Water Wise Ways by Byron Chitwood

WATER WISE WAYS – Byron Chitwood


We are currently out of the woods on water supply and soil moisture compared to what we have been through in the past.  However, knowing Texas and the hot summers, there is no time to conserve like the present.  We might need to do that in the present.


First of all some facts are that agriculture and water management are a global issue.  The population is increasing while the supply of water worldwide remains about stable.  Less than 3% of the world’s water is considered fresh which includes all water with less than 500 ppm so dissolved salts.  97% of the world’s water is ocean.  The world’s fresh water as a percentage of total water is: glaciers, ice caps and snow account for about 2%; ground water and soil moisture is about 1%; swamps and rivers are about 0.01 percent and the atmosphere is about 0.04%


Human needs range from about 11 to 53 gallons per day per person while farm animal require from 2 to 15 gallons per day per animal.  Minimum crop needs in our area require a minimum of 25 inches of rain per crop year.  May was an exceptional good month for rain in our area.  After the soil became saturated, the rest ran off and filled the lakes.  I remember when I was a kid, the Guthrie city lake went dry and the only water we had for all needs was well or cistern water, neither of which was plentiful enough for all our needs or wants.  A pipe line was laid from the Cottonwood Creek and the water sure didn’t taste good but it was wet. 


I mentioned cistern water in the previous paragraph.  Nothing is new about that.  The first source of water for the early settlers was creeks or springs until they were able to hand dig a well.  The well water wasn’t always good.  My granddad’s first farm had a hand dug well and the water was “gypy” and not good for human consumption.  I suspect the water was slightly salty since the farm was less than a mile away from the Cimarron River which was highly salty. The cows, horses, hogs and chickens didn’t seem to mind it but they didn’t have much of a choice.  After farm homes and barns were built, the farmers constructed cisterns most of which were concrete lined and underground.  The pumps were hand cranked and had a multitude of small buckets attached to a chain and emptied into a catch device that delivered the water to an outlet.  To be on the safe side, cistern water needed to be boiled since the cisterns were not mosquito or critter proof.


If you are interested in constructing a cistern or “rain water harvesting system” you can obtain plans at the Hunt County AgriLife Extension office or on the internet at AgriLifebookstore.org.  All your houseplants, garden crops just love rainwater and you will do your share in helping conserve one of our precious natural resources.


Egardening newsletter for April

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Square Foot Gardening by Byron Chitwood

Some good advice for a person who is thinking about starting a vegetable garden is to start small and gradually increase the size until you have reached your tolerance level for taking care of one.  There is plenty of tilling, planting, watering and weeding in a small garden that should make you think, can I handle more?  One of the best pieces of advice is to consider a square foot garden.

Square foot gardening is an easy way to garden if you don’t have time or space for a larger garden.  A square foot garden can be as small as one foot square and can be much larger if you have a place for it.  For a larger one, limit the width to no more than four feet.  This makes it easy to plant and weed from either side.  A four by eight foot garden can be made very simply by cutting the two ends 4ft 3 ½ inches long and using two 8 foot long boards for the side. 2X6 inch boards will give enough depth for almost anything that you wish to plant.  Lay down some impregnable material for the bottom in a location that is in the sun most of the time and well drained.  Lay the 8 foot planks or boards on their edge and four feet apart.   Screw or nail the 4 foot 3 ½ ends to the longer planks.  Keep the frame as squared up as possible.

Now fill the bed almost full with a rich soil mixture.  A good mix is equal parts of compost, peat moss and pearlite or vermiculite.  However, if you have access to rich topsoil, there is nothing wrong with using that instead of a more expensive mixture.   If you use six inch wide boards for the sides, the bed will require about 16 cubic feet of soil mixture or eight bags of potting soil mix.  Therefore for economy, you can’t beat your own soil mixture for economy, especially if you have access to a compost pile.

There are several ways to divide your square foot garden into individual one foot square foot plots.  Divide the entire garden with wooden slats or tie strings at one foot intervals running from each side and each end.

A good rule to follow is plan the garden so that the longest dimension runs north and south.  In the spring, plant the tallest crops at the south end and the shorter ones at the north end.  In the fall, just reverse the order of planting so that the tallest are at the north end and the smaller ones are at the south end.  This will allow plants to receive maximum sunlight.

