Get Yo Harvest On: Fall Garden Planning, Part 1

What do I plant and when?

This is the biggest obstacle for most people just getting into gardening. Maybe they’ve gone to the big box store and bought a tomato plant, put it in the ground, and then it didn’t produce anything before it died. It is easy to feel defeated and convince yourself you have a black thumb when this happens.

Plants are particular: different species germinate in the soil at different temperatures. So it is important to know when you can start a seed in the ground, or transplant a seedling, in order to maximize your chances of success.

Your county extension office should have resources to help you know what will grow when. Our local extension office in Bexar County has two planting calendars (and a wealth of other resources) available. This one is for spring, and this one is for fall. if you live in the area go ahead and bookmark those now. Here is a sample:

The left column provides the general category of vegetable with the specific varieties that do well in our area. It also tells you if it can be planted by just poking a seed in the soil or if you need to transplant a seedling. Some plants take a long time to mature from seed, so nurseries supply seedlings that they have already started to make things easier. This is the case with tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, etc..

The right columns show the planting ranges for that species based on area. If you are in north Bexar county or higher in the hill country, use those dates. If you are in Atascosa county and south, use those dates. I live in northeast Bexar county, near the border with Guadalupe county, so I use the middle column. These dates are based on temperature. The soil temperature will be too high to plant any earlier than these dates, and if you plant later you will probably have the frost in November kill them before you get anything to eat.

What I’m doing

Right now I’ve pulled up all my squash plants and am about to do the same to the green beans.  They have stopped producing and are just taking space. They get thrown in the compost and I use a machete to chop them up so they’ll break down easier. I’m slowly doing my weeding now and I’m thinking about where I want what for the next season. The tomatoes and peppers are still working, so I’ve left those alone. I’m making a trip to Fanick’s this week to get more and will go ahead and get those in the ground now. Most eEverything else wont get planted till August so I have some time to survey my seed stores and see what I need to re-order. I hated the variety of green beans I sowed this year so I’m going back into my records to see what variety worked better to order those seeds.

Click here to read about my favorite seed companies, and stay tuned for a post on our local and independent nurseries in San Antonio. Part 2 of the Fall Garden Planning series will be how I keep track of when I need to schedule plantings.

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When to nuke your garden

San Antonio has two growing seasons with some overlap in winter: Mid-March to July, and August to Mid-Nov. July is mostly a break because it’s just too dang hot to have germinated seedlings try and survive into viable plants. This is when most farmers and gardeners in this area take a break.

For now, let your plants keep going but don’t worry too much about maintenance like pruning or keeping control of anything. Pick what fruit you can, and otherwise just let your plants die off. Those of you with shadier gardens might have a little bit longer period of gathering fruit. For those in full sun, don’t be surprised if everything other than tomatoes and peppers look like this:

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Your lettuces = Sarah Conner’s nightmare from Terminator 2

When to clear
After the July 4th festivities, go ahead and nuke it (except the plants still producing). Clear out the heat stressed and dead plants, the stuff trying to go to seed, the pest-ridden, etc., and put it in the compost if you have it. After that, give the garden a good weeding and make sure you do that early on, like first or second week of July. Try not to disturb the soil too much; just pull unwanted stuff out. Go ahead and turn off the irrigation too. No use in wasting water on bare soil.

Fall bed prep
Fertile soil is productive soil. I apply this organic fertilizer before planting. You can get it at any big box hardware store or one of our amazing family-owned nurseries for around $10. This is also the time to apply any finished compost (if your personal compost piles have not broken down enough you’ll just be adding weeds to your topsoil). Mix the fertilizer and any compost into the top two inches of your beds either by raking your hand across the top or using a small trowel. You do not need to turn the whole bed over.

Next, get a hose or water can and wet the soil. This will help germinate weed seeds already existing in the soil. After a couple of weeks before replanting, pull any sprouted weeds out. The reason you do not want to disturb the bed more than this is so that you do not help germinate too many weeds, which happens when the soil is turned and oxygen and moisture gets to the seed. It also destroys the soil structure.

 

Next post we will talk about fall planting and how to plan out the garden.

Grow Your Own Food: Backyard Pantries

Whether it is a small patio that holds your grill, a large expanse of turf for playing catch, or a landscaped garden to enjoy just being outside, backyards are excellent resources for family. They are also under-utilized resources for food production.

If you have some sunlight, access to water, and a small amount of space, then you have the ability to grow your own food. This is true regardless if you have a small balcony, condo patio, or a large yard of turf.

