The Green Tower

On a trip to Oregon last fall, my good friend, Dr. Linda Hardison who is the director of the Oregon Flora Project took us to visit Oregon State University’s Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture.

A wonderful place to visit and with so many interesting things to see, one of the more impressive was The Green Tower.

The G.T. is a vertical gardening tower, primarily for vegetable and herb gardening. In viewing this magnificent monstrosity, I realized that it could be the answer to my veggie dilemma back home in Austin.  I have only a few spots on my property that receive full sun, year round.  My real gardening love is native plants and wildlife gardening, so that type of gardening is my priority.  But I do love fresh veggies, so if I can limit the square footage of veggie gardening space, yet still produce veggies year round in that smaller space, gardening vertically is my answer.

In designing our own Green Tower, my husband and I used the basic information from the OCCUH website. (See photo above.)  Unfortunately, that  YouTube video is no longer available, but you can view this one:   The video was helpful in a general, rather than specific way–we redesigned our tower because we don’t need one as large as is demonstrated.  Still, the idea is innovative and it was an excellent start to our Green Tower adventure.

We reconfigured size dimensions, appropriate for the amount of vegetables/herbs that we want to produce.  OSU’s Green Tower is a bit larger  and wider than our 4.5′ tall and 4′x3′ footprint tower.  The Husband bought, cut and wired together metal rebar pieces. We then hired a welder to weld together the frame.

We dug the frame into the ground for additional stability, making sure the G.T. was level.

We wrapped landscape fabric and wired it to the frame.

To tighten the wire, we used pliers.

The extra ends of the wire are clipped, then turned inward, so that the ends won’t scratch working hands.  I still get scratched and poked, so attention to those sharp ends is advised.

We did the same with chicken wire–wrapped it around the frame and wired it through the landscape fabric and to the frame. Because the frame is larger at its base (4′X3′) than at its top ( 3′X3′). some folding of the landscape fabric and crimping of the chicken wire is necessary to fit well around the frame.

Inside the G.T. we placed a tube for aeration  and watering.

Before completing the G.T., we moved it to a different spot on our property.  I  finished wrapping the landscape fabric and chicken wire–more crimping and folding and not advisable to do a windy day!

The supervisor in the background approves!

I didn’t have enough of my own soil and compost to completely fill the G.T., so I purchased Hill Country Garden Mix from The Natural Gardener.  We shoveled in 1 cubic yard of soil mixture in the tower, but as the soil settles, will probably need more. I’ll add my own compost to the top, as needed.   As we added soil, I placed a 10 foot soaker hose roughly in the middle of the tower, then added more soil, filling  to the top of the tower.  Once done, I cut through the fabric and wire so that I can attach a hose to the soaker for watering,

and placed another 10 foot soaker hose at the top of the tower.

Planting on the top of the tower is obvious.

To plant along the side, the first step is to cut through the chicken wire with very sharp scissors or better yet, wire cutters.

Pull the wire away, then slice through the landscape fabric.  I’ve learned that it’s best to make the cut at what will be the bottom of the opening, to minimize soil escaping.

I  remove some soil, then plant a four-inch sized veggie.  I haven’t found it necessary to tie together the wire to keep the plants in place as the OSU video suggests, though it’s a good idea.

I deposit excess soil on the top of the G.T when I plant along the sides.  There has been some leakage of soil, especially in those first couple of weeks, but not as much as I expected.  I planted the usual spring/summer veggies:  tomatoes,  peppers, zucchini, yellow squash,  cucumber, basil, mint and cantaloupe.  I planted green beans on the top and they’ve germinated on schedule. I planted some of the beans along the sides, but none of those germinated.  I think one valuable use of the G. T. will be for seed germination at its top, then transplanting developing seedlings along the sides.

Watering is tricky because some parts of the soil in the tower don’t  receive enough water, though most of the plants haven’t had any issues with drying out. I suspect gaps in the soil are the culprit and once the G.T. soil settles, irrigation will be even.  I’ve only watered three times since planting in late March. Since then, we’ve received enough rainfall to water the tower thoroughly.   I used the aeration tube for the last soaking and it worked well, though there is water leakage from the bottom of the tower–that’s a problem I’d like to correct as don’t like wasting water.  Watering slowly should help and we’re considering placing a tube with holes straight down the middle if irrigation problems continue into summer. I want to get through one vegetable growing season before adding that and any more soil.

My Green Tower doesn’t look like OSU’s Green Tower. This is Texas, not Oregon and contrary to popular belief, not everything is bigger and better in Texas. (Believe me, as a Texan, it hurts to say that.)  Currently I don’t have much planted, though what I’ve planted doesn’t take up as much square footage in the tower as it would in a traditional ground garden.  I could definitely plant more.  I haven’t utilized the sides as expected in vertical gardening either, which defeats the purpose, of course.  I probably will add some zinnias or other drought tolerant annuals to pretty up the G. T. as we move into summer.

Yeah, flowers.  I can’t get away from that it seems.