In order to conserve space, a trellis will need to be built for climbing plants such as cucumbers.  These can be made from two rebars with strings tied between them.  As the cucumbers begin to climb, tie them to the strings and they will continue to climb in an upward direction.  You might want to strengthen the uprights by fastening another rebar across the top.

Suggested spacing for vegetables on a per square foot basis are as follows:  Extra large plants such as Broccoli, Cabbage, tomatoes and Peppers should only have one plant per square; Large vegetables such as Leaf Lettuce, Swiss chard and Marigold should be no more than four per square; Medium vegetables such as Bush Beans, Spinach and Beets can be planted nine per square; Smaller plants such as Carrots, Radishes and Onions are recommended at 16 per square.

A square foot garden will not require much weeding.   Water frequently but do not over water.  If possible, harvest your rain water from roof runoff.  Vegetables just love rainwater.  If you are using well composted leaves and garden wastes in your square foot garden, not much commercial fertilizer will be required.

You will be amazed at how many vegetables a garden of this size will produce.  This is a very good way to teach kids responsibility when caring for a garden as well as it will give them some outdoor exercise.

References are: All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew and Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza; Don’t Waste Your Wastes-Compost ‘em by Bert Whitehead


Choosing and Maintaining Garden Tools By June Morgan

January is an excellent time to assess the contents of the gardening shed.  Whether a beginning gardener starting anew or needing to replace old and worn out hand tools, quality should take first consideration.  That, and proper care will add much to the pleasure of gardening.

The collection should have at least two spades, one wide bladed for shoveling dirt and compost and a narrow bladed for digging. Add a heavy-tined fork for digging rough ground and a lighter tined for lifting crops.  Two rakes, one for leaves, preferably expandable and a sharp-tined sturdy one for leveling. Smaller hand tools should include trowels, bulb planters, pruners, and a Japanese Hori-Hori knife useful for cutting bags and heavy roots. The latter is serrated on one side and can even take the place of a trowel in some cases. Before grabbing just any tool available at the local big box store, consider the quality of construction.  The junction of the blade and the shaft should have at least two rivets. The shaft should be ash or other hardwood and the metal blade should be the best steel affordable, stainless or an alloy, forged, not stamped and thick enough so as not to be easily bent. Handles should be the right length for the height of the user. Like buying a golf club, the “feel” should be right.

This is especially true of pruners as the best ones are both expensive and a lifetime investment. The most popular brand is Felco as they come in both types, anvil and bypass. The bypass blade is sharp and cuts with the blade like scissors whereas the anvil blades work like a knife on a cutting board. They can come in either right or left handed, several sizes and prices, and some models have replaceable anvil blades.

The larger tools are to be hung on the wall of the shed so as not to dull the blades; the smaller go in a bucket or a portable container. The cleaning equipment should include a file or other sharpening tool, towels, Scotch Brite pads, lubricant, and sterilizer solution. The beveled edges of the tool blades are to be sharpened as needed. After each use, the tools should be hosed, dried, and lubricated with a thin coat of boiled linseed oil (a plant based product) not petroleum, and wiped dry. This sets up a barrier which prevents rust. The sterilizers of choice are hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, not bleach. These are used to prevent transferring pathogens from one plant to another especially in pruning and propagation.

If local stores do not carry the tools that meet the standards, try the higher end nurseries and catalogs that offer some imports and detailed descriptions of the construction. Quality garden tools are not cheap, but the good ones that have been cared for can be handed down for generations.


Bird Feeding in Winter by Dave White

We spend many hours watching and enjoying the numerous species of birds that visit our yard every day. They provide unlimited entertainment, color, activity and music. Some of the native birds frequenting our yard are finches, cardinals, titmice, bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, flycatchers, wrens, woodpeckers and crows. There are also many other species who stay for short periods when migrating through our area as they travel to and from their summer and winter destinations.

Everyone can experience the same enjoyment by doing a few simple things to attract birds. A bird friendly yard consists basically of three things; food, water and protective cover or shelter. Creating a garden environment with these items in mind creates a location for birds to feel comfortable and linger. Let’s explore these three requirements in more detail.

