Healthy Soil Makes a Healthy Garden

Spring is already around the corner, can you believe it? Sure, it’s still January, but many of us are already planning our spring gardens, preparing beds, and ordering more seeds. But while you’re busy planning what gorgeous flowers and greenery will decorate your garden this year, think about what lies beneath — the soil — for that is what makes your garden grow… literally.

soilmulchb01-17-10.jpgYour best bet for healthy plants starts with a healthy soil. But what exactly is healthy soil? Good soil is teeming with life. Many people have heard of food webs that show the relationship between plant-eaters and the animals that eat them, on up the food chain to humans. But did you know there is a whole food web just for what occurs in soil? Healthy soil contains organic matter to feed the little tiny creatures within the soil, and those creatures in turn break down nutrients into materials your flowers, trees, and shrubs can use.

Take a look at this diagram from the USDA website on soil.


It shows that not only is it important to have a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes, it all starts with organic matter in the soil. You simply have to have organic material in order to feed all the little guys that will do their part to take care of your plants naturally. Bacteria and fungi help retain nutrients in the soil, and protozoa consume the bacteria, releasing the nutrients into a form that plants can use. From there, beneficial nematodes consume bacteria, fungi, and protozoa, releasing even more nutrients for the plants. And while all these happy little beneficial creatures are eating their goodies, making their poop, and doing their part, they are denying nutrients to icky, disease-causing bad-guy creatures. Your soil is more protected with the presence of all those good guys, and your plants are happily reaping the benefits.

On up the food chain, arthropods, nematodes, and earthworms get consumed by larger predators, such as birds. And you can probably take the food web from there.

How do you know whether your soil is healthy? Well, one, you can have your soil tested, particularly if you are concerned about the mineral content of your soil (nutrient level) and whether you have any more serious concerns. But also consider whether you see many earthworms.


Earthworms are one of the best indicators of a healthy soil system. They consume bacteria and protozoa in the soil as organic material passes through their system, and their feces are rich with other microorganisms to help convert nutrients into a state plants use. They shred organic matter (making it more accessible to the microorganisms), loosen soil, create passages for oxygen and water to get into the soil, and their poop, or castings, are incredibly beneficial to the soil and your plants.

If you’ve been using chemicals on your yard for years, chances are that your plants are chemical dependent, or you might be starting to find that no matter how many times you spray, you just can’t fix those brown spots in your lawn or resolve problems with fungus, etc. The chemical usage has disrupted the ecosystem, and getting your soil healthy again is the key to solving all those problems. You can help your plants transition off the chemicals simply by adding compost to your soil and taking advantage of multiple organic products out there that will boost your soil with microorganisms and/or natural nutrients, such as compost tea, seaweed, fish emulsion, and any number of organic mixtures and powders that provide microorganisms with food as a base. Leave your grass clippings and fallen leaves where they lay to decompose, resupplying the soil with the organic matter it needs.

wormc01-17-10.jpgAnd when you start to see earthworms, rejoice. Do a little worm dance, because you have happy, healthy soil. We are starting to have so many earthworms here that it’s hard to dig a hole for a new plant without worrying we might hurt a worm. We protect them, we love them, and yes, we do our little worm dances. 

Earth-Friendly, Homemade

Homemade gifts just make the heart swell with love, and happy memories of making or receiving them abound, not to mention how economically wise they can be. This year, the family and I decided to make environmentally friendly gifts for Christmas, and not only were the gifts made from the heart, the satisfaction of staying green AND discovering that the four of us could work as a team equaled a total win-win.

fishart12-09.jpgThe kids decided that for grandparents they wanted to make seed mosaic art, and it was truly a family affair. The boys made the drawings and did a bunch of the gluing, with Mom giving guidance and filling in where necessary. Dad made the frames with old branches from our yard.


This fish is a rainbow trout, fly fishing being my dad’s favorite outdoor pasttime.

fishartb12-09.jpgAnd, of course, hummingbirds seemed the perfect choice for other art subjects, because all our kids’ grandparents love hummingbirds!


