EARTH REPAIR CORPS
November 2018 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode

 

Rusty Blackhaw, Cramp Bark – Viburnum rufidulum
Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle)

Fall weather draws beautiful colors from the leaves and berries of the Rusty Blackhaw tree, one of the most common and widespread species of the Viburnum genus in Texas. Rarely growing over 20 feet in height, the berries of this graceful understory tree are an important source of food for wildlife heading into winter. Viburnum rufidulum can tolerate full sun and rockier soils than other Viburnums, but truly loves to grow in the deep, rich soils and shade in the understory of tall forests, the forest edge, and along streams and rivers. They send out bright puffs of white blooms in spring, which are similar to the blooms of other small trees like Roughleaf Dogwood and Elderberry, which are often found in the same areas. This genus is also frequently referred to as Cramp Bark, and the different species have long been used for their medicinal qualities that soothe muscle spasms, such as women’s menstrual cramps, among other uses.

All Images © Elenore Goode 2018
Rusty Blackhaw’s distinct features include its dime-sized oval-shaped berries that change in color from green, to pink, to purple, blue and then dark bluish-black when ripe, its small, toothed, oval leaves that turn a deep red hue in fall, the drooping form of its limbs, the rusty color of the new leaf buds, and the large, rough “dinosaur scales” of its bark. The edible berries are sweet and mild when ripe, and somewhat prune-like once they dry; a nice nibble on the trail. In landscapes where there are not enough fruiting trees present to support wildlife, the berries may disappear as soon as they ripen, or before…but where there are enough berries relative to wildlife and they aren’t immediately eaten, the berries can remain edible on the tree into winter, providing a long-lasting food source.

 

Viburnum rufidulum is one of the many beneficial fruiting trees of the natural hill country forests and prairies that were once present here in great numbers before large-scale habitat destruction occurred. The loss of the vast amount of vegetation that sustained and was managed by the millions of deer, elk, bison, black bears, etc that lived here is still felt by wildlife and plant populations today, as this habitat has never been allowed to fully recover to its historic species diversity and abundance. Like many of the more palatable natives trees (more palatable than Juniper, that is), most Rusty Blackhaw seedlings are currently unable to grow and mature across much of their natural range.
The continued presence of high browsing pressure on a habitat that is already denuded of much of its plants has created a situation where most species of native plants in many parts of the hill country and much of Texas have not been successfully reproducing for anywhere from decades to even 100 years or more. These are any areas where we see old trees, but no new young stands of trees growing up to someday replace the old.

Despite the very small number of livestock and wildlife currently in TX compared to 200 years ago, the vegetation is still unable to recover because livestock have unrestricted constant access to the plants, and there are too few predators left to influence the movement of wild herbivores, many of which are also fed and managed like livestock. The distribution of plants has subsequently shifted towards the spiny, thorny, less palatable species that can withstand this land mismanagement. Many places have a large amount of young junipers constantly coming up because there are few other fruiting trees left for birds and mammals to eat, and so they eat the prolific juniper berries and drop those seeds under every large tree they sit in. And in many places, the only seedlings able to survive browsing once they germinate are also the junipers. Thickets of spiny brush in forests often contain many rare and endangered native plants that manage to remain in the landscape only in such safe and impenetrable areas.

All Images © Elenore Goode 2018
Understory trees and shrubs like Rusty Blackhaw are still locally present and sustaining viable population sizes in some areas, but are also locally extinct from large areas, as has happened to the population distribution of many trees in heavily-browsed and eroded landscapes. Some species, like the Hawthornes/Mayhaws, have become extinct from most of their range in the hill country due to the loss of suitable habitat and soil moisture that comes with erosion and deforestation. The micro-climate conditions these trees thrive in that were once present here – in terms of soil depth, moisture, and canopy cover – can be re-created across their historic range by stopping erosion, slowing and soaking in rainfall runoff, letting forests grow old and create deep shade, and allowing forest organic matter from limbs and leaves to accumulate and build the rich soil these understory trees love.
Re-introducing the great historic diversity of native fruiting trees is also essential to creating the habitat stability necessary for restoring so many other macro and micro wildlife populations above and below ground. When there are more different species growing, then there is a greater amount of time when there is food available from their leaves and fruits, reducing the temporal fragmentation of resources in the landscape.
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November 2018 – Crop of the Month
Fig – Scientific Name: Ficus carica
Family: Moraceae
Written by: Kirby Fry

 

The fig tree is mentioned over 44 times in the bible, and the image of a person sitting underneath a grapevine and fig tree is used repeatedly as a way of describing an atmosphere of peace and safety.

