Interviewer’s Note: I visited Ally’s garden on May 23, the Friday before the Memorial Day deluge of 2015. As you’ll see, the wet May weather was already causing concern, but happily their property came through ok and her garden seems to have held its own. She and her husband Richard have dedicated a substantial portion of their property to vegetables, herbs, fruit trees, chickens and ornamentals. They were kind enough to give me a tour of the whole place and I even got to meet the 8 little chicks in their brooder. Ally and I had a long and wide-ranging conversation as we toured. I have excerpted here, rearranging and paraphrasing at times for clarity. I hope you enjoy our second virtual Co-op Member Garden Tour!
When did you start gardening?
I’ve been gardening for as long as I can remember. I started gardening with my grandparents. I used to go visit their house and my grandfather was a big gardener. They did it differently there; it was in New Hampshire and years ago. He got his little spreader and went out to the garden with his lime and spread it up and down the rows and then he came in with his tiller. He put his tomatoes in and would religiously go out and pinch all the suckers off so his tomatoes were like little shrubs. Because they had such a short growing season up there he was real focused on getting the plant to produce a good quick crop of tomatoes.
I moved to Austin in 1990 and met a lady who started talking to me about organic gardening. I probably would have become an organic gardener eventually anyway but she is the one who helped to educate me about it. I lived in a duplex in Austin for a little while and even had a garden there- a 4×8 wooden vegetable garden that I built.
We moved here [to our current house] in 1991 and built this garden but it didn’t look anything like it looks today. It was originally laid out in a ring made of those wooden raised bed boxes. And after 15 years the boxes rotted and looked awful. We were at the Natural Gardener one day and they were gardening in unframed raised beds at the time and Richard [my husband] asked “why can’t we have raised beds and not have those ugly boxes?” And I said “I guess we could.” So that’s what we did. We reconfigured the garden into the shape we see today. And then when I redesign to make a path to the greenhouse we’ll figure out some way to get the most growing space out of this area.
What type of soil do you have out here?
It’s kind of weird. We’re actually pretty close to the Colorado River as the crow flies. A woman who was an amateur archaeologist told me she had done some digging out here and she hypothesized that this used to be the bed of the Colorado. I never really gave it too much thought until they dug our pool and I got to see the strata of the soil and we pulled out these perfectly round smooth river rocks at lower levels. I really think she was probably right about the river. So the soil out here is awful. It’s gravel. She called this a gravel bar.
I add lots of this bunny poo to make my gardens. We go up to Pflugerville rabbit rescue and get the bunny litter. It’s bunny poo and pelletized pine with some alfalfa. They use Thompson hay up there and I haven’t seen any issues with the poo. You can put it straight on the garden and it holds up really well even at times like now when the soil gets mucky and swampy.
Interviewer’s Note: Ally has two main garden areas, one near the greenhouse which was the original and a new one about 30 yards away in a separate area. Both gardens are about 50×50 total space and contain several 4×12 raised beds. The gardens have water run to them with drip irrigation. Ally mentioned she prefers the drip system with adjustable emitters to the system she has tried in the newer garden with mini soaker hoses. We walked over to the new garden where she is growing tomatoes, okra, green beans, corn and peppers.
How are these tomatoes so tall already? (y’all they are seriously 6 feet tall)
Well I start them in January and then I nursed them up to different pot sizes until it was time to plant them. Unfortunately this bed on the highest ground is doing ok but these down the hill are doing awful. They are just waterlogged and drowning basically. I’m just hoping I can get the tomatoes that are here harvested then I’ll take these plants out and start over when it dries out a bit. I had planned on follow-on crops after my potatoes and onions but now I don’t know.
Is this the first summer season for this garden?
Second. Last year I almost exclusively planted squash out here – delicata, acorn and zucchini but the vine borers got all of them so I changed my plans for this year. Half of my sweet potatoes got eaten by pill bugs. I had to go get more from Natural Gardener. The pill bugs are terrible this year.
Peppers here are just what I like- “Gypsy” and “Big Bertha” are my two favorites. Then banana peppers and a jalapeno. We’re not big jalapeno eaters but I do like to have them on hand for when I make salsa.
I had only intended to plant these tomatoes in the rows but I had so many left over that I had started from seed that I ended up planting them all along the fence. I don’t know how that’s going to work out. They looked great about two weeks ago but then we got 5 more inches of rain.
Tell us about your orchard- it looks like you’ve got lots of peaches almost ready to harvest.
We let the weeds grow out here and then the leaf footed bugs came in and it created real problems this year. On this tree nearly all the peaches have brown spot so most of them can’t be eaten. So these are the June Gold and they’re hardest hit because they are early. But on this other tree there are actually some that are perfect. They don’t have brown spot and there’s much less damage to the fruit. These trees are supposed to be about a month a part but I’ve found they are really much closer.