We used all sorts of beans and seeds, including kidney beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, white beans, pumpkin seeds, safflower seeds, millet, flax seed, black beans, lentils, and green split peas. These we glued onto a thick piece of off-white paper with good old-fashioned white glue, following a lightly pencilled outline of our drawing. Next we glued the paper onto a slightly larger wood board, and to that we attached the frame pieces my husband had carefully cut. To ensure the frame dried how we wanted it, we carefully clamped the pieces in place after the glue was applied. And prior to all the gluing, we nailed a small picture hanger on to the back of the board.


Ah yes, we added in a little popcorn for color variation.

birdartc12-09.jpgFor other family and friends, we tried our hand at making seed ornaments, as often in the past we’ve enjoyed giving purchased seed gifts for others, to hang out for the birdies.


We used a recipe that I found online — it used unflavored gelatin as the ingredient to stick together the black oil sunflower seeds, safflowers, peanuts, corn, cranberries, raisins, thistle, flax, and other bird-happy foods, hopefully holding the intended shape. The best cookie cutter I had for the project was a large star, and we used it to shape most of the ornaments. We also used some round plastic storage containers for larger seed wheels — these were much easier to shape, but much worse for drying time! Twine through the ornaments served as the hangers.


I want to say that the birdseed ornaments were a success, and in some ways they were. Once dry, the ornaments held their shape fairly well, but the key was definitely to let them dry fully, flipping when necessary. Overall I didn’t allow enough dry time, thanks to the recipes I looked at being vague. They weren’t just vague in dry time, they also were vague in the gelatin/seed ratio and recipe. Any of the ornaments that didn’t get to air-dry well quickly turned to moldy ick, so I couldn’t give more than a few out. SO… I’ll need to work on this to perfect it. The idea was good! Once I improve on the project, I’ll post details of the new and better recipe.

We attempted one other earth-friendly project for kids’ gifts, but they were far more time-consuming than we expected. So this secret project will be on hold for next year!

I’d love to hear what you made for gifts this year, or what you’ve done in the past. We’re already looking forward to our next projects! 

Icy Falls

Bundled up in parkas, hats, and gloves to drive my son to his basketball game, we noticed how few cars were on the road despite the gorgeous sunny day. I guess most people decided to huddle under heavy blankets and sleep in, given that last night our area broke record lows, hitting the teens and single digits in many areas. It’s cold! I love it, even if my plants don’t. The cold didn’t stop the kids from impressing us with their basketball skills, either. Watching them run back and forth warmed the rest of us up!

icypondc01-09-10.jpgIt’s been a relatively dry cold front, but doggy water bowls, birdbaths, and ponds still show us the effects of the temperature drop. I thought our pond would be fine, given that it has a substantial waterfall, but I was surprised to find fat icicles hanging like stalactites under the falls.

icypondb01-09-10.jpgOn the side of the pond where the lilies hang out in better temperatures, a thin icy cover delighted the kids, who poked at an edge to crack it and discovered their fingers didn’t care for the freezing water. And in the remaining bits of Ruby Red Runner, full frozen water drops glittered like diamonds in the sun.

 icypond01-09-10.jpgI hope in the deep areas of the pond, we still have 9 little goldfish awaiting warmer times.

Making that One Small Change

Cat over at Amlo Farms in her latest post dared me, and by me I mean all of us, to participate in One Small Change, a great idea that comes from the inspiration of Suzy at Hip Mountain Mama, and it’s all about changing little habits or doing little things that will have positive green impact. Make one small change each month through Earth Day (April 22) and post about it. More than 200 people worldwide are already participating, including a whole 5th-grade class (well done!). Well, I’m up to that dare, Cat and Suzy! This month is actually filled with goals for me — I’m involved in some large habitat projects at the moment but I decided that they don’t count as “small” changes because they are big ones! And we already do so much in our daily lifestyle that is eco-wise, so I had to give this some thought. And here’s what I’ve come up with — yes, it’s three, not one. I can’t count, apparently (okay, two were already in the works, but I included them).