Bill Mollison, after installing miles of conservation terraces in warm regions, would plant a fig tree every 200 feet or so along the terraces as a way of luring in birds and other animals that would eat the figs and then spread seeds from all of the other fruiting plants in the area that they had eaten around the fig trees.

The fig tree and terrace, in other words, can be a nucleus for the genesis of life and ecosystems.  Mulberry trees can also serve this purpose here in Texas.

– Planting Tips – 

Fig trees are readily available in plant nurseries this time of the year and do especially well along the Texas Gulf Coast.  Those of us living closer to the coast, where freezes are milder, can begin planting fig trees in the late summer or fall as soon as the fall rains begin.  It is recommended to plant young fig trees in the late winter or early spring the further north and west you live to prevent the tree from being damaged by hard freezes.

There are a few varieties of figs that do well here in Texas.  Celeste is the most cold-hardy variety, and ripens in mid to late June.  Alma is another variety more commonly planted closer to the Gulf Coast where freezes are less severe.  Alma bears fruit at an early age and is a late season variety.  Everberring is a third variety that does well across Texas, but it is not as cold-hardy as Celeste.  Its fruit ripens from July through August.

Fig trees are bushy and should be planted no closer that 16’ apart, and where possible they should be planted on the south side of buildings and wooded areas to be given protection from cold north winds.  Offering them morning sun is also helpful as the sun’s rays will dry the dew off of the fig leaves earlier in the day and reduce damage from fig rust (Cerotelium fici).

A hole wider and deeper than the root ball should be dug, actually burying about 2” of the trees stem or trunk below grade.  Remove dead or damaged roots with pruning shears, make a mound of soil in the bottom of the hole, and then spread the roots out around the mound.  Water the tree in thoroughly just before the last bit of soil goes in.

Young fig trees need a deep watering once every week or so during the hottest times of the year.  Even as mature trees, they will be more vigorous if consistently watered throughout the year.

Figs are tough trees but they are susceptible to four plagues.  Fig rust is a leading cause of decline and fruit reduction in high rain areas.  If the leaf has brown patches on it, it is likely fig rust and any fallen leaves with fig rust on them should be collected and safely disposed of.  The dried fruit beetle is an insect pest that can get inside the fruit, through a little hole in the bottom of the fruit referred to as “the eye,” and ruin the fruit.  Selecting the proper variety, like the ones mentioned above is the best way to keep out the dried fruit beetle.  Root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne sp.) are tiny worms that live in soils and will multiply over the years damaging roots and inhibiting the trees uptake of water.  It is important to buy fig trees that do not have the nematode already in the pot, and plant the fig into nematode free soil.  The last plague is fig mosaic virus, which causes a mottling of the leaves during the onset of high temperatures.  There is no cure for the fig mosaic virus except for selecting plants at the nursery that are not already infected with it.

Plant a fig tree in your vineyard and you will know peace.

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October 2018 – Crop of the Month
Pomegranate – Scientific Name: Punica granatum
Family: Punica granatum
Written by: Kirby Fry

 

Once the fall rains begin in late September or early October we can begin to plant our edible beneficial perennial gardens.  Perennial plants, just like annual plants, need optimal planting conditions for success.  A few conditions are achieved at this time of the year, which include – fall rains, cooler temperatures, and nursery availability in containers.

A couple of my favorite nurseries for buying containerized fruit trees at are Far South Wholesale Nursery in Austin, Texas and Bloomers Garden Center in Elgin, Texas. Pomegranate, fig, and loquat are all available in containers during the fall at these nurseries.

I’ve chosen Pomegranate as the crop of the month for October because it thrives during Texas’ hot summers, it can tolerate poor soil conditions, and my daughters, like so many others, love the fruit which is very high in antioxidants.  Like crape myrtle, it is in the Lythraceae family.  It does better in the central, south, and west parts of Texas, and does not like hard freezes.  Some varieties of pomegranate can be grown as far north as the Dallas / Fort Worth area.  The wonderful pomegranate is the variety most commonly sold and planted in Texas.

