Ask the Permie Pro

By Dick Pierce

Dear Permaculture, Gardening and Foodie Friends,
I hope this is a relaxing time of year for you and for your gardens. Enjoy the spinach, lettuce and greens you planted a while back, while your garden microbes are tucked in with their warm, moist blanket of compost, mulch or leaves. It’s a good time for some “armchair gardening,” and a good time to answer the often-asked question: What’s so different about gardening in Austin? The answer is threefold: the sun, the climate and the soil.

The higher the sun’s angle, the more heat we receive—that’s why it’s hotter in the late afternoon and in the summer in Austin, when the sun’s angle is highest. Most veggie plants are adapted to locations where the sun’s angle is much lower year-round, so during late May and early June in Austin, plants think it’s August and, therefore, their biological harvest time. After mid-June it’s too hot for many of them—they’re stressed and they simply stop producing.

But instead of packing up our plants and moving to Chicago, we need to adjust our planting schedule so that our plants’ pre-programmed “August” happens during mid-May to early June.

We do this by planting veggies from mid-January through March. The Travis County Master Gardeners Association’s  Gardening Guide has the schedule for each veggie, and right now is a good time to plan for 2010 so you’re ready to plant in Austin’s “spring” from mid-January to March.

Next up to consider is our climate, or seasons. Austin is blessed with mild winters, and not so blessed with hot, dry summers. The good news is that we can grow hardy greens through most winters and great veggies during our mild spring and fall seasons. More good news is that Austin’s gardens want to go to bed from July 4th to Labor Day (when daily highs are over 95 degrees and nighttime lows stay above 75 degrees).

And that brings us to, oh boy, the soil. Most veggies prefer soft, crumbly soil that is full of minerals, air and water that’s easily available to their roots. This happens best when the soil is loamy—a proper mix of sand, clay and organic material that is just slightly acidic. All too often, though, our Central Texas soils are rock-hard, cracked clay on the Blackland Prairie or caliche in the Hill Country, which are both often lacking in organic material. And, since most of the area sits on a bed of limestone rock, our soils and groundwater are intensely alkaline. Over time, with the help of soil microbes, we can improve our soil by amending it with more organic material (compost) to loosen up the ground. To start gardening faster, use raised beds filled with the best garden soil available.

All gardeners, farmers and local-food buyers are heroes, but in Central Texas they’re special—the work is hard, but uniquely rewarding.

For more information about Dick Pierce’s Permaculture Design Courses, see Dick Pierce Designs or the Austin Permaculture Guild.