Food – Birds need to eat everyday all year. We choose to feed the birds year round to keep them in the vicinity. During the summer they eat more insects, seeds, buds, caterpillars and worms because of availability. They also like to supplement their dining experience on the seed provided in the feeders. Always buy quality birdseed which has a variety of seeds including black sunflower, white millet, cracked corn, peanuts, and safflower. Avoid birdseed containing fillers of milo or wheat. Store the seed in a cool dry place in a covered container to prevent spoilage. Some course sand nearby provides grit for the bird’s gizzards to grind the hard seeds.

Feeders – I like a squirrel proof tube feeder hung on an 8 foot steel shepherd’s hook with a suitable squirrel shield attached. Hanging a feeder from a tree encourages squirrels, possum and raccoons to visit. This is also why I no longer use a platform feeder.

Place the feeder near the edge of the woods, shrubs or garden border which offers partial protection and a place for the birds to roost while waiting their turn at the feeders. Do not locate feeders close to a window which is one of the leading causes of death to startled birds flying into them fleeing a predatory bird. Also avoid placing feeders in large open areas leaving birds vulnerable without protection of a nearby hiding place.

Water – Birds need water to survive. A birdbath with a 2 -3 inch depth provides a place for them to get a drink and bathe. It should be large enough and deep enough for water to last a couple days in the hot summer. Do not add chemicals to control algae or insects. Provide this water source all year. Position the bird bath to prevent water contamination from feeder seed or bird droppings. Clean and replace the water weekly so it does not promote mosquito breeding.

The third item for your bird friendly habitat is to provide protective cover and shelter for the bird’s security and to raise their young. Accomplish this by planting shrubs, vines and flowers such as American Beauty Berry, Hawthorn, Hollies, Viburnum, Carolina Jessamine, zinnias, asters or marigolds nearby. I also found recommended designs for bluebird houses are used by numerous native bird species.


eGardening With The Master Gardeners

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Using Plants as Holiday Centerpieces by June Morgan

This is the time to think about centerpieces for the holiday tables.  Catalogs offer glitzy and expensive arrangements, but the savvy gardener can use a lot of what is at home for a do-it-yourself project.

For autumn, pumpkins and gourds are indispensible, coming in many colors and striations. Cut pumpkins to use as candle holders or to hold a pot of blooms or greenery. For different heights and lengths of the overall design, use trailing evergreens (please avoid poison ivy or oak), Indian corn, or foraged grasses, many of which look ordinary from afar but interesting when close up. Mimic a sheaf of wheat by tying together mature grasses  and place vertically in your arrangement. Shop at thrift stores such as Goodwill for inexpensive decorative objects such as vases, figurines and bowls. You will be surprised at what you find. Fillers such as sphagnum, small twigs and branches can add a unifying effect. One warning – sphagnum acts as a wick, so don’t let it touch water, or everything surrounding, including the table and cloth will be soaked.

Prepare ahead of time for when nothing in the garden is blooming by rooting cuttings of plants such as coleus in water (this takes only days), and starting bulbs such as amaryllis and paperwhites (narcissus) which require no chilling time. You can grow these bulbs in a pot filled with soil or in a shallow bowl, using pebbles to hold them in place. Add water up to the bottom quarter or third of the bulb. To keep them from growing too tall and floppy, use one part 80 proof vodka to seven parts water. Starting bulbs which require chilling time such as mini daffodils, hyacinth and tulips indoors is possible but needs more time and preparation. Coleus is especially useful because of the ease in growing, propagating, and the many variations in colors and patterns. After serving duty in the table décor, they can be enjoyed in a sunny spot all winter in pots. Cyclamen, readily found in nurseries in rousing reds, pinks and white is especially effective in Christmas displays with artificial snow or angel hair.

Plants can serve as a basis for many other creative ideas. Think feathers, glitter, candles, small LED lights (the battery pack can be easily hidden), artificial or real moss, rocks, ribbons, etc. Look around your house and yard and even the fields with open eyes.

Some online resources for floral design material: “Mearsfloral.com”, Afloral.com or “Gardeners Supply”.  Catalogs can give ideas which can be an inspiration for or replicated with your own resources.


Greenhouse Gardening by June Morgan

With the often extreme temperatures in our northeast region, even greenhouse gardening can be a challenge unless one is willing to pay large heating and air conditioning bills in order to keep optimal temperatures throughout the year. But good planning and reasonable expectations can help overcome the problems of utilizing what can be a considerable investment of money and time.