– Planting Tips – 

Pomegranates should be planted in rows from east to west, about 12 to 15’ apart.  The rows should be about 15 to 20’ away from one another.  Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball, backfill with native soil, build a ring of soil around the newly planted tree, and then fill that ring at least 2 or 3 times with water after planting allowing the water in the ring to soak in each time.

Fertilize the tree with an 8-8-8 organic slow release fertilizer, and possibly add another source of organic fertilizer that is higher in nitrogen like an alfalfa meal.  Pomegranates need a deep watering every 10 days or so from late spring through the summer.  If the tree gets too dry and then early fall rains come the fruit will split, so even-watering is important for good fruit production.   A humid summer may lead to fungus growing on the trees and forming fruit.  Neem oil, and insecticidal soap will reduce most fungus and insect plagues.

Pomegranates will shoot up a lot of suckers from their base.  Three to five trunks should be selected and allowed to flourish, the remaining suckers should be pruned back annually.  Prune on a regular basis and do not prune too much in one year as this will expose too much of the trees’ vascular system to mold and fungus.

A healthy pomegranate sapling requires 3 to 4 years of growth before it begins to produce fruit.  The fruit is ripe in September, about 60 days after the tree flowers.

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September 2018 – Crop of the Month
Cabbage – Scientific Name: Brassica oleracea
Family: Brassicaceae (the Brassica family)
Written by: Kirby Fry

 

September is one of Central Texas’ main planting windows.  As soon as summer temperatures drop and the rains begin, it is time to get your fall garden into the ground.

A great fall crop is cabbage which is in the Brassica family.  I’ve chosen cabbage out of the Brassica family because it’s not the hardest leafy cole crop to grow like Brussel sprouts, broccoli, or cauliflower, but neither is it the easiest like mustard, kale, or collard greens.  It’s right in the middle, and it is very satisfying to grow a nice head of cabbage which stores well, and is an expected staple in many winter soups and stews.

– Planting Tips – 

As I mentioned, cabbage is not the easiest crop to grow, so we need to do several things just right.  It prefers cool weather, so in Texas it does best in the fall. It needs a head start and so should be transplanted as a 5” tall seedling on a cloudy day.  The seedlings should be planted 12 to 18” apart from one another in rows 3’ apart. Savory King and Blue Vantage are a couple of recommended varieties for Central Texas.

Cabbage is a heavy feeder, so an organic slow release fertilizer (5-10-10) should be put out when the seedlings are transplanted and watered into sandy loam garden beds.  Apply fertilizer again after 3 weeks. Mulch heavily with an organic wheat straw. To extend your harvest later into the fall, repeat the planting process again 2 weeks later.

Cabbage does well when growing alongside green beans and cucumbers.  Avoid planting cabbage next to other brassicas like broccoli and cauliflower as they are also heavy feeders and attract the same pests.  Plant cabbage in a different area of the garden every year to avoid buildup of soil borne diseases and insect pests. Cole crops are susceptible to quite a few plagues like black rot, cabbage yellows, and black leg.  There are varieties to choose from that are resistant to cabbage yellows, and black leg. The cabbage looper and cabbage worm can also be a problem, so planting dill near your cabbage will attract beneficial wasps that will kill the worms.  Aphids can also be a problem so lady bugs and lacewing might need to be introduced into your garden as well.

Water your cabbage plants well, especially when they are making their heads.  Harvest the heads when they are full and firm after 50 to 60 days, hopefully the heads will be about 6 to 9” wide, and don’t wait too long to harvest as they will get tough.  Cut the head out from the center of the plant leaving the outer leaves and you may get another smaller head a few weeks later. Get the cabbage heads out of the sun immediately and store them in a cool dry place.

Cabbage tastes great whether sautéed or added to soups.  Many of my friends also make sauerkraut and kimchee (fermented forms of cabbage) which can be stored for long periods of time.  This is a great crop to get in the ground this summer, and enjoy for the rest of the upcoming fall and winter.

 

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August 2018 – Crop of the Month
Green Bean – Scientific Name: Phaseolus vulgaris
Family:  Fabaceae (the Legume family)

Even though it is hot and dry this time of the year, gardeners are gearing up for their fall gardens – this is actually a really exciting time of the year leading up to the fall, which in my opinion provides the best growing conditions for us here in Central Texas.

