22 April 2013

Happy Earth Day

It's been a while, hasn't it?

I'm forcing myself out of my inadvertent sabbatical to celebrate Earth Day.  Like last year, I wanted to share some new things I've started doing to be kinder to our world.

Rainwater collection.  The system is mostly all installed (it was waaaaay more complicated than I had thought), and rain over the last several months has kept it full, but we're still making final tweaks and haven't needed to start large-scale watering yet this year.  But I've been using chemical-free rainwater for all of my hand-watering since last fall, and with most of our landscaping fairly well established by now (it's been two years since we put most of it in), I anticipate that we will be able to cover maybe half of our watering with rainwater.  Of course, that depends on rainfall, but as long as we have some this summer,....

Just in time, too, since Texas's water woes are really getting serious -- so much so that the city could ban watering altogether in the relatively near future (with an exception for rainwater).

Curbside composting.  We've been composting for several years, but our neighborhood is now part of the city's year-long curbside composting pilot project.  The city delivered a new kitchen bin as well as a 90-gallon cart, which is nice because I can compost things like meat that can't be composted at home. 

Although I still compost bunny poop and most of our kitchen scraps in the backyard, I use the city's bin for tree branches, weeds, and other things that I wouldn't want to put in my own compost.  Surprisingly, I've filled the cart nearly every week since January.

Organic fertilizer.  I've never used chemical fertilizers, and the tragedy at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, gives us another reason to avoid them (after all, they were developed after World War II out of surplus explosive material -- who wants that in our environment?!).  But despite starting a compost pile before the house was even built, I hadn't really ever used much of it in the garden.  This spring, I've been spreading it on the lawn to help build richer soil, and I've also been exploring other organic products to enhance the landscaping.

Milkweed.  I bought two milkweed plants a couple months ago because the monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed (once hatched, the caterpillars love to eat it). 

Hopefully more habitat will be just the thing to restore the monarch population...although it's likely that pesticides are the real problem.  So far I haven't seen any monarchs, although we did have a family of swallowtail caterpillars devour my dill plant before moving on to the Italian parsley.

I think this one is green because it's on the verge of cocooning.  Or maybe just 'cause it's Earth Day.  To see the progression of swallowtail caterpillars, from the teeny-tiny babies that arrived after I planted the dill to this big, happy fellow, check out this informative website.

Organic milk.  After learning a bit about how dairy cows are treated, I was motivated to make the switch to organic milk because the USDA requires organic cows to get some pasture time, and I think that's worth supporting.  Later, as I read The Omnivore's Dilemma (one of the most fascinating books I've ever read), I learned about myriad other ill effects of factory farming that reinforced my decision, which leads me to...

The farmer's market.  My life has changed A LOT over the last year-plus (for the better!), and the confluence of a shift toward more cooking, a desire to eat more organic food, and new habits that put me in different parts of town at different times has made it easy to make the farmer's market a fairly regular part of my routine.  I love all the great fresh food I find there, and I love supporting local farmers.

Free-range backyard eggs.  No, we didn't get chickens, but we got a new neighbor behind us, and he has five of the happy feathered ladies.  And he's very generous with their eggs.  Rumor has it that he's moving away this summer, but we're enjoying it while it lasts.

So there you have it.  After moving into our super-green house and then adding drought-tolerant landscaping and solar panels, I didn't think there was much more we could easily do to be greener, but we did -- and apart from the rainwater system, none of it has really taken much effort at all.

28 December 2012


Where did the time go?  I'm going to blame my recent lack of posts on a combination of travel, illness/injury (both minor, fortunately), technical issues, and work.  I'm still working through the technical issues, so for now I'll just share this picture from the Napa Valley at Thanksgiving (which became our Christmas card) and wish you the happiest of new years!

(Yes, those are grape vines in the background.  They're breathtaking when they turn red and gold in the fall.)