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Watson Abbey Farms is happy to announce the Backyard Pantry: a raised bed garden kit available to customers in the San Antonio, TX area which include organic soils and fertilizers, plants and seeds from reputable local nurseries and suppliers, water-saving drip irrigation, and installation, available in 4’x8′, 4’x4′, or 2’x4′ sizes designed to fit your growing space.

These kits can supplement your grocery budget by providing affordable and accessible HYPER-local foods, produced using natural practices, right in your backyard. Go grocery shopping by stepping outside.

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And for the many who do not have the bandwidth to maintain a garden along with their work and personal lives, we offer service plans for the spring and fall growing seasons comparable to the cost of lawn care so we can help you grow food where you normally grow turf.

Contact us today at info@watsonabbeyfarms.com, or send us a message on Facebook at facebook.com/watsonabbeyfarms/ for a free consultation and personalized garden plan.

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Five Seed Companies In Your Region That Are Worth Your Time

In our previous Black Thumb post, we talked about why you should buy seeds from the same places commercial growers buy them: actual seed companies.

At first I was probably like most everyone else: I bought what I saw at the garden center section of my nearest big box retail store. I didn’t know the difference. Seeds are seeds, right?

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As I got more involved with our garden and wanted to find seeds that weren’t available to me, I eventually started buying from smaller local nurseries and picked up whatever seed packets they had.

For the locavore shopper, this is a much better solution because you are supporting a local business and getting seeds specific to your area and growing conditions. And I’m sure the staff at your local nursery will be happy to give you any growing info you need!

However, sometimes you still run into the 80/20 rule, where the nursery or garden center is only going to stock what 80% of people want to grow, and it can be hard to find the specialty seeds that you want. So where do you go to find those odd gems that you can’t find anywhere else?

Below are five seed companies (in no particular order) located across the country that I like and why:

(Note: I am not getting paid by any of these companies. They have no idea I’m posting this. If a representative of any said company sees this and would like to pay me, I won’t turn them down.)

 

1) Johnny’s Selected Seeds

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My collection of Johnny’s Seeds. Copyright Matt Watson

 

Johnny’s is probably the best known seed company out there for farmers. Located in Maine, they have everything from fruit and veg, to herbs and cut flowers. Most of the farmers I’ve spoken to across the country, and the “celebrity” farmers I’ve read, use Johnny’s and similarly they are my go to for seed stock.

And for good reason. Remember the Federal Seed Act I mentioned in the previous article and minimum germination rates? Johnny’s say they go above and beyond those standards and constantly do quality control on their stock. Each packet I get lists the germination rate, the date they tested it, and the lot number. When seeds don’t perform to their standards, they pull them. On a recent order, rather than giving me substandard stock of Easter Egg Radish seeds, they pulled them from inventory because they failed (they also gave me alternative solutions for seed stock that could give me options for my customers).

Their site is smooth, and has a Grower’s Library which is a wealth of information and knowledge in one place. They are employee owned, have organic seed options, refuse to use any GMO seeds, have great customer service, and are just an all around great company.

 

2) Botanical Interests

 

 

Botanical Interests has by far the prettiest seed packets in the industry. Out of Colorado, they started as a garage business and have been able to sell their stock directly to consumers, in small garden centers, and hardware stores (which is a legitimate reason to break my “don’t buy seeds from a big box retailer” rule) since 1995. They saw a lack of information on seed packets and found a way to include more … by printing inside the packets.

“Every Botanical Interests seed packet is designed to help gardeners succeed and create their own traditions. Featuring gorgeous botanical artists’ renderings of each variety, every packet provides a wealth of information, inside and out. ‘I like to say that we’re a gardening education company that just happens to sell seeds,’ Curtis [co-owner] says. ‘Our packets are like mini-encyclopedias, full of information to inspire and assist every type of gardener.'”

Due to the art and information on each packet, their USDA Certified organic seeds, and their wide availability, they are also a go to for our farm.

 

3) Sow True Seed

 

 

Sow True Seed may be hard to find at nurseries in certain parts of the country due to their focus on independent and regional agriculture projects. I first found them at a co-op grocery store when we lived in Greensboro and had great success with their seeds. We have some in the ground now, in fact. They are a small seed company located in Asheville, NC, in a tiny shop just off the main drag downtown. I’m talking walking distance from the pubs and the art galleries.

Similar to Botanical Interests, they value art and capture the beauty of the crop on their seed packets in beautiful detail. What stands them out is their devotion to the small farm and home gardener, their seeds are open-pollinated, heirloom and organic, and they work to preserve heirloom varieties that are threatened to go extinct.