And then the Methley Plum Tree and the Santa Rosa Plum tree are just starting to ripen. I’ve pulled a few early and seen they ripen up nicely on the counter so I will probably come out and pick all the ones that are showing color to save them from birds. And you can see I have two pears, two apples and a fig tree over there.
How long has your orchard been here?
We planted these trees in 2012. The peaches and plums were purchased as 5-gallon plants. I don’t think I would buy bare root. In fact if I did I would put it in a pot and grow it myself for a season. The reason is it’s so hard to keep things watered out here that I don’t put anything in the ground unless it’s really big.
You don’t have any irrigation out here?
Not yet. I’d like to have some down the road especially when we build our third garden space back here we will need to have some irrigation run.
Do you have a long term strategy for your food gardens? What is your goal five years from now?
There’s a lot more stuff I’d like to try to grow. And I guess my thinking is I always grow the stuff I like to eat. If I don’t like to eat it I’m not going to grow it. With a few exceptions. For example, I’m going to grow Malabar spinach this year which I don’t really like but I’m going to give it another try. And I’m growing sweet potatoes for the very first time just to try it.
I’d like to try blackberries and I think we could put them all along the fence out here [in the orchard]. And I’d like to try to grow grapes. Like I said I’d like another vegetable garden up here on the high ground once we get water up here. I guess I’d just like to expand as much as we can. We only have two acres so we can’t expand too much.
This all used to be heavily wooded and we didn’t have room to do any of this- I would never have removed healthy trees to make this space. But they died in the drought. We lost more than 50% of the trees on this property. One year I hired a contract or to come out and take down 30 trees. The next year it was 24. Every year we just did as many as we could afford. A lot of times they would just take them down for us and then we would burn them or chop them; we have cords and cords of firewood still from that time.
You make your own compost. How does your system work?
This is our main compost pile. We used to have a 5-bin rotating system but the tractor makes it much easier to use a single pile and just turn it. When we’re on the ball and we’re here working and can get it turned my goal is to be 100% self-sufficient on our compost. But you can see right now our pile of finished compost is just an empty space. So this year I’ve bought one yard of compost so far. When I’m planting I like to have one or two wheel barrows of compost available so I’m probably going to have to buy another yard.
Interviewer’s Note: We continued our tour over at the chicken coop. Ally and her husband Richard built their coop themselves and have expanded it over time. It’s in a shady part of their property and completely enclosed with hardware cloth.
How long have you kept chickens?
Six years going on seven.
Do you keep a rooster?
I had one for a while because a friend of mine gave me eggs to hatch under a broody hen and one of them was a male. We kept him for a while but he started crowing at like 3 in the morning so we went with him out to Eden’s Cove and I took the processing class.
So I started with six chicks that I raised in a cardboard box. And this was our coop. It was a self-sustaining coop run combination. We built it ourselves. When I was brooding chicks we had little frames that blocked off an area in the coop. We have so many hawks that I couldn’t let the chickens out to free range as often as I wanted to so we built this run of hardware cloth all the way around with a roof. And we have our baby bungalow off the back. When I don’t have any chicks we give the flock free reign of it, but when there are chicks we can close it off and it has a ladder that goes up to the second story. No nest boxes because they won’t need them, but it’s a nice big space for growing out pullets. So I was hoping to get these roses to grow totally up and over. They haven’t been there for very long but we’ll see.
How many birds to you have now?
10 with 8 more chicks in the house.
Are there any tips or tricks you’d like to share with folks?
Oh I love this for chickens. It’s a little suet feeder and when you want to give the girls fruit or grapes or something you can hang it in here and they can peck at it but it won’t roll around and get all dirty or get lost in the dirt on the ground. They really seem to like it.
Do you find that selling produce changes the way that you plant?
I plant more. But you know what? I was always like that. I always have planted more than I need and I guess the big difference is that we used to give it all away and now we sell some of it. We still give it away, it’s just not quite as much.
Do you mix edibles in with your ornamentals?
I have. Especially in the winter I’ve put artichokes and lettuces mixed in. I definitely mix herbs in, though a spot over there we’re going to put in a dedicated herb garden.
What garden in the world would you like to see?
I’ve always wanted to go see Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. They do food production there and apparently they’re doing it historically. So I’d like to see how they might lay it out. How people used to garden versus the way we do it today. See if it’s similar. I don’t know if they’re growing historically heirloom seeds. That’d be pretty cool.
Is there anyone in the co-op whose garden you’d like to tour?
Some of the bigger ones. I was very intrigued when Sue mentioned she had quite a large space. And I’d like to go visit Jen and Allen’s space as well over north of Anderson Ln. Being a garden blogger has given me the opportunity to see a lot of different gardens.
Interviewer’s Note: Want to know more about Ally and her gardens? You can follow her and see many more wonderful photos and stories at her blog.