Austin Landscapes in the 5th Dimension

Hello January Spring Lovers!

Last years frozen pipes are this years Mountain Laurel blooms, so it goes in Austin, TX.   Usually, spring means concentrating on organic soil building to strengthen turf grass and fight weeds.  But drought and rain and unseasonable temps have expanded our understanding of the universe, giving us a new reality of what it means to be a landscape in Austin, TX.   Welcome to the 5th Dimension.

WEEDS

St. Augustine lawns turned to dirt by October, then to a salad of weeds when the rains started in December.  Historically, we’ve fought weeds with hand pulling and organic maintenance programs that promote vigorous lawn growth to choke out weeds.  This year,  the grass is gone and the weeds are the new majority.  But are they really weeds?  Depends how you look at it.

In the ancient world of three dimensions existed a monoculture of plain boring turf grass.  Around 1985 or so, Einstein discovered native plants, and developed his theory on the superiority of Salvias and Lantanas to suburban lawns to bring us into the fourth dimension.  But that was an elementary exercise compared to the contributions of the Queen Bitch of Enlightenment, La Niña.  She graced us with unprecedented drought starting in 2011, vaporizing the illusions of so-called drought tolerance and creating a new reality for Austin landscapes.  Hence, the dawn of the 5th dimension.

In many landscapes around Austin, we’ve seen certain plants thrive, including the old standbys like Twist Leaf Yucca, Texas Mountain Laurel, Sotols, 4-nerve Daisy, and other super tough natives.  No problem there.  But in lawns, we’ve seen the rise of Henbit, Chickweed, Black Medic, Stickyweed, Shepherd’s Purse, Dandelion, Wild Lettuce, and others, all targeted as pest plants in the pre-Drought world.  But not in the 5th Dimension of Enlightenment.  Here, these scapegoats become heroes, packed with valuable uses from aesthetic to zinc.

Henbit

These are the little purple flowers that are everywhere in Austin lawns right now, usually in sunny spots but also in part-shade.

Henbit

Instead of pulling or spraying or mowing these, they can be cultivated and eaten!  When allowed to colonize and with a little weeding of single and random plants growing among a patch of Henbit, they can be just as beautiful as any wildflower.  And the stems, leaves, and flowers are edible and make a great addition to salads or rubs.

Chickweed

The Cobbler has stands of this growing in the most neglected parts of the lawn, along the sidewalk outside the fence.  By just pulling the random cool season grasses that pop through every few weeks, its easy to pretend that Chickweed is an intentional ornamental.

Chickweed
Chickweed Bed – Ready to Eat

The leaves and stems are edible in small quantities, raw or cooked.  Although its nutritional, Chickweed can make the tummy churn with violence if consumed in large portions, so use it sparingly.

Black Medic

This clover-like legume has rough edges around the leaves and bright yellow flowers.  They grow in sunny lawns all over Austin.

Black Medic – Organic Nitrogen Factory
Black Medic Lawn Strip.  The only visible weeds are grasses!

The seeds of Black Medic are edible, but even more impressively, Black Medic plants are like organic fertilizer factories that pull Nitrogen out of the air and add it to the soil.  An entire multibillion dollar industry double dips on this poor plant:  1) by selling chemicals to kill it; 2) by selling synthetic fertilizers that try (and fail) to replicate what the poisoned Black Medic plants used to do on their own.

Stickyweed

This is one of the most ubiquitous Austin weeds of very early spring, and always disappears as soon as it gets hot.  It grows super fast, is easy to pull, climbs, and sticks to clothing without being too prickly.

Lone Stickyweed, Growing Where No Other Plants Could
Stickyweed Growing in Neglected Lot in East Austin

A certain local morning radio show host complains about this stuff in long. boring. detail. every. single. year.   Not that I listen to him of course, I’m a KOOP man.  Turns out, the stems and leaves of Stickyweed can be eaten raw, cooked, or brewed into a tea, and are a great source of Vitamin C.   Eat that.