When planning a greenhouse, make watering easier with a centrally located raised spigot, a coiled hose with a mister attachment. Use wire shelving and have space for large containers of seed starting and potting mixtures, etc. A porous floor such as gravel is necessary. Gro-lights and warming lamps can be hung with S-hooks and chains from the ceiling to augment a heater with a thermostat. Having the greenhouse close to the house or with protected access is handy in inclement weather.

Fall begins the cool season when it is time to bring in small healthy annuals, non-hardy citrus and plumeria, etc. The greenhouse will have been washed down, spider webs and trash removed to prepare for planting.  Most plants will thrive at a minimum temperature of 50°. In this environment leafy greens will grow through the winter. Very early spring is the time to start seeds and take cuttings of annuals such as coleus for next summer’s garden. Some seeds such as peppers require extra heat in order to germinate so a thermometer and humidistat are useful tools. If the seeds are started too early, the new plants will suffer transplant shock, be root bound and stunted. Too late and the seedlings will not have enough roots to handle the transplant stress. Before planting outdoors, pick off the blooms and harden the plants gradually by giving them just enough water and fertilizer to keep them going.

When an uncooled greenhouse gets too hot, most plants and trees can go into the garden and some in a protected shady area. A few, such as aloe vera and cacti can stay put. Orchids can do well in the house under Gro-lights or in a window.  Summer in Texas is the time to temporarily abandon the greenhouse.

Most of all, the gardener should not think it mandatory to fill the greenhouse with everything possible. It is there for gardeners’ own needs and enjoyment on their terms.

Excellent books that go into much detail about building, measuring light, plant choices, etc. include GREENHOUSE GARDENER’S COMPANION by Shane Smith, THE COMPLETE BOOK OF THE GREENHOUSE by Ian G. Walls, and ORTHO’S ALL ABOUT  GREENHOUSES.


Egardening with the Master Gardeners August 2014

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Starting Vegetables from Cuttings by Byron Chitwood

I recently wrote an article for the newspaper describing how to start tomato plants from cuttings.  Some other vegetable plants can also be started from cuttings but the method might differ slightly from one vegetable to the other.  This article will elaborate on how to start all kinds of pepper plants from cuttings.

If you have kept your pepper plants alive that were planted in the spring and there was one of these that was really productive, use this plant for the cuttings that you are going to use for rooting.  For the container, I like a clear plastic one that is at least four inches deep.  Drill or cut at least one hole in the bottom for drainage.  Fill the container with a good potting soil or one that you have mixed using equal amounts of peat moss, Vermiculite or pearlite and well composted organic material.  Make sure the potting mixture is moist.  Punch a hole with a Dipple stick or some other sharp object about three inches deep in the soil mixture.  Now, you have a pot that is ready to receive a cutting.  If you are in doubt about the chances of success of one cutting, make several holes in the soil for more than a single cutting.

Use a sterile cutting tool or knife for taking cuttings from the healthy plant that has been selected for the propagation process.  As you are aware, the tomato plants have hair like growth on the stems which form into roots.  However, the pepper plant forms roots at the bulblike growth or node where the leaves are attached to the stem.  Snip the specimens so that there are at least two of the nodes making sure to cut below the bottom node.  Snip the leaves off the bottom node and dip the bottom end of the cutting into a rooting stimulator.  Then, place the stem of the cuttings into the hole in the potting soil mixture to a depth that the remaining leaves are above the soil level.  Lightly tamp the soil around the stem in order to close large voids.

You can build a small greenhouse over the top of the pot with a small sandwich bag that is secured to the container with a rubber band.  Make sure that the top of the greenhouse does not touch the cutting.  This will help maintain a relatively high humidity which the pepper plant will like.  The cutting will start roots if the top is kept at about 70 degrees F and the soil is about 10 degrees warmer.  Just place the container on a window   sill or lighted area a dark mat under the container.  Keep the soil slightly moistened and periodically mist the top of the plant in order to maintain a high humidity level.

After the cutting has formed roots and they are about one inch long, transplant it to a larger container if you are planning on keeping it to full maturity in a container.  Otherwise, plant the pepper plant in the garden at a depth that will not exceed that of the soil level in the propagation pot.

Starting plants from cuttings is easy and will give you the satisfaction of thinking and saying “look what I did”.