Green Thumb: Adaptive Gardening

Today, I have my Physical Therapist hat on. Therefore, I decided to reblog this article on adaptive gardening that I wrote for my rehab hospital’s website. Enjoy!


Spring is just around the corner, and that means gardening season for many Austinites. The health benefits of gardening are plentiful. They include:
• Stress relief
• Decreased risk of stroke and heart attack by up to 30% in adults > 60 yrs old
• Decreased risk of dementia by 36-47% (according to two recent studies) when performed daily
• Moderate cardiovascular exercise: one hour of light gardening and yard work can burn 200-400 calories
• Can provide an opportunity to soak up Vitamin D when exposing bare skin to sunlight. This is best achieved in early morning hours and limited to 20-25 minutes to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Despite all these benefits, gardening is something that many adults feel is out of reach due to injury, disability or advanced age. Bending, squatting and kneeling are all tasks that pose difficulty. In addition, adults with impaired balance risk fall and possible injury negotiating tight spots between plantings and managing equipment such as rakes, shovels and hoes.

One solution is to build a raised garden bed. Raised beds of 24-36 inches high and no more than 4 feet wide are ideal for wheelchair users with an average reach of 30 inches. They are also helpful for individuals who need to sit and garden. Wide pathways can allow safe maneuverability on all sides of the bed, especially for those requiring assistive devices to walk. Plants are planted closer together, eliminating the need for frequent weeding.




Table top gardens provide similar benefits. They are typically raised off the ground on legs with a 6-12” deep bed for planting. The height can easily be adjusted to accommodate wheelchair users or to enable gardening in standing. Wheels can even be added to allow the garden to be moved.




For more info on how to build a raised or table top garden, please check out the resources below:

Also check out the Vernon Barker Memorial Garden, an accessible garden right here in Austin, TX. It is part of the Sunshine Community Gardens.

Enjoy this spring weather while it lasts, and don’t hesitate to get your garden on!



Green Thumb: Companion Planting

In Texas, we get spring started a little early,usually the end of February/beginning of March.  This is very exciting for a gal from NH, where spring doesn’t show her face consistently until at least May.  That is why I typically ignore the general recommendation to wait until after March 21  (when it is consistently above 40 degrees) to plant tomatoes, basil and peppers and get my garden in the ground around St. Patty’s Day.  This year, I dared to go one week earlier. This is how it looked after planting.
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And this is how it looked the first week of April when we had a very late hard freeze. I did cover these bad boys, but this was no brief dip below 40. It was a chilly 32 degrees!


All my tomatoes, peppers and basil plants died along with a few beans. Eggplant was the sole survivor of this box. Even sadder, it was slim pickings at the Natural Gardener when I went to replace my crops as most everyone has purchased their starter plants by April.

Happily, three weeks later, everything is thriving. I used a concept called companion planting to plan out my raised beds. This is the notion that certain plants help each other out in terms of providing nutrients, pest control and pollination. I read a lot of articles on this technique, but found the chart on this site  and on wikipedia the easiest to follow. The list of crops I desire in my  garden includes:

  • tomatoes
  • eggplant
  • peppers
  • cucumber
  • beans
  • peas
  • carrots
  • onions
  • shallots
  • garlic
  • lettuce
  • strawberries
  • basil

Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are all part of the nightshade family. Good companions for nightshades include alliums (garlic, onions, shallots), mints (basil, oregano) and carrots. Basil increases the yield of tomatoes and carrots help them to grow, although somewhat at the expense of their own growth. In addition, marigolds or nasturtium flowers help repel pests.

Cucumbers grow well with beans, peas, celery and lettuce. Nasturtiums repel cucumber beetles and corn protects against bacterial wilt and gives the cucumber something which to climb. Cucumbers do not grow well with cauliflower, potato, basil or any strong aromatic herb.

Beans and peas work well with carrot, corn, cucumber, squash, radish, turnip, spinach, lettuce, mint, potatoes and brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, brussell sprouts and cauliflower). Corn lends climbing support and squash helps to suppress weeds.  Like other legumes, beans and peas contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria and are great soil amenders. They do not like to be planted with alliums.

