Jeremy Authors Second Edible Austin Article For Just-released Fall Issue

Jeremy’s second article for Edible Austin will appear in the just released Fall 2009 issue. Through extensive interviews with Austin soil, biology, and ag experts, Jeremy explores how a simple shift in soil management can increase local food production, wipe out greenhouse gases, and recharge underground water resources. 

The interviews were so inspiring, we made some changes to the way we approach landscape maintenance.  As we get deeper into the meaning of organic, we are placing much more emphasis on soil and the entire system and spending less time just blindly dumping organic products all over the place. 

Check out the Fall issue!

New Family of Veggie Gardeners

During this time of year, especially this year of record soul-melting heat, we focus on everything but new plants.  Most installation work happens from March through May, then September through November.  The dormant months of summer and winter are time for seasonal cleanup, regular maintenance, and planning and hardscape phases of installation projects.   Even native plants need regular water to survive, so planting new transplants in this heat is an extra stress on already vulnerable plants.  In winter, hard sudden freezes can kill even hardy new plants.  So spring and fall is the way to go.

This week, we finished installing a series of raised beds for Amy and Britton.  To keep costs in check, they built five boxes themselves, each 4’x8’, using 2”x12” cedar.  That type of lumber can only be found from a few local lumber providers, and cost is about $120/box.  But if built correctly, they can last 15 years or more.


We came in with the tiller to prep the area, disturbing only the top inch or so of soil to remove the native bunch grasses on the site.  We measured the area and placed the boxes equal distances apart, lined them up in a straight row, and now the Geometry Teachers Association of America is beating down the door to hold a conference on the site.

Once the boxes were set, we used picks to break up the top six inches of soil in each box, sort of the lazy man’s version of double digging.  Then we leveled the boxes, added 12 inches (a little over one cubic yard) of GeoGrower’s Double Thunder to each box, and topped with several inches of alfalfa hay.  Amy and Britton used free wood chippings delivered from Davey Tree Surgery, who was working in the area clearing tree branches from transmission lines, and mulched the area around the boxes to allow clean access for maintenance and help prevent soil compaction. 

Too excited to wait for rain, our newest family of backyard gardeners will be purchasing starter plants and seed this weekend.  They plan on installing rain barrels in the near future, along with a chicken coop for homegrown eggs and unforgettable memories for their toddler.  They also purchased native grass and wildflower seeds from Native American Seed in Junction for the area surrounding the garden, just off their back porch.  In the fall/winter, we’ll help plant a diversity of native trees throughout the landscape for screening.  Good luck guys!

Cibolo Nature Center Workshops – September 12, 2009

Just like kids, sometimes the best way to love Austin is to leave it with the grandparents and get the hell out of town.  The Cibolo Nature Center has a similar history to that of Austin’s Wild Basin – a very small group of dedicated citizens made some big things happen.  They are offering some great 2-3 hour classes on Saturday morning, including a Rainwater Harvest Seminar and a Fall Grasses Workshop, prices are reasonable. 

 This also happens to be Boerne’s “Second Saturday”; their version of a First Thursday.  Several restaurants showcase new art, and have a free trolley to shuttle visitors to each participating location.  So after the morning workshop, you could head down the street from the Nature Center to the Dodging Duck Brewhaus, try all their original craft brews with ducky names, and have a much less inhibited perspective as you let the free trolley drag you around to see some art.  After five or six pints of fresh local beer and some relatively good food for a brewpub, you might actually find some tolerance for a couple hours of art and miserably desperate tourists searching for inspiration to their sad lives in all the wrong places. 

 If you still want to hang around, go back to the Nature Center around 8:30 for live music along the beautiful creek under the oak and cypress trees until midnight.  It might not be Jay-Z or Kenny G, but the setting will be too perfect to matter.

City Hall Water Problems

As we approach an end to the first year of the City Hall maintenance contract, new challenges continue to crop up.  The first several months of Fall 2008 were spent on search and rescue.  Several trailers full of plant material were removed from the overgrown beds throughout the property, as we slowly figured out what needed to go and what should stay.  Holes were replanted this spring, mulch and compost have slowly been added, and we pieced together an understanding of the huge irrigation system.

The City Hall irrigation system is not hooked up to the City water supply.  Instead, the sole source of water is ground water, not so much from a traditional well, rather, a low spot among several city blocks that collects runoff from the surrounding area.  The low spot is equipped with a pump in the below-ground parking garage, designed to remove excess water during rains to prevent flooding. 

With no rain, there isn’t much water down there.  Underground springs still provide some flow into the “well”, but not in enough volume to support twenty something zones for even the most efficient irrigation system.  So with only one day to water under the new restrictions (which City Hall decided to follow, even though they don’t use the City water), our water supplies could not replenish itself fast enough to water the entire property in just 10 hours.

We put together a committee, 12-15 people from different City departments, and gathered in a conference room of City Hall to try to fix the problem (City Hall is a beautiful building, with rotating art exhibits of different media, paint, sculpture, hands-on manipulation stuff, electronic displays, and it’s open to the public of course.)

There were lots of ideas and responses, some more productive than others.  Joe, who works as a maintenance technician for City Hall, seemed to have the best understanding of the problem, the system, and how to fix it.  His idea was to simply turn off the sump pumps (which were really designed to avoid flooding anyway) to allow the well to recharge fast enough to avoid the need for a variance to the watering rules, which will, in the end, save water and save face for the City.  No need to freak out;  just a calm, thoughtful, logical approach from the man who knows the system better than anyone else in the room – that’s all we needed.

It seems to have improved the situation.  We were able to get through a watering cycle last week after Joe turned the pumps off, and hopefully will save thousands of dollars worth of plants that were showing bad signs of drought stress.

Fall Gardening Season Begins, But Only in the Books

Now is supposed to be the time to get going on the Central Texas Fall Garden.  The local planting calendars suggest planting all kinds of stuff before the beginning of September, to make sure that plants mature before our average first freeze date. 

But also consider, we are currently experiencing the kind of drought that changes long-term water management policies, changes people’s idea of how horrible a Texas summer can really be, and challenges everyone’s priorities.  Self-sufficiency is admirable and positive and a key component to sustainable communities and a rewarding and beautiful lifestyle, yes.  But veggies need lots of regular water, which can be a problem when our sources for local drinking water are like, 50 feet lower than normal for this time of year.

Like all new gardening seasons, this season should be handled just a little differently than the last.  Maybe hold off a few weeks and lean more heavily on the veggies that can be planted later in the season, when we just might get some rain.  Use that extra time to expand your rain harvesting system (or start a new one, it’s easy!) or to amend garden soils to maximize their water holding capacity. 

For those with a particularly empathetic sensitivity to the outside world’s problems, maybe even consider skipping a garden this year.  Most local farmers use a set amount of water, purchased in advance from groundwater management districts, and have a surplus of food to satisfy a fluctuating demand.  So if you want to be the most sustainable consumer you can be, save the resources you would consume towards your own garden, and buy surplus food from local farmers who have already used those resources. 

Each garden season brings new challenges and rewards.  This fall, the reward could be extra opportunity to improve the foundation and infrastructure of your garden while giving the soils a break.  At the same time, your increased dependence on local farmers could cultivate a new or improved relationship with the commercial grower community, which could give you new resources and/or inspiration to make an even better spring garden.