Weeding isn’t an issue and I’m pleased that as the soil is settling, I’m not watering, though that will change with summer heat and drought.  I think the G. T.  will be especially valuable to me in the fall and winter, since the cool season plants can be started at the top by seed, then transplanted throughout the tower.

Not including the $18 I’ve spent on plants, The Green Tower cost about $400– including materials and soil and hiring the welder and a handyman to help move the soil.  I felt like that was pricy for an experiment (and it might be, time will tell), until a neighbor told me that she’d paid her lawn company $800 last month for winter clean up and first spring mowing.  Wow!! Are lawn services that expensive?  (I suspect that cost was an outlier, but I know  people who pay $50-100 a month for lawn service.)

Get rid of your lawns!  Plant perennials and natives and vegetables–in  vertical gardens or otherwise.

More adventures to come as The Green Tower grows!



Foliage Follow-up, April 2014

Spring has definitely sprung here in Austin and though blooms may be foremost for most garden lovers, foliage loveliness deserves a shout-out.   Here are my foliage favorites for April.

The summer and fall blooming Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium greggiisports deeply lobed foliage, giving rise to one of the common names for this hardy ground cover, Palmleaf Mistflower.


Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has beautiful foliage year-round.  It’s delicate, fern-like and spreads well (sometimes too well).  Yarrow is evergreen, hardy and drought tolerant.

It brightens this shady spot.

A perennial favorite of mine and one I’ve profiled before, Mexican Feathergrass (Nassella tenuisima) is at the zenith of beauty in the spring.

The lone green Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)  in my back gardens apparently wasn’t decimated by butterfly larva last year.

With soft, graceful foliage, it’s a wonderful addition to the mixed perennial garden.

Globe Mallow (Spaeralcea ambigua)  is such a show-stopper with its combination of orange blooms and arresting, pale gray-green, fuzzy leaves.

I like this combination of  Pale-leaf Yucca (Yucca pallida), Heartleaf Skullcap (Scutellaria ovata) and the bright green Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii).

The Pale-leaf Yucca appears blue against the backdrop of the greener Skullcap ground cover  and the Autumn Sage’s is a bright green punctuation situated further in that same ground cover.

The Wild Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) not only has beautiful blooms in spring, but interesting foliage year-round.

New growth from a young American Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus), promises more beauty as it matures.

Lastly, I can’t resist the photo of the Scarlet Tanager, Piranga olivacea, who has visited my garden this past week as he rests on the green branch of Retama (Parkinsonia aculeata).  Plumage and foliage–you can’t beat that!

Thanks to Pam at Digging for hosting Foliage Follow-up for April.


Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day, April 2014

Joining garden bloggers from around the world, here are my picks for Bloom Day, April 2014 from Austin, Texas.  The Hill Country Penstemon (Penstemon triflorus), thrust upward its bloom stalks during January, but waited until March to unfurl its fuchsia beauty.

My Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) has bloomed this past month and shows no signs of slowing down, much to the delight of the honeybees.


The  ‘Brazos’ Blackberry   is in full flower now, with berries to follow.  I can’t wait to eat the berries from the vine in May and June.

A beautiful cool season bloomer here in Austin is the Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua).


And there are lots of Columbine this spring.  The Hinckley (or Yellow) Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana) is in full glory.

Blooming alongside another native Columbine, the Wild Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis),

these two will  rampantly hybridize to create lovely variations of themselves over several seasons.

Lastly, the Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) blooms are opening daily.

Happy Spring!

And thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day.

Barbados Cherry, A Seasonal Look

Often in  gardening literature, photographs and accompanying  text illustrate a plant at its best–its appearance  in full bloom or berry or whatever qualities the profiled plant exhibits at its peak during the growing season.  New gardeners and specifically new gardeners to Austin and Central Texas often have no clue what the plant they just purchased will be doing during the course of the year, other than what the gardener wanted it for; what the plant looks like when not  blooming, berrying and anything in between. One of the common search terms that appear in my blog statistics is asking just this sort of question:  What will the So-And-So plant look like when it’s not blooming?  What does Blippity-Blop plant look like during the winter?  When do I prune Hoody-Doo plant?    Is This Thing dormant or dead?

I’ve gardened in Austin long enough to observe how common landscape perennials and grasses perform throughout the year.  From time-to-time, I’ll be selecting plants and inviting the reader to observe seasonal changes these plants undergo.  Please note that these posts reflect my experiences only, here in sunny Austin, Texas.

Notice the new menu heading which will categorize these posts: A Seasonal Look.

The debut for this seasonal look-see is Barbados Cherry (Malpighia glabra).  I love Barbados Cherry, but even I don’t think it’s a particularly sexy, exciting plant.  It’s rather a staple of sorts: the practical “nursing shoe” of plants versus its sexier “stiletto heel” exhibitionist kin.  Barbados Cherry is tough, reliable and in its steady way, beautiful.  Gardeners utilize it as a hedge, but it also produces a mass of blooms, at least a couple of times per year, with lush berries following.  It is extremely drought tolerant, growing well in shade, part shade and full sun.  Barbados Cherry is an excellent wildlife plant.  It develops into a thick shrub/thicket, so birds love it for protection and is a host/nectar plant for several butterflies.  For all that acclaim, Barbados Cherry is not a particularly fast grower and is not deer resistant.