Carrots help the growth of tomatoes and alliums. They are, in turn, helped by alliums, rosemary, parsley and sage, which all deter the carrot rust fly. Beans add nitrogen to the soil, which carrots love. They do not do well with dill or parsnip.

Alliums help nightshades, brassicas, and carrots, as already mentioned, as well as fruit trees. Avoid planting with beans, peas or parsley.

Lettuce helps radish by repelling earth flies while radish helps spinach (leafminers prefer the radish leaves). Both do well with strawberries and peas and beans help by providing shade these cool weather crops prefer.

Based on the above info, I mapped out my 3 beds.

Box 1 (4×10): Snap peas, beans, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, strawberry (not planted this season as it was too late), nasturtiums

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Box 2: (4×10) Carrots, onions/garlic/shallots (to be planted in September), tomatoes, basil, marigolds

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Box 3 (4×12): Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, marigolds

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Things are looking a tad bit crowded in box one but will ease up once all the lettuce is harvested (likely by end of May). I can’t wait until all my hard work pays off! I really hope my veggies like their BFFs.

Green Thumb?: The Lawn Gets a Makeover

Forgive me readers. It has been 23 days since my last blog.  A lot has gone on since then. You see, my folks just made the trek from NH to TX to visit us for Easter.  If you are anything like my husband and me, then the prospect of visitors is enough to get you off the couch and out working on projects that have been on the to do list for far too long. Couple this with spring-time in Austin, and there was quite a bit to do in our little yard.

Last summer in Austin was brutal.  I swear it hit 100 degrees by March, if not April.  And we had one of the worst droughts in history.  Typically, we are in stage 1 watering restrictions of 2x/wk starting in May. This was upgraded to stage 2 watering restrictions of 1x/wk. All that stress took its toll on our garden beds and especially our lawn, which appeared to have just upped and died.  It is currently in a sad, sad state. The solution: a partial make-over.

Dress Me Up and Dress Me Down 

Topdressing is a common solution to lawn woes here in Austin. By definition, it is a procedure in which you add a very fine layer of compost or other organic material over your lawn so you can improve the soil quality without killing existing turf.  Topdressing can be performed in the fall or in the spring.  We typically de-thatch the lawn at the end of it’s growing season and topdress bare spots with Dillo dirt or other compost. Then we do a more through treatment in the spring when the grass starts to come back to life. It is also helpful to aerate your lawn every couple of years.

This year, we found that the entire middle of the back yard was bare after raking leaves and de-thatching. We have St Augustine grass, as do our neighbors.  We didn’t see much St Augustine grass filling in the bare spots, mainly weeds and bermuda grass that birds likely brought in by seed.  Clearly, this was not going to be a job where we could treat a spot here and a spot there, so we decided to call up our local landscape supply company, Daniel Stone, and order several yards of topdressing material to do the entire back, front and side yard. They recommended landscaper’s mix, which is a combination of topsoil, rice hull compost and cow manure. We ordered 3 yards, but you can determine the exact formula for your yard by multiplying length (ft) x width (ft) x depth (in) and dividing by 324 to get the amount of cubic yards you need.

Once the material is dumped in your driveway, use a wheelbarrow to make small piles all over the lawn.  This is what it looked like at our house. As you can see, we didn’t have much lawn to speak of.

Then, use a rake, leaf rake or large broom to brush the piles of soil out over the lawn. Ideally, you want the material to be 1/2 inch thick or less. Any more will suffocate your lawn.

Finally, water all the top ressing in. We used a soil activator called Terra Tonic Super Soil Activator, which is sold at Austin’s Natural Gardener to give things a jump start.  It is composed of humid acid, seaweed, compost tea, cane molasses and other good stuff.

When you’re done, your lawn should look something like this:

And a grass close-up like this:

Now we sit back and wait for the grass to come back to life. A little praying never hurts.

