Fonda Update – November 2011

Fonda is back.  Fall tomatoes taste like summer on cold days, and taste as sweet as they do contradictory in the last hot days of the year. Late-season edible squash blossoms are used in the Fonda kitchen and in insect pollen sacks, and warm us with bright blooms and the hum of bees.



Claudia Alarcon and the Chronicle checked in recently to make sure the garden still had a pulse after the beating it took this summer.  Still alive! Glad to report that our late-season bounty is complimented with cool-season plantings of calendula, Mexican herbs, nasturtium, other flowers, and my favorite, strawberries, which should give us another great crop next spring.

To survive another summer, we’re gonna go deeper, just like roots chasing groundwater.  We want to make every drop count.   Those drops might as well support plants that make viable seeds, heirlooms that we can use over and over each season and support a more sustainable and self-sufficient food system.  And a more diverse set of plants to feed pollinators and other wildlife, or that don’t need as much water to produce something useful for the restaurant, like flowers.  We plan to go deeper in our uses of compost teas and mulches and smart water use to reduce our need for water to begin with, including the addition of rain barrels to supplement our water use.  We’ll start with the simple stuff, then start experimenting.

Until then, look for the fruits of perseverance in the restaurant this month – tomatoes, squash blossoms, papalo, Swiss chard, lettuce, mint, verdolaga, and cut flowers are making an appearance, all straight from the garden, fresh and chemical free!


Water, Struggles, Triumph

Native Plants Don’t Save Water, People Do

Even though we consider ourselves as low-impact landscapers, it’s a struggle for me to be excited about landscaping in this horrific drought.  I might as well be bulldozing garbage into the Guadalupe River.

We use alternative fuels in our equipment, but propane and waste veggie oil and biodiesel in combustion engines are still air-choking pollutants.  What if we figured out ways to avoid using those engines altogether?

Avoiding chemicals doesn’t make us greener, it just makes us work harder and with less efficiency.  What if we could change clients’ perspectives, and show them the value of plants that most people consider to be weeds?

Replacing lawns with native beds doesn’t necessarily reduce water use, it just makes us look like we’re trying.   What if sometimes, the best way to conserve resources is by working with what we have, and by waiting for better conditions before attempting improvements?

Sometimes, doing nothing in the landscape is the best solution.

In severe drought, all newly installed plants need regular water.  We actually killed Agaves and Texas Sotols when we planted them in May and failed to add a drop of water this summer.   The weeds that were replaced by these now dead plants would have done better.  The reality is that those weeds were probably the most sustainable option at the time.

If we actually had a little rain this summer, it’s a different story.  A little supplemental water to get properly selected drought-tolerant plants established during normal planting seasons is not a big stress on regional water resources.  Once these plants have a solid root system, they can survive future summers of two-thousand e-hell-ven without any help, AND can improve a site by providing more cover and food for wildlife, shading soil microbes and your house, preventing soil erosion, and maybe even providing a bloom or two for the ladies.

Sometimes, using resources in the short-term actually saves resources in the long-term.   Now is a really bad time to use those resources.

We really shouldn’t be planting anything in landscapes this fall, even if the weather does cool a little.  I’m just too chickenshit to stand by that, so we’re planting anyway, because anything can be justified.  But if I had a spine, I suppose I would try this out:

Un-irrigated Landscapes – Keep them un-irrigated.  To save soil resources, only focus on areas that are now bare soil thanks to drought.  Delineate these areas into natural shapes, leaving the majority of any vegetation that is still alive untouched.   Add an inch or two of compost, cover with four inches of mulch, hand-water it long and deep one time.

If and only if it ever rains again, and if an only if it happens to be during a cool season, plant however many 10-gallon trees will fit into the mulched space, matching plant material with soil type found on the site and that will survive prolonged drought once they’re established.  Good luck figuring out exactly which trees those are, and be prepared to show your neighbor a finger when he asks why you are planting giant weeds.  Wait a year or two, then repeat with shrubs and perennials only if needed to keep up with Jones’.

