Celebrating Texas Trees

March is a good time to notice Live Oaks! These are the most common shade trees in Austin. If you’re not from Texas you may be alarmed to see our native Live Oaks, Quercus virginiana var. fusiformis, dropping their leaves in March. Don’t worry! Live Oaks are semi- evergreen, so they keep their leaves all winter. They drop their leaves in March and grow them back right away. My friend who grew up in San Antonio told me that he remembers raking up leaves from the two Live Oaks in their front yard during every spring break. Their semi-evergreen nature inspired their common name- they are ‘live’ when other trees are bare. Huge, long-lived and sprawling, these trees are icons of Texas’ history. 
Monterrey Oak, Quercus polymorpha is another favorite well-adapted shade tree and is also semi-evergreen. It looses its leaves more gradually.  It seems like they drop one leaf everyday during the winter until they are bare in the spring. Their leaves grow back right away too. Fast-growing, drought tolerant and reliable, this native of Northern Mexico and South Texas is a new favorite among Austinites. It’s narrow, lolipop shape makes it great for small yards. 
Another common shade tree that is perfect for urban yards is our native Cedar Elm, Ulmus crassifolia. It has a tall, thin shape to fit into narrow spots. Its leaves turn bright yellow in the fall before they drop. Young Cedar Elms have weird, corky growths on the stems that are called ‘wings’. The wings make the young trees look like ugly ducklings at the nursery but I promise that little weird tree will turn into a beautiful swan when it grows up. 

Sunfield Community Garden

Since Fall of 2011 I have been the manager at Sunfield Community Garden, just outside of Buda, TX, which is about 10  miles south of where I live in Southeast Austin. It is a wonderful experience. The developers of the Sunfield subdivision wanted a unique amenity that would attract new home buyers into their community. They had heard about a successful community garden that was built by residents with help from a developer in the Sun City subdivision in Georgetown, TX and decided to build a community garden.

Most community gardens are built by neighbors who are looking to reclaim vacant land or who need a place to grow veggies because they don’t have another place to do it. The Sunfield Garden is different because the upfront costs of building the garden were covered by the developers, who benefit from the garden through increased home sales. One Sunfield resident said, “I used to live on a farm. I am so glad to have this community garden here where I can keep on growing my veggies. We actually decided to live here at Sunfield because of the community garden”.

The Sunfield Garden was installed before the residents had started moving in. That’s where I come in.

I am there to grow food in the empty plots and guide residents who are new to gardening. I have a long history with community gardening, starting with my time working as and Americorps Volunteer at Sustainable Food Center, an organization that helps start, organize and facilitate community gardens. I also have a long history teaching people how to grow all kinds of food during my tenure as a landscaper and teaching Basic Organic Gardening classes for Sustainable Food Center.

Here’s how it works. Sunfield residents can rent a 5×20 raised bed garden plot to grow vegetables and annual flowers. The plots are filled with good soil, saving them time and start-up costs. Plot rental includes access to water and tools. We also share harvests from communal veggie beds, herbs and fruit trees, but gardeners keep what they grow in their personal plots. Sunfield gardeners also have access to classes and advice from me and each other.

I know Winter’s chill is certainly still in the air, but there has never been a better time to rent a plot at Sunfield Community Garden. If you are a Sunfield resident, rent your plot now and you will have plenty of time to do some minor soil preparation before the big spring planting time in March. In Central Texas, March is a good time to plant tomatoes, peppers, basil, squash and cucumbers.

There is a yearly plot rental fee of $50. For your first year there is also a $20 infrastructure fee that helps the Sunfield Community Association recoup the cost of building the garden. Gardeners are also required to contribute two hours of volunteering to the garden each month.

In addition to the large 5×20 plots, there are also two smaller accessible plots for Sunfield Residents with disabilities or difficulty bending. These will be rented for a lower rental rate.

For questions about community gardening or to rent a plot, please call (me) Colleen Dieter at 512-217-6955 or email at colleen@redwheelbarrowplants.com

For more info about community gardens check out:

Sustainable Food Center

American Community Garden AssociationImage

Here’s me at Sunfield Community Garden, planting Alyssum in January 2014.


In September 2013 I participated in a webinar hosted by the American Community Gardening Association. The topic was on seed saving, and the speaker was one of the experienced employees from Seed Saver’s Exchange [SSE], a well-known heirloom seed company. I was so impressed with the simple techniques that SSE used even on a relatively large commercial scale that community and home gardeners can also use. 

Dry seeds- For beans, mustard, cabbage, radishes, and other dry seeds that come in a pod, allow the pod to dry on the plant. The following method is called ‘threshing’. Gather up the seeds in a sack like a pillowcase. Jump on the sack gently to crush the pods. Then pour them into a bucket and most of the pod pieces, called ‘chaff’ will land on top and you can pick them up. Next, you will use a process called ‘winnowing’. Place an empty bucket in on the ground front of a fan. Pour the seeds and chaff out of the bucket in the breeze created by the fan. The lightweight chaff will blow away. The heavier seeds will land in the bucket on the ground.

Wet Seeds with Pulp- Tomato seeds will not germinate if they still have any pulp left on them, even if the pulp is dried. This method also works for cucumbers. Squeeze out seeds and pulp into a jar. Let it sit for 3 days. The pulp will begin to ferment. Fermentation breaks down the enzymes in the pulp that prevent the seeds from germinating. Next, pour the fermented stuff into a bucket with water. Good seeds will sink to the bottom while bad seeds and pulp will float to the top. Pour the water off 3 times. Then rinse the good seeds in a strainer. Allow the seeds to dry on a towel before packaging them in envelopes or jars for storage.

For eggplants or other plants where the seeds are hard to separate from the fruit, use a dough blade in a food processor to slowly chop up the fruit. Then use the fermentation method explained above. 

All seeds should be completely dry before storage so they don’t rot. SSE recommended placing seeds on a screen near a fan in a room that is below 80 degrees. Do not dry seeds in the oven. The seeds should be hard and brittle and free of surface moisture.

This webinar made me feel much more confident when saving seeds from my beloved veggie, herb and flower varieties!