tomatoes

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