The first is to get the last of the invasive nandinas off my property this weekend, in time for bulk plant pickup by the city (we’re removing all the berries first). Two, I have some old paint cans and whatnot left over from my “I didn’t know better” days — these I will get to the hazardous waste facility and say goodbye forever. And three, I will learn more about organic gardening products so that I can offer organic solutions when people have pests, want to fertilize, or otherwise want to get their yard healthy. It’s one thing for me to say “go organic,” but to be able to offer actual solutions will help bring the idea back to earth, so to speak.  🙂

What are some other ideas? The possibilities are endless! Switching to better lightbulbs (such as compact fluorescent), reusing bags at stores, avoiding dusting sprays and non-natural air fresheners, using more cloth instead of paper towels, stop buying bottled water, conserving rain water, purchase green energy, reduce car usage, adjusting your thermostat to use less energy, taking things to a recycling center when your city doesn’t offer at-home pick-up for items, and so on, donating items you don’t use anymore, checking craigslist and freecycle before you buy something, and finding a way to reuse something you might otherwise have thrown away. Little things, but they mean a lot!

Oh, the Guilt

Back in July I posted this picture of a little creature on my fennel, hoping for an ID.

mealybugdestroyer07-08-09.jpgI was concerned it was a pest of some sort on my brand new veggie and herb seedlings, but I didn’t kill it. But I found a few more over the summer, and I admit that a couple might not have survived my panicky pest control moments (especially when my cantaloupe was under attack by aphids). Well, today I found out what they are — the rag mop larval stage of a kind of lady beetle, the mealybug destroyer (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri). Good guys!

I am so sorry, little larvae, those that I led to a premature demise. It will never, ever happen again, and I promise to watch out for all your cousins from now on!

It’s interesting how the little lady beetle larvae resemble one of their favorite meals, the mealybug, but they also are great devourers of aphids and scale insects, the aphids being what they probably feasted on in my yard. Before… cry.

Harvest Before the Freeze

Brrr! It’s cold out there! Whatever cold weather you northern folks in Canada and the U.S. are experiencing, somehow you’ve managed to send some our way. As I write this, it’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit (freezing!) with a 25-degree windchill, and it’s just early evening yet. That’s cold for these here parts! Looks like the low might be 16 degrees. Good weather for stew, tonight’s meal.

Yesterday the boys and I got out there and watered all the plants in the garden and also gave them a nice seaweed martini to give them an extra boost of nutrients to help protect them survive the freeze. I didn’t cover everything with sheets this time — just the citrus trees and a couple of tenders. I lost a few plants with the last freeze despite the fact that I covered them — I’m just going to have to trust that the hardy of the hardy will survive again.

The exciting news is that my veggie garden, neglected over the holidays, has been growing with a vengeance despite my absence.

harvestb01-07-10.jpgThe strawberry plants are all alive, yay. And the carrots, lettuce, spinach, and kohlrabi are massive! They’ve been loving their little bed, though I wish I’d managed to give them some organic fertilizer over the holidays, just because I’m learning that they like that. The lettuce heads are so big that I wonder whether the leaves will taste bitter — does lettuce do that? The spinach already is a little bitter, the leaves not being so “baby spinach” size as the seed package promised. It’s our fault for not harvesting them all when small, I suppose.

Tonight we picked a couple of kohlrabi, though I understand they are troopers in a freeze. Aren’t they beautiful? I left a little one back in the bed — I hope it doesn’t get lonely, but maybe the gigantic lettuce leaves will keep it company. And warm. *Edit: I was wrong, I left two in the bed, yay. And I plucked a bunch of lettuce and spinach to share with the neighbors before it all succumbed to the freeze.


Now all we need is for our kohlrabi-loving friends Stepan and Jen and their kids to come over and share our first kohlrabi harvest with us!

This fall I planted two varieties of carrots — one shorter, one longer (the varieties escape me at the moment). The shorter variety has done fairly well — but we gobbled the ones we picked before I got a decent picture. The one below was only mildly deformed and still tasty.

harvestc01-07-10.jpg The “longer” variety has proven to be weird. Look at how short and fat this one is. 

harvestd01-07-10.jpgUnfortunately, it tasted rather bitter for a carrot. It sure has pretty color, though, doesn’t it? I wonder if it was a nutrient thing (remember, I didn’t fertilize over the holidays). The carrots certainly have plenty of depth to grow in, so that’s not the issue.