Irrigated Landscapes – Shut off your irrigation system, sell your house as quickly as possible while everything is still sort of alive, and move to Oregon.

Water Restrictions

Austin is officially in Stage 2 watering restrictions.  So we can only use sprinklers once a week.  Let me know if you need help resetting your timers.


I’m a lost soul on the topic of veggie gardens.  The edibility of certain plants can justify their needy existence, but even in droughts like this?  Our garden at the house is dormant, save for a single basil plant that came out of nowhere.  This year’s excuse was lack of rain.  So I’m copying a yard sign I saw in San Antonio that insecurely excused the state of a parched landscape by claiming that the owner is “Sharing Our Water with Local Farmers.”  Ya, let them use our water to grow our veggies, hell, I’ll take food over a shower any day.

But I did learn something this summer, and it gave me hope that a symbiosis can exist between veggies and responsible water use in tough times like these.  Sun Gold tomatoes love drought.  We planted 40 of these plants at Fonda in April, turned off the water in July, and as of today, they’re all still loaded with sweet, juicy, beautiful cherry tomatoes.  Not a drop of water in 6+ weeks of the hottest part of the hottest summer on record, and we’ve got golden balls of manna stacked seven feet high.  Throw in some edible weeds that don’t care what the weather is doing, and we’ve got an indestructible and bountiful garden.

Sometimes, You Gotta Get Up to Get Down

Or vicey versey.  We have been turning down new clients all summer, and will continue this trend through the fall for two reasons.  1) The guys have been working overtime all summer to keep up with obligations to exiting clients and those obligations are increasing as we approach the alleged planting season;  and 2) my failure to deal psychologically with this drought have kept my ambitions at a healthy zero.

Droughts are part of a natural cycle of life in this part of the country.  95 had never felt so good as it did last week, I’m guessing the first thunderstorm will be 100 times better than that.  The drought brought tragedy to thousands of families around us, but as thousands more rush to help their neighbors, it has also strengthened communities and created new ones that will stand together during the next tragedy.  That’s pretty inspiring.  It’s the lows of life cycles that makes the highs so magical.

Anyway, we’re still here living and learning, thanks for being part of that process.  Let it rain.


Summer – The Stagnant Season

Hello Lovers of Slow Living!

The Heat

We haven’t turned on the A/C at the house yet, and it hit 100 this week.  Princess Winecup does not tolerate discomfort, but she’s discovered a benefit to the heat that outweighs her greatest intolerance:  the heat gives you an excuse to slow down. 

So in the evenings, after the heat has accumulated in every corner of the house, the three of us will gravitate towards the living room under the fan, close enough to feel the breeze but far enough to avoid body heat, and be still.   We read.  We doze off.  We talk.  And in the delirium of discomfort, we find comfort in stillness, and we realize that we have somehow become one with the heat.  And suddenly the heat’s not so bad.  Until you move.

This discovery translates very easily to work.  I’ve averaged 16 hour days since March, and got into a grove of sun-up to sun-down doing some form of work.  It’s a pleasant grove when there’s reward in the work, but committing that much energy to one single thing requires some serious trade-offs.  So it’s time to slow down.

The Epic Journey

BioGardener is wrapping up spring projects, and is shifting into auto-pilot maintenance mode for summer.  We are regularly turning away new clients, and are pushing others to wait until the fall when the weather cools and new planting becomes feasible again.  The crew is taking some paid vacation, split over a two-week period.  The little family is packing up the Frankenstream, sticking our fingers to the wind, and hitting the road.  First to Montana, then to Vermont, then to North Carolina.  That’s about 600 gallons of vegetable oil, 50 pounds of books, 4 gigs of photos, 2-3 miles of writing, 350 buckets of laughter, 30 naps, and 4.5 tons of doing nothing.  A trip to remember.

During the epic journey, I will be available on email and phone, though I won’t be as responsive as usual.  Jose, Beto, Papa, Willie, Ruben, and Jake will be holding down Fort BioGardener, doing what they do, only a little slower.  There will be a couple of weeks around Independence Day when our schedule is whack, but hopefully you’ll be too busy embracing the heat and being still to notice. 