Shepherd’s Purse

Like most plants, this one is most enjoyed at a closer level when you slow down, eliminate superficial distractions of life, and pay attention to the beauty of the world right under your nose.  Shepherd’s Purse grows in sunny spots where there’s foot traffic, crappy soils or other disturbance, and seems to thrive in areas where stray trash lands.

Shepherd’s Purse seed stem, with Heart-shaped Seed Pods
Patch of Shepherd’s Purse, at a Vacant Church Where Prostitutes Like to Hang Out on Early Sunday Mornings

The  heart-shaped seed pods can be eaten raw,  and the young leaves are good raw or cooked.  Be sure to wash them first though, especially if unsure about contamination levels of certain human body fluids on some urban crops.

SOIL FEEDING

A 1/4″ layer of compost as a topdressing is still a good idea, no matter what’s growing in the lawn.  Compost still does great things by adding nutrients, beneficial microbes, and improving drainage and water retention of soils.  But just about any plant growing in that soil will benefit, not just the few strands of St. Augustine that somehow survived last summer.  So be sure you know who you’re feeding, and consider a big push of hand-weeding unwanted vegetation before applying the good stuff.

Compost

Usually applied in April, though the window seems be opening a little earlier this year.  Dillo Dirt is fine if you’re not scared of what could be in there, but you might not want to risk that if you decide to start grazing your lawn.  Finished manure composts are more expensive, but are probably cleaner and safer.

Each 1,250 square foot patch of lawn would need about one cubic yard of compost for good coverage.  We charge about $50/cubic yard for Manure Compost plus a $50-100 delivery fee, and another $40/cubic yard to spread it.  Mas or Menos.

Triple Shot

This is our blend of locally sourced compost tea, liquid seaweed/fish emulsion/humic acid, and liquid molasses.  We start applying this organic cocktail as a foliar feed to lawn and landscape plants in March, and continue monthly or even bi-weekly through the growing season and until the first freezes.   Monthly applications are usually about $55, and cover up to 5,000 square feet.

RAIN WATER COLLECTION and IRRIGATION

The story on Stage 3 Restrictions isn’t as grim as it was a few weeks ago, and there is no longer a threat of banned outdoor watering by June.  But still, that scare should be enough to have everyone thinking hard about every drop.  We can install a basic 2,500 gallon rain water collection system for about $2,500.  This doesn’t include guttering, pumps, or anything fancy, but should keep a small vegetable garden alive all summer.  Systems are relatively easy to retrofit for added capacity, or to incorporate into a more sophisticated automatic irrigation system.

For those with existing irrigation systems, it’s critical to pay close attention to when and how they are used.  Most systems should be OFF right now, the recent rains have saturated soils for us.  But when the soils dry out and the heat sets in, use those systems sparingly.  If they must be set on timers instead of running them manually only as needed, consider starting them out monthly, then gradually increasing the frequency as the season wears on.

Irrigation assessments are usually about $65, and include a look at all heads and visible components to make sure there are no major inefficiencies.

VEGGIE GARDENS

We’re still going forward with food gardens in this new world, considering it the one luxury of modern landscapes of the 5th Dimension.  Cool season stuff is slowly playing out:  we’ll keep the broccoli in the ground as long as the flowers are attracting bees, the lettuce going until it turns super bitter, and the strawberries fed with Triple Shot all spring when they fruit, and then covered with shade cloth in the brutal summer months in hopes of another fruit set this fall.

But as the winter annuals fade out, we’re adding extra compost to beds and starting seeds for warm season crops, which we’ll start planting soon.  Not only the usual suspects like Tomatoes and Cucumbers, but also cut flowers like Mexican Sunflowers and Poppies, tough perennial plants like Butterfly Weed, Sages, Bergamot, and herbs like Oregano, Basil, Epazote, Cilantro and more.

We’ve made some pretty cool boxes from found materials over the years, but are still building our standard 4’x8′ boxes using 2″x12″x12″ milled Cedar as a simple, attractive, and long-lasting option.  These boxes, built, set, leveled, and filled with super high quality garden soil are about $600.

Or just eat your weeds.  Weed is the new green, grazing is the new mowing, and neglect is the new love.   It’s a strange new world.

 

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