 

4) Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Located in Missouri, with seed projects in California and Connecticut, Baker has an extensive catalog of hard to find seeds, with “one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century, including many Asian and European varieties.” Their catalogs are just fun to flip through and you’ll see the oddest shapes and sizes anywhere. Seriously, who knew gourds could grow like this?

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Alien tentacle? Nope, that is a Cucuzzi, Serpente di Sicilia Edible Gourd. Copyright Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Baker caters mostly to the homesteader and home gardener, and hosts a festival “to exchange ideas and seeds, to listen to speakers and to enjoy vendors, old-time music and much more.” They even work to provide free seeds to the third-world countries and school gardens.

 

5) Territorial Seed Company

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Imma order a catalog just because the art is cool. Copyright Territorial Seed Company

Located in Oregon, Territorial started in 1979 by providing seeds to growers in the short seasons of the Pacific Northwest. They now work to help producers grow food for every month of the year. Similar to the other companies listed above, they are devoted to providing organic seeds and go through rigorous testing on their farm and in their greenhouses before the stock can pass muster and be sold to customers.

Although other companies like Johnny’s have a wide variety of non-edible plants available, like cut flowers, Territorial may actually surpass them. Check out these GORGEOUS hellebores.


Each company offers free catalogs if you want to flip through and dog-ear the pages as you dream of what your garden could be. Choose seeds that have been tested and taken care of by companies that care about your garden.

Did we miss any? Which companies do you buy your seeds from? Let us know in the comments below!

 

“Why isn’t my plant sprouting?” Maybe, because you bought the seeds at a dollar store, Sharon.

Want to have successful sprouting plants? Buy seeds where producers buy seeds.

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I’ve been to several small organic farms in various states, spent time in college horticulture departments, and have heard from various county extension agents. You know what they all don’t do? They don’t buy their seeds from a big display at a store where you can also get a bunch of nails and caulk. They buy them directly from professional seed companies.

Most of us probably don’t know any different. I sure didn’t until my Extension Agent told me otherwise. The two main reasons why we don’t purchase seeds directly from professional seed companies is cost of the product, and availability.

For the price conscious among you it could be tempting to go the cheap route. Seeds packets can be expensive. Some may be $3, $4, or more each for a packet of seeds and that adds up quick when re-sowing a garden. So why pay that when you can pay $.99 at a big box store? Quality. There are hidden costs to a cheap packet of seeds that include time, effort, and maybe more money, because you chose a lesser quality product.

Secondly, we buy generic seeds from retail stores because, “If its in the garden section then its good for my garden, right?” Not necessarily. On a recent beach trip we stopped in at a dollar store for some emergency flip-flops and found an old display case of generic seeds tucked away in the back. Without doing the research, there is no way of knowing if those seeds would actually work well in growing conditions specific to that area: high winds, sand, and salt. Buyer beware.

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Look at the pretties!

To get this out of the way, there is a federal law that regulates how seeds are labeled and transported to help the consumer. This means seed companies have to print accurate information on their seed packets, and maintain a certain threshold of quality, measured in germination rates. This is a minimum. However, that doesn’t mean the seed packets have been taken care of by store-employees, are stored in climate-controlled areas, or are always rotated out for freshness as they should be by inventory control. Lastly, as I mentioned above, these display units are not necessarily particular to your area and growing zone.

And that is ok. Big box retail stores don’t work with specialty items because they don’t make any money on the 20% of people that need to purchase that special tool for their weird project. Instead, they make their money on selling to 80% of people that just need a hammer. This isn’t bad; it’s just business. But know what you are buying.

The same concept could be said about eating out. When you go to a new city, you could just eat at a national chain restaurant and get the same baby back ribs available in every other city, even though it is not a restaurant specializing in barbecue. Or, you can eat where the locals eat and get something new, exciting, and most importantly, good.

Seed companies specialize in seeds. That is what they do. They exist to sell you products that will help you grow plants where you want to grow them. Big box stores exist to sell you toilet paper, $5 movies, cheap clothes, carbonated beverages, and anything else you might need on average. They generalize. At seed companies, you’ll get all the extra information like pest resistance, varities, how to harvest your vegetables, and bonus information like that. At retail stores, the only information you’ll get is usually what was printed on the back of a seed packet. Can you grow from seeds purchased at a home improvement store, big box retail store, or even the dollar store? Sure, probably. Can you grow seeds that have been obsessively developed for quality and success for producers who make their livelihoods on that success? That is a safer bet.