One of the most resilient, fastest growing, and highest yielding food crops that can be planted directly by seed in late August and early September is the tried and true green bean, also referred to as the snap bean, or the string bean.  The green bean is native to Central America, and was in use as a food crop in Mexico and North America by the time that the Spanish arrived in the late 1400’s. The Contender variety of the common green bean does exceptionally well here in Central Texas.  The Contender seed variety is available from Willhite Seed, Inc., and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

– Planting Tips –
Direct planting green beans from seed is easy.  It is a large seed which makes it easy to handle, and it has a high germination rate.  Since beans are legumes, they have a symbiotic relationship with the rhizobia bacteria which can be applied to coat the seeds.  The bacteria will help make nitrogen available to the plants growing in your garden beds. To get the bacteria on the seeds, wet the seeds you are about to plant, put them in a paper bag, and sprinkle some of the rhizobia inoculate (a black powder) into the bag.  Shake the bag well. Now you are ready to plant. Then, in a 3-foot-wide garden bed of loose soil with hopefully 3 to 5 percent organic matter in it, make a shallow 1-inch furrow with a garden hoe. Drop the bean seeds in the furrow 2 inches apart, no thinning should be required.  Cover the furrows with an inch of soil. Two rows 1 foot apart can be planted along a 3-foot-wide garden bed. Repeat this process again after 14 days in order to increase and extend your harvest.

Keep the soil moist to encourage germination and establish your seedlings.  When the bean plants are 6 inches tall, add 2 inches of fine mulch. Once it gets cooler and starts raining in mid late September very little if any irrigation should be required.  Your green beans ought to be ready to begin harvesting in about 45 days. Harvest them while they are green, plump, and tender.

Keep an eye out for spider mites and damping off (a fungus), which are a couple of the main pests that plague beans.  A soap and water spray should be applied to the underside of the bean plants’ leaves if spider mites are present, and well drained beds and drip irrigation, rather that overhead irrigation, will reduce damping off and rust (another fungus).

This is a crop that you will want to involve children with.  Beans are often used in biology class projects to show kids how a seed germinates and transforms into a plant that we can eat.  Planting bean seeds with children is fun and easy, and so is looking for the bean pods to harvest when they are ready. I remember well removing the strings and snapping green beans with my great grandmother when I was very young, then my grandmother would put them on to cook with some bacon drippings in them before we left for church service.

Kirby Fry

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July 2018 – Crop of the Month
Okra – Scientific Name: Abelmoschus esculentus
Family:  Malvaceae (the Mallow family)

If you are still putting annual vegetable seeds into the ground at this time of the year, early summer (June 21 through July 21), then okra ought to be on your list.  It is one of the most successful annual vegetables that can still be planted in July, and though it requires a little bit of “dressing up” to be more palatable to eat, it is hardy, nutritious, and does well in our summer’s high temperatures and high humidity.

Okra can be planted by seed after soil temperatures have gotten above 65 degrees (mid to late March), and then be planted by seed through the first part of August.

Like most annual vegetables okra also does really well if the soil has been turned to a depth of 8 to 12 inches.  Soils can also be conditioned with sheet mulching rather than turning, which I do recommend, but sheet mulching requires more lead time.  A late spring, early summer bed needs to have been sheet mulched and kept moist since the previous fall for best results.

Okra seeds should be planted 1″ deep 4″ apart in a row.  The rows should be about 36″ apart.

As we have noted before, it is a good practice to put out at least 2″ of compost over your garden annually, if not biannually.  I would do this in the spring and in the fall.  Organic slow release fertilizers should be put out under your compost, or in and along side each seed in order to help your vegetables along.

I like the organic Bio-tone products.When you harvest okra, harvest it while it is still small and tender, less than 4″ long or so, while still green and tender. You should wear long pants, long sleeves, and gloves when harvesting as okra has spicules on its surface that will irritate your skin.  Collect it in a wicker basket or paper bag and then refrigerate it as soon as you can.

Prepare your palates picky eaters and cook your okra wisely.   Okra is mucilaginous (slimy, especially when just boiled) and is easier for me to eat it when it is battered and fried, and or added to a large pot of gumbo.
What a great summer crop, though, to be able to enjoy here in Texas!

Kirby Fry

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