I Prefer a Green Dress

As the majority of our grass in the backyard did die, we had no choice but to resod in areas. Warning: this is not an instruction manual in resodding.  In fact, what you are about to see is a very unorthodox method.  The proper procedure is to get rid of the dead thatch, lay down some topsoil (our top dressing took care of this), get each piece of sod real wet and lay it down as you would bricks, making sure each piece is flush with the adjacent piece. The problem is that we needed at least 2-3 pallets of sod to get the job done.  We learned this after marching to Home Depot and loading as much sod as we could fit into Dean’s SUV. This amounted to 40 pieces, which did not even put a dent in the backyard $60 later. So, we decided we would make some cheerful cross designs in our grass in honor of Easter. We know the St Augustine to send out runners like a weed and could already see several areas where it was starting to fill back in after top dressing.  So we created little bridges and are currently watching and waiting.  We probably will have to add many more pieces of sod, but my parents’ arrival put much of the landscaping projects on hold.  This is what the lawn looked like immediately after resodding (yes, I am aware it is a bit crazy).  I am watering the sod daily and desperately praying some grass fills in and then stays alive once the heat gets dreadful and the rain ceases to be common. It is already starting to fill in some more, so things are hopeful.

Green Thumb?: A Veggie Tale

After a slight rain delay, I was finally able to put in my vegetable garden this week.   One of the things I love about my house, is that it came with a detached garage. This created an area of otherwise wasted backyard that has now become the perfect spot for a vegetable garden.  When I say perfect, I mean perfect only in Texas. Typically a vegetable garden requires six hours of full sunlight.  My garden area has the potential for shade from the detached garage on one side, a neighbor’s tree on the other and a newly build shed at the back end.  This would be less than ideal if not for the brutal 100 degree days that Austin has to offer.  The sun still manages to bear down on my little garden but it is more protected than if it was in any other spot in our yard.

My attempts at veggies has been scaled back over the years.  My garden is probably 12 ft x 25 ft, perhaps a tad bit larger.  The first year, I planted mixed greens, zucchini, a variety of green beans, tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, eggplant and cucumbers. The result was very little walking space between rows. Since then, I try to be a little more methodical in planning out my rows, measuring them out so that there are at least 36 inches between rows and each plant.  But when push comes to shove, I always end up squeezing in an extra plant or two, and the garden quickly becomes more overgrown and messy than I anticipated. That is probably the case again this year.

The bulk of the garden is made up of five tomato plants. I usually plant these towards the front, but I needed to rotate out my crops (as much as one can in such a small garden), so they are towards the back of the garden bed this year. I hope they like their new home.  I have experimented with a number of varieties over the years.  This year, I went with three slicing tomatoes: Early Girl, Big Boy and Celebrity. I also planted three small sweet varieties: Sweet 100 Cherry Tomatoes, Juliet Grape and Yellow Pear. Early Girl is a new one for me. I bought it because it sets fruit before all the rest. I’ve had good luck with Big Boy and Celebrity. The Sweet 100 replaces the Mike’s Red Cherry Tomatoes I’ve planted the last few years with varying success. Last year, I planted another variety of grape tomatoes because the Juliet wasn’t available, and it didn’t produce as much. Plus, Juliette would get a real kick out of knowing the tomatoes share her name if she could realize such a thing.

I actually read the Natural Gardener instruction sheet that comes with the tomatoes for the first time and learned that tomatoes like to have their stem buried a little bit. They encourage you to remove some of the lower leaves in order to bury part of the stem.  I have always hilled my tomatoes to give them more stability (they get taller than me and over run their cages), but I planted them more deeply than I normally do at their advice and also made moats around my hills to encourage water to stay near the plant’s root system. This I learned from my Dad.

I planted four hills of straight 8 cucumbers (this basically means you should get fruit that is straight and 8″ long- can’t get any more simple than that) much too close together. I am hoping that I can set some trellises along the fence near the cukes to encourage them to grow vertically. Otherwise, they will grow into a tangled mess and start climbing up my tomato cages, which is their normal M.O.

I also planted one green bell pepper and one eggplant.  I always get nice, tall pepper plants but have yet to yield an edible bell pepper.  I had jalapeños coming out my ears one year, but I am cursed when it comes to bell peppers.  I’m hoping this will be the year that all changes.  Eggplant is also a bit of a challenge.  The problem is that by the time they set fruit, it is 100+ degrees. While you are waiting to pluck a sizable eggplant, they start actually cooking on the vine and the fruit gets all shriveled up.  Still, I am hopeful there is eggplant parm in my future.