In the next article in our #BlackThumb series, we’ll talk about which seed companies I prefer and why.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Growing: My Own Salad Bar

As of Jan 31, 2019, we have Parsley, Malabar Spinach, and Radishes in the test garden.

seed packets
Copyright Matt Watson

Parsley is slow to germinate and needs to be soaked overnight to assist it sprouting. Same with the Malabar Spinach. We very scientifically eyeballed an amount and dumped it into a half pint mason jar with some water. Oddly, the spinach seeds gave off a red pigment to the liquid.

The Malabar Spinach is not a “true” spinach but is more of a vine and can be trellised. They have red stems like rainbow chard, so maybe that has something to do with the red pigment whilst soaking. I’m doing keto right now and spinach gives me a great dose of veggie vitamins without having a ton of net carbs.

Radishes are just about the easiest things to grow, and this heirloom variety is marked as frost tolerant. We have about a month to go before we are out of frost danger in Bexar County, so these should serve us well till then. We also look forward to our Easter Egg radish seeds expected to be delivered in March.

What’s Growing: Red Sweet Crisp Lettuce

As of Jan 25 we have a row of Salanova® Red Sweet Crisp Lettuce seed sown in the test garden. We want to see if this will be a good option for a “salad bar” garden. It grows as a head of lettuce, like your romaines and icebergs, but it is a loose leaf lettuce which makes it easy to wash and perfect for quick salads.

This lettuce is a cool weather crop and we are getting it in as early as possible, with new rows sown every other week so we have plenty on hand for a while. At certain points plants will do something called “bolting” which means it puts energy into making seed rather than fruit or leaves. Most of the time it is because it is getting too hot. The heat here in South Texas will hit hard, but this lettuce is supposedly slow to bolt, so hopefully we can produce them into the spring.

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Copyright Johnny’s Selected Seed

 

Let us know what your favorite lettuce is. Understandably, that is a weird request, but maybe some of you know you like spring mixes over iceberg lettuce and things like that. Others, like me, have never really put thought into having a preferred lettuce because that is the food that your food eats.

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Four Tips for Growing Your Own Baby Food

You do not need a ton of space to grow your own food. A few containers, or some repurposed materials to form a raised bed, can serve you well to grow fresh vegetables. I know one friend who bought a kiddie pool so he could grow food on his apartment balcony.

First Disclaimer: I don’t have kids. But I hang out with a lot of people who do. A few years ago I was having a beer with a friend from church at his house while he was watching his newish son so mom could have a night off. He went to the freezer, popped out a few multi-colored ice cubes into a bowl, warmed it up, and then fed it to his son. My mind was blown.

Which is weird when you think about it because men and women have had to make their own baby food for a lot longer than we have had access to the jars and pouches at the local grocery store. My friend used a bullet blender to puree the same foods they ate, would freeze it in ice cube trays to control serving size, and then would even use this process to introduce new foods to his child, like citrus and salsa (just a dash!).

For some, I get how this isn’t appealing: you don’t even have time to make your own food let alone have the time to make some for your baby. But for others this is a great way to control what your child is eating. You can purchase the food, or if able, you can grow your own healthy and organic food to blend for your baby. And it could potentially save some money. Even though those pouches just cost $1.19-$1.79 each, that adds up a lot over time. If you spent the equivalent amount of money buying the fruit, vegetables and protein yourself, cooking them, blending them, and then freezing them, you could have a lot more on hand for cheaper than the jars and pouches. And less garbage for the recycling center.

 

 

 

Second Disclaimer: I’m not a pediatrician. Obviously follow the nutritional guidelines set by your doctor and whatever works for your family.

There are a lot of sites out there on making the food. Like this one and this one. (I like how the Food Network site suggests veal. I cant afford veal for myself let alone little Johnny.) Here are some ideas about growing your own food:

 

1. Start Small and Scale Up

Like working out, you don’t need to go hard immediately. That is just asking for burnout and frustration. Work your way up by starting small. Herb gardens take up very little space, just a few small pots or planters that fit in most window sills and apartment balconies. Take that idea and move up from there. Get a tomato plant in a container. Next time you mow your yard, take a few moments to start making space where you can for a few containers and a trellis or two for peas. Don’t psyche yourself out of starting because your condo will never look like Jefferson’s Monticello.