14 November 2012

Growth Spurt

Things have been pretty crazy over here lately, so not a lot has happened that's worth writing about.  But there is one project that has managed to progress without any attention from us:

Over the last two months, the agave's bloom spike has grown about a foot a week:

And over the last month, the asparagus spear shape has given way to a colony of branches:

I don't know how much taller it's going to get or how many more branches will sprout, but I expect that the next big development will be flower buds on each of the little "hands":

31 October 2012

Evolution of a Community Garden

Earlier this year, while spending a few days in San Francisco (more about that here and here), I stumbled upon this more-or-less empty lot around the corner from the symphony hall:

Had the sign not identified it as a community garden, I wouldn't have known what was in store for the lot.

It was obviously still in the early stages, but it was exciting to know that a community garden was going in right in the middle of the city.

We were back in the city recently, and we passed by the same community garden, but this time it was thriving.  (That's a pumpkin!)

I'm really digging the repurposed-pallet chairs.

A day or two later, I was on the bus and noticed an ad for the city's composting services.  It said, "We compost in San Francisco because we love community gardens.  Toss in the leftover pizza.  Local gardens will thrive with the compost generated from the green bin."

The next bus I rode had another ad with the same theme, but referring to the environmental benefits of composting (specifically, that keeping organic material out of landfills reduces methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change):

San Francisco is obviously a green leader, but I'm happy to say that Austin is about to unveil curbside composting services as well.  I received e-mail this week saying that my neighborhood is part of the pilot project that will start in December.  I look forward to sharing all of the details as soon as I have them.

25 October 2012

Inside Austin (Edible) Garden Tour

Last weekend was the Travis County Master Gardener Association's garden tour, which I've been looking forward to since the last tour eighteen months ago (they plan it that way to alternate between spring and fall gardens).  This year's tour featured edible gardens -- not necessarily traditional vegetable gardens, but mixing veggies in with other kinds of plants in the garden.

Here are some of the highlights:

I love this brick walkway.

These square beds edged in stones are so simple!

This horseshoe shape may be appearing in our yard...someday.

We'd never seen this fun fall plant before (Gregg's mistflower), but it was everywhere. 

Apparently butterflies like it, too. 

Although our weather lately has been confusing a lot of plants, the fall aster seemed to know it was autumn.

I hope our front walkway turns out as well as this one. 

One of the stops on the tour was the Travis County Master Gardener offices.  Among all of the interesting plants and veggies they have growing (including the stone-edged beds above) was this lacey oak -- the same variety we planted in our front yard.

I was happy to see a lot of autumn joy sedum on the tour... 

...and yes, the silence of growing things is lovely, indeed.

14 October 2012

Landscape Design Before and After

This spring my friend Michelle asked me to help her redo her front yard.  I did some drawing, we did some shopping, she and her husband did some planting...and the rest is history.



After a couple of drafts and meetings with Michelle, we finalized the plan, which uses all native and/or drought-tolerant plants:

They were waiting until summer ended to plant the crape myrtle at the left corner of the house, and now they have a newborn, so I'm not sure when that's going to get done (soon, if I can help it), but even without it, the yard is vastly improved.


became this...

I think my favorite part is the lamb's ear/lavender/gaura mix along the sidewalk.  Or maybe the roses, which anchor both corners of the lot.  I would have loved to raise the bed along the sidewalk with a 1-2' tall retaining wall, but that would have blown the budget.  However, Michelle ended up finding a bunch of free limestone, so she did put in a small retaining wall after all.

We removed the "horrible bush" that was (mis)placed to conceal two tiny electrical boxes:

It's been replaced by a mutabilis rose (my favorite kind) that will grow to disguise the boxes without totally overwhelming the yard like the horrible bush did.  (It has already grown a ton since she planted it in June.)

Michelle estimates that she and her husband spent about $3,500 on their new yard, including an irrigation system with sprayers for the lawn area and drippers in the beds.  Based on my experience with the cost of landscaping, this would probably have cost about $10,000 if she had hired it out, so I'd say it was well worth the effort to do themselves.