We gave the yucky ones we harvested to the dogs, who thought the food odd but edible enough.


I need to use some of these carrot tops in a fresh smoothie — yum! Did you know that the carrot greens are far more nutrient-rich than the orange part? It’s important to use organic ones, though — conventionally grown carrots are some of the top vegetables to expose people to pesticides.

Stay warm, all, unless you are in the southern hemisphere — then stay cool!

Lo and Behold, It’s Snow

As I look at the weather report here in Austin, I see that we are expected to have some rather low temperatures in a few days. There’s a chance of snow, according to the weather folks, but here in Austin, we follow the weather motto of “we’ll believe it when we see it.” However, up in Dallas a few days ago, when visiting grandparents, we really did get to see snow. And even throw a snowball or two! It was beautiful.



winterc12-29-09.jpgAt a nearby pond, ducks swam in the cold, cold water. This duck rested on shore with snow gently landing on its back, until it decided I was too close for comfort and swam off to join its friends.

Grover at first didn’t care for the snow, but soon enough he was catching it in his mouth, much like his human family was doing.

He also enjoyed playing catch the snowball. Well, once.

My dad’s satellite dish created an image under the snow, almost like a sun that’s lost its heat.

The snow and ice lingered for less than a day, but it was enough to make us content that we’d at last experienced a real winter day.


And then it melted just in time for us to continue our journey to another Texas town to see more of our family. Now, back in Austin, we wonder what winter weather moves our way. Snow? Ice? Certainly cold. Brrrr. Hot chocolate time.


Nature Walks, Part 3b — A Tour of McKinney Falls State Park

Down in southeast Austin along Onion Creek lies a somewhat tucked away state park called McKinney Falls State Park. The wealthy Thomas F. McKinney was one of the “Old 300” original settlers who received land grants in Stephen F. Austin’s colony back in the 1820s (McKinney actually moved there around 1850), so this park definitely has its history. Now, some of that history sadly includes McKinney’s use of slaves, the clearing of acres and acres of precious woodland, the racing of horses, and aid to the Confederacy — but this post isn’t about all that! What it is today is a state park filled with walking and biking trails, with waterfalls, creeks, and historical buildings mixed in. And that’s what this post is about.

The main areas of McKinney Falls State Park are divided into the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. We visited the Upper Falls first. When rain is plentiful, the falls are much more substantial, but at least water was flowing. What I was particularly drawn to, and you’ll see this in many of my pictures, is the erosion power of the water, shaping beautiful curves and channels into the rock.


Below the falls is a larger pool in which people sometimes enjoy swimming. However, often the pool is closed to swimming because of high fecal counts due to runoff from upstream areas and flooding. During our visit, the pool was open for swimming, but given that it was December, it wasn’t so surprising that no one cared to swim in the cold water. Bald cypress trees, complete with twisted roots, line the pool’s edges. 

Dogs are not permitted to swim at the state park, but the headquarters said it was ok to let them take drinks. Of course, leashes are also required at all times. 

The Upper Falls trail is actually paved and seems a great place if you have young kids who like to ride their bikes while parents walk along. For adults on bikes, the distance is probably on the short side.

We visited in winter, and there were few leaves left on the trees, except for the annoying occasional invasive ligustrum which just thrived; its dark-green foliage really stood out when we ran across it.


The path travels along Onion Creek, which Austinites know is the area most prone to serious and dangerous flooding during heavy rains. You can see evidence of flooding in the images below, though the results seemed to be to the basking turtles’ favor.


To get to the Lower Falls, you have to drive to a separate parking area, then walk for awhile across exposed rock. I imagine during floods that this whole area gets quickly covered in water. Again you can see the result of water erosion — broken limestone slabs and large pools carved out in the open rock, as seen below.

2mfspl12-24-09.jpgThe Lower Falls look different from what I remember from years ago — presumably this is a combination of water erosion at work and current flow of the creek. To cross to the other side, where the old homestead is, one has to jump across a channel just large enough to be risky for an adult and way too dangerous for children to safely cross.