Lastly, I planted some lettuce.  Lettuce is better suited as a fall or winter crop in Texas, but I always try to get some out of the beginning of the growing season. After all, lettuce is an essential part of the salad I’m growing.  As you recall, some butter leaf lettuce popped up from the seeds I planted last spring. I also put some seeds down for romaine lettuce and planted one malibar spinach, which is not really spinach at all but very heat resistant and similar tasting when cooked. It is a vining plant, so I placed a trellis near it to encourage it’s vertical growth.

While I was at it, I replaced some more winter casualties in my herb garden.  I managed to lose both  my spearmint and chocolate mint this year.  This is a little ironic because mint is highly invasive, and I spend a lot of time debating whether I wanted to plant it or not.  I eventually decided it was too good to pass up, but I planted it in pots sunk in the ground to discourage the runners from escaping. Alas, both mints took a hard hit this past summer. They would like a little more shade and the plan was for the rosemary to shade one, the oregano, the other. The winter did it in for good. There were no signs of life, so I marched to the Natural Gardener and got two more. A girl’s got to have mojito supplies on hand.

Finally, I replaced my basil.  I normally plant two every summer as my good intentions to overwinter the babies indoors never pans out.  I went a little overboard, planting two sweet basil and one thai basil.  Can’t wait to try the thai basil in a recipe.

Also looking forward to the fruits of my labor, so to speak. Grow baby grow!

Green Thumb?: Every Rose Has It’s Thorn

Last weekend , it rained and rained and rained.  Not that I’m complaining, we desperately need the rain. But it was a complete wash (excuse my pun) for gardening.

I had some very big plans to top dress my lawn and put my veggies in the ground.  These tasks were pushed back, but there were some welcome rays of sunshine on Sunday (fitting, no?), and that is when I decided to prune my knock out roses and blackberry bushes.

Nothing scares me more than pruning roses. And no, it’s not the thorns that frighten me.  It’s that I’ll somehow prune off too much and ruin the shape of my rose bush or, worse, get no blooms.  After the first year of my knock-out roses being in the ground, I had a friend show me how to prune them. Dean and I watched in horror as she hacked and hacked and hacked away at the roses.  They seemed very small afterward, and we feared they would never recover, although she assured us they would grow back even larger.

Several weeks later, the roses rebounded and came back bigger and better than the previous year. Fantastic, I thought. I can do this from now on.  And so, for the last two years, I have timidly marched out to their flower bed in mid March and pruned away.  This is what I’ve learned.  You can normally take down the roses by 1/3 their total height.  If the roses are fairly large to begin with, take them down by 1/4 and then prune again sometime during the summer.  You are looking to create a “V” shape with the rose.  I usually try to make sure there are 3-5 major canes in this shape. I cut away any suckers and anything crossing the middle of the plant. Then, when I make my cuts to prune down the height, I make sure to cut above an outward facing bud to continue to encourage the bush to grow in that “V” form. So far, it has been working. Here’s a link to a helpful YouTube video  by GardenMagik that I watch before taking on this task. Helps me get up my nerve.

Here are my roses during their first growing season:

And here they are at the end of last season. I’d say they like whatever I’m doing:

Pruning blackberries is a totally new thing for me. I planted one blackberry bush last year and a new one this year.  What I learned in researching it, is that I have not been doing the right thing at all.  Apparently, you are supposed to prune out all the canes that bore fruit in the fall after fruiting has ceased and get rid of the canes so they do not spread disease. On a new plant, you are also supposed to pinch off the new growing tips of all new canes to encourage lateral shoots.  I must admit I have not been brave enough to do this yet.

Here is the blackberry  bush I planted last year. It is looking a little sad and needs it’s old cane removed:

Here is my new blackberry bush. Will I have the nerve to pinch off the new tips? We shall see:

I was able to get a lot of gardening done this week, so be on the look out for my next post on my veggie babies. Until then, good night.