Earl’s Garden – Spring, 2013

It was good to be back with Earl in his garden. Earl is turning 80 this summer and is still experimenting and sharing what he’s learning. We talked about his compost process, his new tomato cage design and how our weird weather fluctuations this spring affected his green bean crop.

 Earl in his garden

Before we headed to the garden, Earl showed me a broom he made a number of years ago using broom straw he  collected from a field along side a highway. He said there are just 3 ingredients: straw, twine and a few knots, but it should outlast any modern broom.


 Earl uses his compost pile to produce a high-quality fertilizer – he only adds trimmings and roots from his garden, coffee grounds that he collects from coffee shops and seaweed tea. The roots are a critical component due to the mycorrhizal fungi still clinging to them.Together, these materials form a nutrient rich soil additive with an NPK of 2-3-6. Earl uses Maxi-Crop seaweed due to the nutrient content accumulated in the seaweed gathered near Norway resulting from the Gulf Stream deposits accumulated in it’s  journey from the Yucatan Peninsula, across the Atlantic, and along the coast of Europe. He showed me the shovel he filed to a point to help break up the coffee filters and stir the compost.










We then moved into the garden where Earl reluctantly showed me his been crop. These are the green beans he’s been growing from the same seed source for over 30 years. I say that he “reluctantly” because he’s not happy with how they look from the high winds and temperature fluctuations we’ve had this spring. My opinion is that Earl’s beans look better in a bad season than mine do in a good one.











As usual, Earl has a great onion crop this year. He grows them from seed planted in September. In November, he harvests the starts, trims them up and replants them. He and his wife enjoy the young, green onions until bulbs form in the spring. He uses nails driven in the sides of his raised beds to help align  the 3 inch spacing he’s been using (though next year he plans to move to 4 inches and give them more room). He stops watering them with the when tops fall in spring. At this point the onions are ready for storage.


As I’ve described in  previous posts, Earl has developed a tomato cage system that gives his plants great support and plenty of the room and light he feels is critical for good production. To make storing the cages in the off-season easier, Earl revised his system this year – he now uses 7 standard cages including 1 central cage on the plant and the other 6 surrounding it. He uses twist ties to hold them together and 6, 5 ft pieces of re-bar that he drives 1 foot in the ground for support.

Earl lost 4 plants this year which could have been due to our weather, but he also observed that the plants were located where zinnias were previously planted. He said that this isn’t enough evidence to draw definitive conclusions but he won’t be repeating that again.

This year Earl is trying a hybrid tomato from Burpee called Brandy-Boy based on the famous Brandywine heirloom.I’ll check back later this spring and see how he like them.





Earl has 1 outlier tomato, a Celebrity, that suffered some damage from a cold front. He wanted to give it a chance to see how it would produce, but didn’t want to give it garden space. It’s been exiled to a spot outside his garden with a  yard of his compost and left to its own devices. We’ll see later in the season how this one produces as well.


Thanks again, Earl, for sharing your vast gardening knowledge….

David — 

Earl’s Garden – June

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I visited with Earl in his garden. He has a great spring crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, chard, and of course, green beans.

We started our tour taking a look at the Oliver plow his father used on his farm in North Carolina where Earl grew up.Oliver Plow Earl believes the plow is about 100 years old and was last used by his dad in 1940. Earl said, “I was born in a time that let me plow with both a mule and a tractor.”
Earl described his father’s three-year rotation on the farm starting with corn, followed by wheat, and then Lespedeza clover. He worked with the weeds instead of fighting them, timing his mowing to clip the weeds above the clover and ultimately turning all of the crop and weed residue back into the soil. Earl’s father said, “if you keep taking away and don’t put back, you’re left with nothing.” Earl has adopted his father’s method of composting in-place and aerating (plowing) in his garden today.

Earl then showed me his garden. In the photos below, you can see his chard, cucumbers, and zinnias – this is his first year to grow cut flowers but they look just as vigorous as his vegetables.

Earl's ChardEarl's cucumbersEarl's Zinnias

Earl's beans

Earl’s green beans – beans for harvesting on the left and for seed saving on the right

As I described in previous posts, Earl has been saving seeds from his green beans for 30 years . He started with an envelope of seeds his sister sent him from an agriculture coop in North Carolina that grew into the first green bean that his wife enjoyed eating. Every year since, he grows a row of beans to eat and a row for seeds, selecting the biggest beans from the healthiest plants for seeds for the next year’s crop. He doesn’t harvest any beans from his seed row for the kitchen – instead, he lets them grow until the beans dry on the vine. As you can see in the picture, the row where the beans are continuously harvested are still green and producing while the plants on the right got the message that they completed their job of reproducing and are now shutting down allowing the seeds to dry. Earl has shared his adapted beans with many other Austin area gardeners ensuring they’re continued success in our area.