So we, the ever-adventuring gang, decided to take advantage of the fact that this was an ON swimming time for MFSP, and we crossed the creek higher up. Yep, in our tennis shoes. Well, except for me, who was clever enough to wear my Keens. Though the water was plenty shallow, the carved channels in the creek bed (the always-occurring water erosion still at work) were hidden by long strings of algae, so we still had to be careful in our endeavour.

2mfspq12-24-09.jpgBut we wanted to see the homestead and grist mill, and crossing the falls was simply too hazardous for my youngster. It would be nice to have a bridge built someday, one safe from the effects of flooding, if that’s even possible.

2mfspr12-24-09.jpgYeah, I think the boys will be getting new shoes for when they go back to school.

2mfsps12-24-09.jpgOn the other side of the park, we could really envision the McKinney ranch of old. The McKinney homestead was built around 1850 and stayed relatively intact until a fire in 1943.

2mfspt12-24-09.jpgIt’s easy to picture horses pulling a wagon under the trees along this wide road.

The trails were lined with yellow flowers and a variety of shrubs and grasses.


Little remains of the grist mill, once used to grind flour. It was destroyed by a flood in 1869.


There are other remnants to be found along the Lower Falls trails, but we had to get home. So we followed the trail back to the creek for another adventure in crossing. We enjoyed a different view of the falls from the other side, but the muck we found in the creek was pretty much the same!

2mfspy12-24-09.jpgWhile waiting for the kids to cross, I snapped a close-up of our husky. He’s a handsome brute, isn’t he?


McKinney Falls is a lovely state park, but it’s difficult to see all of it, especially the historical structures on the Lower Falls side, unless you are agile and have good balance, or are otherwise determined, and large enough to safely cross. Parents would have to carry their children across, or wade the way we had to. The Upper Falls trails are pleasant, though paved. In other words, it’s a pleasant place to visit, but not a park for everyone.

Nature Walks, Part 3a — Themes at McKinney Falls

Imagine it’s just before Christmas Eve again, for that is when my boys and I took our dogs to McKinney Falls State Park for a little nature excursion before the holidays. Having recently enjoyed autumn colors at Lost Maples, Westcave Preserve, and Hamilton Pool, we found that McKinney Fall seemed appropriately devoid of leaves and color — we had found winter in Texas at last.

But it didn’t really bother us, and it certainly didn’t upset the dogs one bit. Instead of delighting in vibrant colors and active wildlife, as there wasn’t much around, we enjoyed themes in nature and the unusual that caught our eye, noticing things that might have escaped observation at another time of year.

For one, we discovered that nature provided hints of Christmas all around us. From ornaments…

mfspj12-24-09.jpgto red and green colors.

mfspze12-24-09.jpgSometimes we found unexpected shapes that brought our thoughts to ordinary objects or otherwise sparked our imagination, such as hearts…

mfspf12-24-09.jpgBigfoot tracks…

mfspg12-24-09.jpgand even a longhorn. Hook ’em Horns!


We enjoyed “Wildlife Words of the Day” including “snag,” “hollow,” and even “scat” (I declined to post of picture of scat, however).

mfspy12-24-09.jpgAnd we enjoyed a variety of textures, from the soft to the rough to the bristly.

mfspzg12-24-09.jpgmfspq12-24-09.jpgThe cactus kept our attention, through color, shape, and spines. Sometimes it was pests, like cochineals…

mfspzi12-24-09.jpgbut sometimes it was beauty in age and decline. Have you ever wondered about the interior structure of a cactus, its vascular system that supports its water conservation? When dry, it leaves behind a beautifully intricate skeleton.


We found animal tracks…

mfspzj12-24-09.jpga lone butterfly…

mfspzd12-24-09.jpga flower staring back at us (you can really have a conversation with this flower if you choose to)…

mfspa12-24-09.jpgnifty things plants and fungus do…

mfspzh12-24-09.jpgand vicious man-eating fire ants.

mfspz12-24-09.jpgThe winter season can keep some people indoors, but there is still so much to see, even when the leaves are on the ground instead of in the trees. Sometimes it’s noticing the little things that really open up the wonders of nature. And when you do it with your kids, you feel like you’re helping the whole world open up in their eyes.

I’ll give an actual tour of McKinney Falls State Park in the next post, to complete our nature walks. I’m almost caught up!