Most of the year, Barbados Cherry presents as a green shrub, though individual plants can be shaped as a sphere or in  tree form.  I don’t care for overly pruned plants, preferring more natural growth patterns.  I’ve only pruned my B. Cherry to prevent overhanging the driveway too much. I planted my original five shrubs about 20 years ago, in a shade/part shade area, primarily as a privacy hedge.  Once established, B. Cherry like this most of the year.

A disclaimer:  these photos were taken in autumn, but Barbados Cherry are green, rear-round, with some exceptions, noted later.

The photos illustrate a plant, while not heart-stopping, is green, lush and tough.  In the course of its life, my hedge of Barbados Cherry withstood bicycles, basketballs, soccer balls and all manner of kid destruction while demanding nothing from me,  serving its purpose well.

In spring and fall, reliably after rain, the Barbados Cherry will explode with ruffly clusters of pink, dainty flowers.


My experience is that the bloom cycle lasts up to about six weeks, once in the spring/early summer and then again in the fall.


During the bloom cycle, berries like this beauty develop.


Barbados Cherry is especially stunning when there are blooms and berries at the same time which typically occurs during both bloom cycles..

Many birds, but especially mockingbirds, favor the berries.  The berries are sweet, though a little seedy for my taste.

Depending upon the winter, Barbados Cherry exhibits differing responses.  To about 30 degrees for short periods of time, Barbados Cherry remains evergreen.  If temperatures remain in the low 30s for long periods or dip into the 20s, for more than 12-15 hours, some of the upper limbs will defoliate, though in a thick bramble, the rest will likely stay green.


Not much green here, because of the freeze events of the 2013-14 winter.  Still, this group (different from the one in the photos above) isn’t completely frozen to the ground because it’s in a protected area. The branches will flush out with new growth once temperatures warm. There’s no need to prune further than where you can scratch the surface to find some green. In this photo, it’s just below the copyright.

Because winter was colder than in the last 2 decades and the original, exposed stand of Barbados Cherry experienced a number of freezes well into the mid 20s, they froze completely to the ground.

I knew they were goners when I saw the trunks of the shrubs.

By early March, I’d cut all of the original stand of Barbados Cherry to the ground.

So much for my privacy hedge!  Now, to wait until new growth from the roots. Finally, in late March, signs of life!!

As of the end of March 2014, these individual plants are recovering slowly from the hard freezes of this past winter.

In fact, B. Cherry is at its northern range in Austin.  According to the Native Plant Database of the Lady Bird Johnson National Wildflower Center, B. Cherry are native to South Texas, Mexico and into Central and South America.  So it is a tropical plant and not reliably evergreen in Austin.  I knew that when I planted, but was lulled to complacency by the abnormally mild winters we’ve experienced since the mid-to-late 1990s.   As of March 31, 2014 all of the Barbados Cherry are sprouting green from the trunks.  I’ll definitely keep them, but because the light requirements have changed for this garden, I am augmenting the garden by planting other native plants and will prune the B. Cherry more regularly.  This garden will no longer be a mono-culture hedge, but a more diverse native garden.


Wildflower Wednesday, March 2014

I don’t quite know how I’ve missed this wildflower party before now, given my appreciation for wildflowers and native plants in general, but while reading Shirley’s most recent post at Rock-Oak- Deer, I realized her excellent profile of wildflowers was part of a bigger picture.  Duh.

Thanks to Gail at clay and limestone for hosting the monthly celebration of wildflowers of all sorts.  Though it’s my first post and a day late for this month, I’m in.

My Golden Groundsel (Packera obovata), is blooming and so cheery on this gloomy, wet day.  It’s an early blooming, tough little shade-loving perennial which  brightens up a woodland setting.

For more information about Golden Groundsel, check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database page.

I have Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) popping up all over my gardens.

The original couple of transplants were pass along plants gifted to me, so I’m not entirely positive that what I have is the S. occidentalis, though I think it is.  Check out the pages on Spiderworts or Tradescantia in the Native Plant Database and see for yourself how many are native  and available throughout North America.

The Columbines are finally starting their spring show–later this year than in the last few years.  I  have both the Yellow Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinkleyana),

and the native Wild Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis),

plus hybrids of the two.

Finally, the Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is in total bloom mode.

So far, we don’t have many butterflies or hummingbirds, but no doubt they’ll find this plant soon and feast, feast, feast.  This is a must-have vine for any gardener wishing to provide a food source for a variety of critters, insects and birds alike.

Thanks again  to Gail at clay and limestone for this chance to focus on and appreciate the  plants we have, native to where we live.