This year Earl is making extensive use of trenches, both for getting water to the roots of his plants as shown below and to work fertilizer into his beds prior to planting. His processing of trenching is described in an article in the Organic Techniques section of the AOG website.

Other changes for Earl this year include using a movable trellis for his square foot beds instead of a permanent grid on each bed. This allows him to space his plants and seeds, but doesn’t get in the way of working the soil. The trellis can be easily stored. 

Earl has devised a new tomato cage system this year that makes it easer to harvest his tomatoes. He still uses 7 heavy-duty, 4 ring cages with one over the plant and a ring of 6 more around the central cage . He leaves a leg of each of the outer cages facing the outside and then secures them together with twist ties  as marked with a “T” in the diagram on the right. Earl circles the cages with 4 strands of heavy-duty twine at each of the 4 rings. He ties one end of the twine to an outer leg of one of the cages, pulls the twine to the next cage and wraps around its outer legs, and continues this process to the starting point and ties it off. He repeats this circling of the cages at each of the 4 cage rings. Earl said this may not be quite as strong as his previous method of attaching an outer ring of wire, but he thinks it’s strong enough and makes harvesting and mulching much easier. His previous and new methods are shown in the photos below.

Removable square foot grid

Removable square foot grid

Earl's previous tomato cage system

Earl’s previous tomato cage system

Earl's new tomato cage system

Earl’s new tomato cage system

David —

2012 Plant Sale

We had a great turnout for our 2012 plant sale last Saturday. Thanks to everyone that contributed plants and volunteered and a special thanks to Ginger for organizing the event. Also, thanks to Geo Growers for supplying soil. Here are a few photos….

Earl’s Garden – July

I missed seeing Earl’s garden in June but I caught back up with him last weekend. It’s been a rough summer in Austin for all gardeners, including Earl, but in spite of the heat and drought, his garden looks great. Earl’s still getting a few tomatoes, his okra looks good, and cream and purple hull peas are off to a nice start.

One piece of advice Earl remembers from his dad (a farmer in North Carolina) is to take advantage of your work – if you don’t, you can work hard without much to show for it. He put this advice to good use with his tomatoes. I mentioned this in the last post, but in the photo below you can see the dam he builds around each plant using 3 bags of compost. He said it’s a bargain compared to the price of a few organic tomatoes from the store.

Earl is demonstrating his watering method of filling the “reservoir” with his watering wand and letting the water seep through the compost taking the nutrients to the plant roots. In this way, he can hand water his garden in about 30 minutes, getting water exactly where he needs it. As his dad pointed out, a little work on the front end, makes things much easier later on.

Earl's sun shade for young tomato transplants

Trying to grow fall tomatoes in Austin can be a real challenge – Earl uses row cover that he attaches to his cage system with twist ties to keep the hot summer sun off of his tender young plants. With the sides open, it still allows plenty of air circulation.

Earl has a good crop of okra going with 1 plant marked for saving seed. He won’t harvest any fruit from this one for the table.

okra row

A row of okra

Okra plant marked for seed saving

Earl is experimenting this year with 3 different mulches for his okra. One third of the row is mulched with 100% coffee grounds, one third with 100% compost, and one third with a 50-50 mix. So far, the plants look about the same, but he feels like the 50-50 mix provides the most benefit with the acid from the coffee grounds helping to extract nutrients from the compost. I’ll keep you posted on how the experiment pans out.

Several of his 4×4 square foot beds are filled with peas – some cream and some Mississippi Purple Hull. Being one of my favorite crops from my East Texas connections, I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

Last but not least, Earl pointed out the horseshoe that he found on his property. From the pit marks and nails, he believes it’s from the 1800s. He has it positioned on his garden gate pouring luck on all that enter.

Earl's garden gate

David –

Earl’s Garden – May

I made it back to Earl’s garden this weekend and what a difference 5 or 6 weeks and a little rain makes. Earl and his wife are eating chard and about to be eating tomatoes and green beens. He still has plenty of onions and his okra is just coming up.