 

 

 

2. Raised Beds are Key

We’ll focus on why raised beds are such a key to home gardening in a later post. For now, just know that you can use bricks, cinder blocks, scrap lumber, cedar fence boards, old totes, and 50,000 other things as seen on Pinterest to form a raised bed in your backyard. Fence boards are cheap, as are a few nails. Hardware stores will make simple cuts for you. In this space you can grow intensively by grouping plants closer together which controls weeds and maximizes your production. You will be surprised how many tomatoes, peas, carrots, onions, herbs, etc., you can get out of a 4×4, 3×6, or 4×8 rectangle. Or a kiddie pool.

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Doesn’t need to be pretty. First raised beds at our first house. Cedar fence boards are cheap and easy to cut. Copyright Matt Watson

 

3. Grow the Basics

Focus on what you will use all the time. I saw a lot of peas and carrots with chicken in jars at the big box store. I also saw a lot of spinach in things. Depending on where you live, you can maybe even grow fruit like apples and apricots. In San Antonio where we live those are hard to grow. And you probably aren’t growing bananas and cereal grains. So buy what you need to buy, and grow the rest. Spinach and leafy greens are insanely healthy for you and fairly easy to grow, and then you don’t have to worry about all those national recalls.

 

4. Storage

You can get small mason jars at any big box retail store. In fact, you’ve probably walked past them a billion times and never noticed. Make sure you keep those in the fridge or freezer if you aren’t going to go full-prepper and can them. You can also use portion it out into ice cube trays and then collect them in a ziploc. They even sell those baby food pouches that you can fill yourself and reuse.

 

Comment below if you have tried this. Also, what was the craziest food combination you have fed your baby?

Watson Abbey Farms Origin Story

We were on our honeymoon in Scotland, traveling on a bus to Melrose Abbey, a 900-year-old Cistercian abbey south of Edinburgh. Watching the green glens roll by, we saw sheep and farms dominate our view out the window. One of us turned to the other and said, “Wouldn’t that be nice to do one day? We could teach our grandkids how to bake real bread. We could make our own beer and cheese.” A retirement dream.

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A shot of the ruins of Melrose Abbey taken on our honeymoon trip. Copyright Matt Watson

Sometime later whilst taking a Family Ministry class for seminary, I read about how for the greater part of our existence parents have taught their children directly rather than outsourcing it to someone else’s responsibility. Children worked with their parents, learning life skills and trades, and were discipled by them. It is much different today. While we work out of the home our kids learn out of the home. Even their spiritual learning is outsourced to youth groups at best. We decided we wanted to reclaim our responsibility for our own (future) children and create an environment where we could spend as much time with them as possible, teaching them everything from biology to theology. Not out of some sense of fear, but because we are primarily responsible for their learning, growing, health, and discipleship. This coincided with my call to ministry: to know Jesus and make him known.

Not long after we asked ourselves, “Why are we waiting for retirement?” and then threw everything we had into learning about farming and pursuing this dream. Both of us grew up in the ‘burbs, and while I have an agriculture degree, it isn’t in production. Yet this idea has been unshakeable for us. We see Genesis 1:28, commonly called the Cultural Mandate, as the first commission of God. Be fruitful and multiply, governing over creation, bringing God’s image to bear upon it. Enjoy it and help others enjoy it. That also means we can’t enjoy it if we destroy it.

Along the way we discovered several things:

  • I actually like tomatoes. They taste better when you grow them yourself, because then you grow them for flavor and not for transportation.
  • Our desire to be good stewards of our natural resources to honor God was a bridge builder with communities that do not share that same religious value. Relationships were built, values were shared.
  • We feel better when we eat cleaner.
  • We waste an obscene amount of food and water every day. One stat at the linked article says over half our food is just thrown away. And why do we use potable water for flushing toilets?
  • There exists pockets in the city called food deserts where people lack the ability to obtain or afford quality food.

I think there are better ways, and we want to be about those ways, because I think they honor God better. What if this whole missional farm thing isn’t just for our kids, but for our community? In fact Melrose Abbey itself was a mission of the Cistercians, who farmed and provided for the community around them. Could we not do the same? Thus, our farm is a vehicle for discipleship, cultural engagement, relationship building, and of course good food.

That is how Watson Abbey was born. Come join us as we eat, drink, and be merry with neighbors.

What’s Growing: 1015Y Onions

As of 01/11/2019 we have in the ground 45 or so 1015Y Yellow Onions. Developed by Texas A&M University, these Texas Super Sweet onions are the king of yellows and a staple with any Texas barbecue.

They are in a raised bed for drainage and so that I could add peat moss to the native alkaline soil. They should take about 110 days to mature, around early May. This is our first try with onions and I look forward to testing the results with some brisket after they cure and dry.

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Flower Pot Frog guards our raised bed of onions.