Summer Chores in the Landscape

Sometimes it’s a chore to do nothing.  If the grass isn’t growing, don’t mow it.  If the plants go dormant, don’t panic.  If a pepper is ready to harvest, don’t not eat it.  Study the response of plants to our truly dormant season, and marvel at the beauty of stillness. 

As stewards of the urban environment, there are still some responsibilities for us though.  In extreme droughts like this, trees, shrubs, perennials, and lawns that have been planted in the last 2-3 years will need some help.   Shoot for a slow, deep watering once per week, or maybe every two weeks if you’ve soaked in too many inertion rays from the sun.  For established plants, including mature trees, once a month waterings are a good idea. 

A little fish emulsion and liquid seaweed once a month, applied during the morning hours, will help keep roots stimulated, and compost tea helps replenish the microbes.  If you haven’t given a spring haircut to Salvias, Knockout Roses, and other long-blooming perennials like Bulbines and 4-nerve Daisies, now is the time.  Taking off dead blooms will encourage another round of blooming just when you need it.

Dream a little.  Use the passive season to consider changes to make in the landscape for the fall season:  vegetable gardens; more trees; larger native beds; beefy walkways; and other improvements to make your space more usable.  Take note of the parts of your lawn that struggle the most in the heat, and figure out what tree you want to plant in those spots this fall, or during our annual winter tree sale.

Please don’t hesitate to be in touch this summer.  I’m not on vacation, and you aren’t interrupting anything.  I have a competent crew, and a solid network of irrigators, arborists, mechanics, landscapers, and pot smokers who can help with anything urgent that comes up. 

Thank you for allowing me the freedom to spend some discovery time with my family, and for the crew to enjoy a little break from their hard work.  I’m fortunate, grateful, and promise to take full advantage of realizing it.  Have a neat summer.


2nd Annual – We Prune, We Weed, We Ride

BioGardener celebrated National Bike to Work Day last Friday, which is now an official annual event for us.  For the second year in a row, we strapped on tools and used bikes to make our weekly maintenance visit to Austin City Hall. 

Jose Jr., Willie, and Jose at City Hall

Jose, Willie, and Papa Jose at City Hall

We had free breakfast at City Hall with fellow bike commuters, and even caught notice of Ricardo at the Statesman:

Jeremy, strategically positioned to completely block Papa (see his foot?) and acting like a jackass to steal the spotlight from Willie and Jose.

Jeremy, strategically positioned to completely block Papa from the camera, and waving like a jackass in an obvious and successful attempt to steal the spotlight and to blur out Willie and Jose. What a hero.

Thanks to Ricardo for not capturing the spill I took hitting a concrete post while waving to a tree.

Seedy Native Landscape

This week, I accidentally drove by a landscape we ‘designed’ and installed back in 2008.  There were erosion problems, so we built a stream bed to channel water away from the house. 

For the rest of the landscape, we installed Austin-native foundation plants like Twist Leaf Yucca, Spineless Pricklypear, Kidneywood, Nolina, Cedar Sage, Mexican Buckeye, and Big Muhly, then seeded the rest with buffalo grass and blue grama, and a mix of wildflowers that don’t mind a little shade.


April 2008

Seeds, native or not, generally need constant soil moisture over several days to germinate into baby plants.  Baby plants need regular water to establish roots, which is hard to get during dry conditions when you don’t have an automatic irrigation system.  The first summer after finishing the project didn’t go so well, even after another round of seeding.  With no response to my followups, I assumed I made someone mad and just sorta gave up on it.  It became one of those projects I just cringed to think about.  Until this week.

April 2011

April 2011

It’s actually starting to fill in nicely despite three years of funky weather and a super slow start.  And in a backyard shed somewhere in Allandale, a lawnmower is corroding from disuse.

Peace Out, Lawnmower

Peace Out, Lawnmower