Earl’s green beans are truly a testimony to saving seeds. Linda did a great job of describing his process in her blog so I’ll just provide a few highlights here. It started with Earl’s search to find a green bean that his wife likes. After experimenting unsuccessfully with several varieties, Earl’s sister in North Carolina sent him seeds from an old variety that farmers had brought into the feed store over the years. Earl planted his first row strictly for saving seeds 30 years ago. He pulled the plants, roots and all, once they were fully mature. He only kept the plants that had a lot of beans and the size and shape he wanted. Some of them were 4 inches long and flat, others were 6 inches long and round, and still others were 6 inches long and, as he said, boxy – not flat or round. The later are the ones he kept.

He tied strings around the plants and hung them in his garage to fully dry – from mid-summer to the first cold day of winter. He then laid the plants out on the ground and once again selected only the best beans to keep for seeds. The seeds he saved, he put in jars with tight lids, dated them, and stored them in his freezer until spring. Every year since, Earl dedicates a row or 2 to seeds. Earl gave some sees to Roger at The Natural Gardener a couple of years ago. I visited with Roger after leaving Earl’s and he’s now a believer as well. Roger said that Earl’s beans continue to produce excellent beans well into our hot summers after other varieties give up. Roger has several square foot beds devoted to Earl’s beans – some for eating and some for seed saving.
The rest of Earl’s garden is doing equally well. He has a unique system for supporting his tomatoes that involves concentric rings of cages. He said he’s tried about every wrong way possible to grow tomatoes and has now settled on this one. Earl said that strong support, plenty of room for light and air, and food, food, food is his secret. He puts about 3 bags of good compost (from either The Natural Gardener or Geo Growers) in a mound circling each plant about 8 inches to a foot from the stem. This makes a well that when he waters, he fills with his water wand and then just let’s the “compost tea” soak into the ground. This maximizes the effect of his water and thereby reduces the amount of water needed. When the tomatoes are done, he just works the compost into the soil. Compost is the only mulch he considers – he tried others unsuccessfully in the past.
At our last club meeting, Earl said that with our drought, his chard is much smaller than it would if we had some rain. I have to say that I’d love to see his chard in a year with normal rainfall because his chard in a dry year is about twice the size of mine. He digs 2 parallel trenches about 6 inches deep 12 to 18 inches apart and plants in the trenches. He fills them in as the plants grow until they’re level with the ground. He then digs a trench about the same depth between the 2 rows and waters down this center trench getting moister to the roots. The center trench has filled in now as you can see from the photos – he must be doing something right to have such beautiful chard.
One other trick that Earl shared with me that you can see in the pictures, is that he drives PVC pipe at the head of each row angling away from the plants. PVC is gentler on his hose than re-bar and protects his plants from his hose.

It’s been a pleasure to visit with someone as passionate and thoughtful about his garden as Earl. I hope to continue sharing his progress and tips as well as visit some of the other fine gardeners in AOG.

David –

Earl’s Garden

Earl Hall has been bringing samples from his garden to our club meetings for several years – samples include onion sets and turnips the size of softballs. I had the pleasure of visiting his garden recently to see how he does it. Earl manages to grow wonderful vegetables in spite of the rocky conditions west of Austin where he lives. He was raised on a farm in North Carolina where his parents were, as he said, “on the leading edge of self-sufficiency”.

Earl has a combination of 4×4 square foot beds as well as a sizeable area of native soil garden rows all enclosed inside a deer fence. He uses Mel’s mix in his raised beds referring to a soil recipe advocated by Mel Bartholomew founder of the square foot gardening method. He purchases components for his soil from local sources like Geo Growers, The Natural Gardener, and Callahan’s. With years of adding compost, the native soil is now fluffy and friable as well. Earl suggests using a variety of types of compost and generally mixes turkey and dairy.

At the time of my visit, Earl had a good crop of onions and spinach still going stong – both were started from seed. He has a good start on beans and tomatoes for spring and as you can see in the photos, he has considerable space between his tomatoes. He has empty boxes anchored next to each tomato plant to protect the young plants from the wind and mulches each with a 5 gallon bag of compost.

I’ll report back periodically as the season progresses and bring more of Earl’s tricks and tips.

David –

2011 Plant Sale

We had another successful plant sale this year at the Zilker Garden Center. Thanks to everyone that helped make it happen and especially those that grew and donated transplants. Thanks also to Geo Growers for providing soil and Gabriel Valley Farms for the beautiful plants.

If you followed my saga of starting seeds – it didn’t have a happy ending. Remember that storm that hit Austin in February with 40 mile an hour winds? I learned 2 things – don’t have a full side of your pop-up greenhouse facing north, and be sure to use the tie downs and stakes they provide. The good thing about gardening is that there’s always next season. I’m just glad I was able to buy some plants at the sale!

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David –